So while Lord Dunwikk and Sir Borloft galloped through his snowy Royal Woods in pursuit of enormous, savage boars, laughing and roaring mightily, their faces flushed and their hands wrapped around the shafts of heavy, hearty spears, King Bartrem sat in the Chambers of the Royal Council with Marthull and watched a parade of weird old men pass before him, each one full of tales of the wonders he had wrought with his special secret knowledge, but each one also rather light on credible letters of recommendation from previous employers. Those Royal Seer candidates who didn’t seem senile or incompetent were pretty clearly evil, or at least corrupt, and every single one of them had that aloof, pretentious bearing that King Bartrem had noticed in every Royal Seer he’d ever met and that he found incredibly annoying.
The sun sank outside the castle walls and Marthull commanded a servant to light the candles in the dreary room before the next candidate was introduced. King Bartrem sagged in his chair and, with his forearms resting on the edge of the enormous, black Table of Council, destroyed a quill pen bit by bit with his fingers. At first, King Bartrem had taken notes on each of the candidates, writing down positive and negative impressions, but the parchment atop which he was destroying the pen read only “no, no, no,” for the last dozen candidates.
There was a knock on the door. King Bartrem didn’t look up.
“Enter,” called Marthull.
A servant came into the room wearing boots and a coat with snow melting on the shoulders. “Sire,” he said, “I bring word from Lord Dunwikk and Sir Borloft. They wish you to know that they’ve slain two great boars and are having a wonderful time. They wish you good fortune in choosing a new Royal Seer, but also urge you to make haste because the hounds found fresh tracks in the snow that they believe belong to Elder Bigpig and they would hate for you to miss out on a potentially legendary kill.”
King Bartrem sat bolt upright, his hands pressed down flat on the table. “There’s been no sign of Elder Bigpig in the Royal Wood since my father was younger than I am now. I must not miss out on this opportunity. I must join the hunt immediately.”
“But Sire,” said Marthull. “There are at least sixteen more candidates to be interviewed and many more scheduled to arrive on the morrow.”
King Bartrem pounded his fists on the table and shouted, “No! No! I hate Seers!”
“Sire,” said Marthull. “Please, the candidates can hear you.”
“Go and look at the candidates,” said King Bartrem. “Find the one who looks the least like all the other candidates I’ve seen so far and bring him in.”
Marthull looked puzzled. “The least like-?”
“Go!” shouted King Bartrem. “Precious seconds are ticking away. Even now Elder Bigpig may be descending back into his cave deep inside the earth or goring one of my friends!”
Marthull and the servant left the room. While he waited for Marthull to return with a candidate, King Bartrem got up from his chair and paced laps around the Table of Council.
After several minutes, Marthull came back into the room, saying, “Sire, may I present Dranolio of Sewerridge as a candidate for Royal Seer.” Then he bowed toward the door and a young man with a shaven head and wearing a simple gray robe entered the room. He looked neither senile nor evil nor even especially pretentious, though perhaps a bit naïve.
“Your majesty,” Dranolio said. “Though I admit readily to a lack of experience, I hereby vow that if hired, I will always put the good of the kingdom first in all-”
“That sounds good,” said King Bartrem. “Welcome aboard! Marthull will sign the necessary documents and show you to your chambers. If you need anything, ask a servant. That’s what they’re here for.”
“I-,” said Dranolio, blinking as King Bartrem strode past him and out of the room.
King Bartrem never heard if Dranolio finished the sentence he’d barely begun. He was already calling for his servants to saddle his horse and alert his personal guards. He had missed too much of the Winter Boar Hunt and Barbecue already. He was not going to miss one more minute than he had to.
Five days later, when King Bartrem returned from the Winter Boar Hunt and Barbecue with a wagon full of trophy heads, a digestive system still recovering from pork-overload, and an image of Elder Bigpig’s massive silhouette paused in tantalizing-but-ultimately-unreachable profile in a moonlit clearing on a snow-covered hill fixed permanently in his memory, the first thing he heard from Marthull was that they had a witch problem.
King Bartrem lay sprawled on the most firm of his three beds looking up at the Royal Coat of Arms embroidered on the underside of the bed’s canopy while Marthull told him the bad news.
“How do you know there’s a witch problem?” asked King Bartrem, wondering what good it was to be King if he couldn’t take a long nap whenever he felt like it.
“There have been numerous reports of signs and events indicating the presence of a witch in the city,” said Marthull.
“Like what?” asked King Bartrem, suppressing a belch, which turned out to be a painful decision.
“Well,” said Marthull, consulting a parchment he produced from inside his coat, “Someone saw a horseshoe floating in a rain barrel. A woman saw a white dog that left deep impressions of its paws in the cobblestone streets as it passed and apparently the prints are still there. A man reported that he woke in the middle of the night and heard a sexless voice singing a quote ‘song from the future.’ A respected mother of eight has reported that whenever she spreads honey on brown bread, the honey turns to snake blood, though how she can tell it’s snake blood I have no idea. A dressmaker named Gurvan claims that the women who come into his shop hear lewd comments that they mistakenly believe come from him but which he says come not from him, but from a disembodied voice that sounds similar to his own, although he admits to having made lewd comments to customers in the past. But he insists he’s reformed.”
King Bartrem groaned. “Why isn’t the new Seer dealing with this? Tell him to hurry up and identify the witch so we can burn her or drown her or whatever it is we do with witches and get on with our lives.”
Marthull pursed his lips. “Perhaps your majesty would like to ask the Royal Seer that question directly?”
“OK, sure,” said King Bartrem. “Go get him. I’ll be thinking with my eyes closed until you get back.” And with that he stopped thinking and closed his eyes.
“First we nominate candidates,” said Dranolio. “Then we vote.”
“Who’s ‘we?’” asked King Bartrem. He was sitting up in bed drinking hot, spiced wine and wiping his nose every minute with a rough, brown handkerchief which did not befit royalty, so who could say how it came to be in the King’s chambers? He’d only been able to doze for ten minutes before Marthull had returned to his chambers with the Royal Seer.
“‘We’ as in everyone,” said Dranolio. “Everyone from you, your Highness, all the way down to the lowliest beggar.”
“But why can’t you just use your Seer powers to identify the witch?” asked King Bartrem.
“This is better than Seer powers,” said Dranolio. “It’s newer. It gets everyone involved.”
“But I want the witch identified as soon as possible,” said King Bartrem. “This voting thing sounds like it’s going to take forever.”
“Sire,” said Dranolio. “With the skills I developed in the pursuit of my profession, I could perhaps, after hours of study, concentration, meditation, and potion-induced trances, identify the witch, but perhaps not. Witches are very cunning. They know how to avoid being detected by even the most experienced Seers. How much better to utilize the combined knowledge of every single person in your kingdom who can be persuaded to vote?”
“Yeah, but what do they know?” asked King Bartrem. “Isn’t all that study and trance stuff basically just you doing your job?”
“Your majesty,” said Dranolio, his face so humble it had to be fake. “My job is to serve the kingdom in whatever way I can to the best of my abilities. And in this case, I believe that the best course of action would be a vote. It’s the fairest way.”
“I’m not going to argue with you,” said King Bartrem. “If you really think a vote is the best way to find and get rid of the witch, then you can organize it. Marthull, help the Seer out with his vote. Give him paper or criers or whatever he needs, within reason. Just get this over with quickly, both of you, and now I’m going to bed. Neither of you say another word. Not even ‘yes, sire’ or anything like that. Just leave the room without saying a single word and close the door behind you.”
Marthull and Dranolio did as they were told and King Bartrem moved to the bed of medium firmness and went to sleep.
The Witch Vote procedure that Dranolio devised was complicated and required the coordination and cooperation of a lot of people who had no idea what he was talking about. Dranolio enlisted a fleet of literate servants and soldiers to sit at official Nomination Booths scattered throughout the kingdom where they were to listen to long lines of people declare who they thought might be the Witch and then write those names down on scrolls. Once Nomination Day was over, the scrolls would be brought back to the palace where they would be examined, the names would be tallied, and the top three most frequently recorded names would be declared the official Witch Candidates, at which point those three candidates would be given an opportunity to try to use speeches in the City Square to convince the citizens of the kingdom that they were not the Witch. Once all three Candidates had delivered a speech, the citizens would vote, and whichever candidate got the most votes would be declared the Witch, at which point the Witch would be burned or drowned or whatever the Royal Law said was supposed to happen to witches.
Confusing in theory, the plan was a fiasco in practice.
First of all, no one except for Dranolio really understood the Witch Vote on a big picture scale, so when the criers went out into the kingdom to explain the vote to the populace, they couldn’t answer any of the populace’s inevitable questions intelligently.
Second, once Nomination Day arrived, people standing in line at the Nomination Booths kept starting brawls when they heard their neighbors ahead of them in line nominating them as the Witch, and some of these brawls rose nearly to the level of riots.
Third, some of the Nomination Booth Attendants came back to the castle with disturbing reports of people who had already made a nomination getting back into line and nominating again because they correctly assumed that the Nomination Booth Attendants would not notice since all peasants looked the same to them: dirty and tired. The only reason the Attendants had figured out this was happening was because other peasants noticed their neighbors nominating multiple times and freaked out and started brawling and yes, some of these brawls also nearly rose to the level of riots.
Fourth, even though the criers had been instructed to tell the citizens not to nominate anyone if they truly had no idea who the Witch might be, lots of people who clearly had no idea who the Witch might be had nominated someone anyway, often holding up the line while they stood in front of the Nomination Booth Attendant and tried to come up with a name on the spot based on whatever impulses or ill-considered notions happened to be drifting through their heads at the moment.
Back at the castle on the day after Nomination Day, Dranolio oversaw the tallying of the nominations as Marthull tried to explain the progress of the Witch Vote to King Bartrem.
“Dranolio seems determined to see it through,” said Marthull. “He keeps telling me that there are always kinks to work out when you’re implementing something new and that the worst of it is already over.” He and King Bartrem were in the King’s Combat Practice Room, which was a windowless room with stone floors filled with fabric-and-straw dummies that the King daily destroyed with various weapons, such as today’s morningstar, which made Marthull nervous since the King was not skilled with it and swung it around with little regard for his own safety. “Implementing something new?” said King Bartrem, turning to Marthull and tossing the morningstar all too casually aside. “We’re not implementing anything new. He’s just finding the Witch for us. Right?”
Marthull shrugged. “He keeps talking about how he’s going to change things ‘next time.’”
“‘Next time?’ How many witches does he think we get around here? This is the first one since I’ve been King and I don’t remember my dad or grandfather dealing with any.”
Marthull handed King Bartrem a towel. “It’s possible, Sire, that he’s contemplating using future votes to do more than identify witches.”
King Bartrem froze with the towel concealing the lower half of his face. “Like what?”
“I’d hate to speculate,” said Marthull.
King Bartrem hadn’t bothered to nominate anyone as the Witch, but none of the three Witch Candidates as voted upon by the citizens of the kingdom seemed like probable witches to him. The First and Second Candidates had already taken their turns to attempt to convince the assembled mob that they were not the Witch, shouting their speeches from the large stage that had been constructed in the City Square. The third Candidate was speaking now, but she spoke some kind of absurd foreign language that no one present could understand, which was probably why so many of her neighbors had nominated her as the Witch.
The first Candidate had based his entire argument against his being the Witch around the fact that he was a man and that as far as he knew, men couldn’t be witches. He was short, stout, and pale, and his neighbors, from what King Bartrem had gathered, had nominated him as the Witch because he consistently grew vegetables in his garden that were remarkably large. His speech had not been eloquent and when, after several minutes of the First Candidate making the same point over and over, someone in the crowd shouted out that witches know how to change their genders, the First Candidate had no rebuttal and had concluded with a stream of muttering that King Bartrem had not been able to hear from his Royal Platform next to the stage.
The Second Candidate was an old woman. She was hunched and wrinkled and had a raspy voice and King Bartrem supposed she’d been nominated for basically fulfilling all the criteria of your classic witch figure, although she certainly hadn’t engaged in any cackling during her brief, rambling speech which had primarily consisted of a hasty overview of the important events of her life, most of which revolved around grandchildren being born and eventually disappointing her with their refusal to take up her dead husband’s trade, which had been Dead Goat Hoof-Removal. At no point during her speech did the Second Candidate mention being a witch, so in that way, at least, King Bartrem supposed the speech still sort of worked as an argument against the Second Candidate being the Witch.
The Third Candidate was almost young and fairly attractive, but the longer she spoke, the weirder her foreign language sounded, and King Bartrem could tell that she wasn’t doing herself any favors with the crowd no matter how well-reasoned her argument may have sounded to someone who knew what she was saying.
King Bartrem shifted in his seat and listened to the light rain tapping against the Royal Platform’s canopy. He took another drink of hot, spiced wine and felt himself get a tiny bit drunker. He still didn’t know which Candidate would receive his vote. It was pretty clear to him that the citizens had done a terrible job with the nominations and that not one of these Candidates was the Witch, but Dranolio had told him that as the King, even though his vote would count for no more than anyone else’s, he would be expected to publicly cast the first one, although no one would be able to hear who he voted for because the revised voting method now called for voters to whisper their votes into the Attendants’ ears so as to reduce the number of near-riot-level-brawls at the official Voting Booths.
King Bartrem had been surprised at how many people had shown up for the Candidates’ speeches. He’d also been surprised and unnerved at their excitement for the process. King Bartrem’s subjects seemed to get a huge kick out of participating in high-level decision-making and this worried him. The peoples’ obvious ineptitude at high-level decision-making was not, apparently, obvious to them, and they clapped and shouted and chanted and scuffled and argued bitterly amongst each other as if they sincerely believed that the real Witch was among the three Candidates on the stage and that the welfare of the entire kingdom depended upon the ability of the people to choose correctly.
King Bartrem looked down behind his Royal Platform and saw Marthull and two armed guards looking up at him from the street, rain pinging off of their helmets and dripping off of their noses. They all looked spooked. “What is it, Marthull? I’ll be expected to cast my vote at any minute now.”
“That can wait, Sire. You’re needed back at the castle at once.”
King Bartrem hated the throne in the Judgment Hall. It was too narrow and the seat was so high that he had to sit almost to the edge so his feet wouldn’t dangle. The torches in their sconces on the black stone walls sputtered and flared. Other than Marthull standing to King Bartrem’s immediate right, there was no one else in the room.
“A servant found her in your chambers,” said Marthull. “She was sitting on the floor and the servant who found her says it was ‘storming’ in your room, though we have no idea what she means.”
“And you say she confessed?” asked King Bartrem, silently cursing whichever ancient ancestor had made the Royal Law that no wine – not even hot, spiced wine – would ever be allowed in the Judgment Hall.
“When the servant walked in, the Witch smiled at her and said, ‘Tell the King the Witch is here.’”
“Well, bring her in then,” said King Bartrem.
Marthull descended from the dais and left the room, leaving the door standing open. When he returned a short time later, he was followed by a slight, confident-looking, middle-aged woman flanked by two guards with spears. The guards stopped the woman at the foot of the dais as Marthull mounted the steps to return to his place by the King’s side.
“So what’s going on?” asked King Bartrem. He didn’t have the energy to adopt his authoritative voice today, so he settled for just trying to not sound drunk. “I’m talking to you.” He waved his hand at the woman.
“You wish to know what’s going on, Sire?” The woman smiled a smile that would have had to have been a lot better to be bewitching. “Then I am the one to ask.”
“I already asked,” said King Bartrem. “If you’re the Witch, we’re going to have burn you or drown you or whatever it is we do with witches. Are you the Witch?”
“I am a witch,” said the woman.
“Are you the witch who made that horseshoe float and the honey turn into snake blood and all that other weird stuff?”
“Perhaps,” said the woman. “Though those occurrences were merely side-effects of my true purposes.”
“Well, great,” said King Bartrem. “‘Cause one of those three candidates down there in the City Square is about to get burned or drowned or whatever ‘cause everyone thinks one of them’s the Witch.”
“I know,” said the woman. “That’s why I came to find you, your Majesty.”
King Bartrem frowned. “I wouldn’t think a witch would care too much about what happened to those dumb Candidates.”
“I don’t,” said the woman. “But if you allow the vote to go forward and one of those people is put to death as the Witch, then I’ll be free to continue to practice my craft in your service, Sire.”
“No, no,” said King Bartrem. “I already have a Seer and he seems like a nice kid, even if he is in a little over his head. I don’t want anyone evil working for me. I don’t want any witches hanging around.”
“You say that now,” said the woman. “But what if I told you that I can help you find and slay the great beast which you call Elder Bigpig? What if I told you that I can help you accomplish this as soon as you’d like? What if I told you that you could be feasting on Elder Bigpig’s delicious haunches while his massive, mounted head looks down from the wall of your dining hall by tomorrow night?”
“There’s no way I could get his head stuffed and mounted that fast,” said King Bartrem.
“I can do that too,” said the woman, her smile looking better and better. “I can stuff and mount that head so it will look as if it’s about to come back to life at any moment.”
As King Bartrem hesitated, he felt Marthull’s eyes on him, boring into the side of his face.
“Sire,” said Marthull, his voice thin and sharp. “You must not consider this. She must be put to death. ‘Witches shall not be abided whatsoevereth.’ That’s what the Royal Law of your kingdom says, Sire. Your father’s father’s father, or, I don’t know, maybe his father, in his wisdom, declared it to be so until forever, and-”
“Shut up, Marthull,” said King Bartrem. The flickering torches cast shadows on the walls above them that looked like huge boars roasting on slowly-turning spits. He stood. “Guards, tell the servants to prepare for a hunting excursion to the Royal Woods, and tell them to prepare an extra horse for my guest, but don’t tell them she’s a witch. In fact, don’t tell anyone that she’s a witch or you’ll be burned or drowned or whatever it is we do to witches.”
The guards bowed and left the Judgment Hall.
“Sire, you will regret this,” said Marthull. “You must not let your desire for a hunting trophy jeopardize your entire kingdom!”
“Sire,” said the woman. “You will not regret this. You must not let antiquated notions of propriety stand in the way of the great glories I can help you achieve.”
“That,” said King Bartrem, pointing at the woman, “is what I like to hear.” He turned to Marthull. “Hold down the fort while I’m gone. I’ve got to go back to the City Square to publicly cast that first vote, but as soon as that’s done, we’re off to kill Elder Bigpig! Don’t look so sour, Marthull. I’ll have the cooks give you one of the choicest cuts of meat. He’s gonna taste better than Royal Law does, I’ll guarantee you that.”
King Bartrem, the guards, and the woman left Marthull standing alone on the dais in the Judgment Hall and the shadows cast by the torches looked like nothing. But Marthull knew two things: he knew that the King would be gone for several days and he knew that the kingdom was firmly in the grip of an acute case of voting fever.