King Daxan had inherited a lot from his father. Not just thick, wavy black hair and good health. And not just kingship and a kingdom. But a good kingdom. Prosperous, orderly, well defended, not prone to rebellion, respected by neighboring kingdoms. King Daxan’s father had even overseen the construction of several major roads and the beginnings of a sewage system, which, although it didn’t really work, no other nearby kingdom had so much as attempted. All of this had been handed to King Daxan when his father, who was deathly allergic to bee stings, got stung to death by a bee.
King Daxan had been king for 22 years, he was 46 years old, and he’d begun to feel unaccomplished. All he’d managed to do since his father’s death was maintain the systems conceptualized and implemented by his father. And the systems were so well-established that maintaining them required almost nothing of King Daxan. The kingdom basically ran itself. Whenever a problem arose, the systems resolved it well before it became large enough to necessitate King Daxan’s personal involvement. All King Daxan really did was receive visiting dignitaries, address his subjects on holidays, and do his best to avoid screwing up the whirring machinery of his inherited kingdom.
“It takes a strong man to just let a good thing be,” said King Daxan’s uncle, Lord Lombwell, who, as King Daxan’s most trusted adviser, also had very few pressing responsibilities. The two men stood in the palace stable brushing their own horses to the irritation of the groom. Persistent rain drummed on the roof of the stable. The dominant scent was wet horse. “A lesser man would want to tinker,” continued Lord Lombwell. “A lesser man would want to make his mark. A lesser man would think, ‘As king, I can change something, therefore I should change something.’”
“But I do kind of want to change something,” said King Daxan.
“No, you don’t,” said Lord Lombwell. “You’re too smart to fall into that trap.”
“Maybe I could improve something, though,” said King Daxan. “I could make a good system better.”
“There’s an old saying that I think applies here,” said Lord Lombwell. “‘If it isn’t in need of repair, then do not trouble yourself to repair it.’”
“Huh,” said King Daxan. “Catchy.”
Two weeks later, as King Daxan slipped out of his box seat in the palace theater to escape an interminable play and get some fresh air on the balcony, he overheard two guards talking. Specifically, he heard one of the guards say, “He brought word of something monstrous in the lands of King Mitchum.”
“Excuse me,” said King Daxan. “Who brought word of something monstrous in the lands of King Mitchum?” King Daxan and the guards were the only three people out on the balcony. Everyone else was still inside, entranced by the interminable play.
“No one, your highness,” said the guard. “Just a wanderer. A vagrant, really. Spreading rumors.”
“Rumors about something monstrous?” asked King Daxan. “Like what? A plague? An invading army? A treacherous plot?”
The guard seemed hesitant to answer, glancing at the other guard for support. “None of those, your highness. It’s all nonsense, I’m sure.”
“Oh, just tell me,” said King Daxan. “You’re not going to get in trouble.”
The guard shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. “Well, your highness, this vagrant wanderer claims that something monstrous has been attacking the lands of King Mitchum, attacking his subjects, his knights and soldiers. The whole kingdom lives in terror of…of it.”
“So when you say ‘something monstrous,’” said King Daxan. “You mean ‘a monster.’”
“I suppose so, your highness,” said the guard. “But the vagrant wasn’t very clear. He did say that King Mitchum is offering a lordship to anyone who can rid the kingdom of this monstrous thing, though.”
“Sounds like a good deal,” said King Daxan. “Too bad I’m already a king, otherwise I might take him up on that offer.”
The two guards’ laughter sounded sincere at first, but then it went on and on and King Daxan realized that, no, actually, it was not real laughter.
The wanderer was not drunk when he appeared before King Daxan and Lord Lombwell in the King’s private study. Lord Lombwell had guaranteed King Daxan that the wanderer would be drunk, but here he was, old and dirty, but not drunk. Lord Lombwell’s disappointment was evident on his saggy face.
“Where did you hear about the trouble that’s befallen the lands of King Mitchum?” asked King Daxan. He and Lord Lombwell sat side by side facing the wanderer in high-backed chairs made of ornately-carved wood. King Daxan’s chair was no larger or more ornate than Lord Lombwell’s chair. He wasn’t that kind of king. The wanderer stood.
“I heard it from a man who’d fled that cursed kingdom in fear for his own life,” said the wanderer.
“Did he give you any specific details about the monster?” asked Lord Lombley.
“Nay,” said the wanderer. “Not really.”
“King Mitchum was definitely looking to enlist outside help, though?” asked King Daxan.
“Aye,” said the wanderer. “Indeed. A lordship for the man who rids the kingdom of the monstrous thing. That’s what I heard. But last I knew, no one had yet succeeded.”
“Thank you,” said King Daxan. “That will be all. Leave us.”
When the wanderer was gone, Lord Lombwell said, “Well, that was a waste of time.”
“Was it?” asked King Daxan.
“It was. He had no specific details whatsoever.”
“The lack of specificity is exactly what has me intrigued,” said King Daxan. “A liar will often manufacture minute details in order to make his lie seem more truthful. This man made no such effort.”
“So, what are you telling me?” asked Lord Lombwell. “You’re going to send aid to King Mitchum based solely on the tale of one wandering vagrant because it was so vague that it has to be true?”
“No, no, no,” said King Daxan. “I’m going.”
“To prove what?” asked Lord Lombwell. “No one thinks any less of you just because your father had everything set up before you took over. It’s like this: I don’t feel unaccomplished because I wasn’t the one who first thought of killing a cow, cutting off a chunk of it, cooking it over a fire, and eating it. I just enjoy my steak and go on about my business.”
“But my father didn’t save King Mitchum and his subjects from something monstrous,” said King Daxan. “So I will.”
“Let’s say for a moment that the rumor is true,” said Lord Lombwell. “What makes you think that you’re suited for this task? What can you do that one of King Mitchum’s knights can’t do better?”
“I don’t know yet,” said King Daxan. “I don’t have all the facts.”
“You don’t have any facts. Why do you have to solve a problem hundreds of miles away in order to feel accomplished?”
“Because,” said King Daxan. “That’s where the problem is. One doesn’t get to choose the timing of one’s opportunity, nor the location, nor the conditions thereof, nor the nature of-”
“Whatever,” said Lord Lombwell.
Two days later, King Daxan, with his sword on his hip, set out on horseback for King Mitchum’s palace accompanied by six loyal knights, all of whom he had instructed to keep him safe until they arrived at their destination, but by no means were any of them to slay anything that could be construed as monstrous once inside King Mitchum’s borders. The slaying of whatever monstrous thing was tormenting King Mitchum’s kingdom was to be King Daxan’s task alone. The last thing he wanted was for his knights to soften up the monstrous thing in order to make it easier for him to slay it. Lord Lombwell accompanied King Daxan as far as the city walls, griping the whole way.
“Just stop,” said King Daxan. “We’ll be back in time for Christmas and then we can all celebrate the holidays and my accomplishment together.”
“What if it’s just a rumor?” asked Lord Lombwell.
“Then we’ll be back even sooner,” said King Daxan.
“What if you die?”
“Follow the Kingship Transferal Protocol my father established,” said King Daxan. “You and I both know how well it works.”
“There are people who care about you here, your highness. People who love you.”
“Then those people will want me to feel accomplished,” said King Daxan. “Now stop delaying me. We need to make haste if we’re going to be back by Christmas morn.”
“It’s short for ‘morning.’” And with these words, King Daxan gave his horse a light kick and passed through the city gates and out into the world.
King Daxan and his men traveled by day and camped along the side of the road by night. Then, when the road ran out, they made their way along horse trails and dirt paths maintained by the frequent use of local peasants. And then, through a series of small, bad decisions, King Daxan and his men got hopelessly lost. They argued constantly about whether or not they were going the right direction. Snowfall became a regular occurrence, slowing their progress and making it even more difficult to find any paths that may have led them back to a main thoroughfare. As the days passed, King Daxan and his knights struggled to find enough game to feed all of them. The knights often sacrificed their portions entirely so that their king could receive nourishment. At night, they huddled around a small fire and shivered, their swords close at hand in case they were discovered by wolves desperate enough to challenge seven men. King Daxan tried to keep track of the days, but they all began to run together and he lost count. The horses, weakening by the hour, struggled with their footing in the snow. Two had to be put down after stepping on large rocks concealed by drifts and breaking their legs. A third broke its tether in the night, ran into the woods, and was killed by wolves. The knights had to ride two to a horse. The surviving horses were dangerously overburdened. King Daxan prayed that, assuming they were at least close to King Mitchum’s lands, something monstrous would not find them yet. He did not feel up to slaying much of anything, least of all something monstrous.
Then, at last, the weary party found the road to King Mitchum’s palace. It was slushy and muddy and not nearly as good as the roads King Daxan’s father had commissioned and overseen in his kingdom, but it was a big step up from frozen, merciless wilderness, and it gave King Daxan and his knights a direction. After traveling along the road for an hour, they discovered a sign shaped like an arrow pointing in the opposite direction with the words “Capital City” written on it, so they turned around and, slumped, hunched, and in the dumps, headed in the right direction, which was, of course, straight into the rotten teeth of the wind.
By virtue of being royalty, King Daxan, along with his men, was ushered through the city walls and escorted to the palace by a retinue of guards with all available haste. As King Daxan and his knights slid off of their horses in the palace courtyard, two of the knights fell to their knees and couldn’t muster the energy to rise. King Mitchum’s servants swarmed around King Daxan, chattering at him about accommodations, hot food, hot drinks, hot baths, but King Daxan would have none of it. “Care for my knights. I’m fine. One of you, take me to King Mitchum at once. It’s important that I discuss the purpose of my visit with him at once. He’ll want to know why I’m here. At once.”
King Mitchum was in his banquet hall, feasting with dozens of lords, ladies, knights, wealthy merchants, and their families. The hall was decorated for Christmas with pine boughs, wreaths, sprigs of holly, red ribbons, and candles. The atmosphere was cheery and festive and everyone sat at one enormous table nearly as long as the hall itself. King Mitchum, young and handsome, sat at the head of the table with his lovely wife at his right hand and his older brother, who had famously declined the crown for unspecified reasons, at his left hand. When King Daxan entered the hall, no one noticed him at first, but then the servant announced him in a loud voice and the merry nobility fell silent and looked at him with curiosity and concern. King Daxan knew he looked bad: exhausted, soaked, gaunt. The fact that every other person in the room was freshly bathed, healthy, well-fed, and wearing his or her finest clothes only made King Daxan more self-conscious.
“I apologize for the interruption,” said King Daxan.
“Not at all!” said King Mitchum from the far end of the table. “My servants told me when you arrived. I didn’t expect you to come to us straight away, but you’re certainly welcome. Please, sit, eat. Your men are being tended to now. Allow us to tend to you as well. If you’re a connoisseur of fine foods, you’ve joined us at the right time. We’re feasting every night until Christmas and then on Christmas itself, we’ll begin feasting in the morning and then the feasting runs all day long. We would love to have you stay and feast with us. Begin now, by all means!”
“No, thank you,” said King Daxan. “I mean, I’ll eat soon, yes, but…what day is it?”
“My goodness,” said King Mitchum. “You have been through an ordeal. It’s December 15th. Ten days until Christmas. Tell me, what brings you to us with such urgency, King Daxan? Why have you risked your life and the life of your knights to come here now?”
King Daxan looked around the room. These were not the faces of terrorized people. These were not the faces of people living in fear, waiting for a foreign savior to deliver them from something monstrous. Nor had he noticed the ravages of something monstrous as they’d ridden through the city to the palace. Nor in the countryside as they’d ridden along the road. “I,” said King Daxan. He paused. “We heard that you were in trouble. We’ve come to offer our assistance. But I see now that…I believe that what we heard may have been…inaccurate.”
The great hall was silent but for the crackling of fires in fireplaces, of which there were several. The king’s guests looked down at their plates or shot mysterious glances at one another. King Daxan felt increasingly uncomfortable. “And what,” asked King Mitchum, “did you hear?”
“That you were in trouble. That you needed…that you had requested assistance. With a problem.”
“And what was the nature of the problem?” King Mitchum’s tone dripped with meaning.
“It was vague,” said King Daxan. “But, apparently, it was just a false alarm, so I’ll retire to my quarters now if a servant would be so kind as to show me the way.”
“You see?” said King Mitchum, addressing his guests. “Do you now see the power of rumor? One absurd tale planted in the ear of one disreputable yokel and within less than a year, a king from hundreds of miles away travels through snow and cold, nearly dies along with his men, and arrives on our doorstep to slay ‘something monstrous.’ And the rumor that brought him here? Utterly lacking in specific detail. Incredible. Even I never suspected we’d get a king. A king!” He turned his gaze back to King Daxan. “My friend, I’m sorry to have to tell you this now, but there is nothing monstrous for you to slay in this kingdom. You have been the unwitting participant in a grand social experiment concerning the power of rumors. While I apologize for the inconvenience to you and your men, I do also thank you for being such a powerful lesson from which I pray my subjects will learn much. If even a king such as yourself can be persuaded to act unwisely based solely on rumor, who among us is truly safe if we are not vigilant?”
King Daxan wanted to melt through the floor or evaporate up through the ceiling or just explode in a burst of hot guts all over the assembled nobility of King Mitchum’s kingdom, some of which were now doing a poor job of concealing smiles.
“Tell me this,” said King Mitchum. “The man who relayed the rumor to you: what was he like?”
“He was not drunk,” said King Daxan. “Not when I spoke to him. Not that I could tell, anyway.”
Someone at the table made a loud choking noise that was almost certainly caused by an attempt to stifle laughter.
“I want you to understand that you are not alone,” said King Mitchum. “You are the only king we’ve had offer us his services, but many of the most renowned bounty hunters, heroes, and traveling knights have called on us at various times since we first began the rumor. It just goes to show, rumors are very powerful! In fact, King Daxan, I would submit that there is something monstrous in this kingdom. And in every kingdom. Rumor.”
The guests nodded and voiced their agreement. Some of them looked at King Daxan with open pity now. Some were incredulous. Others were mildly disgusted with him and his behavior. Others were already bored with him and whispered amongst themselves about hunting, weather, and political intrigue.
“But,” said King Mitchum, “you and your men are welcome to stay as long as you’d like and we would all greatly appreciate your presence at our nightly feasts. I do feel a little guilty about how this has played out for you, although you really should not have believed such a baseless rumor, but nevertheless, I’d like to make it up for you in hospitality. Please, King Daxan, make yourself at home.”
“Thank you,” said King Daxan. “I’ll try.”
In the following days, King Daxan feigned illness in order to get out of participating in the feasting. Attending would have been far too awkward. Instead, he stayed in his well-appointed quarters and berated himself for his stupidity, felt guilty, and cursed King Mitchum, the nobles of King Mitchum’s kingdom, and social experiments in general. He would have left immediately for home, but his knights were in bad shape, the surviving horses were in bad shape, and although the snow had stopped falling, the temperature had plummeted so that when King Daxan opened a window for just a few seconds to throw out the body of a mouse he’d killed in his room, the frigid air felt as it were plucking the life out of him through his face skin. He and his knights would almost certainly all meet their ends if they tried to set out for home now, and then his gullibility would become so legendary someone would probably make a dumb song about it.
King Daxan’s knights had taken the news of the futility of their mission pretty well. King Daxan had gathered them all in Sir Athalor’s room, since he was in the worst shape and confined to his bed, and explained the situation to them as well as he could, being sure to take all of the blame.
Sir Vorwer had said, “So there’s no reward? No lordship?” And King Daxan had explained that the reward was for slaying something monstrous and that since there was nothing monstrous, not literally, anyway, no, there was no reward, but also that he, King Daxan, would not have accepted a lordship anyway because he was already a king and a king is higher than a lord, and besides, who would want to be a lord alongside all those smug imbeciles yukking it up down there in King Mitchum’s banquet hall? Then Sir Vorwer had explained that he knew King Daxan wouldn’t have accepted the lordship, obviously, but maybe, as long it was unclaimed, he would have let Sir Vorwer have it. Then King Daxan had told the knights that if any of them were going to get lordships, they were going to be from him in his kingdom, but not to get their hopes up, because in his kingdom, lordships were not given away frivolously. Then he’d forbidden them from joining in the feasting down in the banquet hall and returned to his quarters.
On the 23rd of December, in the darkest of early morning hours, King Daxan, with two candles burning in his room and a pile of blankets covering him to his scalp, had a revelation: the fact that King Mitchum had fabricated the rumor about something monstrous plaguing his kingdom did not necessarily negate the possibility of something monstrous residing in his kingdom, perhaps preparing to mount an assault, or perhaps already beginning to plague the kingdom on a small scale.
Too taken with this concept to sleep, King Daxan went to the shared room of Sir Haphtwell and Sir Corsyon, the two knights who had recovered their health the fastest, and woke them. “Saddle up,” he told them. “We have a mission.”
Hours later, the sunrise found King Daxan, Sir Haphtwell, and Sir Corsyon miles from the city, riding out on the same road on which they’d ridden in. At an arbitrary point along the road, they angled off into the wintry woods. King Daxan thought that the fact that he could enjoy the beauty of the wintry woods was a good sign for his mental well-being because just over a week ago, 360-degree views of wintry woods were all he had and literally the last thing of which he wanted to see more.
“If we find something monstrous, do you still have to be the one to kill it?” asked Sir Haphtwell.
“That would be ideal,” said King Daxan. “But as long as we undermine the findings of the social experiment, I think I’ll feel accomplished. It’s more about seeing the look on King Mitchum’s face when we walk into the banquet hall and throw the severed head of something monstrous at his feet.”
The wind rattled the naked treetops, but King Daxan and his men barely felt it down among the trunks. The horses were nervous, perhaps haunted by memories of their compatriots’ broken legs and piteous whinnying, but the ground beneath the snow was firm and even.
“Look for tracks,” said King Daxan. “Giant footprints, unnatural footprints. Look for blood on the snow. Look for gashes in tree bark or on rocks as if from savage claws. Or, if it’s monstrous enough, entire trees felled. Look for the entrance to a lair, such as a cave.”
“Like that one?” asked Sir Corsyon.
The black mouth of the cave, partially concealed in hanging vines, was eight feet in diameter. Snow had drifted three feet deep in its entrance. “Tie up the horses,” said King Daxan. “Light the torch. Swords drawn. Follow close.”
The cave was large enough for the men to walk upright and they could feel warm, stale air flowing up from deeper in the earth. King Daxan led the way with a flickering torch in his left hand and his sword in his right hand, and Sir Haphtwell and Sir Corsyon followed close, but perhaps too close as one or the other kept accidentally stepping on King Daxan’s heel. The entrance to the cave was a shrinking circle of gray daylight behind them. Then the passage veered to the left and the men could see only what the torchlight touched, the wet rock walls gleaming and streaked black, each other’s faces, tense and intense, loose stones on the cave floor over which it was too late to avoid stumbling.
Sir Haphtwell hit his head on a stalactite and cursed. “How far in do we have to go?” he asked.
“If there is something monstrous in here, it’s going to be pretty far back,” said King Daxan.
And then, low and dreadful, a voice came crawling up out of the darkness ahead of them. “Who goes there?”
King Daxan grinned at the knights, then turned to face the voice and held his torch out at arm’s length in front of him. “I am King Daxan and these are two of my knights. There names are-”
“Are you here to wake me or slay me?” asked the voice.
“Wake you?” asked King Daxan. “Aren’t you awake right now?”
“No,” said the voice. “I am asleep.”
King Daxan looked at his knights and shrugged. If this monstrous thing really was asleep, it was going to be a lot easier to slay it and remove its head. “How much farther down the cave do we have to go before we find you?”
“I hesitate to answer before you tell me your intentions,” said the voice.
“Are you something monstrous?” asked King Daxan. “You can be honest. I’m actually hoping that you are something monstrous.”
“Why?” asked the voice. “Are you a hero intent on testing your mettle against me? Or are you one who would play at hero, an impostor who would slay me in my sleep and accept undue adulation for the deed?”
“Neither,” said King Daxan. “I’m here to undermine the findings of a social experiment.” When the voice didn’t respond, King Daxan asked, “Are you there?”
“I’m pondering your meaning,” said the voice. It sounded confused.
“I’ll give you a rundown,” said King Daxan. “And then we’re coming to find you.” Then he gave the voice a brief overview of his own background, the rumor, the ill-fated trip to King Mitchum’s kingdom, the social experiment and the humiliating revelation thereof, and King Mitchum’s overall smugness. “And now,” said King Daxan. “I intend to throw your severed head at King Mitchum’s feet and say…well, I haven’t figured out what I’m going to say yet, but basically it’s going to prove that I was right to act on the rumor, even if it was of disingenuous origin.”
“Do you know what else would cause this King Mitchum to regret his social experiment?” asked the voice. “If you were to awaken me, thus unleashing me upon his kingdom. Think about it. Who would heed his calls for assistance then? Who would believe him? What hero would come rushing back after having been duped and smirked at and used as an object lesson for spoiled nobility? Think about it.”
King Daxan did not look at his knights, but his pulse quickened and his torch arm shuddered. “Hypothetically speaking,” said King Daxan. “How would one go about awakening you?”
Christmas morning had come and gone, merry and bright. It was now an hour past noon and the feasting in King Mitchum’s banquet hall was in peak form, as if all the prior feasts had been rehearsals for this singular performance. Everyone ate and talked and laughed and sang exactly as they should. It was into this supremely festive atmosphere that a servant escorted a worried-looking innkeeper with urgent news for the king.
“Rise,” said King Mitchum after the innkeeper had knelt and asked permission to speak. “Tell me what troubles you.” The feasting went on unabated. Only a few of the guests had even noticed the innkeeper’s arrival and even fewer had any inclination to give him a second look.
“I bring word of something monstrous in your kingdom, your highness,” said the innkeeper.
“Oh boy,” said King Mitchum, biting a deviled egg in half and feeding the other half to a pretty dog curled up on the floor under his chair. “And did you see this monstrous thing with your own eyes?”
“I did not,” said the innkeeper. “I heard from another.”
“This other,” said King Mitchum. “A reputable source?”
“He claimed to be a king,” said the innkeeper. “But he was all alone and badly wounded. He told me to get word to you with all haste.”
“Oh, I’m sure he did,” said King Mitchum. “I’m sure he’s most concerned with my well-being, not to mention the well-being of the knights he abandoned here under my roof who, incidentally, are here making merry with us on this most joyous of days, Christmas.”
“Yes, your highness,” said the innkeeper.
“I told his knights that whoever keeps Christmas the very best will be granted a lordship. See how they carry on! Very merry indeed!” King Mitchum paused, his smile vanished, and he looked the innkeeper square in the face. “There is something monstrous in this kingdom, sir, as there is in every kingdom under the sun: rumor. Get a drink for your horse, take a sandwich for yourself, and go. Go home. Neither spread nor listen to rumors, teach your children likewise, and perhaps we, at least, will not succumb to something monstrous as the rest of the world has, is, or soon will.”
The servant took the innkeeper’s arm and led him away, shamefaced and silent.
King Mitchum took a moment to re-gather his merriment and then his smile made a triumphant return, bigger and better than ever before, the Christmas smile of a comfortable king on Christmas who considers the sources of all information, considers the sources’ motives, and demands that information be supported with evidence. The smile of a king who knows exactly what he knows.