Once, he’d had loyal subjects.
Now he only had bricks and sand.
Immortality was not a blessing.
He had dragged his throne to the highest tower of town. It had been an arduous task, but he’d had – quite literally – all the time in the world.
The top of the tower had long since crumbled, exposing king and throne alike to the elements. Mocking desert winds threw hails of sand at the king’s weathered face. He clutched a parchment in his lap, a letter from a love long lost, but that too became taunting sand. The king squinted but stubbornly refused to yield to the desert.
Everything blurred to yellow. Fierce, burning yellow. Even the decrepit town buildings had taken on the color of the desert that surrounded them.
Then, a change.
This is it, thought the king. Madness has finally found me.
His kingdom, after all, was devoid of humanity. He was all that was left.
And yet, the flicker on the horizon persisted. Multiplied.
The king blinked rapidly, thinking grains of sand stuck to the surface of his eyes.
But the distant dots continued to come closer. They could have been animals, hunting for rare prey. No, the specks were too… intent, too strongly aimed at him.
He maintained his composure even though his heart almost leapt out of his chest. The dots were human – unmistakable now. A few dozen. Even beasts of burden trundled alongside. Druks, judging by the typical swaying gait of the massive brawny hexapods.
Their goal was clear now. They were headed straight for him.
Alone no longer.
Let my reign find breath again.
The king’s joints creaked into activity after eons of statuesque silence. He descended two steps at a time. How his mother would have chided him. Such expression of haste was not royal. There was no such thing as imperial impatience, she always said.
But there was no one to witness the childish giddiness of an ancient monarch. Not yet, anyway.
One half of the town’s large wooden gate was rusted shut, a giant rooted in the dry earth. The other half barely held on, another giant, one that hovered over an abyss with only a fraying rope to clutch at.
The king stood waiting in the triangular opening that remained. His heavy coat had left a wide trail through the sand that covered every bare surface in the town.
“Welcome,” he bellowed when he thought his new subjects were within earshot.
They stopped and looked at each other. Surprised. Uncomfortable. As if they weren’t expecting the king to welcome them.
Nonsense, the king thought. A good ruler acknowledges his subjects. If they do not know this, they were right to flee their faltering sovereign.
Following a huddle amongst the travelers, the caravan set in motion again.
Then king felt a broad grin appear within the crags of his weathered face.
The leader of the caravan was a tall man – certainly for a mortal. A full head shorter than the king, he came to a halt a few paces away. His eyes couldn’t meet those of his new monarch. He rubbed the back of his head, messing up his thick brown locks.
“Uhm… we didn’t expect to…”
The king swung his arm. “Leave it be, good man. Say no more. You are all welcome here.” He looked down on his new loyal follower and put a hand on the man’s shoulder. Muscles tensed under the king’s touch. Nervous, no doubt.
“Together, we shall rebuild this kingdom.”
That night, the thrill of once again ruling more than an empire of solitude spurred the king’s rusted memory. He remembered…
The king remembered a time when the desert was dappled with small king- and queendoms, when immortal houses of rulers formed a robust tree of genealogical ties. Each adult immortal had its town of subjects, but kings and queens frequently visited each other. Squabbles were few and the lives of kings and subjects alike were – generally – good. The desert and its creatures were always a looming threat, but the kingdoms were oases of civilization. The king relished the memory. It had been a time of happiness, even of love. Once, he had had a queen.
Then, one day, those lights of culture faded one by one, in the blink of an immortal’s eye. Kings and queens increasingly yielded to the desert, leaving their subordinates helpless. Kingdoms crumbled, eagerly swallowed by the encroaching sea of sand. The rulers that remained turned in on themselves, protecting their own above all else. So too did the king. Contact dwindled. Isolation flourished.
There were no more visits.
A true king intervenes as little as possible.
He let them settle in at their own pace, let them find their own place. After all, except for his tower, all buildings were available for use and occupation.
The morning came with new sounds. The grating creaks of rusted hinges, the crunch of sand under boots. The wail of a child.
And was that…? Yes, the smell of freshly baked bread. The king’s withered salivary glands refilled, rejoiced. Though monarchs didn’t require sustenance, they appreciated complex flavors.
For the first weeks, the king simply watched them from his tower. They seemed like ants scurrying under his gaze. When you were outside time, time became malleable. The king’s excitement, though, was immortal. Atemporal.
His new flock had established itself and had begun rebuilding the town. Hinges stopped creaking, sand was swept out of buildings and compacted into avenues. A productive lot.
They would need guidance. And he would be their guide. As he was meant to be.
He walked down the stairs for the second time since the new arrivals had entered his realm. Slowly now, regal.
Sand no longer screeched beneath his sandals as he strode across the cleaned streets, a sound he was glad to miss. There was another sound, though, that died as he emerged from his tower. A sound he did miss.
The sound of laughter, of conversation, of life.
The people were still apprehensive.
But I have given them time. Oh, how their previous monarch must have been monstrous. My task is larger than I thought. I shall not waver.
He smiled, ancient creases in his face performing movements they were still unused to.
“Good day!” His voice rang across town. The people cowered.
Enthusiasm can be frightening for those that are not enthused, he reminded himself. Slowly. Even the timeless can go too fast.
He took a deep breath. The air was cleaner, full of aromatics. The taste, the smell of everyday activity, of habitation, soothed him.
“I am pleased,” he said – softer now. “You have made tremendous progress. This place,” he swept a long, emaciated arm, “has not looked this good, this vibrant since… a very long time.” Ward off the sadness, it is not their burden.
The caravan’s leader – unofficial mayor now – frowned with worry as his kinsmen slowly retreated, eyes averted from the king in their midst.
Poor things. How they must have suffered.
“Tell me, good man,” the king spoke softly, containing the royal strength in his voice, “what is your name?”
The man swallowed and sighed. “I am Bramm.”
“Bramm.” The king stepped closer but halted as soon as he saw the muscles in Bramm’s arms tense like cables being pulled too hard. “I am no fool. Tell me what worries you.”
Bramm’s cheeks clenched so hard the king feared his teeth might shatter.
“Fear not, you are safe here. Speak freely.”
Another sigh. “We… Our town was ruined by our monarch. He was… not right. So, we fled, looking for a place to be free.”
“A wise choice.”
“A place without king or queen.”
The thought struck the king like a punch to the gut. He stepped back unwillingly. Heresy! Rage bubbled. No. Control. Restraint. Do not lash out. Their trauma is not their own creation.
“I see.” The king closed his eyes and took another deep breath. Life, joy, the air is full of it. Do not squander it. “I can assure you that your tribulations are over. Not only will you be safe here, together we will make this place a thriving community where all can flourish.”
Why do they not cheer, why do they not revel in their newfound peace?
Bramm mumbled something, the meaning lost in the song of wind and sand.
“What was that, my friend?”
“But we would not be free.”
“I… You are mistaken, Bramm. But I understand. You need time to heal from oppression. I can give you time.” The king turned a deaf ear to Bramm’s mumbling and blind eyes to the man’s shaking head. The immortal headed back to his tower. Free? How can they be free without ruler, without rules?
The royal mind was in turmoil. Heaving emotions threw up another memory from eons past.
The king recalled one of his mentors, a king among kings, an immortal ruler that had been around when consciousness congealed out of the mists of the universe. As was custom, visiting monarchs often spent time with those in training.
Those with the most thriving, resilient kingdoms preached patience as the main virtue of a good ruler. The king-to-be spent many nights ruminating on his mentors’ teachings about the idiosyncratic minds of the ephemerals, the differences that separated rulers from their subjects, and how a true king embraced this gap for the betterment of all.
Days passed in a fever dream as the king’s thoughts went back and forth in an endless pursuit of each other. A pursuit without victor. There was conflict inside the king. What he wanted was right there, yet out of reach. If you can’t rule their hearts, your kingdom is empty.
From his tower, the king saw Bramm hug his wife and ruffle his son’s hair. They were laughing, looking longingly at each other. Complete.
There was love, family among his subjects.
Perhaps a queen could remedy the loneliness. Bah, banish the thought. There was only one queen for me, and she is no more.
Now, his subjects were his children, his recalcitrant lovers, his purpose.
His subconscious violently pulled him out of his reverie.
Something was amiss.
On the horizon something moved. Aggressively, with predatory purpose. Only one thing could move like that. Sandpards, with six strong legs and a muscular body to support a large triangular head that was more jaw than brain.
The king sprang from his chair, ready to warn his people.
Wait. Not yet. Within the blink of an eye, he stopped moving and turned still as a sculpture. This will teach them they need me. When they see the value of my presence, they will have no other option but to come to me for protection.
Sandpards always moved in sixes. They were fast. Very fast.
The king chewed his bottom lip. Come on, misguided mortals, you must see now that you need me.
Shouts washed towards him like salve being applied to a fresh wound. His elation grew with the panic below.
Any second now, they will run up the stairs, to me.
But no, they ran outwards, towards the feeble cracked ramparts they had not yet completely fixed.
A sandpard could scale those easily. A king knew these things. After all, kings and beasts were made from the same sand.
His flock was in danger.
The king roared and jumped from his tower. He called on the power of the sand to guide his descent. Every grain in the town sang to him, danced for him. A small tornado cushioned his feet and lessened the impact on his joints as he landed. He shot forward.
Slow. Too slow. Rest rusts.
Backed by a wave of sand, he reached the edge of town, where two sandpards had already leapt across the barricades. He struck one beast with his scepter. The other one bit his free arm, nearly swallowing half of it. The king looked at the creature and growled.
“I am the sand, I am the desert.” The king’s arm turned to sand. The sandpard wheezed until its triple double-lobed lungs were saturated. The beast suffocated and collapsed.
The king fell to his knees, unaware of the shocked silence around him. Then came the scream.
The sandpard matriarch had found a victim. The king surged to his feet and pulled his newly forming arm out of the sand. His new limb was still coalescing when he saw Bramm lunge at the sandpard. The man’s son lay limp beneath the beast’s hungry jaws.
Brave but foolish.
The king knocked Bramm aside as the sandpard leapt. Beast and king locked in a lethal embrace, a deathly dance within a whirlwind. The inertia of eternity became the flash of violence. Sand settled. Royalty and savagery stared at each other, panting. The sandpard mewled. Its smooth skin granulated, cracked. Beast became sand. It crumbled and collapsed.
Sandpards weren’t clever, except when it came to hunting. The three remaining sandpards, about to finish the circling movement that would bring them to the other side of town, lost heart. With the matriarch out of the picture, they howled and ran off.
The king straightened and rubbed the sand from his sweaty face.
Now they will understand they need me.
“You demon!” Bramm came towards him, his eyes boring into the king’s face for the first time. Anger and grief reddened his face and streaked his cheeks with tears. “We do not want you here. We never wanted you here. My son…” Bramm’s voice cracked. “You couldn’t even save my son,” he continued softly, sinking to his knees. “You can’t protect us. You… you are nothing. Go. Just go.”
The king’s chest heaved. But I waited for your love, your respect. You want protection without rule? You want the protection of a king without accepting his rule?
The eternal being bellowed. “You ungrateful bastards! Without me, you would have all perished.” The town trembled as the sand shifted. “There can be no kingdom without king. We monarchs are life, we are guardians. Without us the desert would swallow you all.” The wind wailed along with him.
The fear in the people’s eyes stabbed the king’s old heart. Anger and wind subsided in tandem.
As befit a king, he strategically redeployed to his sanctuary.
Suppressed anger and a wounded heart birthed another memory from the sands of time.
The king remembered a queen. A queen many ages his senior, but as striking as any immortal could aspire to be. A well of knowledge that only few possessed. As young king and new ruler of his own small kingdom, he often went to visit her. In his dreams, he already saw their children building a new network of prosperous kingdoms.
The king remembered the first night they had lain together. After the throes of passion had ebbed away, the queen whispered stories to him about the birth of the immortals, myths of how the earth itself – the one true parent of the immortals – had begotten them to keep the desert from spreading over the entirety of the world. The desert, so the queen told her devoted listener, was a cancer, always looking to spread and consume. The immortals were scattered across it to stunt its growth, to provide a counterweight and establish balance. The king and his kin accepted this duty and made it their purpose.
They would not dare!
Bramm’s rage had lit a fire in the townspeople. They knew they couldn’t best a monarch. But they also knew that without kingdom, kings perished. A monarch would never – could never – leave his town except for a visit to another monarch. His people, though, could travel as they pleased.
Will they really choose the cancerous desert over me? Am I so terrible? Do they truly prefer the uncertainty and struggles of being free from rule over the peace and order provided by a king? Bah, good riddance, I shall withstand the desert without them.
The people packed quickly, and the caravan seemed to tremble with the anticipation of movement, like an animal yearning to run. Wooden carts were stuffed and decked with tarps. Druks were corralled out of their enclosure and guided into broad tailored yokes. Before the night fell and the chill of darkness could grab hold, the caravan set in motion.
A few people looked back. But not Bramm.
He must be a good leader, to achieve consensus like this, in the face of danger and uncertainty.
Everyone was willing to follow Bramm wherever he might lead them.
Surely, they will not venture into the desert night, the time of djinns and ghouls?
The wind began to pick up, tugging at the caravan. The king heard the story in the sound, the soliloquy of solitude. A layer of liquid formed on his eyes, not due to the pricking sand this time, but due to the sadness of impending loss.
They would. They actually would. Perhaps the time of monarchs truly is over. Perhaps there are new kings and queens, walking among the people.
Maybe this is my legacy. Maybe they are my legacy.
The king cried unabashedly.
This should not have taken a child’s life. I feel the weight of the young one’s death.
When the last cart rolled across the town’s boundary, a tremor made people’s heads turn.
The king’s tower shook. From the seams between the stones, small puffs of sand emerged and coalesced into a dense curtain that obscured the tower from sight. A deep rumble.
When the sand dissipated, the tower had gone.
In withdrawal and solitude, another memory reformed.
Then king remembered one of his mentors’ final visits and lessons, the last argument before the desert had swallowed the king’s only remaining ancient mentor.
Many immortals had already vanished by then, including the king’s family and the queen he had loved. Apprehension gripped the king, prompting him to transform his kingdom into a stronghold, impenetrable and towering in seclusion.
His mentor tried to convince him to reconsider. The old one told the king of how, even though they were immortal, they were not meant to be eternal. The greatest ruler, his mentor said, eventually obviates the necessity of his or her own being. Their subjects were the true inheritors of the earth and the salve that could tame the desert. The king had scoffed and scorned his ancient relative.
Their parting had not been not amicable and turned out to be final.
So they have some sense after all.
When the tower had vanished, and the king along with it, the people had returned. Suspicious at first, searching through all the houses and buildings.
They had forgotten that monarchs were creatures of the sand, denizens of the desert. If the king could not watch them from above, he would do so from below.
From his subterranean enclave, the king heard their footsteps, felt them live their lives. Grains of sand were the spies that kept him apprised of all that occurred in his kingdom.
He would build and protect his kingdom. He always would. But carefully now, unnoticed.
The king coerced layers of sand in intricate patterns to shepherd dew into underground canals. Soon, his people would discover a hidden source of irrigation, an oasis seemingly sprung from nothing. When sandpard vibrations woke him from his slumber, he would lay quicksand traps.
My people will thrive. I will protect them.
They will not know. They will not supplicate. So be it. It will suffice for me.
A terrible ruler has iron hands, a good ruler velvet ones. A great ruler needs none.