Some years—not every year—fierce winds blow from the north, and the old folk mutter about the ride of the indestructible king. And they cast about their narrow-eyed glances at those who might have summoned such winds, by taking something they shouldn’t have.
The tale is not such an old one. Here it is told.
When Ximrahet was born, his mother and father, the king and queen, brought him to a sorceress who was dying, and asked if she would cast her last spell on their son. The last spell of a spellcaster was the most powerful. It could only be cast on another, one who was near, within sight and touch of the spellcaster. So the sorceress could not use it to extend her own life. But she had been treated well by the king and queen, given all she could have wanted and more. She had gained much knowledge and power in her life with all the artifacts, scrolls, and books that the queen had acquired on her many travels through the world. So she cast her last spell on the prince, and then she died.
That last spell was a spell of indestructibility. No bodily harm could come to the child. No bodily pain would he feel. He would die, someday, but when he did, it would be of old age. His mind and body would still be sound, just worn and ready to pass from the world. The spell was the sorceress’s second gift to the prince. Her first had been his name. And before she passed, she gave him a third gift, her steed, who slept in a cave not far from where she lived, and would slumber there until the prince came of age and claimed him. The steed had eyes that could see for leagues, would only be loyal to one rider, and could outrun all other horses, save the lightning steeds that lived in the highest mountains of the world, above the clouds. But they were said to have mostly died out.
To assure that the prince would not become callous and bloodthirsty from his gifts, the king and queen taught him early and often of what ungifted people suffered to their bodies and minds. As a boy, Ximrahet walked among the sickest and the poorest. He did not understand their pain, though he tried. But though he did not feel bodily pain, he could still feel the pains of the mind and heart, just as any other person would. He felt the pain of longing, of heartbreak and guilt, of loss.
The prince learned all manner of fighting with all manner of weapons. He was not particularly strong, but he was persistent and hardy. He made his sparring partners use real weapons against him. The king and queen had hoped for the type of indestructibility where arrows bounced off the prince’s skin, but they had learned when he was just a boy that he could be injured. It just did not bother him much. And the injuries faded as quickly as they were made. He would suffer cuts and broken bones and bruises. But they all vanished in moments, and he felt no pain.
Once, by dire accident, he was run through with a sword. He felt a moment of fear, for the sword had cut his stomach. He fell to the ground, and the one who had mistakenly struck him was dragged away lamenting in terror. Before anyone could stop him, Ximrahet pulled the sword from his belly, still feeling nothing, only stunned by what had happened. By the time word reached the king and queen, who were far above in their castle chambers, the prince was striding toward them. He met them in the castle halls, whole and unharmed.
He next went to the find the opponent who had struck him. For that man would have been dragged to the dungeons, tortured for harming the prince.
The prince who could feel no pain or suffering himself, realized the terror of pain and suffering when he witnessed the anguish and torment in the poor man’s eyes. He freed the man and thanked him for demonstrating how indestructible the prince truly was. It was the first time the prince had visited the castle dungeons. In his education of the meaning of suffering and pain, neither king nor queen nor tutor nor minder had ever brought the prince to the dungeons right below his feet. He was troubled by what he saw. He put an end to the tortures, and paid the guards extra wages to maintain the dungeons in a state fit for a prisoner, devoid of comfort or privilege, but clean and well-lighted. He often asked his mother and father, the king and queen, how they might put an end to wars and even to disease. He longed for all to have the gift he had, but he knew it was not possible. When he visited other lands, and when honored guests from other lands visited his, he would speak to them in earnest of doing the same.
The king and queen did not agree with their son’s every notion. To them he was young and did not know the way of the world. Pain was a necessity for most. If any other man broke his leg, the pain forced him to stay as still as he could, for if he used his broken bone, he might damage it further. The prince claimed to understand this, but he still sought ways to banish the pain of his people.
It came to be that the king and queen of a distant land visited, and the royals brought with many from their court, including a young sorcerer who was much intrigued by the prince’s condition. The sorcerer had studied the last spells of many spellcasters, and had never known one so powerful. He wished to stay and study the prince. The prince agreed, but only on the condition that the sorcerer would help the prince to find some way, some spell perhaps, that could banish pain. For the prince believed that pain was the bane of his people, indeed of all the people in the world. If he could banish it, he might banish many other ills.
So the sorcerer stayed at court and became a good friend to the prince. He was not the only good friend the fortunate prince would make in that year. A day came when the king and queen presented Ximrahet with the greatest gift they had given him since the gift of the sorceress’s last spell. They led him to a cave where there lay sleeping a beautiful steed. The prince held a bridle and as he approached, the steed awoke and bowed to the prince. The horse had no mane. It had been shorn off so he could run even faster. He waited patiently while the prince bridled him, but as soon as the prince mounted, the stallion dashed out of the cave so fast that the prince fell off. Had he been any other man, Ximrahet would have suffered a long injury. He broke some bones and was scraped and bruised, but battered though he was, he healed within minutes and went running after the stallion, who waited by a stand of trees, seemingly surprised that his rider had fallen off.
For many weeks did the prince practice riding the horse, who was named Esdronan. He was a skilled horseman, but never had he ridden a horse so fast. He found that the best way—the only way—to ride was to let the horse take him where he would. The steed seemed to know where to go without being guided.
Many princesses and ladies sought to wed the prince, for his kingdom was vast and beautiful, his people were thriving, his soldiers and warriors were mighty and many, and the prince himself was extraordinary. Of the many who vied for his hand, the prince favored three princesses. One wanted to wed him for power. One for protection. And one for admiration.
The prince at first considered the princess whose land needed protection. But he did not need to wed her to pledge his help. He made with her a diplomatic alliance. The princess who cared only for power he kept at arm’s length, and their lands, while not enemies, were never friends so long as he and the princess lived.
The one who sought his hand out of admiration troubled him, for she too had a gift. Like him, she had had a spell cast upon her by a dying spellcaster when she was but a child. She had been granted great strength, which she demonstrated by lifting the prince’s startled stallion upon her shoulders…with the prince still sitting upon him. The prince had walked the stallion onto a sturdy plank, which the princess had then lifted above her head to the amazed and amused cheers of the gathered court. The prince was at once dazzled and unnerved. He chose to court her.
Princess Nittriyam had strength of body, but she claimed she did not have the strength that the prince had, to change the ways of his kingdom and court. She had ideas, as Ximrahet had, but was fearful of daring to try them, even to suggest them. In her kingdom, only sons were considered heirs. Her father, in defiance of old custom, asked for strength for his eldest daughter, so that she could defend her kingdom. But though Nittriyam had learned the ways of battle, she was not allowed to lead their army. Her people loved her and were proud of her strength, but she sought strength beyond the strength of her muscles.
The strong princess and the indestructible prince were wed and so too were their kingdoms wed. In time, the princess bore a child, a healthy girl. She was named Mosrueph. So they had an heir. But the gleam of their happiness was tarnished, for word soon came of invasion. Another land, troubled by the union of the two powerful kingdoms had invaded the kingdom of the princess’s birth.
The prince went forth to fight. After many months of battle, he managed to drive back the enemy. But ever on the heels of victory came new and more trying troubles. The prince learned through his spies that there was a plan to invade the capitol of his own kingdom. To attack the castle and capitol from within. The prince raced back to his kingdom, outpacing his army on a steed that seemed to ride upon the wind.
But he was too late.
When Ximrahet reached the capitol there was chaos. When he reached the castle, there were lamentations. He found the king and queen, his mother and father, dead. In their chambers, the bodies of their enemies were strewn all about with their limbs torn asunder. The invaders’ bodies were mangled, their faces battered, their skulls crushed with the force of brutal and powerful punches. It was the princess’s work. But she was missing, and so was his daughter. Those who had survived the attack on the castle told the prince that the babe was taken, and the princess, though wounded and bleeding, had chased after the villains.
In the skirmish, the young sorcerer too had tried to stop the kidnappers. The signs of his spells were seen in the scorched walls, rugs, and tapestries, and some burned bodies lying in the castle halls. But the sorcerer had not escaped unharmed. He had been mortally wounded. When he was found, he asked the healers to keep him alive long enough for the prince to return.
The prince found the sorcerer, his friend, dying. The sorcerer could cast a last spell upon the prince. Ximrahet asked for the sorcerer to bring his daughter back, but the sorcerer could not do that. He could not have cast any spell upon the girl if she were not there with him.
“Then let the blows upon my people fall upon me,” Ximrahet said. “But let me live, long enough to bring back my daughter safe and sound, and take vengeance for the rest of my kin.”
The sorcerer dissented. He wanted to cast a spell to protect Ximrahet, strengthen him against the ruthless enemy that had attacked them.
“Do as your king commands you,” Ximrahet said, for though uncrowned, he was now king. “Do as your friend entreats you.”
The sorcerer relented and cast his spell. And then he died.
Ximrahet set his grief aside and went to gather his men, but his second-in-command, a general of his army, stopped him for a moment. For there was a duty he must perform before he went into battle.
In a capitol city, blazing with fire, dripping with blood, Ximrahet was crowned king. Someone he could not remember placed upon his head a crown that was still stained with the blood of his father.
Word of the old king’s death would have been spreading in the capitol. If the new king rode, alive and unhurt, the vengeful guardian of his people, he might regain control of the capitol. His child would not be harmed. She had surely been taken so Ximrahet would bargain for her safe return.
King Ximrahet road out into the capitol, atop the fearless Esdronan, fighting and gathering his men. He felt a strange sensation within his body when he watched his people fall to swords and arrows. He suffered many wounds that did not fall directly upon him. His arm was hacked off and grew back again. His eyes were gouged out but reformed. His chest was stabbed with sword and dagger and arrow, punctured with pikes and spears, and still he recovered, for he was indestructible. As he took their blows for them, the wounded and maimed people rose up again unharmed, and they saw the crown upon Ximrahet’s head. They saw and they knew their king was riding out to protect them, and they were heartened. With the help of the capitol guards, the soldiers, and the people themselves, the invaders were killed or captured. Order was restored to the capitol in only one day.
Ximrahet trusted his princess, not yet his queen, to go after their daughter. But he did mean to join her, and to bring an army to crush their enemies for daring to take their most precious treasure. He gathered an army of seven hundred riders. They rode many leagues to meet their enemy, passing through one allied kingdom, then another. As they drew closer to enemy borders, they were beset by their enemy’s forces. Soldiers fell in the skirmishes on both sides. But Ximrahet’s soldiers always revived and rose again. They were surprised at first, but soon they realized that sorcery protected them.
But it protected them at great cost to their king, for though he still recovered from the blows given to others, though he still rode ahead of them all on his swiftest of steeds, something about him was changing.
He felt it within himself first. He was growing hollow. One night, he asked his second-in-command to cut open his chest, and when the general gasped, the king glanced down and saw that most of his insides were gone. His heart still beat within him. His lungs still bellowed, but his guts were all gone. Stomach, liver, kidneys, all gone. He stopped eating and drinking and found he could live just as well. He was loathe to keep secrets from his soldiers, but there might be spies among them. So he sent word through his captains with only a vague warning. All were to be careful, for they were protected by sorcery, but sorcery did not last forever.
If the cost of the last spell that was lain upon the king was his own body, then that currency was quickly being spent. Soldiers continued to fall, try as they might to avoid it, when their enemy troubled them with clash after clash, trying to slow them, stop them, as they marched toward the invading kingdom. Seven hundred soldiers had set out from the capitol. Seven hundred soldiers still rode with their king.
But the king himself was wearing away, slowly, but certainly.
His men fell, and his men rose again. He grew thinner and thinner. His armor and cloak hid the gauntness of his body, but he took to wearing his hood upon his head to hide his altered face. His cheeks sunk until the skin was taut against his bone. Dark hollows formed beneath his eyes. Every vein was visible beneath his diminishing skin. Soon, his skin began to fall away.
By the time they reached the northern border of the invading kingdom, all that was left of the indestructible king was his bones.
It was twilight and the enemy could not see the king’s skull beneath his hood from so far.
Ximrahet’s army of six hundred and seventy-nine soldiers stood arrayed on a cliff behind him, banners fluttering in the dying winds of a blustery day. But in the valley below, where the king approached his enemy, there was no wind.
As the king had ridden, he had sent forth scouts and spies, not just to study their enemy, but to find word of Nittriyam. Few had seen her. None knew her fate. The king knew it now, for the still-to-be-crowned queen of his kingdom stood beside his enemy.
There were chains wrapped around Nittriyam’s waist, draped over her shoulder, binding her arms and her feet. No ordinary man or woman could have walked under the weight of so many chains. The queen could have broken through them. But in the time she did, she and the baby she held in her hands would have been struck with arrows from the archers who stood on the cliffs behind them.
As he had known he would, Ximrahet had received a visit the night before from the enemy’s scout, who brought word from their king. He wished to meet Ximrahet on the field of battle, to parley and bring a peaceful and bloodless end to their dispute. Ximrahet had agreed.
Ximrahet dismounted. His second-in-command approached and took Esdronan’s reins. The indestructible king strode toward his enemy with his hood still raised. The enemy king likewise strode toward him, bringing his royal prisoners. Nittriyam walked easily as if unburdened by heaps of heavy chains.
Ximrahet stopped and threw back his hood. Swords were unsheathed and gasps were heard from the opposing army. Nittrayam’s eyes widened but she stared into the hollows of the skull’s eyes. She gave a slight nod and lowered her eyes, before raising them again.
The enemy king beside her, clad in worn and weathered armor, frowned in displeasure. But Ximrahet saw the quiver in the man’s jaw. The gleam of fright behind his sure and steady demeanor. The enemy king recovered himself and spoke.
“What is this? I asked to speak with your king.”
“This is our king,” Nittriyam said proudly.
Ximrahet had left his crown and sigil behind in the capitol.
“If that’s so,” the enemy king said, “then you are poor king. You will not frighten my soldiers with cheap illusions.”
Ximrahet said nothing.
“You cannot fall in battle, so I am told. But your fighters can. Your princess can. And your child.”
Ximrahet knew this to be true.
The spell that had protected his people and his soldiers was spent. Seven hundred soldiers had ridden with him, almost to the end. But three times seven soldiers had fallen before they reached the border. The young sorcerer had done his best, but he had died too young, his magic still unripe. It wasn’t strong enough. And it was not as strong as the first spell that was cast upon Ximrahet. The king was protected by that first spell upon him. His skin and flesh had been ripped away, but his bones would not be, for they gave him form. They gave him some kind of life. Perhaps given time, his flesh would reform, as it had many times before. He was indestructible. But this people were not.
The enemy king told Ximrahet that the cost of getting of his wife and child back was to abandon his claim on his throne, for his wife to abandon hers, and for their child and their lineage thereafter to abandon their claim to the throne of any kingdom.
Long had the enemy king coveted Ximrahet’s kingdom. Since he was a child and his father spoke of the great kingdom to the north, so vast and beautiful. But so well-guarded by a strong and thriving people, and warriors both many and mighty. There was a time when that northern kingdom grew weaker. The warriors fewer. The people wearied by failing crops and dwindling trade. But then came the heir, the prince who gave his people hope in his first days, simply by being born. And then by becoming indestructible.
After hearing about the indestructible prince, the undefeatable prince, the tireless warrior prince, the enemy king had plotted for years to find the prince’s weakness. His people were dear to him, to be sure, but attacking them would only enrage the prince. So would harming the king and queen, even the princess, his wife. Their union had made their kingdom stronger still. But from that strength would arise the prince’s weakness. The enemy king waited until he found something that would truly defeat Ximrahet, stop him from using the great power he had been given, a power he did not—by his enemy’s reckoning—deserve.
Then the little princess was born.
Ximrahet used all his strength to keep himself standing upright. He had not been particularly strong before. Now he was only bones. He could think of only one way to save the queen and the princess, his wife and his daughter.
Without his flesh, he had no voice, so he had scrawled his message upon a sheet of parchment and given it to his second-in-command the night before.
The general announced that he spoke the words of his king, and he read the message.
“I have given all I can give for my kingdom. I have only one gift left, a blessing for my daughter, a gift given to me that I now pass on to her.”
The king pulled off his glove and raised his skeletal hand toward the baby princess, who began to cry.
The skeleton of the king collapsed, and his steed rode past him and the general, who knelt to gather up the bones of his king.
Arrows flew at Nittriyam as she ran, still chained, toward Esdronan. The chains around her ankles broke and she ran faster. She understood what her king had done, but she did not want to take the chance upon her daughter’s life. The chains that were meant to hold her instead protected her, as arrow after arrow were deflected by them. She weaved and ducked her head. Arrows suddenly came flying from all sides. She panicked but did not stop running as one of them struck her baby, and bounced away. The princess wailed, she wailed as if in rage and grief for her father.
The steed slowed long enough for the queen to grab hold and swing herself up onto his back. She broke the chains around her wrists and rode toward the general. He passed her the bones of the king, gathered and tied into his cloak. Then the general turned to fight, to let the queen escape.
But Esdronan turned around and galloped toward the enemy. As he drove into their midst, the queen kicked with her legs, and punched with one arm, holding her raging child in the other. Arrows flew toward them, but the steed was too quick, and he outrode them. The rest of Ximrahet’s soldiers descended from the cliff and came to their queen’s defense, sweeping around the enemy. The king would have lamented if any soldiers fell after all he had done to guard their lives. But the queen had no time to regret. She had to drive the enemy back. For her kingdom’s sake, for the sake of her father’s kingdom, and so many others that were troubled by her greedy and covetous enemy.
The queen rode forth with the indestructible princess. The princess had inherited her father’s first gift. The queen, it seemed, had inherited the second. For she rode with no effort on a steed that knew where to go without her telling him.
They drove back the enemy. The general insisted that he could chase them further, make sure they were driven back far from their own borders. The queen should return home to claim her throne, mourn and comfort her people, and make safe her heir.
This the queen did. She buried the old king and queen. But she waited until the soldiers returned before performing the funerals for the brave sorcerer who had tried to protect her and her child, and for the king with whom she had had too little time. The king had taken seven hundred with him. Only five hundred returned. The queen thirsted for vengeance, but she remembered that she had told her king she wanted to be stronger, like him. The enemy they had fought feared union, alliance, and strength. So she swore she would be strong. She would carry on her king’s legacy, as would her heirs.
For many years after the king’s sacrifice, there were those who claimed to see a figure clad in armor, bearing a kingly crown upon a skull’s head, walking the halls of the castle, or guarding the roads into the capitol.
And far beyond those years, and far beyond the capitol, there were those who claimed that when the northern winds blew, they were caused by the riding of an army, seven hundred strong, and that they heralded the coming of the indestructible king.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Ximrahet” by Sanjay Patel.