Art by David Revoy/ Blender Foundation

The Countess and the Bard

By Kyle Rader

The moment he first set foot in the home of Countess Morana, Regent to the King of Mesa, the Bard knew it would be the death of him.

The home was not in any state of disrepair. No cobwebs or dastardly looking servants with hunched-backs and bright eyes reflecting their bitter hatred to the world were milling about. It was the feel of the entire locale that sent foreboding chills down his spine.

He was of a mind to turn on his heels and head back for the docks when a single trumpet announced his host’s arrival.

“Good morrow to you, Sir Bard.” Countess Morana greeted him with a thin-lipped smile that indicated she meant him anything but.

“Ah, so this is the renowned Countess that every sailor this side of the world holds lust in their hearts — and loins — for!” The Bard took the woman’s hands, kissed both, then clasped them together with his per the custom of the land. “The crude etchings carved into the ceiling of my ship’s cabin do you no justice, Milady.”

“I see the rumors that preceded you are accurate enough,” the Countess said.

“Oh?” The Bard feigned shock at the compliment. It was a dance he did every time some noble hired him to perform. Wear a coat of false modesty and let the silly person think they are the first to compliment your greatness. “If these are the rumors about a certain incident with a band of pirates, I must admit they are exaggerated. I slew only fourteen of them. The last one simply fell over-board.”

Countess Morana laughed without smiling. “You have a golden tongue bestowed upon you from one of the Gods. Will you walk with me, Sir Bard?”

They walked through the manor for a time, speaking of the Bard’s travels through the eight Kingdoms of the land. He shared the most succulent pieces of gossip from the numerous noble houses in which he had been hired, while she regaled him of the house’s history; of how it was carved directly out of the mountainside, and of the marble columns her Father imported from across the sea to complete the colonnade down which they strolled.

Their sojourn ended in an open portico overlooking the sea. The Countess took a seat on a small fur-lined sofa. A serving girl shuffled over and filled her goblet with wine. “Maelian wine,” she said in between sips. “Simply astonishing. A bit costly, but the flavor alone is well worth the price. Join me, Sir Bard?”

“What kind of a bard would I be if I refused freely offered wine?”

“As engaging as tales of House Morana may be, I think perhaps you are wondering why I have called you here. After all, the Kingdom of Mesa is rather far from home for you.”

“A bard owes no allegiance to any one location, Milady. Our only true home is located within the words that we speak. Those words take us on adventures far from our places of birth and allow us a wondrous opportunity to drink in the poetry of the world.”

“I envy your perspective of the world, Sir Bard.” The Countess smoothed her fine green gown and gazed at the ocean, watching the waves crash against the black cliffs. “Tell me what you know of our kingdom.”

The Bard drained his goblet and signaled for a refill. “It is said that Mesa’s ports allow for fast shipping of various goods and — according to a rather loquacious fisherman I encountered — the purest whale oil in the world is harvested in its native waters.”

“Tell me what you really know about this place.”

Icicles of contempt bored into the Bard from the noblewoman’s blue eyes. Clearly this is a woman whose tolerance for flattery goes only so far, he thought. He sipped his wine and shifted his position on the couch, which had suddenly grown as uncomfortable as a mossy stone.

“There is a saying throughout the lands. ‘Woe be unto those who linger in Mesa. For it is a land stained so thick with blood, the tides themselves cannot cleanse it.'”

“The saying is not inaccurate. Since its inception, Mesa has been in a near-constant state of revolution. The damned aristocrats declare war on each other if one happens to have prettier flowers than the other. It occurs so often, it is an amazement that there is any kingdom left to battle over. Roasted almonds?”

A servant presented the plate of still-smoking nuts before the Bard. The aroma was tempting, but he waved the girl off, preferring to get to the point. “Countess, if what you say is the truth, and I have no doubts of your integrity, why summon me? I am just a simple poet, nothing more. A hundred warriors would be of better use to you than I.”

“In any other instance, you would be correct. Fortunately for us all, the kingdom is enjoying a relative period of ease, thanks to the eighty-eighth king, King Randall the Splendid.”

The mention of the king’s name created a clammy ring of sweat around his neck. He dabbed it away from his suit-collar with an orange cloth. “Mist from the sea,” he lied with a smile. “Must be difficult to keep any linen of value here.”

“What do they say of King Randall in the outside realms, Sir Bard?” she said, shifting her gaze from him to inspect the golden paint on her thumbnail.

Under any normal circumstance, I would consider her to be breathtaking, he thought. But, her face is devoid of anything resembling human emotion.

“If I may answer your query with another, Milady. Why do you ask things to which you already know the answer?”

The Regent rose from her sofa and walked to the parapet. “You are a bold one, aren’t you? King Randall has seen his share of your sort before. Every time, the same tragedy is performed. You come with your boastful ambition, thinking about nothing but the favor you may gain from the silly nobles who hired you. In the end, it is your blood that the tide cannot wash clean from our streets.”

The Bard stood and bowed low from the waist. “My apologies, Countess. I meant no offense by my trifle. It is the curse of the bards in that we speak far too freely, for our love of words outweighs that of even our own necks.”

Morana waved the apology off with two skeletal fingers. The ocean waves crashed against the obsidian bluffs fourteen times before she spoke again. “King Randall has held onto the throne for ten summers and winters. The second longest reign was that of The Gull King, King Lucas, which lasted six years before revolution claimed his life. This feat is rather unprecedented in Mesa, you understand, and as such, the king wishes to join the nation in celebration of his achievement.

“For you see, King Randall believes that his rule is divine and plans to have himself declared a god during the affair. It shall fall unto you to present his highness with a poem worthy of deity.”

The desire to leave deluged the Bard. His legs nearly betrayed his refined sense of decorum and sent him running down the hall. “Why, Countess,” he said, clearing his throat. “I thought you sent for me to perform a difficult task.”

“Your audacity teeters on the precipice of arrogance, Sir Bard. Still, it may yet serve you well in our kingdom. Come! Stand with me and watch the sea.”

The Countess interlocked her arm with his and rested her head against his shoulder. Her breaths were in tune with the tide; her bodice rose and fell with each crashing wave.

“Sir Bard? Would you be so kind as to look to the east wall? There is a sight that is absolutely breathtaking at this time of the day. You simply must witness it.”

“It must be a vision sent straight from the heavens!” he said, freeing his arm from the Countess’s embrace. He found himself missing the warmth of her body after only a few paces; the way her perfume enhanced the salt permeating the air. “Perhaps I shall craft it into such a song that it will turn to legend after only one recit—”

You’ve traveled into a realm of lunacy, you fool of a bard!

A dead man hung upside-down by an iron chain and a thick rod driven through the poor soul’s ankles. The man had not died well. A bolt from a crossbow protruded from between empty eye sockets. The same calming winds that massaged the Bard’s face stripped rotting skin from the dead man’s bones and left them to flutter free like leaves in autumn.

“Where are your manners, Sir Bard? Say hello to the last of your ilk to grace our kingdom with his presence.”

Now would be the opportune time to make a strategic exit. The Bard turned only to discover his path blocked by two guards holding crossbows. Their faces were hidden behind leather masks of blue and green, but the sadism they intended to reap upon him churned in their eyes.

“He was still alive when they tossed him over,” the Countess said, trailing behind the Bard like a specter. “The gulls came at low tide, taking his eyes and tongue first. The beasts seem to favor those as some sort of delicacy. After that, they flayed him until his highness granted the poor soul leniency.”

Leniency? What possible crime could he have committed to justify such wanton barbarism?”

“Virtue, I am afraid. Per our arrangement, he was to create a song honoring King Randall the Splendid’s victory over the demonic hordes that had infested the kingdom. Alas, your colleague took umbrage with this task.”

“Demonic hordes? Milady, surely one as learned as yourself knows there is no such thing.”

“Quite so. Yet, King Randall does not.” The Countess looped her arm back underneath the Bard’s. There was a chill to her touch. A soullessness, he thought. Any part that lived has long since fled her.

“The story goes that my liege was being bathed by a serving-girl. A tow-headed peasant woman working off her father’s debt to the Briny Throne. Whereas we all saw nothing but a frightened girl, the king saw pure evil, with serpents for eyes and rot pouring from its mouth.

“Hence, the Great Purge began. Those of golden-white hair were rounded up and cleansed under the holy wrath of our king. He personally oversaw the righteous deaths and rebirths of over four hundred souls. Their tainted blonde blood was ankle-deep when all was said and done. There is a statue — you will see it in the square during the ceremony — dedicated to our liege’s selfless defense of the realm. Fear not, Sir Bard! The days of the Great Purge are long past us now. Besides, the crimson hue of your whiskers will protect you from such demons.”

The Bard wanted nothing more than to be rid of this foul woman’s touch, to be free from the poisonous fanaticism towards an insane despot. Yet, he knew that to flee would be to die. The guards’ tight grips on their crossbows served as a stark reminder of such folly.

“Oh, look at the turn of the tide! I do apologize, but there are other matters of state and country that require my attention.” Countess Morana slipped free from the Bard and crossed the room with such speed that she appeared to float. “These men will show you to your quarters and provide you with scrolls and accurate accounts of the king’s deeds. Everything you require to create the godly poem that I know dwells within your bosom.”

The guards edged behind the Bard until their foul, fish-smelling breath trailed down the nape of his neck. “I don’t suppose that I can decline this position?” he said.

“Oh, it is far too late for that,” the Countess called over her shoulder. “Your decision was made for you the very moment you stepped onto our docks.”

“So, that’s it then? Write an epic celebrating a maniac or face death?”

The Countess’s joyless laughter reverberated off the black cliffs. “My dear Bard, this is Mesa. You could be put to death if the King doesn’t like the length of your tunic.”

“Kill the heretics!”

“Burn them! Rip them apart!”

Charming lot, the people of Mesa. The Bard looked over the crowd as they watched the king’s guard march out another cadre of prisoners. The spectators gathered early in the newly completed courtyard of the Royal Palace. The standard fixtures were present: the drunken revelers, the scared children throwing stones that their equally frightened parents handed to them. The truly enraged — though few and far between — were also present, lurking just under the surface of the monster made of a thousand faces.

“For acts of treason against the divine rule of King Randall the Splendid, First of his Name, these souls are condemned to the slow death of evisceration,” announced the master of ceremonies, an unpleasant, shrill-voiced man named Huntzinger.

The crowd erupted in cheers, but there was a hint of something in their tone that the Bard noticed. Any bard worth his salt knows when an audience is not all that captive, he thought. This crowd is merely doing what is expected of them.

The guards positioned the doomed in lines of three. Long knives with serrated edges hovered over the torsos of the prisoners while they waited for the killing order to be given.

Behind them, on a throne carved from whale bone, sat the king. Randall had the look of a well-fed corpse that would burst with noxious gasses if one were but to poke him with a stick. He remained motionless save for the constant caressing of a gold-plated crossbow in his lap.

The feigned bloodlust of the crowd was silenced as the mad king raised a single open hand to the sky. King Randall smiled, revealing crooked teeth wrought with decay, and clenched his hand into a fist.

With their liege’s blessing, the executioners began the day’s work. Blood poured from the stomachs of the captives. Their entrails were torn from them and looped around their necks. Their wails were only overshadowed by the frenetic laughter of the king.

His insanity and cruelty make for the perfect incestuous union, the Bard thought, turning his back on the carnage. He sipped from a flagon of wine he had hidden in his tunic, pausing to sniff it to counteract the metallic stench of blood in the air.

“Imbibing a bit of the nectar of the gods, Sir Bard?”

The Bard swallowed a mixture of wine and bile as Countess Morana made her entrance. She wore an exquisite gown of purple and gold with intricate images of creatures of the sea sewn into the arms. “Milady. You are dressed as if you are about to celebrate something.”

“I am so happy that your time in my home did not put a halt to your sharp tongue,” she replied, keeping her face an empty canvas. “I would think that you would want to keep every wit you have when you perform, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Your concern is touching.” The Bard tipped more wine into his mouth. “No doubt this is just a release of all the pent-up caring you could not show me while I was locked in that room for a fortnight.”

“A regrettable precaution. As I explained to you a half-dozen times, your confinement was for your own protection. The streets of Mesa are built on the backs of cutthroats and thieves. We simply could not risk anything unbecoming happening to you, my dear Bard. What would the king say if — instead of a poem fit for a god — all we had to present to him was your looted corpse?”

A high-pitched shriek obliterated any chance the Bard had to retort. A tall prisoner was dying rather poorly below them, much to the delight of the crowd, who cheered louder as the guard struggled to free his blade from the condemned’s bowels.

“Evisceration is such a dull show,” the Countess sighed. She looked out at the growing pile of dying prisoners with boredom bordering on the suicidal. “Unless you dig in deep, the poor bastards will linger on for hours, sometimes even days. I do hope you have saved your voice, Sir Bard. It appears you are going to have to project quite loudly.”

It is such a pity that the layers of make-up she wears do not contain toxins, he thought, imagining how wonderful it would be to watch her throat swell until she choked on her own tongue.

Huntzinger jogged down the hall, accompanied by a squad of four guards. The portly man had to pause to catch his breath several times.

“Milady,” he wheezed, sweat dripping down his nose like raindrops. “Sir Bard, it is nearly time! You must come with me at once! It doesn’t bode well to keep his highness waiting!”

“And with that, I bid you farewell, Sir Bard. I do so hope we meet again before the end. I have found your company to be rather edifying, in a crude sort of manner.”

I wonder, Milady, to which ‘end’ you are referring? The Bard took her hand and brought it to his lips, as custom dictated, the whole time willing himself not to break every finger.

“Come now, Sir Bard! The crowd is fickle! Constant gratification or the mouth-breathers are liable to start fornicating in the streets!”

Huntzinger all but lead the Bard by the hand as they walked into the circus of bloodthirsty sadism. The crowd awoke from a sluggish slumber to cheer the next attraction.

“My friends! It is now time for a rare treat. With us today, from lands far and wide, comes one of the most renowned storytellers of our generation. He is a man of such note, that King Randall the Splendid — in all his godly wisdom — personally selected him to tell the greatest, most important tale of our time, the Tale of His Majesty, King Randall!”

The Bard hid his cringing at the Master of Ceremonies’ voice by pretending to swat at a fly.

The introduction went on for some length, allowing the servants the appropriate time to clear the stage of the dead and dying. The blood had stained the new marble, so a bright blue carpet was laid out for the performance. The Bard avoided tiny clumps of intestines as he walked onto the stage, then kicked several pieces of flesh off the platform, much to the delight of the mob.

“Good day to you all, you patriots and faithful servants of Mesa!” The Bard said with a forced grin. “Thank you for your thunderous applause! But, alas, we are not here to celebrate me!”

The crowd responded with enthusiastic laughs and cheers, as if on cue.

“Why, how very unexpected! I thank you all, you wondrous heroes and heroines of Mesa. It has been quite a decade for you all, hasn’t it? A peace unlike any you have known in your lifetimes! All thanks to the wisdom and divine leadership of your very own King Randall!

“And now — with the king’s permission — I shall sing to you the tale of his Highness’s rise to the throne he so justly earned.”

The Ruler of Mesa caressed his golden crossbow and smiled. “Proceed, kind sir! Tell us all of my exploits!” He regarded the entertainer in the same manner a pet serpent would its afternoon mouse, something that he could toy with for a time before devouring whole.

The Bard raised his hands over his head and breathed in the salty air, trying to find the words — his words — memorized over two agonizing weeks in his corner of hell.

O, Mesa, O friends, heed my tale
Woven not of villains and heroes,
But of truth, and should I fail
In my attempt, wouldst thou
Allow truth to perish on my lips?

Upon thy rear the sea doth encroach
Waiting to reclaim this wayward child
Toward your dwellings, waves do approach,
Yet Mesa fears not such a Natural wild
With perfect balance which never tips.

Unlike man, towards murder, unjustified death,
Blood painting thy streets, be-speckling walls
Until crimson and sorrow became all that was left
For what turns not to rubble when tyrants won’t fall
Such patterns repeating thus carnage ensues.

A decade ago brought a semblance of peace
To a realm daring not to dream of such possibilities,
Until King Randall’s ascension caused bloodshed to cease.
Barely more than a babe, yet great in sensibilities
For more blood he refused to pursue.

Instead breaking the back of the beast, revolution,
Sin hurled back into black depths from whence it did crawl,
Those lusting for the fight sealed their own ruination
By foregoing civility, they themselves did maul,
Paving the way for greatness — such rot and decay.

No rest for the weary, nor for the wicked, indeed.
The Splendid’s first year lacked activity not,
For antiquated gods created the continuous bleed —
Divine wars, the messiest, as it their wont —
Until finally the vanquished are sent on their way.

Falsity done in, the King moved toward matters politic
The affluent trampled o’er each other to secure their right
The callous disregard for their fellow man was comic.
Try and name someone not crippled by those with might.
Oh, Mesa, this wouldst serve as merely the start of your dismay.

The game was rigged. A vicious cheat.
The burden lay on not on the Haves, but have-nots,
If payment didn’t come, a terrible fate they meet.
The God-King needs subjects for the games he plots.
Here is the so-called justice, lest thou think I jape

And worst of all, the gift of rape

Claiming godly will, The King pursued this definition of peace
Behind closed doors, all of Mesa wept
Praying to half-forgotten Gods that the carnage would cease
None listened save for one who slept.
Sanity has forsaken this place. Reason squashed like a grape.

The decadent malevolence reached its peak with the slaying of the demon.
Sin, long-thought drowned in the stygian deep, found itself returned
Hair the color of the sun being the telltale sign of infection.
The God-King knew this to be the battle of his time. Evil must be burned.
The Great Purge was undertook, In the defense of his good name.

Blonde was the color of the one, true enemy. Those marked were put to slaughter,
Not before the torments of their damned souls were reaped upon their bodies.
Scalps of flaxen-hair adorned the Briny Throne, making the King’s seat softer.
The gulls of sea grew fat upon the corpses so proudly strewn o’er the abbeys.
Upon hearing this, O’Mesa, I have nothing save for disdain!

Oh, my friends heed my words! Sit idle in fear no longer!
For thou live in Mesa! A realm where zealotry does not stand.
Thy ruler is but no God, merely a man, of whom you are the stronger!
Rise up from fear and rise into hate! Let the next stanza serve as your first command!

Rise up and knock the bastard liar—

A sudden jarring stole the breath from his lungs. A crossbow bolt protruded out from his tunic. He rocked from his heels to the tips of his toes, his hand clutching his breast as the blood blossom stretched further across his finery.

The king appeared before him. His wrath so palpable the Bard thought he saw smoke billowing from Randall’s nostrils. He did not speak and simply reloaded his golden weapon, his upper lip curled into a sneer of pure malice.

“My Lord,” the Bard said, his words slurring like a drunkard. “Was it something I said?”

The entire crowd held its collective breath at the aspersion. Even the mighty ocean that flanked the kingdom seemed to be silenced until the quiet was shattered by an ear-splitting scream. Randall’s scream. He berated the Bard for his insolence and made accusations of treason and heresy.

The Bard — for his part — heard none of this. His hearing faded until all he heard was his own heartbeat. I hope he gets on with it soon. Thoughts of the final sleep followed him all the way down to the stained royal carpet as his legs gave out from underneath him.

Bright rays of sunlight beat down on his eyes until the king lumbered over him, shading him with a makeshift eclipse. Randall aimed the crossbow at the Bard’s throat, choosing to kill the poet in the most ironic manner possible.

Well, at least they won’t feed me to those damned gulls. The Bard closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable.

His heart beat for several moments, but justice still had not been delivered.

What in the hell is taking so long? Perplexed, the Bard dared to open an eye.

King Randall the Splendid was anything but. He stood hunched over as the crowd bombarded him with debris. Clumps of dirt exploded in brown and black clouds, staining his Highness’s clothes. A well-aimed chunk of cobblestone struck his hand, causing the instrument of the Bard’s death to clatter to the ground.

Despite the rod of metal jutting out of his torso, the Bard rolled onto his side to face his audience. The people of Mesa — long oppressed — were now a wrathful beast ready to devour those that had harmed them.

“Kill the King!”

“Down with the Madman!”

“Guards! Guards!” Randall shouted over his kingdom’s unified voice. “To me! Protect me! This — this demon has beguiled our people with his forked tongue! Kill him and the spell shall break! Hurry!

A squad of guards marched onto the stage and positioned themselves between the crowd and their ruler. Each man carried a long pike stained with blood from the earlier executions. Their presence exacerbated the crowd’s rage. Stones flew with increased frequency until it appeared as if the sky was raining rubble.

“The demon is increasing the potency of the spell! Kill him! Kill him!”

A brave guard broke rank and moved to end the fallen Bard. He only managed two paces before a large stone crashed against his helm and knocked him to one knee.

With this act, the people of Mesa pounced. Three men leapt onto the stage and attacked the dazed guard. The poor man was disarmed and thrown screaming into the welcoming arms of a grateful kingdom in moments. The remaining guards put up a semblance of a fight before they too became fodder for the mob.

Pity I won’t know how this story ends, the Bard thought as he saw Huntzinger’s head dashed against the ground until his brains spilled out against the feet of his murderers.

The Bard said a silent prayer that the people of Mesa would over-look him in their bloodlust. He watched the remaining chaos unfold until blood-loss from the wound pulled him into a dreamless slumber.

“Sir Bard? Sir Bard? Are you still amongst us mortals?”

Despite their reluctance, his eyes forced themselves open upon hearing the Morana’s voice. Damned Syren is bringing me back to dash me against the rocks.

“Ah! There you are! I almost considered you lost to us!” she said, her words a mixture of feigned sincerity and outright hostility. She sat on the far edge of the very large bed he had been slumbering in, regarding him like an animal that she ought to have put down.

“Milady,” he finally said, coughing up tiny blood-lined bubbles. “To what do I owe this pleasant visit? Was your grief over my near-death experience so all-encompassing that you simply couldn’t function until you rushed to my sick-bed to nurse me back to health?”

The sarcasm was bitter and black. The Bard cared not if the Regent ordered his throat cut right then and there. To his shock, Morana laughed. Not the polite laughter without meaning that all nobility were well-versed in, but true laughter. I wonder where the real Countess is being held, he thought.

“Oh, my dear, sweet, Bard!” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “You do entertain me so! I knew that you would perform your task to perfection, and you did not disappoint!”

“What in the ruddy hell are you talking about? I’ve been shot! Perforated by a mad king, no less! How in any sense of the word, would any of that be considered a success?”

“I wonder how someone so witty can possess no wit at all.”

Fury erupted inside the Bard. He fully intended to bid the Countess a stern farewell and board the next ship to anywhere but the bolt wound in his chest had other plans. The stitches grew taut in his flesh, introducing him to a pain he previously considered to be unimaginable.

He collapsed back into the feather-soft linens in a heap of sweat. “Why,” he gasped, swallowing his own blood only to cough up more moments later. “Why am I still alive?”

“Do you recall the saying about Mesa? ’Woe be unto those who linger too long in Mesa. For it is a land stained so thick with blood the tides themselves cannot cleanse it.’ King Randall lingered far too long in this place and it was time for him to be … removed.”

The Bard was overcome with a sudden chill that turned his skin a sickly pallor. “You wanted the riot to happen.”

“Of course I wanted the riot to happen, my dear, injured poet. You cannot have a revolution without rousing the rabble.”

“You couldn’t simply act against Randall, though,” the Bard tented his fingers under his nose. Injured or not, the machinations of the Countess had him completely engrossed. “No, no, an outright attack against his sovereignty would have been far too bold for someone as calculating as yourself. You required another way to get what you wanted.”

“And you provided that way, Sir Bard. After all, who better than a man of the people to get the people to awaken from their fear-induced slumber?”

“Yet, your plan was not without risk, Milady. What if I had decided to write the poem you hired me to do? One celebrating Randall’s cruelty as gospel? Your plan would have been sunk, as my words would have turned him into the very god he claims to be.”

A breeze of sea air rushed through the room as Countess Morana rose from the bed, blowing her brown hair behind her. She walked into the gust with her eyes closed and arms outstretched, as if trying to embrace the sensation. She did not speak again until the last remnants of the wind slipped through her fingers.

“Will you do me the honor of walking with me once more? I have one more item that requires your attention.”

“On any other day, there would be nothing I’d prefer to do more, Milady. However, as you can see, I cannot even lift myself from my sickbed, let alone walk in the ocean breeze.”

“I am afraid I really must insist,” Morana nodded and two masked guards tore the sheets from the bed and seized the Bard. “Fear not for your injuries, my dear, precious Bard! My guards shall assist you with the greatest of care.”

His crossbow wound sang its own song as he was lifted to his feet by gloved hands. His legs wobbled as the guards shoved him forward. A fresh coat of sweat covered him as he reached the Countess. She paid his state no mind and hooked her arm under his, as she did upon their first meeting.

“To answer your query, if you had done what you were paid to do, my agents within the crowd had instructions to denounce you as a mouthpiece for a tyrant and assassinate you. The riot would have begun, regardless.”

The Bard stopped short. “You meant me to be a martyr.”

“Or another dead villain buried in the funeral pyre that rages in the Courtyard. Either mattered not to me, as long as my goal was achieved.”

They came out to the portico where the impossible task was first bestowed upon the Bard. The calming presence of the place had been wiped away. A column of guards clutching swords lined the perimeter. The waves of the sea were drowned out by terrible screams of agony.

“And now, Sir Bard, we come to the finish. After all, every tale needs a proper ending, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I would, Milady.” The Bard regarded the grim faces of the guards with trepidation. Each man tightened his grip on his weapon as the Countess walked past. Some even spat on the ground before the Bard.

“The one thing that I did not anticipate was your survival. You have an innate ability to cling to life that is both impressive and frustrating. The question that looms over me this day is, just what should I do with you?”

“If you are asking for my opinion, might I suggest a place on the next ship to the pleasure dens of Cartok? Perhaps several barrels of the finest mead to warm my belly on the long voyage?”

Morana snorted a single short laugh. “You are entertaining. Even in a situation as dire as the one you are now in, you cannot help but let honeyed words flow. It would be a pity for you to meet the same gruesome ending as the poor fellow hanging over the ledge.”

Another man was held in place with a rod of metal driven through his ankles. His arms were bound behind him, leaving him exposed for the scavenging birds. The gulls enveloped him, flocking away as he screamed and smashed himself against the cliff, only to circle back for more of his flesh.

It was as the flock broke up that the Bard recognized the man. “Gods above! The King!”

Former King, actually. Though I do suppose that is an interesting philosophical question. Does he still retain the title even though he no longer sits upon the throne?”

Randall turned his gaze upward. “You! You did this to me, Heretic! You will soon join me in death! I shall be waiting for you in the deepest level of Hell to torment you until the end of ti—”

The biggest seagull the Bard had ever seen put an end to Randall’s tirade. It reached into his open mouth and clamped its beak down upon his pink tongue, tearing it up by the root with a swift jerk of its head. Crimson spurted up like a geyser before plummeting into the ocean below. The screams were replaced with a low gurgle, as the king choked on his own blood.

The Bard turned from the edge of the world and promptly vomited. He was still retching when Morana knelt down beside him. “I see you still think this to be barbarism.”

“I wonder,” the Bard said, wiping vomit from his rust-colored beard.

“Hmm? Oh, do speak up, Sir Bard. I cannot abide a mumbler.”

“I said, I wonder, will you grant him leniency?”

Morana glanced down at the King. A smaller bird attempted to fly off with a piece of the man’s cheek, but a few stubborn sinews clung to the bone, refusing the winged beast its prize.

“No,” she said, regarding Randall with a smirk. “No, I much rather prefer him this way. It’s the most fun he’s been in years.

“Now that you have seen the fruits of our labor — for I cannot claim sole credit for this great victory — my mind wanders back to the question of the day. Simply what am I going to do with you?”

The Bard stood only to find himself in the clutches of Morana’s guards. His feet hovered inches off the ground as they dragged him to the ledge.

“Unhand me at once!” he screamed over and over until a fist stunned him into a momentary silence.

“Oh, have some dignity!” Morana watched the struggle from one of the comfortable sofas, eating grapes from a shaking tray held by a terrified servant. “It is not in keeping with the honor of the immortals to die like a whimpering simpleton. After all, so very few of us get to live forever as you shall. The noble Bard who toppled a tyrant using not a sword, but his words. Why, in time, you may even become a god yourself!”

The Bard was about to spit a mouthful of blood at Morana when one of the guards approached him holding a rusty metal spike. A long chain unfurled behind the guard.

“No! Milady, please! You have no cause for this! I did what you asked of me!”

“And splendidly, I might add. However, if there is one thing that the citizens of Mesa abhor more than a tyrant, it is conspiracy. It simply wouldn’t do if they were to discover that their liege and rightful ruler was disposed through anything but their own desire to rebel. Can you imagine what they would do if they realized the mastermind was their new queen? I tremble at the thought!”

“Queen? You?”

“Why, of course! You didn’t think that my actions stemmed from an overwhelming sense of patriotism did you?”

Why should she be any different than the rest of these maniacs? the Bard thought as the guards shredded the pants from his legs, prepping them for the placement of the spike.

“Do you now understand my dilemma? You are an outsider, privy to sensitive information that if revealed, would unravel the web I have spun and plunge the country into chaos and civil war. I cannot allow you to leave here with your life. ‘Tis a shame. I really did enjoy your talents.”

The new queen nodded to the guard holding the spike. The man lifted the Bard’s legs onto his thigh and stuck the point into the soft flesh above the poet’s ankle, slowly twisting it until the metal penetrated the skin.

“Let me serve you!”

The procedure halted as the guard looked to his new ruler. He swallowed hard, for he knew that with even the slightest misstep it would be him that dangled from the cliffs.

Queen Morana folded her hands across her chest. “Serve me? In what possible manner would you serve me?”

“Milady, you forget that you are speaking to the man who single-handedly roused an entire kingdom from a crippling terror. Having a hero of the people by your side, singing your praises and supporting your succession to the Briny Throne would lend tremendous credibility to your reign.”

Intrigue flashed in Morana’s blue eyes as another gull flew by, dropping pieces of the former king onto the ground. “Continue,” she said, hypnotized by the words.

“Proclaim me the official Bard of Mesa. Tell the crowds that my heart and soul have been claimed by the people, and that I am their voice and will continue to stoically serve and protect them, just as would my inspiration, you, the new Queen!”

Morana waved the guards off the Bard. He prostrated himself before her. “My Queen!” he said.

He glanced up to find her outstretched hand hanging limp overhead. The Bard kissed it, noting how fragile it felt against his own.

“Rise, Sir Bard! Rise and claim your place in my court!”

He rose until the queen’s eyes looked up at him at his full height. Gone was the emotionless void from her face, replaced with an overflowing sense of joy.

“Come along, Sir Bard! There is much to be done. The loyalists that did not flee have gone to ground. The little bastards are burrowing deep, and I mean that in both the literal and figurative sense my dear, sweet poet. We must find them and open their throats. Along with any of those who have provided them with refuge from the coming justice, of course.”

“Of course, my Queen.” The Bard’s stomach churned as he forced the words out. How much can I feign pleasure in hunting down people? How long before she realizes my enthusiasm is a facade and I end up back here dangling upside-down next to Randall’s corpse?

He contemplated simply hurling himself over the parapet when something caught his eye. It was inconspicuous at first glance, but a second look revealed it to him as plain as day.

Behind them marched two of the Queen’s personal guard; menacing men who clutched crossbows with ill intent. Yet, despite their blank faces, their eyes betrayed their true feelings. Both men looked at the Bard — not the Queen — with pleading eyes.

Can you get rid of this one too?

“Sir Bard? I do believe that you are ignoring me!”

“Hm? A thousand pardons, my Queen. You see, I was mulling over some composition for your coronation, and I am afraid that the words claimed my attention and brought me into the warm embrace of Lady Inspiration. Again, my sincerest apologies, your Grace, it shan’t happen again whilst I am in your divine presence.”

The Queen nodded and continued with her plans for Mesa. The Bard stood closer to his new employer as they walked deeper into the estate, until the death knell of King Randall grew faint in their ears.

“Sir Bard,” the Queen said as they walked into the courtyard. “I would very much like to hear more about your creative process. Do you believe that actual spirits come down and take you whenever they deem fit?”

The Bard looked back at the two apprehensive guards. “Well, my Queen,” he said with a smirk, “one never knows when inspiration is going to strike.”

Kyle Rader is a writer who doesn’t like to color inside the lines. He has written across multiple genres with the expressed goal of doing the unexpected and, most importantly, not boring his readers. His most recent publications have appeared in Dark Moon Eclipse magazine, Insomnia Press, and The Rusty Nail Magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @youroldpalkile or on his website  He lives in New Hampshire and enjoys playing guitar poorly, yelling at his television, and annoying his long-suffering girlfriend who is way too awesome to be hanging around with him.

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