by Frederick Hilary
There was a king called Panagis, who was lord of a fair green country. Though his life should have been full of ease, for the country was free of wicked men, and war and strife were only a distant rumour, he passed his days in dread. For Panagis was fated to die.
For most men, there would not have been anything terrible in this. What, in any case, is a knowledge of death?–even children, long before they grow into men and women, wake up to the fact that one day they will die, even if they do not quite grasp its meaning.
Panagis, however, would lose his life in a way that would bring renewal to his lands. Without the fated death, the green shoots would wither, and the land become dry as dust. His wise men understood that they must not bring about his death, for it would come at the hands of fate. An ancient prophecy said: the land will drink up a king’s measure of blood, in the twenty-seventh generation, to be made anew.
The wise men worked on predicting the hour of his death, so that it might be accompanied with worthy ceremonials; they studied the stars and the earth for portents, for the flashing wiles of fate twisted in a comet’s tail. But how and when the dread hand would strike, they could not divulge.
It was a bitter pill for Panagis to swallow. What sign is there that the land will become desert, he complained? It is perpetually a green and healthy land. We are blessed with good soil, and the rains come without petition. What difference will my death and succession make? (he spoke of his future son, though no child at all had been delivered to him).
His advisors could not answer, but only repeat that it was written in the prophetic books, dating back from the time when the most ancient trees dug their roots in the earth, and the seeds of the first grass were sown. The king who came forth in the twenty-seventh generation must give a king’s measure of blood so that the land and his subjects could be saved. That was what it said, and that was what the wise men believed.
There was a swan who was equally lord of a dominion no less blessed: the reedy river. This regent of birds was more beautiful, so the beasts of the land and water agreed, than all the proud white-necked birds that had come before him. He glided from one stretch of the river to the other, from the mouth that opened onto wide glassy seas to the widening pool below the waterfall, and he gave a blessing to every fern and reed and hatchling by his mere presence.
Panagis, when he rode out from his castle in a solitary temper, would come to the edge of the river and look at the gliding swan, and feel nothing but envy, for though this swan was his equal in that he was lord of his own kind, the swan was blissfully free of all dread predictions. He did not have to live with the knowledge of death; like all fowl he was so close to the cycles of life and death that he did not see them at all–they were like water to one who has never seen land.
One day while he was out riding, the king got down from his horse and decided to walk over to the island where the swan had his nest, in the widest part of the river. He did not have to wade across, for there was a series of stepping stones laid down by the first settlers in the place. When he was about half way across, the king heard a voice at his side, and nearly lost his balance.
He looked down, steadying himself on the stone, and saw a head of small brown fur poking out of the water. It was an otter. There was nothing unusual in this, except that he could have sworn, just a minute before, that he’d heard it speak in human tones.
The otter opened its mouth and indeed spoke: it spoke in some semblance of human speech, even though the syllables were low and guttural and it hissed between its teeth. “King, listen to me. I am a creature of both land and water, so I have seen you, almost as much as I have seen our own lord. You are like our swan king–you move restlessly from one end of your domain to the other, and nothing can lift your mood. You are sad, deeply sad–even the brown mice and the sparrows in the little wood can see it. What we do not understand is why–we know why our king is mournful, yet we do not know why your heart weighs as heavy as one of the great moss-grown stones. What has happened to you?”
“It is not what has happened, but what must need happen,” the king answered, having sufficiently overcome his surprise at being addressed by a talking beast. “I am fated to die.”
“Well, in that, king, you are no different to us beasts in that we share the same fate, for all your castles and your learning.”
“You know of death, then? But that is not what I mean. I will not die a natural death–it has been foretold. The soil will drink up my blood, and so the land will be made green again. But it is green in abundance. Why a king must be sacrificed, I do not understand.”
The otter was silent for a minute, floating on its back. Then it spoke. “But this is a strange tale. For we beasts and birds have our foretelling, that matches yours like for like. And that is why the river lord is sullen, and glides up and down the river all day, and sleeps more often than not out on the water. Long ago, before my grandfather was a cub, the wise old owls in the wood told us a tale, and the tale was preserved in the manner of beasts, which preserve things by voice alone. The tale said that in the fortieth generation of river lords there would be a lord who would fall by the hand of Man. His blood would feed the soil of his island throne and mingle with the currents of the river. I do not suppose you have seen, as we beasts have seen, that the sedge has already begun to wither, and that the water in the pool by the waterfall is receding. Without this sacrifice, all will decay: the pool will become stagnant, and the water dry up from the mountain streams. The river will dry up before the next generation has passed. We have read the signs, even if you men have not. So the river lord cannot escape his fate.”
The king listened in wonder. “So it is not true, what I believed before–you animals do have your own way of looking at death. And your prophecy is almost the same as the one that haunts me.”
“Yes, but the tale you have told me has given me much cause to wonder, king. For it seems that just as the river must lose its lord, else the river dry up, so too the land faces the same fate. I must go now to consult the wise owls of the wood, and see what they have to say on the matter.”
Panagis was left alone. He crossed the river to the reedy island, and sat down on the bank amongst the reeds and rushes, much troubled by the knowledge the otter had given him.
Later that day, he thought about returning to the castle, but could not bring himself to go back. His mind was on the swan king. He circled the island for a time, looking for the white bird, but could not see it anywhere on the island itself–of course, the otter had told him it seldom returned–nor on the water.
At last, after rounding the island, he spied the magnificent creature out on the water, in the widening pool that lay just below the high cliffs. The king crept down to the bank and sat there next to an old willow, looking out on the water, to watch the bird, for in truth he now felt some kindred feeling with it.
Just as before, the white swan was the most beautiful of all the birds on the river, and more beautiful than any creature he had ever seen. Now, though, it seemed to him more magnificent than ever–more beautiful because it was fated to die, and the gloss of its white feathers seemed to shine out the brighter because they would be dulled in death; and so too its bearing contributed to the effect, for it no longer seemed the high, lofty, gliding thing it had seemed to him before, but a mournful and melancholy king of the river, whose circuit was narrow-banked by death.
As he sat there, watching it cross the length of the pool, he suddenly saw movement in the reeds on the opposite bank. It was far away, and there was the glare of the sun to contend with, but the king became certain he saw someone in the reeds. He squinted, and made out the figure of a boy leaning out from between the tall green stalks, a bow ready in his hand.
The boy was drawing back the bow string, and an arrow was nocked to fire.
Panagis stood up and opened his mouth to cry out. The air did not leave his lungs in time. The boy archer had already loosed the shot. But not as he had hoped: though the boy had not seen anything, some instinct of disturbance off to the side had got in the way of his aim. The arrow, as he saw it, disappeared somewhere below the drooping branches of the willow. So the boy loosed a second arrow, and this time his aim was true: the long shaft pierced the breast of the swan out on the water.
The first arrow had whistled past the swan’s neck and found lodging in the breast of the king. The king looked down at the feathered shaft, protruding from the darkly stained cloth of his tunic, just to the left of his heart. Instinctively he pulled at the shaft, and it came forth, tearing flesh as it came.
He staggered, and saw owls swooping down from the nearest trees. He looked around him, and saw the swirl of the waters as every living thing came to life: the otters, the salmon, the water rats in their holes–all suddenly came forth to see the outcome. Behind it all, there was a darting movement in the reeds on the opposite bank as the boy with the bow fled away.
The king felt himself fall into the soft grass of the riverbank. He fell right on the edge of the bank, so that drops of his blood fell and mingled with the brown water below. He sensed movement next to him. Suddenly he felt a soft touch against his neck. The swan had laid down beside him, its breast pierced, the blood draining into the earth and mingling with the blood of the king that now seeped from his wound. The swan laid its neck against his chest and the two lay there, the king of the land and the lord of the water.
Lying on his side, Panagis opened his eyes, and heard a voice not far away. It was the watery, chattering voice of the otter.
“A village boy, a fool. He wanted a swan’s crest for his cap.”
Panagis said nothing, for the breath was dying out of him. He opened his fingers and stroked the soft down of the swan’s neck.
His vision was like a pool of light floating in darkness. He saw the beasts and birds of the river assembled along the bank, come to look not at him, he supposed, but on the swan that lay next to him.
An owl had alighted at the king’s side. “So,” said the owl, “the tale comes true, but not as we expected. The swan king dies, and the lord of the green land dies, and their blood runs out into the land, and into the water. Now will the land be saved, bitter though the price may be.”
The boy with the bow was a shepherd’s son. He went to his father first, and his father came rushing from his hut bearing salves and wrappings. While he stooped next to the king on the bank, he sent his son to the castle. The boy went to confess his crime. As the tale reached its hearers, it became confused. Some said he had gone to tell of the death of a king. Others said he had gone to confess the killing of a swan.
When his subjects gathered round him, the king was slipping into darkness, even though the shepherd had treated the wound. He felt, with death so close, the leaving of his melancholy temper. He was glad, at last, that the dread fate that had always haunted him had come. He looked from the right to left, telling the advisors crowding round him to part. All this land would be saved, because of him – the river would not dry up, the land not lose its green. But why must the swan die too, if Panagis had paid the price in any case?
They took the king to the castle, and the shepherd bore the swan away.
The king knew no more then, and many mornings passed in that green country. The people of the land waited for him to die, and wondered whether the prophecy would come true, and some doubted the truth of the ancient words.
Days hence the king opened his eyes, and with a blessed confusion he realized that he was still alive.
From the raised pillows of his bed, Panagis asked his advisors what had happened. Hadn’t this been the foretold time? Wasn’t it written that he must die, and what other day could the prophecy have foretold but this one? The advisors, for all their learning and sober wisdom, were at a loss. In the end they said no more than that it was some kind of unforetold boon, a blessing for which they should all give thanks.
What of the swan, the king asked at length? Did you bury the body next to the green river?
The answer was scarcely less startling. The swan was healed–the shepherd had sealed up the wound in its breast (the shaft had narrowly missed its heart) and in a few weeks the bird had been loosed again, and let out on the water. The shepherd’s son had been duly punished, in the manner of their country’s laws, which was to say that he had not been severely punished at all.
None the more satisfied, as the days drew longer and his strength returned, as to an answer for the strange outcome, the king finally got out of bed, against the advice of his physicians, and took the long walk on foot down to the banks of the reedy river.
He sat there for a time, until he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a bobbing movement in the current, and saw the shape of the otter as it swam on its back regarding him.
“What happened?” the king asked, his voice little above a whisper. “Why were the prophecies not fulfilled? Not mine, and not yours either.”
“The wise owls have been all these long days picking at the secrets of this happening,” said the otter. “Think, king, of what your prophecy said. The land will drink up a king’s measure of blood. What happened? Your own blood, mingled with the blood of our river lord, made up the sacrifice. Blood equal to a king’s blood was spilled that day, whether swan king’s or man’s I do not know. Yet each king lived on. The two prophecies–if there ever were two prophecies–were fulfilled that day. Now our reedy river is saved, and your green land also.”
The king saw the little head of the otter bob out of sight. He stayed there for a time, looking from left to right at the green country. Then, walking along the bank, he came to the stepping stones and stood for a time on the reedy island. By the old willow he looked out on the river, and saw there, half way out upon the water, the white gliding form of the swan. It had never looked so beautiful, he thought then. Not when the beauty of mournful loss was upon it, nor when, in apparent death, it had laid its head on his breast. Its beauty was now renewed, its feathers glistening with health, and behind it all the green country gleamed in the light of a perfect spring. It would endure, he knew, for long generations to come, and the children of the king and the river lord’s children would spring up, and there would be no prophecies to darken their thoughts, not now, or in time to come.
Frederick Hilary, a writer of mythic fiction and fairy tale, lives in Greece. He has been published in New Fairy Tales and The Mythic Circle and his website can be found at http://frederickhilary.weebly.com.