The bedraggled boy sat high on the hill, overlooking the great city. He glared down upon the multitude of torch-lit buildings, down upon the brilliant palace, down upon a sprawl of vitality that he could no longer call home. The magnificent flickering of lights appeared now like a hazy firmament through his tear-filled eyes. His lip quivered. He shook with a chill.
As he gazed at the marvelous towers, pricking the night sky, he gritted his teeth. Memories began to flood over him like a cruel torrent. He recalled his wounded hand, which he slowly lifted to his face. The gash oozed over cruddy fingernails. Touching his cheek, he recounted the blows, the merciless episode with the king’s men. He sat dejected, disheveled, angry and ashamed.
Conjuring some energy from this new tide of disgust, he unfolded his crumpled self and stood. With one final glower at his native kingdom, he turned and trodded toward the sea.
The sea, he thought, could carry him away from his troubles in this land. It was his home, but it was a brutal place, particularly if you offended those who were important. The boy paced along in the darkness, sulking in bitterness, considering all that had transpired. Gradually he made his way down the hillside and into flatter land that would draw him to the port. He passed through a small seaside village, home mostly to poor fishermen and their families. The tiny huts were at best modest and at worst dilapidated. Much of the town was asleep, while many of the fisherman were likely at port preparing their boats for the night’s fish. The few in the village who were still out paid no attention to the boy, as if a small lad, dirty and bleeding, was no uncommon site to them.
Finally he arrived at the port and began to scan the boats and their captains. Of course, his only chance of departing this land was to sneak onto a boat and stow away, wherever that may take him. He noticed two men having an argument, unaware of anything happening around them. Like a cat, he slipped by and scurried into the boat. In the back was a small space holding dingy ropes and rags, a good place to hide, he thought. Tucking himself into the compartment, he tried to ignore the stink of fish, and buried himself in the ropes and rags. He sat still, and before long, he fell into a deep sleep….
A sudden jarring awoke the boy, who gradually opened his eyes to the sting of sunlight. Wherever he was, it was so noisy he lay there perplexed, wondering how he hadn’t awaken much earlier. He sensed there was no one in the boat, so he threw the ropes and rags aside and crawled out of his nook. As he stood and looked out, he beheld a queer land that looked nothing like his former one. He noticed he was on a shore, yet this one was rockier in its terrain and had significantly more boats. He scampered out of the boat, wishing to remain undetected.
As he walked along the beach, he couldn’t help but fixate on the spectacle built into the mountain ahead. There stood a magnificent palace, its walls and parapets adorned with beautiful red banners, its formidable, unblemished ramparts, its numerous towers stretching high and wide. The boy stopped. Anger swept over him like a desert wind. If he could hurl a boulder that would dash the palace to rocks and dust, he would do it. How he loathed a kingdom. He would walk in its opposite direction as far as his small legs could stand.
After ascending and descending a great hill, he came upon a path that eventually led him to a river. Parched and tired, he stopped for a drink. As he gulped down the water, he noticed a trio of black horses far ahead, standing on the bank. He heard laughing as well, though it didn’t seem hearty or joyous, but unkind and sinister. All of it frightened the boy, so he stepped off the path and hiked some rougher terrain to avoid any chance of trouble ahead. Coming off the rough terrain, he came upon a nondescript village. He entered the village and found a shady tree nearby to sit beneath. He plopped down, exhausted and somber.
Within moments, it was apparent he’d been noticed. A small girl carrying a knitted article had come off the path and made her way toward him. Her clothes were brown and simple, her shoes were tattered and mud-crusted, yet her smile gleamed like a gemstone.
“Hello. I’m Mariana. What’s your name?”
Mariana studied Erind, noticing his gashed hand, puffy eye, and dirty hair and skin. “What happened to you?”
“I was…some men hurt me.”
“I made their king mad.”
“I’m not sure. I just wanted to meet him—and then—and then…”
Erind trailed off, deciding to keep his troubles to himself. He sat still with his head sunk low, looking over the grass. Mariana stared at the friendless boy, sitting quietly herself. After some sustained silence, she took up her needles and began to knit. As she did, she pondered how she might engage Erind.
“I’m knitting a scarf for my friend for Christmas. What do you want for Christmas?”
Erind shook his head and turned back to the ground. “Nothing,” he muttered.
“Nothing? How could you want nothing? Everyone wants something for Christmas.”
Erind withheld any response, now picking at the dirt with a stick.
Mariana persisted. “Think of something you want right now, more than anything in the world.”
Erind shot up and barked at the girl. “I want a world without kings!”
Mariana gulped and stopped knitting. She looked at Erind and watched the tears pool in his eyes.
“I know a good king,” she said.
Erind balked with a furious head shake. “I don’t believe it. I won’t.”
Mariana pitied Erind. She wanted to help. “Would you like to come to my home? We are having a special dinner tonight. Please come.”
Erind rubbed his face and nodded. The two children stood and walked back to Mariana’s house.
After walking for about ten minutes, they came to a small home in a group of many small homes in the village. They stepped to a beaten wooden door and entered. Instantly they were greeted by several other small girls, just as earth-splotched and untidy as Mariana. Mariana introduced Erind, who acknowledged the girls, though couldn’t hide his gloom. From the fireplace came an older women, thin in figure and warm in expression. She knelt down and inspected the boy’s bruised brow and blood-caked hand. She guided him outside to a large barrel of water, took a rag and began to wash him. Erind grimaced at the strong strokes brushing over his panged body. When she was finished, she dried him off with a towel and showed him back inside.
The girls were giggling and singing while they decorated the home with ribbons, fresh garland and holly. The woman sat Erind down and gave him a hunk of bread, which he promptly devoured. She asked Erind what had happened to him, and he explained with the same brief responses he had offered Mariana. The woman told him he could stay with them until they figured something out. She also reiterated Mariana’s news that a special guest was coming to eat with them that night. Erind was immune to the occasion, his attention fixed on the boiling pot of soup over the fire.
The evening came, and the girls were agog with excitement. They danced and sang while the woman prepared the table. Erind was quiet, warming himself by the fire. Soon everyone’s attention was diverted outside, from which came the whinnying of horses. A carriage had stopped in front of the home. Erind peered out of the window and noticed many of the villagers gathering around the carriage. Each man, woman and child appeared to be awaiting some happy spectacle. The coachman hopped off his seat and opened the door of the carriage. Out stepped a man, solid in stature and dressed in a simple but finely woven red robe. A small smile shone through his bushy brown beard. His deep-set eyes acknowledged each villager, who were bowing and kissing his hand. After many greetings, he approached the door and knocked.
The woman flung open the door and genuflected. The man took her hand and helped her stand again. “Welcome Your Majesty. Welcome!” said the woman, ushering him in. The girls came forward with nervous glee, one at a time, and cutely curtsied before him. Erind stood still. The woman introduced all of the girls as the man shook hands with each of them.
“And this is Erind,” the woman exclaimed. “Erind, this is our king.”
Erind looked down. He felt the rapid thump of his heartbeat, the sweat forming on the back of his neck. He tried to back away but he was already leaning against the fireplace. Fear had overcome him. His little hands shook and his eyes clouded with tears. The king raised his hand, and it was too much to bear.
Erind whisked under the king’s outstretched arm and bolted past the girls through the door. He ran hard. Past the swath of curious villagers, past the simple homes, past this foreign inhabitance that offered no cures for his aching soul. The boy ran along the river for some time until he found a path, the same path he had taken earlier in his trip. Pounding down the path along the river, he took notice of very little. He descried the great hill ahead, and discerned the whinnying of horses and the cruel laughter of men, which made him further quicken his pace. He came to the great hill and made the arduous ascent.
As he reached the top, overlooking the palace and the grand city beyond it, he collapsed. Panting for air and gripping his blistered feet, he curled up on his side and stared out at the city. The thousands of houses taunted him, for he knew he couldn’t call one his home. He envied the people inside of them, for he knew they could call each other family. The night was quiescent and stiff and fell upon him abruptly. He would have to wrestle upon the lumpy earth in lieu of sleep. Though the air was cold on his skin, the loneliness made him shudder. Exhausted, defeated, in a small ball of himself, he began to sob.
After what seemed like hours of crying and shivering, he was alarmed by the steady sound of hooves approaching. He rolled over to face the noise ascending the hill. In a moment, the large beast and its rider revealed themselves. Stopping just before Erind, the rider dismounted and paced forward. Stepping into the moonlight was the figure of the king.
Erind lay there, numb from a coldened body and spirit. He could only lift his eyes to behold the man approaching. The king stood over the boy, and knelt down. He draped a heavy article of wool over him.
“Erind, can you hear me?” The voice was strong, yet kind.
Erind said nothing.
“Don’t be afraid of me. I’m here to help you.”
“Why did you run when I met you? Tell me son, I assure you I want to help you.”
“Never. I am miserable. End me, I don’t care.”
“End you? My son, I would never harm you. Why do you think I would?”
“Because you are a king. That is what kings do.”
The king reached out and placed his hand on the boy’s head. “Tell me son. What did your king do to you?”
The king’s question prompted devastating memories, ones that infuriated and depressed Erind simultaneously. Yet somehow, this king’s gesture momentarily altered Erind’s attitude. He wanted to share his story. And it seemed that this king actually wanted to hear it.
Erind shivered and spoke. “I have no parents. No home. In my land, I begged by the palace. Sometimes, people gave me money or food. Most times no one paid attention to me. One day, a man gave me some paint and pieces of canvas. I painted lots of things—people, animals, the buildings around me. The next week he brought me more pieces. On that same day, I saw the king. He was getting back from something in the town square. I got a good glimpse of him. So I painted him. Several times on different pieces of canvas. People walking by liked them. They told me I was a good painter and a few of them gave me money for them. Soon I ran out of canvas, and had one painting left of the king. I kept it instead of selling it…because I was proud of it. A few weeks later, the king was coming into town from a trip. As he came up to the gates, I decided I would show him my picture. I thought he would like it since, you know, everyone else did. I ran up to his horse and held up my picture. He looked at it real fast and crumpled it into his fist…and then…he…he…”
“Yes, go on. You can tell me.”
“He hit me…in…in my face. He said ‘dirty boy’ and told his guards to get me away. They told me begging and selling things with no permit was illegal, and I didn’t belong there. So…so…they hit and kicked me. When they were done, they told me to go far away.”
The rehashed memories stung Erind with a new, deeper degree of bitterness and pain. He put his hands to his eyes and wept. He felt the king’s heavy hands on his head and shoulder. When he had emptied himself of tears, he looked up. What he saw astonished him. The king, too, was wiping tears from his own face. He sat Erind up, and held him wrapping his firm arm around the boy’s shoulder. He pointed out to the marvelous city, and the handsome palace before it.
“Do you see all of this Erind? I want it to be yours.”
It was too much to comprehend for a small boy. He didn’t know what to say. “But—me? How?
“You don’t have to worry about that. Just trust me.”
Erind placed his hand in the king’s. For the first time in days, weeks, even months, he felt comforted.
“We must go,” the king said suddenly. “This is not a good place to be at night.”
With that, the king swept Erind up and placed him onto the horse. The king mounted and urged the horse forward, patiently down the great hill and toward the river path. The night’s crescent moon shone dimly on the earth and offered very little light to their journey. The air was cool, dark and thick. A light breeze blew. Once the horse reached the bottom of the hill, she broke into a light gallop. Within minutes they were upon the river, and found the path that stretched along it that led to the villages.
They hadn’t been traveling long when something suddenly darted across the path ahead of them. Then, Erind recognized the unwelcome noise of horses followed by strained, surly laughter. The king slowed his horse and looked ahead to observe three ominous shadows coming near to them on the path. Into the dim moonlight they emerged, the figures of three menacing men on horseback. They were garbed in dark crimson cloaks and carried awful spiked clubs at their sides. With only two horse lengths now between them, the king and the cloaked men stopped and stared at each other.
“What do you want?” asked the king.
The toothless brute in the middle spat and peered at the king. “We want whatever you have. What’s that on your finger?”
The king said nothing.
Another man with a crooked nose and raspy voice pointed at the king. “Yes! It’s a royal ring. Tell us who you are. Now!”
Again, the king did not respond.
Now the third man spoke, who was uglier than the others and white as a ghost. “You are the king! You must be! So odd though—the king would show his face in these parts. And at Christmas, no less. Well, that was ill-minded of you. We do not care for kings.”
Without warning, the crooked-nosed fellow withdrew an unlit torch and sparked it with one flick of a flint. He threw it at the feet of the king’s horse, who reared up in fright and threw off Erind and the king. Now there wasn’t much time.
The king grabbed Erind’s face. “Listen to me. You must run. As fast as you can. Back over the hill, toward the city and palace. They are going to kill me, and they’ll kill you too. Go. Go!”
The men had just dismounted and were approaching them. Erind was sore and exhausted, but he wanted to honor the king. So he stood and ran. The ghostly man started after the boy but was tripped by the king as he passed him. The king stood and braced for the other two. The crooked-nosed one leapt forward and swung his club, but the king caught his forearm on the downswing. The toothless one simultaneously swung his club and caught the king on his hip. Still firmly holding the other man’s forearm, he staggered for a moment but grabbed the toothless man, and in one mighty instant tossed them both upon the ghostly man, who still lay prone upon the ground.
The king looked up in a flash and watched Erind run away into the darkness. Erind looked back and watched the king do something most peculiar. Instead of attempting to run, or attacking the men, he stood there like a statue and braced for the next blow. One missed. Another he intercepted and tossed the man aside. The next blow caught him on the hand, yet he grabbed the club with the other hand and chucked it aside. Another blow came to his knee and crippled him. He continued to dodge and absorb the buffeting, shielding the men from advancing beyond him. At last, he succumbed. But not before Erind was far away.
The night was wearisome for young Erind. It took him nearly all he had just to arrive at the great hill. Ascending it was even more laborious, and when he reached its apex, he nearly collapsed in the same spot he lay a few hours earlier. But he didn’t collapse. For at that moment, his blood curdled upon hearing the whinnying of horses in the distance. He was being followed.
He hurried down the hill and toward the beach. He could see the mountainside that contained the palace and the city beyond it. As he neared the port, his strength began to fail. His little feet were cramping and his sight started to swirl. When he came to the first row of boats, he fell over and passed out….
When Erind awoke, he slowly opened his weary eyes to see a high ceiling above him. He noticed he was strangely comfortable, and found himself lying on a fluffy pillow and plush, red velvet sheets. He was warm, and he was rested. Still sore, he crept out of the bed and walked to the tall window. The sunlight beamed upon his face and his eyes adjusted to the bright morning. There, outside, was the long beach, bustling with boats and sailors and fishermen. There was the end of beach that led to the great hill. There was the city with its many homes and buildings. Near him was the mountainside. He looked down to see great red banners upon parapets and ramparts. A tremendous tower stood directly to his right. There was no doubt. He was in the palace.
A knock came at the door and in walked a pudgy, mustachioed man in noble attire. “Merry Christmas, young lad. I am Giru. You are in the king’s palace.”
“How did I get here?” asked Erind.
“You were brought here last night by a sailor who found you passed out near his boat.”
“But why did he bring me here?”
“That I will explain more later. Please follow me.” Erind was confused and a little afraid. He was in a palace, a place he knew he didn’t belong, a place he shunned above all others. He couldn’t believe he was wanted, and wondered what they would do to him there. But then he thought of the king. He thought of his last, sad image of him, being crushed with fists and clubs by those evil men. All to set him free. Perhaps this palace was different.
Erind followed Giru into the hall, where there was an extraordinary opening that revealed long, winding staircases, magnificent marvel columns and painted ceilings with intricate patterns. They descended the stairs and came to an expansive room with a burning fireplace and a wonderful, clinquant Christmas tree. As Erind marveled, he heard a collection of noise bustling into the palace through the grand doors at the main entrance. It was the sound of other children. In a few moments, they were ushered into the room. It was Mariana with the girls and the older woman.
Mariana immediately noticed Erind, ran to him and gave him a big hug. The other children and the older woman also came over to greet him. Giru and some other servants collected the children’s coats and offered them seats by the tree. Giru looked at the children with kindness and cleared his throat.
“Children and madam. No doubt you are wondering why you are here. First, I have sad news.” Giru drew his fist to his mouth and closed his eyes. Obviously shaken, he took a moment to compose himself and cleared his throat again. “The king—is dead.”
The great room was silent, save the crackling of fire. Erind noticed some of the servants wiping tears from their eyes as they stood still. The children were sad and confused. Giru continued.
“Tragically, his life was taken from us last night. The men who did it have been captured. We understand mostly what happened, and that you were involved Erind. We are glad you are okay.”
“Before all of this happened, the king set some things in motion. There is a reason he visited all of you last night. The king had no wife and no children, thus no rightful heirs to his throne. And he wanted to share his throne with his people, the people of this land. But he didn’t want to give it to the rich or the powerful. He wanted to give it to children, like you, who weren’t part of his family, who weren’t part of any family. So, he resolved that when he died, he would give the kingdom to the children. This,” Giru waved his hand to showcase the room, “is now yours.”
The children were in awe, and though they struggled to fully grasp this momentous generosity, they still smiled and rejoiced. Erind meanwhile, sat puzzled, remaining somber. He looked up at Giru.
“But why me? I am from another land. I am not even from this kingdom.”
Giru explained, “The king wished to welcome his people as well as foreign children. And you, Erind. You left an impression on him. Do you know his heart broke for you? As you ran away last night, he alerted the kingdom to look out for you, and if anyone found you, to bring you to the palace gates. Then, he went to find you himself, and remarkably did. Your last journey led you to the port, and when the sailor found you, he had already been given the news that you were missing. So, he brought you here directly.”
Erind was pondering everything, trying to make sense of why the king did what he did.
“But. I—I—I don’t deserve all of this. Any of this,” he mumbled.
Giru came to Erind and knelt before him. He lifted Erind’s quivering chin as tiny tears trickled down the boy’s face. “That is precisely the point, young lad,” said Giru. “The kingdom could not be earned. It had to be given, as a free gift. It did not benefit the king. He simply did it because he loved you. Accept the gift my son.”
Erind gently nodded. Giru hugged him and stood. “Merry Christmas to all of you. Let me show you around your new home.”
The servants led the children out of the room. Mariana came over to Erind, and took his hand. “Remember the scarf I was knitting when I was with you under the tree?
“Yes,” said Erind.
“Well, I told you it was for my friend for Christmas. But, I don’t really have a friend. So, I want you to have it.” Mariana smiled and handed the scarf to Erind. Erind smiled back and thanked her.
Mariana gazed at Erind. “You said you wanted a world without kings for Christmas.”
“I did,” Erind confessed. “But now, I can’t think of a world without one.”
And he grabbed Mariana’s hand and followed the other children for the tour of their new home.