The King Wept
Underneath the cold blanket of dusk, the Traveller stood alone, before a crowd of the dead. As far as the eye could see, gravestones marked the final resting place of dozens upon dozens of generations, tracing back to the first settlers of the area; a remote, nondescript village in the countryside. Its roads were trodden only by curious explorers, travelling merchants and those seeking to disappear.
He’d come from far away, chasing the legends and whispers he had heard from drunken old men and mithering housewives. The villagers knew the look of a pilgrim; they’d seen so many ride through the village, over the years. They all sought the same treasures, though sometimes they called them by different names. Each one left empty handed and broken - if ever at all.
Standing underneath the entry arch, the Traveller took a moment to breathe in the air around him. He expected a scent of death, but instead, was met with a sweet aroma of Spring, faint as it was. The few flowers in the graveyard, he realized, were dried and withered, barely cared for. The people in the village who still remembered those buried in these grounds were quickly growing tired with age. To some of them, the trek to the graveyard had become too much to bear; to others, the sight of the graves themselves made them feel uneasy. Most of the graves were unmarked. The names had either been scratched off or were missing deliberately, while others had simply eroded with time.
The Traveller roamed between the graves for a while. He tried to keep in the same direction, though he was unsure of where to go. He thought to turn back and ask the locals, but their glances upon his arrival suggested this would be unwise. It was then that he realized he was alone in the cemetery. He heard none of the bustle of the village, either. With the day nearing its end, he’d expected to hear shopkeepers storing their wares away, and children protesting their mothers’ calls to come inside. Instead, a deep silence had settled around him, the type of quietness that often drives men to the edge of anxiety. It was unnatural.
At last, something other than a headstone. In the distance, sparsely grouped together, were stone effigies of angels. They were delicate, pious creatures, eternally trapped in a moment of collective prayer and reflection. Some had their hands joined at the palms, their eyes softly shut, while others appeared intently focused on a distant point in space, something that was no longer there. In their lifelike appearance, these angels enjoyed an eternal moment of peace. Though the Traveller could not comprehend why, the silence around him seemed to emanate from the angels.
With them, the Traveller felt a strange sense of belonging. One angel in particular caught his attention. It sat at the edge of a marble cube, both of its hands resting on its thighs. The legs were joined at the knees, leaning to one side, while its gaze trailed off in the other direction. It was looking at something beyond what mere vision could perceive. The soft smile on the angel’s face, compelling and soothing, drew the eyes of the Traveller. All of the angel’s features came together to give it an air of androgyny - though, more than a middle ground between man and woman, the angels altogether lacked the features of one or the other.
The Traveller carefully raised one hand, inching it closer and closer to the statue’s chest. He was moved by a force of attraction he could not explain; not passion, but longing. He almost expected to feel a beating heart. Instead, he sensed an invisible breathing motion, lungs that weren’t there taking in air they had no use for. The cold, still touch of the stone spread quickly across his hand. It was perfectly natural, but felt entirely out of place. Like a reflex from a sudden burn, he pulled his hand back in shock.
Though the angels seemed to be spread far from one another at first glance, the Traveller noticed a vague trail between them. If this was intended or coincidental, he could not tell. He started down this path, questioning the true size of this place. Surely, by now, he ought to have reached the far end of the cemetery, he thought. Instead, more and more angels dotted the horizon, and the graves grew fewer and fewer.
Further down the path, the Traveller noticed changes in the statues. It felt as though they grew restless, as they drew closer to… something. Where hands were joined in prayer a moment before, now, they were intertwined in desperate pleading. Looks of bliss had become anxious; purity had been tainted. If once these angels were praying in solemnity, they now desperately begged for an embrace from a God that wasn’t listening. Even the air around the statues felt strange, colder and heavier than before. The mere thought of approaching one felt sinful and disgraceful. They did not belong in this place, and neither did the Traveller.
In the distance, an ancient tree stood, the only one in a good few yards. Even before seeing the circle of angels forming around it, the Traveller knew he’d reached his destination. At the centre of the gathering was an effigy, different from the others. Its body was not carved, but rather cast in a greenish, bronze-like metal. It sat upon a throne of stone, its arms were extended forwards in a welcoming gesture. It was almost the beginning of an embrace, culled only by the imposing figure of the wings, fully spread behind its back. While the others had been mostly featureless, this angel’s face alone told a thousand stories. Its solid hair was long and unkempt, ruffled every so often by a gentle breeze. Its eyes were hollowed out - by design, the Traveller assumed, judging by the perfect emptiness within the sockets. The edges of the two craters were undamaged, and from the lower eyelids, blackened streaks of rust descended upon the valleys of the angel’s face. Contouring the cheeks and the pursed lips was a trail left in the wake of centuries of tears.
A moment was all it took the Traveller to realize that this was what he’d come for. It was exactly as the old wives and the drunken fools had spoken: deep amidst the dead, surrounded by the damned, the King waited.
The Traveller sat by a small fire, a good few feet away from the ancient yew. Behind him were two angels, their bodies and faces contorted in agony. In the last few hours, as he waited for the right time to come, the Traveller found that they made for much more pleasant company than the King.
The Sun was setting behind the massive tree, and the Traveller imagined the countless sunsets the King must have witnessed. He closed his eyes, and watched the very first one: a young Sun, setting for an audience of One. The rays of the Sun reflected off the King’s body in all directions. They were both leaders, each in their own way, and they complemented each other with an indescribable beauty. The ruler of the skies, bound to an eternal cycle of death and rebirth, sharing the many twilights of its infinite existences with a being doomed to never know death, for it had never truly lived. For the King, each instant collapses into an eternity, and eternity is little more than a moment in time.
These thoughts ran through the rivers of the Traveller’s mind. He would never know if they were his own.
The Moon was nowhere to be seen that night, and the stars, too, were hidden away. The sky was a void, endless and dark, much like the gaze of the King. A strange feeling permeated his very soul the moment he laid eyes on the statue, and it still hadn’t gone away. It wasn’t a new sensation, but rather something being reawakened. Something that had laid dormant, lingering in his heart of hearts, since his birth. A feeling of dread, of inescapability. A destiny.
The Traveller did not see the flames of his campfire snuff out as he stood, and he knew not where the lantern in his hand had come from. None of it mattered to him. The light swayed to the rhythm of the Traveller’s steps, leaving embers in the air as he slowly but surely approached the King. The lantern’s glow illuminated the angels, a few of them at a time. In the pulsating darkness around him, the Traveller had a feeling that the angels were moving, somehow. For a moment, he longed for the Sun, but he knew the ground he now trod had only one King.
He could feel the gaze of the courtesans upon him. The Traveller paid them no mind. It was not their place to allow him an audience with their King. What he mistook for arrogant approval, however, was closer to a condolence. Familiarity filled their throats, sadness and regret stopping where their windpipes should have been. As the Traveller walked past, undeterred, they cried their silent cries. The crackling leaves under the Traveller’s feet nearly covered the crimson velvet path leading to the King. Behind him, the carpet extended beyond sight. Each step brought the Traveller closer to his destiny, and the warmth of the lantern’s flame brought with it a sudden, horrifying revelation. The Traveller had relegated control long before this. His hand brought the caged light up, between their two faces. The flame illuminated every page of their story. The King knew the Traveller, and the Traveller knew nothing.
The lantern’s light refused to meet the King’s hollow sight. The Traveller’s eyes were interlocked with the eternal void within those of the King. There was nothing more for him to see. The King’s cold embrace comforted the Traveller in his sorrow.
The rays of the rising Sun met the lonesome King’s black tears once more. They glistened in the light, and the Sun knew that another had come to join the King’s court. A powerful, distant flare lashed out from the Sun, echoing across the sky like a cry of pain.
The King wept.
The King Wept