Back when the hills were young and forests covered the land, the ruler of a kingdom — ancient even in those times — was troubled by his advancing age. Each morning, he would awaken, take up the crown — through possession of which he ruled — and ask his manservant, “is my face more lined? Are my eyes dulled? Does silver yet run through my hair?”
His manservant, who had known the ruler for many years and took great pride in his position, would answer truthfully, sometimes with the glad news that no new change had occurred overnight, and sometimes with sorrow that, yes, there was a new line, or less shine to the eyes, or an emerging stream of silver hair. On the days when the manservant’s news was unwelcome the ruler would fly into a rage and the kingdom would be able to hear him thundering from his chambers. No judgments would be passed on such days and so, as they became more frequent, the kingdom began to suffer from the increasing lack of leadership.
The members of the royal court sent word around the kingdom — and the forests — if one could be found who could halt or slow the ruler’s ageing to allow him to resume his duties, that person would be raised to a great position within the court and enjoy the riches and power of the kingdom. Over the following months many approached the court with rituals, herbs, and potions — all claiming to hold the secret to prolonged youth.
One by one the hopefuls were put before the ruler and he drank their potions, ate their herbs, and took part in their rituals, dancing complicated shapes in stone circles, bathing in moonlight atop the highest tower, with a priestess… The following morning of each trial the ruler would again breathlessly question his manservant. In every case, the manservant would report that the signs of ageing were still increasing, leading the ruler to even darker moods.
One morning, a year after the quest for youth had begun and with the ruler’s anger still rolling through the air, a serpent emerged from the forests and wound its way towards the castle. The people of the kingdom watched warily as it slid down walkways and through market squares, its tongue flicking in and out of its mouth as it tasted the air.
Upon reaching the castle the serpent lazily coiled itself before rearing its head and addressing the castle guards. “I have come in answer to the requests of the court. If you will grant me time with your ruler, I can prevent his ageing.”
The guards were mistrustful and approached the court to inform them of the unusual visitor. The courtiers, while not equal in age with the ruler himself, were all learned and had between them great experience of the world beyond the kingdom. Those who had crossed paths with serpents in their younger days recounted creatures of dangerous cunning and counselled against allowing it in. On balance however the court was desperate and the serpent was escorted to the ruler.
The ruler’s manservant, to his increasing pride, had become the only person whose counsel the ruler now directly sought and as such was present in his chambers at all times. As well as being keen to maintain his position, the manservant had also become so bold as to have himself participate in the rituals in the hope of also attaining everlasting youth. He disguised his self-interest as concern for his master, claiming to test the faith of the various healers by indeed masquerading as the ruler before allowing them a full audience.
As the serpent entered the chambers, the manservant was mistrustful. The creature reared up before him and swayed hypnotically. “You are the ruler who I am to save from ageing?” it asked.
The manservant’s pride and ambition overcame his instinct. “I am,” he replied, placing the ruler’s crown on his own head.
“Very well, from today you shall no further feel the oppression of age,” declared the serpent, as it darted forward and bit the manservant on his cheek.
The manservant crumpled to the floor with a cry and a terrible darkness spread across his skin. As the castle guards ran into the room, the serpent entwined itself around the crown. “I have fulfilled the request of the court. Your ruler shall no longer age and I shall take my position as head of your kingdom following your promise!” The courtiers rushed in behind the guards and saw immediately that the purpling corpse lying in the chamber was not that of their ruler but his manservant. As the serpent had revealed its true intent, the guards took it prisoner and killed it, displaying its skin outside the castle as a warning to all who would attempt to take power through trickery.
The crown was returned to the ruler who appointed a new manservant.
Each morning when the ruler posed his questions, the new manservant would answer confidently that the night had left no marks of age. Appeased but wary, the ruler gradually returned to his duties and the kingdom thrived once more.
Months passed until one day, the priestess with whom he had bathed in the moonlight returned and held in her arms a child — an heir to the kingdom. With this news the ruler proclaimed the priestess to have given him prolonged youth through his heir and as promised by the courtiers she was escalated to sit by his side at court as his queen. Together they ruled the kingdom for many years, holding modesty, honesty and the needs of the kingdom above all other attributes.
Toby Commander is a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer who lives in London, England. He writes at strange hours of the night for relaxation and to counter the soul-destruction of having drafted contracts all day.
The Vain Ruler and his Ambitious Manservant is a Fiction War Finalist entry.
Please do not reproduce without permission from the author.
Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @urosjovicic96