Whittle: The Story of The Splintered King
He’d lost his name many years ago, atrophied through neglect and crowded out by all the unkind things that the other townspeople had called him. Their fear, and the blame by which they draped their coldness and cruelty in piety, were born of their superstitions, traditions and beliefs they had learnt by rote and applied just as unquestioningly. He’d hadn’t even been there when the fire started, he had been away trying to secure enough business to see his family through a fallow winter, and it was a bitter irony that the flames which had seared and scorched every other home and business had skirted his own when his wife and son, who ought to have been safely ensconced there, had been nursing her sister through sickness and passed at her side.
Having seen the aftermath of the fire from the road, a haze of ash from the smouldering ruins and the stones which had cracked and exploded in the sudden intense heat, he had hurried his horse over the crest of the hill. A heart enlivened by sudden fears seemed to freeze just as quickly as he saw the charred embers of the town in which he had been born and raised, the town where he had met and married his wife, the town his infant son called home. Those people who had escaped, not few in number, were stood at the peripheries of the town or picking through the still warm embers of their lives in search of impossible survivors, for trinkets and tokens and items of some small sentiment which could offer a link to their abruptly severed pasts.
Despair, momentarily swamped by the desperate and uncomprehending hope of seeing his home intact, flooded back in full force at the dread stillness inside. He stepped outside again, noticing for the scorched circle roughly hewn by the flames which had shied away from the house. His neighbours had followed him through the variously wrecked shells of their own homes, and watched his passage with jealous interest which took only their losses into account. Noticing them, noticing how little of the town still stood intact, and despite his shock and sadness, he offered hospitality and sanctuary to the displaced. The offer, though well-meant, was met with a silent suspicion, the crowd having lingered through their disbelief and on into anger, and was haltingly refused. It was the first intimation of the persecution which was to follow.
Alone in a place where he once never was, the weight of the tragedy began to weigh on him and he retreated into reclusion. Outside his grief was taken for guilt, his occasional forays into the slowly recovering town becoming fraught with hushed whispers, bolder insults, and children’s vicious pranks which went unpunished by untrusting parents. He ventured forth less and less until one night the meagre supplies he needed began to be delivered to his door in order that the town be spared the very sight of him. None knocked, none called on him or visited, and so he sat in silence for years, an unmoving and unfeeling stone by day and even less alive by night, never moving and never making a single sound. He didn’t even dream, and so the years passed slowly.
As his life dragged on long beyond his desire to live he became even more still and sedentary, stirring so infrequently that his clothes would become dusty from days, weeks, of inaction. How he lived thus, how he lived, cannot be known, but as it came to seem more likely that he might simply petrify in place, leaving an uncanny statue of unlikely provenance, there was a disruption. Upstairs, in a room into which he had ventured into for not a moment since before the fire, a loud clatter sounded, demanding an unusual curiosity from him. He found that Hephaestus, a crude doll no bigger than his palm that he’d cut and carved before his son had been born, had fallen from the shelf and created the uncommon disturbance. Moved by some sliver of what he had spent years learning to forget, he carried the doll downstairs and placed it on the mantle.
Inaction overcame him again once he took his seat, a steady gaze held on the doll the only sign of life for another year, perhaps even two, before he moved again in sudden, albeit slow, motion. There was more intent in this abrupt arise than there had been in decades, an ineluctable purpose to his efforts like the unceasing trickle of sand through an infinite hourglass, as he gathered a pair of knives and a whetstone, a ball of twine and a stack of unused firewood. The deliberation in just these simple decisions took weeks, with hours considering each of the many possible tools and even longer with hands rasping over wood in search of some uncertain, imagined, quality, the mere crossing of a room so glacial and passive it more resembled the weathering of a mountain than the passage of a man.
Nonetheless, once those more onerous tasks were completed he began to work in similarly measured earnest, taking months to examine each piece of material in detail before slowly beginning to carve an almost-human form. The first eventually resembled Hephaestus, his son’s doll, although it was slightly smaller and bound in twine to give the impression of a rough tunic and trousers in a brown only slightly lighter than the unfinished wood. It took him almost two years to complete one, not named and placed beside the chair to watch as its newest fellow was created somewhat less hurriedly as the crafting began anew in a pattern repeated over and over until the entire house was lined with these strangely severe figures of near-uniform construction. All of which were placed, as close as could be approximated, to face their creator and craftsman’s chair to watch him until the close.
On the day he died they carried him aloft, borne on hundreds of strong wooden backs in a parade of thousands, through the town. He blinked in the brightness of a midday sun he hadn’t seen in scores of years, smiled at the faces of the people who had shunned and tormented him, their various descendants rather, as they froze or fled in terrified confusion. The sun grew brighter then, blindingly bold across his sight as first his vision burnt out into perfect white and the sounds followed. He stopped feeling pain, felt the years of his misery shrivel and shed, slough off like a too-small skin in cool water. He stopped feeling anything but the comfort of his creations carrying him onwards, then he stopped feeling anything at all. The townspeople, some of them, regained some semblance of unearned courage as the parade passed harmlessly and stood to watch as the wooden dolls carried him into the forest where they had grown.