The King of the Painted Hills: In Exile

feature+photo+by+Asa+Lory

feature photo by Asa Lory

Jake Alden

feature photo by Asa Lory

He fled from everything. He fled from who he was, who he’d been, who he’d known. And who, he feared, he might soon meet.

Most of all, he fled from the true King of the Painted Hills, whose throne and blessing he had stolen.
There was no light to guide his way through the dark tangle of scrubby trees and rocky crags; more importantly, there was no moonlight to lend speed to his attempted escape. At first he’d prayed the cloud cover would disperse, and that the moon’s beams would break free of their heavenly prison. Then he’d settled for praying that he’d find some landmark in the dark to guide his way, or some reasonably concealed hole or crevice to hide and rest.
Now he simply prayed.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God oh God ohGodohGodohGod.” The King of the Painted Hills’ muttered plea was barely audible beneath the sound of his agonized, panted breaths. He’d been running for hours, now, ever since Erik had returned to the Great Tent in a rage. His finest tunic, the one he’d worn to his coronation months ago, was now nothing more than a colorful collection of rags, his beard and hair caked in blood, dust and grit.
It was funny; until now, lost in the wilderness and stumbling breathless over rocks, he’d never given that much thought to prayer. Recently his concern for heavenly things had been reserved for an obsession with Erik’s blessing, the blessing he now possessed. So far, stealing it had done little enough for him. So far, it had proved the stupidest thing he’d ever done.
Before his father’s death that morning, the King of the Painted Hills had already won everything that really mattered from his older brother. Erik was, by ancestral Huskerl law, the heir to their father King Isak and the migrant throne of his people. It mattered little that Erik came squalling into the world merely seconds before his brother; from their earliest years, it had been drilled into the twins that the firstborn would inherit and the second would not.
The King thought back to his childhood with little nostalgia as he scrambled over a boulder. He and his brother were unalike in all things, and in all things had they competed. Their youth had been one of every petty struggle imaginable, with the score always kept even by their equal but opposite skills.
Erik was the better warrior, the one most suited to lead out scouting parties and sorties, but he was the more talented mahout, the one to whom the warbeasts of their people would respond. His brother was the greatest of the Painted Hill’s hunters, but he was the one who traded the tribe’s meats and furs, the one who sold them to the other peoples of the mountains and spoke the language of the strange men and women who came south from the Marchfolk cities. The men of the tribe had loved Erik most, young and old, and made him into a charismatic champion of the Painted Hills. But he was the charmer, the dashing younger brother, and the one who won the heart of their mutual sweetheart.
He thought of his wife then, as he slid off the boulder into a shallow creek, hoping futilely its meager waters would cover up his scent. He thought of her smile, and her laugh, and how she had rejected him, horrified, when Isak spoke his final blessing, how she’d run from the tent in terror as Erik came storming in.
She’d always had a special place in her heart for the true heir to the Painted Hills’ throne, even if she’d chosen his brother in the end. It wasn’t much of a throne, the King thought to himself, and he chuckled wildly at the thought, laughing for the first time in half a day. The Painted Hills weren’t even a kingdom, just the ancient hunting grounds of one small Huskerl tribe, but they were an old tribe, and a proud one, and so they had a king.
His father had always been a regal figure – not in the way of the Marchfolk princes, with their gleaming bronze armor and horse-things and majestic cities the King of the Painted Hills had never seen. No, Isak was a man born to command, brawny and broad-shouldered withadeep basso voice, and all his most kingly traits had been passed on to Erik, along with the majority of his affection. Oh, he’d been kind to his youngest son, after a fashion, but he had loved Erik most, the son he could take hunting and drinking through all the long hours of the night.
It was their late mother the King of the Painted Hills took after, Isak’s bride who had lent her youngest son a lean frame and fair hair. It was her cunning that he had inherited, and it was that cunning that won him his throne.
He had grown sick, over the years, of watching his brother strut around the camp, of simple-minded Erik listening to their father’s grand plans and pretending to understand. He’d grown sick of his wife smiling at Erik when she thought he wasn’t looking, of her dancing with both of them at feasts. She loved him best, the younger brother, but she always felt the need to make him feel better, to try and lovingly pity him while she congratulated Erik on his more masculine feats.
Then one day Erik had gone hunting elk in the deep southern Bannerfels, far outside the Painted Hills, and there was a blizzard and a deep freeze and the tribe feared he’d be dead. Isak had grown sickly and surly and had roared for his youngest son, and demanded to know why he wasn’t out getting lost and hunting and freezing to death in the high mountain peaks.
So eight months ago he’d gathered a few hunters who were almost as fond of him as they were of Erik and set off in the snow to find the missing party. For seven days they hunted them through the snow and the howling winds, which hardly proved a difficult feat; Erik was the better at tracking prey through sight and trailsign, but he was the better at tracking by scent.
After a week they found some of the men Erik had taken with him huddled round a small fire and saying that the heir to the throne was out in the cold trying to find a path back to camp. The King of the Painted Hills, who at the time was king of nothing, followed his brother’s scent and found him collapsed by a log, breathing heavily and half-starved to death. Erik had heard him approach and struggled to stand before compromising for a rough approximation of sitting and a shouted demand for food.
He’d instinctively reached for a bit of dried meat to give to his older brother, but he’d stopped with his hand halfway to the jerky.
“Give me the throne and a feast awaits you, brother.” He’d said it as a joke, but it had seemed Erik was in no mood for chuckles and had grown sullen.
“Bring me some damn meet, you conniving little bastard,” Erik had replied, finally fighting his way to a full standing position. His solemnity gave his brother pause, and out came a piece of jerky, dangled in front of Erik teasingly.
“First, you give up the throne,” he said, waving the jerky back and forth hypnotically, still half-joking. “Then you can have all the meat you want.”
Erik was half-mad with hunger and half-mad from the cold, which made for surprisingly easy negotiations. He had paused only for a moment before shouting-
“Give me the damn jerky and you get the piece of wood!”
The sound drew some of the hunters out to where the two brothers stood; they’d grown tired of waiting in the cave for Erik to be found and curious about all the commotion. All four of them watched in shock as Erik compliantly swore his blood oath to abdicate his throne in favor of his younger twin and then devoured the meat disdainfully tossed his way.
When they had all arrived back in the camp almost a week later, nearly all the hunters had grown wary of the new heir and Erik had grown increasingly quiet and contemplative. They found Isak in increasingly poor health, adamant that his heir should ascend the throne. Erik was far too embarrassed to disclose the truth of the arrangement to their father, and so he simply said he’d been overcome with joy at being discovered and had rewarded his courageous twin with his inheritance. Isak was, even then, furious to say the least, but Erik had sworn a blood oath and there was nothing to be done.
And so, the King of the Painted Hills thought as he stumbled his way through a patch of tundra scrubs, I became the first ruler of the Painted Hills Huskerls to forge his throne from jerky and a win his reign from deception and lies.
But what a lie it was! After abdicating, the increasingly weak Isak had called all his subjects from every corner of the Hills to celebrate the coronation of his youngest son and his ascension to the bone-carved throne of their tribe. They had sung and danced and the new King’s wife had thrown her arms around him and told her how proud she was of him.
The priests of the Chanticle had arrived and had prayed over the tribe and counseled peace and blessed the King of the Painted Hills before vanishing into the night to hunt the unquiet dead. As they retreated into the shadows, Erik had sidled up beside the throne and whispered in his brother’s ear.
“Know this, my friend. That is the last blessing you will ever recieve.”
He’d turned,curious, and stared at Erik,who smiled back at him, sad and tired.
“I am still the eldest son”, the older twin continued. “I am the brother most beloved by our father, and king or not, it his death blessing I shall recieve. God’s gift through old Isak shall pass to me.”
And that had started everything.
Eating, sleeping, waking, pissing, the King had thought on his brother’s words. All the Hills were his domain, and he was ruler of the one of the oldest Huskerl tribes, yet Erik would be the one to receive Isak’s parting gift. Some might say it was the greatest gift the former king could and would ever give, and it was a gift directly from the divine. Powerful blessings weren’t handed out easily, and God hated liars, so it seemed to the King of the Painted Hills he had needed all the help he could get.
Right then and there, wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, he nearly stepped off a cliff to his death miles below. There, in the pitch blackness, he stopped, and stared out over the gorge. It probably would have been a better grave then he deserved.
He’d been so selfish, so petty, those last few months, obsessing over the blessing‑but then, when hadn’t he been a selfish, pathetic bastard. He’d sat and brooded and gone riding mahout to try and calm his nerves, but his brother’s words at his coronation chafed him raw from the inside out.
Then one day Erik left on another deep southern hunting trip, and Isak’s health had sharply declined a few days later. One morning, a woman tending to his father called for healers, and he’d instinctively sent for a Chanticle priest, and the priest had come and said there was nothing to be done. Then the King of the Painted Hills had sat outside his father’s tent, listening to his moans, and felt depressed, and then thoughtful, and then giddy. It sickened him now to think of how much joy he had felt.
He’d tiptoed to his father’s mat and whispered that Erik would soon return, and then stole outside and bellowed for his men to carry Isak into the Great Tent so that he might be comforted in his final moments.
Then he strode boldly into the tent Erik used when he slept among the tent, stole his fur cloak and his dragonbone hunting horn, and entered the Great Tent where his father lay dying.
As he stood at the lip of the gorge, feeling guilty and indulging himself with a little self-pity, the King of the Painted Hills marveled just how easy his father was to fool. He’d been so happy to say goodbye to Erik and to give him his blessing, and as the King had stood there, triumphant, while his predecessor appealed to God himself to watch over his son, the tentflap had swung open. There stood his wife, desperate to find her husband so that he could say farewell to his father and shocked at what he saw. She had stared wordlessly at the King of the Painted Hills as Isak completed his blessing, and he had stared guiltily back.
It was just bad luck that Erik, home from hunting and distraught from the news of his father, strode in right after her.
Now here he stood, above oblivion. He had fled the two witnesses to his childish, petty theft, and the vengeful spirit of his father and the wrath of God. He thought back to that agonizing moment, as his father stroked the stolen horn he’d presented of his proof of his identity and finished his blessing, and a lone tear slid down his cheek.
The baying of that horn split the night. Guilt made way for terror, and the King of the Painted Hills sprinted along the edge of the gorge in a blind bid for his pathetic life.
For the second time that evening he nearly plunged to his demise, as he slid to a stop before the ledge he was running along sheared off into a cliff perpendicular to the rim of the gorge he had been following. He swung round and was greeted with nothing but air to his left, to his right; looking back, he realized in his haste he’d run along the edge of the gorge right on top of a lone boulder dangling over the cliff’s edge. The horn sounded behind him, and in the silence between its blasts he heard the whisper of sliding gravel as the boulder he stood on began to tip over the cliff’s edge.
He thought of his wife just then, and supposed she wasn’t his wife anymore. He could imagine her standing there next to him, watching him sadly, just as sad as she had looked when she wandered into the Great Tent.
“I did this for you,” he whispered into the empty air.
“No.” In his mind, she stood before him, shaking her head, a lone tear sliding down her cheek. His imagination, it seemed, had run out of originality and settled for clichés.
“No,” the apparition continued, then it turned to walk away. “You did this for you.
Then his imagined former wife disappeared, and the boulder slid free, and the King of the Painted Hill tumbled head over heels into the air.
I’m sorry, he thought. I’m so sorry.
For who?asked a different portion of his mind.
            For me. Of course for me. I’m a selfish bastard. But also for Erik, and father, and for the woman who was my wife.
He was surprised, as he fell, to find that he meant it. It was a long fall, and as he tumbled downwards and the boulder bounced down the cliff away from him, out of the dark he saw the black waters of a distant river rusing at him.
And God. I’m sorry, God. I’m so, so, so-
And then the waters of the river took him, and he felt his arm break against a rock, and then a strong arm grabbed the collar of his tunic and hauled him from the water.
By Jake Alden