The King and the Star by Harriet Goodchild
There came a man, by middle day,
He spied his sport, and went away;
And brought the king that very night
Who brake my bower, and slew my knight.
The border widow’s lament, Traditional.
At the back of the west wind, in Lyikené, once there was a man, as fine a man as ever walked those shores. His hair was red, his arm was strong, no man could stand in fight against him, but he was not the king. He was not king, and thought he should be. But another sat in the king’s place and Torùkotu was no more than one of many in the king’s hall: a man who must be silent when another spoke and answer when another asked. This he could not bear and so, on the day the long tailed star rose in the east, he set sail to find his kingdom.
He followed his star in his great ship, through day and night and in and out of weeks, and strong men in fast ships sailed behind him. When the wind blew, they raised square sails to catch it. When the wind failed, they reached out their oars to drive the ships hard across the sea. Far and fast, Torùkotu followed his path across the sea following his star that shone for him, lighting his way until at last it rested in the sky above Eulana.
In the grey evening, Torùkotu lit a fire upon the shingle and poured out wine upon the land that it might know him. In the grey dawning, the long tailed star cast down its baleful light upon Eulana and, by that light, Metius Estui the king went out to meet him in the meadows that lie by the sea.
No land can have two kings. By the day’s ending, the meadows of Eulana were filled with blood, red as sunset on water, red as spilled wine. Sunset turned his bronze sword to a blade of fire as Torùkotu cut down Metius Estui the king. By firelight, he stripped the king and hung his body in an apple tree that men might mock him, that ravens might feast on his liver and crows peck out his eyes. Thus in a day and a night, Torùkotu made himself a king and a fine sight he was, sitting with his men in the king’s hall of Eulana, a fine sight and a dreadful one: Torùkotu who had killed so many men he could not recall any of their faces, save sometimes – in a dream – the first.
Many men died that day in Eulana. The women did not die. It was ever thus and perhaps men have the kinder fate, for death is only darkness and silence. The women sat waking through the night after that scarlet sunset, mourning their sons and their brothers, their lovers and their fathers. They wept first for the dead but, by the morning, few had tears to spare for any but themselves. Among them was Ketala Iitha, the woman who had loved the king.
Ketala Iitha stood beneath the apple tree where the king swung slowly, slowly back and forth upon the breeze. She stretched up her empty hands that could not reach him, weeping for the living and the dead. His blood fell down at her feet, the apple blossom fell down upon her head, her tears fell down her face. When morning came, she screamed her agony to the brown earth that could not succour her, she screamed her loss to the green tree that could not hear her, she screamed her hatred to the blue sky that knew nothing of her. For three days and two more nights she sat beneath the tree and the petals of the apple tree, shining white in moonlight like the stars in the sky, clung to her black hair.
In the stillness of the third evening, Torùkotu went out walking in the meadows that the land might know its king. As he passed through the evening, the trees opened their blossoms to the night and the air was filled with springtime. By the light of his star, he saw Ketala Iitha weeping beneath the apple tree and saw in her his heart’s desire. Desire, maybe it was love; for who can tell what lies in any man’s heart?
He called to her, “Ketala Iitha, Ketala Iitha, you must come to me.”
So she stood before him in the king’s hall. She had torn her clothes in anguish, her hair hung tangled across her face but she was beautiful in mourning as she had been in her happiness when she dwelled there with the king. Torùkotu said, “You must put aside your grief. A new star has risen in Eulana.”
Ketala Iitha looked at him. She knew what he was and what he had done, and that she could not stand against him. So she did not weep, she did not rage, she did not say him, Nay! Instead she put back her black hair and asked for seven days, that she might mourn one king before she lay with another. And, smiling, Torùkotu granted her wish, careless of such a little thing; smiling, he wrapped her in his red cloak to keep her from the cold and let her go out from his hall.
She went back to the apple tree. The king was dead, and the king would not return: not seven days nor seven years nor seventy times seven were long enough to mourn him. The thing that swung above her neither knew nor cared if it hung by its foot forever from the branches, or lay clay cold in the brown earth of Eulana, or burned on a pyre of pinewood and sweet spices. But Ketala Iitha put her hands on the apple tree and swore her oath, by land and sea and by the empty air, that she would never let Torùkotu touch her, whilst she had breath in her to hate him.
She fled from him into the little space of time that was left to her. But seven days were quickly gone, and then Torùkotu called out to her to come to him. And, when she was not there to answer, the king went hunting in Eulana.
Ketala Iitha ran from him like a hare before the dogs; Torùkotu hunted her like a hawk on the wind. Spring passed into summer, a hot, long summer of the king’s hunting. The hedgerows were a tangle of roses as she crossed the meadows of Eulana, and he followed her, trampling the green corn as he passed by and spreading salt in the furrows. She ran through the orchards of Eulana, and he followed her, leaving the trees bending down behind him with the weight of hanging men. She ran from him through night and day, and in and out of weeks, until she came to the mountains where the wild things live, the red deer and the wolves. But Torùkotu saw his long tailed star hanging over Cal Mora’s peak to point the way for him and however far Ketala Iitha ran, however fast, he came following after, feasting on venison and wrapped in a wolfskin coat against the mountain wind.
At summer’s end, Ketala Iitha came down the brae below Cal Mora and walked the road beside the sea towards Felluria. Late in an evening, she banged with her fists on the great wooden gate and Marwy Ninek, the Tion of Felluria, let her in. But close behind, following her down the road to Felluria, came Torùkotu, with the light of his star bright on his face.
A thousand years and longer, Felluria had stood between Cal Mora and the sea. Its walls were stone, its gates were oak, its heart was the black tower beside the hall where always the Tion of Felluria lived, time out of mind. Another man would have known that here his road ended, another man would have turned back towards Eulana but Torùkotu was as no other man. There were but three things now set between him and his desire: the stone walls of Felluria that had never fallen, the wooden gates of Felluria that never had been breached, and the will of the Tion of Felluria that no man dared contest.
He stood before the gates of Felluria and his voice beneath the wall was like the sounding of a great bronze bell, “Marwy Ninek, Marwy Ninek, let me come in!”
Marwy Ninek came out of her hall and looked from the high walls to see who it was called out to her. She saw Torùkotu before her gates; she saw his hair was red, his sword was bronze, and that he was smiling. She called down to him, “By stone and sea and sky, I will not let you in!”
“I am the king in Eulana,” he cried out to her, “and I have come to take back what is mine.”
“All that is here, is mine!” she answered, “and I will keep it.”
She was the Tion of Felluria: she would not age, she would not sicken, a hundred generations could walk the world and, to each, she would be the same. But even a Tion meets her end at last, even a Tion has her beginning and, in those days, for all she spoke up so bravely, Marwy Ninek was yet young, as the daughters of men are young.
From beneath her walls, Torùkotu looked up at her. He saw her youth and laughed that she defied him. “You lock your gate but it will not keep me from you. You set your will against mine but I will have the mastery. A thousand years, these walls have stood against the storm and against the sea. They will not stand against me, and I will come to my desire.”
He kept his word. Of course he kept his word – he was such a man that a thousand years might go by, and another thousand after them and still his like will not be seen again. He came of the first people, and he had a star to guide him; no man could match him and no wall could keep him out.
Torùkotu brought tree trunks in swift ships from Eulana to make rams to crash against the gates. He made tunnels in the rock beneath the walls and lit fires within the tunnels. That summer, firestar flowers burned by day on the walls of Felluria, as they had every summer since men first raised them, but every day and every night the fires lit by Torùkotu burned brighter than lithia petals on the black stone.
Through those days and nights of fire, his long haired star waited in the sky above Cal Mora for him to come to his desire. On the night before the equinox he was surely close to reaching it, for that night the walls about Felluria tumbled to the ground in a roar like the world’s ending.
In the centre of that ruined place, in the black tower beside the hall, Ketala Iitha waited, watching all that was done below. Today her end would come: Felluria had fallen to Torùkotu and there was nowhere left where she could run. She said to Marwy Ninek, “No law of men can bind him. As well expect the wind to pity me as ask for mercy from Torùkotu.”
Marwy Ninek looked from her window. She saw the star above the mountain. She saw the fires flowering in the ruins. She saw the men of Felluria lying in their blood amongst the broken stones. All this had happened before, all this would happen again in many times and places across the world, but she was very young and it was the first time she had seen it. She turned sickened from such sights to Ketala Iitha, beautiful amidst destruction as she had been in the meadows of Eulana half a year ago.
“What do you seek?” she asked.
“Darkness,” answered Ketala Iitha, “and silence. An end to fear and grief.”
“That I can give, if you are certain.”
Then Marwy Ninek pulled firestar from the walls about her window and lit a fire within her hearth. She crushed the stems in boiling water and by dawn her brew was ready. She put it in a silver cup, she scattered the red petals of lithia across the surface, and offered it to Ketala Iitha.
“The piper gave me lithia,” she said, “It is a fit flower for a Tion, bright without and dark within. Drink now if you would find an ending.”
Ketala Iitha took the cup, her hands touching Marwy Ninek’s for a moment. “Will you not drink with me? There is enough and more than enough for two.”
“Have you forgotten what I am?” Marwy Ninek asked, “I cannot drink from this cup and slip quietly away into the dark. I must live and take all the world can throw at me.” She looked Ketala Iitha directly in the eyes and the woman looked away, flinching from what she saw. “I would that I were not a Tion,” said Marwy Ninek, “I would that I were as any other woman, that loves her man and bears her children and goes easy into the dark.”
“I loved my man, and watched him die,” said Ketala Iitha. She drew Marwy Ninek towards her and held her close, as a mother does her child, whispering, “I bore my child, and her fate is not mine. I will not go easy into the dark.”
Marwy Ninek rested in her arms, on her breast, as a child does against her mother. But there was no time left to take or offer comfort so, in a moment, she rose up and, with a kiss, she left her, walking down the stair alone to where Torùkotu and his captains waited in her ruined hall in the red morning light.
Not ten minutes later, Torùkotu came up that stair into that room. He held Ketala Iitha in his arms, and kissed her long and longingly as he had sworn to do when first he saw her, lovely in her grief beneath the apple tree, but lithia had done its work and all he had to kiss was a corpse with a lovely face. He looked out from the window towards Cal Mora. The sky was empty; his star had faded from the world and would never again show him his way.
He ordered that a pyre be built in the ruins of Felluria. Until it was ready, he cradled her dead weight in his arms and stroked her black hair tangled on his breast. He laid her down upon the pyre and stooped to kiss her cold cheek very gently, as if she were but sleeping and he did not wish to wake her.
When this last fire was lit, Torùkotu stood the whole light long beside it, watching the smoke blow
away on the wind. His cheeks were wet with tears, but none watching doubted it was but the wind tossing smoke and ash into his eyes. When the sky was red and the fire burned down to a heap of bone and ashes, he turned away into the ruined hall of Felluria where Marwy Ninek sat beneath a broken window, captive between his captains.
“The men of Felluria are dead,” he said to her, as she sat in her shattered shell, a shadow in the last light but for the red glow of sunset upon her crown of lithia. “The women are not dead, but one.”
Slowly, slowly Marwy Ninek raised her eyes to stare at Torùkotu. She looked and looked, and did not answer.
Even a king could not meet that gaze. But, though he could not look her in the eye, he could look at her. He saw her hands were stained with lithia; he saw her hair was black, even as Ketala Iitha’s had been black. He knew what she was, and who she was, and what she had done in the time before the morning. And, at that thought, his anger broke against her like a floodtide against the bank. He reached out and tore the firestar from her hair, he trampled the flowers under his feet.
“You set your will against me and cheated me of what was mine,” he said, “I have not got my heart’s desire but I will take what’s left to me, and it will be enough. When this night is done, I will know that my name will be remembered for a thousand years, and a thousand after them.”
Torùkotu reached out and took Marwy Ninek by the hand to pull her from her chair. He led her from her hall, up the stair to that room within the tower. Side by side they walked together into darkness, and did not look at each other’s faces. Before the open door, he told her, “Today you were the Tion of Felluria. So you will be again tomorrow. Tonight you are but a woman, as any woman of this place.” Then he locked the door behind them, and did not open it again until the morning.
At the equinox the world is at its balance: between light and dark, between love and hatred, between desire and vengeance.
And next morning, Torùkotu left Felluria to walk the road beneath Cal Mora into Eulana; passing back through the devastation he had made, he saw the salt in the meadows and the blood in the trees, and counted all well done. For if a king cannot have his heart’s desire, why should any other man know his?