The Fisher King

A king once fell in love with a beautiful woman, as is often the case, and planned to marry her. He thought she felt the same – indeed, she used to whisper in his ear how madly in love she was with him – but it was a lie. The woman was secretly consorting with one of the king’s guards, and the two lovers had come up with a plot to kill the king.

The wedding day came, and King Anfortas married his false love to great cheer and acclaim. Punch drunk on happiness, he could hardly bear to keep his hands off her. It was through gritted teeth that she endured his kisses and attentions, reminding herself that it was only for a short while; then she would be free of him. Meanwhile, the guard watched with seething eyes as the king led his bride away from the wedding feast.

At last, Anfortas and his queen were alone in their bedchamber, and he turned to her with a hungry expression. For a second, she felt the thrill of desire mixed with unease at what was to happen. The king was certainly handsome, with dark eyes that could turn from anger to arousal in the space of seconds, a full, sensual mouth, thick black hair that framed his face and a decisive set to his brow – all of these qualities were an accurate measure of his mercurial, passionate personality.

With a knowing smile, he took her in his arms and kissed her. As his tongue swept confidently alongside hers, the queen felt a wave of nausea rise up through her. Hurriedly, she pulled back.

“What is it?” the king asked, his forehead furrowed. The queen smiled demurely and tried to keep her voice steady.

“Your Majesty, I have a request.”

Anfortas’s face relaxed. “Anything, my love. And you do not have to call me ‘Majesty’, not now we are married. What was your request?”

“Will you undress? I should like to see you, as… as a man.”

The corner of the king’s mouth twitched upwards. Slowly, he began to strip, the queen settling back on the bed to watch.

Once he was naked, she signalled for him to join her. He kissed her with a mounting intensity, his hands beginning to roam up and down her body.

Suddenly, the door burst open, and the guard rushed in. Anfortas barely managed to twist out the way of the serrated dagger as it came plunging towards him. He seized the guard’s wrist and, with a tremendous effort, twisted the knife and yanked it forward. The guard stumbled and fell, groaning piteously as his own weapon sank into his chest.

Panting heavily, the king stumbled backwards. The queen gave a horrified cry, and he turned to comfort her. Her face, however, was twisted with a terrible grief, and she ducked his outstretched arms to throw herself on top of her dead lover.

Finally, the stunned Anfortas understood. He barely had time to shout out for more soldiers before the queen had pulled free the knife and turned to face him. With a wordless scream, she launched herself upon him.

Nearly all of her blows missed, but it only took one to hit their mark, the knife slashing the king deep across his naked thigh. He roared in pain, as soldiers streamed into the room and detained the raging queen.

The royal physicians were sent for immediately, and they packed and sewed the wound as best they could; however, the knife had been forged in magic. The wound festered and erupted, leaving Anfortas in constant agony and unable to move far. During the day, it felt like his entire body was on fire, waves of pain roiling through his tainted blood, but the nights were even worst. Then, he would lie awake, unable to sleep with the discomfort, trapped in a cold and deathless limbo.

Slowly, his spirit began to warp under the pain and pressure, and his fierce yet always chivalrous nature curdled into one of savagery. The punishment laws were tightened, and summary executions became the norm. The short-lived queen was herself burnt at the stake, a special chair made and dragged into position so the king could watch.

When it was over, and her body had melted into an unrecognisable charred mass, an official was heard commending the king’s generous heart, for the fact that he had tears in his eyes as he watched. Anfortas turned to the man, his face haggard and grey.

“She only died the once, that was the reason for my upset. I suffer a living death every minute of the day.” He closed his eyes and drew a sharp breath as the courtiers carrying his chair stumbled. “I should have had her gutted. Burning was too kind.”

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A travelling sorcerer, famed for his power and skills, came visiting court not long after. He arrived to hear the king screaming in agony, and was immediately beseeched to heal him.

Laying his hands upon the weeping wound, it did not take long for the sorcerer to shake his head in defeat.

“This is too strong for me. An evil and black magic has entered your blood, sire.”

“There must be something someone can do,” begged Anfortas. Sweat poured down his gaunt face, and he groaned as a fresh wave of pain swept over him. “I cannot live like this! I will die, and my line will die with me… I have failed in my duty.”

The sorcerer’s deep blue eyes flashed amber as he delved deep into his magic to find a solution. When he spoke again, his voice was not his own, but that of an ancient being.

Three questions and the tears of the innocent shall save you. Water will bring you back to life; the sleeping girl who will become your wife.

The terrible voice receded, leaving the sorcerer all of a tremble. For the briefest of seconds, hope had flared in the king’s eyes; his habitual grimace now returned as he mulled over the prophecy.

“It was a woman that did this to me. I would rather die in perpetual pain and misery than trust in another of that species again, let alone marry one.”

Upon hearing those words, the sorcerer recognised that the king was not yet ready to be healed. Thus, he bowed low and departed.

However, news of the prophecy slipped out, and the king was besieged with lords and ladies bringing their sleeping daughters to the castle. Unfortunately, tempted by the prospect of being the one to heal the king, they were all frauds, and none of the young ladies were able to heal the king.

As the years passed, the king grew more and more irritable thanks to his wound, and the number of ‘sleeping’ ladies started to dwindle. The kingdom diminished, once lush grasslands turning to arid plains as a wasting sickness spread. People began to desert the court and indeed the entire land, as the king sat impotent on his throne, his face twisted with pain.

Eventually, all that remained was a handful of loyal staff, as dark and morose as the king himself. They scarcely spoke – even to each other – and they never smiled.

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The only pleasure that now remained to Anfortas was that of fishing. A couple of able-bodied men would carry him down to the banks of the River Aos, a sluggish yet beautiful landscape where dragonflies flitted shyly from bank to bank and ribbons of green weed trailed beneath the surface. Alone and morose, the king sat in silence, the occasional tear trickling down his cheek as he contemplated his fate.

One afternoon, when the scent of the freshly cut grass in the riverside meadow was strong enough even to repel the stench of his wound, Anfortas closed his eyes and tried to relax.

Just as he was slipping into slumber, there was a shout from across the river, causing him to jolt awake. His furious glare swept across the wide expanse of water, only to see two young boys staring back at him. From the wreaths of leaves balanced precariously on their heads, crude sticks in their hands, and the streaks of mud painted down their cheeks, they had obviously been in the midst of some war-game.

For a second, the king was reminded of himself and his younger brother, Percy. How they would spend hours playing in the forest surrounding the castle, their wet nurse always ready and waiting to box their ears for coming home covered in mud. How the two boys would duck her outstretched arms and run on ahead, laughing, to the hot tea and scones that would always be waiting for them. Anfortas smiled grimly as he remembered Percy – a miniature version of himself, always trying to keep up and match his older brother.

Percy had been dead for nearly twenty years; he had not even reached sixteen, cut down in a freak hunting accident. With a start, Anfortas realised it was over ten years since his own maiming, and he was in fact nearing forty. Gazing down, he saw how his hands, once strong and calloused from hours of sword-practice, were now like thin and bird-like. His skin stretched like paper over the prominent bones, and sometimes – although he had gotten better at controlling the pain – he could not control the violent trembling that overtook him.

With the now-familiar ache came a fresh wave of anxiety – would he ever find rest? For the first time in years, he bent his head and began to pray fervently.

As he did so, and the two boys ran back to their home on the other side of the river, a single note of song rose up from the surface of the water, or so it seemed. Like that of a flute, gentle and sweet, it hovered and expanded until Anfortas’s mind and body were filled with the silvery sound. He lifted his head and looked upstream.

Sailing towards him was a small boat. As the king watched in amazement, the vessel glided serenely to the bank at his feet and came to a smooth standstill. As it did so, the music quietly faded to nothing.

From his seated position on the bank, Anfortas could see inside the boat and what it held – a young woman, lying supine with her eyes closed. A moment of terror clenched tight around the king’s heart, as he thought she was dead and it was all part of a curse that she should come to rest at his feet. Then, he looked closer and saw her chest rise and fall, albeit with the faintest of movements.

He raised his hand, and a small number of guards came running. Under his instructions, they carefully brought the boat ashore, and Anfortas was able to examine the woman more closely.

She looked as if she had not been well herself. Her cheeks were white and gaunt, with dark purple shadows hanging beneath her closed, hollow-looking eyes. A vivid halo of copper hair was the only cushion she had against the hard wood of the boat; in fact, the more Anfortas studied her, the more her tired and shabby appearance struck him. A rare tinge of pity touched him as he gently traced a finger along her stark jawline.

Someone had cared a little for her, however – all around her body and lining the bottom of the boat were swathes of meadowsweet. The delicate, cream-coloured flowers blossomed like foam around the woman, sending fragrant waves of scent into the air with even the slightest breath of wind. As he filled his lungs with the sweet air, Anfortas recalled the sorcerer’s words, and he began to wonder if this was indeed the prophesised girl.

He gave orders for her to be carried back to the castle, and she was placed, still asleep, in what had been the queen’s chambers. His men might have expected the king to shy away from those rooms, the last inhabitant of which had been his ill-fated bride; his mind, however, was filled with the mystery and possibility of its current occupier. Solemn-faced, the soldiers trooped out of the suite, leaving just the king and his sleeping guest.

Anfortas settled himself beside the girl on the bed, impatient for her to wake up, but as night approached and she gave no signs of doing so, the king himself drifted off to sleep. For once, his slumber was cool and dreamless, free of the fiery sensation that usually tainted his blood.

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The first thing he noticed when he awoke the next morning was the faint trace of meadowsweet. Sighing, Anfortas turned his head towards the origin of this sweet scent, only to be met with a pair of puzzled grey-green eyes.

Not simply grey-green; in the early morning sunlight that trickled lazily into the room, he could see a myriad of gold flecks, turning the irises into a liquid mass of shimmering light. A faint frown line jumped into position between these beautiful orbs. Aside from that, the girl did not move. Wincing slightly, Anfortas managed to ease himself into such a position that he was looking down upon her.

This was surely it, the moment he had been waiting for: redemption. Slowly, scarcely daring to breath, the king lowered his mouth upon hers. Their lips brushed, and he tasted the sweet, fresh scent of herbs on her breath.

The girl gave a sudden start. With a small squeak of panic, she twisted like an eel and almost fell off the bed to try and get away from him. The king fell forwards, a hot rush of pain travelling to the wound in his thigh. He roared in agony, and the two guards on the other side of the door hurried in.

“Your Majesty, are you all right?”

By the time one of the guards had set a crimson-faced Anfortas upright against the pillows, he realised that the other one had hold of the strange girl. She wasn’t struggling, but she was trembling from head to foot, her face tinged with a grey, unhealthy pallor.

If this was the one who was supposed to heal him, Anfortas didn’t feel terribly confident – she looked half-dead herself. It was only those luminous eyes that showed a spark of life, and they were glazed over with terror right now.

The king pointed at the guard holding her. “It’s all right, she didn’t mean… she did nothing wrong. Release her.”

The soldier did so, and the girl scuttled away to the farthest corner of the room. Shaking his head, Anfortas gestured for the guards to leave.

One of the men hesitated when he reached the door. “Did you want any breakfast bringing up, Your Majesty?”

“No. Leave –” Anfortas broke off, casting a thoughtful glance at the girl. “Yes. Fetch something for the lady.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Anything in particular?”

“No, just get a move on!” Bowing, the men departed hastily.

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Once the two soldiers had gone, an awkward silence filled the dusty room. Derval’s head was spinning; she could barely stand upright as she tried to make sense of what was happening. The strange man who had tried to kiss her – the one those men had called Majesty – was lying on the bed, facing her and propped up against a bank of plump pillows. Derval suddenly realised how magnificent the four-poster bed was, with its gilded supports carved into the bodies of fantastic beasts, sumptuous-looking velvet curtains in deep violet and thick quilted blankets, carelessly rumpled and creased.

She had actually slept in that bed last night? Alongside a king?

 

“I should have told them to bring you scrambled eggs, or something nourishing at any rate.” The man in question was speaking, his voice low and gravelly. “You look like you could do with a good meal. You can come closer, it’s not as if I can chase you round the room,” he added, indicating to his leg which she noticed was bandaged towards the top.

She hesitated, and a look of fury passed over his face. This was followed by a grimace, as he shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Derval crept a little closer, choosing to perch on the very end of the bed. When he felt the mattress dip, the man’s eyes flew open. He smiled grimly.

“I realise how odd this must feel. No doubt you have questions?” His face took on a pleading air, darkening once again in anger when she failed to reply.

In truth, Derval was feeling too faint and frozen to even speak; right now, the only things that mattered were food and warmth. Her people had thought to dress her in just a thin gown, and it was very cold in the bedchamber. Unconsciously, she moved closer to the strange man she supposed was king and the warm pull of the bed.

He watched in silence as she slid beneath the heavy quilt, pulling it up around her ears and turning her back on him. Closing her eyes, Derval only just caught his softly spoken words before drifting back to sleep.

“Aye, you rest a while. They’ll bring your food up shortly.”

 

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Anfortas was filled with shame at what had happened – both for the near-kiss and for how weak he must have appeared afterwards. And now the girl was curled up beside him, as though he hadn’t just tried to force his attentions on her. Truly, she was a mystery.

Sighing heavily, he threw himself back on the pillows and tried to be more annoyed that she hadn’t yet cured him. It was proving unusually difficult, however, as her presence was very peaceful. It was pleasant just to lie and listen to her quiet breathing, watching the different shades of fire and fury spring to life in her auburn hair. He was sorry that he had to wake her when the servants arrived with the food.

 

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A week came and went, with the strange girl eating him out of house and home and still not a word passing her lips. Anfortas did his best to remain calm, but time and pain had eroded most of his patience; it was the few remaining servants who bore the brunt of his irritation, however. In the presence of the silent girl, he found he could exert himself to be polite, even compassionate.

The look of blank amazement had passed to one of quiet observation, now that she was no longer frightened of him. She was not particularly beautiful, but her eyes were kind – a quality that Anfortas had not experienced for some time.

One evening, when it was pounding with rain outside, he and the girl were sat either side of a steady fire. Every now and then, one of them would raise his or hers gaze and find the other watching. They would smile, the girl with a shy blush, the king more willingly.

Perhaps it was the cosy feeling of seclusion from the rest of the world, or it could have been the warm glass of brandy in his hand, but Anfortas was feeling in a garrulous frame of mind. One corner of his lip twisted upwards as he chuckled quietly.

“Are you ever going to speak to me?” His tone wasn’t critical, merely curious. “Perhaps you can’t, perhaps you’re a mute. It’s funny – many years ago, I came to believe that it was best for a woman not to speak. At least then you’d know she wasn’t lying. Now it seems I’m literally begging to hear your voice.”

A log cracked and split, sending sparks flying up high into the vast chimney. Still smiling, Anfortas breathed in deep the spicy-sweet scent of apple tree.

“I was very ill.” For a second, he could scarcely grasp the fact that she was actually talking. He kept his eyes glued to the fire, too terrified to look at her in case she stopped speaking.

“My parents were sure I would die, I heard them discussing it. They… they were not particularly sad. A wise man was passing through the village at the time, and he came to see me. He told them to place me in a boat and set it adrift. I was cold, I tried to ask for a blanket but they pretended not to hear me. Then, when they pushed me out into the river, I thought I would die.”

“That was not a kind thing to do,” Anfortas replied with feeling, at last daring to look at her. The girl met his gaze and smiled.

“No, it was not. But you are kind. You took me in and cared for me. Now, I begin to wonder what price there is to pay for such generosity.”

Anfortas’s brow clouded over at once. “You think I would have left you in that boat to die?” When the girl did not reply, he turned back to scowl at the flames. “Everyone must have someone to care for them, and I am not made of stone,” he muttered, stretching out his bad leg and wincing at the same time.

“What ails you?” the girl whispered. The king’s mind, normally so befogged with unhappiness, suddenly felt clear, as though someone had opened a window and let fresh air in.

“A thorn in my flesh left a poison in my blood.”

Her cool gaze flickered quickly to his leg before returning to his face. “What happened?”

“I fell in love, and I was betrayed.” The blood running through Anfortas’s veins was warm, and not its usual fevered state. He began to tremble, wondering what her final question would be.

“What did she look like?”

The question threw him, and he frowned as he thought. Strange; the woman he had been so briefly married to now seemed lost to the mist, her face and features blurred to… nothingness.

“D’you know, I can’t remember. It’s all so long ago, and perhaps… perhaps she wasn’t as important to me as I thought at the time.”

As he said the words, a wave of relief seemed to reverberate through his body, lifting the pain and sweeping it away. Unspeaking, the girl rose from her chair and walked towards Anfortas. She held out her hand. Trembling with the effort, the king rose, wrapping his fingers around hers and allowing himself to be led away.

In the inky darkness of the queen’s bedchambers, with the rain still lashing against the diamond-shaped panes of the windows, her tears fell upon his wound. When the king awoke the next morning and saw his love lying in his arms, he smiled and knew that he was healed.

©2020 by Nicola Niemc