THE KING, THE PRINCE AND THE PEASANT
by Murray Andrew Pura
Long ago and far away there lived a good king who ruled wisely and justly over his kingdom. Often he would leave his throne and take off his crown and dress in the simple clothes of a beggar. Attired like this he could wander about his kingdom without being recognized and visit with his people in their homes or take meals with them in their taverns. In this way he understood what was truly going on within his borders and what his people needed and what they feared.
But he did not go out on these excursions in disguise only in order to help his people. He also did it because his very best friend was a peasant who raised sheep on a green hill by a small cottage. At this cottage the king could laugh and sleep in late or help shear the sheep. He could talk about anything he liked. Walk about the cottage with one shoe off and one shoe on. Cook the food. Eat coarse black bread and yellow cheese. Ride a horse without his bodyguards. In short, he could be himself.
It was his friend who made this possible. Even though he was at least 20 years younger than the king he was not afraid of the great man. He did not expect him to act like a high and mighty king and he did not expect to be treated like a lowly peasant. He simply enjoyed the king for who he was, crown or no crown. And this was precisely the atmosphere the king needed in order to relax and be refreshed and renewed in his body and his spirit.
“You remind me of my son,” the king said one day, sitting at a table near the fire with the peasant. They were both eating black olives and spitting the pits into their hands.
“What is he like?” asked the peasant.
“Young like you. Quiet. A good listener. Someone who brings freedom to those who know him.”
“I should like to meet him.”
“That day will come. Perhaps this summer we will both show up at your door as tinkers. We will be riding mules and selling pots and pans.”
The peasant laughed. “That is a pleasing image. The king and his son riding mules rattling and clanging with tin pots.”
The king smiled. “It would not be such a bad life.”
Now one morning, many months after the king’s last visit, the peasant rose early in the morning to tend to his sheep. It was lambing season and he was anxious that he should lose none of his newborn to the wolf or the fox. He quickly took some bread and cheese and olives while it was still dark, wrapped his cloak about his shoulders, picked up his staff and went up the hill. Two lambs had been born during the night and both were doing well, taking their mothers’ milk. He could see that many more of his ewes were ready to give birth at any time. So that night and for many nights after he slept on the hill with his flock. He lit fires and sang songs and thanked God for every lamb that came into the world. When he slept he rolled himself into his thick cloak and used a smooth flat stone for a pillow. Twice he chased off foxes and once a wild dog, threatening them with the tall staff that he had cut from an oak tree.
One night the bleating of his sheep woke him and he sprang to his feet ready to wield his strong staff. At first he could see nothing in the darkness. Then he heard a grunt and spotted a man lifting a lamb under each arm and loading them into a horse-drawn cart. He ran up and demanded angrily, “Neighbour, what do you think you are doing?”
The big bearded man was startled by the peasant’s appearance but quickly laughed it off and scooped up another lamb. “I work for your landlord. You are behind in your rent and I am here to take what is due him.”
The peasant seethed. “In ten years I have never missed a payment on my rent.”
“Well,” the big man answered, loading two more lambs into the cart, “rent went up the first of March. And you haven’t paid the increase. But not to worry. Your lambs will make up what’s owed.”
“I was never told about a rent increase.”
“Well, you’ve been told now.” The big man counted the lambs in the cart. “Twenty. That ought to do for this load. I’ll be back in a few days to pick up the rest.”
The peasant blocked the big man’s path. “Put those lambs back with their mothers.”
The big man guffawed. “What is this? The mouse that roared?”
The peasant lifted his staff. “Put them back.”
The big man shook his beard. “I don’t have time for this.” And he lifted the peasant in his brawny arms and threw him to the ground, almost splitting his head open. Then he turned to take the halter rope of the horse in his hand and lead the mare down the hill. “I’ll be back on Sunday,” he said. “See that you have the newborns ready for me.” And with the lambs crying for their mothers and their mothers crying back, the big bearded man began to walk the horse and cart down the slope.
The peasant got to his feet, shook his head, heard the bleating of the lambs and picked up his staff. His head pounded. Fire roared up through his arms and chest. He raced up behind the big man and shouted, “Put them back!” And when the big man growled and turned to fight, the peasant struck him once, twice, three times with the oak staff until the big man collapsed on the grass. Panting, the peasant bent over the man. When he saw that he had killed him, he carefully lifted each lamb out of the cart and took them back to their mothers. Then he pushed and pulled and loaded the big man’s body into the cart and led horse and cart down the hill to the village to knock at the door of the sheriff.
That day the king watched the sun rise in a glorious rainbow of reds and golds and purples. Then he washed and ate a hearty breakfast and put on his kingly clothing and sat on his throne to conduct the business of the day. He could not believe his eyes when the doors to his chamber opened and the guards brought in a man, a peasant, his friend, chained hand and foot followed by the sheriff and a whole mob of people weeping and shaking their fists.
“He has killed my husband!” shouted one woman.
“He has murdered my son!” shouted another.
“He has slaughtered this lad’s father!” shouted yet another.
“Silence!” thundered the king and all became silent. He turned to the sheriff. “What is this?”
The sheriff bowed. “It is not a difficult case, your majesty. This peasant confesses to the crime. There was a quarrel over some sheep. This peasant struck the dead man three times with his staff. He killed him.”
“Murder! Murder!” cried one woman.
“We demand justice!” yelled a large man. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!”
“Enough!” The king thumped his sceptre against the floor and the jabbering again ceased. Then he looked the peasant in the eye. “Is all this true?”
The peasant lifted his head and looked at the king. There were no beggar’s clothes on his friend now. No olive pits in his hand. Instead he was dressed in scarlet and gold and a crown blazed from his head and the sceptre flashed like lightning from a clenched fist. There was no laughter on his lips and his face was as fierce as a hawk’s. The peasant swallowed and bowed his head. “All that your sheriff says is true, my lord. He claimed he was taking my lambs for overdue rent but I did not believe him and I struck him down.”
“That is so, your majesty!” called a thin man with the face of a weasel. “This peasant was months behind on his rent and I sent the man he murdered to collect. A most trustworthy man.”
“I knew nothing about an increase in rent,” the peasant said.
“Is that cause enough to kill a man?” the sheriff asked quietly. “Why did you not come to me before striking him to the ground?”
The peasant shook his head. “I lost my temper. I am sorry.”
“Sorry?” screamed one woman. “What good does that do?”
“Words mean nothing!” yelled another. “A life for a life!”
“We demand justice from the king!” shouted a third.
“The law is clear, your majesty,” the sheriff said while family and relatives wept and raged. “The peasant killed for no good reason. His life was not threatened. The landlord had a legitimate claim on the sheep for rent due him. Instead of coming to me for assistance, the peasant took it upon himself to take the law into his own hands. Now a man is dead and his family mourns. The laws of our kingdom are clear and they are just. A life for a life.”
“A life for a life!” the mob roared.
The king rose to his feet. The mob grew quiet. “I will pronounce judgment,” he said. He looked his friend in the eye and raised his sceptre. “With your own mouth you have confessed. An apology does not bring the dead back to life. Our law knows of no other remedy than to pay back eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. You will be taken to the place of execution tomorrow at dawn. There your head will be separated from your shoulders. The debt of blood will be paid and the kingdom will continue to exist in harmony and in peace. This is the decree of the king.”
“The king has spoken!” all the people responded.
The peasant was led away by the guards and taken down deep into the bowels of the castle and thrust into a dirty cell in the dungeon. There he was chained to the wall by his arms, in addition to remaining chained at his ankles and wrists. The dungeonmaster laughed. “You won’t be needing your arms. We don’t feed the guilty the day before their execution. We feel concerned about their souls. We think a fast is good for them. Helps cleanse them of their sins.” And he closed the iron door to the peasant’s cell with a crash.
Meanwhile the king remained on his throne throughout the day, settling every matter that was brought before him with wisdom and with justice. But at night, alone in his bedchamber, he laid his sceptre on a red velvet cushion and placed his crown on a white marble table and sank his face into his hands and wept. Great sobs shook his entire body. He knelt by his bed and tried to pray but he could not. And his loud groans reached the ears of the prince.
Now the prince had just returned from a long ride on his golden horse, examining the woodcutting that was going on in the huge forests that lay just beyond bowshot of the castle. He was washing his face and changing his clothes when he heard his father crying. He came and knocked on the door and entered the king’s room.
“Father,” he said in alarm, seeing the king collapsed by his bed, “what is it? What has happened to crush your spirit like this? Are you ill? Has someone died?”
The king rose and hugged his son close to him. “My boy,” he said, “you speak the truth of it. A good friend, my greatest friend, is as good as dead. And I am the one who has executed him.”
“What? The peasant? Is he guilty of a crime?”
“Aye, guilty, he confesses it. It was done in a hot temper. No doubt he thought he had reason to strike the man taking his lambs. But not to kill him.”
“Can’t you pardon him?”
“What? With the dead man’s family and relatives baying for his blood like hounds on the hunt? The law is irrevocable. He took the life of a man. Now his life must be taken. If I break this law for him I break my kingdom. I break justice. My name will be muttered with a curse in all corners of our land. My rule will be at an end. The blood debt must be paid, my son. Or the world that we know will come off balance. It will fall to pieces.” The king turned from the prince and walked to the window to look out at the gathering darkness. “No. He is lost. I cannot save him.”
All that night the king did not sleep. He sat at the table in his room. Or he looked out the window. Or he paced. Nor did the peasant sleep. Even if he had felt like resting, he could not. Whenever he tried to relax his legs his arms burned like fire as they strained against the chains on the wall. He looked and looked into the windowless darkness and listened to the rats chittering in the corners. The prince did not sleep. He worried for his father and he worried for his father’s friend. He called for his counsellors. “Surely there is another way of satisfying the law and rendering justice in this case,” he said. His counsellors shrugged. “The law is the law,” they answered him. “When it comes to death there are no loopholes.” But the prince studied the great books of the kingdom himself until dawn began to crack the sky.
As soon as a slit appeared between heaven and earth the dungeonmaster unlocked the door to the peasant’s cell with a clatter and two guards came to drag the peasant to the place of execution. It was a large open square within the castle. A massive block of oak, stained black with old blood and scarred with cuts from the blows of the mighty ax, stood in the centre of the square. Guards in armour ringed the block and the dead man’s family and friends seethed and surged around the guards. The king stood with his retinue on a dais. A path was cleared for the peasant. He was taken to the block and told to kneel. A monk in a long brown robe prayed over him. Then the executioner appeared, walking slowly out of a door in the castle.
He was a big man with thick arms and legs and a chest like a boulder. A black hood covered his face. His hands were like stones and in them he carried the great silver ax. He stood over the kneeling peasant. Even the crowd was afraid of him and ceased to move or speak. He looked up at the king and waited.
“Now justice is seen to be done!” cried the king.
“Now justice is seen to be done!” responded the crowd.
The executioner lifted the enormous ax and swung it up over his head in a smooth arc. He paused. The muscles in his arms and wrists suddenly bulged and the ax dropped.
“Stop! In the name of the king!”
The executioner grunted and halted the ax blade just inches from the peasant’s neck. The crowd turned to look at the prince. He was striding across the square, his cloak of scarlet flapping behind him. “Release this man,” he commanded the guards. The guards looked up at the king.
“What are you doing, my son?” demanded the king.
“Doesn’t our law say a life for a life?” the prince asked the king.
“Yes, my son. You know it.”
“Then I claim the ancient law of exchange. A life for a life. Let the prisoner go free. I will take his place.”
“No!” shouted the king.
“No!” shouted the crowd.
“It is the law!” cried the prince. “No one may hinder me! I do this act freely and of my own choosing. No one has forced me. No one has put any gold in my palm. I gain nothing. But.” And suddenly the prince’s hard and frosty face warmed with a small smile. “But my father will gain a second son.” He turned and looked at the crowd. “It is my right. It is the law of exchange. A life for a life.” He looked up at the king who was trembling and whose eyes were shining. “Do not be afraid, my father. I am going to God. And you will join me when he sees fit.” The prince helped the peasant to his feet. “Do not be afraid to be free. There is much good you can do. Just remember who your father is now. The same man who has been my father since I was a newborn.” He turned to the hooded executioner. “Do your duty. See to it that the blood debt is paid. Set my spirit at liberty.” Then the prince knelt at the block of oak.
“Now justice is seen to be done!” cried the prince.
“Now justice is seen to be done,” murmured the monk. But only he spoke. Everyone else was silent.
The executioner seemed unsure of himself for a moment. Then he hefted the huge ax in his hands and lifted it up over his head. He paused. Then he threw his muscles into the blow and brought the blade swiftly and surely down onto the prince’s neck. As the ax struck home a guard slashed the through the chains of the peasant with one stroke of his sword. “Now the law is satisfied,” said the guard. “Go. You are a free man.”
The peasant stood in that light of purest gold that always cloaks the earth for a few minutes at the beginning and the end of each day. He watched the crowd turn from the block with their heads down. He saw the executioner wipe his blade clean with a red cloth. He followed the movement of the king as he came off the dais and knelt and held the body of his son. He heard a lark singing and the king weeping. Then he turned and fled, the broken chains clanging against the ground as he ran.
He did not stop running until he reached his cottage. His sheep were milling about the door but he thrust through them and went inside and barred the door. Then he sat on a chair in front of the ashes of the fire and buried his head in his hands. The sun spanned the sky and disappeared. The earth grew dark. He could hear the bleating of his flock. But he did not move. He did not eat or drink. He acted as if he were dead.
At midnight there was a knocking at the door. The peasant did not get up to answer it. The knocking came again. And again. Still the peasant would not rise from the ashes of the fire. Finally a voice came through the door. It was the king.
“My friend. Open the door. It is I.”
But the peasant said nothing.
“I come in peace. I have brought some bread and cheese. Let us share it.”
Still the peasant said nothing.
“I have travelled a long way on foot. I am tired. I am cold. The night is dark. Open your door to me. My son.”
At these words the peasant slowly rose to his feet, walked to the door, unbarred it and opened it. There stood the king in the light of a waxing moon. He still wore his royal robes but they were torn and stained. The peasant stood just inside the doorway. Both men had the footpaths of weeping upon their faces.
“I am not worthy to be called your son,” said the peasant.
“Your brother thought you were,” answered the king.
“He did not know me.”
“But I do.”
The king embraced the peasant and kissed him on the cheek. Then he came inside and set a leather pouch on the table. Out of it he drew bread and cheese and, a rarity, one red apple. He took two of the peasant’s pewter cups and dipped them in a bucket of rainwater and placed them beside the apple. Finally he knelt at the hearth, took some wood, blew on the coals banked in the ashes and kindled a fire. It’s yellow light filled the room and began to work heat into their bones.
“Come and eat,” said the king.
The peasant sat at the table with the king and tried to chew some of the bread. The manacles on his wrists clanked against the wood. “Wait a moment,” said the king. He took a large key from a pocket. He smiled. “The dungeonmaster gave me this.” The peasant also gave a small smile: “I’m certain he gave it willingly.” The king laughed and reached over to unlock the broken chains on the peasant’s wrists. Then he knelt and unlocked the manacles on the peasant’s feet.
“How does that feel?” asked the king.
The king threw the chains out the open door into the night. There was a clatter of hooves. “My sheep,” said the peasant. The king nodded. “They’ve missed you. Let us eat up quickly and tend to them.” “All right,” answered the peasant. The king took a small knife out of the pouch and split the apple. “Would they still be lambing, my son?”
The peasant looked into the king’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Then we had better be prepared to sleep outside a few more nights.”
“I think so.”
“Do you have a heavy cloak I can borrow?”
“I have several.”
“One will be enough. Or do you think my bones are so old that I will need three or four?”
“No. One good one will be all you need. Here.” The peasant got up and took a blue cloak from a hook near the fireplace. Then he offered it to the king. “This will be just right for you. Father.”
The king smiled and nodded and his eyes gleamed. “Thank you, son.”
So they finished what they could of the food and went out into the night and walked up the hill and the sheep followed them. The peasant counted and then counted again. “There are six new lambs,” he said, “but one ewe is missing. She has probably gone off to some little nook or cranny to give birth. I doubt she’s gone far. I know her. Sit down and rest, father. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“Not on your life,” replied the king. “I’m coming with you. I’ve been locked up inside that confounded castle long enough.” He got to his feet. “Let’s go.”
So father and son walked out under the stars together to look for the ewe and her newborn. As they went they both thought of the prince but talked of the weather. They searched for an hour before they found the ewe. The son went to pick up the lamb but the father beat him to it. They returned to the flock and bedded down for the night. But not before the father pulled a large gold ring off his finger and slipped it onto the finger of his son.
“Thank you,” said the son.
“You have probably not thought of it,” said the father as he burrowed into his blue cloak, “but you are a prince now. What do you think of that?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“A prince has much to learn. But there will be time enough for that. Right now there are more important things. The sheep. The hill. The stars. Bread and cheese. Olives.” He peeked out at his son from under his cowl. “And pots and pans. Do you think we’ll have a few weeks to spare to be tinkers before we return to the castle? I know a man who will lend us a good mule.”
They both laughed. Night became morning and morning became many days and many days gathered themselves into months and years and they lived and breathed and ruled the kingdom with wisdom, with justice and with mercy. And of all people in all worlds, possible and impossible, the two of them lived to the height, to the depth and to the breadth of all that was brightest and most wonderful.
And they never forgot.