The courtyards of the castles and the keeps of the forts were the roaming places of my friends and I when we were young enough to be fascinated by the thoughts of battle and glory, hearing the stories of the old soldiers they told by the bonfires, and seeing the eyes of the women glaze over with something akin to adoration, and the eyes of the men’s fathers full of pride.
Others would turn away, aware of the blood price paid for victories, and the soul crushing pain of ruin and defeat at the hands of gloating victors.
It didn’t matter to us children until the land went bad, the money ran out, the jobs were gone, and hunger sat like a dozing toad over the place I called home.
For our many crimes of survival, taking no joy in all we had to feed ourselves, the King had those of us caught in the act tied to stakes, and placed in the very courtyards we once roamed freely.
His guards placed us in the ones that had the longest stretches of summer sun, and no one was allowed to feed us or give us anything to drink, on the peril of joining our line of questionable criminals.
As the days and nights passed, the flies came as our bellies emptied the last of their contents.
They laid their eggs, and moved from waste to skin, then laid more eggs.
We felt the maggots writhe as they feasted, seeming almost to dance.
The bindings never slipped.
The blindfolds never slipped.
Rendering us helpless, the kingsguard had been thorough in their work.
Those who died from exposure were spared the worst that was yet to come, and in another day or so we heard them, made all the more terrifying because we couldn’t see them:
The ravens came shortly after.
We heard the calls, felt the wind when they flew onto us to pull the blindfolds down, then fly off to a safe distance.
Every day, more came.
The screams were random, and horrifying; the blindfolds were tied anew every morning, but the ravens were relentless.
In the silence between screams, the sound of their beaks knocking against the eye sockets echoed in the yard as the sun set and darkness brought some relief.
When my turn came, the scythe shaped beaks tore into burned, chapped skin that parted like gossamer at the hammering blows.
I screamed from the pain my nerves registered, and such tears as I had left inside of me never rolled out of the blindfold.
Floating in and out of consciousness in an ebon-shadowed dreamscape, I could see the bodies that still clung to their stakes, their sundered flesh gory and terrible.
And every day, more birds came and worked until I screamed myself hoarse.
In the heat of the noonday sun, after days lost to pain and numbness in their dance macabre, I felt the fading of life.
Footsteps approached, and the small clink of armor made me hope a soldier’s weapon would make a quick end, a hope that was dashed when I heard who it was that spoke the last words I’d hear.
“Give him water, I will speak with him now.”
“Yes, your grace.” They lifted my head, parted my lips, and poured.
I didn’t know if the gods would grant me the time he wanted; I was fine with whatever they chose.
“You understand why I imprisoned you so?”
“No, my king. I would think you would see all your subjects fed.”
“You feel I’ve done you an injustice.”
“I know it.”
I heard the drawing of a sword. “His tongue grows overbold, sire.”
“Stay your hand, Captain. Sheathe your sword.”
I heard it go back inside the sheathe.
The king spoke to me again. “You knew the risks of stealing rationed food.”
“It was not rationed fairly.”
“Kings make war or trade to feed their people, You did neither, and gave the best to the nobles of your court to keep favor and avoid assassination.”
He was silent for a time, but so was I.
After a while, he spoke again. “For your words, I will not let the captain of my guard grant you a merciful end, and may the gods judge you harshly for your crimes.”
They began to walk away.
I no longer wanted to linger, and I knew the bristly Captain would be the key to my departure.
“And may they judge you equally for your cowardice, ‘majesty.’
I heard steps running back toward me.
After so long a time of piercing and bleeding slowly, the blade proved nothing more than the jab of a larger bird, and my body arced toward it as the captain pushed it hard through, breaking the stake in half, and sliding the sword out, he let me fall with it.
What few ravens remained made a brief, excited racket, and then the darkness of the cosmos blended their feathers together, and blinded my heart to life, as my eyes had been to nature.
The spirits of my fellow prisoners waited, greeting me, and together we left the fortunes of the generous earth to the tyrannical, childish whims of petty men, and went in search of Paradise, wherever it may be, by whatever name it calls itself.