Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Winter (11/14/05)
TITLE: Peasant, Servant, King
By Jan Ackerson
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I have lived in this miserable land for thirty-four years. This winter has nearly killed my family; we will not survive another like it.
The first snows fell just days after the last of the wheat was harvested and taken to the king’s storehouses. Within weeks the river had frozen over. It was not long before my trips with bow and arrow became futile—all the forest animals had either retreated into their dens or succumbed to the frigid air. Marta and I scraped by on the apples and potatoes—now mealy and wrinkled—stored in the ground near our little cottage.
(O Marta! Who nurses my son at her breast, but will not eat…<i>Give it to the baby,</i> she says. Or <i>no, I cannot eat—you need it more than I.</i> How thin she has become…)
Today, I went out to gather what few sticks of wood I could find to burn. (Marta is cold, so cold…) I was surprised to see in the distance the shadowy figures of two men, walking. As they neared, I saw that they were dressed not in shabby rags as I was, but in warm robes of fox and ermine fur. <i>My king!</i>
I dropped to my knees in obeisance. But the king grasped my elbow and pulled me to my feet. “Where do you live, good man?”
Trembling, I pointed to our cottage.
“Make haste, then, and go inside. Your clothing is surely inadequate for this cold. Wait for me there.”
I went, and gathered Marta and the baby to myself. We shivered in silence while we waited. Occasionally, the baby whimpered. Some time later, the king and his servant appeared at our door, my lord with a fur-lined basket of food, and his servant dragging a sled piled with enough wood to burn for several days.
“Be warmed and fed, in sweet Jesus’ blessed name,” said my king. He cupped the baby’s face in his hand.
Speechless, we stared after them as they left. A tear rolled down Marta’s chilly face.
<b>Markus, the king’s servant:</b>
I have never been so humiliated.
Yes, I am a servant to the king, yet mine is not a position of subservience, but of power. My family has served the Bohemian kings for generations, and although <i>this</i> one is weak and ineffectual, he is still the king. I do not object when he encourages the people to practice his ridiculous religion; I believe that it teaches them to be docile and obedient. But it is unseemly for a king to practice humility.
My prestige as his main servant keeps me dressed in fine clothing, and gives my wife a warm room within castle walls in which to raise our little son. There is always meat at our table. So I was appalled when the king suggested that we walk outside, as the common people do. “But sire! Surely the snow is too deep for a stroll in the country!”
“I wish to see how my people are faring. This winter has been most unkind. If you find the snow too deep, well, you may walk behind me and step in my footprints. Come!” He strode outside, his furs swirling about him.
We had been trudging through the crusts of snow for half the morning when we came upon a peasant, dressed in rags and gathering sticks. After a brief conversation with the sniveling man, the king sent him home. <i>At last! Maybe now we will go back to the castle. I need some warmed spiced wine.</i>
But the king seemed determined to increase his reputation for <i>goodness</i>—which is no virtue in a king. He sent me to the kitchens—me!—for a basket of meat and bread, and then bade me to fetch a sled laden with firewood. To add to my indignity, he had me follow him through the snow—again—to the peasants’ filthy hovel.
The man, with his miserable wench and mewling, snot-nosed baby, did not even thank us. The king murmured some sort of benediction at the little family, who stared dumbly at us as we left.
I think that history will not long remember this pious king—this <i>good</i> king Wenceslas.
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