critchat: Story Critique

A writing podcast that critiques short stories, books, and other media.

The king looked down at the scroll—given to him by his first guard—in such astonishment that he had forgotten to give his dismissal. And so, the guard stood there for some time, unsure if it was okay to leave.

Finally, the ruler looked up from his rumination and waved him away. This rolled up piece of parchment gave him more apprehension than his coronation many years ago. There couldn’t possibly be words in it—no, it had to be some sort of sketch. Maybe a diagram of some sort that indicated what the peasants desired. There were no literates outside the royal court. He was sure of that.

And yet, here was this supposed letter as a means of communication from the king’s subjects. They have never corresponded this way before; complaints or demands were becoming more common, but it was always through word-of-mouth by the proper channels until it reached the king.

He untied the ragged fabric that held the scroll and unfurled it. When he held the parchment up, his stomach dropped; the penmanship alone proved to be by someone learned. As the king read the words, a deep crimson overtook his face; the demands were audacious by any kingdom’s measure. The fact that the letter was signed not by one person, but by the whole of the peasantry, was an even greater insult.

He crumpled the parchment, tossing it to the floor, before composing his response; the king did not waste time with flowery language and kept it succinct. He wrote that he would forgive their impudence and allow them another chance to ask for something less outrageous.

The next day, the king received a response in the same fashion he had previously. The swiftness of the reply was both ostentatious and disconcerting; whoever was penning these letters was able to do so at a respectable pace. This further suggested an advanced literacy somewhere among the peasantry. He hastily unrolled the parchment, his eyes widening at what he read. As a myriad of negative emotions welled within him, he looked up in indignation and noticed he again did not dismiss his first guard. The king struck out his hand and gave him a vexing wave, causing the guard to quickly scurry out.

The demand remained the same with an added time allotment: a response to the people’s conditions had to be made by midday tomorrow. And the day after that, they further demanded, implementation to their terms would begin. The monarch inwardly scoffed at the insolence and outwardly laughed at the preposterous nature of it all.

There would be no response this time. The king saw the error of his ways by even humoring the initial requests. While the identity of the scribe was a mild curiosity, it gave no power to the people other than the ability to scribble their grievances onto sheepskin, instead of shouting them out into the wind. The king was positive he’d receive yet another suspiciously swift letter the following day—despite his lack of response—but he would not read it this time. Instead, he would save the scroll for his next decree: destroying the people’s parchment in public would be a powerful symbol for the uselessness of penned demands. He knew such a show of authority would strengthen the favor of his royal supporters.

The next day, the king called a council meeting; it was best to appeal to esprit de corps when those outside the castle were showing signs of unrest. He sat on his throne—his first guard to his left, the councilmen at the long table—and began, rather philosophically, on the sanctity of the royal court, and how its very establishment kept the kingdom from crumbling to the steel of their adversaries. These words were easily digested by the royal men.

His passionate opening completed, the monarch paused to add more weight to his already heavy words. However, the effect was lost on the court, for the lack of an orator made a commotion from outside the castle more apparent to the councilmen. The king’s pause became unnaturally long, making it evident that he too could hear the dreadful sound any ruler fears: the unmistakable sound of thousands of men taking march.

Long past a dignified interlude, the monarch and his men continued listening to the advancement. The marching on the interior stone floor echoed through the vaulted rooms, warning the occupants that the progression was already past the main defenses of the castle. It wasn’t long until the room’s massive doors swung open and the peasants—armed with a combination of farm tools and swords—stormed into the royal space.

At this reckoning, the stoic king remained seated. The councilmen were not so resigned and desperately called upon the castle guards to come to their aid; before they lost the ability to call at all when their throats were slashed. The king knew that a castle breach this deep meant he had already lost, and any plea for aid would only be a final humiliation. However, he had a brief moment to ponder how the preceding events were able to take place. It wasn’t until he looked to his left—in an attempt to find shared commiseration with his first guard—and saw the raised cruciform sword over his head, that the king’s initial mild curiosity was fully satiated.