Sixteen years old, fourth son,
still they sent him to the mountain
together with his brothers
before their father’s body stiffened,
the kingdom suspended without a king:
four princes, one crown
(a crown he had no use for,
a crown of war, alliances, duty).
He slept on straw near his horse,
displacing the stableboy,
waited for his eldest brother to return
triumphant, ready for the throne—
then brother after brother vanished
into rock and ice and cloud.
The steward took his sword,
his shield, sent him out at dusk:
no torch, no guide, no horse,
no servant, no food, no water.
Snow deepened under his boots;
he waded through drifts,
fell once, twice. The wind mocked him;
he thought of the warm stable,
the bed of straw, his horse,
sleep—but sleep meant death,
so he stumbled on. The wind
called his brothers’ names.
He shouted back his own name;
the wind laughed. Snow fell.
He walked half-blind; sleet kissed
his forehead. The wind said sleep.
He sang to drown it, sang hymns,
nursery songs, drinking songs,
dirges, ballads, marching tunes,
the love songs his mother favored
(she who was bartered for peace
to a man she’d never met).
He fell, pushed himself upright,
saw a black cloud speed against the wind.
She landed beside him, her breath ash,
snow steaming from her wings.
He knelt, but did not beg,
and asked after his brothers.
“One slept. One fought. One pissed
himself. They didn’t taste like kings.”
She laughed. “And you? What will you
pay for a crown, little princeling?”
“Nothing. I don’t want it.”
She flamed, and he saw himself reflected
in her scales, a kneeling, shivering boy.
“Then why,” she asked, “are you here?”
“Because they sent me.” He stopped. “No.”
He was so tired, he couldn’t think—
“Because the kingdom needs a king.”
He struggled to his feet.
“And what will you pay for the crown,
little princeling? Gold? Men? A song?”
“My freedom!” he shouted at her.
“Well,” she said, “that’s a start.”
(Years later, on a spring morning,
his queen asked, greatly daring,
about the woman whose name he cried
in his sleep. “Not a woman,” he said,
his heart on the mountain
where he entered his kingship.)