“Sometimes, you have to be kind to be cruel.”—Anonymous
The palace is falling to pieces. The gardens are overgrown and wild. The servants are long gone. No one goes near the palace and no one knows why. No one alive today remembers a time before the palace walls began to crumble. Before the vines began to creep. Before the palace was abandoned by everyone who lived there. Everyone, that is, except the King himself. The King has always been there and will always be there. That was the Gift Of The Sorceress. The Gift that imprisoned the King and set his people free.
Once upon a different time, the palace was resplendent. It was a thing of beauty, the pride of the kingdom. The King was a great ruler then. His is gardens were another Eden and was maintained day and night by the finest gardeners in the world. The King never had to lift a finger for himself, for his servants were loyal, obedient, even proud to serve so fine a King. Back then, people came to the King’s palace every day, seeking his counsel, which was given freely and gladly. The King loved his people and they loved him.
It was the visit from the Countess that set things in motion. Gorgeous beyond words and ardently admired by every young man in the kingdom. She spent a week in the King’s home and he was never the same again. At the time, many blamed the Countess for the change in the King, but that’s unjust. We all make our own decisions, and we are accountable for the consequences to which they lead us.
The King desired her, of course. All men desired her—as did many women—for her beauty was unmatched in all the world. But there is more to true beauty than just looking a certain way. And the Countess’ beauty was truly only skin deep if anyone’s was. She treated others as the dirt beneath her feet. Her own servants, the King’s servants, the peasantry who visited the King’s gardens and came to ask advice of the King, even the King himself was beneath the Countess.
“Why do you let these common people walk all over you?” she demanded of her host. “Look at them. Those filthy common people defiling your gardens, muddying up your home and addressing you as if you were their equal.”
“Well,” said the King, “it’s true I have wealth and power, but we’re all human, aren’t we? We are all God’s children.”
The Countess laughed. “You memorized that pathetic platitude at your mother’s knee and you recite it like a parrot to justify your own cowardice.”
“If you were any kind of a man--any kind of a monarch--you would show these people who you are. You are a King! With a wave of your hand, you can send an army to destroy their village and take every scrap they own. It is high time your people remembered that.”
“But why would I want to send an army to destroy their village? Why would I want to take every scrap they own? They have so little and I have so much.”
“That is not the point! These people should be cowering in fear of you, not coming to you with their petty problems.”
The King wasn’t sure he could follow the Countess’ advice. After all, there had been peace in his domain for many years. Things seemed to be going well. Was it wise to make so bold a change?
That night, as the King slept uneasily, his mind troubled by the words of the Countess, she came to his bedchamber. She entered silently until she desired the King to awaken, then she allowed herself to be heard. Before his startled and awestruck eyes, she disrobed and straddled him without a word.
“I need a real man,” she said as she rose and fell over his strong, eager body. “One who knows his own strength. One who puts those beneath him in their place. One who isn’t afraid to use the power he wields. Are you that man?”
“Yes!” the King moaned, almost growled, the word.
“Swear to me!”
It began in little ways. The following morning, the King informed his staff that he would no longer be hearing petitions from the villagers and that they were no longer permitted to enter his gardens without paying a fee. Furthermore, anyone who appeared before the King for any reason would have to bring a gift. The servants were confused, and more than a little alarmed, but they obeyed.
Gradually, he stopped saying “please” or “thank you” to his servants when he ordered them around. He began barking at them, demeaning them, insulting them as he worked them harder than they had ever worked before. They were not permitted to touch him, or to look directly at him.
The Countess was long gone, but her wickedness had remained. It was as if the Countess had put him under a spell. But it was no spell. In a moment of weakness he had agreed to dominate, developed a taste for it, and had let it get out of hand. You can hand a man a drink of wine and he might drink it and stop right there, or he might drink another and another. It is not the fault of the person who offered the man a drink if the man chose to become a drunkard.
And drunk is exactly what the King had become. He was drunk on his newly discovered power. The peace of his domain was shattered and he gave himself over entirely to pleasure. His own ease and comfort were the only things he cared about. His people, who had once been as welcome as glad tidings in his home, grew weak and hungry as the King raised their taxes and increased their quotas. And he didn’t care.
The people of the village were desperate. They had no one to come to their aid. The King had once been their friend, and now he was a cruel and wicked tyrant. What could they do? If they angered him, he would raise his army and destroy them at a stroke.
In the end, it was the courage of one small boy that led to their salvation. Seeing the dreadful state of his home and the suffering of his friends and family, this boy set out one night to find someone to help his people. He wandered through the night until he came to a broken down shack in the middle of the forest. A place that no one came to unless they had nowhere else to go. The home of the Sorceress.
The Sorceress took pity on the boy and the plight of his village and she made a sacred vow to use all her skills of magic and mysticism to end the suffering of his people.
Two days later, a visitor from another land came to see the King. She had, of course, been warned about the custom of bringing a gift in exchange for the honor of being seen by the King, and she was certain her gift would not disappoint.
“What do you want?” grumbled the King at the woman who stood before him. She was older than he by twenty years or more, but fancily dressed and clearly a woman of wealth and importance.
“I want nothing,” said the Sorceress. “I heard of the greatness of the King who lived in this palace, and I wanted only to come and pay my respects. And to give you a gift, of course.”
“I see no gift,” said the King. And, indeed, it looked to all the world as though the Sorceress had come empty-handed.
“Many people cannot see that which is right in front of them.” So saying, the Sorceress drew up the hem of her cloak and swept it around herself. In an instant, she was gone, and in her place…stood the clock.
The most magnificent clock ever made. It was enormous, bigger than the King himself and every piece of it hand-carved from the sturdiest, finest wood in the land. It was wound so tightly and constructed so elegantly that it would never run down, and kept perfect time down to the smallest fraction of a second. And every hour on the hour, there would be a display. A seemingly infinite variation of wooden figures acted out scenes from classic stories, tales from scripture and epic poems. The performances were spell-binding and accompanied by impossibly beautiful music and the action was—naturally—in perfect synchronization with the ticking of the clock. Each hour brought a different display which was seen once and then never repeated.
Seated in his throne, the King stared, transfixed, at the clock. Even when the wooden figures were not doing their hourly pantomime, there was something to look at. All along the sides of the clock were shapes and figures ticking in perfect harmony, moving, spinning, or simply rocking back and forth. It never stopped moving, no matter what the time of day.
Forgotten were the daily duties of running his estate, forgotten were his demands on his soldiers, servants and subjects. From then on, all the King wanted to do was watch his magnificent clock. He dared not look away, for fear of missing something which he might never see again.
Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months. Months into years. Decades. And all the King did was to sit in his chair and watch the clock. His beard and hair grew long and unruly. His palace fell into disrepair. His servants abandoned him. He didn’t care. He didn’t even notice. All he saw, all he knew, was the clock. It was his entire world.
Nobody goes to the palace anymore. No one remembers why that is. But if anyone did go inside the palace, assuming they got past the thorny brambles from the overgrown garden and avoided being hit on the head by a falling rock from the toppling towers, they would see nothing but empty halls, long since overrun by spiders, rats and decay.
And in the throne room they would find a man. An impossibly old man. His hair and beard overgrown, wrapping around the throne, binding him to it permanently, staring as if hypontized at a clock. The most magnificent clock ever made. A clock which will never run down, never stop, never set the old man free.
To think, this pathetic old man was once the greatest king who ever lived.