|King of the Sandpit
Author: Kneecap PM
Because sometimes, even kings have to fall.Rated: Fiction M - English - Horror/Drama - Words: 5,128 - Reviews: 2 - Published: 10-30-09 - Status: Complete - id: 2736026
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
AN: Ok, so I'm cheating, this isn't something brand new. I wrote this 4 months ago when it was actually summer, and haven't posted it until now because I didn't think anyone would actually read it on here. I'm pretty sure that'll still be the case, but vanity is as vanity does. I'm indebted to quite a few people for not only beginning this, but finishing it too. But most of all to mademoiselle Nav. I could spend forever and a day exhorting your praises, but brevity is, allegedly, the soul of wit, and so, very quickly: thank you, sweetheart.
For almost 8 years he had been King of the Sandpit. In all those years, he had never known a challenge. It'll always be just like it is, he had told himself. Tomorrow is a day, is another day away.
But now, tomorrow had caught up with Gannon Kent. Riding on misery's back, defeat was finally shortening the distance between them, and he knew his time was running short. He was 17, but events over the last few days had moved so rapidly that he could have fooled himself into thinking he was middle-aged.
Raking a hand through his slick, slightly knotted hair, he let out a ragged sigh. His jeans glimmered like hoar frost with scattered gems of water from the bottle he'd just drunk out of, and was now resting, empty, by his feet. A yellow guitar was embossed on the white of his t-shirt and in the sagging heat of an impulsive summer he could feel it plastered to his back.
There was a time when Gannon would never have sat as he was now, despondent and overheated on the kerb, his legs pointing out accusatorily into the lifeless road. Alone. The King needed followers, and followers he had had. Brian, Natasha, Ethan, George…even Billy. Timid, desperate, sycophantic Billy. He'd have given his last breath on earth right at that moment, just to hear his voice. But his retinue was gone, noses turned to the winds of change. Not even Harriet, his closest advisor, his counsel through the monotony of school, his best friend, would sit with him now.
To kill a king, to kill a king: dramatic, overstated, and so terribly true. Self-pitying thoughts swirled in an unseasonable aureole around his head. What happened? he pleadingly asked himself. One stupid, meaningless kiss, and now he was nothing more than a title; king only by de jure while his cabinet of advisors chose his successor. What happened? Gannon Kent – officially King Edmund I – had kissed a commoner. There was nothing shocking about it, really. After all, it'd hardly been the first, and it wasn't like it was any great secret, or that he lived in an intolerant community. In fact, it was nearly impossible to find any teenager in Iscariot who didn't know about Gannon's court of 'Mignons'. He'd even slept with some of them, and everyone knew. So why? Why was he being dethroned the day before his 8th anniversary as Monarch of the Sandpit? The Single Magnate of Iscariot?
Tomorrow, Gannon turned 18. Thinking back nostalgically, he remembered the day of his coronation: his 10th birthday. He could remember fragments of the day: the atmosphere of intense excitement that buzzed around the school playground in the morning; being jostled by the crowd of children as he listened to the deposed king, his predecessor, Henry II, demand to know why he was finished; his shock and terror at being called forth by Henry's chief advisor, Vicky, and informed that he had been chosen to be the next king, and asked what name he would take – to which he had nervously squeaked the first name that came to mind: Edmund; and being escorted by a couple of adolescents away from the Sandpit, where he'd last seen Henry, with the low hum of chanting dying out behind him.
And now, cyclically, the poisoned chalice had reached his own lips. Why now? Why after so many years of excellent leadership, when he had given nothing but the wisest of judgments? Children were still singing, even at the setting of Gannon's premiership, about his omnipotent leadership of the Iscariot youth football team, bringing them to a stunning 8-2 victory against their neighbourly rivals, the town of Pacifica.
As Gannon lay back, groaning, onto the pavement, a shadow passed over his eyes, causing him to abruptly sit up straight again. Only a foot away from him, like clouds that veiled the midnight moon, two adolescents stood, faces shrouded in blooms of heat. Both were wearing shorts, t-shirts and sandals, and both had strictly expressionless faces. In turns, he knew them both.
'Mark! Gawain! Hey, it's been a while. Would you do something for me? For your king? Would you sit here, both, with me, and talk? Just talk? We never did,' Gannon asked, his eyes unblinking.
'You're wanted at Hill House.' They both spoke in almost perfect unison, staring at a spot just over his head, and neatly away from his eyes.
Gannon didn't move. 'Please?'
'Harriet insists,' Mark stated.
'We've been authorised to use force, if necessary,' Gawain added.
Still Gannon wouldn't move. 'I'm hardly asking for much,' he whispered, barely audible in the dull throbbing silence. 'I deserve better than this.'
The very faintest breath of air escaped Gawain's nose. Mark's eye twitched. In sluggish synchronicity they leant over and grabbed his skinny arms, hauling him upright. Gannon didn't resist, merely allowed them to lead him away, enjoying, as he never had before, just how it felt to be close to someone, even if it meant nothing. No, particularly because it meant nothing.
As he was marched up the road, he glanced across both sides of the street. The 90s terraces, the blooming plum trees, their leaves an explosion of turquoise and purple tongues; the spotless cars parked in each driveway; the vacuum of children. He was in speechless company.
Gannon Kent was unutterably alone.
Hill House was really a nominal building. There had been a shack at the top of the small hill at some point, years ago, some kind of shepherd's windbreak. But hundreds of years of furious squalls and lashing rain had beaten and twisted it, and all that was left were the blasted ruins of tumbled stones; nothing beside remains. Still, though, it was an ideal place to address a crowd, and had a certain symbolic value. Gannon could still appreciate this, even as he stood in the centre of the toppled rocks and stared at the flinty faces of the crowd around him. There had to be thousands of them, all children, ranging from 4 to nearly 18, all watching him, and all chatting to their neighbours. Each and every face had a look of sickening anticipation, and in the set of every eye Gannon could see their hearts were hardened against him. The noise was not dissimilar to the raucous cries of seagulls descending on a fishing trawler.
'Silence! SILENCE!' a voice bellowed out from the front of the crowd, the speaker facing the mob. It was a female voice and it carried a self-assured authority. He knew the voice, and his stomach welled up with the rotting pollutants of her betrayal. Within moments, the horde of children was quieted, her order spreading out in concentric circles. There were so many people that they covered the entire hill, like a swarm of ravenous locusts, and spilled out onto the flat fields and meadows at the base of the mount.
Waiting politely for the last murmurs to die down, the speaker at last turned to face Gannon. Harriet Fidèle's perfect features looked him unashamedly in the eye, and didn't break contact. Her hair was tied in two symmetrical, golden plaits, the tips of both resting neatly on par with her diaphragm; her eyebrows sojourned lightly above her arctic eyes, neither raised nor lowered even a quarter of an inch; a thin-lipped smile held a secret sneer of cold command, and she raised one pale, mocking index finger at head-height.
'Since 1948,' Harriet began, her voice clear and strident over the expectant mass, 'since 1948, we have upheld the dynastic system. Since 1948, it has been the job of the inner cabinet to call time on the regnant monarch, and, as a dynasty dictates, to choose a new leader from the same family.'
Harriet turned again to face the crowd. 'Children of Iscariot: are we not a family?' A roar of puerile agreement surged from the crowd, and Harriet waited until it had more or less subsided before she continued; she had always been a handy orator.
'However!' she exclaimed, pausing for another moment to let hush fall completely. 'However, before we can appoint a new leader, we must make a trial of the old. As you can all hopefully see,' she said, waving a hand idly in Gannon's direction, 'behind me stands King Edmund I. This man –' no sooner had the word been spoken than a frenzied howl burst from the crowd, every child halloaing threats that ranged from the absurd to dire and ominous. Seizing on the furore she had accidentally caused, Harriet exploited the term. 'This man has been caught in an act of abomination. Not three days passed he was seen, by no less than 18 witnesses, engaging in forbidden activities with an unsuitable suitor.'
The shrieking of the crowd this time, tellingly, had a far more feminine ring to it; not a few of the boys closest to Gannon averted their gazes. Gannon felt, for a brief moment, something bordering on shame. Maybe he should have looked for something more long lasting – sex is ephemeral. He wasn't perfect, though he wouldn't have taken great pains to admit it. This humiliation was too dear a price to pay for such petty things.
'As we all well know,' Harriet continued, more sharply than ever, 'such actions are strictly prohibited under the Lottery Laws, and must be punished.' The flock of children railed their agreement so deafeningly that Harriet had to wait an entire minute before she deemed it worthy of her time to call for silence again. Things never change; all mobs like rough justice.
'Before any such condemnation can occur, however, the accused has the right to defend himself.' Harriet slowly turned to face Gannon, a look of preordained victory chilling her countenance into a broad smile. 'King Edmund, on this charge of gross public indecency, how do you plead?'
Today, she played God.
This was no trial; nobody was fooled. Gannon stared hard into her savagely unemotional eyes, and found only a wilderness: 6 years of friendship annihilated practically overnight. He shifted his gaze elsewhere, to the other faces in the crowd. From one leer to another, they'd formed a stone circle around him, and not even the withering remnants of pity clung to their faces. As he looked into the masses of cavernous mouths and the fathomless midnight of thousands of pupils, Gannon felt, with a heavy sense of inevitability, it was over. There were few words he could summon up to defend himself, and he doubted they would have much effect, even if they'd have given him a fair chance. He knew they would boo whatever he said; he'd done it before himself. Self-pity threatened to overwhelm him.
In a moment of clarity, he noticed, standing in a semi-circular line beside Harriet, the members of his cabinet. His friends. George, Ethan, Natasha, Brian and lastly, and diminutively, Billy. Poor little Billy. He'd always been the smallest in his year group, and he'd never quite managed to paddle to the central currents of prevailing fashion, but like scummy, algal froth, he'd just drifted along on the by-waters. Looking at his overly freckled features and his overly sloping nose, it was difficult not to feel pity for him. But even there, in his tiny, bird-like features, not even a smear of sympathy was left. His lip was derisively curled back and, intercepting Gannon's gaze, he spat on the ground only a few inches away from his feet.
Putting his hand on the crumbling pile of stones that made up a former wall, Gannon turned a 180. All around him furious, contemptuous faces blended into a mass of pink and red and yellow and green and became nothing more than a shimmering mirage of colours; a heat wave of hate. He still didn't understand…why now?
'I am guilty only of being myself,' he said, his voice sounding frail and feeble even to himself under the leering throng.
'From the lion's mouth you have it, children!' Harriet screeched, victoriously. 'Take him! To the Sandpit! To Golgotha!'
Gannon was unceremoniously dragged down the hill, exchanged between sticky palms, like damaged goods. He offered no resistance.
All summer's fruits lay lazily on fertile branches as the crowd pushed him onwards through the dales and abandoned quarries and well-worn playgrounds. With every stab of greenery, of Nature's perseverance in the extreme temperature, Gannon's stomach knotted a little more. He tried not to notice the delicate beauty of the lilies in Martha's lake as they went by, nor the gentle rippling of the laburnum's lantern boughs, but despite the roar of the multitude and the pressing of his own thoughts, the heartbreak in the gentle heart of things refused to leave him. Even if he returned to this spot, hours, days or even years later, it would never be the same, he would never look upon its like again.
Somewhere between his descent and his arrival at the Sandpit – ironically, he'd only ever visited it once, at Henry's deposition; all other visits were prohibited, and there were always children guarding it – a faceless bundle of hands had stuck a pair of shiny red Devil's horns on his head; something from an old fancy-dress box. All the while as he was pulled and jostled they bellowed down his ears, 'a crown of horns! A crown of horns!'
He couldn't even say for certain how they'd got there, from the hill to the Sandpit, nor how long it had taken, but got there they had. A small set of fingers dug into his back and sent him flying into the grotty, ochre sand. All around the Sandpit, the crowd gathered; it was quite large, as these things come and go, about 10 metres in every direction: a misplaced cube. On his hands and knees, he looked up, and noticed, in the very centre of the Sandpit, not so far away from him, a black, gaping hole.
Something, some deeply buried gut instinct, told him that that pit was unspeakably wrong. Gannon couldn't understand it. Why had he never been allowed back here in all these years? In the heart of his bones he felt the winter stirrings of discontent. No, not just of discontent; of terror, of despair; the end of his very everything. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow would never come.
'Children, children, quiet!' Harriet's voice rang out; she had reappeared now, leading the congregation opposite him, facing him. Ringing in his ears, he could hear their chant:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.
At the word 'ye' they had each taken to pointing at one another, and on 'they', endless rows of stubby fingers had descended upon him, mocking him, abasing him, marking him as their target.
'Children!' Harriet repeated, her tone for once holding emotion: annoyance. Children should not disobey their betters. The hush that fell on the mass was almost instant.
Gannon stared at the darkness not more than a few metres away from him. What secrets were interred there? What speechless dread? He didn't dare exhume them. He didn't dare. He barely breathed, feeling, for a second, the oasis of silence that Harriet had instigated, felt it bore into the very pores of his skin and wash him internally with the chilling void of the grave.
He smelt smoke. No smoke without fire.
'As trial has shown, this creature you look upon is no longer fit to be your king. To be our king,' she corrected herself. 'As a result, the council has convened and many, many candidates have been assessed. I will not waste your time with suspenseful pauses,' she said, as she shook her head at no-one in particular, a wan smile dancing its grim tune on her lips. 'Boys and girls, I present your new queen!'
There was a ripple of in-taken breath, and in spite of himself, Gannon joined in with the collective gasp. In all the 61 years that Iscariot had sustained the monarchy, there had never been a queen. The blight was clearly more widespread than he'd thought; one rotting ear of corn had blasted its wholesome brothers and now, immune from the disease, only the sisterhood had survived.
A small wake had formed around Harriet, and standing, barely up to her waist, was a little girl. In all aspects, in every way, she could have been a mirror into Harriet's past. Her hair was as yellow as straw and hung in perfectly symmetrical plaits down her chest; her eyebrows were neither raised nor lowered, not even a quarter of an inch; her eyes gazed out, cold as death, from a face that glowed with cherubic grace and health. She couldn't have been more than 6, unprecedentedly young, but on her mouth, expertly painted, as if she were a china doll, the same calm, all-knowing, patient, patronising smile.
From the moment his eyes met hers, he was thrown back to that moment, nearly 8 years ago. He remembered standing then, tiny, at Vicky's side, staring out across the lone and level sands at Henry, as he was now, on his hands and knees. And the pit – now he remembered it – its dark and endless furnace mouth gaping unnaturally in the rusty lips of the surrounding sand. All around him, staring contentedly, were the faces of hundreds, thousands of children, older and younger, but all standing there, holding a secret knowledge he didn't share or understand. Gannon remembered being asked what title he would choose, and after that being led away. He'd asked about Henry countless times in the years since, but the subject had always been evaded, changed; he'd been robbed of the very knowledge that might have saved him now.
Looking up into her child-like but terribly predatory eyes, so wildly, wildly unalive, he had no doubts that she knew now what he had failed to piece together. Henry had never left the Sandpit.
'Elizabeth Drayton Shrew, you have been chosen as the new Queen of Iscariot, Monarch of the Sandpit and Single Magnate of Greater Iscariot; I ask you now, what name do you choose?' Harriet thundered out to the waiting children.
Elizabeth blinked, coughed inaudibly, or at least made the gesture of doing so, before daintily placing one spotless velveteen slipper on the bloody, cursèd sand. She stared in a nauseating parody of innocence at the surrounding faces. God had given her one face, but in the dissembling twist of each facial muscle, she had made herself millions more. 'Salome,' she announced in a voice that carried far beyond the heads of the assembled horde, ascending into the Heavens above and tousling the wild West wind.
Beaming down at her young charge with something that could have been a conspiratorial love, Gannon could see that things had played entirely into Harriet's hands. She must have been orchestrating this for months, maybe even years, pulling at string after string and twisting the constitutional rules of the Lottery Laws. Gannon noted this with only a pale imitation of bitterness. Things were drawing to a close, one way or another.
He realised, far, far too late that this truly was the very end of the line, but now that the end had come, he couldn't help but feel the thin tendrils of despair slide their greasy smoke all over his soul, staining it for ever. Gannon Kent was not old, by body or mind, but somehow too old to live, under the Lottery Laws for the monarchy. The Laws he had never been allowed to read. It all made sense now. There wasn't a single member of his whole court whose 18th birthday he could ever recall being celebrated. They simply disappeared.
Gannon realised, with a small start, that the smoke wasn't metaphorical any more. There was real smoke choking the air around, the base of it being somewhere behind Harriet, within the heaving crowd.
'Children!' Harriet shouted, a jubilant mask now in place, 'the time has come for change! We have the greatest chance that we have ever had to improve the lives of not only ourselves, but of others who will follow, for those that future years will see. To mark this change, we must shed the blind skins that we used to wear. We must pull the wool from over our eyes! People of Iscariot, take that man's clothes – all of them! – and bring them to the fire. We must burn them. Burn them all!'
Gannon had no time to even get to his feet. They were on him in less than a second, their fingers scrabbling like beaks, pecking, ripping, gouging into his skin, tearing away his dignity in swathes of fabric and leaving him with nothing but what he began his life with. Not a few fingers turned to fists and not a few feet flew into his unprotected flanks. Like hens, they decimated him.
'Bring him to me! Do not kill him!' a voice cut through the mêlée of juvenile din, undoubtedly Harriet's. He felt hands both weak and strong grab him, lift him, regardless of which part of him they held, and he was carried through the crowd, passed from child to child, dragged through the filthy air and thrown at Harriet's feet, only a couple of feet away from the base of a small bonfire, which was steadily burning.
Gannon wheezed up the mouthful of sandy dust he had gulped in on impact with the floor, and slowly, agonisingly wiped away the thin stream of blood that was winding down from his split lips. His nakedness was uncoverable, and he could feel the eyes upon him, judging, even now.
An eerie placidity held for minutes as all eyes that could see alternated between the flickering flames and the immodest torso, sprawled upon the floor. With each crackle, shower of sparks, and fork of fire, the nearest children uttered small sighs of contentment. Gannon watched too, unable to break the spell the flames held on him as they perversely licked at his clothing, ingesting his very essence. It distanced the pain, vaguely.
Eventually, at a nod from Harriet, an unfamiliar quartet of boys – most likely henchmen in her new regime, relegated to the most menial of tasks – ran forwards with fire extinguishers, and, sensing that their moment to shine was upon them, proceeded to battle with the fire, taming its burning desires, making its tongues retreat into smoky silence. Another nod from Harriet, and this time Natasha walked towards the blackened remains, holding an iron poker and a small, ceramic, surgically-white crucible. As she poked the charred remains, stirring up the silty ashes, Gannon examined her, as he never had before. Her hair was a bark-like brown and tied back in a loose ponytail, nothing quite as severe as Harriet's. Her body, likewise, was very much pneumatic, none of the hard lines and angles that Harriet modelled. But much more than that, her face was not quite perfect: there was a small, puckered scar on the bridge of her nose, where she had hit it on a flight of stairs as a toddler, and slap bang in the middle of her jaw line, on the right side of her face, was a slightly too-large mole. Despite this, or perhaps even because of this, she was perfect in a way Harriet was not, and she would not, could not meet his eyes.
'Natasha,' he croaked out, finding more difficulty in forming the words in his mind than forming them on his lips, ageing already. She flinched, and still wouldn't look at him. Once, so long ago anyone might have easily forgotten it, before he was even made king, she'd kissed him on the cheek under the cherry tree in the school playground and claimed she'd wanted to marry him.
What if the offer was still up for grabs? She was his last chance. Desperate men must do desperate things. 'Natasha. Help me,' he begged.
She wavered, she wilted, and unable to help herself, she stole a brief glance at him and dropped the poker by the side of the fire, whether symbolically or just by shock at the mess the children had made of him, Gannon was unable to tell.
'Silly girl,' Harriet hissed, and Gannon could see, by the fear in Natasha's eyes, that this had been a test, her last chance to carry on rising with the new queen, and he had dashed her hopes. He couldn't honestly say that he cared any more, though only an hour before he might have done anything in the world for her.
Pushing her aside to be reabsorbed into the crowd, Harriet snatched the crucible from her fingers, picked up the iron rod and stirred the ashes herself. Once a fine, grey-white layer had broken out on top of the charcoal, she scooped some of it up into the crucible and shook out any excess.
The heat must have been unbearable, but her face didn't contort in the slightest as she dropped the iron, and using a forefinger, dabbed it into the carbon swirls. Turning, she daubed a cross on Salome's forehead. She didn't flinch either.
In a strict monotone, Harriet droned:
'Ashes to ashes, dust to the dust,
But the pure spirit shall flow
Back to the burning fountain where it shall renew;
A portion of the eternal.'
Grinning benevolently, Harriet gave another nod, this time to the young queen. Acquiescing to her request, Salome glided towards Gannon, certainty written all over her face. Stunned, he allowed her to envelop him with her vanilla musk, watching her stoop down next to him, as if they were about to have a heart-to-heart. She cocked her head to the side a little, perhaps weighing him up, then her hand appeared from behind her back and she stabbed a needle into his upper arm, swiftly injecting whatever fluid had been inside before efficiently removing it and casting it aside.
His muscles failed him, completely and utterly. The substance inside the needle got to work alarmingly fast and in seconds it was all he could do to blink. His cry of alarm was strangled in his throat.
It might have been Valium, Heroine, even Ketamine for all Gannon knew, but what he did know for certain, and with a pounding and relentless dread, was that he was doomed. The pit seemed to rumble its hunger, grating in a sandy undertone, calling for a sacrifice.
'The time has come, friends,' Harriet whispered, 'to cast this viper back into the earth from whence he came.'
Finishing her rhetoric in a natural extension, Salome added, 'Throw him into the pit. He should die.' Nothing passed her face but a mocking smile, directed at Gannon, who seethed in helpless rage. She had no right, she had no power, she was just a little girl. It was sickening. He couldn't die. He turned 18 tomorrow.
As the rush of children made moves to grab him again, Harriet suddenly screeched out, piercingly, 'STOP!'
All eyes turned towards her, shocked, particularly those of her new leader. Smiling apologetically at the crowd, she simply stated, 'allow me,' and bounced on the balls of her feet to Gannon, where she got behind his head, stooped, hooked her arms underneath his armpits and, using a strength he had never believed her capable of – and neither had anyone else, judging from the awed muttering – she dragged him over the grass and sand, regardless of the rocks and debris caught in the sand. Despite the muscle relaxant, he could feel every single pebble and the pain made his eyes water.
'Did you know, you're still wearing those Devil's horns? How fitting that they never removed them,' she hissed in his ears, her breathing starting to become heavy. 'You'll always be a devil to me, Gannon Kent. You're the most insipid, spineless creature to ever crawl this earth. Did you know, it's been 4 months, 22 days and 7 hours since you murdered her? There's no salvation for you. God has no place for abortionists. He has no place for me any more, either. You fucked us over both, Gannon. For all time.' She stopped by the very eye of Hell, squaring his body up against the edge, and knelt down beside him. 'They're all down there, you know. 61 years worth of old bones and decay. You'll have an audience for all eternity now, just like you always wanted.' She whispered that last only inches away from Gannon's face, the tears pulsing down her face unheeded, washing away the mask. Staring into her soaked eyes, Gannon tried to will some emotion into his own, force her to take pity on him. But here, at the end of all things, he could only summon up contempt for her weakness, and the failure in life that had led him to this sorry turn of events.
Rubbing her eyes with her sleeves, and after the faintest sniff, Harriet painted on a neutral face once more. As she slowly pushed his body into the abyss, she quietly sang 'You are my Sunshine' in a lilting soprano.
Tumbling sightlessly into the bowels of death, inhaling the charnel-house stench of rotting earth, a truth dawned upon Gannon Kent that he'd been avoiding his entire life. Tomorrow was today.