The question had been rhetorical, thrown into space by boredom from lips that seldom idled with such insignificances. The answer was known to every person in the kingdom, would certainly be known by erudites down the ages, yet it was not the one the empty room provided. Had it come from any other source, he would have dismissed it without a second thought, but given the nature of the speaker, it would have consequences that could change the annals of history for centuries.
The sorcerer-king was seated on his lavish throne, contemplating the world from the comfort of his castle. Scrying was his preferred method of keeping in touch with current events, and the clear waters of the magnificent fountain that decorated his audience hall were ideal for his business. The world he beheld was his in every sense of the word. His vast domain found its limits beyond lands unknown to his ancestors, and his territories were larger than any empire that preceded him; possibly any that would follow. Beyond his frontiers, kings and emperors paid tribute to him, mere puppets ruling decadent kingdoms not worthy of his personal attention. He had conquered them all, rising from a lowly birth to take first his place as ruler of his homeland, and then leading his men into countless victories over their surrounding oppressors.
He had personally defeated dozens of knights in singular battle. Hailed champions, vanquished by his superior strength. Dragons too, had found their fate severed by his hand, though it was his sorcery and not his blade that brought upon the demise of such magical creatures. His armies conquered wherever they went, and his enemies pleaded for his mercy, which was renowned even beyond his frontiers. As ruthless as he was to his enemies, he was just and compassionate once they submitted to his rule.
Of treasures, his were uncountable; bejewelled relics and magical artefacts were lost within heaps of coins that rivalled in size the most prominent hills of the city. There was nothing he could not have, nor was he miser with his belongings. He was charitable and generous, but most of all capable, which meant he administered the kingdom’s wealth to the benefit of all of his subjects.
Women too, were at his disposal. Hundreds filled his harems, while his seven wives had given him strong and healthy children to continue his legacy. He was loved and admired by his people, and there was no endeavour he had ever failed at.
It was while contemplating these thoughts that the question escaped his lips.
‘Could there have ever been anyone I should envy?’
The Caryatid Column had not spoken in aeons, but the magic imbued upon it would not recede. It had not been asked a question for so long that it paused to deliver the answer its nature obliged it to provide.
‘Jack Stowe,’ it said with a clear voice, yet without emotion.
Startled, the king turned to find who dared jest thus with him, and aware of the nature of his surroundings, quickly found the culprit of such heresy.
If annoyance had been his first reaction, curiosity swiftly replaced it. He wondered who this Jack Stowe was that would not stand in awe before his presence. But the Column had been imbued with a special kind of magic, and as fate would have it, the Caryatid would not reveal more than one fact about any given subject, thus the king remained ignorant of the whereabouts of such a man.
For days the question gnawed at him, immersed him into the depths of history and myth in a fruitless search for such an exemplary man, until he was compelled to ask first his most trusted advisers and eventually his most lowly servants, if any of them had heard the name of Jack Stowe. It took weeks as he presented the question to an increasing number of people before someone remembered the mysterious name.
‘My lord,’ A palace guard spoke as he bowed in reverence. ‘There is a man by that name in the dungeons of this very castle.’
‘A prisoner?’ the king asked with surprise, wondering what kind of man worthy of his attention could remain forgotten in a castle dungeon.
‘Of some twenty years my liege.’
‘The man I seek cannot be that young,’ the king pointed out.
‘I beg your forgiveness my liege, the man’s age is unknown to me. I meant to say that he has been these twenty years a guest in your dungeons.’
It would seem fate had a sense of humour.
‘I will see this man that thinks himself my equal.’ His command was regarded with suspicion, for no one knew his reasons to inquire about the man, but he was nevertheless led promptly to the dungeons, wherein the man was bound by heavy chains to a massive iron chair before being allowed in the presence of his majesty.
When the king first saw the prisoner, his feelings were not of pity as they normally would have been, but of anger and resentment. The man was broken. His flesh clung tightly to his bones, muscles vanished through starvation. A heavy unkempt beard covered his face, which held no beauty in it. But his appearance was not quite as appalling as his stench, which forced even the king to cower in revulsion.
The king thought of his own countenance. He had been very handsome in his youth, and despite his age, years of combat had kept his muscles active while experience had marked his features kindly. His own odour was that of scented flowers. Yet an oracle believed him to be the lesser of the two.
‘What is your name?’ The king asked, seriously doubting this was the man he sought.
‘Jack Stowe.’ There was no strength in the man’s voice, neither power nor challenge to speak of an untamed spirit. If the man had ignored his title it was more likely from lack of good manners.
‘What is your trade?’
Once again the answer startled him. No money, no titles, no pedigree. If there ever was a man he could never envy, it was the one standing before him.
‘Why are you in my dungeons?’
The word needed no explanation. The king remembered the Count. An evil man if ever he knew one. He had been a poor choice, one the king regretted, even if he had remedied it quickly. One of the guards behind him remembered something different, and the subsequent whispers drew the king’s attention.
‘What is it?’ he asked with almost a touch of exasperation.
‘Begging your forgiveness your Lordship. I had not remembered him by his looks, but this is Moaning Jack.’
‘I thought he was dead!’ another guard ventured, amazed at the possibility that this was not the case.
The king suddenly felt ashamed. That was a name he knew, and up until that day he thought it was a name that would bring him pride. It had been because of Moaning Jack that he had learned of the true nature of Count Ghalaga. The man had been tortured for months in this dungeon, every bone in his body broken, every kind of pain inflicted upon him until there was nothing to break nor any nightmare to conjure. Any man would have succumbed to such torture, but Moaning Jack had no sins to acquit, no answer that would satisfy the Count, thus his torture continued. He was ready to admit to anything the Count desired, but the Count wished for knowledge this man could not provide.
The screams had been heard in the castle every night, and a legend arose about the spirit that haunted the palace. Moaning Jack became so notorious, that his plight finally demanded the king’s attention, and in his quest he found out the truth about Ghalaga. The man was hanged for this sin and many others, and the moans were never heard again. The king had never considered to take an interest in the man that had produced them, and thought to have saved him from his dreadful fate.
Now he found out that he had condemned the man to these dungeons for twenty years, and his pride demanded that he find good reason to justify Jack Stowe’s arrest.
‘What did you do?’
Jack Stowe remained silent.
The king turned to his henchmen, hoping one of them remembered more about Moaning Jack. His glacial stare was enough to prevent any false reports, his commanding aura urging the men to reveal all they knew.
‘Old John, he was there!’ One of the guards confessed. ‘He said the Count killed Jack’s woman after she refused to reveal his whereabouts. The farmer knew nothing when he arrived the next day to find his woman dead. John said there was murder in Jack’s eyes, and that he had never been so afraid in his life as when he saw into the farmer’s eyes. But Jack turned out to be a coward, and when he saw it was the king’s men who done it, he surrendered without a fight.’
‘I see.’ The kind said, acknowledging the tale, ‘But why was Ghalaga looking for Jack?’
‘Don’t know m’lord. Old John said he heard him say he would not let a farmer stand in his way, but he never said why.’
The king suddenly wondered if Ghalaga had also been spoken to by the Caryatid, but then he remembered the Column would not have provided the same name twice.
He stood before a man who had lost his land, his wife, and his freedom; who had never accomplished, defended or owned anything. Tortured, humiliated, broken, imprisoned, and famished, yet the caryatid oracle thought the greatest man that had lived should feel envious of this wreck.
‘Do you know who I am?’ The king wanted there to be no doubt about his identity when he asked the next question.
‘You are The Great King, m’lord.’
‘Tell me, Jack Stowe: who is the greatest man that ever lived?’
‘It is said throughout the realms that you are, m’lord.’
The king noticed that it was not his own opinion Jack stated, but what the common man believed. He would not take such offence from this man.
‘What do you believe?’
‘I believe them.’
Once again, without actually incurring in any insult, Jack avoided giving him praise directly.
‘Do you think I should envy you?’ The king asked directly, hoping that from this man’s lips the Caryatid’s words could be belied.
‘I beg your pardon?’ The question was so outrageous that even the guards were taken aback. Had they not known their king, they might have thought he had come to mock the prisoner.
‘Should I envy you?’
It was clear that Jack Stowe could not give him an answer. The man’s density was doubly disturbing because it also meant that he had no brains to match the king’s acumen. It was entirely possible that 20 years in the dungeon had claimed the man’s wit. But the Caryatid had done its damage, because against all evidence, the king could not let go of its words.
He left the dungeon, fully aware that he would not find his answers by interrogating the man, but his sharp mind was unable to penetrate the mystery, and so he spent many days in contemplation, his mind festering as frustration overcame him. Nightmares ensued; of this man taking away his kingdom, but more frightful where those where he took his glory, the love of his people, and even his offspring.
A week passed before the sorcerer-king came back to the dungeon. This time he would not be deterred. The man sat before him, oblivious of the reasons for this interview. It was as if he had never seen him before. The king did not waste time with small talk.
‘What is it that you desire most?’
The man hesitated.
The king waited patiently, until Jack Stowe gave in.
The answer displeased the king. It proved he had power over this man, but what he wanted was envy, and lack of freedom had not given pause to the Caryatid to provide its answer.
‘What would you do with this freedom?’
The man looked at the king. There was not a shred of insanity in his eyes as the king might have expected.
‘Return home.’ The laconic answers of the man could be disturbing.
‘What would you do with your life?’
‘Live it.’ There was almost a shrug accompanying these words, as if there could not possibly be another answer.
The man had no ambition, no desires, and this it seemed was the reason for the Caryatid’s assessment. A man who wanted nothing could not envy anyone, the king reasoned. Then he remembered it was he who was supposed to envy Jack Stowe, and rage filled him once again.
‘How would you like to spend a day in one of my harems?’
Jack Stowe had been cleaned and prepared, and the harems filled with the greatest delicacies. The king ordered his concubines to give Moaning Jack everything he wished for, and then waited.
The day passed and the reports came to the king, that Jack Stowe had hardly touched a plate, eating barely enough for his sustenance, and kindly refused the concubines’ overtures. The sorcerer-king was quickly losing his patience.
‘Let him sleep in the harem,’ he ordered. ‘And summon my concubines!’
Three days Jack Stowe spent in the harem, lavished with every comfort while surrounded by beautiful women intent on seducing him. Many might have thought that he would be hated by the women scorned, but though he had declined their offers, he had not rejected the women themselves, and by the end of the third night he had earned both their love and admiration.
It ripped the king’s heart apart to hear them praise the hated man, and the poison in his soul festered. He threw Jack back into the dungeon, and much to his discomfort, not a single complaint came out of the prisoner’s mouth.
An entire month passed in which the king found neither rest nor solution to this conundrum, all the time his vengeful spirit seeking to overcome the presence of Jack Stowe. Killing the man would not suffice, and torture would add nothing to what had already been done to him. The king sent spies to Jack Stowe’s home town to learn what he could about the man.
It was six months to the day since the king’s plight started when they came with the woman. She was not near her mid-twenties which meant she must have been a baby when Jack Stowe was taken. The name meant nothing to her, but his men swore that she was his child. She had been raised by gipsies, who apparently found her abandoned in Stowe’s barn. It was presumable that Jack Stowe had noticed the guard’s presence before entering his house, and had left the baby in the barn to keep her from harm.
Normally, this might have touched the king, but his soul was corrupted by the Caryatid’s words. He kept the woman close to him, all the time hiding the existence of Jack Stowe. He found out that the woman believed both her parents to be dead, killed as proscripts by Count Ghalaga. The king dared not correct her.
Once he found all he could about the daughter, he visited Jack Stowe once again.
‘You have a daughter.’ The king began.
Jack Stowe’s silence was his only confirmation.
‘I have found her for you,’ the king added.
This time his words had a profound effect on Jack Stowe.
‘I beg of you,’ said the prisoner, ‘do not do this.’
Whatever fears filled Jack Stowe’s mind were unsubstantiated, but the king was happy to learn that he now had something Jack Stowe wanted.
‘I will not harm her,’ the king vowed.
‘Please,’ Jack continued, ‘let her go.’
‘She thinks you are dead,’ the king persisted.
‘I will do anything you want!’ Jack offered.
The king had him. But it had never been Jack Stowe who defied him. It had been the Caryatid, and its words were unchangeable. How could he know if he had altered them?
Jack Stowe would not give him the answer he required, but it occurred to the king that his daughter could. He summoned the daughter into the dungeons, and introduced her to Jack Stowe.
‘This is your father,’ he said. ‘As it turns out, Ghalaga did not kill him.’
He had hoped to see pity in the daughter’s eyes, but instead he found love, for a father she had never met, and this displeased him. This time is was the daughter that pleaded.
‘Please pardon him!’
‘What do you see in him?’ the king asked in earnest.
‘He is my father.’
‘I will release him if you answer one question truthfully,’ the king offered.
Tears were running from her eyes. She accepted.
‘Why is he better than me?’
Once again the question shocked the guards and even the woman, but she knew the dagger hidden behind the question.
‘I cannot answer that,’ she said truthfully.
‘Then he remains.’
‘I answered truthfully.’
‘You did not answer at all.’
‘I ask of you m’lord. You are wise and fair. You know he has done nothing, and you know I met your request. Please let him go.’
The woman looked at her father, her eyes still pleading for his life.
‘He is not what they say he is.’ She told Jack Stowe. ‘There is neither fairness nor pity in his heart.’
‘I will not oppose him.’ Jack Stowe replied with such determination that it only enraged the king more. These people thought they had a choice in the matter, defying his authority, and this he could not accept.
‘Arrest this woman,’ he ordered his guards.
They complied, and she did not resist.
‘Your words are treason, and worthy of death. But I am fair, and understand your pain. You shall be exiled from my kingdom so that your life may be spared.’
The great king’s kingdom was vast, and exile meant the barbarian lands beyond. What chance had a woman there? Jack Stowe could not stand it.
‘Please, m’lord,’ he begged once again ‘I will do anything.’
‘Judgement has been passed.’ The king said without pity.
The daughter did not even flinch. She knew what it would mean to go to the barbarian’s lands, but this only helped her determination.
‘Come with me,’ she asked her father.
There was madness in the request, but none in her tone.
‘I cannot,’ Jack Stowe replied.
That should have been the end of it, had the Caryatid been wrong, but Jack Stowe was indeed a remarkable man, and his daughter knew him for what he was.
‘I release you of your promise,’ the daughter said. ‘I am your daughter, and it is my right.’
This caught the king’s interest.
‘What promise?’ he asked.
But it was too late. The daughter would have nothing to do with him.
‘We are leaving,’ she stated, indicating there was nothing the king could do about it.
‘You will answer!’ the king commanded, but his words were shadowed by the sound of chains breaking.
As he turned to face Jack Stowe, he did not see fear in the farmer’s eyes. What he saw were two pits of molten light, radiating power his own magic could not possibly match. He saw the man break his shackles as if they were made of straw. Jack Stowe did not flinch when the king instinctively threw a lightning bolt at him. He waved it away with an arm, as if it were a fly. The guards too were pushed away by his magic, prevented from drawing their swords or attacking his daughter. The sounds brought more guards into the dungeons, but Jack Stowe defeated them easily, using magic and swordplay as had never before been seen. Arrows bounced off him as if made of paper, and not a single man was able to face him without awe. This time the king summoned all of his energies, casting spells that could have levelled a mountain. These did nothing to Jack Stowe.
The king could have died that day. Had Jack Stowe chosen to, he could have unleashed the powers of creation upon the feeble sorcerer, and the king would not have had the power to prevent it. But Jack Stowe had no quarry with the king. He took his daughter’s hand, and led her away from the kingdom, never to be heard of again.
From that day on, the king knew the truth. Jack Stowe could have had everything he had. It was not chance, skill or fate that had given him what Jack Stowe did not have. It had been Jack’s choice, and a promise he had made to his wife. For twenty years he had had the power to overcome his torturers, to escape his prison, and to defeat the king. And for twenty years he had chosen not to, only because of a promise to a loved one. The Great King had conquered the world, but Jack Stowe had conquered his own ambition.