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The snows of winter were thawing at last, but there was little cheer among the people of the land. Old king Hollyhorn had fallen into a life of corruption and debauchery. The feasts that had once been welcome celebrations of special days had now become excuses to squander food and wine, day in and day out. Those he favored were treated like playthings or pets, while those out of favor were punished cruelly or left to starve on the streets. Hollyhorn had grown fat with age, and he seldom washed or combed his hair, which had become greasy and matted.

Even those closest to the king feared him, because his mood would shift suddenly and without provocation. His guards and officials had long since given up all pretext of law and justice, and now openly worked for bribes of gold, wine, or sex. They justified their own opportunism because the king himself was an unpredictable, selfish tyrant, and his men felt they must take as much as they can before his mood turned sour again, costing them their positions or their lives.

It would be planting season soon, but the people despaired even at this prospect. There was no hope left in them for another year, for they knew that any crops they grew would be taken by the king's men and lavished on their friends and lovers, or else wasted in reckless feasting to satisfy the gluttony of the king and his favorites.

The people began telling old, half-forgotten stories of a great king of long ago, Goldhelm the Just. Under his reign, it was said, there was order in the streets, and judges settled disputes fairly, and in accordance with the king's law. Each person was treated equally, and those who acted rightly received the rewards of their efforts.

Hollyhorn's men laughed mockingly when they overheard these old tales, but in secret many of them hoped that the stories were true, and that a just king would come again some day. King Hollyhorn himself never heard the tales. Or, if he had, showed no signs of caring. He gave no thought to either past or future, only the pleasures of the moment, however empty they had become.

It came to pass one day that a young stranger came into the city, riding a fine proud horse. A sword hung at his side, and upon his head was a helmet that sparkled golden in the bright light of spring. One of the king's men approached him.

"You passed through the gates without paying the toll," said the king's man. His companions smirked and chuckled.

The young stranger reached for his coin purse.

"Can't pay with coin," said the king's man, fingering the hilt of his sword. "We'll take that fine horse, though."

"In all my travels," said the youth, "I have heard of no toll such as this. By what right do you demand such a payment?"

"We demand it because we want to," said the king's man. "This is King Hollyhorn's land, and here we do as we please!"

"This cannot be right, for kingship is a sacred trust between king and subjects, between the ruler and the land. Please take me to this King Hollyhorn, and I will learn the truth of this matter. I suspect you are nothing but a common lawbreaker, and the king will wish to deal with you when he learns how you greet travelers here."

The king's men laughed, but they led the young man to the castle. Although it was mid-day, the great hall was strewn with drunken men and women, and the place stank. In the midst of the place lay the old king, lying on the filthy floor, barely awake. "Who're you?" he grumbled nastily.

"My name is Goldhelm. Are you King Hollyhorn?"

"Whatever. You have no business here. Go!"

"I do have business here, sir. This is the land of my birth, and I have heard that it is in great need. I thought to come and fight whatever foes threaten this land, but now I see that the sickness comes from within."

The old king spat on the floor, and motioned his guards to remove Goldhelm. Goldhelm, however, quickly drew his sword and stood firm. He had such an air of confidence and conviction that the guards stopped in their tracks, unwilling to lay hands on him.

"Where are your judges?" Goldhelm continued. "You have given this land to thieves, and they must be judged, as must their king."

"We have no judges," snarled Hollyhorn. "We need no laws here. We are slaves to no rules. We do as we please. Go seek your laws and judges elsewhere!"

Goldhelm shook his head sadly. He spoke now to the guards. "Spread the word," he said. "One of royal blood has returned to his homeland to restore justice and punish those who have done wrong. There will be a trial at sunrise."

Although the guards were fearful to be held to account for their own deeds, they obeyed Goldhelm. Better, they felt, to suffer the stern and steady gaze of the young lawgiver than to live in fear of the old king's violent moods and capricious commands. They placed Hollyhorn under arrest and waited through the night.

When dawn came, Goldhelm stood before the castle and had the old king brought out. All the people of the town had gathered in the square, watching and whispering amongst themselves. Goldhelm walked among them, and found twelve townspeople of advanced years: six men and six women, with wise eyes and wrinkles left by long-ago smiles. He asked them to stand with him.

King Hollyhorn was brought out. Goldhelm accused him, without anger, of violating the sacred trust of rulership. The twelve judges spoke softly amongst themselves, and named the king guilty of this charge.

"The penalty for this crime is death. The life of a king is bound to that of the land and of the people. When you destroy what you are bound to protect, you destroy your self." Hollyhorn was taken away to await his execution.

"We now turn to those who have stolen, raped, and killed under the protection of the evil king. What should be their fate?" The old ones took counsel together again, for almost an hour. At last, an old woman from among them approached Goldhelm and spoke. "These men have done great wrong, and because of them we have lived in fear for a long time now. We believe that they themselves were also afraid, for fear creates cruelty and cruelty creates more fear. It is our judgment that these men should give up their weapons and whatever goods they have acquired, and live for a time in the service of someone they have wronged."

"So be it," said Goldhelm. "Now let justice be done." Hollyhorn was brought forth again, and Goldhelm drew forth his sword and ended the life of the king. A guard emerged from the castle carrying an ancient crown of gold, which had been polished and now shone with a dazzling light. Goldhelm knelt, and the crown was placed upon his head, at sunrise on the first day of spring.


Seasons of the God is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters