The Old Man and the Knobby Little Man
There once was an Old Man who had grown bored of sitting around his house and decided to go out into the world and become King. It was an odd notion, to be sure, but like I said he was old and bored and his time was his own.
He left his house without even a change of clothes and soon grew weary walking along the road. He heard a carriage coming and figured he’d hitch a ride for a while, maybe even get lucky and find a kingdom along the side of the road in need of a new ruler. When the coach drew near the Old Man noticed that it didn’t have a driver so he hopped up and took the reins. No sooner had his hands touched the leathers the coach jerked to a stop, throwing the occupant head-first into the carriage wall.
“Horse! What the blue blazes is wrong with you!”
Out of the coach stepped a Knobby Little Man with a pock-marked face and a beard down to his knees.
“What are you doing with my coach?” said the Knobby Little Man. “That horse obeys no one but me and has been trained to disobey thieves on the road. You a thief?”
“I saw it was without a driver and thought it might have been running wild,” said the Old Man. “I was only trying to help.”
“Ah, but you didn’t admit you weren’t a thief!” said the Knobby Little Man. “Fair enough. What do you want?”
“I’ve decided to become a King. I’ve taken to the road to find my destiny.”
The Knobby Little Man looked at the Old Man in disbelief. Was the Old Man daft? Had he taken a bullet in some old war that shifted in his brain? The Knobby Little Man laughed.
“Well, I tell you what. Until you find your kingdom how’d you like to work for me? You come with me as my guest and see what I have to offer and then you can decide.”
The Old Man couldn’t be sure the Knobby Little Man wasn’t trying to trick him, but he was hungry and it was getting dark and he figured he could set out to become King the next day.
“Okay,” said the Old Man, “But no funny stuff.”
When the coach arrived at the Knobby Little Man’s place the Old Man whistled. Nestled back from the road was an enormous one hundred room white marble palace, with heated indoor pools, a Roman-style colonnade, and a massive garden full of animal sculptures with their heads cut off. The Old Man thought it a perfect palace for a king, except for the weird statues.
“Listen,” said the Knobby Little Man, “I’m only home a few hours a month, so here’s the deal: You stay here, feed my horse all the meat it wants, feed my poodle all the hay it can eat, and you can do whatever you like in any of the rooms in my house except the one room with the black door on it.”
“That’s it? Feed the horse, feed the dog, do whatever I want, stay away from the black door?”
“Like I said, I’m hardly ever here,” said the Knobby Old Man, “I don’t know why I still keep this place. What do you say? It’s like a palace, right? Call yourself king if you want.”
The Old Man agreed, and was eager for the Knobby Little Man to leave so he could have the place to himself and go exploring.
“Oh, and one last thing. I’ve trained this horse in many things — he’s a very special horse — but no matter what he would have you believe, you must always search your heart for the truth.”
“Okay,” said the Old Man, but what he really wanted to say was “What a crock! A talking horse?”
And that was the last the Old Man saw of the Knobby Little Man. With the place to himself he ran around naked jumping in and out of all the heated pools, wore a sheet like a toga and ate standing up in front of the refrigerator, he jumped up and down on the beds and found a library to rival the one said to have been lost at Alexandria. After a few hours of this he wondered if he really wanted to be King or just live in a fancy place and act like one. Then he remembered he had to feed the horse and the poodle.
After watching the Old Man run around the poodle was a little wary of him. He arranged her hay in a nice neat pile but she didn’t seem interested. “Suit yourself,” said the Old Man, “You can’t say I didn’t feed you.”
Out in the barn the Old Man found the horse trying to scratch out math problems on the floor. He set down a bucket of beef brisket but the horse simply snorted.
“Look, I’m only doing what your master said.”
“That makes him your master as well,” said the horse.
“You can talk!”
“Better than you can think for yourself.”
“What do you mean?” said the Old Man.
“Does it make any sense to you, feeding a dog hay and a horse meat?”
The Old Man shook his head.
“Listen, I know he gave you that speech about searching your heart for the truth. What does your heart say about feeding meat to a horse and hay to a dog?’
The Old Man thought about it and without another word he jumped up and brought the bucket-o-brisket to the dog and brought back a bale of hay for the horse. The horse ate until its belly had threatened to touch the ground, and when the dog was finished she came and curled up in the barn with the horse.
“Wow, you two must have been starved,” said the Old Man.
“You have no idea,” said the horse. “So let me make it up to you. How would you like to truly be a king, with servants and a treasury full of gold, and people to amuse you all day long.”
“You can do that?”
“There’s a little work involved, but, yeah, I can do that.”
And the horse explained to the Old Man how it would be. At dawn, the Old Man would need to go into the forbidden room, the one with black door. Inside the Old Man would find three golden candlesticks. He would need to grab the candlesticks and hurry out of the room before the door closed and sealed him in the room. Then the Old Man and the Poodle would climb on the back of the horse and make a run for it.
“And then I’ll be King?”
“Would I lie to you?” said the horse. The Old Man searched his heart and couldn’t imagine why the horse would lie, and so at dawn he did as he was told and soon they were on the road.
It wasn’t long before they heard the Knobby Little Man running behind them, gaining in speed.
“How can he do that?” said the Old Man.
“Quick!” said the horse, “Throw one of the candlesticks over your shoulder!”
The Old Man did, and when it hit the ground it became a thick river of tar that slowed the Knobby Old Man down. Soon though the Knobby Old Man had crossed the river and was gaining speed again.
“Your master is unreal! What do we do now?”
“The second candlestick,” said the horse.
With the second candlestick there appeared a mammoth wall made of jagged glass stones. It was so high that it went far beyond the tops of the trees. The horse put some distance between them but soon the Knobby Little Man had scaled the wall, jumped down, and was gaining on them.
“Third time’s the charm,” said the horse.
The third candlestick exploded on impact and became a mountain of sea urchins that buried the Knobby Little Man. The horse ran for three straight days and in that entire time they never saw the Knobby Little Man again.
The next part of the horse’s plan involved a little bit of effort on the Old Man’s part.
“Let me get this straight,” said the Old Man, “We go down to that valley where two armies are fighting and I enlist with one of the sides. The dog here turns into a suit of armor and we charge out in front of the battle for three days in a row. Each time we do, the other side gets spooked and backs off and after the third time they make me… the King’s gardener?”
“It’s an incremental plan,” explained the horse. “The last time they promoted a king from an enchanted warrior they later regretted it and vowed never again to promote from the military. But when their king asks you to claim a reward, you ask to work the royal gardens. They’ve never had an enchanted gardener king before!”
“So, wait. I become a gardener, and then perform some kind of magic—”
“Details, details,” said the horse, “I’ve got you covered.”
“And they promote me to king?”
“And then what?”
“Well…” said the horse, in a drawn out tone that caused the Old Man to worry a little. “Once you’re King, you would finally be in a position to grant the poodle and me a wish.”
“Is this some sort of trick?” said the Old Man.
“Again, this is on you,” said the horse, “Trust your heart.”
The Old Man thought about everything he’d been told.
“This is an awful lot of work to be a King.”
“If I knew a quicker way, I’d tell you,” said the horse.
“Why doesn’t she ever say anything?’ said the Old Man, pointing to the poodle.
“It just doesn’t work that way,” said the horse.
So with a heavy sigh the Old Man agreed, and wore the dog like a magical suit of armor, into battle three times, became an enchanted gardener, and finally, eventually, the Old Man had become the New King. There followed much feasting and rejoicing, an entire month’s worth of celebrations on the New King’s behalf. There were nights full of running around naked into heated pools, and days full of jumping on beds, and parties full of people wearing sheets like togas and standing around eating food, only this time he wasn’t alone, this time the New King could pick and choose from among his subjects to join him. He had a full treasury and subjects dedicated to his every whim.
But after nearly a month of this gaiety things calmed down and the New King remembered his promise to the horse. He stole away to the royal stables and found the horse and the poodle nestled into the far corner, sad and forlorn.
“I was beginning to believe you had truly forgotten us,” said the horse.
“A sad oversight on my part, I assure you. I had no idea the celebrations would go on for so long!”
“Shall we get down to business?” said the horse.
“What can I do for you, now that I am king.”
“You must take your royal sword and release us from our prison.”
“I was once an enchanted prince, bewitched by the Knobby Old Man and turned into a horse, and I can only be released by having my head chopped off by a King who is noble and true.”
“What!” said the New King.
“Arf!” said the poodle, who had never uttered a sound before.
“And her. She was a princess and my bride-to-be and was likewise bewitched. Cut her head off as well and she will be released.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” said the New King.
“And once you have freed us we can go off and live as happily as the day we first fell in love.”
The New King remembered all that had happened, all he had been told and all he had seen. He had gone out into the world to become a King and he owed everything he was to the cunning and wisdom of the horse. He did not search his heart which would have told him it was wrong, but a month of royal celebration had dulled his senses and clouded his thinking. Without a further second of hesitation the King took his sword and swiftly chopped off their heads with a single blow. He thought there might have been a blinding light or a puff of smoke but nothing happened. All he saw before him were the heads of the horse and the dog on the ground facing one other.
“Why did you do that?!” said the horse.
“It’s what you told me to do!” said the King
“I told you he’d fail,” said the dog, who had a very lovely voice after all.
“I did everything else you told me to do and it all worked out perfectly!” said the King.
“You forgot,” said the dog. “The one time you forgot to remind him.”
“Remind me of what?” said the King.
“Your heart…” said the horse, who was starting to lose consciousness. “I forgot… to remind you… to search your… heart for… the…”
And the horse closed his eyes and he was dead, as was the poodle.
Then a fog appeared, an ominous fog that smelled of low tide and swallowed up the kingdom leaving the New King alone in a bog. And out of the fog came a voice.
“Turns out you were a thief after all. Then again, you never said you weren’t, so you got that going for you.”
The fog cleared a little and a figure stepped into the clearing.
“You almost made it, all of you,” said the Knobby Little Man. “You were all so very close. If you had forgotten your promise for just one more day the horse would have lost his ability to talk and you would have gone mad trying to convince your subjects that he had once given you counsel. Your subjects would have banished you and killed the horse and the dog and been done with you all.”
“But I didn’t forget,” said the New King, a creeping sense of dread climbing up his spine as the Knobby Little Man stepped closer.
“No, you remembered just in time. Then you were supposed to refuse to chop off their heads, the horse would insist, you refuse a second time, the dog was supposed to bite you, and then you would throw down your sword and they would be released and I would be vanished. Just like that, you all would have lived as if in a fairy tale, happily ever.”
“A test,” said the New King. “It was a test of my faith.”
“Eh, call it what you will. It was all part of the spell. The dog was good, though. If she spoke at any point along the way it would have been the same as you lobbing of their heads.”
“So you’ve been waiting for one of us to make a mistake, waiting to step forward and punish us?”
“Actually, I caught up with you as fast as I could. I had to eat my way from beneath that mountain of sea urchins. That took a bit longer than I reckoned. Next time I’ll have to make it something a little easier to get through, like tapioca. As for punishment, that’s not my thing. I’m an old sorcerer. I work spells from old books. I live as I like and I do as I please, but never to punish people. I find people tend to punish themselves pretty good without my assistance”
“Now what,” said the Old Man, who was no longer a King.
“Well, it’s up to you, really. You’re about a thousand leagues from people in any direction. There’s no food or water between here and there, and I can’t guarantee you won’t come across an occasional beasty or two. They might be real and they might be figments of your imagination but either way they’ll be deadly. Or you can sit here for eternity and ponder all the things you’ve seen and had and lost. Either way, you have found your destiny.”
The Old Man sat down on a nearby rock and when he looked up the Knobby Little Man had vanished.
c. 2011 david elzey
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