e Good was neither the best nor the worst King ever to rule the land. He tried very hard not to do anyone great evil and mostly succeeded. He also tried very hard to do great works, but, unfortunately, he didn't succeed so well at that. The result was a very mediocre King; he doubted if he would be remembered long after he was dead. And his death might come at any time now, because he had grown old, and his heart was failing. He had perhaps one year left, perhaps three. Everyone who knew him, and everyone who observed his gray face and shaking hands when he held court, agreed that in five years at the very most a new King would be crowned in the great plaza at the foot of the Needle . . . and it would only be five years with God's grace. So everyone in the Kingdom, from the richest baron and the most foppishly dressed courtier to the poorest serf and his ragged wife, thought and talked about the King in waiting, Roland's elder son, Peter.
Table of Contents
ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A TERROR. . . .
The Eyes of the Dragon
A tale of archetypal heroes and sweeping adventures, of dragons and princes and evil wizards, here is epic fantasy as only Stephen King could envision it.
A kingdom is in turmoil after old King Roland dies and his worthy successor, Prince Peter, is imprisoned by the evil Flagg and his pawn, young Prince Thomas. But Flagg's evil plot is not perfect, for he knows naught of Thomas's terrible secret--or Prince Peter's daring plan to escape to claim what is rightfully his. . . .
Stephen King has taken the classic fairy tale and transformed it into a masterpiece of fiction for the ages.
"The sorcery of Stephen King . . . is expertly seductive. . . . The kind of book that keeps you up, red-eyed with fatigue, until two a.m. because it's not possible to stop turning the pages."
--The Washington Post Book World
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First Signet Printing, January 1988
Copyright (c) Stephen King, 1987
Illustrations copyright (c) David Palladini, 1987
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eISBN : 978-1-10113807-6
This story is for my great friend BEN STRAUB, and for my daughter, NAOMI KING.
Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons. Delain was a very old kingdom and it had had hundreds of Kings, perhaps even thousands; when time goes on long enough, not even historians can remember everything. Roland th
And one man thought and planned and brooded on something else: how to make sure that Roland's younger son, Thomas, should be crowned King instead. This man was Flagg, the King's magician.
Although Roland the King was old--he admitted to seventy years but was surely older than that--his sons were young. He had been allowed to marry late because he had met no woman who pleased his fancy, and because his mother, the great Dowager Queen of Delain, had seemed immortal to Roland and to everyone else--and that included her. She had ruled the Kingdom for almost fifty years when, one day at tea, she put a freshly cut lemon in her mouth to ease a troublesome cough that had been plaguing her for a week or better. At that particular teatime, a juggler had been performing for the amusement of the Dowager Queen and her court. He was juggling five cunningly made crystal balls. Just as the Queen put the slice of lemon into her mouth, the juggler dropped one of his glass spheres. It shattered on the tiled floor of the great East Court-room with a loud report. The Dowager Queen gasped at the sound. When she gasped, she pulled the lemon slice down her throat and choked to death very quickly. Four days later, the coronation of Roland was held in the Plaza of the Needle. The juggler did not see it; he had been beheaded on the executioner's block behind the Needle three days before that.
A King without heirs makes everybody nervous, especially when the King is fifty and balding. It was thus in Roland's best interest to marry soon, and to make an heir soon. His close advisor, Flagg, made Roland very aware of this. He also pointed out that at fifty, the years left to him in which he could hope to create a child in a woman's belly were only a few. Flagg advised him to take a wife soon, and never mind waiting for a lady of noble birth who would take his fancy. If such a lady had not come into view by the time a man was fifty, Flagg pointed out, she probably never would.
Roland saw the wisdom of this and agreed, never knowing that Flagg, with his lank hair and his white face that was almost always hidden behind a hood, understood his deepest secret: that he had never met the woman of his fancy because he had never really fancied women at all. Women worried him. And he had never fancied the act that puts babies in the bellies of women. That act worried him, too.
But he saw the wisdom of the magician's advice, and six months after the Dowager Queen's funeral, there was a much happier event in the Kingdom--the marriage of King Roland to Sasha, who would become the mother of Peter and Thomas.
Roland was neither loved nor hated in Delain. Sasha, however, was loved by all. When she died giving birth to the second son, the Kingdom was plunged into darkest mourning that lasted a year and a day. She had been one of six women Flagg had suggested to his King as possible brides. Roland had known none of these women, who were all similar in birth and station. They were all of noble blood but none of royal blood; all were meek and pleasant and quiet. Flagg suggested no one who might take his place as the mouth closest to the King's ear. Roland chose Sasha because she seemed the quietest and meekest of the half dozen, and the least likely to frighten him. So they were wed. Sasha of the Western Barony (a very small barony indeed) was then seventeen years old, thirty-three years younger than her husband. She had never seen a man with his drawers off before her wedding night. When, on that occasion, she observed his flaccid penis, she asked with great interest: "What's that, Husband?" If she had said anything else, or if she had said what she said in a slightly different tone of voice, the events of that night--and this entire history--might have taken another course; in spite of the special drink Flagg had given him an hour before, at the end of the wedding feast, Roland might simply have slunk away. But he saw her then exactly as she was--a very young girl who knew even less about the baby-making act than he did--and observed her mouth was kind, and began to love her, as everyone in Delain would grow to love her.
"It is King's Iron," he said.
"It doesn't look like iron," said Sasha, doubtfully.
"It is before the forge," he said.
"Ah!" said she. "And where is the forge?"
"If you will trust me," said he, getting into bed with her, "I will show you, for you have brought it from the Western Barony with you but did not know it."
The people of Delain loved her because she was kind and good. It was Queen Sasha who created the Great Hospital, Queen Sasha who wept so over the cruelty of the bearbaiting in the Plaza that King Roland finally outlawed the practice, Queen Sasha who pleaded for a Remission of King's Taxes in the year of the great drought, when even the leaves of the Great Old Tree went gray. Did Flagg plot against her, you might ask? Not at first. These were relatively small things in his view, because he was a real magician, and had lived hundreds and hundreds of years.
He even allowed the Remission of Taxes to pass, because the year before, Delain's navy had smashed the Anduan pirates, who had plagued the Kingdom's southern coast for over a hundred years. The skull of the Anduan pirate-king grinned from a spike outside the palace walls and Delain's treasury was rich with recovered plunder. In larger matters, matters of state, it was still Flagg's mouth which was closest to King Roland's ear, and so Flagg was at first content.
Although Roland grew to love his wife, he never grew to love that activity which most men consider sweet, the act which produces both the lowliest cook's 'prentice and the heir to the highest throne. He and Sasha slept in separate bedrooms, and he did not visit her often. These visits would happen no more than five or six times in a year, and on some of those occasions no iron could be made at the forge, in spite of Flagg's ever more potent drinks and Sasha's unfailing sweetness.
But, four years after the marriage, Peter was made in her bed. And on that one night, Roland had no need of Flagg's drink, which was green and foaming and which always made him feel a little strange in his head, as if he had gone crazy. He had been hunting that day in the Preserves with twelve of his men. Hunting was the thing that Roland had always loved most of all--the smell of the forest, the crisp tang of the air, the sound of the horn, and the feel of the bow as an arrow left on a true, hard course. Gunpowder was known but rare in Delain, and to hunt game with an iron tube was considered low and contemptible in any case.
Sasha was reading in bed when he came to her, his ruddy, bearded face alight, but she laid her book on her bosom and listened raptly to his story as he told it, his hands moving. Near the end, he drew back to show her how he had drawn back the bow and had let Foe-Hammer, his father's great arrow, fly across the little glen. When he did this, she laughed and clapped and won his heart.
The King's Preserves had almost been hunted out. In these modern days it was rare to find so much as a good-sized deer in them, and no one had seen a dragon since time out of mind. Most men would have laughed if you had suggested there might still be such a mythy creature left in that tame forest. But an hour before sundown on that day, as Roland and his party were about to turn back, that was just what they found . . . or what found them.
The dragon came crashing and blundering out of the underbrush, its scales glowing a greenish copper color, its soot-caked nostrils venting smoke. It had not been a small dragon, either, but a male ju
st before its first molting. Most of the party were thunderstruck, unable to draw an arrow or even to move.
It stared at the hunting party, its normally green eyes went yellow, and it fluttered its wings. There was no danger that it could fly away from them--its wings would not be well developed enough to support it in the air for at least another fifty years and two more moltings--but the baby-webbing which holds the wings against a dragon's body until its tenth or twelfth year had fallen away, and a single flutter stirred enough wind to topple the head huntsman backward out of his saddle, his horn flying from his hand.
Roland was the only one not stunned to utter movelessness, and although he was too modest to say so to Sasha, there was real heroism in his next few actions, as well as a sportsman's zest for the kill. The dragon might well have roasted most of the surprised party alive, if not for Roland's prompt action. He gigged his horse forward five steps, and nocked his great arrow. He drew and fired. The arrow went straight to the mark--that one gill-like soft spot under the dragon's throat, where it takes in air to create fire. The worm fell dead with a final fiery gust, which set all the bushes around it alight. The squires put this out quickly, some with water, some with beer, and not a few with piss--and, now that I think of it, most of the piss was really beer, because when Roland went a-hunting, he took a great lot of beer with him, and he was not stingy with it, either.
The fire was out in five minutes, the dragon gutted in fifteen. You still could have boiled a kettle over its steaming nostrils when its tripes were let out upon the ground. The dripping nine-chambered heart was carried to Roland with great ceremony. He ate it raw, as was the custom, and found it delicious. He only regretted the sad knowledge that he would almost certainly never have another.
Perhaps it was the dragon's heart that made him so strong that night. Perhaps it was only his joy in the hunt, and in knowing he had acted quickly and coolheadedly when all the others were sitting stunned in their saddles (except, of course, for the head huntsman, who had been lying stunned on his back). For whatever reason, when Sasha clapped her hands and cried, "Well done, my brave Husband!," he fairly leaped into her bed. Sasha greeted him with open eyes and a smile that reflected his own triumph. That night was the first and only time Roland enjoyed his wife's embrace in sobriety. Nine months later--one month for each chamber of the dragon's heart--Peter was born in that same bed, and the Kingdom rejoiced --there was an heir to the throne.
You probably think--if you have bothered to think about it at all--that Roland must have stopped taking Flagg's strange green drink after the birth of Peter. Not so. He still took it occasionally. This was because he loved Sasha, and wanted to please her. In some places, people assume that only men enjoy sex, and that a woman would be grateful to be left alone. The people of Delain, however, held no such peculiar ideas--they assumed that a woman took normal pleasure in that act which produced earth's most pleasurable creatures. Roland knew he was not properly attentive to his wife in this matter, but he resolved to be as attentive as he could, even if this meant taking Flagg's drink. Only Flagg himself knew how rarely the King went to his Queen's bed.