Long live the king, they say. It is said when a king is made, and a king is usually made when another king dies. So was the case in one kingdom, in one castle town, where the lords and ladies of the king’s court stood around the king’s corpse. There were tears and grieving to be sure, and a kingdom mourned, but there was scheming about as well, for this king had no heir. No son, no daughter, no living queen to take the throne, no brothers or sisters, and thus no nieces, nephews, cousins, and there seemed to be no bastard, for this king was a loyal king and a good man.
The task fell to the lords to decide who would be the new king, for these weren’t barbaric times where each earl and duke waged war with his own private army, and instead they warred with words and insults and promises. After seven days of slander and seven nights of whispered rumors, a lord was chosen to serve as king, and the war of words was over.
But another, Lord Duntuss, warred in his heart, warred with battle drums instead of heartbeats, and inside every percussive note came the same chant: “It should have been me, it should have been me, it. Should. Have. Been. ME.”
And so the war in his heart went on for all of an hour before Duntuss was in agreement with himself. He was going to be the next king. He only needed to find a way.
It is unwise to go asking around town asking people, “How do I usurp a king’s throne?” Most folk don’t have an answer and they’re likely to tell a soldier or a guard in hopes of receiving a royal reward. Lord Duntuss had to play this cleverly. He asked a madwoman. She was said to have been a fairy’s child, but no court could prove it, and so she wasn’t yet banished. No one would believe a word from her lips—they never had before—and if she was of the fair folk, then perhaps Duntuss would learn something useful.
“Madwoman,” he said when he found her. “A question for you. How would your fairy relatives suggest a man become a king?”
“That’s easy,” the madwoman said. “He should be a king’s son, preferably firstborn, but if he’s not, there are ways around that.”
“I hear tell you can be the king of your head if you wish. I also hear you can make offerings to the bandy man in the king’s woods who will swap you and the king on a great hunt. Or perhaps you’ll try the cobbler with the enchanted fingers—they say if he makes you a pair of shoes, you’ll be the man they’re meant for. Even if they were meant for a king.”
Lord Duntuss wasn’t about to become the mad king of his own mind and though he didn’t know what a bandy man was, he wasn’t about to consort with some otherworldly creature. But a cobbler was another story. A cobbler was a mortal man, who needed money for mortal needs, and Lord Duntuss had a great deal of money. Moreover, cobblers were harmless. They lacked the mischief of the fair folk and the madness of the hatters. The lord gave the madwoman a coin for her advice and directions to this cobbler’s home, and off he went.
The cobbler lived in a cozy little hut, nestled in the wall of the town. He sat on a two-legged stool, weaving thread into one sole and hammering nails into another. Anyone who knew a lick about cobbling would see this and say, “There’s a gifted man, who can work two kinds of shoes at the same time, one with each hand.” Lord Duntuss knew nothing of cobbling except that you put feet in the result.
“Good day, cobbler,” Lord Duntuss said. “I hear you have enchanted fingers.”
“Some would say so of my skill,” the cobbler said. He was an old, humble man, but his fingers appeared spry and firm, as if plucked from a younger man’s hands.
“I hear also that you can put me in a king’s shoes.” The lord smiled. “I would very much like to walk a king’s footsteps. Is this a part of your fingers’ enchantment.”
The cobbler stopped his weaving and hammering and looked into the lord’s eyes. “If I cobble you a king’s pair of shoes, their lining so soft you’d think I stole it from the clouds, then yes, you would walk in king’s shoes and leave a king’s footprints, and you would be kingly. Still, this would not make you a king any more than planting a dragon’s soles under your feet would make you a dragon.”
“Kingly men are kings,” Lord Duntuss said. “I will pay you to make these shoes and pay you more to make them before any others. Do we have an agreement?”
Of course they had an agreement, for the cobbler needed good pay and good-paying clients. He toiled through the night, measuring and cutting and stitching, until at last Lord Duntuss had a pair of king’s shoes in which to stick his un-kingly feet. He paid the cobbler and walked out in his new shoes.
Whatever enchantment worked through the cobbler’s fingers had worked its way into the shoes, for Lord Duntuss did indeed feel kingly. He walked with a king’s tired but royal posture and strode with a king’s confidence, all the way to the castle. There he stood in court, tall and mighty, and yet he was not the man sitting on the throne, nor was he the man being pestered for favors and justice. He was simply a lord who wore shoes that were too good for him.
“These shoes are a cheat,” the lord said when he returned to the cobbler. “I felt kindly, true, but no one acknowledged my kingliness.”
“You aren’t the king, are you?” the cobbler asked. “I told you, the shoes cannot make you king.”
“The sense of power was there, but I wasn’t compelled to take it.” An idea fell like a stone from the sky into Lord Duntuss’s head. “I have it. Something you said earlier, about wearing a dragon’s soles?”
“They would not make you a dragon,” the cobbler said.
“But they would make me feel like one.”
“I suppose so.”
“Then that is your next commission,” the lord said, clapping his hands. “I want shoes made of dragon hide. A dragon has the presence to take a simple throne.”
The cobbler sighed. “That would be a hard hide to fetch.”
“Then you can’t do it?”
“Of course I can. But it will cost you.”
Cost was no concern for Lord Duntuss. He tossed coins by the shovelful at the cobbler’s feet. What were his family riches when he would be king, wearing ruby-crested rings on his fingers and a crown on his head? The royal treasury would be his. He was told to go home and come back in three days, which he did, and when he returned, he found the cobbler exhausted, bruised, and covered in a light coat of ash.
“Did you get the hide?” Lord Duntuss asked.
“It took some bartering, but it is here and the boots are finished,” the cobbler said. He handed the lord his most prized work yet, a pair of boots fashioned from a dragon’s own hide.
The lord slipped his feet inside them and left the cobbler’s home. Now he walked the street as a man possessed with pride, his gait so firm he forced others to alter their paths around him. He marched to the castle, into the court, into the throne room, and strode boldly past the guard, acting so much like they didn’t existence that for a moment the guards themselves believed it. Lord Duntuss took the king by his robe and shook him out of his throne. Then he sat and looked over the court like a man sizing up a plate of mutton.
“It’s exactly right that I should be here,” he said to himself. “Exactly right.”
Exactly right lasted only the moment it took the guards to realize they had let a man throw their king to the floor, and if they wanted to keep their necks from being stretched, they would make this right. They shook Lord Duntuss out of the throne, and out of his dragon boots too, and into the dungeon he went for attempting to usurp the throne.
There he waited, no king, no dragon, just a man with too much ambition. His heartbeat quickened, but it had no war to wage inside, for now its rhythm said, “It should have been me, but it will never be.”
A day passed, and then another, and the lord thought they might forget about him. Then a priest came to the dungeon and told him he would be executed—treason against a man’s king could not be excused, not even to a new king.
Lord Duntuss waved the priest away. “I need no holy man. Get me the cobbler. The cobbler with the enchanted fingers!”
Another day passed before the cobbler was brought to the lord’s cell, and it happened to be only a day before his execution. “You called for me, lord?” the cobbler asked.
“No lord now,” Duntuss said. “They’ve taken my riches, my lands, and they’ll take my life too. I need you to make me a free man’s shoes.”
The cobbler shook his head. “I would give you the shoes off my feet if I thought they would help, but you still don’t understand. You would only feel like a free man. The shoes would not free you.”
“Then there’s no hope?”
“My shoes can’t change your sentence, my lord.”
The lord sat in silence for a while, and the cobbler was good enough to sit with him. He thought while he sat, and thought and thought until he understood he had no way out. He had dug himself into this dungeon and the cobbler’s hammer couldn’t get him out.
“I need one last pair of shoes,” Duntuss said. “But I’m afraid I can’t pay you for them. I need the shoes of a brave man.”
The cobbler nodded and left the dungeon, and former Lord Duntuss was alone once more. He didn’t sob or sulk, for his encroaching death hadn’t hit his heart yet, but he expected it would soon, and that expectation worried him. Not once did he sleep the entire night, and when the guards dragged him from his cell at the break of done, he looked to have aged ten years. They marched him up from the dungeon in chains and out of the castle in iron boots, to better pull his body when the rope tightened around his neck.
“I can’t die yet,” he said. “I’m expecting a new pair of shoes.”
The guards were unsympathetic. They marched him up the steps to the royal gallows, where a thief and a murderer were also to be hanged today. Duntuss scanned the crowd, but did not see the cobbler anywhere. He hoped to see the old man at the edge of the crowd, approaching from the outskirts of the castle’s front, but then the world went black and a blindfold was placed over his eyes, for his comfort, they said, so he wouldn’t know when the executioner would drop the platform.
“Cobbler?” Duntuss cried. “Don’t let me die a coward. Please.”
It was then he felt someone fidgeting at his feet and he feared the platform was about to drop. “Lord, I’m here,” the cobbler’s voice said. “And I’ve brought you two shoes as you asked, free of charge.”
Duntuss’s heart settled the moment the old man slipped the shoes onto his feet. They felt worn and comfortable, not exactly the feel he expected from the shoes a brave soldier or explorer. More like the softened insides of slippers that a nobleman might wear when he was settling down at the end of the day. But he trusted the cobbler, and even if he didn’t, he had little in what shoes to accept. Besides, soft inside or not, he did feel brave. He could face his end, even if he couldn’t see it, and was relieved that the cobbler had come to his aid, even without a reward to grant. “Thank you,” Duntuss said. Then his final moment came in a swift snap and the former lord was alive no more.
When the crowd had dispersed, leaving the hanged men to feed the crows, the cobbler returned and removed the shoes from Duntuss’s feet. He took them back to his home and placed them on a shelf, stolen from the lord’s own mansion, where they sat for a year.
By then, the new king was settled rightly in his seat and had a mind to wage a war, not of words or hearts, but with swords and shields against other kingdoms, for he was not as good as the old king. On the night before the soldiers were set to march, a boy of a man, his sword unblooded, appeared at the cobbler’s doorway.
“I’m off to war tomorrow,” the young soldier said. “I was hoping you might spare the shoes of a great warrior for me to march in, so that I can fight well and live.”
“My shoes may make you feel like a great warrior, but they will not make you one,” the cobbler said. “Here is something better.” He presented the soldier with the shoes of the late Lord Duntuss. “Here are the shoes of a brave man.”
“But they won’t make me a brave man, will they?” the soldier asked. “They’ll only make me feel brave.”
The old cobbler smiled. “My little war-making fool, you’ll see soon enough. It’s practically the same.”