The citadel was dark, and the heroes were sleeping. When they breathed, it sounded as if they were testing the air for dragon smoke.
On their sofas of spice and feathers, the concubines also slept fretfully. In those days, the earth was till flat, and people dreamed often of falling over edges.
Blacksmiths hammered the Edge Serpent on the anvils of their closed eyelids. Wheelwrights rolled it, tail in mouth, down the cart roads of their slumber. Cooks roasted it in dream pits, seamstresses sewed it to the badge hides that covered them, the court necromancer traced its contours in the constellation of straw on which he tossed. Only the babes in the nursery lay peacefully, passive even to the fleas that supped on their tenderness.
King Alobar did not sleep well at all. He was as awake as the guards at the gate. More awake, actually, for the guards mused dreamily about mead, boiled beets, and captive women as their eyes patrolled the forested horizon, while the king was as conscious as an unsheathed knife; coldly conscious and warmly troubled. Beside him, inside the ermine blankets, his great hound, Mik, and his wife, Alma, snoozed the night away, oblivious to their lord's distress. Well, let them snore, for neither the dog's tongue, not the wife's could lap the furrows from his brow, although he had sent for Alma that evening mainly because of her tongue. Alma's mouth, freshly outlined with beet paint, was capable of locking him in a carnal embrace that while it endured forbade any thoughts of the coils beyond the brink. Alas, but it could endure for so long, and no sooner was Alma hiccuping the mushroom scent of his spurt than he was regretting his choice. He should have summoned Wren, his favorite wife, for though Wren lacked Alma's special sexual skills, she knew his heart. He could confide in Wren without fear that his disclosures would be woven into common gossip on the concubines' looms.
Alobar's castle, which in fact was a simple fort of stone and wood surrounded by a fence of tree trunks, contained treasures, not the least of which was a slab of polished glass that had come all the way from Egypt to show the king his face. The concubines adored this magic glass, and Alobar, whose face was so obscured by whiskers that its reflection offered a minimum of contemplative reward, was content to leave it in their quarters, where they would spend hours each day gazing at the wonders that it reproduced. Once, a very young concubine named Frol had dropped the mirror, breaking off a corner of it. The council had wanted to banish her to the forest, where wolves or warriors from a neighboring domain might suck her bones, but Alobar had intervened, limiting her punishment to thirty lashes. Later, when her wounds had healed, she bore him fine twin sons. From that time on, however, the king visited the harem each new moon to make sure the looking glass had not lost its abilities.
Now, on this day, the new moon of the calendar we know as September, when Alobar conducted his routine inspection, he looked into the mirror longer, more intently than usual. Something in the secrets and shadows of the imperfectly polished surface caught his eye. He stared, and as he stared his pulse began to run away with itself. He carried the glass to an open window, where refracting sparks of sunshine enlivened its ground but refused to alter its message. "So soon?" he whispered, as he tilted the mirror. Another angle, the same result. Perhaps the glass is tricking me, he thought. Magic things are fond of deceptions.
Although the day was rather balmy, he pulled up the hood of his rough linen cloak and, blushing like blood's rich uncle, thrust the mirror into the hands of the nearest concubine, who happened to be Frol. The other women gasped. They rushed to relieve her of the precious object. Alobar left the room.
With some difficulty, for others tried to insist on accompanying him, the king excused himself from court and took the giant dog Mik for a romp outside the citadel gate. Circuitously, he made his way into the woods to a spring he knew. There, he fell to his knees and bent close to the water, as if to drink. Smothered under a swirl of cloudy mixtures, his reflection only spasmodically came into focus. Yet, among the bubbles, twigs, and jumbled particles of light and color, he saw it once more: a hair as white as the snow that a swan has flown over. It spiraled from his right temple.
Undirected—and unencumbered—by thought, King Alobar's hand shot out as if to ward off an enemy's blow. He yanked the hair from its mooring, examined it as one might examine a killed snake, and, after glancing over his shoulder to assure that none save Mik was his witness, flicked it into the spring, in whose waters it twisted and twirled for a long time before sinking out of sight.