Something startled the king awake. Nothing appeared unusual or out of place in his bed chamber. He heard the guards quietly conversing in the hallway, but that would not have woken him. Indeed, it gave him some measure of reassurance that all was well.
A breeze through the open window billowed the curtain, but it was too high for an assassin to come in that way. Wasn’t it? He looked around the room again, more carefully this time, ready to yell for the guards.
“They will not hear you.” The voice was dry and cracking. At first he could not find the source; then he saw a dark figure in the shadows by the window.
“Guards! Guards!” He was not about to take an assassin’s word for it.
But no one came rushing into the room.
“I did tell you.”
“Some sort of magic? Who sent you? Who wants me dead?”
The figure shrugged, sounding like twigs snapping. “I know not. But I have not been sent to kill you.”
“You know why.”
A riddle? Who was this person that entered like an assassin, but not to kill? An inkling began to grow and with it came deepening dread.
“You know who I am.”
“But… How? If there is no assassin, why come for me?”
“It is your time. An assassin is not required to reach the end of your days.”
Terror gripped him in earnest. “Surely there is something I can do? Some way to postpone this? My kingdom needs me!”
“Everyone thinks themselves essential.”
“There must be a way!”
“What do you propose?”
He thought, panic pressing down. What could one trade to stave off death? An idea occurred to him. “My son! Take him. He is but a child. Take him in my stead so that I may continue to lead my kingdom.”
“You would have me take your child to spare yourself?”
“Very well. I will take your son.”
The figure vanished into the shadows. The king was drenched in a cold sweat. He just needed more time. He could have another child. There was too much for him to do to leave now.
Sleep began to settle in once more when the sound of snapping twigs again startled him. Sweat once more beaded up on his brow.
“It is done.”
“Fine. Fine. Why come back to tell me?”
“Your son is dead, and that is all you have to say?”
“What matters is that I am still alive.”
“Ah. Still, there is something you should know.”
“What is that?”
“Your son’s time was tonight. It seems his father cared little enough for him and sacrificed him. His time expired on schedule. And thus you have run out of the time for which you traded.”
The figure held up one bony figure. “Before you try again, I will not make any more deals with you. Now come along.”
The king stood, the sweat turning to ice on his skin in the cold breeze. He followed the figure into the shadows, never once looking at the spirit of the small boy walking beside him.