As he slept, images of wild grinning cats with fiery manes prowled his head. They were in an open plain with nothing nearby, moving stiffly and they knocked off his son’s crown and bit off his arm, crying inky crocodile tears.
Of course, it was just a dream; King Ograf would never consider of going far out into the beast-infested plains that lay around the city, let alone allow his son to come with him. Besides, the young prince was an idiot, was just as likely to be eaten by guinea pigs if allowed to go out to a pet shop unaccompanied by an entourage.
Ograf shot bolt upright between the four posts of his bed and erupted into the exact echoing belly-laugh that was the bane of every single one of his stewards.
“Something wrong, sire?” one of them simpered through a gap in the bedroom room, half asleep under a sagging nightcap.
“No! Nothing!” Ograf bellowed. “I just had a really funny dream! Ha ha ha!”
The steward shot him an uneasy smirk, before disappearing behind the closing door and leaving the King with his dreams of abstract predators.
How preposterous it was, he thought, that a king and his son should be left in the outside in the wild to face viscous animals. At least, not without twenty-or-so well-armed men.
He drifted back into sleep, chuckling. He chuckled all the way through the lion encounter in his next dream.
Caged cockerels heralded the morning as bands of light climbed through the thin gaps in their enclosure, and King Ograf awoke groggy with a head full of lions. Not for one second had he taken them seriously, but they had never left him alone in his sleep. He collapsed at his high-backed chair at the end of the dinner table with his fat fingers wrapped around his face, waiting for breakfast. Why had he been dreaming so much about lions? He hadn’t seen or heard anything lion-related the day before, and now, they had somehow infiltrated his subconscious with their big paws and their big teeth. Were they supposed to represent something? No other kingdom that he knew of bore the symbol of the lion. His son fell into the chair opposite.
“Hello, father!” he crowed to him, forced to shout across the ridiculous length of the table. The King was too deep in thought to notice him fumbling about with the neatly-placed cutlery, while the cook emerged from the cook-dungeon beneath the stairs, dumping some yellowish paste in each of their bowls.
“Yellowpaste again!” cried the Prince. “Goody gumdrops!”
The Prince wasted no time before sinking his face into the bowl of breakfast. But the King, drawing the copper spoon across the dish, glanced on its contents and saw that the paste was formed in a particular shape.
A splatter of the paste had spread out on the side to form a distinctive mane on the head, another to form a short tail, and the rest had seeped down to form four little lion legs. It was a mystery to anybody as to why a randomly-placed serving of the mashed-potato-like substance would form the very specific shape of a large feline predator. Nevertheless, the King reeled from his chair; the colour draining from his face; the wine-quaffing redness from his nose.
“L-l-l-lion!” he howled. “What is the meaning of this?!”
The cook was ordered to be dragged back up by the elbows to beside where the King was sitting, where he pointed furiously at his bowl.
“Answer me!” he yelled. “Why have you shaped my breakfast like a lion?”
The cook just hung from the arms of the guards, speechless in disbelief.
“How did you know I’ve been dreaming about lions? Are you a witch?”
The cook’s face contorted into one of even more confusion than before. Of course, the King was making absolutely no sense. Even the guards knew that, but their closed visors hid the uneasy side-glances that they would be shooting one another.
“No answer, which means no denial!” the wise King concluded. And so, the evil breakfastomancer was sent straight to the chopping block for her vile crimes of accidently shaping food like a small lion, and the King rested easy for the rest of the morning, safe in the knowledge that he’d foiled the foul plot of inserting lions into his head.
At least, that was until midday, when he decided to go for a walk out in the courtyard with this son.
“Father!” the Prince cried, bouncing up and down on the grass in excitement, pointing off into the portcullis. “Look!”
The soft melody of cheeping birds was stomped out of existence by the rising pound of drum music and the whistle of flutes; their low-pitched tone drawing worms from the soil. And the men and women in tight, multi-coloured clothing, bells on their hats and toes, danced madly around the horrifying red-maned-monster swaying from side to side; an unbroken grin on his face.
“Look out, son!” roared the King. “You won’t take my son away from me, you lion bastard!”
The dancing people didn’t even notice the King’s battlecries over their drums and flutes, and were too busy flailing their bodies to notice the King carving his way through them to reach the beast in the centre.
“Your end has come!” he spat. “Stay out of my life!”
He lunged his sword furiously into the gaping paper-maché jaw of the offending beast again and again, until a small hunchbacked man fell bleeding out of the bottom of its sagging jaw. The parade, noticing what had just happened, ceased their music and dispersed into the hills in screaming terror. Everyone inside the lion costume, without the hunchback at the front to guide them, collapsed into a confused mess on the ground as the King finished each of them off.
“Your lion-god is dead!” he screamed to the hills, where the colourful dots were hiding in faraway shrubs. “And so is your sick cult! Guards, arrest those men!”
Nobody had a chance to tell the King that the parade was, in fact, a parade to celebrate his son’s twenty-ninth birthday; a birthday that the King himself had completely forgotten about. Nevertheless, he fell back onto his throne, bloody and proud that he had foiled yet another lion-based attempt on his son’s life. He had the parading cultists tracked down to the last man, thrown into a ditch and set ablaze, ensuring they wouldn’t create another giant lion ever again.
But the dream came again that night; lions, even more abstract than the ones in the last, shifted around in their intangible and ghostly way. They licked the back of his head with their long lion tongues, getting him to turn around before licking him on the other side. His sword had turned to a lion’s tail, but made from wood and bristly hair, and did nothing but make the lions bigger with every slash and lunge. Then he had to watch the biggest lion eat his son; it ate his hand first; gobbling it up with its uncanny jagged teeth. Then it moved on to the wrist, taking with it all of the Prince’s heirloom jewellery. Then the shoulder; tearing the sleeve from his gold-embroided tunic. And after this, the big lion lunged in and ate the rest of the Prince whole.
And the King awoke, screaming in blood-curdling rage.
Before the first steward had a chance to check what was wrong, the King had already pushed past her, grumbling poison under his mad-eyed frown and setting about on his midnight quest to strangle all of the cats in the palace to death.
He counted about fifty when he had finished with them all, and the resistance from sobbing servants was seen as quiet eldritch prayers to the secret lion cult, earning them the same fate as the cats. The King had set out to dispose of the tiny feline interlopers himself this time; he’d seen the guards looking strangely at him at every mention of lions. Them and their cat-eyed glances. Surely, nobody was to be trusted anymore; with every suspected conspirator put to death, the more lion-related dreams he would have. He left the smoke of the cremated housepets and their owners to peek into the room of his endangered son. Still sleeping; mumbling about tapirs made out of gold and eyes made out of graphite. He’d never changed since he was a boy. Smiling, the King slunk back out and barricaded his son’s door with a dressing table and a taxidermised bear, as any cautious father would.
The next few days passed particularly lionless, leading the King to believe that strangling all those cats had, in fact, done the trick, and the lions of his dreams had been a plot orchestrated by a coven of fifty tabbies. It had been obvious, he thought; they were moving around the palace constantly, jumping through gaps in the walls and traversing the lesser-known crawlspaces, gathering information on King Ograf’s habits and patterns, before ultimately allowing their larger cousins access to the palace and eating the Prince. It was a good thing his prophetic dreams had warned him of this. To reward himself, he had begun his celebratory banquet, consisting only of himself and at least five whole roast boars. He had even taken the effort to hang colourful ribbons from the chandeliers, each one embroided with the depiction of a crowned man crushing a mighty lion, and each one lovingly crafted by his slaves.
It was when he was about to sink his teeth into a juicy snout when his son crashed through the doors, stumbling over his feet.
“Father!” he squawked excitedly. “The squires have invited me to go hunting with them. Can I, father? Oh please, can I?”
Ograf slowly turned to stare grimly at his son as gravy leaked from his grimacing lips. “Hunting… what?”
“Lions.” He said nonchalantly. “The only thing worth hunting, they say. I-“
The back of the dinner chair hitting the floor cut him off, and the King was on his feet, stiff with fury. “Lions?!” he bellowed. “Son, you’re forbidden from speaking with those squires. No, from hunting. No, from setting foot outside again!”
“Give me the names of the squires right now! They’ll pay for this treason.”
The squires were scooped up instantly, still clad in their hunting gear and carrying their bows, and thrown down the deepest well in the kingdom. Their splash landing was too distant to hear. Far enough, the King thought, to stop them from leading his son to his death.
Nobody in the palace was to be trusted anymore, and as such, the King set about converting the abandoned keep at the very top of the palace into a sealed enclosure for his son. He refused to tell either the guards or the stewards about the recent development to the palace, as well as the whereabouts of the Prince.
“He’s dead.” He’d tell people who would ask. Further prying would land them a place on the chopping block, but at least this cautiousness would maybe preserve the life of the Prince; the King was fond of the sacredness of life. He was a wise and benevolent king; who was left to dispute it?
He visited his son in the keep every few days, and would often find him miserable and bored.
“I want to go out, father!”
“But it’s not safe, there’s things out there that will kill you.”
“I wanted to go hunting!”
This struck the Ograf with an idea like a brick in the face. He returned with buckets of colourful paint and paintbrushes and set to work on painting the animals on the brickwork that the Prince desired to hunt. Deer. Badgers. Bears. Lions.
The murals kept the Prince occupied for many months; shooting toy arrows at each one and pretending to eat his freshly-bagged game. But the illusion of the painted animals wore off over time, along with the paint, making the animals more and more faint and unbelievable. It wasn’t the same as real hunting, and he became increasingly frustrated with the fake animals, and frustrated with his father.
“It’s not fair!” he yelled, pounding at the wall. “It’s not real! I want to go out! It’s not real!”
The lion made him the angriest; it reminded him of why his father sealed him away. So he punched at its face in a fury, over and over, until the rotting old wood it had been painted on gave way to a jagged hole of toxic splinters that chewed up the Prince’s hand. He fell over dying, and his blood painted a fresh coat onto the gaping-jawed lion.
The King must have left one cat alive.