Authors: Patricia Bray
Tags: #Fantasy, #Epic, #Fiction
The sword was clearly the work of a master smith. Long and tapered in the old style, it had a hilt of ebon, wrapped in silver wire. The blade shimmered in the candlelight, revealing a pattern of runes carved on one side.
Devlin accepted the sword from the priest with his left hand. It was an awkward grip, and as he tried to switch the sword to his right hand he fumbled and dropped it. The sword struck the marble floor with the ringing clang of steel upon stone.
He picked up the sword, suddenly curious. He examined the length of the blade, noting that the metal had the faint shimmering appearance that belonged to the finest steel. But somehow it did not feel right.
He was aware that the others were regarding him with a mixture of impatience and dismay, but he refused to be hurried. He ran his thumb along the edge of the sword, exerting just enough pressure to keep from drawing blood. Then he pulled his dagger out with his left hand, and struck the pommel of the dagger against the blade of the sword.
He heard it again, the faint note of wrongness. He replaced his dagger and shook his head uneasily. Should he speak up and risk revealing more of himself? Or keep silent as payment for the low regard in which they held him?
He struggled with his conscience for a moment, but in the end he could not keep silent. Honor was all he had left. “I will swear no oath on this blade,” he said, placing it on the altar so that half its length extended over the edge.
“Why won’t you use the sword? You’ve come a long way to change your mind now,” Captain Drakken observed.
“Because any oath sworn on this blade would be as false as the blade itself.” He placed his left hand on the hilt of the sword, holding it steady against the altar. Then he made his right hand into a fist and raised it over his head.
His fist came crashing down. The blade broke with a sickening crack.
“May all the Gods preserve us!” the priest exclaimed.
Captain Drakken’s face whitened, her lips taut. Clearly she was imagining what would have happened had anyone trusted his life to that sword in battle.
Master Dreng appeared amused. He looked at Devlin, really looked at him for the first time. “Now I see why they call you Stonehand,” he said.
Actually Devlin had taken the name from his father, a builder who had worked in stone. It served him as well as any other name, in this foreign land.
“How did you know?” Captain Drakken demanded.
“You called me farmer, but once my trade was that of a metalsmith. And there are some things you never forget.”
“Now what will we do? We cannot complete the ceremony without a sword,” the priest fretted.
Captain Drakken drew her own sword from her belt. “Will this do instead?”
He took the sword from her. It was a plain sword. A soldier’s sword. From the wear on the blade it had seen hard use. But the edge was sharp and, when he tapped it against stone, the metal rang true. “This will serve,” he said.
At Brother Arni’s gesture, Devlin raised the sword over his head, feeling vaguely foolish. But the feeling vanished as Master Dreng gestured with both hands and began chanting in a language Devlin did not recognize. As the mage chanted, a circle of light grew around Devlin, banishing the darkness and making it seem as if he were being inspected by the Sun himself.
Captain Drakken appeared impassive, but when the edge of the circle of light threatened to touch her, she took a hasty step to the right.
The priest began to pray, his high voice serving as counterpoint to the low chanting of the mage. He prayed for what seemed an eternity, till Devlin’s arms began to ache with the effort of holding the sword aloft.
The priest looked up at him. “Now, repeat the oath after me.” He rattled off a phrase in High Jorsk.
Devlin repeated the phrase, stumbling only slightly over the unfamiliar words. He spoke no High Jorsk, and wondered vaguely what he was promising.
“And now the same, but in tradespeech so you understand,” the priest said. “Repeat after me. I, Devlin of Duncaer, promise to defend the King and people of Jorsk against all enemies both earthly and otherworldly….”
“I, Devlin of Duncaer, promise to defend the King and people of Jorsk against all enemies both earthly and otherworldly….” Although just what he could do against an unearthly enemy was a question that he could not answer.
“I swear to dispense the King’s justice, and to enforce the writ of law and the will of the Gods. I pledge my life and soul in service of this oath.”
No man could do all that. But he repeated the words anyway.
“I call on Lord Kanjti as witness to my oath, and patron of my Choosing.” The priest looked at Devlin, then stared fixedly down at the altar. Captain Drakken and Master Dreng both turned their faces away as well, so they were not looking directly at him. He realized that they were afraid of what might happen next. Presumably this was the moment when the Gods indicated their displeasure with a candidate.
Devlin drew a deep breath. “I call on Lord Kanjti as witness to my oath, and patron of my Choosing.” As Devlin repeated the final phrase, a wisp of cold fire ran down the sword, then seemed to go through his arm and into his body. For a heartbeat his entire body was filled with icy fire. And then it was gone, and he felt nothing save the start of a throbbing ache in his head.
All was silent. Master Dreng had finished his chant and now regarded Devlin with a faintly quizzical look on his face.
Devlin lowered the sword. “Is it over?” He felt cheated, though he did not know why.
“The ritual is complete,” the priest replied, sparing barely a moment to glance at Devlin before returning his attention to the altar. “You are now the Chosen One, champion of the Gods, defender of the Kingdom and its people, until your death.” From the sound of it, he expected that Devlin would not last a week.
The priest handed Devlin the gold ring that had lain on the altar during the ceremony. “Put this on.”
Devlin slipped the ring on the middle finger of his left hand. It was a seal of some sort, with a blackish stone in the center.
“Now say, ‘I am the Chosen One,’ ” the priest instructed.
“I am the Chosen One.” Immediately the stone in the ring began to glow with a red fire.
“Neat trick, isn’t it?” Master Dreng said. “The ring was sealed to you during the ceremony. Now no one but you can activate it. It’s the symbol of your authority.”
“Does it stop glowing?”
The priest snuffed out the candles and began returning the ceremonial items to their wooden box. Devlin noticed that a second jeweled stone, which had lain on the altar during the ceremony, had now begun to pulse faintly with a reddish light. But the priest returned the stone to the box before Devlin could ask what its purpose was.
Master Dreng gave a half bow. “Chosen One, I must say this has been a most … interesting occasion. I look forward to hearing of your career. Brother Arni, Captain Drakken, I am off to seek my well-earned rest.”
“Have you forgotten our wager?” Stephen asked, then took a hasty step backward as all eyes turned toward him.
The mage smiled, and reached into the purse that was tied to his belt. He withdrew a large silver coin and tossed it in the direction of the minstrel. “Take the new Chosen out and buy him a round of drinks. He’ll need it.”
Devlin turned toward Captain Drakken and held out the sword. “Thank you for lending your sword,” he said.
She shook her head. “It is yours now.”
“I have no use for a sword. I can use a war-axe and a transverse bow, but I have never learned the sword.” At his age it was too late to start. Young warriors spent a decade mastering the sword.
“Nonetheless it is yours. Perhaps you will find a use for it someday.” She unbuckled her sword belt and held that out to him. “Here, you’ll need this as well. Don’t worry, this was but my practice sword. I have another in my quarters.”
“Thank you,” he said awkwardly. He was in her debt. He would have to find a way to repay her, for he had sworn never to be in anyone’s debt again.
“So what happens now?”
Captain Drakken grinned. “You mean, do the Gods send an immortal emissary to announce your quest?”
The ghost of a smile touched his lips as he realized his own foolishness. Truly he had never thought about what would happen once he was Chosen. He realized that, deep inside, he’d never thought he would live through the ceremony. But it seemed that the Gods were not finished with him yet. He wondered what more they would require of him, before Lord Haakon would condescend to accept his death.
“Something like that,” he said shortly.
“In theory, either the King or myself, as Captain of the Guard, can give you a commission. But for the most part the quests will find you. Some half-starved peasant will arrive at the palace with a story of marauders or magical plagues, and you’ll find yourself compelled to go off and investigate.”
Compelled. He repressed a shiver at the reminder of the Geas that now bound him to the service of this land and this strange people.
Captain Drakken must have sensed his change of mood. “No sense worrying; trouble will find you soon enough. For now I’d suggest you follow Master Dreng’s advice, and get drunk. When you sober up, ask a servant to direct you to the chief steward of the castle. Show him the ring, and he’ll show you to your quarters, and give you the first half of your reward.”
The reward. He had nearly lost sight of the reason that he had come here. Ten solid gold disks for having passed the trial and been declared Chosen One. And another ten, payable on his death or retirement. It was a fortune, more coin than he could have earned in a dozen years as a metalsmith, or a lifetime as a farmer.
Captain Drakken looked him over. “I’ll give you one thing. You’re the damnedest Chosen we’ve ever had. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is too soon to tell. But you’re bound to cause a stir at court.”
The sun beat down on the courtyard as Devlin left the temple, and he realized that it was still early afternoon. Strange, he could have sworn that the ceremony had taken longer.
Stephen followed him outside. “Chosen One, it would be an honor to take you for a round of the best ale or finest wine in Kingsholm.” The young minstrel looked like a puppy begging for a treat.
“Not now,” Devlin said. He looked around, but realized that he was lost. “First, can you direct me to the guardhouse where we spent the night? I should collect my pack. And then I want to find the chief steward.”
Stephen happily agreed to serve as his guide. He led Devlin back to the gaol, where Sergeant Lukas greeted their return impassively. He offered no congratulations on Devlin’s survival, but handed over his pack without comment.
Next Devlin went to the Royal Steward’s office. At first the steward seemed inclined to dismiss Devlin as a nuisance. Even when Stephen announced that his companion was the new Chosen One, the steward looked skeptical. Devlin finally had to produce the ring and invoke its power to prove his credentials.
Once he realized that Devlin was the Chosen One, the steward’s attitude changed for the worse. He now treated Devlin as if he held a long-standing grudge against him. He tried to refuse payment of the reward, saying that Devlin should leave the coins with him for safekeeping. When Devlin insisted, the steward reluctantly counted out each of the ten gold disks as if they were coming from his own purse. In a pointed lack of courtesy, he summoned a servant to show Devlin to his new quarters, rather than taking him there himself.
The chamber assigned to the Chosen was located on the second floor of the east tower. It was a spacious chamber, with wide windows that looked over a courtyard where soldiers were drilling. The bed was large enough to sleep an entire family, but there was only a bare mattress.
“There’s been no need for linens so they’ve all been put away,” the servant explained. “Now that you’re here, I’ll send for the chambermen to put things right.”
Devlin dropped his pack on the floor, then hung his newly acquired sword from a peg in the wall.
Across from the bed stood a tall wardrobe. Devlin opened the doors and saw that the wardrobe was filled with dark gray clothing in a variety of sizes and conditions. His gaze lingered on a gray jerkin that was stained with what could only be dried blood.
Next to the wardrobe was a rack, on which two swords were displayed, while on the wall hung a longbow and quiver. Beneath the weapons were two wooden trunks, each banded with iron. One trunk bore the name Sygfryd. Unlike the rest of the room, which was well kept, a layer of dust covered the trunks and weapons.
“And these are?” Devlin asked, waving his arm to indicate the wardrobe and weapons.
The servant flushed. “They, er, they belonged to those that lived here. Before you.”
“See they are taken away,” Devlin ordered. He needed no such reminders of his own inevitable fate.
“At once, my lord,” the servant said.
Devlin looked around, then realized that the servant was speaking to him. “My name is Devlin,” he growled.
“Of course, my lord Devlin.”
Devlin turned on his heel and left.
“Where are we going?” Stephen asked.