Authors: Patricia Bray
Tags: #Fantasy, #Epic, #Fiction
Stephen flushed with embarrassment. “You should be honored to serve us. Do you know who this is? This is—” He broke off with a yelp as Devlin kicked him in the shins.
“What he means is that we are grateful for your fine food, and if the minstrel here is short of coppers, I have coins of my own,” Devlin said, jingling the purse at his belt. “So we will have another round of this wine, if you would be so kind.”
His tone was soft, but it had the desired effect. “Yes sir,” the servingwoman said, and she returned with two more goblets of wine in the blink of an eye.
It must be something in Devlin’s voice. In all the months Stephen had come here, not once had the serving-women ever referred to him as “sir.” Stephen stared at his companion, but he could not see what it was about Devlin that commanded respect. Indeed, even having witnessed the ceremony, it was still hard for Stephen to believe that this man was the Chosen One. He was nothing like the dashing, if doomed, heroes that figured prominently in the sagas and ballads. One could imagine trusting him to shoe a horse or to mend a kettle, but to save a Kingdom? It was not possible.
“Looked your fill? One would think you’d not seen one of the Caerfolk before.”
Stephen felt the blood rise to his cheeks. It was true he had never spoken with someone from Duncaer before, but that wasn’t the reason for his staring. “I am sorry. I was just wondering. I mean it seems so strange … well no, maybe not strange, but definitely odd, or perhaps surprising is a better word. You being Chosen and all.”
Devlin took a careful sip of his wine. “And what is a Chosen One supposed to be like?”
“Well, er,” Stephen paused. He’d never met one himself. He’d only been in Kingsholm a few months, and the last Chosen One had already been slain before he’d arrived. “Someone like Donalt the Wise. He was the last of the great Chosen. It was said that when he gazed on them, the guilty wept with shame and begged forgiveness. And when he drew his sword in battle, his enemies killed themselves rather than face the Sword of Light.”
“Indeed,” Devlin said, not bothering to hide his disbelief.
“The sagas tell us he was the greatest of the Chosen. And he was the last of the Chosen to retire from office and live out his days in peace and honor,” Stephen insisted. He would not allow anyone, even the new Chosen One, to speak ill of the greatest hero that Jorsk had ever known. Donalt had been dead for scarce one hundred years, but many, Stephen among them, felt that the Golden era of Jorsk had ended with him.
“And since his time?”
“After Donalt came his daughter Miranda. She gave her life to save the young Prince Axel. I’ve written a song about her, and I could sing it for you—”
Stephen swallowed his disappointment. The ballad of Miranda’s Sacrifice was Stephen’s finest composition. He had sung it in this very tavern only a fortnight ago, and the patrons had seemed impressed. Well maybe not impressed, but definitely receptive. After all, they hadn’t thrown anything during the performance, and surely that counted for something.
“If the position is so respected, how is it that the King must offer a reward for service?”
“It began in the time of King Olaven. The Kingdom was hard-pressed, and few felt the call to become the Chosen One. Some say it is because the Gods have turned their faces from us, others that we have no Chosen because our blood has grown thin. Whatever the reason, in the time of our fathers a year passed without a Chosen. Then a firedrake menaced the southern provinces. Noble Prince Thorvald demanded that the King allow him to become Chosen. But King Olaven refused to risk his heir and only child. Instead he named his son King’s Champion and General of the Army. And he sent messages to all of the temples, asking the people to pray for the Gods to send a new Chosen One.”
King Olaven had done more than offer prayers. He had also instituted a reward paid to any newly selected Chosen. Later he had expanded the largesse to include pardon for past crimes, along with a Geas which ensured that the Chosen used their powers only in service of the Kingdom.
Stephen saw no reason to mention these facts. His own father could go on for days, bemoaning the state of the empire, and how they had sunk so low that they could find no honest men, but rather needed to rely on criminals and mercenaries.
Stephen had disagreed with his father, certain that whoever the Gods called to their service must have some greatness within them, whatever their past misdeeds. Although so far the newest Chosen One was proving to be much less than he had expected.
“And this Sword of Light? Surely that was not the shoddy trinket that I saw this morning.”
“No, that was just a copy. The Sword of Light was lost nearly fifty years ago, at the Siege of Ynnis. It is said…” Stephen let his voice trail off as he remembered that the Siege of Ynnis had been the bloody capstone to the conquest of Duncaer. As one of the conquered people, no doubt Devlin had his own view of the events surrounding the siege.
“A fitting end,” he said. He leaned back in his seat, and folded his arms. “Fitting that you lost the sword, since you lost your honor there as well.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. No doubt you sing about what happened on that day, hiding the truths behind pretty lies.” Devlin’s face darkened, and his eyes sparked with anger, and Stephen felt a tingle of fear. It seemed Devlin bore little love for those who had conquered his homeland, and yet, that made no sense. If he hated the Jorskians, then why would he have sought to become the Chosen One? And why would the Gods accept such a candidate?
Then Devlin shrugged, and the anger drained from his body like water from a cupped hand. “It does not matter,” he said. “What was done was done, long before we were born.”
“That makes it no less important,” Stephen countered. As a minstrel, he knew full well how the deeds of the past resonated in the present. Why else would men harken back to the example of Donalt, or sing the songs of the time of Queen Reginleifar?
“My people have no love for yours, nor yours for mine. What will they do when they hear the news that I am the new Chosen One?”
Stephen took a drink of his wine, as he considered how to phrase his response. He had no wish to provoke the Chosen One’s anger for a second time. “Most will pay little heed to the news. In recent years, the Chosen have lost power and respect,” he said.
No need to mention the obvious, that given the Chosen One’s short life expectancy, even those who might object to a foreigner filling the post would assume that his tenure would be brief, and thus they would raise no objections.
“So I can expect neither help nor hindrance? It is as well, since there is no one here I would trust.”
Devlin stared grimly at his wine cup, seemingly lost in thought. Then he lifted it, and drained it dry.
“Another? We have barely put a dent in Master Dreng’s silver,” Stephen said. And perhaps another round would loosen Devlin’s tongue.
“No,” Devlin said, beginning to rise. “It is late, and I must leave.”
“But wait. You can’t leave. You have told me nothing about yourself. What will I use for my song?” After two hours in his company, all Stephen knew was that his companion was from Duncaer and had once been a metalsmith. He had met clams that were easier to pry open.
Devlin hesitated, indecision written on his face. Then he resumed his seat. “Very well. I suppose I owe you that much. You may ask one question.”
Stephen thought furiously. A dozen questions raced through his mind, but in the end there was one that overrode all others. “What was it that made you come all this way, to be the Chosen One?”
Devlin looked down at the surface of the table, and for a moment Stephen feared that he would not answer. When he finally raised his head, his face was frozen, as if his features were cast in stone. But when he spoke, his voice was light and mocking. “It was in a place much like this. Having valiantly conquered nearly an entire cask of ale, I settled in the corner to sleep. Before I passed out, I heard a voice telling of the Chosen One. And I realized at once that this is what I was meant to do.”
“You were drunk?” He had not meant to shout, but heads swiveled in their direction at his incredulous tone.
“You could call it that. I prefer to think of it as divinely inspired,” Devlin said mildly.
Stephen could not contain his astonishment. “You journeyed hundreds of miles to offer up your life as Chosen One all because of a vision you had when drunk?”
“It is my life.”
This would never do. He could not write a song about a man who became Chosen One because of a drunken whim. It just didn’t fit the heroic mold.
Devlin rose from his seat. “Feel free to make up whatever tale you need for your song. It won’t matter to me. And who knows? You may get luckier with the next Chosen One.”
“Indeed,” Stephen said, feeling his optimism returning. Devlin was right. The next Chosen One could be straight out of one of the heroic sagas, a perfect subject for immortalization. In his mind he began picturing how his new epic would be received.
Of course before there could be a new Chosen, the present appointee would have to be killed.
“Not that I wish any misfortune to fall upon you,” he added quickly.
But Devlin had already disappeared.
Devlin returned to the palace and found his new quarters after only a few wrong turns. Dismissing the waiting servant with a growl, Devlin tried to settle himself for sleep. Instead he found himself seized with a strange restlessness. Going to the tavern with the minstrel had been a mistake. Though he had been careful to say nothing that would give away his past, still the conversation had stirred up old wounds. And the wine had not helped. Too little for oblivion, but too much to let his mind rest easy.
Ironic that he had slept as if enchanted the previous night, when no one, himself included, had thought he would survive the next day. Now, having survived the Choosing, and ensured that the reward would reach those he had left behind, he should be able to sleep without a care.
But sleep eluded him, and he began to pace around the chamber. The room that had seemed so grand earlier now seemed smaller than the cell in which he had slept the night before. As he paced, his gaze fell on his still unopened pack. Reaching down, he picked it up and carried it over to the scarred wooden table that stood under the window.
He opened the pack and began withdrawing the objects inside. They were few enough. A threadbare shirt, a small copper cook pot, a handful of spare bolts for his transverse bow. A leather pouch held his sharpening stones and oil. Underneath those was a large object wrapped in linen. He withdrew it and laid it on the table before him.
Unfolding the linen, he stared at the axe head thus revealed. Splinters of wood still clung to the socket, where the helve had been shattered in that final blow. He inspected the blade carefully, but the steel showed no signs of rust or corrosion. Once the mere sight of the axe had brought him pride, a testament to his skill in forging it. Now he looked at it, and all he felt was shame.
He should have left it behind. It had been folly to drag the axe head with him on this long journey. Useless weight—for without a helve, an axe head was just a lump of steel. There had been no need to carry it all this way. Kingsholm was a mighty city, and somewhere he could find a war-axe to his liking. A new weapon, one that did not carry a bloody legacy.
A sensible man would abandon such a cursed weapon. But instead Devlin found himself carefully picking out the splinters of wood that remained in the socket. Tomorrow he would find a weaponsmith and see about replacing the broken helve.
When he finally did manage to sleep, the dream came.
It was a morning in early fall, when the leaves had just begun to turn gold, and the fields were ripe, ready to be harvested. Cerrie emerged from the cottage, carrying their infant daughter in a small basket. Her movements were graceful and unhurried as she crossed the yard. Setting the basket down in the sunshine, she joined Cormack and young Bevan as they began to pick the red gourd fruit, stacking it carefully in baskets that would then be stored in the cold cellar.
It was a peaceful scene, and though the work was not easy, the three laughed and sang at their labors. They paid no heed to the dark woods that bordered the tiny clearing. Only Devlin saw the silver banecats as they left the woods and began their stalk.
He tried to move, but he was frozen in place, knowing the horror to come. “Cerrie! Cormack! The woods!” his dream self screamed, but they could not hear him. For he was not really there, just as he had not been there on that awful day.
At the last moment Cerrie turned and saw the approaching danger. She called out a warning, and seizing the small trowel, ran toward the basket where the infant lay. A banecat followed her. Cerrie turned and picked up a heavy gourd, hurling it toward the banecat with deadly aim. It struck the cat between the eyes, but the creature merely paused and shook his head before continuing its pursuit.
Then the banecat sprang. As Cerrie fell, she covered the basket with her body. She struggled desperately, but a digging trowel was a poor weapon, and no match for the power of that unholy creature. Devlin could not bear to watch and yet his visions gave him no choice, compelled to stand witness as her struggles ceased and her life’s blood drained away in a crimson flood.