The first five years of King Hudrys’s reign had been peaceful—which wasn’t unusual. After the installation of a new king there was always a period of waiting before those who’d move against him did so. According to Uissid Tizarn the old Dal-way was to allow a king to reign no more than four years at a sit, though he might reign for four times those four sittings. That way, he said, such opposition had no time to amass and to move before the next Rites of Installation and Affirmation. But Uissid Tizarn had long since rid the Alsaldic Lands of the Dal-ways; now an Alsaldic King reigned until Old Mother Death cocked a finger at him. Though that finger might act through the truvidiren.
Those first five years we saw no reason to cut short King Hudrys’s reign. Indeed, he was proving the most generous of kings, feasting all who came of age, seeking out new feats of wonder to entertain them—he kept tumblers and jugglers amongst his slaves, having travelled to Gouslunt when he was younger and seeing the Gousich king do the same. He encouraged musicians and poets to perfect their craft, lading them with fine gifts. He moved around the land, from King’s Hold to King’s Hold, so all might come to him with their various complaints. From all over the Alsaldic Lands, wherever he had been, I received nothing but favourable reports of him. He was much adored by the people. The herds thrived—cattle, horses, sheep and pigs; the fields yielded ten times that of the King’s Takings; the Mother’s harvest always was good. There was no drought, no floods, no blight, no plagues of biting flies. His was a glorious reign. I didn’t even receive reports of rebellion or more invasions from the East Isle—though, true, the only East Islandic land still loyal to our Alsaldic King was that known as the East of the Way. Yet it seemed even that land existed in peace despite the Nritrin upon their borders.
But when, on the first day of Terst’s Devone a dragon was seen, to the far north, raising its head high into the sky, then everything changed. Within the day the dragon was flying overhead, stretching out his wings, obscuring Saram, hiding Sauën. Over the next few days those wings, at first insubstantial, thickened to obliterate all above us. Day became night and there was no dawn.
Even within the first decan all green leaves began to pale. In the fields, the previously swelling grain-heads halted, and shrivelled, and soon were host to a plague of demons. Everywhere there was despair. For even if the dragon now flew away the damage was done; there would be no yield of grain this year. Not even for fodder.
Enough that the grain-plants were so affected. But the herbage, the grass in the pastures, the meadows, all by the paths and the tracks, in the wilds, all turned that same sickly-pale. The leaves on the trees, too, though they turned more slowly. I’m told the families, seeing this, went out with their blades to cut as they could before all was dead. They stripped the hedges, the copses, the thickets. In the woodlands they reduced the trees to naked arms. They did it not for themselves, for they couldn’t eat leaves. It was for their stock.
Never before had this Darkness been known. And amidst the fears and the crying was the constant search for more food.
The consequences were soon to show, an interconnected chain of starvation. No grass for the cattle, the horses, the sheep and the goats? No meat for us. No grain, no fruits, no nuts? No food for us. No food for us? No scraps for the pigs. No scraps for the pigs? No food for us.
No food for us.
Best then, before that fragile fodder ceases, to slaughter the stock, to smoke the meat and to bury it deep where the scavengers and tainting spirits and demons couldn’t reach it.
Oh, if that were all! But the vermin, the swarming flies that fed off the dead. The carrion eaters—at least they thrived. The wolves, foxes, cats and owls, everywhere emboldened by the Darkness. No one with senses intact would venture abroad, the paths and tracks no longer safe walking. As for the streams . . . they stank with the decomposition of the dead things in them. Now the only sweet water was got from the springs.
Wells were dug. Those truvidiren who had the craft of finding deep water were in great demand—the only reason now for any to travel.
We killed the Old King—King Hudrys. He had failed his people, failed Alsalda, he had to die. But not one truvidir believed with that killing we’d be rid of the dragon. What we needed was a New King. Yet no truvidir cared to promote one. What if he failed, for what man could fight a dragon? What man might chase it away? No ordinary man. Yet without the New King, the people of the Alsaldic Lands would face certain death before the turn of the year.
And where was Uissid Tizarn while all this was happening? What of his influence? What of his abilities? His tricks?
An Immortal—yet beneath this Darkness Uissid Tizarn had become simply a man who had lived too long. He weakened, though as yet he didn’t age, not in the way Queen Yoisea did. He called me to him.
“Truvidir Markenys,” he said, his voice become thin, “fetch for me five baskets of grain. It matters not whether they’re wheat or barley.”
“But there’s a guard set on the King’s Granary,” I said. I expected him to tsk me, and to say he could, for that moment, make the guards blind. But he didn’t.
“You are a clever man,” he said. “So find a way round them.”
I went to Mistress Maia, the one person who could come and go and take as she need. On the way I tried to produce a suitable excuse. Why would I want five baskets of grain? Me, a truvidir, what could I want with them?
“Five baskets?” she asked, looking askance at me.
“Three of wheat and two of barley,” I said.
“Are you thinking of brewing your own beer?”
“Exactly,” I grabbed at this offered excuse. “Aye, it’s as a surprise.” I didn’t say surprise for whom, and she didn’t ask. She did ask, though, if I’d prefer that she brewed it. “No-no-no-no,” I said. “It’s my brewing of it that’s the surprise.”
“Come,” she said and retrieved a sledge for hauling my grain.
I couldn’t believe it, so easily done! At the King’s Granary, the men of the Regiment meekly moved aside.
With a note to the King’s Wife that I now owed her a gift—though that might be a turned eye—I tugged the grain-laden sledge around the Truvidiren’s House, seeking out the hidden door. Never easy to find.
“Essence of plant,” Uissid Tizarn said—almost glowed, so pleased was he to see I’d done well. “This will keep me alive while this Darkness lasts.”
He then had me place lamps in every nook of his chamber. After that we talked of the New King.
He said it was best that we set a contest. The Games. And he explained how to do it.
“But who will contest?” I said, sunk into utter despair. “Even to enter is to claim the ability to destroy this Draksen. Who knows how to do that?—Who dares? Whoever wins at the Games will fail with Draksen. Then we truvidiren must kill him too. Are we to have a succession of failed and killed kings?”
But Uissid Tizarn laughed. He said, “Before my strength deserted me, I had felt what is up there. Let them believe it’s a dragon. I know it is not. Any Son of Saram can defeat this thing, this Darkness—this so-called dragon. And any who come forward to enter these Games—knowing that to win is to be the Alsaldic King—and to be the Alsaldic King is to need find a way to defeat this dragon—he, Markenys, he and all will be Sons of Saram. Aye, every one of them. But the one we take as the Alsaldic King, he will be the best of them.”
“And will this miraculous Son know how to defeat the dragon?” I asked.
Again, he laughed. “You do not listen to me, Markenys. Trust me. I know more about this dragon than do all the truvidiren in this land. Find the best of Saram’s Sons, install him as the Alsaldic King, and, I promise you, that will be enough. Draksen will be defeated.”
Sometimes Uissid Tizarn talked in riddles, making no sense at all. And yet Uissid Tizarn had never been wrong in the counsel he gave me. He had, after all, been governing this land for six hundred years, and before that he co-governed the Tuädik Dals. So I followed Uissid Tizarn’s directions and I had the law-men take word of the Games across all the land.
They and the law-men who now carried the Old King’s body travelled together. It was safer. From Du Dlida in the south to Cobi Ria in the north, from Fifi Go in the west to the Point in the east—but not over-the-seas, for there, in this Darkness, they couldn’t go.
With no announcements made over-the-seas, we expected no King’s Candidates from Banva Go (neither from Ul Dlida, Anyo Dlida nor Mo Ria), none from Saria nor Emiso Go, none from Porcynnis nor from South Eskin Head. Yet late on the eve of the Games a son of Ul Dlida’s King Ferrangu arrived.
How came he to cross the sea when our law-men said it couldn’t be done? Was he the man that Saram wanted as king? I, no less than the other truvidiren, was sure it was so. I even rehearsed my speech for the following night when the newly discovered Alsaldic King would give his New King’s Feast, and the King’s Wife, to confirm his selection, would serve him the King’s Beer. King Kailen, thirty-first Alsaldic King!
How did Kailen cross that sea when others could not? Was he guided by Saram despite the Darkness of Draksen? More, could Markenys be right in believing him the New King? Perhaps the answers will come with the Games. But that’s not to be yet. Next episode, The Old Queen