Though there’s still a whole decan before the day set for the Games, the first of the King’s Contestants are already arriving, each believing himself Saram-Chosen to be the next Reksan Albinnys Saramis. But only one, so far, has made an impression upon young Bregan . . . Read on
I hardly ventured outside my door now I again had a woman to serve me. And why should I? What was beyond those walls but the Darkness of Draksen? Moreover, the King’s Hold was set too close to South River and that river stank enough to empty a gullet. So, the Regiment had been set to keep the King’s Hold clear of the dead, but still the flies thickly swarmed. Of course, being Brictish I could hold flies away. But why should I use my strength, and that now failing, to drive away what shouldn’t be there? No, unless the matter was urgent, I stayed within my walls. So I didn’t see Kottir arrive. But Drudatha did.
Of course, Drudatha isn’t a Brictan of any degree: she’s Alsimuk, the younger widowed sister of one of Mistress Maia’s brewing-women. So Drudatha didn’t know of his light. Oh my, did he have light! Yet it was no brighter than young Bregan’s, I swear it. Even so, of all the Brictan I ever have seen Bregan’s and Kottir’s lights were the brightest—excepting Uissid Tizarn’s of course, but then he was an Immortal. So I wondered what glunan they were. My father was fourth glunan from his immortal source; what then were these two?
“He says no one knows who his mother was,” Bregan said when I asked her.
I laughed, “Don’t be silly. Though many a Brictan don’t know their father, yet the mother . . . well, she has to be there at the birth. It’s compulsory.”
“Well of course she was there,” Bregan said.
“Then was he an infant, abandoned, and his father—not his true father—found him? Is that the reason no one knows who his mother?”
“No,” she said. “His mother was there for the first seven years of his life.”
“So why does no one know who she was?”
“She was found,” Bregan said, repeating Kottir’s unlikely story. Infants, abandoned, might then be found, but a woman? I’d never heard the like. She said, “His father found her washed up on the shore.”
Apparently, his father was a trader from Du Dlida, a son of Clan Bukplugn. Those Bukplugents had gained in importance during the years of my memory to become the governing clan of what used to be West Eskin Land. With their trading-holds at West River Gate, Taca Riori and Du Dlida, they had holdings bigger than West Alsime Land—though not bigger than the holdings of my own family’s clan. Clan Meksuin.
So his mother was found washed ashore? By his tale, she looked like she’d die if not tended with care. So what could his father do, he took her home and tended her. According to Kottir, this woman remembered nothing of her former life, as if she were then newly-born. And yet born fully grown?
I didn’t have to ask if this mysterious woman was fair or dark: Kottir’s hair betrayed her. It sat upon his head like an Alsimuk rug—one dyed deepest black. And neither did it matter what he tried to do to it, for there it sat, thick and unruly, always falling into his eyes, trying to blind him. If he’d have been mine I’d have cut the lot off! So, his mother had been dark, that was obvious. At first I wondered if she’d been an Eskit woman. But no, not with his light so bright. Either she’d been an Immortal else one degree from it and who’s ever heard of an Eskit Immortal?
Drudatha told me of his arrival, all excited. “The first of the contestants has arrived.”
“I believe the Chief Truvidir wants them called candidates,” I told her, then asked what he was like.
“Handsome,” she said.
When I first saw him my first thought was aye, Drudatha would consider him handsome with him being so dark. But he was tall, too; taller than any Alsimuk man, taller by far than an Eskit. Tall. And the shoulders on him! I didn’t know what he’d been doing to develop those—usually shoulders like that are found only on river-walkers and woodsmen. Yet his father was a trader? I still couldn’t believe it when the answer was given. He had served his Four, that’s what he told Bregan. Certainly I’d believe it of a markiste or a horsemaster but . . . a markon? Never. Those shoulders didn’t grow in only four years.
He was well turned out—for a trader’s son. Usually they’re so hung about with their trinkets and furs and other fineries that they seem . . . messy. Untidy—like someone has riffled through the King’s Stores and thrown these bits and pieces at them. It’s all too much, too overdone. I don’t like it. Except the first sixteen years of my life I have always been the Alsaldic Queen but never have I been tempted to hang so many different weavings and skins and golden rings and strings of all kinds of beads upon my body. Can the body be seen beneath this clutter? I was chosen for my beauty, and beauty is best left untrimmed. Maybe that’s why so many traders obscure their bodies with so much expensive jumble—because their bodies are so ugly. But his was not, not this Kottir, and he’d the good sense not to obscure it. He wore simple clothes, but of expensive making. I would say that that marked him as someone innately suited to be the king—excepting, of course, that few of those kings I’d sat beside showed any such sense.
But despite the questions of him, I liked him, this Kottir. If I had been younger and not marred by these wrinkles I’d have been happy for him to win the Games and be the king. I’d have been proud to sit beside him as his queen. I could see why Bregan so liked him.
But he was a Brictan, and Brictans have influence. Was I, and she, being coerced by him? Did he cast his irresistible fascination over me, over her? But she said it was otherwise.
“I drew him to me,” she said. “I sat by the spring”—where once I had sat to attract her—“and called him to me.”
But she was so young, no experience of men. And though I had tried to teach her the Brictish ways, had she understood? ‘And I called him to me,’ she’d said,
“You play dangerous games,” I told her. But she looked at me, not understanding. “Why did you call him?”
“I wanted to meet him,” she said.
She’d seen him sooner than I. Well of course she had, hadn’t he to pass by her aunt’s gate to reach the King’s House. She’d seen him and in her young woman’s way she had desired him.
“How can you desire a man you’ve not yet met?”
“But I wove my fingers through his head. I know him—I know why he’s here.”
Oh, so she had taken notice of what I had said, and she had tried it. I assume she’d tried it before this day. Practiced, perhaps, on a more familiar subject?
“You didn’t need to do anything inside his head to know why he’s here,” I said. “He’s here to contest the Games.”
She shook her head. “No, that’s only part of it.”
“It’s the part that matters,” I said. “So what did he tell you? Why has he entered the Games?”
“Because he doesn’t want to be a trader, like his father.”
“So he decides to come here, to enter the Games, to be the king? Could he not have been a herder? That would have been easier.”
I had already wondered what kind of men would contest these Games. Who would believe themselves the Chosen of Saram, the True Heir of the Alsaldic Lands?
“Herders are respected,” I said.
“But herders don’t travel, they go nowhere. Kottir has travelled far. He’s been all around the Alsaldic Lands—from Porcynnis to South Eskin Head, from The Estuary to Ul Dlida.”
I looked at her. She heard my question.
“He served the Four as a crew-man.”
Ah, so that was the answer to his shoulders.
It was another two days before Bregan visited again. She sat opposite me and boldly declared, “Kottir’s the True Heir.”
I told her, “Bregan, this man—Kottir—is merely the first of several candidates to arrive for the Games. Doubtless by the time the last one arrives you’ll have declared them all to be the True Heir.”
“But he is!”
I shook my head at her, and shuddered as knowing-shivers ran down my spine. Blight the girl, how could she know? Uissid Tizarn’s voice resounded in my head—a memory? “Time was when the King’s Wife declared the New King the True Heir with the serving of the King’s Beer.” Not ever in my days! I’d never known that to happen. But aye, I did know the story.
“He says that when he’s the king I’ll be his wife and his queen.”
“Oh?” I tried not to scowl. “And since when did the King’s Wife become the king’s queen?”
“I didn’t say ‘King’s Wife’,” she corrected me. “I said I’ll be his wife. Wedded and bedded.”
“And what of the Craft?” I asked. “Does your aunt know of this?”
“Why do you think the King’s Wife was named the King’s Wife if she never was the king’s wife?”
I allowed her that, “Maybe once upon . . . But it hasn’t been the way since I’ve been the queen.”
“But since then Draksen has spread his wings across the land and made us look for other ways. You notice, Kottir has no truvidir with him?—no one’s promoting him, not like the previous Alsaldic Kings.”
“Aye, Bregan, but that’s why these Games: to find the next king—because there’s not a truvidir in all this land who dares to promote a candidate. None want that risk—and it is a risk, Bregan. This New King—the next king—must fight the dragon, must free us of Draksen’s heavy wings. And you know what’s to happen if he fails? The truvidiren will kill him just like they killed the old king. But, Bregan, think on it. What man can fight this Draksen? So we say it’s a dragon but, in truth, even the Chief Truvidir doesn’t know what it is. How can a man fight without knowing what his opponent?”
“The Hero Beli fought the Dragon of Fomori,” she said, unperturbed by my impassioned outburst.
“With Saram’s help,” I said.
“And Saram will help the True Heir—that’s why the Games.”
And I admit, it was true, that was why the Games: so Saram could show us the one he wanted—yet that assumed the one he wanted was here contesting. But what if the True Heir lived overseas—in Banva Go, or Eskin Head? What if he decided not to contest? Then a false king would be chosen, and I’d memories of others of those.
“We’ll see,” I said. That’s when I resolved to venture out of my chamber, to go tell Mistress Maia. Not that she helped. Did she not care for her young apprentice? No, she cared only for the brewing of beer.
Alas, young Bregan, the fool, to fall for the talk of a high degree Brictan. But then, haven’t the Mothers already said she’s to be the King’s Wife? But is that with or without the capitalisation? Next episode, Two Late Arrivals