The socially inept Alsimuk feared that the inopportune arrival of Chief Truvidir Markenys presaged, for him, more embarrassment. But rather, the sole role of Markenys at this feast was to deliver vital information regarding the Games. Now the Games are about to begin . . . Read on
The King’s Games started early the next day—though who could tell when was day and when was early with this Darkness. Yet the truvidiren who came to wake us said it was day. They said to be up, to be ready, to be outside. “You are to process along the broad-way.”
I noticed that morning what others were wearing: thick padded clothing else hide-protectors. It was as well that I’d brought the shield for I’d brought no other protection with me. With a thankful eye to that shield, I pulled on my boots and, unusual for me, strapped them all the way to knees. I didn’t want the loose tops to flap and to trip me when the fighting grew wild and fierce. I strapped the dagger’s sheath to my belt, the dagger snugly housed. The rapier-sword from the House of Saram had come without sheath. I had made one for it myself though, I admit, it was a savage sheath for such a truvidic blade. This, too, I strapped to my belt.
Oh, but this did feel strange. For no matter that I’d practiced using both the sword and the dagger, I never had worn them both together. Yet I’d seen markistes wear them thus so I guessed it was the way to do it. Those blades, though fine and thin, weighted me down. It was being unused to it, despite I’d rehearsed, and had practiced. I told myself if Saram wants me for King, if I am, indeed, Saram’s Son, then everything will go in my favour. I should not worry, not worry at all. All would be well.
But then I looked at the contenders. How could I, an Alsimuk herder from the Highlands of the Sun, have any hope of beating them? Was I really so foolish to believe I could win where the likes of King Burdamon could not? Was I so deceived that I believed I would win over the likes of Markiste Isvlenys?
I told myself, aye, that if these were the games at the Feast of Trees then of course I would be a fool, that no way would I win against these others. But this wasn’t the Feast of Trees; these weren’t the same games. We weren’t to race our mounts around the Feast Ground. The course was to be the entire bounds of the Central Highlands of the Sun. And that was my land, the land of my birth. Here I had herded cattle since my legs could walk me. Here with my brothers, with my uncles and kinsman, I had hunted since my arms had strength to pull a bow. Of all the contenders, in this first event, I had only Markiste Isvlenys to fear. For he too would know the land well.
But . . . when we discover that we, too, can do something we’d previously marvelled at, we tend then to pay no more heed to how it is done. We have achieved what we set out to do and we take no further interest. We forget to perfect the skill. So it was with me and Heglayis. Aye, I knew the land and how she goes up and how she goes down. I knew where she is soft and where muddy, where harsh and stony. I could have ridden it with my eyes closed, so well did I know each turn and turning, the places of every willow and alder. Yet on that morning . . . things didn’t go so well.
We had readied ourselves and our horses. Ahead of us was the broad-way. Mistress Bregan buzzed around us. The musicians were before us. They led the way with their drums and pipes and copper horns. We processed because processing is the Alsaldic way. The Alsaldic Kings like to display, to give the people a colourful sight, rich and dramatic, bright and magnificent, breathtaking, impressive—to make the people gasp, make them remember the glory of that day. Our own procession was all of that—but less because of us contenders than for the musicians, poets and singers, the dancers, the truvidiren, buadhren and law-men (none of whom could walk but must ride in horse-drawn carts. A horse to draw a cart! And those horses were entirely covered in gaudy cloths so they could equally have been oxen and none would have known).
We processed, though why, when no one came to watch us pass—except for the one family whose holding we had to pass. I looked across at Kottir and my face must have shown my query.
He shrugged and smiled and said, “Maybe it’s for Saram to see and to enjoy.” Which brought back the question of how Saram could see us beneath Draksen’s wings.
“He can’t,” Chief Truvidir Markenys had said when I’d asked him the question the previous night. “Moreover, he has no need. We don’t expect Saram to look at who might be winning, who might be losing, and change what’s happening so the True Heir will win. The True Heir will win because he is the True Heir. He will have the skills of the New Alsaldic King.”
“So the New Alsaldic King must be fast on a horse . . .” I asked him. “Must be good enough with a sword to beat two opponents—both together . . . and be able to shoot and burst thirteen water-filled bladders hidden beneath an ox-hide cover. Is this all that he needs to be the King?”
“I’ve already explained,” the Chief Truvidir said. “The slaying of the dragon is a drama, and it will be understood as such.”
“And I do understand it,” I said. “But why does the Alsaldic King need to be the fastest rider in the land when as soon as he’s named King he’ll travel from one Hold to another in a horse-drawn cart? What need has he of speed?”
It was the King’s Beer working my mouth. I never would have said all this were it not for that wonderfully potent special brew. I am sure Truvidir Markenys knew that as well.
Our procession led us along the broad-way as far as Bisaplan’s Land. We entered through the back-bounds gate. I could almost hear the eldliks complaining of the horses and the damage. But, as I had told him more than once when, finding myself beside him at the Feast of Trees, with him repeating his usual gripe, “If you opened a gate at the end of the Boat Path, there’d be no need for horses and carts and all those feet to trample over anyone’s land.” Yet still the gate was way over to the right of the Boat Path. So what might he expect.
Bisaplan’s kin had come out to see us process. We numbered ten families in all—eleven if Markiste Isvlenys’ Krisvint family down at Duneld’s Hold were counted. All these had come to see us pass along the Boat Path to Isle Ardy. If the other candidates thought these good Alsimuk folk had come out for them they were mistaken. These were my family, my kin, and they’d come to watch me ride by—not any of them. My sister waved, my brothers too. I would have waved back but my hands were tied by the shield and the reins and, practiced though I was, I’d not the experience of handling Heglayis when upset by a crowd. I hoped he would behave himself. I talked constantly to him in that loud whisper he liked.
We processed along the Boat Path, passing by many a king’s grave, till we came to the high grass-grown walls of Isle Ardy. At the narrow gate Chief Truvidir Markenys held us back. He wanted the musicians and dancers to file through first, and then the carts with the truvidiren, buadhren and law-men. Only then could we enter.
All around the Feast Ground were fires burning bright. They marked out the circle of the outer wall. They marked out the circle of the second ring. We contenders gathered in the centre. Those few who had come to watch—more were expected to arrive later—were herded into the second ring, separated from us by a deep trench. This was the truvidiren’s doing, done to save them worrying of our horses trampling some wild running child—never mind those same little tots could as easily tumble down that deep trench.
Chief Truvidir Markenys held aloft his staff. Obediently, those gathered fell quiet.
“We are here today,” he said, “to bear witness to these Games. To watch, as Saram watches, this contest. We seek a New King. Saram’s Son. None have been promoted by the truvidiren. Saram has not told us who it’s to be. These Games have been arranged to discover it.”
He paused, before resuming. “This man we seek as the New King will have the swiftness and the strength and the skills of Saram. He will be, in all ways, Saram’s Son.”
All of this was unnecessarily said. For hadn’t the truvidiren travelled around, announcing the Games, and explaining why. But the truvidiren do like to display. He continued to list the day’s events. The horse-race which was to have three winners. The sword-play which would whittle those three down to one. And a third test before this one could be declared Saram’s Chosen, and Alsaldic King.
“And now,” he said, “time to begin. Each of these thirteen candidates has reason to believe he is Saram’s Son . . . Saram’s Chosen One, our New King. I name them in the order they’re arrayed across the isle.”
And so he did. The crowd all-but ignored the first named, Neësis of Un Dli. No clapping nor hooting such as we do at the Feast-Games. Kottir, however, received warmer welcome—but that because he punched the air in triumphant form and the crowd responded with a roar. I wondered if the Highlands’ branch of Clan Bukplugn would support Kottir over me. I searched the crowd for any sign of them, but found none.
Having hooted the once a few families now hooted again for the next contender, Liplath of Meksuin’s Land, despite Liplath did nothing to encourage it.
And then it was Kailen’s turn—Kailen of Ul Dlida and Clan Duneld—the other latecomer, companion of King Burdamon. He copied Kottir, punching the air, which drew even noisier hoots and cheers than Kottir had done. But when Beldrek of Suda Du (another of Clan Bukplugn) tried the same he received only a muted response.
The next candidate, my neighbour on the Highlands of the Sun, was Markiste Isvlenys. He had no need of show. His family were loud in their support of him. Indeed, were the candidates to be judged on their applause then surely Markiste Isvlenys would be the winner. And then my name was called.
“Ingobo, also of the Highlands of the Sun, and of Clan Ulmkem.”
My family and kinsmen filled the air with their tumultuous claps and hoots and bangings of staff upon staff. The noise exceeded that made for Isvlenys. So did that mean, in my imagined scheme, I’d be the winner?
The next two—Tavryn, a Querkant of West Bounds, and Mogalis, an Eskin of Cobi Ria—received poor applause. But Fanlinys of Meksuin’s Land called forth a great cheer, which surprised me.
Then, to my disappointment, Burenth of North Bounds almost equalled my own support in enthusiasm and loudness. Obviously he had family amongst this crowd; perhaps long-settled wives, for few would travel from North Bounds in this Darkness.
By now the crowd was tiring of hooting. Staveste of Fifi Go, another of Kottir’s clansmen, barely received a half-hearted clap. And the same was so for King Burdamon of the Mashes. Indeed, there had been a moment of hesitation. Then a murmur rippled around the isle: What’s he doing here? Is this lawful?
Truvidir Markenys again held up his staff. The muted buzz stopped.
“Now, while these thirteen candidates race their horses, the law-men will prepare for the final stage of selection. But do not disperse, for we have entertainment aplenty for you. Dancing. Music. Games. Food. Brews. So enjoy yourselves on this, the most special of days.” Truvidir Markenys’s voice rose and fell as if it were poetry he spoke. And his speech was applauded with hoots louder and longer than any of the candidates had received. .
When the crowd quietened again, Chief Truvidir Markenys gave us the signal—a dropped banner of red. And we were off.
The Games have begun. Thirteen candidates, each believing himself to be Saram’s Chosen. But of these, the real contenders will be the first three past the post. Who will they be? Ingobo? Kailen? Kottir? And what of King Burdamon? If he’s to be the next Reksan Saramis Albinnys will he then bring West Alisime Land into the Nritrik Empire? Is that why he’s there? Or perhaps the winner will be a complete outsider? Next episode, The Race, The Crush