The Games have begun . . . Thirteen candidates. And each believes himself to be Saram’s Chosen. There’ll be no outright winner as yet. The first three past the post go to the next round. Will they include Ingobo? And what of King Burdamon, held by the power of the land hungry Nritrin? Amongst the many uncertainties, to us one thing is known: Soon after these Games the Alsaldic Empire will fall . . . Read on
As the banner dropped I held back. I knew only two horses together could pass through that gate. To judge by the crush few others knew that. Kailen and Burdamon, Neësis, Beldrek and Liplath, Fanlinys and Mogalis, all were delayed while they disentangled themselves, precious moments lost. But Markiste Isvlenys, he knew; he was already through. Burenth too.
A clutch of spectators had climbed the ring-wall and now, from above that funnel, were shouting encouragement and instructions. I could see King Burdamon, stuck in the crush, face reddening, all-but exuding a dark-hued smoke—And then, with the pressure suddenly eased, out they all popped from that gate in a rush.
East to the river, south to the King’s Hold: this was the first stretch of the race. Markiste Isvlenys was way out in front of us, no longer visible in the Darkness. But Burenth, though amongst the first out, had already fallen behind.
Knowing the land as I did, I could push Heglayis hard on this stretch. We had run these tracks over and over in a way no other contender had. This was my chance to get ahead, for beyond the broad-way my knowledge would grant me much less an advantage. I pushed Heglayis that hard even before we’d cleared Bisaplan’s Land we had passed Burenth, Mogalis and Liplath. Between Bisaplan’s Bounds and the King’s Hold we overtook Staveste and Tavryn as well. This was proving to be more easy than I had thought. Though, it’s true, several horses had stumbled in the Darkness. Staveste’s mount shrieked out in pain. I’d have gone to help him, both rider and horse, but in helping another I would lose the race. Oh but it came hard for me to ignore their need.
We scrambled up the river-bank, around the northern edges of the King’s Hold and northward, now, along the broad-way. But the crush to be up that bank and onto the broad-way resulted in yet another injury: King Burdamon! I felt no compulsion to help him; lain and lame, his horse struggling, too, to get up.
All the way along the broad-way Heglayis and I were neck-and-neck with Neësis. Ahead of us—still in sight—were Fanlinys and Beldrek. But of Isvlenys, Kottir and Kailen there was no sign. But that didn’t mean they were that far ahead. The law-men had built beacons along the way, but beyond their immediate circles of light the Darkness was absolute. But I, for one, knew this broad-way, and I knew it well. We raced it unheeding of the dark. I left Neësis behind me. I overtook Fanlinys. I was on Beldrek’s tail. He made the mistake of glancing behind to see who was contesting his place. The next thing he knew he was off his horse and sprawled on the ground, a graze on his head (the snaky branches of oak trees overhung the broad-way in many places).
We had reached Bear Hill, the highest point of the Highlands. Somewhere ahead were the race-leaders, Kottir, Kailen and Markiste Isvlenys. Close behind me was Neësis. We turned to the east and began our descent. To either side were steep valleys, but invisible in the Darkness. Yet I sensed of them. Waiting. Greedy for men to plunge on down.
Neësis tried to nudge past me but couldn’t quite make it. Every time he tried I guided Heglayis that little bit closer to the dark valley and, wisely, Neësis pulled back.
Now the race became everything. To win, to win, no thought but that. To hear the crowd cheering. To contest at the sword-play. To be yet a step closer to being the king. Oh, but too lose and to have to face them . . . I whipped my horse. I goaded him on. I whispered words of apology—I didn’t want to cause him this pain, but I did want to win. Saram asked it of me.
And down, again, beside South River; there I finally caught sight of those ahead of me. Markiste Isvlenys was struggling to keep the lead. Kottir and Kailen were neck-and-neck, close to each other, in danger of pushing each into the water. That water stank.
By the time we reached Ardy’s Landing I was level with Kottir. But Kailen still was in front of me, and so was Isvlenys. We pushed our horses to race up that hill. And even as I was heading for the passage that leads to the Feast Ground I thought I’d a chance to win. I had only to arrive third. If only I could put Kottir behind me . . .
Into the passage, horses’ hooves pounding, back and forth echoing from the high white-chalk walls. Then at the centre the crowd wildly roaring, clapping, hooting.
Markiste Isvlenys was first into the isle; Kailen of Ul Dlida closely followed. Then came Kottir, followed by me—in fourth place.
Chief Truvidir Markenys then had to wait for the others. Neësis came next, followed by Beldrek and Liplath. How had they rearranged their placing? I neither knew nor I cared. I had failed. So close to the finish yet I had failed. I felt . . . deflated. I knew not what to do.
My family ran to me, waving. But what was I to say to them? I wanted to turn them away.
“You almost did it!” My father hugged me and patted my back. “You surprised us. We thought you’d be last.”
The eldliks of the Highlands’ branch of Clan Bukplugn sauntered over. He, too, slapped my back—harder than my father had done. He clasped my arm. He shook my hands. Finally, he pulled me to him.
“Alas. But you did try,” he said. “And you almost did it. I hadn’t expected you to be the winner. I’m pleased to see how well you have done. My daughter Briäsa would like to meet you. Are you willing?”
Was this the daughter he’d have given as wife had I won? Alas, she was not to be mine. I hoped she’d be ugly. I said. “I’d be happy to meet with her but I am encumbered.”
“You find a place to leave your weapons,” he said, “then come and join us for the rest of the Games. You did do well,” he repeated. “Aye, very, very well.”
Now what was I to do with my weapons? I ought to return, at once, to where I had found them, at Saram’s House. But if I took them there I’d miss the next stage of the Games. So I secured the shield to Heglayis and led him over to where Bukplugn’s eldliks was standing with his kin. I had never seen them like this, all gathered together. They were an enormous family. I almost retreated and yet I stayed. I looked from one to another of the younger women. Which was the one I would have wed? Some of their women were especially fair. But others . . . I expected my would’ve-been bride was amongst them.
“We have our three candidates for the sword-play,” Truvidir Markenys was saying, his well-practiced voice sounding loud, his every word audible in this high-walled arena. “They are Markiste Isvlenys of the Highlands, a son of Clan Krisvin. Kottir of Clan Bukplugn in Du Dlida. And Kailen, son of King Ferrangu of Ul Dlida in Banva Go, of Clan Duneld.”
The small crowd of that morning had swelled. Now they filled every available space of the Feast Ground. These spectators cheered, no longer in support of particular kin, all eager to welcome the New King. I’m sure they cared not which clan had begotten these three final contenders, nor yet from which kingdom or province they hailed. For this was the day they would have a New King! This was to be Draksen’s last day of Darkness—or so the truvidiren ahd told us.
“Ingobo. You still have the horse? And your weapons?” The eldliks welcomed me and nodded understanding of my plight when I explained I had nowhere to leave them. “But never mind. You come with me now. My daughter is just over there.” He nodded his head at the deep yawning trench.
Obviously his daughter—whose name I’d forgotten—was determined to gain a good view of the sword-play. Yet to stand at the edge of that trench, when that edge was notoriously fragile. What if that edge should crumble, and she tumbles all the way to the bottom? I said this to her father.
“I have no doubt someone would be quick to the rescue.”
Were his words directed at me? But I’d not yet seen her. Perhaps if she fell into that trench I just might prefer to leave her there. After all, what was she to me now.
Ingobo arrived fourth, but fourth wasn’t placed. Yet if none of the three candidates survives the swordplay unblooded . . . Could there still be a chance for young Ingobo? Next episode, The Kingmaker