The young Alsimuk herder has missed by a whisker being placed third in the horse race. And yet there might still be a chance for him to prove himself as Saram’s Chosen. Though Chief Truvidir Markenys might disagree on that . . . . . . Read on
Although the arrival of the King’s Candidates at the King’s Hold had begun as a trickle, by Quenst’s Devone they’d become a stream. I wondered then if any of my own family might enter the Games. My brothers’ sons? Or their sons’ sons would be more likely. I waited to see if there’d be a Querkant contender. And, aye, there was. Tavryn. But Tavryn was from West Bounds; he was not of my family.
Despite each candidate arrived alone, and often spaced by several days, still we had a problem of what to do with them. Where would they sleep? How would we keep them occupied and entertained? I gave the task of finding solutions to Truvidir Isbalen.
I could have pretend ignorance of what kept Isbalen at the Kings Hold beyond the day we killed King Hudrys. Isbalen wasn’t one of my men; he should have returned to Bayland. I could have pretended my eyes were blind, that I didn’t see him go to Mistress Maia’s house whenever his duties, and hers, allowed it. Of course I reported to Uissid Tizarn what I’d seen, but he only tushed me for it—They went against no Alsaldic Law, he said, leave them be. So now, since Isbalen shouldn’t have been here at the King’s Hold, and his being here meant we had to feed him, I gave him whatever tasks and duties I could find. At least let him earn his lodgings.
For their sleeping arrangements, Isbalen directed the candidates to the King’s Chamber in the King’s House. He said the benches, set along its outer walls, would make good beds for these would-be kings. When I discovered this I called him to me. Why had he allowed them to sleep in there! Such a misuse of the King’s Chamber, intended only for the feasts and banquets and receptions given by the Alsaldic Kings.
I told him, “We provide tents for visitors who arrive without them.” I had intended only for him to find some suitable place to pitch these tents, some place away from the King’s House.
“You might usually supply them,” he said. “But these aren’t usual times. In usual times there’d be no candidates. Tell me, how well would you sleep in a tent when flies are there, buzzing in your ears and settling on your eyes? How well would you sleep not knowing what might be sidling up to you, drawn to your warmth, thinking what a good meal you would make? One of these candidates is Saram’s Chosen Son. Would you put him in a tent?”
Isbalen had it right; I had to allow it.
But the future king numbered only one of these candidates. The others—looking at them as they arrived, I wondered what some of them were doing here. But when I related this to Uissid Tizarn he smiled and tushed me. At times, Uissid Tizarn was exceedingly infuriating.
But I did admit some of those candidates weren’t worthless. There were those who, even at first sight, we knew had the makings of an Alsaldic King, even if they’d not yet been trained and instructed by a truvidir. Whoever won, we truvidiren knew we’d have to work hard to mould him into a true Alsaldic King. I had no doubt that, once the New King had defeated, destroyed or otherwise rid this land of Draksen’s Darkness, Uissid Tizarn would get inside the New King’s head and direct him as required. But even so, it would better if we started with a king half-way worthy.
Although only a trader’s son, Kottir was one of those better suited. Markiste Isvlenys, too, was another. Though the first Alsaldic King had been of the Regiment there had been no other since. And a horsemaster-in-training would make the best of kings considering the troubles that brewed in the east.
Another we deemed well suited was Staveste from Fifi Go, even though he claimed he was only contesting because his family had asked it of him.
And perhaps my clansman, Tavryn, and the blade-crafter, Fanlinys, would also make good kings. Though we’d had no craftsman as king here before.
Of the others . . . I admit surprise that Mogalis had what it took even to enter; I’d have been struck dumb for life if he had won. And Liplath: admittedly he was touched by Saram, but for what; not to be king. As for Neësis, if he’d stopped playing the part for just a moment we might have seen beneath the act to what was him, and maybe we’d have found him worthy. He certainly proved himself when it came to the battle.
And then there was Ingobo. Barely of age, on a borrowed horse, with weapons he’d never used. Yet like the others, he had entered and could have been Saram’s Chosen One. But the thought of him winning . . . I shuddered.
But no matter their qualities, no matter their worth, until the New King was discovered these candidates—every one of them—were to be treated as equals. For, truly, we did not know who’d be the king. As Uissid Tizarn said, at this stage of the Games, all were Saram’s Sons.
“Saram’s Son should be swift as the wind,” Uissid Tizarn had told me, sitting up in his chair, not resting as usual on that bed of grain I’d fetched him. “We shall have a horse-race—the people always enjoy a good race. But make the course ten—no, twenty. No, a hundred times the length of that for the Games at the Feast of Trees. Make it difficult for them, make it more than merely a test of speed. Make it so the riders must need good fellowship with their horses to even complete it.” At which Uissid Tizarn had chuckled in his infuriating way.
The course we set took the candidates alongside South River, right by her edge. The riders wouldn’t want to be that close to her waters, the horses even less. Some—horses or riders or both—might even refuse it. If the horse, then the rider might be thrown—directly into that befouled water. The thought of that, I gagged. And unless we cleared it—which we would not—there’d be litter of every disgusting kind along that track. Riding there would be no easy thing.
Then Uissid Tizarn surprised me. There was to be no winner. “Take the first three returning. The first three back at the isle will be proven.”
He didn’t say what they’d be proven. As Saram’s Sons? As having good fellowship with their horses? As being merciless competitors who’d not stop for anything or anyone, leaving another to drown in that murksome water? Of contriving to injure another’s horse? Of contriving to injure each other? But according to Uissid Tizarn, one of these three would be our New King.
“Have these three candidates fight one another with their swords.”
“In what order?” I asked and he shook his head.
“Not in any order. All together.”
“But that won’t be easy.”
“It’s how it’s done in battle,” he said. “The enemy doesn’t wait till you’ve finished with one opponent before leaping at you, sword poised to lunge. Two against one is more how it is. Three against four. Let them fight like that.”
And what was this to prove?
“Saram’s Son should be skilful.”
“And how’s the winner to be determined?” I asked.
“As each candidate sheds blood, so he’ll be disqualified. The winner is the one still standing, unblooded.” And again, he laughed.
“And what if none are left standing at the end of this fight?” I could see that as a definite possibility.
“Then you take the next three who finished the race.”
No. I shook my head. This didn’t seem right to me. “Is this how Saram would have us find the True Heir?”
“You doubt my wisdom?”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said, “I just don’t understand . . .”
“How my way of doing it will find us the New King?”
“Aye,” I admitted. I didn’t like to criticise him: he was an Immortal. But I didn’t understand how these Games, and how he wanted them ordered, would find for us the True Heir, Saram’s Son, the New King. “It’s never been done this way before.”
“In that you are wrong,” he told me. “There once was a time—though that before there were kings—when every year a Champion was found. He then must lead the people throughout the year. That’s how the Games at the Feast of Trees began. As a way of finding this man. The overall winner of all the events was declared the Champion for all that year. And one of those years, the man found was called Beli. Do I need to tell you the story of Beli and how he killed the Dragon of Fomori? The Regiment still sing of it.”
Aye, I knew the story well.
“So, we shall have the Games, and we shall find a Champion. And the Champion thus found will destroy the dragon Draksen. Now do you understand how it will be done?”
No, but I didn’t dare say it. Yet he knew; never a way to deceive him.
“Right,” he said. “Once we’ve found the Champion—the winner of the sword-fight—then he must kill the dragon. It’ll be simply done, but the people must see it. What they see, they’ll believe—even if they know it’s all a drama and unbelievable. Trust me, Markenys. It will all work out, exactly as I’ve said.”
Ingobo arrived at the isle in fourth place. So he still has a chance to enter the swordplay, a chance to win and become king. Right? Next episode, The Father’s Daughter