It was not enough that Kottir was amongst the first three back to the isle. Neither enough that, in the swordplay, he alone remained unscathed. Now he must burst thirteen hidden blood-filled bladders with thirteen arrows. To do so successfully will prove that Saram has guided his hand. Or so say the truvidiren . . . Read on
Kottir was in no hurry. Those who’d come to watch could not have known what he was doing. But I did. The truvidiren wanted a New King. They would not have hidden those blood-filled bladders so securely as to provide no hint or clue to their siting. And so along the inner curves of that mock-dragon rode our hero Kottir; along the outer curves too, eyes sharp for what lay hidden beneath the taut skins. For myself, I could divine no sign of those targets. But Kottir could.
It was soon done. Along one side of the dragon, splat, splat, splat, his arrows loosed, the bladders burst. Along the other side; splat, splat, splat, his arrows loosed, the bladders burst. Thirteen arrows. Thirteen bladders. Crimson blood gushed.
Thunder erupted around the isle as every throat let loose a roar and a cheer and every hand clapped. But the applause was prematurely given.
Kottir had yet ‘to kill’ the Old King who sat in the dragon’s head. What mattered that everyone knew the Old King already was dead. The New King must kill the Old, and that was that. But how to kill him? With what?
Chief Truvidir Markenys strode into the arena and made straight for Kottir, still high and proud on his horse. He gave something to Kottir. Kottir held it aloft. A skin, a sling. Along with the sling, Markenys gave him a handful of stones. Words were spoken but I was too far away to hear. I guessed the Chief Truvidir was instructing the New King on what now he should do.
Kottir eyed the Old King, looking to see how best to aim. But what if Kottir failed? What then would the truvidiren do? This wouldn’t be the same as all being blooded in the swordplay. Would they turn then to the one bested by Kottir, to Kailen? But, then, what if Kailen failed too? And every time that dragon must be reconstructed.
I imagined the Games lasting for days-upon-days as one contender after another failed ‘to kill’ the Old King and yet another candidate must be given a try. What if Kottir failed. And then Kailen. Then Markiste Isvlenys, too. The next would be me, and I was more skilled in using that sling than I was in the sword or the horse. It was and remains every young boy’s weapon when scaring the crows off our fields. Had Kottir, a trader’s son, been set to guard the fields? Had Kailen, the son of a king? No, no more than had Markiste Isvlenys. In this one part of the drama I, Alsimuk herder, would excel
Kottir had found his mark. He loosed the stone.
But his first attempt hit only the Old King’s head. Though the crowd believed the hit successful, the truvidiren shook their heads, not satisfied.
If the intent was to show the Old King swallowing the stones, then Kottir’s second attempt would have been good. Again, the crowd cheered and hooted, stamped and clapped. But the truvidiren again shook their heads.
Kottir’s third attempt would be the one. I knew it though I didn’t know why. Those first two shots had been Kottir playing to the crowd. He intended this third stone to hit true.
And it did. Smack in the Old King’s eye! The eye-ball burst. After three triks of waiting to be buried, the slime in the Old King’s eye-ball smelled foul. The breeze of the day caught at the stench and wafted it round. Complaints were shouted, insults again hurled at the one-time king.
“We have found our New King,” Chief Truvidir Markenys declared, voice raised to be heard above the cheering and swearing. “Now the Old King can be buried . . . tomorrow, at the House of Saram.”
“Well,” Briäsa said; “that is that. We have a New King. But I am sorry it wasn’t you.”
I laughed. “No, let Kottir be the one to overcome the dragon above.” I confess, I’d no notion of how it might be done.
Kottir was declared the New King, the True Heir, Saram’s Son. But his installation as Reksan Albinnys Saramis wasn’t to be till the Feast of the Long Night, and that was nearly two triks away. And without the Reksan Albinnys Saramis, there could be no celebration of feasts—likewise, the feasts of Harvest and of Fruits had passed without so much as a song or a dance (never mind that there had been no harvest and the only fruits had been earth-balls and fungi). Now there’d be no Feast of Slaughter either. Not that we’d any herds to slaughter, already culled and killed, their meat preserved. Yet there was one feast we could celebrate. The New King’s Feast. It was to take place that night.
While the families and clans left behind at Isle Ardy celebrated the finding of the New King in their own way, we, the failed contenders, returned to the King’s Hold accompanied by the same entourage as that morning. I wanted to ride beside Kottir again. No matter that he had won and I had not and now he was the Alsaldic King, I liked the man. But the truvidiren had him ride out in front, and they followed close behind him in their carts. The dancers danced their way back to the King’s Hold to the loud and strident sounds of pipes and copper horns and drums. We followed. Behind us came the carts with the law-men.
There was little by way of talk amongst us failed contenders, no one of us Saram’s Chosen. For myself, now I’d had time to think I felt shamed. But whether that shame was for believing myself to be the one, or for the lack of whatever it was that Saram wanted in his son . . . I didn’t know.
I wanted to hang my head low. I wanted no one to look upon me and me to look upon no one. I had to remind myself that Briäsa might yet be my wife—if I talked to her right. But how was that? I had no experience of women apart from my sisters and mother and aunts.
Briäsa was my consolation. Maybe I wasn’t the king, yet I had found a wife, and that was no mean thing. And she an eldliks’ daughter!
I wondered what my family would say. But after that brief exchange with my father, I’d seen no more of them. Had they kept themselves apart from me, shamed by my failure? Or had they seen me in the midst of Bukplugn’s kin and not wanted to disturb me? Had they guessed that that pretty young woman, with her wheaten hair and her moon-pale face had been offered me as my wife?
Briäsa was the best of consolations. In truth, I’d rather be wedded with her than be the Alsaldic King. Yet the shame persisted, clinging like the stench of something rotten I’d stood in.
Mistress Maia was waiting at the King’s Hold, wringing her hands and pacing, clearly impatient. Truvidir Isbalen went off with her, heads together, talking. I supposed it was about King Burdamon’s accident.
Chief Truvidir Markenys waited for King Kottir—King Kottir, that sounded strange—to dismount. He wanted to take him into the King’s House—as if Kottir needed his guidance. But it seemed Kottir wanted, first, to talk with Mistress Bregan.
I was too far away to hear what was said, their talk too hushed. Yet I saw them together, saw how Kottir looked at her, how the Chief Truvidir looked on them both with disapproval, how her eyes ever strayed to look at Kailen. Moreover, as if Kailen could feel her eyes upon him, he turned to look across at her. I was young, not long of age, what did I know of such things? Yet, as an onlooker, I’d say it was obvious that Mistress Bregan preferred Kailen to King Kottir.
There was no time for me to return the weapons I’d taken from Saram’s House. They must wait till morning. The King’s Feast began with a solemn rite—the spilling of the king’s blood, to be smeared over the King’s Tree. While every oak-tree, no matter where it is found, is a King’s Tree, this rite was performed at the oak that overhangs the spring at the back of the King’s Hold. This, as we were told, is the true King’s Tree on account that the first Alsaldic King’s venerated it.
We gathered around it: truvidiren, law-men and failed candidates—all but King Burdamon. Mistress Maia was certain Burdamon would recover from his injuries: broken ribs and a broken leg. She said he had cried like an infant when she’d pulled his leg to set it in splints. They do say that of the biggest men, that they easily weep.
Chief Truvidir Markenys took a small black blade—flint, not copper nor bronze—and with it sliced across three of Kottir’s fingers. Right across the finger-tips, it must have stung. The cuts freely bled—which the truvidiren remarked upon as being a good omen. (In the triks to come I wondered what those same truvidiren considered as ‘good’.) Markenys guided Kottir’s bleeding fingers, helping him to smear the offered blood over a bared patch of tree-trunk. I’m not at all sure what this was about. The Chief Truvidir said something of trees and oaks and the Hero Beli. Later, while we were eating and drinking (indulging in far too much), one of the singers sang a very long song about the Hero Beli and an oak tree. Had I been paying attention I probably would have understood the meaning of that blood-smeared-oak. Alas, by then I had succumbed to the King’s Wife’s brew. It was probably that which made the rest of the night seem nonsensical, like a dream.
The Chief Truvidir declared Kottir of Du Dlida the Alsaldic King for the third time that day. Yet it was the first time he had called him the ‘thirty-first’ Alsaldic King. According to the truvidiren, there was significance in that but as yet they had not decided what.
We raised our pots to him. Was I the only one thinking how it would have been if I had won, and it had been me sitting upon that high chair with the others all saluting me? Yet I had not the slightest notion of how to rid the land of that gruesome dragon that lurked above us. And this, now, was the New King’s task.
“Bregan!” Kottir called above our heads, calling for her to serve him more beer so I thought.
A sudden cold draught drew my attention to the door. And so I, alone, of all those at the feast saw Kailen leave. The others had been all eyes and attention on Kottir—King Kottir—Mistress Bregan.
Kottir has called for Mistress Bregan. And Kailen has exited the feast. What’s going on? Obviously something beyond the innocence of Ingobo’s imagination. Next episode, Friends, Swords and Foes