There is a book in the Book of Deacon setting that has been sitting on my hard drive, finished, since shortly after Jade was published. I’m hyper-critical of my own work regardless of what it is, but for some reason this is the book I can’t bring myself to release. There are certain parts of it that I just don’t like. However, because it has been so long since I released anything for you good folks to read, I decided to use my 30th birthday as an excuse to show off a few thousand words. I hope you enjoy them, and with any luck, this will be the year that this story finally sees the light of day.
Some time ago an associate of mine, a man named Deacon, took on the considerable task of creating a record of his world’s greatest struggle. His success was admirable, and his book remains the most faithful and accurate record of the events available. Thus, when beings of such import and events of such consequence came to pass again, it seemed only fitting that these too be immortalized for the benefit of future generations, though perhaps with a different aim. Deacon intended his tome to be a history, but as you shall soon see, histories are dangerous things. Contrary to logic, there are those who feel a history grows more trustworthy with age, rather than less so. As it passes from hand to hand, from mouth to ear, changing ever so slightly with each iteration, a history has a tendency to ascend from reference to guideline to way of life. Philosophies are formed around histories. Wars are fought about histories. People die due to histories. This is not a history. This is merely a recollection. Treat it as you would an anecdote heard from a friend. Enjoy it. Learn from it. Perhaps retell it, but do not take it seriously. It is nothing more than a tale.
The crowd pushed and shoved, eager for the best view. Even in the icy cold of winter the stands surrounding the arena were filled to bursting. From the one edge of the long, wide stretch of raw earth that made up the battleground floor, the nobles of the kingdom watched with the sort of enlightened disinterest available only to the very wealthy. On either side, commoners watched with the rabid enthusiasm reserved for the very poor. Massive doors stood on the remaining edge. The structure was relatively new, built under the reign of the previous king to showcase the fruits of the much heralded Vulcrest military in tournaments and, on this occasion, evaluations.
Today was the Ascension of the Knights, the final examination in a years long training regimen that was known the world over for its difficulty. Seven men had already undergone the trial today. Four had succeeded. Only one knight in training remained. He faced the same test that had faced the would-be knights of Vulcrest for generations. The arena floor had been turned into a gauntlet of targets, hurdles, pitfalls, and practice dummies. There were hoops for hurling javelins through, flags and banners waiting to be snatched from poles, and every other test of dexterity, focus, and skill that the trainers could conceive. Situated before the king was a sand timer, without any sand. Beside it, there was a chalice filled with immaculate white powder. Placed with great care beside it were a second, smaller chalice and an engraved spoon. When the trial began, the sand was added. If the student wished to achieve knighthood, he must complete his tasks before the last grain fell.
With a blare of trumpets, the heavy doors were pulled open to permit the final competitor into the arena. At the first sound of the fanfare, all in attendance were instantly on their feet. The nobles did so out of recognition for the rider, the audience in anticipation of his performance. Notably attentive were a small group of white robed clerics and healers assembled at one edge of the arena floor. Finally, in walked horse and rider, each wearing gleaming armor, and each of the very best breeding. The horse was Sabre, the latest in a long line of chargers, a creature with ancestors on the winning side of every major battle of the last century. Its rider was the one and only child of the King and late Queen of Vulcrest. His features were hidden behind a suit of armor that cost more gold than most of the villagers would ever see. In the prince’s hand was the banner of Vulcrest. When he reached the center of the arena, he thrust the banner skyward, and the crowd roared.
With great effort, a herald managed to quiet the maddened crowd.
“Your Royal Highness, Prince Garin of Vulcrest. You stand before your King and your people to prove yourself able to stand beside the finest men of the land in its defense against any and all foes,” he proclaimed in a carefully rehearsed manner.
“I do,” the prince replied.
A look of profound unease came to the herald’s face.
“This, your… seventh attempt to prove your worth, carries with it the weight of all previous failures, do you understand?” asked the herald, his gaze fixed resolutely on a point near the horizon.
“I do,” repeated the prince.
A man in a very official uniform approached the table bearing the timer and other apparatus. With great care and precision, he removed six scoops of the white sand from the first chalice, one for each failure, and placed them in the second. When he finished, the first cup was more than half empty. Carefully he raised it over the top bulb of the sand timer.
“Are you prepared?” asked the herald.
“I am!” proclaimed the prince.
The sand was dumped into the timer. Before the first grain managed to slip through, the prince was in motion. Horse and rider moved as one, a silver blur streaking across the arena. Throwing hatchets were buried in targets. Heads were sliced from dummies in a single blow. The crowd moved from roar to awed hush as he blazed his way through the tests like a thing possessed. The steed soared over pitfalls and hurdles. No one had ever gotten so far so quickly. Sand poured down with a vengeance. One by one the obstacles fell behind him. Those nobles near enough to the sand timer strained to see it. As the prince destroyed his final target, there was barely a pinch of sand left, and a single trial remaining.
Purpose in his eyes, the rider drove his horse to where he had planted the banner. To conclude the trial it must be returned to the hand of the herald. The last few grains of sand were orbiting the timer’s pinch as the steed thundered down the center of the arena. The crowd held its breath. The only sound was the pounding of the horse’s hooves and the hiss of its breath. The wind whistled in the ears of the prince. The blood surged in his veins. A few short strides stood between himself and his long sought knighthood. The culmination of years of training. The rite of passage achieved by his father before him. The title he had been destined for since birth. He could feel his hair stand on end. He could feel his left hand tingle.
Then it happened. For the eager eyes filling the stands, it was over in a moment. For three men, it was an agonizing eternity. Sabre approached a piece of ground identical to any other, save the small cluster of stones hidden just below the surface. The most expertly trained eye would have missed it. Sabre’s hoof did not. The King, the prince, and the Herald watched helplessly as the horse lost its footing and tumbled forward. Mount and rider struck the ground in a tumbling heap. The clatter of armor and the thud of flesh filled the air, punctuated by a single stomach turning snap. A cloud of dust rose around the skidding tangle of horse and man as it came to a stop.
The audience attempted to exhale and gasp at the same time. It was a sound of concern rather than shock, as there was not a man, woman, or child who had expected anything different. Each had come to this place knowing that somehow, someway, the prince would fail. It had happened six times previous, each time more spectacularly than the last. His remarkable skill and inevitable defeat had reached near legendary status. Among the more coarse sections of the stands, there was the jingle of coins changing hands and muttered curses as bets were won and lost.
Before the dust had settled, the healers had descended upon the mound that had once been a horse and rider. After a few moments, the steed staggered to its feet and trotted away, miraculously unhurt. One look at the rider made it clear that it was no miracle. The prince had broken the fall, and from the looks of it, the fall had broken the prince. A cart that had quietly been readied as the prince entered the arena was wheeled to the stricken heir. As he was raised onto it his head turned and he muttered a few words that were quite unfit for royalty. At the sight of the prince’s movement, there was one last quiet but conspicuous clink of coins.
Deep in the drafty heart of the castle, a young woman sat patiently in a lavish bedroom. Linen bandages were carefully laid out, and bottles containing foul smelling but no doubt potent medicines lined the edge of a table. Her hands were folded on her lap, and a faint look of anxiety showed though on an otherwise carefully composed face. Her name was Cassandra Worth, and she was the product of a very different line of succession within the Castle Verril. Obviously the crown is passed from King and Queen to Prince and Princess. That much is well known. What is less known is the progression of servants, which is, in many cases, just as time honored and a good deal more civilized. Cassandra was the eighth in a long line of royal servants, and now held the coveted position of Chief Servant to the Prince. Traditionally the position was held by an elderly woman, whereas Cassandra, at twenty one years of age, was a few months younger than the prince. When she was appointed by the King, who had just months before lost the queen after a lengthy illness, rumors quickly spread as to why this young woman had been treated so favorably. These rumors were spread chiefly by the women who had been passed over for the position.
At the sound of movement in hall, Cassandra stood, pulling aside the covers on the bed and adjusting her uniform self consciously. She did not concern herself much about her appearance, other than seeing to it that she looked presentable. Casandra was the sort who tended to send those seeking to describe her digging deeper into their vocabularies than most. Some would call her beautiful, though often preceded by a long pause. Lovely was more common. The more blunt tended toward words like “plump,” while those with a firmer grasp of the language chose words in the vein of “ample” or “shapely.” For those with more vivid imaginations, “voluptuous” came into play. Overall, she had the look of a statue made by a skilled sculptor who, when given a bit more clay than usual, had put it to excellent use.
A trio of men maneuvered carefully through the door, carrying the prince. Most of his armor had been removed, and vast swaths of his body were cocooned in bandages. She motioned to the bed, and upon it the stricken noble was placed.
“Thank you, gentlemen. I shall see to his highness,” she assured them as she ushered the men out the door, shutting it behind them.
“Stones, Miss Worth. Blasted STONES! Heartbeats from knighthood and I am felled by, ugh, STONES,” he raved, wincing in pain periodically.
“Keep your arm still. My, it is a nasty break this time,” the servant said as she dampened a cloth and began to wipe away some dried blood from the bandaged left arm.
“I should have seen them, Miss Worth. I scoured the grounds the night before. How could I have missed them? How could the others have missed them? Gods, I must have crossed that damned patch of earth a dozen times…”
“Language, your highness,” she scolded lightly, “Face me, please.”
“I am not a child, Miss Worth,” he replied.
“No, no you are not, your highness. Face me, please.”
He turned his face to her, grimacing slightly. She wiped another blotch of mud and blood from his lip and cheek. Doing so revealed more than a few thin white scars, the telltale remnants of well treated wounds of years gone by.
“I was at my best. Not just mine. The best. No one has ever succeeded after six failures. And I was so close,” he said, more to himself than anyone.
“Such is luck, your highness,” she replied, inspecting a bandage across his chest, “Your ribs as well? My heavens it must have been terrible this time.”
“Mmm… luck,” he muttered, “Next year. Next year I shall see to it that, ouch, that…”
The prince closed his eyes and took in a slow, deep breath. Cassandra watched him anxiously. The pain must be incredible. He had spent much of his life injured in some way or another, and as such had learned to deal with pain. Only after the worst of incidents did she find him deliberately controlling his breathing, and there had been many. It wasn’t that he was clumsy. Indeed, often he could not have planned for the things that happened to him to occur. Vicious animals not seen in years would turn up during a hunt. Bridge planks that had held the weight of horses would break beneath him. One would think that the Gods hated him, but for the fact that, whatever the misfortune, the only lasting effect upon him tended to be a slight limp, a new scar, and an iron resolve to redeem himself. Things that would never befall a normal man would befall him, but things that would kill a normal man would spare him. Monstrous beasts would retreat, trees would drop into rushing rivers to keep him afloat. If someone above was toying with him, someone else was watching over him.
“Are you… Are you certain you wish to make another attempt? The healers only just managed to restore your legs after last year, and a seventh trial will mean hardly any sand at all in the timer. Knighthood is not a requirement for becoming King,” she offered.
“My father was a knight, his father was a knight. Every great ruler our kingdom has had for as long as the records have been kept has been a knight at the time of his coronation,” he ranted, pausing to take another slow breath before continuing more gently, “This was to be my year, Miss Worth. We leave for the meeting with the other kingdoms at Five Point in two days. I was to be a knight. The Tressons respect military men. That is why my father has been able to reason with them so well. The two of us… at the discussion table would…”
Cassandra put a hand on his forehead.
“You are warm,” she remarked.
“Mmm… Something they gave me… It was supposed to help speed the healing…” he said, pausing to regain his composure every few moments.
Cassandra closed her eyes and recalled the prince’s last serious ailment.
“Keller’s Potion of Restoration?” she asked.
“Then you should get some sleep. Remember the side effects,” she said.
Again he nodded. He was quite familiar with the less desirable effects the potions tended to have. The best healers of half of the continent called Vulcrest home. The concoctions they produced turned an injury that should take months to heal into one that lasted perhaps weeks or days, but often the toll they took was a bit too high. Right now he had a severe fever to look forward to, coupled with a few hours of intense nausea and a rather uncivil state of mind. He’d quickly learned that the more of his recuperation he spent asleep, the easier the side effects were to deal with from all perspectives.
There was a time, long ago, when there were spells that could wipe away nearly any malady in moments. A learned wizard needed only read a few passages from a book or, if the legends were to be believed, coax the effects with his mind alone and the wounds would vanish. Those days, if they ever existed to begin with, were certainly gone now. Spell books these days were worth their weight in gold, and those trained in their use were virtually nonexistent. Laws, ratified in response to a mystic cataclysm lost to history, forbade the casting of any spell of unknown effect and without due training under penalty of death. It should come as a surprise to no one that the occupation of spell caster quickly became unpopular to the point of extinction. Now there were only alchemists, following carefully refined recipes that, if not hugely effective, were at least known to be safe.
When Garin’s breathing took on the even, steady rhythm of slumber, Cassandra continued her work. With the utmost care she wiped away all of the grime she could see. Her nimble fingers carefully removed as much armor as decency would allow, placing it aside without stirring him. For those unfamiliar with with the task of removing armor, this may seem a simple thing. In fact, it is something akin to removing a large, complex wind chime from someone hopelessly entangled in it without waking him. Nevertheless Cassandra achieved the task with the practiced grace of one who had done it dozens of times, which of course she had. She replaced those bandages that had become most sullied by blood, and loosened those that had been somewhat over-enthusiastically applied. When there was nothing left to do she took a step back, allowing herself a brief smile of pride at not having woken him. Then she pulled the blankets over the prince, brushed a few stray hairs from his face, and began the arduous task of cleaning those armor plates she’d managed to remove.
There were a number of very specialized bits of information that came part and parcel with the position of Chief Servant under Prince Garin. For one, it entailed a good deal more knowledge of medicines and treatments than it had under previous princes. It also necessitated an understanding of much that both a squire and administrative aide might know. In the seven years that he had been attempting to secure knighthood, Garin had dedicated himself almost equally to his dual pursuits of military and diplomatic mastery. The latter led to her drilling him in a number of different languages and more aspects of protocol and tradition than any right minded person could hope to remember. The former had her learning how to properly care for a veritable armory of weapons and armor. She closed the door to an adjoining room, lit a lamp, and opened a window as much as the freezing night would allow. With this ritual complete, she pulled the top from a jar of the most intensely foul smelling paste she’d ever encountered. Leaning close to the window and breathing deep of the fresh air, she applied it to the armor. It was awful stuff, to be sure, but it was the only thing she’d found that brought the gleam back to the royal armor after one of the prince’s many mishaps. When the worst of the stench had subsided she closed the window firmly once more, lest the cold wake the prince.
High in the mountains a pair of mismatched eyes watched the distant flicker of the Castle Verril’s windows. From this distance it took keen vision and a thorough knowledge of the ancient palace to know that it was the prince’s window that briefly opened a moment ago. The observer had both. The gaze swept to the courtyard below. A procession of carriages was being readied, just specks amid the drifting of lanterns. Something was happening. With a slow stride and deliberate silence, the figure moved from the cliff side perch. It may soon be necessary to move swiftly, and he would need to be ready.
Elsewhere in the mountains, in a small, dusty cabin, a man sat in total darkness. Thick shutters and drapes were closed against the biting cold, blocking even the weak rays of the cloud shrouded moon. Were there light enough, an observer would see that the man was seated at a desk, his fingers steepled before a carefully shaved, wizened face. To his left was a perfectly neat stack of blank pages. To his right, a similar stack covered with line after line of meticulous writing. With a smooth and flawless motion his hand navigated the blackness and selected a blank sheet. His other hand found its way first to a quill, then an ink pot, then the page. Before him was only a wall. Beyond that only gray stone and white snow. Nonetheless, he stared intently with unseeing eyes at some point beyond even that. Without shifting his gaze, he began to scrawl fresh words onto the naked page. His fingers moved with mechanical certainty, as though they were doing so of their own accord. The page slowly filled, the scratching pausing only to dip the quill once more. When the final word was put to the page, and the page carefully added to the others, he set the quill down once more. And waited.