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The Tome shall be read first by a seed of the victors who, years later, shall become the sworn enemy of those same victorious ones. The sire of this seed shall, having abandoned the victor's cause, live as an outcast. The six of the craft who remain shall select one from their midst to lead them in peace for sixteen score and seven years, choosing, in turn, many who shall wear the stone. From the seed of one of those who wear the stone shall come the Chosen One, first preceded by another.
The azure light that accompanies the births of the Chosen Ones shall be the proof of the quality of their blood . . .
PAGE 478, CHAPTER ONE OF THE VIGORS OF THE TOME
True peace of mind comes only when my heart and actions are aligned with true principles and values. I shall forsake not, to the loss of all material things, my honor and integrity. I shall protect the Paragon above all else, but take no life except in urgent defense of self and others, or without fair warning. I swear to rule always with wisdom and compassion.
The succession oath played over and over again in his head like a bad nursery rhyme. He couldn't get it out of his mind no matter what else he thought about. No matter how hard he tried. That was why he had come this morning to his favorite place.
To be alone in the Hartwick Woods.
He reached behind his right shoulder for another throwing knife,
gripping its handle automatically and smoothly bringing his right arm up and over in a swift circle, releasing the blade in yet another trajectory.
It twirled unerringly toward the target he had carved in the huge old oak tree. And as he now stood looking at the blade that lay buried next to the others he had thrown, he knew that the fact it would accurately find its mark had been a foregone conclusion.
He had been doing this all morning. His right arm was sore, his body and face were covered in a light sheen of sweat, and he was dirty from head to toe.
He didn't care.
He pushed the comma of longish black hair back from his forehead and ran his hand through it to where it grew long down the back of his neck. Looking down at his clothes, he suddenly realized just how filthy he really was. He was wearing what he always wore when he came up here: the black leather knee boots and trousers, with the simple black vest that laced in the front across his bare chest. The vest that always allowed plenty of free arm movement for his practice with the knives.
True peace of mind comes only when your heart and actions are aligned with true principles and values. I shall forsake not, to the loss of all material things . . .
He watched the next knife wheel toward the target, swiftly burying
Prince Tristan the First of the House of Galland, heir apparent to his father, King Nicholas the First of the kingdom of Eutracia, stood alone in the woods, practicing with his knives and thinking over what his future was about to bring. In thirty days he was to become king of
Eutracia, succeeding his father to the throne at the occasion of his father's abdication ceremony. It always occurred on the thirtieth birthday of the king's firstborn son, and had been a joyous custom of Eutracia for over the last three hundred years, ever since the end of the Sorceresses'
War. But there were no more sorceresses in Eutracia to fight, and peace and prosperity had reigned ever sincein no small part due to the continual guidance given to the reigning king by the Directorate of Wizards.
But there was just one problem.
He wasn't looking forward to his thirtieth birthday.
And he didn't want to be king.
He also did not wish to be counseled by wizards for the remainder of his life. No matter how he tried, he just couldn't get the truth of his feelings out of his head. Nor could he forget the oath that the old ones would make him take at the ceremony when he succeeded to the throne. He would then be forced to follow in the footsteps of his father until his firstborn son turned thirty years old. He sighed. He didn't have any sons yet.
He didn't even have a wife.
Another throwing knife whistled through the air, clanking into place alongside its brothers in the battered and gnarled old tree.
Panting lightly, he reached over his shoulder for one more from the specially designed quiver that lay across his right shoulder blade, but found it empty. His face sullen, he walked slowly to the oak to recover his knives. He had chosen this tree because it was the one closest to the sheer rock face of the cliff, its branches reaching out into space over the valley. That meant that whenever he missed, his knives would fly over the steep precipice and be lost forever. Proper punishment for a bad throw, he thought. And he had been throwing for over three hours now.
None of them had gone over the side.
Now standing at the very edge of the cliff, he took the time to wipe the sweat from around his eyes and slowly leaned one arm against the nearest branch of the tree. He looked down toward Tammerland,
the city of his birth, and to the Sippora River, which snaked through the city on its way to the Cavalon Delta at the east coast, where the great river lazily released itself into the Sea of Whispers. Tammerland,
the capital city of Eutracia, lay peacefully along either side of the
Sippora's banks. He could see the royal palace easily from here because of its strategic placement upon higher ground and because of the brightly colored flags that flew from its towers and ramparts. And he could also pick out the markets and squares of the city that surrounded it. They would be teeming with life this time of day. He smiled, imagining the mothers and daughters at market, haggling with the vendors for the ingredients of their families' evening meals. But his smile faded.
His evening meal would be taken as usual with his parents, twin sister,
and brother-in-law in the great dining hall of the palace. He loved them all very much, but they would be angry with him tonightand their criticisms were something he would rather avoid. Perhaps he would take a simple evening's meal tonight in the kitchen with the staff, as he was so fond of doing these days. Somehow those people always seemed so much more real to him.
He had defiantly ignored his requisite daily classes with the wizards to come here today, and to be alone. They were all probably out looking for him right now, but they would be wasting their time. This place was almost impossible to find. He sighed in resignation as he pulled the knives from the tree. Unstrapping the quiver from around his chest, he draped it over his left shoulder, replacing the dirks one by one until they were arranged to his liking.
This art of the knives, at least, was his and his alone. He had designed the quiver himself, along with the throwing knives. The palace leathersmith and blacksmith had only been too happy to help the prince with their construction. The black leather baldric went comfortably around and under each of his armpits, and the quiver joined to his vest in the back with a silver buckle, securely holding up to a dozen of the special throwing knives just behind his right shoulder.
Then had come the hours and hours of practice, which at first had been very defeating. He had foolishly begun in the military training yards, in full view of the Royal Guard. He had realized immediately that this was a mistake, as he had watched so many of his early throws bounce harmlessly off their target. So, to avoid embarrassment, he had taken his practice to the woods. That had been seven years ago, and he had come to the forest virtually every afternoon since, after his daily classes with the wizards were over. No one had seen him throw a dirk since that day he left the courtyard, and know one knew the expert that he had become.
Sometimes instead of just practicing, he walked through the woods quietly in search of game. Bringing down larger animals was difficult,
and meant a well-thrown head shot was usually needed. It was something that required even greater skill if the animal was moving, but now even moving targets had become little challenge for him. The largest game he had ever killed had been a hugely antlered stag. After killing it with a single throw to the head, he had neatly quartered the animal in the woods and given the meat to the townspeople living at the edge of the forestthe forest that had become his second home.
But his most dangerous quarry had been a large, charging wild boar. They were prevalent in the Hartwick Woods, and it was not uncommon to hear of the occasional hunting party that had lost a member to the awful cloven hooves and sharp, curved tusks before it could be killed. He had come upon the creature unknowingly, and the kill had become necessary rather than voluntary. Tristan's boar had stood across an open field from him, snorting and glaring with enraged eyes. The prince had remained motionless until the awful thing had begun its charge. His right arm had then become a curved blur of speed as the whirling dirk cleaved the boar's skull directly between the eyes, stopping it dead in its tracks only ten feet from where Tristan held his ground.
He had left the carcass to rot in the field, thankful that he had made a good throw. He probably wouldn't have gotten another.
Still gazing down at Tammerland, once again leaning against the outstretched tree branch and lost in his memories, he didn't hear the thing that came up behind him before it was too late. Without warning,
he was violently pushed forward from behind.
Out into the air and over the cliff.
Instinctively, his right arm wrapped around the tree limb while his left arm held the quiver to his shoulder. He frantically hung by one arm,
swinging crazily in the air, at least a thousand feet above the valley floor.
He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to shut down the fear, trying not to look down.
Someone had just tried to kill him, and looking down would be the completion of a death sentence.
Using his left hand, he placed the quiver strap around his neck. He was then able to bring both hands to the limb. His strength was beginning to ebb, but the old limb, at least for the time being, was holding his weight.
I thank the Afterlife, his terrified mind shouted.
Carefully, one hand after the other, he began to reverse direction on the limb to face his attacker. As he came around, he wondered if he would be able to hold on with only his left hand and secure and throw a dirk with his right at the same time. He would without question kill the person who was standing there before he swung himself back to the cliff.
If he could swing himself to the cliff.
As his body came around, he managed to hang on with his left hand and take a dirk with his right, praying he would be able to throw it without losing his grip. The limb bending and straining under his weight, he quickly finished the turn, bringing both his weapon and his eyes up to kill whoever it was that had tried to murder him.
It was his horse.
Pilgrim, his dappled gray stallion with the white mane and tail,
stood at the edge of the cliff, looking at him with spirited, huge black eyes. The horse pawed the ground twice with his left front hoof and snorted softly at him, as if he had already put up with quite enough of
Tristan's foolishness and was more than ready to go back to the stables.
Nudging Tristan from the back had been one of his favorite habits ever since he was a colt. But this spot had definitely not been the place for it.
Tristan hung in stark terror a thousand feet above the surface of the valley from a lone tree branch, slowly losing his strength. Carefully managing to replace the dirk in his quiver and his right hand upon the branch, he looked tentatively to the left where the limb joined the trunk, trying to see if it was dried or decayed. He groaned inwardly when he saw the dry crack, and there was no way to tell if it was strong enough for what he had planned. He couldn't simply stretch his legs to the cliff. It was too far away. He would have to swing his body back and forth to gain the momentum to reach the ledge. It was the only way.
Slowly, his eye on the crack, he began to swing from his arms the same way he had seen the court acrobats do so many times before, the bark starting to painfully twist off in his hands. Each time he swung his outstretched legs a little harder. Each time a little more bark came off in his now-raw palms. Each time a little more sweat began to flow into his eyes. And each time he had a little less strength.
The crack split open another inch.
Just two more swings should do it, he prayed. I beg the Afterlife, just two more.
His release from the branch on the second swing came at the precise moment the crack split all the way open, the shards of the joint becoming a twisted, tortured rope of exposed wood. He flew through the air toward the cliff, his face finally striking the end of Pilgrim's muzzle as the horse bolted backward in surprise. Tristan went down hard on one knee, the momentum carrying him over on his back, finally hitting the back of his head hard upon the ground.
Moments later, dazed, his eyes out of focus and his face strangely wet, he raised his hand to check his face for blood. There was none. The twisted and torn tree limb lay innocently upon his lap, and he tossed it to one side.
He wanted to kiss the ground.
Pilgrim's lips once more nuzzled his master's face. The stallion had definitely had enough of this and wanted to go home. Tristan sat up,
looking at the impatient Pilgrim, and began to laugh softly, then harder,
finally bursting with the sheer joy of being alive. He laughed at himself harder still, imagining the looks on the faces of all six wizards of the Directorate when they realized they had no king to fill the throne at the abdication ceremony. He still didn't want to be king, but there had to be an easier way out of it all than this. And in truth he loved to tease them,
but he didn't want to die doing it. At least he had temporarily forgotten their ridiculous oath.
He slowly stood, wondering if anything was broken, and collected the scattered dirks. He was all right, but he would be sore for a week.
When he placed his hands to either side of Pilgrim's muzzle, the horse flinched his head to one side in pain. The stallion's nose would be sore for a while, also. Served him right. Putting his arms around the horse's neck and his mouth against the animal's ear, he smiled.