The once mighty kingdom of Jorsk is in decline, its borders beset by enemies, both worldly and otherworldly. The king has retreated to the capital, abandoning the far-flung provinces. The only hope of the people lies in their Chosen One, blessed by the gods as defender of the realm. But of late every Chosen One has died, targeted by the harshest of the enemy attacks.
Only the most desperate of men now seek that post. Devlin Stonehand is a desperate man. Overwhelmed by grief at the death of his family, he has lost the will to live. But he has vowed to provide for his brother’s widow and children, and the post of the Chosen One carries with it a substantial reward.
For Devlin, a farmer and metalsmith, it is the answer to his prayers—prayers that include a yearning for the oblivion of death. After he has won the post, though, Devlin discovers that sometimes the hardest goal to achieve is that which had once seemed the simplest. For unlike the other Chosen Ones, he persists in surviving. Are the gods just tormenting him further, or does he have a greater destiny than he imagined? Can a man who courts death ever truly come to embrace life?
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The stranger entered Kingsholm on the third and final day of the midsummer festival. Lesser versions of the festival were celebrated throughout the Kingdom of Jorsk, but here in the capital city, the residents threw themselves into the celebration with an almost maniacal glee.
There was much to celebrate. Under the wise leadership of King Olafur, the residents of Kingsholm had enjoyed another year of peace and prosperity. Only the most bitter and contrary of the elders tried to dampen the celebration by pointing out that in times not so long ago peace and prosperity had been enjoyed throughout the Kingdom. Now, scarce a month went by that they did not hear tales of hardship from the distant corners of Jorsk, stories of failed harvests, attacking marauders, or uncanny plagues. But since these evils had yet to touch the lives of those who lived in the capital, they were deemed of little consequence.
At first the stranger, too, appeared of little consequence. He might have been any trader or farmer, come to Kingsholm to take part in the great celebration. But he did not mingle with the crowds, instead passing through them as if they held no power to touch him.
Devlin Stonehand regarded the celebrating townsfolk with a mix of impatience and dismay. In other circumstances he would have chosen to wait outside the city for another day, until the festival was concluded. But the choice was not his. Without coin in his pocket there was no inn where he could sleep or tavern that would feed him. He had not eaten in two days, and now he had a choice between begging in the streets or going forward to discover whatever fate awaited him at the palace.
As he stepped around a crowd of drunken revelers, Devlin could not help thinking how different it would be in his own country of Duncaer. There any stranger would find himself welcomed for the festival, and offered hospitality. His weeks of travel had taught him not to expect similar treatment in Jorsk.
He had reached the outskirts of Kingsholm at midday, although it was difficult to say where the city actually began, as outlying farms gave way to villages and small shops, which blended seamlessly into the outskirts of the city. It was only when the road widened and he found himself surrounded by crowds that he realized he had reached the great city.
Kingsholm was the most famous city of the realm, and drew people from all corners of the world. It was said that Kingsholm was not one city but three, consisting of the outer city, the old inner city, and finally the palace. Each was contained within the other, yet still held its own separate identity.
The outer city had sprung up around the walls of Kingsholm, as the population swelled beyond what the old city could hold. The nobles had left the inner city to build their grand houses on the north hill. To the east lay the residences of the merchants and most respected of the artisans. The south and west sides were given over to commerce, warehouses, and the large squares where markets and bazaars were held. It was here that the most raucous celebrations were to be found, and it was this quarter that he must cross on his way to the inner city.
Devlin wended his way through the crowds. He made a few wrong turns, and once had to retrace his steps to avoid a religious procession. But he was not lost. From any square he could look north to glimpse the white spires that marked his destination.
A granite wall marked the start of the old city. There was a gate, but no guards stood watch and the gate seemed permanently fixed open. Passing under the arch into the cobbled streets beyond, Devlin was struck at once by the change. Unlike the outer city of wood and brightly painted plaster, the buildings of the inner city were imposing edifices, made of gray-and-white stone. They were well built but had a dingy air, as if the buildings themselves knew that time and fashion had passed them by.
There were fewer people on the streets here, and those he saw did not seem to be actively celebrating.
Devlin paused to get his bearings. With the stone buildings looming over him, he could no longer see the spires of the palace.
An elderly woman followed him through the gates, then stopped. "Lost are you?" she asked.
"No," Devlin said shortly.
The woman regarded Devlin skeptically. "You are not here for the festival."
It was an easy deduction. Devlin had been traveling for near three months, and his cloak and boots showed every mile of his journey.
Devlin could make no guess as to the woman's station. She appeared well-groomed, but he knew too little of the city to guess whether her clothes were fashionable attire or merely the livery of service.
"I need to find the palace," Devlin finally admitted.
The woman regarded him critically. "Of course," she said, with a decisive nod. "Dressed for hard travel, and not a smile on your face nor a glass of summer wine in your hand. It must be grim news indeed that make you seek the help of the Chosen One."
Devlin did not respond. Let her guess what she would. He had no desire to explain himself to her, or to anyone. He bent his head in courteous dismissal, and made as if to move off.
She stopped him, laying one hand on his arm, her eyes now filled with pity. "I did not mean to offend you. There is no Chosen in the city now. But if you go to the palace and ask for Captain Drakken, she will give you what help she may. Just follow this street till you reach the square of the fountain. Take the right-hand lane leading out of the square. Pass the Temple of the Heavenly Couple, then take your second left turning. It will be a wide boulevard and take you straight up to the palace."
"Thank you," he said stiffly.
He passed through two smaller squares before he found the large square with a fountain. Ornate residences surrounded the square, and from behind their high walls he could hear music and laughter and the sounds of families gathered in celebration.
He began walking more quickly, eager to have this journey over. He found the boulevard, just as the woman had said. It was paved with white stone blocks that looked freshly swept. Strange trees with golden leaves lined either side of the wide roadway, which led up the hill to the palace.
The palace dominated the central hill of Kingsholm. As Devlin approached, he felt a growing sense of his own insignificance. The palace was larger than many of the villages he had passed through on his journey.
This was no place for him, a simple man from a poor country. The residents of that splendid palace had no need for such as he. They would mock him, disdain his quest. He should turn back.
But there was nothing to turn back to. And so he plodded on.
At the end of the boulevard was a wide iron gate that opened onto the palace grounds. As in the city below, the gates stood wide open, but here they were flanked by two guards dressed in dark green uniforms.
"Halt," the guards said in unison, each leaning his spear so that they crossed in the middle, thus barring the way. The guards were both young men. Their uniforms were so well kept they looked new made, with every buckle gleaming. In addition to their spears, they wore short swords in their belts. They eyed him watchfully, but their posture was relaxed, indicating that they thought him no real threat.
Devlin came forward till just a single pace separated him from the guards. Then he stopped.
"State your business," the guard on the left said.
Devlin looked them over. The guards appeared to be the same age, but the one on his left wore a silver cord on his sleeve. At this range he could see they were very young indeed. Both their faces were unlined, and their eyes lacked the hardness that came with having seen battle.
"I am come for the Chosen One."
The two guards exchanged glances. "Another beggar," the younger guard muttered. "Will they never learn?"
"There is no Chosen," the senior guard said. "So be off now, and do not waste our time."
Devlin bit back an oath. He was hot and tired, and he could feel each of the miles he had walked in the aching of his legs.
"I will speak with Captain Drakken," he said. He was in no mood to argue his business with these young guards, only to have to repeat it again to their officer.
The senior guard shifted his arm so his spear was pointed slightly toward Devlin rather than simply blocking the path. Devlin knew better than to suppose this was by chance.
"Captain Drakken has better things to do with her time than to nursemaid the likes of you," the guard said scornfully. "There is no Chosen. Hasn't been one in months. So why don't you go back to whatever hole you crawled out from and tell your people that they'll have to find someone else to solve their problems?"
The senior guard had made a mistake when he shifted the spear, for now the way to the palace was no longer blocked. Devlin eyed the distance between himself and the guards. They had let him get in too close, and they were too relaxed, not expecting any trouble. If he moved swiftly, he could take the spear from the first guard, then use it to disable them both. Neither man would have a chance to draw his sword.
But he had not come here to teach guards the folly of trusting in appearances. No matter how foolish or discourteous they were.
"Captain Drakken," he repeated softly. He fixed the senior guard with his stare, letting the young man feel the strength of his determination.
After a moment the guard looked away. "Private, go fetch Captain Drakken," he ordered.
"She's not going to like this."
"Not our worry. If she's angry, let it fall on him."
Devlin said nothing. It was enough that he had gotten his way.
The guard stared at Devlin, not bothering to hide his scorn. Devlin hadn't seen a mirror recently, but he supposed that he was an odd sight. Despite the summer heat, he still wore a long blue coat in the style of the Caerfolk. The coat was ripped and stained from travel, but it was as easy to wear as it was to carry. His boots were so dusty it was impossible to determine their original color, and the soles were as thin as parchment. In his left hand he held a long wooden staff. A tattered leather pack and transverse bow were slung over one shoulder. Underneath the coat he wore the shirt and trousers he had bargained for a few weeks back. The shirt was too big, and the trousers a couple of inches too short, but at the time they had been an improvement. His dark hair was indifferently cropped, and his complexion weathered from his journeys.
All in all he supposed he looked the part of a vagabond. He wondered what Captain Drakken would think of him, or how many other people he would need to see before he accomplished his mission.
The young guard returned, and with him came a woman who carried herself with such authority that he knew at once she must be the Captain. Her plain features gave the look of one who would brook no foolishness, while the gray in her blond hair spoke of years of experience. Her uniform was similar to the guards', save that her sleeve held two gold cords, and unlike them she wore no helmet. She carried no spear, but wore a long sword strapped to her waist. He had no doubt that she knew how to use it.
"You asked to see me?" She assessed him with a glance, but unlike the guards he could not read her opinions in her face.
"Yes," he said. "You are Captain Drakken, of the City Guard?"
She nodded, her fingers drumming impatiently on her sword belt.
He hesitated. Once he said the words there would be no taking them back. But the time had come. He could feel it in his bones. "I am come for the Chosen One," he said.
"I told you already, there is no. . . "
"Wait." Captain Drakken ordered, holding up her hand to silence the young guard. "Continue," she said, nodding in Devlin's direction.
The tradespeech was tricky at best. He tried again. "I know there is no Chosen," he said. "I am come to be the Chosen."
The two young guards stared at him, mouths agape. If he had been capable of mirth, Devlin would have laughed at the expression on their faces. As it was, he merely felt a grim satisfaction.
Captain Drakken rubbed her jaw with one hand. "And you think the Gods have called you to this?"
The young guards turned their faces slightly away, but she continued to look directly at him. "Well there is no doing anything today. It is Festival, in case you hadn't noticed. Come back tomorrow, and we'll take you for the oath."
The two guards stiffened, as if they were not used to people contradicting their commander.
"No," he repeated. He had not come this far to be turned away. Besides, not once in the ballads had they said the Chosen One had arrived, only to be turned away because it was not a convenient time. "I am a stranger in town, and have no coins to my name. There is not an inn or tavern in all of Kingsholm that will take me in."
"You can bunk down in the guardhouse for tonight," she said, with a strange half smile. "And tomorrow I will take you myself for the oath swearing. Fair enough?"
Despite his impatience to have the deed done, one more day would not matter. "Fair indeed," he said.
The senior guard raised his spear so Devlin could pass through the gate. His face held a strange mixture of pity and contempt. The younger guard would not look at him, but instead stared fixedly at the ground as Devlin passed.
The Captain set a brisk pace as she led him around the perimeter of the palace. They passed through a formal garden, an open courtyard whose purpose he could not discern, and then the stable block where his companion was greeted cheerfully by the grooms.
On the other side of the stable block were two buildings. The first was a long low structure of whitewashed plaster, with a row of small windows. He guessed it was a barracks of some kind. Adjacent to it was a small square building made of bricks, with only a few narrow windows set high up in the wall. A storage house, he surmised. But to his surprise the Captain passed by the barracks and led him to the smaller building.