Prophecy

               “What’d they get you for?”

               The question came from the man across the jolting wagon from Juntan, and he looked up from his stolid contemplation of the greyed, splintery floorboards framed between his bare, dirty feet.  They were calloused and capped with ragged, yellow toenails, but they were his feet, and they had served him well.  Though not well enough, he supposed, or else he wouldn’t be bound in a wagon on his way to the gallows.

               “Don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” the man continued.  “I understand.  Me, they got me for striking a lord.  He thought he could avail himself of my daughter, and I disagreed.  Least he won’t be bothering my daughter again.  Or any other woman, for that matter.”  He laughed, but it sounded forced.

               The man must be a nervous talker, Juntan decided.  He paused only briefly to see if Juntan would respond, but must have decided that eye contact was a sufficient conversational input, because he continued narrating his entire life’s story.  Juntan let the noise fade into the background, like the distant cawing of the crows, the rattling of a pesky, loose board somewhere on the wagon, and the tedious clopping of the donkey’s hooves.  Soon, the talkative prisoner turned his attention to one of the wagon’s other passengers, and the wagon rolled on down the shallow hill away from Granton’s gates.

                One of the other men in the wagon was explaining how he was innocent, and had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That wasn’t likely: Juntan had seen the tattoo on the side of his ankle.  No one bore the trident crown by accident, and it was well known that Trident Crown members were trouble.  Shaking his head, Juntan looked away, but caught the eye of the last man in the cart, who had been forced aboard just before they left Granton.  All of the others had been in the cells together, or what passed for cells in a backwater village like Granton.

               “A blacksmith, a patriot, a farmer, a miller, a banker, and you,” the man observed.  “Is this the beginning, then?”

               Jerking his eyes to a more innocuous view of a patch of empty field, Juntan suppressed a sigh, and wished that the donkey would hurry them along, although he stopped wishing that when the stench of the gallows replaced the thick aroma of verdant summer agriculture.  Just far enough from town to keep the odor of death from disturbing the townsfolk were the gallows, but close enough to warn anyone coming into town of the consequence of disobedience.  Like the town, the gallows were tiny, with only three platforms.  Juntan wondered how long his fellow prisoners had been waiting for their turn to die for such a tiny town to have so many sentenced to death.  This was more excitement than the town would likely see in a decade, but no one had come to watch.  Executions were entertainment in the cities; in the country, people had real work to do.

               Their way became bumpier when the wagon left the well-packed dirt of the main road for the narrow ruts leading off to the left, where the gallows were set back so that the hills could cup them like an altar to Chrenis, God of Death.  When the wagon came to a halt, the executioner jumped off from his seat beside the driver to remove the corpses currently swinging from their nooses, while the driver rounded to the back of the wagon to begin unloading the prisoners.  Juntan followed the latecomer down, and the soil was warm and dry between his toes.

               Next came the miller, and then the banker, but as soon as the banker’s feet hit the ground, he took off running.  It was a poor run that sent ripples through his portly frame.  With an almost lazy attitude, the driver unhooked a bow from the side of the wagon, drew it back, and loosed.  The arrow thudded between the banker’s pale shoulder blades, and he pitched forward in mid-stride to bury his nose forever in the dirt of the land he had milked.

               With no expression upon his face, the driver returned to the other prisoners, seeing each of them down from the wagon and aligned with a readied platform.  Now that the banker dead, there were only six of them, and two rounds on the gallows would see the job completed.  Juntan thought about trying to run, as the banker had; at least an arrow was a swift, sure death, not as gruesome as a hanging.  Yet he hated running only slightly less than he hated dying, and had no wish to spend his last moments torturing himself.

               Soon, the driver had arranged them into their lines.  The talkative blacksmith, the cowardly patriot, and the drunken farmer were in front.  Juntan stood behind the blacksmith, and the latecomer stood to his right.  At the executioner’s urging, the first rank of three stepped forward onto their platforms.  The driver draped black hoods over their heads, and the executioner fitted their nooses.  Then the driver stepped back to stand abreast with the waiting three prisoners, and the executioner moved to the lever.

               “Any moment now,” the latecomer beside Juntan murmured, looking up at the sky.  “Unless we’re quite mistaken.  Oh dear Peledra, let us not be mistaken.  That would be thoroughly inconvenient.”

               Finding the man’s inane babbling tiresome, Juntan was almost relieved when the executioner threw the lever, and the swinging platforms dropped their occupants down so that the ropes jerked taut.  The blacksmith and the farmer died instantly, their necks snapped, but the patriot kicked wildly, his bound hands coming up and scrabbling at his neck where the noose was tight about his flesh.  For a terribly long time this grotesque puppetry continued, until, with a final, futile thrash, he was still.  Perhaps it was a metaphor for the rebellion from which he had fled.

               Stepping forward, the driver prodded each corpse with a spear.  Satisfied that all three were dead, he motioned for the executioner to clear the nooses and prepare the platforms for the next round of executions.  Juntan felt his throat grow dry and his bladder tight, and he wished he had been given the chance to relieve himself before setting off from the town’s prison.  Without fuss or added dignity, the executioner pulled down the corpses and tossed them like barely sacks back upon the wagon; they would be buried later by a few lesser prisoners: youths who had been caught stealing, petty vandals – a group amongst whom Juntan counted himself.  The town’s magistrate had disagreed.

               As the remaining three prisoners were led onto the platforms, Juntan heard the latecomer still murmuring to himself, and glancing up at the sky, even as the executioner fitted the noose about his neck.  “Oh dear oh dear, I couldn’t be wrong, could I?  I was so careful, I checked everything.  So did my Master, and my Master could not be so mistaken.  This must be the right place.  Oh, how embarrassing if I’m wrong…”

               Clearly, the man was crazy.  Maybe that was why he had been added to this group of prisoners.  Juntan put the man and his ramblings from his mind, and squared his shoulders despite the black hood over his face that stank of sweat and fear.  His mother had always said that he would come to no good end, that he’d been nothing but trouble to her, and would be nothing but trouble to the world until someone finally rid the place of him, as she had done for her place.  It looked like that time had come a little sooner than Juntan had intended.  Maybe the Ferryman would let his mother come meet him, so she could gloat.

               Juntan thought he could almost feel the motion coiled in the planks beneath his feet change as the executioner prepared to throw the lever, and he tensed; he’d heard it said that being tense made it more likely that your neck would snap cleanly in a hanging, a far better fate than the strangulation that would otherwise follow.  The moment dragged on, and he began to wonder what was taking so long.  A cool breeze washed across his sweaty skin.

               “Gods have mercy,” Juntan heard the driver cry out, and he thought he heard the executioner’s knees hit the soft dirt with a thud.  “Heldros, fight him, fight him!  Let not cold Chrenis prevail!”

               Straining his senses, Juntan sought some hint from within his sack of what was happening.  He felt fingers fumbling at his throat, and jerked backwards, but then he felt the noose torn from around his neck, scraping his ears, and his hood was whipped off so that he found himself face to face with the latecomer.

               “Hurry,” the man mouthed, and leapt off the platform, heeding his own advice as he made a line away from the gallows and deeper into the surrounding woods.

               With his hood removed, Juntan could see what had prompted such a reaction from the driver and the executioner, or rather could not see it: the sun, Heldros, was gone, and darkness had taken the land.  Only the narrowest hint of Heldros’s power could be seen around Chrenis’s dark maw.  Both men were upon their forearms in prayer, but the executioner looked up at the sound of Juntan’s feet crunching into leaves when he leapt from the platform.

               “The prisoners!” the executioner bellowed.  “They’re escaping!”

               The driver’s head snapped up, and he rushed for his bow in the same moment that Juntan sprang into a run.  He hated running, but he hated being shot, stabbed, hanged, or otherwise killed more, so he tore into the forest after the latecomer with as much speed as he could muster with his hands bound in front of him.  An arrow snapped into the tree next to him, and Juntan ducked uselessly, the arrow having already bled the tree instead of him.  Another spat up dirt a pinkie’s breadth from his big toe, so despite his still-burning lungs Juntan forced himself to keep running and stumbling through the forest and around the hills.

               A few trees ahead, the latecomer led him onward, though every time the mousy little man even heard an arrow fly he would give a sort of strangled yelp and cover the back of his head with his hands, as if that would protect him.  Voices called after him, but after a few more arrows and a little more running, the shooting stopped, and the calls faded away into normal forest noises.  Above them, Chrenis had retreated, and Heldros ruled the day again as if nothing at all untoward had occurred.

               For a while longer, the latecomer continued to jog, and Juntan reluctantly did likewise, before finally slowing to a walk.

               “I don’t think they’ll bother following us further,” the latecomer decided.  “We were headed away from the village, so it’s hardly worth their time and effort.”

               “Great.”  Juntan turned and started walking in a different direction.  “Well, thanks for the help.  I’ll be going now.”  He had no interest in being part of the crazy man’s “us.”

               “Yes, it all went quite well.  I must admit that I grew slightly nervous when they had the nooses on us and the eclipse hadn’t even begun yet, but I should have known better than to doubt the prophecies.  Besides, my Master would not lead me astray…” the man trailed off, noticing that Juntan was no longer following him, and ran after him.  “Wait!  Where are you going?  You’re supposed to come with me.  Do you have any conception of how long it’s taken us to find you?”

               Juntan kept walking south, which he believed paralleled the main road, and would take him to the next nearest town within three days of walking.  They wouldn’t know him there, and he could steal provisions enough to make his way to a city larger enough for him to disappear.  He ignored the crazy man, which did not deter him from falling into step behind Juntan.

               “We’re walking the wrong way,” the man insisted.  “My Master is waiting for us not far from here, and we really oughtn’t to keep her waiting.  She’s nearly as eager to meet you as I was.”  Juntan kept walking south.  “Please listen to me!  This is terribly important, you are terribly important.  At the very least, oughtn’t the fact that I rescued you be adequate to gain me an audience?”

               Juntan stopped sharply and whirled about to face his verbose shadow.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m going to Bremton.  Feel free not to follow me.”

               He started walking again, and immediately heard his shadow resume following.  “We’ve traveled a very long way to be here for this particular moment.  Haven’t you ever felt that you were destined for something different, something bigger?  Haven’t you ever thought that you were different from other men?”

               Not pausing, Juntan made a show of considering the questions.  “Oh, oh yes, I’ve always believed I was different.  Destined to a short and dirty life of petty crime.”  Snorting, he shook his head at foolishness about destiny.

               A sigh rose up behind him.  “I’m terribly sorry about this,” said the latecomer.  Something prickled along the back of Juntan’s neck, and he started to turn; he was in time to see the crazy man wave a twig and mutter something, and then he lost consciousness.

               Awakening, Juntan found himself staring up at the soot-stained ceiling of a dome-like cave.  Rain was pouring down just outside of the cave entrance, and candles flickered and burned low all around the edge of the shelter.  He was laid out upon a rough, stone floor, and he could see bundles of unknown herbs and other, less easily identifiable substances hanging above him.  His shoulders ached, and his heels were raw.

               “Ah, good, he’s coming around,” a sharp voice sounded from somewhere beyond the crown of his head.  “You overdid it again, Milner.”

               “I do apologize, Master,” the crazy man’s voice replied.  “I will strive to do better.”

               The sharp voice of the Master acknowledged this.  “Far more important to our arts than power is control.  If you cannot learn to control your power, it will never be made to serve you.”

               “Yes, Master,” Milner answered.

               Juntan did not know what the intentions of this peculiar couple toward him might be, and he had no desire to find out whether they intended to grind up his bones for their potions or host a demon in his corpse.  Regardless, he wanted no part of it; it was time to leave.  Gathering himself, he checked over his fingers and toes, and launched himself for the cave entrance.  If he could get out into the forest, perhaps the rain and the darkness would conceal him and his tracks, and allow him a chance to escape.

               Instead, he crashed against an invisible barrier at the cave’s mouth, and was bounced back into the cave to skid upon his posterior, coming to a rest at Milner’s boots.  Scrambling to his feet, Juntan spun around, searching for some manner of weapon, when he heard the Master laughing.

               “It seems that we have our work cut out for us, Milner, if this one is truly to become the one spoken of in the prophecies,” she observed.

               “You believe we may have been mistaken?” Milner asked.  “I will admit that I have had my doubts about him…”

               “And you will have many more, before your work is done,” the Master replied.  “No, I remain confident in his identity.”  She turned towards Juntan.  “There’s no need to be frightened; we have no intention of doing harm unto you.”

               Still on the ground, Juntan forced himself to meet her eyes, expecting to see red or purple or yellow, but she had perfectly normal, brown eyes.  “Thanks.  I always trust my kidnappers implicitly.”

               The Master glanced back towards Milner.  “It would have been markedly easier if you could have convinced him, instead of half-dragging/half-floating him over here.”

               “I did try, Master,” Milner protested.  “I asked him about his feelings of destiny, of being different, just as you suggested.  He thought it was silly.”

               “No matter.”  The Master turned back to Juntan.  “What do they call you, my young friend?  I fear I know only what you will be called.”

               “Grivel,” Juntan answered.  It was the first name he thought of other than his own; he thought it belonged to one of the guardsmen back in Granton.  If anyone was going to end up cursed by this witch knowing his name, Juntan did not intend it to be him.

               Encouraging Juntan to stand, the Master stepped back.  “Well, Grivel, I do not believe that keeping secrets from you would be appropriate, considering your importance and your role in future events.  Are you prepared to listen?”

               “Sure…”  It seemed to Juntan that he had very little choice.

               “Excellent.”  The Master smiled.  “I am Midrena, and this is my apprentice, Milner.  We have been searching for you for a very, very long time.”

               Juntan did not rise to the bait.  “Me.”

               “Have you ever thought that the land seemed disordered?  Like everything is descending ever further into chaos?  That the greatness of the Clachans has faded and can never be regained?”  Milner was far more eager a speaker than his master.

               Midrena interceded.  “What my apprentice is so enthusiastically alluding to is the fact that there has been no single ruler of Zeldrin since the time of the Clachan governors.  This country has become little more than a cauldron of lawlessness and disorder, and it has been foretold that only when it is unified again under one king shall it prosper again, and flourish as the jewel of the north.  You.”

               “Me,” Juntan repeated.  “Lady, I’m part of the lawlessness and disorder you’re all worked up about.”  It was closer than he had intended to get to engaging.

               “Nevertheless, I am confident in my interpretation.”  Midrena was unperturbed.  “You are destined to become the greatest king that this land has known or ever will know.  It is why I risked my apprentice to see that you were saved from the gallows: this also was written.  There is no escaping from your destiny.”

               Juntan watched Midrena’s face, unsure whether she was serious, or playing some manner of trick upon him, and not sure which would be preferable.  Then he glanced towards the cave’s mouth, where the rain was still sleeting down, though it simply rolled down the invisible barrier that had repulsed him when he had tried to run, and did not dampen the cave.  No, it appeared that, at least for the moment, there was no escape from his destiny.

The First Trial

               “It’s called Haveston,” Milner said.  “It’s the largest town in the Gredark Hills region, largely because of a legend that from this town a king shall rise.  My Master’s research has revealed that they keep secured in their deepest vault an artifact, a talisman of some fashion, which only the rightful king of Zeldrin shall be able to wield.  Whether or not this is true has proven impossible to determine, as the mayor has refused my master access to the vault without the accompaniment of a potential king.”

               “The veracity of the legend is somewhat irrelevant,” Midrena amended.  “Far more important are the contents of the vault.  The townspeople believe in the legend, which means that they are some of the few people in Zeldrin who still await the coming of the true king.  Once we convince them that you are the true king by successfully retrieving the artifacts in the vault, they will swear to you their allegiance, thereby fulfilling the prophecies.  This is to be your first Great Trial.”

               From a hill overlooking the town, Juntan admitted that Haveston was a sizable settlement, to the point that it even had a stone wall, albeit of large stones stacked together to barely the height of a man, and no thicker than the same man’s waist.  The stones were so rough and loose that Juntan could have climbed it without difficulty, had he not been tall enough to grasp the top and pull himself over it.  A large, brick building had been erected near the town’s center, which Juntan assumed was the mayor’s manor, and held the referenced vault and its fabled artifact, as it was the only structure of any significance.

               As for the rest of it, Juntan still wasn’t certain if Midrena and Milner actually believed he was some prophesied king, or if he was simply a convenient player in a very long con.  For Juntan’s part, he chose to think of it as a con.  He would play his role in it, which would at least keep him from being transformed into something unpleasant by the witch or her apprentice, and at best might see him far more affluent than he had been.  The trick would be finding the right time to make his escape, and in two weeks of travel he had not yet determined how he might accomplish that feat.

               In Juntan’s mind it would have been more appropriate for them to ride white chargers down the hillside and up to the town’s wooden gates.  If he had been in charge of pulling off this con, he would have acquired certain royal trappings before approaching the town, the better to give some semblance of legitimacy.  Instead, he and the two witches approached on foot, in travel-stained cloaks with patches and many, many pockets.  There was something, it seemed, about witches and pockets that Juntan did not understand, but he had been unable to convince either the apprentice or the master to detour to a village where he could steal some more appropriate clothing.  Milner’s clothing, even altered, was a poor fit for him.

               “Shouldn’t I lead?” he asked Midrena as they came within sight of the gates.  “Wouldn’t that be more appropriate for the arrival of a prophesied king?”  He kept most of the sarcasm from his voice.

               “Hardly.”  Midrena kept him from advancing with strategic placement of her gnarled walking stick.  “They know me here.”

               Juntan turned to exchange a sour look with Milner, though the apprentice would reveal nothing but unmitigated respect for his master.  With a sigh, Juntan gave up his efforts, and allowed himself to be shepherded up to Haveston’s gates.

               The town might have been the largest in the Gredark Hills, and it might have boasted a wall of sorts, but that did not make it cosmopolitan; there were no guards or watchmen stationed at the gates or anywhere along the wall, and the bustling middle of the day included a donkey plodding before a rickety cart, and a handful of craftsmen haggling over their wares while they ate dinner.  Midrena appeared aggressive just from striding instead of ambling towards the town’s center.

               Made mostly of sunbaked clay bricks, with a thatched roof and a wooden door more impressive than Haveston’s gate, the mayor’s manor could almost be called imposing set among mudbrick huts and slat-board shops.  It all felt stiflingly bucolic to Juntan, the kind of place where everyone would know everyone else, and there was no room for so much as a petty thief to make lives more interesting, not unlike Granton.  Stopping there had been a mistake, and even if it hadn’t cost him his life at the gallows, he was far from safe now.  He felt exposed when they stopped at the bottom of the steps leading to the manor’s door, as Midrena mounted them to pound thrice upon the wood with her gnarled walking stick.

               There seemed a protracted wait before any response could be discerned to Midrena’s address.  A figure was at last seen in the window – a real, glass window, not oilcloth – and then the door creaked open sufficiently to reveal a woman’s face.

               “Ah, Madam Oldria,” Midrena greeted the woman.  “I suppose that necessarily implies that the esteemed mayor of this establishment is elsewhere at present?”

               A faint smile flickered on Oldria’s plain face.  “Afraid so, Lady Midrena.  He’s out hunting some wyverns that have been tearing up the flocks with a few of the lads.”

               Midrena huffed.  “A man of his age and position, chasing wyverns like a lad of fourteen summers…well, never mind that for the present, Oldria.  I’m certain Mayor Ruvom would not want us to be left warming our soles in this summer sun.”

               “I’m sure, Lady Midrena.  Please, come inside, and I’ll get up something to drink for you.”  Oldria bobbed an unpracticed curtsy, and opened the door the rest of the way to allow the three travelers into the manor.  The curtsy might have been unpracticed, but Juntan was an unpracticed king, and he favored the girl with his best leer, thinking that perhaps an unpracticed curtsy and an unpracticed king could practice a bit that night, but Oldria ignored him, and he received a sharp elbow in the ribs from Midrena for his troubles.

               It was dim inside, with only a few lanterns struggling along the cloth-covered walls, but the shadows warded off the summer’s heat, and Juntan mopped his brow with relief as he followed Midrena and Oldria towards a small sitting room.  The furniture was heavy wood, straightforward pieces from a local carpenter, and there was one wall dominated by maps, pinned over each other in every haphazard orientation in every color and style.  Midrena took the chair adjacent to the fireplace, and Milner took the seat across from her, leaving Juntan to recline on the couch in what he hoped was a suitably royal fashion.

               “Boots off the divan,” Midrena snapped.  “Ruvom won’t appreciate slovenliness.”

               Juntan dropped his borrowed boots to the wooden floorboards with an exaggerated thud.  “Bad enough you’re making me wear boots,” he muttered.  He’d only ever stolen boots in the winters.  Besides, he’d heard that boots could damage his feet.

               Oldria returned a few moments later with a tray bearing small glasses of what proved to be a kind of local wine.  Midrena sipped the wine with an expression of approval, and Milner gave Juntan a sour look when the latter tossed his back in a single gulp.

               “Hey, I waited until she was gone,” he protested, jerking his thumb back in the direction Oldria had retreated.  “Besides, I’m supposed to be a king, aren’t I?  So I can do whatever I want.”

               Midrena’s expression grew dark, and Juntan’s stomach dropped along with his wine; he wondered if he had crossed some indiscernible line.  “A king most certainly cannot do whatever he should desire to do.  To rule is to assume a position of ultimate puissance, and concomitant responsibility.  A ruler’s actions are therefore more constrained than the most indigent of his subjects.”

               Relieved that he had not been transformed into a garden snail, Juntan just sighed.  “Whatever.  I knew a couple of those words.”

               Though exasperated, Midrena allowed the conversation to lapse, for the moment.  Doubtless Juntan would be subjected later to further lectures, assuming he couldn’t find a way to escape before that time.

               It was evening, though because of the summer months the sun had not yet set, before Mayor Ruvom returned to his manor.  He strolled in with weary good humor, whistling tunelessly, and called out as he closed the door behind him.  “Oldria, dear, could you draw up a bath for me?  I could use a good soak after an adventure like that.  Ah, to be as young and free as those lads again…”

               He pulled off his muddy boots in the foyer, and then padded in his sweaty stockings into the sitting room, just as Oldria called to him.  “Mayor Ruvom, you have guests!”

               Stopping just inside the doors to the sitting room, Ruvom stared as Midrena rose to meet him.  “I do apologize for appearing upon your stoop so unexpectedly, but your daughter was kind enough to share with us your hospitality,” Midrena said.

               Recovering, Mayor Ruvom offered her a gallant bow.  “As is only appropriate, of course.  She’s better than I deserve, but don’t go telling her that.  Do you know any other way of appearing, Lady Midrena?  Always popping up here and there, off on adventures, pursuing whatever mysterious ends you seek?”  It did not sound like a complaint; rather, more like he wished he could join her on her adventures.  “And young Master Milner,” he continued.  “Still learning the ways of a wizard?  It’s good to see you again, both of you.”  He turned at last to Juntan.  “And you, good Sir, I don’t believe that we’ve been introduced.  I’m Ruvom, and they tell me I’m mayor of these parts.”

               Before Juntan could introduce himself, or even rise from the couch, Midrena preempted him.  “They also tell you that you are too old and too important to spend the day gallivanting after wyverns with youngsters.  This is Grivel,” she provided.  “I believe that he may be the king whose coming has been foretold.”

               “No need to nag.  I have Oldria for that.”  Ruvom’s joviality faded.  “Ah.  So you’re here for the vault.  And here I thought that you had missed me.”  Before Midrena could reply, Ruvom sighed and waved for all three of them to follow him.  “I’ll let you into the vault, and then I’m sure you’ll agree that I am in dire need of a bath, and oughtn’t under any circumstances be confined to a small, underground chamber with even the worst miscreants.  I’ll rejoin you in the sitting room when we’re both finished.”  He glanced at Juntan, and Juntan wondered how many other royal candidates had been introduced to him by Midrena, before he remembered that Midrena had never before been granted access to the vault.  He wondered then how it had never occurred to her that she could present anyone as the candidate, and Ruvom would let her right into the vault without ever knowing the difference.  “Good luck, Grivel.  Maybe when we meet again, I’ll be calling you ‘your highness.’”

               Not certain how to respond to this, Juntan mutely followed the mayor to a panel beside the hearth, where Ruvom pressed the wood to reveal a thick, iron locking mechanism over a heavy stone slab.  He produced a key from within his belt, inserted it into the lock, and elicited a click.  The stone slab sank slightly, and Ruvom stepped away and gestured towards Midrena.

               “All yours, Lady Midrena.”  Then Ruvom turned and left the sitting room, leaving Milner, Midrena, and Juntan standing around the vault’s entrance.

               With no sign of hesitation, Midrena pushed upon the stone slab, and it ground open, revealing a long, dark tunnel of steps leading down into the vault.  “A light, if you please,” she instructed Milner.

               “Oh, right.”  Milner pulled his twig from a pocket of his robe, muttered something Juntan could not understand, and a light blossomed upon the end of the stick.  The light ballooned into a globe, and with a flick, Milner launched it to hover in the air just above their heads.

               Picking his way down the stairs, with Midrena before him and Milner behind, Juntan found it impossible to keep track of the uncanny werelight bobbing along just above his hair; it was enough to make him miss the smoke and flickering inconsistency of torches, and he almost asked to light one.  At least when they reached the bottom of the steps the light soared up to hover near the higher ceiling of the stone chamber into which the stairs had deposited them, so that it was no longer tickling his scalp.

               A plain door was closed on the other side of this square chamber, and an unlit torch rested in a bracket beside it.  Midrena ignored the torch, actually slapping Juntan’s hand away when he reached for it, and instead pressed her hand to a stone block on the opposite side of the door.  Another click sounded, loud in the close confines, and the door popped a hand’s width ajar.  Only now did Midrena hesitate and turn towards Juntan.

               “You mustn’t touch anything, save what I tell you,” she said.  “Since it is obvious that appeals to neither your integrity nor your honesty shall be met with anything but scorn, perhaps your sense of self-preservation shall prove adequate.  Many of the artifacts in this vault, no matter how innocuous they may appear, are items of immense age and power which you are in no way equipped to wield or even touch.  Am I sufficiently clear for you?”

               “What kind of effects are we talking about?” Juntan asked.  “Blood boiling, mind altering, mildly tipsy…because I haven’t been properly drunk since you kidnapped me…”

               “They will melt your brain inside of your skull and incinerate your flesh inside of your skin.  You will be imprisoned in agony for the remainder of your natural span, and punished for an eternity in the afterlife, never reaching Reflection.  Is that adequately descriptive for you?”  Midrena did not sound amused, and she did not sound like she was exaggerating.

               Juntan nodded, catching a disappointed expression from Milner.  Then Midrena pushed open the door, and the trio entered the vault.

               As the werelight orb soared to the vault’s central peak, its luminescence passed over carefully stacked piles of gold, casks full of jewels, statues of human forms and shapes less familiar, racks of weapons, even wardrobes.  It was enough to make Juntan wonder just how serious Midrena’s warnings had been – surely not every coin and gemstone in the vault had been so diabolically enchanted – until he noticed the trio of artifacts set apart upon a plinth at the vault’s greatest extremity.

               Looming over the plinth like a guardian angel was a statue of immense proportions, such that only because it was stooped could it fit within the vault’s confines; the stooped stance exacerbated the impression that it was looming judgmentally and greedily over its affluent domain.  Its form was that of a beautiful woman, save for the head, which was the twisted and grotesque capstone of a gargoyle.  She was naked, but Juntan was more interested by the man-sized platter held upon her shapely stone arms.  It was upon this platter that the three artifacts were placed, and without being told Juntan knew these were why they had come.  He elbowed past Midrena to approach the plinth, but slowed almost reverently as he reached the two shallow steps leading towards it.

               Three there were: a sword, a crown, and a trowel.  Each seemed the quiddity of its respective nature, the truest form in which each ever could manifest.  Surely no more perfect implements existed.  Before Midrena could try to stop him, Juntan swept all three artifacts into his arms, and wrapped them in his cloak.

               Milner gasped behind him, and he heard both Milner and Midrena stop in their dusty tracks through the vault, staring at him.  He turned towards them, the trowel and the crown safely in some of the far too many pockets in his borrowed clothes, and the sword held in his hand.  He wondered why there was no sheath, or if perhaps that was somewhere else in the vault.  “What?” he asked, at their incredulous expressions.

               “My lord,” Milner breathed, dropping to one knee.  “My king.”  He seemed about to cry.

               Midrena walked around him appraisingly, but even she appeared slightly stunned, and she kept looking up at the statue.  “It really worked…she hasn’t so much as twitched.”  The witch stopped in her tracks, and faced Juntan.  “So many years of searching, to be so certain, yet this confirmation, it makes it real in a way I could never quite believe before.”  With a wince, she lowered herself to her knees.  “Hail, King of Zeldrin.”

               A slow smile spread upon Juntan’s face, and he rested the sword on his shoulder.  With his free hand, he rummaged the crown back out of his pocket, and set it upon his head.  The trowel seemed useless, so he left it in his pocket.  Maybe this con would work out for him, after all.  Maybe he could even con the people who had set him up for this.

The Second Trial

               “They still refuse to surrender, King Grivel.  What are your orders?”

               From astride a white charger, which he had finally persuaded Milner was an important component of presenting a kingly image, Juntan looked down in the vague direction of his General DeVrot, a foreigner with an elaborately curled mustache who had agreed to work for Juntan in return for suitable compensation from the spoils gained.  “I think my terms were very clear.  Burn the town.”  He drew rein and turned back towards his tent, while General DeVrot shouted orders.  Milner brought his pony into step beside Juntan’s charger; the apprentice witch had an unnatural level of control over the beast.

               “Your highness, are you quite certain this is wise?  The prophecies speak of a benevolent king, not a conqueror leading an army of foreign mercenaries on our own soil,” Milner protested.  He sounded more frightened than were the people in the town Juntan was about to have burned.

               “I’m the king, aren’t I?” Juntan asked.  “So if I say it, it happens.”

               Milner huffed, but he didn’t continue the argument.  Without Midrena, the younger witch was much less likely to lecture Juntan, which Juntan preferred.  Regardless, Milner remained loyal to Juntan, for reasons Juntan would never understand.  He still believed no more in his own kingship than he did in any other destiny, but there were more people than he would ever have imagined who felt differently.  Haveston, its people, and its mayor had all bowed to him immediately, it seemed the moment he stepped from the vault, and as word spread from there that a king had come to Zeldrin, people had begun travelling to Haveston.  Milner and Midrena convinced him to delegate Ruvom to deal with these supplicants, and urged him to begin a circuit of other towns and villages around the country.

               Most places had received him with a generosity that baffled Juntan as much as it pleased him.  Never had he found any theft as easy as when the collective peoples of Zeldrin began throwing their possessions to him, meager as they sometimes were.  Nor were they just offering goods: daughters were presented to him both willingly and otherwise, and while he heeded Milner’s advice to avoid marriage, he was not above fulfilling a few fantasies about a night with a king. 

It was the perfect life, as far as Juntan was concerned, whether he was truly some kind of prophesied monarch or not; the only blemish was enduring Midrena’s lectures about autocratic responsibilities or some such nonsense, but she had disappeared on some errand a few towns back along the remnants of the Clachan road.  That, and his growing fear that he had no escape planned from this con, when it inevitably went sour.  All of Zeldrin would surely not remain deluded forever.

               That lasted until Frabernaut, where the townspeople denied his claims of kingship, scorned the artifacts of his purported authority, and closed the town gates in his face.  It was the largest town they had yet come to at that point, boasting three mills, a stone wall wide enough to walk upon, and enough people almost to be called a city, and it threatened to shatter the faith of all those were had been so eager thus far to follow him.

               That had been enough for Juntan; he had packed up what he could carry with him, and prepared to vanish into the night before things turned ugly, calling it a better con than he’d ever run.  He was smart enough to know when it was time to make a prudent escape.  Midrena had forestalled him.  For once, she appealed not to his supposed royal nature, but to more human motivations.

               “This is not the end.  It is the beginning, and if you succeed here it will ensure that people will continue to follow you,” she’d said.  “Prove that you deserve the loyalty of these people.  Use the artifacts of your office, for only the rightful king may wield them.”

               Juntan had just shrugged, but that night he had gone to the city gates.  It seemed a natural thing to slice through the thick, ancient hardwood with the sword, and with the crown gleaming upon his head he strode into Frabernaut.  A makeshift militia with rusty swords and sharp pitchforks dispatched to stop him instead found themselves prostrate, bowing to him and pledging their loyalty.  By morning, the town was his.

               Now, he faced a town that defied him even after he presented the artifacts.  He had made requests, demands, and threats, to no avail.  According to the witches, his crown was by its very nature supposed to sway people to follow him, but it had failed in Krioston.  Krioston believed its proximity to Meldrock would protect it from him and his army, and that therefore they could defy the rightful king of Zeldrin.  Even if Juntan didn’t himself believe in Midrena’s destined king, he was deep enough into the con to know he didn’t dare back out now, or he would find himself with a lot of enemies a lot more powerful than a lowlife like him.  That meant Krioston had to suffer, no matter how Milner might protest.

               Smoke was already rising from Krioston; General DeVrot had made haste to fulfil Juntan’s orders, and screams were beginning to join the smoke.  As well he should, given how Juntan was paying him.  It was fortunate that there were enough volunteers from the villages they had already visited that he did not need to fund an entire force of mercenaries.  A thought occurred to Juntan, and he ambled off to find General DeVrot.  Milner, of course, followed him; Juntan suspected Midrena had instructed her apprentice never to leave Juntan’s side.  That made Juntan wonder where Midrena herself was, but he put that thought aside for another time.  He had no interest in prying into mysterious ‘witch’s business.’  Regardless, he hadn’t seen her in weeks, and he did not miss her.

               DeVrot was standing not far from the town’s broken gates, and he bowed as Juntan approached.  “Your highness, the town has yet to surrender, though I estimate nearly half of it is aflame.  I’m certain it is only a matter of time now, however.”

               “Great work, great work.”  Juntan coughed in the smoky air and waved a gloved hand before his face.  “Have the men start helping to put out the fires.”

               “Your highness?” General DeVrot asked.  He seemed about to argue, but he was a mercenary.  If his employer decided to be a poor strategist, it wasn’t his concern.

               “If, say, I’d stolen something, and got cornered by some guards, I sure wouldn’t give myself up to them if I thought they were going to send me to the gallows.  But if they offered to let me go free if I gave it back, then maybe I’d consider it.  Especially if they’d scared me right enough with the gallows.”  It made sense to Juntan, at least.

               Without further argument, General DeVrot gave the orders, and soon buckets of water were being hauled from the nearby stream by soldiers who minutes before had been hauling torches.  Smoke turned to steam as Juntan retreated to his private tent.

               “I’m glad you decided not to see the whole town burn,” Milner told him.  “It would not have been right.  A ruler should protect his people, not terrorize them.”

               Juntan propped his legs upon a stool and lounged.  “Mercenaries are expensive.  We’ll make a better profit out of this thing if people keep giving up their money and treasure willingly.”

               Milner huffed.  “Why do you continue to insist upon this disbelief in your own role and destiny?  What greater evidence would you require to believe that this is no mere ‘con,’ but the true, prophesied coming of a great and just ruler to this land?”

               “Well, I know I’m not a king,” Juntan muttered.  He hated the way the two witches made him seem so petty.  Yet for all their learning, they seemed so credulous.  It was obvious to anyone who cared to look that he was no true king of Zeldrin, just because he happened to have picked up some old talismans and been shoved into the role by witches.  Even as a con, the role made him uncomfortable.  It was too large a scale for someone like him, and he had no clear way out of it.  There were some fine perks, granted, but that was just more to lose when it all went wrong.

               Just after midnight, the mayor of Krioston came to Juntan to surrender.  This time, the crown worked whatever magic it was supposed to possess, and the man pledged his undying loyalty to the king who had saved his people, never mind that Juntan had been responsible for them needing to be saved in the first place.  Shaking his head at the illogic of the whole thing, Juntan made preparations to advance to Meldrock.  Well, he ordered General DeVrot to make the preparations; his own role involved standing up from his stool when it was time for it to be packed, and sitting on his horse when it was time to move.

               Halfway to Meldrock, a scout whispering in General DeVrot’s ear led the swarthy foreigner to blanch, and Juntan began plotting a way to escape when he saw the man approaching him.  He wanted no part of whatever could turn a seasoned mercenary pale as milk.

               “Your highness, may I speak with you?” General DeVrot asked, indicating he did not wish everyone to overhear what he had to say.  Juntan nodded, and allowed DeVrot to come alongside him.  “Your highness, my scouts report that we have been surrounded by an armed company.  They can’t tell just how many men they may have, but they have archers in the trees poised to strike.  We need to get you to safety.”

               Keeping his voice as level as he could, Juntan replied to the General’s whisper.  “What do you recommend?”

               DeVrot began to answer, when a cry went up from the front of the column, and an unfamiliar voice thrummed across the road as an arrow from a bow.  “I am unarmed.  I’ve come a long way to see for myself the truth of rumors that have reached me of a King of Zeldrin.”

               Before anyone else could respond, Milner stepped forward.  “Then know that you have come now into the presence of the rightful and glorious King of Zeldrin, King Grivel.  Already he has completed the first of the Great Trials, and wields the Sword, the Crown, and the Trowel.  You owe unto him your allegiance.”

               “I would see this for myself,” the stranger replied.

               Mentally cursing Milner, Juntan grimaced and began making his way towards the stranger.  There was no choice now but to make the best show of it that he could contrive.  He almost turned around when he noticed the trident crown emblazoned upon the man’s otherwise unmarked cloak, but realized that if they really were surrounded by trident crown warriors, his only hope of survival was convincing them he truly was king.  Everyone knew the trident crowns awaited the coming of the true King of Zeldrin.  “Then see me,” Juntan announced, more boldly than he felt.  He spread his arms, and held out the sword; the crown was already upon his head.

               “Lord and King.  Dear Heldros, it is true,” the stranger whispered, dropping to his knees in awe.  He bowed his head.  “Forgive my skepticism, my liege.  It has been so long waiting…”  The rugged warrior appeared to almost be in tears, but he mastered himself, and pride reentered his voice.  “Your highness, I am Peldar, leader of the Trident Crown.  I swear unto you now my allegiance, and that of my people.”

               Licking his lips, Juntan nodded in what he hoped was a kingly fashion.  “Very good, Peldar.  I accept you and yours into my service.”  Even as he said it, and the members of trident crown began drifting out of the forest to join the column, Juntan considered that this man’s loyalty might be more dangerous than any he had yet encountered.

               In this way, Trident Crown came to swear allegiance to the rightful King of Zeldrin, adding their numbers to Juntan’s growing force.  Prouder than any mercenaries had the right to be, Juntan wondered that Peldar would be a more rightful king than he, if there was to be a king, no matter what Milner and Midrena might claim about prophecies.

               Meldrock threw its gates wide open to receive King Grivel of Zeldrin, and hosted a celebration in honor of his coming.  With hardly a fight, with no true legitimacy save some vague prophecies and magic talismans, and the word of a witch, Juntan had become ruler of Zeldrin’s eastern region, and there was little reason to think that the southern and western regions would be different.  Even Trident Crown had sworn to him, and Juntan suspected their banners flying with his forces was impetus on multiple levels for others to pledge their loyalty.  It was conceivable that by year’s end Juntan would have the loyalty of all of Zeldrin.  It was enough to make him want to hide under the oversized bed that had been provided for him in Meldrock’s castle.  He settled instead for locking himself in his chambers with many, many bottles of wine, relieved to at last be free, however temporarily, of the tumults and pressures of his false kingship.

               “A king has not the time for idle moping,” Midrena’s voice intruded upon his drunken stupor, “nor for excessive inebriation.”

               “Not a king,” Juntan muttered in reply.

               He flinched backwards when Midrena pressed her gnarled staff to his forehead, and succeeded only in falling off of his elaborately carved chair onto the thick, fur rug.  If he were a real king, there should have been guards to present this sort of thing, but the witches could still come and go as they pleased.  The staff’s butt was replaced in a moment, and Midrena spoke several, unintelligible words – Juntan suspected they would have been unintelligible even had he not been drunk.  A splitting pain immediately filled his head, and his senses felt stuffed with the roughest cotton east of Delinel; he curled around himself as he retched, blinking gritty eyes.  When the sensations passed, he found himself perfectly sober.

               “Hey!” he shouted at Midrena.  “That was uncalled for!  I worked hard to get that drunk.”

               Midrena regarded him without the slightest hint of apology.  “Aren’t I supposed to be your king?” Juntan demanded.  “Well, I order you to let me be drunk.”

               Unimpressed, Midrena ignored him.  “There are important matters of state to which you must attend, your highness.  They require your full, undivided, and alert attention, and there is no time for delaying, nor for moping about in idly indulgent self-pity.  The second of your Great Trials is at hand.”

               “Great trials?” Juntan repeated.  “You didn’t say nothing about any great trials.”

               Below her pursed lips, a muscle in Midrena’s wiry neck twitched.  “As I explained to you before the first trial, in Haveston, and when I set off to make preparations for the second trial, it is foretold that the rightful king of Zeldrin shall face and overcome three great trials before he can claim lordship of all Zeldrin.  The first trial was the claiming of the three monarchical talismans from the Haveston vault: the sword, representing executive power and authority, the trowel, representing service to the people of Zeldrin, and the crown, representing the authority of a throne.  The second trial, which is now nigh, shall see the prophesied king defeat a great threat to the land.”

               “A great threat?” Juntan again repeated.  “Alright, I’ll tell Meldrock they need to pay me some more.  We’ll hire some more mercenaries and set General DeVrot to work.  Peldar can help him; his Trident Crowns would like nothing better than to get themselves killed facing down a ‘great threat to the land.’  Now let me get back to being drunk.”

               “No!” Midrena snapped.  “This is a threat you must face yourself.  Only Milner may aid you.  I journeyed long and far through dangerous and wild lands to where rumors had reached me of a stirring of ancient lore, where stories lifted from the very oldest of scrolls were again being whispered beside dying hearths in the frightened night.  A dragon, from the age before the gods, has awakened in the southern mountains, and it threatens the flocks and peoples of those villages.  You alone have the means to defeat such a beast.”

               Wide-eyed, Juntan’s only thought was to flee.  “A dragon?”  He stared at Midrena.  “Well, that’s it then.  The game is up, the con’s done.  Time to cut our losses and get out of here.  Because I’m sure not up to fighting any dragons.  This con has already been a whole lot more than I signed up for, when your apprentice kidnapped me.”  He hauled himself to his feet, found a suitable sack, and began stuffing possessions into it.

               “Not an example of Milner’s brightest judgement, I agree.”  Midrena sounded short on patience, and very perturbed.  “However, I would not tell you that you alone have the means to defeat the dragon if it were not true.  The sword you retrieved from the Haveston vault is the only weapon of which I am aware that has survived into the modern age and has the enchantments necessary to penetrate a dragon’s scales.”

               “Then I’ll give it to someone else.”  An idea formed in Juntan’s head, and he paused in his packing.  “I’ll appoint a King’s Champion.  That seems like the sort of thing kings do.  The people should accept it.  You take the sword, if it’s so cursed important.  Or I’ll give it to Peldar – he’d love that kind of thing.”

               Midrena shook her head.  “Only the rightful king of Zeldrin can wield that sword, and that is you.  It is an artifact from a time before the coming of mankind to this world, a weapon forged by gods to fight their enemies.  Myth holds that Heldros himself once wielded it.  As I said, Milner will assist you.  If I sought to wield your weapon, it would burn my mind to a cinder and boil the blood from my veins while my flesh shrivels upon my crumbling bones.”

               His expression sour, Juntan hauled himself back into his chair and opened another bottle of wine.  It was clear that Midrena would afford him no opportunity to make his escape, so he through aside his half-packed bag, and raised the bottle to her in mocking salute.  “Then I guess we’d all better hope that Milner’s a fantastic dragon slayer.”

               For the whole long, tedious, uncomfortable journey to Zeldrin’s southern mountains, Juntan brooded upon his horse, searching for any means by which he might escape from being chomped by a dragon without being flayed by a mob.  He probably could have managed it back in Meldrock, if Midrena had not made an announcement to the entire city that their new king was now going to travel south and defeat an ancient dragon that was hazarding the countryside.  The whole situation was intolerable, and especially the witch.

               At least, for once, Milner appeared almost as lacking in enthusiasm for his assignment as Juntan was.  While on the journey, Juntan had overheard a rare argument between Milner and Midrena.

               “Master, I am not skilled enough for this.  I know not how to slay a dragon,” Milner had said.

               Midrena replied: “The prophecies are indisputable.  The king shall in the second trial accomplish the slaying of a dread beast, a dragon, and he shall be aided by the witch who shall be in latter days assigned to his court.  That is you, Milner, not me.  We have already established my role in the prophecies.”

               Milner sounded desperate.  “But I have managed barely to grow my wand to three hand spans.  My spells remain too chaotic and uncontrolled: you have said as much yourself,” he protested.  “I cannot fight this dragon alone.”

               “You will not be alone,” Midrena snapped, in a rare display of impatience.  “Our king shall be with you, and it is he who shall slay the dragon.”

               “So the prophecies say,” Milner agreed.  “I cannot see King Grivel slaying a dragon, or even confronting one.  He shall surely flee at the first opportunity.”

               Midrena’s voice was stern and flat.  “Speak no further ill of your king.  This is the second trial, and all shall be as it must be.  I would not debate this matter further with you.”

               It had done little for Juntan’s confidence to know that even Milner had begun to doubt the veracity of the vaunted prophecies, at least where they impinged upon his personal safety.  His confidence that he needed to escape this con before he found himself a snack for a very large, legendary lizard was at an all-time high as the path became more mountainous, but his chances became slimmer with each step away from civilized lands, almost proportional to the width of the trails they followed.  The soil there was poor, as were the people; almost all were shepherds and goatherds, living in tiny shacks of stacked stone.  That none of these would contribute much to his wealth as king in this con dangled like a tantalizing morsel in the back of Juntan’s mind, taunting him to turn around and cease this foolishness about a trial.

               The rugged landscape soon began to exhibit signs of the dragon’s presence.  Shacks were destroyed, remote pastures dotted with craters, some of them still smoking, and everyone they saw had haunted eyes and whispered about the wrath of the gods punishing them for some unknown sins.  In one tiny village, they halted.

               “This is the place,” Midrena announced.  “Milner, King Grivel: there is a pasture half a day’s hike from here.  That is where you shall await the dragon.”

               In this way came Juntan and Milner to be climbing a narrow, winding series of slick and treacherous switchbacks through a dingy fog to a remote pasture.  “We’re just supposed to sit around and wait for the dragon to come burn us off the mountainside?” Juntan asked, when they were sufficiently isolated from Midrena’s prying ears.  His efforts to develop an escape had failed, and he was very displeased by that, almost as displeased as he was at the prospect of being eaten by a dragon.  The sword at his side was a scant comfort, no matter what enchantments it ostensibly bore.

               “Not exactly,” Milner replied.  “I believe that I may have a possible solution to avoid either of us being immolated.”

               “That sounds like a good thing,” Juntan said.

               Milner nodded with visible reluctance.  “Yes, yes, I suppose that it is.”

               Juntan clapped his companion-in-death upon the shoulder.  “You don’t sound nearly as enthusiastic as you should about this miraculous plan to get us out of being dragon food.”

               By then, they had reached the pasture in which they were supposed to wait.  A few stringy goats perambulated along the low stone wall at the far side, and jagged rocks reared up into cascading peaks all around them.  The sky was crystal blue lightning made jagged and torn by those rocky fangs.  There was a wind, but otherwise the place was still and silent, almost eerily so, or perhaps that was Juntan’s imagination.  “Well, I fear that I may not be able to properly execute my plan,” Milner admitted.

               “Oh.”  That was not reassuring to Juntan.  “Well, just let me know how I can help.”  This was not gallantry, and Juntan had no illusions about slaying a dragon.  Had he thought there was any chance he could convince Milner to flee, or to escape without Milner noticing, he would have taken it in a heartbeat, and between the thin mountain air and the threat of a dragon, his heart was beating quite rapidly.  For the present, he hazarded that his best chance was to abet whatever scheme Milner had concocted.

               Milner grimaced.  “Just…please be ready when the dragon comes.”  He would say no more of his plan, despite Juntan’s increasingly desperate cajoling.  Being king didn’t seem to make a difference with how the witches treated him.

               Neither of them wondered how the dragon would know to come to this particular pasture; Midrena had been certain, and questioning her was no more effective and no more useful than questioning a summer thunderstorm.  Juntan settled himself in a corner of the pasture as best he could, with the sword on his lap, and even managed to doze as the sun began to descend towards evening.

               The sun was framed like an eye between two peaks to the west when a thumping sound began to pound dully through the pasture; Juntan could hear it trembling up through the grass beneath the seat of his pants.  Milner was immediately on his feet, stick in hand, scanning the evening sky, but it was Juntan who first spotted the dragon swooping around the peak on which their pasture was perched.

               “There!” he shouted, pointing.

               Looping around the peak in a lazy spiral, the dragon flared its wings like four identical oriflammes to abort its descent some fifty feet above the grass tips in the pasture, its claws outstretched.  This was no mere wyvern, but a four-limbed monstrosity of the ancient world, with eyes that shimmered like those of a dragonfly, but magnified many hundreds of times.  Juntan could see his reflection repeated in a thousand tiny facets in those eyes as the dragon regarded the two humans, its mandibles clicking as its wings thumped in figure-eights to maintain its altitude.  A screech rose from it as the wings changed pitch and the beast dove.

               Juntan flung himself aside, but the dragon was not aiming for him; it snatched a goat up in its four limbs, and returning to its place in the sky, proceeded to consume the braying animal, milling it down through its mandibles in a terrible parody of a rabbit with a carrot, and spraying its own face with blood in the process.  Wiping its antennae with its forelimbs like a grotesque praying mantis, the dragon turned back to the pasture and swooped down for another morsel.

               This time, Milner gestured with his stick, and shouted a long series of instructions in an alien tongue.  Light streamed from the tip of his stick, and coalesced to form an eagle-like creature made of golden light with a wingspan thrice that of a man.  Detaching from the stick, this new monster surged into the air with a piercing cry to challenge the dragon, which aborted its attack to meet this unexpected threat.  The golden eagle twisted to avoid being caught in the dragon’s claws, spiraled around, and sank its sunny talons into the dragon’s scaled back.  Even from a distance, Juntan could see that Milner had grown pale and sweaty, though he remained on his feet with his arms rigid and outstretched, holding his wand with both hands.

               Though apparently insubstantial, the eagle had enough physicality to elicit a clicking scream of pain from the dragon, and the beast shook itself, tearing the eagle free.  Spinning in the air with an agility unattainable by any raptor possessed of a mere two wings, the dragon spread its mandibles wide and emitted a pulse of greenish fluid that burst into flames the instant it left its mouth.  The eagle, still in the process of reorienting to face the dragon, was caught across the breast.  Globs of slick, flaming green slime stuck to the golden form and hardened, sending the eagle crashing to the ground as a flaming comet that shattered into a burst of liquid luminescence upon impact, leaving the dragon’s fire burning in the grass.

               “That didn’t last as long as I’d hoped,” Juntan heard Milner mutter, ashen-faced.  Then Milner yelped as the dragon oriented upon him and launched another globule of flaming goo.  Another incantation, and an insubstantial dome of sparks unfolded like an umbrella from Milner’s stick; the globule burst upon it, seeming to set the very air around the sparks afire, but Milner was unharmed.

               Impressed, Juntan looked around, wondering if he could sneak away while Milner held the dragon’s attention, but the dragon was between him and the only trail down from the pasture.  Its back was to him, and it hovered low enough so that its long, thick tail almost brushed the ground, and Juntan could feel the backwash from its humming wings.  With a grimace, and against his better judgement, Juntan leapt forward and slashed his sword through the monster’s tail, as high as he could reach.

               Pitching forward, the dragon shrieked a note that started several minor avalanches on nearby peaks, and cracked the enormous boulders that dotted the pasture.  It spun about in the air faster than a hummingbird in time to glimpse Juntan scrabbling away, having tripped over a stone while trying to jump backwards after his brazen assault.  It threw back its head, preparing another volley of combustible slime, but a blast of energy knocked it aside and disrupted its aim, so that the resulting globe created a new crater instead of immolating Juntan.

               Milner followed up his attack with a complex pattern of movements that made him look like he was conducting an invisible orchestra.  Sparks flew apparently at random from the tip of his twig, dancing in the air and settling over the dragon’s form as it thrashed and struggled to right itself, off-balance from the loss of part of its tail.  With a final, downward gesture, Milner completed his enchantment, and the dragon jerked downward as if dragged to the ground by an immense weight.  It flailed its limbs and wings, but awkwardly, as if held by an invisible net.  The beast crashed to the ground.

               “Now!” Milner shouted.  “The spell will not hold long, you must kill it now!”

               Though temporarily grounded, the dragon was far from impotent; it gushed fire-slime, including over itself, in an attempt to dislodge whatever magical net was hampering its motions.  Juntan hesitated, not wanting to get close enough to that maw to stab it somewhere vital.

               “Kill it!” Milner screamed.  “Hurry, you must hurry!  Or we’re both dead!”

               Shaking free of his paralysis, Juntan ran forward, approaching from behind and trying to move erratically so that he wouldn’t be slimed.  Milner was right; this was the best opportunity he would get to slay the monster, and if he hesitated, they would probably both end up dead.  More importantly, he would end up dead.  Flailing with his sword, Juntan cut free one of the dragon’s flailing limbs when it lashed out at him, leading it to gout white-orange blood from beneath the ridge of carapace-like scales.  That put Juntan near its forward armpit; he lunged forward with his sword braced outward in both hands.  The blade drove easily through the dragon’s armor, diverted slightly on something within the beast, and then plunged home with a crack.  The recoil tossed Juntan backwards, to crack his head against a rock, so he only dimly saw the dragon’s thrashing lose energy as it flailed its way into death.

               “I – we – you actually killed it.  We killed a dragon,” Milner was repeating, staring at the ruins of the legend in awe.

               Reaching up to rub the back of his head, Juntan’s hand came away bloody, and he grimaced.  “Yeah, great.  Can we go now?”  It was getting dark, and between his inadequate clothing and how much he had sweated in fear and exertion he was becoming rapidly chilled.  His head hurt where he had hit it on a rock, his palms were skinned from falling on a rock, and the seat of his pants was worn almost through from the same tumble…actually, almost all of him hurt, either from the dragon or from savage rocks.

               Milner broke free of his stunned repetitions.  After two attempts, he managed to conjure a light.  “Yes, of course.  I apologize.  We should of course descend immediately to inform Midrena that the Second Trial has been completed, and affirm again your glory as the true King of Zeldrin.”

               While they had been fighting the dragon, Juntan had almost felt a connection with Milner, but not the young man was back to being just the apprentice witch, formal and judgmental.  With a sigh, Juntan gestured for Milner to lead the way back down to the tiny village, leaving the corpse of the dragon to fossilize in peace upon that isolated promontory.

The Third Trial

               “Your highness, if it pleases you, I would like to – what are you doing?” Milner demanded, his tone changing in an instant.

               Juntan continued stuffing gold coins into a sack.  His pockets were already jingling with them.  “Not now, Milner.”  He had timed this so very carefully, when he was confident he would not be interrupted, and now this.  His relationship with Milner had improved since the incident with the dragon, but the apprentice witch would never understand.  “I left orders that I be left alone, and that includes witches.  So get out of here.”

               Such an attempt would never have worked with Midrena, but with Milner there was a chance.  Indeed, he hesitated at the door to Juntan’s chambers.  “But, your highness…” he protested.

               “Out!” Juntan roared.  “Out, out, out!”

               To his relief, Milner yelped and left, slamming the door shut behind him.  That left Juntan mercifully alone to continue packing.  Prophecies, ancient artifacts, bloodthirsty dragons, Great Trials: he was done with all of it.  The con was up, and it was time to move on before the whole affair spiraled even more out of his control. 

People were already recognizing him on the street and bowing immoderately, which would never do.  He was not a real king, and there was only so long this could continue.  No matter how long he gave orders or how many mercenaries he commanded, he would never actually be a king, which meant it was time to take what profits he could and escape.  Midrena had disappeared again, making mysterious pronouncements about preparations for the third Great Trial, and Juntan had considered that his signal to leave.

               Not that everything about being thought a king was bad.  He would miss the servants to answer his every whim, the impunity to laws, the consistent meals – he hadn’t missed a meal since Meldrock had sworn loyalty to him.  Well, except when he and Milner had fought the dragon, but he had been too preoccupied then with not being dinner to worry about not having dinner. 

None of that was worth the ever-increasing risks.  No one assassinated a street rat.  No one expected anything from a street rat.  No one wanted judgements passed, marriages arranged, or favors granted.  Yes, he might be murdered, starve to death, or be sent to the gallows, but those were normal risks, familiar risks.  Anyone could die that way; it had nothing to do with being a king.  Most importantly, there were no witches trying to manipulate and control the fate of street rats.  Well, except for him.  He grimaced.

               More than gold, Juntan packed clothes.  Clothes were lighter, easier to carry, and easier to convert into money he could actually spend than gold coins that were more than someone like him would ordinarily obtain in a lifetime.  This had been a good con, for all of its challenges, and if he made good on his escape now, he could live comfortably for the rest of his life, disappear into some corner of the country, maybe a different country entirely, where no one would recognize him and he could live off of the stolen wealth of a king.  He would leave the artifacts behind; maybe Midrena could crown someone else to replace him.  Peldar would doubtless be thrilled at the chance.

               His packing completed, Juntan checked over his preparations once more, then headed for the secret passage in the back of his chambers.  It was supposed to be a way for the king to be secreted away to safety in the event of an assault upon the castle; it let out somewhere in the woods beyond the city walls, after a very long, damp, uncomfortable trek, and it would serve perfectly as an escape route for a false king fleeing into anonymity.  He pressed the panel to open the passage, and casting one last glance over the opulent chambers that had been granted him, he turned and headed down into the darkness.  The only part that hurt was leaving the talismans behind, and he almost took the sword, but he resisted.  Better to make his break a clean one.

               It wasn’t exactly a crawl, but he couldn’t stand up properly, either.  Juntan was obliged to stoop awkwardly as he made his way down the tunnel, his pockets echoing as loud as his breathing in the tight confines.  The sacks of supplies and treasure he hauled were rendered challenging by the spatial limitations, and he had to kick one along ahead of him while dragging the other behind on the dirty tunnel floor, hoping all the while that the thick burlap would not shred before he escaped.

               After what seemed an eternity, the tunnel began to slope upwards, and he found himself pressed against the far mouth.  His fingers fumbled in the darkness for the lever, which he found and activated, letting in a rush of cool, late night air.  A single bird chirped somewhere nearby, risen well before the dawn.  Perhaps it was escaping some contrived fate, too.  With a grunt, Juntan hauled himself and his sacks out of the tunnel, and closed the passage behind him.

               “I’m really most terribly sorry about this,” a familiar voice said from the darkness behind Juntan’s right shoulder.

               Juntan’s excitement over his escape collapsed faster than a dragon-initiated avalanche.  “Not again,” he muttered, just before Milner’s spell took him and he lost consciousness.

               When he awoke, he was lying in the king’s bed.  A guard stood stolidly at the foot of it, watching him, and Milner sat by his side.  Juntan learned that Milner has passed around that the king was ill, and needed to be watched at all times until Midrena could return and treat him properly.  It was a perfect story, and Juntan grudgingly admired Milner for it.  Only slightly, though, because of how much it inconvenienced him.  More importantly, it meant that there would be no escaping from whatever the third ‘Great Trial’ was to be.  Doubtless it would involve profound personal risk for very little reward.

               He did not have long to wait; Midrena returned six days later.  She banished the guard from the room, locking herself, Milner, and Juntan alone in the king’s chambers.  Juntan braced himself for another lecture about kingly responsibilities, but Midrena said nothing of that nature.

               “The third of your Great Trials is at hand,” she said, her voice flat.  Perhaps he had finally crushed her hopes for him.  Perhaps she had finally given up on him being the king of whom she had dreamt, and assumed now that he would fail the third trial.  Juntan found himself wondering whether that was really a good thing.  “I have prepared the way for you.  You are to descend to Chrenis’s domain, where you shall seek and receive the blessings of the ancient Clachan emperors.  Only then shall you return to the living, and become in full the true and rightful King of Zeldrin.”

               Juntan blinked.  “Excuse me?”  He needed to pretend to himself that he had heard her wrong.

               Midrena ignored him.  She stood up, turned, and left the room, leaving Milner and Juntan alone.  Desperate, Juntan turned to Milner.  “This is some kind of terrible joke, right?”

               It was several minutes before Milner answered.  “I don’t think so, your highness.”  He was very quiet.  “It is often a part of prophecies that their subjects be required to venture into the underworld and return.”

               “Then it’s…it’s a metaphor thingy,” Juntan insisted.  “I don’t literally have to die to complete this third trial, right?  That’s ridiculous.  It’s, well, it’s literally suicide.  It’s preposterous.  You can’t expect someone you think is king to take a risk like that.”

               Milner shook his head.  “I do not believe so, your highness.  The duties and expectations of a king are greater than those placed upon ordinary men.”

               Though he was still lying abed, Juntan felt like he was a drowning man flailing against the inexorable tides.  He wanted to scream at Milner that he was an ordinary man.  “I didn’t sign up for any of this.”

               That, at least, made Milner look uncomfortable.  “I cannot accompany you on this journey, your highness, no one can.  But my Master has instructed me how to prepare you for the voyage, and it is said that you will find a guide awaiting you when you arrive.”

               “Right, when I arrive in the underworld, the land of the dead,” Juntan muttered.  “That’s very reassuring.”

               “Are you prepared, your highness?” Milner asked.

               “Am I prepared?” Juntan spat.  “You realize what you’re asking?  Am I prepared to die?  No, I am very well not ready to die, thank you.  I’m not ready to go where Chrenis reigns supreme and all of the monsters of all of history are confined.  So if you’ll just let me get out of here before this farce goes any farther…”

               “I…I did not realize, when I first began this at the gallows two years ago, that this is what would be required of you,” Milner admitted.  Juntan wondered if knowing would have changed Milner’s actions that day, and found he doubted it.  “But it is too late to affect a change to the present trajectory.  You must make this attempt, complete these trial with either failure or success.  To do otherwise…the consequences do not bear thinking about.”

               Juntan sat up in bed.  “What do you mean?  What consequences?”  He tried to imagine consequences worth than being consigned to a living death in the underworld, perhaps forever riding with the Ferryman.

               Taking up his stick, which was now nearly as tall as his waist, Milner did not answer.  He began to draw a complex diagram around Juntan’s bed.  “What consequences?” Juntan demanded again.  “And how am I supposed to get back from the underworld, if I get the blessings or whatever I’m supposed to get?  Hello?  Are you listening to your king?  I have questions…”

               With a look of profound concentration, Milner ignored Juntan entirely, and completed the diagram.  It was Milner’s fault yet again that Juntan lost consciousness.

               Juntan did not so much awaken as become aware.  His first awareness was of wishing he weren’t aware, because he was definitely not lying in a plush, royal bed in a castle.  He instead stood at the edge of a mossy well of crumbling bricks at the top of a wooded hill.  Everything was cast in shades of grey, even the moss, and even Juntan himself.  The sky and the background were all plain, dingy white.  The trees were skeletal and dry, grey and crumbling, looking as if the slightest breeze would reduce them all to a fine dust.  Nothing moved in that place, and Juntan’s breathing seemed loud and alien.

               There was a structure of moldy wood erected over the well, with a rotten rope wrapped around a spar and extended down into an unfathomable darkness.  An occasional plink drifted up to Juntan’s ear when he bent over the opening, but he jerked his head back when the spar to which the rope was affixed began to creak and rotate of its own accord, winding up the rope and drawing whatever capped its untrustworthy length up to the surface.  Juntan backed away, but found that he could not pass a wall of mist that swirled up between the petrified trees.  A ghostly head emerged from the well, followed by a human form of similarly diaphanous nature, mounted jauntily upon a leaking, dripping bucket.  The spirit hopped off of the bucket to the ground beside the well, but made no noise and left no footprints.

               “You are not dead!” the ghost remarked, peering at Juntan.  He, or at least his image, was portly, and he wore a loose wrap that left one side of his flabby chest bare.  A horn-shaped wooden basket was clasped beneath his left arm, no more substantial than he was, and from this basket he munched upon ephemeral fruit.  “I suppose I knew that would be the case, but still, to see it for myself: most remarkable, most remarkable indeed.”

               Glancing down at himself, Juntan was less convinced of his own living state than was this ghost.  “Who are you?” he demanded, hoping to cover the tremble in his voice with bombast.

               “Who am I?” the ghost repeated.  “Oh ho, no one, no one am I, not anymore.  Who I was, though: that is the question you ought to ask.”

               “Fine.”  Juntan tried not to act flustered, and failed.  “Who were you?”

               Swallowing a mouthful of food that replenished itself in his basket as soon as he had finished, the ghost executed a sweeping bow.  “Longdrin, one-time governor of the Zeldrin region, as appointed by the Clachan Emperor, may she live forever.”  Longdrin grimaced.  “Which, of course, she didn’t.  Not in fact, and not even in concept, elsewise you wouldn’t be here.”

               Juntan coughed, an activity that elicited an expression of amazement from the eternally breathless ghost of Longdrin.  “You’re supposed to be my guide, then?  Milner mentioned something about a guide.”

               “Yes, that’s me!” agreed the spirit.  “A very great honor, I assure you.  The other former governors and I have been placing bets upon who would be honored with the responsibility for centuries.  I, of course, always asserted it would be me, for what better choice could there be?  Yet I never really believed in my non-existent heart that it would actually be me, until the moment when the gong sounded and I found myself being tugged upriver.”

               “Well, can we get going?  Get this over with?” Juntan requested perfunctorily.  “I swear just standing in this place is going to turn me, well, into something like you.  And I’d really rather not stay here a moment longer than I have to.  I would prefer not to be here at all, actually.”

               Longdrin laughed.  “Wouldn’t we all,” he agreed.  “Well, it is true that there is little point in delay, and there are many most eager to meet you; it surely wouldn’t do to keep emperors waiting, no indeed it would not.”  Hopping back up onto the bucket, he gestured for Juntan to join him, which the latter warily did, trying to avoid falling down the well, worrying that his mortal weight would break the well’s mechanism, and striving to avoid overlapping with the ghost, all but the last of which he succeeded in doing.  “Down we go…” called Longdrin, as the mechanism began to spin and the duo was lowered implacably into the darkness of the afterlife.

               There was no way for Juntan to tell how long they descended.  It had not seemed there was that much rope, but they descended without the slightest change in pace or scenery for a very long time, until at last the bucket dropped with a hollow thunk onto the deck of a decrepit ship.  There, Longdrin sprang off of the bucket, and indicated for Juntan to do the same.  Still sampling misty grapes from his basket, the ghost ambled to the ship’s prow, where a tall, gaunt figure in black robes stood with skeletal hands clasped behind his back like a captain surveying his course, which was exactly what he was.

               “This man is not dead,” the Ferryman accused, pointing a boney finger at Juntan, who shrank back, then recoiled when he realized that the entire ship was filled with spirits.  At least he was spared the horror of the Ferryman’s face, buried beneath a cowl of opaque spirit.  “He cannot be borne.”

               Longdrin took a delicate step to stand between Juntan and the Ferryman.  “Ah, excuse me, pardon me, I do apologize for the inconvenience, but I think you will find that there is a reason for this particular exception to policy, a very good reason indeed.  Everything has been fully cleared with the Authority.”  Longdrin, despite being dead, managed to sound nervous, which reassured Juntan not at all.

               For too long, the Ferryman looked through Longdrin to Juntan with empty sockets staring out of a barren skull, and this time Juntan could see that there was no face to see, just bare bone.  Only the skull itself was present, without the jawbone, giving the Ferryman the appearance of wearing a mask over empty space.  Then, with a crackle, the Ferryman turned away and resumed his contemplation of the downriver course.  “Most irregular,” he muttered, but gave no further protest, and with a gesture set the whole ship into motion.  It was quite beyond Juntan’s reasoning capacity to understand how the Ferryman could speak in any way.

                What force propelled the ferry could not be readily discerned, but it was drawn up and down river upon a long cable that disappeared into the blackness in either direction.  At least there was color on the boat itself: the ghosts had pale colors in imitation of their living selves, and Juntan’s own flesh was also colored again.  As the ferry moved downriver, both banks were invisible, and the only light came from a lantern hung upon a pole near the prow.  It was barely enough to illuminate the boat and a small patch of black, rolling water below it.

               With no warning, a tiny, rotten dock protruded into the river ahead, becoming visible in the minute circle of lantern light, and the ferry began to slow.  “First stop: Malignance,” the Ferryman announced without expression or intonation.  “You know who you are.”

               Indeed, many of the souls onboard were shuffling off of the ferry onto the dock to fade into the darkness.  Juntan squinted, but could make out nothing of what happened to them, or of the land to which the dock led.  He turned to Longdrin with concern, but the spirit shook his head.  “Not our stop, don’t worry.  We’re not going to be getting off for quite some time, so you might as well make yourself comfortable, yes indeed.”  He tossed Juntan an apple from his basket, but the fruit disappeared as soon as it left Longdrin’s hand.

               Other spirits emerged from the blackness to board the ferry.  When they stopped coming, the ferry began to move again, and the Ferryman announced: “Next stop: Laziness.”  Otherwise, there was only silence.  None of the spirits so much as whispered, and the lapping of the water was inaudible.

               From the announcement, Juntan expected another dock to loom out of the darkness at any moment, but the waters kept sliding past with no sign of the ferry’s second stop.  Despite the alien surroundings and being aboard a ferry of the dead, Juntan found himself growing restless.

               “What did he mean, ‘you know who you are?’” he asked Longdrin.

               “Hm?  Oh, yes.  The stops.”  Longdrin grimaced at some unpleasant memory.  “Think of the river as a sort of purification ritual that souls must endure before they can be accepted into the eternal pool of the afterlife.  There are three major stops, of course, as I’m sure you already know…”

               “I don’t,” Juntan interrupted.  “Can’t say I ever paid much attention to religion.”

               Longdrin nodded.  “Well, there are three major stops: Malignance, Laziness, and Ignorance.  They are the three reasons that people do wrong in life.  Doing wrong out of malignance is the worst, so the purification process there is the most severe.  Doing evil out of laziness is better, but not justifiable.  Doing wrong out of ignorance is still wrong, but the Authority is more understanding in such cases, and only a small purification is required.  Every spirit that comes to the afterlife knows precisely what purifications are required of it – that’s simply part of the Authority’s Mystery.”  Longdrin shuddered.  “And don’t ask me about the purification process, because it is not pleasant, let me tell you, no indeed.  Just going past the stops again is bringing up far too many memories for my taste.  It’s almost enough to make me lose my appetite.”  He said this last around a mouthful of ghostly bread.

               “The food,” Juntan asked.  He was uncharacteristically curious; perhaps he was trying to avoid thinking about being in the underworld.  Maybe being curious was a property unique to the living by which he could distinguish for his own benefit that he was not, in fact, already another spirit making its purifying way down the river.  “Do you actually, you know, eat it?  Need it, I mean?”  None of the other spirits he saw had such accoutrements.

               “Oh, don’t look at them,” Longdrin chided, gesturing expansively with a pheasant leg at the other spirits on the ferry.  “They’ve not yet been fully purified.  Things like this you have to pick up in the pool, yes indeed.”  He hummed at that, as if pleased to remind himself that he was not an unpurified soul like the others aboard the ferry.  “And no, I don’t need the food, per se; I don’t derive physical nourishment from it, if that’s what you mean.  I merely like food.”  He crossed his arms over his portly stomach then, as if daring Juntan to say something.  Juntan held his tongue.

               After a long time, the Ferryman announced that they were approaching the second stop.  To Juntan’s surprise, some of the spirits who had boarded at the first stop now disembarked at the second stop.  Perceiving his confusion, Longdrin offered an explanation.  “Some souls sinned from more than one cause.  They must be purified at multiple stops, the poor fellows.”  Though his voice was cheerful, his expression was haunted, and not in its ordinary, ghostly sense.

               The river was a quiet place, as Juntan had before noted, so that even the hushed conversation between Juntan and Longdrin seemed noisy by comparison.  The very waves lapping against the ferry’s hull made no sound.  When the Ferryman announced their departure from the second stop, and that the next stop would be Ignorance, his desiccated voice seemed a lonely sentinel, a lighthouse beaming out into the night for no one to see.  It made Juntan shiver.

               On the ferry, the spirits avoided him.  Perhaps they whispered amongst themselves about the intrusion of a mortal presence in the lands of the dead, using some inaudible means to which Juntan was not privy.  It seemed to him that those who had already been purified at Malignance or Laziness appeared more ephemeral, closer in form to Longdrin, than those who remained impure.  Those impure spirits had a dingy cast to them that rendered them, to Juntan’s mind, closer to corporeal in aspect.  He hoped that his ability to perceive such differences was not a sign that he was becoming one of them.

               “What actually happens at the stops?” Juntan blurted.  Thoughts of spirits and purifications led him to ponder the state of his own soul, and he could not quite bring himself to ask his true question: ‘what would my soul require, were I dead now?’

               Something approaching anger flashed across Longdrin’s face.  “Ask not these questions,” he hissed.  “Matters of the dead must not be revealed to the living.”

               Ignoring Longdrin’s irritation, Juntan pressed him.  “I’m here, aren’t I?  Seems to me that I’m already getting rather more matters of the dead revealed to me than either of us would like.  So spit it out.”  Really, there seemed to Juntan little that Longdrin could possibly do to threaten him – in a sense, Juntan was, after all, already dead.

               “So it has been foretold.  Why the Authority granted such dispensation, I shall never entirely understand, no I shall not,” Longdrin retorted.  “Do not seek to learn the secrets of purification.  Doing so would upset the balance of all things, interfere with the Authority’s plans for the mortal world, disrupt the very nature of the afterlife…it hardly bears contemplating.  Please, ask this not of me.”  His manner changed abruptly, and he extended a ghostly sweet roll in Juntan’s direction.  “Pastry?”

               When Juntan shook his head, the spirit munched down the delicacy in a single bite, as if stuffing his mouth would relieve his mind of the unpleasant thoughts Juntan had stirred with his questions.  No further prompting on Juntan’s part would elicit the slightest response on the topic from Logndrin.

               “Third stop: Ignorance,” the Ferryman announced into the void.  When the customary exchange of spirits had occurred, he again propelled the ferry by whatever invisible mechanism drew it along its suspension line.  “Next stop: Reflection.”

               Longdrin nudged Juntan with an elbow to the ribs that Juntan only noticed in becoming disturbed to learn that the spirit and he were overlapping.  “That’s our stop,” the former governor whispered.  He sounded relieved and excited.  “When we get there, just follow my lead.  Do try not to get distracted, that’s terribly important, indeed it is.  Easy to become distracted at the pool.”

               “Why?  What happens if I get distracted?” Juntan asked.  “What is Reflection, anyway?”

               “The eternal pool of the afterlife is called Reflection,” Longdrin explained.  “It is the final destination of all souls, once they have been properly purified.  It’s…well, it’s very hard to explain, is what it is.”  He patted Juntan’s knee, which again had no effect other than a disturbing appearance that left Juntan vaguely nauseated.  “You’ll see when we get there.  Just don’t see too much, if you take my meaning.”

               Juntan didn’t, so this guidance was most unhelpful, but despite his efforts Juntan could elicit nothing further from his deceased guide.  With a huff, he settled back against the river-slicked rail and tried not to worry, or think about whether he ought to have been able to feel the water or not if he were really still alive.  He had already been sent prematurely to the afterlife against his will; it seemed unlikely that his life, if he could even still call it that, could go more wrong.

               At the ferry’s prow, the lantern bobbed, though there was no sensation of aquatic motion on the ferry’s deck, and nothing else moved with it.  Juntan wondered if he would get seasick.  He wondered if spirits could get seasick.  He wondered if there was any hope that he would ever return to the mortal world, but decided that subject was better left untouched.

               “Final stop: Reflection,” the Ferryman proclaimed.  As the ferry bumped to a stop at the last dock, the Ferryman strode to the aft of the ferry, where a new lantern had kindled, while the one at the prow winked out, so that the whole ferry appeared to have turned, without any physical maneuver.  “All souls to disembark.  No passengers up the river,” the Ferryman instructed.

               Longdrin stepped off of the ferry with a spring in his step that belied both his apparent weight and his lack of real substance, but Juntan hesitated.  “Wait, he said no passengers up the river.  How am I supposed to get back?”  He felt near panic, his heart thudding in his chest.  He wondered if he was physically here, or if somehow his body was still lying in bed in the king’s chambers.  He probably should have wondered that sooner.  “How do I get back?” he demanded, wanting to seize Longdrin and shake him, though he knew that would be futile.

               “All souls must disembark,” the Ferryman repeated, and Juntan realized that all of the spirits had already left the ferry.  Only he remained, with Longdrin trying to coax him onto the dock.  The Ferryman loomed behind him, doing nothing threatening, but terrifying Juntan nonetheless.

               Longdrin grumbled.  “Getting back is up to the will of the Emperors.  And the Authority.  Don’t ask me for details: nothing like this has ever happened before.  You think we get visits from mortals regularly?  Now, come on.”  He reached out as if to yank Juntan onto the dock, though they could neither of them physically affect the other.  “That’s how I got up to meet you, anyway, yes indeed.  One moment I’m in the pool, the next I’m at the top of the river, making my way up the bucket.”

               His concerns little ameliorated, Juntan relented, and stepped from the ferry.  Almost immediately, the Ferryman set it back into motion, drawn against the current back up to the distant source of the river at the same rate it had gone downstream.  Juntan watched it until the lonely lantern faded into the void, feeling his faint hope of returning to his mortal life slipping just as surely away.

               “Ah, so good to be back,” Longdrin sighed, either oblivious to, or ignoring, Juntan’s fears.  Indicating for Juntan to follow, he ambled away from the dock.  Though there was no obvious source of illumination, Juntan realized that he could see here, in contrast to the opaque blackness that had characterized the riverbanks from the ferry.  The dock projected from a mossy bank, and the moss was speckled with tiny flowers no larger than his pinkie nail in pale blues and whites.  They weren’t ghostly colors, just an ordinary sort of pale.  From the steeply sloping bank, a faint trail wound through an alien groundcover of dark leaves as high in places as Juntan’s knees.  Tall, thick trees that could have been merely trunk-like pillars supporting an invisible sky thrust up with unnatural straightness through the substance upon which Juntan trod, which he could no more readily identify than he could explain how there could be, to his perception, nothing at all above his head: no sky, no roof, no ceiling, nothing.

               For a time, Juntan followed Longdrin along the winding trail, single-file.  There was no sense of motion, nor the passage of time, not even a whisper of wind from his own passage.  Though he breathed, it seemed unrelated to any physical exertion, and in truth he could discern no difference in the effort he put forth between a downhill and an uphill.  It was almost like he was only breathing out of force of lifelong habit.  There were no animals, no birds, no signs at all of any life other than the plants, and Juntan wondered if even those were really alive.  Perhaps they were the ghosts of plants, if plants could have ghosts.  He could not even see a trace of the other spirits who had disembarked from the ferry with him.

               “Not far now,” Longdrin promised.  He sounded more energetic than Juntan had yet heard him, ebullient even, more eager than a schoolboy released for the solstice, or a starving man presented with a feast.

               They crested a rise, and found themselves standing upon the rim of a bowl-like depression.  The trees stopped just over the rim, but the groundcover continued almost to the banks of the pool that gleamed more tantalizingly than any diamond within that earthen bowl’s embrace.  As Juntan watched, the last of the spirits who had disembarked from the ferry with him approached the water, waded in, and disappeared.  He blinked.

               “What was that?” he asked.  “They just…vanished.”

               Longdrin nodded.  “Of course they did.  That’s the pool.  The final destination.  Reflection.”

               Juntan blanched.  “Hold on.  I’m not ready for this.  There is no way in, well, Reflection I guess that I’m letting myself get absorbed into your magic pool.  Coming this far is bad enough, and I’ve only done that against my will.”

               “If you knew the bliss of the pool, you would not be so hesitant.”  Longdrin sounded wistful.  “But you needn’t worry, no indeed.  No mortal would be allowed to enter the pool.  The Emperors will come to you, they will, and a very great honor that is.”

               When the pair had come to stand three paces from the pool’s edge, they halted, and waited.  Juntan looked at Longdrin for some hint of what he was expected to do, but the former governor was standing with his eyes closed, smiling at nothing, and completely ignoring Juntan.

               Without any ripple or other indication, spirits began to rise from the surface of the pool, a reverse of the process Juntan had witnessed for the arriving spirits.  Each wore garb not unlike Longdrin’s, but they were otherwise a diverse assembly.  Like ice skaters, they glided across the pool’s mirror-like surface and stepped upon the bank, gradually forming a line, then an arc, and ultimately a circle that enclosed Juntan and Longdrin in its ghostly perimeter.  Juntan swallowed against a dry throat.

               For an interminable pause, the spirits were motionless – the whole world seemed motionless.  After what felt to Juntan an eternity, one of the spirits, a woman, stepped forward, breaking the circle, and approached to stand within an arm’s length of Juntan.  She wore a garment like Longdrin’s, but beneath it there was mail armor, and molded leather was upon her limbs, with a sword affixed to her waist by a lustrous belt.  A circlet lay upon her dark, glossy hair, with a jewel set in its center.

               “Welcome, King Juntan of Zeldrin,” she said.  Her voice was rough, but it echoed with accustomed ease across the entire bowl.  “Do you recognize me?”

               “You’re a Clachan Emperor.  Empress.”  It seemed better than admitting total ignorance, even if it was obvious.

               A faint smile graced the woman’s ghostly cheeks.  “I am Cladropi, first emperor of Clachan.  These other souls here assembled are my successors.  Do you know why we are here, King Juntan?  Do you know why you are here?”

               Juntan knew he should lie.  This was just another part of the con, the most dangerous part of any con he could imagine, a con that had taken him all the way to the very end of the afterlife.  He’d only made it this far by luck and lies; this was just one more trial to complete in the same way.  “I…” he opened his mouth to state the obvious again, that he was here to complete his third Great Trial, but he couldn’t finish the sentence.  With Cladropi’s eyes boring into his, his lies evaporated.  “I’m not a king,” he spat.  “It’s all just a lie, and there’s no way I’m getting out of here.  So you might as well just drown me in your magic pool or disembowel me with that fancy sword right now, because I’m not the real king of Zeldrin.  I’m just a conman in way over his head, and the game is finally up.”

               The look on Longdrin’s face was pure betrayal, and murmurs rose from the assembled emperors, but Juntan stood his ground.  “I tried to stop it!” he protested, not certain why he bothered.  He already regretted telling the truth, but it was too late now.  “I swear, I never wanted any of this.  You think I wanted to almost get killed by a dragon?  A couple of witches kidnapped me.  I tried to escape, I swear.”  He sounded desperate to his own ears, his breathing a veritable roar in that silent place, but it seemed a suitable time to be desperate.

               Louder grew the murmurs, and Juntan wondered what they meant; perhaps the spirits were somehow communicating amongst themselves.  He waited to be struck down, for something to happen, when he noticed Cladropi laughing at him.

               “What?” he demanded.  Of all the possible responses, he found this one, instead of being a relief, almost incensing.

               “You think that because you were not born and trained to lead, you cannot be a king?” Cladropi asked.  “You think that only someone descended from royalty can become royalty?”  When Juntan shrugged, unwilling to commit himself, she gestured at the other Clachan emperors.  “How many of these emperors do you suppose were related to me?” she asked.

               Juntan hesitated, and Cladropi supplied the answer.  “Four.  Out of eighty seven rulers across five centuries.”  She patted her sword.  “And what about me?  Do you think that I came from royal stock?  Because the truth is I was born a street urchin on the decrepit streets of Clacha.  When the Glek invasions began, I was conscripted into the army, and discovered I had a gift for strategy and command.  The only person who can make you a legitimate ruler is yourself.  Not your blood, not your people, no one.  Only you.”

               “Can’t say I ever thought of it that way,” Juntan muttered.  He wanted to make some snide comment about the witches clearly not thinking about it that way, either, but he resisted.  “Doesn’t change the fact that I’m not a king, though.  I don’t want to be.  So if I can make myself king, then I can unmake myself king, too.”

               Cladropi nodded.  “Yes.  You can stay here.”

               “So it’s threats,” Juntan replied.  “Figured as much.”

               Ignoring him, Cladropi addressed the assembled emperors.  “I hereby call for a consensus.  Is this man, Juntan, the rightful King of Zeldrin?  I say he is.”  Her affirmation stunned Juntan to the point of incomprehension.

               Susurrations rippled through the circling spirits, at first unintelligible to Juntan, but then as he listened more closely he realized that he could hear the words, or at least the meanings.  How this was possible, he could not understand, and he was not philosopher enough to care.  One by one, the ancient emperors of Clachan were affirming him as the rightful King of Zeldrin.  By the time the whispers completed their circuit and returned to Cladropi, only three had declared him wrong for the kingship.

               “We have our consensus,” Cladropi addressed Juntan.  “Now you must decide.  Will you accept it, and be thence returned to your mortal life, as the King of Zeldrin?  Or will you continue to deny who you are, and remain forever entrapped between worlds, until you wither and fade entirely from both lives?”

               “Like I said, threats.”  Juntan glowered.  “Maybe I should stay here, just to prove that I don’t answer to ‘destiny.’”  He could not tell himself if he was serious or not.

               “This isn’t about destiny,” Cladropi answered.  “You were not destined to become king.  But you have made yourself one.  Not alone, but you have truly become a king.  To embrace that is not to embrace your destiny.  It is to embrace yourself.”

               Juntan swallowed.  “Well then.”  He looked all around the circle, looking for some sign, and looked last at Longdrin, but there was no indication to aid him.  “In that case…” he hesitated.  “In that case, I choose…”  The spirits leaned forward expectantly, even pulsing slightly.  “I choose to live my life.  As King.”

King

               In the throne room, dressed in his royal robes that clashed terribly with skin that was still pale from his visit to the afterlife, Juntan waited for Midrena’s arrival and strove not to be nervous.  He was the king now, even if he was still not entirely convinced that he was really a king.  No, that wasn’t true.  Having eighty-odd former emperors returned from eternal bliss in Reflection’s pool to tell him he was king was a somewhat convincing experience.  He believed that he was really a king.  It would be more accurate to say that he was still uncomfortable being king.  Yes, that was true.  Likely only time would change it.

               Slightly behind and to his left, Milner looked even more nervous than Juntan felt.  He had been visibly shocked when Juntan had sat up in bed, and even more astonished when he demanded to see Midrena with far more force and authority than he had ever before exhibited.  Wine would have been more appropriate as a first request upon his resurrection, and more desirable, but there was something Juntan needed to do before he could properly enjoy wine again.  The apprentice witch had asked several times why he so urgently needed to see Midrena, and Juntan had refused to answer.  It was better if Milner didn’t know what was about to transpire.

               Despite having summoned her, Juntan was still shaken when the doors to the audience chamber were flung open to frame Midrena, drawn erect to her full height, eyes flashing and proud in her lined face.  Her staff knocked as she walked towards Juntan upon the throne, each blow shattering anew the throne room’s heavy silence.  Yet for all her pride, there seemed, to Juntan’s eyes, a resignation upon her features, and he wondered just how much of the future she knew.

               “Your highness.”  Midrena bowed with perfect decorum and an attitude that did not bespeak the slightest subservience or humility.  “I am pleased to see that you have completed the Third Trial.”

               “Are you?” Juntan asked.  “Just how far into the future do your prophecies guide you?”

               Midrena hesitated.  “Far enough,” she answered.  “That you are here is confirmation that you passed the Third Trial and were accepted by the Clachan Emperors as King of Zeldrin.  We can therefore begin final preparations to fully secure the realm, and reinstate the order that has decayed since the fall of Clachan.”

               “Yes,” Juntan agreed, “I can.”  He blanched at the faint smile he saw on Midrena’s face, but plowed ahead, regardless.  “Witch Midrena, you have manipulated me into this throne.  I have no intention of being manipulated while I am on it.  With my full authority as King of Zeldrin, I hereby banish you from Zeldrin, never to return.  You may have one month to vacate the country, after which I shall have you forcibly removed.”

               “That won’t be necessary,” Midrena assured him.  Milner gasped, and started to protest, but Midrena held up a hand to forestall him.  Her full attention was upon Juntan, studying his face as intently as she studied her grimoires and tomes.  “Yes, I have foreseen this,” she answered the unspoken question.  “That I would be obliged to pay a steep price to be the maker of a king was known to me long before I knew even when the king would come.  I was unsure only if that price would be exile or death.”  She paused, and her gaze bored into Juntan’s.  “It was written that my ending would be the stick by which I could best measure the future of this kingdom.  You have chosen well, my King.”

               Not sure how to respond, Juntan said nothing.  Milner, too, was silent, his eyes bright in the candlelight.

               Nodding to herself, Midrena smiled, her lips pressed thin.  “Yes, I believe I have done well, indeed.”  Executing another, perfectly calibrated bow, she addressed him formally.  “If you will excuse me, my liege.  I believe I have some packing to which I must attend.”

               Feeling numb, Juntan had barely the presence of mind to wave for Midrena to go.  Almost before the doors had closed behind her, Milner was bowing before Juntan.  “If I may go, your highness?”  He was visibly shaken.  Feeling only slightly more stable, Juntan nodded his permission.  He might have wondered how Milner would respond to Midrena’s exile, if he would seek to join his master or thwart Juntan, but Juntan did not think he had cause for concern.  Perhaps a little of Midrena’s confidence about the future had affected him, but he did not doubt that Milner would be there to advise him as he ruled.

               He would need advice; his newfound confidence did not change his lack of experience or qualification.  It was why he had not exiled both witches.  Midrena was too powerful, and had too much authority.  As long as she was in Zeldrin, he would not truly be king, but Milner was a different matter.  Juntan thought he could use Milner.

               For now, alone in the throne room, Juntan settled down on the throne.  No, he settled himself more comfortably in his throne, in his throne room, in his castle.  Because he was king, and destiny had nothing to do with it.

Thank you for reading Lloyd Earickson’s short story, Destiny of Kings, an IGC Publishing original story. If you enjoyed the story, please consider leaving a comment or review in the discussion below the story. Be sure to follow IGCPublishing.com for updates, more information, and other freely available stories.

If you want to know more about the writing process for this story and how it came to be, please read the release post here.

Copyright 2021, IGC Publishing

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