The land of Galador was once ruled by a great King and his two remarkable servants. The ancient legends say that the King and his servants were immortal, and the time of their rule was known as the Golden Age. But the Golden age was centuries ago now, and if there ever was such a King, he and his servants have long since passed into history.
Tal, a young hunter, has not given much thought to these old stories until his home is destroyed by mysterious raiders. As he searches for answers he is swept into a world of danger and surprise. Before his very eyes he sees the old legends come to life, and he finds himself caught in the middle of an ancient war between two immortal foes.
While he struggles to grasp this new reality he finds that he too has a destiny to fulfill, and the fate of the world may hang on his choice…
The big man did not look like a literary critic. The thrust of his large bullish head, the bulk of his massive shoulders and the protuberant eyes that were misted with drunken anger, all gave the distinct impression that this man was no aficionado of the fine arts. Yet it was apparent that he was about to critique my story, and that his criticism would be violently in keeping with his belligerent appearance. I coughed nervously. The eyes of everyone in the tavern were on me, and the dim room was quite still as I set my tankard of ale carefully on the oaken table beside me and stood.
“Uh…” I said to my advancing critic.
The huge man continued his advance. I noticed for the first time that his powerful, ape-like frame was draped with the uniform of the royal infantry. He was a soldier. The tension in the air was palpable. Nervously I cast around for some way of escape, but my antagonist was between me and the only exit.
“Um…” I said, but this second piece of oratory brilliance was also ignored.
“Poppycock!” slurred the drunken soldier.
“What?” I exclaimed, in spite of myself, “the legend of the King?”
“Lies!” He yelled. “Bloody lies, the whole thing!”
I don’t know what got into me that day, but against my better judgment I replied,
“Some say it’s true.”
He stopped a pace away and looked at me as one looks at a spider just before squashing it. Speaking with the over-distinctness induced by alcohol he pointed his finger at me and said, “You are a liar.”
The silence in the room was abruptly shattered by the scratching and squeaking of chairs as the patrons sitting near us hastily vacated the area.
He swung and I ducked, charging underneath his big arm, slamming him in the midriff. He gasped, but as I tried to spin away he grabbed me with one arm and smashed his other fist at my face. I turned away and caught the blow on my shoulder and neck. The stroke sent me whirling against a rickety table that collapsed under the impact of my body.
The room was quiet again as he approached and stood over me. I struggled to regain my feet.
Without warning the door banged open, and into the taut silence a voice clearly shouted, “Belmar the tailor has been murdered at the city gate!”
The room erupted. People were shouting for details, pressing for the door. Some yelled obscenities and denunciations, at whom, I was not sure.
In that moment of confusion, the big soldier was temporarily distracted. As he turned his head toward the melee that had developed around the news-bearer, I stood up and hit him as hard as I could with a convenient three-legged stool.
Cursing my stinging hands, I thoughtfully placed the stool on his recumbent form, slung my pack over my shoulder and fled.
The whole town was buzzing with agitation. Evidently the unfortunate Belmar had been a citizen of some note, and it was rumored that the deed had been done by vicious insurgents against the crown. I cared little for the incident, having not much to do with the place. However, the furor allowed me to slip out of the tavern unhindered and into the narrow streets which were bathed in the waning sunlight of late afternoon. I did not come often to Tembre, since I made my living in the high country by trapping and hunting. Every so often, however, just to keep my more rustic customers honest, I made the journey to the provincial capital, in pretense of finding a better price for the skins and meat which I sold to make my living. Usually, it was hardly worth the few extra coins I could gain, but it did have the effect of keeping prices fair in the village where I did most of my business. Normally, after selling my skins, I stayed over a day or two. I could never really desire the city life, but it was interesting to hear the news, and see how the townspeople lived. Today, however, the incident with the soldier and strange news of murder in broad daylight had soured my ephemeral taste for the town, and I made my way firmly, if without haste, toward the city gates.
Those two things – the fight and the murder – continued to occupy my mind while I absently observed the bustling late afternoon commerce of the crooked streets. As happens occasionally to a man who spends most of his days alone among peaks and sky, I had grown talkative in the little tavern where I had stopped for a sup. Encouraged by local patrons, I told stories of the hunt, of howling mountain gales, and secret hidden valleys. Abruptly, I had run out of things to say, but the patrons were still buying my drinks, and urging me to tell more. In my sudden loss for words, I had fallen back upon the ancient legend of the King. It was a children’s story, but well known and loved by all – or so I had thought. I told it with emphasis and emotion, and I had thought it would be received well. Instead, that deathly hush had fallen on the room, and the big soldier had come for me.
I am a little taller than the average man, with a fast wiry strength hardened into my muscles by my years of hunting, trapping and living outdoors. My skin was weathered dark by the sun, darker than that of most people, and occasionally my resemblance to a swarthy foreigner led to a fight. I could hold my own in a brawl, but I had no taste for it. I was certain I would have come out second best with the soldier. It seemed odd that another man’s death had saved me.
Other than the fact of the fortunate timing, the death of the tailor did not interest me. But the talk that buzzed through the streets as I made my way did catch my attention. The idea of an insurgency was new to me. I had little to do with politics, and rulers and government had little to do with my high mountain world. It struck me that I did not even know whether our prince and his regime were good and just or not. Perhaps there was good reason for an insurgency. Perhaps, I thought whimsically, I should even join it.
But it puzzled me how the death of a well-liked merchant could advance the cause of rebellion against the prince. The world of cities and politics seemed unaccountably complicated to me, a man who dealt more often with the simple realities of nature and her wild beasts. I shook my head, and concentrated on listening as I made my way through a crowded market square.
“…planning to be crowned king sometime before the harvest festival. That’s why they’re so desperate.” The speaker was a grizzled old man, leading a burro which bore several bolts of multicolored material in an awkward pack upon its back. His companion was a heavy middle-aged man walking with a stick, unsuccessfully trying to conceal a bulging purse.
“But king!” said the younger man. “I mean – ”
“ –there is only one king, yes, yes I know. But if that King ever lived at all, he is surely dead now. Why shouldn’t Prince Paladine drop the pretense and assert his right to reign as supreme monarch? The House of Stewards has been deserted almost as long as the throne.”
“But the legend – ”
“Quiet! Do you want to get us arrested?” The old man looked around hastily, and then relaxed. “Besides,” he continued, “you don’t believe in those children’s fables do you? And what a ridiculous custom to have an imitation House of Stewards to be regents for a monarch that no longer exists, if he ever did! Even if the whole legend were true, we have neither true king nor Steward, nor have we for a thousand years!”
The heavy man looked troubled at his companion’s words. “But what you say only proves my point Alvar,” he said slowly. “Paladine is neither true Prince, nor was he the true Steward before he took the title ‘Prince.’ And to claim the right of the Monarchy will only – ” the speaker gasped as Alvar slammed an elbow in his midriff. The older man spun his companion around, causing him to almost bump into me as I walked slowly behind them. “Fool!” he hissed in a low and intense voice, “Stop speaking sedition! If you want to keep this – ” here he shook the younger man’s heavy purse, “or your life, you’ll shut up and support Paladine. He has – ” Suddenly the man called Alvar stopped and glared at me, for caught up in the conversation I had not moved along with the rest of the foot traffic when the two had stopped. Awkwardly I mumbled apologies and hastened on.
The streets grew more and more crowded as I neared the gates of the city. I suspected that many had come to see the site of the unlucky tailor’s demise. As I was forced to slow even my relaxed pace to press through a crowd, I noticed several groups of people in furtive conversation just as Alvar and his friend had been. As I neared one such company – three young men dressed in the garb of provincial officials – I noticed them suddenly break off their argument. One of them glanced sharply to his right, and then looked away. Following his fleeting look, I noticed a tall man in a dark crimson robe, stained like dried blood in the afternoon sunlight. He stood apart, surveying the crowd aloofly, as people jostled their neighbors to avoid passing too close to him. Overshadowing his face was a deep hood, giving the unshakable impression that he watched the mob of people with invisible eyes. He turned his hooded face toward me for a moment, and I felt a chill prickling sensation on the back of my head, and then he turned away and it was gone.
“Should’ve known they was goin’ to be here,” said a voice full of bitterness and contempt. “Probably did in the old man themselves.” I turned to see an old woman slowly pushing by my left shoulder.
“Hush, Nana,” said the soft voice of her young companion, “Don’t talk like that or something could happen to you. You know their powers.”
I perked up my ears to hear more, but the old woman only grumbled and moved on. I too pushed on, musing over what I had heard. There was certainly something strange and sinister about the dark-robed man, and clearly, all of the citizenry seemed to hold him in fear. I wondered who he was, or what power he held over these people.
As I reached the open square that preceded the city gate, I stopped for a moment, encountering a palpable sense of fear and suspicion. I saw that the plaza was full of people milling about in little groups, talking secretively while they surreptitiously cast fearful looks around the edges of the square. The targets of their hasty glances were several more impassive crimson-robed figures, standing around the square at evenly spaced intervals, for all the world like guards in a prison yard. Again I felt a prickling sensation, like a menacing power emanating from the figures in red. I found myself irrationally wanting to hide.
As I stepped into the square I accosted the first person I saw, grabbing him by the sleeve.
“Who are they?” I asked him abruptly.
“What? Who?!” he said, taken aback, as he tried to free his clothing from my grasp.
“The ones in red,” I explained, jerking my head. “Who are they?”
The man stared at me as if I were crazy. With a desperate jerk, he tore his sleeve from my grip and hustled out of the plaza without a word.
A middle-aged woman who had seen the exchange looked at me with a peaked face and tired, worried eyes and mumbled, “It’ll do no good to ask questions. You’ll go on home if you know what’s good for you.”
I turned toward her to ask more, but she hurried quickly away. As I looked after her, I saw two of the robed figures conferring with a big soldier, who rubbed the back of his head while he talked. Together they turned and started scanning the square, until one of the robed figures began moving slowly toward the gate, continuing to carefully scrutinize the crowd as he did so. Belatedly, I realized that aside from the business of the unlucky tailor, I might be in some personal trouble over the fight in the tavern. Needing no more incentive, I turned and strode decisively, but without panic, toward the city gate. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by hurrying, but it was touch and go whether I would reach the gate first or not.
At last, I made it to the entry tunnel, keeping to the center of a group of farmers returning home after market-day. I had a quick glimpse of a grisly bundle of cloth and blood right at the entrance to the gate before I averted my eyes. The little group I was in was compressed tight by the tunnel and we slowed to what seemed a crawl. I risked a glance behind me and saw one of the crimson robed figures reach the inside entrance to the city and turn around to examine the plaza. I braced myself for the shout of discovery, but then I was shunted through and I passed unnoticed into the cool evening air.