A Cracked Destiny
My Father told me once told me of the time he walked from the Citadel to the Holy Mountain and saw four men staring into a sack. Being a man of great curiosity he approached the men to see what had gripped them so. He asked the first man what he saw. He looked at my father with great joy and said “The beginning of the answer to my dreams.”
It was the sound of dripping which finally woke Robert from unconsciousness. Upon reaching the waking world he was hit by a familiar coppery smell. Putting his head in his hands in despair he felt a warm and sticky substance. He knew then that the blood he had smelled was his own. He gently probed his head with his stubby fingers to find the wound. He found the gash just at his own hairline and was relieved to find it was shallow and the blood almost fully clotted. He reached instinctively for the sword at his hip and feeling comforted by its presence there he began to walk slowly out of the cavern. As he stepped gingerly through the smothering darkness he felt something touch his mind; a voice. “Are you out there Robert?” came the probing thought. He recognised the deft touch of his Captain. “Evan,” he shot back. “I am alive.” He waited alone in the darkness as the other seemed to wait for something else. Then the touch came again. “I am with Tal. We are alone.”
“Did we succeed?” asked Robert. “Meet me in the valley where we began. Follow my thoughts to the daylight. I have something to show you,” was the commanding answer. Robert winced at the idea that he must walk in the dark to Captain. He had endured much worse however. So he walked slowly with his hands before, contemplating how he had come to such a place and such a time.
“The place and time are here and now,” exclaimed the Captain. Standing on a rotten tree stump just above the valley of their destination he looked like the extraordinary man he was. “Anyone who has doubts,” he continued, “must turn back now.” Gareth, who was a giant of a man, shifted slowly. “I have no doubts,” he rumbled in deep tones. “In you or the Gods.” Beside him Xandros frowned. A small yet muscular man he looked like a child next to Gareth. Yet none of the gathered warriors dared to underestimate the man and knew his wisdom often came with direct inspiration from the Gods. “You are our Captain Evan, and we will follow you. But I feel it was unwise to send Tal separately.” The Captain stepped down from his stump and held Xandros’ shoulder. “Zenobia sent him and us to achieve the same goal. The People and the Land need respite from what the king has done.” Xandros’ scowl grew deeper and Evan knew the source of his doubts. “Xandros, they are our allies.” The smaller man grunted in dissatisfaction. “The King’s wife and his best friend? Their motive for coming to us…”
“Enough! No more talk. We must act now.” Evan blinked in surprise at Fintan’s outburst. He was usually a quiet man who let his longbow do all his talking. “The time for debate was back in the mountains,” Fintan continued. He nodded to Evan and worked his hands nervously along his bow as if to strangle any of his own doubts which remained. Evan glanced to Xandros who was already tightening his leather armour as if words of agreement were not needed. The Captain turned with a grim smile and headed down the valley, leading his men to their destiny.
The entrance to the tunnels did not look at all inviting to Fintan. He was a man of the woods, a man of the open air. But Evan had said this was their way into the king’s stronghold, so he followed the Captain into the cavernous maw. As the group stood still in the twilight between the outside world and the tunnels to the stronghold Fintan looked back to check on the enemy force that was now following them. He tugged on Evan’s sleeve and pointed. The Captain frowned. “Xandros,” he grunted. “This is where you come in. If you cannot come through with your promise this whole party is for nothing.” The smaller man grinned almost childishly and hustled the group deeper into the caves. Then he walked slowly toward the valley outside. His friend Gareth watched his departure with surprise. “Captain, do we leave Xandros to the enemy?” It was not Evan who answered, but Xandros who had heard Gareth’s unsuccessful attempt at a whisper. “Go on with the Captain Gareth, I stay here so that you may go on. Watch if you like, this will be something worth seeing.”
Gareth did not know quite what to make of this and glanced hesitantly back and forth between Evan who was striding deeper into the caves bearing a fiery torch and Xandros who was now framed in the mouth of the cave with his arms out. Gareth could tell that his friend was praying. The figure silhouetted against the bright daylight knelt slowly to the ground with one hand still in the air and the other grasping the dirt at his feet. Suddenly the earth rippled outwards from the figure as if a great hand had thrown a giant boulder into the ground. Gareth steadied himself and continued to watch. The distant figure still knelt on one knee, clutching the earth as though letting go would mean his utter destruction. The ripples quickly turned into a strange bubbling, like a cauldron. The oncoming army had stopped and now held on to one another like frightened children. The kneeling man looked out to his enemies and spoke one word as if to complete his prayer or magick, whichever it may be. “Live,” he shouted at the top of his voice. At that moment a thousand arms of earth shot up from the valley floor. Arms followed by torsos and heads and legs. Whole bodies made of earth; all determined to protect the tiny band which crawled towards the throneroom of a murderer; all determined to destroy the army that faced them.
Gareth knew then that he must quickly follow the Captain; he knew then that Xandros would not be joining them, for it was only his strength of will, his Faith which kept the creatures of earth whole. Gareth turned away from his friend with a whisper of regret and gave himself to destiny.
The door to the throneroom was ajar. Fintan did not know whether this was more ominous than if they had reached an unbreachable barrier. Someone or something had left the door open. The only way to know whether it had been friend or foe was to step through the portal. The path behind them was now littered with the corpses of their foes, the creatures that the king chose to protect himself with. A Cadre of trolls; a hand of Goblins; a dozen firedrakes. And others he had no name for. Their defeat had not come without a cost however. Magnus, Gareth, Borwyn, Tanist, all were left behind in the hellish tunnels below the king’s fortress. Evan, Fintan and Robert stepped tentatively through the door into the throneroom to find three men each of them knew by sight. Their ally and the king’s erstwhile friend Tal stood in the centre of the room unarmed but clearly unharmed. Facing him with sword drawn was Rafiq, the lumbering general who also served as bodyguard and advisor to the king. Panic showed in his pale visage and Evan saw that he noticed their entrance with an increase in the cold sweat gathered on his brow. Behind them was what seemed an insignificant figure. The king sat hunched upon the throne like a spider. He was not at all the figure of power and violence that Robert had always expected him to be. It was clear that matters would be settled between Tal and Rafiq, the king powerless to affect any of them. He was old, he was impotent, he was to Robert’s surprise a puppet. Rafiq’s puppet.
But then like a butterfly unravelling itself from its cocoon he lifted his head. He lifted his head and unravelled his body and stood from his throne. And he was the King. Tal darted forward, easily disarming Rafiq and heading to the throne with his newly acquired weapon. His eyes were alight with something Robert could not quite articulate. “We must not let him speak,” Tal shouted as he sprinted past the men who were now his comrades. They were too late. They had always been too late.
“You think to topple me old friend,” came the voice. To Robert it seemed to come from a thousand miles away and yet was also inside his head. Without really knowing it he was cowering, as were his comrades. Rafiq too was cowering, but did not have the same fear which had so crippled him just moments before. “It is you who are my servants and each of you will serve me as passionately as you have opposed me.” He lifted his arms and spoke clearly in a language Robert did not know, but he felt the power in those words.
At the sound of the unfathomable words three things happened almost at once. First, Robert saw Tal dart with snakelike speed towards the king, his sword flashing like lightning. Robert saw at almost the same time that Rafiq dashed towards his comrades, Fintan at the fore. Robert barely had time to register either of these for the third thing which happened was a bright light emanating from the king’s hands and a wave of power that picked Robert smashed him backwards through the wall depositing him in the adjoining tunnels, an unconscious wreckage, alone.
After walking in the dark for so long it made Robert wince to finally see the daylight waiting for him at the opening into the valley. And yet it made the hope rise up in him. He ran the final few yards to the outside where he could see the Captain and Tal standing, each of them clearly worse for wear after the confrontation with the king. To Robert’s disappointment he saw a third figure with them and it was not Fintan. Rafiq stood tall beside the Captain and the warrior, not looking at all like a defeated enemy and holding what looked to Robert like a sack. As Robert came closer he saw that it looked heavy and the bottom of the sack was drenched in blood. He knew then with a shiver what object was in the sack, but not with any certainty to whom it belonged. Upon reaching the three men, Tal reached out to him in welcome. “Will you see what your Captain has to show you?”
“Must I?” questioned the beleaguered warrior. Tal nodded. “It is not what you came for but it is the answer you need. And it is an answer that will change everything.”
And so Robert the Swordmaster of Ytene looked into an ordinary sack and saw the eyes of a cracked destiny.
My Father told me once told me of the time he found four men staring into a sack. He approached the men and asked them what they saw. The first man looked at my father with great joy and said “The beginning of the answer to my dreams.” The second turned and said, “My dearest friend.” The third told my father, “My truest enemy.” The fourth sighed and turned away. My father took his place and looked into the sack himself. Then with great curiosity followed the man to ask him what he had seen. The man looked at my father, a broken look in his eye. “It was the end to everything.”