Kestryl squinted against the glare of the afternoon sun, ready to do battle. He raised two swords in salute and advanced. Tanrif, his opponent, showed no sign of fear. Like the Bladesman, he held a sword in each hand. For a short time they circled. Then Kestryl attacked fiercely.
Tanrif deflected the blows and returned an attack of his own. The hills surrounding the conflict echoed the efforts of the confrontation. Neither man could find an opening. Soon, Kestryl stepped back and lowered his swords.
“Are you scared, old man?”
The Bladesman raised an eyebrow in response and thrust suddenly. As with the rest of his attacks that morning his blade was turned, though this time he came closer to scoring.
“Youth is not necessarily an advantage in combat,” said the Bladesman. “Experience is on my side.”
He held up a hand to signal a rest. Tanrif lowered his weapons, and Kestryl turned to face the woman watching. He bowed.
“Don’t stop,” said Cyanne, smiling. “I came to watch.”
The Bladesman again bowed then attacked. Tanrif redoubled his efforts in a furious onslaught Kestryl knew he could not maintain—at least he hoped that was the case. The Bladesman fell back further, parrying and retreating, drawing his opponent out. But Tanrif showed little sign of tiring.
When the onslaught finally slowed, the Bladesman pressed an attack of his own, no less skillful than that of the younger man but somewhat more focused.
Tanrif retreated until he saw an opening. He moved in, but the Bladesman shifted his attack and one of Tanrif’s swords took flight. Both men watched until it landed it a patch of tall grass several yards away.
The younger man looked surprised and continued his attack with the remaining blade. The Bladesman pressed the advantage. Tanrif was forced to concentrate on defending himself. A short time later, when both men were bathed in sweat, Tanrif lost hold of his second sword. He bowed then grinned.
“You’re sweating, old man.”
The Bladesman saluted him with his weapons before sheathing them.
“As I said, you’ve improved.”
The younger man didn’t respond. He turned toward Cyanne and moved in her direction. Her eyes shone with pride.
“Did you see that, mother?”
Cyanne opened her arms, and he embraced her. “You were marvelous, Tanrif. You’re the image of your father. When he returns he’s going to be so proud.”
Tanrif opened his mouth to speak, but a reproachful glance from Kestryl silenced him.
Kestryl knew it was hard on the boy, but he couldn’t do anything about it. Nothing either of them could say would break Cyanne of her delusions.
It had been eighteen years since the final battle with the Sarithan Assassins, and Cyanne still awaited the return of her husband. Over the years, Kestryl had tried talking to her. The conversations often led to an argument.
He tried everything he could to convince her Tanrif was dead and would not be returning; but Cyanne had seen her husband come back from the dead once, and hadn’t seen him die the second time. Still, no one could have survived the collapse of the Fortress-Temple.
She would not listen to reason. Kestryl learned long ago that he could do little more than nod and smile. From a very young age, he’d taught the boy to do the same.
At first, Tanrif played along, but times had changed and he grew less and less satisfied with his lot in life. Kestryl couldn’t blame him. They lived in the middle of nowhere; Tanrif had no friends, no women, nothing but training and duty. Tanrif was a good lad. He deserved better.
There was nothing more Kestryl could do for them here. He’d already taught Tanrif what he could—how to read and write, the history of High Gondylar, court etiquette and more. Tanrif was uniquely prepared to sit on the Gondylarian throne, an event for which Kestryl had waited a long time.
Cyanne was already heading back to the cottage. He listened for a bit as he followed, but she’d launched into a story about her husband’s exploits, and he’d heard them all before. The way she told them, Tanrif had done it all on his own. Kestryl’s contribution was left largely unmentioned. It would have been amusing were it not so tragic.
Like the dutiful son he was, Tanrif forced a smile and feigned interest. Kestryl watched, feeling sorry for the boy. It had to be hard on him. He could put it off no longer. It was time for Tanrif to take his place on the throne.
Kestryl had one detail to attend to before he brought the rightful heir to Gondylar.
* * *
Later that night, while Cyanne slept, the Bladesman and Tanrif sat outside the cottage. Both were tired from the workout and neither spoke, content instead to listen to the night sounds. It was Tanrif who broke the silence.
“Something troubles you.”
“Is it that obvious?”
Tanrif shrugged and considered the moon. He did not speak again.
“I am going on a journey, Tanrif.”
“You’re not just riding into town for supplies, are you?”
“No, I’m not. I could be gone for quite some time.”
Kestryl watched the boy but couldn’t read his expression in the darkness.
“You will be coming back…won’t you?”
“If Sheba wills it.”
“You’re not going to tell me about it, are you?”
The Bladesman leaned closer and studied him. No longer a boy but a man, and a perceptive one at that.
“No, I’m not going to tell you. Take care of your mother, Tanrif.”
“You know I will.”
“Yes, I do. It’s the only thing that makes this trip possible. But it is something that must be done.”
Tanrif placed a hand on Kestryl’s shoulder. “I don’t know what this is about, but I wish you luck whatever it is.”
Not for the first time, Kestryl was amazed at how much Tanrif looked like his father. He smiled sadly, tousled Tanrif’s brown hair and walked away.
He didn’t look back as he made his way to the small stable he’d built behind the single-story cottage. A short time later, when he rode into the Gondylarian night, Tanrif was nowhere in sight.
* * *
Tanrif walked through the silent house feeling lonely. His mother still slept, and he was loath to disturb her. He loved Cyanne, yet she was part of his problem. How could she still believe, after all these years, that his father was alive?
How he wanted to scream at her, to make her see the truth, yet Kestryl was correct. Nothing would ever convince her. He knew he could either accept it or leave. Neither option appealed to him.
How he would love to see a city—any city. He longed to walk through its streets, to smell the aroma of its cookeries, to browse through the different shops, to see someone, anyone, besides Kestryl and his mother. It had been far too long since his last trip into town and now, with the Bladesman gone, it would be even longer.
He sighed and lowered himself onto the bed. Perhaps he would be able to sleep. When the Bladesman returned, they could have a talk. Tanrif might even find the strength to say that he could stay no longer and needed to make his own way in the world. Maybe chickens would fall out of the sky.
How easy it had been for his father, who had never had any real constraints. He did what he wanted, when he wanted. By the time his father had been his age, he was already sitting on the Gondylarian throne—perhaps he’d already died. How ironic that his progeny had yet to live.
He closed his eyes and tried to relax but sleep would not come. Then he heard the calling. It was not the first time. A voice, distant yet near. Madness. There was no other explanation.
A woman’s whisper. Seductive. Elusive. Whispering promises of power and glory. Had it been like that for his father? Was it the Goddess of Magic who spoke to him? He laughed then. He was no great warrior. There was no prophecy that governed his life. How could a man rule a Dukedom when he didn’t yet know how to rule himself?
The voice was stronger than it had ever been. An ache began to form within. He found himself sitting, then standing. Slowly, he moved across the room, out into the hallway and then to his mother’s bedroom. Cyanne turned onto her side, but he ignored her. The voice was not hers.
He found himself kneeling by a locked chest. He’d never opened it before, though he’d sometimes been curious as to what was inside. Both his mother and Kestryl had been evasive. He moved to the table in the corner of the room and picked up an old wooden box. He opened it and looked. There was nothing inside; there had never been anything inside.
The voice whispered, and he obeyed. He pushed on the bottom. Nothing happened. He pressed slowly across each inch until one side dipped. The opposite side rose slightly, forming a gap too small for him to place a finger in. He tried to move it further to no avail. He tipped the box to the side and a key slid out. He looked at it then turned his eyes to the chest. His mother hadn’t stirred.
He wouldn’t have stopped if she had.
He left the box open on the table and returned to the chest. Whatever was inside called to him—there was no other explanation. He inserted the key and turned it. The lock fell open. He removed it from the clasp and opened the lid.
There was yet another box inside, but he knew this one was neither locked, nor trapped. Not physically anyway. There was a spell on it, but he knew the spell could not harm him. He opened it and stared, for the first time in his life, at the Necklace of Elonel the Fair. He felt no fear, displayed no caution, as he reached in and removed it from its resting place.
The Amulet hung from its silver chain, shining in the dimness. From the moment he saw it, Tanrif could not turn away. The gem hovered before him, colors shifting on and beneath its surface, making it seem as if it had no definite shape. As he gazed into its crystalline depths, strange ideas began to form. He knew the Amulet wouldn’t hurt him. It hadn’t harmed his father. Kestryl simply didn’t want him to have the power. If he put it on, he would be like a god.
He raised it higher, eyes reflecting the gem’s brilliance. A film of sweat formed on his forehead and his eyes gleamed as if he were possessed. Part of him, a small part, fought the temptation to place the chain around his neck, but nothing in his training had prepared him for that type of contest.
Had he not been under the Amulet’s influence, he would have looked around guiltily before pulling it over his head. He hesitated when the cold silver touched the back of his neck, then continued to lower the gem until it rested on his chest. The world lurched. He screamed as if a flaming spear had pierced his heart. The memory of that momentary pain would never leave him.