“You are not the chosen one.”
Master Pienza’s words rang throughout the amphitheatre, bounding off of the concrete pillars and pricking my downturned ears like daggers. It took every ounce of my immense strength to keep from crumpling beneath the weight of the revelation.
A stormcloud of startled murmurs erupted from the assembled guests and tribes-folk. I longed to turn and face the crowd–to see the confusion and eventual loss of respect in their eyes, but I had not yet been permitted to move from my kneeling position. All I could do was clench my fists and take comfort in the coolness of the concrete beneath my bare calves.
“Master,” I heard my old archery instructor, Tita, proclaim. “She is surely the best and the strongest of us all. If not her, than who?”
I felt a not unkind tap against my right shoulder signaling for me to stand. I did so gracefully and without preamble. The look I shot the crowd was cold and disaffected, but most still flinched away.
I could just barely make out the salt-and-pepper hair of my mother at the edge of the crowd. She had never wanted this life for me. For almost as far back as I could remember she had been fighting tooth and nail to keep me from my supposed destiny. I had spent so long resenting her for it.
It seemed neither of us need have bothered.
Seventeen years of training, wasted.
Seventeen years of violence and killing and gore.
Seventeen years worth of holding the fate of my tribe’s future in my hands.
Seventeen years of self-imposed loneliness.
All of it, rendered completely useless in one sentence.
I turned my attention to Master Pienza, eager to hear who was more fit than me to defeat the greatest evil our tribe had ever known.
The woman closed her eyes and lifted a leathery brown finger to her temple. She was silent for several heartbeats, as was the crowd. Her mouth was moving slightly, as if retrieving divine information straight from above.
Finally, she opened her eyes and spoke, her voice sure and true.
“The one we need is among us today. His name is Christopher, child of Emily and Inaki. May the hero of the prophecy please step forward.”
I watched with my head on a swivel as the crowd fanned out to make room for this supposed hero. It seemed for several long moments as though nobody was going to come forward. It was just enough time for the doubt crawl up inside of me; for me to cling to the traitorous thought that maybe just this once, the master was wrong.
Then a metallic clicking noise filled the air.
Suddenly the crowd parted straight down the middle, revealing a young man with light skin and eyes slowly hobbling forward. His legs were shriveled and bent at awkward angles, supported only by the hand-welded metal canes in each hand.
I watched with wide eyes, shock plainly written across my face as the man, baby-faced and panting from exertion stopped directly in front of the stage to stammer, “I-I’m Christopher.”
The startled murmuring that had plagued the crowd when I had been unchosen started anew at this. Complaints and concerns and gossipy whispers roared throughout my entire being, mingling with my own racing, angry heart.
I did not know whether to laugh or to scream. I knew that the look on my face had to be a horrific mix between a smile and a glare, but I couldn’t wipe it away no matter how hard I tried.
Master Pienza, despite her age, had no problems crouching down and helping Christopher drag himself up the stairs and onto the stage.
“Behold our saviour!” She shouted, lifting one of Christopher’s trembling arms. The gesture was enough to make him sway.
“Master,” Tita started again. “Surely this child cannot go on a quest of this nature…”
Master Pienza held up her hand.
She turned to Christopher without a care in the world.
“How old are you Christopher?” She asked.
“T-twenty-two,” he stammered.
Pienza turned back to me, and smiled. “And you my dear?”
She already knew the answer, but I responded anyway. “Twenty-one, Master. Twenty-two in three months.”
She nodded and turned back to Christopher. “And where did you get these?” she asked, indicating his walking sticks.
“I made them. Scavenged the metal and worked in the mines, dragging myself from cart to cart until I could save up enough for welding gloves.”
His obvious pride in this fact made his nerves all but disappear.
Master Pienza turned to face the naysayers in the crowd. “Seems perfectly capable to me,” she said.
“He’ll need training,” said one of the professors at the tribe’s academy. “No amount of determination can make up for lack of skill.”
I could sense a debate about to break out. I was beginning to feel more like an outsider the longer I stood there. Some greedy and childish part of me yearned to silently back off of the stage without being dismissed. To seek out my mother in the crowd so that she could hold me while I cried like I hadn’t allowed her to in years.
Just when I was considering doing it, Tita opened her meddling mouth once again.
“Angeline should do it,” she said. “She has been training to dethrone the king for years. We have imparted all of our wisdom on her. Who better than to teach our saviour all he needs to know.”
A unanimous murmur of agreement rang out all around me. I fought through the irritation at being volunteered and my stinging pride and inclined my head toward Christopher in submission. “It would be my honor to serve.”
Master Pienza clapped me on the back and gently urged Christopher toward me. He had to catch himself against my shoulder. It was all I could do not to grimace as he smiled sheepishly.
After that the weekly town meeting went back to its normal mundanity and the unusually large crowd dispersed. I stayed rooted to my spot on the edge of the stage long after Pienza and the other elders stopped talking.
“Should we…um…should we get st-started or something?” Christopher asked me, nervously twisting his fingers around the head of his crutch.
I looked down at him and sucked in a huge breath.
“No,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Go home and get some rest. Meet me at the square tomorrow at first light. Then I will judge your skill level and begin finding ways to adapt my fighting style to suit your…” I glanced down at his unusable legs. “Condition.”
Christopher nodded at me. He looked slightly disappointed, but not very surprised.
I watched him hobble away until he completely disappeared from sight. I was alone on the stage now and the sun was just starting to disappear behind the king’s mountains.
As a young warrior in training I would often stare up at those mountains and imagine myself inside of the barely-visible palace, hacking away at the king until all children of the Gods were free once again.
I no longer had any right to this vision. The people among the mountains were not mine to free. The slaves taken from our village so many years before I was born, they were not mine to bring back.
I thought once again about finding my mother, but I was not quite ready to face anyone just yet.
Instead, I sank to the ground and pinned my dry eyes to the sky as the quiet night’s darkness consumed me.
Teaching was not one of the many gifts bestowed upon me by the Gods.
“Again,” I shouted, looming over Christopher’s sprawled body, hands on my hips.
We had been running drills since dawn. One after the other in rapid succession until he could complete whatever task I had assigned him to some degree. Right now he was balanced on one crutch with a heavy broadsword in his other hand, trying desperately to saw through a sack full of hay without falling. I’d even drawn a little face on it for him. For motivation.
He narrowed his eyes, first at me and then the makeshift dummy. He adjusted his stance as best as he could and twisted his wrist to get a better grip on the sword. He held fast to his one useable crutch and took a swing with his other hand. The sword made contact, just as it had a thousand times before, but he could not cut through anything with just his arm alone. He needed more weight behind his swing.
Frustrated, he scrunched up his nose, tensed his rather impressive arm muscles and leapt at the sack, sword outstretched. I held my breath as he made contact with it, even managing the tiniest of tears in one of the seams, but alas, he bounced off of it same as before and landed face-down in a cloud of dirt.
“Again!” I shouted immediately, feigning disinterest. I could not afford to have any sort of sympathy for this boy. To go easy on him was to send him to his death.
Besides, I was only a child when I started training and no one had ever once gone easy on me.
Christopher squirmed on the ground until he could get his elbows up under him. He lifted his face and spat out a mouthful of dirt in my direction.
“I can’t do it,” he gasped.
I knelt down in front of him and grabbed a fistful of his shirt, causing his straining arms to flop uselessly down to his sides.
“You can and you will,” I said before dropping him back to the ground.
“Again!” I repeated.
Christopher lay still a moment longer before rolling over and maneuvering himself into a sitting position. I kicked his fallen crutch toward him.
He looked at me with hatred in his eyes as he tried in vain to get his legs underneath him. He was biting his lip so hard that he drew blood and the veins in his arms looked close to popping.
Eventually he sank back down with angry tears in his eyes.
“Fine,” he said, looking away from me. “I give up. I’m not the chosen one. Pienza just made a mistake.”
My heart was suddenly full of ice, but my eyes were seeing red.
“I have been holding the weight of this prophecy over my head for seventeen years. Do you think I was ever given the option of giving up?”
“Are you freaking delusional?” he shouted. “Look at me! Do you think I managed to stay alive all these years by giving up? The world isn’t built for people like me. If I didn’t claw my way out of bed every morning I would wither and die.” He paused for a moment. The sudden quiet stung my ears. “I’m just tired,” he said quieter. “I only have so much strength to give. It’s not worth perfecting a skill if it completely incapacitates me for the next couple of days.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. He was right. Of course he was right. I just couldn’t rid myself of the image of him dying by the king’s hand, his head returned to our village in a beautifully adorned package, the whole thing being entirely my fault.
I hung my head and sat down next to him.
I brought my knees to my chest and stared at them for several seconds before speaking.
“I’m not a completely heartless monster you know.”
He let out a sound that was more of a snort than a laugh. The ringing sound of it made me want to smile, but I bit back the urge.
“It’s been a rough couple of days,” I admitted. “I guess I’m still…adjusting.”
This time he let out a good and proper laugh. “Tell me about it.”
I loosened my vice grip on my legs and started lazily making patterns in the dirt with my finger. It was a holdover from when my sister and I were young. We’d developed a whole other language with the sole purpose of leaving messages for each other in the sand. I wondered if she still remembered it.
“We can take a break for now,” I said softly, turning to look at him. His eyes were tired, but still so open and trusting despite what I’d put him through. “Go home and get some rest. We can start fresh in the morning.”
I watched for a moment as something sad flickered over his face. It was gone before I could even open my mouth again.
“Of course,” he nodded. “Thank you,”
I stood and helped him to his feet. I suddenly felt so awkward and unsure of myself in a way that I hadn’t since my early teens. Clearing my throat, I bent to pick up the fallen sword, sheathed it and went to return it to the chest from which it came. Christopher still had not moved.
I folded my arms across my chest. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head. “It’s nothing.”
I had a dagger pulled out of my boot and pointed lazily in his direction within seconds.
He let out a sigh and said, “I’m just too tired to make it all the way home. That is all.”
I chewed the inside of my cheek and put away my dagger, trying to ignore the pang of guilt in my heart.
“Where do you live exactly?” I asked.
His shoulders slumped and his face reddened.
“There’s this cave near the mines I work in. I usually sleep there if it’s not flooded.”
I turned on my heel and started marching in the direction of my cottage.
“Follow me,” I said in a voice that was not to be refused.
I did not slow my pace for him, but I could hear the clanking of his crutches several paces behind me at all times.
“W-w-where are you t-taking me?” he stammered between gasping breaths. It was the first time his speech had faltered all day. Probably because he’d been so focused on the drills.
A few minutes later we arrived at the quaint little stretch of forestland that had been gifted to me, my mother, and my sister when I started my training. I followed the worn walkway up to my cottage and disabled all of my spring loaded traps, looking carefully for any signs of tampering. Christopher caught up with me just as I was finishing.
“Do you live here?” he asked, out of breath.
“Do you always ask stupid questions?”
I opened the door and stepped through, beckoning him inside with a wave of my hand. I began the tedious process of removing my boots, sheathes, and various hidden weapons. The whole time Christopher just stood awkwardly in my doorway, staring.
“You’re letting in a draft.”
He shook his head as if to clear it and reached back to pull the door closed.
“How did you find this place?”
“After the masters agreed that I was to inherit the great prophecy, they thought that I should be kept in a secluded area close to the arsenals and far away from the academy. They built this cottage for me and my family to live in. Very few people know that it is here.”
He moved a little bit farther into the sitting room and ran a finger along the stone wall. It was etched with markings from where my sister and I would take turns measuring each other’s height.
“Where is your family now?” he asked.
I bristled slightly at the question and then forced myself to relax.
“My mother moved out shortly after my training began. My older sister stayed here with me after that, but then she got married and left to join the scavengers with her partner. I haven’t heard from her in four years now.”
“I’m sorry,” he said automatically.
The silence was as thick as smoke in the air.
I cleared my throat.
“You can take either of the rooms down that corridor. There’s water in the washbasin in case you want to clean up before dinner.”
“I d-d-dont need your pity,” he said, but I could tell he was grateful from the shine in his eyes.
I grinned. “You’re welcome.”
He shook his head and made his way into my mother’s old room.
I went to the kitchen and began assembling dinner for two. The smile stayed on my face the entire time.
“So what did you say your sister’s name was?” Christopher asked around a mouthful of rabbit stew.
“I didn’t,” I said, setting my chipped bowl aside.
Watching him gorge himself was already making me lose my appetite. Bringing up my sister was the final nail in the coffin.
He paused his incessant slurping to say, “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
I sighed. “Her name was–is–Marisol. Why do you want to know?”
He shrugged. It was as if all of the day’s stress and anger had just rolled right off of him. He was back to being his kind and obnoxiously optimistic self. Also, I was coming to realize that the more comfortable he got, the less he stuttered. I found his clear and articulate sentences flattering in a way. I was not generally what one might consider the comforting type.
“Just curious,” he said. “I’ve always wondered if I had siblings.”
“You don’t know?”
He shook his head. “My parents abandoned me at birth. Either thought I was a bad omen or they just couldn’t figure out a way to take care of me. This elderly couple adopted me and took me in until I was nine. Then they both died in the last plague. I’ve been on my own ever since. Inaki and Emily were their names. They had all but faded from my memory before Master Pienza called upon me. I was starting to believe they were only a dream.”
I felt the immediate urge to say I was sorry, but I did not. There was no need to apologize for the way things were. To do so would be to insult everything the man sitting across from me had worked hard to become.
“That must have been very hard,” I said instead.
Christopher gave me a sad consolatory smile. He didn’t have to say anything else. I felt that we each understood integral parts of each other that no casual observer could easily see.
“What about your mother?” he asked. “Why did she move out?”
“My mother and Master Pienza don’t really see eye to eye when it comes to me.”
He took that at face value and didn’t ask any further questions.
The truth was this, my mother and Master Pienza were one in the same. They could both communicate with Gods and spirits to divine information about the future. Both of them were startlingly accurate in their predictions, but my mother was very secretive about her gift. She never wanted the recognition and reverence that Master Pienza had, only to quietly help people from afar. When Pienza had marked me as a potential successor to the prophecy that had been passed down in our tribe for generations, my mother lost it. She began trying to sabotage my training at every turn. When the elders found out about it, they forbid her from seeing me, though she would still secretly drop in every now and again. Part of me wondered if that ban was lifted now that I was no longer chosen…
Eventually I tired of the heavy chatter rattling around inside of my head.
I began telling Christopher stories about my mother and Marisol; simple and happy tales from before things had spiraled out of my control. These were stories that had lived only inside of my heart for so many years, but for some strange reason, I felt compelled to share them.
He listened intently to each one with wide eyes and rapt attention until the room darkened and the leftover stew in my favorite cauldron began to cool.
Soon enough we were both yawning.
I stood and went to stoke the fire. Christopher followed behind at his own pace.
“Angeline,” he said eventually.
“Yes?” I asked. The fire was making shadows dance across his face.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
I reached out and squeezed his hand.
He watched in silence as I restrung all of my door traps and undid the plaits in my hair. By the time we had both retired to our separate rooms for the night, my eyes were burning with the strain of staying open.
I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Seconds or hours later I was shaken awake.
I strained against the hands pinning my arms to the bed and fought against the haze of sleep still clouding my mind. I looked up at the face of the intruder, expecting to see Christopher, despite knowing he did not have the strength to hold me down.
Slowly my panic subsided. There were only two other people in the world who could have bypassed my security measures without waking me.
“My Angel,” my mother said, gently stroking the side of my face. “I need you to get dressed.”
I felt instantly young and vulnerable with her here.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s master Pienza. She’s dead.”
I stood in full dress, pacing the sitting room floor while my mother started a fire. Master Pienza had already been ancient when I was born, but it still felt like such a shock to know she was no longer on this Earth. How strange it must be for someone who communed with the Gods in life to find herself among them in death. Part of me wanted to ask my mother if she was okay, but I did not think that her and I shared the same definition of the word.
“What happened?” he asked, eyes widening upon seeing my mother.
She looked back and forth between the two of us and gave me a piercing look. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I was an adult. I did not have to explain my visitors, even if something were happening between the two of us.
I beckoned Christopher into the light and watched as he sat down on my Mother’s old rocking chair. He looked over at me expectantly.
I plopped down on the rug in front of him and leaned my head all the way back so that I was staring at the thatched roof.
“Pienza’s dead,” I said calmly.
He sat up abruptly, causing the chair to almost tip over. If it weren’t for his disability he probably would have been up and pacing, just as I had been moments before.
“How is that even p-p-possible?” he asked.
I shrugged. “She was old. These things tend to happen I suppose.”
He looked over at my mother. “Who’s she? And h-how do we know Pienza is…gone? Wouldn’t the whole village be in distress by now?”
I opened my mouth to begin explaining, but was interrupted by a sharp knock at the door. I turned my head to tell my mother to hide, lest she be punished for being near me, but she had already disappeared into the shadows.
I stood and brushed my sweaty palms against my knees. The traps were already disabled thanks to my mother, so all I had to do was answer the door.
I was met by a stocky middle-aged man whom I vaguely recognized from sparring practice when I was young. Looking at him, I couldn’t imagine I’d had to fight him too many times before progressing to someone more capable. His eyes were wide and wild as they flickered over my complete state of dress.
The man cleared his throat.
“Lady Angeline. I am glad you are dressed. The council has called an emergency meeting in the square. It’s absolute chaos and many have requested your presence.”
I nodded as if I wasn’t the slightest bit ruffled by all of this.
I closed the door a little bit and glanced back at Christopher. He had never changed out of his street clothes before falling asleep. He could still probably use a moment or two to collect himself though. Plus, I felt as though I owed him an explanation about my mother’s sudden intrusion.
I turned back to the messenger.
“We will be there momentarily,” I said, attempting to close the door. He, very bravely and stupidly, stuck his hand in the way. I took pity on him and stopped short of mangling his fingers.
“We?” he asked incredulously.
I opened the door again, this time letting it swing widely enough for him to see Christopher seated next to the fire.
“Me and the chosen one,” I clarified, daring him with my eyes to say anything about it.
His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Of course, my lady. I will inform the others.”
The eldest and dearest of our tribe were having a brawl of words when Christopher and I finally arrived on the fringes. Despite the inconspicuousness of his crutches, nobody paid us any mind.
“I think it’s best if we try to find a successor,” someone was saying.
“And then what?” Tita asked. “Take any random stranger who claims to hear the Gods and follow them blindly?”
“That’s not important,” said the headmaster of the academy. “Once we have eliminated the king we will be able to reconnect our tribes and establish a wholly new governmental system. We will no longer need to rely on prophecy.”
“Lady Angeline,” said the man who had come to fetch me, noticing my arrival at last. “Surely you have surmised the news of Master Pienza’s passing. What do you think of all of this.”
I quirked a brow. “I think that this arguing is unnecessary.”
Though it was dark, I could see the whites of the headmaster’s eyes shift in irritation.
“Now we’re asking for the advice of children,” he scoffed.
I took a step forward. “I could kill you in thirty seven different ways. And those are just the ones that come easily to mind.”
His eyes narrowed and I subconsciously reached for one of my daggers. I felt Christopher’s fingers tighten around my arm.
“Are you ready to infiltrate the king’s palace Angeline?” Tita asked.
“I have always been ready,” I said, relaxing my posture.
“Excellent,” she clapped her hands. “We can assemble a small strike team and deploy within a few days.”
The crowd was silent, many of them nodding along. No one seemed willing to state the obvious, so I did so myself.
“Christopher has been chosen, not me.”
As one, the elders turned their heads toward him, promptly causing him to duck down behind me and out of sight.
Tita shot him a predatory smile. “No offense dear, but I think perhaps your appointment to the position was a product of Master Pienza’s illness. I mean, we are all appreciative of your efforts, but it seems you are better suited to different work.”
Christopher stepped out from behind me and held his head up high.
“Y-y-yes ma’am.” He glanced back at me. “I know that Angeline can handle an-an-anything.”
Her smile widened and she immediately dove into making plans and assembling the strike team. I couldn’t take my eyes away from Christopher as he turned and walked away.
Watching him go felt like boulders pressing down against my chest.
“Wake up,” I whispered, leaning over Christopher’s sleeping body in the pitch black.
I was cold and agitated. The dawn was getting ready to break any moment and I still hadn’t gotten any more sleep. Finding the right cave with no other knowledge than it being semi-habitable and in close proximity to the mines had proved to be a much more difficult task than I would have anticipated.
Christopher still wasn’t waking up so I nudged him with my toe.
He bolted upright, lips parted as if to scream. I rolled my eyes and clamped a hand down over his mouth.
“It’s just me,” I hissed, removing my hand.
He sounded incredulous. It seemed that this was the only state he was capable of whenever unexpectedly awakened.
“The one and only,” I announced.
He scooted back in his makeshift nest of blankets to make more room for me. “W-w-what are you d-doing here?”
I shifted my rucksack to the side and dug for a match. I wanted him to see my face as I was saying this.
“Everyone else might be ready to write off Master Pienza’s choosing ceremony as the delusion of a dying woman, but I am not. She chose you to kill the king and since you don’t have all the skills necessary to do that and we don’t have the time to waste, we are going to do this together,” I cracked the tiniest of smiles. “That is, assuming you’re up for the challenge.”
He blinked a few times and then casually pushed off his blankets.
“S-sure. Not like I have anything better to do.”
Christopher was a lot heavier than he looked.
We had only been hiking through the mountainous wild for six hours, but already my back was straining from carrying him and my thighs were red and bruised from the constant rattling of his crutches hooked into my belt.
He kept offering to walk, but I wanted to put as much distance between us and the village as possible. If the Gods were with us, we would already be at the palace by the time Tita and her goons noticed we were missing.
Or noticed that I was missing rather. I was integral to her little one-track scheme. Christopher, not so much. I doubted anyone would bother thinking of him at all.
I knew it was foolish and possibly a bit petty, storming away like this. Following Tita’s meticulously organized plan was admittedly a much safer bet, but I could feel in my warrior’s heart that this was the way things were meant to be. I had always been prepared to give my life for this task, and if that were to happen today, at least I could die knowing I had been true to my heart until the very end. I’d like to think my mother and sister could learn to be proud of me for that, even in their grief.
We set up camp when my legs started quaking. I put Christopher down under a canopy of trees and urged him to get some more sleep. No matter how tired I was, there would be no rest for me, not until this was all over.
Being outside of the village’s protective walls made my thoughts wander to my sister. I kept wondering if she was out here somewhere, hiding in plain sight just out of my reach.
What I wouldn’t give to talk to her right now. For her to braid my hair and speak to me in our secret language and tell me I was doing the right thing. The thought alone made my heart physically ache.
Despite my legs’ protests, I stood and began pacing the perimeter of our little campsite. Maybe it was a product of sleeping inside of a glorified fortress for most of my life, but I felt incredibly exposed out in the open like this. My paranoia kept pooling at the base of my spine.
I forced myself to close my eyes and breathe deeply for ten seconds. When I opened them again, my eyes caught on the faint sheen of Christopher’s crutches in the moonlight.
I sauntered over and knelt down before them, taking one in my hands. It was smooth and durable, not too heavy, but it had about the same heft as a cutlass or a small sabre. I gripped the handle of it tightly and gave an experimental swing. The wind whistled in resistance.
There had to be a way to weaponise these. A small modification to ensure that Christopher could defend himself without abandoning his only means of walking upright.
Surely if I could design a mechanism to release upon the opening of my cottage door I could figure out a way to attach blades to these crutches so that they only came out with a proper flick of the wrist.
I tinkered with it until deep into the night.
I hadn’t even realized I’d fallen asleep until Christopher was poking at my shoulder. I snapped my eyes open and just barely managed to keep myself from locking my fingers around his throat.
He was propped up on his elbows beside me with a wry smile on his face.
“Sorry to wake you,” he said. “But I kind of need those.” He nodded toward his crutches which were wrapped loosely under my arms. I pushed them toward him and stood to work out the kinks in my muscles. He gingerly took the crutches under his arms and stood, glancing at the tiny daggers tied to the ends. He did not ask about it. Merely cocked his head to the side.
I motioned for him to give me one of them and he hesitantly obliged.
I searched the area for a moment and picked up a dull pine-cone off of the ground.
Making sure I had Christopher’s full attention, I threw the object into the air and swung the crutch up at it in perfect synchronicity. Just as I’d hoped, the momentum of my swing caused the blade to spring forward, slicing the pine-cone neatly in half.
I carefully knelt down and restrung the dagger. When I looked back at Christopher, his eyes were sparkling with excitement and mischief.
“Show me,” he pleaded.
I spent an hour or so showing him how to release and restring his new weapon. Thanks to my sword training lessons, he was able to catch on rather quickly.
We set out for our destination once again. This time, I let Christopher walk. In his excitement, he was almost able to keep pace.
“It’s a lot smaller than I imagined.”
Christopher was staring up at the palace from the nearby bush we were lodged inside of.
“Yeah well,” I said, returning my telescope to my bag, “Let’s hope you can say that about the king too when we see him.”
I spent a few moments affixing Christopher onto my back in a way that allowed him to hang onto my collar while still keeping hold of his crutches. I did not want them to rattle in my belt and alert the palace guards of our presence. Plus, there was now the added possibility of the blades popping out and stabbing me in the shins.
I took a step back from the bushes and did an experimental jog in place. Everything seemed secure. I took a huge breath, sent up a prayer to whomever was listening and made a run for it.
It was the longest sprint of my life. It couldn’t have taken more than fifteen seconds to cross the plain, but it felt like days. My heart was hammering in my chest and Christopher’s fingers were leaving bruises all over my chest, but I forced myself to stand as still as a statue behind a pillar, waiting for the next patrol to pass by.
After the last of the guards had disappeared from my sight I counted to ten and ran for the small yellow servant’s door off in the distance. I twisted the knob and pushed inward, testing the strength of the chain lock. By my calculations we had about thirty seconds before the next patrol group made its way back around.
“Start counting,” I hissed at Christopher, setting him down and unsheathing my sharpest knife. “Tell me when you get to twenty.”
I shoved my wrist in through the gap and began sawing the small chain as quickly and as quietly as I could manage. My fingers were cramped and sweaty and I didn’t have a good enough angle to see whether or not I was making any progress.
“T-t-twenty seconds.” Christopher whispered.
I pulled my hand back like I had been stung and kicked at the door with all of my might. The hinges creaked, but the lock did not give. I pulled back and tried once more, this time with a running start.
The chain snapped just as I heard shouting in the distance. I dragged Christopher in by the neck of his shirt and swung the door closed behind us. I stood with my back pressed against it, trying my best to listen over the thunderous beating of my heart. Eventually the sounds of footsteps and disgruntled men faded and I could breathe easier.
I stepped away from the door and helped Christopher to his feet.
“W-what now?” he asked me.
I shrugged. “No idea.”
I held up a hand, motioning for him to be quiet. I surveyed our surroundings. It seemed we were in some sort of storage closet. Along the walls were assorted trinkets and spoils of war, many of which I recognized as items that must have been confiscated from slaves taken from our village. In the far left corner I spotted an ornate wooden chest that was just like the one my mother used to store her finest gowns in. Marisol and I loved dressing up in them as girls, back before I was chosen and lost interest in such trivial pursuits.
I walked over and undid the latch, coughing at the cloud of dust that subsequently emerged.
Inside the chest were several dozen white servant’s tunics of varying sizes. I rummaged through until I found one big enough to slip on over my clothes and gear. I tossed one over to Christopher as well. I really needn’t have bothered. One look at him was all that it took to know that he did not belong here, but hopefully at a glance the uniform would at least provide some pause.
Very carefully we wound our way through the room and to the door leading further into the palace. I braced myself, not sure of what we would be facing on the other side and opened the door. Christopher and I stepped into complete darkness. Once my eyes had adjusted a little I recognized that this was a kitchen. There was a small fire pit and several clay pots stacked in one corner as well as a table splayed with bread and drying meat. I had to resist the urge to steal some to satisfy my growling stomach.
Christopher’s eyes were clearly not as well-adjusted as my own. He was stumbling and making far too much noise while he ambled through the room. Almost as soon as I thought to warn him, he bumped into one of the many cabinets holding china, sending the entire contents spilling onto the floor.
The palace guards were on us in seconds. Six of them, all with spears pointed in our direction.
The one nearest me looked the two of us over and narrowed his eyes. “You’re coming with us.”
Christopher turned his head and looked to me for guidance, but I shook my head. There was no use trying to fight our way out of this. Even if we won, we would only attract more attention and still be no closer to achieving our goal.
I did my best to look small and pitiful, a helpless girl down on her luck and so desperate for food that she’d broken into the king’s own kitchen. The guards must have bought it, because they didn’t restrain either of us on the way to our large communal holding cell. I was eventually stripped of my bag, boots, and weapons belt. Then, several minutes later, I was given the most cursory of pat downs. The guard was not able to feel the small daggers stowed beneath my undergarments and did not ask me to strip down to investigate further. I could not tell whether he was taking pity on me or just greatly underestimating me.
Christopher did not get much more than disgusted glances.
Judging from the looks the guards were giving him, I didn’t think anyone would be inspecting him for weapons anytime soon. Even if they did, the blades on his crutches were only visible if you knew where to look.
We sat in silence behind a locked door awaiting further news on what was to become of us.
We did not have to wait long.
A gruff old man barged in and scowled at us, well at Christopher more than me, and said the best words I’d heard all day.
“His majesty would like an audience with you.”
The king sat on a simple golden throne, his beard and hair dark and untrimmed. He was staring at me with unguarded mirth in his eyes. He let out a raucous belly laugh.
“This is the best the resistance has to offer me? A young maiden and a cripple? Oh, how you delight me so, child.”
I was not sure how he’d deduced my intentions, but I didn’t bother trying to deny it.
The king stood, causing his throne to creak in protest. The sound carried throughout the large chamber like an ill-omen of what was to come. He held up his hand, motioning for the palace guards to retreat. I did not expect them to actually listen, but apparently their fear of the king was far greater than their loyalty to him. As one, they all turned on their heels and neatly filed out of the room. The king took several lumbering steps forward, leisurely stopping right in front of me. I did not flinch or look away.
“You want to fight me little girl?” he spat. “Go right ahead.”
I waited for one second, allowing the arrogance to grow in his mind, and then I struck out with my fists, clocking him right in the soft and unprotected flesh of his throat. He cursed and stumbled back, but did not fall. I retrieved one of the daggers that the palace guards had not been able to find and waved it at him tauntingly, urging him backwards and away from Christopher.
I needn’t have bothered. The king only had eyes for me.
He drew a claymore from over his shoulder and pointed it at me. I knew it would be difficult combating the long range weapon with my shorter one, but it was not as if I had a choice.
I dove down between the king’s legs, slicing his ankles as I went. The arc of his blade just barely missed coming in contact with my shoulder. I jumped to my feet and did my best to get myself into a position to stab something vital, but before I could, he grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked upwards, lifting me off of my feet and exposing my neck. I kicked out at him and made contact with his chest. He grunted, but did not let go. My scalp was burning as he brought up his claymore. I frantically parried with the hilt of my dagger, but I knew I could not hold the position for long. The king far outweighed me and he knew it. I kicked up my legs once again, this time strategically aiming between his legs. He let go of both me and the claymore with a grunt of pain.
I snatched up his weapon and threw my own through the air. It made a remarkable whizzing noise and lodged itself neatly in the king’s left shoulder. He howled in anger and agony, immediately ripping the weapon out of his flesh with a wet thunk. I knew that a howl like that was bound to bring his guards running, despite his orders. I tightened my grip on his claymore and took a step toward him.
He stood to face me once again. All traces of amusement in his face had been eclipsed by hatred, which I took a secret prideful thrill in. I was clearly the more skilled fighter, but he was stronger and angrier. I had no idea just how much fight he had left in him.
He brandished my own dagger at me and opened his mouth to say something.
Whatever those final words might have been were lost to us, as that was the exact moment that Christopher snuck up behind him, dug the blade of one of his crutches straight down into the carpet beneath him for leverage and whirled the other through the air, severing the king’s head cleanly from his body.
The two of us locked eyes over the headless king as his body fell. Christopher was red-faced from exertion and his arms were trembling, but his eyes were bright and shining and wild. I wanted to lift him into my arms and spin him through the air in celebration, but instead I just collapsed before him in a manic and uncontrollable fit of laughter.
A second later he joined in and our sounds of joy echoed all throughout the throne room.
All children of the Gods were free at last.
We sat on the floor together far longer than common sense should allow. The king’s blood was already drying against my skin like paint, flaking off in small layers whenever I moved. The throne room was silent save for the sound of our own breathing. Neither of us could tear our gazes away from the body.
“The guards should have come for us by now,” Christopher whispered.
“We’re probably going to have to fight our way out of here.”
Christopher hung his head. I doubted he had much fight left in him.
I was buzzing with mock bravado.
We had already accomplished one impossible thing today, what was one more?
I stood and busied myself fashioning a sling for the king’s head out of my oversized servant’s tunic; there was no way I was returning home without proof of Christopher’s achievement. Once secure, I scooped up the claymore in one hand and my dagger in the other and began my trek down the bloodied carpet leading to the entrance. Christopher followed several paces behind.
I paused at the door, cautiously leaning my head against it. I could hear the faint sounds of commotion on the other side. I assumed it was the rest of the king’s army, coming to either apprehend or thank us. With the amount of slaves in his employ, I couldn’t be sure which.
As the sounds of fighting drew closer I took a step back and tensed my shoulders, motioning for Christopher to do the same.
Ten heartbeats went by.
Then the door flew open, banging against the adjacent wall with such force that it remained lodged there. I raised my weapons, ready to cut down any who stood in my way.
Then I caught a look at the shocked face of my would-be assailant.
She blinked at me, then at Christopher.
She opened her mouth to say something, but closed it the second she noticed the blood splattered across both of our bodies. Her eyes turned incredulously hopeful as several more faces I recognized emerged from around the corner.
“Those still loyal to the king have been contained,” said Cassian, an old sparring partner of mine. “More than half of the army has turned to our side. They are ready to help us confront the—”
He stopped short as I carefully removed the king’s head from my back and placed it on the floor in front of him.
I couldn’t hold in my grin at his flabbergasted expression. Christopher was laughing again. All of time seemed to halt for just a moment as this new reality settled all around us.
I grabbed Christopher’s hand and lifted it into the air as I addressed the newly assembled crowd.
“The chosen one has slain the king. The war is finally over.”
I squeezed Christopher’s fingers before letting them go. The crowd was staring at him with rapt attention.
His message to them was simple.
“Let’s go home.”
“What are you going to do now?” Christopher asked me later. We were sitting together under the sun in the middle of the square, right where we had begun our training. Off in the distance we could see smoke from the fire where Tita and the other elders were burning the king’s body and holding a massive celebration alongside the three hundred or so slaves who had made the pilgrimage back with us. Plans were already in place between the leaders of our tribe and the remainder of the king’s forces to negotiate peaceful interactions in the future.
I thought about Christopher’s question. “I think I’m going to go looking for my sister,” I said. “Let her and the other scavengers know that the war is over.” I couldn’t hold back my smile just thinking about it. “What about you?”
He smiled sadly. “I think I might look for my family as well. I’ve always wanted to rub it in their faces that I survived. Now I finally have the resources to get somewhere.”
“If you want I could always rough them up a little bit for you.”
He laughed and shook his head.
Looking down at his smiling and content face I couldn’t help but feel a swelling sense of pride in my heart. This remarkable boy had turned out to be so much more than anyone, myself included, had ever thought he could be.
I reached out and looped my fingers through his, turning my gaze away from his face and up towards the sky.
I hoped that somewhere up there Master Pienza was smiling down at us.