Kottir has been especially friendly to the Alsimuk herder, Ingobo. But Kottir knows he will win so he can afford to be friendly. What of the other contenders? Young, untried, and awkwardly laden with Saram’s gifts to him, Ingobo is a guaranteed target for mockery and scorn . . . Read on
“There’s to be a banquet tonight; you’ll soon find out what the opposition is like,” said Kottir. “But don’t be dismayed if some seem more experienced than you. Saram will be doing the choosing and who Saram wants Saram shall have—no matter how strange his qualities may seem.”
“That’s one of the things I’m having difficulty in understanding,” I admitted, glad of someone to talk to. My father was not a person to listen to my worries. “How can Saram—being beyond the Darkness as he is—see what we’re doing down here below? And if he can see as clearly as he ever has, then why has he not shown to the truvidiren the one he’ll have as his New King? Isn’t that his usual way?”
“That’s a good question,” he agreed. “If I were you I’d ask Chief Truvidir Markenys when he attends the banquet tonight.”
By now we had arrived at the King’s House. In I strided, confidence brimming. I had been here, in the King’s Chamber, before, I thought I knew what to expect. But I had not expected this. I halted only just into the door, and for an embarrassing moment just stood and stared.
King’s Chamber was big, easily able to sleep all the candidates. Yet somehow it seemed much smaller that I remembered it. The benches set against the outer wall had been piled high with bags and weapons, a strange untidy array. Travel cloaks and bed-pads had been left just as they were. I suppose it was that which made the room seem small. That and the nine more contestants that filled the chamber, several of whom were very big men—tall, with shoulders as wide as a cart: they took up much space. Beside them I felt like a scrawny weedling, a plant grown out of place. And I’m sure most there would have agreed, and would have openly called me a plant had the truvidiren not been there.
I spotted a length of bench untaken. Impatient to put down my weapons, I made straight for it. The sword was beginning weigh me down. Unused to it—as well I didn’t carry an axe and a club as well. At least with the dagger it was held at my waist. And that almighty big shield, copper on leather on wood, was yet heavier still. I was glad I’d brought no bags with me. I intended to sleep wrapped in my cloak. As I walked across the room I could feel their eyes on me. I thought to myself: aye, feast your eyes, for this time tomorrow I’ll be the New King.
With weapons shed, I took off my cloak. Oh woe! I should have stripped down to my naked skin, for then I’d have felt less shabby. Yet there were those amongst the contenders who, as with me, were not dressed so finely. Some wore thick plain weavings, some even skins or hides. And neither was I the only one there with hair as black as charred wood. Kottir, too, he sported such hair, his as thick as an Alsimuk rug. Then Neësis, too, and Burenth, and Mogalis—but they also had beards.
I stood my ground: Saram wanted me. I stood as tall as I could and pushed back my shoulders. It made no real difference if I was compared against the others yet, in so standing, I felt just that little bit bigger. Then, as with the first dip in South River when her waters are icy-cold still, I took an enheartening breath and plunged right in.
“I am Ingobo,” I told them; “Clan Ulmkem.”
“We can see that you’re Alsimuk,” the one later introduced as Tavryn said.
“He could have been Eskit,” Markiste Isvlenys said. “But he has a fine sword. How came you by that?”
“It was gifted,” I answered, which was the truth.
“Aye,” Isvlenys said, “but who did the gifting, and to whom?”
“Saram,” I told him, as I had with Kottir.
“Do you mind if I take a look?” Markiste Isvlenys asked. “It isn’t often that we see such a fine crafted piece. Even a horsemaster wouldn’t have this. Someone must believe you will win.”
Happily I handed the sword over to him. I knew Markiste Isvlenys, although he seemed not to know me. His family and kin lived in Bisaplan’s Land too, down the river apiece, at Duneld’s Hold. He was a son of Clan Krisvin.
“Where did you come by this sword?” he asked, looking from the sword now in his hands across the room to me. The accusation rang clear.
“It was gifted,” I repeated and tried not to blush though I know that I did.
“And I repeat: Who did the gifting, and to whom? This looks remarkably like the sword I gave to Saram not a trikadent since.”
I smiled, relieved. “I got this on the very same day as the horse Heglayis. Heglayis I had off Clan Bukplugn. Go to their hold by Linden Stream and ask their eldliks when that was. It was two triks ago.”
“I don’t doubt it,” the markiste said, and handed the fine weapon back to me. “If you’d stolen it from Saram’s House, as first I thought, he’d have stuck you down dead.”
“It was gifted,” I repeated.
I barely had time to arrange my things when the truvidiren opened the double-doors wide and ushered in the harpers and pipers and the cooks with their steaming trays of flavoursome food. My mother had laughed when I told her I was contesting the Games. She’d said that at least while I was a guest at the King’s House I would eat well. She said for me to make the most of it. Seeing these trays overflowing with food made me think of my family and of what they’d be eating while I feasted on this. I suppose there is some reason why kings and queens eat so well; why lords and ladies never go hungry; why horsemasters and truvidiren are never gaunt while we Alsimuk, Eskit and Krediche herders too often know the pangs of hunger. Too often bury our sickly dead.
The harpers played and they sang while we ate. And, while Mistress Maia and her new heir served us with the potent King’s Beer, some dancers danced. These were not the dances performed at the feasts. These were dances intended for the kings and queens and lords and ladies. They wore not a lot to cover their bodies. Their dancing was a blatant beg to be bedded. I had to blow on my face to cool myself down. Why did the others not notice them, too? Did Staveste ogle these girls? No, he did not. Did Kottir? No, Kottir seemed oblivious to them—he preferred Mistress Bregan, that was plain for all to see. Markiste Isvlenys? Aye well, they do say that markistes and horsemasters are a breed apart and have no desire for women. But Neësis was watching them, the same as me. I wondered if my eyes were as wide as his, straining to leave my head.
Just as I thought I might embarrass myself, the doors burst open and in blew a blast of cold air. As one, we turned to see who this was. He stood just within the doors: the biggest man I ever did see. My heart and my hopes sank down to the ground—till I learned who he was, for the truvidiren would never allow him to compete. This was King Burdamon of the Marshes, of the East Isle, a servant of the Nritin, and those Nritrin weren’t much liked. Talk was that they were allied in some way with Draksen.
But now I was confused. I knew not whether to be dismayed or to assure myself that all would be well. Mistress Bregan, seeing me thus, placed a large pot of King’s Beer in my hand and, despite I’d vowed I’d not touch a drop, into my gaping mouth it did flow. It was down my throat before I realised what I had done. A special brew, that was no way to drink it. My belly at once knew what I had done. In a flash, my head repeated my belly’s message. The King’s Chamber grew hot. And hotter and hotter. The smoke of the fires and the lamps stung in my eyes. I began to sweat and then to tremble.
Oh, this was calamity. I must leave the chamber, must go outside, must breathe the cold air. But just as I opened those double-leafed doors to leave, so the Chief Truvidir—Truvidir Markenys—appeared. He held up a staff. The chatter stopped. All turned to him—and me almost blundering into him.
An embarrassing start to the Games for the young Ingobo and, despite his deep breaths, disheartening. So will he now admit defeat before he’s yet begun? Yet he, as much as any contender there, believes himself to be Saram’s Chosen. Next episode, A Wager Each Way