by Hugo Ryden
Prologue: The Protector of the Chosen
The Choosers & the Chosen
"She's the Chosen One," the Prophet said.
"Destined for greatness," the Prophet said.
"She'll save the world one day," the bloody Prophet said.
Sir Alfrick Laydes, Protector of the Chosen, would've preferred it if the Chosen One didn't bother.
There she was, sitting at the top table on the dais, next to her royal father, nibbling lightly on the second dish of that twelve-course feast. Luciara Eden, Princess of Edainia, celebrating her twentieth birthday with three feasts. Sir Alfrick snorted. It was doomed to fail from the start.
At the first feast, on the eve of the Princess' birthday, Luciara had eaten only four of the twenty courses that had been prepared. So, on the day of her birthday, the great banquet involved only fifteen courses. When the twenty-year-old girl gave up after merely tasting the first, it was decided that twelve would be the number for the final day. And so much for that, Alfrick reflected bitterly. He wished, not for the first time, that he wasn't the best of the Lion's Guard. He'd rather be protecting the king he'd sworn to serve than this entitled child who demanded the earth from everyone because, as far as she was concerned, she was saving it for them.
"I cannot eat anymore, father," Princess Luciara said, pushing a nearly full platter of fish and cheese away. She was fortunate to have a, somewhat, upturned nose, as it was much easier for her to look down it at things and people. Her eyes, the colour of a pale blue sky, showed nothing but disdain at the food in front of her, and her red lips curled in a well-practiced frown. It was a shame, Alfrick thought: none of the three daughters he'd fathered in his forty-two years of life were anywhere near as attractive, yet this high and mighty princess, who saw the world as hers, was perhaps the most beautiful woman in the whole kingdom. Her long golden hair curled down to her elbows whenever it was let down in private, but in public it sat above her heart-shaped face, under a headdress of diamonds, or pearls, or whatever manner of jewels her father had bought for her that week. Her ivory skin was smooth and spotless, without a single blemish or boil or wart, or trace of any pox that might scar the skin of a woman less fortunate than the daughter of the King of Edainia. She was quite gifted as far as her chest was concerned, as only a glance at her burgundy bodice would demonstrate, and one would only dream of what lay beneath all that finery...if only they got past the personality beneath everything else. That part of the Princess shone brightest of all, and it showed Alfrick that not every light is good and beautiful. Sometimes, it was best to be left in the darkness.
"By the Gods," a gruff voice said next to him, over the noise of busy chatter from the greatest knights and nobles in the land. "This is what you have to put up with?"
Alfrick didn't have to look at the voice's owner to know who it was. He looked anyway, though, and saw his fellow knight and friend, Sir Caladus Dalmark. Sir Caladus was dressed in a simple blue and brown doublet, as was his usual fashion, but with a few silver studs on his belt. "That's a first," Sir Alfrick said, pointing at the studs, "you're wearing something shiny."
Sir Caladus' face stretched into a small smile. Even that looked difficult for him. He had a small, thin-lipped mouth as it was, but being a member of the Lion's Guard had taken its toll on his more...casual side. His eyes, dark grey with flecks of the emerald green they used to be, were set deep into his skull under bushy eyebrows shaped unfortunately into a continuous frown that he didn't need to practice to achieve like the Princess did. His hair was matte black, but his beard, covering his square jaw, was a tangle of greys, from almost black to a sort of sickly, murky white. This wasn't particularly flattering for the knight, as he had only recently turned thirty-two. His birthday, of course, was spent in a tavern in the city, his gifts all handed to common folk. Admirable though that was, it was a little disappointing to see a gilded sword made specifically for him broken up and thrown into a crowd of grubby hands. I suppose he can do with those gifts as he wishes, thought Alfrick. After all, we all only have so many choices...well, except for one of us, anyway.
"I'm amazed you haven't throttled that hilt to death yet," Sir Caladus remarked, pretending to talk about Sir Alfrick's sword. They both knew what, or who, he was really on about. "The cross-guard must be such a pain in your sides, at times."
"A sharp pain," Alfrick said with a smile, "so sharp, in fact, that I even want to die every now and then."
Sir Caladus grinned wryly, showing his teeth. That was the closest he'd ever come to laughing when talking about royalty, as far as Alfrick could remember. "Don't be too amused," Alfrick added, "I fear you'll be inheriting this after my time."
Caladus' grin vanished at an instant, and his eyes narrowed. "What makes you say that?"
"Cal," Alfrick answered, wondering inside whether he should've been saying this or not, "I hope you're not too modest to realise that you're the best the Lion's Guard's got."
"What about Sir Ralph Wronghand," Caladus asked, "or Sir Lybar the Lionclaw, or Sir Warrick the Swordbreaker? Surely someone else?"
"When's the last time Ralph's left hand caught you off guard?" Alfrick replied, trying to smile, as if this was encouragement to the knight. "When did Lybar last hear you shout 'yield', and not shout it himself in some tourney? When did Warrick cause a single spark to fly from your blade? You're the best, Cal."
"The best," Caladus mimicked. His eyes looked sullen now. He frowned, and bit his lip so hard Alfrick could see specks of blood on his teeth. "Of course. The best."
He turned and walked slowly away, looking only at the floor in front of him. Fuck, Alfrick swore in his head, fuck, fuck, fuck! Why did he have to say that? On this day of all days, when Sir Caladus was bitter enough as it was? Fuck! was all he could think to that.
"Sir Alfrick!" Oh, Gods. The Princess was waving a hand in his direction, beckoning him over. He approached at once; all too aware of the insufferable whining that would ensue in private if he didn't do what she ordered him to do when she ordered him to do it. So he walked up onto the dais, and masked himself with a smile so well practiced that it was hard to notice that it was a forced one. At least, it seemed hard to notice. Sir Alfrick would've known if it wasn't, after all.
"Your Grace," Alfrick said curtly, bowing low, as any knight would to a princess - especially to one of such, albeit ill-deserved, extraordinary pedigree.
"Sir Alfrick," the Princess cooed, dimples appearing on the sides of her mouth as she smiled, "will you be so kind as to escort me to my bedchamber? I think I've had enough for one night."
Night? It's the middle of the bloody day. "As you wish, Your Grace. I am yours to command." And that was a command, not a question. Could you at least be honest when you order me about like some common servant? In truth, Sir Alfrick welcomed the chance to leave the celebrations. He didn't much feel like celebrating anything, now that Sir Caladus' day had been ruined with that crushing revelation Alfrick had given him. Maybe he'll be smart for once and fail the next Choosing, Alfrick dared to hope, then he'll avoid the fate that his stubborn honour would let him walk regretfully into. I suppose it's his own fault if things turn out badly.
"Are you sure, my dear girl?" Lucien Eden, King of Edainia, foolishly tried to reason. "The celebrations have only just begun! And I've got your favourite dance coming later. The same as your mother's, in fact, back in the-"
The Princess rounded on him suddenly, face glaring with icy contempt. "No, father," she said coldly, "I'm finished for the night." And she rose from her seat as gracefully as a woman with a childish scowl on her face could rise, and started walking towards the nearest door out of the hall. Sir Alfrick took one glance at the King, whose square face was shiny and red with a mixture of disappointment and utter fury, and followed the Chosen One out. I know you meant well, Your Majesty, he thought bitterly, but fuck yourself. Fuck yourself for making her like this again.
"I hate him!" Princess Luciara was saying, having said it about five minutes ago. They were walking around the gardens of the Palace of Eden, the Princess having decided against going to her bedchamber at the last minute - as in, when they had climbed a tower up to it, and were just about to enter through the bedchamber door. They had walked all the way back down, and then the Princess had drifted out into the garden, a storm passing around the palace, and Sir Alfrick had followed, toying with the idea of hitting her, consequences be damned. All of this time, Luciara was fuming about her father. The servants and guards nearby respectfully bowed their heads and moved away, but Alfrick was stuck. Once they had entered the gardens, the Princess had linked her arm with his and he was bound to her. And she wouldn't. Shut. Up.
"He's such an embarrassment!" Luciara continued, her eyes cold yet blazing with rage. "He's an old fool! A mad old fool! And to think my mother died to leave me with...with..."
With what? Alfrick was thinking. With who?
"...with this complete buffoon!" Oh, good. Buffoon. Let's pretend you didn't say that a moment ago, or yesterday, or last week, or just after you heard this very father, this very buffoon, use the word on an incompetent servant. It's good to see such vibrant wit in our Chosen One's mind.
"Indeed, Your Grace," Sir Alfrick said to all of this, every now and again. It seemed to work. It seemed to look like he agreed with her, or at least cared somewhat.
"I just..." The Princess harrumphed as they came upon the best part of the whole garden: the Overlord. The luscious green grass ended at a marble platform with a white stone parapet. Past that was a large, sheer drop over the edge of a cliff, with the Glistening Sea below. There was a beach a few miles away, rising up into more green fields, with farms and hamlets scattered about, hugging to a few ledges of flat, fertile land. The sun was to the west, to their right as they looked from the parapet. It was far from setting, allowing rays of gold to make the blue water sparkle sapphire, and the green land shine emerald. The sound would've been peaceful, too, if Princess Luciara Eden hadn't been there.
"I hate him," she said again, not even bothering to put any effort into sounding angry at this point. Then she sighed, unlinked her arm from her reluctant bodyguard's, and leant on the stone parapet. For a moment, Sir Alfrick hoped they would break and she would fall to her death, but he quickly stopped himself. That was unworthy of him, to wish that on a woman of twenty, with all her life ahead of her. She would learn humility at some point. Surely?
"Hmm." Luciara sounded thoughtful as she looked out at the distant shore. She looked worthy enough to be painted by the best artist in the world, leaning there. The sun made her ivory skin glow, and her hair shone like a light of its own. She turned her head and looked west, squinting under the light from above. Her nose wrinkled, which Alfrick had always found adorable, and she had a faint smile that looked to be longing something, or someone. But there was something sad about that smile. 'And to think my mother died...'
The princess turned back, opening her mouth to say something, but then her eyes widened, and she gasped.
Alfrick span round, hand grasping his sword. He saw something then - someone.
He was dressed in grey, with a brown belt around his waist and a sword the colour of midnight in his hand. His face wasn't covered: it was sharp-featured, eyes deep-set, the irises red like blood. An Immortal. "I'm very sorry," the assailant said, his voice soft and rich, "but I must interrupt this...dying scene." He stepped forward, a grin appearing on his face. "Peace, tranquillity...on its deathbed, I'm afraid. We can't have you getting in the way of that now, can we?"
Sir Alfrick didn't know who he was talking to - the Immortal was looking straight at him, but surely he meant the Princess? - but that didn't matter. If he was threatening the Princess, he was a dead man. If he was threatening Sir Alfrick himself, he was a dead man. Immortal he may be called, but he could still bleed, and he could still die.
Alfrick drew his sword, and the blade reflected the day's light and shone so brightly it was like a second sun. "Princess," Alfrick said, without looking away from those blood-coloured eyes, "stay behind me, and run as soon as you have the chance."
"G-guards..." Luciara whimpered, too quietly for anyone else to hear.
"Now," Alfrick said, dashing forward, then shouted, "run!"
The shining steel met with the black blade, and the familiar song of metal on metal filled Sir Alfrick's ears as he and his opponent clashed again and again. He kept his guard up, his sword close to his head. He was covered in armour, save around his head and under his armpits, and even the latter had some padding. Those were his weak spots. His foe was unarmoured, dressed in simple grey clothes made of some sort of cloth. Alfrick's cuts were quick, and he kept his guard up, his sword ready to deflect any attempts at his bare head. The Immortal man would have to be very lucky to get the better of him in this scenario. Except, he wasn't trying to. At least, not very hard. His cuts were half-hearted and easy to deflect, and he never went for the armpits. He kept Alfrick's blows away from his body, but he never tried any kind of counter-attack when he deflected the knight's blade. He let Alfrick attack, and attack, and attack...until Sir Alfrick was feeling himself tire. His arms were aching from the effort, he noticed with grim realisation. He couldn't kill his enemy, and his enemy couldn't be bothered to kill him. He almost laughed at the thought. Surely not? An unarmoured foe, able to kill the armour-clad warrior who had the misfortune of being one of the greatest swordsmen in all of Edainia, yet not even trying to?
So was he even after the princess at all?
Sir Alfrick saw the guards coming from behind. His opponent must've noticed too, perhaps from looking at Alfrick's eyes, for he suddenly came on the offensive. His cuts were lightning quick, a speed that Alfrick had rarely faced, certainly not for this long. He knew why, of course: Immortals could never run out of energy. Suddenly, when he felt the stone parapet press in from behind, he actually did laugh as his sword fell out of his hand. It was obvious, what his assailant was doing. He was wearing Alfrick down, and waiting for an audience to finish him off. The only puzzling thing about it was why he'd let the Princess get away. Perhaps he was after Alfrick the whole time.
Either way, Alfrick had decided this man was dead, and he'd meant it.
He drew his dagger with one hand, and raised his other gauntleted fist to his face, blocking the Immortal's other blow. Then he dashed forward with his dagger, stabbing at the assailant. The Immortal was able to dodge out of the way with ease, but he was off-balance. Alfrick caught the black blade, drove his dagger into the man's gut in a successful second attempt, let go of it and brought back his metal fist. He punched, causing the red-eyed man's head to spring back and forth, and punched again, causing his eyes to widen, and again, causing him to gasp after the fist made a loud crunch, and again, and again, and again, causing blood to cover Alfrick's once pristine gauntlet. All the while, some sort of sickly grin was on his opponents face. He let go of the body, which fell limp to the ground. He glanced briefly towards the guards, who were all standing there with open mouths, and he took a breath in to say something witty, but instead Sir Alfrick only heard a gurgle. He felt something stinging, in his neck. He pulled a long piece of dark metal out. A dagger. Black like the darkest night, in Alfrick's hand in the middle of day. Alfrick would've laughed, if he didn't feel so shocked. He couldn't breathe, or talk, only splutter up dark red liquid. Blood. His blood. Gods.
He fell back, finding himself sitting up against something behind him. Someone was looking at him, as he heard himself wheeze. Someone with flecks of emerald in his eyes...