Once long ago, before magic left the world, the kingdom found itself in great peril. An evil wizard from a distant country grew jealous of Lya’s prosperity, and set a terrible curse upon the land. The soil in the farmers’ fields grew dry; crops would not grow in the dust. Great dark clouds came and covered the sun, and yet no rain fell for a season. Children lay starving in the streets of the capital.
The king, a proud strong warrior in his youth, had become too old and frail to confront the wizard. In desperation, he looked to the tales of old for a solution. “When the kingdom is in danger, the mark of the Hero will appear,” he recalled from the bedtime stories of his youth. A summons was sent throughout the land, calling for the youth who would be the country’s only hope.
One morning, a fair young man from the countryside appeared in at the castle bearing the mark. He had no training, no warrior skills, not even a hint of magic about him, but the king had faith in the spirits to guide the youth to his destiny. He outfitted the boy in armour of gold and weapons of the finest, sharpest steel, and sent him off with a company of fifty of the most skilled soldiers in the land. A grand parade was arranged to see them off.
Despite the faith of the people of Lya, the youth’s heart was filled with dread. The mark that shined upon his arm had made him uneasy from the moment it appeared, and now because of it he was to defeat a great and powerful wizard to save the kingdom from almost certain doom. He cursed his own fate as well as the kingdom’s, for surely a lowly farmer’s son such as himself could not possibly hope to accomplish such a task.
About halfway to their destination, the company came upon an old oracle who had set up shop on the side of the road. The soldiers scoffed and passed her by, but the youth was curious. Could she perhaps tell him whether or not he would be able to save the kingdom? It couldn’t hurt to ask.
“My lady,” he said, placing several large gold coins on the table, “would you tell me what my future holds?”
The woman raised her weathered face and smiled. “You have no need of my services, Hero,” she replied, “you already know your fate. What you wish to know is the means by which you are to accomplish this task set before you, is it not?”
“You are wise beyond my expectations! Pray, is there any advice you might give me to ease my way in this quest?”
“I am forbidden to tell you what I see, but I do have something that might aid you.” The oracle produced an old, tarnished silver amulet. “I was given this long ago by a powerful sorcerer, though what its use is he would not say. It was owned by the last man chosen to save Lya. I sense it belongs with you now, young Hero.”
The youth accepted the trinket with solemn ceremony and bid the old oracle farewell.
After many weeks of rough travel the party finally reached the wizard’s castle. Though it was but midday, the sky grew black as pitch as they approached, and the sounds of wildlife were deadened. Not even a breeze blew in that dead place, steeped as it was in the darkest of magics. Some of the warriors grew frightened and made to turn back, but found their way barred by a thicket of thorny brambles that grew up behind them. With no other choice, they pressed on.
The wizard was waiting for them in the courtyard. With nary a word, he raised his left hand towards the black sky and summoned forth a bolt of light from the heavens. It was hotter than the flames of the greatest forge, brighter than the sun itself. All the company died in an instant, their corpses little more than black dust.
But the youth still stood.
The wizard was dumbfounded. He called upon his most powerful magic to strike the boy down, but to no avail. The youth, finding himself impervious to the wizard’s spells, quickly drew his sword and lunged at the foul being. The silver pendant dangled glittering from his throat, and the wizard cried out as he recognized it as an ancient shield against magics. He fumbled for the knife kept at his belt, but it was too late; the youth’s blade struck home. Reeking, black blood polluted by the evil spells the wizard employed gushed out upon the ground.
The youth sighed in relief as the sky above lightened to a peaceful cerulean. The wizard’s spells were broken, and his home would be safe and prosperous once more. With a light heart, he turned to leave and begin his solitary journey back to Lya.
And then a heavy stone tumbled down from the parapet above him, striking the youth in the head. He was killed instantly.
“Why do all your stories have to end that way?” James Blackwell complained to his grandmother as he took in the shocked faces of the children listening to her tale. “Can’t you just end it with the wizard’s defeat? Or better yet, let the boy live happily ever after for once.”
“I’m telling histories, not fairytales,” the old woman scoffed. “Everyone knows that true heroes die pointless deaths before the victory can go to their heads.”
“Then for the love of Lya, stop telling histories. Nobody will want to stay here if you’re going to keep scaring their children halfway to death.”
“I’m not scared!” cried one of the boys, but James ignored him.
The old woman shrugged and settled back in her chair. “If they wanted to be lied to then they could just go to their parents for comforting stories about pixies and princesses and dragons and the lot,” she said. “I think there should be at least one person in the world willing to tell young folk the truth about matters.”
“If it’s the truth, then why are you the only person I know of who insists that every single story ends this way?”
“Obviously you’ve been lied to quite often. Ask that elf friend of yours, he knows I’m telling the true version.”
James sighed and went back to cleaning the bar. “Do what you like.”
“Granny, can we hear the one about the prince who slew the dragon and got the princess and then died of food poisoning?”
“Now, you’ve gone and ruined the ending, Tommy!”
James Blackwell ran Equinox, a small inn and tavern in the north quarter of the port town of Kelly. His grandfather had bought the building on a drunken dare, and by a stroke of pure luck the man seemed to have enough of a knack for inn keeping to turn a healthy profit. Friends and patrons boasted that Equinox was the second-finest inn in north Kelly, though there being only two inns in north Kelly to begin with made this claim somewhat unimpressive. In any case, the food was always hot and the beer always cold and that was all anyone in the north quarter really gave two shits about.
James had been the sole proprietor for six years now, ever since his grandfather died. Since he’d basically taken on the task of managing most of the inn’s affairs for years prior, the transition had gone virtually unnoticed by the regulars, save that the beer was a little less watered down than when the old man had served it. In the surrounding neighbourhood, however, certain individuals took a great interest in the inn’s new owner.
“Have you seen that handsome fellow what runs Equinox now that the old man’s kicked it?”
“The grandson, isn’t it? Was he always so dashing?”
“Look at his teeth! Not a rotten one in the bunch! That’s a sign of good breeding, that is.”
“Ladies,” James would interrupt (as these conversations often occurred in the tavern while he was serving and, like as not, within earshot), “Tomorrow I’m going to bring in a cleaver and a harf. The next one of you to loiter around my tavern and make comments about my eligibility, the harf gets it.”
Sure, he wasn’t the most even-tempered of men, but the girls reasoned that everyone had their faults.
One day at about half past twelve, just after one such encounter (which never seemed to end in dead harfs no matter how often James threatened it), an elf strolled into the tavern and sat himself down at the table nearest to the bar. “‘m damned near starving, James,” he whined in a rich tenor that clashed with his crude tongue, “you got any swill worth choking down or should I just head back to the west quarter?”
“That’s an awful far way to walk on an empty stomach, Ell,” James replied, appearing to take no offence at the elf’s casual insults, “You’d better make due with the slop.”
“Well, make with it, then.” The elf leaned back in his chair and clunked grimy boots up on the tabletop. “And an ale, don’t forget.”
“You don’t have to tell me, you ponce, I know what your order is.” James plunked down an already filled tankard next to the elf’s feet and then made his way into the kitchen. “It’ll be just a moment.”