The words, for the first time, were not coming easily. I sat back, the glass of wine in my hand glimmering in the lamplight. I took a sip. For words to fail me was an anomaly. I went so far as to touch pen to paper, willing characters to form, a story to flow onto the page in bold, black letters. The ink merely bled into the paper, a spreading black blemish.
As King’s Chronicler, I took an inordinate amount of pride in my work. My pride was not unfounded; my works were widely disseminated throughout the country by bards and storytellers. I grimaced, setting down my pen. It would be more true to say that those bards and storytellers told hackneyed renditions; only my histories, sanctified by my position as King’s Chronicler, bore any semblance of veracity.
I sipped my wine again, frowning. I could only blame myself for the laxity of the bards; for over ten decades the King’s Chronicler or a Chronicler Apprentice had traveled throughout Sollara every summer, occasionally even into the winter, entertaining the people with stories and recording local history. I had made the trip my first seven years, until the increasing numbers of bandits had rendered the roads unsafe. I was not the only one confined; until recently it had been unsafe for all travelers, limiting the range of itinerant storytellers and bards, depriving far-flung villages of new tales.
In truth, I was in no hurry to return to the more strenuous demands of my job. I did not like to travel, having to rely on the dubious comforts of unkempt inns, with their limited selection of impecunious vintages. I had avoided the annual trek for over six years. It was an uncomfortable realization, that I was overly remiss in my duties. The King and Queen had been gently, and lately rather forcibly, reminding me that my position required these yearly pilgrimages.
There were other concerns. I was unwilling to admit it, but my stories had grown stale. Perhaps it was time, and past, for me to travel beyond the comforting walls of the Castle. I tipped my glass back, downing the last finger of wine before striding resolutely to the castle stables to procure a horse. It was late summer already; my impetuous decision reflected that realization. I made haste for another reason; any regrets and misgivings were lost in the speed of my departure.
Once I left the city, I donned the robes and clunky pendant that identified me as the King’s Chronicler. My name, Alaya, was inscribed in the black obsidian, centered above the Sollaran insignia. The volcanic glass was imbued with a hint of magic; at a touch, the medallion would project my voice the distance of a village. It was not often I called upon that particular ability. It was a holdover from the uncertain times after the war that ultimately gave rise to Sollara; the Chronicler would often stand on the battlements, informing the people of Sollara of the new laws and treaties enacted at the first King’s Council.
For safety, I stuck to well-traveled roads, and was careful to secure lodging at busy inns well before night fell. I paid for my stay in the telling of stories each night, sitting beside a well-lit fire. I was pleasantly surprised to find the quality of the vintages had improved since I had last traveled through Sollara.
The appreciative audiences, and enthusiastic applause did much to stroke my ego; it was an enjoyable way to spend one’s nights. I almost began to regret my long absence from the people of Sollara. The tinge of remorse was unexpected. As a Chronicler I had long ago distanced myself from sundry emotions, preferring to live amidst the dusty pages of history.
Late one night, after I had finished a retelling of the War of the Gods, the audience had fallen silent. One man suddenly piped up, swaying from the effects of his ale.
“Sounds jus’ like that young feller as told it nigh on five nights ago,” he proclaimed, blinking drunkenly. Another old-timer nodded sagely, and added his two bits.
“Aye, you’ve trained that’un well, Ma’am Chronicler,” he complimented me, raising his tankard in an impulsive toast. The crown followed with murmurs of assent.
I was confused; my immediate response was anger. To be confused with an itinerant bard was simply insulting. Some strange sense of caution, however, bade me hold my tongue, and I sipped my wine to hide the tightness of my lips.
“I confess ignorance,” I said, forcing a smile, although I knew my eyes were cold. The first man laughed.
“He was a talker, that’un,” he reminisced, “told the makin’ of the Crown, and lots others.” He took another swig, propping his swaying head up on an equally unsteady hand.
“And how did you know I had trained him?” The man missed the tinge of crystalline anger in my voice.
“Feller wore that there pendant,” he pointed to the heavy medallion that hung around my neck, “and he introduced hisself as Chronicler’s Apprentice. ‘Bout time, really,” he opined, “been years since we’ve had a decent storyteller.” Through the fog of ale, he seemed to realize he had overstepped. He blanched, and dropped the tankard back onto the bar, his face anxious. I was too shocked to take offense; some arrogant wastrel had dared to impersonate the King’s Chronicler? Years of schooling kept my face blank; the thoughts passed in a second, and I listened coolly to the drunkard.
“’Cause o’ the ruffians, an’ such,” he hastened to excuse my absence. “twasn’t safe fer any to be travelin’.”
I smiled, but inwardly, I was stung. I’d known I had not fulfilled my duties, but for another to recognize my failings – it was an uncomfortable feeling.
That night I could not sleep. My first, unadulterated desire was to punish the charlatan; my second was of inescapable curiosity. Even in the midst of anger, I am a chronicler, devoted to researching and detailing stories of peasant and noble alike. My personal angst was small against the requirements of my profession.
I tossed all night, welcoming the sun as it broke through banks of white scudding clouds. Tired but resolute, I made my way down to the common room.
As I had hoped, the drunken man was still there, snoring sonorously with his head pillowed on his arms. The smell of bacon and roasted potatoes roused him; he held his head in two hands as he squinted blearily. Pushing a second plate and a tumbler of beer his way, I sat back and began my breakfast, waiting patiently.
Grasping the tumbler as though it were a lifeline, he drank deeply before marshaling his manners.
“I thank ye,” he said cautiously. His eyes darted from me to the half-eaten meal before him. I understood immediately.
“It’s on me,” I said, smiling in what I hoped was a calming way. It worked; he relaxed and began eating again, his misgivings soothed.
I watched him eat, my own appetite dwindling as the man shoveled food into his mouth, barely pausing to fully chew each mouthful. I waited until his pace slowed, and began.
“My…apprentice,” I stumbled on the lie, “left me early last week, striking out on his own. However,” I paused meaningfully, “He is my charge, and I would be dearly upset if any harm came to him, traveling without my protection.” The man nodded sagely. He was still drunk, I noticed. I spoke slowly.
“I’ve been following him,” here came the tricky part, “but I confess I’ve been doing a poor job of it.”
The man finished his beer in one smooth gulp, setting the empty tankard down regretfully. Sighing, I signaled for another.
“Me name’s Frerik,” he said, gulping gratefully at the second tankard. He looked pensive for a moment, still chewing openly. “’Twas a few nights ago,” he said apologetically. I nodded encouragingly.
“I’d come to the inn, fer jus’ a drink or two,” he asserted, “an’ was fair surprised to see the young ‘un holdin’ court afore the fire.” He jerked a thumb at the lone chair set beside the hearth, traditionally reserved for bards, storytellers, and the Chronicler.
I felt a scowl on my face in spite of myself. Unperturbed, Frerik continued.
“Aye, the lad was tellin’ ‘Gehrig’s Mantle.’” I nodded again, silently wishing he would hurry up.
“Young Lelan said as how he was headed for Tivol,” he remembered. “Said t’was th’ small villages as had suffered the most from yer absence, and so was them as he wanted to visit.”
I did not even attempt to hide the wrinkling of my lip this time. The fiend stole my title, and dared call me out amongst my compatriots? The punishments I had devised no longer seemed sufficient. I left orders for my mare to be saddled immediately.
I’d been riding for several hours before I realized the implications of the trickster’s destination. The boy was surviving on his wits and scarce else. This scheme afforded him a free night’s shelter, as well as food and ale. This far from the capitol city, news of his passage would not travel far, and would certainly not have reached me. His plan was almost perfect, marred only by my impetuous decision to leave the confines of the Castle.
It had the makings of story, I mused, intrigued despite myself. I stopped that night in Battan, a large village several days north of Tivol. I was met by the mayor, having been spotted by the village guard while a mile out.
As he led me to the finest inn in the village, the mayor babbled inanely, overcome with excitement at my presence.
“’Twas excitement enough when young Lelan came through,” he burbled, his hands flying. “You’ve trained a wonder, ma’am Chronicler. Not so fine as yourself, of course, but passing fair.”
I inclined my head regally at his effusive praise, but my fingers were clenched tightly about the reins of my tired horse. I coolly accepted the standard offer of room and board in return for stories, seating myself in the chair reserved for the Chronicler.
Men and women, accompanied by those children old enough to still be up, flocked to the inn, waiting patiently for me to begin. Surely the boy Lelan could not have been that good, if the people of Battan were so anxious to see another Chronicler! I felt vindicated – until a bright-eyed little girl looked at me with dismay.
“Where’s Lelan?” she asked innocently, casting around in search of the afore-mentioned man.
This time I could not ignore the ugly stirring of jealousy, no matter how petty it might be. I tried to ignore it, waiting patiently as the room swelled to capacity, and beyond, before beginning my story.
I was up late that night, regaling the crowd with story after story; in the back of my mind I knew I was trying to outdo the remembrance of Lelan. I spoke until the innkeeper began to put up the barrels of ale, signaling the close of the common room. I slept soundly, too exhausted to dwell on the problems caused by Lelan.
I left early in the morning, headed towards Tivol. Surprisingly, I heard no mention of my erstwhile apprentice as I traveled. It wasn’t until the third day that I understood why.
In my single-minded haste to find the boy, I had not paid attention to the changing of the seasons. Winter was harkening, heralded by the morning frosts and the chill winds. The boy, more cognizant of the weather than myself, had no doubt made haste to Tivol, planning on spending the winter.
I looked at the murky horizon, and swore, harrying the poor mare into a gallop. Were it not for the boy, I’d be comfortably ensconced at the Castle, my favorite wine in hand.
I reached Tivol three days later, accompanied by snow flurries. A mile outside the town I’d hidden my pendant beneath fur-lined robes that were proving to be highly susceptible to the cold. I entered the town quietly and gratefully, making my way to a simple inn, the River Hawk.
Grumpy serving girls served me, their skirts swishing with impatience while they waited for the village clock to boom out the hours. As the dinner hour ended, a girl brought me my final glass of wine.
“Room closes in a quarter hour,” she said peremptorily. “Chronicler’s in th’ village, speaking at the Red Rose.” So Lelan was here. Instead of feeling victorious, I was apprehensive.
Since leaving Battan, I had struggled with disheartening self-realizations. I am a superb historian – but a poor Chronicler. It was little wonder the brazen young man had thought to steal the title for himself.
I drummed my fingers on the tabletop, unconsciously mimicking the impatience of the serving girls. When the clock finally struck the hour, I finished my wine and followed the girls out the front door, ducking my head against the unwelcome chill of the night.
The Red Rose was only one street over and already packed. I wriggled my way in the front door, securing a spot in a drafty corner. I didn’t bother to get comfortable; I only wanted to hear the boy speak, and then denounce him as a fraud. I was stuck in Tivol for the winter, but the boy would be stuck in gaol by the time I was through with him.
The boy’s entrance caught me by surprise. Without fanfare, he walked out to take the chair traditionally set aside for the Chronicler. He walked with confidence, but not arrogance. His young face was bright with enthusiasm, and he waved at several men and women in the crowd.
He wasted no time, taking a seat and launching into a story. It was a silly story, “The Queen’s Slipper,” a story loosely based on Queen Silvya, who had a well-known addiction to footwear.
I had been prepared to launch myself from my little corner, medallion in hand, voice trumpeting across the crowd, but all thoughts of triumphant revenge fled the moment he began to speak.
Lelan was born to be a storyteller. He had a rich, deep voice with a carefully measured cadence that rose and fell with the story. His hands and face were animated; in short, he captured the crowd. Listening to him was simultaneously thrilling and humiliating. I was better than him, but with training he would easily eclipse me. When he finished, I slipped unobtrusively out the front door, my thoughts troubled.
In the morning, I woke to a village mired in snow; drifts piled high against the buildings, choking the streets and weighing heavy on the roofs. A leaden gray sky hung above the vast white expanse, draining color from the land.
I stayed in my room until mid-afternoon. For the first time in weeks, words flowed freely, spilling onto the page with almost careless abandon. It was exhilarating. And it cleared my mind.
An hour before supper I found the innkeeper of the River Hawk and showed him my Chronicler’s pendant. The simple man beamed, and immediately sent the scullery boy out into the snow-filled streets to announce my presence.
Lelan was one of the first through the door, moving surreptitiously in a black cloak. His eyes locked on my pendant and grew wide. I think he would have left, but a sudden influx of people pushed him up against the bar. Panicked, he stayed rooted in place, his eyes flickering between the door and me.
I simply smiled, and began my first story. When I finished, he made as if to leave, but I stood abruptly, catching his arm, perhaps exerting more force than was necessary.
I held him firmly as I faced the crowd again. “Many of you have met my apprentice, young Lelan,” I said. I didn’t look at the boy, but I felt him tense. My own level of anticipation was high. The crowd cheered appreciatively.
“We were supposed to arrive together,” I explained, “but I was unavoidably delayed. I trust my apprentice has met your expectations for that of a Chronicler?”
The crowd cheered wildly. It was that which ultimately decided me. Playing off their goodwill, I begged a moment of respite to speak with Lelan, a request to which the crowd happily acquiesced. The innkeeper showed us to a small, private room, a platter of cheeses and thick bread already upon the table. Flagons of beer and wine, beaded with moisture, were placed beside the platter.
I took a seat, pointing Lelan to the other.
Looking directly at him, I smiled. Slowly. “So,” I said casually, helping myself to a chunk of thick bread. I covered it with a slice of cheese, and chewed, following it with a sip of the wine, a delightfully dry vintage. His composure finally broke.
“Never thought another would come up with the same idea,” he admitted hesitantly.”
“Aye, such a coincidence,” I agreed dryly, narrowing my eyes.
Lelan faltered, his gaze dropping again to my pendant. Unlike his, my pendant was heavier, thicker, the insignia stamped deeper. In contrast, his was a tawdry replicate.
Lelan gulped, his throat suddenly dry.
“You’ve…the Chronicler has not traveled in nearly six years,” he stammered, still unwilling to believe the proof before him.
“That’s true,” I agreed amicably, having another piece of bread. His own eyes narrowed, as he struggled to determine if I truly was the King’s Chronicler. His indecision was clear, yet he chose a route different than what I would have expected.
“I’m good,” he blurted defensively. There was a touch of shame there, but also, strangely, of pride. Despite myself, I felt an unwonted kinship with the boy. Some of that must have shown in my expression, because he continued.
“The first time,” he flashed a sickly grin, “I figured if I wasn’t any good, they would throw me out. I was so hungry; I risked it just for the meal.” His eyes softened in remembrance, the memory calming him somewhat.
“After that,” he continued, “I saw no harm in continuing. I had studied the tales in Temple, and I have a good memory. People were so happy to see a Chronicler, even an apprentice. Villages begged me to stay. I would only stay a few nights; I didn’t want to attract too much attention.” His smile drooped. “Looks like I failed in that regard.” He watched me closely, gauging my reaction. I sat quietly, although a small smile played about my lips. My actions regarding Lelan were now decided.
I sat a moment longer, and then stood, taking my wine glass with me. I enjoyed the regional vintage.
“I need to finish my set,” I said abruptly. “Please excuse me.” I twitched the curtain aside, leaving Lelan stunned, and uncertainty writ large across his face.
The crowd had grown larger, bodies packed into the space. I touched my amulet, smiling as I felt the answering tingle in the cold obsidian. When I spoke, the crowd sighed happily; my voice, augmented by the stone, rose effortlessly to the rafters, each word crisp and clear. I looked to Lelan; with the final evidence of my identity he was crushed. He looked truly miserable, and was dragging in great gulps of air, as though struggling to breathe. I smiled warmly at him, eliciting a stare of baffled anger and fear, before I continued my story.
I told the story of Lord Bergen the III. A bachelor, he was childless. Yet when a young child of ten appeared on his doorstep, claiming to be his own courtesy of an illicit affair, he welcomed the child into his home.
The crowd roared with appreciation as the child slowly pilfered various trinkets and valuables, all the while continuing the original farce.
“Lord Bergen was rather aloof, removed from the day-to-day events,” I continued, looking out the corner of my eye at Lelan. He had re-entered the room, standing hesitantly in the shadows. “As such, he did not notice while his possessions were depleted at an alarming rate.” I held up a cautionary finger. “His butler, however, a thief of some renown, most assuredly did, and confronted the child, threatening to expose his fraudulent scheme.”
Several in the crowd were frowning slightly; this was not how the original story went. I’d pilfered the ending for my own needs. I saw Lelan’s hands were tight against the small tankard of beer. The story was about him; he was too smart not to recognize the connection.
I held the moment as long as I could, watching Lelan struggle to maintain his composure.
“The butler offered the child an apprenticeship; much to the dismay of Lord Bergen’s plummeting finances.” The crowd chuckled, although they were clearly confused. I looked at Lelan. Hope warred with confusion on his face.
I chuckled. “I confess I wanted to teach young Lelan here a lesson,” I admitted. “In many ways, the story of Lord Bergen the III parallels the story of how I took on my first apprentice.” I could still see Lelan out of the corner of my eye; his face was white. I gave him no time to recover.
“Come here, Lelan. Quickly now,” I chided. He was apprehensive, slowly placing his tankard on the bar before moving towards me. The cheers and whistles of the crowd seemed to bolster him, and he had regained much of his confidence by the time he stood next to me.
I stood, now unable to hide a sly smile. “The floor is yours, Chronicler Apprentice Lelan.” Deliberately, I lifted the obsidian pendant, looping it over his head. I held my hand over the pendant, obscuring my voice from the expectant crowd.
“Don’t get any idea’s,” I warned. “I’ll be expecting that back. You’ll get your own when you are fully a Journeyman Chronicler.”
Lelan sat carefully, the shock in his eyes replaced by pure gratitude. He was pensive for a moment, and then I caught a streak of pure capriciousness flit across his face.
The fiend caught my eye and actually winked!
“The Charlatan Chronicler,” he intoned, settling comfortably into his chair. Stifling a surprised laugh I toasted the young trickster, looking forward to a night spent by the fire, listening to a good story.