Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Lizard of the Lake

by McCamy Taylor


>"Nothing new is ever discovered as long as it is possible to copy."

Otto Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero

####

Long ago, in Thebes, a divine messenger warned that the kingís son would become a hero so powerful and so cursed that he would kill his own father, marry his mother and steal the throne of that country. And so it came to pass. Under Oedipus, Thebes reached new heights of greatness -- and then was stricken by pestilence, famine and war...

Long ago, in Akkad, the royal cup bearer had a prophetic dream which so terrified the king that he ordered the boy Sargon put to death. Despite the kingís machinations, Sargon usurped the throne and became a conquering hero, who laid siege to all of Mesopotamia. The result was famine, pestilence and war...

Time and again, children are born seemingly blessed by the gods. And yet, for all their brilliance, beauty, strength and valor, in the end they bring only destruction...

####

"Wit!" Cub peered into the cave. His voice broke. "Wit! Are you there?"

The wizard looked up from his workbench. Silhouetted against the sunlight, the young man was all black, and his shadow bathed the cave in darkness.

"Youíre blocking the light," said Wit irritably. "Come in or go away."

Cub advanced. The boy -- almost a man -- was too big for his secondhand clothes. His shoulders strained at the seams of his wool shirt. His pants did not quite reach his ankles. Since no one in Lord Skyís household had feet as large as his, only his boots were new, supple brown leather the same shade as his eyes. His shoulder length auburn hair had golden tips where it had lightened in the sun last summer. It was autumn now, but the boy wore no cloak. He had run all the way from the lordís homefort to the cave at the foot of the mountains without stopping, but he was only slightly winded.

"What are you doing?" Cub asked.

The white bearded man made room on the bench. The boy sat down beside him. "Iím testing a theory." Wit indicated a glass vial. "Holy water."

Cub wrinkled his nose. "Roman magic? What do you want with that?" Wit was the most powerful wizard in the Northlands. The son of a demon and a mortal woman, he was as old as the hills and as deadly as a lightning strike in a parched forest. Some said that his father was actually the lord Light Himself. What could the southern priests teach him about magic?

"Watch and learn," said the old man. He had taken apart one of his toys, a shiny metal box that could tell a man how many times his heart would beat before he died a natural death. Since the device did not predict future calamities like war and plague, it was useless. Everyone knew that a man lived three score and ten years if he was lucky. Longer, if he knew magic, like Wit.

Inside the deconstructed box, bits of metal and crystal gleamed. Like most of the wizardís magical devices, it radiated its own light. Carefully, Wit raised the vial of holy water. He poured a single drop onto the exposed workings of the magic box. Cub smelled something nasty, like sulfur but more pungent. Smoke rose from the oak plank table, making his nose run and his eyes water. When the foul smelling cloud cleared, he saw that the box was now dark. The bits of metal had fused into a blackened lump, and the crystals had shattered, like glass.

"The southern priests are onto something," the wizard muttered. "But what? What do they know that we donít?" He gave the boy a sidelong glance. "Thereís blood on your shirt. Did Lord Sky beat you again?"

Cub kept his eyes averted.

"What did you do this time?"

"Nothing!" exclaimed Cub. "Hawk has a new horse. It keeps throwing him, because he doesnít know how to handle it. I told him he was a fool and that he would ruin it if he didnít stop hitting it. But he just kept beating it. So, I took the stick he was using and hit him over the head with it, to see how he liked it. Then, I got on the horseís back and rode it around the castle to prove there was nothing wrong with it."

"I see."

The boy glowered. "The old man said a bastard foundling had no business trying to show up his lordís son. He said one day Iíll have to serve Hawk. But I wonít!"

"Of course not," said Wit smoothly. "But in the meantime, only a fool bites the hand that feeds him."

"I didnít hit Lord Sky!" Cub protested. "He isnít an idiot like his son." He slammed his fist down on the oak table. The ruined toy box jumped a foot into the air. The old wizard caught it one handed.

"You need to learn to control that temper of yours," he told Cub sternly. "Youíre bigger than other men. Stronger. One day youíll kill someone without meaning to, and then where will you be?"

The boy raised an eyebrow. "Have you ever killed anyone, Wit?" Though white haired and old, the wizard was the tallest, biggest man in the Northlands.

"Many times."

"Did you feel bad afterwards?"

"Sometimes."

"How did you do it? Magic?"

"Sometimes."

Cub sighed. Though the old wizard had taught him many things, there was still much that he refused to share. Like how he controlled his servants, the supernatural creatures that followed him wherever he went. And how he could make light appear in darkness and start fires without steel and flint. He had promised the boy that one day he would be able to do these things, too. But he refused to say when or how it would happen.

Cub was getting tired of waiting for "one day." Hawk, the Lordís son, had a new horse and a new sword. Though Cub was a better swordsman than the heir would ever be, his job was to stand there with a shield and a wooden stick while Hawk practiced swinging his steel blade around. When Cub offered him advice, the shorter boy told him to hold his tongue. They used to be friends, but Hawk had changed since he came back from the neighboring homefort, where he had spent a year learning sword fighting with Lord Riverís four sons.

With his playmate gone, Cub had thought he would die of boredomóuntil the wizard arrived and claimed the cave at the foot of the mountains that had been empty for as long as the boy could remember. Lord Sky greeted Wit like an old friend. He ordered the servants to take him hot food each day and do his laundry. The wizard had, he confided, saved his life many years ago. "If not for him, I wouldnít be here. Nor would Hawk. I can never do enough to repay him."

The wizard unsealed the case that contained his magical scribe. He began speaking softly. An invisible pen recorded his words in perfect black ink letters. "When submerged in plain rainwater or lake water, the mechanism of the heartbeat counter was unaffected. However, a single drop of the so called holy water caused the metal components to melt...."

Cub tipped the vial of holy water and watched a drop fall onto the oak table. Nothing happened. What kind of water could melt metal and crack crystal but leave ordinary wood intact? Cautiously, he touched the water droplet with his finger. Nothing. The castle servants said that he was a demon spawn, like Wit. Shouldnít holy water burn the child of a devil?

"Stop that!" said the wizard sharply.

The invisible scribe wrote. Stop that.

Cub chuckled.

While Hawk was not learning how to handle a sword and ride a warhorse, Cub had learned to read and write. He now knew the names of the stars and how they changed with the seasons. He knew the names of the great kings of the Northlands as well as rulers of lands far to the south. Some of the kings had been dead for two thousand years or more. Would he be remembered two thousand years from now? Why were some men born slow and dull, like Hawk and others were wise, swift and fearless, like Wit?

"Are you my father?" he asked abruptly.

If the old wizard was surprised by the question, he did not show it. "No, Cub, I am not your father," he answered slowly.

"But youíre big like me. Tall. Animals mind what you say, the way they do with me. We can both tell when itís going to rain and guess when people are going to die." For three weeks, he had seen a dark cloud hovering over the head of the man who brewed beer in Lord Skyís cellar. No one else appeared to notice. Finally, he had asked Wit, since the wizard seemed to know everything. The old man had told him

"It means heís going to die soon."

"Die? Shouldnít we warn him?"

"It wonít do any good. Heís sick with something thereís no cure for. If you tell him, he wonít believe you. And if you tell him and then he ends up dying, as he will, people will wonder how you knew. Theyíll call you a poisoner if youíre lucky, and a witch if youíre unlucky. Do you know what they do to witches?"

Cub had seen them execute a witch. It wasnít enough to kill them one time. They could survive any ordinary death. Witches had to be killed three times, once with earth, once with water and once with fire. The old woman had been clubbed in the head, then half drowned, then finally hanged by her neck over a roaring bonfire where she kicked and thrashed for what seemed like an eternity.

"If youíre not my father, you must be my brother."

Wit did not reply.

"It stands to reason," continued Cub. "Lord Sky called me a demon spawn. And your father was a devil. Lord River has one son with a grey beard and another who is just turned sixteen. It can happen if the brothers have different mothers." When the wizard remained silent, the boy added "And I know youíre the one who left me here when I was a baby, because I heard Lord Sky talking. You know who my mother is, donít you?"

The wizard sighed.

"Is she still alive? I want to meet her."

"Youíre mother died when you were born. You know that. If she was still alive, she wouldnít have sent you away."

"So I killed her? Was it because I was too big?" A farmhandís wife had died last spring. Her husband was a big man, and the woman was as tiny as a child. The midwife said the baby got stuck, and they had to open up the mother to pull it out. Both wife and child had died. The farmhand stopped eating. Two months later, he walked into the bog and was never seen again.

"Women die in childbirth all the time. It isnít the babyís fault. Hand me that globe." Wit pointed to the black glass sphere that showed the position of the stars in the sky, even during the day when the sun made them impossible to see.

As Cub handed it over, he noticed that the disc representing the moon was only a fraction of an inch from the sun. He knew, from Witís lessons, that the moon passed across the sky in the daytime, unobserved and that the moon was closer to the earth than the sun. "What happens if the sun and moon cross paths?" he asked.

"Itís called an eclipse. The sun goes into hiding. Sometimes just a part of it disappears, as if a dragon has taken a bite out of it. Other times, the whole sun vanishes."

"Like the night the moon went dark?" Cub remembered how a shadow had fallen over the full, silver disc. At its darkest, the moon had resembled a red, clay ball. "How can the sun cover the moon when itís farther away?"

Using the globe, an apple and a walnut, Wit demonstrated the difference between a lunar and a solar eclipse. "What you have to remember is that the moon doesnít shine on its own. It only reflects the light of the sun, like a mirror."

"Have you ever seen the sun eclipsed?" Cub asked.

"Once, in Constantinople." Constantinople was one of the cities far to the south, named for a southern king. Wit played with the glass buttons that controlled the globe. "There should be an eclipse coming up in the next few weeks. Ah! Here it is! Midafternoon, two days after Longest Night." He shook his white head. "That ought to be fun. The Roman priests will claim itís a sign of Godís displeasure with the heathens. Theyíll probably get a few more converts."

"Thatís cheating!" Cub hated the Roman priests, because they hated him. Almost as much as they hated Wit.

"If priests didnít cheat," said Wit drily "No one would ever join their cults."

Four weeks later, Longest Night arrived. The morning began like any other winter day. Wit left the warmth of the bed he shared with Hawk at dawn to fetch water for Lord Sky and his family. He stoked the fire and scattered fresh rushes across the dirt floor. By then, Hawk was sitting up in bed, yawning.

"Get my boots," he ordered.

Cub bit his lower lip and did as he was told. Lady Sky was watching. She had never liked her foster son, and recently, she had begun to find fault with everything he did. She even accused him of being too tall, as if this was something he had done just to spite her short statured son.

Cub left the two story stone building where the lord and his family dwelled and crossed the barnyard, dodging goats and chickens on his way to the kitchen. Important guests were coming today. A nephew of the High King was stopping by for a visit on his way to the coast. The kitchen was crowded. Women had been summoned from the farms to help with the extra work.

Cub helped himself to a bowl of porridge made from barley, oats and minced apple.

"Wonít be able to call you cub much longer," said the cook, a massive woman with three chins and a huge grin that split her face in half. She grabbed one of the boyís muscular forearms and gave it a squeeze. "Soon, weíll have to start calling you by your real name, Bear."

His hunger sated, Cub fled the castle before anyone could demand that he do any more chores. He found the wizard in the clearing outside his cave, talking to one of his supernatural servants, the one he called Rollo, a short, round little creature with skin hard as flint, six arms and no legs. Its eyes were set on stalks that jutted from its shiny, smooth forehead, like the eyes of an insect. Its voice was high pitched and whiny.

"Yes, master," it said. Lacking legs, it shuffled away on two long feet that slid back and forth beneath its round belly like snow skis. Rollo had no mouth. When it spoke, the words seemed to come from a spot on the top of its head. Cub had never seen it eat or drink water. Wit said it fed on sunlight, like a tree.

"Cub!" exclaimed Wit, straightening. "Iím glad youíre here! I have something to show you."

The boy followed the wizard back into the cave, which smelled of dried herbs, moss and wine.

"Light!" said the old man.

Instantly, four glass orbs began to glow. Their light was cool but bright. So far, Cub had been unable to get the magic lanterns to work for him, no matter how many times he said the word "light." Wit promised that one day he would acquire the knack.

The boy noticed that a patch of the wizardís hair in the back was reddish brown. He had recently discovered, by accident, that Wit dyed his beard and hair white. He had never heard of a man trying to make himself look older than he was, but he imagined that the wizard did it so that he would seem wiser, since old people were always supposed to know more than young people -- at least until they got feeble minded and started acting like children again.

"Sit down," said Wit.

Cub joined him at the oak worktable. They passed several hours studying the way that bits of leaf, grass, moss, spider web and insects looked inside one of the wizardís magical toys, a device that made very, very small things look large. They even looked at a drop of the boyís blood. He was shocked to see that it was full of bugs. Wit called them "cells" and said that all living things were made of them.

"I had another one of those dreams last night," Cub said as the wizard was putting up his toys. "The lady dressed in white with a golden halo and wings. You told me to tell you if I had dreams like that," he added defensively.

Witís face was grim. "What did she say?"

"That I am destined for greatness. And..." He hesitated to tell the next part.

"And?"

"Lord Sky and Hawk knelt before me in chains."

"How did that make you feel?"

"I donít remember." That was a lie. He felt extremely pleased to see his former friend in chains. Served him right. And served Lord Sky right, too, for beating him. Or so he thought last night. By the light of day, his dream embarrassed him.

It was late morning, and Cubís stomach had begun to growl loudly. Usually, one of the servants brought food to the cave at this time each day, but the preparations for the royal guests had thrown the kitchen into chaos.

"Looks like weíll have to get our own lunch," said the wizard.

Cub followed Wit back to Lord Skyís homefort, a collection of one and two story stone buildings surrounded by a grass covered earthen wall. The front gate was guarded by a pair of armed men carrying axes and long oaken shields. Will, the older of the two, was one of Cubís friends. He made one of his usual jokes about "the air up there", referring to the boyís height. Rob, the younger soldier, belonged to Hawkís circle, and he scowled straight ahead, as if he did not see the wizard or the boy who followed close behind him, though they were impossible to miss, standing a full head taller than the other men gathered in the castle yard.

A stranger dressed in furs and embroidered wool was talking to the old lord. His back was to Cub and Wit, and all that could be seen of him was his long, grey streaked blond hair and the jewel encrusted golden broach that fastened his cloak at the shoulder.

"...it was a bloodbath. Iíve never seen anything like it. Four men and three women cut down, their heads hacked from their shoulders and lined up on the thatched roof of the cottage. The crows had been at them. I tell you, Sky, the world is in a bad way when sons repay their fathers with murder."

"Foster son," corrected a big bellied man who stood nearby. Like the prince, he was dressed in furs and fine wool. The top of his head was bald. His eyes were pale blue, like those of a fish long dead. Something about him made Cubís skin crawl, though he could not have said at that moment what. He had premonitions sometime. Intimations of bad things that had yet to happen. His sixth sense was practically shouting at him to get the hell out of there.

"Foster son," agreed the prince. "That only makes it worse. A man has a duty to the children of his flesh, but when he takes in someone elseís son and raises him as his own, the child owes him a debt. And how did Wolf choose to repay that debt? He used an axe on his foster father and family. The only ones left alive were the children. Poor things. Theyíre orphans now."

"And what became of the murderer?" asked Lord Sky.

"Still at large," said the portly, blue eyed man. "Thereís a bounty on his head." He reached into his leather pouch and pulled out a sheet of parchment. "Show this around. If anyone sees this fellow, the King will pay ten silvers for his capture. But take care. Heís dangerous."

At the words "ten silvers", several of the soldiers standing nearby craned their necks to get a better look at the ink drawing.

"He looks young."

"Not yet bearded."

"Donít be fooled," said the prince. "Heís young but strong. A bear of a man. As tall as that old fellow -- " His mouth dropped open. He gaped. "Is that you, Wit? And whoís this young fellow? Donít tell me. He looks just like you, before you grew your beard and turned all grey. Your son, right?"

The fish eyed man was staring at Cub. He glanced down at the parchment and then back at the boy. "My lord, this face -- "

"Not now, Father Thomas. Wit and I havenít seen each other in years. Not since -- "

"But your grace, look at this young manís face."

The blond prince peered near-sightedly at Cub. "Yes, his face. Very handsome. What of it?"

"Itís the same as the face of the man who murdered old Watt."

Silence. Everyone was looking at Cub. Several of the princeís soldiers reached for their weapons. A sword was unsheathed. An axe was drawn. Feet were planted more firmly in the dirt. A crow alighted on the roof of the nearby barn. It cocked its head and began to caw.

The wizardís voice was soft but firm. "It could be my face, too, if I shaved off my beard and shed a dozen years. But that doesnít make me a murderer." He laid his hand on Cubís shoulder. "This is Lord Skyís ward. Cub hasnít been farther than ten miles from this homefort since the day I brought him here, sixteen years ago."

That should have settled the matter. But the princeís companion, Father Thomas wore the symbol of the Roman priests around his thick neck, and Cub realized, belatedly, that his balding head was actually a tonsure. And priests hated the wizard with an antipathy that seemed almost visceral, the way that cats hated dogs. "Cub, you say? The murderer in question was also called ĎCub.í"

"I thought his name was ĎWolfí," said the prince.

"So it was, but he was called ĎCub.í"

"There you have it," interjected Lord Sky. "This cub is a bear cub. His name is ĎBear.í And Wit is correct. He hasnít left my lands since he arrived here in swaddling clothes."

No more was said about the fugitive Wolf, but Cub could not stop thinking about the boy who had his face and name. That night, Lord Sky gave up his bed to his royal guests, which meant that he and his family had to sleep in the servantsí beds, and so the servants slept on rugs on the hard dirt floor. Cub tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable on a scrap of sheepskin that was barely long enough for his torso. The rushes made his bare ankles itch, and the man lying next to him kept passing gas. He finally drifted to sleep shortly before dawn, only to be startled awake moments later.

"Get up."

His eyes flew open.

"Get up." He recognized the voice this time. It belonged to the wizard. Cub could not see him, but that only meant that he was wearing his invisible cape. Cub scrambled to his feet.

"This way." A finger appeared from nowhere. It beckoned the boy towards the door.

Outside, the eastern horizon was pale grey. Cool mist clung to the earth. Cub yawned and stamped his feet, trying to warm himself. What was so important it could not wait until dawn?

Wit threw back the hood of his cape. His head appeared to float in midair. He had washed the white dye from his beard and hair, making him look twenty years younger. "Iíll be gone a few days."

"So?" The wizard often disappeared for days or weeks at a time.

"In two days, there will be a solar eclipse. An annular eclipse. That means the sun will be faintly visible as a ring or circle of light in the sky."

"And that has what to do with me?"

The wizard cuffed him on the back of the head. "Listen! We donít have much time. Starting tomorrow morning, I want you to tell anyone whoíll listen that you had a dream. Tell them that a lady dressed in white robes wearing a halo of light appeared to you while you slept and said that new a new champion must be chosen. If they doubt you, tell them that the sun is going to confirm what youíve said by forming a crown of light in the sky. Be sure that the prince hears this story, understand? And whatever you do, donít look directly at the eclipsed sun for more than a moment. Just because its light is dimmer doesnít mean that you canít go blind from staring at it."

"Why? Why do I have to do it? Wonít it sound more believable coming from you, a wizard?"

The eastern horizon was violet now, with just the slightest blush of rose. The rooster was beginning to stir. Soon, he would crow, and the castle yard would be full of people. Through the kitchen window, Cub saw that the cook and her helpers were already up, baking the morning bread and preparing breakfast for the royal guests.

"I canít stay," said the wizard. "Thereís something I have to do."

"Youíre going to kill him, arenít you? The murderer who looks like me." Cub had overheard the prince asking the wizard for his help the night before.

"If I can find him, yes."

"Why? Why is it your responsibility?" Cub grabbed at Witís invisible shoulder. The cloak came partially loose. The wizard was dressed in battle gear, leather armor with a metal breastplate. In place of a sword, he carried his wand, the one that fired bolts of lightning. One of his magic lanterns was tied to his belt. "Is Wolf your son?"

"I already told you, I have no son."

"Your brother, then. Is he your brother? Is he another son of the devil? Is that why you have to kill him?"

The wizard freed himself. He pulled the cloak over his head and vanished. His disembodied voice said "I have to do this, because no one else can."

That was the last Cub saw or heard of him for five days.

The next morning, following Witís instructions, Cub began telling everyone he met about his strange "dream". By early afternoon, he had become an object of ridicule. Hawk and his friends were particularly cruel. Cub gritted his teeth and said nothing in response to their taunts. Silently, he made up his mind that if Wit was wrong and the sun did not vanish from the sky that day, he would find some nasty way to repay the wizard. He need not have worried. In midafternoon, almost imperceptibly, the sun began to grow smaller and smaller as if some celestial rodent was taking tiny nibbles from it. By the time the sun was half gone, the courtyard was full of people staring up the sky. Recalling the wizardís warning, Cub said "Donít look straight at it. If you stare at it for more than a few seconds, youíll go blind."

"Did the angel tell you that, too?" asked Father Thomas skeptically.

Cub flushed. "Yes, sir."

Gradually, the half disc became a sliver. And then, just as Wit had predicted, the sun became a ring of red-gold light, very much like a crown in the darkened sky.

No one said a word. Even the cows and sheep were unusually subdued. The prince finally broke the silence. "Iíll have to send word to my brother. You there! Bear Cub! What did you say the White Lady told you?"

He repeated Witís words.

The blond prince frowned. "Youíre sure she said a Ďchampioní? Not a Ďnew kingí?"

"Yes, sir. She said specifically Ďa champion to serve the kingí." He made up the last part himself. His words seemed to relieve the prince, who ordered Father Thomas to write a message. Grumbling something about Ďheathensí, the priest took out a fresh sheet of parchment, a bottle of ink and a pen. Using the back of one of the soldiers as a desk, he transcribed the princeís words, though he substituted "Angel" for "White Lady" and "God" for "Light".

Four days later, Wit returned to Lord Skyís estate. His hair was still its natural color, red-brown with just a few streaks of grey. He wore his left arm in a sling and walked with a limp. When questioned about where he had been during the recent eclipse, he said only "Attending to Kingís business."

"Did you find Wolf?" Bear asked when they were alone. He had decided that he was too old to be called Cub anymore. In the last few days, he had gone from being Lord Skyís foundling to being the wizardís apprentice. It was a role he relished. Now, if he could just persuade Wit to teach him some magic to make it true.

"Yes, I found him."

"Did you kill him?"

"What else was I to do?" Wit demanded angrily. "He was too dangerous to be allowed to run loose."

A younger Bear would have thought the wizardís anger was directed at him. He was old enough now to know that Wit was angry with himself. "Did he really look like me?"

"Not at all," lied the wizard. Spotting lies was one of Bearís special abilities. "Now, stop asking questions about Wolf. We have to get ready."

"Ready?"

"For our journey."

Journey? Did Bear hear him right? His heart did a little flip flop of joy. "Where are we going?" Expecting the older man to reply "to Lord Riverís castle" or maybe "to Riverbend," the nearby village.

"To Kingstown. Thereís going to be a contest to choose a new Kingís champion."

And Wit was going to enter and become the Kingís champion. And Bear would be his squire! It was more than he had ever dreamed of being! Flush with happiness, he packed his few possessions. Hawk kept asking where he thought he was going. Finally, goaded beyond endurance, he snapped back "Witís taking me to see the king." Which was not exactly true, but it shut the young lord up. Hard to believe that they had ever been friends. Hawk was so stupid and clumsy --

He caught the shorter boy staring up at him. His grey eyes were wet with tears. His lower lip trembled. "Itís not fair," muttered Hawk. "Iím the lordís son. Iím the one who will run things around here one day. But everyone is always talking about you. About how smart you are and how strong you are and how animals like you and how you can do no bloody wrong."

It had never occurred to Bear that Hawk might be as jealous of him as he was of Hawk. He held out his hand, but the smaller boy slapped it away and ran from the house.

The journey to Kingstown took just over a week. With a wizard in their midst and the prince and Lord Skyís soldiers to keep them safe, they had little to fear from either bandits or wild animals, and the trip was uneventful. But to Bear, who had not never travelled anywhere in his life (that he could remember) it was like something out of a dream. There were new faces, new buildings, new mountains -- he had never imagined that the world could be so big.

By the time the princeís party arrived in Kingstown, the capitol was crowded with visitors who had come to witness the champion trials. Tents had been erected on the green south of the kingís homefort, a stone castle. Vendors sold food to the hungry travelers, roast mutton, pickled eggs, mussels in garlic broth. Merchants offered spices, silks, colorful birds from the orient. Bards sang of previous champions. Jugglers, acrobats, strong men showed off their skills. Children tossed bits of bread to the royal swans which swam upon the clear, blue lake. Soldiers tossed dice, painted women showed their breasts -- there were so many wonders that Bear would have needed six heads and twelve eyes and ears to take it all in. Every time he turned to stare at a new marvel, Wit pulled him forward, towards the tower of stones that was at the heart of the festivities.

The iron fence that protected the testing cairn had been unlocked, and the pillar of white stones was surrounded by people, mostly young men, who had come to try their luck.

The trial was a simple one. Would-be royal champions attempted to pull a sword from the towering pile of rocks. Legend said that the cairn was once a frost giant from the north, a fearsome creature with a blue painted face and hair the color of fire. The giant abducted and raped a sister of the gods. In retribution, the lord Light struck the brute down with a bolt of lightning. The giantís bones became a tower of rocks taller than any man, while the lightning bolt became a sword. Only a warrior of great strength, wit and courage could pull the blade from the stones. Once armed with the magic weapon, the hero would be invincible.

"Letís get this over with," Wit muttered. He pushed his way to the front of the crowd. Bear was right behind him. The prince, his priest, Lord Sky and Hawk followed in their wake.

A big shouldered man with a thick black beard was straining to pull the sword from the cairn. He gripped the metal hilt so hard that his knuckles turned white. His face went from red to purple. But the sword would not budge.

"Give it up, Sy!" shouted someone from the crowd.

"Give us a turn!"

Wit tapped the bearded man on the shoulder with the tip of his staff, a stout oak stick topped with a crystal sphere that changed colors depending upon the wizardís mood. At the moment, the stone was bright blue.

"Whatdoyawant?" mumbled Sy, glaring.

"Let go," the wizard murmured.

"Bugger off!"

Witís eyebrow rose. The glowing stone turned dark red. This time when he tapped Sy with the tip of his staff, the big man yelped and released the sword in a hurry.

"Bear," said the wizard.

"You want me to get rid of him?" He grabbed Sy by the collar.

"No, fool!" Wit hissed. "I want you pull this Light forsaken sword out of this Light forsaken cairn so that we can end this farce."

"Me?"

"Yes, you."

Bear shook his head doubtfully. The trial seemed simple enough, but he had just seen a man with arms twice as big as his almost give himself a rupture, and the blade had not moved an inch. "Wouldnít it be easier for you to do it with magic?" he whispered.

Wit grabbed the young manís hands and clamped them on the sword hilt. "Pull!"

"Fine!" Bear gritted his teeth and braced his foot against the base of the cairn. The sword slid free of the rocks so easily that he tumbled over backwards, doing a somersault before finding his feet again. He stood. Clutched in his hands was a sword unlike any that he had ever seen. The blade glowed as if it had just been pulled from the forge, however it was cool to the touch. He swung the sword over his head. Despite its length, it was surprisingly light in weight.

Hawkís face was white as chalk. He looked so crestfallen that Bear automatically opened his mouth to make a self-deprecating joke, but the words died unspoken on his tongue. He realized that Hawk and Lord Sky and everyone else were frozen in place, as if they had become statues. Only he and Wit seemed capable of motion. Stranger yet, the sky had turned black as night, while the lake had begun to glow with a cool, blue light. The swans were gone. The surface of the water boiled, and a geyser shot up towards the sky. Or was it a pillar of light falling down from the heavens? Bear rubbed his eyes, but the scene remained the same.

"Whatís happening?" he whispered to Wit.

"Sheís coming."

"Whoís coming?"

"The Lady of the Lake." The wizard was staring straight ahead. Bear followed the direction of his gaze. There, moving gracefully through the crowd, a woman dressed in white with feathered wings and a halo. Her hair was like spun gold. Her face was pale and beautiful. Where her feet touched the ground, puddles formed, as if she had just stepped from the water. She smelled of lilies and moonlight. She was everything that Bear had ever wanted. She was the sum of all his dreams, the voice that whispered to him in the night saying One day you will be king.

Smiling, the Lady of the Lake held out her arms. "Champion!" Bear felt joy well up inside him. His whole life had been leading up to this moment. Power flowed through him with each beat of his heart. And with it came knowledge of the future. He saw himself cut down Hawk with a single strike of his sword. The boyís head rolled on the ground and came to rest at the feet of Lord Sky, who stared at him, aghast. It felt good to see the old man tremble. It felt even better to cut him in two...

No! he thought. This isnít me!

"Yesss," murmured the Lady of the Lake. "They mocked you. They beat you. They called you cub and told you to fetch water and firewood. Now they will kneel before you."

Bear saw himself sitting on the kingís throne. He saw the bodies of his enemies swinging from ropes. The priests would be the first ones to die. Their Roman magic was dangerous. It would deprive him of his birth right...

I donít want to kill anyone.

"You are the son of God," proclaimed the Lady of the Lake.

Bear was there when his mother, a milkmaid of fifteen years was waylaid in the woods by a figure clothed in light. He could not see the manís face...

This canít be right.

"It is not for mortals to gaze upon the face of God," breathed the Lady, as if she was inside his head, seeing everything he saw, feeling everything he felt.

Bear saw himself leading an army that cut down any obstacle in its path. The rivers ran red with blood. So much blood. He had never realized before what a lovely color it was. Deep red, like a fine wine. He saw himself drink fresh, warm blood from a goblet....

No! I am not a monster!

"You are not as other men, and therefore, their laws do not constrain you," the Lady of the Lake told him.

Bearís father, the god of light appeared before him. "You have done well, my son. Our enemies are no more. This land is now ours." He wished he could see more of Lightís face. He wanted to know if it resembled his own. But the god was dressed in green scaled armor that covered every inch of his body except his eyes...

"Your father is the dragon," proclaimed the Lady of the Lake.

Yes, his father was a dragon. A noble beast. No wonder he felt so uneasy in the presence of other humans. No wonder he longed to sweep them from the face of the earth...

"Bear, snap out of it!" Wit shouted into his ear.

The illusion of power vanished. The sky was blue again, the lake was only water and Bear was just a young man in homespun. A very tall, very strong young man, a man holding a sword that gleamed as if it was made from pure gold, but a man no less. He had no grudge against the people who stood frozen around him. Hawk was his friend. Lord Sky was his guardian. Why had he imagined himself killing them? Why had he imagined himself enjoying the act of killing them?

The Lady froze, still beautiful, but somehow less radiant. The corners of her mouth turned down. "Who are you?" she inquired coldly of the wizard.

"The last bloody champion," replied Wit. "Donít tell me youíve forgotten me already."

She shook her head. The scent of lilies and moonlight filled the air. The sky began to darken. "There is only one champion -- "

" -- there is only one quest. Yes, Iíve heard it before. Now, I want some answers. And I know how to get them." The wizard raised his hand revealing another of his magical toys. This one was roughly the size and shape of an apple, made from some kind of shiny, red-gold metallic material with a green crystal ornament in the shape of a leaf on top. Wit flicked the Ďleafí with his thumb, and the Ďappleí began to glow. Its light pushed back the darkness, returning the sky to its usual blue. "I found this in a pharaohís tomb, inside his sarcophagus. The inscription said it was used to control a genie. But there are no genies, are there? No angels and no randy gods impregnating women with showers of golden light. There are only creatures like you. Tell me what you are and why you are here!"

The Lady cringed and covered her face with her hands as if the red light burned her eyes. "Take it away!"

"After you answer my questions. Iíve figured some of it out for myself, but itís your motive that puzzles me. What do you hope to gain by raping women, impregnating them and then turning their children into mass murderers?"

Bear found his tongue. "This is a lady. Even if she wanted to, she couldnít force another woman to conceive a child."

"Donít let looks deceive you," the wizard told him sourly. "This is no Ďladyí. This isnít even a woman, and Iím beginning to suspect that she isnít human."

"Take it away!" she cried again.

"No, I want to see your real form!"

The Lady wailed. She tore out handfuls of her own hair. She writhed as if in agony.

"Um...Wit..." Bear began. It went against the grain to watch a woman -- even one who might not really be a woman -- suffer so.

"Quiet!" snapped the wizard.

Slowly, Witís magic began to have an effect. The Ladyís halo faded and then disappeared. Her golden hair darkened. Her features coarsened, until it became hard to tell her gender. She could have been a manly woman or an effeminate man. The feathers fell from his/her wings, which were now leathery and covered with fine, green scales. "We serve our masters." Even her voice was changed. It was deeper, gravelly. Her upper lip curled in a snarl.

"Who are your masters?"

"The People."

Wit sighed. "Of course, the People. Tell me more about these ĎPeople.í Where do they live?"

She pointed towards the sky. "On a world up there. Near the brightest star of the constellation you call Andromeda."

"What grudge do the People have against the inhabitants of this world?"

The question seemed to confuse her. "No grudge. The People do not know that your kind exist. And if they did, they would not care. Primitives like you are no threat to them."

Impatiently, "That has to be a lie. They sent you here."

"No, we came here by accident. Our ship suffered damage. We were heading for a planet four solar systems away. The People were at war with that planet. Our mission was to demoralize the enemy and aid our troops."

"íDemoralize the enemy and aid our troopsí." The wizard frowned. "A pretty way of saying that you rape the women of the enemy and plant monsters within them. Human looking monsters, but monstrous all the same, taller than other men, stronger, smarter. You help the monsters create chaos by giving them special weapons and powers that turn them into killers, tyrants, black magicians."

The green scaled creature hissed, like an angry snake.

Bear recalled the fantasy of a throne and a river of blood. Is that what he would have become, if not for Wit? A monster hiding behind a mask of nobility?

Witís shoulders slumped, as if he was suddenly very tired. "Why? If you arrived on this world by accident, if Ďthe Peopleí do not consider us their enemy, why have you tried so hard to kill so many of us?"

The creatureís skin was as leathery now as its wings. Its snout was long and it teeth were sharp, like fangs. It looked more like a lizard than a "lady." Hissing, it said "Becausssse that issss what we are programmed to do." Its tongue was forked. Its eyes burned as red as the orb on top of Witís staff.

Bear only understood one word in two, but he was beginning to catch the gist of the conversation. "You raped my mother!"

The creature shook its head, impatiently. "I allowed her the privilege of giving birth to one of the People. In form, you are like the inhabitants of thisss world, but you have the blood of the People within you. You can use the Peopleís toolsss and weaponsss. You can command the Peopleís servantssss." It pressed one scaly, clawed hand to its breast. "Anything you want, I can grant you." It pointed one of its talons at Hawk, who was still frozen with a scowl on his face. "I can make thisssss boy bow down to you. I can reduce him to a pile of cinderssss -- "

"Donít you dare!" yelled Bear. Father Thomas was still frozen, his mouth open as if preparing to speak. Bear grabbed the flask from the priestís belt. In one swift motion, he pulled the cork and splashed the contents onto the winged lizardís scaly face.

"Wait! I have more questions!" Wit shouted, too late.

A cloud of pungent, black smoke enveloped the reptile. It shrieked and then was silent. When the smoke cleared, the creature was gone, leaving behind a lump of blackened metal and a handful of broken crystals.

"It was a machine!" Bear exclaimed.

"What was a machine?" asked Hawk. The spell that had paralyzed the crowd lifted with the lizardís death. People continued to talk as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. They patted Bear on the back and congratulated him. Hawk still looked as if he could not decide whether to fume or to cry. Bear felt a wave of pity for the boy. And dawning horror as he realized how easy it would have been for him to do what his half-brother, Wolf Cub had done. Slaughter his adopted family in a fit of jealous rage.

There was a feast in the Kingís banquet hall that night. Bear was the guest of honor. His new sword leaned beside his chair. When other warriors tried to pick it up, they complained about how heavy it was. But when Bear lifted it, he found it light as a willow wand. Whenever he touched the jewel encrusted hilt, the blade glowed. It did the same when Wit got near.

After the feast, when the other royal guests were sleeping, Bear and Wit took a walk. They followed the river to the woods. Bear carried his new sword over his shoulders. The wizard had his staff. Wolves were out, but they stayed clear of the two men. The thieves who had been attracted to Kingstown by the presence of so many rich visitors were bolder, but Wit scared them off with a lightning blast from his wand.

The trees were thick and the woods were dark. "Light," said Bear. The magic lantern on the wizardís belt began to glow. He had finally acquired the "magic" powers he had craved. Funny how little it seemed to matter now that he knew the truth.

"How could any magical machine that intelligent be so stupid as to wage war against the wrong enemy simply because it has nothing else to do?" he asked the wizard.

An owl hooted and skimmed the ground, in search of nocturnal prey.

"Thatís the problem with machines. They do what theyíre told. If you push a wagon towards a cliff, its wheel wonít stop rolling, even though going over the edge will destroy it and anything itís carrying."

"Meaning that a horse is smarter, because a horse wonít go over a cliff no matter how hard you beat it. Are there others like that lizard-machine?"

"Probably," said the wizard. He paused before an ancient, gnarled oak tree. Raising the lantern on his belt, he illuminated holy runes and blood stains, both fresh. Ordinarily, laymen stayed out of the way of Seers, but Wit was no ordinary man. And now, neither was Bear.

"And all of them do the same thing? Rape women, impregnate them and then teach the children how to become killers? It seems so senseless. That thing we saw today had so much power. Think of how much good it could do."

"You could say the same thing about any engine of war."

"The Lady -- the lizard, I mean -- wanted me to kill Hawk and Lord Sky. Did you ever kill someone you loved."

Witís expression was bleak. "Yes."

"Because the lizard told you to?"

"She -- it convinced me that my wife was unfaithful to me. In truth, I think it wanted to make sure that I did not form attachments to other humans. And so it was always whispering to me, warning me of plots and treachery."

Bear shivered. His own life could have been like that, had Wit not been there to intervene. "You used me as bait, didnít you? You made up that story about Light needing a new champion, because you knew it would attract the lizard, and she would be there when I pulled the sword out of the cairn." When Wit did not answer, Bear asked another, simpler question. "Are you going to hunt down more of the war engines?"

"Yes."

"And destroy them?"

"If I can."

Bear swung his sword back and forth a few times. It glowed in the darkness. "Iím coming with you. To avenge my mother and make sure that no more Wolf Cubs are born. And Wit I want you to promise. If I ever go mad, please kill me."

The wizard nodded. "If youíll promise to do the same for me."

"Agreed. Weíll need some more holy water. Maybe we can persuade a Roman priest to show us how it is made..."

####

On the plains of Hungary, a child is born. Nephew to the king, he will one day lay waste to the Roman Empire, and his name will become synonymous with war...

THE END


© 2012 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the excerpt Morfil Chapter 1 (December 2011/January 2012), the first part of a novel-length sequel to Chatterton Reef (June 2011).

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