Saint Jake – Hippies

Jake leaned back from the table with a sigh of contentment. He used the cloth napkin they had given him to make sure his beard was tidy. It was beginning to show some gray, now, though his hair remained dark.

“I cannot tell you, ma’am, when I’ve last eaten so well,” he said.

All four sets of eyes were fixed on him. Pride gleamed in the farmer’s wife’s eyes at his compliment. Her husband’s eyes were narrowed, and her children’s were wide.

“Don’t normally invite travelers into our home,” the farmer said.

“Jonathan!” his wife scolded. “This is Jake.”

Says he’s Jake,” the farmer said. His wife’s cheeks flared bright red, and she glared at her husband.

“Jake is my name, sir,” Jake said.

“Aye, but are ye the Jake my wife seems to think you are? The one that battled two Dragonlords in the Forest of Garnacha?”

Jake paused. He didn’t often tell that story. It was one of the darker tales with a sad ending, and it usually left his listeners distressed.

“The Forest of Garnacha is a depressing place,” Jake said. “It’s an old forest, ancient, and full of spiders and death beetles and deadfall. You can’t see where you’re putting your feet, and sometimes you step on things that… squish.”

The children — a boy and a girl — both squealed.

Halfway through the story, the farmer leaned back and lit his pipe. He offered Jake a pinch of weed, and Jake gratefully accepted. He finished the story, which put tears in the farmwife’s eyes, and then told the story about tricking the Dragonlord Opus out of his entire treasure, which had them all laughing out loud.

As his wife took the children to put them to bed, and the farmer clapped Jake on the shoulder with a smile.

“I can’t say I believe a word you said, young man,” he said, “but that was the best storytelling I’ve heard. If you ain’t the Jake, you might as well be. You’re welcome in this house any time.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jake replied.

“Then I’ll bid you good night. You’ll be comfortable in the barn?”

“Yes, sir. Been on the road most of my life. I don’t think I’d be comfortable sleeping in a house. The barn will be a luxury.”

“Breakfast is sharp at sunrise. And maybe you can help me with the windmill, afore ye go out on the road again. It’s two more weeks until the harvest workers come through, and I need someone on the ground who can lift.”

“Be happy to help, sir.”

“Aye. Well, then, good night.”

After a hearty farm breakfast at dawn, Jake went out with the farmer to fix the windmill that pulled up water from the well for the animals.

When the farmer climbed down from the windmill tower, Jake pointed to a row of metal posts with solar panels on top.

“How come you don’t use those?” he asked.

The farmer glanced at the row of panels and snorted.

“Them things? I ain’t had time to pull ‘em down. They’re useless.”

“Busted?”

“Among other things. Hailstorm a few years back broke three of ‘em. Ijits that built ‘em left no way to get up there to fix ‘em. Installed with a cherry-picker. Gasoline-powered. Ain’t seen one in years, now. Can’t afford the parts to fix ‘em, even if I built a big enough ladder to get up there. Plus, batteries is all fried. Lightning storm.”

“Who put them up?”

The farmer laughed. “Bunch o’ hippies, come out of the city. Set up some kind of homestead out here, hopin’ to ride out the end of the world. Have to admit, they had some nice ideas. Got more food out of an acre than I can get out of four, and they claimed it didn’t wear out the soil.”

Jake scratched his beard. “So what happened to them?”

The farmer spat, to ward off ill luck.

“City used to end about a mile from here. Supermarkets shut down one summer — some kind of gasoline crisis, they said — and word got out that the hippies had food. Thousands of people came out, raided the place, stripped it bare. Would’a taken the solar panels, if they could’a got to ‘em. Would’a raided my land, too, if it wasn’t off-season and the fields fallow. Don’t think any of them hippie kids got hurt, but they left and didn’t come back. I took over the land a couple years later.”

“Aren’t you worried they’ll do that again? To you?”

The farmer stared in the direction of the city for a while.

“Nah,” he said at last. “Things is different, now. Hippies were into some kind of ‘self-sufficiency’ deal. Raisin’ food and then keepin’ it for themselves so’s they could survive the troubles. I’m part of this community — I got no use for most of what I raise, and it goes to market every few days in harvest season. Just like all the other farmers around here. Ain’t no point in comin’ all the way out here to steal stuff I already sent into town. Plus, sheriff’s a lot more sensitive to our needs than he used to be. Town raids our farm, or our market wagons, lots of people go hungry. Sheriff won’t stand for that.”

Jake nodded slowly.

“No interest in stayin’ on as a farmhand?” the farmer asked. “Couldn’t offer you no pay, but you’d not go hungry a day in your life.”

Jake stared at the solar panels and thought of his old X-box Infinity. He thought about always having a full stomach, and a place to stay every night. He thought about maybe taking a wife, and raising children.

“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Your offer’s much appreciated, sir. But it’s not in my nature to stay put.”

“Well, you’re honest if nothing else, Jake. Makes me want to believe your wild stories.”

“I’ve seen these things with my own eyes, sir,” Jake said.

On a video game console, some part of his mind offered up. But those memories were fading, and the first-person tales he told had taken on the color of life. Sometimes, it was almost as if he had been there.

The farmer stared at him in silence.

“Well, good luck to you,” he said at last.

Jake nodded, then turned and walked away.

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Saint Jake – Survivalist

The razor-wire fence was mostly rust. A sign advised that trespassers would be shot without warning. Jake was inclined to respect such warnings, but he needed water pretty desperately, and he hadn’t seen any other habitation for miles. So he stepped through the gap where the fence had long ago rusted through and “sprung,” put both hands in the air, and shouted “Just visiting,” every few steps.

He spotted an old, rusty pump-handle in the middle of a small dip in the ground. He’d have missed the bunker entirely, camouflaged and dug into the hill, had the door not been ajar. A desiccated hand clutched the ground outside through the slit-like opening, picked clean by birds of all but a few leathery scraps of skin.

Jake carefully pulled the door wide. The owner of the hand lay just inside, face-down, dressed in Army camo fatigues. There was no smell — the man had been dead for a long time, and the dry air had sucked all the moisture out of the remains. This part of the West had become a dry, barren land, and any scavengers big enough to scatter the bones were long-gone.

Tatters of a dark-stained bandage around the extended hand told the story: he’d likely died of blood poisoning, from a cut. Dragged himself out of bed in a fever to catch a final glimpse of sky before he died. Hadn’t quite made it.

Jake returned to the pump and worked the handle until he was rewarded by resistance. After a few more strokes, clear water cascaded from the spout, and after tasting it, he drank his fill and then filled his water bag.

He left the body and the bunker alone. No point in disturbing the spirits of the dead. Besides, there was likely nothing in the bunker that he wanted. Guns and explosives, for sure — not something he wanted to be caught on the road with. Canned food, but after all these years, it was anyone’s guess if it was fit to eat.

But the real issue was booby-traps. Guys who’d built these sorts of places were usually not quite right in the head: like this fellow, building his razor-wire fence right out to the road, advertising there was something worth protecting to any passersby. Jake had heard of survivalists who’d blown themselves up because they’d booby-trapped the food, then forgotten to disarm it one morning before breakfast. There were people who knew how to get stuff out of these places, and made good trade selling it. Good luck to them.

He turned and walked back toward the road, whistling.

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Saint Jake – Romance

Miranda stared at Jake in perplexity.

“Florida?” she said. “Where’s that?”

“Far to the East, and to the South,” Jake replied. “All the way to the other ocean.”

“Why on earth do you want to go there?”

Jake thought about the question as they walked the empty freeway. The idea of walking to Florida hadn’t crossed his mind until the moment he’d said it. He turned the idea over in his mind a few times as they walked.

He’d filled out in the decade since his twenty-first birthday. Towns were on a more substantial footing these days, and had discovered that travelers were a valuable source of news, and a dangerous source of plagues if you let them die of hunger on your doorstep. Most communities had returned to a staple diet, which could be produced cheaply enough to give away food to wanderers, so long as they were inclined to move on after a night or two.

“I want to see the Blue Lady,” Jake said at last.

Miranda, today’s walking companion along with Brood and Scowl — those were the names he’d given them, since they’d not spoken a word since he’d joined them — looked up at him with wide eyes.

“The Blue Lady? Do you think she’s real?”

“I don’t know,” Jake said. “That’s what I want to find out.”

Miranda shuddered. “If she’s real, then so is Bloody Mary. I sure wouldn’t want to meet her.”

“Maybe so. But if the Blue Lady is real, I think she’s worth the risk.”

“You want to join her army of angels?”

“If she’ll have me.”

Miranda’s eyes glowed. “Tell me the story about the Dungeons of Thoom. Where you met your first Dragonlord.”

Jake smiled. He’d been telling tales about his battles with the Dragonlords to pass the long hours walking with various road-companions, and his stories had been racing in all directions up and down the road, all by themselves. His meeting with Dragonlord Eris in the Dungeons of Thoom was one of the most popular. He spoke in a well-practiced voice, with broad gestures, and he could see that even Brood and Scowl were listening closely.

“I want to come with you to meet the Blue Lady!” Miranda squealed when he had finished. Brood and Scowl grew suddenly more surly.

Brothers. Cousins. Lovers. Trouble, whoever they were.

Jake stopped and looked Miranda straight in the eye. She gazed back, and a light was in her eyes. She was maybe eighteen, and pretty, and he was just over thirty. He’d been with other women, a few times, but in these days of irregular birth control and frequent maternity deaths, sex was complicated and more often than not ended with a lot of angry screaming. In his experience, the pleasure wasn’t worth the painful aftermath. After a decade on the road, he had no desire to settle down anywhere and raise a family. And the road was no place for a child, intended or otherwise.

He put a hand on her shoulder, to keep her from moving in and kissing him.

“Miranda, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you from searching for the Blue Lady. Maybe we’ll meet someday in her Garden. But you can’t come with me. This is a journey I have to make on my own.”

“But why? Why do you have to go alone?” Tears quivered in Miranda’s eyes.

“I have many… amends to make, before I meet the Blue Lady,” Jake said. It sounded pretty good, once he’d said it aloud.

“Oh, Jake!” The tears spilled over, but she was smiling. She shrugged off his hand, threw her arms around him, and held him tight. Brood began to scowl, and Scowl took a step toward him. Jake shook his head slightly, meeting Scowl’s eyes. Scowl stopped.

“Now,” Jake announced, gently disengaging from Miranda’s embrace, “I need to meditate, alone. Please, the three of you continue without me. Be mellow.” He gazed straight at Scowl as he said this, and Scowl nodded almost imperceptibly.

He sat on the hot concrete of the highway, and watched the three of them walk away until they vanished in the distant heat-haze.

No choice now. You don’t want to run into them again, not even by accident. Scowl will slip a knife between your ribs.

He thought about it. Why not give Florida a try? It would be something different.

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Saint Jake – The Road

Jake approached the fire warily. Food wasn’t regular, nor always healthy, and he seemed more bone than meat. He’d been drawn to the fire by the light and the smell of something cooking, and sat carefully, hands in view, across from the person heating a can of Dinty Moore stew over the fire.

“Hungry?” the other man asked. Like Jake, he was painfully gaunt. There were patches of gray in his rough beard.

“Powerful,” Jake answered.

“Aught to trade?”

“A little weed.”

“You mean ditchweed,” the other man answered, with a grimace of disgust.

“No, good stuff,” Jake answered. “Purple haze.”

The man’s eyebrows went up.

“No shit? Lots better company than I had last night.” He gestured to the empty stretch of fallen log beside him.

Jake rose and walked around the fire to sit beside the older man.

Wariness on the road was habitual, but of necessity had resolved into a kind of courtesy. Robbery was rare — people on the road these days had little to nothing, and it wasn’t worth taking a scratch or a bite over nothing. Food was shared regardless, which blunted the main reason for theft. But trade was expected, if the other person had anything to trade. Jake had been robbed only once when he’d just started walking the road, three years ago, and the fellow had sat him down afterward and taught him the rules. So it wasn’t even a proper robbery, more an object lesson.

Jake slowly pulled his pouch of purple haze from his pocket, and offered it to the older man, who raised it to his nose and sniffed. A softer expression crossed the man’s face.

“That’s good,” he said, and handed the bag back. “Dessert, then.”

“Jake.”

The older man nodded, once. “Robert.”

When the stew started to bubble, Robert set it on a rock to cool, and they both watched stars appear in the cerulean evening sky. When the can was cool enough to hold, Robert took a spoon from his pocket and took the first bite, then handed the can to Jake. Jake had his own spoon ready, and took a bite, then handed back the can. They passed it back and forth until the can was empty and scraped clean.

Jake took the pouch back out of his pocket, and put a generous pinch into the tiny pipe Robert had pulled from a different pocket on his vest, then placed a pinch in his own pipe. Jake heated a twig to a coal in the fire, and lit his pipe: the sweet stench of burning marijuana filled the air. He inhaled deeply, and passed the coal to Robert, who lit his own pinch and drew until the glow in the pipe flickered out. He held his breath for nearly thirty seconds before he slowly exhaled.

Monosyllables melted into easy conversation. Life histories had been polished by the road into smooth, elegant gems as terse as an old-world resume.

Robert, once married with two children, software designer and good at his job. Laid off, turned to drink, wife left him and took the kids. Stayed in shelters for two years, then got restless and hit the open road. Wouldn’t think of going back.

Jake, teen-age slacker and video gamer, mother died in a fracking quake that destroyed his house and almost got him. Hitched to the Pacific coast and then found himself on the road. Sometimes missed his mother, and desperately wanted to finish the last video game he’d played, the Dragonlords of Sym.

“You played Dragonlords?” Robert asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Almost finished it,” Jake replied.

“I worked on that game,” Robert said. “Just a bit, at the beginning, before they laid me off. Looked good.”

“It was awesome. Best AI on the market, and you could actually talk to the characters in the game.”

“You almost finished it? I thought it wasn’t supposed to end?”

“Yeah, that’s what they said. But someone on-line said you could force an ending if you backed all of the Dragonlords into a corner at once. Kinda like a checkmate in chess. I was that close.”

“Tell me about your favorite battle.” Robert’s gaze was far-away.

“That would be the Arena of Fate,” Jake said, his voice taking on timbre and excitement. “They stripped me of all my weapons, except my fleschette rifle, and all twelve Dragonlords were there….”

Jake’s voice rose and fell, and Robert listened with rapt attention. When Jake finally fell silent, Robert slowly brought his hands together in deliberate applause.

“You are the best entertainment I’ve had in a month of Sundays,” Robert said. “It’s just a damn video game, but you tell it with such passion. I’m in your debt, Jake. Thank you.”

They fell silent after that, individually contemplating the night sky and the vagaries of fate. Then Robert wished Jake a good night and curled up on the ground close to the fire. Jake watched the coals for a few more minutes, then curled up and fell asleep.

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Saint Jake – In the Beginning

Jake should have felt the rumbling ground, but he had his X-Box Infinity turned up, and the subwoofer always made the ground vibrate. Plus, he was pretty high. He insisted it improved his reflexes. The frantic action on the screen occupied his full attention, until the power went out.

“Aw, SHIT!” Jake shouted into the darkness. “MOMmmm! Power bill! Again?”

Then he remembered that today she had a shift at the clinic. He grumbled, unfolded his lanky frame, and shuffled through the cave-dark room, wincing every time his bare feet clipped a dirty dish or cup. There was an open pizza box, somewhere, and he didn’t want to step in it.

Something crashed above, marking the death of some glass trinket. The house was full of them. Mom’s hobby had once been collecting glass figurines, back when they could afford it, and she was going to blame him and have a fit.

He reached the stairs before he stopped to wonder who had knocked over the figurine. He was supposedly home alone.

He stood, openmouthed, at the bottom of the steps, wondering if he should just stay down here. Then the ground rumbled again, and he heard several more crashes.

Holy cat, an earthquake. Here?

He tried to remember whether it was safe to be in a basement during an earthquake. Or was that just tornados? He decided he’d be better off outside, where the only thing that could fall on him was the sky. He pounded up the stairs, threw open the basement door, and stopped, blinded by the late afternoon sunlight pouring through the back windows.

As his eyes adjusted, he saw broken glass all over the kitchen tile leading to the back door.

Shit. Good thing I didn’t run across that in my bare feet. Be mellow, man.

The rumbling ceased. He made his way across worn carpet in the other direction, grabbed his Crocs from where they lay near the door, and threw the deadbolt on the front door. As he stepped through the door, the ground lurched under his feet, and a rush of dust-laden air pushed him forward onto his face as the roof caved in behind him.

He rolled over onto his back. Nothing above but clear, blue sky. The front wall of the house still stood, just beyond his feet, the top edge roofless and ragged against the sky.

Maybe I should get away from the house.

He decided to roll, rather than walk, and stopped halfway across the yard. Several more rumbles shook the ground, none as bad as the jolt that had knocked him down, but the front wall of the house collapsed inward with stately grace. The door and doorframe remained stubbornly vertical.

A door to nowhere, man. Been that way for a long time.

He lay quietly on the dead stubble of lawn and the few spiky patches of natural xeriscaping where the desert weeds had blown in and Mom had let them grow, because they had pretty blooms in the spring. It was the only beauty left in the yard. The water table had dropped, and most of the trees in the neighborhood were gone. At first, they’d been cut down and hauled out, and people had planted new trees, which had not thrived. Later, as the economy dove into yet another recession, people had cut down the dying trees themselves for firewood, leaving stumps in their yards. Eventually they had just let the dead trees stand as they abandoned their houses. Water restrictions made irrigation too expensive for decorative greens, so the crisp Kentucky Blue lawns died, gradually displaced by hardier, drought-resistant species. They greened up for a couple of weeks in the late Spring, but then went brown, just like the hills that surrounded the town.

Another rumble shook the ground, and he heard the house collapse into the basement.

When Jake finally dared to stand, he walked back to the still-standing door, and looked at the pile of rubble that had been his home.

Jesus. Now what am I going to do?

He scratched his nascent beard, then turned and walked in the direction of the clinic where his mother worked.

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Saint Jake – Prologue

Rudric gripped the shaft of his hayfork more tightly, and swallowed with a dry mouth. He could see the dust raised by the horsemen ahead, and a few of the lead horses, manes flying in a full gallop. No telling how many more rode behind in the dust, but there would be many. All battle-trained and armed with real weapons.

He glanced to his left and to his right. The village and all the nearby farms had turned out, armed with whatever they could find, mostly farming tools, nearly three hundred strong. His hayfork was one of the better weapons. One of the two Jakes had organized the villagers, and had nodded when he’d seen the hayfork and asked others to bring as many as they could find. There were an even two dozen hayfork wielders, packed tightly in two rows in the center of the line, with the Jakes astride their horses on the slope right behind them. Drop low, plant the butt of the fork in the hillside, and keep the tines high and pointed directly at the horse. Let the horse do all the work.

Not that any of them would likely survive. A thousand pounds of racing muscle and bone was not something you could fend off with a pointed stick. Their job wasn’t to survive. It was to protect the Jakes for the few critical moments they needed.

None of them would survive if they didn’t fight. These weren’t annual raiders, come for food and women. They were part of a terrible army from Washimore, on their way to fight the equally terrible armies of the Linahs, and they slaughtered people and burned the fields as they went; should they lose the battle, their enemies would need to cross a dead zone to strike back.

Rudric’s work-callused hands began to tremble. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and recalled the Prayer of Saint Jake to mind.

Be mellow.

He thought of Saint Jake’s campaign against the Dragonlords, standing alone in the Arena of Fate, the fate of his people riding on his victory against impossible odds, and his hands steadied.

I can do this, he thought. Saint Jake, give me strength of spirit and mellowness of soul, and should I die here today, receive me into your company of the blessed.

He opened his eyes, and watched the lead horsemen race toward him.

next

The Kingmakers

The young man sat in front of the hearthfire, the ancient behind him like a tall, thin shadow in the air. Sweat beaded the young man’s face and collected on his lightly stubbled chin, and glistened in the ruddy light of the coals, which provided the only light in the dark room. His wide-set eyes were open wide and white with fear, and his lips trembled uncontrollably.

“It is simple enough, Master Tulane,” the Ancient whispered. “Thrust your finger into the coals.”

“I… I…” The young man swallowed convulsively. The skin of his hand had reddened from the heat, and the tip of his finger was beginning to blister.

“I can’t do it!” he shrieked, and yanked his hand away from the fire. He cradled the burned finger in his lap and rocked back and forth, as sobs racked his shoulders.

“I’ve failed. I’ve failed. I’ve failed,” he chanted in time to his rocking.

A monk approached from near the door and led the young man away, still chanting his failure like a mantra.

The old man turned away from the fire and sat heavily in his own chair. His shadow stretched across the table that lay between him and the deeper shadows where the firelight did not reach. He filled a small glass with wine from a decanter on the table, and swallowed it in one convulsive gulp.

“Pace yourself, Brother Anselm,” said a voice from the darkest corner. “It won’t do to have them smell wine on your breath. Or for you to fall into the fire yourself.”

Anselm spat a curse. “I know, I know, Brother Michael. But I dread this next one. This Tulane fellow was perfectly predictable. Eldest son of a landowner down on his luck. Pressure to succeed, no aptitude or desire. There was no question he would break. The next applicant….” He shuddered, and poured himself another half-glass.

“Equally predictable,” said Brother Michael, invisible in the shadows.

“Then we both agree. Why not turn him away now, and spare him?”

“You know the answer to that, Brother Anselm.”

“Of course I do. My mind has not yet gone to rot.”

“Then let him venture the test. We can’t deny him that opportunity.”

Anselm sighed. “No, we can’t.”

“Do you want me to take this one?”

Anselm hesitated, then shook his head. “Thank you, Brother Michael, but no. You had to deal with the D’Onofrio boy.”

A grunt of assent issued from the shadows. “Aye, that was unpleasant.”

They both sat in silence.

A patterned knock came at the door. Anselm stood and faced the hearth, and composed himself. The door opened, and the monk led in a second young man. This one resembled the first as all healthy young men resemble each other in the eyes of old men. Beyond that, however, they were entirely different. The first had had a soft face; this one’s was hard, even cruel. The first had worn his hair somewhat long, as was the fashion among the wealthy, and his beard stubble was soft and patchy; this one had shaved his head as well as his chin, and the stubble was coarse and black. The first had moved like an aristocrat; this one strode into the room like a warrior.

Anselm gestured to the seat in front of him.

“Sit,” he commanded, all trace of querulousness gone from his voice. His age-hooded eyes looked blind in the dim light.

The young man moved swiftly to the seat, and planted himself in it, claiming it as his own.

“Brother Rupert,” Anselm said, softly. “Attend the fire.”

Rupert stepped to the bellows attached to the hearthfire, and began to pump. Anselm let it reach cold-forge heat, the coals nearly white and hot enough to work copper, before he signaled for Rupert to stop.

“State your name,” Anselm said, his tone formal.

“Marcello Boniface DuBuque, the Third,” the boy said. His tone was proud and unafraid, even a touch arrogant despite the formality of the occasion.

“You wish to be King?”

“Of course,” the young man said, casting aside all pretense of humility.

“You undertake these trials of your own will?”

“I do.”

“You understand that these trials themselves may end in your death?”

“I do.”

“And that passing these trials does not guarantee our endorsement?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us begin. Thrust the index finger of your right hand into the coals.”

The young man hesitated.

“Is this a test of courage? Have I not already demonstrated that on the field of battle?”

Anselm stood silent.

“Bah!” the young man said. “It is but a finger. I have ten, and more courage in each of them than most men have in their entire bodies. I can do this.”

He thrust the tip of his finger into the fire. Yellow flame leaped up. The stink of burning flesh, then of burning bone filled the room. The young man held his finger in place for a moment longer, then screamed once before his eyes rolled back in their sockets and he fell from his chair, pulling his hand free from the fire. His fingertip burned with a greasy yellow flame like a candle. Anselm bent forward swiftly and plunged the boy’s burning hand into a bucket of water that stood near the fire.

Rupert ran to them, and bore up the young man on his shoulders. Anselm opened the door for Rupert and his burden, and then closed the door and leaned his head against it. He stood silently for a long minute. Then he walked unsteadily back to his seat and collapsed into it. He poured himself another glass of wine with shaking hands.

“Perfectly predictable,” Brother Michael said from the shadows.

“Yes.” Brother Anselm’s voice was a whisper.

“Why did you make the fire so hot?” Michael asked. “Did you hope it would discourage him?”

“No,” said Anselm. “There was no discouraging that one. I wanted a clean cautery. You were right. He is entitled to the Questions, now, assuming he survives the shock and the amputation. Who knows, he might surprise us. Perhaps this will have knocked some sense into him. If it does, it would be a shame for him to succumb to infection.”

“Ah,” said Michael.

After a moment of silence, Michael continued, “So what of this third candidate?”

Anselm took a deep breath. “I don’t know. He puzzles me, and I don’t quite trust him. I can’t put my finger on it.”

“He puzzles you? You mean you can’t predict his responses?”

“His answers so far have been unpredictable, yes, but also too … smooth. As if he already knows the questions, and their answers. Is it possible that our protocols have been breached? Are we being manipulated by one of the factions?”

“Which faction backs him?”

“None of them. He is unaffiliated.”

“Which merely means that we don’t know which faction is backing him.”

“Yes.”

Michael mulled this in silence.

“Perhaps,” he said at last. “But if anyone knew, one would think the DuBuque clan would know, in which case the DuBuque boy would not have been so phenomenally stupid.”

“That’s true,” Anselm said. “One of the renegade clans, perhaps?”

“That’s hard to imagine. They have no libraries. They do not value learning. They have sacked only villages and small towns. They would have had to wring the knowledge from one of our members, and all of us who are conversant with the Trial Lore are here right now, and accounted for.”

“Your reasoning is sound, but I am still … unsettled.”

“Perhaps he already knows the questions and answers because he is an avatar of a past King.”

Anselm snorted. “You know I don’t believe in that superstitious rot.”

“Your disbelief does not make it impossible.”

Anselm squirmed in irritation. Then he relaxed. “Now is not the time for our debate, Brother Michael. Much as I enjoy your wit and your twisted logic.”

Michael chuckled drily.

A quick knock sounded on the door, and Brother Rupert stuck his head in.

“Brother Anselm. The physicians say that the boy will likely live. He has survived the shock. He will lose the finger, and most of the dexterity in his right hand, but he will keep the hand and will be able to use it.”

Anselm slumped as the tension in his shoulders released.

“Thank you, Brother Rupert. I’d like to get the third candidate out of the way, and then go to my bed. It has been a trying day. Please show him in.”

Rupert bowed and left, and Anselm resumed his position facing the fire. Rupert returned a moment later with another young man, so like all the other candidates in his youth and health, but as different from the last two as to be a different species. His hair was long and wild, standing up in spots like stiff grass. It was clear he’d tried to tame it with a brush, but the result was to make it look wilder than ever. Even in the dim glow of the coals, his pale eyes seemed unfocused. His limbs were willow-thin, and he walked with a slight limp.

Anselm gestured to the chair in front of the fire. “Sit,” he commanded.

The boy did not obey immediately, but instead turned about several times, surveying the nearly-dark room. He hesitated, then bowed slightly to the shadowed corner where Brother Michael resided. Then he bowed more deeply to Brother Anselm and dropped into the seat before the fire, and unkempt tangle of unruly hair and limbs.

“State your name,” Anselm said.

“John Travers.”

“You wish to be King?”

The boy stared into the red coals, silent. Protocol forbade Anselm from asking that particular question again, and he was about to dismiss the boy, when he began to speak.

“My father… was a master leathersmith. He made shoes, mostly, and purses. Sometimes fancy, beautiful things for people with money. I loved to watch him work. He was so careful. Every mark on the leather, just so. Momma loved him, too. I had two big brothers, and a little sister, and we were … happy.

“Then the Black Clan came, and burned our city. Papa and Mama died, and my brothers, and my sister. I was captured and sold to bandits. I was too small for heavy work, so they made me do little jobs around the camp, like bring food and water to the people they robbed and held for ransom, and those people always said the same thing: they said if there was a King, this sort of thing would not be allowed.

“When I got old enough, I escaped. I traveled a lot, on foot, and I found out that things were bad everywhere. And everyone said the same thing, no matter where I went. If there was a King, things would be better.

“But there was no King. The last King was over a hundred years ago. They said no one could pass the Trials. I asked what it took to pass the Trials, but no one could tell me. They said it was a secret, a mystery. They said either you had the stuff of Kings in you, or you didn’t. They said to go ask the Prophets, and they’d give you the Trials, and then you’d know.”

The boy turned around to look at Anselm.

“I don’t know if I’ve got the stuff of Kings in me, sir, and I really don’t know if I want to be King. But I want there to be a King, and there won’t be one if no one tries. So I’m here to try.”

Anselm cleared his throat. If this answer was genuine, it was the best answer he’d ever heard. It reeked of artifice. Whoever had schooled this boy had done it well.

“You undertake these trials of your own will?”

“Yes.”

“You understand that these trials themselves may end in your death?”

The boy hesitated, and turned back to the coals. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders.

“I do,” he said.

“And that passing these trials does not guarantee our endorsement?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us begin. Thrust the index finger of your right hand into the coals.”

The boy flinched, like he’d been struck. He twisted around and looked at Anselm with wide eyes. He held up his index finger.

“This?” he said. “Are you joking?”

Anselm stood impassively.

The boy turned and stared for a long moment at his upraised finger. He slowly reached toward the coals. The ruddy glow painted his hand in crimson and orange. He stopped. His hand inched closer. He stopped again.

Then he withdrew his hand and put it in his lap.

“No,” he said.

Anselm gestured, and Brother Rupert approached and led the boy from the room.

Anselm sat, slowly, with a sigh like steam escaping from a hot sausage. He reached for the wine decanter, but then let his arm rest on the table.

“Well, it is the only sane and sensible response, after all,” said Brother Michael. “I’m always surprised by how many fail the test, one way or the other. But I see what you mean. He didn’t even put up a fight. He just said, ‘No.’ Certainly odd.”

“Perhaps.” Anselm’s tone was pensive.

“What are you thinking now?” Brother Michael asked.

“He almost put his hand in the fire. Every motion said he was thinking about doing it. His arm, his neck, his back. And then he changed his mind, and drew back. If he was schooled in this, Brother Michael, his acting skills are astonishing.”

“Yet his answers are too perfect, I agree. How do you explain that?”

Brother Anselm poured himself a small amount of wine, and swirled it under his nose.

“I’m thinking that perhaps he is an avatar of a former King.”

Brother Michael chuckled. “If you’re considering that, then it seems miracles are truly afoot.”

Anselm laughed, then drank the wine.

“Good night, brother Michael. Sleep well, if you can. I know I won’t.”

-#-

Tulane, the first boy, left the monastery at dawn, still apologizing for his failure. The monks did not encourage him to stay. Brother Anselm wondered sadly how many years it would take for the boy to get past his belief in his inadequacy — if, indeed, he ever did. Between his father’s ambitions and the Trials, the boy had probably been broken beyond repair.

They chose to wait until the DuBuque boy had recovered enough to face the Questions. After two days, the physicians said he was ready, so long as no physical stress was required. They assured him that there would be no physical stress.

They met at midday, in one of the libraries, well-lit through large louvers in the ceiling, designed to admit daylight but no moisture. Brother Rupert led Marcello DuBuque into the room. Brother Anselm and Brother Michael both sat comfortably in deeply-upholstered chairs, and Anselm gestured to a third chair that faced the other two, forming an intimate triangle.

“Please sit, Marcello Boniface DuBuque the Third,” Anselm said.

Marcello’s face was pale, and his eyes shadowed. His right hand was heavily bandaged, and held high against his chest in a cloth sling. The physicians had given him some medication for the pain during the first day, but had weaned him off it the second day, so that he could continue the Trials with a clear head.

“Do you wish to delay the Trials, in light of your injury?” Anselm asked.

Marcello shook his head sharply, with a scowl, though he did not meet the eyes of either monk.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Michael asked.

“Yes,” Marcello snarled.

“Then let us continue the Trials,” said Brother Anselm. “We will begin by asking you to explain why you put your hand in the fire.”

Hot anger swept across Marcello’s face. “You know damn well why I put my hand in the fire! Because you—“ Marcello suddenly pinched his lips together, and his face went pale.

“Because you made me do it,” Anselm thought. Or perhaps, “Because you told me to.” At least he had the sense to not finish that sentence.

Anselm and Michael waited quietly for Marcello to continue.

“Because it was a test of courage,” he said, striking a pose, though still seated. “A test of raw, physical courage. Which I passed, as befits a future King.”

“Mmmm,” said Brother Michael. “And what would you say you learned from this test of courage, Marcello Boniface the Third?”

“Learned?” said Marcello, his eyebrows rising, along with his voice. “Learned? I learned that it hurts to put your finger in the damned fire! What was I supposed to learn from your stupid test?” He started to rise from his seat.

Brother Anselm clapped his hands twice, and two large monks quickly flanked Marcello on either side. Marcello looked like he wanted to fight them right then and there, but thought better of it, given the condition of his hand.

“We will speak again tomorrow,” said Brother Anselm. And the day after that, and the day after that, until you grow tired of hearing the same two questions over and over, and go home.

This one would never be King.

Rupert approached and gestured for Marcello to precede him back to the infirmary. The two large monks followed close behind.

Brother Michael leaned toward Anselm. He was almost as old as Anselm, but portly and soft, and a wicked humor gleamed in his eyes.

“A week,” he said.

“Three days,” Anselm responded, with no change in his dour expression, though his eyes also twinkled behind his heavy lids.

“He has too much ambition. He’ll hold out for a week out of pure stubbornness.”

“Too impatient and reckless. Three days.”

Brother Michael chuckled. “We’ll see.”

After a few minutes, Rupert returned with John Travers. They invited him to sit with them.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Anselm asked.

“Yes, I’m still willing to be King,” John answered.

“Then let us continue the Trials,” said Brother Michael. “We will begin by asking you why you did not place your hand in the fire.”

John nodded slowly.

“At first it was fear. The bandits branded me when I was sold. I’ve felt the pain of burning, and I was afraid of it. But then, I thought this must be some kind of test of bravery, and if I didn’t do it, I’d fail the test. So I decided to do it, come what may.

“But then my hand got closer to the fire and it started to hurt, and I lost my nerve. That’s when I realized something. You never gave me any reason to put my hand in the fire. You just told me to do it. And I thought, ‘What kind of King just drops his trousers and starts dancing on his hands any time one of his advisors tells him to do it?’ That’s when I knew that the right answer to the test was to refuse. That’s what a real King would do.”

Michael and Anselm glanced at each other.

“And what,” said Brother Michael, “would you say that you learned from this test?”

John scowled. “Obviously, that a King needs to know the reason for his actions.”

“What else?” Anselm said.

John’s scowl deepened.

At last he said, “I don’t know. I need to think about it more.”

“We will speak again tomorrow,” Michael said. He clapped his hands once, and Brother Rupert approached and led John away.

“What do you think?” said Michael.

Anselm steepled his fingers, brow knitted. “ He didn’t dismiss the question, which is good. He avoided the trap of ‘The King Must Know Everything’, like it had never occurred to him. That was also good.”

“How deeply do you think he’ll answer?”

“I don’t know, Brother Michael. But I’m beginning to hope.”

-#-

When John returned to the library the next day, he wore a faint scowl and an expression of irritation.

“Does every King face the same Trials?” he asked without preamble.

“No,” Anselm answered. “The Trials are intended to allow us to see into the heart of anyone who wishes to become King. If the Trials became rote, people could train for them as they train for battle, or for an examination. They would tell us who had purchased the best trainers, and trained the hardest, but little else.”

John nodded thoughtfully. “That’s why the Trials are a mystery. So that no one can ever prepare for them.”

“Exactly.”

“So you won’t answer my next question. I want to know what Trial the last King faced at this point.”

Anselm smiled, with an apologetic shrug. “You are correct. We won’t answer that.”

“Then can you tell me about the last King himself? Can you tell me what kind of a man he was?”

“We have detailed histories and biographies of all the Kings, back to King Trevor, the first King after the collapse of the Old World.”

John’s face fell. “I can’t read. Only a few words.”

Anselm smiled again. “You should learn, but there is ample time for that. For now, we will assign a novice to read to you, if you wish.”

John’s expression cleared. “Yes, that would be wonderful.”

“So you do not wish to answer the question today?”

“No. I have no answer. Yet.”

“Then have your reader notify us when you are ready to answer,” Anselm said. He clapped his hands, and Brother Rupert took John from the room.

“Better and better,” Brother Michael said. “Do you still believe we are being manipulated?”

“That’s harder to believe with every meeting,” Anselm answered. “He doesn’t seem to know any of the answers he could give. But he’s asking all the right questions.”

“So is he an avatar?” Michael asked.

A chill went up Anselm’s spine. “Superstition. Nonsense.”

Michael studied his face, and then smiled. “But you are no longer entirely sure of that, I see.”

Anselm made a face. “You know me too well, Brother.”

Michael chuckled. “By the way, we both underestimated the intelligence of the DuBuque boy. He left this morning, like a bad storm blowing away to the East.”

Anselm smiled. “Intelligence, or pride?”

“Intelligence. Had he stayed the three days you predicted, or the seven I predicted, it would have been pride. To leave this morning meant he had already worked out that he’d failed the Trials, and there was no point in continuing.”

“He will be trouble for the new King.”

“Or his most loyal and valued subject,” Michael said.

-#-

A week passed. Word reached Brothers Anselm and Michael that John spent long hours with his reader, learning about past Kings, and his remaining time walking through the gardens and the forest that adjoined the monastery lands, accompanied always at a short distance by a minder who would observe and report any meetings with others. John, however, met with no one — he seemed to walk for the solitude.

He spent a few hours each day tending the gardens with the other monks, and one afternoon high in the coppiced trees of the firewood grove, harvesting wood — he said that heights did not bother him, and he did seem fearless, twenty feet above the ground with only branches and empty air beneath him.

There had been twenty-seven Kings, most of them with very short reigns in the tumultuous years after King Trevor. As the aftershocks of the slow crumbling of the Old World subsided, people began to govern themselves locally and trade, and eventually King Emmett abdicated in favor of the First Constitutional Trade Confederation. There were only four Kings after Emmett, and the last, King Olander, had died a little over a century ago. John had started his studies with Olander, then expanded to the others.

A second week passed, and the reader reported that John had begun to focus almost exclusively on King Olander and the previous King, particularly on the laws they laid down and enforced. Then, one morning, John sent the reader away, and spent the entire day sitting on a rock in the gardens. He sat through an afternoon rainstorm, and though he thanked the monk who brought him a towel and dry clothing afterward, he remained seated on his rock well into the night.

The next morning, he requested a meeting with Brothers Anselm and Michael.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Anselm asked, formally, once they were all seated.

“No,” John answered. “If I had a home to return to, I’d want to go home.”

“Then you do not wish to continue the Trials?” Brother Michael said. Disappointment colored his voice.

“I didn’t say that,” John snapped. “I answered the question you asked.”

Anselm smiled. “So then, are you willing to be King, should we choose to endorse you?”

“Yes. I am willing.”

“Then let us continue the Trials. What lesson have you learned from the test of fire?”

“I learned the purpose of pain.”

“And what is the purpose of pain?”

“The purpose of pain is to warn us against damaging ourselves. It wasn’t until I felt the pain in my fingertips that I realized how hot that fire was, and how much damage I was about to do to myself. It wasn’t until then that I thought about what I was doing, and realized I had no good reason to do it. Without pain, I would have no finger, now, maybe no hand. I might already be dead or dying from poisoning of the blood. That’s the purpose of pain. To warn us against being stupid.”

“Why do you think this test is one of the Trials?”

“Because a King must feel pain. He must feel the pain of his people. Of his kingdom. Of its most remote parts, like the fingers and toes. Pain is what will warn him against damaging his kingdom. A King who doesn’t feel pain will always make bad decisions. He’ll sacrifice an outlying district to bandits, because it’s too far away. He’ll sacrifice his subjects, because their local customs are inconvenient, or because they’re poor and need help. He’ll sell off land and water for a quick profit in gold. He’ll betray allies, and turn them into enemies. He’ll start unnecessary wars. He’ll do all of this because he feels no pain to warn him against being stupid.”

John stared into the space between Anselm and Michael.

“The King will always feel pain. Because your Order doesn’t raise up Kings unless there is pain in the land, does it? You raise up Kings only when there is pain. And the King must feel that pain. What sane person would want that job?”

“Do you feel that pain, John Travers?” Brother Anselm asked, softly.

An expression of deep sadness crossed John’s face, and a single tear escaped from his eye and ran down his cheek.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“Then that is the answer to your question, John. The only sane person who would want the job is someone who already feels that pain. As a commoner, all you can do is suffer. As King, you might — might — be able to do something about it.”

Brother Michael leaned forward in his chair. “So, John, are you still willing to be King?”

John’s unfocused gaze went from Michael, to Anselm, and back.

“I will have advisors?” he asked.

“Who will always give you reasons,” Brother Michael said with a smile.

“Which you may disagree with,” Brother Anselm added.

John nodded, slowly.

“Then yes, I am still willing.”

“Then we will speak again tomorrow,” Brother Anselm said. He clapped once, and Brother Rupert came and took John away.

The two old men sat in silence for a time. Then Brother Michael turned his head to look at Anselm.

“Avatar?” he asked.

Anselm sat quietly without answering.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “But I think he will be a good King.”