AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Standing atop a stone buttress, dirty, exhausted and bloodied warriors watch as a body is pushed unceremoniously over the edge of the high precipice.
"Is that the last?" a warrior wearing the sash of command asks.
"Then it is done." The commander raises his bloody sword high above his head. "May the flag of Arhdahl reign over our land until the sun sinks in the north never to rise again."
The other warriors raise their swords to the sun and add their voices to the oath, "Aye. Long live the Realm of Arhdahl."
The rattling of bones is heard behind the men and they turn away from the ledge to see an old woman shaking a carved cup in her deformed hand. She tosses the cup"s contents onto the stone surface at their feet.
"What do the bones say, Crone?"
Long, twisted fingers sort out the bones, reverently touching each one, noting their positions yet not moving them. "The House of Arhdahl will fall."
"That cannot be."
"It is told. A new order with ancient wisdom will once again rule."
"Our enemies are defeated. Who survives to threaten Arhdahl?"
"A child will be born."
The woman"s fingers again seek out the bones then she looks up with unseeing eyes. "The bones will tell."
"Send messengers to every corner of the Realm. From this day forward, all women ready to bear a child must travel to Arhdahl Fortress. The Crone will toss the bones when each child cries their first."
The woman gathers up the bones, placing them back into her cup.
Many generations later...
Deep inside the Arhdahl Fortress, a newborn child is placed on the scarred surface of a heavy oak table. The walls of the room are stone, as is the floor. There is but one passage into the room and no windows. The dark is broken by an eerie glow, candle flames flicker unsteadily from dozens of small niches carved into the stone walls.
A man, wearing the richly designed clothing of a ruler, stands on one side of the table. He is flanked by a man similarly dressed. He looks at the baby then across to the woman standing opposite him, nodding a silent command.
Gnarled fingers hold a wooden cup, shaking it. The cup is lowered to the surface of a table, its contents spilling out onto the wooden surface. The child lies quietly beside the scattered pieces of bone, its tiny body enveloped in a blanket.
"What do the bones reveal, Crone?"
The aged seer bends over the table, her fingers tracing the pattern of the sacred objects. "It has been foretold."
"That"s not possible. The prophesy spoke not of a girl child. Toss them again."
The crone gathered up the small bones, placing them back in the cup. With a shake of her wrist, she mixed the bones then tossed them again onto the table beside the infant. "It spoke neither of a boy child," she said as the bones came to rest in an identical pattern as before. Her fingers traced each bone. "It has been foretold."
"This cannot be."
"The bones of our ancestors do not lie. This cup is carved from the Tree of Truth," the seer said as she gathered up the bones and placed them back inside the cup. "This is the child."
"Unwrap her swaddling. I want to see her mark."
Hands twisted from age that few ever attained carefully unwrapped the blanket to reveal a female child no more than a few minutes old. With gentleness not expected from one so old, the crone rolled the infant over to reveal a birthmark on the small of her back.
"She bears the mark of Oneida. The House of Oneida has served the realm with great honor."
A nurse entered the room. She carried her bundle to the table and laid it beside the baby. "Another child," the nurse says before leaving the room.
"Toss the bones."
The crone did as she was requested then her fingers traced the new pattern. "This child is of no consequence."
"Have it removed," the man says, waving his hand to dismiss the second newborn. Then he reached inside his robe, removing a dagger from the sheath on his belt.
"Wait," the man beside him said, placing a restraining hand on his arm. "Leave us, Crone."
"What can this child do for us, Kala?" the man asked after the seer had shuffled out of the room.
"Do you not see, Micah? The first child is a threat to the Realm of Arhdahl."
"Agreed. It must be killed. But the second child"?"
"What is its mark?"
Micah placed his dagger on the table then uncovered the baby. "The House of Alisdair."
"The Protectors. How fitting."
"I see not why this is of relevance. The child must die, Kala, to protect the realm."
"No. To kill the child does not stop the prophesy."
"Then what are we to do?"
"Send the child where it will not pose a threat."
"This mother is from the House of Oneida. Surely, the child will grow to hear of the prophesy."
"Yes. If the child was to grow there. But if the child was to grow within the House of Alasdair, the farthest fortress from Arhdahl""
Micah studied the babies. "Will the mothers not realize?"
"They brought here as soon as they left their mothers" wombs. They will not know."
"Are you sure, Kala? The prophesy" With the birth of the child shall comes the death of the realm."
"The child will grow"" Kala pointed at the second infant. "That child will grow as the child of the prophesy. It can do nothing."
Micah pondered the solution Kala was suggesting. "The crone knows the truth."
"She cannot see. She knows only two children were born. One of the House of Oneida. One other. She knows not which child is which."
Daidam looked up from her lessons. She preferred to spend her days outside and having to endure hours inside the classroom studying ancient parchments was definitely not to her liking. But this was her sixth summer and, like the other children of the House of Alasdair, she had begun the training required of all fortress guards. Resigned to her immediate fate, she returned to her studies. But only after offering a silent wish for the afternoon to arrive quickly when it would be time for the daily lessons to switch to the outdoors. She looked up again when a shout was heard from the fortress gate.
"Thoralf of the House of Alasdair has returned from Arhdahl Fortress. She brings her child, blessed by the crone."
Daidam pushed her chair back from her desk and ran to the window, along with the other children, to watch the possession file through the gate. Her father had been one of the guards to accompany Thoralf to the realm"s main fortress. It was a long walk to Arhdahl and, even to her young eyes, her father looked tired as he marched into the square with the others. She turned away from the window. "Instructor, may I go to my father?" she asked politely.
"Yes. Yes, you may all go. Their journey has been long. They will welcome your greetings of return."
Daidam ran for the door, reaching it before any of her classmates. She didn"t stop running until she was beside her father. "Welcome, Father. You have been missed," she said as she fell into step with him. The guard would escort Thoralf and her new child all the way to her family quarters.
"Thank you, Daidam. Are your studies going well?"
"Yes, Father. But I miss being outdoors."
He laughed. "Yes, like me you are. How is your mother?"
"She waits for your return."
"She is well?"
"Yes. Her belly has grown large."
He sighed. "Then I will be returning to Arhdahl soon." He looked down to see the look of disappointment on his daughter"s face. "But that is for another day. Today, I greet my daughter and wife. And tonight we celebrate with Thoralf and Ceancey. A child has been born to the House of Alasdair. A fine healthy daughter."
"What is her name, Father?"
"Milas. It is a good name, a strong name. Just like Daidam. You will both serve the House of Alasdair well."
Daidam smiled with pride. "Just like you, Father."
To be continued…
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