Inside the temple it was strangely cold, despite the heat of the summer day outside. Yet Devlin felt beads of sweat forming on his brow, as the inevitability of what he was doing came home.
"You can still leave now," Captain Drakken said. "Leave and return to your family. There are better things to do with your life than throw it away."
For a moment he was tempted, but the mention of family washed away all his doubts. The Captain was wrong. He had nothing to return to, and no better task for his life. Indeed, if he were killed during the Choosing Ceremony, there were none who would regret his death.
The priest paid him no attention, but the other man looked amused as he caught sight of Devlin. "This is the new Chosen? Captain, you got me out of bed for this?"
Now that they were closer Devlin could see that the man's face was pale, his eyes bloodshot, his trousers were wrinkled, and there was a dark stain on the front of his jacket. He had the appearance of one rudely torn from his revelries.
"It's not my fault if you can't hold your liquor. The sooner this is over with, the sooner you can crawl back in to your bed," Captain Drakken said.
Devlin wondered if such discourtesy was typical of Jorsk. After all, he had walked over two hundred leagues to offer his life to protect their Kingdom. Surely he was entitled to some respect. But instead they treated him as if he were an impoverished stranger, come to beg at their table.
"Brother Arni, Master Mage Dreng, this is Devlin Stonehand of Duncaer," Captain Drakken said, by way of introduction.
The priest nodded and then turned away. His back was to Devlin as he opened the small wooden box and began taking out objects, laying them on the altar. He arranged the items, then reached into the pocket of his robes and withdrew a small stone. Touching the stone to the first candle, he recited a brief prayer. The candle sprung alight.
Despite himself Devlin was impressed. He had never seen a firestone before. Only the wealthiest in Duncaer could afford them. Yet the priest treated it as if it was nothing, repeating the trick with the second candle, then placing the stone back in his pocket.
The priest turned back to face Devlin. "You understand that there are only two choices? Either the Gods accept your service as Chosen One, or you will be struck dead for your impertinence."
"I wager on dead myself," the mage said. "Anyone care to take me up on it? Say a silver latt?"
The minstrel Stephen spoke up. "I will," he said.
"But what do you have that is worth a silver latt?"
"I will wager my lute," Stephen said, his face flushed.
Master Dreng smiled mockingly. "Done. Your lute against my silver."
It was not a good bet. Devlin himself would not have taken it. He knew the Gods hated him. The question was, would they kill him outright? Or decide to prolong his suffering by letting him live as the new Chosen One?
He did not fear death. Haakon, the Lord of Death, had been close to him many times in these last months, but each time he had refused to take Devlin. No, if there was anything he feared it was the Geas attached to the Choosing Ceremony. Once the oath was sworn, the Geas would ensure that Devlin could not betray his service. In effect he would surrender his own will to that of the Gods. It was a prospect that would terrify a sane man, but Devlin was no longer certain he was quite sane.
At last everything was arranged to the priest's satisfaction. "You, sir, come stand here, in the circle, and place both hands on the altar."
Devlin stepped forward and did as he was told. The priest circled the altar so he stood facing him. The Captain moved to stand on his right side and the mage on his left.
"Captain Drakken is here as the King's representative, and Master Dreng will cast the binding spell," the priest explained. He had the air of a man who had done the same chore so often that he was simply mouthing the words. "If the Gods accept you as the new Chosen One, you will receive pardon for any crimes you have committed. But you must confess them now, in the presence of these witnesses."
"I have done nothing that requires your pardon."
The priest looked doubtful, but continued his explanation. "You will need to dedicate your service by your personal God. I assume you are a servant of Lady Sonja?"
"No." Cerrie had been a follower of Sonja, until the War Goddess had betrayed her. He would not swear by false Sonja.
"Very well, then Lady Teá."
"No." Teá was the mother Goddess, and known as the patroness of those who worked the land. She, too, had betrayed them.
The priest appeared confused. "Then who? The spell is not binding unless you invoke the protection of one of the Gods."
From the corner of his eye, Devlin saw the minstrel Stephen, and remembered that only that morning the minstrel had invoked the name of Kanjti.
Kanjti. The God of luck. A God with no temples or priests. Some called him the bastard god, the only one of the seven whose origin was a subject for hot debate. A God with no family for a man who had none. It was a fitting choice.
"Kanjti," he declared.
The priest looked over at Master Dreng.
"Kanjti will work as well as any," the mage confirmed. "Just give him the sword, and we can get this over with."
The priest picked up the sword from the altar. "Hold this between both hands, raised to the heavens," he instructed. "And repeat the oath of service."
The sword was clearly the work of a master smith. Long and tapered in the old style, it had a hilt of ebon, wrapped in silver wire. The blade shimmered in the candlelight, revealing a pattern of runes carved on one side.
Devlin accepted the sword from the priest with his left hand. It was an awkward grip, and as he tried to switch the sword to his right hand he fumbled and dropped it. The sword struck the marble floor with the ringing clang of steel upon stone.
He picked up the sword, suddenly curious. He examined the length of the blade, noting that the metal had the faint shimmering appearance that belonged to the finest steel. But somehow it did not feel right.
He was aware that the others were regarding him with a mixture of impatience and dismay, but he refused to be hurried. He ran his thumb along the edge of the sword, exerting just enough pressure to keep from drawing blood. Then he pulled his dagger out with his left hand, and struck the pommel of the dagger against the blade of the sword.
He heard it again, the faint note of wrongness. He replaced his dagger and shook his head uneasily. Should he speak up and risk revealing more of himself? Or keep silent as payment for the low regard in which they held him?
He struggled with his conscience for a moment, but in the end he could not keep silent. Honor was all he had left. "I will swear no oath on this blade," he said, placing it on the altar so that half its length extended over the edge.
"Why won't you use the sword? You've come a long way to change your mind now," Captain Drakken observed.
"Because any oath sworn on this blade would be as false as the blade itself." He placed his left hand on the hilt of the sword, holding it steady against the altar. Then he made his right hand into a fist and raised it over his head.
His fist came crashing down. The blade broke with a sickening crack.
"May all the Gods preserve us!" the priest exclaimed.
Captain Drakken's face whitened, her lips taut. Clearly she was imagining what would have happened had anyone trusted his life to that sword in battle.
Master Dreng appeared amused. He looked at Devlin, really looked at him for the first time. "Now I see why they call you Stonehand," he said.
Actually Devlin had taken the name from his father, a builder who had worked in stone. It served him as well as any other name, in this foreign land.
"How did you know?" Captain Drakken demanded.
"You called me farmer, but once my trade was that of a metalsmith. And there are some things you never forget."
"Now what will we do? We can not complete the ceremony without a sword," the priest fretted.
Captain Drakken drew her own sword from her belt. "Will this do instead?"
He took the sword from her. It was a plain sword. A soldier's sword. From the wear on the blade it had seen hard use. But the edge was sharp and, when he tapped it against stone, the metal rang true. "This will serve," he said.
At Brother Arni's gesture, Devlin raised the sword over his head, feeling vaguely foolish. But the feeling vanished as Master Dreng gestured with both hands and began chanting in a language Devlin did not recognize. As the mage chanted, a circle of light grew around Devlin, banishing the darkness and making it seem as if he were being inspected by the Sun himself.
Captain Drakken appeared impassive, but when the edge of the circle of light threatened to touch her, she took a hasty step to the right.
The priest began to pray, his high voice serving as counterpoint to the low chanting of the mage. He prayed for what seemed an eternity, till Devlin's arms began to ache with the effort of holding the sword aloft.
The priest looked up at him. "Now, repeat the oath after me." He rattled off a phrase in High Jorsk.
Devlin repeated the phrase, stumbling only slightly over the unfamiliar words. He spoke no High Jorsk, and wondered vaguely what he was promising.
"And now the same, but in tradespeech so you understand," the priest said. "Repeat after me. I, Devlin of Duncaer, promise to defend the King and people of Jorsk against all enemies both earthly and otherworldly...."
"I, Devlin of Duncaer, promise to defend the King and people of Jorsk against all enemies both earthly and otherworldly...." Although just what he could do against an unearthly enemy was a question that he could not answer.
"I swear to dispense the King's justice, and to enforce the writ of law, and the will of the Gods. I pledge my life and soul in service of this oath."
No man could do all that. But he repeated the words anyway.
"I call on Lord Kanjti as witness to my oath, and patron of my Choosing." The priest looked at Devlin, then stared fixedly down at the altar. Captain Drakken and Master Dreng both turned their faces away as well, so they were not looking directly at him. He realized that they were afraid of what might happen next. Presumably this was the moment when the Gods indicated their displeasure with a candidate.
Devlin drew a deep breath. "I call on Lord Kanjti as witness to my oath, and patron of my Choosing." As Devlin repeated the final phrase, a wisp of cold fire ran down the sword, then seemed to go through his arm and into his body. For a heartbeat his entire body was filled with icy fire. And then it was gone, and he felt nothing save the start of a throbbing ache in his head.
All was silent. Master Dreng had finished his chant and now regarded Devlin with a faintly quizzical look on his face.
Devlin lowered the sword. "Is it over?" He felt cheated, though he did not know why.
"The ritual is complete," the priest replied, sparing barely a moment to glance at Devlin before returning his attention to the altar. "You are now the Chosen One, champion of the Gods, defender of the Kingdom and its people, until your death." From the sound of it, he expected that Devlin would not last a week.
Copyright by Patricia Bray. All rights reserved.