It is cold, twilight on the cusp of true night, and they have sent you down to kill a monster. The uncut gems of frost crunch underneath your feet.
The dark lord’s castle is onyx and steel, and it is beautiful. It is a fortress that lurches out over the cliff face like a three-fingered hand jutting into the sky. It resonates and sings to you, drawing you forward. The windows are frosted glass and obscure what lurks behind.
There are guards by the jagged portcullis, but they step aside as we pass. They know the duty we have been sent here to do. They cannot change the prophecy. You grip my handle tighter and wonder what the guards fear more — you, or your destiny. I, linked to your thoughts by the bond we share, suggest that they are one and the same.
If I wasn’t me, you ask silently, do you think the guards would try and fight for their monster? Do you think that they would die for him?
People always die for dark lords, willingly or not, I say. That is their purpose. We have ours.
Purpose. Destiny. You shake your head and stride in to meet yours.
When we first met, you were fourteen and drowning. Down past the grit of the marshes there was a place where the water ran clean, and the river contorted itself into a waterfall. The village children liked to cluster by the edge in a misshapen constellation, then dare each other to leap to the bottom. Yet none of them ever had the courage to do so — until you.
You plunged into the rushing and twisting water, the bitter cold a shock to your skin. Gravity wrapped its arms around you and pulled you close. It was not a loving embrace, but a hungry one, as the water pressed in all around you and you screamed and screamed and screamed.
No one on the surface heard you. Your hair, black and long, smothered itself around you like grasping tendrils of seaweed. The world around you was dark, like it is now, and you reached out your desperate hand for salvation and found me.
I had been lost there in the sand for many years. They will tell you I was placed there deliberately, the high mages of the honored council. They will say that it was a challenge, a test for the next chosen one. But I was there when it happened, and I know better.
You grabbed at the shape in the water and pulled me free from the weeds and mud. There was no divine light like the bards claim, nor did the far-off dark lord suddenly fear for his iron throne. We did not even form our bond that day. All that happened was that your hand met my hilt, and we both stopped drowning.
The shield is heavy in your hands as you climb the spired stairs. You have been training for close to a year, but you have still never quite gotten used to the weight of it. The air here smells like pond water, heavy and stagnant.
He is a monster, you are sure of it. The dark lord killed many innocents, you were told. His people fear him and hate him, and the good king and his mages have sent you to save them. You have not asked the people if they want to be delivered, but they know your purpose here and haven’t stopped you yet. Tacit permission. It lets people get away with killing kings.
Doubt needles away at you as you ascend the stairs of the dark lord’s keep. Crumbling stone chips away with each slow step. Destiny calls to you, the pull of a siren to the sawtoothed rock. I am there, a reassuring weight in your left hand. The blade of me gleams bronze in the low moonlight.
The dark lord is waiting for you at the top of the stairs. He is wearing black-scaled armor, a sharp contrast to your white and gold. He smiles at you — you see a little bit of pity in it. Age makes its home in crow’s feet around the corners of his eyes. The dark lord has his duty, and so do you. Both of you know how this will end.
“I am ready, hero,” he rasps, raising the rusty edge of his halberd.
You are not ready. This is good, you think. This is righteous. You have come all this way, and yet you are still unsure.
When you first saw the good king’s castle, it glittered like a river in the sunlight. A meager metaphor, to be sure, but you had never left your village before, and it was all you had to compare. The walls of tourmaline and marble gleamed so bright and divine against the sun that you had to look away. You quivered before it, and I reached to reassure you, without a body capable of doing so.
You approached on foot, dirt-stained and weary. You did not look like the chosen one, not yet. No one bowed nor stepped aside to let you do your duty. In fact, they often impeded it. You were not surprised. You were not born of gilded halls and easy fortunes.
Your childhood was hard and hungry. It began in a backwater village of beige and bracken, a town with a population smaller than its name. You remembered the good king’s soldiers taking taxes. You remembered your mother, a laundress, her hands cracked and bleeding from her work in the wintertime. You remembered being knee-deep in marshwater, trapping tadpoles with your too small hands.
It took patience to catch a tadpole. You cupped your hands underneath the water and waited until one swam into your palm, then scooped it up into the sky like a sacrifice to an impassive blue god. The tadpole would thrash and squirm, its black animal eyes pleading up at you for mercy. You always let it go, in the end.
Now at the good king’s castle, when the doors of the throne room shuddered open, you wondered if the tadpole felt chosen, like you were. If some distant mage’s prophecy decreed that it must be ripped from its home and presented before a cold and glittering god.
You were being presented now and you did not squirm or plead for mercy with black animal eyes. You saw the king with the honored council behind him and stood with a straight back. You did not like the way his eyes roved over you, even though he was a king and you were a peasant and therefore supposed to like everything he did. The queen sat next to him. You barely registered her. She was sunken into her throne, a fading shadow. Her nails made a quiet sound like ice cracking as she tapped them against her armored thigh.
“You are the one the prophecy spoke of?” The king said, voice rolling like slow thunder out over the room.
“I am,” you responded, and I was proud of how your voice did not crack.
He gestured, the impatient motion of a man accustomed to worship. “Show me the sword.”
You knelt and presented me. I felt his hands against the flat of my blade. They were cold. I much preferred your grip.
“Could it be a forgery?” The king asked the mages clustered behind him.
You were not supposed to speak, but you laughed and showed him your empty pockets. “Your Majesty, does it look like I have the coins to pay for a fraud?”
The atmosphere of the room leveled out all of a sudden. Everyone turned to stare at you with storm clouds in their furrowed brows. The silence pressed in around you, heavy as the water you nearly drowned in. Only one person laughed with you, a girl in a red cap with bells hanging like beads of rain off the tip.
She smiled at you and bounded out of the crowd, curtsying to the king and his council before turning it into a tumble.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” the jester said with her bright-beaming laugh. “Princes paupers, princess king. Only a court jester has use for fool’s gold, but this one’s genuine. Hear how she speaks. She couldn’t lie if she tried.”
The air in the room seemed to soften, a sword no longer at your throat. The jester’s eyes were dark and gleamed with something that was not quite amusement, not quite joy. It might have been madness — her speech spoke well enough to that.
The king rolled his eyes and waved her off. The mages gave their decree: the sword was real. You were the chosen one. And suddenly, you were somebody.
You still felt like a tadpole, though, and wished to go back to the water.
In the fortress, you fight the dark lord, as you have been taught to do. I am a gleaming beacon in your hands, bronze-steel and sanctity. We move in sync: step, swing, dodge, swing. You know that later the bards will say how daring your strikes, how valiant your sword, how divine the fulfillment of this prophecy — but right now you feel only sweat and raging desperation.
Step, swing, dodge, swing. Then the blunt side of the halberd ricochets into the side of your head, sending you stumbling to your knees.
You will win. You have to win. Destiny says you will win. The press of the rusted blade against your throat says otherwise. You gasp as it bites in and draws blood, gentle as a kiss and damning as a gavel strike.
“Please.” A cracked whisper escapes your mouth. This can’t happen. Fate can’t be fought, and there is a prophecy that says you will win. But then again — you never really believed in that, did you?
You spent almost a year at the castle, training. The mages hovered around you like black flies. You were the child of farmers and the humble earth. You had never wielded a weapon in your life. The king measured your minimal progress with a disappointed stare, and the queen sank further into her throne. Only the jester smiled at you, and whispered soft secrets she’d overheard when no one else was listening.
You told her about catching tadpoles in your village, and she told you about growing up in the gleaming glorious heart-bright capital of the kingdom. She recalled the golden days where even impoverished entertainers had a table of sweetmeat and ale. Now, she whispered, the tables were barren, and only the king ate well.
You told her about your mother’s cracked and calloused hands, and she told you that the queen never took her armor off for fear of assassination, and how the work-women in the palace dared not enter the king’s room alone.
You told her, I thought kings were supposed to be glorious and great. That’s why they are kings in the first place. She told you, we all believe what we need to.
You told her that you were afraid. She told you she was, too, and kissed your cheek.
“Please,” you say, and the dark lord hesitates. The stone floor of the fortress is unforgiving. Dried blood crumbles on your lips. You reach up and remove your helm. Black hair tumbles out around your face, your face that still has the slight roundness of childhood to it. Your hands are shaking so hard your entire body quivers with them. You can barely breathe. “Please don’t.”
He is evil. He will not listen to reason. He is a monster, everyone told you so. But something shifts in the dark lord’s eyes, and he lowers his weapon. “You’re just a child,” he says, voice stone against stone.
You nod, tears burning bitter rain against the lids of your eyes.
“How long have you been preparing for this fight?” he asks.
“Almost a year.”
“Almost a year.” He echoes your words derisively. “Three decades of work and effort and order, and they send a child with less than a year of training to try to stop me.”
He pauses and looks at you. He could be your father, in a different life. “Do you have a mother?”
“Do you love her?”
You nod again.
He turns away from you and glares out the frosted-glass window in the direction of the kingdom you came from. “Then go,” he says, his tired gaze fixed on the horizon. “Run back to your mother, kid. And tell the king to send a real threat to fight me next time.”
You scrape wearily to your feet. It’s a relief, almost, to be freed of the prophecy that haunts you, but guilt burns your stomach so hard you feel sick. You failed. No one ever told you that you could fail.
You can’t look the dark lord in the eyes. Your hand is white-knuckled on my hilt. Help, you plead with me silently, but I have no answer for you. In the end, I am only a weapon, the same as you are.
I can’t have failed. I can’t. You think you might throw up. You wish you could return the dark lord’s mercy. You don’t want it.
He is still facing away from you. His halberd rests harmlessly next to him. You know your duty.
I’m sorry, you think through your tears, and swing.
(The bards will exclude this part from their songs of you.)
One night when the jester had gone and everyone else in the good king’s castle was asleep, you curled your arms around me and cried. There were bruises on your back from training, and your heart hurt from missing home.
Why am I here? Why was I chosen? you wept to me. I’m just a peasant girl. I can’t do anything right. Tell me why you chose me and why this must be my destiny.
I asked if you really wanted to know the answer. I warned you it would hurt. You insisted.
You weren’t chosen, I told you with all the gentleness I could muster. (I do not think it was enough. Forgive me — I am a creature of steel and sharpness. Gentleness does not come easily to me.)
And I said, No one was chosen. The prophecy could have been about anyone. Any child could have reached out their hand and pulled me from the weeds, in that place where the river meets the rock. You were just the first to do so.
You looked at me with tadpole eyes. I don’t understand. If anyone could have done it, then why was I the only one?
Someone has to bear the burden.
But why would the sword of prophecy be at the bottom of a waterfall in the middle of nowhere in the first place? you insisted.
The mages say it was a test, so that the next chosen one would have to pass a challenge of courage to reach me.
You snorted. The mages don’t know what they’re talking about.
So what’s the real reason?
I said, The dark lord was the chosen one before you. He threw me there.
You asked, Why? Why would he reject his destiny?
I said, So no one else would have to suffer as he had.
Why are you telling me this? you ask as you clean the dark lord’s blood from where the blade of me meets the hilt. I was there. I know the answers already.
Tell me the answer to this, then. What is your duty, chosen one?
You hesitate. To destroy the evil that plagues this land.
Did you do it?
You look down at the body of the dark lord, greying against the stone floor of the keep. I don’t think so.
Then what must you do to fulfill it?
You look out across the black and barren land, to the castle that gleams in the rising dawn, tourmaline and marble. The castle where you trained to meet your destiny. You grab my hilt and rise to your feet.
I need to kill a monster.
About the Author
Avi Burton is a speculative fiction writer studying theater and film at the University of Toronto. They are a mentee in the #DVMentor program with DiverseVoices, Inc. and are currently revising a YA Fantasy novel for publication. Their stories usually feature religion, curses, tragic chosen ones, and — on occasion — laser swords. When not writing, they are usually fencing, hiking, or talking to their cat.
About the Narrator
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Sarah Griffin is a nonbinary actor, comic, clown, voice over artist and theatre maker, currently researching queer and disabled narratives in genre fiction. A multiple award winning classical actor and Fulbright Scholar, Sarah now makes most of their money doing silly voices and trying to make prat falls land in a purely audio medium. It’s a good life.
Their hobbies include fire-breathing, crochet and incongruity.
Find out more on their website – www.thesarahgriffin.com
That’s THE Sarah Griffin .com, because there are many others like them in the world but they’re the only one who is them.