When Ermuk tells a story, you’ll want to listen. Trust me. I’ve seen him bring grown men to tears with a fairy tale, make elderly women laugh and cheer along with his bawdy ballads, cause even me to shriek with fright with his ghost stories. Well, just that one time, really. Anyway, I know I can get pretty antsy, and people are always saying I don’t know when to shut up. But when Ermuk tells a story, I close my mouth, I sit still, and I listen.
“Would you like to hear a story?” the wildling says now, before uncorking his flask and taking a sip.
I offer an eager nod and sit down across from him. “Which story?” I ask. I’ve heard them all, a dozen times before. “Is it the one about the dragon slayer who wins the heart of a fair maiden with his bravery? Or maybe the one about the mortal who fell in love with a faerie?”
Ermuk shakes his head at me. “No, no. This story’s different.” “Different how?” I wonder aloud.
“Well,” he replies, winking at me. “This one’s all about you.”
With that, the wildling suddenly jumps to his feet and scampers off into the trees, beckoning for me to follow him. A moment later, I’m chasing him through the brush. Ermuk is quick, and he seems to know this forest like the back of his paw. Still, if you’ve ever tried to corral a flock of sheep across the mountainside and into their paddock, you’ll believe me when I tell you I’m quicker.
When I catch up, he settles down by the riverbank, grinning foolishly. He snatches up a reed and chews it happily, while he gestures for me to sit beside him. I take a seat by the water’s edge. Location is everything, and this is the perfect place for a bedtime story.
“Look to the heavens, lad,” he begins. “What do you see?”
I turn my head to the sky. I see two moons, one an orange-red orb, the other a pale white crescent. On the edge of the horizon, the sun is fading.
“Orim and Orza,” I say, pointing at each of the moons in turn. “And over there, Solarus.”
The storyteller nods his head in approval, quenches his thirst from his flask, and says with a grin, “So, you know your mythology.” He reaches out a paw and directs my attention to the constellations, naming each in turn. “Well, you northerners always were old-fashioned. Most humans don’t remember the gods. But there is Hesme, the Hearth Mother. And Hadrian, the Storm God.”
I wonder what this has to do with me, but I’ve learned not to interrupt.
“The gods are bound to the heavens now. But once, they were joined to our world by a great bridge. Until the bridge was destroyed by mankind, and the gods were lost to us.”
“Why did mankind destroy the bridge?” I ask him. “And can’t the gods just build a new bridge? What does this have to do with me, anyway?”
Fair questions, right? But I’ve forgotten my own rule.
“Hmm,” he says. There’s no anger in his voice but I can see he’s growing impatient. I mouth a silent apology, then at last I sit quietly and listen.
“Why did humans destroy the bridge? Well, why does anyone do anything?” he answers with a smile and a laugh, “Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
He swishes his paws in the river’s shallows and takes a swig of his wine before continuing.
“As to your other questions, rebuilding the divine bridge, even for the gods, is not as simple as it sounds. There is still a way for the gods to return to the mortal plane, but it’s not a bridge. No, the only way for the gods to return is through an avatar. And that, my dear boy, answers both your questions.”
I want to object, to tell him that he really hasn’t explained what this has to do with me, but I’ve interrupted him enough. And besides, I can tell there’s something different about this story. It’s not his usual tale of adventure, filled with knights in shining armor and fair maidens to be rescued. And it’s not just the story that’s different either. It’s Ermuk himself. He seems more, well, serious, even if his words are slurred from the wine. So I manage to keep my mouth shut.
“There was once an ancient prophecy “ he continues.
“Prophecy? Is that some kind of sheep?”
“There are a great many breeds of sheep, but a prophecy – so far as I am aware – is not one of them. A prophecy is a prediction of events to come. Events that are as likely to come to pass as the sun is to rise,” he says. “There was once an ancient fae prophet, who foretold the return of a powerful god to our realm. This prophecy spoke of an avatar – a Chosen One to be the earthly vessel of a god – who would be born north of the Imperial Mountains. A humble shepherd boy, born with the gift of magic, able to open pathways that pass through the divine realm.”
I look up at him in silence. Perhaps he expects me to be excited. Or proud. Humble, grateful. I don’t know what he expected me to feel. All I know is that I’m, well, frightened. I don’t want to be the vessel of a god. I just want to be me.
In a moment, I’m on my feet, dashing through the forest, conjuring roads that dip in and out of reality so that even the Seeker can’t track me. Tears stream down my face, but I don’t pause even to brush them away. I can hear the wildling calling my name but I pretend not to hear. The forest gives way to foul-smelling swampland, but in moments I’m through it. A clearing opens up to the looming walls of a city, and I come to a halt. For the first time I realize I’m alone. With one last look to the mires at my back, half hoping to see Ermuk come crashing through the mangroves with a stern look upon his furry face, I find my way into the city.
The sights and smells of this place are overwhelming. The scent of spices, the chatter of merchants and pilgrims fill my senses. There’s a festival in the streets, bright red banners and masks upon the faces of the revelers. I’m so overwhelmed I fail to notice the approaching street cart. Only at the last second, someone pushes me out of the way. A girl.
“Careful, little shepherd,” she says, offering me a hand to help me up. She’s dressed in purple, a mask over her mouth and nose. I take in the knives she’s strapped to her thighs, her waist, her back.”
“How do you know I’m a shepherd?”
“I’ve seen a shepherd or two in my time. You’re not from around here, are you? I’m Ziri, by the way…” She trails off, suddenly alert, like she’s seen something that’s spooked her. She gives me a quick warning, then disappears. “Street Sweepers. Time to cut and run.”
It’s not the Street Sweepers that find me. It’s Ermuk, and he does not look too pleased with me. I look down at my feet.
“So, I’m a Chosen One, huh?” I say, forcing a smile. “Does that mean you’ll have to worship me?”
Panting for breath, Ermuk pulls out his flask and takes a drink, raising a finger to hold his place in the conversation. “I’m afraid I already have an object of worship,” he says, nodding meaningfully at his flask. He lets out a heavy sigh and tucks the flask into his belt. “Perhaps it was wrong of me to burden you with-”
“No,” I say, interrupting him yet again. “It’s not your fault. I’m glad you told me the truth.”
He offers me an awkward smile, his tail bouncing lightly behind him. I consider telling him about the girl with the knives, but I like the idea of having a secret of my own, so for once I keep my mouth shut. Ermuk sniffs the air, lifts his paw to his brow, and scans his surroundings.
“Street Sweepers,” he says, an edge to his voice. “Time we were leaving. And no magic, lad. That would lead them straight to us.”
With that, we take off at a sprint, the Street Sweepers hot on our heels. Even as we flee the city, Ermuk barely slows down. He pauses only briefly to scout ahead in search of an escape route.
“This way,” he says, almost reluctantly. “The Mage Council will have to wait. The Street Sweepers won’t be able to follow us where we’re going.”
“And where’s that?”
“To learn more about the prophecy, should we not consult the prophets? My dear boy, we are off to the Sunken Forest!” He says this grandly, but if I didn’t know better, I might have thought he sounded, well, nervous. But then, with a strum of his lute as we disappear into the thicket, he asks with a wink, “Would you like to hear another story?”