KING OF NOWHERE
by Kristin Janz
The day Norran turned twenty, his mother told him he was the many times great-grandson of the last High King of Arcadia, heir to his throne and crown. She told him she had sent word that he intended to claim his rightful place: to the king or queen of every people in Arcadia, and to the council of magicians that had advised the last High King. Arcadia had been divided and conquered by foreign armies, her people enslaved and oppressed. But under Norran’s banner they would unite, forget their differences, and rise up against those who occupied them, driving out the invaders and ushering in a new Golden Age.
The day after Norran turned twenty, he left his mother’s inn before sunrise, a hunting spear in his hand, a pack of food on his back, and his best hooded woolen cloak over that. He took the gold medallion his mother had given him, the one that was supposed to prove his birthright, hiding it inside his shirt and sweater on a leather thong around his neck. It had a raised image of a three-pointed jeweled crown on one side, and a man with a spear poised to stab a crouching dragon on the other. Norran set off into the forest, north, the opposite direction from anyone who might be coming for him at his mother’s behest.
He didn’t want to be king. He wanted to be an innkeeper, like his father. He wanted to marry a nice girl — one who didn’t resent living so far from the nearest city — and have children with her. All his life, his mother had pushed him to be something he wasn’t. It had only gotten worse since his father died, and this, trying to tell the world a secret that their family had kept for over three hundred years, was more than Norran could endure.
After eight days’ walking, he came to a fishing village on the edge of the Narrow Sea. The people spoke a mix of Arcadian and Thoran, the language of the tribes across the sea, and many had the typical Thoran white-blond hair, milk-blue eyes, broad, high cheekbones and flattened nose. They had a tiny temple to Lor Enneth, the Arcadian god, but the temple also had a small shrine just inside the door with carved wooden figures Norran didn’t recognize. He supposed the people here were some of the foreigners his mother expected him to drive out of his kingdom.
The captain of a peddler boat took Norran across the sea to Thora in exchange for a small silver coin and his labor along the way. The Thoran fishing village he dropped Norran off at was almost indistinguishable from the one on the Arcadian side of the Narrow Sea, down to the small temple with its mix of divinities, and the public house overlooking the harbor. The only other person in the public house looked just as out of place as he did.
Norran waited at the bar counter for a proprietor to appear, so he could ask about rooms for rent. The stranger watched him from his seat at the only table. He looked a few years older than Norran, but taller and brawnier, with a full beard that reached his chest.
“She goes out,” the bearded man said after Norran began to drum his fingers on the counter. His pronunciation of Norran’s language was heavily accented, but decipherable. “Back soon, maybe.”
“Thank you,” Norran said, then repeated the sentiment in the Thoran language.
The man grinned, showing white but crooked teeth, and said something else in his own tongue.
“I’m sorry,” Norran said, switching back to his own language. “I only understand a little.”
The man nodded, still grinning. His white-blond hair hung down his back in two long braids, and his tunic and leggings were of soft leather instead of the wool Norran had seen others in the village wearing. Two long spears leaned against the wall in the corner behind him, next to a scabbarded long sword.
“Sit with me, Arcadia,” the Thoran man invited, and when Norran approached, he said, “My name is Dertha.”
“Norran re Andren.” Norran wondered belatedly if Thorans considered it odd to include a patronymic when introducing oneself, but either Dertha did not think so, or had encountered enough Arcadians not to be surprised.
Norran propped his spear in the corner next to Dertha’s, and took the other seat at the wooden table. Dertha pushed his half-full tankard of beer over.
“You are hunter, or warrior?” Dertha asked, as Norran took a drink from his beer.
Norran froze, the tankard poised just below his lips. He looked into the Thoran’s pale blue eyes, but couldn’t tell what the man was thinking.
“I’m not a warrior,” he said, perhaps a little too loudly.
“A hunter.” Dertha nodded. “What beasts you hunt with your spear?”
Norran set the beer back on the table. “Boar, but never alone. Bear. Deer I’ve hunted with arrows.” Every man in northern Arcadia hunted, for food, and to protect crops and children from animals grown too bold.
Norran tried to relax, telling himself there was no reason to feel anxious about Dertha having asked if he were a warrior. Perhaps where Dertha was from, all men were either hunters or warriors.
A woman entered the common room through the curtain next to the bar. “Beer?” she asked. “Something to eat?” She spoke Arcadian much better than Dertha.
When Norran’s beer and food arrived, Dertha made a face at the dish of raw salmon chunks wrapped in thin sheets of seaweed. “You eat sea-people food?”
Norran shrugged. He’d eaten raw fish in the tiny village on the Arcadian side of the Narrow Sea, and it hadn’t made him sick. He lifted a piece to his mouth, ignoring Dertha’s grimace, then followed it with a bit of dense rye bread torn off the loaf the woman had brought, spreading it with butter.
“I need hunters,” Dertha said. “I think you have no place to go.”
Norran glanced back over his shoulder, but the woman had disappeared again behind the curtain.
“You come with me?” Dertha asked.
Norran frowned. “I grew up in an inn. I saw plenty of men try to convince travelers far from home to go off with them, and those who agreed always ended up robbed. Sometimes murdered.”
Dertha grinned, apparently unoffended. “We share food and drink, here. I cannot rob you now.”
“I’m sorry,” Norran said, although he did wonder what he was going to do if he didn’t leave with Dertha. He had enough silver to buy food and the occasional night’s lodging for about a month; he would have to find someone who wanted to give him work.
Dertha glanced over at the curtain, then leaned in closer to Norran. “Is it true?” he asked. “You are of royal blood?”
Norran felt a wave of panic wash over him, and all the images that he had tried to suppress ever since that last conversation with his mother rushed back. Himself, impaled or publicly flogged to death by the Ibrisian rulers of East Arcadia for provoking rebellion. Or murdered by the Arcadians who had killed the last High King, or by the wizards who had advised him.
“No,” he said. How did Dertha know? “My father was an innkeeper.” He could feel the weight of the gold medallion inside his clothes.
“A hidden king,” Dertha said.
“Yes. Listen. There is a beast. It hunts people of my village during night hours. Our priest says only a prince or king can kill it.”
Norran stood, stumbling.
“The priest dreamed I can find you here, beside the sea. A king of Arcadia.”
Norran backed away until he hit the counter. “Miss?” he called. “I’m ready to pay.”
“It is a fierce beast. A king among beasts. It tears with claw and breathes fire.”
The woman emerged from behind the curtain, and Norran turned his back on Dertha and handed her a silver coin. An Ibrisian coin, the faces of the two consuls on one side, a chariot drawn by two horses on the obverse.
Slowly, the woman counted out his change from a handful of coppers. Norran wanted to beg her to hurry, but Dertha was silent, behind him.
“We have rooms to let, if you need one,” the woman offered. “They aren’t special –“
“No,” Norran said. “I need to be on my way.”
He had his hand on the door handle when Dertha spoke again.
“Arcadia. You forget your spear.”
Dertha watched him without speaking as he crossed in front of the table again to retrieve his spear. Norran forced himself to stop on his way back to the door.
“Thank you,” he said.
Dertha simply inclined his head, then took a drink from the tankard of beer Norran had left behind.
“There is power in the office of the High Kingship,” his mother had said, “and your father’s ancestors occupied the High Throne and wore the Diamond Crown for over six thousand years. Some of that power is in you, now.”
Norran didn’t think that power would save him if the Ibrisians thought he was trying to start a rebellion. He remembered what they had done to the big town two days south of his parents’ inn, when the town’s leading men declared themselves an independent city-state and expelled the Ibrisian garrison. The legions had come and gone by the time Norran and his father arrived at the town to buy supplies, not knowing what had happened, but Norran would never forget the sight of naked men stuck on poles along the last stretch of road. Or the smell of burned wood and flesh that rose to meet them.
Norran wished he could sleep. He shifted to his other side, trying to avoid the root running under his thigh. Mosquitoes whined around his face. He almost regretted choosing to sleep in the forest instead of in a bed at the public house, despite the sense of dread that settled in his gut whenever he thought back to his meeting with Dertha. How had a priest in a Thoran village known who he was, and where Dertha could find him? Norran wasn’t especially superstitious, but he was starting to feel as if he were being pushed by an invisible hand even stronger than his mother’s.
A scream rang out, from the direction of the village. Norran shot up, staring around wildly.
The dark boughs of the trees around him blocked most of the moonlight. He could just make out the gap in the trees where he had climbed up from the road.
Another scream, this one louder and more agonized. And then the shriek of something that didn’t sound human at all.
Norran wanted to stay where he was. But he remembered his father standing up to men who had lured other travelers away to rob them, bringing them to justice even when it would have been easier and safer to pretend he didn’t know what had happened. He remembered his father leading other men from the village to hunt a rogue bear that had killed a village child. His father had been a quiet man who hated physical violence; but he had never let anyone get hurt if he thought he might be able to stop it.
Norran could hear more shouting. And, once again, that terrible, inhuman shriek that might have been either fearful or triumphant. The smell of smoke had grown stronger, too strong to be from the hearth fires he had smelled when he lay down earlier that night.
It tears with claw and breathes fire.
Cursing himself, the Arcadian god, and Dertha for not knowing the Arcadian word for dragon, Norran fastened on his belt with the hunting knife sheathed at his hip, and grabbed his spear from where he had propped it against a tree. If the dragon did kill him, he at least wouldn’t have to worry about his mother or anyone else trying to make him king.
The moon was near full, and it was easier to see, down on the dirt road leading back to the village, than he had feared. Before he had gone far, he could see the smoke as well as smell it. Nothing moved among the trees on either side of the road; apparently, all the animals had better sense than he had.
The village wasn’t surrounded by fields of grain and other crops, like most Arcadian villages were; here, the trees suddenly ended, the road crossed a small communal pasture where on the way out Norran had seen a cow and a few goats and sheep, and then there were the houses, about a dozen of them.
Only now, most of the houses were on fire, the cow was a dark lump of splayed limbs, and the goats and sheep were nowhere to be seen. A crowd of villagers brandished spears and farming tools at the far end of the pasture, and facing them from the middle of the green was a beast like nothing Norran had ever seen.
It did not look anything like the dragon on Norran’s medallion. It looked like a huge bird, with feathered wings too small to lift it into the air, and a long tail that it switched from side to side. It crouched low to the ground, twice the length of a tall man, jerking its crested head back and forth. Then it reared upright, uttering the shrill scream Norran had heard, spreading its wings out like a man with a cloak. The people facing it flinched, as it screamed again and dropped back into its initial crouch.
Why don’t they attack it? Norran wondered. Dragons were supposed to be covered by impenetrable hide, but if this was nothing but a large bird….
One of the villagers rushed forward, holding his spear low in both hands.
The beast’s head whipped around, and it spat a jet of white flame at the man, engulfing him.
He yelled in pain. The dropped spear bounced on the ground beside him.
Two men threw their coats over him and shoved him to the ground, trying to smother the flame raging on his shirt and hair. The others fled, towards the smoldering houses and the docks beyond.
The beast shrieked again and flapped its wings, rising to its full height.
The gold medallion on its leather thong felt winter-cold against Norran’s chest. I could take the beast from behind, he thought. While it’s distracted. But his spear was made for stabbing, not throwing, and he was too far away.
Before he could take a step either toward or away from the thing, it dropped low to the ground again, and suddenly it was facing him and only half the distance it had been.
He hadn’t imagined it could move so quickly. It was close enough now that he could have rushed it with his spear, but it was also close enough to spit fire on him before he could get the spear into position. This close, he could see that the beast had three wickedly hooked claws at each wingtip, and a fourth on each birdlike foot. The fourth claw reminded him of a spur on a rooster’s foot; only these spurs were dark and wet with blood.
The creature breathed in and out, its mouth open. Short, silvery feathers covered its face, but it had a muzzle more like a horse’s than like a bird’s beak; only with sharp, wolf-like teeth. Its breath smelled faintly of bitumen.
Instead of attacking Norran, it started making a new sound, a low clucking like that of a chicken on a nest of eggs. It lowered itself further into its crouch, folding its wings under its breast, lowering itself until the long feathers on the edges of its wings brushed the short grass beneath their feet. It kept its long neck outstretched, its bright eyes fixed on Norran, slowly blinking.
The cold of the medallion burned his skin, and suddenly Norran’s mind filled with images. Himself, in a wheeled chariot drawn by two of the feathered beasts, holding a sword above his head. An army of the creatures surrounded his chariot, only they were facing with him, not against, and their clawed, chicken-like feet trod on the charred remains of men burned so thoroughly that Norran could no longer tell what people they had belonged to.
He took a step back, away from the beast facing him. No, he thought, then said aloud, “No!”
Yes, the beast said, only it did not speak in an audible voice, and it did not use words.
Norran took another step away, and this time the beast matched him. Its eyes glowed in the moonlight, and its feathers glistened.
He tore his gaze away from the beast’s, looking past the beast’s head and tail. And saw Dertha standing behind it, a little to the creature’s right, a sword in his left hand, a cloak or blanket in his right.
The beast noticed that Norran had seen something. It spun around in a flash of silver.
Dertha caught the beast’s fire on the blanket as he stabbed his sword into its side, under the wing. The blanket smoldered and steamed but did not catch. Dertha flung it over the beast’s head, then yelled as the injured beast leaped, blindly, tossing its head. Its weight bore Dertha to the ground, its spurs slashing towards his face and throat.
Norran rushed the beast. He drove his spear into its flank, above the leg.
It shrieked. Dertha was up, somehow, rolling the creature off him. He bared his teeth, and with beastlike glee hacked at the thrashing form again and again with his sword.
Others, Norran sensed, again not with words. We will come to you. Then, nothing. The long, narrow body still jerked and writhed on the ground, but Dertha was kicking the tattered blanket away — an animal hide, Norran realized, sopping wet. When he got it free, the beast’s body had no head. Blood poured from its mangled neck, and the sweet, sickening bitumen stench flooded the air.
Dertha’s left side and arm were soaked with blood, and his right cheek had been laid open. He rocked slightly on his feet as he stared at Norran, still holding his sword, and Norran was afraid that he might topple over. He was breathing hard, his eyes wild, and for a moment Norran thought the Thoran meant to attack him. If I’d struck the beast while it was trying to talk to me, it wouldn’t have known he was behind.
Instead, Dertha went down on one knee, laying the sword beside him. He bowed his head.
“Lord,” he said. “My lord.”
Norran left two days later, before sunrise. One of the villagers had given him a small canoe, and he found the easy rhythm comforting, as he dipped his paddle first one side, then the other. He kept the coastline within view, even once he had left the bay that sheltered the small fishing village behind.
Dertha was still sleeping in the public house. Only three of the village’s dozen or so buildings had burned to the ground, although all had suffered some damage. Norran and Dertha had been lauded as heroes for killing the beast, though Norran could not help wondering if he could have prevented all the damage, had he opted to spend the night in the public house instead of in the forest.
He didn’t want that responsibility any more than he wanted to be High King of Arcadia. Or any more than he wanted to accompany Dertha to the Thoran’s own village, marry Dertha’s sister, and father strong sons who would conquer all the neighboring villages Dertha’s had quarreled with. Listening to Dertha ramble on about how Norran and his sons would unite the independent Thoran tribes and make them into a nation as great as Old Arcadia once was had reminded Norran uncomfortably of listening to his mother.
Dertha believed Norran’s royal blood had given him power over the fire-breathing beast, as his priest had dreamed, and that that blood would also give Norran power against Dertha’s human enemies. But Norran wasn’t sure his ancestry had anything to do with what had passed between him and the beast.
He lifted the paddle out of the water and set it next to his feet. The canoe bobbed up and down, rolling on the low waves.
He reached into his shirt and drew the gold medallion on its leather thong up over his head. It was warm now, from resting against his skin.
He turned it over and over in his hands. On one side, the three-pointed, jeweled crown. On the other, the man with the spear, and a dragon. This dragon looked like the ones Norran had always imagined, scaled and lizard-like, with a gout of flame spurting from its jaws. But now that he looked more closely, he wasn’t at all certain that the spear brandished by the man in the image was pointed at the dragon. Both man and dragon faced in the same direction. There was writing on the medallion, but Norran couldn’t read it. He couldn’t even deciper the symbols used.
He’d taken the medallion so his mother couldn’t show it to anyone who responded to her letters. Why had he kept it, instead of burying it in a hole in the forest or throwing it over the side of the boat during his crossing of the Narrow Sea? He wasn’t sure he knew, except that it was valuable and could be sold if he ran out of silver coins. Perhaps because his father had kept it, even knowing what it meant.
But Norran doubted his father had known everything that the medallion meant. He knew he had not imagined the way it burned ice-cold against his skin whenever the beast was aware of him. He didn’t want to watch the medallion sink, to see it eyeing him from the bottom if it landed just right, reminding him of the silver-feathered beast’s intelligent golden eyes. Others. We will come to you. So he threw the medallion on its thong away from him, as far as he could, and it flashed in the light as it hurtled through the air, though the sky was gray. It skipped on the surface of the sea three times, despite the thong, as if it did not want to sink. But it did not rise a fourth time.
“I am not your hero,” he said aloud, to anyone or anything who might be listening. “I am not your king. Fight your own wars.”
Then he took up the paddle once again, and resumed his journey west, along the shore of a foreign land that looked exactly like his own.
Kristin Janz was born in Vancouver (Canada), and has since crossed the continent three times, landing in Boston in 1998. She is a Clarion West graduate whose fiction has appeared in Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, and On Spec; and also co-edits Mysterion, a speculative fiction webzine devoted to short stories that engage meaningfully with Christianity, although not exclusively from a Christian perspective (mysteriononline.com). Her other online home is kristinjanz.com, for writing news and occasional fantasy food blogging.