The Wizard's Ball

Fiction By Aisling // 9/24/2005

Once upon a time--indeed upon the beginning of time as we know it--there lived a wizard.

Not the sort of wizard that wears a blue robe with bright yellow stars on it, and sits and stirs a cauldron all day. No, he was a real wizard.”

“What did he look like?” Rannon interrupted.

The old man laughed, at the old familiar question. “You know,” he said, “I think that question has become every bit as much a part of the story as the story itself!”

“Of course. That’s why I have to ask it,” the prince replied, smiling back--his deep-set blue-grey eyes still possessing that same earnestness that had lit them when he was a boy, albeit they were now softened and tempered by a certain noble maturity, which had been growing in them as he grew into a man.

The old man shook his head, and resumed. “Oh, he was very wizardly. His hair was long and snowy white, his eyes were deep and clear and grey, his hands were long and skillful, and his limbs strong--and they say that when he spoke all the world would grow silent and listen breathlessly.” Again he stopped. “Ah, Your Highness, you have heard the story nigh a thousand times, I’m sure. Shan’t it bore you to hear it again? Especially now when you are grown so tall and manly, and have many another concern on your mind.” The old man eye’s traced the prince’s clear-cut, handsome features, keenly surveying him from the crown of his golden head to his soft-shod feet.

Rannon shook his head. “No, Conan. I must hear it again.”

The old man looked into the young one’s eyes. There was something behind those eyes that Rannon had not explained to him. “Very well then, your highness. The wizard lived in a small cottage in the depths of a great wood, on a remote island. It had once been inhabited by a brave, strong people; but then there was a terrible raid, by a band of foreigners--men so terrible that never before had a land which they raided been known to survive. The entire people were wiped out. Except for the old wizard, and one young man--his pupil. Perhaps the raiders were too frightened of the wizard; perhaps they were unable to find him, in his home deep in the woods; perhaps they tried to kill him, and could not. We do not know. But we do know that the raiders knew of this mighty wizard, and they returned threefold--to seek him out, and to capture him or be killed in the attempt.

“The wizard, knowing of the resiliency of these men, anticipated as much. So he bolted his old door, and slowly he began to speak many strange words, and slowly the sound formed a ball.”

“What did it look like?’ Rannon asked promptly.

The old man smiled. He had been waiting. “At the bottom it was green--like the deepest and richest green of the forest, blended with the fresh green of the grass at midday in summertime. At the top it was blue--deep and clear and beautiful, and yet troubled, like the island sky before a storm. And around the center wound a strip of bright yellow, broken by blood-red bolts of lightning. Whenever the wizard had striven to look into the future he had received that vision, and none other--only a wide expanse of green, and above one of deep blue, and yellow light bursting forth and surrounding great bolts of lightning--as red as blood, and as sharp as knives. Without being able to see anything else, he could not understand what it meant--but he had put the vision on the ball, into which he would pour all of his wisdom.

“The wizard took the ball and touched it three times to the end of his staff. The first time the staff shone out brilliantly with a blinding light, but the third time all the light went out, as if the ball were consuming it. And the depth from the wizard’s eyes went out, too, into the ball--and it had a depth all its own. The wizard quickly took the ball and hid it under his cloak. He took his staff, and his companion, and left his old house, never--he knew--to see it again. He made his way swiftly, deeper even into the woods. He stopped at a great, tall, ancient pine tree.

“He touched the ball once more to his staff, and with that struck the ground beside the trunk of the old tree. Instantly there appeared a small tunnel-like hole. He bent and let the ball roll out of his old hand, into the little hole. As soon as he had let it go, the hole closed up over it. He straightened, then, and for a moment he stood, staring at the ground. Finally he spoke another strange word--though very long it was, as if a story in itself--and turned away from the spot.

“Then and there he and his companion disappeared. They came away, here, to the mainland, and the companion married, and because of his wisdom he grew into a great ruler. But the wizard dwelt in solitude, until--very old indeed--he left this world for another. So this story has come down to us, father to son, mother to daughter, for generations. For now it has been a hundred years, or more, since that old wizard dwelt in his wisdom on the far island.”

Rannon was silent, as though soaking it all in. Then--

“Conan,” he said, slowly, “you really believe it, don’t you? that the wizard lived, and that all that about the ball is true?”

Their eyes met, and Rannon thought, again, how amazing the old man’s eyes were--ancient, and yet young, immeasurably deep, and yet perfectly clear.

He was nodding slowly. “Yes, lad, I do.”

“So do I,” Rannon said, strongly. “And . . . Conan . . . I’m going. To find the island. To find the ball.”

“But . . . do you know what this would mean?”

“We both know I cannot stay here. For generations this land has endured selfish, heartless, undisciplined rulers. Ever the since the man who first succeeded the wizard’s pupil, greed and a desire for knowledge and power have grown until its venom has spread from shore to shore. I have to change that. But I cannot do anything if I remain in my father’s house.” He dropped his voice. “I’m leaving. Tonight.”

The old man was smiling, softly.

“Why do you smile? I’m serious, old man. Honest.”

“I know. I was only wondering why it took you so long to finally come out with it.”

“You knew?”

His old tutor shrugged. “I’ve lived altogether too long with you, lordling.”

Rannon smiled. In better times, he would have laughed. “Will you come with me?”

He shook his head. “No, son. I am old. And this a journey you are destined to set out upon alone.”

Rannon swallowed, nodding.

“Go, my son. For decades the country has been waiting for you to arise and restore the wizard’s line to rights--to its original wealth in holy knowledge and discerning. You know nothing of what your life shall entail. But henceforth know you that your great, great, great, great grandfather was a wizard--the wizard.”

Rannon nearly fell flat on the floor. He would have, no doubt, if he had not still be sitting down. “But . . . I don’t understand. How can it be?”

“Whether anyone believes it any more or not, that companion of the wizard was his son. And from that son has come the line of which you are born, and which you are called to redeem. For all trace of wizardry, indeed any wisdom whatever, has been lost among the wizard’s descendants, in the century that has passed. No one before you been able to accomplish this task you undertake, my son. It is only right that you should know it.”

“Have men indeed sought this ball, then?”

“Yes. But they found it not, son, because they sought it out of greed. If they could but posses it, they dreamed, they could be as powerful as the wizard was of old, and they would be renowned ever after for their valor and their greatness. Rannon, your heart holds naught of this greed, nor this self-seeking. I have long studied it, and I have found it whole and true--unsullied by selfishness, and righteously angered by the injustice around you.

“Go, my son, and accomplish the task for which you were born. And you can do it. Remember this, lad. You can do it, so long as you keep within you that pure and selfless desire to save your people.”

Rannon swallowed the ache in his throat, and embraced the old man tightly. “Farewell, Conan. And thank you--for all you have ever given me. I do not know how I can ever repay you.”

“Farewell, my son. I . . . will not be here, when you return.”

Rannon gripped his arms. “What say you? Don’t speak so.”

The old man only smiled sadly. “But only remember me to your children, and my debt shall be paid.”

Rannon shook his head. “I shall see you again Conan, I must.”

“No, lad. It’s not to be.”

“This . . . is really goodbye, then?”

“Aye.”

They embraced again, and then the old man spoke. “Go, my son, and my blessing go with you.”

Rannon bowed his head, and his old tutor placed both of his gnarled hands on the young head, and then they parted. Until they should meet in a better world.

Rannon gathered a small sack of things--flint and tinder, a knife, a loaf of bread, and slab of smoked venison--and slung his quiver over his shoulder, and strapped his bow across his back. Then he wrapped himself in his great black cape, and as soon as full darkness fell he escaped out a side door, scaled the wall, and went away across the fields at a great speed. He did not rest until he had reached the woodland, and the he climbed a tree, and slept.

The following day he kept on, traveling toward the shore, and reached there just as the sun was setting. On the shore was a small castle, wherein dwelt a certain Lord Eric, and his daughter, Rosalie--but his wife had died many years ago. He, of all the men of that strange land, was the nearest to wise and good, and he had promised Rannon a score of his best men and a trusty ship, if the youth should indeed decide to seek out the wizard’s island.

Having so decided, Rannon found himself at Lord Eric’s gate. He called out to the gatekeeper. “It is I, Prince Rannon of His Majesty King Cedric, come to see Lord Eric.”

The gate was quickly opened, and he was shown to the keep. He found the lord, and his daughter, in the great dining hall. He had seen Eric twice before--once at his father’s house, and once in the woods--but even had they never met in person, Rannon would have known him. He was tall and noble, with long grey hair, a keen eye, and a strong hand. But beside him stood the fairest thing Rannon had ever beheld.

Eric’s daughter was slender and well-formed; her hair shone as brilliant as the rays of the dying sun, and was caught up in a net at the back of her neck, with a few stray curls falling about her face; her eyes were like her father’s--silvery and clear. She wore a long white gown, with deep crimson about the throat and hem. She smiled, as she curtseyed, and Brannon’s heart left him. He knew that if only her heart was as beautiful as her face and figure, there could be no other being in the world more dear to him.

He bowed deeply, blushing for the soiled, torn nature of his own clothes, and wishing he had had the time and tools to mend them.

“Your Highness, this is my daughter, Rosalia,” Lord Eric said.

The damsel extended her hand, and Rannon took it and kissed it gently. The one glimpse he had into her eyes, then, before she looked down, told him all he needed to know of her heart.

He straightened, suddenly brave. “My Lord, I come to request the fulfillment of your word, to me, that you would supply me with a ship and a score of men if I should decide to seek out the wizard’s island.”

“This you have decided?” Lord Eric asked.

Rannon nodded. “Yes, sir. I have.” He thought perhaps Rosalia’s face grew a shade distressed.

“It is my duty to fulfill my word, then. I shall have the men and the ship ready by the morrow. For tonight, you must dine with us, and you shall spend your last night ashore in a room as comfortable as I can make it.”

Rannon bowed again. “I am greatly indebted to you, sir, for your generosity.”

“Come,” Lord Eric said, then. “Let us eat.”

Rannon rose before the sun, well-fed and tolerably well-rested. He dressed in his old clothes, and went quietly through the hall and down the stairs. He had but just reached the bottom when there was a noise behind him, and he turned to look up.

Rosalia stood there, in a dark green velvet gown, with all her red hair loose and falling down her back.

“Good morning, my lady,” Rannon said.

Rosalia curtseyed quickly. “Good morning, Your Highness.” She came down the stairs, easily but with a certain grace. “Was your night restful?”

He smiled. “I slept in such a peace as I have never known. Thank you.”

“My father is in the courtyard, inspecting the two score of men that are to accompany you.”

“Two score? But he promised only one.”

“Yes, but he has thought better of that. Two score shall be of a greater service.”

Rannon shook his head awed, almost faint, over this unfamiliar generosity of heart. “I have never met the like of him, your father. He is a good man.”

Rosalia smiled. “So are you.”

Rannon dropped his eyes. “I am what I am, and I strive to better it,” he said simply.

Lord Eric entered the hall, and announced that all was ready. Rannon thanked him anew, for the added score, and for his bed for the night, and then the lord had his horse saddled, and another fine steed for Rannon, and Rosalia’s sorrel, and the company rode to the dock.

Rannon beheld his ship with speechless joy. Loaded and ready, it lay at anchor a small ways out at sea, with its body shining blue and bright in the light of the rising sun, and its sails all at full mast, billowing gladly.

The prince bade Lord Eric a grateful farewell. “I shall return to you as soon as I can, and if my fate is never to see this land again may you be hereafter blessed a hundredfold for your generosity to me.”

Lord Eric bowed, but Rannon took his hand, and embraced him. And then he turned to the damsel.

“Goodbye, my lady,” he said, quietly.

She gave him her hand again, and he held it.

“Never before have I known anyone so lovely as you, and never has my heart been more gladdened. If . . . if I am never to return . . . may you know, my lady, that Rannon, son of Cedric King of Roeland, died loving you like he had never loved another soul.”

The eyes that looked into his were wet and radiant. “Prince Rannon, if . . . you are never to return . . . know, now, that Rosalia, daughter of Eric Lord of Greykeirn, is sending with you her heart.”

For one brief moment Rannon stood, transfixed, unaware of anything but the beautiful silver-grey of her eyes. Then he kissed her hand, and let it go.

He climbed into the rowboat that took him and the last of the men out to where the ship waited, swaying serenely on the glittering sea.

Rannon had no experience at sea, and he had braced himself for months of hardship more trying than any he had ever known. He had heard rumors of men who had made such voyages before--for all the mainland men knew, none of them ever reached their destination at all, the sea proving too strong an opponent, in whose wide expanse they were soon helplessly off-course, and soon swallowed up into the nameless depths.

But Rannon and his men seemed somehow fated to survive where those before them had been again and again defeated. From the first the sky was clear, the sun warm, and the wind favorable. They sailed along at a great speed, and all wondered at it.

Still, Rannon had no more idea than Eric’s men what exactly he was looking for, and how he could ever happen upon the island, since the only map he had was the words he had heard his old tutor say time and again: the old island is still out there, somewhere, far into the east. So they sailed on east, as directly straightly as they could.

After a se’ennight had passed, Rannon became aware that a great many of the men were tiring of the quest. Despite the fair weather, it was harrowing not to know exactly where one was going, or if there was any chance at all that he should ever find what he sought. They sailed on, but a few of the older, strong-willed men began to grumble. “What, shall we just keep on keeping on, forever, until the last of us has died out here, unknown and unsung?” It was not a pleasant prospect.

Rannon reasoned that all of them had known, upon setting out, that they might never find the island, and might never return home again even if they did. But the young rather inexperienced prince became very concerned, when they had been sailing a full fortnight, and found nothing. He sensed that the spirit of men had become bitter, now--bitter against him.

He found a certain young man he could trust--a youth of perhaps eighteen, named Tallar, who had no living family, and had volunteered to come along on the quest partly because he longed for adventure, and partly to find himself. But, most of all, he hated how corrupt the country’s rulers had become, almost as much as Rannon himself.

The prince soon found in this lively youth a stouthearted man, and Rannon let him sit awake on guard while he slept. Still, he slept very little, always anxious lest a riot break out aboard the ship. And break out it did.

Rannon woke abruptly to Tallar’s shout. He was on his feet immediately, with his knife in his hand. By the dim light of the half-moon he could see a band of men--perhaps half-a-score to a dozen of them--with their eyes shining eerily in the dark, and their swords and daggers glinting threateningly. They had not counted upon being discovered so soon, but it took them scarcely a second to recover.

With a great yell they began to fight--swinging their weapons left and right, in a mad frenzy. The whole ship was soon roused, and confusion reigned.

Then Rannon, who had nothing bigger than his knife to fight with, climbed nimbly up the mast, and paused above the heads of his crew to shout as loud as he could over the din. “Men! Do not forget yourselves! What sort of an end is this? Would it not be better to go on and take what the sea can give us, to die if we must, than to kill our very selves off in this savage way? Why have we come on this quest? To die murderers? We have come to find an island, and find it we shall--but only if we keep looking for it.”

“We’ve been looking for two full weeks!” someone shouted back. “How much longer’ll it be, princey?”

A great roar ensued, and the fighting became ever more furious.

Rannon grit his teeth. “Men! Hear me, now! Whosoever wishes to remain with me, to be rid of these evil men if need be, and to go on--come ye hither!!” He brandished his knife as if it were a great banner, and in the dim light he saw what men that could come to group together near him.

As soon as the others could get their bearings, and become a body, the rebels had no chance of victory, being outnumbered four to one in most places.

Rannon ordered his men to refrain from killing if it was at all possible, but only five men out of the group repented, or could be captured, and the others either jumped ship or were slain.

The prince saw to it that the captives were properly secured, the repentant rebels forgiven and warned to keep straight in the future, and then he anxiously sought out Tallar. He found him on the deck among the wounded. The remainder of that terrible night was spent tending the wounded, and gathering the dead. All together, nearly half their number were lost--counting those who did not survive the wounds received--so fierce and sudden had the fighting been . . .

Rannon was very disheartened, and a gloom hung over their company for many a while afterward.

But it was only another se’ennight before they came upon what they sought: the wizard’s island. It was a dim, foggy morning, and the men were weary and worried--for their food supply was quickly decreasing, and they had as yet seen nothing but the wide expanse of the restless sea.

And then--land! No sooner had they laid eyes upon it than they were every one of them convinced it was the very island they sought.

They brought the ship in as near as they dared, and dropped anchor. Leaving half a dozen men aboard ship, Rannon led the rest of them to the shore in a company of four rowboats.

He had not known what to expect upon landing--indeed, he had harbored only a small, brave hope of ever discovering the island at all. But he had never expected what he encountered--a still, stifled air such as he had never felt before; more dead than alive, and strangely un-breathable.

But as soon as the prince set foot on that strange shore a shudder ran over the entire island, shaking it like an earthquake; the sky was suddenly a dark, stormy blue; and a lightning bolt as red as blood split the darkness, sending a blinding yellow light across the world.

All the men with him fell to the ground, but Rannon stood straight--and to all who dared raise their heads to look at him, he seemed suddenly grown taller and stronger and nobler, even, than before.

There was a terrible wail, as the ground shuddered again. Then all was silent, and the sky was a soft white-blue, and the sun shone, and the old gentle breeze blew aimlessly.

The men slowly rose to their feet, standing in a frightened silence.

Slowly, cautiously, Rannon lifted his foot, and took another step. Nothing happened. He was openly relieved. And he suddenly realized that the heaviness in the air had lifted, that the land suddenly seemed more colorful, and the fog had disappeared.

“Come, men,” he said. “Again I must test your fealty. Will you follow me into this strange land to find what we will?”

There was many a “yea.” But four rather superstitious men had seen quite enough to terrify them, and returned to the ship. And of those who went on . . . perhaps it was less courage than it was a fear of being left behind that drove the greater part of them.

Rannon was rather surprised to find the island so full of life. Trees rich and tall grew in small groves along the shore, broken here and there by rocks of great girth and a million hues of silver-grey. Beyond the trees were fields--rolling, and full of long wild grasses, and flowers never seen on the mainland.

As the men neared the heart of the field, Rannon happened upon what seemed a foundation of old stone. They tarried a moment there, inspecting the place--but no other signs of life remained, except relics of stone--most of them crumbling, and mossy, and grass-ridden.

Looking out ahead of them, Rannon could see, beyond field and hedge and grove, the great forest of pine. As the men slowly neared it they were awed by the height, and the depth, and the denseness of the forest.

Then before they realized it, they found themselves beneath its very eaves. The company came to a halt.

“I shall enter here,” Rannon said, slowly. “Somewhere within this forest lies the treasure I seek. I shall not compel any of you to follow me. I would rather go into the forest alone, than have at my back a company of unhappy men. Let him follow me who will, and he who will not shall await me here--and if night should return sooner than I, let him return to the ship. Is there anyone who would follow me?”

Rannon saw Tallar step nearer at once. “I shall follow you, sir, be it onto death or onto victory.”

The prince smiled, and laid a kind hand on the youth’s shoulder. “But is it really the desire within your heart, to follow me even onto death? You who are as yet so young?”

“I shall be ashamed even into my old age, if I do not now give everything I have for this quest, to which I have been called.”

Moved by the youth’s fervor, the other men agreed heartily. But again there were a few who had heard too many rumors of the old forest, been through too much in the past month, and had not the stouthearted trust in Rannon that Tallar had. So they turned back, to wait.

And Rannon entered the forest, with scarce a dozen men.

They followed a rough, overgrown trail for several hours, and Rannon feared he had taken a wrong turn and lost the path, for it seemed to him that he and his men were in the middle of a thicket, and no trail could be seen.

He set his teeth and continued on a few paces in a forward direction, hoping to find something. And it was only a moment later before their small company stumbled upon more stone ruins. Rannon made out what seemed to have once been a well, but was now quite filled in and overgrown, and several other large stones, most of which were so covered over with moss and earth that they were barely recognizable and did not seem to make any clear structure.

Passing on a ways, they found the path again. Looking back, Rannon realized they had only stepped off of it a moment, and had never really lost it at all. And then, looking before him, he saw it stretching away in a thin, winding line, into the darkness.

He turned again to look at the little clearing they had wandered into, and then the path leading away. If he was guessing correctly, this was the very site of the old wizard’s cottage, and the path winding on before him could very well lead to the great pine.

He began walking again. But no sooner had he set foot on the path than another shudder shook the ground, and another flash lit the sky.

“That’s it!” one of the men cried. “This nasty forest is bad enough, but if we’re going to starting having earthquakes and lightning bolts again, I’m not going a step farther.” Nine of the other men suddenly agreed, shaken again by what had happened, and grown very weary of the dark forest.

Rannon sighed. “Then go back. I will not have you following me unwillingly. If you follow this path back carefully it shall lead you safely out to where we came in. If you lose yourselves, I cannot help you.”

They seemed to be more afraid of going on than of turning back to find their own way, and Rannon let them go.

Looking around, then, he found himself alone with Tallar.

“Is it not sad that, after all they have gone through with me, they would not see it to the end? They would not go on long enough to help in the finding of what we have come to seek?”

Tallar nodded. “But, prince, I think it is really that they fear the most: the wizard’s ball. They know, somewhere inside at least, what it will mean if you, the descendant of the wizard, find this ball and bring it back to the mainland. And there is at least something in them that recognizes the wonder of it, and wills it to be, but fear for themselves is the stronger emotion.”

Rannon stared. “You have the mind of a wizard yourself, young man,” he said, awed. “Indeed, you remind me very much of my old tutor.” And there, in the heart of that old wild forest, Rannon thought of Conan, and how the old man had said they were never to meet again, and his heart was heavy.

“Come, then,” he said, bestirring himself. “Let us go. Day is fading, and we cannot tarry.”

They walked on, following the path closely, seeing or hearing nothing else out of the ordinary, even after going on for an hour.

“We have gone easily three miles, since the clearing, and I begin to fear I am wrong in following this path,” Rannon said. “It leads us nowhere, only deeper and deeper into the forest. Soon we shall not be able to see, for the darkness, and I have only one candle. We must turn back, perhaps look for a path turning off to the side. We might have missed something . . .” He turned, weary and worried, but then he jumped, staring. The path had disappeared.

Tallar stared, too. “It’s gone, sir.”

Rannon nodded, slowly. He felt a heavy weight of defeat slowly crushing his heart. He glanced over his shoulder. He started again. “Look!”

Tallar turned, and looked. The path stretched on before them, as clear as day.

They both looked back again. Nothing. Only the thick maze of tree and undergrowth.

Rannon was silent a moment, studying the path that went on ahead. “On we shall go, Tallar. On until we find what we seek.”

The young man nodded. He recognized in the prince’s voice a strong determination that he had missed.

Darkness came on quickly. The trees seemed to grow ever larger, and the path more winding. There was a bitter wind blowing, that had somehow found its way in past the roof of long-needled branches.

Rannon took out his candle and lit it with a shaky hand. “I like not the idea of passing the night here,” he said--mostly because the silence was suddenly unnerving, and he had to say something.

Tallar agreed.

And then, suddenly, they rounded a bend, and the path stopped short. The two men raised their eyes, to behold the greatest tree they had ever seen. It rose to a height so far above all the others that its top could not be seen; it’s circumference was so great that if there had been two of them both they could not have reached all the way around it.

Rannon tried to catch his breath. “This is it,” he said, in a faint whisper. Just a moment ago he had needed to speak, and now he hardly dared breathe.

He took a rather hesitant step nearer, and another shudder shook the earth, greater than the others together. Rannon and Tallar both fell to the ground, and were still, staring, as a hole opened up beneath the tree’s very roots.

As soon as everything had again grown still, Rannon slowly raised himself.

Tallar scrambled up after him.
The prince bent slowly and peered into the hole. At first he could nothing for the great darkness of the forest, and the greater within the hole itself. But then it grew light, and soon it shone.

Before he even realized what he was doing, his hand was in the hole, and from it he took a ball. As he grasped it, the ball shone brighter still, and on it again appeared the dark sky, the red lightning, and the yellow flashes, all as clear as life.

Suddenly a voice spoke: a voice that was at once both ancient and young, deep and clear, powerful but kind. Rannon, son of Cedric King of Roeland of the Mainland, to you I entrust my ball. But you may do with it what you will. You may return to it to its hole and leave it to die. You may take it and claim it for your own, and by so doing gain for yourself all of my wisdom and power. Or you may bear it back with you to the mainland, and once there, throw it to the sky, and by so doing claim it for your race, that their hearts may again be opened to wisdom, and beauty, and truth. But heed me, now: if you choose to bear the ball back to the mainland, to be given up for its people, you shall have to die as soon as you have set foot on the shore; furthermore, even I cannot promise you that all the people of the mainland shall be changed.

Prince Rannon stood, breathless, motionless, staring up into the trees. Neither of them saw anything, but the voice was perfectly real, and the words it spoke were heart-wrenching.

“Prince, if you claim the ball for your own then you shall have all of the wisdom and power needed, and we can return to teach it to our people,” Tallar said. “If you do not claim it, but bear it back to be given up . . . you shall have to die. And even then, we cannot know how many shall be changed in the end.”

Rannon was silent, still staring up into the trees. He thought of Conan again, and his heart remembered the old man’s words: For decades the country has been waiting for you to arise and restore the wizard’s line to rights--to its original wealth in holy knowledge and discerning. He could remember clearly the faraway look in the old man’s wise eyes. But they found it not, son, because they sought it out of greed. If they could but posses it, they dreamed, they could be as powerful as the wizard was of old, and they would be renowned ever after for their valor and their greatness. Rannon, your heart holds naught of this greed, nor this self-seeking. I have long studied it, and I have found it whole and true--unsullied by selfishness, and righteously angered by the injustice around you. Go, my son, and accomplish the task for which you were born. And you can do it. Remember this, lad. You can do it, so long as you keep within you that pure and selfless desire to save your people.

And then he remembered Rosalia, and the words she had spoken a their parting: . . . know, now, that Rosalia, daughter of Eric Lord of Greykeirn, is sending with you her heart. Rannon’s heart thrilled to the memory. He knew, then, what he had to do. He could not let Conan down; he could not betray the love, the trust, that Rosalia had for him.

Rannon turned to look at the youth beside him. His eyes were fixed on Rannon, anxious, rather afraid, but full of feeling.

The prince slowly shook his head. “No, Tallar. No. If I claim this ball and all it holds for my own I shall have failed. It might seem like that would, in the end, be the greater good. But it is too crucial a decision to base upon a vision, an obscurity. I have come to bear this ball back to my people, and bear it I shall. It is what I have been born for, so if I must die it is only part of my destiny. I cannot betray myself, and all the rest of our race.”

Tallar nodded. “Somehow I knew you would say that. You are a greater man than any I have known, sir. No one else could have done what you have, just now.”

Rannon turned back, without a word, down the path. He had no need of a candle, now; the ball spread a huge glow of light all about them. They went swiftly, now, sure of the way, and eager to be out into the open air again.

By the time they reached the field, night had fallen. They made their way through the long grass, to the shore, and took the rowboat there out to the ship.

Rannon bid Tallar give no detailed description of what they had seen or heard, and he hid the ball carefully in his knapsack, lest the men be enthralled by it and driven to treachery.

They boarded the ship and told the men the tale in brief. They all slept, then, and the next day started out.

There was s sudden shout of “land!” and all man ran to the deck to look out. There, right before their very eyes, was the mainland.

No one ever knew how it was that, after hardly a day’s sailing, they found the land which before had proved a month’s distance from the island they sought. Perhaps they had lost their way on the forward journey, perhaps it was by some favor of the wizard that their homeward journey be swift.

Either way, they found themselves at the mainland. They dropped anchor, and a company of dazed, delighted men rowed ashore.

The news spread rapidly, and Lord Eric and Lady Rosalia quickly rode down to the wharf.

Rannon was slow in stepping out of the rowboat, and onto the shore. He saw Eric and his daughter, there, to greet him. He saw the townspeople gathering quickly. He saw, behind them all, the rolling hills of his beloved homeland.

He put his hand into his knapsack and took out the ball. “I, Prince Rannon of Roeland of the Mainland, hereby give up this ball, and all it holds, for the race of the wizard of old,” he shouted. With the greatest force he could muster, he threw the ball up to the clouds.

All watched, and gasped as it suddenly disappeared.

Rannon stood, looking up, waiting.

Tallar was suddenly beside him. “Didn’t you see it disappear? It shan’t come back down, sir.”

“I am not waiting for that,” Rannon said, still standing motionless.

Then, suddenly, the voice spoke again--and it was obvious to the two that everyone around them heard it, too: Son, you have passed the test, and kept your heart unsullied. In so doing you have proved that there was already a wisdom in you before the ball was restored to my race. That wisdom has saved your life. You may choose to keep it, now, and live. But it is still necessary that someone give the ultimate sacrifice or the treasure your have found cannot be applied to your people.

Rannon bowed his head. “I shall give my life, sir. Only, first, let me speak my last goodbyes.”

Tallar stopped him. “No! I cannot let you.”

Rannon pulled away from him. “What, have you turned my foe now? Would you deny me a last word?”

Tallar shook his head. “I deny you death. Let me die.”

Rannon stared. “No . . . No, I cannot. You are young, you have a long promising life ahead of you, a good head, and a strong heart. It would be wrong.”

“And what that you have said about me does not apply to you as well?”

“Tallar, you do not understand. I was born for this.”

“No. You were born to find the ball, and to give it up again, to save your people. I . . . I was born to die for them.”

Rannon looked hard into his dark eyes. Something in his voice was so sure, so decided. “How do you know this?” the prince asked.

“Tell me,” the youth replied, “have you heard nothing, learned nothing of yourself on this quest of ours?”

Rannon thought a minute. “I have learned I was indeed called to this; that, sometimes, there is a strength within me I had not thought possible; that all of those years of hardship in my father’s house did serve a purpose, in readying me for this quest . . .”

Tallar nodded. “And I, sir, I have learned that there was a purpose to my life: to sail with you, to save you from those rebellious men, to find the island with you and follow you deep into the forest when there was no other man that could, and now to die so that all we have been through together shall not fail.”

Everyone standing by was awed by the speech, and Rannon’s eyes were wet. He put a hand on either of the youth’s shoulders. “Tallar, if you are convinced that this is what you want to do, this is what you are meant for . . . then I say great are you among men, and along with this entire race, I shall be eternally indebted to you for your courage, your nobility, your fidelity, your selflessness. And your honor shall be remembered for generations, as an example of one who honestly sought after Rightness when the age was dark.”

Tallar embraced him, and Rannon felt him suddenly go limp. He laid him on the grass, and looked into the young face anxiously; he was not breathing. The prince bowed his head. Life had gone out of him, and into that failing race.

He stayed there, kneeling beside the youth, his tears falling quietly, and then he felt a small hand on his shoulder. He looked up into the face of Rosalia. There were tears in her eyes, too, and he put his arm around her and drew her gently to himself.

She put her head down on his breast, and he rested his on her soft hair. “I am so very glad you’ve returned,” she whispered, “but so very sorry that the good young man had to give his life. Will everything be all right, now?”

“We have given this land and its people another chance, Rosalia, a new hope. That is all we have to offer.”

Comments

that is an amazing story.

that is an amazing story.

Sarah | Sun, 01/06/2008

"Sometimes even to live is courage."
-Seneca

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