“Now the backstroke!” Aryx’s sword sliced cleanly under Phrenna’s, into his armor. Phrenna winced. It had been a superb stroke. Aryx truly was gifted. ‘Twas a pity he would die tomorrow.
“Master!” Aryx dropped his sword and dashed forward. Shortly Phrenna had him in a headlock, arms pinioned.
“Never drop your sword in battle, young fool. How can you defeat the Icemage with no weapon? He will Chill you to the bone. When I take you to him tomorrow, you must not be so foolish.”
“Apologies, Master.” Aryx kept most of the pain from his voice. Phrenna’s admiration deepened. Such control! He had taught many pupils, but this young boy, plucked from the peasantry, was among the very finest.
Phrenna released Aryx. The young boy whirled, eyes alight. “That was a good stroke, though, wasn’t it, Master? How was I?”
“Adequate,” Phrenna growled, and saw the boy’s face fall.
“Go wash for supper,” Phrenna said, and started toward his cabin. After a few paces, he felt a presence behind him, and turned. Aryx stood, holding a bundle of cloth.
“Master…” Aryx hesitated. “I know that to take time from my studies is to cheat the kingdom.” Phrenna recognized the words as his own. “But I was taught to exchange gift for gift. You have given me so much, and one of my station has nothing of like value to offer you. Still, I hope you will accept–” And Ayrx thrust the bundle forward.
Phrenna unwrapped the cloth, and there lay a beautiful (if amateur) wooden figure of a swordsman.
“I carved it at night,” Aryx said.
Phrenna’s eyes moistened. He knew he should reprove the boy, maintain his distance, but he hadn’t the heart. He waited for the emotion to clear from his voice.
“I shall treasure it,” he said at last. Ayrx grinned and raced for the stream.
Prince Righteous stood at the cabin door. Phrenna held up a hand; he had no wish to see the young vermin. “The sacrifice proceeds apace,” he muttered. “You may tell your father.”
The prince simpered, bowed, and left.
Only once Phrenna was inside did he let a tear fall. Righteous’s only virtue was his swordsmanship, and he could not best Aryx. Yet it would be the peasant’s destiny to fall, as four others had before him, all so the prince might one day defeat the Icemage. It wasn’t fair.
Reason enough to fight. He quickly devised a plan.
When Aryx returned from the stream, Phrenna dispatched him for a length of fuse. While the boy was eating supper, he lit the fuse, tucked it between his toes, and went to bed. It would awaken him in the middle of the night. He would rouse Aryx, and guide him not to the Icemage but to freedom. The king would send men, of course, but Phrenna knew how to evade pursuit.
With hardened heart he had trained promising young boys, only to sacrifice them to the king’s plot for his son’s future. But not this one. For the first time in years, he felt a stirring of hope.
Aryx would live.
Phrenna woke to sunlight. The fuse lay burnt on the floor. A note rested on his chest.
Master: I know why you lit the fuse. You wanted to accompany me today. But I know the way. As you once said, a true hero goes alone.
Phrenna dressed quickly and raced to the Icemage’s castle. Aryx stood on the steps, frozen solid for eternity. The poor boy hadn’t even reached the doors.
With a bitter heart, Phrenna reported to the king, who was delighted at the news.
“Another down, eh, Master Phrenna? And the prophecy soon fulfilled. How did it read? ‘Six frozen, to be garlanded / Till Time itself doth wither / But righteous sword shall slay the mage…’” The king paused in confusion. “How many has it been now, Phrenna?”
Aryx had been the fifth. Aryx… Phrenna’s quiet rage burned an idea to life.
“Six, Your Majesty.”
“Excellent! Then my son’s destiny may commence immediately.”
Phrenna smiled. Indeed.
Let me know what you think of the story. If you like it, please feel free to forward the link to your friends! If it wasn’t to your taste, better luck tomorrow — a new piece of short fiction goes up every day.