Prophecy, Part 5: Flight of the Champion
"I don't think I wanna be a druid."
"... No one said you had to, Áinle."
"Then why am I still here?"
Saraid paused, strands of the child's half-braided hair still in her hands. "What do you mean?"
Áinle's shoulders slumped a bit as he sighed. "All the other kids get adopted. I've been here the longest and no one's even tried to adopt me. Am I just... Am I not good enough...?"
Saraid had feared this day. She'd asked the other druids what to say if this ever happened, but most of them gave conflicting or unclear answers. She wasn't prepared for this. But she had to think fast, and in a moment of panic she let instinct take over.
"Áinle. I'm not your mother. But in the 12 years since I found you in those woods, I've tried to care for you as if I were. So I know personally that you are deserving of a normal life. You're a great kid--a great person. And one day, you will find a family to be a part of. I promise."
The boy sat silent and unmoving for a while as Saraid finished braiding his long hair. When she was finished, she looked him up and down and gave him a hug.
"I'm sorry, Áinle. Know that no matter what, you will always find love and care here."
He nodded silently, staring down at his feet.
"Now, I've got some things to do around town. Why don't you go and spends some time with some of the other kids? That might make you feel better."
Áinle didn't go to the other kids. Instead, he wandered down to the lakefront. Concealed behind some bushes was a small wooden boat, big enough for just one person. He hauled it into the water and rowed out onto the lake.
This was his favorite pastime. Áinle loved the calmness of the still waters. He loved watching the townsfolk bustling about by the shore, and the fishermen dotting the surface of the water. He often pretended he was one of them, that one of these many strangers was actually his long lost parent, just waiting to find him again. Most of all, he loved gazing up through the wooden towers of the Green Keep, which stood at the top of a hill on the edge of the lake. His most guilty pleasure was imagining a rich, lavish life as the son of the Count, the highest authority in this region of the island. The sunbeams shining between the towers and through the windows was often enough to distract Áinle from anything.
Unfortunately, today wasn't such a nice day. The sun was hidden behind a curtain of grey clouds, which had rolled in just after dawn. Many of the people about the city, as well as the druids, predicted that it would rain at some point. Áinle didn't usually mind; he loved the feeling of the rain on his skin. But today, the overcast weather reflected his sour mood.
After a few minutes of sailing past the cliffs beneath the Keep and out further into the lake, he ran ashore upon the island which housed the Shrine, the oldest and most important in all the Riverlands. On a normal day it would be bustling with worshippers and druids, but it was completely abandoned today, likely due to the rain. The only people he could see around were in a few other small boats on the water, most of them making their way back to shore.
Áinle anchored his raft to the small dock at the foot of island, then made his way up to the shrine.
It was surrounded on almost all sides by trees and shrubs, so much so that he almost couldn't see the lake beyond, save for the way back down to the shore. At the center stood the ancient structure. Mossy pillars of cracked stone, centuries older than living memory, raised in a circle around a small hump of natural stone. And embedded in that central stone was that old sword.
Áinle had heard all the legends surrounding the sword: the tale of the warrior who first wielded it; all those who tried and failed to draw it from its resting place; and of course, the promise from the old lake spirit that whoever drew forth the blade would be destined for greatness, to be King of the Riverlands in their entirety. Greater than any count, this King would unite the counties and bring forth prosperity.
These stories, he presumed, were mere fantasies. The second figure in the prophecy hadn't even appeared! What made people think the third was ever going to come?
In the distance, thunder cracked. Áinle figured he should probably get back home soon, lest Saraid and the other druids get too worried. But part of him wanted them to worry. He wanted to feel like someone cared, someone more than just Saraid and her empty promises. She was wrong, after all--Áinle didn't deserve a normal family. He'd been abandoned in the woods, left to die, mere days after his birth. He wasn't even supposed to be alive. But for some reason, Saraid had insisted on bringing him in, raising him as just another orphan.
He grabbed a rock from the gravel around the shrine, the biggest one he could find. In anger, he chucked it out through the opening in the trees and into the lake, where it landed with a loud splash. But Áinle didn't notice the splash...
The massive plume of smoke rising from the Green Keep was a bit more noticeable.
He stared up at the black cloud growing higher and higher into the sky. The stone foundation seemed unharmed, but fire ate throughthe wood of the upper levels like it was made of grass. He heard people in the city screaming and panicking as the towers threatened to collapse and crush the houses below.
Áinle was speechless. He was paralyzed. What was going on? He barely had time to ponder this question when he heard a noise in the leaves on the edge of the clearing.
A hand, pale and grotesque. Its nails--or rather, those which remained--were long, unkempt, and jagged.
The hand pulled out with it an arm, a torso, a head, each equally as horrifying. Soon, stepping out from the brush, was a pallid, rotting figure, unnaturally thin and adorned in tattered clothes. Its eyes were bloodshot, its pupils a pale blue.
The figure, the creature, stumbled forward toward Áinle. It didn't seem to have much control of its actions, but it was still approaching at a worrying pace.
Áinle stepped backward and tripped, landing flat on his rear. But the monstrous being crept ever forward, reaching out its mangled hands.
Suddenly Áinle's head bumped into something solid--the sword. He reached around and grabbed it with both hands to pull himself up, but tripped again and fell further backwards.
The sword came with him.
Áinle hit the ground hard, but when he looked back up, the figure had stopped in its tracks. It was staring at him, the remains of its face contorted in shock.
He looked down at the weight in his hands. There was the sword, shining as if it were brand new.
He took a deep breath, stepped forward, and swung.
It took nearly half an hour for the rain to finally begin falling. In that time, the Keep had been all but destroyed.
Unfortunately, some of the Keep's inhabitants were caught in the fire, mostly guards and other staff. The Count and his family were largely unscathed, albeit a bit shaken up, but the Keep was lost. Many houses had also been set ablaze; druids and city guards alike were making the rounds, tending to the survivors and counting those who weren't as lucky.
Saraid walked into the orphanage, having just completed her rounds on the other side of the city. Many of the other druids were still doing what they could, but the senior among them remained. Elder Deaglán spoke with each of them, discussing what had been uncovered regarding the disaster.
"Salt. All over the place. Little piles of the stuff. What does it mean?"
Deaglán scratched his beared chin, deep in thought. "This is not a good sign. I fear the forces of evil are getting cocky. We mustn't take this attempt lightly."
Saraid joined the circle. "The north side is largely untouched. Nothing unusual there."
The others glanced at her. The concern in their eyes was obvious.
One of the Druids, Cillian, spoke first. "Is Áinle not with you?"
Saraid blinked. "You mean he's not here?"
Murmuring rippled through the small group, which grew into talking, which grew into panic. Suddenly, another young druid stumbled through the doorway, shoulders heaving with deep, exhausted breaths.
"The Shrine..." he panted. "The sword....."
"Spit it out, Irial!" shouted Cillian.
Irial took a deep breath. "The sword is gone."
Everyone looked at each other silently, eyes wide.
Deaglán sat down his chair. "My friends... It seems the threads of fate are now being woven. We have much to do."
- Áinle [EYEn-lay]
- Saraid [SAHR-ad]
- Deaglán [DEG-lahn]
- Irial [EE-ree-ahl]