The Sword Of The Champion
This is a slightly reworked excerpt from another novel-length story I'm sort of working on, my take on the Child of Prophecy trope.
The prophecy runs as follows: A girl will be chosen. A brown girl born in the five hundredth year, poor and proud, with unknown gifts and a hero’s heart, and she will free us all.
... that's a lot of girls, over a whole empire.
Three girls from the same village make a run for it, one bringing her twin brother along. They almost immediately collect a Traveller girl of the same birth year, along with her uncle, deciding they're all better off together. This is just one of their adventures....
Three girls and a boy should not know aught of fighting. That, surely, had been what the soldiers thought when they came openly, demanding surrender, their swords still sheathed. A farmer’s brat, two forester’s whelps, and a barmaid? What threat could they be to real soldiers? And after all, the soldiers hadn’t known about the Travellers, Patrin and his niece Mireli.
They’d learned their mistake quickly. Nia and Gethin were foresters themselves, and fast with a bow. They’d had three soldiers dead and one wounded before the others could raise their shields or draw their swords.
Althena had been raised on a farm, but Patrin had trained her in magic for weeks now. Simple magics. Small magics. But calling fire wasn’t small when she called it into men’s clothing, or hair, or under the noses of their horses. A farm girl knew what would burn, and what would frighten.
Mireli was swift with a knife, though she knew no magic. While the fire blinded and confused, she ducked in among them, cutting straps with a knife like a razor. Saddles slipped, and sword-belts, and helms.
But they were soldiers. Surprise had helped, but Beata wasn’t sure it had helped enough. She waded in with a staff to rescue Mireli, when a man caught hold of her, but then they were cut off from the others. A staff was longer than a sword, but there was a limit to how much damage she could do to men with shields and armour. They were pushed back, through the door of the temple, and that was bad. There was no other entrance. They were trapped.
Beata backed up, and backed up, until she felt her heels hit the altar stone. “Get behind,” she told Mireli, shoving, and Mireli went around the altar in a tumbler’s roll, taking shelter behind the tall plate of stone that formed the back piece for the low altar. She probably expected Beata to follow.
Instead, Beata jumped up on the altar, a standing jump she couldn’t have made a month ago. Two feet wasn’t much height, but it gave a solid advantage to the woman holding six feet of seasoned oak, and a strong disadvantage to men with short-swords. She held them off for what felt like hours, but was probably only minutes. One went down and stayed down after a smashing blow to his face with the steel-shod foot of the staff. Another went to the floor clutching a broken arm, swearing and gasping.
The others were wary, now, and kept their shields up. There were three of them. It was hard to keep her eye on all three at once. If Mireli came out, she might be able to take one, if they didn’t see her - but she only had a short knife. A bad weapon against men with swords and shields.
If one of their archers came in, Beata was doomed. If Nia or Gethin did, they might win. But there were other soldiers out there, and none of the other four knew anything about close combat. She wasn’t hopeful.
Then one of them backed away, lowering his shield so she could see his grin. Still grinning, he lifted his sword and moved to follow Mireli behind the altar.
And Mireli only had a short knife.
Beata didn’t have time to think. She whipped her staff around, at full extension of both staff and arm. He’d thought he was out of reach. She wasn’t sure if he had time to realize how wrong he’d been. The force of the blow, six feet of oak swung as hard and fast as a strong arm could manage, hit him like a blow from a sledge-hammer, crushing both helm and the skull inside.
It also ripped the staff out of her hand.
With no options left, she turned and raised her hand to the sword suspended above the altar. “If you don’t want this, strike me dead - or them,” she muttered, and wrapped her hand around the hilt.
The temple wasn’t there anymore. There was only a great emptiness, containing herself, and the sword, and a small, very upright form before her. The face turned up to hers was small and dark, a typically Cymrian face that could have belonged to a hundred women she’d known, old and young. “Will you take up the sword, and be my champion?” the goddess asked. “Will you protect the weak, defend the helpless, and swear never to turn your back upon those who ask your aid?”
Beata stared at her. “You want me to be a *champion*? I don’t even know what to do with this thing.”
“Will you protect the weak, defend the helpless, and swear never to turn your back upon those who ask your aid?” The goddess cocked her head. She was somehow younger than Nia, and older than Beata’s grandmother, and all ages in between. She wore age like a tree wore leaves, every tiny movement showing a different leaf to the sun.
“Great lady, I am a barmaid, not a champion. I’m no use to you, I’m just trying to protect my friend.” Beata tried to draw her hand back from the sword’s hilt - and couldn’t. It wasn’t as if her hand were stuck to the sword, more as if she were trying to pull her wrist away from her hand. The two were one.
“Will you protect the weak, defend the helpless, and swear never to turn your back upon those who ask your aid?” The voice was stern now, and the small woman raised her brows.
The same question asked three times *must* be answered on the third time, and the answer was binding. Everyone knew that. And Beata had put her hand on a sacred sword, knowing that that was what it was. The goddess had the right to ask this of her.
She groaned quietly. “Yes, I will protect the weak, defend the helpless, and swear never to turn my back upon those who ask my aid,” she said. “I do all of those things anyway. But I don’t think I’m going to be much of a champion in the few minutes I have left. Those soldiers - “
But the goddess was gone, and she was on the altar, turning smoothly towards the soldiers with the unsheathed sword in her hand. And even as she realized that she did know what to do, she was leaping forward. It was like remembering something she’d forgotten for a moment, like finding a word on the tip of your tongue, like the catching of a dropped glass before the mind had time to notice the fall. She had taken the second soldier before the first hit the ground. She was leaping for the open doorway before the second soldier’s head bounced on the ground.
The sword held the knowledge, she realized. All the skill of every champion was held inside the sword, so that a champion who caught up the sword in a moment of need would already know what to do next.
The sword rang on a hastily-raised shield. Without thinking, she seized the edge of the shield in her left hand and jerked it to the side, spinning the soldier whose arm it was buckled to until his left side was fully exposed and his sword blocked by his own body. She dispatched him without effort, and felt a sudden surge of elation which was not her own. It had come from the sword.
Even as she thought it, even as she leaped over the fallen man, she understood why. The goddess did not bestow strength or wisdom on her champion, for that was not in her gift. All she could give was knowledge, housed in a very simple sort of ‘mind’ magically housed within the sword. The sword had been expecting… well, an ordinary person. It was always an ordinary person, in extremis, who took up this sword, not a warrior.
The sword, insofar as it could think at all with about as much intelligence as a puppy, was thinking ‘hurrah, someone with muscles’, and Beata found herself laughing a little hysterically while she fought yet another soldier. It had been hoping for, at best, a farmer, used to physical labour. It was *delighted* to be in the hand of a barmaid who was nearly six feet tall and who could lift a beer barrel over her head.
As if in echo of her thought, one of the enemy archers swung a staff at her and yelped when she caught it in her free hand. “Why are you so strong?” he demanded hysterically, trying to pull it back out of her hand.
“I’m a barmaid,” she told him, and lopped off his head.
He was the last. When she realized that, and the last minute or two caught up with her, she leaned on a tree to throw up. The sword, more like a hound than ever, projected loving reassurance that *everyone* threw up after the first time, that it was perfectly all right. Killing people was very shocking and unpleasant and if she was the kind of person who liked that sort of thing, she wouldn’t have been suitable to be a champion in the first place.
By the time she was done, the others had gathered near her, staring at her with round, shocked eyes. Mireli was there, and not noticeably bleeding, she noticed. Good. “Are you all all right?” she asked hoarsely, wiping her mouth on her sleeve between the bloodstains.
Nia handed her a flask of water, which Beata drank gratefully, washing the bile away. “Nothing to speak of,” Nia said. “A few bruises and cuts, nothing to signify.” She looked at the sword. “Is that the magic sword that Patrin told us not to touch under any circumstances?”
“Yes.” Beata moved to the next tree, further from the vomit and the headless body, and leaned against it. “I had to swear fealty to the goddess to get it.”
“Which goddess?” Gethin asked, sounding interested.
“I didn’t ask. The one who had a sword ready when I needed a sword.” Beata took a moment to examine it. The blood was already slipping off the sword like water off oil, and she could see some runes on the blade, though she couldn’t read them. “She just made me promise to protect the weak and helpless and then… let me do it.”
Althena put her hands on her hips. “Weak and helpless? I burned a man’s face off today, I will have you know.”
Gethin chuckled. “Yes, but would you arm-wrestle Beata? I wouldn’t. I couldn’t bear the humiliation a second time.”
Patrin smiled, a little sourly. He’d lost, too, and he’d taken it with much less grace than Gethin had. “Weaker than she is against heavily armed men we are, whether we like it or not.” His smile got less sour, and he laid a hand on his niece’s shoulder. “And… thank you.” He’d been too far away to get Mireli back out of harm’s way, she’d seen that even as she leaped in with staff swinging.
“We’re friends.” Beata shrugged. “I’d have done the same for any one of us.” And that was true. She straightened up, and stretched. “Oogh. I’m going to be sore tomorrow.”
“We all are.” Mireli paused, then looked down at the headless man. “What did you say to him?”
Beata glanced down, then hastily away. She hadn’t wanted to know what the inside of a neck looked like. “That I’m a barmaid,” she admitted.
“Oh. Well, at least he died confused and frightened,” Mireli said, sounding pleased. “Like the other prophecy girls he and the others have taken.”
“Does that mean Beata is the prophecy girl? The real one?” Althena asked Patrin. “I mean… she’s the champion of a goddess now.”
Patrin snorted. “Girl, you have a ridiculously powerful magical gift, and your friend Nia found a mystical white stag to lead us through the Grimwood. Doubtless Mireli will develop the ability to see through walls within the week.”
“Actually - “ Mireli and Nia said it together, and Mireli blushed. Nia glanced at her sympathetically and continued. “Mireli had a dream about Beata, holding up a sword and lit by a great light, two nights ago.”
“Foretelling. Even better.” Patrin sighed. “Which of you is the girl the prophecy truly speaks of, I know not. But I am almost entirely certain that it is one of you. Signs and portents should not be ignored.”
“Perfect.” Beata sighed, and looked at the sword again. “I just wanted to hide in the woods, you know,” she told it. “Just protect a couple of girls from my own village and hide until it was all over. Now I have to go to the Imperial Capital and kill the Mage-Emperor. Or help one of them do it. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.”
The sword was extremely pleased. Slaying tyrants was, apparently, one of its favourite things to do.
“Well, we should move on from here first,” Nia said practically, “before anyone comes looking for this lot. Then… I suppose we figure out how to get to the capital?”
“Does anyone even know where it is?” Gethin asked. “I mean, I know it’s west of Cymria, but that’s all.”
“We should search the bodies,” Patrin said firmly. “These are Imperial soldiers. Those usually carry maps.”
“Won’t they be maps of Cymria, though?” Mireli asked, crouching to open the archer’s belt pouch.
“Maps of Cymria would help.”
“How?” Gethin asked.
“Because,” Patrin said very patiently, “I’ve *been* to the capital. I know the way there. But I don’t know the way there from here, because you and your sister and your mystical stag have been dragging me through trackless woods and mountains for nearly a month and I am more lost than I have ever been in my entire life. I know where the capital is. But in order to go there, I need to know where *I* am!”
“Oh. All right.” Gethin shrugged. “We’ll round up the horses and go through the saddle bags.” He paused. “What is a map, anyway?”
Patrin stared at him, mouth opening and closing. Mireli rolled her eyes at him. “It’s a picture of the land,” she explained. “From high up, like a bird sees it, or when you look out over flat ground from a mountainside. Just bring us any parchment you find.”
“We can do that.” Nia and Gethin chorused, and then went in search of strayed horses.
Beata went to help. She’d never seen a map either or - until just now - heard of one. But the sword knew. While she rifled through pouches and purses and any clothing that wasn’t too bloody, the sword showed her the strange, flat pictures, and how to read them. Apparently one of the champions had, in time, become a general, and generals had to learn these things.
If they found a map, or even a good hint, she’d let Patrin show them the way. Only if they didn’t, she decided, would she admit that she knew exactly where they were, thanks to the sword. She’d already beaten him at arm-wrestling and now at sword-work. She wasn’t sure he could take another blow to his pride this soon.