Hugh carried the priest’s body out of the sanctuary and found a servant walking the halls. He explained what happened, and together they brought the body to the temple’s underground mausoleum. Hugh was then led off the premises.
He made his way back to the drinking hall. Someone got the idea of filling a bathtub with wine and giving it to Hugh. As the crowd chanted, he reluctantly downed it, to cheers and applause. Everyone sang and drank and laughed.
The next morning, as they were preparing to leave, Hugh decided to stay.
“What?” asked the dwarf.
“I never got a straight answer,” said Hugh.
“So we’re just supposed to stay here until you can… what?” asked the giant.
“No,” said Hugh. “I don’t expect you to stay. I expect you to go back. Only I need to stay.”
“I’ll stay, too,” said Theoson.
Hugh looked at Theoson.
“What?” Theoson asked. “Like I’m in a hurry to return to begging in the streets of a city that hates me?”
“How are you supposed to get back?” asked the dwarf.
Hugh touched the bag of coins hanging from his belt.
“You have enough?” the giant asked.
“Apparently, we made a small fortune betting on you two,” said Hugh.
“Oh, and none of that is for us?” the dwarf asked.
Theoson lifted his walking stick and jabbed the dwarf hit in the gut, knocking the wind out of him. “You can’t make any money off of this,” he said.
The giant smirked, then she dodged Theoson’s sweeping swing. Hugh noticed Theoson wink at her.
“Go home to your spouses,” said Hugh. “Prepare the city for the assault this coming spring. Drill your troops. I’ll be back to Polity before the fighting begins, you have my word.”
They said their good-byes, then Theoson and Hugh watched the ship sail off out of sight. They then made their way to the sibyl.
“The sibyl cannot be consulted today,” said the priest at the gate. “There is a funeral all day. You should know… you killed him.”
“Me?” asked Hugh.
“Yes, you,” the priest said. “Don’t you know that the sibyl doesn’t just read the future?”
“What?” asked Hugh.
“Just by asking the sibyl, Brother Jessop’s fate was altered. If you hadn’t decided to come here and coax him into summoning the Diva, where he asked about his own fate, this never would have happened. The servants who provided you dinner last night heard it all. He would still be alive right now if not for you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hugh. “I had no idea.”
“Now just hold on,” Theoson interjected. “Hugh, here, didn’t tell this Brother Jessop character to ask about himself. Hugh is trying to find answers about himself.”
“Well…” Hugh began. “I may have said… I mean, he asked me if I would want to know when and how I would die. I told him I would want to know when, but not how. But I never told him he should ask that… I never told Brother Jessop to do that… I never even knew his name while he was alive.”
The priest shook his head. “The sibyl is upset. All the priests of the temple are upset. I think it would be best if you just left.”
“How can I leave?” asked Hugh. “According to the sibyl, I’m already dead. Should you be burying me with Brother Jessop?”
“What?” asked the priest.
“That’s what the sibyl told me last evening. She said I was already dead, and yet here I stand.”
“That’s impossible,” said the priest. “The sibyl is never wrong.”
“Except this time,” said Hugh.
“You must have gotten a poor translation, an easy error for Brother Jessop to have made, considering he had just been presented with his impending demise.”
“No,” said Hugh. “I heard some of what she said.”
The priest then asked Hugh if he spoke Phragion. Hugh responded back that he did, in the long dead, ancient tongue. The priest squinted at Hugh.
“Who sent you?” he asked.
“I was sent here by the city of Polity with two of the athletes representing the city.”
“No,” the priest said, taking a step backward. “Who sent you to this temple? What is your real purpose here?”
“Theoson, my companion, led me to the temple. My purpose is to discover the reason why my fate seems impossible.”
“Where did you learn the language of magic?”
“Growing up, I learned many languages,” said Hugh. “I was taught by satyrs who were renowned for their vast knowledge, and not everything in the world has been written or said in Stelan. To be honest… I can’t speak Phragion that well, and I have trouble understanding everything that is said aloud to me in it, but I can read it quite well.”
The priest breathed in deeply and let it out slowly. He looked to the ground and shook his head. “Not today,” he said. “Not today. Come back tomorrow. The sibyl should not be disturbed. We ought to give her time to mourn. Brother Jessop was one of her closest companions. He was like a father to her, not only in this life, but also in her last two incarnations.”
Hugh nodded. “You’re right. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
The priest sighed. “So soon?”
“I cannot stay here indefinitely, waiting for her to finish mourning. I just lost my father, as well, and I have not even begun to finish mourning. But life goes on, regardless of who dies, and I must be getting home so that I can get back to the business of living.”
“Come on, Hugh,” said Theoson. “Nothing can come of pressing him. Let them grieve for now. You wouldn’t even respond to a swift blow to the head when you were lamenting your father for days after his demise.”
They left and made their way to the city. It was nearly barren now, a skeleton of its former, robust atmosphere amid the games. They walked through the empty streets and talked to pass the time. They walked past a tree with three bodies hanging by a noose from it. A sign hung nearby, naming them as pirates.
“Hmm,” buzzed Theoson. “The thieves who are caught are hung by the thieves who are not.”
“Stealing is punishable by death?”
“Piracy is more than just stealing,” said Theoson. “If you take a man’s purse, you might expect to be publicly caned, but if you take a boat by force and sell the crew into slavery, they’ll hang you. Of course, if your nation does that to another… then songs will be written about your greatness.”
“That’s scary,” said Hugh.
“Which part?” asked Theoson.
Hugh shrugged. “All of it. I don’t understand why people would do any of that. Steal a purse, sell you into slavery, invade a nation…”
Theoson looked at Hugh. “You honestly, truly don’t know why?”
“Because people inherently look for shortcuts,” said Theoson. “We want someone else to do it for us. We’re lazy, and it’s easier to take what we want than to earn it.”
Hugh blinked a few times. “But… it’s better off for everyone if you practice generosity instead of greed.”
Theoson put his hand on Hugh’s arm. “You may be the first student I ever had who did not need a lecture in morality, but required a lesson in immorality.”
Hugh shook his head. “The twins… they’re always been a little different. I had a dog once growing up, and he used to do ridiculous things that amused me, but also made me feel bad for him, because he was so foolish. I kind of always felt that way with the twins. Maybe it’s because they’re human, and I’ll never understand what motivates you.”
“We aren’t complex,” said Theoson. “We act on our stomach and our groin, not necessarily in that order.”
Hugh smirked. “I will never understand.”
“You will,” Theoson sad. “Once you stop overthinking it, you will.”
They walked for some time more and came to a group of men outside a bar, throwing a boulder. They seemed to be wagering which of them could throw it the farthest. When they saw Hugh and Theoson approach, they invited them to join. Theoson hurled it quite a ways, almost as far as the strongest of them. Theoson grumbled a bit about having lost his grip.
When Hugh was handed the boulder, which was slightly larger than a man’s head, he took it in one hand and lobbed it a great distance, several times farther than anyone else. Everyone laughed and patted Hugh on the back.
“He should try to remove the axe,” someone said.
The group agreed and led Hugh to a large stone pillar. A sturdy double-headed axe was embedded deep into it, its blade buried past the haft.
“What happens if I remove it?” asked Hugh.
Theoson walked over to it and turned back to Hugh. “Well, you get to keep the axe. It’s said to be a weapon of Dyas, who buried it in this column to one day be removed by someone worthy of wielding it.”
Hugh looked at it a bit, studying it.
Theoson leaned on his staff. “Some believe that whoever pulls the axe from the pillar will also one day rule Tauron, or all of Kole, or the whole world… it depends upon who’s telling the story.”
Hugh smirked. He wrapped his hands around the handle and gave it a little pull. It stayed fast. He widened his stance and gave it a couple hard tugs, but it was unmoved. He took a deep breath, slowly released it, breathed in once more, then gave it all he had. He strained until he was red in the face, rocking it back and forth to loosen it, but it didn’t budge at all.
Finally, he put a foot up onto the pillar and pulled until he collapsed. He tore the skin on the palms of his hands and was left feeling light-headed for a few minutes, but still he had made no progress on removing the axe.
Theoson shook his head and chuckled. “Come on, let’s go put some salve on that.” They left the group of men standing there, arguing over who had said he could and who said he couldn’t. Hugh staggered on, dazed, and he to came to his senses after a bit.
They went to a healer near the athletic grounds. Inside, they saw a young men whose ear has been nearly ripped off in a wrestling, laying next to a pale, sickly looking teenager with a bloody bandage just below his knee, where a compound fracture had exposed the bone.
A priestess approached Hugh wordlessly, his hands out in front of him. She looked them over, one, then the other.
“Is thisa burn?” she asked.
“The skin ripped when I was trying to remove the axe from the pillar.”
She expressionlessly walked off and opened a jar. She scooped something out with a spoon and put it into a small skin sack. She tied it closed with a cord and brought it over to Hugh. She turned it over and squeezed some onto his hands.
“Rub them together, gently,” she said.
Hugh did. The pain was bad, but not excruciating. It only stung. The pain was from the tenderness of his palms, not the cream.
The priestess handed Theoson the sack. “He should put some on when he goes to bed tonight, and when he wakes up. Continue to use it at those two times until it runs out.”
“What is it?” asked Hugh.
“Pardon?” the priestess replied.
“What did you mix together to make this?” he asked again.
“We don’t reveal the contents of our medicines,” she said.
Theoson reached for Hugh’s hand and smelled it. “Smells like aloe and coconut.”
The priestess sighed and turned her attention to the young man lying on his side, a weeping wound at the base of his ear. Hugh had remembered that it had been almost taken clear off, and it was flopping a bit as he walked off the grounds after the match.
The boy that appeared to be dying had been thrown from a chariot. Hugh wasn’t sure if he was even breathing.
The priestess hurried around, stopping to look and them and roll her eyes, which Hugh and Theoson took as a sign to leave. On the way out, Theoson dropped a few coins into a bowl near the entrance.
To be continued…