By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
The oldest Mar stories are more symbolic than literal. Oral tradition loses details of fact in just a few generations, replacing them with details that reinforce existing values. When these stories are written down, it preserves them, but traps the tales in time. As the centuries pass, the symbolic details lose their strength as metaphors and come to be regarded as literal facts."
— Weard Eira Helderza, Unavoidable Problems in Literature
Sven Takraf's dramatic victories over three contenders for the Chair on his first day effectively ended all formal resistance to his ascent, and he faced no further challenges the next day. Existing political pressures, clever planning and turns of good fortune often attributed to divine intervention allowed him to lay the foundation for his rule after only one forty-five day month as Mardux.
Sven chose an ideal year to seek the Chair — the same Duxfest when more than a dozen reds conspired with Dux Feiglin to topple Mardux Rorik Beurtlin. Five reds died at Rorik's hands in two days before he fell to Ozur Betrun. Rorik's old friend and master duelist Weard Einar Schwert arrived from the frontier to issue a challenge of his own.
Volund's allies were still implementing a revised plan to take the Chair when Sven Takraf arrived in Domus Palus. By the end of Sven's first day of duels, nearly a third of all the reds in Marrishland lay dead in the year's battle for the Chair. If he had not spared Weard Schwert, though, he may still have faced more challengers. However, while the remaining reds could not know with certainty that Weard Schwert would issue a fresh challenge against anyone who defeated Sven Takraf, no point of Law forbade him from doing so. Dux Feiglin and his surviving supporters decided not to take this risk.
Minutes after Nightfire announced Sven's ascent to the chair, the four hundred seventh-degree wizards belonging to the priesthoods of Domus Palus' temples arrived at the citadel without warning or explanation to swear loyalty to Sven. The priests had not given an oath of loyalty to a Mardux in a century, and few people knew that one of Sven's friends, Weard Horsa Verifien, was behind it. Some saw divine approval of Sven's rule in this gesture, but no one could ignore the magic resources hundreds of yellows represented.
Sven acted quickly to consolidate his power within Domus Palus. The Mardux was little more than a dux of duxes. He was the dux of Domus, equal rank in rank to all the other duxes, except that by law and tradition, the ruler of Domus led the Council. His authority ended at the edge of Domus. But as a stranger to Domus, he wanted to make certain of his people's loyalty.
He ordered all wizards to attend a banquet celebrating his ascendancy to the Chair. During the days-long celebration, he greeted all in the government, stripped them of their ranks and titles and demanded an oath of fealty like those the priests and Einar had given him. He banished anyone who refused from the Duxy of Domus and confiscated their property — the Law wouldn't let him execute them. While his education and experience had not equipped him to analyze and restructure the bureaucracy of the capital after banishing so many wizards, he gave Einar and Horsa full authority to act on his behalf. Sven personally and severely punished any magocrat in the capital caught committing an act of bad faith, and the others soon learned he had no patience for the tears and pleas of corrupt officials.
Eighteen days into his rule, Sven met with the Council to tell them of his plan to unite Marrishland. He met fierce resistance from Volund. Nightfire and the Duxess of Pidel reiterated their neutrality. The Dux of Wasfal offered suggestions but would not declare his loyalty outright. The Duxes of Skrem, Gunne and Piljerka swore fealty with little encouragement.
Little noted but of great importance to the course events would take was the arrival of the Traveller and storyteller known as Pondr. He played only a minor role in spreading the Mardux's legend, but his stories had a profound effect on Sven that may have altered the course of Mar history.
The celebratory banquet evolved into something else during the fifth nine-day span of Sven's reign. He stood on a balcony overlooking the revelry, viewing the celebrating crowd. Einar stood at his shoulder.
"I should stop this soon," Sven mused. "It is devouring resources we will need later."
"Food and drink can be replenished," Einar said. He swept an arm out over the crowd below. "These are the resources you must watch most closely."
"They have all sworn their loyalty to me before the Oathbinder. Even a mundane knows the consequences of breaking such an oath."
"You do not trust their word."
Einar shrugged. "I trust it for what it is — a promise to obey you as your position demands."
"Many of the faces out there are my students and friends. They did not have to come all the way to Domus Palus to swear fealty to me."
"Wizards flock to powerful leaders for many different reasons," Einar said, leaning against the crumbling stone rail of the balcony. "Some are here for you. Some hope for money or advancement. Some may even join you because you share an enemy with them. Most just want to keep the positions they have here in the city, and they really did not have any choice but to swear fealty to you."
"Will they resist me?"
"Some may, but most will not risk your wrath. They did not keep their posts this long by refusing to bend in the wind."
Sven gazed down at the colorful crowd of magocrats.
Normally, the greens would have outstripped any other color, but at this function, the bright green had soon been weeded out and ambers and higher colored the room. Amber, cyan, lavender and yellow made lively patterns across the floor. Among them, Eda Stormgul — the woman who had led the patrol the night Sven had arrived — wandered, no doubt currying favor from her new superiors while commanding those now below her.
She joined me because mine was the winning side, Sven thought.
Rustiford had given eight others besides Sven to Nightfire's Academy, and none would have gone willingly. He frowned as the thought crossed his mind.
I went willingly, he thought, a part of him trying to recall why. For knowledge, he decided, and to protect Erbark, who is not as intelligent as I am.
Below, a man of middling years gained the stage and gathered his grey cloak about him in a flourish. Sven peered at him. The man was no Mar, but it was hard to place his origin.
He began speaking and then singing in adhi tetrads, and the crowd became fixated.
"Oh come sit by my hearth tonight
And warm your hands near golden flames.
Here, have some meat and soup as well.
Sit, eat, and hear what I will say:
I am not ready yet for sleep.
The night is just as long as day.
What stories do your people tell?
Who are your heroes? Give their names.
For it is hours 'til morning's light."
We are known for our love of the legend, Sven thought, smiling. Perhaps that is another reason so many have sworn to serve me — to be a part of my story.
The crowd, too, from lowliest slave to highest yellow, was mesmerized already. The speaker raised his hand toward Sven and appeared to stand taller.
"I tell of our Mardux's humble beginnings," he cried, and the crowd roared approval. The storyteller appeared to be waiting for Sven's permission.
Sven was surprised by the choice. Is this a story to tell now? But the people below do not know me well yet. Let them hear what I have done. They will see soon enough what else I can do.
He waved the storyteller on, and the man bowed extravagantly as the wizards cheered.
"Sven Takraf was born i'the wild'ress of Gunne, a secret child of Marrish an' Fraemauna. Seekin' to protect her lover from the wrath of his wife, Dinah, Fraemauna aban'oned her son. Seruvus, who sees all, took pity on the babe, blessed the boy with his own memory an' gave him to Pitt Gematsud to raise as his son."
All worries of the storyteller vanished from Sven's mind. The man certainly didn't know any truths, if that was how he began. And though he spoke in the rural, uneducated Mar dialect, he certainly could have picked that up. Trained storytellers could do many things.
"Pitt an' his wife had no child'en, an' they were happy to do as the god asked. But they didn't reckon on the jealous wrath of the Bald Goddess. Dinah called a ban' of damnens to raid the villages of Gunne, promisin' them all the slaves they could catch as lon' as they killed any child with Marrish's eyes of green fire."
Now Sven found Eda, her back to the storyteller, her brown eyes seeking him. Another face was turned toward him, a man not three years older than him, wearing yellow. Horsa Verifien, Sven thought. There were six of us who finished: Brand and Tosti, who are dead, Eda, Horsa, Katla and myself. Is it coincidence these two are here now? The gods have played their games with me before.
"The list of people taken an' green-eyed child'en killed grew daily, an' th'ones left lived in fear of Dinah's child'en. The people of Gunne cried out to the gods for deliverance, an' Seruvus heard them an' brought the message to Fraemauna.
"She sent her servant, the great wizard Nightfire, to spirit her son to safety in his Academy. The son of Fraemauna would receive the gifts of Marrish an' become a wizard who would be the Guardian of Marrishland — the one who'd lead the Mar to vict'ry over Dinah an' Domin."
Sven started at the line. Can he know that I believe this too? The storyteller paints myth as truth, and truth as myth. What does he really know?
"Marrish objected. This wasn't how wizards chose their students. Fraemauna's son would have to prove himself worthy of his father's gifts, first. The goddess saw the wisdom i'this, but she didn't wish to leave Sven an' th'other towns to Dinah's damnens. Actin' as her han's, Nightfire led Pitt Gematsud an' all the other Mar through the Dead Swamps an' to a new place near his Academy. Many didn't survive the journey, but those who did foun'ed a town at the edge of ravit territory, which they called Rustiford.
"Grateful to Nightfire for deliverin' them from the damnens, the villagers asked how they could repay him. 'Every year on Weardfest, you must give me a slave,' he told them. 'The slave must be eighteen years old an' must volunteer to serve me for eight years.'"
Sven's hands gripped the stone in front of him, his knuckles shading to white. His chest rose as he took a deep, calming breath, and when he exhaled slowly, he thought his breath moved the storyteller's cloak, so far away. The memory rose in his mind like a bubble of marsh gas.
The green of Rustiford had seemed so large to Sven when he had set himself on the path to Mardux, years ago. The mood that night was a mix of somberness, relief and fright. The elder told the story during Weardfest, and this time, it was Finn's turn to play the role of Brand. Sven would get his chance, though.
I remember ...