Scander and the Red Briar Prince
Once upon a long ago, two cities vied to be the Heart of the World.
Rigel was the elder, perched on the desert sands. Its heart was a great shifting dune upon which the tent-masters pitched their homes. It was the oasis of caravans, where they sat out the rainy seasons of the west, and the winter storms from the north. Rigel was a proper city with a Unicorn and Phoenix and king. It wanted for nothing, but to beat its desert heart down the trade roads.
Gilead was the younger, and it nestled against the western edge of a great sea. Though it dreamed gentle dreams, it grew great towers of limestone and marble. Its parks curled around cobblestone markets. It was a proper city too, if young and untried. Its Unicorn was a small-hoofed mare, its Phoenix a new-fledged tiercel who had not yet learned to love the lullaby of the surf. Gilead’s queen though, was a creature of great intent and purpose. She lusted for her city to be the Heart of the World.
It is the way of things that wars cannot be fought between cities. The laws that govern such things as the purposing of a place are mapped and choreographed like a great dance. Cities do not war, people do. They war with great armies, they war with songs and feats of malice, they war in children’s hearts. And as both Gilead and Rigel sought to be the Heart of the World, they called to the Storykeeper of Cities, who presided over such happenings.
“The world must have a heart of fire,” Rigel said in the language of cities. It whispered to Storyteller’s ears in the wheels of the caravans. “It must burn like magic, a heart must change with the seasons. It must be empty and barren, lush and overgrown.”
Gilead spoke in the voice of heroes on their quests: “The Heart of the World must be fearless in all ways. It must love and hold nothing back. It must hate and leave no thing unscoured.”
“The Heart must be old,” Rigel argued in a voice of coins changing hands. “Only if the Heart is old, can it guide the world.”
But Gilead spoke in the dying breath of a woman girdled with iron mail, “The Heart must be young. It must be willing to find new ways to live.”
On and on the cities fought. The Storykeeper listened as a good mother does when her children squabble over the last persimmon in a basket, or the last vial of attar’s scent the eve of a party.
“Enough,” she said to them at last.
“Who shall it be then?” Gilead demanded.
Rigel though itself the sure-win. “Yes, tell us.”
The Storykeeper, though, was a creature of wiles.
She said, “Let there be a contest. You shall each choose your champion, born of gentle park and high tower, born of billowing tent and trade call. Let them face eachother and the winner of that testing return in victory to the Heart of the World.”
“But I have no champion,” Rigel said.
“Then grow one, for I have mine picked just fine!” Gilead cried.
The Storykeeper of Cities merely smiled, settled back in silence and waited the waiting of knowing mothers.
In Gilead, the Queen had ruled for many years. Vast was her will, her power, her name and she had borne two sons. The first, Gilead loved like an eagless loves their first-hatched chick. Vast had no capacity for love, but she raised the boy to be a king for when the throne no longer gave her pleasure. The second, she looked down upon as a squalling baby and said, “I have no use for you.”
It was this second boy, Scander, that Gilead took to hero. As he grew, fed by the gentle dreams of the city and the harsh whims of the queen, his dark hair and amethyst eyes marked him out for a purpose greater than his mother’s whipping boy. He would change the world.
To Scander, Gilead gave a special gift. Like all cities, it breathed a spark of magic into him. For its hero though, the city gave a special power—memory. While others burnt faith, or blood, or dreams to fuel the fires of their magic, Gilead’s hero burnt memory. He would be, the city thought, like a heart: to remember and forget in equal measure.
The city took the business of raising Scander very seriously. It made sure his feet carried him where he belonged, no matter how much he tried to hide from his lessons and teachers and punishments. But, too, Gilead grew tranquil havens for the boy—to go about the business of learning his magic and his learning. The city went so far as to make sure that no suitors arrived to court its hero.
Scander, Gilead thought, would do best growing into manhood never knowing requited love. Instead, he learned the lessons of heroes—to fight and persevere and to dream with longing. The city thought itself quite clever and well championed.
Across the world, Rigel faced a predicament. It was a trade city, hot and changing. It had never had—or needed—a hero before. The King was an old man who had no children. Rigel thought for a long time, drawing into the shifting dunes that were its heart. It listened longer still, to the voices of traders at their campsites, to the wagons that rolled across the world.
Rigel was an old city, one of the firstborn in the world. When it had waited, and thought, and listened enough, it called down the roads. It is as simple to a city as breathing is to a coin maker. Rigel called for what it needed, and in the way of things, what the city needed came.
The first was a seed, blown on the trade winds across the desert. The second was water from the aqueduct of a far-off city. Rigel took both into its heart. It was not simple to still the winds and the shifting sands. But the city let the seed grow and did its best to suffer the ache of roots digging through its private spaces.
So intent was Rigel on the making of a hero, it did not hear the fear of the populous that rose when grey-stalked brambles rose from the sand. They ripped the silk-sided tents of the caravan masters, choked the streets with stunted green leaves and sharp points, broke the axels of the wintered caravans.
Rigel’s king came to the heart of the city, where the brambles grew into a sharp-thorned wall. The king had never known fear, and he walked into the tangle, though it clawed his arms and tore his flesh. In the very heart of the heart of the Rigel, was a single red flower, as tall as the King, with petals the crimson of crushed carmine. The king touched the unopened bud with a bloody finger. Of all the things Rigel had heard went into the crafting of a child, blood was the chief among ingredients. It let the flower bloom to reveal a boy with hair the color of poppies and eyes the color of pollen.
The king had never wanted a son, but he took the boy anyway, to raise as best he could. Rigel was satisfied, and went back to the business of cities, confident in the knowledge that its champion was the best that could be bred.
The boy was named Briar.
“My champion has come of age,” Rigel caroled down the trade roads. “He is swift-witted, quick to anger, fast to love. He burns knowing that the world is his if he can take it. I am the Heart of the World.”
But Gilead disagreed. “No, my champion has been tempered through adversity. He loves though he has never tasted it on his tongue, or felt it on his face. He has known loss and deprivation. He knows the value of things.
“My boy has known nothing but the finest things. He can taste the vintage of wine from the lees of a cup. He may set the cups and plates for dinner in any city. He has lacked for nothing in all his days. He whims and it is answered,” Rigel said.
“Then he will make a poor hero, indeed,” Gilead sneered.
“Your boy will wither at the first hot breath of a storm,” Rigel said.
The Storykeeper of Cities had enjoyed the years of quiet and did not appreciate the renewal of bickering. Privately, she thought that neither deserved the honor, but no other city had risen to the challenge or staked claim in the altercation to come.
“What will the challenge be then?” the cities demanded. They were eager as children are, but they had forgotten that the Storykeeper had once been their wet nurse and confidant. She knew them better than they knew themselves.
“Let your heroes face the world,” she said. “Let them test themselves against the cities and the roads and you will leave them to it. One of you has bred your hero like a gardener growing a single red rose. The other has plucked the finest fruit from their trees and let fate do what it would. Let them go and trouble me no more.”
Red Briar left Rigel with the caravans and all the pomp the city could muster. He rode a destrier the color of old silver. A cortege followed behind him, to meet his every whim. He did not look back as he trooped down the road. The people cheered him and Rigel smiled smugly to itself.
Scander stole a sword from the armory of his mother’s palace. It was a serviceable piece of metal, and he knew that anything finer would be missed. He took the sturdiest set of boots from his room and snuck out along the quiet canals, down sleeping streets and out onto the road that lead off into the distance. He did not look back. Scander offered a quiet prayer to the City that no one would miss him until he was too far down the road to matter.
To be fair, both men had their share of adventures. But to be equally fair, the beloved of cities are rarely beloved of roads. Red Briar’s cortege did not last long before wagon wheels broke, mighty mounts fell to wasting sickness, and the servants that had made up the young prince’s bed with cloth-of-gold since found nicer appointments.
Scander had never known the privilege of his station, and did not miss them, but he found the spaces between cities to be lonely. There was no one to talk to as the stars wheeled overhead, or share the strangeness of new places, new foods.
Red Briar dispatched raiders who attacked the city of Foy. He stood before the city’s great bridge, sword in hand. He sweat yellow pollen and the ground around him erupted in roses and poppy. The vines writhed and the pollen flew and when the battle had ended, Foy’s queen tended the prince’s wounds with her own hands.
Scander found Ellyson, with its sheep herds and weavers. Its lord and lady, Warp and Weft, supped him at their table. When morning came and Weft had been abducted from her bedchamber, it was Scander who went out into the dawn and brought her home. He was quiet in his power and skill, he merely returned her and spoke nothing of what it had cost him. He did not remember being supped at Ellyson’s table. He left in the night. His was a lonely road.
On and on, the two paralleled each other across the world. On and on Rigel and Gilead waited for their two champions to settle which city would become the Heart of the World. Red Briar’s horse died, Scander’s boots wore through. But they moved ever closer, the roads winding like a great gyre until they met.
Red Briar was not as beautiful as he had been. His red hair did not shine, his armor was lost along the road. But the pollen-yellow of his eyes was bright and clear. He held his head high as he came, at last from the east, to Marad Tir. Scander came by a different road, from the west. But it was time and past time.
The princes had never seen a city like Marad Tir. Its outer wall was a series of arches of pale blue stone, chased through with veins of silver. Stranger still, was that as each walked beneath the walls and into the clear light of the city, there were no people. Marad Tir was a silent city. Once, there might have been people who crowded its thoroughfares, but the only sound either could hear was the gentle fall of water in the distance.
Both were tense, the city was strange and the air was heavy with foreboding. It wasn’t until each reached the center of the city, with a wide plaza and a deep reflecting pool that they each realized they were not alone. They saw each other first, coming from separate directions. Each slowed and took in the other. Each was travel-worn and weary. Both were armed with swords that knew the taste of blood.
But sitting at the edge of the reflecting pool was a woman neither knew. She wore a cape that pooled on the ground beside her. She trailed the tips of her fingers in the water behind her.
“Who are you?” Red Briar asked as he approached.
She smiled. “Who are you?”
“I am the Prince of Rigel and I have asked you the same question,” he replied. In his travels, Red Briar had never been treated with less than the utmost respect. Few places or peoples were willing to cross the child of the caravan city. Trade was too important.
“You’re also rude,” Scander said. “Do you always introduce yourself by lording who you are at people you meet? That doesn’t seem very princely to me. I’m Scander, by the way—”
Red Briar stopped short, surprised. “You should know how to talk to your betters.”
Scander smiled and turned to the woman. Her skin was pale, like alabaster, but when Gilead’s prince tried to meet her eyes, he couldn’t. Not because she was particularly beautiful, or particularly ugly. No, the woman in the cloak had no eyes, only skin where they should have been.
“How can I help you?” Scander asked.
He did not expect the other man to push him aside. But Red Briar, who had never, in all his life, been made to wait his turn, pushed Scander aside. The two went about pushing each other for some time, until both were bloody and dirt-stained. The woman though, merely waited as she had for the coming of Rigel’s Prince and Gilead’s prince. She did not think the two men who tussled like puppies were the best champions for two cities hoping to become the Heart of the World.
But she was duty-bound.
“There is a monster,” she said. “It hides in this pool and because of it, there are no people left in this place.”
The Red Briar prince had no interest in killing a monster. Scander looked at the water thoughtfully. Something did not quite sit right about things for him. It was too unlikely that he would stumble upon an abandoned city, with only a woman and a pool and a monster, and a prince.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
The woman only smiled. “Who so ever can destroy what lurks in the pool will win themselves a great prize. A greater prize still will go to the cities that birthed you.”
Both Scander and Red Briar took the measure of the other. Scander judged the man’s ripped finery, the places where his pale skin met the deep red of his hair. He noted the smoothness of his hands, and the jutting point of his chin. Red Briar saw that Scander wore uninteresting leather and that his hands were criss-crossed with scars. Red Briar did not care for someone so obviously low-born and nodded toward the woman.
“I will dispatch the beast,” he said and without a flourish placed his boot on the lip of the pool and stepped onto the water. Only, the pool was not the thin reflecting place Red Briar believed, and with an equal lack of flourish, he sank beneath the surface, barely disturbing the gentle ripples.
“Will you let him take the prize?” she asked Scander. “If he does, I do not think you’ll enjoy the world that follows. Will you dive in too?”
Scander did not want to. He did not like the stillness of the city. He did not like the taste of fate and story on his tongue. But he knew, as the children of Gilead always know, that his duty was to find whatever lurked beneath the water. Find it, face it, slay it.
“What can you tell me about what hides in the water?”
The Storykeeper of Cities smiled.
“That your young friend has the advantage of looking upon it with fresh eyes. For you, it will be an old enemy.”
He nodded to her and stepped onto the lip of the stonework. The sound that filled the quiet was softer than it should have been and it faded back into silence. The Storykeeper of Cities waited a while longer, and tilted her face toward the sun.
Red Briar expected the wet and the cold, but he did not expect that it would be so quickly followed by air and light and the sound of birds. He exploded from the water. He did not have time to gather himself before he heard the water erupt a second time and Scander followed.
The monster did not appear at first, but instead watched the two. It had lived a long time, and had grown fat in the silence of Marad Tir. It moved quietly, unseen, tasting the air as the men found their footing, pushed the water from their eyes, and drew the swords from their scabbards.
It struck the crimson one first, because he smelled of warmth and heat.
Red Briar did not realize that when the world shimmered that the battle had begun. He found himself in Rigel’s square. The air was hot and he had a moment to remember the scent of sand on the wind before pain flashed through him. Vines erupted from the ground and lashed his wrists together. Red Briar was alone, and he had never been alone before.
Scander was a breath faster, moving away from the monster, but not fast enough. It struck Gilead’s prince and Scander felt the memory well up from him. He was on his knees beneath the stained glass windows of his mother’s palace. He had been caught trying to sneak away from his lessons.
Fear pooled inside his chest. Scander didn’t want to be beaten again.
Though he could see his mother’s embroidered slippers, no lash fell. If he focused, Scander could feel a sword in his hand, fingers wrapped around a leather grip. He swung backward and up, letting the inside edge of his sword bite deep into something he could not see.
Red Briar was not so lucky. The vines of his memory pulled at him, tore at him. He could not remember ever being in such pain before, he couldn’t remember his father breathing so much as an unkind word.
He clung to that, and the monster’s hold faded and he was kneeling on the cobblestones on the other side of a fountain, in a city he’d never been to before. He lay there for only a moment though, because his rival was fast attacking something that bent the sunlight.
Scander fought the monster, striking against it, though he could not make out scales or flesh or teeth. Every time his sword bit, he was thrust into another memory: his brother’s hand across his face, the ache in his stomach when he’d been two days without food.
Red Briar tried to fight as well. His blade cut nights staring at the stars, the chill of winds without hearth fires, and the ache of being alone. He saw the faces of the people who had walked away from him and he couldn’t fight anymore.
Scander though, brushed it aside and as the monster began to bleed, he saw thick shoulders and a long neck. He saw teeth and a blunt nosed face and when the monster fought him no longer, he stopped. Gilead’s prince was sore and his skin sang with cuts.
Red Briar watched as the monster struggled. He rallied himself and picked the sword from the ground and closed the distance as hate grew in his heart. Before Scander could speak or move, Rigel’s prince finished the monster.
As the sword found flesh the world faded and both princes were near-drowned by water. Only when they pulled themselves from the pool, the old woman faced them.
“Why did you do that?” Scander demanded as he pushed the water from his eyes. “The beast was beaten. All it was, was memory. What business did you have to slay it?”
“It hurt me,” Red Briar said. “It hurt you. I was sent to dispatch it and that is what I have done.”
Red Briar did not know to be careful, or to still his tongue. He did not know that as he walked to the woman, his fate had been sealed. He did not know how to hear Rigel’s voice down the trade roads.
“I would like my reward now,” he said.
The Storykeeper of Cities was, above all things, fair.
“So be it,” she said.
Red Briar did not expect her hands to come up, or for the push when they met his shoulders. He did not realize how close he’d been to the edge of the reflecting pool or what it meant when he was submerged in the water again. He did not know anything more for a very long time, until memory grew on him thick like scales and he lurked as a monster in a forgotten city.
Scander was quiet for a long time.
“I didn’t expect him to do it,” he said. “I wasn’t fast enough to stop him.”
“Would you have stopped him?” the old woman asked.
“It was only memory, how can memory hurt us if we don’t let it?”
She nodded. “That is why you succeeded and he failed. The Red Briar Prince had never faced himself and been found wanting.”
Gilead did not cheer, it did not seem right as Rigel mourned.
“What boon would you have of me?” she asked the prince, who had tears forming in his purple eyes.
“Nothing,” he said.
He thought a hard moment. “Love.”
She smiled and took Scander by the hand. They left Marad Tir to the silence of its arches and the stillness of its pool. Scander, to the road and the journey he had wished for, and the Storykeeper to her duties and the quiet of satisfied mothers.
And that is how Gilead became the City at the Heart of the World.
Sean Robinson’s work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Betwixt, and is forthcoming from Apex Magazine.