The Stairs of Destiny
Ornissa Vludeboden was the most beautiful girl I had ever laid my eyes on. I was certain I would marry her before my life was over. I just had to make sure she knew who I was before that day came.
In my home of Galintron, life felt like it was coming to an end as the prophecy foretelling the end of the world came true. A great catastrophe occurred – the Creator of humankind, furious with our civilizations, with our war, famine, and devastation, came down to our world to smite us.
The Creator terrified the Galintronians, despite our prophecy of a hero that would collect the three vases, the secret weapons, capable of killing even the Creator.
Even the greatest scholars hadn’t predicted exactly what the catastrophe would be, but they had prepared my older brother, the heir to the throne, Prince Derrek, to be the hero of legends.
Yet, they were still terrified when we all gathered in the grand foyer of the palace to see Prince Derrek off. I blended into the crowd. Prince or not, I wasn’t one for the spotlight. I wasn’t the warrior Derrek was. I wasn’t as handsome, or trained to face the harsh world outside Galintron. I hid in the crowd and stood on my toes, straining for even the slightest peek of my love, Ornissa.
Her curly brown hair swayed slightly as she turned her head, curls bobbing into place as she faced the grand staircase. All heads turned as Prince Derrek made his appearance. I stood facing sideways in the crowd, watching a smile curl Ornissa’s lips.
“He’s so handsome,” a woman whispered beside me.
I sighed and faced forward as Derrek strutted at the top of the stairs. He was too pompous to even walk down the stairs like a normal person. The title of “prince” was almost too minor for him in the glory he felt he deserved as the prophesied hero.
Derrek wore decorated, polished armor that was more visually pleasing than battle-worthy. The gilded pommel of a sword hung at his hip. He had the look of a heroic knight from a bedtime story for children.
As jealous as I was, I had to admit he did look impressive.
I stood back on my toes, looking back at Ornissa, but she had vanished as a procession of old men pushed through the crowd. I swept my head back and forth, searching everywhere, but was unable to spot any sign of her, any bit of her curled hair.
Instead, I noticed a hunched old man with a long, wrinkled nose waving me forward. The nobles around me gave me an odd look, before quickly stepping aside. They finally realized who I was as Elder Goona insisted that I step forward.
“Do you not wish to watch Derrek’s departure to glory?” Elder Goona asked quietly as I stepped beside him.
“I could see fine from back there.”
“You seemed to be looking for someone else.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Hm.” Goona glanced at me sideways, then nodded to Derrek. “Finally, the day of the prophecy.”
They had taken their time preparing Derrek. The Creator had been marching across the lands, spreading devastation and death, for months. What made today special, the day of the prophecy, was unknown to me.
“Look at my son,” King Hovis Doyle said. He walked up, clapping his hand onto Goona’s shoulder. The king was a large man, both in height and weight. “What a hero.”
“Hi, father,” I said.
“Oh, hello.” He nodded to me, then faced Derrek again with a massive grin on his face.
“Would you excuse me for a moment?” I asked.
Goona elbowed me and pointed forward. “Derrek descends to grab his destiny.”
“Fine, I’ll watch,” I muttered.
Derrek finally took his first step after all his showmanship. His armored foot clunked on the marble stair, muted by the ornate rug running down the grand staircase. It was a slow, almost exaggerated step. He waved with one hand and stroked his groomed beard with the other, a massive grin on his face the entire time.
I sighed and looked behind me. There were plenty of beautiful people in the crowd, all of their eyes on Derrek’s descent. I recognized, and despised most, of those gathered. They didn’t notice me, looking right past, as I searched one last time.
Ornissa stood a few rows back, her brown hair a bit disheveled. She stood, eyes on Derrek, in a dress with dirt on her hands and knees. She stood in the grand foyer barefoot with dirt clinging to her feet. Everything about her stood out from the nobles around us. Ornissa’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. Gasps surrounded me. I spun back around.
Derrek’s foot slipped, caught on rug as it bunched up beneath his heavy, armored foot. The rug, and Derrek, slipped off the polished marble stair. His face was filled with terror for a brief moment as it felt like time hung in the air.
Then, in the gasping stillness of the gathered crowd, Derrek plummeted, hitting each stair with the extra weight of his armor. The thunk of his body made the crowd flinch with each strike until he stopped at the bottom, frozen in a lump, half wrapped up in the ornate rug.
My father stood still with wide eyes. He had received the rug as a gift from the king of Kolorid. I had to assume he no longer wanted the rug, though I was unsure who else would take it.
Elder Goona finally stumbled forward and grabbed Derrek’s head. He turned back, tears gathered in his eyes. “Prince Derrek is dead.”
“Impossible,” King Hovis muttered.
“We are doomed.” Goona stood, stepping away from Derrek as my father fell to his knees beside him. “The Creator will destroy us all.”
“There has to be another solution,” another Elder said.
“Perhaps we were wrong,” another said.
“Perhaps we weren’t,” Goona said. “Our hero is dead.”
I looked back at Ornissa. Her eyebrows were lowered. She glanced at me briefly, but looked back at Derrek as if she didn’t even notice me.
“I’ll go find the vases,” I blurted. A few murmurs spread across the crowd. Many uncertain glances were cast my way.
“No, you won’t,” Hovis said, looking back. “You’ve never lifted a sword once in your life.”
“You’re right, but I am volunteering anyway.”
“Oh, Prince Kebin,’ Goona said. He placed his hand gently on my shoulder. “You really aren’t all that talented.”
“Thank you, Goona.”
“I don’t mean that in a rude way, my boy. You are a great student. I have enjoyed our lessons together. But a warrior? A hero?”
Nods of agreement spread in the crowd.
“Look, I wasn’t asking for permission. I am going to go,” I said proudly. I wanted to look back to see Ornissa’s face. I wanted to see if she was impressed. My stomach was a pit, and I had an uncomfortable feeling that she was embarrassed, but I acted proud anyway.
Hovis spoke to some soldiers, who carefully picked up Derrek’s corpse and carried him from the room. The crowd wept and watched him go as eagerly as they had watched his descent.
Hovis walked up and smiled weakly. “I am proud you are feeling brave, Kebin.”
He nodded and walked away, trailing after Derrek. The crowd waited a moment then flowed out of the foyer, trailing behind their king.
“Is that it?” I asked, hoping Hovis could hear me.
“I believe it is, Kebin.” Goona kept his hand on my shoulder and sighed deeply. “You are sure about this?”
“Yes.” I looked around, but Ornissa was gone. Only Goona and I remained in the foyer.
“Yes, Goona. I am going to go find the vases myself.”
“Here.” Goona handed me a roll of paper. “Prepare well, at least. Derrek was going to begin his journey investigating rumors east of Galintron. Tevoon has stories of vases, most of which we believe are false, but Derrek wanted to ensure our neighbors weren’t hiding something so valuable.”
I unrolled the paper. It was a map of eastern Galintron and the petty kingdom of Tevoon. “Thank you.”
Goona squeezed my shoulder gently. “Good luck then, Kebin.”
I nodded and watched the old man shuffle away. I was left in the foyer by myself, in an uncomfortable silence.
I stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked at the top, the last place I had properly seen Derrek. I didn’t feel all that sad about his death, even though I felt like I should’ve been.
I woke up the next morning feeling unsure. I stepped out of my room, hair plastered to one side of my face, to find a servant standing just in front of me.
“Uh,” I said.
“Good morning, Your Grace,” she said with a slight bow. She carried a tray holding breakfast, with steaming tea and bread with butter melting on top.
“Morning.” I stared at her, a bit dumbfounded for a moment. I wore only ragged trousers, unfit for a prince, and could feel the weight of morning breath in my mouth. Each word I spoke was like a rancid wave washing out.
“Would you like some breakfast?”
“Do I know you?” I asked. She was a servant, obvious enough from the cream-colored uniform, but she didn’t look familiar.
She bowed her head, avoiding eye contact. “I previously served Prince Derrek.”
“Oh.” I took the tray from her. The steam blew gently over my face. “I don’t usually have servants.”
“But you’re the prince,” she muttered.
“Not the heir,” I said, stepping back into my room.
“You are now, Your Grace.”
I frowned. I hadn’t considered that. “I’m still going to go find the vases.”
“I have no doubt you will find them.” She continued staring at the floor.
I smiled. “Be honest. You have to have some doubts.”
The servant looked up quickly, only glancing at me, before looking back at the floor and shaking her head. “Of course not.”
“Well, thanks for the food, I guess.” I slowly closed the door with my foot. She remained still. “Am I supposed to dismiss you?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Okay. Can you not call me that?”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“That’s not right either.”
“Absolutely, Your Royal Highness.”
“Yeah, okay. I’m going to eat this now.” I shut the door the rest of the way, remaining standing with my nose almost brushing against it. The steam continued rising from the tea, carrying along a pleasant, floral aroma.
I walked to a chair, sat, and was immediately startled by a loud knock on my door. “Come in,” I said, desperately hoping it wasn’t the servant.
Goona stepped in and closed the door behind him. “Good morning, Kebin.”
“Did you send the servant here?” I asked.
“Did I do the what?” Goona sat himself on my unmade bed and smiled.
“Did you . . . what do you need?”
Goona sighed, as if he was bearing all the stress in the world. “Kebin, are you ready to go on your quest?”
“Do you think I can do it?”
“Oh, certainly not.”
I pressed my lips together. I don’t know why I had expected any other type of answer.
Goona leaned forward. His rancid breath washed over me, smelling of old onions and garlic, with a faint hint of alcohol. “What do you know of the world, Kebin?”
“Whatever you taught me, Goona. You were my teacher after all.”
Goona frowned. “That does not bode well.”
“Are you calling yourself a bad teacher?”
Goona slapped his knees and stood. “I should be off. There are funeral preparations. You were invited, you know.”
“I won’t be going. I think it would be better for me to leave.”
“It will only smell like smoke anyway.”
“Are you burning him?” I asked.
Goona shrugged. “Follow the map, Kebin. The Elders all agree that Tevoon is the best way. There are rumors across the world, of course, but only some of them seem true. Tevoon has been haughty and smug for decades.” He walked to the door and stopped. “The world is dangerous, Kebin. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Goona left, closing the door behind him.
I sipped the tea, took a bite, and thought about how the Elders came up with only a prophecy in decades of research.
The castle was quiet when I left my room. King Hovis Doyle and his whole staff had gone down the hill, into the valley near the Doyle family crypt, where the pyre had been built. Trumpets blared down in the valley, barely echoing their way into the halls as I walked to the stable.
Teddy, my horse, stood saddled in the middle, all by himself.
“Hello?” I called.
Nobody responded. I walked up, whispering to Teddy as I ran my hand along his coat. A small note was tied to the saddle.
To Prince Kebin,
I prepared Teddy before I left for Prince Derrek’s funeral. I know Derrek was the Chosen One, but I think you will do a great job. Maybe in the future they will know me because I cared for your horse.
Kolvam the Stablehand
I smiled and climbed onto the saddle. Teddy exhaled loudly, shifting his weight back and forth. “I know, Teddy. I haven’t been riding a lot lately.”
I ran my hand through his mane. When I thought about it, I had never really ridden often. Some days, I would come down to the stables just to end up reading and talking to Kolvam.
“Let’s go,” I said, gently pressing my heel into Teddy’s side. He started forward, moving without any urgency.
The hill down from the castle was quiet, leaving only Teddy’s horseshoes clacking against the stone road. It was odd seeing everything so abandoned. A pillar of smoke climbed into the sky behind me, rising above the castle. Instruments droned on quietly, barely reaching my ears.
My stomach wavered as the gates came into view. I had left Galintron before, of course, but I had never done so by myself. Somebody else always accompanied me.
I took a deep breath and read Kolvam’s note again. Derrek may have been the Chosen One, but at least I could walk down a flight of stairs. I had already accomplished more than he did.
“Kebin,” a voice called as we walked out of the castle gates. “Wait, sorry. Prince Kebin.”
I turned around as Teddy continued walking forward.
Ornissa Vludeboden stood right outside the gate. Her hair was wet and the rising sun shone brightly on her face. I hadn’t even realized I passed her. She was smiling while squinting into the sunlight.
“Ornissa,” I said quietly. “You know my name?”
“Uh, yeah. You’re the prince.”
“Oh, right. That makes sense.” I stopped Teddy, who wanted to keep moving. He snorted loudly.
“Are you off to go save the world?” she asked.
I nodded and held up my crude map. “Heading east.”
“East? My family doesn’t like Tevoon much. What do you think you will find there?” Her smile faded as she watched me, waiting for a response.
“A vase, hopefully.” I smiled at her, hoping to see her smile back. She covered her eyes from the sun and squinted at me. “Did you come to see me off?”
“Uh, no. I have a meeting with the Elders. I hope this works out for you. Hopefully I’ll see you again sometime.” She lifted her hand. “Bye.”
She turned and disappeared inside the gate.
“That’s it?” I asked quietly. She was already gone.
I pressed my face down on Teddy’s neck and sighed. That was the most I had ever talked to her, and I panicked the entire time. My hands were clammy and my heart raced in my chest.
“I guess we can go,” I said to Teddy. The horse continued walking down the road, away from my home, and away from Ornissa.
“Did she seem impressed?” I asked Teddy. I knew he wouldn’t give me a real answer. I still hoped he would give me something that I could act like was a yes or no. Anything to convince myself would have been enough. Teddy swayed his head gently back and forth as he walked.
“That seems like you’re shaking your head.” I patted my hand on Teddy’s neck. “I didn’t think she was impressed either. I’ll just have to find the first vase. That will be enough, won’t it?” Teddy snorted. I smiled and took that as a yes.
By the time the sun was setting, I was outside of any land I recognized. Some Galintronian flags were raised along the roadside, giving me enough information to assume I hadn’t left Galintron. Not yet, at least.
Some tents were pitched off the road, near a grove. A creek trickled quietly nearby, the last remaining daylight glowing on the moving water.
“Hello,” I said, as I approached the group near the tents. A few people worked to build a fire while another peeled carrots. They looked at me and nodded.
“Can I join you? I haven’t built a fire before,” I said.
“Sure.” The carrot peeler waved me over. He was an older, grizzled man. The others were travel-wearied and sat beside the fire pit as embers began to glow.
I climbed off Teddy and let his reins hang. He wasn’t that energetic of a horse, so I assumed he wouldn’t get too far away.
“Anything to contribute for a stew?” the man asked. He dragged a small cauldron over and began chopping the carrot, letting it splash in some wine and broth.
“Uh.” I pulled my backpack off and dug through it. I had put some food inside, whatever I managed to find in the kitchen. I held out a red apple.
The man frowned. “Have you ever made a stew before, lad?”
“Is it obvious that I haven’t?”
The man nodded. “Let me teach you some things.”
I sat beside him and watched the knife in his hands effortlessly slice through carrot after carrot. The blade pushed through, ending with the blade against his thumb, yet it never cut him.
“You want vegetables and meat in a stew. No apples or fruits. You got that?”
“Do you actually understand that?”
“I think so,” I mumbled.
The man looked right at me, staring as if he was seeing me for the first time. “Have you ever been away from home before?”
I shook my head. My clothes were still in pristine shape, as they were usually kept within the castle. “This is my first time.”
“Did you bring a weapon?”
“Why would I need that?”
The man frowned. “Lad, I could have killed you and taken your horse already.”
“Are you going to?”
The others at the fire chuckled.
“People who do that sort of thing don’t normally warn you about it,” he said. “Trust is hard to come by on the road.”
The man stood and grabbed a handle on the cauldron. “Help me get this over the fire.”
I grabbed the other side and grunted as we lifted the small cauldron. It was heavier than I expected. The broth sloshed, almost spilling over the side. The others stood, helping guide us to set it over the fire, which had now grown into a steady flame.
It didn’t take long for the aroma of the stew to fill the air. Smoke moved around the cauldron, slowly drifting into the sky.
“Where are you headed?” the man asked.
The man nodded, as if it came as no surprise. “Eat with us. Sleep here, and head out in the morning.” He looked at the apple. “We’ll take the trade.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The man grunted and stirred the stew. “Better than you dying out there on your own.”