“All welcome Lord Anarr, who eats eggs for breakfast!”
Anarr watched the herald close the scroll and depart, then leaned over towards his mother on his right. “What am I doing here?” he whispered. She glanced up at him only briefly, then resumed picking through a bowl of jewelry.
“This is the banquet in honor of your many accomplishments, dear,” she responded, selecting an emerald ring. She considered it briefly, then popped it in her mouth and chewed.
“But last I remembered I was going to Dargon to study the curse on that woman, Simona,” Anarr responded, puzzled. He looked around the darkened room, teasing memories from his mind. “The village in the hills. We had left there, and we were carrying something. It had been blocking the rain.” The recent past came back to him. “Gow. It was a statue of Gow. I had placed a ward around it, left it on the barge with that guard, Edmond, and opened the Phial of Athleth to carry me to Dargon so I could study Simona’s curse.”
“Ah, the Phial of Athleth. You love that spell. Speed in walking, isn’t it?” she responded, not really looking up. She was pulling off sections of a gold necklace and daintily eating them.
“Yes. So what am I doing here? I should be on the road a day out of Dargon.”
“You are, dear. Look down.”
Anarr looked down. Below him he could see his legs pumping faster than human legs had a right to move, and the road pouring past in a blur.
“See? You are there and here both,” she said, popping another ring in her mouth. “This is just part of the spell.”
Satisfied, he nodded and looked back to his plate. It was empty.
“Eggs, Lord Anarr?” A servant appeared out of the gloom and proffered a plate with pickled eggs, multicolored and vinegary.
“Yes, please,” Anarr replied. The servant poured a pile of them onto Anarr’s plate, then faded into the background.
“Are you sure you can handle that many, Anarr?” his mother inquired as she cut a brooch in two.
“Of course I can, mother,” Anarr responded. “I can easily handle this many eggs.”
“Oh, yes, he loves those eggs. Has them for breakfast, he does!” Anarr turned to his left and saw his father sitting beside him and addressing the departing servant for a moment before turning back to his son. “Always did love those eggs.”
“The reward of hard work,” Anarr replied. He looked down at his father’s setting. It consisted of a plain bowl of gruel. “Here, Father, let us get you something better to eat. Life is a banquet, after all.”
“Oh, I can’t, son. My stomach, you know.”
“I can heal that for you, Father. I know how now. There’s no need for you to suffer. You are my father, after all!”
“Well, I am dead, you know.”
“Oh. Yes, that’s right.”
“Died well, too,” declared a tall man in dress uniform from the other side of Anarr’s mother.
“That he did, Marshall Jode, that he did,” replied Anarr. He gave a small nod to the man, who stood at the table with a large bloody knife in one hand. The plate in front of him was piled with severed fingers: his own.
“Died damn well. Here, have some eggs, Anarr!” With his remaining digits he handed a plate of scrambled eggs to Anarr’s mother, who passed it to Anarr.
“He died fighting,” commented Anarr proudly, helping himself to a large ladle of the steaming mass. “As did you, I recall, along with most of your men.”
“Damn straight I did! Nasty mess, that war.” Jode sawed at another finger with the crimson blade. “Well, men are like arrows! You must spend a few to win a war!” He finally cut through the bone and the finger fell to his plate. “But you showed yourself well, you did! Made us all proud!” As he spoke he gestured with the knife, tossing drops of blood around. “At least those of us who lived to see what you had done.” He eyed Anarr’s portion. “Eh, are you sure you can handle all those, young master?”
“Don’t fret for me, Marshall Jode. I can take care of myself.”
“Are you sure? That looks like quite a bit.”
“I handled those archers, didn’t I? And those spearmen?”
“You certainly did, my lad, you certainly did.”
“You certainly did,” commented a young woman across the table. She was putting a dab of mashed tubers on her plate. “They all ran away, every one.” She took a forkful of the white stuff and began combing it through her hair. “Oh, you looked so heroic on your horse coming back from battle.”
“And you looked fit for a prince when you met us at the gate, Marie,” Anarr replied. He accepted the plate of sliced eggs as she handed it to him. He forked a number of them onto his plate almost without looking, admiring her as she dipped her fingers in her wine glass and then smoothed back her reddish locks. “Mother spoke of your beauty, but seeing you then confirmed all she said, my love, my princess.”
“My prince,” she replied. “A prince like no other.” Her expression grew wistful. “If only you hadn’t been called away to war.”
“I won’t be gone long, my beloved, my betrothed,” Anarr replied, “and when the queen has released me I’ll return for you.”
“And we will be happy ever more,” she sighed. “Anarr, are you sure you want all those eggs?”
“Yes, dear,” chimed in his mother, a string of pearls dangling from her upheld fork. “There’s more to the banquet than eggs.”
“A man has to know his own limits, Anarr,” said his father.
“Always be reaching for more, I say!” countered Jode as he attacked his pinky. “That’s what your fingers are for!”
“Absolutely,” agreed Anarr. “I want my plate full!”
“Then you shall have more!” Anarr followed the sound of the voice to the head of the table. There sat Aendasia Blortnikson, with Valeran Northfield at her side. “Bring eggs for Lord Anarr!”
A servant appeared with a plate of boiled eggs spiced with herbs. Anarr motioned for them to be put onto his plate. As he did so he watched other servants bring in new day candles, even though the ones on the table were not even burned down past the first bell mark.
“I shall eat all the eggs you give me, your majesty!” Anarr called to her as the servant piled his plate high. “I can take all that you would give me!”
“Be careful you don’t overreach yourself, Anarr,” cautioned a voice to the left. There, beside Marie, sat Honus Spalt, Anarr’s first teacher in the healing herbs. His pockets overflowed with dried plants and weeds, and more weeds protruded from the neck of his tunic and from the sleeve holes. “The secret to long life is balance and proper measure in everything.”
“I have had long life, Master Spalt,” Anarr replied with a hint of sharpness in his tone. “Longer by far than even you!”
“You hardly seem to age at all,” commented Tomar, Anarr’s younger brother, who leaned out from behind his mother. “You put us all to shame.”
“It’s like you’re my brother, not my uncle,” added Thomas, Tomar’s son, leaning out from behind his father.
“It’s like you’re my brother, not my great-uncle,” added Timothy, Thomas’ son, leaning out from behind him.
“It’s like you’re my brother, not my great-great-uncle,” added Thomas, Timothy’s son, leaning out from behind him.
“It’s like you’re my uncle, not my great-great-great-uncle,” added Tomar, Thomas’ son, leaning out from behind him. “Are you sure you want all those eggs?”
“I know my limits, young sir,” replied Anarr sternly.
“There is a time to eat eggs, and there is a time to not eat eggs.” At the sound of his old master’s voice Anarr reflexively bowed his head, although not as low or as long as he once may have. “You have learned this lesson well, Anarr.”
“You taught it well, Master Zehn.” Anarr glanced around his father at the wizened old man seated to his father’s left. His white hair was wispy and his skin wrinkled. Propped up against the table at his side was his walking staff, as gnarled and old as its owner. Its bare wood echoed the bare skin of its owner. “And I learned it well.”
“You learned all your lessons well. You eagerly grasp at my knowledge.”
“You have the knowledge I need, the knowledge of life.”
“I have the knowledge of health. There is another who has the knowledge of life. Are you sure you want all those eggs?”
“Yes, master,” Anarr replied curtly. “I am strong enough to handle them.” Anarr held his master’s gaze, but noted out of the corner of his eye that the servants were bringing in more day candles.
“Always at the eggs, Anarr,” snarled a man across from Zehn. “Can never get enough of them.” His hair was jet black, and his smooth skin was pale. The contrast was marked. “Maybe you should save some for someone else!” As he talked he was busy picking bits of bark off his hands.
“Like you, Haddar?” Anarr pointedly helped himself to some egg pie as he talked, making a show of cutting into the curdled dish. “I feel that a man is worth what he can get.”
“You waste your time, old man,” came the heated reply. “What good is all your power when you only spend it on more years?” Haddar shook his hands and brushed at them in an attempt to get the clinging bark off, but there always seemed to be more of it. “In the end, what does your life mean?” At either side of him sat Eelail: alien, immortal representatives of Makdiar’s other intelligent species. One was of the race of Ljosalfar, the other of the race of Dopkalfar. They sat silent, unmoving, watching Anarr with unblinking oval eyes. Anarr found he could not meet their gaze, and he shuddered with frustration and anger. He turned this at the man between them.
“My life means what I want it to mean.”
“Then it means nothing. Are you really going to eat all those eggs?”
“Maybe you should listen to him, love,” Marie added. She was taking spoonfuls of the raisin pudding and smoothing them on her face like a lotion.
“Proper measure in everything,” added Spalt.
“I can handle them,” replied Anarr.
The buzz of conversation, which Anarr had not truly noticed until now, died. Anarr did not need to look to know who it was that spoke. He recognized the voice of his old friend and enemy.
“You know I can.” Anarr emphasized the last word. How often had they had this conversation before; on the road, at the Sanctuary, in his dreams? Ever since their last parting this had been his only and constant nightmare. Anarr refused to look at the man. Instead he watched the servants laying out more day candles.
“You know you cannot.”
“What I have done, I have done. What I am is what I am. The gods are what they are. There is nothing higher than this.” His own words were hollow in his ears. In his mind’s eye Anarr could still see his own hands as they had appeared that night, made young again, against all possibility, against all knowledge. He had been dying of old age, one hundred years after he should have died by all norms. His own power had kept him alive beyond his years, but it was spent, and the power of the best healers had not availed him.
“Look at me, Anarr.”
Anarr found he was trembling. In his ears, faint like a whisper, the sound of hammering footsteps and rushing wind seemed to threaten. Unwilling to move but unable to stop, Anarr turned. At the far end of the table, wearing a simple robe and the stylized hangman’s noose of his order, sat Dulas.
“You are dead now,” Anarr said to the old monk. “Why do you still haunt me?”
“You know why. Admit it. Where is the immortality you sought?”
Anarr opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He saw now that the chair that the old Stevenic priest was sitting on was made from the very tombstone that Anarr had carved with his own hands after a fever had taken Dulas’ life. Anarr had returned from a journey to discover that the man was in an unmarked grave.
“I admit everything and nothing,” Anarr retorted. “Your truth is nothing but a fable.”
“My fable is the only truth there is.”
“You tricked me,” Anarr cried. “You worked some magic and restored my health like I have done myself so many times!”
“Then tell me how I did it. You know you cannot.” Dulas’ eyes were deep pools.
It was true. In the years since his miraculous healing, Anarr had explored many explanations, but none held up save the one answer he would not believe. When he spoke again Anarr’s voice was a mere whisper. “I know the gods. I deal with them every day in spells, in incantations, in appeasements. Your god is no different, nothing special.”
“Then look at your hands, Anarr.” Anarr looked down at his hands. As he watched they began to age, becoming the wrinkled, blotched, crabbed hands of an old, old man. “You trusted in your own strength and knowledge, and it eventually failed. Are you sure you want all those eggs?”
Anarr hesitated, fear touching his heart. Then he pushed it away with anger. “Yes!”
“Then light the candles.”
Anarr looked up. Before him, in a great cluster, were eight day candles, unlit. At his side burned a long, thin match. To either side of him, lit by the fitful light of that single flame, were plates and platters and bowls and buckets of eggs of every variety, style, and flavor. Anarr took the splinter in his gnarled hand and reached it out to light the nearest day candle. As he did, his hand began to shake. Anarr tried to hold it firm but it quavered all the more. He steadied it with his other hand, holding the match with an awkward, double grip. To his surprise and alarm he found the match being pulled toward the candles. Startled, he tried to hold it back, but it was no use. The match touched the nearest wick, and every candle burst into flame, melting in a moment into a great flaming mass. A wave of heat swept over Anarr, unb earable. He tried to shove himself away from the table. His chair upended, and he fell.
Suddenly Anarr was surrounded by light, still falling. The wind whipped through his hair and caressed his face. He flailed with his arms and tried to right himself, but the world turned and the sky spun past out of reach. His breath blatted out of his mouth when something obscenely hard and unyielding slammed into him, wrenching him around and spinning him. In that instant Anarr realized that he was outside, sliding on the ground. He hit something. It shattered into many sharp splinters. At the same moment as his motion ceased, Anarr felt the shock of cold wetness.
Anarr got slowly to his feet. He stood in the wreckage of a vendor’s stand. The vendor, a woman of about thirty, sat on a simple stool nearby with a look of horrified shock on her face, her knitting dangling from one hand. The wooden stand had shattered, and many of the shards were now stuck in Anarr’s clothing and skin. Anarr wiped away the slimy mess that covered his face, and looked at what the woman had been selling. It was eggs.
“Where am I?” he asked the woman.
“You’re in my stand.”
“What city is this?!” he snapped, shaking the slime off his hands.
“Dargon.” She gaped at him, her hands splayed in consternated uncertainty.
“What is the day?” he asked, some of his bluster falling away. He looked around, staggering slightly. Behind him the road was obscured with the dust kicked up by his high-speed slide. The huts and small houses before him nearly hid the larger buildings of the distant city center. From there plumes of dark smoke rose accusingly into the sky, quite unlike the normal grey fume of cooking fires and forges.
“The fourteenth of Sy. Sir.”
“The –” That couldn’t be. The run should have taken only a day! He remembered the day candles burning down on the table in his vision — his hallucination. That wave of heat — he had felt something like that before. But where? Then he remembered. The statue! Its curse was accompanied by waves of heat. Anarr had left the statue on the barge, but if the woman spoke the truth that had been days ago. Surely the barge had arrived in Dargon on schedule! He stared at the smoke rising up from the city. That fool Edmond! What had he done? Anarr was certain that the ward had fallen, and the curse of the statue was now active in Dargon. The enormity of the disaster dawned in his mind. Anarr cursed the guard for his foolishness.
Suddenly he remembered the vision of Dulas. The strength warding the curse was Anarr’s, not Edmond’s; the responsibility belonged to Anarr. He was the one who had decided to leave the barge, trusting in his own skill and ability to craft a ward to keep the statue safe. From the heart of the city faint shouts and screams came to his ears. Beside him a last egg rolled off the shattered stand and splatted on the ground. Dread seized his heart, and he lurched toward the city and began to run.