The first few days of the journey were spent in relative silence. Beyond the occasional phrase, the boy King hide his curiosity well, better than most even thrice his age. But during those dull moments huddled around the campfire, when hunger and fatigue broke away at his will, she could see his facade tearing at its seams, and his curiosity piercing through.
Finally, on the fourth night, he broke.
“How did you gain your immortality?”
“I am surprised it took you so long to ask.” Amoria threw another log into the flame and watched it blaze in the boy’s eyes. “I had expected to be bombarded with questions the moment we left the mountain.”
His cheeks flushed. “I did not wish to bother you. I’m sure you get asked a million things every time you meet someone.”
“That is true. But it is in the nature of man to be curious and to have a lust for answers.”
“You aren’t annoyed?”
“Are you annoyed by fish swimming or trees bearing fruit? You cannot hate something for what it was born to do.”
“But is it also not the nature of rats to carry pestilence? When my father was king, he decreed that rodents were to be purged from the mountain and that he would give a piece of bronze for every dead rat a hunter brought him.”
She chuckled. “Yes, you are right. Perhaps that is the true cruelty of the world. Man cannot coexist with those contradicting its nature, which most often includes itself.”
For a moment, the boy only looked at her. “You speak of man as if you are not one of us.”
“I thought you believed me to be a god. Have you changed your mind?”
“No, but you are so adamant in denying your divinity. Would that not make you human?”
Amoria threw another log into the fire. She glanced back west. Over the horizon, she could just glimpse the lonely mountain from which they left. By the time they made it to the Great East, the mountain would be imperceivable, even from the highest peaks.
“My king,” she said. “What is it that is common amongst all man?”
He pondered the answer. “You said it was the nature of all man to be curious.”
“True, but in my life, I have met some who are not. Given the right circumstances, you can rid something of its nature. A man born in a cage will not seek beyond it, for he believes all the world to be bolts and shackles.”
“Then…stories. All mankind loves stories. Poems, epics, even gossip spoken over a meal. We crave to feed our imagination.”
“An infant who has yet to understand words has no appreciation for great storytelling or tales of any kind.”
The boy thought harder. “Food. Air. Sustenance.”
“A smart answer, but wrong again. Many birthed from the womb do not live to take their first breath.”
“Well, I have no more guesses. Your riddle has stumped me.”
“It’s not a riddle, my king,” said Amoria. “The only constant amongst all man, regardless of birthplace or age, is death. In fact, it is the only constant amongst all living things, from the greatest dragons of yore to the tiniest summer lily. All things wither and perish. That is the most absolute of all god-given laws.”
“But I am the sole exception. A loophole in a contract or a leftover piece of clay from a pot. I, alone, defy the nature of all things.”
“You deny your divinity, yet you speak like a god.”
“I am no god, but I am not man either.” Amoria checked their pile of firewood. Their supply for the night was starting to dwindle, and dawn was still far away. “I am not interested in continuing this debate. Ask me your question and then go to sleep. The trek will be hard tomorrow and you must be tired.”
The boy yawned, as if he didn’t realise he was tired until Amoria reminded him so.
“I wanted to know how you became deathless,” said he. “Do the stories of you speak truth?”
“That depends. Every nation I have journeyed to, every village, every house, has had a different tale of me. I am hero of ten thousand stories and villain of ten thousand more. What is yours?”
“The Lord of Famish.”
“How does that tale go?”
“You don’t know your own story?”
“As I said, every story is different, even if only minutely.”
The boy gazed into the fire and remembered. “Long ago, before there were kingdoms and kings, there was a village older than time. In that village lived a girl named Amoria, more beautiful than the first sunlight of Winter’s end, and brave and good-hearted too. She wove finer silk than any woman, and hunted game swifter than any man. But she was without a mother, and when her father remarried, it was to an evil witch.”
“An evil stepmother who is also a vile witch.” Amoria laughed. “This is truly a children’s tale.”
“The witch was a wicked woman,” the boy continued. “She was deathly jealous of her step-daughter’s beauty, so she forced her to the hardest labour in hopes it would turn her as wretched and hideous as she. But Amoria was blessed, for no matter the work, her beauty only grew year by year.
“One year, the village was hit with a great famine. The forests shrivelled and the dirt turned to sand. Even Amoria, the great hunter she was, could not bring home even a rabbit. So the stepmother thought of a dastardly plan. She told her husband, we shall send Amoria into the dying woods, and have her bring an offering to the Lord of Famish, for that was the God of Hunger they worshipped, and perhaps he will bless us with good harvest come next season. In truth, the stepmother knew there was no such god and even if there were, Amoria would die in the woods before she could reach him.
“Amoria’s father, who was spellbound by the witch’s magic, agreed and they sent Amoria on her way with but a handful of wilted millet roots. Don’t you dare eat any of them, said the evil stepmother. They are offerings to the Lord of Famish.
“So Amoria went into the woods alone and walked. She walked every waking moment and ate not a thing, even though she was so so hungry. When at last she could not take the hunger any longer, she would eat cakes of mud rather than even nibble on the millet roots. They are offerings to the Lord of Famish, she reminded herself. If I ate them, he would be angry and my village will starve.
“On her final day, when she knew she would perish by nightfall, she found a cat by a huge oak tree. The cat was sick, and starving besides. Amoria, the good-hearted girl she was, gave the millet roots to the animal and stayed by its side to nurture it to health. When nightfall came and Amoria readied herself for death, the cat transformed into a man and revealed himself the Lord of Famish.
“The girl’s kindness had warmed the god’s heart and so he answered her prayer. He conjured a feast for both her and her village, full of exotic and delicious foods they had never even heard of. In the end, for her good deed, the girl was given godhood. She became Amoria, god of nourishment. Of full bellies and healthy crops. Of feast and festival. She was given immortality, so she would walk the ends of the earth eternal, feeding those who were hungry for the rest of time.”
“A beautiful tale,” said Amoria. “Of hardship and triumph, but also of falsehood. I am sorry to tell you I did not gain my immortality from the Lord of Famish.”
“Then from who? Or what?”
“One day, perhaps I shall tell you. Most stories of me are only reflections of the dreams of its tellers rather than an attempt at recording history. That is why there are so many stories of me conquering the primal forces that humanity feared. In this story, it was famine. In others, pestilence and war.”
The boy had lied down beside the fire, his raincoat for a blanket and his leather bag for a pillow. His eyelids were growing heavy. “I was five when my mother told that story to me and my brothers. It had been a poor harvest. It was the first time I had gone to bed with an empty belly, for the famine had been so great even the mountain’s royals were not exempt.”
“Story or not, you and your people starved. In the end, I am not god of nourishment. I am only Amoria the deathless, and my tale cannot feed the hungry.”
“But we were fed all the same,” the boy protested. He was drowsy, and his voice was starting to quiet. “We were not fed with bread and wine, but romance and drama. That night, I did not go to bed hungry. I went to bed dreaming of lands far away and gods archaic.”
Amoria did not want to argue further, especially not when the boy needed rest for the journey tomorrow. She would let him believe in fairy tales and miracles for a little longer.
“Your mother sounded like a great bard,” she said. “And I did not know you had brothers. Where are they now?”
“It had been a poor harvest,” he mumbled, and slept.
It was the darkest point in the night. Beyond the bare radius of the campfire, the world around them was a void. There were no stars and no moon. No ground below and no sky above. Even the mountain hall was just a memory. There was only Amoria, the boy, and the fire between them.
Instead of sleeping, Amoria watched the fire burn. Sometimes, when she stared long enough, she could see images in the flame. Old friends, fallen foes, even flashes of memories would appear to her in flickers of red and orange.
“O’ deathless one,” the flames whispered. Its voice was the cracking of firewood. “Why do you make company of the Boy King?”
“Who I make company of is no concern to ghosts.”
“We have no qualm. We thank you for adding another to our ranks. It has been too long since the last.”
“I will do no such thing.”
“Oh, but you already have. He is bound to you, as we once were.”
“I had no choice,” she defended. “I was compelled by the pose of supplication, and the pose of worship after.”
“Supplication compelled you to hear his plea, not fulfil it,” said the flames. “And the pose of worship did not bind you. As you said yourself, you are no god.”
Amoria looked at the boy, soundly asleep and stranger to hardship. Though he was king of the mountain, the blonde curls framing his face were brighter than even the sun.
“Then it was the law of the heart that bound me, as it does all man. He is a child, burdened with the duty of kings, and his valour moved me. Though I am a knight no longer, I have not forgotten chivalry.”
The fire grew tall and blazed with a newfound fury. It squirmed like the lips of a laughing man. “The Boy King will perish at journey’s end, as is the fate of all who have walked with you. But have no guilt, for his death will be a good one. Better than each of ours. His death will bring salvation to the mountain.”
The fire drew out a single red finger and pointed it at the void. They were not alone. Something was out there, and its footsteps drummed the earth. “His trial has only just begun. There comes the first who seeketh the blood of mountain kings.”
In those brief flickers of light, Amoria glimpsed only mangled corpses. Their limbs were stretched far beyond what their joints should allow.
She glimpsed a scarlet beast, twice the size of a lion. For a moment, she thought it wore a long coat, only to realise it was skin, full of holes like a honeycomb. Underneath was a patchwork of rotting sinew and pulsating muscle. It had two heads, so abnormally large for its neck that they ground against the dirt as the beast crawled. One head was a hog’s and the other a lamb’s. They both had her sister’s eyes.
“The boy is marked by death regardless,” said the flame. “Perhaps it is best for him to die at journey’s start, rather than its end. He will be buried close to home.”
Amoria drew her sword and reached it into the campfire. When she pulled it out, fire engulfed her weapon, coating its metal like a sheath.
“I am Amoria the deathless. I am no god, for my tales cannot feed the hungry and my stories cannot mend wounds.” She glanced at the sleeping king. “But I am no man either, and I can still protect a boy, dreaming sweetly.”