Chapter 3:

A humble spread for breakfast.


The boy woke up to the smell of ash. He was cold, his thin blanket offering little protection from the morning chill. He didn’t mind though. The mountain was seldom a warm womb, even when smothered by linen and velvet fit for a king, and growing up, he had become used to cold mornings. What he wasn’t used to, was waking in the company of another.

“Amoria,” he mumbled, sitting up. The fire was out, though judging by the bits of dying ember, only recently. “Good morning.”

She was already up, wiping down the length of her sword with an old rag. “My king,” she greeted.

His eyes dropped to the shoulders of her tunic. A rip in the fabric, rough along its edges with stray threads sticking out. He had seen that sort of tear before, common in the garments of huntsmen and trappers. Her hair, too, had an awkward cut near its fringes that was not there the night before.

“We were attacked,” he said.

“We were.”

“Not soldiers or sellswords. A beast.”

“A monster.” Amoria returned her blade to its sheath. “One that is now vanquished.”

“Was my slumber so deep that even an attempt on my life could not wake me?”

“I would be a poor liege if I could not even grant my vassal a proper rest.”

“Amoria the deathless.” The boy’s voice was earnest and grateful. “You are a truly talented warrior, well-befitting of your namesake and stories.”

“I cannot deny the truth of my namesake, but my skills are not a result of talent. When you cannot die, the same mistake that would kill a mortal man does nothing to you. Give the worst squire immortality and they shall master the blade in a hundred years where it took me a thousand.”

“You were not always a fighter?”

“I loathed violence.” She dug through one of their haversacks. “When I was a girl, I wanted to become a herbswoman. Heal wounds, not inflict them.”

“Did you succeed?”

“In a way.” She began to lay out a humble spread for breakfast. A simple meal of fruit and bread and cheese. “I spent the first hundred years of my eternity learning the healing arts. I travelled from land to land, studying the ways of every salve. Every elixir. I have lodged my studies and written manuals on the subject, adding to the collective knowledge of man. Even now, much of the teachings in the great cities were built off my works. Now eat; you must gather strength for the journey ahead.”

The boy picked up an apple and bit down. Icy sweet juice soaked his tongue, delicious despite the cold. He reached for the bread, and Amoria twisted off a lump for him. He did not feel hungry, yet before he knew it, his meal was finished and he sat replete.

“If you were an apothecary who despised violence,” he asked as Amoria packed up the bowls, “why did you trade the scalpel for a sword?”

“I suppose partially out of boredom. For the next hundred years, I studied history, and the next, philosophy. After so many centuries, combat was the last art I had not mastered.”

“And the other reason?”

Amoria stood, swinging their bags over her shoulder. “When a wound is left to fester, it becomes infected and brings fever. An unskilled doctor would treat the fever, but an experienced doctor would treat the infection. That was a lesson that took me far too long to learn”

The next few hours were spent trekking across the steppes. They walked mostly in silence, broken only when the boy asked Amoria a question, which did not happen frequently. He had a bottomless curiosity. A wailing hunger for answers from the woman who seemed to have all of them, a desire only eclipsed by his discipline and courtesy.

Every step the boy took, he would think: has it been long enough? Can I ask another question? I must be annoying her. As much as he wanted to find the flower and return to the mountain, part of him wished their journey would be longer, if only to hear more of Amoria’s tales.

The boy king decided it had been a sufficient amount of time since his previous question. “How old are you?”

Without turning back to look at him, she said, “It seems uncouth to ask a lady her age.”

The boy blushed. “I’m sorry – I meant nothing of it! Please forgive my rude inquiry.”

She chuckled. “I should be the one to apologise. The travel aches your body as well as your mind, and I made a jest at your expense. As compensation, I shall grant you an answer. Tell me, my king, how do the mountain people mark the passing of the years?”

“We group the years by eras, and each era by the rule of the reigning king. The era of the first king, the second king, and so on.”

“What era are we in now?”

“I am the fiftieth mountain king. Thus, the era of the fiftieth king.”

“How long ago was the era of the first king?”

“About five hundred years.”

“What of the eras before the mountain?” asked Amoria. “I would imagine your people speak of that history, or at least parts of it through folktale.”

The boy tapped a finger on his chin. “We don’t speak of it in detail, though we know of vague strokes. We know of the old Green Lakes, from which our people descend, and the war that forced our ancestors to take refuge under stone.”

“And how long ago do you think the old Green Lakes was?”

“I suppose six hundred years? Perhaps seven?”

“Further back then. Do you know of anything before even the old Green Lakes? What is the earliest figure, place, or event that you can think of?”

“Well…Siofra the Conqueror, maybe. She ruled the continent for a thousand years before the Green Lakes were even formed.”

Amoria laughed unabashedly this time. “Little Siofra. That is a name I have not heard in a long time.”

“Siofra the Conqueror was the first, last, and only person to have united this land. She was the empress of the world.”

“She was a brat and a crybaby.”

Amoria glanced back. The boy had frozen, his eyes wide. “You knew Siofra the Conqueror?”

“I was her tutor.”

The air died in his lungs. He only managed to squeak out, “What?”

“I taught her arithmetics. Philosophy. How to wield a sword and nock an arrow. Strategies for battle and for politics. Even some of the simple magics.”

“So you were there? You were there when she conquered the world. What of the Six-Day Rebellion? Or the Friday Invasion?”

“I heard of them as they happened, but I was not there on the battlefields.” Amoria began to walk again, and the boy had no choice but to straggle behind. “I am immortal, not clairvoyant. I have no foresight to know which battles would be carved into history, nor the people who will carve them.”

“But you said you taught her.”

“I did not fight for her.”

“Why not?”

“Why should I have?” She said it like it was obvious. “I have taught her since she was a girl, and I am sure she thought of me as a mother, for I thought of her as a daughter. I remember her fondly, her dimples and her laugh, but make no mistake, she was a tyrant. She slaughtered innocents in her campaign, and by the end, she was nothing but bloodlust and ego.”

“I…I was never taught that.”

“History has a tendency to remember conquerors for being valiant rather than cruel. It is no fault of yours.”

“Then I am sorry for reminding you of a painful memory.”

“You have nothing to apologise for.” Amoria was glancing out over the horizon. “I’ve had two thousand years to meditate over it.”

“If you can forgive my ill manners…” The words pricked in his throat and it hurt him to ask, but he knew he would never sleep peacefully if he did not. “What did you do?”

To his surprise, Amoria replied almost casually, “What I had to.”

The embarrassment of having asked such a personal question, even one that Amoria did not seem to have minded, had honour-bound him to silence. Thus, he said nothing for the rest of the day. It was not until near sunset, when he saw the village in the distance, that he spoke again.

“Do you see that?” he exclaimed, pointing. “Over there.”

“I see it, my king. I see it.”

“Have you been to that village before? Does it have a name?”

“I have spent a great deal of time travelling, but even I have not visited every village.”

“I see.” He struggled to hide the excitement in his voice. The kingly facade he maintained the first time they met was long gone. “This will be my first time visiting a settlement beyond the mountain, and talking to people beyond my own! I wonder if we will speak the same language. Or perhaps how our cuisine and culture differ. Perhaps I will even bring back some souvenirs for the children!”

You are one of those children, Amoria wanted to say.

She peered back. The ground was grassy and lucious when they started, but as they walked, the green had steadily dried out. Now, the earth beneath was dry, devoid of vegetation save for a few stray weeds. It had been arid for several miles, though only recently had that become visible in the topsoil.

Amoria studied the clouds. They were thin and spread apart, like spiderwebs on a field of dark blue.

“Perhaps we should take a different route,” she said. “One that does not pass through the village.”

“How come?”

“I have a poor feeling.”

“Do you believe there to be danger? Bandits or monsters?”

“I do not. Even if there was, it would be an effortless challenge.”

“Then why?”

“An instinct, I suppose.”

The boy’s eyes drifted from her to the village, then back to her. He thought for a moment, and said, “I fear another route would take too long, and I wish this journey a swift one. If there is no danger, I would like to pass through the village. Beyond my own whims, we could stock up on our supplies there.”

“I don’t believe there will be much purchase.”

“Then I will do nothing there. I will relent from any purchase, or interaction with the citizens. Would that be sufficient to soothe your concern?”

Amoria closed her eyes. “Very well.”

From his first step in, the boy realised what Amoria meant. The village was not wood and stone– rather, haystacks and clay. All around, the bare yellow earth was cracked with the pattern of pinecones, and every breath he took was pungent with dust and decay.

The boy clutched Amoria’s coat for balance. There was a man lying along the street. A thin rag covered his head and torso, revealing only his frail legs that were more bone than flesh. He struggled to even lift the cloth, and when he did, the boy saw only despair. Starvation had strained his skin tight over his face, until his cheekbones bulged out like a swollen bee sting.

The boy pried his gaze away, only to find there was nowhere else to look. Everywhere he glanced, there was only more of the same.

This is not a village, he thought. It is a graveyard.

He had not seen death before. Of horses and cows, perhaps, and even the desperate flailing of fish. Paintings and tapestries, too, carved into the walls of the mountain. But he had never seen this: the slow, unstoppable rot. The sour smell that burned his nostrils.

“Please,” said the starved man, no more than a whisper. “Please. A little food.”

Memories of his fanciful breakfast flooded back: the sweet apple and the filling bread. The searing guilt in his chest felt like water boiling.

“My king.” Amoria yanked back the boy’s focus. “Close your eyes and take my hand. Do not open them until I tell you to, when we have reached the other side.”

He struggled to talk. “I can’t.”

“You are braver than you know, more so than those twice your age. Take my hand, I will guide you and you will not have to see any more of this.”

“But…he’s dying. They’re all dying.”

“I know.”

“Then why ignore it? Why ask me to close my eyes and act a blind fool.”

“What do you suppose to do then?”

“Heal them.” Royalty returned to his voice, if only for a second. “Feed them.”

“With what tonic?” She knelt down to meet his gaze. “With what bread?”

He gestured at her haversack. “We have bread.”

“Bread enough for the journey, and not a day more.”

“We must have enough to spare. Even a little.”

We don’t know what waits for us ahead. We must conserve what we can,” she said. “Every bite you give is one you will never take.”

“And every bite I give may be a life saved.”

“Imagine this, my king,” Amoria proposed. “We come upon a river, one we did not expect. It takes us a week to find the river’s end, or a bridge which we can cross. That is seven days I could not account for. Seven days where you will go hungry. That is enough to cripple a grown man, let alone a child. With your strength sapped, even a light cold may steal your life, and that is if you are lucky enough to weather starvation. What then? My hands cannot be the ones to pick the peony. Your people will die soon after you.”

The boy bit back tears. They both knew she was right, though Amoria felt no satisfaction from the victory.

“Have you no heart,” he accused. Over thousands of years, Amoria had been called every name under the sun. Wench, harlot, even heartless. But this time it stung in a manner she had not felt in centuries.

“You are Amoria the deathless!” the boy cried, cheeks wet. He jerked his hand back. “You have lived for eons. Through the Green Lakes and the war that split it. You saw the world burn before Siofra the Conqueror. You were the God of Nourishment, of full bellies and healthy crops. Feast and festival.”

He repeated quietly, “You are Amoria the deathless.”

Amoria could only shake her head. “I am only Amoria the deathless. My stories cannot mend wounds, and my tales cannot feed the hungry. I am sorry.”

The boy forced out more stuttering words. Some were insults, some were incohesive ramblings. None had any power. Amoria knew he meant none of it, that it was only an outburst, born of a naive kindness. She could have ignored his cries and dragged him out of the village against his will. It would have been easy; he was a child, and she was eternal.

But she didn’t. She listened to every word and she took it to heart. She waited patiently for him to calm and when he did, offered her hand. After a deep breath, he took it.

Every eye in the village was on them as they walked. The villagers, as starved and weak as they were, swelled with a newfound strength after hearing the boy’s cry. With shrivelled limbs, they propped themselves up and looked upon the immortal.

“Amoria,” they groaned, as loud as they could. “Amoria the deathless.”

They dragged themselves along the street. Some raised their open palms. Many pressed their foreheads to the dirt and took the pose of worship.

“Amoria the eternal,” they lauded. “Amoria the neverending.”

“I will not close my eyes,” whispered the king. “I will not look away.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” The boy met the eye of all who stared at them in reverence. He burned their faces, their pain and their hope, into his mind. He hoped to burn the image so deeply that it could never be forgotten. It was the least he could do. If he could not save them, he would remember them.

The boy prayed it was enough.

After what felt like hours, they reached the edge of the village, and he wanted to vomit. He touched his face and stroked his hair, as if to remember who he was, for he felt like half of himself.

Amoria squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back.

“I’m proud of you,” she said.

“I’m not,” he replied. “I feel so worthless. Everything hurts.”

“Do not forget that pain. Let it be proof that you have lived and that you have loved.”

“I have lived only a decade, and yet I feel I cannot bear a moment more. Have…have you felt like this before?”

“It gets easier.”

“How?” he spat. “Please tell me how you have lived with this.”

Amoria opened her mouth to explain, only to notice a stranger from behind. Immediately, she pivoted on her heel, her fingers leaping for her sword.

It was a woman, not a decade older than the boy yet hunger had robbed her youth. She was struggling to even stand and when she spoke, her missing teeth slurred her words. “Amoria the deathless. Great Amoria.”

She came to her knees. Amoria could not tell if she knelt on purpose or if her legs gave out.

“I am not worthy,” said the woman. “I am not worthy to gaze upon a god.”

“I am no god. You are as worthy to gaze upon me as any man to another.” Amoria relaxed her posture but not her tone. “Do not follow us.”

“I…I have a daughter. She will be four come next sunrise.”

“We cannot feed you or your daughter.”

The woman produced a ball of cloth, the last bit in the village that was clean. As delicately as she could, she unravelled the fabric. In the centre were two withered millet roots and a handful of dried seeds. It was barely enough to feed a dog, but in this village, it was worth its weight in gold.

“Offering,” she said. “Please accept it.”

“No. We can give you nothing in return.”

“I want nothing. I am repaying a debt.”

Amoria paused. She waited for an explanation.

“When…when I was a girl,” the woman began, “there was a drought, the same as this one. Many died. I was so hungry, I was sure I would die too. I was weak. But my mother, she told me stories of you. Amoria. Every night. Amoria was the greatest woman in the world, she said. Stronger than Siofra, smarter than Yot. I loved those stories. They…gave me strength. Little strength, but because of it, I live. I should have died then. You saved me.”

“I did nothing,” said Amoria. “I have no more right to that offering than any bard.”

“I have a daughter,” she continued. “She was born sick. Tiny. Elder said she would die, but I did not give up. That night, I sat by her crib and told her every story of Amoria my mother had told me. My daughter…she lived. She will be four tomorrow. You saved her life, just as you saved mine. So please: accept this gift. Cannot repay such a great debt, but I hope it helps even a little bit.”

“Give it to your daughter, and perhaps she will survive this drought.”

“She is only alive now because of you.”

“I told you.” Amoria was louder now. “I told you I did nothing. I had no part in saving your daughter. You owe me nothing.”

“Even if we ate this, we will live maybe another week. We will die slowly, die by inches. An ugly, dishonourable death. Please accept this so I may die with pride, for I have returned the slightest kindness to the one who saved me.”

Amoria could say nothing to that. She stood, dumbfounded, a side that the boy had never seen before in the deathless. In the end, it was he who took charge. The boy reached into her haversack, and she did nothing to stop him. He took out two loaves of bread, then approached the woman, exchanging them for her roots and seeds. Both knew it was a terrible trade.

“Amoria has accepted your offering,” said the boy king. “And for your humility and loyalty, bless you with this gift.”

“I am not worthy.” She lowered her head. “I am not worthy.”

“You know the consequences,” warned Amoria.

“I do.”

“So why?”

“Because I am king of the mountain.” He returned to her side and mustered as much pride as he could afford himself. “The weakest of all kings, but king nonetheless, and I can still grant a mother and her daughter a hungerless night.”

MyAnimeList iconMyAnimeList icon