“You’re the one?” the Poet asked. “The Chosen?”
The Chosen nodded.
“But…but I thought you were just a legend.”
“I am just a legend,” the Chosen said.
“After so many years…I can scarcely believe it. The stories…so many stories. How could you do it? How could you leave us at the mercy of the Dark Lords?”
The Chosen looked at the Poet with fire in his ancient eyes. “I am just a man. Nothing more, nothing less. I am no more than you are. No magical powers, no incredible strength.” His voice softened. “No strength at all anymore.”
“But the prophecy!”
“Yes, yes. The prophecy. The alignment of the stars. But what do stars know?”
“You’re really no different? No special power? No hidden visions?”
“Nothing,” the Chosen said.
“Then…how? How were you meant to lead us against the Dark Lords from beyond the north?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t want to know. There was a time when I wondered how it might come to pass, but now I’ve left such things behind.”
“You must be very cruel to look on the suffering of others with such apathy.”
“Apathy? You think it was easy for me? To leave my wife and my children to what would almost certainly be their death? To abandon my people to a life of slavery? You think a man, any man, could make that decision lightly?”
“You were married?”
“I was. And I loved her more than anything. Do you know why?”
“Because she loved me before she ever knew I was the Chosen. We met in a market somewhere, and it seemed like for the first time in my life I was really free. Truly able to be myself without the burden…” The old trailed off and stared into the shadows for a long moment. At last he went on. “Every day of my life I was reminded. Every time I passed someone I knew in the street I could see the way they looked at me, and I knew they knew I was destined for something. But she…she was different. For the first time in my life I knew what it was to be myself. I think that was where the seed was planted. The idea that it might be better not to be the Chosen.”
“Better?” the Poet asked in disbelief “Better to let your land and our way of life be crushed under an iron heeled boot?”
“Yes. Better,” said the Chosen, and there were tears in his eyes.
“You mock me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. But you asked me how I could do such a thing. I can only tell you the truth.”
“The truth then. Why did you abandon us? Why did you abandon her?”
For a long time the Chosen said nothing at all. Then, when the Poet began to wonder if his question had been heard the old man took a deep breath and said, “Freedom.”
“Freedom? But that’s absurd. You’re in a prison cell.”
“Yes. And I am here because I chose to be here.”
Again the Chosen took a long time to answer, but this time the Poet waited patiently for the old man to gather his thoughts.
“My father was very proud of me, you know,” the Chosen said at last. “He was so honored that his son had been chosen by fate to deliver his people from the Dark Lords. I don’t believe there was a day that went by when he wouldn’t look at me with pride and joy, and every time I felt more loved that you may be able to imagine.”
“So what happened?”
“For a long time…nothing. I went on with my life, perfectly happy to be the Chosen. People stopped in the street to speak with me, they gave me reverence beyond my years. And as of yet I had done nothing to deserve it.”
“It sounds wonderful.”
“It was. For a time. But it all changed when I met her.”
The Chosen nodded. “I met her on a trek to a nearby village. She did not know who I was. She called me a foolish boy. It was the most wonderful sound I had ever heard. I started making excuses to go back to that village, and as often as I could I would stop by her shop and talk with her. At first she wasn’t interested. It was a shock for someone who has been revered his whole life to be spurned like that. But I kept at it, courting her in the best way I knew how, until one day she consented to be my wife.”
“And you never told her who you were?”
“I told her my name,” the Chosen said. “It was enough.”
“Eventually she found out. But she loved me already so it didn’t matter. We were married in the summer before the days of darkness.”
“It’s a touching story,” said the Poet. “But what of your fate? I still don’t understand how meeting her made you turn your back on your responsibility.”
“I said that was the seed,” the Chosen said. “But the thought…the thought that it grew into was much bigger than I could have imagined. All of my life I had been living in the shadow of the prophecy. But meeting her made me realize that I had been missing out on what life really was. I had become a slave to fate.”
“But that fate was saving the world-”
The Chosen held up a hand. “I thought of that. I thought…over and over again and again that this was all just a phase that would pass. That I could accept my destiny, bow to my fate. But every day I thought more and more of fate not as a thing, but as a person. A many-fingered demon that had twisted my life around, made it what he would have it be rather than what I would make of it. And with each passing day I hated him more and more.”
“What did your wife think?”
“She didn’t understand at first. But she saw how deeply I had been affected by the bonds of my destiny. And she loved me. She wanted me to be happy.”
“She agreed with your…delusion?”
The Chosen looked at the Poet sharply. “She understood,” he said. And then, almost as an afterthought, he repeated, “She loved me.”
The Poet sat back against the stone wall and looked up at a heaven he could not see. “Freedom,” he said as if it were a new word in his mouth. “You sacrificed everything you had, the world itself, and gave yourself over to the Dark Lords for your freedom from fate?”
“And even if it were true. Even if fate were some malevolent being pulling the strings of your life…how could you do it? How could you be so selfish?”
“All freedom is selfish,” the Chosen said.
“You can’t mean that.”
“I can. When a free man serves others he does it because he chooses to, because it makes him feel better about himself, or gives him some other intangible reward. The only truly selfless state of existence is slavery. If you favor that then you should thank me.”
“And you still believe that? After all these years of solitude? After leaving your family to suffer the wrath of the Dark Lords alone? You still cherish your freedom above all else?”
“I do,” said the Chosen. And the tears that had been brimming in the edges of his eyes began to roll down his face.
The Poet sat silent for a while. “I think I might understand…just a little,” he said at last. “You know, they placed me here for writing subversive verses? I’m not really any kind of revolutionary, but the Dark Lords…they tolerate no variance.”
“And yet, knowing the risks, you went on?”
“I did not wish to be caught,” said the Poet. “But yes. I went on.”
“Then perhaps you understand better than you know.”
After that the days and weeks passed, and the Chosen and the Poet talked of many things. The bonds of friendship grew between them, and with each passing day the Poet came closer to the Chosen’s understanding of freedom. He learned that some things were worth any price to those who understood their true worth. And when at last the day came for the Poet to be released he clung to the Chosen and wept for their parting.
The Chosen was left alone once more. He laid in his cell and stared out of the tiny barred window, and he prayed for death to come quickly and release him from his misery. He had sacrificed so much…so much to foil his fate, and though his resolve remained firm he wished for the peace of death.
He fell ill not long after that, and he lay on his bed for many days and nights crying out in pain, whispering the name of his beloved in the darkness. And as the sickness waged its war in his body outside he heard the sound of another war being waged. The cry of battle and the sound of the dying echoed through the window of his prison cell, faint at first, but growing louder every day. The guards outside his cell spoke in hushed tones of a terrible uprising and he heard fear in their voices as the battle came close to the castle.
On the last day of his life, the Chosen knew that the rebel army had camped just beyond the castle walls. He laid on his death-bed and listened to the sound of their encampment, and when night fell he heard a song. It was faint at first, but it grew and grew until it seemed to him that every man in the army must be singing along.
And as he heard the words of the song he felt his heart grow cold. For it was a song of freedom, and a song of ultimate sacrifice. And there…could it be? Was it really his name they sang as they prepared for their final march against the Dark Lords?
Now at the end, he understood. He wanted to cry out to them, to warn them away, to tell them there really was no freedom from fate, no place to hide from destiny. But his voice was frail and his body broken.
And as the shadows of his life faded away, a many-fingered demon laughed in the darkness.