There were ten inside. I half expected there to be eleven for some reason, but there were ten. Maybe I'll count the box as eleven, I thought.

I took one out carefully and examined its head. I knew I had to be careful. I was lucky to have found even these ten. Without them, I suppose all would have been lost.

I pushed the kindling a bit closer together, hoping to more easily catch the flame. Holding the first match as carefully as I could, I struck it against the box.

Nothing happened.

I shrugged a bit. I wasn't expecting much at that point. I struck it against the box again. Nothing again.

I started feeling a bit concerned. A few more strikes later, I was trying hard to hold down the frustration and panic, not even wanting to think those words. I took another look at the match-head. Nothing in particular seemed to be wrong with it. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the matchbox as well.

I looked around, unsure what to do with the apparent dud I found. "Should I save it?" I wondered. "Maybe I'll need it later." I decided to put it back in the matchbox, carefully arranging it so that this was the only one pointed in the other direction.

I removed another from the matchbox and looked at it again, afraid to admit that I was whispering a silent prayer as I struck this one against the side of the matchbox. My heart fell when nothing happened. I quickly looked around for something else I might strike the match against. Nothing obvious came to mind. Maybe I might try one of these stones or my zipper later, if I was desperate enough.

Once again the match was scratching the surface of the matchbox, and once again, nothing was happening. The rock I was sitting on felt like it was sinking into the earth. I was tempted to wildly smash the match against the side of the matchbox in a fit of frustration, but I knew I had to control myself. This was a very limited resource, and this was no boyscout camping trip.

Trying to keep my breath steady, I carefully put the second match back in the box and retrieved a third. My hands were trembling a bit at that point. I wasn't sure if it was from the cold or the fear. Air was catching in my throat as I struck the third match against the box. Nothing. Again.

What was wrong? Was there too much moisture in the air? Should I wait until the weather changed before trying again? Why was this happening to me? Everything seemed so great when I found the matches, but now it seemed that hope was slipping through my fingers again.

I wasn't sure if I could continue trying, but knew I had to. The fourth, nothing. I tried it against other surfaces around me. Nothing. Nothing.

Nothing.

I was trying as hard as I could not to damage the matches, but it was getting harder to control myself.

The fifth went back in the box. The sixth went back in the box. The seventh, the eighth. I looked at the last two matches I hadn't tried yet. Do I dare take them out? Am I accidentally damaging them somehow? There was no other way. It had to be done. Night was coming and I wasn't sure if I would be able to survive it without a fire.

The ninth came out, and a few minutes later, tears were streaming down my cheeks as it went back in the box. "Don't let those tears get inside, you idiot," I berated myself. I quickly moved the box a bit further from my face.

I wiped my hands against my jeans, trying to make sure no remnants of sweat, tears, or melted snow were on my fingers. One match remained. Should I go back and retry some of the others, I wondered. I stared at the tenth match intently, as if daring it to talk to me, or show some kind of sign. All it did was lay there, as perfectly as all the others before they failed to light. I couldn't. I didn't think I could.

I left the tenth match in the box and took out one of the older ones. It was getting hard to think straight, but I carefully lined it up against the box again. There was no hope or expectation in my actions at that point. I was going through the motions. That match went back in. I picked another one out randomly. It could have been the same match, maybe it was another. I didn't know, but I would try again, and again. And again.

Match after match came out of the box and went back in, but the tenth match remained untouched the whole time. It was perfect. It did not fail me. I did not hate it like I had started to hate the other ones. It was hope. A hope I did not want to prove to myself was false. So it remained untouched as evening fell upon the wilderness. My hands were shivering, and gripping the matches had become increasingly difficult. But I still had my perfect match to admire. If nothing else, I could look at it for a moment of peace.

Maybe the weather will be better tomorrow and I could risk trying the last one without damaging it. Maybe I could survive at least one night out here. It was getting too dark to see what I was doing, and I had to keep myself from losing more heat through my hands.

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine an inferno.

The Crownless Traveler descends the mountain.


Xelious crag is rocky, steep, and precarious, and with each unsure step, the Crownless Traveler watches stones break and roll, down below his worn grey cloak, down and away from his leatherbound ankles and sandals, down and out of his sight. One rock juts out firm, and he rests upon it awhile, surveying the lands below.


The free kingdoms of Illinwyr stretch as far as he can see, inviting meadows and farms. In their midst, a great stone castle, and the Crownless Traveler is reminded of the Atavistic Throne, so far away now. The castle is comparably nearer, and he will reach it in days.


Rustic timber farmhouses and tilled land, cleared of trees form the outskirts. Authentic people, simple lives. The Crownless Traveler passes through high fields of wheat, grasps outwards, strips the grain from one stalk. He stares at the grains as he walks, each an entire universe, his own just one, like all of these, so long ago. He eyes a mill up ahead, and places these few grains in his pocket, sparing them from being ground to stardust. He will save them all.


It is market day in the town, hawkers with stained and dirty clothes holler and call. Raucous crowds watch jugglers, or gather around the town crier to hear the news. The Crownless Traveler pulls his hood across his face. He does not wish to be recognised, does not wish to be delayed.


At the steps to the castle, rough men in hardened leather, helmets, and blue and gold cloth cross halberdand pollaxe, bar his way. The Crownless Traveler pulls down his hood, reaches for the scabbard at his waist. He need not draw it this time; upon sight of only the hilt, he is ushered into the great hall. Her spies warned to expect him.


Long tables draped with silks run the hall, a brazier at their centre. At the head of the room, a golden throne on a raised dais of blue carpet. A woman sits there; lithe and pale, a regal dress of blue silk; a crown of golden hair.


She sees the weapon before she sees the Crownless Traveler, and calls for food to be served. He sits across from her at the royal table, and a thousand courtiers take their own seats. A servant comes soon, serves food – roast meat and vegetables. Then, the Crownless Traveler causes a stir, for of a thousand mouths in the room, only one soul eats.


The queen pushes her chair out amid the silence, calls for a servant to bring water and a cloth. She falls to her knees, reverently removes the sandals from the Crownless Traveler, and washes his feet. A thousand courtiers drop to their knees in veneration.


“Will you sit upon the Atavistic Throne?” she asks.


“There is much to be done first.”


The Crownless Traveller stands, runs barefoot out of the hall. The queen holds her skirt and pursues; a thousand courtiers and guards follow, a train of confusion. He runs around the castle, to the top of a tower, finds a single guard posted before a stack of firewood.


The Crownless Traveller stops, considers the pyre. The onlookers abate their breath. The Crownless Traveller reaches for his sword. With cautious, steady movements, he holds the scabbard in his right hand , and with his left, he clasps the hilt, draws the sword.


An inch of blade shows, and the whispers begin. He continues to draw, half the blade now shimmering rainbow, and the whispers become voices. He girds his courage, steadily continues unsheathing, and the voices are shouts, maddening, cloying shouts of endless souls, regrets of all things done, of all things undone, of memories of the worst thing to ever happen.


The crowd covers their eyes and ears, run screaming from the sight, but the Crownless Traveler steels himself, and plunges the blade into the pyre. In seconds it burns alight, a bonfire blazing with every hue from the blade. Yet as he pulls it from the fire, only a sliver of its brilliance has been spent. He sheaths the sword, empties the breath from his lungs.


She stands, still watching, showing no fear or excitement, just elegant stoicism.


“You light the beacon”


“I call for aid.”


“My armies are your spear, my navies are your carriage, and my spies are your ears, human. For all of our sakes.”


“Muster every man in the free kingdoms who would stand against this. Travel south across land, and rally at the lands of the golden light. Ride for ruin.”


“The library. It holds books from...before. Yet you must hurry. The dread pirate lord sails on it even as we speak.”


The Crownless Traveler nods in understanding. Rough men in blue and gold form a guard of honour, as he heads towards the coast.

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