It was Cedric's destiny to save the whole of Ingary. The only moot point was when and how he would do it, but the fact that he would do it was unarguable.
In Ingary, as everyone knows, real life is full of all those things that duller and less imaginative societies call the stuff of fairy tales. Cedric had known this since he was old enough to toddle.
At five, Cedric had seen his first pair of Seven League Boots, when a dishonest travelling mushroom salesman had disappeared remarkably quickly when his mother had gone at him with a rolling pin. (Cedric later heard that the salesman had been apprehended by the militia of a town seven leagues away, upside-down and dizzy in a duck pond.)
At six, he had planted a beanstalk as a school project, and had been most disappointed when it ended up leading only to the land of permanent arithmetic lessons, with not a giant in sight. (He later concluded that the error came from accepting a bean from his teacher, rather than getting one in exchange for a cow, a dog, or a sister.)
At seven, he had seen the results of his nine year old sister's experimental kissing of a frog. Not even the rolling pin had been enough to deter the amorous prince from his plans to marry the girl, and there had been a messy situation involving guards, dark alleys and accusations of treason.
At eight, his mother had remarried, and two step-sisters had joined their overcrowded home. There had been a few anxious months, when Cedric had warily eyed-up pumpkins and made sure that every broom was hidden, but no-one ever showed any inclination to put him to work in the kitchens, so finally he allowed himself to relax his guard.
At nine, he had finally learned that counting was a thing that could be applied to people, as well as beads on an abacus. This allowed him to work out that he was his mother's seventh child. Some noisy and difficult family reunions soon allowed him to conclude that his mother, too, was the seventh child of her own parents.
Cedric was a seventh child of a seventh child. It was clear that his destiny was to save the world. There could be no other possible outcome.
"It's supposed to be seventh son," said his oldest sister, Dorcas, when he was foolish enough to mention it to her a few years later. "You're the first son of a seventh daughter. I don't think that counts."
Cedric drew himself up haughtily. Since his oldest sisters had gone away to school in a distant town, they had taken to wearing drab and mannish clothes, and talked loudly and frequently about the iniquity of a patriarchal society. Cedric had no idea what that meant, but he did understand that it meant that he got hit whenever he said something about girls not being as good as boys.
"So you're saying that because you're all girls, you don't count?" he asked.
"No. No. Of course not." Dorcas flushed. "Seventh son… Patriarchal and out-dated language, that's what it is. Of course it counts." She clapped Cedric briefly on the back. "Good luck in saving the world, little brother."
"I'm only eleven," Cedric pointed out patiently. "It won't happen yet."
The years passed, and years do. Cedric grew taller, though he was somewhat dismayed when he did not grow much wider. When he was fourteen, his voice started doing strange things. It had better not be for a little while, he thought anxiously, and for a few weeks he endured embarrassing dreams in which he tried to banish some great evil, with his voice swerving and squeaking in a most unheroic fashion.
His voice settled down and became almost that of a man, though a heroic moustache still failed to materialise properly. Cedric knew that most heroes started their adventures at seventeen, but wondered if an exception might be made for someone as fated as him. He took to standing at the gate of his mother's cottage, staring into the west, looking for clues that his destiny was almost upon him. When his mother caught him, she swatted him round the ear with a dish cloth. "Save the world?" she laughed. "You can start with saving the bacon from burning." Perhaps all heroes were misunderstood at home, he thought.
When he was a sixteen, an old man accosted him, tall and bedraggled, yet bright of eye. Cedric's heart started to beat very fast. This was it! This was the mysterious mentor who had watched over him from afar, ready to awaken him to his destiny when he was ready. "You don't have to say it," Cedric told the man. "I know already. I'll come with you and do anything you tell me. I want to be awakened."
An awkward ten minutes ensued. An hour later, Cedric was huddled up in front of the fire, with a cold pitcher pressed against his bruised ear. "What have I always told you about strange men?" his mother berated him. "If the guards hadn't come by… But why did you try to kick that nice captain of the guards, Cedric? I really can't understand why you called him a dark minion trying to keep you from fulfilling your destiny."
It was at that moment that Cedric realised that his destiny was something he had to face alone. He waited until his seventeenth birthday, graciously accepted kisses from all his female relations, then packed his bags, and headed for the city.
The world was larger than he expected it to be. He walked for an entire day, and still did not reach the city, let alone the other side of Ingary. After a sleepless night under a hedge, he walked for another day, and travellers on the road told him that it was still Ingary. How am I suppose to save something as big as this? he wondered, then told himself that what would be, would be. It was the darkness putting doubts in his mind, and nothing else.
On the third night, he slept in a thing called an inn, which he had heard about in stories, but never seen. Much to his disappointment, he was not joined at his table by an elf, a dwarf, and a female barbarian, and no-one swore to follow his leadership to the ends of the world. Instead, he discovered that inns cost money, and that protesting, "But I'm going to the city to save Ingary from destruction," did not go down very well as a reason not to pay, and tended to bring about a night in the stables in dirty hay, and a day spent washing up.
On the fourth day, a friendly wagon-driver agreed to take Cedric all the way to the city. "I haven't got any money," Cedric told him, and explained everything, from the Seven League Boots, right up to the dirty dishes. He did not understand why the driver started laughing, or why he said, "No need for money! I'll get free drinks the length and breadth of the land with a story like this."
Cedric endured. It was the lot of a hero to always endure. He would show them all, when Ingary was saved because of him.
"There you go," the driver said, after several days of travelling. "Good luck with saving the world, and all. You must let me know how things turn out."
Cedric did not answer. He had been beyond answering for several minutes. This was the city? But it was big! He had seen a road with at least ten houses on, and there were places where you couldn't even see the hills! There were towers that touched the sky, at least three storeys high. There were more people in just one market square than he had ever seen together in his life.
Blindly, he stumbled from the wagon. He took two steps, stopped, and took two more, in the other direction. King, thought his fuddled mind. I should go to see the King. Or maybe he should just wander until someone accosted him and gave him the all-important quest, or until a dying beggar grabbed his ankle with news of great injustice that only he could heal.
Half a dozen faltering steps more, and someone crashed into him. Cedric fell over. The person who had bumped into him fell over, too, and landed in a puddle. "Doesn't anyone in the city look where they're going before they rush around?" Cedric wondered out loud, clutching his bruised knee.
The other person was sitting disconsolately in the puddle. "Ruined!" he exclaimed. "It's all ruined!"
Cedric sucked in an excited breath. Could this be it? Fate always disguised the really important meetings as chance encounters, just to put the villains off the scent. "What's ruined?" he asked. "Anything… Anything I can help you with?"
"My suit!" the man wailed. He was a curious-looking creature, with jet black hair, and exotic clothes in dark red and silver. He looked very old, at least twenty-five. "You've ruined my suit, you dratted boy."
"I'm sorry," Cedric said placatingly. "I probably wasn't looking where I was going, either. I was a bit overwhelmed. I've come here to save Ingary, you see. It is my destiny."
The damp man looked interested. "Save Ingary, eh? I like that. Saves me the effort of doing it." He stood up, his dirty clothes apparently forgotten. "Come on, boy. Let's get a drink."
"I haven't got any money," Cedric confessed. "I've never drunk any…"
"Good time to learn, then." The man clapped Cedric on the back. "I'll pay… or not. We're old friends, the landlord and me."
He led Cedric to a nearby inn. Cedric did not really mean to follow, but he could not come up with a good excuse not to. "A tankard of the best for my friend here, and two for me," the man declared loudly, throwing open the door.
"Oh, it's you." The landlord did not look at the man as one would look at an old friend, but he poured the beer. The man gave one to Cedric, and led them to a table in the corner.
Cedric sniffed at his beer. "I don't think I should," he said doubtfully. "I'm here to fulfil my destiny."
"Drink up." The man slapped him on the back. "Maybe destiny is hiding at the bottom of your beer. I wouldn't put it past her. Sensible girl, destiny."
Cedric took a sip, then slammed the tankard down. This man was an enemy, trying to poison him! Then he noticed that the man was drinking deeply from his own tankard, filled from the same barrel. Maybe beer always tasted like this. "Shall I… Shall I tell you about my destiny?" he began.
The man had already finished one tankard, and was starting on the next. "You got a wife, boy?"
Cedric shook his head. "I'm only seventeen." He had never even kissed a girl. He was saving himself for the princess he would win after he had saved Ingary.
"Take my advice," the man said, "and don't marry. Nag, nag, nag, that's all they do. You'll see. This destiny thing of yours…" He took another gulp of his drink. "If you had a girl, you'd see. 'Why haven't you saved the world yet?' 'Get out of that chair and go and do some decent magic for once.' 'For goodness sake, stop worrying about your hair and do something about the enemy, or do I have to do everything around here, and I don't know why on earth I married you, lazy, vain, selfish slitherer-outer that you are.'"
"But I wouldn't…" Cedric swallowed. "I wouldn't… slither out. Why would I want to?"
The man peered in a puzzled fashion at the bottom of his tankard, then grabbed Cedric's barely-touched beer, and started drinking that, too. "And then when you do get up and do something, are they grateful? No. You come back wet, and cold, and tired, and you've done something that not even the Witch of the Waste could have done, and what does she say? Does she say, 'Oh, my darling, I was so worried about you?' Does she help you to a chair and say how proud she is of you, and, oh, my sweet handsome man, how tired you must be, oh please let me bring you some beer and a blanket? Does she? Does she?"
"Um…" Cedric twisted his hands together on his lap. "Yes?"
"No, she does not!" The man slammed the tankard down on the table. "She complains because you've put muddy footprints on the carpet. That's what women are like, boy. Never marry. If anyone ever tries to get you to marry, run like the wind."
"I will do whatever my destiny demands of me," Cedric said stiffly.
"Destiny?" the man echoed. "Destiny? Destiny isn't getting married. Do what you have to do, boy, when you really can't wriggle out of it any more, but don't marry unless you love her, even though you really don't know why on earth you do, because she's a nagging little shrew who argues with you all the time, and throws things at you, and sometimes…" He gave a sobbing gulp, seemingly on the point of tears. "And sometimes… even… cuts… up… your… clothes."
His head sank forward. Cedric looked from side to side, desperately. Was he dead? Was Cedric supposed to be doing something? Just as he was about to call out, four men in black crashed into the pub. "There he is," said the landlord, pointing to Cedric's drinking companion. "Extra strong, as you requested, though of course he didn't pay. He's all yours."
Cedric pushed his chair away from the table, and pressed himself back against the wall. The men grabbed the unconscious man by his arms, and dragged him away. The door opened. A breeze touched Cedric's face, and then the door was closed again, and he was trapped in the warmth, with the horrid smell of beer.
I should have done something, he thought. He pressed his trembling hands against the table. Maybe that was my first test. I should have done something.
The fire beside him blazed into sudden life. "Oh. Too late," it said. Cedric whirled round to see a fiery eye winking at him. "You haven't seen me," it said, and vanished up the chimney, leaving only dimly smouldering ashes.
Blindly, Cedric stood up and blundered for the door. Outside, there was no sign of the four men, or the man they had taken away. Cedric wondered which direction to go, and was just setting off in a random one, when someone grabbed his arm. "Have you see him?" a woman asked.
"I… Who?" Cedric fought the urge to cower from her. He reminded her of his sister Dorcas, or maybe of the scariest teacher he had ever had at school.
"Don't lie, boy," she commanded him. "I'm not without magic myself, you know. I can smell his after-shave. No-one else in this world uses after-shave bought in Wales. You've been with him, haven't you? What have you done with him?"
"Nothing." He tried to drag his arm free, but she was implacable. "If you mean the man in the strange clothes… He bought me a drink, but he drank it, and…"
"Typical!" she snorted. "He will not stop drinking. And you know what the worst of it is? He could be the strongest wizard the world has ever seen, if only he wasn't so lazy and so vain and so selfish. He should have been at the Palace an hour ago, but instead he's at home being insufferable, and so I throw him out, and does he go to the Palace? Of course not. Would he ever do something like that unless he was forced to? No, instead he comes here drinking."
The man's rantings made sense suddenly. This was his shrewish wife. Perhaps she was an evil sorceress who had bound him against his will, and…
"And I felt so sick this morning," she continued, "and I don't want sympathy, but at least he could notice. I've felt sick for weeks in the mornings…"
"My sisters always did, too, when they were having babies," Cedric said, because he had to say something.
The hand left his arm. "A baby? Really?" The woman's eyes widened, then turned gentle. She was quite pretty, Cedric realised, and not really a woman at all, but a girl only a few years older than he was. "I didn't know. I've never had one before. I never thought I would. I was the oldest, you see. I always knew I'd never amount to anything. I certainly didn't expect to marry such a handsome, clever person as Howl."
Cedric felt completely lost. "Howl?" he echoed. "Is he the…? But I thought you… I thought you hated him."
"Hate him?" The woman looked at him as if he had said something obscene. "Of course I don't hate him, you silly boy. I love him, and I can't find him, and you'd better tell me where he is, or I'll… I'll talk your clothes unto turning into a dress. I can do that, you know. You don't want to test me."
"He drank too much," Cedric said miserably. "The landlord gave him strong drink deliberately. He fell asleep, and them some men in black came and took him away."
"And you didn't tell me?" The woman grabbed Cedric by the shoulders and shook him hard. "Stupid boy. Now I've got to go and rescue him." She scooped up her skirts and stamped off, shouting, "Calcifer! Calcifer! You come here this minute, you treacherous little… spark."
Cedric's arms were swinging limply at his side. He started to walk very slowly backwards down the road. "I'm not here," hissed a streak of light, lurking behind a pile of rubbish. "Don't tell her I'm here, not while she's this angry. She'll put me out!"
The wagon was still on the street corner, where Cedric had left it. The driver was taking it back tomorrow, he had said, all the way to Cedric's home village.
Saving Ingary can wait, Cedric thought, as he stumbled across the road to the wagon. I think I'll leave it until I'm at least a hundred and three.