The Tale of the Sword, the Flask, and the Pebble is a 1996 story by Cindy Vanous, who is also credited as the Manual and Supplementary Game Text Writer for Betrayal in Antara. It was released for free by Sierra on their website as a tie-in to the game.
The Tale of the Sword, the Flask, and the Pebble -- a winter’s fireside tale
There lived in those days on the very border of a small province in the kingdom of Antara an old woman who had but one son. Her husband had passed on many years earlier, and her own days of youth and fertility were long past. But her one son was strong, and industrious, and courteous, and attentive, and all of the things a mother could wish for. And as the old woman was a simple soul, and a devoted mother, she was happy.
Each day, the old woman’s son tilled the fields of their small farm, or tended the crops, or gathered the harvest. And each day, the old woman wove cloth for them to wear on her small hand-loom, or baked bread from the grain which their land provided, and she kept the hearth clean and the soup-pot full. And each morning, they found time to say a word of thanks to Senaedrin, for the rebirth of the day, the bounty of their fields, and their continued health. And each evening, they found time to sing a praise of thanks to Kor, for the strength to get them through their daily tasks, and for his protection through the night. And each time they were fortunate enough to see the dew shining like jewels on a spiderweb, or a sunset turning all their fields to gold, or a silver-bright trout joyously leaping handspans above the creek over and over and over as it beat back the current to return to the place of its birth, it was Henne that they took the time to thank. And so their days passed, busy and comfortable, and they were happy.
Then it came to pass, as it does in any time, that the rumors of war came to the town. Two neighboring provices had allowed their disagreements to smolder, until finally there were no more compromises to be reached. And so their armies began to prepare for war, and their generals drew up the plans for battle.
And the people of the border town begin to fear greatly for their own lands. For although their own province was not involved in the coming war, still their town was near the path which one of the armies would march. And as their province was widely known for neutrality and diplomacy, the approaching army could not help but know that the sack of one small, unregarded border town would likely bring no retaliation. And armies on the move are often hungry and under-provisioned, so they would hardly pass up such an easy mark as an unprotected farming town.
And so the young men of the the border town were called upon to take up what arms they had, and defend their crops and winter stores.
Now the old woman grew afraid, since her son was her only legacy, and the one thing she loved most in the world. And so she prayed to Senaedrin, for surely Senaedrin would know how important a son was to a mother. And she prayed to Kor, for surely Kor would understand war better than an old farmer woman who had spent her days tending to life rather than death. And she prayed to Henne, not for help, but simply to calm her mind and to remember all of the good and happy times that she and her son had spent together.
And in the night, she dreamed of a city, large and sprawling and teeming with merchants and mendicants, nobles and no-men, farmers and fishers and fighters and fools. And as the dawn snuck under the door and in through the shutters, she awoke and knew what she must do, and she was happy.
The old woman and her son had no horse, but a fine strong mule who had drawn their plow and carried their grains to market for several years. She packed her few needs, waved good-bye to her son as he practiced stiffly with their pitchfork, the only weapon they possessed, and she and the mule set out. For many days they travelled, away from the borderlands, through the villages and towns and fields and woods, until finally they reached the great city of Antara itself. And the old woman then handed over her reins to a horse-keeper, and walked boldly into the city on foot.
Although she had never travelled to Antara before, nor seen a map of its twisting streets, she found her way directly to the street of temples, without so much as a glance to either side of her as she walked. And she looked upon the temples with eyes weary from many days of travel, and old bones tired from the road, and saw her dream again, this time made real in stone and gilt and the robes of the faithful, and she was happy.
To the temple of Kor she went first, and asked to see a priest. But as the acolyte-of-the-door was about to rebuff her (for it was a day on which the priests were all absorbed in prayer), the high priest himself rushed forth from his office to usher her inside. For Kor had spoken to him, and had said that a woman of great faith was coming, and he should make the time to speak with her.
And the old woman told her tale to him, and spoke of her only son and the war that she feared would take him from her. And the high priest of Kor smiled upon her, and his smile was the smile of the warrior, full of confidence, and pride, and teeth. And he took from his wall his own sword, battle-scarred and well-oiled. No jewels gleamed in the hilt, no gilding ornamented the scabbard, no etchings decorated the blade. And it was obvious to any who saw it that here was no blade to adorn the belt of a Shiran dandy, but rather the weapon of a soldier. And this sword he gave to the old woman. And he told her that she could send her son to him, and he would train him to be the finest warrior in the land, and Kor would bless him in battle.
And the old woman thought long about her son, and thought that a sword would be out of place in his hand. But if he must go to battle, then it was good that he would be ready. And she thanked the priest and was happy.
To the temple of Senaedrin she went next, and asked to see a priestess. But as the door-warden was about to tell her to return later (for all of the priestesses were tending to the sick, which the old woman was obviously not among), the high priestess of Senaedrin herself ventured from the infirmary and took the old woman aside to a healing-room. For Senaedrin had sent her a dream, and in that dream she had seen that an old woman of loyalty and faith would be coming to her for help, and the goddess wished that her priestesses offer any assistance they could.
And so the old woman told her tale for a second time, and spoke of the love she held for her son. And the high priestess of Senaedrin smiled, and her smile was the smile of the healer, full of compassion and sympathy. And she took from a drawer a simple flask of water. A blued-glass bottle with a cork stopper, it seemed to be nothing extraordinary. But the high priestess gave it to the old woman with much reverence. And she told the old woman that this was the blessed water of Denna, taken from the grove at Ciaga Pass, which had the power to heal even a mortally-wounded man.
And the old woman thought again about her son, and that she would rather that he not be hurt at all. But if he were to be wounded in battle, then it was good that she be able to heal him. And she thanked the priestess and was happy.
Last she came to the temple of Henne, where the robes of the priests and priestesses were woven of beautiful colors, and the sounds of laughter and song rang through the great stone halls. And as the old woman walked through the wide-open doors of the temple (for the temple of Henne is always open, to all who wish to visit), she was approached by a small child. The little girl took the old woman by the hand and led her to a small, comfortable room, and bid her to rest from her journey of many days, and to wash the dust of the road from her face and hands. And after the old woman had gratefully slept for several hours, the girl returned with a loaf of warm brown bread and a piece of crumbly yellow cheese, both very fresh and welcome after days of dry trail bread and salted meat. And as the old woman ate, the girl sat with her and told her the tale of the Knight of Muffins, and the even sillier story of the Jaeger Who Wouldn’t Sleep. And the old woman’s spirits rose, for these were two of her favorite winter tales, and she had never been able to hear them without laughing.
And by and by, the old woman told for a third time the story of her son and the war which may take him from her. And the little girl smiled at the old woman, and her smile was the smile of the child, full of hope and trust and optimism. And she took from her pocket a small stone, sharp on one side. Barely more than a pebble, it was a stone like any that you would find in a garden. And this she gave to the old woman, and said that it was indeed simply a pebble, not special in any way, but of as much use as potions or steel. And then she told the old woman to go home to her border town, and give away everything that she had brought from Antara, and that everything would be all right.
And the old woman was confused, for if she gave away the sword, her son would have no way to protect himself, and if she gave away the water, she would not be able to heal his wounds. But the child’s eyes were full of knowing, and her face was lit by Henne’s own smile, and the old woman found her fears falling away from her, and she was happy.
So once again the old woman travelled for many days, as the season turned to autumn. And all along her way, the rumors of war were louder and louder, until finally, two days from her home, they were no longer rumors at all. For the army had been seen, marching along to battle, and stripping fields for supplies as they passed. Grain crops, so close to harvest, were being gathered early by the farmers, and taken in to the center of town, the better to protect them from the army.
And finally the low stone wall of the town itself came into view, and the old woman knew that her journey was over. And so she wearily rode into town, and stopped at the tavern for a meal. Now, the tavern-keeper knew the old woman well, since she sold him barley for his soups and wheat for his bread, and he welcomed her back with a smile. And the old woman was pleased to see that even though the town was readying to defend itself, the tavern was still a place of light and warmth, and all the patrons seemed friendly and open, although if she looked closely enough, she could see the despair just behind their eyes.
And as she finished her soup, the old woman remembered her promise to the child in Henne’s temple, and she took out the sword and the flask. As the tavern-keeper’s grandfather had once been a soldier, she gave him the sword from the high priest of Kor. And as the local healer had once brought herbs to cure her son of a childhood fever, she gave her the flask of Denna’s water from the high priestess of Senaedrin. And although she worried somewhat about losing these gifts that she had travelled so far to obtain, she remembered the smile in the child-priestess’ eyes, and she was happy.
The old woman left the tavern and took her mule from the stable. And as she rode out of town toward her own home and the son she loved so much, she suddenly recalled the pebble that the child had given her. She took it from her pocket, and looked around her for someone to give it to. But all the doors on all the houses were closed and locked against the night, and the tavern was far behind her. And so she simply dropped the pebble in the road, so that any who might want it would find it there.
And she rode out of the gate, and home to her small farm. And as her son helped her down from the mule, and brought her inside to a warm hearth and a steaming cup of strong peppermint tea, she knew that she would never again venture so far from home, and she was happy.
So it happened that on that very night, a scout for the approaching army rode towards the town. He was charged with the task of spying out the town’s defenses, to see whether the army could easily raid it for additional supplies. And so he had donned his peasant’s cloak, and taken the army’s least-impressive horse, and had ridden ahead in the night.
But as he entered the city gates, his horse stepped firmly upon a small pebble in the road. The sharp edge of the pebble forced itself into the tender part of the horse’s hoof, and alarmed the animal greatly. As the horse reared up, frightened, it threw the scout from its back and onto the cobblestone street, harming him grieviously.
Dazed and bleeding, he pulled himself up and, unable to mount, simply leaned on his horse for support as he ventured further into the town. Although all of the houses were locked and barred, there was a cheerful light in the tavern. And so the scout dragged himself painfully into the common room and collapsed onto the floor.
When he awoke, mere minutes later, he saw the worried face of the town healer peering anxiously at him. And he was amazed to realize that the worst of his wounds were already healed. And the healer carefully recorked a half-empty flask, placed it into her pouch, and helped the scout to sit up. And he looked around him for the first time, and saw that the other patrons of the tavern were looking at him, not with the fear that usually marks the faces of the citizens of a threatened town, but with mere curiosity and sympathy for the bruises still purpling his face. And he saw also that the tavern-keeper, with all of his patrons currently served their ales and soups, and no one demanding service, had taken down a battle-worn and well-cared-for sword, and was carefully polishing it.
And so the scout ate the bread and soup that the healer had brought for him, and thanked her profusely for tending to his wounds and healing his broken bones, and he took the stone from his horse’s hoof and rode as quickly as the lamed beast could carry him back to his army.
And so it was that the town was spared, as the scout reported back that even the peasants and shopkeepers were confident and well-armed, and that the town’s healers possessed a magic to heal their own and send them back to battle refreshed and whole. And since the army was hurrying to meet their opponents, and moderately well-provisioned, the generals decided that it was not worth the time and casualties to take one small neutral town, particularly one which was well-defended. And so they sent instead an envoy to purchase all the supplies that the town could spare, and they marched on their way.
And so the old woman and her son tilled their fields, and gathered their grains, and baked their bread, and sang their praises to Kor and to Senaedrin and, with great fondness, to Henne. And in time, the son married, and gave the old woman many grandchildren. And in their snug little home, full of warmth and laughter, they were all very very happy indeed.