Authors: Peter V. Brett
The Desert Spear
Peter V. Brett
For Dani and Cassie
Table of Contents
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
333 AR WINTER
IT WAS THE NIGHT before new moon, during the darkest hours when even that bare sliver had set. In a small patch of true darkness beneath the thick boughs of a cluster of trees, an evil essence seeped up from the Core.
The dark mist coalesced slowly into a pair of giant demons, their rough brown skin knobbed and gnarled like tree bark. Standing nine feet at the shoulder, their hooked claws dug at the frozen scrub and pine of the forest floor as they sniffed at the air. A low rumble sounded in their throats as black eyes scanned their surroundings.
Satisfied, they moved apart and squatted on their haunches, coiled and ready to spring. Behind them, the patch of true darkness deepened, corruption blackening the forest bed as another pair of ethereal shapes materialized.
These were slender, barely five feet tall, with soft charcoal flesh quite unlike the gnarled armor of their larger brethren. On the ends of delicate fingers and toes, their claws seemed fragile'thin and straight like a woman's manicured nail. Their sharp teeth were short, only a single row set in a snoutless mouth.
Their heads were bloated, with huge, lidless eyes and high, conical craniums. The flesh over their skulls was knobbed and textured, pulsing around the vestigial nubs of horns.
For long moments, the two newcomers stared at each other, foreheads throbbing, as a vibration passed in the air between them.
One of the larger demons caught movement in the brush and reached out with frightening quickness to snatch a rat from its cover. The coreling brought the rodent up close, studying it curiously. As it did, the demon's snout became ratlike, nose and whiskers twitching as it grew a pair of long incisors. The coreling's tongue slithered out to test their sharpness.
One of the slender demons turned to regard it, forehead pulsing. With a flick of its claw, the mimic demon eviscerated the rat and cast it aside. At the command of the coreling princes, the two mimics changed shape, becoming enormous wind demons.
The mind demons hissed as they left the patch of true darkness and starlight struck them. Their breath fogged with the cold, but they gave no sign of discomfort, leaving clawed footprints in the snow. The mimics bent low, and the coreling princes walked up their wings to take perch on their backs as they leapt into the sky.
They passed over many drones as they winged north. Big and small, these all cowered until the coreling princes passed, only to follow the call left vibrating in their wake.
The mimics landed on a high rise, and the mind demons slid down to the ground, taking in the sight below. A vast army spread out on the plain, white tents dotting the land where the snow had been trampled to mud and frozen solid. Great humped beasts of burden stood hobbled in circles of power, covered in blankets against the cold. The wards around the camp were strong, and sentries, their faces wrapped in black cloth, patrolled its perimeter. Even from this distance, the mind demons could sense the power of their warded weapons.
Beyond the camp's wards, the bodies of dozens of drones littered the field, waiting for the day star to burn them away.
Flame drones were the first to reach the rise where the princes waited. Keeping a respectful distance, they began to dance in worship, shrieking their devotion.
Another throb, and the drones quieted. The night grew deathly silent even as a great demon host gathered, drawn to the call of the coreling princes. Wood and flame drones stood side by side, their racial hatred forgotten, as wind drones circled in the sky above.
Ignoring the congregation, the mind demons kept their eyes on the plain below, their craniums pulsing. After a moment, one glanced to its mimic, imparting its desires, and the creature's flesh melted and swelled, taking the form of a massive rock demon. Silently, the gathered drones followed it down the hill.
On the rise, the two princes and the remaining mimic waited. And watched.
When they were close to the camp, still under the cover of darkness, the mimic slowed and waved the flame drones ahead.
The smallest and weakest of corelings, flame drones glowed about the eyes and mouth from the fires within them. The sentries spotted them immediately but the drones were quick, and before the sentries could raise an alarm they were upon the wards, spitting fire.
The firespit fizzled where it struck the wards, but at the mind demons' bidding, the drones focused instead on the piled snow outside the perimeter, their breath instantly turning it to scalding steam. Safe behind the wards, the sentries were unharmed, but a hot, thick fog arose, stinging their eyes and tainting the air even through their veils.
One of the sentries ran off through the camp, ringing a loud bell. As he did, the others darted fearlessly beyond the wards to skewer the nearest flame demons on their warded spears. Magic sparked as the weapons punched through their sharp, overlapping scales.
Other drones attacked from the sides, but the sentries worked in unison, their warded shields covering one another as they fought. Shouts could be heard inside the camp as other warriors rushed to join in the battle.
But under cover of fog and dark, the mimic's host advanced. One moment the sentries' cries were of victory, and the next they were of shock as the demons emerged from the haze.
The mimic took the first human it encountered easily, sweeping the man's feet away with its heavy tail and snatching a flailing leg as he fell. The hapless warrior was lifted aloft by the limb, his spine cracked like a whip. Those unlucky warriors who faced the mimic next were beaten down by the body of their fallen comrade.
The other drones followed suit, with mixed success. The few sentries were quickly overwhelmed, but many drones were slow to take advantage, wasting precious time rending the dead bodies rather than preparing for the next wave of warriors.
More and more of the veiled men flowed out of the camp, falling quickly into ranks and killing with smooth, brutal efficiency. The wards on their weapons and shields flared repeatedly in the darkness.
Up on the rise, the mind demons watched the battle impassively, showing no concern for the drones falling to the enemy spears. There was a throb in the cranium of one as it sent a command to its mimic on the field.
Immediately, the mimic hurled the corpse into one of the wardposts around the camp, smashing it and creating a breach. Up on the rise, there was another throb, and the other corelings broke off from engaging the warriors and poured through the gap into the enemy camp.
Left off balance, the warriors turned back to see tents blazing as flame drones scurried about, and hear the screams of their women and children as the larger corelings broke through charred and scorched inner wards.
The warriors cried out and rushed to their loved ones, all semblance of order lost. In moments the tight, invincible units had fragmented into thousands of separate creatures, little more than prey.
It seemed as if the camp would be overrun and burned to the ground, but then a figure appeared from the central pavilion. He was clad in black, like the warriors, but his outer robe, headwrap, and veil were the purest white. At his brow was a circlet of gold, and in his hands was a great spear of shining metal. The coreling princes hissed at the sight.
There were cries at the man's approach. The mind demons sneered at the primitive grunts and yelps that passed for communication among men, but the meaning was clear. The others were drones. This one was their mind.
Under the domination of the newcomer, the warriors remembered their castes and returned to their previous cohesion. A unit broke off to seal the outer breach. Another two fought fire. One more ushered the defenseless to safety.
Thus freed, the remainder scoured the camp, and the drones could not long stand against them. In minutes the camp was as littered with coreling bodies as the field outside. The mimic, still disguised as a rock demon, was soon the only coreling left, too quick to be taken by spear but unable to break through the wall of shields without revealing its true self.
There was a throb from the rise, and the mimic vanished into a shadow, dematerializing and seeping out of the camp through a tiny gap in the wards. The enemy was still searching for it when the mimic returned to its place by its master's side.
The two slender corelings stood atop the rise for several minutes, silent vibrations passing between them. Then, as one, the coreling princes turned their eyes to the north, where the other human mind was said to be.
One of the mind demons turned to its mimic, kneeling back in the form of a gigantic wind demon, and walked up its extended wing. As it vanished into the night, the remaining mind demon turned back to regard the smoldering enemy camp.
VICTORY WITHOUT HONOR
333 AR WINTER
FORT RIZON'S WALL WAS A JOKE.
Barely ten feet high and only one thick, the entire city's defenses were less than the meanest of a
dozen palaces. The Watchers didn't even need their steel-shod ladders; most simply leapt to catch the lip of the tiny wall and pulled themselves up and over.
'People so weak and negligent deserve to be conquered,' Hasik said. Jardir grunted but said nothing.
The advance guard of Jardir's elite warriors had come under cover of darkness, thousands of sandaled feet crunching the fallow, snow-covered fields surrounding the city proper. As the greenlanders cowered behind their wards, the Krasians had braved the demon-infested night to advance. Even corelings gave berth to so many Holy Warriors on the move.
They gathered before the city, but the veiled warriors did not attack immediately. Men did not attack other men in the night. When dawn's light began to fill the sky, they lowered their veils, that their enemies might see their faces.
There were a few brief grunts as the Watchers subdued the guards in the gatehouse, and then a creak as the city gates opened wide to admit Jardir's host. With a roar, six thousand
warriors poured into the city.
Before the Rizonans even knew what was happening, the Krasians were upon them, kicking in doors and dragging the men out of their beds, hurling them naked into the snow.
With its seemingly endless arable land, Fort Rizon was more populous by far than Krasia, but Rizonan men were not warriors, and they fell before Jardir's trained ranks like grass before the scythe. Those who struggled suffered torn muscle and broken bone. Those who fought, died.
Jardir looked at all of these in sorrow. Every man crippled or killed was one who could not find glory in Sharak Ka, the Great War, but it was a necessary evil. He could not forge the men of the North into a weapon against demonkind without first tempering them as the smith's hammer did the speartip.
Women screamed as Jardir's men tempered them in another fashion. Another necessary evil. Sharak Ka was nigh, and the coming generation of warriors had to spring from the seeds of men, not cowards.
After some time, Jardir's son Jayan dropped to one knee in the snow before him, his speartip red with blood. 'The inner city is ours, Father,' Jayan said.
Jardir nodded. 'If we control the inner city, we control the plain.'
Jayan had done well on his first command. Had this been a battle against demons, Jardir would have led the charge himself, but he would not stain the Spear of Kaji with human blood. Jayan was young to wear the white veil of captain, but he was Jardir's firstborn, Blood of the Deliverer himself. He was strong, impervious to pain, and warrior and cleric alike stepped with reverence around him.
'Many have fled,' Asome added, appearing at his brother's back. 'They will warn the hamlets, who will flee also, escaping the cleansing of Evejan law.'
Jardir looked at him. Asome was a year younger than his brother, smaller and more slender. He was clad in a
white robes without armor or weapon, but Jardir was not fooled. His second son was easily the more ambitious and dangerous of the two, and they more so than any of their dozens of younger brothers.
'They escape for now,' Jardir said, 'but they leave their food stores behind and flee into the soft ice that covers the green lands in winter. The weak will die, sparing us the trouble of killing them, and my yoke will find the strong in due time. You have done well, my sons. Jayan, assign men to find buildings suitable to hold the captives before they die from cold. Separate the boys for
If we can beat the Northern weakness out of them, perhaps some can rise above their fathers. The strong men we will use as fodder in battle, and the weak will be slaves. Any women of fertile age may be bred.'
Jayan struck a fist to his chest and nodded.
'Asome, signal the other
to begin,' Jardir said, and Asome bowed.
Jardir watched his white-clad son as he strode off to obey. The clerics would spread the word of Everam to the
and those who did not accept it into their hearts would have it thrust down their throats.
That afternoon, Jardir paced the thick-carpeted floors of the manse he had taken as his Rizonan palace. It was a pitiful place compared with his palaces in Krasia, but after months of sleeping in tents since leaving the Desert Spear, it was a welcome touch of civilization.
In his right hand, Jardir clutched the Spear of Kaji, using it as one might a walking stick. He needed no support, of course, but the ancient weapon had brought about his rise to power, and it was never far from his grasp. The butt thumped against the carpet with each step.
'Abban is late,' Jardir said. 'Even traveling with the women after dawn, he should have been here by now.'
'I will never understand why you tolerate that
in your presence, Father,' Asome said. 'The pig-eater should be put to death for even having raised his eyes to look upon you, and yet you take his counsel as if he were an equal in your court.'
'Kaji himself bent
to the tasks that suited them,' Jardir said. 'Abban knows more about the green lands than anyone, and that is knowledge a wise leader must use.'
'What is there to know'' Jayan asked. 'The greenlanders are all cowards and weaklings, no better than
themselves. They are not even worthy to fight as slaves and fodder.'
'Do not be so quick to claim you know all there is,' Jardir said. 'Only Everam knows all things. The Evejah tells us to know our enemies, and we know very little of the North. If I am to bring them into the Great War, I must do more than just kill them, more than just dominate. I must
them. And if all the men of the green lands are no better than
who better than a
to explain their hearts to me''
Just then, there was a knock at the door, and Abban came limping into the room. As always, the fat merchant was dressed in rich, womanly silks and fur'a garish display that he seemed to wear intentionally for the offense it gave to the austere
The guards mocked and shoved him as he passed, but they knew better than to deny Abban entry. Whatever their personal feelings, hindering Abban risked Jardir's wrath, something no man wanted.
leaned heavily on his cane as he approached Jardir's throne, sweat pearling on his reddened, doughy face despite the cold. Jardir looked at him in disgust. It was clear he brought important news, but Abban stood panting, attempting to catch his breath, instead of sharing it.
'What is it'' Jardir snapped when his patience grew thin.
'You must do something!' Abban gasped. 'They are burning the granaries!'
'What'!' Jardir demanded, leaping to his feet and grabbing Abban's arm, squeezing so hard the
cried out in pain. 'Where''
'The north ward of the city,' Abban said. 'You can see the smoke from your door.'
Jardir rushed out onto the front steps, immediately spotting the rising column. He turned to Jayan. 'Go,' he said. 'I want the fires out, and those responsible brought before me.'
Jayan nodded and vanished into the streets, trained warriors flowing in behind him like birds in formation. Jardir turned back to Abban.
'You need that grain if you are to feed the people through the winter,' Abban said. 'Every seed. Every crumb. I warned you.'
Asome shot forward, snatching Abban's wrist and twisting his arm hard behind him. Abban screamed. 'You will not address the Shar'Dama Ka in such a tone!' Asome growled.
'Enough,' Jardir said.
Abban fell to his knees the moment Asome released him, placing both hands on the steps and pressing his forehead between them. 'Ten thousand pardons, Deliverer,' he said.
'I heard your coward's counsel against advancing into the Northern cold,' Jardir said as Abban whimpered on the ground. 'But I will not delay Everam's work because of this'' he kicked at the snow on the steps, 'sandstorm of ice. If we need food, we will take it from the
in the surrounding land, who live in plenty.'
'Of course, Shar'Dama Ka,' Abban said into the floor.
'You took far too long to arrive,
' Jardir said. 'I need you to find your merchant contacts among the captives.'
'If they are still alive,' Abban said. 'Hundreds lie dead in the streets.'
Jardir shrugged. 'Your fault for being so slow. Go, question your fellow traders and find me the leaders of these men.'
will have me killed the moment I issue a command, even if it be in your name, great Shar'Dama Ka,' Abban said.
It was true enough. Under Evejan law, any
daring to command his betters was put to death on the spot, and there were many who envied Abban's place on Jardir's council and would be glad to see his end.
'I will send Asome with you,' Jardir said. 'Not even the most fanatical cleric will challenge you then.'
Abban blanched as Asome came forward, but he nodded. 'As the Shar'-Dama Ka commands.'
JARDIR WAS NINE WHEN the
took him from his mother. It was young, even in Krasia, but the Kaji tribe had lost many warriors that year and needed to bolster their ranks lest one of the other tribes attempt to encroach on their domain.
Jardir, his three younger sisters, and their mother, Kajivah, shared a single room in the Kaji adobe slum by the dry well. His father, Hoshkamin, had died in battle two years before, slain in a well raid by the Majah tribe. It was customary for one of a fallen warrior's companions to take his widows as wives and provide for his children, but Kajivah had given birth to three daughters in a row, an ill omen that no man would bring into his household. They lived on a small stipend of food from the local
and if they had nothing else, they had each other.
'Ahmann asu Hoshkamin am'Jardir am'Kaji,' Drillmaster Qeran said, 'you will come with us to the Kaji'sharaj to find your
the path Everam wills for you.' He stood in the doorway with Drillmaster Kaval, the two warriors tall and forbidding in their black robes with the red drillmaster veils. They looked on impassively as Jardir's mother wept and embraced him.
'You must be man for our family now, Ahmann,' Kajivah told him, 'for me and your sisters. We have no one else.'
'I will, Mother,' Jardir promised. 'I'll become a great warrior and build you a palace.'
'Of that, I have no doubt,' Kajivah said. 'They say I was cursed, to bear three girls after you, but I say Everam blessed our family with a son so great, he needed no brothers.' She hugged him tightly, her tears wet on his cheek.
'Enough weeping,' Drillmaster Kaval said, taking Jardir's arm and pulling him away. Jardir's young sisters stared as they led him from the tiny apartment.
'It is always this way,' Qeran said. 'Mothers can never let go.'
'She has no man to care for her,' Jardir replied.
'You were not told to speak, boy,' Kaval barked, cuffing him hard on the back of the head. Jardir bit back a cry of pain as his knee struck the sandstone street. His heart screamed at him to strike back, but he checked himself. However much the Kaji might need warriors, the
would kill him for such an affront with no more thought than a man might give to squashing a scorpion under his sandal.
'Every man in Krasia cares for her,' Qeran said, jerking his head back toward the door, 'spilling blood in the night to keep her safe as she weeps over her sorry excuse for a son.'
They turned down the street, heading toward the Great Bazaar. Jardir knew the way well, for he went to the market often, though he had no money. The scents of spice and perfume were a heady mix, and he liked to gaze at the spears and wicked curved blades in the armorers' kiosks. Sometimes he fought with other boys, readying himself for the day he would be a warrior.
It was rare for
to enter the bazaar; such places were beneath them. Women, children, and
scurried out of the drillmasters' path. Jardir watched the warriors carefully, doing his best to imitate their carriage.
it will be
path that others scramble to clear.
Kaval checked a chalked slate and looked up at a large tent, streaming with colored banners. 'This is the place,' he said, and Qeran grunted. Jardir followed as they lifted the flap and strode inside without bothering to announce themselves.
The inside of the tent smelled of incense smoke, and it was richly carpeted, filled with piles of silk pillows, racks of hanging carpets, painted pottery, and other treasures. Jardir ran a finger along a bolt of silk, shivering at its smoothness.
My mother and sisters should be clad in such cloth,
he thought. He looked at his own tan pantaloons and vest, grimy and torn, and longed for the day he could don a warrior's blacks.
A woman at the counter gave a shriek as she caught sight of the drillmasters, and Jardir looked up at her just as she pulled her veil over her face.
'Omara vah'Haman vah'Kaji'' Qeran asked. The woman nodded, eyes wide with fear.
'We have come for your son, Abban,' Qeran said.
'He's not here,' Omara said, but her eyes and hands, the only parts of her visible beneath the thick black cloth, trembled. 'I sent him out this morning, delivering goods.'
'Search the back,' Qeran told Kaval. The drillmaster nodded and headed for the dividing flap behind the counter.
'No, please!' Omara cried, stepping in his path. Kaval ignored her, shoving her aside and disappearing into the back. There were more shrieks, and a moment later the drillmaster reemerged clutching the arm of a young boy in a tan vest, cap, and pantaloons'though of much finer cloth than Jardir's. He was perhaps a year or two older than Jardir, stocky and well fed. A number of older girls followed him out, two in tans and three more in the black, open-faced headwraps of unmarried women.
'Abban am'Haman am'Kaji,' Qeran said, 'you will come with us to the Kaji'sharaj to find your
the path Everam wills for you.' The boy trembled at the words.
Omara wailed, grabbing at her son, trying to pull him back. 'Please! He is too young! Another year, I beg!'
'Silence, woman,' Kaval said, shoving her to the floor. 'The boy is old and fat enough as it is. If he is left to you another day, he will end up
like his father.'
'Be proud, woman,' Qeran told her. 'Your son is being given the chance to rise above his father and serve Everam and the Kaji.'
Omara clenched her fists, but she stayed where she had landed, head down, and wept quietly. No woman would dare defy a
Abban's sisters clutched at her, sharing in her grief. Abban reached for them, but Kaval jerked him away. The boy cried and wailed as they dragged him out of the tent. Jardir could hear the women crying even after the heavy flap fell closed and the clamor of the market surrounded them.
The warriors all but ignored the boys as they led the way to the training grounds, letting them trail after. Abban continued to weep and shake as they went.
'Why are you crying'' Jardir asked him. 'The road ahead is bright with glory.'
'I don't want to be a warrior,' Abban said. 'I don't want to die.'
Jardir shrugged. 'Maybe you'll be called to be
Abban shuddered. 'That would be worse. A
killed my father.'
'Why'' Jardir asked.
'My father accidentally spilled ink on his robe,' Abban said.
killed him just for that'' Jardir asked.
Abban nodded, fresh tears welling in his eyes. 'He broke my father's neck right then. It happened so fast'he reached out, there was a snap, and my father was falling.' He swallowed hard. 'Now I'm the only man left to look out for my mother and sisters.'
Jardir took his hand. 'My father's dead, too, and they say my mother's cursed for having three daughters in a row. But we are men of Kaji. We can surpass our fathers and bring honor back to our women.'
'But I'm scared,' Abban sniffed.
'I am, too, a little,' Jardir admitted, looking down as he said it. A moment later, he brightened. 'Let's make a pact.'
Abban, raised in the cutthroat business of the bazaar, looked at him suspiciously. 'What kind of pact''
'We'll help each other through
' Jardir said. 'If you stumble, I will catch you, and if I fall, you,' he smirked and slapped Abban's round belly, 'will cushion it.'
Abban yelped and rubbed his belly, but he did not complain, looking at Jardir in wonder. 'You mean that'' he asked, drying his eyes with the back of his hand.
Jardir nodded. They were walking in the shade of the bazaar's awnings, but he grabbed Abban's arm and pulled him into the sunlight. 'I swear it by Everam's light.'
Abban smiled widely. 'And I swear it by the jeweled Crown of Kaji.'
'Keep up!' Kaval barked, and they chased after, but Abban moved with confidence now.
The drillmasters drew wards in the air as they passed the great temple Sharik Hora, mumbling prayers to Everam, the Creator. Beyond Sharik Hora lay the training grounds, and Jardir and Abban tried to look everywhere at once, taking in the warriors at their practice. Some worked with shield and spear or net, while others marched or ran in lockstep. Watchers stood upon the top rungs of ladders braced against nothing, honing their balance. Still more
hammered spearheads and warded shields, or practiced
the art of empty-handed battle.
There were twelve
or schools, surrounding the training grounds, one for each tribe. Jardir and Abban were Kaji tribe, and thus were taken to the Kaji'sharaj. Here they would begin the
and emerge as
'The Kaji'sharaj is so much larger than the others,' Abban said, looking up at the huge pavilion tent. 'Only the Majah'sharaj is even close.'
'Of course it is,' Kaval said. 'Did you think it coincidence that our tribe is named Kaji, after Shar'Dama Ka, the Deliverer' We are the get of his thousand wives, blood of his blood. The Majah,' he spat, 'are only the blood of the weakling who ruled after the Shar'Dama Ka left this world. The other tribes are inferior to us in every way. Never forget that.'
They were taken into the pavilion and given bidos'simple white loincloths'and their tans were taken to be burned. They were
now; not warriors, but not boys, either.
'A month of gruel and hard training will burn the fat from you, boy,' Kaval said as Abban removed his shirt. The drillmaster punched Abban's round belly in disgust. Abban doubled over from the blow, but Jardir caught him before he fell, steadying him until he caught his breath. When they were finished changing, the drillmasters took them to the barrack.
'New blood!' Qeran shouted as they were shoved into a large, unfurnished room filled with other
'Ahmann asu Hoshkamin am'-Jardir am'Kaji, and Abban am'Haman am'Kaji! They are your brothers now.'
Abban colored, and Jardir knew immediately why, as did every other boy present. By leaving out his father's name, Qeran had as much as announced that Abban's father was
the lowest and most despised caste in Krasian society.
were cowards and weaklings, men who could not hold to the warrior way.
'Ha! You bring us a fat pig-eater's son and a scrawny rat!' the largest of the
cried. 'Throw them back!' The other boys all laughed.
Drillmaster Qeran growled and punched the boy in the face. He hit the stone floor hard, spitting up a gob of blood. All laughing ceased.
'Make mock when you have lost your bido, Hasik,' Qeran said. 'Until then, you are
rats.' With that, he and Kaval turned on their heels and strode out.
'You'll pay for that, rats,' Hasik said, the last word ending in a strange whistle. He tore the loose tooth from his mouth and threw it at Abban, who flinched when it struck. Jardir stepped in front of him and snarled, but Hasik and his cohorts had already turned away.
Soon after they arrived, they were given bowls, and the gruel pot was set out. Famished, Jardir went right for the pot, and Abban hurried even faster, but one of the older boys blocked their path. 'You think you eat before me'' he demanded. He shoved Jardir into Abban, and they both fell to the floor.
'Get up, if you mean to eat,' said the drillmaster who had brought the gruel. 'The boys at the end of the line go hungry.'
Abban shrieked, and they scrambled to their feet. Already most of the boys had lined up, roughly in order of size and strength, with Hasik at the very front. At the back of the line, the smallest boys fought fiercely to avoid the spots at the end.
'What are we going to do'' Abban asked.
'We're going to get on that line,' Jardir said, grabbing Abban's arm and dragging him toward the center, where the boys were still outweighed by well-fed Abban. 'My father said that weakness shown is worse than weakness felt.'
'But I don't know how to fight!' Abban protested, shaking.
'You're about to learn,' Jardir said. 'When I knock someone down, fall on him with all your weight.'
'I can do that,' Abban agreed. Jardir guided them right up to a boy who snarled in challenge. He puffed out his chest and faced up against Abban, the larger of the two boys.
'Get to the back of the line, new rats!' he growled.
Jardir said nothing, punching the boy in the stomach and kicking at his knees. When he fell, Abban took his cue, falling on the boy like a sandstone pillar. By the time Abban got up, Jardir had already taken the boy's place in line. He glared at those behind, and they made room for Abban, as well.
A single ladle of gruel slopped into their bowls was their reward. 'That's it'' Abban asked in shock. The server glared at him, and Jardir quickly ushered him away. The corners of the room had already been taken by the older boys, so they retreated to one of the walls.
'I'll starve on this,' Abban said, swirling the watery gruel in his bowl.
'We're still better off than some,' Jardir said, pointing to a pair of bruised boys with nothing to eat at all. 'You can have some of mine,' he added when Abban did not brighten. 'I never got much more than this at home.'
They slept on the sandstone floor of the barrack, thin blankets their only shield against the cold. Used to sharing the warmth of his mother and sisters, Jardir nestled against Abban's warm bulk. In the distance, he heard the Horn of Sharak, and knew battle was being joined. It took a long time for him to drift off, dreaming of glory.
He woke with a start when another of the thin blankets was thrown over his face. He struggled hard, but the cloth was twisted behind his head and held tight. He heard Abban's muffled scream next to him.
Blows began to rain down on him from all sides, kicks and punches blasting the breath from his body and rattling his brains. Jardir flailed his limbs wildly, but though he felt several of his blows connect, it did nothing to lessen the onslaught. Before long, he was hanging limply, supported wholly by the suffocating blanket.
When he thought he could endure no more and must surely die, never having gained paradise or glory, a familiar voice said, 'Welcome to the Kaji'sharaj, rats,' the
at the end whistling through Hasik's missing tooth. The blankets were released, dropping them to the floor.
The other boys laughed and went back to their blankets as Jardir and Abban curled tight and wept in the darkness.
'Stand up straight,' Jardir hissed as they awaited morning inspection.
'I can't,' Abban whined. 'Not a bit of sleep, and I ache to my bones.'
'Don't let it show,' Jardir said. 'My father said the weakest camel draws the wolves.'
'Mine told me to hide until the wolves go away,' Abban replied.
'No talking!' Kaval barked. 'The
is coming to inspect you pathetic wretches.'
He and Qeran took no notice of their cuts and bruises as they walked past. Jardir's left eye was swollen nearly shut, but the only thing the drillmasters noticed was Abban's slump. 'Stand straight!' Qeran said, and Kaval punctuated the command with a crack of his leather strap across Abban's legs. Abban screamed in pain and nearly fell, but Jardir steadied him in time.
There was a snicker, and Jardir snarled at Hasik, who only smirked in response.
In truth, Jardir felt little steadier than Abban, but he refused to show it. Though his head spun and his limbs ached, Jardir arched his back and kept his good eye attentive as Dama Khevat approached. The drillmasters stepped aside for the cleric, bowing in submission.
'It is a sad day that the warriors of Kaji, the bloodline of Shar'Dama Ka, the Deliverer himself, should be reduced to such a sorry lot,' the
sneered, spitting in the dust. 'Your mothers must have mixed camel's piss with the seeds of men.'
'That's a lie!' Jardir shouted before he could help himself. Abban looked at him incredulously, but it had been an insult past his ability to bear. As Qeran sprang at him with frightening speed, Jardir knew he'd made a grave mistake. The drillmaster's strap laid a line of fire where it struck his bare skin, knocking him to the ground.
did not stop there. 'If the
tells you that you are the son of piss, then it is so!' he shouted, whipping Jardir repeatedly. Clad only in his bido, Jardir could do nothing to ward off the blows. Whenever he twisted or turned to protect a wounded area, Qeran found a fresh patch of skin to strip. He screamed, but it only encouraged the assault.
'Enough,' Khevat said. The blows stopped instantly.
'Are you the son of piss'' Qeran asked.
Jardir's limbs felt like wet bread as he forced himself to his feet. He kept his eyes on the strap, raised and ready to strike again. He knew if he continued his insolence, the drillmaster would kill him. He would die with no glory, and his spirit would spend millennia outside the gates of paradise with the
looking in at those in Everam's embrace and waiting for reincarnation. The thought terrified him, but his father's name was the only thing he owned in the world, and he would not forsake it.
'I am Ahmann, son of Hoshkamin, of the line of Jardir,' he said as evenly as he could manage. He heard the other boys gasp, and steeled himself for the attack to come.
Qeran's face contorted in rage, and he raised the strap, but a slight gesture from the
'I knew your father, boy,' Khevat said. 'He stood among men, but he won no great glory in his short life.'
'Then I'll win glory for both of us,' Jardir promised.
grunted. 'Perhaps you will at that. But not today. Today you are less than
' He turned to Qeran. 'Throw him in the waste pits, for true men to shit and piss upon.'
The drillmaster smiled, punching Jardir in the stomach. When he doubled over, Qeran grabbed him by his hair and dragged him toward the pits. As he went, Jardir glanced at Hasik, expecting another smirk, but the older boy's face, like all the assembled
was a mix of disbelief and ashen fear.
'Everam saw the cold blackness of Nie, and felt no satisfaction there. He created the sun to give light and warmth, staving off the void. He created Ala, the world, and set it spinning around the sun. He created man, and the beasts to serve him, and watched as His sun gave them life and love.
'But for half its time, Ala faced the dark of Nie, and Everam's creatures were fearful. So He made the moon and stars to reflect the sun's light, a reminder in the night that they had not been forgotten.
'Everam did this, and He was satisfied.
'But Nie, too, had a will. She looked upon creation, marring Her perfect blackness, and was vexed. She reached out to crush Ala, but Everam stood fast, and Her hand was stayed.
'But Everam had not been quick enough to stave off Nie's touch completely. The barest brush of Her dark fingers grew on His perfect world like a plague. The inky blackness of Her evil seeped across the rocks and sand, blew on the winds, and was an oily stain on Ala's pure water. It swept across the woods, and the molten fire that bubbled up from beneath the world.
'And in those places,
took root and grew. Creatures of the blackness, their only purpose to uncreate; killing Everam's creatures their only joy.
'But lo, the world turned, and the sun shone light and warmth across Nie's creatures of cold dark, and they were undone. The life-giver burned away their unlife, and the
'Desperate to escape, they fled to the shadows, oozing deep into the world, infecting its very core.
'There, in the dark abyss at the heart of creation, grew Alagai'ting Ka, the Mother of Demons. Handmaiden of Nie Herself, she waited only for the world to turn that she might send her children forth again to ravage creation.
'Everam saw this, and reached out His hand to purge the evil from His world, but Nie stood fast, and His hand was stayed.
'But He, too, touched the world one last time, giving men the means to turn
magic against itself. Giving them wards.
'Locked then in a struggle for the sake of all He had made, Everam had no choice but to turn His back on the world and throw Himself fully upon Nie, struggling endlessly against Her cold strength.
'And as above, so below.'
Every day of Jardir's first month in
was the same. At dawn, the drillmasters brought the
out into the hot sun to stand for hours as the
spoke of the glory of Everam. Their bellies were empty and their knees weak from exertion and lack of sleep, but the boys did not protest. The sight of Jardir, returned reeking and bloody from his punishment, had taught them all to obey without question.
Drillmaster Qeran struck Jardir hard with his strap. 'Why do you suffer'' he demanded.
Qeran turned and whipped Abban. 'Why is the
all the world would be the paradise of Heaven, suffused in Everam's embrace,' Dama Khevat said.
The drillmaster's strap cracked on Jardir's back again. Since his insolence the first day, he had taken two lashes for every one suffered by another boy.
'What is your purpose in this life'' Qeran cried.
!' Jardir screamed.
His hand shot out, clutching Jardir around the throat and pulling him close. 'And how will you die'' he asked quietly.
talons,' Jardir choked. The drillmaster released him, and he gasped in a breath, standing back to attention before Qeran could find further reason to beat him.
talons!' Khevat cried. '
do not die old in their beds! They do not fall prey to sickness or hunger!
die in battle, and win into paradise. Basking in Everam's glory, they bathe and drink from rivers of sweet cool milk, and have virgins beyond count devoted to them.'
!' the boys all screamed at once, pumping their fists. 'Glory to Everam!'
After these sessions, they were given their bowls, and the gruel pot was set out. There was never enough for all, and more than one boy each day went hungry. The older and larger boys, led by Hasik, had established their pecking order and filled their bowls first, but even they took but one ladle each. To take more, or to spill gruel in a scuffle at the pot, was to invite the wrath of the ever-present drillmasters.
As the older boys ate, the youngest and weakest of
fought hard among themselves for a place in line. After his first night's beating and the day in the pits, Jardir was in no shape to fight for days, but Abban had taken well to using his weight as a weapon, and always secured them a place, even if it was close to the back.
When the bowls were emptied, the training began.
There were obstacle courses to build endurance, and long sessions practicing the
groups of movements that made up the forms of
They learned to march and move in step even at speed. With nothing in their bellies but the thin gruel, the boys became like speartips, thin and hard as the weapons they drilled with.
Sometimes the drillmasters sent groups of boys to ambush
beating them severely. Nowhere was safe, not even when sitting at the waste pits. Sometimes the older boys like Hasik and his friends would mount the defeated boys from other tribes from behind, thrusting into them as if they were women. It was a grave dishonor, and Jardir had been forced to kick more than one attacker between the legs to avoid such a fate for himself. A Majah boy managed to pull down Abban's bido once, but Jardir kicked him in the face so hard blood spurted from his nose.
'At any moment, the Majah could attack to take a well,' Kaval told Jardir when they came to him after the assault, 'or the Nanji come to carry off our women. We must be ready at every moment of every day to kill or be killed.'
'I hate this place,' Abban whined, close to tears, when the drillmaster left. 'I cannot wait for the Waning, when I can go home to my mother and sisters, if only for the new moon.'
Jardir shook his head. 'He's right. Letting your guard down, even for a moment, invites death.' He clenched his fist. 'That may have happened to my father, but it won't happen to me.'
After the drillmasters completed their lessons each day, the older boys supervised repetition, and they were no less quick to punish than the
'Keep your knees bent as you pivot, rat,' Hasik growled as Jardir performed a complicated
He punctuated his advice by kicking behind Jardir's knees, driving him into the dust.
'The son of piss cannot perform a simple pivot!' Hasik cried to the other boys, laughing. His
's still came out with a whistle through the gap where Qeran had knocked out one of his teeth.
Jardir growled and launched himself at the older boy. He might have to obey the
but Hasik was only
and he would accept no insult to his father from the likes of him.
But Hasik was also five years his senior, and soon to lose his bido. He was larger than Jardir by far, and had years of experience at the deadly art of the empty hand. He caught Jardir's wrist, twisting and pulling the arm straight, then pivoted to bring his elbow down hard on the locked limb.
Jardir heard the snap and saw the bone jut free of his skin, but there was a long moment of dawning horror before the blast of pain hit him.
And he screamed.
Hasik's hand snapped over Jardir's mouth, cutting off his howls and pulling him close.
'The next time you come for me, son of piss, I will kill you,' he promised.
Abban ducked under Jardir's good arm and half carried him to the
pavilion at the far end of the training grounds. The tent opened as they approached, as if they had been expected. A tall woman clad in white from head to toe held the flap open, only her hands and eyes visible. She gestured to a table inside, and Abban hurried to place Jardir there, beside a girl who was clad all in white like a
But her face, young and beautiful, was uncovered.
did not speak to
Abban bowed deeply when Jardir was in place. The
nodded toward the flaps, and he practically fell over himself in his haste to exit. It was said the
could see the future, and knew a man's death just by looking at him.
The woman glided over to Jardir, a blur of white to his pain-clouded eyes. He could not tell if she was young or old, beautiful or ugly, stern or kind. She seemed above such petty things, her devotion to Everam transcending all mortal concern.
The girl lifted a small stick wrapped many times in white cloth and placed it in Jardir's mouth, gently pushing his jaw closed. Jardir understood, and bit down.
embrace their pain,' the girl whispered as the
moved to a table to gather instruments.
There was a sharp sting as the
cleansed the wound, and a flare of agony as she wrenched his arm to set the bone. Jardir bit hard into the stick, and tried to do as the girl said, opening himself to the pain, though he did not fully understand. For a moment the pain seemed more than he could endure, but then, as if he were passing through a doorway, it became a distant thing, a suffering he was aware of but not part of. His jaw unclenched, and the stick fell away unneeded.
As Jardir relaxed into the pain, he turned to watch the
She worked with calm efficiency, murmuring prayers to Everam as she stitched muscle and skin. She ground herbs into a paste she slathered on the wound, wrapping it in clean cloth soaked in a thick white mixture.
With surprising strength, she lifted him from the table and set him on a hard cot. She put a flask to his lips and Jardir drank, immediately feeling warm and woozy.
turned away, but the girl lingered a moment. 'Bones become stronger after being broken,' she whispered, giving comfort as Jardir drifted off to sleep.
He woke to find the girl sitting beside his cot. She pressed a damp cloth to his forehead. It was the coolness that had woken him. His eyes danced over her uncovered face. He had once thought his mother beautiful, but it was nothing compared with this girl.