FROM THE BEGINNING, THERE was the weapon. Cold and sharp and mean. It was given as all things were given to the stable children: once and never again. The storm gray metal streaked with black. Even now, it gleamed.
It wasn’t possible, really. To gleam. For it was pig trough gray, charcoal, the gray that sometimes haunted his mother’s eyes. Yet it did gleam all the same. It did not have a name exactly, though it was sometimes called a bardiche or pole arm or arkhachet, but it was not quite any of these.
The blade was wide, paper thin at the very edge and deadly as a lightning strike. It began at the handle, dove outward then back until it reached a point, then curved back on itself until it tapered down to a finger’s width and entered the handle. The long handle itself was cut from a 30-year birch and wrapped in leather which was ringed with shallow kerfs, like the devotional scepter of a priest.
The weapon was clean, elegant and nasty as a cornered badger. It was all Vayud had. As with a friend, he kept it close. As with a lover, he cared for it. As with a ferocious animal, he respected it. In return, it sought for him everything he ever wanted: to escape from the city of Chert and find his sister.
No matter how lethal his weapon, he was trapped in the stables as helplessly as a mouse in a glazed jug, scratching uselessly at the smooth sides. There were promises, of course. About freedom. About earning your way out.
He knew from the whispered conversations of the galarati,the young men and women who served the wielders as masters of the stable children, that only a spare few of the children had ever left the stables, had ever escaped the path from yharketto galaratito wielder. Only those matchless fighters, those who fought and even killed their peers with impassive efficiency, had any hope. Yet it was more than hope.
They received something more than freedom. The consul of Chert granted them a wish. Two years ago, one of these children, a girl named Bau, had received a ship to take her far away from Chert across the silver sea. The year before, a boy of eleven received a hundred black horses courtesy of the consul, another boy a ruby as large as his fist. A girl named Coalu (the needle) for the precision of her strikes was granted a grand house in the Dereli outlands where she could rest and fish in the Valatava river forever.
If wishes were granted to skilled combatants, something more went to the greatest fighter of them all. This was a story told not by the galarati,for they had forbidden it, but by the stable children alone. It was a story told from stable to stable in whispers so quiet they could be heard only if one child pressed her ear against the planks of her stable and the storyteller spoke directly from the other side.
Someday, said the story, from the ranks of the stable children would risea young child so swift, so deadly he would defeat not only his stable mates and the older children but the wielders and even the consul’s guards. Then, weapon gleaming in the sun, the child would rescue the stable children, leave the stables and the pit and set Chert free from the cruelty of the consul.
In the stable next to Vayud was a boy of his own age, though the boy was larger than Vayud, almost puppy-like: physically awkward but strong, unknowing of his own strength. His name was Ayu. When the meals came, once a day, in battered wooden dishes filled with rice or tabouleh or cooked wheat berry with vegetables or sometimes, even lamb, they spoke.
“Vayud,” said Ayu from the other side of the wall of rough planks that separated their stables. “Is it good?”
Ayu always asked this.
“Yes,” Vayud said between bites. He could not eat slowly. He gobbled food faster than he could swing his weapon once around his head.
“I’m glad.” Ayu murmured.
VAYUD REMEMBERED OFTEN THE sensation of safety and warmth, nestled up against his mother as she slept, smelling the deep onion scent of her sweat. He remembered the dirt floor and leather walls of the round house he shared with his mother and father and sister, the days spent finding succulents, the juice of the wairadosweet and ever flowing from its thick, lavender leaves. The taste of ground squirrel cooked until crisp over a fire stoked just so. His father’s firm hand on his shoulder watching the hawks grace the morning sky. The efficiency with which they could roll up and pack away the leather-sided roundhouse and move on. Evenings spent head-bent with his mother over the half-dozen books she kept and read to him over and over until he could read them himself: The Book of the Eleven Dead, The HoiridoDayo, Corshi’s 77 Stories of Wonder and Doom, and three slim volumes of Lharok’s Disassembly of the Body, volumes of anatomy whose images never ceased to fascinate and repulse him.
His mother was a surgeon of some reputation before the raids on the coastal city of Amlekhem years before. The raiders burned the university and the hospital. It forced his family to abandon the city when he was just taking his first steps. He grew up knowing nothing but the round house and the life on the road. His father showed him how to uncover the hidden tunnels of the hare and to avoid the dark shadows beneath outcroppings of yellow chert where poisonous grit snakes awaited their hapless prey. His mother taught him how to spear flightless striped grouse with a sharpened stick by sneaking up on them slow and soundless in the moments just before dusk. In the mid-mornings when the sun was hottest, his father demonstrated skinning ground squirrel in the shade of the roundhouse, pointing out the liver and kidneys, spleen and gallbladder, heart and lungs, providing in visceral reality what the anatomical volumes laid out in paper. His family burned the viscera in their campfire and left no trace of their camp but scattered ashes when they moved on.
VAYUD WAS ELEVEN WHEN the wielder first sent for him. The knock of a young man, one of the galarati, at the gate of his stable was as frightening as wild fire. Vayud tried to keep from shaking. He gripped the weapon for comfort.
“Come then,” the young man said. Vayud did not know his name because just as there were hundreds of children like him, there were many dozens of men and women who worked for the wielders as galarati. This one was young, but not young enough to fight, and Vayud noticed how his eyes widened at the sight of the weapon and how his thin mustache twitched when Vayud strode from the stable and into the passageway.
“Is it a fight?” Vayud asked.
The young man didn’t answer. Vayud would later find out they were not to speak of fighting, not to give away any hint of the challenge to come. It was clear enough. He’d been allowed to bring the weapon.
“Good luck,” said Ayu from behind the planks.
“Dai mak!” hissed the young man, and Ayu was silent.
Vayud coughed and squinted as the double doors to the barn were thrown open. Yellow light streaked into the stables, and a pressing wind tossed copper-colored dust into the air. He had not seen the full day’s light for three weeks. A full bosom springing free from a silk dress could not have been more salacious. Only when the young man called to him did he jump and follow. He jumped not out of fear of the young man but of the wielders who brooked no argument and rewarded disobedience with the heavy end of their teak staffs. The afternoon heat lay low and liquid. It ran over his bare calves as hot as honey boiled in a kettle.
“Come on then, I said.” The young man raised an arm, perhaps to cuff him, perhaps to set it on his shoulder. Vayud gripped the weapon tighter and the young man’s hand drifted away.
The fighting pit was straight ahead and though Vayud had never in two years been allowed to see the inside, he’d heard enough from the other children in the stable. It was hardpack ground as all things in Chert were hardpack. The soil was clay and coarse sand and fine red dust that he swore could penetrate even steel. It was a plague, the dust. None were free of it, not the richest bettor, the most fastidious house maid or the holiest of robed priests proselytizing at the city gates. It was as much a part of Chert as was weaving or brick-making or pit-fighting. Even now he squinted to ward it away.
The pit had seven wooden walls after the fashion of the empire and a single door of bur oak. The young man knocked and walked away, leaving Vayud standing alone, suddenly shivering in the heat. He wavered. Should he remain standing here or follow the young man?
Without warning, the door swung aside. Until that moment, he had trained in his stable which was just wide enough to accommodate the full reach of the weapon. He’d trained in the passageway between the individual stalls as well, sparring with the other children as directed by the galarati and sometimes, the wielders themselves. Now he beheld the pit where two dozen or so children stood at attention. They were all two or three years older and they each wore a simple white tunic and short pants. The girls and the few long-haired boys had tied their hair back with bright red cloth. He was at once ashamed of his gray rags and bedraggled, untied hair.
He stood for a moment, breathing hard in the hot dust and glaring sunlight. A man Vayud had not seen before stood in front of the children. In his hand dangled a thick chain which ran to the end of a long pole held in his other hand. A flail. It was not difficult to imagine the weapon’s uses.
Then the wielder shouted “Vekeh!”, a command as familiar to Vayud as the taste of his own teeth and the group of children broke into pairs. Without another word, they began to fight. Their weapons blurred. Dust rose around their dancing feet. Their blood spattered to the ground. A body fell and then another. Vayud looked away, swallowing the bile building in his throat. He gagged but did not retch.
“Dai mak!” the wielder called.
In an instant, the pit was silent. The children stood in a line in front of the bodies. Their white tunics were dotted with red and covered in dust. Several of the children cried without shame, without wiping the tears, their weapons held in front of them in two shaking hands, as though they weren’t weapons at all but shields against the horror they had just committed.
“Good. Those who do not kill, die. Those who do not fight, fall. Those who do not obey, suffer. This is the threshing of the wheat. This is how we grow stronger. Now the wheat has fallen and we are all better for it, no?” The wielder grunted as casually as if he were instructing the children as to how to clean their stables. The chain of his flail swung back and forth as he spoke.
“Yes, Dayouk!” the children said as one, though some had to choke out the words.
The wielder nodded and two young women of the galaratiVayud hadn’t noticed before peeled off of the walls they’d been resting against. Each of them hoisted a body, threw it over her shoulder and marched toward the door. They came so fast, Vayud had little time to move out of the way. The wielder watched them go. Then his gaze found Vayud.
“Ah. Our youngest yharket. Come to me now.” The man crooked a finger. A thin smile played over his face.
Vayud hesitated. Was he to fight one of these children? Some were taller by a head or more. Their reach was greater and their blows would land heavier than his own. He had come here to die. He was to be an example. Shaking, he tried not to let go the urine in his bladder.
“Little yharket?” the wielder said in a sing-song voice. “Have you not heard me?”
Vayud blinked. He looked down. The weapon had fallen to the ground. Horrified, he snatched it up. Someone might have taken it from him. He’d hardly broken contact with it for days. Here he had let it go without even knowing it. Angry, bewildered, blinking in the sun, he started forward toward the wielder. Then he was there, head bowed, looking down at the wielder’s ragged toenails and the rough tortoise skin of his feet.
“Do you see, yharket?” the wielder drawled, gesturing at the remaining bodies.
“Yes,” Vayud said, but of course, he did not see.
“That is good. This is what you train for, but your training is just beginning. You will see even better soon. Now go.” He gestured with his chin and one of the young women who’d carried out the bodies appeared at his shoulder. Her hair was cropped short to her skull and her eyes were large and dark. A smear of red blood from the body she’d carried marred her tunic at the shoulder.
“Come,” she said and led him back to the stables.
That was his first day in the pit.
THAT NIGHT HE WAS beset with memories. He and his sister raced in the cool of the morning, bounding up and over crags and dunes topped with sweet grass, the clean scent of earth in the air, the wind streaming off their bodies. His sister was older and the faster. She ran like a hare, turning and dodging without a thought, leaping boulders as easily as taking a breath. He kept up as best he could, but he never matched her speed.
“When you’re older,” his mother assured him, looking up from a bit of stone she was working in painstaking slowness into a bowl. “You’ll beat her someday.”
It was not the first time she’d said it. He looked over her shoulder to the mountains gracing the horizon.
“Why do we not go to the city?” he asked.
A rare scowl passed over his mother’s face as she gazed at her hands. “They are zealots,” she said shaking her head. “Our city of Amlekhem was a special place, Vayud. There is no place like it now. The city you speak of, the one over the mountains, is nothing like Amlekhem. I’m sorry. Someday, we will find a home.”
Vayud nodded solemnly and embraced her.
“You are getting big,” she said, squeezing him until he gasped and twisted away, laughing. “Too big.”
“Not big enough to beat Vailia,” he said, the smile fading from his face.
His mother put the stone down and gazed into his eyes. “Why is it so important to to you?”
“It’s not,” he said, running a finger over the woven mat on which they sat, unwilling to meet his mother’s eyes.“But what if a wolf comes, and I’m not fast enough?”
“A wolf? Who is telling you stories about wolves?”
“Vailia. She says—”
“Uhh!” His mother made a cutting motion in the air. “I wish she wouldn’t do that. You’re fast enough, Vayud. Fast and strong enough to escape anything. Wolves, snakes, anything.”
A look of worry passed his mother’s face, but then she smiled. “Even raiders,” she agreed.
“WHERE DID THEY TAKE you?” Ayu asked him the evening of his first day in the pit.
Vayud wanted to climb the wall that separated the two of them as he sometimes did late at night when the galaratiwere asleep. Ayu would do the same. They would speak together, their faces pressed close, smelling each other’s breath and whispering about what they would do if they did not live in the stables. Ayu would find his parents. He believed they were rich farmers and owned a great estate where they were only waiting for his return. He would run in the fields of wheat and barley and pick plum and pear and fig from the trees. Vayud did not entertain stories like this, though he could not say why. There was no harm in it.
He explained the arena, the killing, the blood, the bodies and the wielder to Ayu.
Afterwards, Ayu was silent for a long time. Finally, he spoke in a whisper. “It was the whauru. The cleansing.”
“It was horrible.”
They ate in silence. The bowl of rice and cashew and lentil tasted like nothing.
“Is it good?” Ayu asked.
“Yes,” he said. He finished his meal and lay down in bed, but he did not sleep.
Later, Ayu’s voice drifted into his consciousness: “Do you think you will die here?”
“No,” said Vayud, but did not know why he thought so.
“Do you think today was a test?”
Vayud shifted in his bed. It had been something of importance. He only wished he knew what it meant. “Maybe,” he said. “If it was, I failed.”
Ayu cleared his throat. “I don’t think so.”
“How do you know?” he asked, conscious of the hope that infused his words.
“I don’t know,” Ayu hesitated, his voice growing quieter. “I just—I don’t think you failed.”
Vayud sucked his teeth. The wielder wanted to know whether he could hold a weapon. He had proved he could not. If that wasn’t failure, what was? He slept poorly, thrashing all night on his pallet.
Later that month Dayouk trained him to fight. Before he had only swung his weapon over and over at the urging of the galaratiand engaged in minor sparing with the other stable children. Now he learned to strike, to defend, to parry, to distract, to feint. He learned to kill.
First it was only stable rats, which Dayouk would release into the pit where they scurried and screamed. Even they had somehow absorbed the news of their death. Vayud dispatched them with the same distaste he reserved for emptying the waste buckets into the manure pit when it came his turn.
The following week, Dayouk asked him to kill a cat. The black and brown tabby went wire-haired the moment Dayouk deposited her onto the pit’s floor. Vayud shook his head. Rats were vermin. Cats were, well, cats. It was wrong, somehow, to kill them. Dayouk reached out, and with a swift motion, wrung the cat’s neck. He threw the body at Vayud’s feet.
“There is nothing special about life, yharket.” His fierce words sprayed flecks of saliva into Vayud’s face. “If there were, it would not be so easy to end it.”
Dayouk stomped away out of the pit and returned several minutes later with another cat. This one was smaller and black with a tiny patch of white fur dotting its chest. It glared at Dayouk and then began licking a paw, apparently unconcerned by the hulking man and armed boy standing over it. Vayud felt stretched thin, as though his very bones were being pulled apart.
Dayouk pointed. “Kill it.”
A sickly feeling spread through Vayud’s veins, making the hair on his arms stand up. His weapon trembled in his hands. The cat stared with the blank intelligence of its species. He could not move. He could only just hold his weapon.
“If you do not, I will make you aram: No weapon, no life.”
Aram. It meant they would the weapon and force him to work the stone quarries miles from Chert. He could not lose the weapon. Then he would never be free. Then he would not get his wish. Sweat slicked the handle beneath his palms.
All at once, a tyrannical calm rode into him. The images from the three volumes of Lharok’s Disassembly of the Body he’d read as a child played through his mind. A shallow laceration to the kitten’s shoulder would be painful, yes, but such a cut would avoid crucial organs. The cat would bleed freely and likely collapse but probably live, and so would he. He tried to picture it, the blade coming down, the perfect precision of the strike, but nausea seeped its sour way into his gut.
“Fine!” Dayouk spat. His hand darted to grasp the kitten by the scruff of the neck.
Vayud’s weapon slashed. He buried it in Dayouk’s hand.
“Kau malakam...!” Dayouk sucked in a breath. He drew the bleeding mass of his hand to his chest, his eyes rolling down to view the devastation. His hand was sliced in two. Vayud blinked in astonishment. The kitten skipped away. Dayouk’s eyes bulged. He squeezed his slashed hand with the other, trying in vain to staunch the flow of blood.
The weapon thunked onto the hard ground, the blade pointing in silent accusation at Dayouk’s three fingers lying there in the dust. Vayud retched, the putrid contents of his breakfast splashing to the ground. The kitten shot him look of disapproval, climbed the oak wall of the pit and disappeared over the other side.
WHEN THE CARAVAN WITH its camel-drawn cages found Vayud and his family, they were caught unaware. He tried to fight them off, but he was only nine, and the men were too strong. His father went down gurgling to an arrow through his throat. Vayud heard the sounds of his mother’s scream cut short as a man bore him away toward the cages. The last image he remembered of his family was his sister bolting for the hills as one of the men nocked an arrow. After that, a heavy stick came down on Vayud’s head and carried him off to a fitful unconsciousness.
In the first days of his incarceration, sick with grief and believing he would soon die, he did not eat. He lay motionless on the floor of the wheeled cage. The caravan ached across the dry plains, the camels setting a ponderous pace that would make only a rock lizard envious. The bumping of the cart bruised his body until he could only be comfortable standing at the side of the cage, his hand grasping the pitted surface of the iron bars, his eyes on the land retreating behind them along with everything he had ever cared about.
At first, he thought the men slavers. He soon learned they were not. The men with the close-cropped hair and beardless faces were criminal opportunists. They were worse than slavers. Slavers had no code, but they did have incentives, incentives to keep their cargo fed and watered regularly, for instance. These men hadn’t the first idea what to do with a young boy whose parents they’d just slaughtered. And why had they done it? Only for the outside chance Vayud might garner three bits at the auction block in the city over the mountains.
He shared the cage with a hairless dog that lacked the strength to stand and an older girl who eyed him with angry, brooding eyes. She sat cross-legged in the far side of the cage. Vayud stayed on the other side, the sickly dog in the middle.
After three days, they stopped in a small village of two dozen earthen huts topped by attuburoofs. A gray-haired woman with a face as creased as wind-battered sandstone bought the girl. The woman brandished a short, thick length of brushwood above her head as the girl approached, as if to head off any possible show of rebellion. Whether out of fear or simply because she had long been beaten into submission, the girl offered no resistance. The old woman led her away, and with a jerk, the caravan continued on.
In the heat of the day, Vayud was sure he would die waiting for the evening when they finally stopped and the men came to feed and water him and the dog. At dusk, the caravan became still, even quiet. Vayud held the dog’s head so it could drink. It lapped feebly at the water and ate something at Vayud’s coaxing. After four days, the dog could stand. After six, it could not bear to be in the cage and yelped and howled at every opportunity. The men shouted at it and threw rocks. Vayud was sure they would kill it or him with a poorly or well-aimed shot, depending on their mood. When the dog could not hold in its frustrations, he wrapped an arm around its neck and spoke to it in gentle words until it finally was silent or lay down.
VAYUD WAS NOT PUNISHED for destroying Dayouk’s hand. The wielder did not reappear the next day. He was replaced by a woman with dark hair and strange asymmetric eyes. One of her eyes looked up while the other held Ayu’s gaze with an unsettling hunger. Her name was Eva. She did not ask Vayud to kill for her. Instead, she made him spar. For three months he sparred every sunlit hour.
He sparred with other stable children, older and younger, the skilled and unskilled. He fought with a wooden weapon balanced exactly to his own weapon, which he missed sorely and which was kept chained to the back wall of his stable with a lock to which only Eva had the key. Eventually, he began to win his bouts.
When he had won every fight for three days, Eva set her gaze on him more often, watching him with her one steady eye even when he was resting in the shade against the copper-colored oak planks of the pit walls. When he fought older, more skilled opponents, she looked on with an anticipatory glee. She regarded a fight between himself and a lesser opponent with that same hunger with which she looked at him on the first day they’d met.
On the other side of the pit, under its high walls and upon its hardpack red earth, Ayu fought his opponents with every dram of Vayud’s energy but with little of his skill. Like an oblong stone rolling over and over downhill, Ayu fell under the wooden weapons of his stable mates and then rose back up for more. He fought with the clench-toothed determination of a man handing over a prize stallion in a lost wager. He fought hard and lost and lost again. If the game was wrestling, he might have done better, his superior size and strength would be assets instead of bruising liabilities. His injuries were many but not debilitating. Like Vayud, Ayu had learn to avoid the most brutal blows, coming up worse for wear but never injured badly enough to stop fighting. It was not the same with the other stable children, some of whom nursed broken limbs for weeks at a time or died in moaning agony of infection because of them.
During high summer, an uncommon quiet came over the stables. The long day in the sun and the dust had put most of the child to sleep early, but Vayud found himself awake, gazing at his weapon locked against the wall. He ran two fingers along the handle and touched the gray blade. It no longer seemed to gleam. He did not fear it so much as want it desperately.
There were murmurs outside the gate to his stable, and Vayud sidled over to peer through the space between two boards. Ayu leaned against the post of a stall just down the passageway, his head bent in conversation with one of the galarati, a young woman with cropped hair Vayud did not recognize. She said something. Ayu put his hand on her shoulder and hissed sharp words. The galaratimade no move to punish him. Instead, she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin as if in defiance.
“I’ll tell him,” she said, no longer bothering to whisper. “But it will be exactly as I told you.”
Anger contorted Ayu’s face. He took a breath and nodded a curt agreement. The galaratidisappeared out of view. A moment later, the gate to Ayu’s stable banged shut.
“Ayu,” Vayud whispered through a gap in the rough hewn wall between them. “Climb up.”
When Ayu did not respond, Vayud scaled the wall to the ceiling and looked down into Ayu’s stable. The other boy stood motionless, gazing at the door to his stall. How was it that he had been allowed to leave?
“I am too tired to climb,” he said. In the blue light of dusk, Ayu looked gray. His eyes reflected the feeble lantern light cast into his stall from the passageway.
“Are you sick?” Vayud whispered.
Ayu turned away and lay down. “No. Just tired.” After a time, he closed his eyes.
Vayud watched him, worried. The other boy did not move.
“Ayu?” he asked, a sickly swirl rotating in his stomach. Something was wrong. Then, with a thunderclap, he realized Ayu’s weapon was not on its hook on the wall.
“Where is your weapon?” he asked in a breathless rush.
Whether Ayu was asleep or unwilling to answer, Vayud could not tell. Then, finally, Ayu spoke.
“I am aram,” he said but there was no feeling in it. He said it as if he might mention the coming of the evening meal. “I could not kill,” he said in a voice as flat and featureless as the Mheriari Plains. “My weapon was taken from me.”
His words didn’t reflect it, but Vayud could almost feel the sorrow issuing from Ayu’s body, thick and heavy as smoke from a priest’s censer. Now Ayu would die or be sent to the quarries outside of Chert to cut stone for the temples until he died of exposure. Ayu squeezed his eyes tight, but two tears toppled down his cheeks.
“I—” Vayud didn’t know he was going to say until the words left his mouth. “I will give you my wish. I will wish you free.” He said it with every ounce of his being, with a wish already in mind: Ayu safe and happy, running in his parents’ orchards.
Ayu only curled into a tighter ball on his pallet. “You have not won yet.”
Vayud gripped the planks of the wall until his hand ached, until the splinters pierced his skin. “I will. I promise.Visha?”
Ayu let go a sob then clapped his hand to his mouth. It was no good to let the stable children hear you cry. They would only fight you all the harder the next day.
“Just—I...you fight well, alright?” he said. “And if anyone comes and asks you, say that you were never my friend.”
“Ayu, what is wrong?”
But the boy had again turned his face away and would not speak.
“Ayu, it will be alright,” Vayud said and put a leg over the wall and crawled down. It would earn him a beating if the galaraticaught him. He dropped to the floor into Ayu’s stall. It was much like his own, identical in fact, but there was something about it: perhaps it was cleaner, perhaps it held Ayu’s particular scent. Like he was in someone else’s round house. He put his hand on the curled form of his friend.
“Ayu, you will be okay.” He said. Then, shaking the other boy gently he asked. “Visha?”
“Visha.”Ayu repeated, but he spoke the word so quietly that later, Vayud was not even sure he heard it.
After an hour, Ayu fell asleep and Vayud climbed back into his own stall. It was a long time before he fell asleep, and his dreams broke into a thousand different stories in his mind, and in the morning when he woke he felt as if he’d spent the entire night running.
THE MEN WHO’D CAPTURED him finally opened Vayud’s cage twelve days later. He was thinner by half, or so it seemed to him. The dog, who he didn’t have the heart to name for surely it would be either starved or killed in some fashion, bounded outside and gave a long, ragged howl. Vayud was tired as a moth that had battered itself against a lantern’s glass over and over all night. He was not, he found, afraid. Or maybe he was. If so, the fear was buried. He was under a dune of sorrow.
He also could not see straight. His hunger and thirst had driven every reasonable thought from his mind. His vision writhed with spots and blurred whenever he didn’t consciously focus his eyes. He was in a large square of yellow earthen brick.
The men ushered him forward. He realized where they had taken him. To the city over the mountains. The great earthen walls of Chert rose above them, though he did not know at the time that the city was called Chert. A squat man with a web of scars about his elbows and forearms, grasped him by the back of his tunic soiled with ten days of sweat and sleeping on the filthy wooden slats of the cage and led him through the city gate. Bowing priests in dusty black robes blessed him in their esoteric fashion as he passed and a serious-faced guard eyed him with naked disgust, shaking his head and running a hand over his tanned leather armor as though to cleanse himself from the sight.
A small girl in a blue dress bought the dog, though her mother rolled her eyes as she paid the men with a single bright coin. “More trouble than he’s worth,” the woman muttered. The girl ignored her and dragged the dog away down the street.
Then he was brought to a long flat building where a large, furrow-browed man purchased him with the same shiny currency the woman had presented for the dog, though Vayud noticed the large man paid three of the coins for him. He was not sure whether to be insulted or flattered. He was too exhausted, hungry and filthy to care.
IN THE MORNING, Ayu had vanished. His blanket was gone, the pallet empty. He called Ayu’s name, uncaring whether anyone else heard the anguish in his voice. He kept calling until one of the galaratitold him to shut up or he would take it out of him with a stick. Ayu was aram.One way or another, that meant death.
The red brick under Vayud’s feet him seemed almost to glow. For the first time, he noticed the fine detail of its texture, the way the dust seemed to leak out of in when scratched by a fingernail. Ayu was gone. Now there was no one in the world who knew him. No, that was not true. Eva knew him. Dayouk knew him. His enemies knew him. A tear dropped from his cheek to the ground. The dry brick instantly absorbed it.
The gate to Vayud’s stall swung open. Eva entered chewing a bit of bread, careless as a grit snake laid out on a sun-warmed stone. Without looking at Vayud, she removed a key from the folds of her tunic and unlocked the chain holding his weapon to the wall. His breath caught as she took it down. He ached to hold it, to wield it, to fight.
She handed the weapon to him. “Come.”
“Where is Ayu?” he asked, though he feared both the question and the answer.
Eva turned briefly to look him up and down. “Who?”
“Ayu, he—” A thought occurred to him. The wielders didn’t know the names of the yharket. “He’s a bit fat, and he’s tall and he lives in the stall next to me and—”
He cut himself off before he could say Ayu was his friend.
“Yharkhet,” Eva’s voice cut low and serious. Vayud stopped walking. Eva pressed a tightly wrapped bundle of brilliant white cloth into his hand. Vayud’s heart rattled against his sternum. Even without unrolling the fabric he knew what it was. His uniform, a white tunic. He knew why Eva had given him his weapon. He knew why she’d looked at him in that peculiar way. “The wauru is now.”
What he did not know until he entered the pit and heard Eva’s instructions was that the wauruwas not a single fight. It was a tournament to get to the final fight. What he had witnessed his first day in the pit was one part of thewauru, not its entirety.
For the whole morning, he fought the other children. Some fought with ferocity, others with ugly desperation. He defeated them all, but not, as Eva might have expected, by killing them. His blade fell in sensitive places to incapacitate his opponents, the pages of Lharok’s Disassembly of the Body flashing in his mind. One child fell to the dirt after Vayud caught her in the temple with the handle of his weapon, sending her senseless to the hardpack earth. A boy fainted after he sliced his ear open, sending blood coursing down the boy’s face onto his shoulders. He knocked the breath out of an older girl and broke the nose of a boy named Haukyd whose stable was only two or three away from his own.
After this, Eva held up a hand, shushing the assembled galarati ringing the pit to silence. Khayari, a tall boy with delicate features two years older than Vayud, stood at Eva’s side. Khayari’s eyes flickered, and Vayud turned to follow his gaze. The consul stood at the door of the pit behind Vayud in startling blue robes, the sunlight shining off his hairless scalp.
The man walked a slow circle along the edge of the pit, his hands clasped, his blue wrappings gathering a thin film of dust. He watched Vayud and Khayari with a proprietary air.
“Dai mak!” Eva hissed, raising her chin at Vayud’s flicker of distraction. It was not allowed to look at the consul. Vayud let his gaze slide away. This was it. The consul would grant either he or Khayari a wish. He thought of Ayu, of his sister, of his father and mother and the round house, of escaping Chert, of living for something again
“Vekeh!”Eva suddenly barked.
Vayud pulled himself out of his memories to look up at her. Only from the reflection in his own weapon did he see Khayari’s blade coming. Too late, he parried. The full weight of the blow vibrated down the shaft of his weapon, jarring it out of his hands. Khayari’s eyes widened as he drew back his weapon to strike again. Vayud threw himself into the dust as his opponent’s weapon swept through the space he’d just vacated.
Rolling backward, Vayud snatched up the weapon and came to his feet. Dust hung thick and motionless in the air. Khayari aimed a kick for his chest. A feint. Khayari wanted to throw him off balance so he could move in for the killing blow. Instead of blocking, Vayud dove aside, landing on the unforgiving hardpack and directly onto his weapon. The shaft dug into his ribs, but he got his hand around it just as Khayari’s blade licked in to touch his cheek.
“Ah!” he bit out, rolling backwards into a crouch. He put a hand to his stinging skin. His cheek bled freely down his chin to drip onto the shoulder of his white tunic. Khayari came on. Vayud blocked, moving backwards step by step, purposeful, steady, using each movement to gain position. Khayari had a fierce and elegant but a predictable fighting style. He repeatedly tried to strike at his opponents’ ribs. When Khayari’s blade jabbed again, Vayud swung his weapon under the blow. The blade bit into Khayari’s thigh. He cried out and fell to a knee.
The bare skin at Khayari’s neck became Vayud’s whole world. He had fought and sweated and bled, scraping out a bare existence in the stables, watching his stable mates disappear or die. He grasped the weapon so hard his hands ached, his every sinew drawn tight as a strange anger seeped into him. It all happened in a breath, in the moment between the beats of a hawk’s wings, between thinking a word and saying it. He could not. No. He would not kill Khayari.
The consul’s dark image floated at the edge of the pit. He said something to Eva and then Eva was at his side screaming into his ear, but Vayud heard nothing for Khayari had not moved. The bare skin of the boy’s neck remained naked and vulnerable, his face a fissure of pain, his hands clamped to his leg from which rust-colored lifeblood leaked freely as the juices from a wairado leaf broken in two. Khayari collapsed.
It was as if the whole world shook. The walls of the pit warped in and out like a beating hear heart and there beside him was Eva, the one who told him to kill, forced him to fight. The weapon was well ahead of his thought, snapping out toward Eva’s belly. She was the faster.
She stepped aside, and the blade swept by her shoulder. The short sword at her belt was out and weaving before he could regain his stance. It shot toward him as fast as a grit snake. Only bare luck saved him. A gust of wind kicked up a tiny vortex of copper dust. Blinking, Eva misjudged her strike, sending it not through his lung but under his arm. He rolled away, his heart booming in his chest.
He spun the shaft of the weapon, advancing on Eva. Her face remained impassive, but fear flitted in her eyes. She struck twice with the short sword, a weapon with half the reach of his, but then she was taller, her arms longer. Her strikes were simple tests of his defenses. He ignored them, stepping back at each one. Eva was on her guard, wanting to bait him, to trap him, to force him, through an elaborate series of feints and blows, to tire and to make a mistake and then strike.
He would not play the part. As her next foray came his way, he twisted sideways around it and swung the weapon in a quarter circle toward her torso. Surprised, Eva leapt back. Vayud came on. His swings were large and aggressive, his stance balancing attack with defense. Eva’s sword clanged more than once against his blade. He was making progress. But that was not what he was after.
He stepped close swinging, and as her sword parried, he lashed out with a foot. His aim was right on the mark. His foot landed immediately under her left kidney. As it connected, Vayud lifted his foot and extended his toes, shifting the impact directly into the kidney and the tender ureter underneath.
Eva bent forward grunting. Vayud took his revenge. He knelt, flipped the weapon in his hand, and using the handle, caught her ankle and sent her sprawling backwards.
He was on her in an instant.
“I yield,” she gasped, her eyes wide, her hands cupped at her side.
“Dai mak!” he snarled, the point of the weapon wavering over her face.
IT WAS ONLY AFTER the third time the consul said it that Vayud heard the words: “You have done it, yharkhet. You are free.”
His mouth dry, his armpits soaked and stinking with the sweat of the day, Vayud stood shaking. “What?” he asked, dumbly
The consul smiled. His teeth flashed in the sun. “Now you are waila. You are free.“
With distaste, as if brushing an aggressive spider from his shoulder, Vayun tossed his weapon to the ground. The consul nodded.
“Come now. We have people for you to meet.”
Vayun followed. What else could he do? The consul moved fast. Beyond the pit on the other side, away from the stables, a narrow stone path led out between two walls into Chert proper. As they traversed, Vayud looked back at the high, hot, earthen walls that had been his prison. They appeared suddenly shabby. Why hadn’t he noticed before?
The consul strode ahead, trusting it seemed, for Vayud to follow. Was he not concerned that Vayud might simply run? But of course he would not. Then he would not get his wish. Then he would not be free but a fugitive. He thought of Khayari then pushed the thought aside then thought of Khayari again.
The city was not so different than he remembered from his first day in Chert. The consul stepped quickly and purposefully through a market. Vayud had to force himself to keep walking, to not stop and marvel at the chile-roasted chicken or the bright flowers or the shining jewelry of amber and glass. Scents of duck, beef, fresh bread and cloying spices stirred a ferocious hunger in him. He rolled his shoulders which ached from swinging his weapon again and again all day.
He might then have just drifted away, wandered down one of the narrow alleyways and vanished forever among the awnings and barrels and paved stone, but then suddenly consul was at his elbow, leading him away. They emerged from the market and into a wide street where a stone building towered above him, twice as high as the walls of the pit. The building was not earthen nor rough-faced but instead flat and gray, like the skin of salamanders he’d seen once when once his family passed through the Unkyeli Lowlands. It was one of the only times he’d seen rain. The salamanders wriggled through the mud seeming as content there as a grouse settled into its nest. Stone, Vayud realized. The building was built of stone like the buildings of Amelekhem his mother used to speak of.
Two soldiers dressed in tightly wrapped black cloth stood in front of the arched entrance. It was dizzying to look up at the looming structure, so he kept his eyes to the ground, aware of the elaborate pattern of worked brick under his feet, the lines of light and dark brick spinning off in a dozen directions. Suddenly, a group of three soldiers appeared at his sides. They must have been behind him the whole time. Of course. The consul would not travel unattended, and they had ensured Vayud would follow.
The image of Khayari falling would not leave his mind. The bare skin of his neck. He’d nearly brought his weapon down on the other boy’s head, as cold and brutally as a wielder.
“Up,” the consul said, jerking his head in the direction of the stairs.
Vayan did as he was told. The soldiers eyed him with practiced vigilance as he reached the top. They nodded to the consul as he passed. This was the consul’s estate and parcel, Vayud realized.
Inside, he caught himself before he staggered, overwhelmed, below a great dome of white stone. The cool air smelled of chalk. Carved white statues of a warriors and priests stood at attention in alcoves set into the stone. They were more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. Ayu would have loved them. Vayud could not wait to make his wish.
A sun struck balcony of polished stone extended out of one side of the domed space. There, a dozen soldiers in the same tight, black cloth waited. The sunlight blazed off the stone making him blink as spot swam in his vision. Outside, the noise of another market drifted in through the open air. Below him, the floor was an intricate tile mosaic in black and white. Shards of black tile as long as his finger clustered together framed by splinters of white tile which tessellated out from the center of the room. As he and the consul neared the balcony, the soldiers, standing straight as spears, turned as one toward the consul.
“Do you know the story of the child, yharkhet?” the consul asked in a low voice. “The child who will save Chert?”
Vayud stiffened at the title—was he notwaila?—but nodded. Of course he knew that story. The consul gave something that might have been a chuckle which turned into a cough and then a hoarse, clearing noise before he finally shook his head.
“Do you believe the story?” he continued, peering at him through red-rimmed eyes.
“Yes,” Vayun said, bowing his head. It seemed the proper thing to do. He could not argue with the consul. Besides, he was here for his wish. There was no use in jeopardizing that.
“As do I. Do you know what else I believe?” he asked. “I believe boys who get too good at fighting are best used for something else entirely, lest the city be overthrown by uneducated whelps.”
With a grand flourish he swept forward toward the balcony. Vayud followed, growing at the consul’s last words.
“Chert is an old city, older even than our nation of Whardrek,” the consul continued, stopping at the threshold between the room and the balcony. The murmur of the marketplace or whatever was outside grew louder. “This legend of this boy, this child has been around for a long time. I believe you, Vayud, are that child.”
Vayud felt as if a strange light had grown inside of him and was bearing him up off the floor. He was a bit of string flapping helpless in the wind. He was the one. He was the child. He was here to save Chert.
The consul straightened his shoulders and gestured toward the balcony. “Do you believe me?”
He did not hesitate. “Yes.”
“Good. Now we will present you to the people.”
Vayud’s eyed went wide. The buoyancy left him as quickly as it had come on. “What people?”
“Can you not hear them?” The consul asked, his voice rising in irritation. “Representatives of the leading families stand below the balcony, just outside. Would you like to meet them?”
Vayud nodded, but it did not seem to be his own head, his own neck, that did so. The weightlessness seemed to have invaded his every pore. He felt apart from his own body, though he remained standing on the floor. Two soldiers arrived at either side of him as the consul led the way to the balcony. Vayud didn’t move. He couldn’t.
The soldiers each grasped one of his arms and bore him forward. Somehow, he brought his feet under him, though they carried him most of the way. The sunlight struck him. The hot tiled floor beneath him stung his bare feet. There were indeed people standing below, their faces inclined toward the balcony. They were all dressed in the same dust-covered black cloth as the soldiers, though the cut of the cloth varied. Some of the women wore loose pants or dresses, some of the men wore buttoned shirts or jackets. There were children as well.
Every person, however, wore a black mask over their mouth and nose. It made an unnerving picture, a hundred faceless figures staring up at him. When he arrived at the very edge of the balcony, pushed against the railing, they went silent, staring at him with—what? Interest? Fear? A thin ribbon of nausea twisted in his gut. He tried to focus on the detailed mosaic floor, on the shards of black and white that extended out onto the balcony. A bit of purple on the black tile next to his bare toes interrupted the pattern, a blemish on the otherwise spotless floor. He wanted to reach down and touch it.
“Behold,” the consul said in a voice designed to carry to the very edges of the square. “The newest waila.”
Vayud squared his shoulders in pride. He was waila. He was free.
“We plucked him out of the stables and brought him into our training grounds. Like others before him, he is the one.”
Vayud looked up suddenly at the consul. “Do I make my wish now?”
“Wish?” the consul parroted back. He turned to the crowd. “The wailahas a wish.”
There were murmurs and chuckles below. The consul put up a hand.
“Yes, a wish. Do not laugh, for that is how the story goes, is it not? It is because of the story that we are here.” the consul called back. “Let us hear the wish of our waila.”
“I—” Vayud began, but his voice sounded small, even to him. “I want my wish for another child, Ayu, a boy who lives in the stables.”
“Hear that? He does not even want a wish for himself. No, he wants it for his friend…” and here the consul paused dramatically. “Ayu.”
There were more murmurs of the crowd.
“Tell us your wish, child.”
“I wish for my friend Ayu to have a great estate out in the country with wheat and rye fields and a mother and father to take care of him and love him.”
The soldiers at his sides stepped back behind him. Below, one of the women in the crowd turned away. A child scratched at his mask.
“Do you have anything else to say?” the consul urged.
Vayud thought about it, trying not to look into the faces of the masked people below. His gaze drifted down to his feet again and there was another spot, this one bright red against a white tile. As though the consul had been painting out here in the open air and had let a drop fall.
What was there to say? Behind him, the soldiers shifted restlessly. Perhaps they were bored. Perhaps he was to say something inspiring. He was the leader now, the one destined to save Chert, though for the first time it struck him that he had no idea how to start. Or maybe he did. Freeing the children of the stables. Stopping the practice of death fighting.
“I am a child of the stables” he began, looking down into the crowd. He had to say something. Something about where he’d come from and what he would do now. There, to one side of the crowd, a boy removed his mask. A bolt of electricity rode through Vayud’s body.
Ayu suddenly pointed at a spot behind Vayud’s head. “Get down!”
Only Vayud’s training made him dive to the tiled floor. He could see every vein, every sinew in the hands of the soldier who wielded the polished sword. Vayudflattened himself onto the tile as the weapon swept over his prone body.
Instinctually, he kicked out to strike the soldier’s ankle. The soldier stumbled, but only just. The man simply stepped back and swung again. Vayud rolled, and the blade sliced through his shoulder. He cried out, scrambling to his feet. Ahead of him stood more than a dozen soldiers, each wielding their own weapon. Behind him was only the railing and empty air. He leapt off the balcony.
Had he thought about it, he might not have jumped. He’d hopped from the wall between his stable and Ayu’s many times before. That wall was 20 hands. The balcony was five times that, maybe more. There was a moment of elation as his feet crested the railing and he burst out into the open air. Then the ground smashed into him. He landed on his feet, but his momentum caused him to continue falling, his knees bent, and he crashed into the ground.
He lay still, the pain groaning through his body. His heels had taken most of the fall. Would he be able to walk? The crowd of black-masked people before him stood motionless, gawking. Ayu pushed forward, grabbed Vayud’s hand and pulled him to his feet. A splinter of pain shot through his foot. He couldn’t put weight on it. Ayu threw an arm around him.
“Don’t let him go!” the consul shouted as they stumbled away. A man stepped forward but Ayu held up a hand and he stopped. Vayud looked on for a moment of outright astonishment before Ayu dragged him away through an open door and down a silent open-air passageway at the end of which was another open door that led to the street.
“Ayu, what—” Vayud began, the panic rising up to escape from his throat in the form of squeaky, breathless words.
“Hold,” Ayu said, peering out into the street. It was an unyielding command. The sort a wielder might give without any doubt of the obedience of the receiver. Vayud held. Then Ayu pulled him around the corner and into the street.
The shadows of the archways and short towers that dotted Chert’s cityscape lengthened as the sun retreated into the western sky. A horse-drawn cart passed by giving off the animal smell of dung and equine musk. Ayu and Vayud joined the traffic in the street, matching the pace of the crowd, bowing their heads. After they were well away from the consul’s estate, Ayu turned into an alleyway out of the stream of traffic.
“We don’t have much time,” Ayu said, slipping out from his black clothing with two deft movements of his hands. Beneath he wore the clothing of a noble child: a blue jerkin trimmed with gold, an undershirt of thin gauze, a silver necklace beset with amber and delicate tights that clung to his legs like a second, blue skin. He picked up the black cloth and held it out. “You must put this on.”
Vayud had some trouble, largely because of his injured foot, but he struggled into the clothes with Ayu’s help. He kept staring at the other boy, at the startling blue of his clothing, at the way he held himself, so different from the boy he knew in the stables.
“Ayu?” he finally said.
“What is happening?”
Ayu pursed his lips, as if deciding something. “I am son of Vatrainak.”
With the pain of his injury, the noise of the street and the pounding of his head as his mind pinwheeled trying to make sense of what was happening, Vayud could not be sure he heard him correctly. He’d knew the name of course, as he knew the consul and the wielders’ names, even if he had never met them.
“One of the consul’s viziers?”
“I don’t understand.”
Ayu’s eyes threatened tears. “There is too much to tell.” he said. “My father will be angry with me for helping you, but I could not watch you killed. I did not think the wauru would be so soon. If I did, I never would have left the stables by myself alone…I would have taken you with me. Now we must hide.”
Vayud followed him through a small marketplace specializing in religious devotionals. A woman with arresting blue-gray eyes sold tallow candles adorned with painted images of Wledo, Cuamakhan and Ve, the gods of the rain, of the wind and of power. At the edge of the market place, Ayu held up a hand and they waited in silence for three breathless beats until a group of Chert’s guard passed, three men laughing at some private joke.
“Wait,” he said, reaching out to snag Ayu’s sleeve. A realization had come to him, warm as a stolen sip of his father’s heated rum. “We don’t need to run.”
“What do you mean?”
“My wish—” he began.
Ayu’s stopped him with a look of confusion. “Vayud, there are no wishes. They just wanted to kill you. The wish is just something to keep the stable children from—from outright rebellion.”
“But the child. That’s me. That’s true,” he hesitated. “Isn’t it?”
“The consul believes that part, yes. That is why we’re in danger. ” Ayu shook his head fiercely. “But the whole story is superstition. The consul killed a dozen children already, all he suspected of being the one child, the one who would overthrow him.”
Ayu watched the people and carts passing by the mouth of the alley. “The consul has long known his rule is threatened. In this he is right. Men like my father have long opposed him even as they stand at his side. Yet the consul sees threats everywhere and believes every rumor, every conspiracy. Like the story about the child, which is a just a folk tale. It is his paranoia that keeps the stables running in the first place. He takes the best fighter at each wauruand slaughters them. He requires that the noble families watch so that they can see what happens to those who oppose him. That is what the stables are for—just a way for the consul to flush out and destroy threats to his rule.”
“But why were you there? Your father is powerful. Does the consul force even the wealthy children into the stables?”
Ayu shook his head. “The consul daren’t require us to live in the stables. His rule is precarious enough. The powerful families would rebel. They are sick enough of his brutality, but none so far have had the courage to oppose him. I was in the stables as a spy for my father. To identify galarati—and wielders—who would stand with us.”
“And were there?”
Ayu nodded, his eyes fixed on a point in the air between them. “Some. Not enough.”
“Eva and Khalet for the wielders. Some three dozen of the galarati.”
“Are you surprised?”
Vayud frowned. “I don’t know. What of Dayouk?”
Ayu let go a haughty laugh. “Dayouk looks out only for himself. I did not bother to ask for I did not trust he would not betray the plan.”
“There is no wish,” Vayud said.
“There is no wish.”
The truth of it lay on him like a mill stone. He was not waila. That meant he had nothing. No parents, no sister, no home and nothing that would change that.
Ayu placed a hand on his shoulder. “It will be okay. You have nothing to fear anymore. My father will end this madness. This day.”
“End the consul?”
“End his rule.” A fire light in his eyes and grow until it blazed. “My father has guards loyal to him and some of the other viziers as well, plus the city guard has promised fidelity and we have the some of the galarati and wielders. The consul will be imprisoned—at least I think that is what they will do with him.”
Now the light in his eyes faded. He seemed to be surprised to see Vayud standing there listening to him speak.“We must move,” he said. “I do not know when my father will choose to act. If he has already, we do not want to be near for there will be fighting. If he has not moved, the consul’s guards will be swarming the city looking for you.”
They slipped down the last few streets to a gate at the end of a wide alley that smelled of horse dung and smoked lamb. Ayu produced a large brass key, turned it in the lock and gestured Vayud to enter.
“This is our parcel. Come.”
Once inside, Vayud found he could hardly breathe. The sounds of the city faded. He had heard from the other children that Chert’s rich families owned parcels, small tracts of land where they built their estates. Ayu’s parcel contained a small courtyard surrounded by a U-shaped two-story building of earth and stone, but that was not what made Vayud’s breath catch.
Plants grew everywhere throughout the courtyard, exploding from tiered gardens, sprawling from glazed pots, unwrapping upward through cracks in the laid bricks, scaling the stone walls. Dark leafed ivy papered the edges of the courtyard while robust agave grew as tall as Vayud himself. There were even trees. His mother had taught him to identify them through images she drew herself, but he’d mostly seen trees in the distance as his mother and father traveled from one safe place to another. Once, they sought shade under a Palo. He recalled his father reached up to gently take the thick leaves between his fingers. A dozen different trees stood in the courtyard. A rosewood arched over the far corner like a camel stooping to drink, an Acacia grew thick thorny branches and bright green leaves.
“How did you do this?” he asked, not able to come up with a sensible explanation himself. Trees did not grow in Chert.
Ayu seemed to take his meaning. “It’s my mother’s work. She manages the consul’s garden as well.”
“I would like to see that someday.” He realized instantly how silly that was to say.
“You may. Wait here,” Ayu said, his eyes looking Vayud up and down as if he expected him to bolt away at any moment. Ayu disappeared through doorway off the courtyard, and Vayud was left alone among the plants and trees.
It had been a long time since he was truly alone. Not since he had been taken. Even before that. Once, in the months before the caravan had happened upon them, they had set up camp at the edge of an arroyo. At his request, his mother allowed him to explore up the far side of a distant hill. After climbing the loose soil and sand, he’d crested to view the vast landscape beyond. After a moment, he dared to scramble down the other side until he could no longer see his camp.
There he found a shallow cave, an impression in the hill as deep as their cart and camel was long. He ducked inside and crouched in its cool shade. All at once he realized that no one in Whardek, in the world, knew quite where he was. It was an exhilarating, terrifying feeling, and he savored it for as long as he dared before finally scrabbling back up the hill and returning to camp.
Now the same feeling flooded through him as he stood alone in the heady dampness of the garden. How long had he been in the stables? The howling dust storms had come and gone four times. That would mean two years at least, maybe more.
How many days had he spent doing the bidding of the galaratiand the wielders? How many children like himself had he fought? A wind stirred the leaves of the Acacia and all at once the sounds of the city filtered back into his consciousness. Behind him, the gate creaked.
A prickle of fear walked his spine. Someone was there. He knew it with utter certainty. A murmur, the clink of a weapon or a misplaced step, perhaps. He might have hidden, might have slipped away through the same door Ayu had exited the courtyard, but they were too fast. A large man kicked the gate open and burst inside, a flail with its clinking chain and deadly spiked ball resting easily in his hands. The two fingers of his left hand curled ugly as worms around the weapon.
“Hah!” Dayouk whooped. “Found them! Come.”
Two galaratientered in silent caution, but Dayouk didn’t wait for the young men. He burst forward swinging the flail. Vayud leapt backward, moving out of the way just as the spiked ball swung through the space he’d just abandoned. Then Ayu was there next to him.
“Here!” Ayu said, pressing something into his hands. A weapon. It was not his, not balanced the same way, but it was close enough.
Dayouk eyed him with a mixture of rage and pleasure. “Little yharkhet,” he said, breathing hard. Fear had trickled into his voice. He swung the flail again.
Vayud struck the shaft of Dakouk’s weapon with the flat of the blade, forcing Dayouk to take a step sideways, the flail swinging wide. Then there was an opening, Dayouk’s unprotected belly not an arm’s length away. Vayud could feel his body reposition, his muscles arrange themselves to thrust. He pivoted his foot the scantest amount, aligning the strike. Then the opening vanished as Dayouk spun the flail over Vayud’s ducking head.
He rolled backward, coming up beside Ayu whose breaths came hard and fast. It was to their advantage that the courtyard was narrow. With their lean bodies, they could stand two abreast, but the three men in front of them could not fight as one. In fact, the reach of Dayouk’s flail made it hard for either of the two galaratito come to his side.
“Ayu,” Vayud said. “Run.”
The other boy shook his head. “What are you talking about? You run.”
Dayouk smiled. “How touching. The authaurati likes his yharkhet.”
Ayu’s expression darkened. He made an exploratory slash with a long, slim sword at Dayouk. The wielder stepped aside without even raising his weapon.
“You authaurati,” he tsked. “You never quite learn to fight, do you?”
Vayud could see however, that Dayouk had abandoned his fighting stance. Before he could take advantage of it Ayu’s arm exploded into motion, wheeling up and over his head. He threw his weapon at Dayouk’s head.
The wielder had not been expecting that, nor had he expected the boy to rush him in the same moment. As Dayouk dipped away from the blade, Ayu tackled him around the waist. Dayouk was a large man, but Ayu was a large boy and Dayouk was off balance.
Then the two were on the ground, thrashing and rolling, the galaratiwatching with wide, uncertain eyes. Vayud shifted from foot to foot, desperate to help, but he couldn’t strike at Dayouk for fear of hitting Ayu. Just as he considered leaping into the fray himself, Ayu landed a blow on Dayouk’s chin, and rolled off. The wielder scrambled to his feet, weaponless. The flail had spun away behind the galarati. They made no move to retrieve it.
“My father has everything in place, Dayouk” Ayu said in a strange high pitch. “Our men will take the consulship this hour.”
“Hah!” Dayouk laughed. “Your father doesn’t have the courage to do anything of the sort.”
Ayu ignored him, gazing meaningfully into the eyes of the two galarati behind him. “It has been arranged for months. There are spies among the ranks of the consul guard. You are betrayed.”
The two men nodded to Ayu and brought their weapon around to point at Dayouk. The weilder’s face contorted into something between outrage and astonishment. Ayu stooped to pick up his dropped sword and brandished it at Dayouk.
“Drop your weapon. Or die.”
“No,” Dayouk swallowed, eyeing the blades pointed at him. “It was you? ”
Ayu shook his head. “My father.”
“But—”Dayouk gasped as Ayu forced his blade up under his chin. “Your father is old. That mean you will soon take the consulship.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps. Now kneel.”
Dayouk grimaced. “You’re the child,” he grunted. “The one the consul sought to find.”
Vayud saw something in Dayouk’s eyes. A wildness that set the hair on the back of his neck on end.
“Ayu,” Vayud said. “Be careful.”
“You’re an idiot if you believe the lies of the priests.” Ayu said.
Dayouk’s eyes rolled. “They are not lies.” He said, but he raised his hands and stooped to kneel.
“I thought the consul hired better men,” Ayu grated out.
As Dayouk’s knees bent, Ayu lowered his blade to keep it on Dayouk’s neck. Vayud saw the wielder’s hand move.
In a burst of speed, Dayouk closed the distance between them. Ayu moved to thrust, but Dayouk knocked the blade aside with an elbow and plunged forward, the gray gleam of a knife in his hand. He drove it into Ayu’s ribs.
“You’re the child,” Dayouk hissed. “You’re him.”
Ayu’s weapon clattered to the ground. Vayud did not think about it. In one swift motion, he swung the weapon and separated Dayouk’s head from his shoulders.
“Ayu!” Vayud cried, coming to his side. The boy fell into his arms, his mouth lolling open. There was still light in his eyes. He pulled him close, holding him, willing him to breathe. His gaze shifting to Dayouk’s body as blood spilled from the man’s severed neck. He did not gag or retch. He simply looked away, back into Ayu’s eyes.
Ayu blinked, looking through him as a blind man would. His mouth moved but no sound came out. Suddenly, he smiled and his body relaxed. Then the light left his eyes.
Vayun stayed there a long time holding Ayu’s body. The cobblestones were cool and hard and Ayu’s body soft and warm. He wept as the two galaratistood and watched, as Ayu’s body lay heavy and meaningless in his arms. He wept for what must have been the thousandth time since he’d been brought to the stables.Images of his mother and father and sister and the roundhouse came to him, the stables and Ayu’s face close to his, his warm breath and reassuring friendship.
“WHAT WILL YOU DO?” Ayu’s father asked him some days later. Though the man’s face was drawn and his eyes bloodshot with grief, he carried himself with confidence and strength, a sharp contrast from the furtive fearfulness of the previous consul. Vayud wondered if he would be different.
They stood in the consul’s estate. Vayud tried not to flinch at the sight of the robes Ayu’s father wore. Though the man now wore the cloth of the consul, he was not the former consul. Vayud had nothing to fear from him. Ayu’s father had thanked him for protecting Ayu, for fighting by his side. Ayu’s father had done much in his first days as consul. The stable children had been freed, the wielders arrested, the galaratiquestioned.
“I want to find my sister,” Vayud said, and he was surprised to hear the resolve in his voice.
“Where do you think she is?” The man’s dark eyes held compassion.
Vayud looked out over the city and gripped the stone railing. “I don’t know. Truly. But if she’s alive, I want to find her.”
For a moment, it looked as if Ayu’s father would object. A flicker of admiration and concern passed over his features.
“Where will you start?” he asked.
“Amelekhem,” Vayud said without a hint of indecision. If she’d survived the raiders, it was the place his sister would likely go. Other than the road, Amelekhem was the only place she knew.
“That is a dangerous place.”
“It wasn’t when I was very young.”
Ayu’s father opened his mouth then closed it and gave a quick nod as if deciding something. “Perhaps you will require a camel?”
“Yes,” Vayud nodded. “And a cart. And supplies for a long journey. And money. And several full waterskins.”
“You don’t ask for much. What of a weapon?”
He gave a hard shake of his head. “No weapon.”
“How will you defend yourself?”
“I am fast as hare leaping. Like my sister.”
Ayu’s father looked at him strangely. “So be it,” he said finally.
Vayun left Chert through the same gate he entered. After an hour, he could no longer see the walls of Chert. Somewhere far away lay the city of Amelekhem. The camel plodded, sure and steady beneath him. Ahead, the desert stretched out forever, just as he remembered it. A hot breeze stirred the sand around him. A hawk arced through the morning air. Sage brush grew all about and the sand glowed a soft orange in the light of dawn.
Memories of the round house, his parents and his sister flitted past in his mind. He had not been free since he had seen them last. Neither had he seen the desert, the bowl of the sky from horizon to horizon or the road ahead.
It all felt like home.