Kumi let out an undignified squeal as a sword launched itself just inches above his head into the trunk of an oak tree, raining down splinters of bark. His face burned in embarrassment; he could hear the laughter of his fellow warriors-in-training even over the clanging of their swords.
Like we practiced, Kumi; youre supposed to block the blow, not duck it. His masters voice was agitated and tired, and he gave a low grunt as he wrenched his blade out of the oak.
Sorry, Master Cathael. I panicked. Kumi mumbled, shuffling off to retrieve his longsword up from the yellow-green grass and dead leaves where he had dropped it in said panic. He scrambled to get back into sparing position, shaking the bark from his dark dreadlocks.
That much is obvious. The master replied.
Kumi stood a head shorter than his master, and nearly a half a head shorter than the other young warriors he had trained with for most of his life. At the age of fifteen, while most of his fellow warriors were in the process of building muscle mass, growing hair in manly places, and shooting up like overzealous weeds, Kumi still resembled a twelve-year-old whipping boy.Across a large, yellowing field dotted with twisting oaks, twenty-seven young warriors sparred with one another underneath the blistering sun, sweat pouring down in rivulets over their faces as they lunged, parried, and dodged. These were the Warriors of East Adaeria Island, a group of young men trained to become elite fighters and the protectors of the mainland of Adaeria from the moment the set foot onto the island.
Some took to it faster than others did.
Kumi was not one of them.
They were taken first as slaves at a young age, selected because of their powerfully-built parents, and then brought up in seclusion from the mainland of Adaeria, on the island just northeast of Eastern Adaeria where they trained for years to be the first line of defense and the protectors of their captors. Master Cathael, fair and yellow-haired with wisps of grey, looked nothing like any of his twenty-seven students, all dark of complexion, hair, and eyes, though varying in shades of brown. They had come from the Southlands, and despite Adaerias vehement animosity towards the Southern continent and all they embodied, they seemed to enjoy the services of their young men and women immensely. Raids to the Southlands were not only common, but planned as if one were picking out a new wineskin at the local market. Trips were made often, and during the year Kumi was captured, there was a boom in trade, accounting for his sects unusually high number, as generally only fifteen to twenty slave boys were selected a year.
With their odd numbers, one warrior-in-training was always short a partner, leaving Master Cathael to step in. They rotated sparring partners, and when the time came for Kumi to face Master Cathael, all of the previous days training slipped from his mind, replaced by his basic response of fight or flight. Flight seemed to still be registering, but Fight had all but disappeared.
You stand as though youre constipated, the Master said, whacking the inside of Kumis legs with the flat side of his sword to force him to widen his stance. Kumi winced, and shuffled his feet outward and crouched. Master Cathael hit him again. Look at Jahari. He stands strong and firm, like a bull ox. Kumi glanced over his shoulder at Jahari, muscled protégé of their warrior sect.
Handsome and brawny as he was stupid, Kumi agreed that Jahari was indeed reminiscent of a bull ox, all muscled-mass and no brain. He sparred with a finesse and grace that seemed unnatural for a young man of his size or thought capacity. Jaharis own sparring partner, a tall but scrawny boy named Mahlah, cowered and ducked the blows much like Kumi had, but Master Cathael did not reprimand him. Kumi frowned.
A few more failed attempts at properly parrying later, the Master whistled and called out to boys in the field, Change partners!
Glad to be free of his masters scrutiny, Kumi rotated to the left, and Mahlah became the Masters partner, his knees quivering as Master Cathael cast a steely gaze at Mahlahs limp grip on the hilt of his sword. Kumi was left to partner with Jahari; he made little effort to hide his displeasure.
Are you ready? the mound of muscles asked Kumi, holding up his own longsword. Unlike Kumis, Jaharis sword looked well taken care of, its polished blade reflecting the dazzling sun, sending a white beam of light into Kumis face and blinding him. Squinting his eyes, Kumi lifted his own dull sword with its unraveling hilt and stepped into position.
They bowed to each other, and the moment they had straighten back up, a sword was being thrust towards Kumis face. He screamed and jerked his own sword in front of him just in time so that Jaharis sword clanged on impact. The Bull Ox stepped forward and lunged at Kumi, and Kumi stumbled over his feet as he jumped backwards, bringing his sword up again to parry.
You seem to be getting better, the Bull Ox said, severing the end of a wayward dreadlock near Kumis left ear. Kumi, however, could not hear Jaharis compliment over his own panicked yelling. Jahari swung the sword high over his head and brought it down above Kumis where it was met with another twanging clang. Impressed by his miniscule display of bravery, Kumi stopped screaming long enough to chance a glance at the Master, who was exasperatedly whacking Mahlahs legs and shoulders with the flat side of his sword to coax him into standing less like a freshly-birthed calf.
In that split second, Kumi suddenly felt the touch of cold steel under his chin, and looked back at Jahari, eyes laughing so hard Kumi thought he could hear them. I suppose I spoke too soon.
Kumi frowned again, and Jaharis sword burst into blue-green flames.
Now it was Jaharis turn to scream, though his, Kumi admitted, sounded a lot manlier, like the roar of a lion that had hot embers blown into his face. Jahari dropped his sword like one would drop a suddenly flaming object and leapt back, nearly tripping over himself. Magic, Kumi? Jahari whispered, rushing forward to throw dirt onto his once pristine sword to smother the fire before the others started to take notice.
Kumi knelt down in the dirt to help, frantically grabbing handfuls of dirt and tossing them on the flames. It was an accident, he whispered back, spraying Jahari with flecks of spit, panic seizing him.
Accident? Were fifteenyou shouldnt even be able to use magic anymore. If the master catches you
Shut up, shut up, I know. The flames rose higher.
By this time, the other warriors were beginning to take notice of Jahari and Kumi squatting in the grass, throwing clods of dirt onto Jaharis flaming sword and seemed to find it far more interesting than continuing with their practice.
Kumi! Jahari! What in the gods names are you two doing? Master Cathael had abandoned his efforts with Mahlah once he noticed the majority of his students had their attention directed elsewhere.
Jahari let out a creative string of curses that caused Kumi to rethink his judgment on Jaharis intelligence. Kumi, quickly, do something. Jahari said, making very un-manly shooing motions with his dinner plate-sized hands. He stood up, stepping in front of Kumi and the flaming sword, obscuring it from Master Cathaels view.
What do you expect me to do? Kumi said, and the flames rose higher still, all but licking Jaharis shins.
Whats going on here? From around Jaharis tree trunk legs, Kumi saw Master Cathaels jaw was clenched so tight he feared the masters teeth would crack under the pressure. Jahari, I wouldve expected better of you. And Kumi, what the hell are you doing down there?
Are those flames? Kumi, are you practicing magic?
Kumi looked up at Jahari as if he would have the answer. Jahari looked very pointedly away from either of them.
No? Kumi offered.
Kumi was sure he could hear the masters teeth grinding. Return to your quarters, Kumi; youre dismissed for the day. Jahari, you can follow him.
Jahari worked his mouth into the beginnings of a protest, but before an indignant plea could come from it, the master turned on his heel and strode back to Mahlah, who had been watching the proceedings with undisguised amusement, more than likely glad to have the masters ire directed away from him.
Kumi stood up, and the dirt that hadnt been smeared into his tunic fell to the ground. The blue-green flames fizzled and extinguished.
Is there any reason why you couldnt have done that before? Jahari hissed as Kumi fell into step behind him on their way out of the field.
I told you, I cantit was an accident. Its like trying to force a sneeze. Kumi said.
What are you doing still practicing magic anyway? You shouldnt even be able to unless... Have youve been using it all this time? You have, havent you?
Kumi barely registered Jaharis accusations as they crashed through the waist-high grass on their way back to their commune, preoccupied with what punishment he was surely going to get from the Master once the lesson back at the training field was over. He was sure he was going to get hole duty. His stomach churned at the thought.
The commune was easy to spot from far away, even if a passerby wasnt looking for it. It sprouted up from the yellow-green stalks of grass, made of crumbling dark adobe, large enough to house not only Kumi and his twenty-six peers, but the other warrior sects that also trained on West Adaeria Island. The compound was made up of ten barracks, each separated by age from ten to nineteen. Of the ten barracks, Kumi and Jaharis had the largest number, and their quarters, meant for fifteen to twenty warriors, were crowded and cramped with twenty-seven.
The overgrown grass eventually gave way to dark dirt the color of the barracks, and Jahari and Kumi came upon the high gate that separated the commune from the fields. But the gate was apparently just for appearances; there were no guards at the entrance, and no door for that matter.
Inside the gate, the small square that sat in the middle of the ten barracks opened up before them. Still so early in the day it sat empty, the other warriors out training in the fields.
Kumi, are you even listening? Jahari asked as they passed by the well in the center of the square, broken swords and shields leaned against the crumbling stone. To the right of the well a few yards away, a dusty-colored stray dog was rolling in the dirt, tongue lolling happily from his mouth and his wagging tail stirred up eddies of dirt. It stopped rolling mid-way through a particularly thick clump of dirt when it saw Kumi and Jahari approaching, righted itself, and came bounding towards them, tongue flapping.
Kumi patted the dog in greeting, and a plume of dust engulfed his hand. Do you think Master Cathael is going to report this to Aelin? Kumi was surprised to see Jaharis impassive face slip into an expression of anxiety at the mention of the Chief Overseer.
For your sake, Id hope not. Jahari replied as the two left the square and turned west, the stray trotting at their heels.
The West Barracks were made up of Barracks Fifteen through Nineteen, the East Barracks numbering from Ten to Fourteen. Kumi and Jahari were only a summer away from moving to Barracks Sixteen. As the warriors grew on East Adaeria Island, they rotated around the commune to the Barracks of their corresponding age. And as the numbers increased, so did the size of their living quarters; as it stood, Kumi, Jahari, and the other boys of Barrack Fifteen had enough space to lay down on a mat of woven hay and a hole in the adobe floor distanced and arms length away from the mat. The proximity of the hole to their sleeping arrangements made the occasional middle-of-the-night piss as convenient as sitting up and aiming into a high arc, but also meant that warriors who did not scoop their holes often found their quarters to be unbearable in the heat of the day.
Still, Kumi considered himself fortunate to have his East Barracks days over. Their quarters were so small that for Barracks Fourteen and Thirteen, there was no distance between the mats and the holes, and for Twelve and below, there were no holes at all.
During the summer, if the wind was blowing particularly strong, the East Barracks could be smelled from miles away.
Kumi and Jahari bowed their heads to enter underneath the low doorway and passed the large dining room to the quarters in the back of the barracks. Just like the gate, there were no doors, only thick walls of adobe with a low ceiling and floor to match, a hallway stretching between two rows of ten cells.
There were no assigned quarters for Kumis sect. There were not enough cells to hold all twenty-seven, so the seven unlucky boys who got back to the barracks last each day grew very aquatinted with the hard dirt outside. Kumi was usually Unlucky Number Twenty-One or Twenty-Two, and had grown accustomed to shivering all night underneath the cloudless sky with the six other latecomers. The stray dog that now followed him into an empty cell had befriended him during those many cold nights.
Sorry, by the way, Jahari said suddenly from the cell he was in, next to Kumi.
Kumi had been considering lying on the straw mat to savor the feeling of peace before his onslaught of punishment, but as Jaharis words, he peeked his head out of his cell and looked over to Jahari. What? The dog, seeing the free mat, circled inside it twice, flopped down upon it, and lowered its head on its dusty paws, big brown eyes watching the proceedings with interest.
I suppose if I hadnt provoked you, your magic wouldnt have flared up like that. Jahari replied, and Kumi crawled completely out of his cell to look Jahari in the eye, making certain this wasnt his idea of a very unfunny joke. But Jaharis face was neutral and, to Kumis surprise, even a little sympathetic.
Kumi supposed that for a mound of muscles masquerading as a fifteen-year-old boy, Jahari wasnt all that bad. He crawled back into his cell and waited for Master Cathael to return.