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2009 Parents' Choice Silver Honor winner
SWEAT POOLED IN my eyes and I wondered if this was what it felt like to be burned alive. Every muscle in my body screamed in agony and I fell to my knees, unable to take one more step. All I could think of was water. My throat was drier than dirt, like I'd swallowed handful after handful of finely ground cornmeal. Though my eyes were closed, I could feel my enemies draw near. A sharp stone hit my ribs, then another. Still I didn't move, thinking I'd rather be stoned to death than live another moment. It wasn't until someone spit in my face that I started forward again, crawling on all fours. I didn't need to look up to know the person who spit on me was my brother. No one else would dare.
An hour later I stood across from Master Yomatec, who'd summoned me to the archery range. He was alone when I arrived, letting loose one arrow after another into the target pit. SWISH-THWACK! SWISH-THWACK! SWISH-THWACK! Despite my fear and exhaustion, I couldn't help but admire the methodical rhythm of his movements. I'd spent endless hours over the past few years trying to mimic those same steps: pull arrow from quiver, nock, aim, release. It was the one martial skill I practiced with enthusiasm, for it didn't require an immediate opponent like hand-to-hand combat did. Rather, archery required a certain solitude of the mind, a kind of clarity I never felt with a knife or battle-ax in hand.
"You were a disappointment today, Kehl," Master Yomatec said, turning toward me after launching his final arrow.
Though I had prepared myself for punishment, his words still caused my breath to catch and my stomach to knot. I held my head high and tried to keep my distress from the master.
"Your father is the mightiest warrior the Teshic Empire has ever known. Your four brothers passed through this military academy unequaled in skills, never once bested in combat by their fellow students. Now Vahl is our finest junior officer. He has made his father proud."
I swallowed hard and tried to speak forcefully. "I'm an excellent archer and the best cartographer in the school. I've heard you say so yourself, Master."
Master Yomatec raised an eyebrow. "That is so. You have a fine mind for detail and precision. But tell me, Kehl, how did those qualities help you run the Gauntlet today?"
I clenched my jaw in silence. The earlier torments of the day filled my head. Of all the torturous training forced upon us at the academy, the Gauntlet was by far the worst. For hours under the hottest sun we were made to run ten leagues with weighted packs strapped to us — through thick jungle, across rivers, up and down rocky terrain. The master's junior officers stationed themselves along the course, each with a bag of small, sharp stones. If any of us dared stop running, we'd feel their sting within seconds.
"At least I made it to the finish line," I finally said, trying to shake the memory from my head.
Master Yomatec narrowed his eyes. "You have Vahl to thank for that."
"Thank my brother?" I said, more loudly than I should have. "He spit in my face! He humiliated me in front of everyone."
Master Yomatec stepped closer, his big muscled body looming over me like a panther. "Vahl showed you your shame. He made you keep going when you were about to quit. Would you have preferred to fail?"
My face burned as I remembered crossing the finish line on my hands and knees like a dog. But I knew Master Yomatec was right. Failure would have been worse. My father would never have forgiven me, and that was a humiliation I couldn't bear. "No, sir," I said, looking down at my feet.
"You are dismissed, Kehl."
I bowed to Master Yomatec, then turned to make my way back to the garrison. Behind the imposing fortress I could see the sun, blood red, hovering over the endless waters of the Deep. Teshic had witnessed my shame. I would need to make an offering. I veered from the path and made my way to the stone temple of the Sun God.
While nowhere near the size or magnificence of the Golden Temple in the Lake City, the smaller garrison temple still boasted a towering statue of Teshic covered in gold, crystal, turquoise, and jade. I knelt at the altar and picked up a ceremonial knife. I pierced the palm of my hand and made a fist, letting my blood drip into the offering bowl.
Copyright © 2009 by Julia Durango
VAHL WAS WAITING for me outside the temple, looking like the Sun God himself. Behind him I could see his slave, Jemli, limping hurriedly down the path, forever trying to keep up with my brother, who never did anything slowly.
"You have atoned?" Vahl asked me, crossing his arms over his massive chest. His golden wristbands glimmered in the setting sun, drawing attention to hard, strong arms, twice the width of my own. Beside him I felt like a child. I tried to remind myself that he was eighteen — five years older than I — and that I'd catch up to him in time. But part of me knew I'd never reach his level of perfection.
I lifted my hand to show him the bandage around my palm.
"Teshic does not suffer weaklings, Kehl. He will demand more than a few drops of blood if you continue to shame our family."
I dropped my head and gazed at the ground in front of me, blinking rapidly to ward off any angry tears that might humiliate me further.
Vahl looked around then at his slave, who had finally caught up to us. "And if you continue to slow me down, Jemli, it will be your heart that is sacrificed for Kehl's atonement. Understood?"
Jemli hung his head and stared at the ground as I did.
"Look at me and answer!" demanded Vahl, whose voice had become tight and dangerous. Jemli and I both snapped our heads up. I wasn't sure which one of us Vahl was talking to. Like all slaves of the military, Jemli's tongue had been cut out, to ensure he would never reveal our tactics to the Fallen.
"Yes, sir," I said, as Jemli let out a guttural sound of acquiescence. We both stood at tense, rigid attention, waiting for my brother to strike us.
Instead, Vahl waved a hand of dismissal at Jemli. "Tell the kitchen I'll be having a guest for dinner tonight."
Jemli made another raspy sound, then turned to limp back to the garrison as quickly as his scarred legs would carry him.
I continued to stand at attention, wondering if I would get off so easily.
Vahl smiled at me then and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Come, little brother. I think both of us are ready for this day to end, and I prefer to do so with good food in my belly. You will be my guest tonight in the dining room."
I let out a deep breath, relieved that his anger had dissipated. The officers had their own dining room with much grander fare than what we were served in the main hall. It was an honor to be invited to dine there, an honor my brother rarely bestowed on anyone, let alone me.
"Thank you, Vahl," I said gratefully, imagining the other boys' envy when they saw me in my brother's company. My earlier embarrassment would now be erased. The Gauntlet would be forgotten.
"Listen to me," Vahl said, as if he knew what I was thinking. "You know why we push you harder than the others. You and I are the only two surviving sons of the Empire's greatest warrior. It is our duty to follow in Father's footsteps and one day lead the Emperor's Army. It's in our blood."
I looked down at the bandage on my hand. "But we share only Father's blood. Your mother comes from a warrior family. My mother was a commoner. Maybe that's why I'm not as strong as you."
Vahl looked at me sharply. "What's important about your mother's blood, Kehl, is that it was spilled by our enemies. Now you have vengeance in your veins, which is a powerful force. Let that vengeance be your guide, brother, and I promise you will become a great warrior. The Fallen will tremble at your feet and Teshic will reward you with power and glory, like he has our father."
I nodded in determination, fervently hoping my brother's words would one day prove true.
When I finally fell asleep that night, I dreamed of my mother. It was the same dream as always, only this time something had changed.
It began in the usual way. My mother and I were walking along the beach, letting the warm water of the Carillon Sea tumble over our bare feet like frothy milk. Every now and then my mother would take my hand and give it a squeeze, and I would smile at her in return. That was all. The dream never changed, and I never wanted it to. For three years, ever since my mother died, I'd had the same dream. I'd come to think of it as a talisman — a blanket of protection my mother placed over me every night so I wouldn't be afraid.
Only this time, I was afraid. This time, my mother had stopped walking in the dream. Her face looked worried instead of peaceful, and the sea behind her no longer looked playful and gleaming, but dark and grim. She leaned down and placed her hands on either side of my face. "The time has come, Kehl," she said. "Be brave."
I had woken then, my heart pounding like a battle drum. The room was dark aside from the faint sliver of moonlight shining through the window, barely illuminating the other boys in their beds. My classmates slept soundly, exhausted after a long day of the Gauntlet.
A slight scratching noise from outside caught my attention, and I looked toward the open window. A cat, perhaps, stalking its prey?
I shivered, though the night was warm. I couldn't help but wonder if my mother had been awakened like this the night she was murdered. Had she heard a sound too? Had she looked upon her killer as he climbed through the window?
I heard the sound again, and my skin prickled with fear. I thought about rousing one of the other boys, but quickly dismissed the idea. My classmates would tease me relentlessly were I to tell them about my dream, or wake them because of a small noise. And Vahl would have me whipped, no doubt, were he to find out. I took a deep breath, even as I heard the scratching sound a third time.
It's just an animal, I assured myself, rising slowly from the bed. I walked toward the window, padding softly around my sleeping classmates.
When I reached the window, I stood and listened for a moment. Silence. A slight breeze blew in, bringing with it the scent of flowers. Probably a tree branch scratching the outer wall, I thought, leaning out the window to breathe in the fresh air.
At the same time, two shadowy hands reached out — one clamped over my mouth, the other around my windpipe — and disappeared with me into the darkness.
Copyright © 2009 by Julia Durango
Posted August 1, 2014
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