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One Thousand Words for War
By Madeline Smoot, Hope Erica Schultz
CBAY BooksCopyright © 2016 Madeline Smoot and Hope Erica Schultz
All rights reserved.
by Valerie Hunter
Cavan walks carefully around the Pollaxes' property, the first time he's left the house alone. The sun is bright, which makes it easier, but he's still hesitant. He hates his lack of confidence, the strangeness of it all.
Though he has to admit it's pretty. He's at the edge of the Pollaxes' orchard, and the colors are brighter than in Zyss, the shadows softer. It smells prettier, sounds prettier, even feels prettier, as though beauty is a blanket wrapped around his skin.
It isn't home, though.
He sweeps this thought aside, squinting at the shadow ahead. A whirling purple shadow with what appears to be a sword.
It pauses mid-parry. "Aren't you the Pollaxes' foster? How do you move around so well?"
The voice is a little deep for a girl's, but melodious like some kind of horn. Cavan has been introduced to many people over the past four days, but he's sure he's never been introduced to this voice.
"Who are you?" he asks.
"Tirene. I live on the next estate. Answer my question."
Lady Pollax has bragged that the king's counsellor is their neighbor. If Tirene is his daughter, it explains why she knows about him. "I can see a little," he says, deciding not to mention how many times he's stumbled in the past few days. "What are you doing with that sword?"
"Practicing," she says like he's a dunce. "I'll be seventeen soon. They're letting girls into the Border Guard now, did you know?"
Father had spoken of it once, a diatribe about the downfall of the kingdom. "I heard," he says.
"I think I'll get in. I practice here every day."
"I'll leave you to it," he says, backing away.
"You can stay if you want." She goes back to parrying and thrusting. "There's a bench in front of you."
He only sees it because she mentions it. He hesitates, and then sits, watching her. She's fast. Her form is unconventional, too many unnecessary flourishes and swoops, but the more he watches, the more he realizes this will make her a formidable opponent. She's unpredictable, a lightning bolt with a sword. He gets caught up in watching her swooping shadow, pretending he's her opponent and planning his next move.
She pauses again mid-swing, and he can hear the scowl in her voice. "Who are you?"
A voice from behind Cavan says, "Begging your pardon. The Pollaxes' tutor, m'lady."
Cavan has met the Pollaxes' tutor, an older man with a reedy voice. The voice behind him now is deep and young. "You're not the tutor," he says, turning.
"I'm his son, Enver. I help tutor the daughters. You're the foster, aren't you?"
Cavan nods while Tirene says, "What are you doing here?"
"Just looking for a pleasant spot to read, m'lady."
"Never mind 'm'lady.' It's Tirene. What book is that?"
"A story about the Battle of Jullenna."
"Well, go on and read it," she says, flopping to the ground in a way Cavan finds amusing compared to her graceful swordsmanship.
"Aloud?" Enver asks.
"Read," Tirene commands, like she's the queen.
Enver has a pleasant voice, and it brings just the right excitement to the story. Cavan listens to the tale of a young soldier proving himself in battle, and he watches Tirene fidget in the grass as though she's fighting the battle herself.
When Enver finishes, Tirene springs up again. "You have any more stories like that?"
"The whole book is tales from the war."
"Read another," Tirene says and gets up, fighting the air again.
The next story is about a foster who chooses to fight alongside the son of his foster family. Cavan does not think he will ever want to do anything with the young Pollax boys, who spent their first meeting waving their fists toward his face in an attempt to see how blind he was while their mother silently attempted to stop them.
"I've never understood fostering," Enver says when the story ends. "I mean, I see the general idea — trading children to foster peace amongst the provinces — but it seems like there should be an easier way. One that doesn't involve sending your children to be raised by strangers. The Pollaxes' second son got fostered out at five!"
Cavan doesn't attempt to explain. How noble families are willing to sacrifice a son or two if it means an improvement in fortune, an alliance through marriage down the road, or simply a place to dump an unwanted child. Until recently, he hadn't understood it himself. In truth he still doesn't, though he knows all about it now. It's not something he wants to talk about.
So he says, "It's just the way of things," and leaves it at that.
They are a trio after that, gathering each day in the late afternoon at the edge of the orchard, Tirene with her sword, Enver with a book, Cavan just himself. Useless. Worthless.
Still, it's his favorite part of the day. Most of Enver's stories are about war and battles, and their predictability is soothing. The young soldier triumphs and is rewarded, or the old one fights his last battle bravely, sacrificing himself for comrades or kingdom.
One day, however, Enver reads a story of a young soldier who, faced with impossible odds and a terrible wound, quietly travels to another realm, one full of inhabitants who couldn't quite find their way in the kingdom. It is called the Shadowland, and Cavan perks his ears because isn't that where he lives, surrounded by shadows?
It ends with the young man uncertain whether he'll return to his kingdom now that he is healed. Tirene puts her sword down and complains, "I don't understand. Was he dead?" "Maybe," Enver says.
Cavan thinks the Shadowland is not death but keeps his mouth shut, because who is he to say?
"It's too confusing," Tirene says.
Now Cavan speaks. "Every story can't be heroic sacrifices or miraculous wins. You know battle is probably nothing like the stories, right?"
"Maybe," Tirene says.
Enver laughs. "I know the difference between stories and reality, I just prefer the former."
So does Cavan, frankly, but he can't imagine a story that he will ever be the hero of.
When Enver speaks again, his tone is grave. "My whole life hasn't been books and stories. I've only been a tutor this past year."
"And before that?" Cavan finally asks, because Enver's pause is begging him to.
"I was training to be a healer at the Restorative Core. It was a great honor. My father arranged it."
"But it wasn't what you wanted?" Cavan asks. Tirene has gone back to fighting, but Cavan knows she's listening, the same way she always does when Enver tells a story.
"Oh, it was. Very much. I loved it at first. The learning. The knowledge that I would be someone who helped ...."
This time Cavan lets the silence stretch. Enver will go on when he's ready.
"After two years is when they let you see ... the Core's true nature. The basement cells, where they do their most noble work."
Cavan thinks he can see the word "noble" clawing through the shadows, red and prickly.
"They told us it was for the greater good. That we could find cures so others wouldn't suffer."
Cavan knows they take dead bodies to the Restorative Core. Noblemen are buried; everyone else is studied. Dissected. Disposed of. "The corpses upset you?"
Enver gives a rattling laugh. "No. The living bodies upset me."
"The ... living?"
"They kept ... afflicted people in the cells. All sorts. Fever addled, demented, crippled. They'd been assigned there, told there might be cures. There weren't cures. They were specimens. We prodded and cut and dosed, not to cure them but to satisfy our curiosity. Eventually, they died. Eventually, we killed them."
Enver's words are shadow arms threatening to choke him. Cavan can picture it: the dank cells, the afflicted being torn apart, begging for mercy.
"I left," Enver says, and he sounds like he's choking, too. "I couldn't ... do that. The master healers and my father were angry. They said I showed such promise." He laughs that rattling laugh again. "What does that say about me, showing promise for that?"
"It doesn't say anything about you," Cavan says. "It says something about them."
"Maybe," says Enver doubtfully. "But anyhow, being a soldier can't be as bad as being an apprentice healer. If I kill as a soldier, leastwise it's a fair fight."
Cavan nods because he knows Enver needs him to.
Tirene has been fighting with the ferocity of a storm, and now she stops, pointing her sword at Enver. "You're always reading all those stories, but have you ever held a sword?"
Cavan knows that not acknowledging Enver's story is Tirene's way of being kind. He hopes Enver knows that, too.
"I've held a sword," Enver answers too quickly.
"Have you ever fought with a sword?"
Silence this time.
"Would you like to learn?" she asks with a little girl's excitement.
Enver goes to stand beside her. Cavan has never realized how tall Enver is, a rangy shadow of gangling limbs. Or maybe it's just that Tirene is small, though she never seems it. Even now, dwarfed by Enver, she doesn't seem it.
Tirene gives Enver a sword and stands behind him, positioning his hands and feet in a way that makes Cavan think of Father. He shuts his eyes against the memory, but that only makes it worse. He can always see more clearly with his eyes closed.
Father gave him his first toy sword when he was Aed's age, but he didn't teach him to use it until after the fever, until after the world was reduced to shadows.
Swordplay was all shadows. The most graceful of shadows. Father moved first for him, then with him in a way that was both comforting and clumsy.
He realized later that Father never really expected him to learn, not properly. Then one morning Father found him parrying with a sapling in the yard, and called, "Let me give you some real competition, son," in a voice that Cavan still clutched in his memory because there was such pride in it.
He was no longer an extension of Father after that. They moved from wooden swords to metal, the blades dulled so they wouldn't cause any real harm though there were bruises given on both sides.
Everyone who saw him fight marveled. He knew this was mostly due to his infirmity, but he also knew he had skill. Father said the cardinal rule of swordsmanship was caution, but Cavan disagreed. It was never worrying about anything but your next move.
He had limits, of course. He needed a clear day and an opponent in vibrant clothing. In an actual battle he'd be rubbish — too many distractions, too many competing shadows — so his skill had no practical purpose. He was just a nearly blind boy with a blunted sword.
But when he parried with Father, he didn't have to think about that. He could just fight.
He opens his eyes when Tirene starts complaining that Enver isn't moving correctly.
"I'm doing what you told me!" Enver protests, and Cavan agrees with them both. Enver is following Tirene's lead, but he looks all wrong.
"You're trying to make him move like you, but he's bigger than you," Cavan says. "You have to teach him to react his own way."
"What do you know?" Tirene says, though not unkindly.
Cavan gets up. "Give me your sword and watch," he tells Enver.
Enver obeys, but Tirene protests. "What are you doing?"
"Putting on a demonstration," he says, getting a feel for the sword and then checking that the tip is blunt enough not to hurt Tirene if he gets wild. Though he guesses Tirene can more than hold her own. "Shall we spar?"
"I'm not half bad," he says, though he's not sure if that's true compared to her. He wants badly to find out. "And I think Enver needs to see how to defend, rather than be told."
The doubt rolls off Tirene in sickly yellow waves, but she raises her sword. "If you're certain."
"Certain," he says, touching his blade to hers, and then they're fighting. Or rather, he's fighting; Tirene is barely trying.
He knocks the sword out of her shadowy arm, and she splutters as Enver chuckles. "Full on, or don't bother," Cavan chides, and he can feel the air around her change, doubt and hesitation replaced by competitiveness.
They go at it. Tirene is still holding back a little, but so is he; they don't want to overwhelm Enver. Nevertheless, it's a battle, both of them exerting, flying about, the swords extensions of themselves.
All the afternoons of watching Tirene practice are what save him. She is talented and unpredictable, but he knows her, knows her flairs and feints as she makes them, can mirror them back and come up with a few of his own.
He's not sure how long they battle, a dance of limbs and metal, until Tirene catches him on the neck and he falls, the wind knocked out of him.
"I'm sorry!" Tirene says, a blur hovering above him.
His neck smarts but it's nothing compared to the joy of these past minutes. "I'm fine."
She helps him to his feet, and he grins as he gropes for his sword. "Again?" he asks her. "Or is it Enver's turn?"
"It is definitely not Enver's turn," Enver says. "Enver is full of awe for both of you, but no closer to actually understanding how to do that."
"Guess we'll have to slow down," Cavan says, still smiling.
Tirene hasn't raised her sword. "You're not actually blind, are you?"
Cavan laughs. "I can't tell you a thing about your appearance except that you're wearing red."
"Then how can you fight like that?"
"Instinct. Practice. Shadows. Shall we get on with our demonstration?"
They go through their moves at half speed, pausing to explain to Enver and answer his questions. The bruise on Cavan's neck pulses, and he enjoys how alive it makes him feel.
Eventually he gives Enver back the sword, and allows himself to feel a little pride when Enver manages to parry against Tirene. At the end of the lesson, Cavan and Tirene spar again, and he doesn't even care that he loses.
"I don't think I know you at all," Tirene says afterwards.
He doesn't think he knows himself, either, and it is a surprisingly nice feeling.
Cavan loses track of how long he's been in Solestair, as if the days themselves are shadows. He accompanies Enver to his classroom with the Pollax girls during the day and helps when he can, listening to and correcting the girls' recitations.
Late afternoons are for the orchard and Tirene. Enver is improving in his swordsmanship, and he and Tirene discuss the future in bright tones. Enver will receive his army assignment come spring, and Tirene is sure she'll be appointed to the Border Guard. Cavan will be seventeen by then as well, but he does not join in their conversations. He will not receive an army appointment no matter how many times he bests Enver in the orchard.
In truth Cavan has no idea where he'll be come spring. Fosterings are supposed to end at seventeen, when the boys are old enough to enter the army. Once upon a time he dreamed of the Zyssian command he would lead. Now the future is as shadowy as everything else in life, except these shadows are denser. Menacing.
He tries not to think of home, but it lurks every time he shuts his eyes. Are his sisters asking about him? Have the little boys forgotten him yet? Likely his parents don't mention him. He doesn't blame any of them, though: not Father for arranging his exile or Mam for allowing it. Not Aed, future Lord of Zyss, or the twins, whose arrival sealed his fate; they are Father's insurance should anything befall Aed.
He wished he hadn't eavesdropped. He can still hear their voices in his head, much as he wants to forget. Father telling Mam about Cavan's fostering. Mam protesting, saying it wasn't right, Cavan being their firstborn, and Father interrupting.
"Nothing's ever right, Marrin! It's not right he got the fever, not right he lost his sight. But it happened, and this must happen, too. How could he ever be Lord of Zyss? The lord has to be someone the whole province can trust above all else, be held equal to the king! Cavan couldn't even manage to judge a provincial fair let alone lead a regiment into battle."
Father's words haunt him now as he watches Tirene thrash Enver amidst both their laughter. They both have exciting futures, and he has a void.
Enver lays his sword down in defeat and calls to Cavan, "Give her some competition!"
So Cavan shuts away the future, picks up the sword, and has at it.
It's rare for Cavan to go to the orchard without Enver, but as a mild Solestair winter begins to hint at spring, Enver goes home for a few days to see his mam. It is the day before the army assignment letters, and Cavan reaches the orchard to find Tirene pacing.
"Did I ever tell you about my father's lists?" she asks, and her voice sounds as flighty as her body, as though it may burst. "His endless lists every spring? He made me think they were a game when I was small, let me pick ...."
"Let you pick what?" Cavan asks. He has never heard this particular tone in Tirene's voice, and it scares him.
"The names!" she says, and something breaks in her voice. "The names of the boys who went to the Northern front. He would give me a list of names, and I would pick all the ugly sounding ones, and he would praise me."
Her anguish creeps into him, and he tries not to think of the horror of it. "Not your fault," he says.
"But I had a hand in it. He made me have a hand in it! I killed those boys."
"You didn't kill anyone," he insists, knowing she won't believe him.
"He's made his lists again. He doesn't ask me for help anymore, but I looked anyway." Her pacing becomes more frenzied. "Everyone thinks it's the king with all the power. And they don't mind, because no one questions a king. But really it's my father. The fosterings, the placements, the arrangements. They all go through him, because the king can't be bothered. We're all Father's puppets, and nobody even realizes."
Excerpted from One Thousand Words for War by Madeline Smoot, Hope Erica Schultz. Copyright © 2016 Madeline Smoot and Hope Erica Schultz. Excerpted by permission of CBAY Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction Madeline Smoot and Hope Erica Schultz,
1. Shadowland Valerie Hunter,
2. Before Night Fall C.H. Spalding,
3. Unexpected Guests Laura Ring,
4. The Commander Steve DuBois,
5. Reflections Susan Bianculli,
6. Exile Bethany Marcello,
7. Beyond the Promised Land Darrel Duckworth,
8. Jar of Pickles Sarah Lyn Eaton,
9. Threshold Anthony R. Cardno,
10. Testing, Testing, 1-2-3 Susan Bianculli,
11. Eighteen Roses Ameria Lewis,
12. Alien Truce Nori Odoi,
13. Terror Walt Socha,
14. Strands of Grass Renee Whittington,
15. In Other Words Lisa Timpf,
16. Another Sunset Anne E. Johnson,
17. Mechanika Mara Dabrishus,
18. Maverick Cathy Bryant,
19. Where the Death Storms Blow Hope Erica Schultz,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
[NOTE: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.] 2.5 to 3 stars. This was a nice and fast read. Unfortunately, like a lot of short stories collections, the downfall of this collection of short stories is that, like a lot of anthologies, it is neither exceptional nor really bad, which makes it a little unremarkable; on the good side, it also means it provides the reader with totally acceptable pieces—hence my rating. A bit annoying is also the fact that some of those works were too short and felt like introductions to other, longer tales begging to be told; in this, I do prefer standalones. Apart from what I mentioned above, what confused me was the very wide definition given to "war". Not merely "conflict", "war". It immediately evokes a specific kind of theme, which I agree can be slightly simplistic, in a way; nevertheless, when one does want to read about war in its "battles" or "military" meaning, some of the stories gathered here kind of miss the mark. Again, they're not bad—just not really to the point, in a way? (I admit I did want, and expected, to read war stories more than anything else. When it was about a definite conflict, like the story with Cal/Callie standing up to the bullies, it worked too; other stories, like the one with the maze of mirrors, felt like it fell too far off.) The focus is in general on children and teens. While this made some stories a little too simple to my liking, it also dealt with universal themes that do not grow old (no pun intended): having to leave childhood behind to become an adult, embracing responsibilities while also discovering who we truly are, children confronted to a world of war and having to survive... I quite appreciate such themes. I realise this sounds more like critique than praise, but, once again, this anthology wasn't bad—I guess I just have a harder time putting words on how exactly I still enjoyed it. Sometimes, some things just do not ask or need to be explained, I suppose?