Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 09

Chapter 5

Eighteen years ago

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“This is my place.” Young Ashok crouched next to their tiny fire, trying to soak up enough warmth to get some feeling back into his hands. Three days of freezing cold and terrible terrain had taken its toll on his body.

Devedas was keeping watch at the mouth of the cave. They’d been warned that the wolves here were gigantic, big enough to latch onto a sleeping man’s ankle and drag him out into the night before he could even scream for his companions to save him. Exhausted from the climb, the other acolytes had gone immediately to sleep. Devedas had volunteered to take the first watch. He nodded toward the snoring bodies, huddled together for warmth under their only blanket. “You’re always so damned sure about everything. They’ve been in training for five years. I’ve been here for four. You’ve only been here for barely two. I’m impressed you’ve made it this far at all, but you’re not ready.”

“I won’t let you down,” Ashok assured the older acolyte. Opening and closing his hands, Ashok was pleased to see that only a few of his calluses had been torn off by the rocks and there was no sign of frostbite yet. That climb was one of the most difficult things he’d ever done. “Mindarin allowed me. If he thought I was going to slow you down, he would have forbidden me from coming.”

Devedas snorted. “I think he was too surprised that the smallest kid in the program stepped out of line to try and tackle the Heart. I’ve never seen a man that fond of words struck mute before. We could die up here. Aren’t you scared?”

“Probably.” Ashok thought it over. It was hard to explain. He assessed danger and probability as well as anyone else, perhaps even better than most because he just couldn’t work up any emotion about the subject, so he could say he had some measure of ability to experience fear. It just didn’t move him like it did others. It was simply there, in the background, a suggested warning, nothing more. “Yes?”

“How old are you anyway, Ashok?”

“Twelve…” Ashok had to think about it for a moment. It was always cold and snowy in Devakula year-round. He wasn’t permitted to have a calendar. Protector training was so tiring, unrelenting, and sleep was allowed at such odd, inconsistent hours that the days sort of bled together, so he wasn’t actually sure what season it was. “I’ll be twelve in the fall.”

“Then you’re the youngest to ever make the attempt. And it is fall.”

“How can you tell?”

“If it was winter the snow would be over our heads instead of just up to our waists.”

“Oh…I suppose I’m twelve then.”

“Happy birthday.”

“Thank you.” There wasn’t much room in the cave, but Ashok managed to get his sword out. It was an inferior design, made of regular boring steel, without any of the beauty or power of Angruvadal, but it was what he’d been issued, so he needed to make sure that it was properly maintained. The blade was clean, but Ashok wanted to make sure no moisture had been trapped in the sheath during the climb which might cause rust. Sweat was saltwater, impure as the ocean, and he’d certainly sweated a lot during the day’s journey up the mountainside. He removed a cloth and an oil vial from his pack and began carefully cleaning the sword. Ashok had never been good at conversation, but talking seemed to be the proper thing to do. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen, winter born.” Devedas went back to staring into the dark. “You should turn back in the morning. There’s no shame in not making it to the Heart for any of us, especially on the first try, and especially not for you. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them give up as well. I could see it in their eyes when we stopped for the night. If you’re thinking about defeat, you’ve already lost. So you won’t be going down alone. Turn back, Ashok. Our rations are half gone. It’s only going to get colder, the air thinner, and you’ve heard the rumors, the seniors won’t talk about it, but there’s something far more dangerous than wolves living at the summit. Once we cross the glacier, we either reach the Heart, or the mountain claims us.”

“You’re the top acolyte in the program,” Ashok said. Stronger, faster, tougher, and always confident, Devedas was easily the best among them. He was the one Ashok looked up to the most. “If anyone can make it, it’s you.”

“I’m not worried about me, stupid. I just don’t want your sliding down a crevasse to your death to be on my conscience.”

“Mindarin says that evil lives in the water. Snow might not be as impure like saltwater, but it’s still out to get us. That’s why it makes itself slippery. Don’t worry, Devedas. I won’t be a burden, but if I start to slow you down, you may leave me behind to be devoured by wolves. I promise not to hold a grudge.”

He chuckled. “Strangely enough, I believe you.”

The two of them were silent for a long time. The only sounds in the cave were the crackle of burning twigs and the snoring of exhausted boys. Satisfied that his sword was clean, sharp, and ready, Ashok returned it to its sheath.

“You miss it, don’t you?” Devedas asked. “The ancestor blade, I mean.”

“Yes.” It was difficult to explain what it was like, being away from something that had absorbed a portion of his life’s spark. It gnawed at him, worse than hunger, or cold, or pain, a constant feeling of loss and weakness. “More than anything.”

“That’s why you’re doing this now, isn’t it? You think reaching the Heart will prove something. You can’t go on living without that sword…I’ve seen it before. What happens to a bearer when they lose that bond, you’d rather die on this mountain than go another night without that sword by your side.”

The older acolyte was correct. Most people were incapable of understanding what it was like to lose a part of yourself, but proving himself worthy would earn it back. “You’ve seen it before because your father was a bearer like me.”

“He was a great man and a hero. Our house was respected, feared even. And then one day our sword broke, shattered into a hundred pieces…Nobody knows what my father did to offend it.”

Such a thing was always a possibility with the ancestor blades. No mortal man could fully understand their convoluted sense of honor, so when one chose to give up the ghosts…that was the end of it. Ashok had never heard Devedas speak freely about this subject before, so he listened intently.

“Just like that, it was all over. Allies abandoned us, friends betrayed us, and within a few seasons my house was defeated and consumed by another, without so much as a sternly worded letter from the Capitol in protest. Now we’re just a poor province in some other family’s lands. There was no inheritance for me, so I was obligated to the Order, because who wants a constant reminder of their family’s shame around?”

“Every man has his place.”

“Platitudes…” Devedas muttered as he stared off into the darkness. “It would have been mine. I know that sword would have picked me next.”

“You can’t know that. No one knows the will of the blade until they try and wield it.”

“It chose my father and my grandfather before him. His father beat its bearer in a duel and proved his worthiness. They forged our house through the strength of their will.” Devedas gave a bitter laugh. “My birthright. My destiny. My place…taken…”

“I am truly sorry for your loss,” Ashok said, hoping that his sincerity came through.

Devedas studied him for a time, his expression inscrutable. “It doesn’t matter now.” He returned to his vigil. “I have this watch. Get some sleep. Tomorrow we have to climb to the top of the world.”

* * *

Two of the acolytes had been too weak to continue and had turned back at the glacier, leaving only three to continue the test. There was no dishonor in quitting then. Part of being a Protector was recognizing your physical and mental limitations. They were assets to be spent in defense of the Law, not tossed away in futile gestures. Those who turned back would be able to try to attain senior rank again in the future, but for the three who remained, they had crossed the point of no return. They would reach the Heart or die trying. Another lesson of the Order was that once committed, you held nothing back.

The air was so thin it filled their lungs but provided no strength. Two more days of marching, climbing, tripping, and sliding across the bleak, white surface had left them incoherent with exhaustion. At one point the ice had broken beneath Ashok’s feet, dropping him into a hole. Trapped and freezing, Ashok knew Devedas would have been justified in leaving him behind, but the older student had spent hours digging him out instead.

There were no more conversations during the night, as speaking took too much energy. They made their way across the mountains, following the landmarks the masters had spoken of. Sometimes on snowshoes, other times with picks and ropes, but it was always slow and difficult. No matter how tired he was, or how hard it was to keep his eyes open when they stopped, Ashok always made sure his sword was maintained. Mindarin had taught them that if they took care of their weapons, their weapons would take care of them.