Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 19
“Yes, Lord Protector,” Ashok said.
“Your house has given you to us. Do you willingly give your life over to the Order?”
He hadn’t asked that to the others, except the others didn’t possess an ancient device capable of destroying them all. “Yes, Lord Protector.”
“You will follow your instructions without question?”
“You will do exactly as I say. I am Ratul, twenty-five-year master. This is Mindarin, eighteen-year senior. If I am indisposed or dead you will answer to him. Now, keep your sword sheathed and remove it from your person.” Ashok unbuckled his sword belt. The Protector stuck out his hand. “Give it to me.”
“Master!” one of the acolytes warned. “It will destroy you.”
“According to tradition, only if I should try to wield it.” The old Protector took hold of the belt strap. The sword hung there, leather creaking, as he held it at arm’s length. Ashok could tell the sword wasn’t offended. Ratul addressed the sword with far more respect than he had given any of the representatives of the great houses. “We mean no disrespect, Angruvadal. First the Law must be upheld.” Then he passed the sword to the senior Mindarin, who took it without hesitation, though he was careful not to touch the sword itself.
Kule looked on as if this was all mildly amusing.
The master roughly put his hands on both sides of Ashok’s face. The boy flinched, but the Protector dragged him over and forced Ashok’s eyes open with his thumbs. He stared through Ashok’s eyes and there was a terrible pain inside his head. Ashok didn’t flinch. “I thought so.” The Protector let go, and the pain subsided. “There is magic in this boy.”
“Some,” Kule agreed.
“What have you done to him, wizard?”
“As a child, Ashok suffered a terrible accident. A fire in the middle of the night and his family perished. He alone survived, but was found in the ruins of their home, with heart, mind, and body broken. Since he was of the first caste, our Thakoor had me put him back together. Good thing too, since he was later chosen by the sword. No illegal magic was used in the healing, I can assure you. My notes about his treatment are available to Inquisition auditors if you would like them examined.”
“I do not trust you.”
Kule may have shrugged. It was difficult to tell beneath the thick coat. “Then you must ask yourself, Lord Protector, does your Order want access to the sword or not?”
The master folded his arms, seemingly deep in thought, staring at Ashok. Not having his sword at his side was unnerving, so Ashok found the crack in the wall and fixed his attention on that again.
“The mere presence of such a device within the Order will deter lawbreakers,” Mindarin said, still carefully holding the sword as if it were a serpent that might bite him. “I believe it to be worth the risk. I will accept responsibility for this one.”
Ratul nodded slowly. “Very wellâ€¦If Ashok cannot be controlled you’re the one that has to try and kill him. Note, I said try. You’ve not seen what a bearer can do.” He turned back to Kule. “Wizard, your house’s obligation has been accepted. Get out.”
Kule bowed again, then turned and shuffled out the door without another word. Even though Ashok had lived in the wizard’s household while he’d been healing from the accident, there wasn’t so much as a farewell. Ashok kept staring at the crack while the Protectors clustered around the hanging sword.
“Do those Vadal fools have any idea the risk they are taking? Are their heads crammed so far up their own asses that they think being the talk of the Capitol is worth losing their house?” Ratul mused.
“Maybe a great house is really that devoted to upholding the Law?”
They all laughed.
It was almost as if he had been forgotten entirely. Ashok was temporarily thankful, but that moment passed and Ratul returned his attention to him. “Ashok. You are now an acolyte in the Order of Protectors. Your training begins immediately. Devedas will escort you to the barracks. That will be all.”
One of the acolytes stepped forward. “This way.” Though he was not that much older than Ashok, he already carried himself like a Protector, and to Ashok’s inexperienced eye appeared to be nearly as dangerous as the others.
The other newly obligated had all been armed. Ashok looked to Mindarin, and then to his sword, hanging there, creaking against the leather. “May I have my sword back now?”
“No,” Ratul answered.
Ratul frowned, then nodded at one of the older acolytes. That one stepped forward and struck Ashok in the face. The force snapped his head back on his neck and sent him crashing hard into the floor.
Blood came rolling out of his nose and he could taste it on his lip. Ashok could feel Angruvadal’s desire to help. Noâ€¦He had made a mistake. Ratul’s actions had been correct. Ashok held no animosity. The sword was content.
“Questioning an order? Already you’re off to a fine start.”
“Lord Protector, if I mayâ€¦” Devedas interjected. “This one isn’t like the others. That sword is more than a weapon to him. Part of his fire is inside it forever. To a bearer, losing his blade is worse than one of us losing an arm.”
Ashok wiped the blood from his lip, got up, and stood at attention. Devedas was correct. He couldn’t even remember a time before the sword.
“Hmmmâ€¦You would know of such things. What did your father do after he was deprived of his ancestor blade?”
“He slowly went mad until he flung himself into the sea to be devoured by demons, Lord Protector,” Devedas answered.
“Seems reasonableâ€¦So Ashok, I’ll grant an answer to your question as to why you cannot have your sword. Our program does not test fifty generations of a house. It does not test the strength of your ancestors. It tests you and you alone. You will survive or perish on your own merits, not by the memories within your sword. You will have no advantage over your brothers. If you fail and live, it will be returned to you. If you fail and die, it will be returned to your house along with your corpse. If you go insane, the nearest ocean is two hundred miles that direction, but since we’re on the side of a mountain there are plenty of places to leap to your death if you are so inclined. You certainly wouldn’t be the first acolyte to do so.”
Ashok continued staring at the wall. Ratul correctly took that as assent.
“Know this, Ashok, there is no room in the Order for weakness, so I will not give you a crutch. To do so would only make you weaker than you could be. The Law is only as strong as those who enforce it. If you last long enough to prove that you are worthy on your own to be one of us, then I will return your sword. Until then it will remain in our vault. Don’t worry. None of us are fool enough to try to use it, and if anyone unworthy attempts to steal it, we both know what the sword will do to them. You are dismissed.”
* * *
The barracks were as frigid as the audience chamber. There were no beds, just woven mats on the floor. Devedas directed Ashok toward one corner. “You will be issued a uniform and basic supplies. Get some rest. Tomorrow is going to be the hardest day of your life. Then it will get worse.”
“Thank you for explaining my hesitation to Master Ratul.”
“It was the truth, nothing more. That’s our job. When you’ve gained the respect of your seniors you’ll be allowed to speak freely as well. Until then, it’s best if you keep your mouth shut.”
“Your father was a bearer?”
“Perhaps I did not emphasize, mouth shut,” Devedas said. “At this rate I’ll be amazed if you last a week.”
Ashok bowed. Annoyed, the older student just shook his head and left the barracks.
The sleeping mat was very thin. He could feel the cold of the floor seeping through it already. It was going to be miserable to sleep on. Kule had warned him that the Protectors thrived on discomfort, but knowing something and experiencing it were two separate things. With the sword, he could do anything. Without it, he was only human. His devotion to the Law would have to carry him through.
Ashok realized the barracks were too quiet. The other newly obligated acolytes were all staring at him. He studied their faces. Already they knew he wasn’t like them. He would never be like them. No matter how hard they trained, or how much courage they had in their hearts, or strength in their arms, they would never be his equal. So be it. The Law said that every man had a place. His house had declared his place to be here.
He stared back at the others. They were doing their best to hide their doubts and fears, but Ashok didn’t need to hide what he did not possess. They didn’t know what they were yet. He knew exactly what he was.
“Rest, brothers. Tomorrow we demonstrate our conviction to the Law.”
He lay back on his uncomfortable mat, knowing that he would show Master Ratul that he was worthy, and get his sword — and the rest of himself — back. While the others tossed and turned, longing for home or having nightmares, Ashok had no trouble sleeping at all.