Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 23
Someone stopped directly in front of his alcove so he could no longer see the proceedings through the gap in the tapestries. He stood up to try and see past them, but his view was being blocked by two people. He didn’t dare move the fabric or risk moving enough to slosh any water from his bucket.
“Who is it this time?” one of them asked.
“A pair of havildars from the coast,” a woman answered.
The young man chuckled. “Has our house grown that desperate?”
“What do you know of desperate? Sixty of our best soldiers have tried and failed. Ten of our own caste have been carried from this hall cut or missing limbs.” The woman sounded very angry, so the boy squished as far back into the corner as possible. Though he understood everything she said, her words were different than casteless speech, clear and not nearly so rough. These two were of the first caste. The angry woman continued. “We’ve been without our ancestor blade for nearly a month. The other houses are circling like vultures, and there are open discussions in the Capitol about our shame. If the sword does not choose soon, it will be seen as a sign of weakness.”
“My apologies, motherâ€¦But a mere havildar? That’s a nothing rank. Normally it would choose our greatest. For it to pick someone so low would be unseemly.”
“They are both young, but accomplished enough. Regardless, we are far beyond courtly matters now. The warrior caste is troubled. There are whispers that perhaps Angruvadal will not deem anyone worthy to wield it. If no one is chosen, then its magic will die. Other house’s ancestor blades have died before, usually from treachery or dishonor, but whatever the reason, those great houses have perished soon after their swords. Perhaps you should try to take Angruvadal up yourself, firstborn.”
“I’m not the soldier father was.”
“Of course you’re not, Harta. And we’d hate for it to mark up that pretty face of yours. Now be silent. The warriors are here.”
He couldn’t see, but he could still hear. He’d already watched the sword maim dozens of others, and he figured that this wouldn’t be any different. The men in the robes announced the warriors by name, and their father’s name, and their father’s father. The boy still found that most curious. Casteless were not allowed to have a family name. Next the announcer listed their offices and exploits. That part normally took far longer than the test itself, only these introductions were shorter than normal. It sounded as if these warriors hadn’t dueled much or attended very many battles. Now the boy really wanted to see if the sword would treat them any differently from the proud ones it had already flayed.
“My lady, you do us all a great honor by attending this event. I will take up Angruvadal and serve with distinction, as your husband did before.”
“Proceed, Havildar,” the angry woman in front of the tapestries commanded.
A hushed silence fell over the main chamber. There were footsteps as the first man approached the sword. He must have been very brave, because there was no hesitation, just the scraping of metal on stone as the sword was lifted. The boy could feel the tension. All of the observers were holding their breath. Could this be the one?
Then the screaming began.
The screaming abruptly stopped. The sword must have really disapproved of this warrior, because it had not taken long to make its decision. From the noise and the gasps of the crowd, it had been a particularly violent death. The woman of the first caste swore beneath her breath, but the boy was close enough that he was surprised to learn that even the highest of the high used the same profanity as the lowest of the low.
“Next,” she snapped.
This warrior sounded much younger and not nearly so cocky. “I will do my best, my lady.”
Luckily the man in front of the alcove had stepped to the side so the boy could peek out again. The first warrior had stabbed himself through the chest and it looked like he’d done a messy job yanking it back out through his guts. This one was going to be at least a five-bucket job. Sadly, he was bleeding out right on top of the palest stone in the entire floor. The boy would be scrubbing until his hands were raw tonight.
The second warrior was standing by the sword, looking flushed and timid. As usual the dying man had flung the sword clear across the main chamber. Maybe that was why the witnesses tried to stand so far away, so as to not be sliced by accident as a disemboweled warrior flailed about. Despite just ripping a man in half, the gleaming black sword was clean. Wearing an expression like he was about to pet a cobra, he knelt down and extended one hand, but hesitated.
“Do it,” the lady of the house ordered.
He did. The warrior slowly lifted the sword from the floor. He grimaced when the handle bit into his hand. The boy didn’t know why the sword did that, maybe it wanted to taste them first? He stood up straight, held the sword pointed at nothing, and waited for its decision. This one had an honest face, so the boy hoped that the sword wouldn’t be too hard on him.
Several seconds passed. The crowd was growing hopeful. They began to whisper excitedly, but the boy could already tell this wasn’t right. The man was concentrating so hard that he was red faced and sweating. Veins were standing out in his forehead and neck. This warrior was the strongest one yet, and he was most certainly a good man, but he wasn’t the right man.
Then it was as if the warrior’s limbs moved on their own. The muscles in his arm twitched and contracted. The dark blade flashed and he gasped as it parted his flesh. The sword clattered back to the stone at his feet. He stepped back, one hand pressed to the long weeping cut on his other arm.
It wasn’t even deep enough to sever any tendons. It had only cut him enough to teach him a lesson. The sword must have really liked this particular warrior.
“Forgive me,” the young man said through gritted teeth. “I was found wanting.”
“What did you see?” the woman demanded.
“So muchâ€¦” It was as if he didn’t know how to put it into words. “It was as if the eyes of every warrior who has carried this blade before were upon me. There’s a thousand years of courage stored within, waiting forâ€¦something.” The warrior stumbled, then fell over on his backside. The men in uniform went to him to staunch the bleeding. “I’m sorry, my lady. I’m becoming a bit faint.”
“Get out,” she snapped. “All of you, be gone from my house. Come back when you have someone worth a damn.”
The boy was glad the sword hadn’t chosen yet, because when it finally did he’d have to give up his comfy job of blood scrubber.
* * *
It would be dawn soon. He’d spent the entire night cleaning the pale stones. He’d scrubbed until his fingers had grown soft and his calluses had begun peeling off. He had to be careful not to add his own blood to the mess, so he’d torn scraps from the bottom of his shirt and wrapped his fingers so he could continue.
Up and down the stairs, he’d carried that bucket so many times. Down red, up clean, over and over, until he was satisfied that the main chamber was perfect. The house slaves told him that this big room was normally only used for parties, where members of the first caste and the highest-ranking warriors and richest workers would gather to dance and eat more meat than the entire casteless quarter would consume in a season. He suspected they were teasing him.
The boy had not seen the other casteless since they’d taken the warrior’s body to the furnace. There were guards patrolling inside the great house, but they didn’t pay any attention to him. He’d be inspected by the overseer when he was dismissed to make sure he hadn’t stolen anything. It was just the boy and the sword in the main chamber, so there was no one to punish him for speaking. He had been alone with the sword so many times over the last few weeks that it had become his only friend.
“Why did you spare the last warrior?” the boy asked the sword as he inspected the seams for any errant spatter. Of course, the sword did not answer. The only time it made any sound was when it was whistling through the air or hacking through bone. “Why do you only hurt some but kill others? I think it is because you like them better. The whole men think they know you, but I don’t think they do.”