She stirred in the impenetrable darkness. Chain clattered with her every movement, awakening her to the misery of the iron collar that chafed her neck, the sodden rag of a dress she wore and the fetid odor of old blood. Torchlight flickered through the cracks beneath the massive door to her cell, the faint rattle of iron keys snapping her attention from the bundle she clutched so tightly.
Was someone coming?
They visited twice a day with food and water, but she’d been fed only hours before. Perhaps they came with fresh clothes, or simply to clean her soiled cell. She longed for clean skirts, or even a blanket.
The clatter of a key in the lock stiffened her like the crack of a whip. Yes, someone was coming!
Hinges squealed in protest and torchlight blinded her, but the figure silhouetted in the open portal bore no food, clothes or water. It bore nothing save an iron-shod staff of crooked and gnarled wood. The shape of that staff struck a chord through the numbness of her suffering. She remembered it clearly, she remembered the one who bore it and, worst of all, she remembered that day weeks ago when he stole her away from her home, husband and family.
She opened her mouth to scream, to deny, to plead, but even that small act was stolen from her with a mumble of guttural syllables and a wave of his hand. She sat paralyzed, unable to move, speak or even blink as he strode forward and stole from her the only thing she had left. He pried her numb fingers away from the bundle of bloodied skirts she clutched to her breast, and lifted the protesting babe in one careful but unyielding hand. Another flow of words stilled the babe’s cries and the man, if man he truly was, smiled down at his prize.
“Perfect!” was the only word he uttered that she understood.
He turned and walked away, having taken the only thing she had that was of any value to him. As the door closed, and the light faded never to return, the magic that held her waned, and her piteous wail shivered the air of her cell. She lay there sobbing and empty, forgotten by the man who had stolen her baby boy.
In the forever midnight of a deep cavern the pat-pat of unshod feet echoed as a wiry boy of six sprinted along unerringly. His eyes glowed faintly in the darkness, the magic within him drawing in the surrounding heat that emanated from the very womb of the earth; it allowed him to see, after a fashion, even when those born to utter darkness were blind. He ran tirelessly through the darkness, unfeeling, uncaring, absorbed with the task of navigating the underground and seeking his goal as he had been instructed.
A chasm opened before him, heat billowing from its depths, brightening his vision. Without slowing his pace, he gauged the gap and chose which points of stone he would use to propel himself across. Without pause, for fear was unknown to his mind, he leapt to the sheer wall, bounding off of a tiny crag of stone in a spinning flip that brought him to the other side. He landed in a roll that brought him to his feet at a run. The cavern continued on, twisting and turning as if wrought by the passing of a great worm, but his pace did not slow, though miles had passed under his feet.
Finally the place he had been told to seek loomed out of the darkness; the cavern ended in a steep shaft, the thick, musty scents of sweat, rotting food and excrement wafting up to tickle his sensitive nostrils. Ears that could hear the heartbeat of a mouse picked out the clink of chains, the grinding of bone between teeth, and the restless click-clack of iron-shod feet pacing on stone.
The boy gauged the steep incline of the shaft briefly; it was too wide for his arms to stretch across in any attempt to slow his descent, but a solution clicked into his mind, and he dove into the blackness without hesitation. His bounding roll alternated in a skidding contact with both the ceiling and floor of the shaft, slowing his plummeting descent minutely with each impact. As a result, when he tumbled into the room at the shaft’s end, he was only scraped and bruised.
Battered and disoriented from his tumultuous descent, he still rolled to his feet, squinting at the glaring torchlight and taking in his new surroundings at a glance. The room was hewn out of living rock, a perfect half-sphere, the walls set at intervals with iron rings and manacles. Only two of the sets of restraints were occupied, and the two slavering orcs glared at the intrusion to their captivity. Their disgruntlement was only brief, however, for with the boy’s arrival their manacles clicked open and dropped away from their chafed wrists.
The boy stood poised, his breath coming in deep, readying gasps, for he knew his task was not at an end. He knew this type of foe, for he had faced them before. He knew they would attack, and he knew he must kill them. That was his purpose. That was the Master’s wish, and the only reason for his existence.
True to his expectations, the two orcs scooped up the long, curved knives formerly out of reach and snarled in preparation, their curved tusks clacking and gnashing in challenge. They grunted to one another words in their own crude language, words he did not know, yet could interpret readily enough by their obviously aggressive movements. They were fighting over him, over which would get to kill him.
He waited, gauging their movements, their attention, until they were paying much more interest to one another than to him. Then he moved.
The smaller one raised its knife in reflex, as he knew it would. His hands clamped around the thing’s meaty wrist, fingers digging into the nerves near the long bones, as he drove a kick into its throat. The knife dropped away, so he released his grip and let the choking creature fall, lunging for the weapon. But the other orc was already there, its huge hobnailed boot clamping down on the knife before he could scoop it up. He rolled out of its reach and regained his feet, then stopped to reassess the situation.
Everything had changed.
The two orcs were now talking in tones that suggested cooperation instead of competition. When the larger one finally handed back the other’s lost weapon, the boy knew he was in for the fight of his short life. He had never faced two before, let alone two who fought cooperatively. He readied himself, and lunged.
The small one was still his target; until he got a weapon, he was woefully overmatched. The thing snatched its knife out of reach, but that was predictable enough, so when his tiny foot smashed into its knee with enough force to snap the joint, he gained the element of surprise. Its howl of pain shivered the air, but ended in a strangled grasp as the boy’s claw-like fingers dug into its neck, collapsing the fragile bones around the trachea. As soon as the damage was dealt, he released the orc’s throat and tumbled away, evading his dying victim’s thrashing limbs.
Unfortunately, in his attempt to escape the creature’s grasp, he had also left its weapon behind. The other orc scooped it up even before its former ally’s dying throes had fully stilled. As the strangled gasps faded to silence, the boy faced the larger of his two opponents. The orc brandished its two curved knives with a snarl of confidence, stretching its features into a tusky grin of glee.
The boy stood and waited.
The attack would come, he knew. Sometimes it is better to react than act. The words sounded in his mind, a memory of the countless hours he had spent under the Master’s care. Now he heeded those words, and waited.
Even before the creature attacked, he knew it would be a feint.
He dropped under the false attack, swept a foot to trip the creature, then twisted over the other knife that was meant to disembowel him. His hands clenched the huge wrist, thumbs digging in while he pulled it to close enough to bite. His teeth clamped onto the prominent tendons, snapping them like over-taut bowstrings. The dagger fell away, and even before he rolled to his feet, he was lunging for it. He did not see the backstroke of the other dagger, and the pommel met firmly with his temple, darkening his vision and knocking him into a sprawling roll.
As he rolled to his feet, the boy realized he was in trouble. There was no pain; the magic prevented it, but he could not see clearly, and his balance was askew. His hearing and other senses were as acute as ever, and he reverted to them as if by a command of his absent master’s voice: If your senses flee, or choose to deceive you, do not trust them. Seek that which is true.
The scrape of an iron-shod boot on stone rang in his ears, and he dodged away from the lunge that he knew it accompanied. Air whisked past his cheek, and he reached out to grasp the arm that bore the knife that would have taken his life. Fingers pressed into the pressure points, and he heard the howl of pain, then the dagger hitting the floor. He let the weapon go, knowing he could not find it with his vision so awry.
The large artery in the pit of the arm will bleed freely if severed, weakening your opponent quickly.
He heeded the words in his mind, plunging his teeth into the noisome armpit and clamping them around the pulsing artery and the nerves surrounding it. Claws raked his back, and the beast thrashed to pull its assailant free. Warm saltiness gushed over his face as he was torn free by his own momentum. Once again he rolled to his feet, but this time he knew he had won.
His vision cleared to reveal his lone opponent, one hand clamped onto the wound in a vain attempt to staunch the pulsing flow of blood that gushed from the pit of its arm. The orc was bleeding to death, unable to stop the red spray that painted its side and the floor at its feet. He had won, all he had to do was wait for the thing to die.
It collapsed to the floor in its own puddle of gore after trying in vain to staunch the flow of blood. He watched patiently, unfeeling, as that pool spread to eventually wet his toes and the creature finally stopped twitching. His eyes left his victim as the hidden door finally opened.
“Your first attack was clumsy,” the Master said without preamble, waving the other servants forward to take away the dead orcs. “The first blow should have been a killing stroke, but was ill-timed and weak. Focus is the key when surprise is your ally. Remember!”
“Yes, Master,” he said, as he committed the phrase to memory.
“You did not assess your second opponent’s reaction to the failed attack, and gave away the weapon you attempted to attain. Predicting your opponent’s reaction is essential to survival. Remember!”
“You spend too much effort in trying to attain your opponents’ weapons. This is dangerous, and can prove distracting from your goal. What is your goal?”
“My goal is to kill my opponent, before he can kill me, Master.”
“Yes! So, do not endanger yourself in attempts to get your hands on a weapon. You are a weapon. Remember!”
“Good.” The Master fished something out of one of the pockets of his robes and handed it to the boy. “Here. Eat.”
The boy snatched the piece of dried jerky and devoured it instantly, the saltiness of the meat mingling with the pungent tang of the orc blood that smeared his lips.
“Now, follow me.” The master’s words were more than a simple command, they wound themselves around the very core of the boy’s will, and forced him to comply. The magic impelled him to obey. Serving the Master was his only purpose, that and to kill when the Master bid him to do so. He followed the Master through the winding passages of the keep until he finally recognized his surroundings. A few moments later he knew their destination, and he relaxed. They were going to the needle room.
“Clean yourself, then lay upon the table and hold still,” the Master commanded, turning to his pots and bowls as the boy complied. After a quick sponge bath from the bucket of cold water, he removed the filthy cloth that girded his skinny loins and climbed onto the thick stone table. He lay utterly still as the dyes were mixed, heated, ground, and infused with the magic that would, in turn, infuse him. Then the master drew out the needles, dipped the first into the glowing dye and began the tattooing, a process the boy had endured every day of his short life. The magic prevented any pain, as before; all he felt was the press of the needle as the ink seeped into his skin and vanished, then the tingle of magic as it flowed into the core of his being.
It was the magic that made him strong, the magic that made him fast and it was the magic that made him follow the Master’s orders. The Master had never told him all the things the magic did, or why. It was not in him to question, but he did wonder what purpose his magic and his life would serve.
Hours later, when the Master had finished and was near exhaustion, he told the boy to go to his room, which of course the boy did. He sat and listened to the only man he had ever known as the dyes were put away, the mortars and pestles cleaned and stored. He wondered what the Master wanted of him, what his next command would be. He did not sleep, because he was not ordered to, but sat and listened to all the sounds of his environment, all the clicks and groans of Krakengul Keep that he had listened to every day of his life. He sat and wondered what or whom he would kill next when the morning came.
Fingers scrabbled for purchase upon the rain-slicked stone, finding none. The boy shifted his stance, moving his feet upon the tiny ledge that supported him a thousand feet above the rocky shore of the Bitter Sea. Rain lashed at his back as the wind tried to peel him away from the cliff face. He clung tightly and stretched his twelve-year-old frame, feeling for his next handhold. His fingers met a narrow crack; he jammed them in and twisted, testing the hold before committing his weight to it. It held, so he lifted his weight easily with the three-fingered purchase and held himself up until his other hand found a similar grip further up the crack.
Thus he ascended the cliff another thousand feet before he reached the plateau. He heaved himself up, quickly assessing the damage to his hands and feet. One finger was bent unnaturally, so he straightened it with a crunch. The other scrapes, cuts and bruises were already healed. Clearing the rain from his eyes, he could see Krakengul Keep only a mile or so to his left. The Bitter Sea lay behind, whipped into waves by the storm and stretching beyond the limits of his sight. Before him the plateau sloped down, and miles in the distance, through the slackening rain, he could see the edge of the forest, and beyond that, faint lights that flickered among the trees. He wondered briefly what those lights were — fires perhaps, orcs, or elves or men, maybe? A distant horn call touched his ears, and he dashed off immediately for the keep, banishing his curiosity.
Entering the outer courtyard, the boy was greeted by an unusual sight. Five horses stood there, heads bowed against the rain, their reins looped loosely over the hitching post. All bore harnesses and saddles, and one was garbed in light chain barding with ornate tooling in the leather. They towered above him as he walked past, their plate-sized hooves clack-clacking nervously on the flagstones. A servant exited the keep and approached the horses, glancing at the boy in passing. He took the reins of two of the mounts and led them to the stables. Apparently, whoever owned these horses would be staying for a while. The boy ascended the steps eagerly, curiosity once again tickling at the back of his mind.
He did not have long to wonder who these visitors were. As he entered the great hall he beheld the Master and five tall figures standing around the long table nearest the cavernous fireplace. All the newcomers bore weapons — bows, swords, knives, and many other types he had never seen. They stood like warriors as well, for as they all turned to watch him approach he could see the balance and strength in their movements. The Master bid him come closer, and he felt the scrutiny of the five.
“This is Master Xhang,” the Master informed him, gesturing toward one of the five. “He and his assistants will be teaching you the use of weapons, and the proper defenses against them. You will not kill them.”
“Yes, Master,” he responded, noting the light chuckle from one of the tall figures. The sound was unfamiliar, strumming cords of curiosity in his mind and tensing his muscles.
The one called Master Xhang also noted the chuckle, and snapped a curt order to the man in a language that the boy did not understand. He understood well enough, however, when the one who had laughed unclasped his heavy cloak, stood his longbow against a chair and drew a long, curved sword. The boy’s mind clicked with a possible correlation: Perhaps laughter was a prelude to combat.
“This is Cho Thang. He is skilled in the use of the Katana, which you will learn presently. Now, defend yourself.”
The boy moved away from the group immediately, sidestepping into the open area between the long tables while keeping his eyes on the tall warrior’s sword as he followed. He noted the other’s movements, finding no flaw or obvious weakness. He stopped and waited, assessing his situation. The man was much taller than he, and the sword gave him even longer reach. He also bore another short sword at his hip, curved like the one he wielded, and a small dagger. These he could use, if he could get his hands on them, which was not likely, and he had the distinct disadvantage of being told not to kill the man. Well, there was not much he could do but wait for the attack, so the boy prepared himself and settled into the focused relaxation that readied him for any opportunity.
The series of attacks came in a flurry so quick and precise that the boy barely evaded the killing strokes, and received two shallow cuts on his shoulder and stomach. He had not been able to penetrate the man’s guard in the slightest, his grasping fingers and lashing feet meeting only air. The two paused for a moment, assessing one another anew. The man’s features showed slight surprise at the boy’s quickness, and his narrow eyes widened as the shallow cuts he’d inflicted closed and vanished without a trace. The boy showed nothing, but his mind was working full speed; this was no orc or bandit that he could easily outwit and outfight. This was a trained warrior, and all he could hope for was to stay alive, and exploit any openings that presented themselves.
The next flurry of attacks was longer and even more furious. The boy’s hands and feet slapped aside killing strokes more than a dozen times before one cut finally passed his guard, slicing deeply into the muscle of his chest.
Both combatants froze at the Master’s command, the boy because it was ingrained in his soul to do so and the warrior because he was simply trained to obey. Both stood poised as the others approached; the steady pat-pat of blood dripping from the boy’s heaving chest was loud to his ears. The wound was closing, but he had lost a good amount of blood and felt its loss in the slight weakness in his limbs.
“Master Xhang, your assessment.”
“The boy is quick, and trained well for his age, but lacks focus and knowledge of combat. He missed several opportunities to grasp Cho Thang’s sword and exploit the opportunities that this would have presented.” His eyes raked the boy from head to foot, a thin smile tugging at the corners of his long moustache. “I believe he was holding back, constrained by the order not to kill, and your additional order to defend himself. His tactics were primarily those of survival, not aggression. We must break him of this flaw.”
“I give you one year to do so, minus one hour per day during which I require his presence in my laboratory. At the end of that year, you will receive your payment.”
“Very well,” Master Xhang agreed with a bow, then a sidelong glance at his apprentice Cho Thang. “But may I suggest that you rescind your order for the boy not to use lethal force. He will learn nothing by holding back.”
“Your men will be at risk, Master Xhang. I will not be responsible for their welfare if I rescind that order.”
“I will not hold you responsible for their welfare. We are warriors after all. Risk is our life, and I would not have my men become soft with a year of sitting on their backsides risking nothing worse than a bruise or two.” He snapped a short phrase to Cho Thang, who cleaned his sword on a cloth from his belt and sheathed it, bowing low to his master and then the boy.
“Rescind the order,” Xhang said with a nod and another thin smile.
“Very well,” said the Master, facing the boy. “You will be training with Master Xhang and his men for one year, beginning today. You will fight each of them many times. You will fight as you are taught to fight, and will kill if the opportunity presents itself, but only when the order to fight has been given by Master Xhang or myself.”
“Good.” The Master turned to Xhang and said, “He is yours for one year. At the end of that year I will assess his training. If any of you survive, you will receive the agreed upon sum.”
“Very well.” He spoke to his men at length, received nods of obedience from each, then bowed to the Master. “It is agreed.” His narrow eyes snapped to the boy. “Go and clean yourself, eat your fill and return here in one hour.”
The boy simply looked at the Master questioningly; having never received an order from anyone else, he did not know if he should obey.
“You will follow Master Xhang’s orders. Go.”
He sprinted out of the room, heading for the baths. He had never had a whole hour to eat and bathe before and intended to make the most of it!
One year later, six figures stood in the great hall of Krakengul Keep, four warriors, the boy and the Master. Cho Thang was missing the last joint of the two smallest fingers of his left hand, and bore a wide scar from his left ear to the nape of his neck. The other warriors also bore marks and scars, and even Master Xhang had felt steel part his flesh under the boy’s hand. One of his men was dead. The Master looked upon the boy with a scrutinous eye. He’d spent an hour every day reinforcing the magic that had forged the boy into a weapon, but until now he had not noticed the added height, broader frame and surer stance. His pupil had learned the use of every weapon the warriors bore, and how to defend against each, both with weapons and without, just as Xhang had promised.
“You have performed admirably, Master Xhang, and your payment awaits you.” He nodded to the two servants bringing in a heavy coffer.
“You have kept your end of the bargain, and my men have also learned a great deal in this last year.” Xhang bowed deeply to the Master, then again to the boy. “Your pupil is skilled. He will serve you well.”
With that the four surviving warriors turned and left, taking their well-earned pay with them. The Master simply watched them go, a faint smile on his lips. The boy stood stock still before him, awaiting his next order, firm and confident in his newly acquired skills. When the outer door boomed closed, and the sound of hoof beats dwindled to silence, the Master finally turned to his pupil.
“Your next instructor will train you in the skills of stealth and intrusion. You will not kill him, for his expertise is in evasion and the art of silence, not combat.” He nodded once, a gesture that the boy found strange, until the light tap on his shoulder from behind.
The boy leapt like a cat standing on hot coals, clearing the Master’s head by a foot and landing in a dodging roll. He had heard nothing, smelled nothing and felt nothing until the finger tapped his shoulder! It could have easily been a knife, and could have severed his spine! The last year had taught him skills with weapons, and to be confident in his abilities. The last two seconds had taught him that all his skills were useless if he were not aware of an enemy.
The diminutive man who had been standing behind him was chuckling with amusement, twirling a dagger in his left hand and smoothing his immaculate goatee with the other. He wore dark leathers, supple with use, many pockets and pouches dangled from his belt. A number of tools rode in specialized sheaths sewn into the thighs of his trousers. When the man’s mirth subsided, the Master continued.
“This is Master Votris. You will learn from him all that he can teach you of stealth and intrusion. Follow his instructions.”
“Yes, Master.” The boy regained his composure and approached his new instructor.
“He’s as clumsy as a three-legged ox,” the man said flatly, shaking his head. “But he’s quick, and agile enough. We will see what he can learn.”
“You have one year. He will report to my laboratory for one hour every day at sunset. The rest of his time belongs to you.” The Master turned his back and walked away.
“Humph,” Votris scoffed, eying the boy critically. “Well, the first thing, I suppose, is to teach you how to stand without fidgeting like a stallion with a mare in his sights.”
He moved to the boy’s side, and it was like watching a ghost. He walked with such grace and fluidity that the boy thought his mind was playing tricks on him. Not a scuff of leather on stone, squeak of buckle or brush of cloth could be heard, even by his enhanced ears. The boy realized that he had very much to learn in the next year.