The following is a draft chapter of Brandon’s unfinished novel Mythwalker from 2001. Brandon later repurposed some elements of this story into Warbreaker, Mistborn, and The Way of Kings.
Devin could see his nervous breath puffing out in front of him. A low morning mist still clutched the ground in some places, seeping between hills and pooling in valleys like an amorphous nocturnal beast trying to hide from the rising sun. The spring morning was chilled, but Devin was not cold. He was far too excited.
“Start here,” the soldier explained, nodding toward the road that ran out of town. “We will take the first four boys who arrive at the entrance on the other side of the village.”
The soldier needn’t have explained the instructions—the boys all knew them by heart. They had watched their older brothers and cousins make this same run in previous years. Now, it was their turn. A collection of about twenty boys stood in a line to either side of Devin, ranging in age from fourteen to sixteen. Their faces were anxious and eager—every Eruntu boy dreamed of joining the Guard. Now they finally had their chance.
A group of excited townsfolk clustered behind the boys, parents watching eagerly, younger boys watching with wonder, and older boys—those who had failed the run when they were of age—watched with resentment. Devin turned away from them, focusing on the road in front of him, feeling his muscles tense with anxiety.
I’ll prove myself today, he promised. He had spent his entire childhood being ignored, an average boy of average potential—or, at least, that was what everyone said. Today he would show them that Devin was more than they assumed.
The Guard Captain looked over the group of boys. He was a tall for an Eruntu, over six feet in height, and had a flat face and powerful muscles supernaturally enhanced by the Sserin Kkell power. Of course, he wasn’t as tall as a Kkoloss nobleman. Still, the Captain was impressive in his armor, his white hair—the sign of an Eruntu—glowing in the soft morning light. He looked to the soldier that stood at the head of the boys and nodded once.
“You may begin!” the solider snapped.
Devin jumped forward, dashing along the packed earthen road. Other boys quickly outdistanced him. The race to the crossroads and then back to the village was a long one, however, and Devin knew from practicing with his friends that such sprinters would probably sag far behind the other boys after the first few minutes of running.
Devin took it easy at first, letting the pack of boys thin around him. Despite his mild pace, his heart was beating furiously. The time had finally come. He was actually running in the Guard race. The four boys who won this day would leave the village to become soldiers in the Sserin Eruntu Guard. They would take the Kkell oath before an Archpriest, gaining powers from their King to fight for his glory. It was the highest honor an Eruntu could hold.
And Devin just might have a chance to achieve it. What would the others think when he won? Devin could hear their confused voices in his mind. Devin? A Guard? By Hess, I don’t believe it! He’s such a simple boy—I never imagined him more than an orcharder. I always assumed there was nothing special about him. I must have been wrong. Devin couldn’t help smiling at the thought.
He was so caught up in the image, in fact, that he nearly toppled to the ground when his foot struck a loose rock. He caught himself, however, silently cursing his inattentiveness. If he was going to achieve his dreams, then he would have to pay attention right now. Everything depended on this race.
The village, a collection of perhaps fifty buildings crafted from saltwood and cob, retreated behind them. The sun came from behind the eastern mountains, and quickly began burning away the last of the night’s mist. The warmth felt good on Devin’s back as he jogged toward the crossroad, though the heat probably wouldn’t stay for long. A bank of dark clouds was rising in the north, and looked as if they would soon obscure the sun. Perhaps they would even bring rain, though such wasn’t very likely. Clouds usually dumped most of their rain in the mountains, and rarely had anything left to spare by the time they crossed over to the other side.
While rain would have been appreciated, it was hardly needed. The lush landscape of Sseria extended around Devin. His was a land covered with brownish scrub and short grasses, as opposed to the saltdeserts to the west. Here, in Sseria, there were plenty of saltrivers to provide water for the Eruntu population.
Devin turned his head, watching the scenery pass. The plains to his left were fertile and brown—there was even an occasional twisted tree, mostly junipers and pinion pines. The land to his right was even more beautiful. Here a massive collection of aspens and pines ran along the river bank, obscuring sight of the water itself. The village was in a fortunate place—there were many areas on the continent, even in Sseria, where water was scarce.
The boys continued their run, and Devin was glad for the hours he had spent training with Amman and the others. Several of the boys fell far behind, their heads hung low as they realized they didn’t even have a chance. Devin kept moving, pushing himself forward. He had to be one of the first four. If he wasn’t, he would have to begin work in the orchards within the week. True, he would have two more chances to run the race, but it was most prestigious to make it in one’s first year.
The minutes passed, and soon Devin saw the crossroad approaching in the distance. To his left, the land had changed from uncultivated plains to deep Skaa fields. Devin could see the Skaa working, their stooped-over forms laboring quietly as they dug furrows in the ground in preparation for the spring planting. Devin continued to run, but he did turn his head and watch the Skaa working. The poor creatures seemed . . . lifeless as they worked, their eyes staring head dully, their hands moving by rote. Their work was difficult. Eruntu, who cared for Kkoloss cleancrops, didn’t usually begin their day’s work until several hours after dawn, but Skaa began to work as soon as they woke.
They’re only Skaa, Devin reminded himself. Work is all they are good for.
The fact was an unarguable one—it was mandated by Hess himself. The Skaa were the descendants of those people who had rebelled against their God and chosen to serve the Demon God centuries ago, when the continent had nearly been destroyed by war. The Skaa deserved their punishment. Still, Devin couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for them. Dull-minded and weak though they might be, they were still people.
A few moments later thoughts of the Skaa were gone as Devin approached the crossroad. Here the road forked, one branch heading back toward the village, the other, larger branch turning west, running along the river toward the innersea. Devin clumped over the saltwood bridge and took the right fork, following the other boys as they began the return trip.
Now the race began in earnest. No longer concerned with saving strength, Devin gave all of his effort to running. He tried to make each step move a little more quickly than the one before it. After about ten minutes of running, his breath began to come in deep gasps. A little later his chest started hurting, but still he pushed forward. He passed some boys, but he knew there were others still ahead of him.
It was impossible to count how many were beating him—he could barely see through his sweat, and had to concentrate to continue taking steps. He had to be somewhere near the front—such exertion, such pain, would not go unrewarded. Finally, he would be something more than average.
The village—a dark shadow barely registering in his tiring mind—approached. Devin had no strength left. Yet, somehow, he groaned and forced himself to move more quickly. He ran recklessly, almost insanely, along the road.
And then, it was over. Devin burst into town, edging just in front of Karif, who had slowed to a weak jog. Devin could barely see, but he could hear cheering men and weeping mothers from the crowd in front of him. They were cheers of victory—cheers that weren’t for him. Devin was not the first to arrive in town, but he hadn’t expected to be. He just had to be one of the first four.
He stumbled into the open area before the crowd, a place for the boys to gather after the race, and collapsed with a complaintive groan. Despite his agonized body and pained, quivering breaths, Devin would not let himself rest. Not yet. He had to know how he had done.
“What . . . ?” Devin began, forcing himself to remain sitting up. “What number am I?”
A soldier looked down at him.
“Eleventh, lad,” the man said. “You came in eleventh.”
Eleventh. There had been twenty-one boys in the run. Devin fell backward, resting his head against the hard cobblestones. He had finished in the exact middle of the group.
Talla pushed through the crowd slowly, watching Devin’s face as he heard the news of his loss. Another mother might have rushed forward to comfort the boy, completely uncaring of the embarrassment such an act would cause her son. Talla held herself back. A boy was considered a man on the day he ran in the Guard race the first time. As much as it hurt her to stand and watch her little boy looking so forsaken and so crestfallen, Talla stayed in the crowd. There would be plenty of time to comfort Devin later—right now, he needed to face the world on his own.
Devin took the news well. Several of the other boys were weeping openly, but Devin only rested back, staring up at the cloudy sky, his young face sorrowed. He gave no tantrum, let forth no cursings, he simply waited quietly. Of course, Devin had always been even-tempered—much more so than his mother. Even as a very young child, he hadn’t been prone to outbursts or complaining. He seemed to take everything, failure or success, in stride.
However, Talla knew that on the inside, Devin was much harsher on himself than he deserved. Devin was convinced that he was worthless. It didn’t help that he didn’t have any discernable skills. Whatever he tried, he did with passing ability—never really well, but never poorly either.
Oh, forgive me, my son, Talla thought to herself. Sometimes, being average was far worse than being untalented.
The last of the racing boys were walking into the city, their heads held low. Talla snorted to herself—not at the boys, but at the silliness of the test. It was a fine way to choose new soldiers, she supposed, but the villagers put far too much worth into it. A man’s entire life would be stigmatized by how he placed in his three runs. In a way, being fifth place was almost better than being one of the winners—a fifth-placer would stay behind, but would be the top-ranked man of his age. Those who consistently finished in the final places rarely rose to overseer positions in the orchards, and would never have an opportunity to be village mayor.
“They’re all fools,” Talla mumbled to herself. “Including my fool of a son,” she added, noting the look of despair on Devin’s face. He assumed that his failure in the race confirmed his worthlessness. Talla had tried to convince him not to even participate. But, of course, he had only given her a look of horror—to suggest such a thing was almost like blaspheming against Hess himself. Talla smiled slightly to herself at the memory of Devin’s indignation. Sometimes, the boy was far too serious for his own good.
“Stand forth!” the Guard Captain said as the last boy straggled into town. The poor child didn’t even have a chance to rest as the boys lined up in the order they had arrived. The Captain walked down the line of boys, looking at their tired faces. The Captain was a tall man, and muscles bulged beneath his red-liveried Sserin uniform. He was far more muscular than any regular Eruntu—larger, even, than Mekke the town smith. Of course, that made sense. Sseria’s Kkell Power was that of strength and vigor. Any Eruntu who swore the Kkell Oath was granted a small portion of the King’s Kkell, thereby becoming more powerful than a regular Eruntu.
“It was a good race,” the Captain announced. “You are all to be commended. Irin, Kuddu, Sennen, and Amman, step forward.”
The four boys, their faces eager, stepped out of line. Only one of them was from Devin’s age group—as one would assume, the older boys usually won the races. Beside Talla, old Arina was weeping loudly in sorrow. Her son, Irin, had won the race. He would be leaving within the hour—after that, he would be able to visit once every few years at best. The women all bragged about how strong their boys were, but their pride tended to change to painful surprise when they realized what winning a race actually meant.
“Are you four willing to take the Kkell Oath, to serve our King Dunn Vas Sserin with your lives?”
All four boys nodded in agreement.
“Then welcome to the Sserin Eruntu Guard,” the captain approved. Then he turned, looking back toward the mayor’s house. “My Lord!” he said loudly, “they have been chosen.”
The crowd waited in silence for a moment. Then, the door to the mayor’s office opened and a tall, powerful form stepped out. His hair was a deep red, unlike Eruntu white, and his mighty build made even the Captain look weak. The man’s face was angular and delicate, and he was dressed completely in a tight silk uniform with a wide red cape. He had to bow his head as he left the Eruntu building—he was at least six and a half feet tall. A Kkoloss, one of Hess’s chosen.
Centuries ago, when the Demon God had threatened Kkormiar, some people had proven more valiant and faithful than others. The Kkoloss were the descendants of those who had resisted the Demon God and his Desicrates. The Kkoloss they were those who had been chosen to rule in Kkorimar. Just as the Skaa had betrayed Hess, the Kkoloss had remained true to him. The Eruntu, like Talla, were the descendants of those who had been somewhere in the middle—those whose devotion had been less sure or whose betrayal less severe.
This Kkoloss man, Lord Henn Des Sserin, was a relative of the King himself—that much could be inferred from his obvious access to the Kkell Power. Unlike Eruntu, who could access to a Kkell power only if they swore the Oath, Kkoloss power was inborn. The closer one was related to the head of one’s family—in this case, the King—the greater one’s portion of the power.
Lord Henn took one look over the four Eruntu boys and nodded. “We leave in an hour, then,” he informed, speaking in the language of the Kkoloss—a language Eruntu were forbidden to speak, but were required to learn lest they be given a command by a Kkoloss.
The announcement prodded a new wail of despair from Arina, who had fallen silent when she had seen the Kkoloss lord. Talla rolled her eyes and sighed, walking toward Devin as the crowd began to disperse.
The crowd dissolved around him, leaving Devin standing quietly in the center of the square. He sighed to himself, kicking absently at a cobblestone.
What did you think? He asked himself. You didn’t really you would succeed, did you? It was a constant source of amazement to Devin that he could continue to delude himself into holding such dreams. Today’s failure had been a sign from Hess himself—no matter how hard Devin tried, he still ended up in the exact, unnoticed middle of the group. What was the use in even trying?
“Well, that was almost a disaster, wasn’t it?” a soft voice asked.
Devin snorted quietly, looking up at his mother. Talla was a short woman, even for an Eruntu. Even in the thick-soled shoes she favored, she was still a few inches under five feet tall—there were actually Skaa that were taller than she was. Of course, Talla completely refused to acknowledge her height—she acted as if she were the tallest person in the village.
“Almost a disaster?” Devin asked.
“Yes,” Talla said, taking her son’s arm. “You could have won. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Let’s go home and celebrate, Shorty.”
Devin smiled slightly. His mother had called him Shorty since he could remember, but it seemed like she had grown more fond of the nickname once Devin had grown taller than she—though she still refused to acknowledge the height difference.
Devin let himself be led from the square. It was Holyday, which meant that none of the Eruntu had to go to the orchards. Devin probably should have gone to find his friends for one last day of playing—all of them, except for Amman of course, would have to begin work in the orchards the next day.
Yet, Devin didn’t feel much like playing. In a way, he was kind of happy to be starting at the orchards. Spending time with his friends was fun, but it had changed over the last few years. The things that had excited him as a child no longer held much interest for him—he was ready for a change. He had hoped that change would involve leaving the village to join the Guard.
The clouds finally covered over the sun, casting muted shadows down on the town. The houses—most of them made from harvested pinion saltwood—moved out from the square. It was a neat, orderly village, and its Eruntu generally led good lives. Even a widow like Devin’s mother had a place in the town. Of course, a boy who didn’t distinguish himself in the Guard race was often forced into a life of mediocrity. A life like the one Devin deserved.
“If I didn’t know you better, Shorty, I’d say that was a glum look of self-pity on your face,” Talla noted.
Devin blushed. “I’m sorry mother,” he said.
“Sorry?” she asked. “Sorry for what?”
“For not winning the race.”
Talla rolled her eyes. She liked to act as if the race didn’t matter, though Devin knew she only did so for his benefit. She knew he would never win, so she pretended not to care about the race.
“If I had become a member of the Guard, I would have been able to earn much more than an orcharder,” Devin noted. “I could have sent it home to you . . .”
Talla interrupted him with a snort. “I’d rather have a son than a few extra coins,” she affirmed as they reached their house, a tiny two-room building made from twisted juniper wood. “Come on,” Talla decided, disappearing inside the building then returning with a pair of long wooden poles. “It’s too nice a day for gloominess. Let’s go fishing.”
“Fishing?” Devin asked. “Now?”
“It’s Holyday,” Devin said with a shrug. “Shouldn’t we clean the house or mend clothes or something like that?”
The diminutive woman shook her head. “No. It’s definitely a day for fishing. Come on.”
Devin sighed, accepting the pole from his mother. Sometimes he wished he had a normal mother—one who complained that her son never did enough around the house instead of doing her best to corrupt him. Talla liked teasing more than she did nagging, and her sarcasm often got her into trouble with the other townswomen. Of course, Talla never stayed in trouble for very long—her demanding air and witty tongue kept naysayers at bay. There were few things the woman wasn’t good at—whether it was picking fruit, weaving baskets, or fishing. Devin had often wondered how such a talented woman had produced such an utterly normal son.
“Come on, Shorty,” Talla said as she walked away from the house. “I’m going to need you to clean all the fish I catch.”
Devin sighed, following his mother toward the river. The prospect of an afternoon of fishing did sound relaxing, and he was feeling his muscles beginning to untense for the first time that day. Still, however, as he walked with his mother, listening to her gossip and joke about some of the townspeople, Devin couldn’t help feeling a little glum at his failure.
I have two more tries left, he thought to himself with determination. Next year, I’ll make it.
Over the next few months, Devin learned the basics of working in the orchards. Only Eruntu were allowed to care for the trees, for they were all cleancrops. Unlike regular plants, they could not live on saltwater. Enormous pavilions ran around the perimeter of the orchard—funnel-like things whose purpose was to catch as much rainwater as possible. However, most of the cleanwater came from a well in the center of the orchard.
And this was the first job Devin was given—that of carrying cleanwater from well to trees. It was heavy work, the kind that was usually given to Skaa. However, cleanwater was poisonous to Skaa—it would cause their skin to blister and peal, or even kill them if they drank it. Caring for cleancrops was Eruntu work.
Eventually, the overseers moved Devin through the various jobs, judging his capacity for more careful work. As in all things, Devin proved to be an average orchard worker. He wasn’t the neatest pruner or the most careful picker, but he was good enough that the overseers trained him on the jobs, instead of leaving him as a waterer.
As the months progressed, Devin came to enjoy his work in the orchard. It wasn’t as bad as he had feared—in fact, there was something calming about spending time with the trees. He enjoyed caring for the tiny saplings, he found pleasure in pruning the mighty fenddela trees, removing the smaller branches to encourage the fruit on the upper limbs to grow as large as possible.
However, as winter came and the orchards fell dormant beneath frost and the rare layer of snow, Devin forgot much of his contentment. Spring was approaching—and with it, the Guard Race. He spent most of his free time practicing, running with his friends. He was growing lean and trim, and over the months his height had increased dramatically. For once, it appeared that he was a little abnormal, for he grew to be taller than most of his friends.
He spent most of the winter contemplating the upcoming race. This time, it would be different. He would win, this time.
“Start here,” the Guardsman explained, pointing at the road leading out of town. “We will take the first four boys who reach the entrance on the other side of the village.”
Devin waited tensely. The group of boys was smaller this year; there were eighteen of them, five Devin’s age seven younger and six older. Of his friends, only Jekkif and Ejele were faster than Devin. Jekkif, however, had hurt his ankle the week previously. If Devin could stay ahead of four of the older boys, then he would place.
“Begin!” the soldier proclaimed.
The boys took off. Devin felt the familiar ground pad beneath his feet—he had run this trail a hundred times over the last few months, pushing himself even when the air was so cold that it seemed to freeze his lungs. The spring air was warm now, and his pace comfortable as he let his practice manifest itself.
The sprinters fell behind after about ten minutes of running. Once the order stabilized and the boys thinned out, Devin mentally counted those ahead of him. Ejele was in the lead—he was by far the fastest of Devin’s friends. Trailing a short distance behind him were two older boys, running together. Behind them was one more older boy, but his pace was slacking slowly and Devin was catching up.
I actually have a chance! Devin thought with excitement. I can do it!
Then he noticed something horrible. A pair of small forms, running in the distance far ahead of Ejele. Devin could barely make them out—they were fourteen-year olds, boys Devin barely knew. He had seen them take off at a dash at the beginning of the race, but he had assumed they’d fallen behind with the rest of the sprinters.
The two forms didn’t look to be slowing down. In fact, they were gaining ground. Even as Devin watched with crestfallen eyes, another boy—a sixteen year old—edged by him. He was in eighth place—right near the middle once again.
But I trained so hard . . . Devin thought with despair. However, even as the thought occurred to him, he realized an important fact. The other boys had trained hard too. Perhaps if he had practiced while the others loafed, he could have beaten them. However, as long as they all trained, then Devin’s inherent mediocrity would always hold him to the center of the group. There was no way he could win.
Devin stopped on the road, closing his eyes and shaking his head. He barely heard another pair of boys pass him. What was the point? No matter how hard he tried, he always remained in the middle. Even in the orchard, he was barely noticed by the overseers. They kept forgetting his name, even those who had worked with him for months. Devin was just completely unremarkable in every way.
Devin took a deep breath, opening his eyes. He might as well complete the race. Or, maybe he wouldn’t. Then he would get some attention—though, admittedly, he didn’t really want attention that came from everyone calling him a fool. If he gave up now, he would carry the title of a quitter for his entire life. The Guard Race was not something one gave up on.
We’ll take the first four . . . the soldier’s words rang in Devin’s mind. Why did they have to make it a race, anyway? Wasn’t there a better way to choose soldiers? Didn’t anything else matter?
Of course, Devin knew that no matter what contest they chose, he would always produce the same result. Average. Commonplace. Unimportant.
We’ll take the first four boys who reach the entrance on the other side of the village. The first four boys who reached the other side of the village. It was always the same—nearly the same words, even.
Devin paused, watching as Thilli—slowest boy in the village—passed him. Thilli gave him a confused look, jogging his pudgy legs as quickly as he could manage. Moving down the road toward the crossroads.
The Guardsmen had never said that the boys had to follow the road. Devin frowned to himself at the realization. The race to the crossroads and back—boys from the village had been running the race for so long that everyone knew its path instinctively. Yet, the Guardsman hadn’t said the boys needed to go all the way to the crossroads. He only said that the first four who reached the other side of the village would win.
Devin turned to the right, looking at the long patch of trees in the distance. The road he was on ran up one side of the river, and the other road ran back on the other side of the small forest.
Devin smiled to himself, then ran off of the road and began to dash toward the river. He approached the treeline easily and pushed his way through the undergrowth toward the river itself. It was slow going—this close to the river, the space between aspen trunks was clogged with saltplants.
After about fifteen minutes, he burst through and trotted down the bank into the river itself. He moved across it easily—the river was shallow and slow-moving, not to mention filled with sandbars. It was wide, however, so it took him a while to cross.
Eventually, a sodden Devin reached the river’s far bank. His clothing was wet and cold, and he could taste the salt on his lips, but he was determined. He crawled up the bank and, after taking a few deep breaths—smelling the briny river air—he took off again.
Will it be enough? He wondered as he pushed through more undergrowth. What if I still come in last? What will the others think of my running through the river? Will they call it cheating?
He was so wrapped up in his concerns that he didn’t notice the clearing until he had stumbled into it. Devin froze, a breeze rustling the tiny aspen leaves and chilling his tired body. Before him, on the ground, was a black stone altar.
He paused for an indeterminable moment, staring at the odd sight. The altar was constructed of a type of stone he had never seen before—a stone so clear and dark it could have been black Amberite, had such a rock existed. It had a smoky cast to it, and it seemed to give off an almost seductive feel.
Desicrites, Devin realized with horror. Night Spinners. Followers of the Demon God. He had heard stories of them, of course—of their dark deeds and attempts at resurrecting their Lord. But, he had always considered the tales fanciful—more lessons told by priests than actual events.
The clearing, though open at the top, seemed darker than the woods had. Suddenly, Devin felt as if he were being watched, and the chill from his wet clothing began to eat its way into his chest.
Devin forced his feet into motion, making them carry him around the perimeter of the altar. The black altar seemed to be watching him—it almost seemed to be calling to him. Asking him to come to it . . .
Devin burst back into a run, thrashing his way through the woods toward the road. He left the altar behind, and after just a few moments he felt better.
I overreacted, he told himself. It was just a black rock. There is no reason to assume that there are Desicrates nearby. It’s just my nerves. Ignore it, and keep running. You have a race to win.
Talla watched the road anxiously. Even though she thought the race was a foolish idea, she couldn’t help feeling a little anxious for Devin. She knew how much the race meant to him. Of course, she didn’t know what she would do if he actually won. He was all she had left. . . .
The winners passed into the village a few moments later, nearly tying each other. Surprisingly, they were both fourteen-year-olds, Mella’s twin sons. In the distance a couple of more forms rounded the bend—Talla recognized them. Both were older boys. As the two approached the town, looks of excited exhaustion on their faces, Talla felt herself grow depressed. Devin was nowhere in sight.
It was for the best, of course. Devin wouldn’t make a good soldier. From what she had heard, he was actually distinguishing himself in the orchards. The boy probably didn’t see it—he was to focused on glamour and instant recognition. However, in the farming professions, a lot could be said for simple consistency. Devin wasn’t the fastest or most productive orcharder, but he was one of the most stable and most honest. Those values would serve him well. And, if Talla was right, Devin enjoyed the work he did. The race distracted him, like it did so many, but Talla was fairly certain that a decade in the future, Devin would be happy that he didn’t win a race.
The third boy passed into town, and the fourth was only a few minutes away. The crowd cheered the winners, congratulating the twins for their stunning victory. Talla couldn’t remember a time when boys so young had taken the top two places. She turned eyes on the road, watching Julu’s boy as he crossed the last distance to the town. Julu would cry, of course, but the truth was that the boy wouldn’t be missed. That household already had too many mouths to feed—a boy in the Guard was just what they needed. She would—
Talla paused, noticing something. The road ran right up along the thick patch of trees and undergrowth that accompanied the river. It seemed to her as if something were moving inside the undergrowth. She frowned. What could be coming from that direction?
A beleaguered, scratched human form burst from the line of trees. There were twigs and leaves sticking from his white Eruntu hair and woolen clothing, and Talla cried out in surprise when she saw him. It was Devin.
Several of the villagers yelled when they saw Devin. The boy began to jog toward the town, his wet clothing sticking to his body. He had obviously forded the river and pushed his way through the undergrowth. Talla smiled to herself. Devin liked to complain about her unconventional nature, but if the truth be told he had inherited more of his mother’s quirkiness than he liked to admit.
“That’s cheating, isn’t it?” Julu demanded from the crowd to Talla’s left. She was watching with anxiety as Devin burst into a run. Her own son, Temme, was quickly approaching the city, but he looked tired. Devin might be able to catch up to him.
“I don’t know,” Mayor Brene admitted. Talla turned. The tall Eruntu man stood a short distance away, watching with concern. He was an older man, his aged face wrinkled, but his body was still well-muscled. Brene had taken fifth place all three of his races, long ago when he was a boy.
Julu’s pudgy eyes met Talla’s. “That child is a cheater, woman,” she hissed. “Your boy’s just like you—he thinks the rules don’t apply to him.”
Talla smiled back. She’d never much cared for Julu. “That’s because they don’t,” she said with a leisurely tone. Then she shot her eyes toward Devin. He was quickly catching up to Temme. She wasn’t sure what she wanted more—to see Devin win to spite Julu, or to see him lose so that he wouldn’t have to become a Guardsman.
However, as she watched, her mother’s anxiety took control, and she knew what result she feared more. Please, she prayed. Please, don’t let him win. I don’t want to lose him. . . .
The two boys raced toward the city. A second later, they entered one after another. Temmer was first, Devin second. Talla released a sigh of relief.
The boys walked toward the center of the square, Temmer triumphantly, Devin with his head hung low. Talla knew what he must be thinking. I cheated, and I still couldn’t win. . . .
“Mayor, who is that boy?”
Talla turned slightly at the sound. The voice belonged to the Eruntu Guard Captain—she had barely seen him walk up to Mayor Brene to her left. Talla frowned, then edged closer, straining to hear what the men said.
“That boy? The one who took fourth?” Brene asked. “I think his name is Temme.”
“No, not him,” the Captain corrected. He was the same man who had come the year before, a tall Eruntu with a flat-face and discerning eyes. “The other one—the one who ran through the trees.”
“Oh,” Brene said nervously—he was always nervous around Guardsmen. “That’s Devin. Why, sir? Are you . . . going to punish him for cheating?”
“The boy didn’t cheat,” the Captain informed. “We never said he couldn’t run through the woods.”
“True, I suppose,” Brene agreed.
“Perhaps this day we will take five boys,” the Captain said speculatively, rubbing his white beard between two callused fingers.
“Captain, Sir?” Brene asked with surprise.
“Speed isn’t the only thing that makes a good soldier, Mayor,” the Captain explained. “We use the race for lack of a better system. A clever mind . . . that is something far more rare than a quick pair of feet. I can train any man to run.”
Talla felt herself grow afraid. They were going to take him anyway. You’re being selfish, she chided herself. This is what Devin wants—you should let him go. But, she couldn’t help feeling a stab of despair. He was so young and so good—he would be wasted as a pawn in some Kkoloss Lord’s war games.
Brene met her eyes. He was a very good mayor—a fair man who cared for the orcharders under his care, even if he was overly-concerned with numbers. “Captain, sir,” he interjected as the Guardsman began to walk away.
“Yes?” the Captain asked.
“Um, perhaps you should know,” Brene said. “That boy is the only son of a widow here in the village.”
The Captain paused, then nodded slowly. “I see,” he said. “That won’t do then—if he were to die, there would be none to carry on his family line. I will have to be content with four boys.”