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 soon learned why the soldiers used a race to choose their new members. That first day he marched so much that his feet began to grow numb. However, the numbness in his feet didn’t compare to that of his mind—he spent most of the march in a stunned stupor.
All his life he had wanted to be in the Guard. Only after two years of failing had he finally grown comfortable with the idea of spending his life as an orchard worker. Now it appeared that all of his rationalizing, his practicing, and his appreciation of the orchards had been for naught. Hess had decided that Devin would be a Guardsman, no matter what place he took in the race.
“Hess!” Tekke mumbled tiredly, walking beside Devin in the ragged line of boys. “They mean to kill us, don’t they?”
Devin just shook his head. He still didn’t understand what had happened. Some of the boys claimed that the Kkoloss Lord had been impressed with their speed, so had decided to choose them all. Devin didn’t think that was right. He hiked beside the others, their trail kicking up dust on the road as they followed the road to the west. He remembered the letter the Lord had received. Something had happened—there was some reason they were needed.
However, if there was an explanation, it wasn’t being given to them. So, Devin just continued to march in the hot sun. Being in the Guard was every Eruntu boy’s dream, but Devin wasn’t certain what to make of it. He had actually decided he didn’t want to be in the Guard. Now he found himself marching away from his home and his mother, marching away from all that he had ever known. The only thing he brought with him was a small packet of clothing, gathered by a sorrowful Talla. His mother hadn’t cried—Devin was proud of her. Of course, what else could she have done, after how much she had mocked the other mothers for their tearful farewells?
So, Devin marched, confused, frightened, and feeling a bit sick. People died in the Guard. He knew that—all the boys knew that. Devin had never actually realized what that meant until now. He was marching toward what the Kkoloss called Games, but for the Eruntu they were deadly games indeed.
The twenty-four boys from Devin’s village marched with excitement despite their exhaustion. They apparently hadn’t realized what being in the Guard meant. Devin didn’t see fear or understanding in their eyes, only enthusiasm.
I must be a coward, Devin decided, shaking his head. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong. Why had the Kkoloss decided to take all of the boys? There was probably a reason the Guard chose only the strongest boys from every village. Devin and the other nineteen boys that shouldn’t have been picked would be weaker than the standard. How long would they last against troops more elite?
After four hours of marching, the boys began to be joined by similar groups of Eruntu boys. These were smaller than Devin’s—Mikkif village was the largest in the area. However, they all held more than four boys. The Kkoloss had lowered its standards for the nearby villages as well.
Our village wasn’t a fluke, Devin realized. King Sserin isn’t holding a recruitment—he’s holding a draft. Something is going on.
Another hour’s worth of marching later, the group of about two-hundred boys crested a brown hill to look down on the Guard encampment. Devin was almost too tired from the marching to care, but he did feel a twinge of excitement. Despite his decision to become an orchard worker, and despite his odd acceptance, being a Guard member had been one of his only youthful desires. He felt a surge of excitement to actually be in the Guard camp.
It was fairly large—perhaps fifty to a hundred tents, arranged beside the saltriver in a circular pattern. The tents were all dun-colored, as if to blend in with the brownish landscape and scraggly junipers. Forms moved below—forms in red Guard uniforms.
“I can’t believe it!” Tekke said beside him.
Devin turned to regard the other boy. Tekke was of Devin’s age group, an enthusiastic boy with more energy than he knew what to do with. However, despite the boy’s claims of superior speed, Tekke had never really been a contender for the Guard. He was short-legged, and his restless energy made him a sprinter—he was the kind that always burned out long before the race was over.
“I’m here,” Tekke whispered, his eyes bright. “I always knew I would be. Thank you, Hess.”
Devin snorted. “I feel more tired than I do thankful,” he mumbled. The march had been far too quick for his tastes. He wasn’t the only one, either—a lot of the other boys looked even more tired than Devin.
“Keep moving!” one of the captains—the one that had come to Devin’s village—ordered. He was short for an Eruntu, but had the impressive muscles of a Sserin Guard member. His head was oblong and squat, like his body, and he had a squareish white Eruntu beard.
Off to the side, about a dozen Kkoloss sat astride war horses, speaking quietly with one another. As the captain led Devin and the other boys down into camp, the Kkoloss rode forward, eventually dismounting and disappearing into the largest of the tents.
The boys slumped down the hillside, marching wearily into camp. Several of the soldiers took note of them, frowning with confused eyes. They hadn’t expected to see so many—whatever was happening, they didn’t know about it either.
“Rest here for the night,” the captain said, leading the boys to one of the tents.
And Devin, along with the rest, were only too happy to oblige him.
Talla stood for a long time at the entrance to the village, her eyes turned westward. The direction Devin had gone.
Her mind still refused to accept the fact that her boy was gone. The sun began to set, the chill spring winds tugged at her skirt, but still she stood, eyes staring to the west. She had feared this day would come, but she had never really believed that it would. Devin hadn’t been good enough of a runner.
Eventually, the sun dropped beneath the horizon, and Talla turned to trudge back to her quiet house. An empty house. After all that had happened to her, after all she had lost . . .
You’d better survive, Shorty, she told herself as she entered the house, feeling the tears begin to well in her eyes.
And there, protected by the walls where no one could see her, Talla cried quietly to herself for most of the night.
“Sulevin Mass . . .”
Devin shook his head, on the brink of wakefulness. It was about time to get up—time to take care of the housework before he and Talla went of to the orchards. But, he couldn’t feel sunlight on his face yet. Surely he had a little more time to sleep. . . .
“Sulevin Mass . . .” The voice was soft—like a whisper projected from incredibly far away. And yet, it drifted right into Devin’s ear.
He groaned, still half-asleep.
“Sulevin Mass. Mythwalker Seavistris . . .” the gibberish words continued.
Devin frowned opening sleepy eyes. A form stood above him, its dark face staring down at his own. Four more stood around it, two on each side. They were black, deep black, the burned remnants of a fire. They stared down at him, their faces shadowed—their forms shadowed, pieces of darkness drifting from their bodies like trails of smoke.
Devin snapped fully awake, and the dark visions disappeared just as quickly. He sat up, shaking his head. Dozens of sleeping forms lay huddled on the ground around him. He frowned for a moment in confusion before remembering the race and march. He was in—
The tent began to collapse, its walls shaking.
“Get up, scrants!” the captain’s voice bellowed from outside.
Around Devin boys began to groan and move. A second later, the top of the tent fell down on them.
“Stow that tent, scrants,” the Captain said. “We let you sleep in—we march in thirty minutes!”
Sleep in? Devin wondered. Before the tent had collapsed, he had seen the sky outside. It definitely hadn’t been light. He frowned, remembering the strange dream he’d been having. It didn’t fade from memory like dreams normally did—he could still remember the strange black forms, their ominously dark faces staring down at him.
“Move it, scrants!” the captain bellowed.
Beside him, the other boys didn’t look like they intended to move. Most were rolling over despite the collapsed tent, obviously trying to go back to sleep.
I doubt he’ll let us get away with that, Devin thought with a mental groan, forcing himself to his knees. Devin began to crawl out of the fallen tent, poorly navigating the press of bodies. He bumped, nudged, and received more than a couple of sleepy complaints. Finally, he pushed himself free, emerging to a light that was only slightly brighter than the darkness inside the tent.
The camp had undergone an amazing transformation. All of the tents were down, and most of the soldiers were standing around, shoveling food from steaming bowls into their mouths. Only the four tents that the newcomers had used hadn’t been packed, though all four had been collapsed. The eastern mountains showed the glow of a sun that would soon rise, and the ground was crisp with frost.
“You!” the Captain snapped as Devin stood.
Devin looked up with trepidation. He had heard enough stories about the Guard, however, that he knew how to respond. “Yes, sir!” he yelled.
“Do you enjoy getting up early, scrant?” The Captain asked in a loud voice.
“No, sir!” Devin said truthfully.
“But you got up anyway?” the Captain demanded.
“Yes, sir!” Devin replied.
“Good,” the Captain informed. “You’re now squad leader. See that the rest of these boys get up, and make certain they stow that tent!”
Devin stood stunned for a moment. Squad leader? Because he had gotten up? It seemed like an arbitrary way to decide on a leader.
“Well?” the Captain demanded.
“Um, yes, sir!” Devin said a little uncertainly.
The Captain nodded and moved of toward the other tents, where no one seemed to be moving.
Devin moved back to the tent and began to shake bodies and try and get the forty or so boys in the tent to rise. He had little success. He got a few to rise, but most were less than cooperative. Ten minutes later he had only managed to make ten boys listen to him, and most of those were from his own village. They stood in a sleepy group beside the fallen tent, standing behind an irate Devin.
“You!” the captain said, marching over. The rest of the camp had finished its breakfast and was beginning to load the tents and supplies into several carts.
Devin met the man’s eyes with embarrassment. “Yes, sir?” he asked.
“Why aren’t your men up?” the captain demanded.
“They don’t want to get up, sir,” Devin explained.
“Well, find a way, Guard!” the Captain snapped. “You’re in charge. It’s your job. If those men aren’t up in five minuets, your entire squad will go without breakfast. Understood?”
Devin nodded. Why was the Captain picking on him? The other three newcomer tents didn’t look like they were making any more progress than Devin’s. The Captain probably could have gotten all of the boys up on his own—he certainly seemed loud enough. Why was he making Devin do it?
How am I going to get them up? Devin thought with frustration.
Then he noticed something—the cooks had finished washing the bowls, and their wash-buckets sat a short distance away. Devin looked at the buckets, then turned his head toward the cold river rushing just a short distance away. Then he smiled.
“Men,” he said loudly to his ten boys. “Go get those buckets and fill them with river water. If the rest of the squad isn’t up by the time you get back, dump the water on them.”
The ten responded sluggishly at first, not certain if they should follow Devin or not. However, the prospect of dumping water on their comrades was far too tempting, and they began to move more quickly. To their credit, about half of the boys in the tent heard Devin’s proclamation and managed to get out in time. The rest didn’t.
The Captain, supervising a short distance away, turned toward Devin’s tent as the boys began to yelp in surprise. Then he smiled and nodded appreciatively.
Devin had thought the day before was bad, but that was when he hadn’t been forced to carry a pack. The camp began marching right when the captain said it would, the twelve Kkoloss riding war horses in the front. All together, it looked like there were about a thousand men.
Devin had assumed that he would receive some sort of training on how to be a soldier. In a way, he was right. At midday, after hours of marching, the camp paused long enough for lunch. The new boys—called scrants by the rest of the camp—weren’t given much time to rest. Instead they were handed mail shirts, helmets, and scabbarded swords.
Most of the boys were excited enough at the prospect of receiving the weaponry that they forgot about their fatigue. Devin wasn’t quite so eager—the mail shirts were heavy, and the skull-cap uncomfortable. Devin’s mail shirt had a palm-sized red circle on the right breast to mark him as a squad leader.
“Try not to cut yourselves, scrants,” the Captain warned. “If I see any one of you swinging one of those swords at another man, I’ll personally tromp you. You understand? You’re to practice wearing the mail and weapon so you can get used to it. Training will come later.”
Devin slid his sword from its sheath dubiously. He tested its blade—it wasn’t very sharp, nor was it all that heavy.
“Training swords,” he guessed. Most of the Guards carried massive weapons—huge two-bladed swords or, more popularly, war hammers. The hammer was the favored weapon of the Sserin military—it was said to be an impractical weapon for most armies, but Sseria’s Kkell-enhanced muscles allowed the men to use larger weapons more efficiently. The other men also wore armor that was much thicker than what Devin’s boys had been given.
Tekke didn’t seem to have noticed the weapon discrepancies. The short boy was waving his sword in front of himself with eager eyes. The other boys were doing likewise—Devin suspected that the Captain’s warning that the boys not try sparring with one another would quickly be broken.
“Sir?” Devin asked with a loud voice.
The Captain looked up. “Yes, Guard?” he asked.
“When do we take the Kkell Oath, sir?”
The Captain frowned slightly. “Soon enough, soldier. You don’t need to worry about that right now.”
Devin paused. Soon enough? That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. From what he knew—which was, admittedly, very little—new recruits were immediately taken to the Holy Isle to swear the Oath. That was the only way that mere boys—the youngest only fourteen years old—could have a chance against fully-trained warriors. New recruits often weren’t entered into the Games until a year after they were joined the military.
Of course, most of what Devin knew was hearsay. The Eruntu were always eager for news of the Games, but Devin suspected that what they heard was garbled. Few of them had actually ever visited Shakall Hess, after all.
After lunch—saltmeat and saltbread, washed down by river water—the entire company paused for midday prayers. The Kkoloss Lords—the leader of whom Devin had learned was none other than Sarn Vas Sserin, the King’s first son and heir—went their own way. Kkoloss worship services were more intense and holy than those of simple Eruntu.
The company’s head priest, a younger Eruntu with a vigorous demeanor, gave a short speech on following the Emperor and the coming of the Mythwalker, then led the company in a short prayer. After that, the marching began again.
Being a squad leader didn’t seem to be much more than a pain. Devin was in charge of making certain his squad kept its place in line and that none of the men fell behind. At first he had been certain that the boys wouldn’t listen to him. After all, he was just Devin. Many of them knew who he was—they knew that he wasn’t worth following. However, the boys seemed too tired to care who was giving the orders, and Devin didn’t tell them to do much that they weren’t already doing on their own.
That night the boys had to erect their own tent. The Captain apparently expected them to know how to do it on their own, and there was a great deal of grumbling about the man. The boys claimed the captain never seemed to do anything but give orders. Devin tried to keep the complaints to a minimum—he suspected the captain wouldn’t be too happy to hear the boys speaking ill of him.
They finished long after the sun set, and most wanted to just go to bed and skip dinner. The captain, however, forbid them to sleep. He ordered Devin to organize the men and move to the mess wagon to eat. It was probably a good idea—the boys couldn’t skip meals with the amount of effort they were expending. However, the move didn’t increase the Captain’s popularity.
Devin herded the boys toward the mess wagon, waiting until the all had their dinner bowls before accepting one for himself. It was then, as he stood watching the boys eat their food by firelight, that Devin finally began to understand his father’s words.
The boys seemed to have forgotten that this was exactly what they had dreamt about for most of their young lives. They had been given weapons and armor, the equipment was already beginning to seem commonplace. The boys grumbled about the captain, about their tired legs, and about the poor-tasting food—just like the orchard workers had complained about the overseers, their work schedules, and their poor pay.
The boys eyed Devin curiously as they heard him chuckle softly to himself as he sipped his broth. They must have thought the fatigue was getting to him.
That night, Devin had trouble sleeping despite his fatigue. Around him the other boys snored and mumbled in their sleep, but Devin was wide awake. It had finally hit him. He was alone now—it would be years before he ever saw his mother again.
He didn’t want to admit his homesickness to himself. He had heard some of the other boys crying earlier, and had convinced himself he was stronger. Now that it had hit, however, he wasn’t so sure.
Oddly, he didn’t really feel like crying. He lay on his mat, staring into the air, watching a small lill swim through the open flap and at the side of the tent and begin to poke around the air above him. No, his wasn’t a crying feeling. It was different—more of an emptiness. He didn’t really know who he was any more, or what he was doing. He was in the Guard, but what did that really mean? He would spend the rest of his life fighting in the Games, earning glory for the King and his Kkoloss generals. What did that entail? Would he have winters off, like he had as an orchard worker? It hurt him incredibly that he might not be able to see his mother very often.
Eventually, Devin sighed and climbed to his feet, scaring the lill and sending it streaking away to hide behind a boy’s slumbering body. Devin made his way out of the tent then walked to the privy trench. On his way back he noticed that some of the regular soldiers were still awake, sitting around a fire. One of them was Devin’s captain, whose name he still didn’t know.
Just as Devin was about to return to his tent, the captain noticed him. The elder Eruntu nodded in greeting, then gestured for Devin to approach. Several of the other soldiers scooted aside as Devin walked up, and the captain nodded for Devin to have a seat.
“Can’t sleep, kid?” the captain asked.
“No, sir,” Devin said, regarding the seat by the fire with trepidation. Would it be appropriate for him to join with these experienced men?
“The first few nights are the hardest,” one of the other men noted with a raspy voice. “Especially if you’re the one in charge.”
“Have a seat, kid,” the Captain said.
Devin paused again. However, one of the other men spoke up, a soldier with a thick white beard. “It’s all right, kid. You’re a squad leader—you’re one of us.”
Eventually, Devin took the seat, grateful for the fire’s warmth against the night chill. One of the men handed him a cup of warmed broth.
“So, kid, what do you think of the Guard?” the captain asked.
“Frankly, sir, I’m not sure,” Devin said truthfully. “It sure does involve a lot of marching.”
The raspy-voiced man chuckled. “That’s the truth,” he mumbled, sipping at his own broth.
“Sir,” Devin began, broaching a topic he had been wondering about. “This squad leader thing, it’s not permanent, is it?”
The captain smiled. “No, it’s not,” he admitted. “It usually only lasts until we get the scrants to the Isle. Its a way to give the kids a bit of experience leading and following.”
Devin nodded, sipping his broth. The warm liquid seemed to heat his entire body. “So, that’s why your choice of leader was so arbitrary.”
The captain shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter who’s in charge, lad. The trip to the Isle will only take about a week. Even if an idiot ends up leading, the other boys won’t know any better. Besides, they begin to view themselves as a unit better if one of their own is their leader. That way they can do what he says and hate me instead.”
Devin smiled to himself. He’d suspected it was something like that.
“Of course,” the captain added, “sometimes we get lucky and pick a decent one out of the bunch.”
Devin blushed. “Sir, I’m not . . . I mean, you don’t know me yet. Just wait until you see me with a weapon. I’ll be horrible with it.”
“So will all the other boys,” one of the other men noted.
“Yes,” Devin agreed. “But they’ll get better and I won’t. You don’t understand—I’m not good at things. I’ve never been good at anything in my life.”
“It won’t matter, lad,” the Captain promised. “Being a good warrior helps make you a good leader, but it isn’t the only thing men look for. I think you’ll be surprised.”
Devin blushed again, drinking the last of his broth.
“Go get some sleep, kid,” the captain suggested. “You’re going to need your strength. I . . . don’t know for certain, but I don’t think your men are going to get a chance to swear the Oath any time soon.”
Devin paled. “What do you mean, sir?” he asked.
The captain shot a look to the other three men. Finally, he just shrugged. “I don’t know, lad,” he said. “Something’s going on. I hope you won’t have to see combat until you’re ready but . . . well, I might not be the one who makes that choice. Don’t worry about it—just see that your men learn how to use those swords of theirs.”
“Yes, sir,” Devin said slowly, handing back the cup. As he lay in bed that night, he realized that his conversation with the captain hadn’t done much to help his pensive mood. Eventually, he fell asleep anyway.
The captain was right, the trip did take about a week. Devin was also right, he proved to be his normal self when it came to learning weapons. He didn’t cut himself or drop his sword, but neither did he distinguish himself.
Not surprisingly, the stronger boys—Quillin and the others—proved to be the best fighters. Surprisingly, Tekke also proved proficient. He was quick, and his nervous temperament translated well to making instinctual parries and dodges.
Even after the better part of a week, the sword still didn’t feel comfortable in Devin’s hand. He lost sparrings more than he won them, and he began to suspect that the other boys were laughing at him behind his back. He wouldn’t have had to worry about it if he weren’t squad leader. Bitter feelings and training were forgotten, however, as they finally reached the inner sea—a thing that even a lifetime of stories hadn’t prepared the boys to experience.
Devin stared out across the blue expanse. He had never wanted for water—not with the river running right beside town. However, even the river was carefully controlled—much of its water had to be diverted to the Skaa fields. And, since rain could never be counted upon, the villagers had been forced to ration most of the year.
The Inner Sea amazed him. There was so much water—it seemed to go on forever. He couldn’t see the other side, of course—he couldn’t even see Shakall Hess. Farms and cities ringed the shore. The beaches of the Inner Sea were supposed to be the most fertile on the mainland.
Several large ships flying the Sserin flag sat at some docks a short distance away. The soldiers weren’t given time to carouse in the nearby towns—the captains immediately began to order them to line up on the docks and board the ships, according to their squad.
“We’re really going there,” Tekke whispered beside Devin as the boys were herded toward one of the ships. “The Holy Isle. We’re going to be Guards, Devin!”
Devin raised an eyebrow at the comment, standing aside as he counted heads to make certain every boy in his squad boarded the ship. He would have thought that the training, the marching, and the weapons would have been enough to convince Tekke. However, the eager boy’s eyes shone with the light of excitement. It was as if he hadn’t really believed what was happening until now.
Of course, it made sense. The Holy Isle, with its amberite palaces and Kkoloss cities, was spoken of with reverence all through Kkorimar. It was a place of legends—the place where the Demon God had finally been defeated. And, should the creature ever break free from its eternal prison, Shakall Hess was the place where the Mythwalker would appear to defeat it. The Holy Isle was also the place of the Games—a land of Kings and Kkell power. And Devin was going there. It was almost enough to make him forget his homesickness.
Devin had never been on a boat before, but the experience was much as he had imagined it. The strangest part was the idea that he was completely surrounded by water. However, the soldiers were ordered to remain below-decks, and so he didn’t have a chance to watch the waves as the boat sailed.
The trip took the better part of the day, and Devin suffered it only slightly better than his men. The holds were cramped, and the boys smelt of sweat, armor, and grime. Some of the boys busied themselves with games of Coins, others tried to sleep, and not a few grew sick from the boat’s rockings. Devin spent most of the trip trying to keep the sick ones from making the experience even more unpleasant for the rest of them.
By the time the light was waning, Devin felt the waves begin to grow smaller, and the boat eventually thumped into a dock. The boys began to press toward the front of the hold, eager to climb out and be free of the stifling confines. Devin tried to get them to maintain some semblance of a line, but all thoughts of order fled as soon as the traps opened above. Devin gave up with a sigh, leaning back against the ship’s hull as his men pushed their way into the fresh air. He could heard them tromp across the deck above and down the plank off of the ship.
Devin waited until the cargo hold was completely empty, the room hollow and dark save for the diminishing light provided by a couple of tiny portholes. Eventually, he hefted himself onto the ladder, climbing up into the light.
And was stunned speechless for the second time in one day.
The land before him was covered with trees—trees he had never seen before. They weren’t gnarled pines, or even the thin-limbed aspens that grew near the river. These trees were enormous, reaching high into the sky. Devin had once seen a pinion twice the height of a man, and many qualla trees grew nearly that tall. These trees made even those giants seem tiny. They had broad, green leaves. In fact, everything was so green that it looked almost sickly to Devin. The ground itself, where there weren’t trees, was green—even the shrubs were green. The colors almost seemed too bright to be real.
Devin stared at the lushness in wonder, unable to understand how there could possibly be enough water to support so many plants.
The boats had docked at a relatively small town; it was little more than a couple of large storage buildings. Devin frowned. He had always heard that the Holy Island was heavily populated, yet this town was even smaller than his home. In fact, it didn’t even really look like a town to him—there were no houses, and very few people. Where were the majestic palaces and sculpted cities Devin had heard so much about?
A short distance down the docks the Kkoloss were overseeing the unloading of their war horses. One of the group—Lord Ssunder—strode quickly down the shore toward Devin’s men, who had joined the growing group of unloaded soldiers.
“Captains, keep your men moving!” Lord Ssunder ordered. He looked much like the other Kkoloss to Devin—Prince Sarn Vas Sserin was by far the strongest, but they all seemed to have similar features. The only thing that set Ssunder apart was the short length of his red hair.
The Captains bustled about, and Devin finally realized that he was still standing on the ship’s deck. He hurried forward, joining the rest of the boys below as the captains ordered them into ranks.
Prince Sarn strode up, ignoring the Eruntu as he whispered quietly to Ssunder, nodding up toward the sky. Devin followed the prince’s gaze—the Kkoloss was motioning toward the sun, which was just disappearing below the horizon.
“We march in thirty minutes,” Prince Sarn announced.
Several of the captains raised eyebrows at the order, but none of them said anything. Devin, however, wasn’t so wise.
“We’re going to march at night?” Devin asked without thinking. His voice seemed to sound like a crack of thunder amongst the otherwise quiet soldiers.
Prince Sarn’s head snapped up, and he turned eyes on Devin. Devin felt himself grow chill beneath the Kkoloss’s harsh gaze.
What was I thinking? Devin chastised himself, immediately looking down with shame. He knew better than to question a Kkoloss—especially the son of the King himself. Every Eruntu knew better than to do such a thing.
The captain came to his rescue. “Why, of course we’re going to march at night, squad leader,” he said. “It will be good for the men to get some exercise—they’re restless after the long trip.”
Devin nodded, “Of course, sir,” he said.
Prince Sarn eyed Devin for a moment longer, then walked off, whispering quietly with Lord Ssunder as they moved.
“That was foolish, boy,” the captain warned. “You should know better than to question a Kkoloss. And the prince at that!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Devin said with downcast eyes. However, when he looked up, his gaze fell on his group of boys. They didn’t look restless—in fact, they looked sick and a little fatigued from their extended time being packed in the ships.
The captain was also studying the men. His eyes were troubled.
Devin frowned. “What’s wrong, sir?”
The Captain turned toward Devin, immediately masking the dissetlement in his face. “Nothing, lad,” he said. “Go get your squad and move them out of the way of the packmen. The men have half an hour to rest; you might as well use it.”
Devin moved to obey. However, despite the captain’s assurances, he knew that something was bothering the man. Devin’s time studying the orchard workers had taught him to tell when a person was unsettled—the captain looked like Gellen had when one of his children was sick. The captain also seemed . . . uncomfortable, as if he weren’t certain what was going to happen next.
“Sir?” Devin asked as the man walked away.
The captain turned, raising an eyebrow.
“Is this the dock the ships usually bring new recruits?” Devin asked.
The Captain paused. “No, lad,” he finally admitted. “Usually the new recruits are brought directly to the Imperial Capital, Ambrel. The Guard barracks for the various kingdoms sit just outside the city.”
“How far are we from the capital?” Devin asked.
The captain shrugged. “I’ve never been here before,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too far, though. Perhaps half a day’s march. Now, go back to your men and make certain they’re ready to go.”
Devin rose from his bed roll, stretching. The dawn was barely breaking, but a week in the Guard had already accustomed to him to getting up early. He was a little more tired than normal—he had, after all, only gotten about four hours of sleep. However, the fatigue was minor—his body was so used to getting up at dawn that it awoke of its own avail before the morning trump.
He picked his way past his sleeping men and stepped out into the light. The air was much more humid here on the island—in fact, he had found the night strangely warm. Back on the mainland, nights were usually cold no matter what time of year it was. Here, however, the spring air had been muggy and unnaturally warm even at midnight.
Devin barely remembered arriving at the clearing the night before. His men and he had sleepily erected their tent beneath the odd canopy of foliage. It had been a hard march—mostly because of the uneven ground and odd undergrowth. The group had followed a wide path through the trees, but even still the going had been difficult.
However, Devin felt invigorated after the rest. If the captain was right, they should be nearing the capital now. Memories of the difficult march were replaced with thoughts of the beautiful amberite palaces and magnificent gardens the capital was said to hold.
The camp was already moving—as early as Devin rose, there were always those who got up earlier. He strolled through the camp, seeking out the breakfast wagons. Like many of the Captains and squad leaders, Devin usually tried to eat before the bulk of the army rose.
He found the wagons eventually—though he had to wind his way into another clearing a short distance away. As he accepted his bowl of food, he noticed an oddity. The soup was being served cold this morning. In fact, there were no fires burning anywhere in the camp. He had been to tired the night before to even think of building a fire—fortunately, the stars had provided enough light for tent-building.
Devin shrugged at the oddity, gulping down the soup despite its lack of heat—for some reason he suspected he would need the strength of a good meal in his belly. As he walked back toward his tent, he noticed another oddity. The captains were walking from tent to tent and waking the men personally.
No trump, Devin realized. No fire either. We’re hiding from someone.
The realization surprised him. Suddenly, a lot of things made sense—why the Kkoloss had decided to gather extra boys this year, why they had trained so hard the week before, why they had arrived at a different dock. They were already in the Games—they were some sort of secret force the King was using to his advantage.
Hess! Devin thought, not certain whether to be excited or nervous. His men didn’t have the training to stand against regular Guard members—they hadn’t even sworn the Kkell Oath yet. Still, Devin did feel a measure of pride. If they were a secret army, then theirs could very well be the deciding factor that won King Sserin a victory.
But, Devin thought, pausing as another thought occurred to him, is this legal? He didn’t know much about the Games—not really. The rules were very strict, as was most of life in Kkorimar. The Games were always supervised by the priesthood, and it was expressly forbidden for any Eruntu to harm a Kkoloss.
Devin thought quietly, trying to remember what he had heard about the Games from other Guard members during the last week. The Kings involved in any particular Game were allowed to meet together before hand and draw up a list of rules that both must follow. Usually, the battles were contained to the island, and often to specific battlefields.
Devin shrugged. The following of battle laws was a thing for the Kkoloss. Guard members just did what they were told.
“Devin,” the captain’s voice said for a short distance away. Devin turned, pushing his way through a large, broad-leafed kind of shrubbery and scaring away a couple of lills. The captain stood a short distance away, beside several other older soldiers.
“Wake your men, lad,” the captain said. “Tell them to go get breakfast, then put on their armor and be ready to march. Have them be quick—and quiet—about it.”
“Yes, sir,” Devin said immediately, the man’s orders reinforcing what he had already discovered. “Sir, we’re not going to have to wait a year to see battle, are we?”
“No, lad,” the captain said, his face unreadable. “I’m afraid not. Maybe I’m wrong, but . . . well, we’ll try and keep your boys at the back. When the time comes, just keep them organized. The marching they did last week will be of more use to them than anything else—as long as they don’t break at the first sign of danger, you shouldn’t fare too poorly.”
He’s lying, Devin realized, looking into the man’s eyes. For some reason, Devin could tell—he could see it in the Captain’s face. He expected the boys to get slaughtered.
“Yes, sir,” Devin said quietly.
Devin wasn’t certain if the other boys understood what was about to occur or not. They certainly had a sense that something abnormal was going on. Most of them rose that morning excited, although as the day—and the marching—wore on, they lost a little of their enthusiasm to the mundanity of the walking.
They continued on their forest path; the trees showed no hint of thinning. After about two hours, Devin began to wonder if he had been wrong. Perhaps nothing was going to happen this day—perhaps they would simply spend it marching. As squad leader, Devin marched at the front of his men, who in turn happened to be near the front of the column. So it was that he was in a perfect position to see something he had never thought would exist on the Holy Isle.
The army began to turn a bend in the forest, and ran directly into a group of Skaa picking berries beside the path. The troops halted suddenly, and Devin worked his way forward to see what was going on. The Skaa parted before the warriors and fell to their knees bowing, as required whenever they saw a Kkoloss.
Skaa, here? Devin thought with wonder. But, as he considered it, he decided there wasn’t any real reason why they shouldn’t be present. He had thought that the lesser creatures would be forbidden to set foot on the Holy Island. Still, it appeared that some of the Houses kept Skaa servants—the creatures wore the blue livery of a House Devin didn’t recognize.
Devin looked closely at the creatures. They looked like other Skaa he had seen. They were like Eruntu, though they were a little shorter, perhaps five feet tall at the most. Like all Skaa, their skin was criss-crossed with blue vein-like lacings, and they were bald.
Prince Sarn sat astride his horse at the front of the column. He was frowning.
“This path was supposed to be clear,” he said, turning to one of the captains.
“I’m sorry, My Lord,” the captain replied. “I don’t know how the scouts missed them. But . . . they’re only Skaa, My Lord.”
“Even Skaa have mouths,” Prince Sarn declared with a flat voice. “The creatures will have to be destroyed.”
Devin felt himself grow cold with horror. True, they were just Skaa, but . . . The poor creatures simply continued to kneel—Eruntu were allowed to learn, but not speak, the Kkoloss tongue. Skaa weren’t even allowed that much. They didn’t know that the Lord had just pronounced their deaths.
“You, squad leader,” the Prince snapped, turning toward Devin.
Devin looked up with surprise. He wasn’t certain if the prince remembered him specifically from the event the day before, or if it was just Devin’s squad leader’s uniform. Either way, for some reason the prince had picked him out of the group of soldiers at the front of the column.
“Yes, my lord?” Devin replied uncertainly.
“Take your squad and kill these Skaa,” the prince ordered, his eyes flat. “Make certain not a single one is left to report our position to House Kkeris. Quickly, now.”
Devin stood, stupefied. The prince stared at him, his fine featured Kkoloss face demanding.
Oh, Hess! Devin thought with despair. I can’t . . .
“Come on, lad,” the captain whispered from behind him. “It has to be done.”
Devin turned. The captain had gathered a group of younger, but experienced, soldiers—ostensibly to be Devin’s ‘squad.’ The Kkoloss probably wouldn’t know that they weren’t actually Devin’s men. At least the rest of the boys would be spared.
The men moved forward, but the prince’s eyes were still on Devin.
Did you obey the Kkoloss in every deed? The words of the priest’s inquires, asked of Devin every day of orchard work over the last two years, rang in Devin’s mind. The Eruntu were tainted, the Kkoloss chosen. It was Devin’s duty to do whatever he was asked, without questioning. True judgement and discernment lay in the eyes of the Chosen.
Slowly, Devin felt his body move. He slid his sword from its sheath and approached a Skaa man. The prince was still watching him.
The Skaa didn’t move. It just continued to kneel subserviently.
It must know what’s coming! Devin thought. Skaa are slow of mind, but not that stupid. They must realize they are about to die. Why don’t they run?
However, Devin knew the answer. The Skaa knew their place. Their only hope for redemption for their millennia-old abandonment of Hess was complete obedience. No Skaa would disobey a Kkoloss, not even to save his own life.
Devin raised his sword. Run! He pled in his mind. If the creature escaped into the jungle, then Devin could flee after it. Devin would be able to escape the prince’s eyes, his demanding, authoritarian eyes.
It didn’t run. Devin stood uncertainly beneath Prince Sarn’s demanding gaze. Devin had to obey—he was Eruntu. At the last moment, the Skaa looked up, its human eyes meeting Devin’s. There was emotion in those eyes—resignation, confusion. Fear.
His sword slid into the Skaa man’s belly.
Devin cried out, dropping the weapon, horrified at what he had done. The Skaa fell to the ground with a quiet groan, his blood—blood as red as that of and Eruntu—bubbling forth to stain the forest floor.
With a moan of despair, Devin fell to his knees, placing his hand against the man’s wound, trying futilely to stop the flow of blood.
What have I done! He thought with a panicked mind. The Skaa jerked in his arms, and Devin watched with agony as it died. The first man Devin had ever killed—a Skaa. A helpless, obedient Skaa. Devin felt filthy.
Around him, the work of death continued. Devin paid it little heed. He just sat, stunned, staring at the corpse of the man he had killed, his hands stained red with its blood.
After an eternity of looking into the Skaa’s dead, accusatory eyes, a firm hand pulled Devin to his feet.
“Come, lad,” the captain’s voice said, leading Devin back toward his place in line.
“No,” voice suddenly informed in Kkoloss.
Devin looked up. Prince Sarn still stood with his Kkoloss advisors, looking over a map. The rest of the column had pulled back slightly, and had obviously been ordered to take a short break. Several Eruntu were pulling the Skaa corpses into the jungle foliage, though blood still stained both sides of the path.
“Take that one away,” the Prince said absently, waving toward Devin. “I sense a hint of insubordination in him that I find inappropriate.”
“My Lord,” the captain said, frowning. “He is young an inexperienced, but he did as you asked.”
The prince looked up suddenly, his lips turning down slightly. “Are you arguing with me, captain?”
“No, My Lord,” the captain said, immediately turning his eyes down.
“Good,” the prince said, turning back to his maps. “Place him in the prison cart, captain, for all to see. I will not have a man beneath me whom I cannot trust.”
Devin stood, stunned, as he was led away from the front of the line. His mind still hadn’t recovered from what he had been forced to do—he barely heard the Prince’s order. He allowed himself to be thrown into the detention wagon—a carriage-like construction with bars on all sides. His captain watched the process with sad eyes.
Devin bore the imprisonment a dull mind and shocked emotions. It appeared that whatever the army was about to face, Devin would not take part.