Jason and his challenger raised their training swords. They saluted each other beneath a high sun. A flock of whitebirds went flapping from one tower to another.
The challenger attacked.
He was not an apprentice, and it showed: his strikes were all anger, no strategy. Master Tobias said that strategy was what separated a warrior from a fool with a sword. A warrior thought about where to cut. An angry fool with a sword just cut.
And got cut down for his efforts.
The challenger had size over Jason, standing at least a foot taller. Reach, too. Jason backed away, deflecting the blows as they landed heavy and swift, the wild swings of an angry fool of poor birth, some pitiful stable boy who hoped to impress the warriors present and perhaps be elevated above his lot in life. It had happened before –- Jason himself was living proof -- but it would not happen today.
The stable boy overextended. Jason caught him in the side with a blow that brought him to his knees. He tried to stay up, using the training sword as support. Jason kicked it away and the boy fell back, holding his side.
"Mercy mi’lord," the boy said. "Mercy."
The stable boy was entirely at his mercy. Jason knew it. The stable boy knew it. Everyone here knew it. Jason looked him up and down. Dumb bastard, too stupid to do anything but swing a club for some farmer. Brigands would kill him within a year, if he was lucky. Jason used his training sword to flip the boy’s faceplate up.
"Mercy," the boy said again.
Jason looked up. The Masters were sitting in a row, watching. Master Tobias had told him that when your opponent sought mercy, you granted it to him. A warrior did not needlessly take life. Practice fights were supposed to teach you the lessons you needed for real fights.
And Jason remembered well the first lesson he’d learned. His opponent hadn’t cared that it was Jason’s first fight or that Jason was several inches shorter; that apprentice had beaten bruises into Jason, wailing on him until Master Adnon thought he had enough.
Master Tobias hadn’t spoken of mercy after that fight, back when Jason was an unproven boy. Now Jason was fourteen, a man, and soon he would have real fights. Jason often thought of wielding true steel, against men out to take his life. Kill or be killed, that was the life of a warrior. Mercy? But Jason knew the truth. A real warrior showed no mercy.
Master Tobias was leaning forward, chin on his hands.
Jason lowered his sword.
"You fought well."
He looked away as he said the words.
The stable boy’s friends helped him out of the practice yard, no doubt filling his head with lies about how well he’d done.
But how could they not? You lied to him first.
When the spectators were gone, Master Tobias came over. Jason bowed. "Master."
Jason stood up straight.
"Do you imagine you did well against that boy?"
"Boy? He was bigger than me."
"And two years younger. You are the first opponent he’s ever faced."
"If we had real swords, I would have been the last."
"Would you now. You would have killed him then, even after he asked for mercy?"
Jason gripped his training sword tighter. Tobias loved to waste his time with stupid questions.
"I would have killed him during the fight. You saw it."
"As it stands, you just bruised a rib perhaps. Have you seen a man die before, Jason?"
Jason held in a sigh and said, "No. You know I haven’t."
"If you had, you wouldn’t be so eager to see blood spill." Tobias reached up and touched the patch covering his right eye. "I was once eager too."
A story Jason knew by heart. Some farmers had risen up in rebellion against the king. Tobias had led the attack himself, and though they put down the rebellion and Tobias was covered in glory, Tobias had given his eye for that glory. Not a fair trade, if you asked Jason.
A real warrior wouldn’t have lost an eye.
Tobias sighed, and for a second Jason thought Tobias had learned what he was thinking. If so, Jason could look forward to some humiliating duties. But his master simply said, "My words may mean nothing to you now, but give yourself a few years. Someday you will heed my advice."
Tobias dismissed him and as Jason turned to go he looked up. A man stood in a window, eating an apple. Watching him.
Jason spent the afternoon at his lessons, studying the history of their realm, the kingdom of Ethicas and the great wizard protecting them, Joroku morgu’hatna. Morgu’hatna was a leftover from the old speech, a title of high prestige granted only to the eleven great wizards. Jason could name them all, and he did: Joroku, Elhorn, Kiruth . . .
Eventually he closed the book and leaned back in his chair. He remembered little of his life before Tobias had plucked him from the streets. He didn’t know his parents. Tobias had never volunteered the information. The few times Jason had asked, Tobias had only said it doesn’t matter. You’re an apprentice now.
And perhaps Tobias was right. High birth or low birth, all apprentices lived in the same quarters: one bed, one clotheschest, one window. Jason watched the sun set over the distant mountains and watchtowers, thinking of war. And in these moments Jason could see his future self: a great warrior wielding an equally great sword, slaying an enemy from across the world, a patchwork abomination come to consume mankind. He was thinking about his glory -- which he would enjoy with both eyes -- when someone knocked on his door. He opened it.
A squire bowed.
"Beg pardon mi’lord, but your presence is requested."
"Mi’lord Tobias requests your presence."
"Tobias?" Jason said, biting back the rest of his words. It was suppertime. Did the old man not know that? "Did he say what he wants?"
"Mi’lord Tobias requests your presence."
"I know that." The squire shrank back. Stupid boy, he’d be polishing armor till the day he died. "Did he tell you why?"
"He requests you eat supper with him, mi’lord."
Jason was so stunned that he didn’t notice the squire take his leave. Supper? For supper, apprentices had a place. It was called the mess hall. If this was for another lecture . . .
Jason put on his nice clothes. Two bridges spanned a quiet stream, leading to the Masters’ Tower, one for proven men, the other for apprentices. Jason made his way across the bridge for apprentices. The masked watchman challenged him. At this hour, the watchguard wore fox masks. Hour of the Fox.
Jason bowed, recited his oath and was granted entry.
Tobias had his own chambers, a massive sprawl that could have held ten of Jason’s quarters. A candle burned small and dim in the middle of the table and across from the old man sat an even older man in forest clothes, a black bandana tied around his forehead.
Jason bowed. "You do me an honor by requesting my presence."
"This isn’t an honor," Tobias said, his voice sludgy. He had a cup in his hand and from here Jason could smell it. "Shut the door behind you and sit. You’ll be honored to keep your mouth shut."
Jason shut the door and sat at Tobias’s little table. A pockmarked servant brought out plates of meat and vegetables. He set a cup down for Jason and started filling it with wine.
"Wine?" said the older man.
Tobias shrugged. "Why not? Boy needs a little hair on his balls."
The men laughed. Jason took a quick bite of his food, a quicker sip of his wine. It had a foul taste. But the older man was watching him, so Jason took another sip, longer, keeping his face calm.
"You don’t have to try on my behalf," the man said. "Everyone knows Tobias’s wine tastes like spoilt horse piss."
Tobias raised his cup, laughing. "And you bastards know that’s how I like it."
The older man raised his cup too. They waited.
"Are you a man?" Tobias asked.
Tobias sighed. "See what I have to deal with?"
"Let it go," the man said. "Have you forgotten what you were like at his age?"
"I haven’t drunk enough wine for that yet."
"Cup," the man said, shaking his. "Toast."
Jason grabbed his own cup, nearly knocking it over. He raised it.
The men emptied their cups and Jason did the same, forcing the foul shit down his throat. Spoilt horse piss. You couldn’t think up a better description.
"Not to worry, son," the man said. "When you reach Tobias’s age, it’ll go down like water."
Now Jason laughed too. A warmth spread across his face. The servant boy refilled their cups. This wasn’t the first time Jason had tried alcohol, but it was the first time he’d drunk it like you were supposed to: with men. Men drank. Better yet, warriors drank, before battle to calm their nerves and after battle, to celebrate. He lifted his cup, and as he brought it to his lips, he caught sight of Tobias in the light of the candle, unmoving like a lone sentry standing watch. Sweat rolled down his face, soaking his eyepatch. Great warrior? Jason was going to be a great warrior. Great warriors did not wear eyepatches. Great warriors drank.
So Jason drank.
He emptied the cup in one go. It went down a little easier this time. The servant boy was there refilling his cup and the man nodded at him.
"Did you take to the sword like you’re taking to the bottle?"
Like any young man, Jason’s first few sword lessons had ended in disaster. But there was no need to tell him this. Jason said, "I am improving every day . . . my lord?"
Tobias chuckled, spitting up wine. The man shook his head.
"You aren’t a lord?"
"Perhaps of a bow, a quiver and a curvesword."
"Boy," Tobias took another swallow of wine, "you have the honor of addressing Vandal, First Ranger of Thrall."
Vandal lowered his head and tapped his bandana twice. "Do you know of Thrall?"
"It’s on the western edge of Ethicas," Jason said. "So it too falls under the protection of Joroku morgu’hatna."
"Well," Vandal said after a moment. "Young man knows his realm."
"Yes, yes, that’s all well and good," Tobias said as the servant boy refilled his cup. "But we didn’t come here for geography lessons. What news do you bring?"
All joy left Vandal’s face. He adjusted his bandana and leaned forward, tracing the edge of his cup. "Kiruth has murdered Archmage Wester and his entire council."
Jason leaned forward too. Mages were limited to simple spells. The few who came to Ethicas stayed close to the airship docks, performing tricks for gold. Against a great wizard like Kiruth, a mage -- even an Archmage -- wouldn’t stand a chance.
Tobias scoffed. "The mages will shake their fists, but there’s little they can do."
"Kiruth lied to them. He brought Archmage Wester and his council to his palace for the presumed purpose of a feast. Once there, he fed them enchanted food, and at his command, they all caught fire. It is said that Archmage Wester was trying to cast a healing spell as his tongue burnt to ash in his mouth."
The table was quiet. Tobias reached up to his eyepatch as if to touch it, then lowered his hand and took his winecup in a tight grip.
"Archmage . . . what’s his name? Yanny? Yinny?"
"Yancey, yes, that’s it. He won’t stand for it"
"You’re right," Vandal said. "He went to Kiruth demanding justice. Perhaps he thought his title might mean something to a great wizard who will live forever." Vandal took his finger from his cup. "The great wizard turned him into a pig and forced a peasant family to eat him."
The candle was burning past the midway point, a leaning stump in a pool of wax. Tobias reached up and squeezed his eyepatch free of sweat.
"Well, that’s unfortunate for them." He downed his cup.
"What?" Tobias finished another cup. "Some mages are dead. What of it?"
Vandal gave Tobias a hard stare. Jason recognized it, the stare he’d practiced many times in front of mirrors, in his dreams.
It was the stare of a warrior.
"Archmage Yancey was in service to Elhorn."
At the mention of her name, Jason sat up straight. The great wizard Elhorn presided over a realm far north of here, her pandemonium fortress in the floating city of Santania. If the mess hall rumors were true, she was the only great wizard to openly sire bastard wizards with mortal men. The other great wizards disliked her, and some bastard wizards had risen up in rebellion against her.
Vandal kept talking. "Elhorn has sealed off her waygates."
Jason expected a reaction from that, but Tobias simply chuckled. "So? Is she -- "
Vandal snatched the cup from his hands and flung it across the room. "Look at me, Tobias. Look. At. Me."
Tobias looked at him, sweating. Across the room servants quickly brushed up the remains of Tobias’s cup.
"Elhorn has sealed off her waygates. Do you understand what that means?"
When Tobias didn’t respond, Jason spoke up. "No one enters, no one leaves."
Tobias grunted. "I’d forgotten you were still here. Perhaps it’s past your bedtime."
"Let him stay," Vandal said. "If he’s big enough to hold a sword, he should know what’s coming."
"There’s nothing coming," Tobias said, and Jason had never heard him sound so unsure before. Nothing coming? One great wizard had murdered several mages and another had sealed off her waygates. Something was coming. They called it war.
"You look terrified, Tobias."
"Your apprentice looks like he just laid with his first woman."
"That’s because he’s never experienced battle before. I have. You too, and you should share my feelings."
"Who says I don’t? But I’d rather not drown in my cups to avoid the truth."
"So who’s talking of war?"
"Anyone with a weapon. You know how they are, one man says something in the mess hall, the next, and the next . . . until the grass is pink and the sky is purple."
"And you’re certain this isn’t such talk?"
"Certain. Elhorn has sealed off her waygates, and as for Kiruth . . . do you doubt it?"
Tobias squeezed more sweat from his eyepatch. "He should have been killed years ago, and Elhorn, she has enough problems without war adding to it."
"The more problems that pile up, the less options you have." Vandal’s winecup was still full and he wasn’t sweating. "Two more bastard wizard clans have joined Gareth."
Vandal spread his hands out. "All I know is what I hear, and none of it bodes well."
Conversation was dead for a moment longer, but then Vandal finally touched his wine. The servant boy brought Tobias another winecup and refilled Jason’s. But Jason didn’t drink. He listened to them, two men, two warriors, and he listened not to what they said but how they said it. These were men who had seen battle before. They had seen other men die they had killed other men with live steel in their hands and Jason, now in his year of manhood, listened closely to their stories of battle and he could see himself, decades hence, recounting the times he led soldiers into battle against the mad wizard Kiruth. He knew the value of such thoughts but kept listening anyways, spinning his own tales from the ones passing back and forth on winesoaked breath.
It was late when Vandal took his leave and Jason bowed, asking for his. Tobias was swaying. His eyepatch clung to his sweaty face like a parasite.
"War," he burped, "there won’t be no war." He burped again.
And later, when Jason was in bed, he thought, You’re wrong. There will be war. I will fight in it.
And I won’t return wearing an eyepatch either.