Am I ready to kill?
A cloud of swirling mist sighed out between Kuneprius’ lips, rising into the night to smear the glow of the winter moon. He watched it dissipate, then exhaled another long plume, blowing it out the way he’d seen the Brothers do when they smoked their pipes filled with sweetweed. Instead of swirling like the wreaths he’d watched them create, his breath came out a ragged column.
Kuneprius cocked his head toward the urgent sound, an apology teetering on the tip of his tongue. At the last instant, he remembered himself and said nothing, pressing himself flatter against the side of the hill. Fildrian lay less than ten man-lengths away, but the Brother’s black hood and robe hid him in the darkness; despite his proximity, empty loneliness ached in Kuneprius’ chest.
The lad grasped the short sword’s hilt tighter, testing its uncomfortable weight. Though he’d seen the seasons turn but twelve times, he’d trained with this very sword for six of them. The temple blacksmith formed it with him in mind, the grip molded to the shape of his fingers. Its length and weight had proved too much for him when he first held it, but he’d grown into it, its size ideal for a boy of his age. He shifted minutely, searching for comfort and understanding that the prospect of swinging the weapon to wound rather than in practice caused his unease, not the sword itself.
Will I be able to wield it when the time comes? Can I kill if I need to?
He’d never been sent on a hunt, so the sword’s edge hadn’t tasted blood other than his own when he got clumsy or distracted while sharpening the blade. He shifted his grip on the leather-wrapped hilt, hand slipping with the slickness of the sweat on his palm. For so many seasons, he’d trained for this moment; he knew he’d kill if the need arose.
I hope it doesn’t.
The rattle-clunk of wooden wheels on dirt track rolled along the shallow valley and up the hill to Kuneprius’ ears. Soon, he’d need wonder no more.
The apprentice angled his head to peer down the weed-clogged road, squinting as he attempted to pick out the wagons in the darkness. The lanterns hanging at the front of each, bobbing and swinging with the horses’ gaits, made it easy. He counted them silently.
One, two, three…four?
His heart lurched. Brother Fildrian had said to expect three—two carts and a covered wagon. Kuneprius’ gaze flickered to the spot where he expected to find the expedition leader’s dark shape, but he saw nothing. He glanced back to the track, the horse-drawn vehicles drawing closer and, in the glow of their lanterns, he counted two covered wagons.
A horse nickered and a high-pitched voice spoke words to calm the animal, their meaning lost in the rumble of the wheels, but the intent clear in their timbre. This must be the tone of a woman’s voice, the first he’d heard.
Kuneprius wiped his slick palm on the front of his coat, hand pressing against the hard, smooth surface of the leather chest piece hidden beneath. When he breathed in through his nose, he inhaled the tang of the oil used to keep it supple.
Brother Fildrian faced Kuneprius, his pale cheek a faint smudge beneath the dark hood. Moving precisely, carefully, the expedition leader stood and gestured for the apprentice to do the same. Kuneprius obeyed. Around them, cloth stirred against skin and sandals scuffed in frozen grass as the others rose, as well.
Fildrian descended the hill deftly, traversing from one narrow tree trunk to the next, leaving Kuneprius to wait as the other Brothers followed. A thrill of fearful excitement stirred in his gut. He tightened his grip on the short sword’s hilt, licked his lips, and swallowed the excess of saliva flooding his mouth.
Tonight I become a Brother. Tonight I become a man.
When the last of the ten robed men passed him, Kuneprius followed, concentrating on the placement of his feet, moving with the stealth he’d learned from Fildrian during training. Truthfully, the racket made by the clatter of horses’ hooves and wheels on stones and dirt would have hidden the tuneless din should he break into song and dance a jig. He’d do neither, but the thought made him stifle a nervous chuckle.
Brother Fildrian arrived at the bottom of the hill and crouched in the tall weeds beside the cart track. The others arrayed themselves on either side of the leader and Kuneprius stopped well back, secreted behind a tree. He hefted the sword, ready to fulfill his role to catch any who got through his companions in an attempt to flee.
But which wagon contains our prize?
He shouldn’t concern himself—Fildrian knew. Twelve turns of the seasons before, the expedition leader had been involved in the raid which brought Kuneprius himself into the Fatherhood; one of many times he’d liberated male children from a Goddess’ caravan. If anyone knew the ways of the Mothers, Brother Fildrian did. Kuneprius passed the time by counting his heartbeats.
Eight. Nine. Ten.
The lead cart drew close enough for him to see the sleek lines of the horse pulling it. Beyond the animal, the lantern hanging beside the cart’s driver shone on her face, reflecting in the woman’s eyes and outlining her features in its warm glow. Kuneprius swallowed hard.
He didn’t expect a woman to be so different from men.
Her hair—the deep red-brown of a chestnut in the moonlight—hung well past her shoulders in a manner not permitted of a Brother. Many of the apprentices, like Kuneprius himself, wore their hair longer, but not so long as hers. Small nose, smooth skin, full lips. The sight of her caused a flutter in the lad’s gut he’d never experienced.
What’s wrong with me?
His inexplicably dry lips parted and his sandpaper tongue brushed their surface. As he gazed upon the woman—girl, really; she didn’t appear many turns older than Kuneprius—the stirring in his gut spread. It spilled into his chest, speeding his breath, and crept into his loins. His man-thing began to harden, the way it often was when he woke in the mornings, prepared to make his offering to the Small Gods. He glanced at his breeches, then back at the girl, who was closer now, and noticed gentle curves hidden beneath her smock. His confused feelings grew. He crossed his legs to hide his confusion, but doing so increased his discomfort.
The girl’s cart rumbled past the spot where Brother Fildrian and the others hid, and the men remained secreted in the tall grass, waiting. The wheels of the first covered wagon clattered past; the second drew even with them. Brother Fildrian raised his hand, signaling the attack party, and they sprang out of the weeds.
Horses whinnied, one of the drivers screamed—not a shriek of fear, but a signal, Kuneprius realized. At the sound of her call, two armed warriors of the Goddess burst out of the first covered wagon, four more out of the second, catching the Fatherhood’s raiders by surprise.
Kuneprius’ eyes widened as he watched the women pounce on his companions. Metal clanged against metal, horses pranced and neighed. A tall Goddess warrior with a shaved head knocked Brother Imir’s sword from his hand, then skewered him. She pulled her blade free and a gout of dark blood spilled from the young man’s gut before he slumped to the dirt.
Hand gripping his sword’s hilt tighter than it should, Kuneprius took one step toward the fight, then hesitated. In his head, he heard Fildrian’s instructions: guard the flank; let no one pass; do not desert your post. But did he foresee the women bearing weapons? Was this the way it always happened?
Kuneprius slid forward another step. A woman screamed and fell, a gash on her leg; Brother Xeoru swung his sword two-handed and split her skull. Kuneprius flinched and looked away, found the cart driver’s gaze upon him. She climbed out of her seat, pulled a long dagger from a fold in her smock.
Panicked, Kuneprius returned his attention to the fight and realized the other drivers had abandoned their seats, too. Weapons filled their hands as they stalked toward the skirmish. Their addition to the warriors of the Goddess evened the numbers, swung favor away from the Brothers and squarely to the middle.
Until an axe separated Brother Xeoru’s head from his shoulders and a spear poked a hole through Brother Ategar’s chest.
For a space of heartbeats he forgot to count, Kuneprius watched, feet acting as though frozen to the ground. Blood spilled on the frosted dirt, painted the weeds beside the track the color of rust. One after another the fighters fell, Brothers and women alike, until three remained: Brother Fildrian; the tall, bald warrior woman; and the pretty cart driver.
The two Sisters stalked Fildrian, spinning him in a tight circle. One lunged, setting him off balance. He flailed and the tip of his sword caught the young one, opening a slash across her forearm. Kuneprius gasped. The girl dropped her dagger and clutched the wound, a pained expression creasing her smooth brow.
Finally, Kuneprius wrested control of his feet back from the grip of fear. He took a step toward the fray as Fildrian engaged the bald woman, his back turned toward the injured cart driver.
The warriors’ swords met, the clang of their blades reverberating in the chill night air. Kuneprius forced himself another pace, his sandal-clad feet whispering in the tall grass. His heart pulsed in his ears, loud and painful, distracting. He blinked hard to dispel the discomfort. When his eyes opened, the cart driver had retrieved a sword from the ground and crept up behind Brother Fildrian.
“Brother,” Kuneprius called, but his voice caught in his dry throat, cracked and fell to pieces.
Fildrian parried an attack from the warrior and lunged, running his blade through her gut. They stood frozen for a heartbeat, the two combatants staring into each other's eyes as though sharing a final moment, a sliver of respect, then he wrenched his sword free with a twist. The woman’s knees buckled, spilling her to the ground. Fildrian turned, a smile on his lips.
And the cart driver slashed his throat.
Kuneprius rushed forward, realizing he’d waited too long. When he needed it most, his courage failed him, and now ten Brothers lay dead with no one to blame but him. He gritted his teeth and growled in the back of his throat as he raced for the girl, using anger to drown his fear.
She spun at the sound of his approach, Fildrian’s blood dripping from her borrowed blade. Kuneprius swung for her head, driving her back, and the girl’s feet tangled. She stumbled, heel catching on dead Brother Ategar’s arm, and she went to the ground.
Kuneprius growled again, the end of it fading to a squeak of sorrow and loss. The girl scrambled away, hands and feet digging furrows in the dirt track, but the bodies cluttering the road trapped her from getting far. The young lad caught up to her, put the point of his short sword to her throat. Staring up at him, she froze, the fear of death shining in her eyes.
He hesitated, blinked. A tear ran along his cheek and he sniffed back the snot threatening to spill out of his nose.
“You killed him.”
“Please,” the girl said. It surprised him she spoke the same language as he did, though he knew of no reason for her to speak any other. “Please.”
The point of the short sword wavered and Kuneprius struggled to keep it from drooping. The anger burning within him after watching Fildrian, Ategar, and the others die melted away, dissolved by the blue of her eyes, the smoothness of her pink cheeks. Kuneprius’ mind flashed away, wondering why Brothers were permitted only to spill their seed on the ground when such beauty existed in the world. An out-of-place sound brought him back to the moment.
They both heard it—a mewling from within the first covered wagon. The girl’s eyes flickered toward it; Kuneprius raised his head. The small sound grew—a whimper to a whine, then to the full-throated cry of a tiny mouth that reminded Kuneprius why he was there.
A yell broke from the girl’s lips and she swung the sword tainted with Fildrian’s blood. Her grip slipped, the weapon twisted. The flat of the blade bounced off the leather chest piece hidden beneath the apprentice’s robe.
Time stopped for an instant, the baby’s siren cry filling the night. They stared at each other, each knowing what must come next. Kuneprius gulped around a lump solidifying in his throat and leaned forward on his sword. The tip sank into the girl’s neck.
She gasped, coughed. Blood burbled over her lips, ran along her cheek and into her ear. Her eyes found the young lad’s, a last plea shining in them, quickly fading. He turned away, unable to gaze upon her sorrow.
When her body went limp, he released his grip on the sword and stumbled away to retch on the ground beside the covered wagon. The baby wailed, beseeching him to come to it, take care of it. Kuneprius knew he needed to do just that, but his heaving gut and clenching throat prevented him.
Bent at the waist and breathing hard, he leaned against the wagon wheel. Sweat and snot and tears dripped from his nose and cheeks, the droplets pattering on the frozen dirt the same way as the blood of the Brothers as they lost their lives.
I should have aided them.
He coughed and spat bitter chunks of spew, wished for water to wash the horrid flavor off his tongue. The baby’s crying continued, assaulting his ears and rattling in his head until he could bear it no longer. With a shuddering breath, he forced himself upright and dragged his aching body to the back of the wagon.
Kuneprius pushed the flap aside a crack and peeked inside.
The babe lay on the wagon’s floor, a blanket tucked under its chin. Alone.
He clambered up, arms and legs exhausted as though he’d crawled here from the temple. On his second attempt, he struggled his way in and flopped on the deck beside the child. The baby ceased bellowing, eyes wide with wonder finding him. A few seconds passed as Kuneprius stared at the child’s tear-stained cheeks, its plump lips, and thin wisps of hair, then the wailing began anew.
Kuneprius wrestled himself to his knees and pulled the blanket off the baby, revealing a cloth wrapped around its groin and tied on either side. He fumbled with the knots, his numb fingers slipping until one knot came undone. If it wasn’t the right child, Fildrian and the others had sacrificed themselves for nothing. The thought weighing on him, Kuneprius hesitated a half-dozen heartbeats before pulling the diaper aside.
The stink of the baby’s soiled cloth made him gag. He raised his arm to cover his nose and undid the other knot. Beneath, he saw the baby’s tiny man-thing, and Kuneprius breathed a sigh of relief.
The Brothers were dead, but he’d accomplished what they’d come for: the babe was his.
Kuneprius attempted slinging each Brother over their saddle, intending to lash them in place and return them to the temple for burial, but they proved too heavy for him. He struggled Brother Fildrian up, the effort leaving him drained and panting, and worried that, if he took the time to do the same for the others, he’d be discovered. So it was the young Kuneprius rode through the gates of Teva Stavoklis with a child in his arms, four horses on leads, and a dead man lashed to a saddle.
Brothers and priests were already gathered in the square, though the leading edge of sunrise had just grazed the horizon. The sky perched on the cusp of the earth was crimson as the blood he’d seen spilled; the Small Gods swam in the ocean of darkness above that, waiting to surrender to the light of day.
Hands took control of Kuneprius’ steed, offered him help out of the saddle. He accepted, his sore and weary backside sliding off the smooth leather. When his feet hit the ground, his knees threatened to buckle, and another hand grabbed him by the elbow, helped him keep his feet. He glanced from one man to the next, realizing he knew each of them, but not recognizing any. A priest with his face hidden by a drooping cowl stepped forward and Kuneprius extended his arms, ready to hand over the child. The priest didn’t take the babe. Instead, he led the apprentice away from the throng of Brothers occupied with unlashing Fildrian from the saddle.
Three priests followed as the man led Kuneprius on a winding journey through the streets, past stone abodes and empty fountains, to a low building with no windows. To those unfamiliar, it appeared more storehouse than place of worship.
They crossed the threshold, as Kuneprius did every morning to pray for the return of the Small Gods, but didn’t stop to kneel on one of the threadbare prayer carpets. The hooded priest led him through the sanctuary room to a wide, stout door at the back, where they paused.
Kuneprius’ head spun and his belly churned, though his body had taken steps to ensure nothing remained inside it during his return. The scent of melting fat hung thick in the sanctuary room, given off by the squat tallow candles flickering and hissing on stands in each corner. For an instant, he thought his stomach might rebel again at their odor, but he forgot his beleaguered gut when the priest raised his hand and rapped on the door.
The baby, who’d been miraculously sleeping, shifted in Kuneprius’ arms, as though sensing the lad’s discomfort. He’d often wondered what lay hidden behind the short, wide door but now, as he stood on the precipice of finding out, he decided he’d prefer not to know. Unfortunately, the choice didn’t belong to him.
“Enter,” a voice within said, and a shiver ran along Kuneprius’ spine.
The priest pushed the portal open. Beyond, the chamber appeared similar to the sanctuary room, except much smaller. Bundles of herbs hung from spikes driven into the beams supporting the ceiling and thin tapers flickered in the corners. A table sat in the center of the room, a roll of yellowed parchment atop it. Beside it knelt Kristeus, the high priest.
In his twelve turns as an apprentice, Kuneprius had never laid eyes on the man or even heard of the door being opened. Seasons of wondering if someone truly lived behind the door had come to an end.
He hesitated in the doorway, gaping and waiting for the priest who’d led him there to enter, but he didn’t. A moment passed, expectation hanging in the air, before one of the other hooded priests behind Kuneprius laid his hand on the lad’s back and ushered him across the threshold.
The door clunked closed and the apprentice turned to find the others had left him alone with the high priest. The baby wriggled in his arms, then settled. Kuneprius gulped.
“This is the babe?”
Kuneprius knew the hooded figure spoke the words, but they seemed to float down to his ears from the ceiling. Before answering, his eyes flickered around the barren room, noting the lack of honey pot or personal items—only herbs, tapers, table, scroll, high priest.
The hood moved minutely, as though the invisible head inside nodded.
“And the others are dead? Killed by the women?”
The words dropped on Kuneprius flat and monotone, except the last: women. It came out twisted and skewed, spat more than spoken. Kuneprius’ throat tightened with the urge to sob, forcing him to nod rather than attempt speaking. A dozen heartbeats passed and he thought the high priest might not have seen the gesture.
“Yes,” he said, his tone quiet.
Kristeus tilted his head back, revealing a chin and mouth, but nothing further. Lips pale to the point of transparency moved, the yellow teeth behind them clicking together twice before he spoke again.
“Bring him to me.”
The High Priest held out his arms, the sleeves of his robe falling away as he extended his hands. Skin as pallid as his lips; nails long, curved, yellowed, and cracked. Kuneprius hesitated. The baby stirred again, squeaked in his sleep.
Kristeus gestured with his fingers and Kuneprius found his feet carrying him the short distance to the middle of the room, despite not having asked them to do so. He passed the baby into the High Priest’s hands and the child’s eyelids fluttered open. Kristeus regarded the babe for a moment, then lay him on the floor and bowed his head, words whispering from within the hood. Kuneprius resisted the urge to fidget.
Time crawled. The apprentice glanced away from the child, saw the herbs hung on the spikes were fresh, the floor swept, the walls free of soot from the tapers’ greasy smoke.
Someone comes in here.
The baby gurgled and the air in the room grew warmer on the lad’s skin. Kuneprius snapped his gaze back to the High Priest and found the man looking at him instead of the baby. He shivered despite the rising temperature.
“You have done well, apprentice. I have seen the coming of this child and you have done what needed to be done to make it so. Henceforth, you are Brother Kuneprius.”
The boy’s eyes widened and a flutter of pride pushed aside the nausea gripping his midsection. Never had an apprentice been named Brother before reaching their fourteenth turn. Eight seasons yet remained before Kuneprius reached that age. He thought it must be expected of him to respond, so he parted his lips to thank the High Priest, but Kristeus raised a hand, stopping him before he spoke.
“You will no longer be part of the liberating expeditions.” He slipped his hands under the baby, his long nails scraping on the wooden floor. “From this time forward, you have a much more important role to fulfill.”
Kristeus picked the babe off the floor, held him up as though examining a ripe melon rather than gazing on a living thing. Kuneprius wondered if the High Priest viewed everything in this manner, but put the thought from his mind. The air in the room prickled against his skin, standing the short hairs on the back of his neck on end. His sight wavered and, for an instant, he saw flames raining from the sky, trees burning, a river boiling. The hallucination disappeared as quickly as it came.
“Henceforth, you will be caretaker to the child,” Kristeus said, raising the baby into the air. “For you have brought to me Vesisdenperos, the sculptor. The one born to ensure the return of the Small Gods.”
The sweat on Kuneprius’ brow went cold.
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