The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (13 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
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DAGGERS

Tau began pushing his way toward the platform. He’d been at the edge of the crowd, on the far side of the circle, but was determined to get closer. The women and men around him pushed back, not wanting to let him pass, but he paid them no mind.

Kellan Okar was on a knee in front of the queen. She held the guardian dagger aloft and placed the priceless weapon in his hands. She bid him rise, and Kellan Okar, murderer, accepted the honor the queen bestowed upon him. The crowd cheered.

Tau was nearing the stage, his sheathed swords banging into those around him. Kellan stepped back, Tau tracked him, and that was when he saw Abasi Odili. Kellan had gone to stand beside the guardian councillor, who smiled and clapped him on the shoulder.

The queen moved on, gifting guardian swords to the citadel’s top graduates. The three men to whom she gave the weapons looked like violence molded into human form. Then she gave the stage to the woman who led the Gifted.

The KaEid stepped forward, raised her arms, and began to pray. Everyone grew still, muttering along to familiar words. Tau shimmied sideways, slipping past a group of Lessers, and bumped a woman to the ground. The man with her cursed him, then noticed Tau’s swords, and his eyes went wide.

“You can’t have weapons here,” he said.

Tau pressed on, leaving the couple behind as the KaEid ended her prayer and began her speech.

“Chosen,” the KaEid said to the crowd, “the Goddess, through her Guardians, guided our ancestors, guided Queen Taifa to this land.”

Her voice was rich and full, the type that could calm or reassure. It did neither for Tau. His eyes were locked on Kellan and Odili, and it felt as if he had to get closer.

He wanted them to see him, knowing they wouldn’t realize who he was. He wanted them to look at him and past him as if he didn’t matter, when he was the one who mattered most. In little more than a cycle, he was going to end their lives.

“He’s over there,” a voice said.

Tau looked. It was the man who had commented on his swords. He was with two city guardsmen, and seeing Tau, they began pushing through the crowd to get to him.

Tau cursed himself for being a fool. He didn’t know what rule or law he’d broken by having swords at the ceremony, but he couldn’t risk the guards taking him. If the offense was a serious one, he might miss the testing.

Tau angled away, moving parallel to Kellan and Abasi as the KaEid gestured at the world around them.

“Our peninsula,” she said, “is one of the Goddess’s greatest gifts. It is a home where we are protected by ocean, mountains, the curse, and Guardians.”

Tau wondered if the KaEid had ever seen a raid. There was nothing about that day at Daba that had seemed safe. Hadn’t the hedeni navigated the coastline of that protective ocean? Had they not climbed the peninsula’s mountains? Had they not killed Chosen in their beds that night?

“Xidda is our proving ground. It exists to make us strong enough to end the world’s greatest evil. We will pass the Goddess’s test and defeat the hedeni. Then, triumphant, strong, we will return to our homeland. We will return to Osonte and end the Cull!”

Tau wasn’t afraid of the Cull, of the mythical silver-skinned immortals. He’d never seen them. He knew no man, woman, or child who’d ever seen them. They were fairy tales to hide the real evil, the evil on the stage in front of him.

“There are challenging times ahead,” the KaEid told them. “The hedeni have once again formed alliances among their savage tribes.”

The crowd was unsettled by that admission, and the ripple of fear rooted many in place, making it difficult for Tau to push through and keep ahead of the two guardsmen following him.

“They are many! Ten to every one of us,” the KaEid cried out. “But we stand firm against them. We are the unbroken cliff that cleaves the endless ocean.” The KaEid had the crowd. They were quiet, listening. “What are countless hordes in the face of faith and righteousness? Nothing! What are spears and axes against the unyielding bronze of the greatest military the world has ever known? Nothing! What are savages… against the rage of dragons?”

The crowd roared and the honored warriors on the stage lifted their dragon-scale weapons in the air. The cheer was deafening, and in trying to evade the guardsmen, Tau was almost to the platform. Two more steps and he’d be close enough to see the individual beads of sweat on Kellan’s forehead.

“I see him!”

The cry came from a guardsman ten strides ahead. The man’s sword was clear of its scabbard and he was with two others. They were off to the right, between Tau and the platform, and were trying to coordinate with the guards behind him, trying to box him in.

“The Chosen must fight faithlessness,” said the KaEid to the masses. “The Chosen must fight the hedeni. We do the Goddess’s bidding and she blesses our valley, holding the curse that blights the rest of Xidda at bay.”

One of the Lessers—he looked to be from the Governor caste—stood his ground against the guards coming for Tau, complaining about their rough treatment as they tried to muscle past. The closest guard bashed the man in the face. The Governor crumpled and was snatched up by the other two, who must have thought the mouthy Lesser to be part of the commotion.

Tau shot a look at the platform. The KaEid was still speaking, and most of the gathered were focused on her. Kellan, however, had noticed the disturbance. He hadn’t seen Tau, but his eyes scanned the mass of people and Tau shrank back, feeling an instinctual need to hide.

“You, there!” the nearest guard shouted, pointing to Tau. “Hold!”

The crowd cheered the KaEid, the guard drew closer, and Tau took a step back. He needed time to think and had none with which to do it.

“Stop!” Time was up. The guard was within reach, shoved a Common out of the way, and stretched to grab at Tau.

Tau recoiled, slapped down the grasping arm, turned, and ran, forcing his way out of the crowd, away from the platform, and away from Kellan Okar and Abasi Odili.

He couldn’t let himself be caught. He couldn’t lose his chance at justice. He wanted Kellan to join his father, the coward Okar, in ignominy. He wanted Dejen’s loss and death at a Lesser’s hand to blight the Olujimi name for generations.

More than anything, he needed to face Abasi Odili and make him suffer. He already knew, with a seer’s clarity, how it would end between them. He’d fight him in front of a crowd of Nobles and Lessers, he’d make it brutal, he’d make it last, and before it was over, he’d break the Royal Noble’s spirit. Odili would beg for death.

As Tau ran, desperate to escape the city guards, the dream of it was all that mattered. He wasn’t ready to destroy his foes, but he would be, and the first step on the path to vengeance lay before him. The testing began in the morning, and Tau would fight to win his place among the Ihashe or die in the attempt.

MATCH

He lost the city guards in the crowd. Tau had climbed a building, a store it looked like, and hidden on the roof to wait for them to pass. When it seemed safe, he’d climbed down, twisting his ankle on a loose rock. He was fine but had to limp his way through the city’s poorer sections, looking for a place to rest.

That night he slept at the dead end of a short alley with his back pressed against its rearmost wall, watching the entrance. He placed his swords and pack behind him, hoping no one would risk a fight over his meagre possessions. Tau was hungry but too tired for an empty stomach to keep him awake, and he fell asleep sitting.

He woke before dawn, tired, and knew he should sleep more but couldn’t. Instead, he waited until the sun’s heat returned to the world, gathered his things, and went looking for the famed Heroes’ Circle, where the Ihashe testing took place.

He found it by following the throng of armed young men, and walking alongside them, he tried to blend in. He drew looks anyway. The reactions made him worry he’d be turned away on appearance alone. He was dirty and smelled worse than he looked, and the scabbing wound, winding its way from nose to cheek, didn’t help. True, every Lesser had the right, some would say duty, to test for the Ihashe, but Tau didn’t relax until he saw others in equally rough shape.

In threadbare clothing, carrying rusting equipment and often barefoot, they were Low Commons from the smallest hamlets. They’d have had inadequate training, they’d be malnourished, and there was little chance of them passing the testing. Given Tau’s condition, it was hard to think he’d fare better.

The Heroes’ Circle was larger than the one in which the Guardian Ceremony had taken place, and it was filled with thousands of men. Traditionally, one in ten would pass the testing, allowing them to be trained at the Ihashe isikolo. The failures, especially if they were Low or High Commons, would have to become Ihagu or, refusing that, Drudge.

Ihagu were nothing more than guards, foot soldiers, and fodder, often first to die in battle, and most important, they did not receive official military status. Tau had to have military status, and that meant he had to be better than nine of every ten men in the circle.

“Test takers!” yelled a hard-faced Ihashe warrior in his middle years. “Line up.” He was old enough to have been to the front lines and put in his time, and still had elected to serve another term. He was a full-blood Ihashe, a military man through and through. “You’ll get a number and linen with which to wrap your practice sword. Wrap it well. If the linen falls loose or you draw blood because of an uncovered edge, you lose your match.”

Tau and the men around him formed up as the Ihashe explained the rest.

“The rules are simple. The Proven who attends your fight will count each hit you make as a point, and they’ll give your opponent a point for each hit you take. You win if your opponent begs for the Goddess’s mercy or if you’ve more points when the match ends.

“Matches last two hundred breaths. The attending Proven counts the points and breaths. The match doesn’t end if you yell ‘no’ or ‘cek’ or anything else. You say, ‘Goddess’s mercy,’ and the hitting stops, neh?”

Tau and the others murmured their acceptance.

“Mind, there are no head strikes with weapons. You hit someone in the head, you lose. You step outside the ring, you lose. You lose on day one, you’re out. You lose on day two, you’re out. You make it to day three, you’re in, but it’s still a fight.

“The isikolo masters, that’s ‘umqondisi’ to you, will be watching on day three. They’re looking to claim talent for their scale. Trust me, you want to make it into a good scale.”

There was more nodding.

“Last thing… You happen to be Tsiory reborn and win ten matches, then you’re in, no matter what day you do it on.” The full-blood smiled at that, all teeth, some mirth, none of it shared. “So make ten wins today,” he said, walking away and calling over his shoulder. “Get your numbers, get to fighting.”

The Ihashe knew their business, and the long lines of test takers were handled with speed as the busy circle hummed with hushed voices and nervous energy. It was the sound of thousands of men preparing, focusing, and wrapping dull practice swords in thick, protective linen.

Tau saw that those with gambesons donned them and those without wore many layers of their heaviest clothing. It made him thankful for his father’s old gambeson. He knew the other men, the ones layering up, wouldn’t last a two hundred count in the sun. They’d have to beat their opponents quickly or risk sun sickness.

“Five thousand forty! Five thousand forty!” a Proven called out near the set of five individual fighting circles to which Tau had been assigned.

“Ready,” Tau shouted in response.

He was in the day’s first round of fights. Other Proven called out other numbers and other men stepped forward. Tau took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and emptied his mind like his father had taught. He sought the calm, the peace, that would allow his muscles to relax and his training to take over. It didn’t come.

“C’mon, then,” said the Proven judging his match. “I’ve got a long day, neh.”

Tau stepped forward, and the Proven, who was missing his right leg below the knee, handed him a battered helm and bronze shield. The shield’s edges were rounded off, unlike the razor-sharp edges it’d have for war. Chosen fought with sword and shield, but Tau had always struggled with shields. He hadn’t even taken one to the raid in Daba.

Tau hefted the round metal disk and slipped his left arm through the straps. It was heavier than the one his father let him use for practice. He raised and lowered his left arm to get a feel for it and plopped the ill-fitting helm on his head.

“Five thousand ninety-two!” the Proven said, calling for Tau’s opponent. “Where are you, char it?”

“Here, here. I’m here.”

Tau’s opponent was Tau’s height, and from the quality of cloth he wore and his proud strut, he had to be Governor caste. He was slim, he had squinty eyes, and the skin on his thin face was pockmarked badly enough to make him look like a hedena with curse scars.

The Proven gave the man his gear and pointed to the fighting circle. Tau’s opponent ran onto it, choosing his spot first. Tau moved opposite him and learned why the Governor caste fighter had moved so quickly. Tau was facing into the sun.

“It’s Tau,” Tau said, introducing himself to his opponent.

The pockmarked Governor ignored him, warming up by firing his sword back and forth in a series of thrusts.

“Fight!” growled the Proven, and the Governor ran forward.

It took him no time to cross the distance, and he swung for Tau’s head. Tau leapt back and brought his sword up to block the illegal blow. He was quick to realize his error, but it was still too late. His squinty-eyed opponent dropped the ruse, changed levels, and bashed Tau under the arm. Tau lurched backward, almost dropping his sword from the pain.

“Point!” yelled the Proven.

Tau was on the defensive and had to dance backward to avoid getting clobbered. The Governor was slender but fast. His follow-up attacks pushed Tau all the way to the edge of the ring, close to forcing him out. With no more than a step to spare, Tau skipped away from the edge and toward the fighting circle’s center, taking a hit to the thigh and body as he did.

“Point! Point!” said the Proven.

Tau was panting, sucking air in heavy gulps. The match was in its earliest stages, but he’d spent all of it running. Getting desperate, he launched an attack of his own.

He thrust at his opponent and the Governor turned, avoiding the strike. Tau darted forward, jerking his blade into a sideswiping swing that would crash into the man’s exposed back, but the Governor whirled, blocking the strike, and with his near arm he elbowed Tau in the temple.

Tau reeled, disengaged, and flashed a look at the Proven. The officiant shrugged. It seemed head strikes made without the use of weapons were allowed, though no points were awarded.

The Governor brought himself back to center, squinting worse than before. “Looks like your journey ends here, Drudge.”

Tau swung and the Governor stepped out of reach.

“You’re not bad,” he said. “You’re just not good.”

“Half-match,” the Proven shouted.

It had been a hundred count and Tau was three points down. He pushed forward, swinging at his opponent’s shoulder, leg, and arm. The Governor blocked each attack while moving in circles.

“Why fight?” he asked Tau. “Commons shouldn’t even be in the Ihashe.”

Tau was tired, hungry, and hot. His underarm throbbed where he’d been hit, and his sweat was seeping into the wound on his face, making it burn. He was losing and it wasn’t something he’d prepared for.

He’d trained his whole life for this, and though he had no love for fighting, he’d always believed himself strong enough to pass the testing. It seemed, however, he wasn’t even good enough to beat his first opponent.

The Governor threw a mock thrust his way and Tau stumbled back. The Governor laughed and Tau grew angry. He refused to let a stunted pock-faced scapegrace stop him.

Yelling in anger and frustration, he went after the Governor, calling on fighting form after fighting form, intending to overwhelm the skinny cek, but the Governor pranced about, dodging this, blocking that, and counterattacking whenever Tau overextended.

“Point! Point!” the Proven called out two more times, Tau’s barrage ending with him down five to nil.

“No matter, Tau,” the Governor said, stretching out his name like it was a dirty word. “Your mother will still love you. Just tell her the truth. You lost to a better breed of man.”

He was trying to make Tau angrier. He wanted him making mistakes, and it was working. Tau was furious, and even filled with fury, he couldn’t deny it—the Governor was the stronger swordsman.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
9.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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