Chapter 29: Imagine a Place

When birdsong woke him on the first morning, Keenin had convinced himself that the shiny magic suppressing manacle clasped to his right wrist was like the thin silver bracelet his mother had placed into his small hands on the day she left the house and didn’t return. It had been the last valuable thing that she owned and he had been told to keep it until she came back. Keenin supposed that he was meant to have traded it for something, certainly not given it up to a bunch of thieves.


Would he hand it over again? In how many days would he become the person that they trusted to go free? How long till his betrayal?

“I heard that he was fiery,” a woman said.

How hateful would he be?

“I don’t know,” the guard commented. “He’s been like that since last night.”


“I don’t want you,” Keenin told her.

He didn’t need to look up from where he sat against the bars eyes to the dirt, to know that the woman did not deserve him. Keenin had not waited one cold and long night in a cage just to meet some regular soldier.

“Well, you’ve got me,” she remarked. “Do you want to rot in here or not? Our leader Iscara will not care either way.”

Their leader should have had the decency to introduce himself.

“Then give me a reason why I should care,” Keenin told her.

Keenin wasn’t going to play into their game for nothing. He heard the clink of keys and heavy screech of the metal bars coming open. 

“Why shouldn’t you fight? You get recognized by your fellows. Be on the winning side. And get back your freedom.”

“Am I not free to stay here?”

“Well, I hate to waste food, I’ll eat it myself.”

Keenin raised his head to see the woman held a wooden bowl and spoon that might have contained porridge, based on the fruity smell. In the end he was a beggar. What morals and pride mattered more than surviving. 



Soldiers in plate armor and padded leather moved through the camp, each on their own personal missions to secure a hot breakfast or sit with battle-worn friends. 

The people seemed neither battle crazed nor any sort of crazy despite being in the employment of a necromancer, which made Keenin wonder what they had to fight for. What they wore for protection was mostly regular clothes with bits of metal, rawhide, and wood sewn overtop with the symbol of their group, a red bird with a hollow heart, crudely painted on. Even the name Red Heart Army suggested this group was not all about fighting. 

“The dining area is that white tent. Our soldiers have their own cook fires, but stealing food will get you whipped,” his escort mentioned as they passed, “Remember to boil water before use. And get injuries treated at a red medical tent. Are you still listening?”

The sharp snapping of a cloth in the breeze got him to look up at the long, tapered black flags that laid claim to each building so that none flying over would mistake the place. It was reminiscent of the poster of a fairground that Keenin had once seen pinned to a wall in his hometown.

“Those flags look grand don’t they. We hung them together.  It feels like we are bringing our lost home with us.”


“Lets not think about it. Just know the magic restraining bracelet also marks you as an ally. As a special asset, our members will try to help as long as you don’t betray our trust.” 

A banging and screeching drew his attention to a small caged griffin. The baby must have been recently captured in much the same way as Keenin himself, but the animal knew only the painful call of the wild. Should he test their security by letting it out? 

“That,” she pointed. “Is where you special recruits train.” 

It was a dull wooden building the size of a barn. A simple overhanging roof sheltering shallow rectangular windows along the top. The door was propped open with a rusted spear, giving him a view of a basic rack of rough edged weapons nearest the door. A chaotic clashing of wood and metal was accompanied by lazy laughter. A sandy-haired man sat against the door frame reading a book. 

“Don’t tell me there’s another,” he said not bothering to look away from his book.

“Rumin. How does the boss let you keep this job?”

“Everybody shuns me today. Dear Nadia, if the brats want to fight wildly, who am I to argue? But, of course, if these same brats think they will be granted use of magic before following such simple guidelines…what idiots.” 

Here he glanced at Keenin. 

 “This…” Nadia said addressing Keenan again, “Is the most basic training area. If you can’t improve here then you are not worth our resources, as Rumin likes to  say.”  

Keenin examined the faint pink scars visible where Rumin rolled up his sleeves to relax with his book. Could the injury have been from clumsiness or something dangerous?

“In other words,” Rumin said, “You can join the undead. Or you can join us.” 

He gestured inside with a hand, not yet bothering to rise. 

“Pick a sword you can lift. All are blunt.” 

“Like him,” Nadia said.

The book spun at Nadia’s face. Rumin smiled when she caught it between her hands. He finally stood and plucked up the rusty spear holding the door.

“Hurry up,” Rumin ordered. 

Keenin went for the weapon rack, shifting through various blades, polearms, and what appeared to be long daggers for one that felt safe, that is to defend himself as he knew little of attacking. 

“Who can show this new kid how to hold a sword?” the instructor asked.

Keenin had removed a pole with metal capping both ends. He finally observed the other captives. Three boys, one with a helmet hiding his face was crouched on a bench with a book as though studying while the other two practiced with weapons. The boy with slick brown hair and a silver ear piercing was jabbing a spear against a straw dummy while a boy with rust-colored hair falling past his cheeks swung his sword in a three stroke pattern against a wooden post. Perhaps the person under the helmet was a girl. 

The brown haired boy stabbing a spear at a post pretended not to have heard.

“That isn’t a sword,” the boy who swung a sword noted Keen’s choice weapon.

“Then he can borrow yours Aron. You and the smith designed it to be lighter if I’m not mistaken,” the instructor noted. 

Aron stopped to plant the tip of his sword like a cane.

“Can’t you give me something, I don’t know, better for motivation?” Aron asked. 

Rumin tilted his head in an eerily thoughtful motion, then righted it. 

“If you knock this new boy…what is your name?”


“If you knock Keenin down in a spar, I will give you a promotion. If you know what I mean,” he said.

Aron turned to Keenin and held up the long handle of the blade. Keenin tentatively wrapped his hand around the grip and raised the wobbly blade, muscles straining. Seeing his opponent empty handed in front of him tempted Keenin to strike out knowing that he would lose a real match. Before he could act on this impulse Aron sidestepped around him, grasped Keenin’s hand that weakly held the sword to lend it strength, kicked Keenin’s shoes so he slid into a stance, and lifted Keenin’s free hand up to grasp the pommel. Keenin awkwardly felt like he was being shown how to hold a girl’s hand in a dance.

“The grip can fit two hands and this blade is skinny but long so you keep an advantage of distance, got it,” Aron said.

Keenin concluded he was having weird thoughts because of hunger. Arong let go to retrieve one of the shorter swords that had been leaning against the wall and as he turned back around he noticed Keenin still shaking.

“Just relax,” the boy told him. “Defend five hits and I’ll consider it your win.”

That sounded possible. He raised the word in preparation for a downwards slash. Of course, it never happened. Aron took one step forward and nearly knocked the blade from his hands, leaving him with ringing ears and bruised hands. Keenin tried to back away from the crash of metal when Aron knocked him to the ground with a heavy kick to his stomach. Keenin lay breathless in the dirt with the hilt of his sword laying a few inches from his grasp.

“There you go,” Aron told Rumin. “A total beginner.” 

Keenin did not have the energy to complain.

“Not hopeless,” Rumin observed. “Most would have lost the sword.”

From the raw sting of his hand Keenin wished that he had let go of the blade sooner. 

“I suspect something like the shorter, single handed Spatha would give him better movement.”

Keenin followed where Rumin pointed towards a rack of thick short blades along the far wall.

“That’s what I was going to say,” Aron said. “Hand him a shield and he’s a damn defensive fighter.”

“And a knife in your boot,” Rumin said.

Keenin could not be sure if the Rumin was setting up his betrayal or arguing for the sake of it.

“So that promotion. Can I use this now?” Aron asked lifting his hand to show the restraining bracelet.

“Field captain is your promotion,” Rumin told him unimpressed. “You better make sure these boys of yours don’t get killed because they will be the one’s at your side.”

That said, Rumin left. Aron came closer, to help him up he assumed, but Aron only to pick up the fallen sword.

“Get yourself up already.”

After setting the extra blade against the wall, Aron went to where they kept wooden posts used as practice dummies and continued swinging. Perhaps that guy Rumin just didn’t want to spend his own time teaching.

Keenin looked at the boy hiding his face behind a helmet. The presence of a book reminded Keenin of leaving the hero story at the wagon and Keenin wondered if it would magically appear once more.

“Did you like your welcome this morning?” the brown-haired boy with the spear called over his shoulder. 

Keenin looked to him.

“What welcome?” Keenin asked.

“That girl Nadia. Did she offer you breakfast too?”

By the way the boy spoke, Keenin felt that he was being laughed at.

“And who are you supposed to be?” Keenin asked him.

“What a terrible greeting. I’m Harris. I’m the one who’s going to get us out of here because I can pick the locks.”

A knife embedded itself into the straw practice dummy Harris was using. A displeased Aron stood across the room with arms crossed.

“Don’t spoil the plan,” Aron scolded him.

Unconcerned, Harris touched the edge of the dagger with a finger.

“You shouldn’t dull your weapons,” was all he said.

“Does that make you some kind of thief?” Keenin asked.

He didn’t like the idea of Harris being a better version of himself.

“Prodigy blacksmith,” the boy replied. He pulled the dagger from the straw dummy. “I guess this move concludes today’s training.”

Harris carelessly dropped his spear onto the trampled ground and walked towards the door where Aron was waiting, returning the dagger.

“What was that about treating the weapons with respect,” Aron commented.

“It doesn’t apply to enemies,” Harris said, opening the door. “Keenin come and get some food.”

Keenin followed them without another glance to the lonely reader. The sun was still high in the sky, but the camp was quiet. Men lounged on boxes, sat mending clothes, or wrote letters.

“Why is nobody sparing?” Keenin asked.

He would have thought to see other men practicing their skills.

“They just want to rest. These are last month’s guys who were on the battlefield.”

“And in case you’re wondering that annoyance Judial is away on a mission. You won’t see him here,” Aron noted.

“What about Isc-

Aron halted before the large white food tent, almost causing the others to bump into him.

“Who cares about him,” Aron said, “Let’s just try not to offend anyone of actual importance as we get our food.”

“Right,” Keenin said, “Sorry.”

That being said, they entered the noisy tent. If Keenin had ever gone to school he imagined that the first day might be like this. Stories about battle were passed around the tables. Jokes about enemies. Admiration over the best warriors. In the far corner were the fires on which they cooked the food. Spigots of meat turned over the fire while pans of beans and corn roasted in pans. They passed through with as much notice as mice as Keenin followed his new companions down the serving line.

Their clay plates were piled with corn and pork. The benches were full, so they found a spot near the wall to sit. Keenin continued to inspect the food plate balanced on his knees. Only after Harris and Aron were well into their meals did he lift the slice of pork, take a bite of the chewy meat and swallow. Only then, as it settled in his empty stomach and the pain stopped, did he know why he now hesitated to eat. He was sitting among people that might attack the town he had come from.

Slowly he put the plate down.

“It’s terrible seasoning,” he commented.

Keenin stood up and left out the doors. He took a seat on one of the water barrels. Harris came out and handed him the plate he left behind.

“Eat,” the spear user told him. “You’ll forgive yourself.”

A long empty pause followed.

“Don’t waste the efforts of the people who made this food. The food is not at fault. It is the army leader who started this war.”

Keenin reluctantly accepted the plate. He ate it down faster than he should have. Then clenched the edge of the plate in his lap.

“I thought…I was ready for this,” Keenin told the boy.

“Do you have family out there?”

“I….I guess so,” Keenin said. His new friends must have felt horrible for this to happen. They were supposed to find a home together.

“Aron doesn’t have any family left because of this war,” was all Harris said. “We need to help him here.”

Even so, Keenin thought as he examined the crumbs on his plate. If he made friends here… would he want to get out. To care was the true enemy a hero had, why else would all the stories use family and friends as the weakest point. As if hearing his name, the orange haired Aron appeared to join them.

“No secret meetings without me,” Aron told them.

“There is nothing secret about a stomach ache, Aron,” the spear wielder responded. “And this wouldn’t be the place to keep a secret.”

“At least you understand. Let’s get back to the room to discuss tomorrow’s training. No offense, new guy, but I would feel bad to lose you in the battle. I feel they want to send us out there soon.”

“I felt that too,” Keenin agreed.

They showed him the way to the small building that served as their lodgings. Inside the wooden shelter were rows of wooden beds topped with thin straw mattresses accompanied by crude side tables. It resembled the space of an orphanage. There were no windows, only low burning oil lamps to cast shadows. The blacksmith kicked off his boots at the wall beside the door.

“They gave us nice lodging,” Keenin noted.

“Probably for false security and so they can lock us in,” Harris said.

“I will never complain about a nice bed,” Aron told him.

Only four of the beds were made, two tossed from nights of use, one with the form of a boy already huddled under the blankets, and one with newly laid brown sheets. Aron went to his bed at the back, opened the chest at the foot and pulled off his shirt to toss into the bin as though it served as both laundry basket and drawer. Then he started rummaging in his bedside table to pull out some sheets of parchment. 

Keenin looked back to the sleeping boy.

“What about the other boy?” Keenin asked.

Aron had gone back to search around the bottom of his chest, his head and shoulder disappeared inside.

“Hmmm,” Aron mused to himself as he finally located the object he desired and proudly pulled out a piece of charcoal.

“The other boy sleeping over there,” Keenin tried again, “Who is he?” 

Meanwhile Harris was changing into plain clothes and folding away his leather gear.

“Oh, Faber. Ya. He doesn’t talk. Just leave him alone,” Aron said. “He sleeps most of the time anyways.”

But why? Aron put the paper against the top of his trunk to draw as though nothing was wrong. Keenin shifted his view back to a box placed on top of his bed. The need for sleep made the question fade.

“You are not seriously making plans tonight are you?” Harris questioned him.

“Relax,” Aron said, drawing out a grid. “It’s just a drill sheet.”

Their voices had become loud in his head. When Keenin realized that he was staring at the box on his bed, he knew that he was tired. He pushed it aside to make room, peeled the sheets back, arranged himself on the mattress clothed as he was, legs curled away from the box, and shut his eyes. The last couple of days had drained the energy out of him. He just wished that his new roommates would stop talking.

“And where are you going?” Aron questioned his friend.

“The forge. Turn off the lamp when you’re done this time. I don’t want the place burned down.”

“Sure, sure,” Aron responded as the door swung open and shut.

The scratching of pencil against paper sketched out scenes in Keenin’s tired mind. Here he was dressed in armor and facing a line of charging enemies. He imagined a time when Judial was killed in battle. And finally he thought of the Red Heart Army burning just in time for Dia to arrive on a pure white horse to take him home. Keenin dozed off as the beats of the horse hooves synced with his heart.


Chapter 28: Distant

Chapter 30: You Know Keenin?