Chapter 31: Untold Future

“Get up you klutz.”

Aron’s freckled face wasn’t what he called a good sight to wake up to. Keenin rolled over on his lumpy mattress and heard something crack against the floor as Aron moved back to give him space. He remembered that there had been a box on the end of his bed, though he didn’t get up to look at what mess it had made on the floorboards.

From where he laid with his cheek against the pillow, eyes open, he saw that Harris was also awake and that the two other boys had changed into their brown stockings and leather breastplates. The remaining bed where Faber had slept was empty and Keenin assumed that he had left early. His new friend’s change of attire make Keenin aware that he wore the same smelly pants as always. His turtleneck shirt felt damp and tight against his skin and he was suddenly itching to get it off. 

The red haired boy who he remembered as Aron was holding out a note. Keenin took it and flipped onto his back to open the page. It looked like the sort of map a two year old would draw and it was accompanied by tight squiggling script. He may have been able to get through the content of the stupid hero guide book granted to him by the gods, but that thing had been written like a picture book and was magical. 

“What is this?”

“Battle plans.”

“I can’t read,” Keenin told him.

At the end of the day, Keenin had only ever known enough to get by.

“Are you joking? You’re telling me you don’t know a single word. I stayed up all night for this.”

“Not all of us went to school,” Keenin corrected, handing him back the note. “Where do you get your clothes?”

“You dumped yours on the ground,” Harris told him helpfully. “And Aron, I told you not to write anything down on paper, terrible handwriting aside.”

Keenin would have helped them dispose the evidence with his flames except that the magic seals were working so he listened to them argue as he pulled on the practical tan garments. Then he shoved the old clothes under the mattress in case there was a rule saying all previous belongings had to be burned. Kidnappers usually had some fun ideas of how to separate kids from their past lives. Not that he had ever been kidnapped before. 

When he turned back to face the boys they were giving him a funny look.

“Are you a pack rat or something,” Aron observed.

“Let me guess. You were a street urchin,” Harris guessed at. “You think you’ll lose those things.”

Keenin’s lack of response was answer enough. He was still holding to his vow of not becoming close to these people, but now he knew that despite Aron’s talk of plans it was the spear handler that had seen more of the world. 

“Will I lose them?” Keenin asked.

These boys had obviously been here longer. It was good to know how it worked.

“No. They don’t seem to care,” Harris responded. “They even let me near the forge to bang together weapons. As long as we stay in the camp and train, we can use the place.”

Still, Keenin left his clothes where he had stashed them and looked inside the trunk to find a pair of boots.

“Street boy. No wonder you can’t use a sword,” Aron added. “What magic powers do you have?”

“Not your business,” Keenin responded.

He removed the boots to replace his worn pair of shoes and let the chest shut.

“Come on,” Aron argued. “Obviously they kept us alive for our magic power. Elemental spirits can’t bind to corpses and you can’t win everything with mindless followers. That’s what my dad taught me. So tell me.”

Keenin tapped his boots and looked properly at Aron. He might have been rightly confident in his sword skills, but that loud mouth of his could be a problem.

“If you’re going to be anyone’s leader, you need to work on your speeches,” Keenin advised.

“I was trying to get a position so I could spy on the army’s movements,” Aron defended. “But you have a point. I should know your fighting power so that I can direct you better as team leader.”

So the kid could fight back.

“I don’t know what my magic power is,” Keenin said with finality.

“See Aron,” Harris spoke up from where he saw on the edge of his own bed. “The kid is embarrassed. Now if we don’t go got breakfast we won’t have time to get any.”

There were three sharp knocks on the door, followed by the voice of their sword teacher Rumin.

“Boys,” Rumin called through the door. “Do you intend to stay in your pajamas all day? Didn’t we give you such lovely uniforms?”

“One minute teacher,” Harris called. “New kid can’t tie his boots.”

After there were  no more sounds they waited a bit longer to make sure their teacher had left.

“Harris doesn’t know what his magic power is either,” Aron said quietly. “But I can create fog. Super cool, right. Like super sneaky.”

“Great,” Keenin said. “I wasn’t asking.


The camp was much more active that morning. Smoke rose from countless cooking fires. Messengers ran around, supplies were moved, and oxen pulled muddy carts full of soldiers and other supplies. Medical tents had their flaps open and men sat outside with bandages wrapped around day old injuries to get checked.

“Serves them right,” Aron said.

“The talk is that a few days ago the city of Meladona sent another wave of warriors,” Harris explained. “I guess it was true.”

“If they’ve been at war all this time, why isn’t the city under siege?”

All the stories he had read spoke of one large decisive battle.

“The city has a magic barrier some miles out.”

“Really. Then why not shoot the enemies outside the barrier.”

“Because the field is full of moving corpses that bullets won’t kill,” Aron said. “The Red Heart army soldiers get to relax in dugouts and create more undead fighters. Meladona’s soldiers have no choice but to pass through the barrier to attack. Then they get trapped on the enemy side and wiped out.”

Keenin wasn’t supposed to care, but it must have taken the Meladona fighters a lot of courage. Other rumors spread around the camp.

“What are they talking about?” Keenin asked.

“They say Iscara was on the field today,” Harris spoke up.

“They also say he died. Or is undead himself,” Aron added helpfully. “I wouldn’t believe what they say.”

“The term for that is Esmer,” Keenin corrected the boy.

In which case, Iscara would be impossible to kill, but that didn’t explain his special ability to call back the souls of the dead. Harris distracted further thoughts as he pointed past Keenin to a larger wooden building on a small hill. The design was oriental, foreign, and reminded Keenin of a shrine.

“That’s the leaders stronghold here,” Harris explained.

“They say he has dragon armor,” Aron said. “So cool. Evil, but cool.”

Keenen fell back with Harris as Aron walked ahead lost in his world of heroic fantasies. It must have been nice to forget the unfortunate situation they were in. 

“Why did Aron mention his dad before?” Keenin asked the blacksmith boy.

The idea of parents being important was new to him.

“Aron’s father was a lord,” Harris explained. “He was an heir to a wealthy house or something, but Aron’s parents were killed by soldiers from this army when they wouldn’t give him up. He’s trying to cope. I was lucky enough for my family to be spared.”

That explained why red head acted so naïve. Keenin had been on the streets long enough to know exactly what grownups could make you do and he suspected that the leader of this place was more attentive then it seemed. 

“Who did they make you leave behind?” Harris asked.

Keenin’s response was a silent one as he pictured Dia standing at the gates to some fancy city he had never seen. But he pushed it away. 


Rumin yawned as he leaned against the training house with a wooden staff slung over his shoulder. He wore a thin leather jerkin over a long sleeved green shirt and looked like he was on vacation.

Aron went through the door of the training house without looking. Harris gave Rumin a distrustful glance and was going to enter when Rumin stopped him by lowering the staff lengthwise across the opening. Harris regarded the plain weapon with distaste.

“I specialize in spears,” Harris said in a bored voice.

“Today you don’t,” Rumin told him. “You two are going to spar with me.”

Rumin smiled at Keenin.

“Why not attack him yourself?” Harris complained.

Rumin dropped the staff and held it out.

“Too easy,” Rumin replied lazily. “I need to get a proper workout.”

Harris swiped the staff away from him and they all moved into the room where Aron was hacking his way through a straw practice dummy. Keenin noticed that the third mysterious boy was missing from the bench, but he didn’t have time to think about it as Harris naturally took his place in the middle of the dirt floor and swished the staff from side to side to test the weight. Rumin picked up a matching staff from against the wall and handed it to Keenin, who awkwardly grasped the solid wood staff in his hand. He shifted his grip further down the length of the staff until the end felt heavy enough for a solid hit. 

Keenin looked up at Rumin who had placed himself between them while his left hand loosely held the end of a staff which rested in the dirt. Keenin was waiting for a countdown, but Rumin simply tapped the ground. Harris was the first to rush forward and as Keenin watched Rumin push back his new companion Keenin too rushed forward to get in a blow.

They continued to rush their opponent, getting pushed back every time, feeling the sting and precise motions of each hit, and formulating new ways to break through their opponent’s guard. All the while Rumin yelled instructions to correct their movements. “Duck your head.” “Feet on the ground.” Keenin thought that this might continue until they were exhausted, but then Rumin leaned to avoid a blow, reached to grab the end of Keenin’s staff and swung him around to crash into Harris. They landed bruised and beaten in the dirt.

Harris pushed Keenin away to stand and brush off the dirt.

“Satisfied testing the new guy then?” Harris asked their teacher.

Rumin gave a devious smile.

“Yes, but I’m not nearly finished with you.”

There was a final thunk heard across the room as Aron cut into a practice dummy, and then turned to consider Rumin’s half-threatening statement.

“And if you want to keep the semblance of life you have left, consider a truce. Or might I remind you that you have no home outside these walls,” he said meanly.

The quiet between them hurt. But that wasn’t true, Keenin thought. It wasn’t true. Aron had Harris to look after him now, and he himself had…a whole life. Why had he given that up? 


At the sound of his name Keenin looked up from where he sat in the dirt. In Rumin, he expected to see anger and a will to beat them down like disobeying children, but the trainer’s face was one of calm inspection. Then his mouth twitched into a bright smile and he quickly turned to leave. The door banged shut behind them. 

A half formed question of ‘why’…why the attention…why he wanted to take a step closer to this person–was taken away by the echoed scream of Aron’s anger, the sight of Aron running past to slam sword point into the back of the door–sticking into the splintered wood–, and the following attempts of Harris to pry his friend away. That was enough for Keenin. He got himself up off the ground, and while Harris held Aron back by the shoulders, he ignored the sword lodged in the door and pushed through to outside where he could breathe fresh air.

The tents used as living arrangements were still there. His ears filled with the quiet chatter of spreading rumors and the soft clinking of metal as men adjusted and removed pieces of their armor, sounds reminiscent of the bustle at market. The midmorning sun soaked warmly through his skin the same as when he sat on a blanket beside Alaban’s stall to sell potions. He even caught sight of the other boy, the quiet one who was now crouching beside a tent as Nadia stood beside him with an untouched bowl of soup clearly meant for the kid. He watched her lips move as she spoke to him.

Keenin remembered the woman at the library in Stonefield who had been Tess’s mother. Even his ghostly first love had not made it this far. Dropping his thoughts Keenin found a spot on the horizon and began wandering through the crowd. He wondered how far he would get away from camp before anyone noticed and advised him to turn back. Would these notice him because he was an outsider or because fate compelled them?

A rock bounced off Keenin’s new boot, brown and stiff from lack of wear. He kicked the rock again, and again. And. Keenin noticed tufts of grass in the dry soil and lifted his head to look back at the clump of white tents a few meters away. Then he looked the way he had been going and saw a shed. Sitting against the sun-bleached flattened boards was Rumin. 

The man held a stack of parchment paper against one arm as he drew with a pencil on the top sheet. Rumin glanced up as the rock Keenin had been kicking hit dully against the side of the shed. Their eyes met, but Rumin simply looked down and continued sketching.

“I guess you didn’t stay to practice,” he commented as he traced over a line. 

It wasn’t a threat. 


It was dusty and hot outside. There was no reason for Rumin to sit out here, except to find himself. The same as what Keenin was doing.

“Too bad. I was hoping you wouldn’t die,” Rumin commented.


“Actually,” Rumin agreed with the thought.


The question held between them.

“It’s been a long time,” Rumin said. 

“Since what?”

At the heart of the conversation was a strange feeling; like they knew each other; like they didn’t, but they knew something; like how to stare down a long ago traveled road, remembering the minutes of pure freedom, and turning around to see that the people who kept you alive were still there.

“It’s been a long time since someone cared,” Rumin said.

“And you think I care,” Keenin said.

This was just his fate. 

“Of course you do,” Rumin told him, “The way this battle ends is going to matter, and you know it.”

Rumin looked down at his work and brushed his thumb across the end of his pencil. In the distance, a horse and rider kicked up dust as they approached the camp. Rumin stood to brush the dirt from his pants, his parchment drawing folded in his other hand.

“Well, I’ll see you later.”

And the man headed back to camp. Keenin remained to study the shed which seemed like a structure left behind by previous inhabitants, but it was suspicious. He walked around to the barn-style door which was already cracked open and pushed it inwards. 

It made him feel colder. There were metal barred cells. Grey-skinned corpses sat huddled on the floor or leaning against the wall on their benches, or sprawled on their backs like a star gazer. And Keenin knew these had been the other children with magic powers.

And he suddenly realized, if he didn’t do something, the things he knew might never come back. That would be his fault.


Chapter 30: You Know Keenin?

Chapter 32: Responsibility and Friendship