The dream came of a scorched and empty battleground. He was leading a horse by the reigns as his armored boots crunched over the rocky ground. This in itself was odd since Keenin had never touched a horse except for those stabled at the Inn in his hometown of Stonefield. But as he curiously followed the trail of the dream a castle formed itself on the wasteland, a marble entrance arching wide. Keenin saw a lush garden reflective of the one in Rumin’s drawing and it seemed that whatever was wrong had started there. He could feel the presence of Calendor with him and he wanted…
“Keenin,” a far-off voice seemed to call to him.
He saw the statue of Septose in the courtyard with her large marble hands cupped around a lily and thought that she spoke, but then he noticed the sandy-haired boy sitting at the base of the statue, head bowed as birds flew to eat the seed from his hand.
“Keenin. I know what will make you happy,” the voice sounded louder in his head.
Keenin startled awake at the violent shake of his shoulder. His eyes stared wide at the bare wall across the room as he wanted to pull back the vision, but Aron’s voice broke though the last of his will.
“Keenin are you alright?” Aron asked from behind him.
It was that boy’s hand that had been on his shoulder. Keenin rolled over.
“What?” he asked Aron.
“We were practically frozen yesterday. Are you feeling sick at all?”
There was worry in the boy’s eyes, but Keenin could not tell him the truth. That no, he had not been frozen. Keenin had fallen asleep in his clothes with the covers half pulled up, exhausted from a long night, only disturbed by the thudding sound of soldiers’ boots against the floorboards as his friends were brought in.
“I slept in. Are you…”
“We’re fine. Slight headache,” Harris brushed off the comment.
Something jumped off the bed and Keenin saw an ice cat land against the floorboards and look curiously back at him.
“We were worried about that thing,” Harris explained. “Thought it might have hurt you.”
The cat stretched up and clawed the side of his bed, its icy eyes seeming to plead for attention. He put away the urge to scratch the cat’s head.
“It must be from Jenna,” Keenin explained. He pushed off the covers on his bed. “Let’s go.”
“Go?” Aron questioned.
“She, Jenna said that she wanted to teach us magic.”
“What about getting changed?” Aron suggested.
That did sound like a good idea. Keenin couldn’t believe that he was getting used to wearing clean clothes. He pulled off the shirt that he had been wearing the night before, jumped out of bed to dig in his trunk, and pulled out his old black turtleneck to put on. When he looked back to Aron the boy was looking at him funny.
“Isn’t that the shirt that you wore when you got here?” Aron questioned.
“Ya,” Keenin confirmed, not seeing where this went.
“So didn’t you want to keep it separate.”
“From this place,” Aron suggested. “Like a reminder of going back.”
It was an interesting idea. Keenin guessed he had felt like wearing it because getting magic back his was a big thing. But he knew that Aron had trouble being in the camp and didn’t want to worry him.
“I have you for that,” Keenin said.
The oddly heartfelt statement seemed to put the matter to rest.
“Where did you say we should go?” the ever-practical Harris asked.
Jenna was eating at a table by herself in the food tent wearing a knee-length olive tunic over thick grey tights. She foggily bit into her food, swallowed, and yawned; covering her mouth lopsidedly with a hand as Keenin took a seat opposite of her instead of joining his friends for food. The cat that was not a cat jumped up on the bench beside him.
“How do you make the ice cat so lifelike?” Keenin asked.
He could make shapes with fire too, but couldn’t give it real personality unless he consciously moved it.
“I don’t,” Jenna said. “Sculptures are my hobby. My spirit likes to jump into them sometimes.”
“I didn’t know they did that.”
“No. Not usually.”
When Keenin glanced over the cat was still watching him.
“Your cat doesn’t seem so happy with you.” Keenin said. “Maybe you aren’t having enough fun.”
He had been told that spirits could leave as easy as they came.
“I’ll have plenty of fun making you understand.”
She reached over the table to scratch the cat under the chin and it disintegrated into a pile of shaved ice, the spirit seeming to return to her. Aron and Harris joined them with their plates of food.
“You three may as well eat,” she told them.
“You won’t freeze us then?” Aron asked carefully.
“Not yet. Last night I was cranky. You broke into my house.”
“Makes sense,” Harris said.
An armored man approached their table.
“Lady Jenna,” he addressed her, seeming to indicate something unsaid.
She handed the man her plate off the table and when he took it she stood to leave.
“What about that magic?” Keenin asked her.
“Meet me back at the training house in half an hour.”
Keenin was surprised that the training house was still standing. Debris had been piled to the side. The whole front wall had been smashed in. Even now the gaping hole was covered lazily by a tarp which they ducked under to enter the half-lit space. Inside the bench was pulled out from against the wall and Faber was sitting on it with his hands tied behind his back. He glanced over, but didn’t say a word, choosing to look back at his feet.
“Well this is awkward,” Aron commented.
Seeing Faber made the situation feel less special. Ever since the boy had told him to die Keenin had not felt the same around him.
“After you two.”
Keenin wasn’t going to deal with this today.
“What did he do something?” Aron half joked.
“Ruined my mood,” Keenin said.
Couldn’t he try to enjoy his time in war camp Keenin thought.
Everything else in the room was still in place, the whole armor on stands and weapons on the rack routine. You would think that magic class might be a bit more interesting.
“Wasn’t she supposed to show up before us?” Aron observed.
“Probably picking out her best outfit,” Harris suggested.
“Is anyone imagining that,” Aron said. “How they will test our magic.”
Keenin had regrettably imagined Jenna’s bare olive skin as she sat naked on the bed in her room while picking out clothes, not that he had ever seen her room. It was a sexy thought that Keenin was blameless for, but not one of his better moments.
“Calm down,” Harris told his friends.
The tarp lifted and Jenna entered the space. In one hand she held a glass orb on a cloth, perhaps so that she did not touch it herself. Her clothes were different from what she had worn that morning, now a teal pair of pants and a white shirt with frills on the cuff. She gave them a long silent look as though she had not expected them to show up. Then she glanced to the boy sitting on the bench.
“Faber,” she emphasized. “I’m so glad that you could join us.”
Faber had turned his gaze towards the wall to show as much indifference as possible.
“Why don’t you boys follow his example,” Jenna suggested.
She sounded genuinely happy. Aron assessed the bench situation and moved to sit next to Faber, Harris followed, leaving Keenin at the other end of the bench. It all felt very childish as they waited for what Jenna would say next.
Jenna held out the glass orb that they had all seen the night before.
“This,” she explained, “Will show the nature and strength of your power. Before you think of using this as your chance to rebel, you should be honored to know that you are the only ones in the last year to make it this far.”
Keenin had already started to suspect that. He could not help thinking that getting this far was due to his connections to a predetermined fate. Whether this made the boys sitting with him lucky, he didn’t know. There must have been other magic users recruited before them, perhaps Jenna among them, but he supposed that most had died in the battle.
“Do any of you have anything to say before we start?”
None of them did, but thinking about dying in battle Keenin decided that he would try not to show too much of his magic. He didn’t want to be made responsible for so many deaths. Ironic, he knew.
“I’ll go first,” Aron announced.
Aron had always been the one to want out as soon as possible. He held out his hands as Jenna approached with the orb. Before she handed it over she grabbed his wrist and he flinched at the touch of her cold hand, his eyes widening with the fear that she would hurt him, but she released her grip and the bracelet sealing his magic fell broken into shards on the ground. Then she placed the orb in his hands. Aron breathed in deeply. Jenna took a step back as mist started to pool at Aron’s feet and began to circle, turning slowly until it solidified into the form of a snaky ridge-backed dragon which lashed out as though to bite her, only to dissipate on contact. Jenna didn’t even flinch.
It was hard to know if Aron had done it on purpose. Keenin was sure that she would accuse him of threatening her; had that not been the form of hostile anger.
“Pass it on,” Jenna said simply.
Harris accepted the weight of the glass orb before Jenna could take away his cuff.
“I like the weight of this, but am I supposed to feel something,” he asked.
She tilted her head and shrugged.
“Why don’t you take the cuff off yourself,” she suggested as though any of them could.
Harris balanced the orb in his hand with the cuff and used the other to grab hold of the metal circling his wrist. A disorienting low hum vibrated in Keenin’s eardrums and died as though someone had turned the sound down. Harris gave the cuff a light tug and it snapped on the opposite end as though it had been meant to open that way the entire time. He dropped it on the floor. Nothing else obvious happened.
“Well,” Jenna said. “What magic is it?”
“Metal working,” he said. “That’s always been my talent. Didn’t you know when you asked me to remove my own cuff?”
“Rumin had an idea about that. You should ask him more about it.”
Keenin realized that it would be his turn and he stood up from the bench to prepare himself. He remembered the performance he had put on at the Inn back in Midden and pictured a small delicate winged fairy fluttering over his shoulder when he accepted the orb. The fairy materialized in place, its crisp outline fanning overhead as it hovered. His bracelet wasn’t even off and he nervously wondered if they noticed.
“Hey, that’s cool,” Aron expressed.
“I know,” Keenin said slightly strained as he tried not to think of the real shape of the fire spirit.
Being asked to burn people was not his idea of cool.
“You would make a good match with our wind mage Judial,” Jenna commented.
Of course he would. It would be bonfires every night Keenin thought.
“You said you didn’t know your magic,” Harris pointed out Keenin’s previous omission.
Keenin felt like smacking him. Wasn’t anyone going to take the orb away from him. Was the fairy too mesmerizing or something.
“Elementals are the most obvious and dangerous. It’s good that you have a start on control,” Jenna said as though to defend him.
“Thanks,” Keenin managed.
“Pass it to Faber,” she told him.
Keenin glanced over to the boy who still had his hands tied.
“Aren’t you going to untie him?”
“Put it on his lap,” she specified.
Keenin slowly approached, feeling somehow guilty despite the other boy’s coldness towards him. Faber was looking directly into his eyes now as if he knew what Keenin thought. Still Faber didn’t say a say a word and Keenin had to do what he was told so he carefully placed the orb on Faber’s lap. Then Keenin took two big steps backwards in case something crazy happened, but nothing happened. Faber continued to sit as he was.
“Did you lose it?” Jenna questioned quietly. “Your magic.”
Aron raised interested eyes to Jenna, who didn’t notice. Harris seemed to accept the statement. It occurred to Keenin that the entire time on the bench Faber had not been wearing a bracelet, a fact hidden by the way his hands were tied. In his silent realization Keenin imagined Faber wrapped in his green cloak, leaning against a rough wooden fence around a large grassy field as sheep grazed; clouds drifted; and wind carried the answer too far away.
I told it to go away. Time slowed as Keenin thought about it: What was said. What led to Faber being another corpse.
“I told it to go away,” Faber spoke outright.
His friend did not see it coming. Those were possibly the only words that Keenin’s friends heard the boy speak before a spike of ice was embedded in the boy’s heart, the proud smile still on his face when his body fell forward to land on the dirt floor, all with merely a trickle of blood. Faber’s tied hands and lack of bracelet were undeniably visible.
Of course, nobody except Keenin saw it quite that way. Keenin was in a calm state of shock as Aron yelled and nearly pushed Harris off the end of the bench. It was the ever-relaxed Harris, who wasn’t bothered unless Aron was threatened, that looked towards the silent blaze behind Keenin.
“Holy shit,” Aron said, seeing it too.
Keenin kept his eyes on Faber, but he could see Calendor in his mind’s eye hovering behind him like a sentry and he guessed that the fire figure must have actually been there; a response to a wordless need to see everything put back. The bracelet still hung on Keenin’s wrist. Perhaps, the thing that had been sealed was not the fire, but his own spirit; a simple dream for them to be happy, not like this.
Keenin lifted a hand to dispose of the body, only to have that hand encased in ice. The ice … didn’t quite hurt, but it reminded him of where he was.
“That’s not your property,” Jenna told him sternly. “Don’t touch the corpses.”
Keenin glanced over. Her stern looked broke away to warily watch the silent fire spirit.
She was actually afraid of him. Keenin made a choice and tightened his grip on his ambition, bringing it close to sit smoldering in his heart. Calendor sputtered and poofed out of existence.
“Perhaps, I should be excused,” Keenin said for himself.
Without waiting for her permission Keenin ducked out into the open air and morning light. He continued walking though the camp until he stood at a tent more familiar than the others, the tent of the soldier that was teaching him how to fight. The man was outside refreshing the paint of the army’s symbol, a red bird with a hollow heart, on the back of his leather jerkin. Keenin had seen the symbol all over the camp, but he had never thought to ask.
“What does that mean?”
The older man looked up from his work. He looked more tired than usual. Keenin found it a bit odd that the man had not noticed him sooner, being the skilled fighter that he was, but perhaps Keenin was no threat to him. The man inspected his work and smoothed a hand over the dry paint.
“I’m not sure that it has one meaning,” the man said. “But I always thought of it as a sort of burden.”
Keenin had made interpretations himself, but the idea of burden had not come to his mind. He had thought more of love for the leader, respect for the goddess of love, attachment to death as the bird may have been a crow, or no love for the enemy.
“How is it a burden?” Keenin asked.
Maybe it was an inappropriate question coming from him as an outsider, but the man simply looked sad as he told the story in a way that reminded Keenin of Alaban.
“Our people are connected by a love for our family and we share the burden of carrying the others into better times,” the man explained. “But let’s not talk about it anymore. I have something else for you.”
The man invited Keenin inside his small tent where pieces of armor had been laid out on a carpet inside. It appeared to be a lighter set designed only to cover the most vulnerable areas. Instead of a full breastplate there was a chainmail shirt with metal plating over the shoulders, curved around the sides of the ribs, attached around the neck and a short breastplate over his heart that left his stomach, back, and arms bare except for the chainmail and padding underneath. For his legs there were metal plates to strap over the front of his existing pants.
“I want you to try this on.”
It seemed only yesterday that Keenin had been wondering when he would get proper armor and now here it was. The process of getting it on was a little finicky. He had to be careful pulling the chainmail on so that the loose plates didn’t catch or cut him and he had to be able to properly tighten all the straps. At the end of it he was handed a rounded helmet designed with a long slit across the visor for him to see and a crinkled face protector with holes for breathing that was welded in place.
It looked uncomfortable and Keenin didn’t put it on. He simply imagined this would be like having a new face.
“Looks like you’re ready,” his teacher said.
“I don’t quite…feel that way.”
All of the magic and shiny armor was great until you had to put it to use. Keenin had not imagined being a war hero. He was supposed to die at the hands of an innocent for trying to steal a part of their life or on a cold night after a day of selling herbs to ease the pain of others. His teacher looked at him with sympathy.
“We never do feel ready,” he admitted. “Let me help you take it off.”
Keenin’s burden was removed piece by piece and his teacher explained how to properly care for and pack the metal to prevent rust. In the end he placed everything into a tidy travel pack and handed it over.
“Do you think,” Keenin said accepting the pack. “That you might help my friends get their armor too.”
He didn’t want to see his friends die. He had not even wanted them to be friends.
“Your friends already know how it works. I was asked to show you.”
His teacher nonchalantly picked up a larger travel pack with a sleeping roll from against the side of the tent. Keenin realized that the tent was cleared out. The carpet and the armor had been the only things inside.
“Where are you going?” Keenin asked the guard who trained him.
“The second line. They need someone with wits to work the catapult. Damn ice dragon is cutting through our forces.”
“Oh,” Keenin said.
“I’m sure you’ll do great. I’ll keep an eye out for you on the field.”
The man held the tent flap open. Keenin took the cue and went out while the man laced up the entrance to keep the place clean. He felt that he ought to say something as he stared at the freshly painted symbol on the man’s back.
“You…,” Keenin tried to think of the words as the man finished with the tent and turned to leave. “You stay safe too.”
As he watched the man leave he felt disappointed.
Harris was calling his name as he ran closer.
“Keenin.” When Harris reached him he grabbed Keenin’s shoulders. “Where is Aron?”
The boy breathed with effort and his eyes were wide with fear. Keenin didn’t know where Aron was and his silence seemed to be answer enough.
“You need to help me find him,” Harris begged. “I think he’s trying to leave. I already looked around the edges of camp and the food tent and the commander’s office.”
A cold sweat broke out over Keenin’s skin. To leave meant death.
Without a word he started running back through the camp, his new pack bumping against his back, helmet still clamped in his hands so that Harris was forced to follow after. If Aron was not in the place that Keenin believed then they might not catch him, but Aron was intelligent, battle ready, and used to getting things handed to him.
“He has to be there,” Keenin yelled back to Harris.
“Where!?” Harris questioned as he followed.
Nobody would think twice about Aron riding a horse around camp. It would be some time before they realized he was not coming back. Keenin knocked open the front door of the stables nearest their lodging in time to see Aron in one of the stalls fussing with riding gear.
“Can’t anyone get some proper horse tack around here,” he swore to himself.
Relief flooded though Keenin. They were lucky that Aron was a strategist and had taken time to not only pick out a preferred horse, judging by the fact Aron had not taken the largest animal or the one closest to the exit. He had also put together a saddlebag of supplies.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said looking to them.
“Aron, you said we were leaving together,” Harris reminded him. “Let’s talk about this.”
Keenin shifted the helmet he carried under his arm and stood straighter.
“Where are you going?” Keenin accused.
There were no safe routes out of the valley.
“I don’t know Keenin. Where are we going? To battle or war, to find justice, or to get peace for my house. I just can’t stay here while you fail to decide. I’m stepping up to be a leader Keenin.”
“There is nothing to decide,” Keenin argued.
Aron unsheathed his sword and pointed it towards Keenin.
“Life or death Keenin. It’s always a choice, but answer me this. Why didn’t you kill Jenna? Why didn’t you burn her Keenin?”
The question had nagged him too. He had done it before when his innocent guide had been taken hostage. The bandit had held her at knife point, so close. Her blood had spilled like warm butter and he had focused everything on her loss. He had hated those bandits, but the people in this camp didn’t make him angry. He felt pity.
“I don’t want to choose this side,” Aron answered for him.
He pointed the sword back towards his own heart. Keenin could understand. Aron had weighed his options and decided that if he could not take revenge then he would not let them use him. He was too honorable to join a cause that had forced him there and that he didn’t believe in.
“Aron there is nothing wrong with living like this,” Harris called to him.
“My family is gone,” he said.
“Maybe,” Keenin said. “Maybe we can be family.”
Tears of frustration stained Aron’s cheeks. Keenin tossed his helmet to the side as a show of trust and took a tentative step forward to take the sword away before the boy did anything he would regret. Aron forgot about hurting himself and flashed his sword, swinging it twice though the empty air. But Harris rushed forward expectantly and grabbed Aron’s sword arm. As the two remained locked in place Aron glared. Seeing that he might need to fight Keenin slid his pack down to the ground so that he could move more feely.
“Why don’t you just come with us,” Keenin suggested.
Anger flashed across Aron’s face. Aron ripped his hand free of Harris’s grip and slammed the hilt into the side of Harris’s head so that he fell unconscious onto the hay. Aron was breathing hard, but the sword was held loose at his side again.
“I can’t let you fight for these people,” Aron told him. “It’s dishonest, and immoral. Maybe. Maybe if I can just kill all of us, we don’t have to disappoint the people we care about.”
That sure was a lot that Aron had decided on his own, but Keenin didn’t get to make his argument. The door to the stables creaked as it was pushed and knocked against the wall. Rumin stood there unsmiling, a thin sword held lazily in his right hand.
“Did I miss something?” Rumin asked.
The red headed boy glared across the space at their sword teacher. Rumin adjusted the grip of the thin sword in his hand. Aron tightened his grip and raised his blade an inch from the ground, not quite a fighting stance. Wait, Keenin thought. Wait.
He could almost see the ark of Rumin’s blade before it lifted, see the muscles in Aron’s arm stiffen as he twisted his defensive angle. He heard the horridly loud clash of metal. Rumin might have turned away his well-met blade, but when Keenin saw the man kick Aron, causing his friend to lose his footing, Keenin gripped the sword at his own side. Rumin’s sword came up again.
Keenin didn’t know he had spoken aloud until they both looked his way.
“Idiot,” Aron told him.
Rumin’s sword came down over Aron’s head as though he had not heard Keenin’s protest. Keenin thrust out his hand as a weaponless child might. The cuff on his wrist was all too visible. His thoughts were filling with ways to stop the course of events. The tip of the blade cut a red slash down over Aron’s left eye and landed in the hay scattered at the boys’ feet. Blood ran down Aron’s cheek like mock tears. His eyes blinked in surprise, not expecting to have been spared. Aron’s left hand slowly came up to cover the wound. His right hand rose to feel the unscathed crown of his head. Rumin had turned his sword arm to inspect the bubbled skin on the back of his hand.
“Keenin,” his friend said in shock. “You did it. You fought back.”
No flame had burst forth. No scream had been heard. But he had perceived the thick heat of the air that had blunted the blow and scalded Rumin. A normal soldier would not have still held a blade as Rumin did with a nerve exposing burn. Rumin pulled a white and yellow patched cloth that looked to be a flag from his pocket and wrapped it around his injured hand that continued to grip his sword. Aron swayed and Keenin rushed forward to catch the boy as he fainted.
“I guess that I should be lucky that Jenna will only scold me,” Rumin said. “But enemies don’t stop.”
Keenin checked the cut on Aron’s face. It was a surface scratch and the result of his fainting from the stress of almost losing an eye. Keenin had felt the dense air surrounding Aron connect with the blade and the release of pressure as Rumin removed the weight behind his blow and stepped back to let the point slide down the barrier of air in a shallow cut before the hot air burst outwards to burn his hand. Had Rumin held his downward force Keenin would have had to physically knock Rumin down before the blade sliced though the thickened air and Aron’s skull. Rumin had given them another chance.
“We’re not enemies…yet,” Keenin responded.
He still had a great deal of respect for the man. He had never lied about expectations or consequences. Rumin left the point of his sword buried in the hay as he considered. Then Rumin looked right into Keenin’s staring eyes and asked a question.
“What do you want out of this war?” Rumin asked. “I want you to think, imagine imagine that you reach the very end the very end of all the fighting. And I want. And I want to know what you see.”
The words were spoken in an odd way that lulled him into a dreamlike state of mind. Keenin wasn’t able to question why the words fascinated him so, all he could do was envision an answer. There was something.
In his mind he saw…Dia. And then he forgot about the stables, and the conflict, and he really did see her. She was sitting on the edge of a fountain decorated with golden mermaids, but her attention was towards a pair of crows jostling on a rooftop like old friends. She was older, and slightly taller. This Dia would never be as tall as she was in her other life, but as though to better show her age she had replaced the dresses with travel ready pants and a loose lacy shirt. An older Keenin walked up to sit and watch with her.
“Tell me again how you met him,” she asked.
But then Keenin was aware that this was a sort of vision not fulfilled.
“There’s a girl,” Keenin tried to explain.
Rumin bent down to put a hand on his knee that prompted him not to say more as though the man already understood.
“Keenin you deserve more than this. We will ride victorious into the city where they will rejoice. That girl will be proud,” Rumin told him.
He felt that too, felt that just seeing Dia would be enough to set things right between them. He would be some sort of war hero. In his heart Keenin had always wanted to be the hero who rode across the open field. These invaders and the defenders would work out their differences at the end of the war. Peace would come in time. What their leader Iscara was doing was right, even though the enemy didn’t understand. The bit of fighting, breaking through the misunderstanding would be worth it.
“Keenin,” Rumin said.
At the sound of his own name Keenin eased out of the good thoughts to focus back on Rumin’s words. Keenin had nearly forgotten that Rumin was there and now vaguely felt that it may have gotten colder in the room.
“I’ll make everything right again. When you’re scared or unsure I want you to come find me. Now give me the cuff. You won’t need it.”
He wouldn’t quite remember how he took the metal cuff off, but he handed it over undamaged and grateful. It was such a relief for Keenin to hear that Rumin was there for him. Everyone had kept telling him to choose even when it hurt so much to do so. He had been so afraid of every choice being the wrong one.
It was simple. He would let Rumin make the choices and he would finally be free.
There were tears in his eyes when Rumin took his hand from Keenin’s knee and the stables became rough and solid around him once more. Dia and the future of the fight had gone from his mind. Keenin raised a hand to wipe the teams from under one of his eyes in confusion. He seemed to always be the last one left standing. He was sure that Rumin had come to punish them, but they appeared to have been spared.
“What did you come back for?” Keenin asked him.
He knew that Rumin had been the one to tell his chosen sword teacher to help Keenin put on some armor. Only he would do that.
“Were going,” Rumin said simply.
It seemed unimportant to ask when.
“Long enough,” Rumin replied.
Like that the time of training and the little freedom left had come to an end. Keenin knew it was unlikely that they would be back at all.