He was a small boy that had never seen a city. His young life had been spent out in the desert, running and playing among the tents of his father's people. At the age of 5 he had learned how to tend the goats, to make cheese from thier milk, to stretch and scrape the skins of the slaughtered animals. At seven he was given his first knife and taught how to shoot a bow. But at twelve he was taken from his father by men in bright armor who traveled far beyond the desert, all the way to a stone city by the sea.
It had been the first real shock of Kiserai's life. His father, the strongest and bravest of all the Isulk'im's chieftans, had sat by in silence as the pale skinned men in armor came. This man who had fought a hundred battles had said not a word, had not even looked his son in the eye. Only Garin had approched him, laying his scrawny hand on Kiserai's shoulder. "You must go with them Saeric. The safety of the tribe depends on it."
"Why? We are Sandtiger, stronger than all."
"Because your father orders it."
They had lifted Saeric up onto the back of a tall horse, and the long journey began. Not all Isulk'im children were taught the language of the Pale People, but Kiserai had a good ear for language and Garin had spent many months teaching him subtlties. This was how he was able to understand the shining soldiers. They made jokes about the children they were gathering, refering to them as 'dung puppies'. Other than that they were not unkind to thier prisoners. Thirty days they traveled until at last they came upon a place of horror that the Isulk'im children gazed upon with awe and horror. Everything was stone, covering the earth, rearing up to challenge the sky, huge walls and high houses, narrow streets and a mass of people continually writhing like a giant snake through its marketplaces, streets, alleys and avenues.
Nineteen Isulk'im children were brought to the city of Ebonhame that late summer. Kiserai-Saeric remembered the ride through the city streets, children pointing to the Isulk'im, then baying and screeching and gestures with thier fingers. Adults too, stood and watched, thier faces grim. The group came to a stop at a walled structure on the outskirts of the city, where double gates of bronze and iron were dragged open. For Saeric it was like riding into the mouth of a great dark beast, fear coloring his perceptions.
Beyond the gate there was a flat, paved training area, where Saeric watched as young men and older boys practiced with sword and shield, spear and bow. They were all dressed identically in crimson tunics, black pants and knee high boots of shining brown leather. All exercise stopped as the Isulk'im children rode in with thier escort.
A young man with sandy blonde hair stepped forward, his training sword still in his hand. "I see we are going to be given propper targets for our arrows!" he exclaimed to his friends, who all laughed loudly.
The Isulk'im were all ordered to dismount, then lead into a six story building and up a seemingly endless stairway to the fifth level. There was a long clausterphobic hallway that lead to a large room in which, behind a desk of polished wood sat a warrior with a forked beard. His eyes were bright blue and his hair cut very short. A scar ran from the right side of his nose, curving down along his jawbone. His forearms too showed the scars of close combat. He stood as they entered.
"Get in two lines." he ordered them, his voice deep and cold. The Isulk'im shuffled into place. Saeric, being one of the smallest, was in the front rank. "You are here as Legionaires. You do not understand what that means, but i will tell you. The King, may he live forever, has concieved of a brilliant plan to stop the Isulk'im raids now and in the future. You are all here as hostages so your fathers will behave. More than that, however, you will learn during your years here how to be civilized, what constitutes as good manners and right behaviour. You will learn to read, debate, to think. You will study poetry and literature, mathmatics and Cartography. You will also be taught the arts of war, the nature of strategy, logistics, and command. In short, you are to become cadets in the great army of Tyr." Glancing up, he addressed the two officers who had led the boys into the room. "You may go now and get cleaned up, i have a few more things to say to these...cadets."
As the officers left and the door clicked shut, the warrior moved to stand directly in front of the boys, towering over Saeric. "What you have just heard, you shit eating monkeys, is the /official/ welcome to the Ebonhame Academy. My name is Karstock, the Lord of Senn, and most of the scars i have come from battling your miserable people. I have been killing Isulk'im scum for most of my life. You cannot be taught, you are not human. It would be like teaching dogs how to play the flute. This foolishness springs from the addled mind of a foolish old man. When he dies, this...stupidity...will die with him. But until that blessed day, work hard, for the lash awaits the tardy and the stupid. Now get downstairs where a cadet awaits you. He will take you to the quartermaster who will supply you with tunics and boots.
And so began Saeric's years at the Ebonhame academy.
The lash bit deeply into his back, but he did not cry out. He was Isulk'im, no matter how great the pain, he would never show his suffering to these da'tsang, these pale skinned foriegners. The whip he had been forced to make himself, the leather wound tightly around a wooden handle then sliced into thin strips, each tipped with a small barb of steel. Saeric counted each stroke to the proscribed twenty. As the last slashing swipe lanced across his back, he allowed himself to slump forward against the stake. "Give him five more." came the voice of Karstock.
"That would be against regulation." answered Marid. "He has recived the maximum allowed for a cadet of seventeen." Saeric could scarcely belive Marid had spoken up for him. The house prefect had always made his hatred of the Isulk'im boys very clear.
Karstock spoke again. "That regulation is for human beings, Marid, not Isulk'im filth. As you can see, he has not suffered at all. Not a sound has he made. Where there is no sense, there is no feeling! Five more!"
"I cannot obey you my lord."
"You are stripped of your rank, Marid. I thought better of you."
"And I of you, Lord Karstock." Saeric heard the lash fall to the floor. "If one more blow is laid upon this young man's back i shall report it to my father at the Palace. Eighteen strokes was bad enough for a misdemenor. Twenty five would be savage beyond belief."
"Be Silent!" Thundered Karstock. "One more word and you will suffer a similar punishment and face expulsion from this academy! I will not tollerate disobediance and insubordination. You!" He pointed to a boy Saeric could not see. "Five more lashes if you please."
Saeric heard the whisper of the lash being swept off the floor and braced himself. Only when the first blow fell did he realize Marid had been holding back. Whomever held the lash now laid in with a vengance. At the third stroke a groan was torn from him that shamed him even more than the punishment. But he bit down hard on the leather belt between his teeth and made no other sound. Blood was running freely down his back now, pooling above the belt of his pants. As the fifth stroke fell, a great silence filled the hall. Karstock broke it "Now Marid, you may go write your father. Someone cut this piece of shit down."
Three Isulk'im boys ran forward, untying the ropes that bound Saeric. Even as he fell into thier arms, he swung to see who had wielded the whip. It was Adan of the Black Rocks tribe. His heart sank.
Saeric's friends half carried him to the infirmary, where an orderly applied salve to his back and three stitches to a deeper cut in his shoulder. Adan entered and stood before him. "You did well, Saeric." he said in the Isulk'im tongue. "My heart swelled with pride for you."
"Why then did you make me cry out for the da'tsang?"
"He would have ordered five more had you not, and five more still. It was a test of will and one that might well have killed you."
"You stop talking in that filthy language!" Spat the orderly. "You know its against the rules and i wont have it!"
Adan nodded, then reached out and placed his hand on Saeric's head. "You have a brave heart, my friend." He said in the southern tongue. Then he turned and walked out of the room.
"Twenty five lashes just for defending yourself?" Said his closest friend, Jair "That is unjust!"
"You cannot expect justice from da'tsang" Saeric whispered "Only pain."
"They have stopped hurting me, perhaps it will be better for all of us from now on." replied Jair.
Saeric said nothing. They had stopped hurting Jair because he ran errands for them, cleaned thier boots, bowed and scraped, acted like a slave. As they mocked him, he would bob his head and smile. It saddened Saeric, but there was little he could do. Every man had to make his own choices. His own was to resist them anyway he could and learn everything the could teach. Jair did not have the strength for that path, he was soft and suprisingly gentle for a Isulk'im boy.
After a short rest in the infirmary, Saeric walked unaided to the room he shared with Gaul. From the Shrike tribe, Gaul was taller than most Isulk'im youths, his face less square and eyes slightly slanted. It was rumored he had da'tang blood in him but no one dared say that to his face. Gaul was short on temper and long on remembered wrongs.
He stood as Saeric entered. "I have brought you some food and drink, Saeric, and some mountain honey for the wounds on your back."
"I thank you Brother." Saeric replied formally.
"Our tribes are at war." said Gaul "and therefore we cannot be brothers. But i respect your courage." He bowed, then returned to his studies.
Saeric layed face down on the narrow pallet bed and tried to block the searing pain from his back out of his mind. "Our tribes are at war /now/" he said " but one day we will be brothers, and the Isulk'im will sweep down on these da'tsang and wipe them from the face of the earth."
"May it be so." said Gaul "You have exams tomarrow, do you not?"
"The role of calvary in punative expeditions."
" Then i shall question you on the subject, it will help shield your mind from the pain you are suffering."
At last there were only four Isulk'im Legionaires at the Academy. Himself, Jair, Gaul and Adan. Some of the others had fled, but most had simply failed thier exams miserably, much to the delight of Lord Karstock. One had been hung for killing an officer, another had commited suicide. The experiment, as Lord Karstock had intended, was a failure. Yet much to the Lord's annoyance, Four Isulk'im young men had consistantly passed the examinations. And one, Saeric, had excelled above all other students, even the general's own son, Argo.
Really it was what happened to Jair that brought them all closer together. Jair, with his fightened eyes and nervous smile. Tormented and abused, he had fawned on the Tyrian Cadets, especially Argo, serving him like a slave. "Grinning Monkey" Argo called him. Gaul dispised him for his cowardice but Saeric pitied his friend. Jair carried few scars, but then again he was everything Tyrian boys had been taught to expect from a barbarian: subserviant and inferior to the civilized races.
Yet he had made a mistake, and it cost him his life. In the end-of-year examinations he had outscored all but Saeric. Kiserai still remembered the look on Jair's face when the results were announced. At first his delight was obvious, but then, as he gazed on Argo and the others, the full horror of his plight had dawned on him. Grinning Monkey had beaten them all. No longer did they see him as an object of scorn or ridicule. Now he had become a figure of hate. Little Jair withered under thier malice filled glares.
That night, Jair's body plunged from the roof, his body crushed to a pulp on the snow covered cobblestones below.
It was winter, harsh and cold. Ice forming on the insides of the glass windows. This was something the Isulk'im had never known before comming to Ebonhame, and were not well suited for it, but Jair was wearing only a loincloth. Hearing the scream as he fell, Saeric had looked out the window and saw his scrawny body leaking blood into the snow. He and Gaul had run out wiht many other young men and stood over the corpse. The body bore red cuts of a lash upon the back, butt, and thighs. The wrists were also bleeding.
"He was tied." said Gaul. Saeric did not answer, he was staring up at the area of the roof from which Jair had fallen. The rooms on that top level were reserved for the senior cadets from noble families. The nearest window was that of Argo. Gaul followed Saeric's gaze. The blonde haired son of Karstock was leaning on his windowsill gazing down with mild interest at the scene below.
"Did you see what happened Argo?" Someone shouted.
"The little monkey tried to climb the roof. I think he was drunk." Then he leaned back and slammed shut the window.
Saeric turned to Gaul and the two walked back to thier room. Adan was waiting for them. Once inside they squatted on the floor and spoke Isulk'im in hushed voices.
"Argo sent for Jair" Adon whispered "Three hours ago."
"He was tied and beaten." Whispered Saeric "He could not have stood the pain so they must have had him gagged. Otherwise we would have heard the screams. There will be an inquiry."
"It will find" said Gaul "That Grinning Monkey, having consumed too much alcohol in celebration of his success, fell from the roof. A lesson that barbarians have no tollerance for strong drink."
"That is true, my friend." said Saeric " But we will make them suffer as Jair has suffered."
"A pleasing thought, but how will this be acomplished?"
Saeric sat quietly for a moment then his voice dipped even quieter. "The rebuilding work on the north tower is not yet complete. The workers will not return for three days. It is deserted. Tomarrow night we wait till everyone is asleep, then we will go out there and prepare the way for vengance."
The next day it was announced to all the Cadets that there would be an inqury into the death of the Cadet that had fallen from the roof. That night, Argo vanished. Karstock had the officers and Cadets search everywhere, his clothes were gone as well as his canvas shoulder pack. Many thought that he feared being implicated in the Isulk'im boy. Others knew that was rediculous, because Lord Karstock would have protected his son. Either way, Argo was gone.
In the last year of the Academy, only Saeric remained of the original Isulk'im contingient, his two friends having been sent home after failing thier toughest prefinal exams. Thier failure concerned Marid, for he had worked with them and knew thier mastery of the subjects were no less than his own...and he had passed with a credit. Only Saeric remained, a student so brilliant that there was no way he could fail. Even he, however, had scraped by with merely a pass.
Marid voiced his concerens to the oldest and best of the tutors, a former officer named Falon. Late at night in the old man's study, he told Falon he belived the students had been unfairly dismissed.
"We speak much of honor" said Falon sorrowfully "but in reality it is in short supply. It always was. I was not allowed to join in the judging of the papers. Lord Karstock and two of his lackeys marked them. But i fear you are correct, Marid. Adon and Gaul were more than capible students."
"Saeric was allowed to pass, why?" Marid asked.
"He is exeptional, that one. But he will not graduate. They will find some way to mark him down."
"Is there no way i can help him?"
"Tell me first, why would you wish to? You are not friends."
"My father taught me to hate injustice, is that not enough?" answered Marid.
"Indeed it is. I will help you."
On the day of the finals, upon entering the exam room, each Cadet was handed a small numbered disk taken from a black velvet sack held by the chief Prefect, a sticklike young man named Jashin. Each disk was wrapped in paper to keep the number from being read by the Prefect. It was a ritual to insure that there would be no preferential treatment given to any students during the examinations. Each Cadet would simply write his number on the top of the paper. At the close of the exam the gathered papers would be taken to the judges who would mark them immediately.
Marid stood in line behind Saeric and noticed Jashin's fist was clenched as he reached into the bag before handing the Isulk'im his disk. Marid followed Saeric to the examination room where desks were set out in rows.
The examination lasted three hours and involved first establishing a logistical formula and a strategy for supplying an invading army of twenty thousand men conducting a campaign across the Bitter Sea and the second constructing a letter of advice to the commanding officers of the expedition, outlining the hazards they would face during thier invasion.
Marid felt exausted by the close but was fairly optomistic about his performance. The questions were based on a real campaign fought two centuries ago led by the legendary Lord Ebon, for whom the city and school were named. Happily, Marid had studied this same campaign fairly recently.
As the Cadets trooped out, Marid saw Lord Karstock enter the room along with the other judges. He avoided eye contact and sought out Falon. The elderly tutor poured the Cadet a goblet of watered wine and they sat for a while in silence by the upper window overlooking the bay.
The afternoon wore on, and finally the keep bell sounded. Marid joined the other students streaming towards the main hall to hear the results.
Karstock and the other senior tutors stood on the raised stage at the south end of the hall as the two hundred Senior Cadets filed in. This time Marid looked squarely at the General, who was now wearing the full armor of his rank, a gilded breastplate and the white cloak of a senior guards officer. Behind him, set on wooden stands were scores of shining spatha. When the Cadets had taken up thier positions, Karstock moved to the front of the stage.
His voice thundered out. "One hundred forty-six cadets have passed the final examination and will recive thier swords today" He said "Another seventeen passed with credit. One cadet gained an honor pass. Thirty-Six failed and leave this honored place bearing the shame earned by thier lazy behaviour. In time honored tradition we will begin with the passes and progress to the honored Cadet. When your disk number is called, come forward."
One by one the cadets filed forward and handed in thier disks, reciving thier spatha and bowing to the tutors before marching to the back wall and standing in a rank. The credit students followed. Marid was not among them, nor was Saeric. Marid's mouth was dry, he was standing close to the stage and staring up at Karstock.
"Now," the general began "we come to the honor student, the cream of the academy and a man whos martial skills will help maintain the glory of Tyr." Turning, he took the last sword from the stand, its blade was shining silvered steel and its hilt was embellished with gold. "Step forward, number seventeen."
Saeric marched from the ranks and up the short wooden steps as whispers began all through the hall. Marid focused on Karstock's broad face, the man's eyes widened and Marid saw his jaw twitch. He stood silently, staring with bared hatred at the young Isulk'im.
"There must be some mistake" He said at last "This cannot be! Fetch his paper!"
There was silence in the hall as the chief prefect returned and handed a sheaf of papers to Karstock, who stood and studied them.
Falon stepped forward. "There is no question about it, Lord Karstock. It is undoubtibly his handwriting." he said softly. " These are Saeric's papers, and i see you marked them yourself. There can be no mistake."
Karstock blinked. Saeric stepped forward, his hand outstretched. Karstock stared at him, then looked at the sword in his trembling hands. Suddenly he thrust the spatha at Falon. "You give it to him" he hissed, before walking off the stage and out of the hall.
The elderly tutor smiled at Saeric. "This is well earned young man." he said, his voice carrying throughout the hall. "For eight years you have endured much, both physical hardship and emotional cruelty. For what its worth, and i hope its something, you have my respect and admiration. I hope when you go from here you carry some fond memories Would you like to say some words to your fellow Cadets?"
Saeric nodded. Stepping forward, he stood and ran his gaze across the assembled Cadets. "I have learned much here." he said. "One day i will put it to good use." Without another word, he left the stage and walked out of the hall.
Falon followed him from the stage and approached Marid. "I shall appeal on your behalf and have your papers reexamined."
"Thank you sir, for everything. You were right about the disks, Jashin had one ready for Saeric before his hand went in the bag."
The old tutor nodded and sighed. "The Senior prefect will be in a great deal of trouble, Karstock is not a forgiving man."
Later that day Marid was summoned to the General's study. Karstock was still in his armor, and his face was grey. "Sit down, boy." he said, and Marid obeyed. "I am going to ask you a question, and i am going to put it on your honor to answer it with the truth."
"Yes sir." Marid answered, with a sinking heart.
"Is Saeric a friend of yours?"
"No, sir. We barely speak. We have little in common. Why do you ask, sir?"
For a long moment Karstock stared at him, then he sighed. "It does not matter, it broke my heart to see him take the Spatha. However, that is no interest to you. I called you here to tell you there was an error in marking, your papers were rexamined and you passed with a credit pass."
"Thank you, sir. How...how did it happen?" Marid said quietly.
"It was an honest mistake, i hope you will accept my apology"
"Of course, sir.Thank you, sir."
Marid left the study and went back to his room, where at midnight he was awakened by a tapping at his door. Rising, he lifted the latch. Saeric stood there, and the Isulk'im was dressed for travel. "You are leaving? But the prize giving is not till tomarrow."
"I have my sword." said Saeric "I came to thank you, I had thought Tyrian honor was all a sham. I was wrong."
"You have suffered here, Saeric, but you emerged triumphant and i admire you for it. Where will you go now?"
"Back to my tribe."
Marid held out his hand and Saeric shook it. As the Isulk'im turned away, Marid spoke "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Not at all."
"When we were at the burial of your friend Jaim, you opened the coffin and pressed a small package into his hand. There was blood on it. I have often wondered what that was. Is it part of some Isulk'im ritual?"
"Yes." Saeric says quietly, his voice cold. "I gave him a servant in the next life."
With that, the Isulk'im walked away.
Three days later, after contiuing complaints of a bad smell comming from behind a wall in the new section of the north tower, laborers dug out several blocks of stone. Behind them, they found a rotting body from which the eyes had been cut..
The journey had been hot and dry. The sun beating down on the rocky desert like hammer on an anvil. Strength sapping heat that left even natives of the area near exaustion during the hottest parts of the day. The rock pool was high up in the hills, beneath an overhang of shale and slate. Few knew of its existance, and his father told him that once they found the dried bones of a traveler that had died of thirst not fifty feet from it. The pool was not more than twenty feet long and merely twelve feet wide but it was very deep and the water was winter cold. After dropping his pack near the overhang, Saeric tugs his tunic up over his head. Dust and sand scrapes against the skin of his arms and shoulders. Kicking off his boots, he loosens his belt and drops his pants before walking naked to the pools edge.
The sun beats down on his skin and he can feel the searing heat of the rock beneath his feet. It was good to be home again. Finally after so many years returned to the land that had forged his people. Saeric takes a deep breath before launching himself over the sparkling water in an ungainly dive that sends up a glittering spray. After a few minutes beneath the surface, letting his body absorb the water it craved, he surfaced and sat on a shelf of hot rock on the edge of the pool.
He was less than a half day's walk from where his people would be camped at this time of the year, but he had not seen any signs of them. Not even sentries.
But no matter. He would be there in a few hours...it seemed so strange that it was finally true. HOME! Would his family recognize the man he had become? He left the pool and made camp. As much as he wanted to be with his family again, one more night would not be a hardship.