Back | Next


Chapter 1


From the Swordmasters' Charter

To be a Swordmaster of the Jethrik a man's ability and his integrity must be beyond question.

He must be familiar with all weapon styles and be prepared to fight on any battlefield.

He must be pure of heart, having never been convicted of any crime.

He must never use either weapons or skills for anything but the most noble of causes.

He must be tall, physically perfect, healthy, and nimble of foot.

He must be wholly human, being in no way related to any Katabull.

He must be always truthful in his dealings with King and Country.

He must swear to serve loyally the country of Jethrik even if the candidate be from out country.

He must fully understand our ways and our customs.

No woman, whether she is out country or Jethrik, will be considered for a post as a Swordmaster.


It was that time of year again, and Master Darian greeted the challenge with a mixture of joy and dread. Every year hundreds of men—none of them ever much more than boys with an attitude—showed up to try out. They all wanted to be Swordmasters. A good fifty percent of them Darian never even saw because they got weeded out on their height, or their weight, or because they had some physical abnormality that excluded them from the program. Every year some tried to sneak by the judges. They stuffed paper in their shoes and rocks in their pockets, sucked their guts in and lied about their ages.

After the initial weeding out, Darian gave them a good looking over. He asked them a few questions and cut their number by half yet again.

They all wanted to be Swordmasters because of the glory and honor associated with the title. They didn't know what it was like to kill a man, or to have him try to kill you. They didn't realize that it wasn't fun; that it wasn't necessarily glorious.

But Darian knew, and he could tell by talking to the boys, by watching their reactions as he questioned them, which ones had what it took and which didn't.

Darian looked the candidate in front of him up and down. He was all arms and legs, and he would have made the six-foot height requirement easily; however, he would have barely made the one hundred fifty pound minimum weight limit. He was dark haired and dark eyed with bronze skin. Obviously at least one of his parents was out country, but he was most likely full blodded Kartik. That wasn't a problem as long as he swore to uphold the laws of the country and serve it. If he could fight, Darian didn't care where he came from. Still, he stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the blond-haired blue-eyed cadets, and this in itself could pose a problem.

"So, boy . . . what country do you hail from?" Darian asked, although he was sure he knew.

"I'm Kartik, but I have lived here off and on most of my life," the boy answered without blinking. "I know your language, your customs, and your laws."

"And you want to be a Swordmaster?" Darian asked.

"I already am a master with a blade," he answered. "I wish to serve the king and to fight the Amalite horde. I don't care about a title."

"Of all the bloody cheek! So you're already a Swordmaster, and you want us to send you out right now I suppose!" Darian laughed loudly. "Send you alone maybe—out to the front lines. Maybe you could teach our boys a thing or two."

The other recruits laughed.

"I didn't say any of that, Sir," he answered unblinkingly. "I want to learn all that you can teach me. However my father taught me never to hide in false modesty. It is a fact that I am already one of the finest swordsmen you will ever know."

"Well . . . we'll just see about that, boy." Darian looked the boy up and down and realized he already carried a sword on his back. It was in the right position, too. He also already had his own armor—black studded leather pants and vest. The bright multicolored gambeson he wore underneath it screamed island born as much as his coloring did.

"Follow me." Darian motioned with his finger.

The boy fell in behind him following him to the practice ring.

Old Justin started to stand up; it was normally his job to test the new recruits. Darian motioned Justin back into his seat—he had other plans for this braggart. Darian looked around and noticed Gudgin, one of the second-term recruits, leaning against a practice pole watching the proceedings.

"Gudgin, come on down here and check this 'swordsman' out."

Gudgin rubbed his hands together and grabbed a practice blade from the rack. Darian handed a similar weapon to the boy. The recruit took a second to check the weight and length of the blade.

Darian placed the boy in the ring with Gudgin and stepped back out of the way. "Lay on!"

Gudgin ran at the boy, no doubt bent on teaching him a lesson he wouldn't soon forget. He swung a good hard blow at the boy's head, expecting it to connect, but his opponent caught the blade and struck back so fast and so furiously that Gudgin found himself protecting his own head. A second blow from his opponent's blade caught him in the ribs and made them burn. A third hit him on the chin and knocked him off his feet. When he looked up through glazed eyes, the boy was standing over him, his blade at Gudgin's throat.

Gudgin looked at Darian and shrugged. "A lucky blow."

The boy helped Gudgin to his feet, although it was plain to see that Gudgin was having trouble taking the stranger's hand. Gudgin was good. Considered by most to be the best of the second term cadets. He didn't like to lose to anyone. He certainly didn't like losing to a scrawny, out country greenie. He shook the boy's out stretched hand grudgingly and walked away to lick his wounds.

Darian stroked his chin and looked at the boy's eager face. "You are good. You need a little refining, but there is no doubt that you have talent. Where did you learn to fight?"

"As I said, my father trained me," the boy answered.

"And just who was your father, boy?"

"Jabon the Breaker," he answered proudly.

All noise in the arena suddenly ceased, and all eyes turned to look at the boy.

"Your father is Jabon the Breaker?" Darian asked in disbelief. "Jabon The Kartik Waster?"

"I just called him Dad," the boy said with a quick smile. The smile faded just as quickly when he continued. "My father is no more. Killed by some ignoble Amalite scum this last spring, as was my own mother in my youth. Her death made your cause his, and his death now makes your cause mine as well," the boy said with passion.

Darian looked the boy up and down. He definitely held himself like Jabon. He fought like Jabon. There was one way to be sure the boy was telling the truth about his parentage.

"Show me your right hand."

The boy held it up; the right pinkie finger was missing. It wasn't a reason for rejection at the school, and hadn't been ever since Jabon the Breaker had come to their door.

"Let me see your sword," Darian said.

The boy whipped the sword from his back in one fluid motion and handed it to Darian. Darian took it by its hilt and spun it around. Like the sword of his father before him, the bone of the missing finger was resined into the hilt. It was some strange custom which had been handed down from generation to generation in their family. Some tribal ritual. Jabon had been a wild man, and his son didn't look any more refined. However if the boy could fight half as well as his father had, he could beat their best.

"Your father was a very great man and a good friend to me. He never mentioned that he had a son," Darian said.

"After my mother died he was very grieved. He left me with his sister to be raised, and he came here to fight. I believe it was only after he had killed a great many Amalites that he was able to deal with my mother's death. Only then did I become something other than just a painful reminder of all that he had lost. He finally came for me and started my training. We lived part of the time here and part in Kartik. We spent a lot of time at sea."

Darian nodded, he could understand Jabon's actions. He had lost his own dear wife too young. At least Jabon's wife had given him a son. Darian's wife had died in childbirth leaving him a daughter who he had no idea how to turn into a lady.

He looked the boy up and down again and smiled. "What is your name boy?"

"Tarius," he said.

"Well, Tarius, Jabon the Breaker's son, consider yourself this season's first recruit. You are in," Darian said.

The boy's whole face seemed to light up. He grabbed Darian's hand and started pumping it up and down. The Kartiks didn't shake hands the way the Jethriks did, and it was obvious that this was a rather clumsy attempt by the boy to show that he knew their customs.

"You won't be sorry, Sir. I'll work very hard. I will kill many Amalites."

The boy had a good, strong honest grip. There was an innocent purity that shone from his almost too pretty face that Darian knew was—at least in part—deceptive. This boy had already lived, he had loved, and he had killed. Of this Darian was sure. He pried his hand away from young Tarius with an effort.


A young boy, barely fifteen, ran forward. He had a clubfoot, and working at the school was as close as he'd ever get to being a Swordmaster. Darian had taken him in and supplied room and board. In return the boy worked all day running errands for the cadets and doing chores around the academy. Harris showed his gratitude for having a place to sleep and food in his belly with his eagerness to please.

"Harris, show Tarius to the barracks."

Darian turned back to the long line of candidates. He had a lot more to go through and not all decisions would be as easily made as the one concerning young Tarius, son of Jabon the Breaker.

Gudgin walked up to Darian. He watched as the foreigner picked up his bags and started to follow the crippled boy.

"I would never criticize your judgment, Master Darian . . ."

"Then don't," Darian said moving towards the line of candidates.

Not taking the hint, Gudgin followed. "I feel I must say . . . Sir, he made me look like a rank amateur back there!"

"And this is a reason to throw out his request for admission?" Darian laughed. "Better yet, maybe we should have the man shot through with an arrow! Calm down, Gudgin. Be a sport and be glad he's on our side."

"Is he on our side then? He doesn't look like us. He is from out country. His look is freakish, all that black hair, those black eyes of his. He's all arms and legs . . . he looks like a devil or worse. Such skill in one untrained is unnatural . . ."

Darian laughed at him. "He's not untrained, boy! Don't you get it? His father trained him, and his father wasn't one of the best—he was the best. The best we ever had. I don't care what he looks like, and I don't care if he's a foreigner. As for the hair, he'll get it cut just like all the other recruits."

* * *

Tarius looked at the barracks and said. "This won't do . . . I'll get my own quarters. I have money . . ."

Harris laughed. "When I said you must stay in the barracks, that's what I meant. You must; it's the rule. Just like the hair cut and the uniforms. Will there be anything else, Master Tarius?"

"No. Thank you. And, Harris, I am no man's master. If you help me, then I shall help you. That is the way of my people."

Harris smiled broadly at the fellow. He liked him; yes he liked this strange fellow a lot. Harris was different and felt an instant connection with this man who was also so different. Harris had no idea what Tarius was talking about. He was talking to him, and that was a big deal to Harris. Most of the boys in the academy didn't talk to him at all unless they wanted him to do something for them or were calling him names.

"Whatever you say. I have to go now." He bowed and turned to leave.

Taruis snapped, "Do not bow before me!" He sounded almost angry. "I am not a god to be worshipped. Never lower yourself to me for it is to me an insult."

Harris nodded, started to bow again, caught himself and ran off in confusion. He didn't know where Tarius came from, but he was pretty sure he wanted to go there.

* * *

Tarius looked around the room and was more and more unhappy. There would be twenty-five recruits in here. It would make things a lot more difficult—if not impossible.

Slowly the new recruits filed in. They seemed to all purposely pick the bunk furthest from Tarius. They were all staring. No doubt because Tarius was different from anyone they had ever seen before. So was the black studded leather and colorful Kartik gambeson. The gambeson came down to Tarius's elbows and could be seen through the "v" in the neckline of the chest and torso armor. The armor was light and easy to move in, and Tarius had practically grown up in it. In fact, Tarius had no regular clothes, only more pieces of armor. Tarius's long black hair was unkept and floating every which way. Yes, the Kartik youth must be quite a sight to these Jethrik boys. Tarius sat on the bunk and looked down at the floor, suddenly feeling very self-conscious and vulnerable.

When most of the bunks were full, Master Justin walked in with Harris at his side.

"There are many rules you will be expected to follow if you are to become a Swordmaster of the Jethrik, and you will learn them all in your first term here. These are the rules for the barracks. You will only be told the rules this once, and after that you will be expected to remember. Breaking the rules of the barracks is grounds for dismissal, so listen up." Justin cleared his throat and continued.

"First, a swordsman must be always clean. Clean in mind, clean in deed, clean in person. You will bathe weekly, and your clothes and personal effects shall be kept clean and in order. There is no excuse for untidiness." He looked right at Tarius when he said that last bit, and Tarius squirmed. "Second, a swordsman can not afford to be careless. If you break something through your carelessness, it will be your duty to restore it in its entirety. Third, no food, drink or women are allowed in the barracks," Justin said. "If you have errands to be run or any other incidentals, young Harris will attend to them. Meals will be served three times a day in the mess hall, morning, midday and evening. If you are late for a meal you will not be fed until the next one, so I suggest you don't tarry. Uniforms and bed linens will be picked up once a week for cleaning on Friday afternoon. These will only be picked up if they are lying in a bundle at the foot of your bed. Failure to clean your uniforms or bed linens is reason for immediate dismissal."

Rules upon rules! Tarius wasn't used to rules, especially not Jethrik rules, they seemed strange and uncalled for. Tarius's father had sworn by this academy—by these people. Tarius had to trust that Jabon had been right, and that belonging to them was the best way to fight the Amalite Horde, but right now Tarius just wasn't so sure.

"All that said, I suggest you prepare for the evening meal. Directly afterwards you will go to the main hall where you will be given your uniforms, and . . ." again he stared at Tarius, " . . . proper hair cuts. You have a few minutes to put your things away, and then Harris will show you to the mess hall."

Finally finshed, the older fighter turned on his heel and left.

"Hey, cripple!" a big red headed boy screamed at Harris. "Come over here and help me unpack my gear."

The lame boy limped over to help, and the red headed boy purposely tripped him. Tarius had been sitting on the bed, but was standing in an instant.

"Let the boy be!" Tarius said, glaring at the redhead across the expanse of the room.

The boy took several steps towards Tarius and stopped. He laughed and said, "What sort of a man are you supposed to be?"

"Just leave the boy alone. Let him do his job in peace," Tarius said as if already bored with the whole situation.

The red-headed boy closed the distance between them quickly. He glared into Tarius's face. "I asked you a question. What sort of a man are you?"

Tarius silently caught the antagonizer's gaze and held it, a smile curling the Kartik lips ever so slightly.

The red-headed boy stopped in mid stride. The cold black eyes of this wild stranger seemed to glare through him. He raised his fist even as a fear he couldn't explain gripped his very soul.

"Go ahead; do it," Tarius hissed through clenched teeth.

Although fear gripped the young man's throat like a vice, he could not deny this dare. He swung on the strange boy who challenged him in front of a room full of his peers.

Tarius grabbed the much larger boy's fist mere inches from impact, twisted quickly, pushed back and brought him to his knees. Tarius grabbed the boy's elbow with his other hand, forced his arm straight and shoved down hard. The boy let out a scream, and Tarius stood away letting him fall to the floor.

"You Kartik freak! You've broken my sword arm!" he screamed in pain.

Some of the other boys moved in for a closer look. Not so close though that the stranger might get the idea that they were challenging him.

Tarius looked up at them and gave them a wild, untamed look, and through clenched teeth hissed out. "I'm the sort of man who isn't afraid to fight for what I believe is right! I'm the sort of man that would just as soon kill you as put up with your crap."

"Help me!" the boy on the floor screamed. "Someone help me! My arm is broken!"

"It's not broken," Tarius assured him. "I'll put it back in place—if you apologize to the boy."

"Apologize to a servant!"

"Or I leave you like that," Tarius assured him.

"I'm sorry," he spat in Harris's direction.

"Your apology lacks sincerity," Tarius hissed.

"For all the gods' sake. I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

Tarius put a foot in the wounded boy's armpit, grabbed his hand and gave a quick yank, pulling the dislocated arm back into place.

The boy all but passed out from the immediate relief, but feeling better, he was mad all over again. He jumped up and glared at Tarius.

"You used magic on me," he accused.

"He used Simbala on you," a tall, thin boy said, edging from the back of the crowd. "It's a Kartik marshal art form." They all looked at him and he shrugged. "I've seen my father and my brothers practice it."

With much mumbling they all went back to their unpacking. Tarius had picked the bed at the end against the wall, and not too surprisingly the bed next door was still empty. Suddenly the boy with knowledge of Simbala walked over, threw his stuff on the bed and started unpacking.

"I'm Tragon," he said, turning and holding out his hand to Tarius. Tarius took the offered hand and shook it much in the same way he had shaken Darian's hand, and Tragon smiled. He was obviously taking the 'shaking' part literally.

"My name is Tarius."

Tragon laughed. "Everyone knows who you are already. My father fought with your father at the battle of Riksdale. My father is Kliton of Brakston Ridge."

"I believe my father spoke of him," Tarius said. It was a lie. Jabon never talked of the men he fought with in the Jethrik, not by name anyway. They weren't his people any more than they were Tarius's, and while he cared for them as comrades in arms, he had never felt like he was a part of them. It was only their common cause that brought them together. A common enemy that Jabon couldn't fight on his own then, any more than Tarius could fight it alone now. The Amalites and their horrors were the world's problem, and their annihilation the duty of any decent fighter.

"My father said your father slew five hundred Amalites at the battle of Riksdale," Tragon said.

"I doubt it was that many," Tarius said with a slight smile.

"Even half that many would be a great feat," Tragon said excitedly.

Tarius looked at Tragon and realized suddenly that this rather handsome young man was neither afraid nor intimidated. He wasn't as ignorant as the others and so believed he had nothing to fear from Tarius. He seemed to want to be close to Tarius, and this could be problematic.

* * *

Dinner had been nutritious and tasteless. The uniforms were plain blue puffy pants, black stirrup boots, and plain long-sleeved white tunics, which offered no protection at all. Tarius was accustomed to wearing armor as clothing, and this stuff made Tarius feel almost naked. Normally in the Kartik this would have been no problem, but under the circumstances this was the last thing Tarius needed.

The haircut was worse. What protection did Tarius now have for the head area? What padding for a helmet? Everything these people did seemed to make no sense at all.

Tarius lay fully clothed on top of the bedclothes, the sword drawn and lying beside the fighter. The lights were doused, and Tarius lay alone in the dark.

Tarius's mind raced. What the hell was I thinking? I can't pull this off! I'm the only woman in a room with twenty-four men. A room where no woman is allowed. These people's ways are strange; they are crazy! Women are treated like a different species here. How can I hide my secrets from all these people when I live with them? Thank the one who has no name that they didn't make us strip!

She looked over at where Tragon lay on his bed. He's followed me around like a puppy all night. I wonder if he knows. He damn near came in the shower with me. No locks on the doors; it's only a matter of time till I get caught. All this bathing . . . what a waste! I'll have to find some other place to bathe. I am caught up in my father's curse. Forced to live with these strange, basically stupid people, hiding all that I am so that I can do my part to weed the Amalites from the world, and gain my revenge.

"Tarius, you asleep?" Tragon asked in a whisper.

The sudden sound of his voice had made her jump, and her hand had automatically gripped her sword. "No, I'm not," she answered.

"I can't sleep, either," he said. "It's not easy is it?"

"What?" Tarius asked not understanding the question.

"To be the son of a great fighting tradition. Every male member of my family has been a Swordmaster of the Jethrik. My father, my uncles, my two older brothers—all have been great warriors. My father is a Knight, and doubtless my brothers would have been knighted as well if they hadn't died in the Battle of Garrison. I am all that's left to carry on the tradition. I . . . I'm afraid. If I don't make the cut, I will disgrace my household. I'm not very good. In fact, I'm sort of clumsy. I am also afraid of dying, and I have no wish no desire to fight."

This was the reason the boy had been drawn to her, because he felt a camaraderie. They both had their fathers reputations to live up to, but it was fair to say that Tarius didn't really understand the boy's problem. "You should go into farming and raise sons who might carry on your great fighting tradition."

"And disgrace my family!" Tragon gasped in disbelief.

"Why would that disgrace your family?" Tarius asked. "People can fight or they can't fight. It's in you, or it's not. If you die without producing children, then the line dies with you and no good fighting people can ever come from you again."

"Wow! You really are a foreigner," Tragon scoffed.

"If you were to marry a woman who came from a good fighting line but couldn't fight herself, then chances are your off-spring would be very good fighters," Tarius explained.

Tragon laughed almost too loudly then. "Women fighting! Women don't fight."

"Kartik women fight," Tarius said plainly. She was surprised at how utterly ignorant of Kartik culture these people were. After all, Orion Harbor was less than a days ride from here and it was always teaming with Kartik sailors and traders.

"Oh, now you are pulling my leg," Tragon said.

"No I'm not. My own mother was a fine swordswoman until an Amalite thug ran her through," Tarius said.

"If you say so." Tragon yawned sleepily. "If I don't become a Swordmaster I will disgrace my family, my father will never forgive me, and I will be disinherited. Penniless, with no skills to sell."

"You only think you have problems," Tarius mumbled.

"What's that?" Tragon asked.

"Relax. The more you think about fighting the worse you will be at it. It has to come from somewhere within. You see your sword as an inanimate object, something separate from yourself. Your sword must become part of you. As if your arm continued on past your fingers. As if the blade were a mixing of bone and flesh and steel. When you feel as if you have lost a part of yourself every time you sheath your sword, then the rest will come naturally."

* * *

When Harris woke them for breakfast the next morning, Tragon looked over and found that Tarius was already gone. He dressed hurriedly and rushed to the mess hall to find Tarius already there, obviously freshly bathed, dressed, and looking so wide awake that Tragon decided that at least for the moment he hated him. Even wearing the academy uniform Tarius stuck out like a sore thumb. So dark, so different, his sword on his back. If nothing else none of the rest of them carried steel. At least nothing more than a small dirk at their waist.

When they were all seated breakfast was brought to them. Tragon sat across from Tarius.

"What time did you get up? Are you trying to make points or something?"

Tarius shrugged, stuffing food in his mouth however it would go down. He didn't bother to answer Tragon.

Justin walked up behind Tarius and cleared his throat. "Tarius?" Justin addressed him.

"Yes, Sir," Tarius answered.

Justin picked up the fork and put it into Tarius's hand.

"Make us all happy by learning to use a fork and spoon as well as you use a sword," Justin half scolded. He walked away, and Tragon laughed.

* * *

Tarius glared at the boy, who fell silent, then looked around her at everyone else, obviously studying how they were eating. Then she quietly copied them, though it seemed a horrible waste of effort to her.

Tarius watched out of the corner of her eye as Darian entered and started talking to Justin. They were looking at her, and she squirmed inwardly. She was afraid at any minute they would figure her out. If only she at least looked like the others, but she didn't. She was Kartik, and she looked and acted Kartik. She didn't even eat like they did.

* * *

"Well, how are they doing?" Darian asked.

"Fairly well, all and all. Tarius is going to be a problem, Darian. He's too different," Justin reported. "Last night there was an altercation in the barracks. Young Derek tripped Harris, and Tarius took exception. On top of everything else, he is apparently a follower of the nameless god. The altercation ended with Tarius dislocating Derek's arm using Kartik Simbala. He only repaired it after Derek apologized to the boy."

"That sounds like grounds for dismissing Derek, not Tarius," Darian said.

"He sleeps in all his clothes with his sword across his chest. He eats with his hands. He's strange in a way I can't quite put my finger on, and I'm afraid the others will never accept him," Justin said.

"Kliton's son, Tragon, seems to have accepted him just fine."

"Then what of the sword, Darian? None of the other boys are armed yet. It must be intimidating for them knowing that Tarius, who can pull their arms out of socket like it was nothing, is also carrying around a bastard sword with—of all things—his finger in the hilt."

"The boy has lived by the sword, Justin. The sword is literally part of him. You only have to look at the scars to see that. Yesterday when he was still in his own clothes I noticed that the skin between the point where his gambeson ends and his vambraces begin is scarred with a dozen different cuts. There's a small one on his chin, and look at his throat! Someone literally cut the boy's throat. It's a wonder that didn't kill him outright. I would no more take that boy's sword from him than I would lay my own weapon down."

"All right, then I'll speak the words we all never spoke about the boy's father. There is something unnatural about him," Justin said lowering his voice still more. "There was something unnatural about Jabon, and there is something just as unnatural about his son—if not more so. They aren't like us, Darian! For the gods' sakes, they cut off their fingers and put them into the hilts of their swords!"

"Give me twenty men as unorthodox with as much skill and as good a heart, and I'll have an army that will grind the Amalites into sand," Darian said. "Let this bunch learn to deal with diversity from Tarius. Let Tarius learn our ways from them. In the end, we will all be the same people. All will have gained from knowing one another. I learned much from Jabon and so did you. I only hope that he learned something from us as well."


Back | Next