Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 05
Protector of the Law, twenty-year senior, Ashok Vadal, stood on the damp rocks watching the burning village slide into the sea. The two demons were lying in the sand where they’d finally died. They were unclean, so he would leave them for House Gujara’s wizards and alchemists to pick over. Every part of a demon’s body was incredibly valuable for the magic stored within. The profit to be found in those two bodies was worth far more than the loss of a single poor village.
His body ached, a few bones had cracked, but the bleeding from his many wounds had slowed to a trickle. Ashok would need to rest for a few hours in order to let the Heart of the Mountain do its work. The Heart was the source of the Order’s power and their greatest secret. The covenant was simple; it kept them alive and made them strong. In exchange they protected the Law. Within a day he’d be ready to fight again. When the Heart was done with him, he would die, but until then he would serve.
Someone was stumbling along the beach in the first light of the dawn. At first Ashok thought it might have been one of the Gujaran warriors since he was carrying a spear, but it was the old casteless instead. The untouchable was a tenacious one, but he’d been born into the wrong caste.
“The monsters are dead, but how are you still alive?” the casteless asked him.
Ashok did not immediately respond, first because the casteless’ dialect was thick, uneducated, and difficult to understand, and secondly, because he wasn’t used to being spoken to so directly by someone of such low station. The further one got from proper civilization, the more the legal divisions between the castes became blurry, but still, he was of the elite, the first caste of governors, and this wasn’t even a real person. Living by all this saltwater must have driven the old casteless mad.
“I was stronger than they were.”
“You are bleeding.” The casteless was right, but his wounds would heal as they always did. It was very hard to end a Protector’s life. It was kill them quick, or not at all. “And your face…” the old casteless made a scraping noise.
No one would ever accuse Ashok of being pretty, even without any new scars, but this old fool was giving him more important things to be concerned about. “Your overseers are failing. It’s against the Law for a non-person to possess a weapon.”
It was as if the casteless had somehow not expected the challenge, but they weren’t very bright. He held the shaft close to his chest protectively and shouted, “It’s mine!”
“No…It is not.” Ashok scowled. The Law demanded that he go over there and cut the casteless down for this violation, but Ashok was wounded and very tired. He quoted the statute from memory, “A non-person may only possess the tools granted to it necessary to fulfill its assigned duties. Casteless are never allowed to take up arms.”
“I didn’t steal it. I found it washed up on the beach.”
“Good.” If he’d stolen it from a warrior, then regardless of how exhausted Ashok was, he’d have to execute him on the spot. A member of the first caste didn’t thank a casteless for anything, but this creature had saved his life, so Ashok had no desire to harm him. “Then you may live.”
The area was being secured by the paltan. Several warriors had spotted him and a shout went up that the Protector was still alive. Then they saw the first dead demon and began to cheer. That noise turned into a stunned silence when they saw the second demon. No one had expected that. Word spread quickly and more warriors came running. Soon he had a crowd on the beach, all staring at him and the two huge, lifeless bodies. Even in the stillness of death, they were still sleek and intimidating.
Some of them ran off to alert their wizards, so that the bodies could be butchered before the magic spoiled, but the rest of the warriors of House Gujara went on cheering Ashok. He didn’t particularly care, but they had never heard of anyone defeating two demons, so he allowed it. Some were bowing their thanks. The fat havildar he’d smacked some sense into had put his forehead clear into the sand, probably hoping that a sufficient sign of deference now might save him from a flogging for his earlier cowardice.
Ashok was too tired and injured to care about the honors. The dents in the armor over his ribs was annoying and needed to be hammered out so he could breathe freely again. He began untying the many straps, when he realized that he’d almost forgotten his earlier distraction. The fool with the spear was still there. Turning to the old casteless, he waved his hand dismissively. “This transgression will be overlooked due to your circumstances. Throw down that spear and return to your overseer.”
It was a remarkably merciful act for a Protector.
“No!” the old casteless shouted. He slammed the butt into the rocks for emphasis. “It is mine!”
Ashok was stunned by the outburst. The assembled warriors looked up in surprise.
“It is forbidden.” He should have acted decisively already, to do otherwise was to make the Law appear weak before these witnesses, and the Law held no leeway for the lowest showing any disrespect to their superiors.
“I’m the one who took it out of the water. I’m the one who cleaned off the rust and sharpened the edge on a rock. I used this to protect my family!”
Casteless didn’t have family. They were all property, to be organized according to their overseer’s will. Was this imbecile trying to provoke him? “Fighting isn’t your duty,” Ashok nodded toward the warrior caste. “It’s theirs.”
“Where were they when the demon came? No duty for them. No. The warriors supposed to guard this village, they ran! They ran away and left us to die!”
“That is true,” Ashok agreed. The assembled warriors began to mutter to each other at this terrible insult against their caste, but Ashok cared about their opinions about as much as he cared about the casteless’. “Only truth doesn’t change the Law.”
“Who will protect us from the warriors?”
“The fish-eater speaks of revolt!” exclaimed one of the soldiers as another nocked an arrow.
This had gone too far. Insolence could not be tolerated. Why am I wasting my time? It was like reasoning with a pig. He should have just taken the casteless’ head and been done with it, but Ashok lowered his voice and tried one last time. The warriors wouldn’t be able to hear him over the crashing surf. What he was about to admit would bring shame to the Order. “You helped me. You probably saved my life, so I do not wish to kill you.”
“I have to obey the Law like everyone else.”
“The Law is wrong,” the old casteless snarled as he lowered the spear and aimed the point at Ashok’s face.
“The Law is everything,” Ashok whispered.
And then one of the warriors casually shot the disobedient casteless through the chest with an arrow. He was so thin than that arrow sped clean through his torso and skipped down the beach. The casteless’ eyes widened in surprise. He managed to turn and take a few halting steps before falling on his face, where he twitched a few times and then lay still. His precious spear rolled free and clattered down the rocks.
At least the man didn’t suffer.
That was curious…Ashok had never thought of a casteless as a man before.
The Protector lifted his hand in front of his face. Rivulets of blood had dried between his fingers, and for just a second, it was as if he was looking at the small hand of a child. Then the moment was gone. The water on his hands was unclean saltwater and the blood was only his own. This was not a dream. This was real. The warrior who had released the arrow had already gone back to marveling at the mighty demons. No one remarked on what had just transpired. There was nothing noteworthy about putting down a disobedient dog.
More warriors joined him as he stood over the corpse, including the risaldar, the experienced leader of fifty who had escorted him on the long hunt. “Excellent work, Protector. I will convey word of your great victory to our Thakoor. Your unmatched skills have brought incredible honor to your order. House Gujara will remember this deed forever. You have saved us from this menace.”
“It was only a casteless…” Ashok muttered.
“I meant the pair of sea demons.”
“Oh.” The sand beneath the untouchable’s body was slowly turning red. “Of course.”
“Are you alright, Lord Protector? Do you need to rest? You appear to be hurt. We must clean your injuries. Wounds fester quickly in this jungle.”
Distracted, Ashok shook his head. “I can’t get sick.” In Vadal, they used cremation. Ashok had no idea what the traditions of House Gujara were. “How do you dispose of your dead?”
“For the villagers? The worker caste will tend to their own.” The risaldar said, before realizing that Ashok was still looking at the body. “For this? It’s a casteless. I don’t know what they do for non-people. Let the gulls and the crabs eat him. Please, come along, sir. You look like you need to sit down.”
“What would you do for one of your own men?”
The risaldar seemed confused by this. “Gujaran warriors bury our own dead. The labor is performed by those whom he has served with.”
That made a sort of sense. Ashok glanced around. The ground at the edge of the jungle didn’t seem too rocky. “We will require a shovel.”
“What?” the risaldar was incredulous. He looked at the blood drying on Ashok’s scalp as if searching for signs of a head injury. “Why would you have us bury this wretch?”
“Because he showed more heart than any of your caste did tonight.”
It hadn’t been meant as an insult, but the risaldar certainly took it that way. His face darkened with rage, but no matter how skilled he was, or how injured Ashok might be, he wasn’t fool enough to risk a duel with a man carrying an ancestor blade.
“Has offense been given?” Ashok asked quietly.
“No, Lord Protector. Offense has not been taken,” the risaldar replied in a legally acceptable manner for avoiding a duel.
The warriors were too distracted to notice that the discarded spear was being carried back out to sea by the tide. Ashok sighed. “Forgive me, Risaldar. I’m weary and have misspoken. You and your men may attend to your master’s village. I release you from your obligations to my Order. Your responsibility to escort me has been fulfilled. I will make my own way from here.”
The officer gave him a stiff bow, and then stormed off.
Ashok needed to rest for a bit, and then he would find a shovel.