Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 18
Twenty years ago
As the richest, most powerful house, Vadal was the last to be announced during the induction ceremony. Aunt Bidaya had prepared Ashok for this by explaining that it was all politics. Vadal could afford to wait. It tells our rivals that we saved the best for last.
Ashok found the Protectors’ audience chamber to be surprisingly humble. Perhaps it was because he was used to the beauty of Vadal holdings that he connoted power with opulence. Except the Protectors were powerful and their audience chamber had less decoration than a Vadal horse stable. The simple room was crowded with representatives of every great house and their candidates for obligation. Everyone was dressed in furs or thick robes and their breath could be seen in the air. The windows were open. The ceremonial chamber wasn’t heated. It wasn’t as if a militant order with the blessing of the Inquisition couldn’t afford to run the furnace. It was the Protectors’ way of telling their guests that they didn’t give a damn about anyone’s comfort.
The representative from house Vokkan finished his long description of his charge’s exploits, accomplishments, and championships. The oldest was only thirteen years old, so he couldn’t have done that much, but that was the game. The tales were surely exaggerated, but this part was all about trying to outdo the other houses. Whoever gave the most valuable obligations would be able to brag about it in the courts.
Ashok didn’t understand these games that his aunt spoke about, but he understood honor, duty, and the Law. Each of those things demanded that he be here now.
The Protector in charge of the ceremony walked in front of the kneeling young men, inspecting them. Once satisfied, he made a mark on his scroll. “The Order thanks Great House Vokkan for their generous obligation of seven sons of the warrior caste and one son of the first caste.” He sounded bored. “They will proceed to testing.”
Despite the Order’s power, the Protectors of the Law were few in number. A single master was presiding. His witnesses were a senior and a few other acolytes, barely older than the boys who were being obligated. While the presenters and their charges had decorated their winter clothing with ornaments, jewelry, and silks dyed the colors of their houses, the Protectors were dressed in drab cloaks, fit for workers. The master checked his list again as he moved to the end of the line. “Great House Vadal has brought…A single candidate? Your lady must not be aware of our failure rate.”
The other presenters were curious. The dumb ones found that amusing. The smart ones realized that Vadal was up to something. The master stopped before the small Vadal contingent. He stood there for a while in the cold winter sun, taking his time. Ashok kept his back straight and his eyes fixed on a crack in the wall as the old man studied him. “Present your obligation.”
The other presenters were arbiters and other courtly types. Ashok was the only one being introduced by a wizard. Kule was a small, quiet, odd-looking fellow. He stepped out of line and cleared his throat before speaking. “On behalf of Bidaya, Thakoor of Great House Vadal, as per our contract I obligate to the Order of Protectors the second son of deceased Jayesh of the first caste, who was once arbiter of Goda Province. Here is Ashok, aged ten years.”
“A single candidate, and the youngest one here…This will end well,” the Protector muttered. Everyone heard that, and there was a bit of laughter. Ashok kept his gaze fixed on a distant point and showed no emotion, just as he’d been taught. “What are his accomplishments?”
The other candidates had gotten long litanies of achievements. Ashok’s was brief. “He is the chosen bearer of mighty Angruvadal.” Kule finished his pronouncement and returned to his place in line.
The snickering died. Nervous whispers immediately rose among the other house’s presenters. Angruvadal? Several of them broke protocol by turning their heads to try and catch a glimpse of the sword sheathed at the boy’s side. All they would be able to see was that it appeared to be far too long for him to wield it worth a damn. They would be incorrect.
“What?” the old Protector glanced at the wizard, then at Ashok, then at his list, and back at the wizard. “House Vadal is obligating the bearer of its ancestor blade?”
“You are correct, Lord Protector.” Kule bowed respectfully. “Which is why we believe just the one will be sufficient.”
The other nervous young men who were being obligated to the Order kept their eyes forward. Ashok remained kneeling, motionless as the rest. He had been instructed not to move until told to move, nor to speak unless spoken to. He was mostly motionless, except for the shivering. That couldn’t be controlled. The headquarters of the Protector Order, like most important things, was in the Capitol, but its training program was in the barren mountains of Devakula, so all of the boys from the warmer northern houses were having a difficult time. The annual ceremony was held during the winter, probably because any children who died along the hard journey through the passes saved the Protectors the effort of having to weed out the weak later.
The Protector’s mood changed from bored to angry very quickly. He’d probably had some small speech prepared, but it had been forgotten once he’d learned someone had brought something so deadly into his castle. “The ceremony is concluded. The presenters will be escorted out. The obligated will be shown to their quarters. Except for the Vadal delegation. You stay here.”
The other houses complied, the boys looking nervous or happy to have made it this far, while their political masters seemed frustrated or curious by this new development. The senior ushered everyone else out, and soon it was only the master, the wizard, and Ashok who remained in the giant, freezing room.
“What is Vadal playing at, wizard?”
Kule smiled, showing his oddly pointed teeth. “There is no game here, Lord Protector, merely a demonstration of our house’s extreme devotion to the Law. All of the details are in the contract which was presented to your representatives in the Capitol. It has already been approved by the judges. All that remains is for you to accept the obligation of this child as acceptable. All that we have asked in return is that should Ashok perish, the sword be returned to its rightful house so that it may choose a new bearer.”
“Stand up!” the Protector shouted.
Ashok leapt to his feet. The Protector circled him, eyeing the sword sheathed on his belt. The handle and guard were dark and unremarkable.
“Draw the sword.”
He did as he was told. Three feet of black steel was freed from the leather. Angruvadal wanted to know who it was supposed to cut. No one yet. Be still. When the sword came out, his shivering ceased. He held it out with one hand, horizontal to the floor, careful not to take up any sort of fighting stance so that Angruvadal would not get the wrong idea.
Angruvadal was shaped like a typical sword of House Vadal. Most likely, they were based on it. Unlike most swords in Lok, Angruvadal was straight, not curved in any way. It was double-edged, sharp enough on either side to effortlessly lop off a man’s arm. The grip was long enough for two hand use. Though the pommel, grip, and guard didn’t give off the same eye-searing glow as the blade itself, they weren’t separate pieces, but seemed to have grown organically from the whole. For something so valuable, there was absolutely no ornamentation to it at all — not that there was any way to decorate Angruvadal, since it was made out of a material that couldn’t even be scratched.
Most people were afraid to come too close to the blade because they’d heard the stories, but not the Protector. He loomed over Ashok and demanded, “Hold it up toward the lantern so I can see.” Ashok did so, and they both watched it devour the flickering light.
“It is truly one of the most dangerous things in the entire world,” Kule warned.
“It burns the eye to look directly at it,” the Protector whispered as he stared into the blade. “It is said that a warrior with one of these can break an army by himself.”
“History has repeatedly demonstrated that to be true.” Kule had hunkered back down into his coat to hide from the chill, nearly disappearing until only his tiny black eyes poked out over the fur. “It can slay demons as if they are normal flesh and bone. Lawbreakers will tremble before its wrath. Imagine what the Order could do with such a tool. And now it is yours to direct…for the good of the Law, of course.”
The Protector realized that he’d been drawn in until his breath was steaming on the sword. He was so close that Ashok could remove the top half of his head with the flick of a wrist. A man could lose himself staring into that abyss. He stepped back. “Sheath it. Now.”
Angruvadal felt disappointment at being put away.
The other Protectors had returned from shooing out the presenters. They were watching as well, seemingly just as fascinated as their master. “Is it true?” the senior asked.
“It’s the real thing, and it didn’t take his life for daring to pull it, so we can assume this is no fraud,” the master said.
“Imagine what we could accomplish with a bearer in our ranks,” the senior said.
“Answer my questions carefully, boy. Answer them as if your life depends on it, because it truly does.”