Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 22
Twenty-five years ago
It was hard work to mop up so much blood. Luckily there had been so many opportunities to practice lately that he’d become very good at it. He may have only been a child of the non-people, and a small, sickly one at that, but you didn’t need to be strong to clean up blood, only committed. When he was done, the stone floors were so clean you couldn’t even tell that a man had just been gutted there like a pig. He had been doing such a good job at scrubbing up the blood that the overseer had not had him beaten even once over the last few weeks.
After the whole men had stormed out in frustration, and the other casteless had carried the dead warrior’s body outside for cremation, the boy found himself alone in the main chamber of great house Vadal, on his hands and knees, pushing a red puddle.
Only he wasn’t really alone. The sword was there, watching him.
Ringing out his rag over the bucket, he saw that the water running over his hands was still very pink. There was much work to do.
* * *
When the Thakoor of House Vadal had died, they had placed his terrible magic sword in the main chamber. Casteless did not usually live as long as whole men, but there were a few among them old enough to remember the last time this had happened. They warned the other casteless what to expect. Until the ancestor blade was satisfied, the whole men of the warrior caste would be tense and quick to anger. Do your jobs, stay out of sight. The warrior caste loved to spill blood, but they considered it beneath them to mop it off the floors. That was unclean. Even the lowest of the workers thought they were too good to play with corpses and blood and guts. That was work for the casteless, so some of them would be sent into the main chamber. If they were chosen, look only at the ground, do not speak unless spoken to. If they were lucky, they would not be killed by frustrated warriors. If the Forgotten had mercy on them, the sword would pick someone sooner rather than later and life could return to normal.
It had not taken long for the sword to begin killing whole men. That last Thakoor’s ashes were still warm when the first of the warrior caste tried to take up the sword. A few minutes later the overseer had arrived in the casteless quarter looking for help to remove the body parts.
* * *
“Why take the boy?” his mother asked.
The overseer frowned. “Why not?”
“He’s weak. He’ll just be in the house slave’s way.”
The overseer was casteless as well, but even amongst the non-people, there was order, and questioning his commands could lead to a beating or worse. The overseer seemed like a huge, muscled beast to the small child, especially when he roughly grabbed the boy by the wrist. “I got strong men for lifting bodies. He’s got small fingers to get into the cracks. I don’t want no stained mortar and I don’t want the main chamber stinking of death. Got it?”
His mother had lowered her head in submission. The casteless did as they were told. They worked and they died at the pleasure of their betters. That’s how it always had been and how it always would be. Such was the way of the non-people.
The overseer had given him a rag and a bucket. They were his most prized possessions.
* * *
The first time he had entered the main chamber, he had tried to heed the elder’s warning, but he had been too tempted, and had lifted his head to see. The inside of the great house was truly as amazing as the house slaves proclaimed it to be. The floors were flat stone, not dirt. The walls did not have holes in them, and in fact, they were covered in carvings and paintings of animals and birds, mountains and trees, and heroic scenes of warriors defeating demons. There was food everywhere. This one room was big enough to hold ten casteless’ barracks. It was more than he could comprehend. But it wasn’t the vastness of the great house that intimidated him, it was the sword.
There was no ceremony to it. The sword was just lying there on the floor where the last warrior had flung it after severing his own legs. Though there was blood on the walls and the floor and in every crook and crevice and joint, there wasn’t a drop on the sword or anywhere close to it. In time, he would learn that this was normal for the ancestor blade, as it did not want to stain itself with unworthy life, which was good, because the boy was scared to get close to the sword.
He’d overheard warrior caste speak of the dead Thakoor’s sword. It was said whoever carried it could defeat entire armies by himself. Only this kind of sword could easily kill a demon from the distant and terrifying ocean. Even the mightiest heroes were scared of the ancestor blade. The boy took their fear and made it his own. He was casteless. The Law declared that his kind were not even allowed to touch a weapon. His experience with swords consisted of seeing them in the hands of warriors when it was time to intimidate or execute.
This sword was not like those. This one was…beautiful. It hurt his eyes, but he couldn’t help but look anyway. Realizing that he’d been staring, he’d quickly averted his eyes. There were still warriors present. If a whole man saw a casteless looking at the sacred ancestor blade of House Vadal, he’d surely be killed. In this room, his life was worth absolutely nothing.
Only the warrior caste did not see him. The casteless were typically beneath notice. They were simply there to do the things whole men should not have to. They wrapped the body parts in old blankets and carried them down the stairs to the furnace. He was so small that it was a real struggle to carry just the man’s leg, and this one had been cut off at the knee.
Then he’d been put to work pushing thick blood around with a rag and carrying buckets of water up and down the stairs until the main chamber was spotless. The overseer had inspected it carefully. If any blood got into a gap and began to rot, he’d have to smoke the smell out with hot coals, and the smoke might upset the great house family. The pale stones took the most scrubbing to keep from staining. It was hard, but it was better than the typical unclean duties of tending swine, cleaning sewers, or burning corpses.
The first few weeks were very busy, as members of the warrior caste from across all of the lands of house Vadal tried to take up the sword. There was so much blood to clean up that the child found himself working in the main chamber more often than not. The overseer allowed him to stay hidden in there during the day, so he didn’t have to walk back and forth to the casteless’ quarter to fetch laborers.
The boy was able to watch many of the warrior’s attempts to wield the sword. Few ended in crippling injury or death, but all ended with blood.
* * *
There was a shadowed alcove in one corner of the main chamber, well hidden behind a few hanging tapestries. The boy squatted there, waiting, his precious rag clean and his bucket filled to the brim with soapy water. He liked his alcove. It was cool out of the sun, there were no biting insects, and best of all, the whole men could not see him, but he could see them. The overseer had dumped a few buckets of wash water over the boy first, so his betters wouldn’t detect the pig, ash, and dung smell of the casteless.
It was the first time he’d observed whole men. The Law declared that they were separate and better, but outside their armor shells the warriors didn’t seem so different from the non-people. They were strong and proud until the sword opened them up, then they screamed and bled the same color as a casteless. Above the warriors were the members of the great house. They didn’t look so different than his family, only they were far better fed, wearing real clothing, and carrying themselves without constant fear. But the Law said they were superior, so that was the way of things.
The house slaves began preparing the chamber by lighting lanterns. That meant that it was time for another attempt. Men in uniform, their station far beyond his understanding, arrived to serve as witnesses. The sword ended up in a different place every time, depending on where the last user had dropped it after it cut him, but the witnesses always stood as far from it as possible, as if it might become angry and cut them as well. They boy knew that was foolish. The sword only judged those who tried to wield it. He was only a casteless blood scrubber, and he already understood the sword better than the whole men in the fancy robes.