“What makes a man, Abra?”
The sound of Master Rim’Fain’s fingertips tapping striking the desktop was like the beating of five little war drums. Too anxious to speak, Abra sat dumbly in his seat across the desk as the Master’s fingers continued to pound.
Outside the schoolhouse, he could still hear Benn Lo’Raundaun weeping. Further out, were the cheers of the other boys celebrating their graduation. Abra was alone with the Master. He hoped the tea kettle would start to whistle soon. It might drown out the tapping.
The Master arched an impatient eyebrow.
In response, Abra managed to clear his throat. Each finger strike against the desktop was almost a word of accusation: “Why won’t you do it?”
Not five minutes past, Abra had watched the tendons in the Master’s neck go taut as a ship’s rigging from screaming. The Master had hollered at Benn Lo’Raundaun so hard that his face still seemed flushed. Yet for all that anger, all the Master gave to Abra was the tapping. Over and over again.
Blessedly, the tea kettle began to whistle. Abra stood with a bow and fetched it, preparing tea for his teacher. He chanced a peek out of a window. The other boys had disappeared from view, no doubt eager to be off celebrating somewhere. For them, the thirteenth year ceremony had was complete. They had taken their place in the community as men. Even Benn Lo’Raundaun was a man now.
All the boys were men… except for Abra.
Hands shaking, Abra finished the tea without Master Rim’Fain’s eyes somehow knock the cups over by power of sheer observation. Still trembling, Abra set the tray in front of his teacher with another low bow.
The tapping stopped.
“What makes a man, Abra?” Master Rim’Fain repeated.
Abra closed his eyes and thought, trying to see passed his discomfort. The question had many answers, all of which they had gone over in the months leading up to the thirteenth year ceremony. Abra was unsure of which one answer the Master wanted.
“A man makes other men,” he answered, hesitantly.
Master Rim’Fain grunted in annoyance and swept one hand in a washing gesture, meaning that formalities were to be ignored.
“What does being a man mean to you?” Master Rim’Fain leaned forward and regarded Abra over the top of his teacup. The Master did not drink, he only held the cup and waited.
Abra wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead.
“Glenn Lo’Dain said that to be a man is protect the genitive aspects of civilization, which is to say that-”
“Abra Rim’Jadao, do not think I will be impressed if you speak like a barrister! I did not ask what Glenn Lo’Dain had to say on the subject! I ask for your opinion and yours only.” There was a spark of the fire there that Master Rim’Fain had released on Benn Lo’Raundaun but it quickly faded. The cold embers that remained were worse.
“To me, sir, being a man means that I must always do what I feel is right.” Even though the Master had signaled that formalities were to be ignored Abra could not help but add another bow.
“I see. How is she?” Master Rim’Fain drank his tea in a single swallow and slammed the cup down on the tray upside down. Abra flinched. An upside down tea cup was a rude way of saying that the tea had not been satisfactory.
“Your mother, how is she?”
“The same as ever, sir.”
“And that’s why you won’t kill her, eh? Because it’s wrong? Even if it’s only pretend?” Master Rim’Fain had a quill in his hands now and was writing on a parchment. Abra felt that the quill was a knife and that every time it scratched the paper it was cutting his insides.
“It is wrong, sir. It would devastate her and to no good end.”
“All the other boys completed the ceremony. They all made the oath.”
Abra opened his mouth to speak, for surely the Master must understand why his situation was different. Even if no one spoke of it, everyone knew. No one could possibly feel that his integrity was in question.
“Enough!!” Master Rim’Fain shouted, cutting off Abra’s words before they could even leave his tongue.
“I am sorry to have offended, sir.”
“If you were a gutless coward like Benn Lo’Raundaun I would only need to scream at you until you broke. Every year one or two boys can’t muster the courage to make the oath. I’ve never had one last longer than half an hour when I took them aside.” Master Rim’Fain bent over his letter again.
The silence stretched. Abra had to bite his tongue to stop from speaking. He forced himself to stand at attention, and tried not to flinch every time Master Rim’Fain dipped the quill back in the inkwell. He didn’t even attempt to look at the letter. He kept his eyes fixed on the harbor out the schoolhouse window. A was a ship in from the mainland. There hadn’t been a mainland ship in almost three years. If the present situation had been any less dire, the presence of the ship would have excited him.
“Explain why I didn’t feel it necessary to yell at you,” Master Rim’Fain grunted, apparently finished.
“You knew it wouldn’t make a difference, sir.”
Master Rim’Fain poured himself another cup of tea, this time mixing it with other ingredients, and again drank it all in one swallow again. He left the cup on the table, face up.
“Don’t be smart with me, Abra. No matter how smart you think you are, there will be trouble over this. Tell me, how did I know yelling wouldn’t make a difference?”
“Because being afraid doesn’t matter to me, sir,” Abra said. As if in confirmation, he felt his knees twitch.
Master Rim’Fain nodded, apparently satisfied, but then flashed an angry sort of grin as he folded the letter on his desk. The Master stamped the letter by pressing his seal into some blue wax harder than needed, and then hastily wrote an address in the corner. Once finished, Master Rim’Fain let out a sigh and then shook the letter at Abra.
“If you promise me right now you’ll complete the ceremony and take the oath, I’ll burn this letter and damn the cost of paper.”
Abra said nothing.
“You could be a Detective one day if you set your mind to it. You could pay for a nurse for your mother. You could set her up in a fine house. You could have a life of your own. There is only this one thing you must do first.” Master Rim’Fain held the letter out to a candle on his desk.
“All you have to do is promise me you’ll do it, Abra. Promise me and I won’t send for one of the Chagraen.”
Abra reached out and grabbed the letter before it could find the flame. To do otherwise would bring shame. After refusing the ceremony, Abra could stand no more shame however justified he felt.
“I will take it to the post, sir. I… apologize if I have disgraced you.”
“Once they come they’ll make an example out of you. They have to make an example, Abra. Surely, you must understand that.”
“There have been exceptions before, sir.” Abra had researched as much as he could in the library. Since the War of the Broken Rose, there had been six exceptions. None were well documented, but the rumors were persistent. If the books were any account, circumventing the oath was possible.
Master Rim’Fain turned away and set about tidying his desk, ignoring Abra. To not offer formal farewell was an insult, but Abra accepted it was no less than was warranted given his failure. He only hoped that once an exemption was made the Master would forgive him.
Abra walked to the center of the schoolhouse, lifted the trapdoor that led to the rope ladder, and prepared to climb down below where his mother waited.
“When they break you, please don’t hate me that I couldn’t break you first.” The words floated to Abra as a whisper. There might have been tears in Master Rim’Fain’s eyes, but he stood in front of a window now and Abra could only see only a shadowy silhouette.
Abra bowed as much as he was able to on the rope ladder.
“I could never hate you, sir.”
Abra closed the trapdoor.
Abra’s mother was still still picking flowers in the Community Garden by the schoolhouse where he’d left her. All around were Katar blossoms she had dropped without realizing. Abra gathered them before his mother had a chance to distract him, using his shirt as a makeshift sack.
“Very well done, mother. Good pickings,” Abra said.
At the sound of his voice, Abra’s mother almost let go of her apron as she stepped forward to hug him. He managed to restrain her before she could scatter even more blossoms.
“Did he yell at you?” his mother whispered conspiratorially.
“No, mother. He did not yell at me.”
“He didn’t hit you, did he? We’ll have to tell your father if he did. Even teachers aren’t supposed to hit children.” His mother nodded, as if confirming this to herself.
“No, mother. Master Rim’Fain was very kind to me.”
“He yelled at that other boy. He didn’t stop, even when the boy started crying. I heard.” Abra’s mother looked very solemn.
“He was only doing what was best for Benn.” That was true. After he’d completed the ceremony, a still weeping Benn has kissed both of Master Rim’Fain’s cheeks and thanked him for what he’d done.
“Oh, Benn! He used to come over and play when you two were young! Do you remember, Abra?” his mother beamed.
“I remember,” Abra replied.
They walked in silence for a while. When they got to the Town Hall, Abra made sure they hurried over to the bin for Katar blossoms first. His mother liked to touch things and was bound to let go of her apron soon. People would have stopped to help, of course, which would in turn halt all traffic and only make the whole incident more embarrassing.
Katar blossoms were not overly valuable, but picking them was one of the few ways that poor families like Abra’s had of contributing to the community. Abra found it humiliating that it was such a struggle to contribute so little, and so was relieved when the Katar blossoms were finally emptied into the bin without incident. The mail coach came by every other day for fresh pickings, then took them to Elenn for use in one of the Chagraen schools. It was a small thing, maybe, but it was matter of pride to Abra to keep the bins full.
The post was nearby, so Abra deposited Master Rim’Fains letter in the mail sack. With luck, a special exemption might arrive by mail within a few weeks and the whole sorry mess could be over with. If a hearing was in order, he had prepared his arguments.
Thinking of all these things, Abra turned to look out at the docks. A sailor was down there trying to get off the mainland ship. It looked like he was arguing with the Dock Master by the way he waved his arms in the air. Abra was curious to go down and see exactly what all the fuss was about, but knew better than to get involved with mainlanders.
It was three months by sea from the mainland to Angard. Sailors were always anxious to get to shore after the long voyage. It was likely no more than that. The Dock Master was probably explaining that ever since a sailor had brought alcohol to Angard three years ago the Town Council had allowed no outlander to set foot to shore.
Abra had even seen the sailor from three years ago, slurping messily from a green glass bottle every few steps and laughing at nothing. It had not been until later that Abra had realized the man was drunk.
The sailor’s antics hadn’t lasted more than a few minutes before the Town Council put back aboard his ship, confiscated his belongings, and sent back to the mainland. From what Abra had heard, the man had been insane enough to say that such a penalty was unjust.
He must not have known that if he were Angardi, he would have been hung for the offense.
Alcohol invited the Woa. Alcohol lowered the mind’s ability to resist intrusion. Alcohol got people Infested by demons. There were even more dangerous substances than alcohol on the mainland, but none of it was allowed to touch Angard.
Not for the first time, Abra wondered what life might have been like if he had not been born on Angard. On the mainland, there were no Woa to Infest men and turn them into demons. There was no need for a thirteenth year ceremony. On the mainland, a man could live his entire life without fear that he might be called upon to kill a creature that wore the face of a loved one.
Abra watched a while longer, until the outlander got back aboard his ship. That was good. Abra would have hated to have seen the man punished simply because he did not know proper etiquette.
“Do you think your father will be cross we haven’t started dinner yet?” Abra’s mother asked.
“No mother, I’m sure he’ll just be pleased to see us,” Abra whispered, not bothering to say that his father three years dead.
The sailor paced the deck of his ship now, indignant. Abra watched him stomp, and thought of a world free from the threat of Woa where men were allowed such petty concerns.
“I miss your father when we’re gone all day like this,” his mother said.
Abra smiled, and pat his mother’s arm gently, never taking his eyes from the sailor. On the mainland, so much would have been different. The most important difference was that Abra would never have had to kill his father because there was a monster hiding inside of him.
The schoolhouse was the only building in town that rested on stilts, although Abra understood it was common practice in the east. While an island, Angard was as big as most nations and the east was ever more prone to attack than the west. The schoolhouse was designed so that during mass Infestations, archers could use it to defend young children while Woa milled below as arrow-fodder.
Abra stared up at the bottom of the schoolhouse, and lifted his arms in the air, imagining how high he would have to jump to touch the floor of the building. It was an admirable design. Abra only regretted that it now served to keep him out.
Abra had not been allowed in the school since he’d refused the thirteenth year ceremony. It had hurt to see the rope ladder pulled up while he was still on the ground, let alone to hear the other boys speculating about their futures, but Abra knew that was the price he had to pay.
Instead of fretting, he used that part of his day to gather from the Community Gardens. Without his mother, it was easy to gather the Katar blossoms, Sun spires, and Fire wands that grew at the base of the stilts.
The Community Gardens were mostly unattended during the weekdays, so Abra had them to himself. For the past five days, he had managed to more or less fill every bin in front of the Town Hall. Less than an hour into this particular day, his hands were already sticky from picking Katar blossoms.
Abra turned over his shoulder to see a gray-haired old woman leaning against one of the school’s stilts. She wore a wide-brimmed hat low on her forehead.
“Ho, traveler,” Abra bowed.
The old woman held up a hand, and moved it to the side dismissing formalities. Abra relaxed.
“What are the uses of Katar blossoms?” the old woman asked.
It was not uncommon for passing adults to challenge wayward students, and the woman no doubt mistook Abra for a boy who had merely spoken out of turn.
“Katar blossoms are used for their waxy coat, as a finish for the jacket of a Metal Weaver.”
“And why do they require such a finish?” the old woman was walking around Abra in a circle now. Her stride was sure and strong despite her apparent age. The stranger’s face remained largely hidden in the shade of her hat.
“I do not know,” Abra could not help but bow in a show of shame.
The old woman took a Katar blossom from Abra’s hand and dunked it in a nearby mud puddle. She held the flower up so that Abra could see.
“Do you see the way the water bunches up into drops?”
“Some of the Loke, when cut, emit dangerous chemicals. No metal will guard against these, but a leather coat with a waxy finish will stop what armor can not.”
Abra had never seen a Loke, although they were related to the Woa somehow. The Woa were parasites that turned men into monsters. Loke were born monsters, and from what Abra had heard most of them looked more like animals than men.
Abra was nodding at the wisdom in this, when he was overcome with sudden understanding. He dropped to one knee immediately. The sunlight shifted a bit and Abra saw a black bandanna around the stranger’s forehead.
“I apologize Chagraen, I did not recognize you without your coat.”
The Chagraen, a born Hunter of Loke and Woa took a seat on the ground and leaned against one of the stilts with a grunt.
“They said you were a observant. What gave me away?”
Abra ‘s heart hammered in his chest. Some feared the Chagraen as much as the Woa, for both the Chagraen and the Woa were creatures made long ago when the True Masters had turned men into weapons. Abra’s struggled not to let his tongue freeze as it had with Master Rim’Fain.
“Your clothes do not show enough wear for a traveler. I saw the set yesterday in the tailor’s shop as I walked to the Town Hall. If you were a member of the merchant’s guild then the school is far enough away from the docks that you would have no business here, my lady.”
“Rise,” the Hunter said.
Abra took his feet again and stood at attention. The knees of his pants were damp.
“I read that you will not complete your year thirteen ceremony. Why?” The Hunter took the letter Abra himself had taken to the mail post not five days past out of her bag, and turned it in her hands.
“Apologies, Hunter. My mother does not possess all her faculties, and there are extenuating circumstances which would make the act traumatic for her. Furthermore, I have already demonstrated my willingness to keep the words of the oath.” Abra let out the speech in a rush. He had practiced it many times in his mind. When finished, he swallowed, panting in great huffs. He had never spoken to a Hunter before.
“Anyone ever tell you that you sound like a barrister?” the old woman asked, wryly.
Abra was about to get back to his knees to beg for forgiveness, when the old woman rolled her eyes at him and motioned that he should stay standing.
“What are the extenuating circumstances?” she asked.
“My lady, if you have reviewed my letter you must be aware of my history.”
“Yes, but I would hear it from you.”
“I… I killed my father, my lady.”
“He was Infested?”
“Yes ma’am!” Abra shouted, surprising both himself and the Hunter.
“The full story please,” the old woman said, now trimming her fingernails.
“He came home one night and demonstrated all the symptoms, my lady. He was unable to tolerate the glow of the lantern light. He moved as though pulled by strings. Metals grew hot when pressed to his skin, and he attacked both myself and my mother!” Abra had been only ten at the time, and although he could not remember most of the night, sometimes he awoke from terrible nightmares with the feel of his father’s warm blood on his hands.
“How did you kill him, child Rim’Jadao?”
“I put my knife in his neck, my lady.”
The old woman laughed, as if patricide was a joke, “You killed him the same way as the ceremony? I take it that your mother saw.”
Confused at the Hunter’s scornful reaction, Abra pressed himself onward. There was nothing for it than to be as convincing as he could. He chose the biggest words he knew.
“Yes, my lady. The killing of my father is what precipitated her madness. I fear if she sees me attempt a similar action upon her person she will suffer a complete break.”
“Say one thing for talking like a barrister, you make a compelling argument,” the old woman acceded with a grunt.
“I request special exemption from the ceremony, my lady.” Now that the words were out there, Abra forced his arms behind his back, spread his feet apart, and stood at a trembling attention.
The Hunter stood, and walked away. Abra almost rushed after, but the old woman had only been grabbing a bag that Abra had not seen. Out of the bag the Hunter took two long black poles intricately tied to a belt, which she expertly strapped around her waist.
The poles were Sarain, the sheathed swords of a Hunter. If the woman was right-handed, the sword now resting under that palm was made of Spun Fire. If she was left-handed, the sword resting under that palm would be made of Woven Moonlight. Both metals were revered in stories, and each was lethal to Loke and Woa alike. Beneath his fear, Abra felt a wave of awe.
The Hunter threw her hat on top of her bag. Standing there now with the swords strapped to her waist and her bandanna blowing in the breeze, she no longer appeared at all frail.
“Child Rim’Jadao, your request for special exemption has been heard. I am Captain Drunna Lo’Annaum, Hunter of the Raven Clan. I carry sentence from Regional Commander Nessa Im’Foller and, on her behalf, I hereby deny such exemption.”
Abra felt the air go out of his lungs. He felt his heart stop. Tears sprung to his eyes. It had been his last hope and now it was gone.
“Please! She is all I have!” Abra fell to all fours, crawling toward the Hunter’s feet.
“What makes a man?” Captain Lo’Annaum shouted.
There was a stomping of feet from the school above. Thirty voices responded in unison. Abra could make out Master Rim’Fain’s voice with ease.
“A man helps other men,” the choir sang.
“What makes a man?” Captain Lo’Annaum repeated.
“A man protects other men,” the choir responded.
“What makes a man?” Captain Lo’Annaum her voice full of authority.
“A man makes other men,” the choir finished.
“Please?” Abra begged, sensing what was to come.
“Child Rim’Jadao, you are shunned. You may speak to none here. You may take succor from none here. You are a child without home.” The Hunter threw a knife into the soil in front of him. It was the ceremony knife. A blade with no edge.
“Should you decide that you wish to become a man, you will take this knife to your mother, complete the ceremony, and recite the oath.” The Hunter turned her back and sang a song about the Oath.
Voices rose in chorus from the school above, joining with the Hunter. Abra distantly wondered how long they had rehearsed to achieve such eerie harmony.
They wanted him to run the knife on his mother’s throat and promise to kill her if she were ever Infested. Even though he’d already killed his father! Her mind had been broken and now the community demanded he break her heart! Abra pulled at his hair. It was impossible! Impossible!
“Child Rim’Jadao is no more. He has broken accord and fled the bonds of men. If he is to return he must make the promise a man must make. Community before the individual. Once, Child Rim’Jadao showed much promise. If he is to show promise again the child must die and the man must take his place.
“Our enemy is the enemy of all men. Our enemy has no mercy and would kill all men. We are steadfast and prepared.”
The Hunter walked toward town while Abra sat under the schoolhouse with a sackful of Katar blossoms feeling like the ghost of a murdered man.
No one spoke to Abra as he emptied his sack into the bins. People milled about, but they looked everywhere but where he stood.
Girls from the Women’s School were out running in formation. Abra stared after them with white hot resentment. Abra did not know what happened in the women’s school, but he’d never heard of any ceremony or oath.
Abra stared at the girls, two lines of them running with long limber spears, and his fists bunched up so that his fingernails dug into his palms. The unfairness of it all made him shake.
“When a woman comes of age, she promises to kill her child. She is given an infant, is made to care for that infant for three months, and must call it her own all that while. When the end of the three months approaches, the woman holds a knife over the infant’s heart and recites the oath. This teaches the importance of motherhood and community.” Abra was startled to see Captain Lo’Annaum sitting on a rocking chair on the porch of the Town Hall, reading from a book.
Abra was about to call the Hunter a hypocrite for speaking to him, but then realized he had not spoken and the Captain might as well have been reading to herself. The name of the book the was “The History of the Oath.” Abra had requested it from the library several months ago and been denied.
As if to herself, Captain Lo’Annaum continued from another part of the book, “Before the introduction of formalized schooling and the oath, nearly seventy-five percent of all Woa inflicted fatalities proceeded directly from the inaction of potential first-wave defenders. The relative rarity of Woa assaults coupled with natural reluctance to believe that an Infested loved one is already dead, conspires to create paralysis of action. First-wave defenders therefore simply become first-victims.
“Since the introduction of formalized schooling, as well as physical and emotional conditioning, less than thirty-percent of first-wave defenders fail to initiate action against the Infested. This number is never expected to reach zero, as some may simply find themselves without the means to combat a Woa assault. The most dramatic improvement we have seen is in the so-called second-wave defenders who initiate combative action against Woa assault in over ninety-nine percent of all recorded cases.”
Captain Lo’Annaum licked her thumb and turned the page, ignoring Abra’s presence completely.
“I killed my father! I did it already!” Abra shouted.
Captain Lo’Annaum didn’t so much as look up.
“I don’t have anything left to prove!”
Captain Lo’Annaum rocked gently and hummed to herself.
“I left the knife at the school! I won’t do it! Not ever!”
Abra ran toward his house. He had to find his mother.
The house was locked, which confused Abra as there had been no lock that morning. After further examination, he realized the windows had been nailed shut from the inside. Panting and panicked, Abra picked up a stone and threw it through a window. He knocked out the glass shards with a shovel and climbed inside, not caring if he accidentally cut himself on any of the smaller shards fragments.
“Mother!” Abra shouted.
He went to the kitchen. There was no food there. For the first time, he realized that he was hungry. He tore through the cupboards wildly, eyes wide. How could this have happened? Special exemption had been made in at least four of the cases where the circumstances had been less severe than his own.
“Mother!” Abra called again. She had to be at the Lo’Garagaun’s. It was just down the road and sometimes they took her in for the day to keep her out of trouble.
His stomach rumbled. Perhaps he had not been hungry to begin with, but his hysteria had him starving. In a flash of insight, he ran out to the garden. All the plants had been ripped out. He dug through the garden anyway, in case anything had been overlooked. He found a carrot, an onion, and a potato. He went to wash them from the well, but the bucket was gone. He settled for dusting them off with his shirt, then he ate them ravenously.
Later, he got sick from eating the onion and the potato raw and threw up. His stomach in cramps, and feeling weaker than he ever had before, Abra cried himself to sleep in the shade of what used to be his home.
He told himself that when he woke up his father would be alive, his mother would no longer be insane, and that the last three years would turn out to have been a nightmare.
The Lo’Garagauns set their dogs on him when he got close to the farmhouse. Abra got close enough to see the porch by the moonlight, but then someone whistled once, sharply. A few seconds later, Roskar’s fangs were in his arm. Abra barely managed to beat the dog back before Bakkar was nipping at his leg. The dogs had been his friends once, but now Abra fought both of them for his life. When he finally felt he’d beaten the dogs back, Master Lo’Garagaun charged with a stave in hand.
“Mother! Mother it’s Abra!” Abra shouted.
Someone moved inside the house. Abra heard a muffled cry as if someone had tried to speak but a hand had been placed over their mouth. It was his mother! It had to be!
Master Lo’Garagaun struck him twice across the back with the stave. Each strike cut his skin.
“I’ll come back mother. I promise!”
Someone slung a stone. It might have been one of the boys. They were both younger than Abra, but they were good shots. The stone nicked Abra’s scalp. Blood ran into his eyes.
“I love you mother! I love you!”
Abran ran. There were no friends here any longer.
The boys formed a line on the deck of the schoolhouse. Abra watched from the depths of the Community Garden, scowling. He had barely slept, having woken up sometime around midnight when someone began throwing rocks against the house.
He’d run away to the Community Garden to get Sun spire to treat his wounds. It had taken most of what was left of the night to figure out how to put a poultice on his own back.
One by one, the boys approached Master Rim’Fain and were presented with their certificate of graduation and their letter of recommendation. Master Rim’Fain praised each boy for his strengths and delivered a warning about his weaknesses. Abra watched as the boys he knew died and became men.
Laran Lo’Tavi was going to be a doctor.
Quinn Rim’Yannera was to become an engineer.
The Vio’Haven twins were going to be farmers like their parents.
Benn Lo’Raundaun was awarded the highest honor. Benn who had cried like a girl and only completed the oath under threat. He was to be sent to Elenn to train with the Hunters. He would become a Detective and help track Woa. The position that Master Rim’Fain had meant for Abra.
A twig snap behind him, and Abra turned with a barely suppressed scream to see Captain Lo’Aunnaum standing there with a smirk on her face. She leaned against a tree, reading again from her book.
“The power of the oath is that there are no exceptions made. The commonality of the experience creates group pressure. A man will strike down an enemy, though it might bear the face of a loved one, because he fears that other men would do the same and he must not be discovered as the sole weakling.
“It is especially desirable that those who have proven conviction to follow the oath be made to swear the oath. The mere fact of the swearing creates a strong community message. ‘Even those of us who have every right not to be called to make the pledge, are called to pledge. Who then among us can do otherwise?’”
Abra’s face paled. His hands shook.
“It is also desirable that some number of people refuse the oath so that they might be broken, thereby renewing the psychological impact of the oath for the whole community. To this end, in those cases where it might be done without undo attention, rumor should be created that some have been allowed to circumvent the oath in order to create this false impression.”
Abra ran under the schoolhouse, not caring that all the boys could see him. Not caring if one of them shot him through with an arrow. Abra grabbed the dull knife from where he’d left it and ran down toward the ocean.
Captain Lo’Annaum’s voice boomed.
“This scarcity of rumors will assure that this avenue is not often sought, or even desirable for the public at large. It also assures that only those individuals with compelling reason will try to circumvent the oath. Those who may not be broken by a simple scolding will prove themselves to have sufficient will that once broken will serve as an example to all the community that no one is exempt.”
Abra arrived at the ocean panting, the blunt knife in his hands. He threw it as far as he could.
“I will not!” he shouted.
That night, Abra found Benn Lo’Raundaun as he was walking home from the celebratory feast. Abra punched him in the mouth, knocked him to the ground, and didn’t stop kicking until Benn Lo’Raundaun stopped trying to get up. Abra took his certificate of graduation and his letter of recommendation and tore them to shreds.
When the boy started to cry, Abra spat on him.
No one thought to guard the pig slop at the Vio’Haven farm so Abra helped himself. He didn’t dare eat it raw, so he stole a metal drinking trough from the barn to cook it in.
It tasted even worse than he’d expected but once it was in his stomach, it stayed there. It had been days since he’d eaten, and even though it was terrible it returned some measure of his strength to him.
The plan worked for three more nights before dogs were posted by the pig troughs. There were other farms though. He stole from them all for another week. Then there were dogs everywhere.
“Have mercy!” Abra cried at the ship. His stomach gnawed at itself and the water sucked the heat from his body.
One of the sailors peeked overboard. The face was ugly and the teeth were brown, but to Abra the mere act of knowing the face was looking at him afforded it a sort of beauty.
The sailor said something to someone over his shoulder, but Abra could not hear for the water splashing in his ears. Seconds later, a latrine pot was thrown overboard, its contents landing in the water next to him. Raucous laughter sounded from above.
Abra ducked under the water, hoping that any residue on him would be washed away. He could not afford to get sick living in the woods. He brought his face back to the surface only when he was far away from the ship and out of breath.
Another sailor was yelling at the first two. There was a fight. The sailor Abra had seen that long ago day on the docks now peered over the side of the ship with a lantern in his hand. He saw Abra and cursed at the sky, before throwing down a rope.
Abra grabbed it and began to climb. He was too hungry. There was no choice. He had accepted that he might die when he dived into the waters. Even a strong man could drown in the ocean.
Finding that he was unable to climb the rope on his own, Abra was relieved when the Cursing sailor simply shouted “Hold on!” and heaved the rope up the boat himself. Abra landed on the deck of the ship like a limp fish and promptly threw up a stomach full of seawater.
The sailor looked at him and cursed. Then the sailor looked at the sky and cursed. Then, cursing as Abra had rarely heard, the sailor disappeared below decks. When he reappeared, the sailor handed Abra a plate of cornbread and beans.
The ugly sailor opened his mouth as if to object, but what Abra thought of as the Cursing Sailor favored him with a few profanities and he went quiet again. Abra scooped the food into with his bare hands because a spoon would have been too slow.
Meanwhile, the Cursing Sailor took a seat on a barrel and watched Abra eat by the light of a lantern. There was a hard frown on his face.
“We sail tomorrow. We’ll take you along if you like. I don’t know what you did, but it can’t merit what they’ve done to you.”
Abra finished the tray, and bowed to the sailor. It felt like forever since he’d had a reason to bow. He was trembling again, not in fear this time, but from weakness. He wondered how tired he had been that he hadn’t even had the strength to shiver. That was a worrisome thought.
“This is my home. I… cannot leave”
The ugly sailor muttered about throwing him overboard before they got in trouble, but the man Abra now thought of as the Kind Sailor silenced him by touching a club at his side.
“You’d rather stay here and live like a dog?”
There was no way to explain. His mother was here, but that was not all of the reason for his staying. His friends were on Angard, although they now threw rocks at him. Every moment of his entire life had been spent on Angard. Even if there were monsters, there was community on Angard. To be taken from the community was worse than shunning. To be taken from the community was to be made less.
“You are very kind. You are… a good man, I think. Thank you. I will be leaving now.” The ugly sailor laughed but the kind sailor only sat on his barrel, frowning. Abra stood up, and limped to the side of the ship.
“I used to judge mainlanders harshly. I will not do so again.” Abra dived off the side of the ship into the cold black waters.
“Boy!” the Kind Sailor shouted. A keg landed in the ocean by Abra’s side. Abra grabbed it and waved. The sailor waved back.
“I owe you my life!” Abra hollered, tears in his eyes.
“Well then I hope it’s worth it!” the sailor shouted by way of acknowledgment.
When Abra got back to the shore his clothes were gone, save for his undergarments which he’d been wearing. Written in the sand were the words:
“NEXT TIME I WILL PUNISH THEM.”
But the keg was full of beans and pork and Abra did not feel sad when he fell asleep with a full belly even if he was cold. He had spoken to another man. A good man. There was a kind of fire in that act that even the cold could not chill.
“The longest any individual has resisted taking the oath is one week. To date, none have chosen exile over compulsory swearing of the oath. To end suffering as quickly as possible, it is advised that the conditions placed on the refuser be as strict as possible. This demonstrates the authority of the governing body as well as reinforcing the fundamental principle that no one must be above the oath.”
Captain Lo’Annaum sat on a log next to Master Rim’Fain, reading as if she could not see Abra sleeping under a lean-to not ten paces away.
“One week is the longest you say?” Master Rim’Fain asked.
“Yes. I understand the boy gave up due to hunger. He had not managed to secure an alternate source of food.” Captain Lo’Annaum licked his thumb and turned another page.
Abra scurried out of his shelter and grabbed the squirrel he had killed in a trap yesterday. They’d put dogs on all the food. No one had thought to set dogs outside the library or thought that someone might steal books on woodcraft.
“Have there been any who refused who were able to find some way to live separate from the community?” Master Rim’Fain asked.
“There have been a few who might have done so, but their trials happened to be in other areas, where the ritual coincides with winter.”
“No man can survive the winter alone.” Master Rim’Fain nodded. As if even nature conspired against him, a cold wind blew through the trees and Abra shivered.
“I’ll starve first,” Abra grunted. “She’s my mother and I’ll starve first.”
Master Rim’Fain and Captain Lo’Annaum stood and walked away. There was a knife with no edge on the log where they had both sat.
“I’ve already made it a month! A month do you hear me?”
Abra walked down by the cliffs again and threw the new knife into the ocean. When night came he howled at the moon like a wolf. He had made it a month, and no matter what else happened, no matter if they took his hand and forced the motions, he had made it longer than any other boy.
He was like an anvil: so strong that any hammer struck against it would break.
“I was strong enough to kill my father when the time came, and I am strong enough that nothing can break me!” Abra shouted.
The only response was the regularity of the tides. In and out.
Abra learned that you could make a skin by boiling an animal’s brain and rubbing it against their hides. It would not have been a useful skill with the squirrels, but he had found a rabbit warren and he knew he had to be ready for winter. It was already getting too cold at night to fall asleep without a fire.
He had been on his own for two months. Eight times longer than anyone else.
A rabbit poked its head out of the warren. The rabbits were becoming wise to the fact that they were being hunted. Abra knew that he should be careful but winter was only month away. Abra threw a stick as hard as he could. It hit the rabbit square between the eyes. The rabbit keeled over, dead.
Killing rabbits wasn’t hard. Killing enough of them to wear was the real challenge.
When he got back to his camp there was an edgeless knife hanging from a tree branch by a leather thong. Abra threw it in the ocean where he’d thrown all the others.
They would break themselves trying to break him.
Abra shivered as he protected his fire. Occasionally, he leaned over it to the point that it felt as though it were cooking his belly. He did it for the heat and also because it was necessary to bat away the snow flakes that were encroaching on his shelter. Even under the rabbit skins, it was cold.
There was not enough firewood. He’d known and it had not made any difference because he’d burned everything he could comfortably carry to his camp already. The wind gusted, shaking the poles of his lean to. Abra’s whole body tensed. The flames flickered.
The fire went out.
Only smoke remained.
“A person could freeze to death in under an hour in this weather with no protection,” Captain Lo’Annaum said.
Master Rim’Fain walked beside her with tears in his eyes though nothing else about the man’s face or posture indicated sadness. Both wore heavy coats. “A man may face many things alone, but never the winter. In winter, we must draw fire from one another.”
Master Rim’Fain almost turned to look at Abra, but stopped himself at the last moment. Hands trembling the old teacher set an edgeless knife down in front of the fire. Barely able to move, Abra picked it up and crawled toward the ocean cliffs knowing that it was not only the knife that would be going over this time.
Abra did not turn to look over his shoulder, but he hoped that Master Rim’Fain was proud. He had refused the ceremony but no one could accuse of him of not doing what he thought was right. There was pride in that, Abra was sure.
“How long do you think that poor woman will last in the stocks?” Captain Lo’Annaum asked.
“An hour maybe. She keeps calling for one whose name must not be spoken. She has only to stop calling his name to be let back in close to the fire, but she will not stop calling.” Master Rim’Fain was openly weeping now.
Captain Lo’Annaum’s knife was back out and the woman was clipping her fingernails once again.
“If we run, perhaps we can talk sense into her before she dies,” Captain Lo’Annaum said.
Abra had no more strength left to run, but he ran anyway.
“I am here, mother,” Abra whispered. The stocks were in front of the Town Hall. There was no one around. The streets were white and empty.
His mother squinted at him. Her blue lips turned upward in a smile. Abra took off his cloak of rabbit skins and hung it around her even though it left him almost naked.
“Abra? Is that you? Get your father dear, the town’s gone crazy. I think… I think they’re going to kill me.” His mother started to cry. Her finger were purple. Abra took his mother’s hands in his own and rubbed.
She needed a fire and Abra had none to give even if he broke her free.
“Father is dead. There’s only you and me now,” Abra confessed.
His mother saw the edgeless knife in his hands and pulled her head as far back in the stocks as she could, struggling. Her eyes went wide with terror. She whimpered almost too quietly to hear. Abra swallowed and raised the knife.
His mother screamed.
“Come out! I am ready to complete the ceremony!”
Captain Lo’Annaum appeared by Abra’s shoulder as if she had always been there.
“I will let no love hinder my guard. My greater love is for the community. I vow to watch for all deception and free my mind from my heart. I promise this now and give sign.”
With his back turned to his mother to hide the sight, Abra ran the knife twice across the captain’s throat. As he did so, Abra whispered “I once was a boy but he died. You have made me into a man, and thus I name you mother. The ceremony is obeyed.”
The Captain nodded, a smile on her lips.
The knife clattered to the ground below. Abra was no longer strong enough to hold it.
Master Rim’Fain ran toward the stocks with a set of keys in his hands.
The community gathered all around him emerging from the dozen buildings of the town square. Somehow, Abra knew they had been waiting there for a long while. A hundred hands lifted him. The Lo’Garagaun’s carried him. Then the Lo’Raundaun’s. The Vio’Havens opened the doors for him. A hundred hands carried him to safety, working as one.
“What makes a man, Abra Rim’Jadao?” the Captain whispered.Abra had been cold so long that the warmth hurt.
“Community…. community and family makes a man,” Abra whispered.
Master Rim’Fain pressed a letter into Abra’s freezing hands. The note was crumpled and battered, as if it had been written long ago, carried in a pocket, and examined often.
It said: Detective.