“Can you wield a blade?” The man, a local conscription authority, raised his brows.
“I’ve cut wood for my mother since I was six,” Seth said, already pleading his case.
“Cutting wood is not the same as cutting flesh, boy,” The man placed quill to parchment, and then “A sword. Have you ever swung a sword?”
“N…No. No sir. Only my father’s wooden practice rapier.”
The man scoffed. “Son, how old are you?”
“Eighteen.” He placed the quill down on the thick oak. “Do you not possess any skills? Maybe a trade would better suit you?”
“No, sir. I’ve had to push aside such things and place my family’s well-being as priority. My father left when I was young, you see?”
“What’s your name?”
“Seth Keihatsu, sir.”
“Ah. Keihatsu. You’re looking to follow in old James’ footsteps, eh?”
“Hopefully not too closely.”
“No, sir. Only the ones that lead me up the hierarchy of Sternum’s Sword.”
“Good,” The man looked at Seth and then down at the dried oak slab. “And if I don’t let you sign your name on this paper today?”
“I don’t know, sir. I feel this is the path that has been laid out before me.”
“I see,” He looked the young man up and down, studying his posture and confidence. “If what they say of the passing of blood are true then maybe the skills lay dormant. I’ll let you sign conscription. Maybe they’ll bless themselves upon you soon enough.”
“Thank you, sir!” Seth’s fingers embraced the quill swiftly. He’d perfected his penmanship for this sole occasion.
The man took the parchment and folded it three times.
“Now, the Sword is posted outside of the Sternum for two more months. When they return, you will report to the unit then. Understand?”
“Yes, sir. Two months.”
“Good. Don’t let me stumble across your corpse in the body fields.”
“You won’t. Thank you!”
Seth’s mother Heather sensed the affirmation on her eldest son’s face that afternoon when he returned home. His chest was ever slightly more puffed out and his face was stern with satisfaction. Since Seth was a young boy, she had assumed that he would try and follow in his father’s footsteps. Though, as stained as they were, Seth still resented him for leaving.
Seth came home that afternoon after the recruitment office and said nothing. He attended to his household duties like any other day. Cracks of oak and pine echoed throughout the village as his iron ax split the wood for fire that night.
At dinner, the charred wood sparked and mouthfuls of potatoes chomped. Cole mimicked his brother’s moves. He was four years Seth’s junior. Heather stared at the two of them, smirking at their alikeness.
“Seth,” She said. “How was your trip to town today?”
“It went well,” He fed another halved potato into his mouth then tried to suppress a smile. “It went fine.”
“So, you’ve been accepted then?”
Seth stopped chewing in surprise. The lone potato became soggy in his mouth as he contemplated how she knew. “Accepted?”
“Surely you don’t think I’m that ignorant, boy,” Heather sent a facetious wink to her youngest, Cole. He smiled devilishly in return. “When will you be leaving us to fend for ourselves?”
“Oh, hush it. Look at me,” She laid down her spoon and felt her son’s hand. Rough with calluses and laden with muscle. “I’m proud of you, son. This is what you’ve always wanted.”
“It is.” He took another spoonful. This time cubed beef.
“So, when do you leave?”
“The Sword comes back in two months. I am to report to them then.”
“I see,” She turned to her youngest. “Cole, you know what this means.” It wasn’t a question but an affirmation of something. Cole had been busy reveling in the fact that this dinner was focused on someone else but him.
His eyes grew wide. “What what means?”
“Well, you don’t expect your old mom to chop the wood and kill the food and start the fire and shovel the sand now do you? Yes, I suppose my youngest is grown enough to take care of those things now.”
Cole shoved his plate away, his pupils meeting the corners of his eyes. They gave a stare of realization to Seth as if to say ‘Look what you’ve done to me!’.
“I’m only teasing, son, but with your brother away we will both have to pick up his slack.”
“Seth, you teach your brother these things until you leave.”
“Yes, mother. I will.”
That night, Seth laid in his bed staring at the dance of the candlelight on the ceiling. Cole, across the room, laid in his bed as well. The glow of their mother’s candle seeped under the crack of the door as she readied the house for the night. The house was comprised of two bedrooms, Heather’s and the boys’ and a main room which held the dinner table, the kitchen, and the fireplace. As he followed the glow with his eyes, Seth often wondered if she was lonely. He’d seen the way men would look at her in the town. If she was lonely, it was by choice.
“Seth,” Cole whispered.
“Are you scared to go?” He rolled over to face his brother.
“A little. Change is frightening.”
“Then why did you choose to go? You could’ve stayed here with mother and me.”
Silence filled the room as Seth contemplated his answer before Cole interrupted.
“Is it because of father? Because he is a warrior?”
“I suppose that’s part of the reason, but mainly I just want to be great.”
“I think you’re great, Seth.”
He smiled at his younger brother’s naivety then turned to look at him. The darkness enveloped his features. All that was left was a black void of a child. “That’s not what I mean. If I stay here no one will ever know who Seth Keihatsu is. I want to be remembered. And for good things, unlike father.”
“Do you hate him?” Cole barely remembered his father. He was only two years old when he left, but the memories he had of him were good ones and he had not yet been to the taverns and bars to hear the stories of James Keihatsu.
Seth turned back to face the ceiling. The grooves and splinters creating pictures. It reminded him of the surrealist art of the empires that lied beyond the Dual Plains. Then he thought back to his father. “I don’t think I hate him. I don’t know what I feel. I was still very young as well. But the stories I’ve heard don’t offer great images of the man he was.”
“Like what stories?”
“That he was a traitor to the Sword, leaving here to serve under the king of Whitewool. That he fathered a child with a woman in Whitewool and chose to stay there. But I’ve heard good things too.”
“Tell me.” Cole’s eyes lit up behind the flames.
“I’ve heard that he was the greatest warrior in Sternum’s Sword. That he fights in a never ending war beyond even what lies beyond the Dual Plains. That it’s a secret war that has lasted even since before I was born.”
The room was black, but Seth could hear the amazement of such things in smacks of Cole’s lips.
“I’ve also heard that all of the things that I’ve told you are true. That he indeed is fighting a secret war, but not on the side of Sternum.”
“This is my guess.”
“A boy from town said his father told him that father fights in the Battle After the Battle.”
“Who is this boy?”
“Father is not dead.” Seth wasn’t sure if he was telling a lie, but it is what he felt was true.
“I miss him,” Cole said as he let out a sigh.
Seth didn’t answer. He rolled over and blew out his candle. The rustling of their blankets was the only thing reminding them that there was life in that blackness.
The next morning Seth and Cole awoke to an empty house. A letter from their mother was placed at the edge of the table in the main room of the house.
I’ve run to the market for some eggs with Marion. I will return soon.
Seth sat the letter down before going to the closet in his mother’s room, Cole watching him as he went. He reemerged with a bow in his hand before gesturing Cole over to him. The wood was smooth in the boy’s hands. Cole studied the curve of the weapon and the string that ran from end to end. When he finally raised his wide eyes up from the construction and looked at his brother, Seth said:
“Today, you get to learn how to hunt.”