Strand separated from strand. Cloth ripped from cloth. Sharpened steel wedged between them. At the hilt was Seth’s distraught hands, trembling with the memory of each strike on the dummy. Not from shame or guilt, but from pure fatigue. Muscles that had only lifted fingers their whole lifetime were now wielding blades.
Beyond the hands were Seth’s shoulders, flush with blood and the heat of the Sun. The joints tingled under the katana’s weight. The new soldier pulled the blade from the belly of the fake man and swiftly took another swipe. This time a diagonal pattern from right to left, landing at the neck. If the thing were a real man it would surely be dead; opened from top to bottom.
Yells and grunts echoed throughout the valley below where The Sword was garrisoned as dozens of soldiers swung their blade of choice. The army was deployed to The Blemish. It was a mountain carved from a larger mountain, leaving a new valley in its wake. No one had a clue as to how it was formed, but it looked unnatural. The faces of the mountain were smooth where it once connected to the larger mountain range.
On the opposite side of The Blemish, opposite of the mountain from which it came, laid the Body Fields. A vast expanse of barren wasteland that had been toiled and uprooted, never to return to its natural state. And what was said to lay beneath the ground there was even more unnatural. The Body Fields were all that remained to remind the nearby kingdoms of the genocide they had faced centuries before.
Seth noticed some of the soldiers resting at the end of day overlooking the fields. They never spoke; only wiped their sweaty brow and looked to the horizon.
Sternum’s Sword was deployed with a few outfits of men from allied cities around the region. Seth recognized the house colors of some, though some he could not place. There was the black and white of Sternum, the blue and gold of Sea’s Reach to the South, the black and red of Kingsmount in the North East, and the olive and yellow of Plainsbane from the Westernmost of the Dual Plains. Plainsbane had been formed when the remaining tribes of the empires to the West were united under one king. They were the last known remnants of that far off empire.
There was also the grey and red, orange and white, and green and white of nations Seth did not know of. The accents were strange to him, but familiar. They each held hints of voices he had heard before in cities he knew.
It had been two weeks since he left Sternum. He wondered how Cole was holding up; if the hunt was good. He wrote his mother letters at night under candlelight telling her of each day’s lessons and shortcomings. He told her how he could hear whispers of Keihatsu coming from the other soldiers as he passed by. Whether they spoke ill or of good intent, he did not know.
Later that evening, the soldiers mingled in the dining tent. This was the largest tent on The Blemish. Outfitted with rows of tables and benches and cooks in the back to prepare and serve the food. The Commander and Element Leaders sat at a table at the head of the tent. Their table ran perpendicular to the soldiers tables so as to overlook the whole of the group.
Seth approached the food line and grabbed a plate. He was so hungry after a full day of swinging iron and steel that he didn’t care how unappetizing the amalgamation of food looked on his plate.
As he sat down, the bustling table grew quiet with more whispers of his heritage. He paused mid-spoonful and scanned the faces along the table.
“We all saw you out there today.” One man said. His hair was greased with sweat and his face marred with dust and dirt. “You swing your sword with ill intent.”
“Well, it is meant to kill is it not?” Seth replied.
“Aye, it is.” Another man replied. Seth couldn’t see his face, but his accent sounded as if he hailed from the North East; Kingsmount, perhaps. “But the look in your eyes said more than another day of practice.”
“Yes!” A man at the end of the table spoke, “We know you come from Sternum way and the oriental ancestry the region holds.”
“And we know of your patriarch as well, boy!” One man said, cutting off the other. He wore orange and white from an unknown place.
“And what of it?!” Seth replied, his spoon clinking on his plate, “are you on the side of admiration towards my father or on the side of hate?” He scanned the table again, “Well? Which is it?”
“I fought alongside James at the Battle for Last Bastion a score ago, further North than some know exist. He was a good man.” Commander Billingsley said, his voice echoed through the tent.
“We may differ on that opinion, sir” Seth replied.
Billingsley looked confused.
“I’ve heard stories of my father on the battlefield and I don’t doubt his skill with a blade, but the more I hear the stories the more they end bittersweet.”
“Understandable,” The Commander sat unnervingly still with his hands layered on top of one another. “Like most here, I observed what seems to be the passing of those skills from your father on to you. Let’s just hope other, more unwanted traits aren’t as susceptible to inheritance.”
Every head turned to Seth in anticipation.
“I’ve heard the rumors, sir,” He took a look around the room before his eyes landed back on Billingsley’s, “But I’m not my father. Sternum is my home.”
The Commander nodded before continuing with his meal. The rest of the soldiers followed suit. The sounds of smacking and faint conversations engulfed the interior of the dining tent, but it was short lived.
Thumping shook the foundations of the tent posts and rattled the tables underneath their plates. The door to the tent flung open letting the evening twilight pierce the dullness of the room.
It was a Sternum scout. He had just arrived on horseback. Out of breath and making his way to Commander Billingsley’s table, he spoke.
“Sir, I bring word…” His voice trailed off to a whisper as he approached the table and handed Billingsley a letter.
The Element Leaders looked on as the two exchanged words before the Commander consulted them. Billingsley turned back to the scout and nodded. The scout turned and left, refusing to make eye contact with any soldiers perhaps out of fear of uncovering the contents of the message.
A loud clank pierced the room before Commander Billingsley stood to address the room.
“Alright, men,” He wiped his mouth with a rag, “the North’s aspiration for conquest seems to have been reignited by our nations’ gathering. I’m led to believe they are preparing their ranks as we speak.” His eyes seemed to meet every face of every soldier in the room, “Eat well, sleep well, and more importantly, dream well, for tomorrow we pack up and move to a more advantageous position.”
He sat back down and continued eating. There was nothing about him in that moment that told of doubt or nervousness. He even laughed with one of the Element Leaders as he ate.
Seth listened to the anxious conversations around him as he drowned himself in his food. Tomorrow would be his first test of skill. It was earlier than any of them expected, but he felt confident on the giving end of a katana.
That night he dreamt of the cool shade of Dune’s Groove and the liquid at the bottom of that lone cup at the end of it.