Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Warleader: A Blood and Tears Short Story" by Joshua P. Simon (Novelette))

Genre:  Fantasy

Short Story Type:  Novelette

Summary:  As a young warrior in the elite Kifzo army of his father’s tribe, Tobin lives a life consumed by the relentless training demands of his uncle. Despite his best intentions and hard work, he struggles to cope with his father's indifference toward him and his brother's outright hatred.

A chance opportunity may change all of that. Tobin’s father gives him, his brother and three other young Kifzo each a small squad to lead on a key mission. The squad leader who succeeds will be named Warleader and will command the entire tribe’s army. Tobin sees this as his best chance to step out of the shadow of his brother and earn the respect and recognition he’s always desired.

A wad of spit struck Tobin’s cheek as he stumbled backward. The back of his free hand came up and wiped away the insult. An echo of jeers sounded around the practice circle. One of the loudest voices came from the big Kifzo warrior named Durahn. “It looks like he may cry this time.”

Tobin clenched his jaw and worked the grip of the practice sword with his hand. He had just begun to gain an advantage against his brother, when Kaz caught him off guard and spat at him. Both he and Kaz stepped back to compose themselves but their eyes never left the other’s face. It would be like him to cheat, Tobin thought.

Tobin watched sweat roll down the black skin of Kaz’s face. His brother sneered across at him as the two circled. “Are you going to cry, brother?” Kaz used the word “brother” as a curse. Tobin ignored the question. He focused on the subtle movements of his brother as he tried to determine where Kaz’s next attack might come from.

“Like you’re any better, Kaz? I would have ended this long ago,” said Durahn, turning his taunts toward Kaz. The brash fifteen year old tried to get the other young Kifzo warriors to join him in ridiculing Kaz just as they had all been heckling Tobin. However, most of the warriors respected Kaz or at least feared him enough not to add their voices to Durahn’s.

Only in the last month had Tobin been able to gain the support of a few of his fellow Kifzo. His rapid improvement with the sword, followed by proving himself a capable squad leader, helped his cause. Tobin’s skills had improved so much that sparring sessions with Kaz were no longer the lopsided matches that they once were.

In a blur, Kaz came at him, moving to his left just as Tobin knew he would. But the attack had been feigned and Kaz pivoted and brought his practice sword around at the last moment to strike at the right side of Tobin’s head. Tobin hadn’t expected the move, but he quickly shifted and met his brother’s blade with his own. The two wooden weapons clacked off each other. A flurry of slashes and thrusts followed. Shuffling backward and kicking up dirt with each step, Tobin swore to himself for not being more ready for Kaz’s deception. Kaz pressed the attack while Tobin fought to keep his balance. Tobin saw Kaz over-commit to his next strike and he quickly ducked under it. Tobin came up leading with the top of his head, slamming it under Kaz’s chin. Kaz reeled back and Tobin saw the look of surprise in his brother’s eyes.

As the two separated briefly, Tobin heard his Uncle Cef’s voice call out. “Point to Tobin. The match is over.”

“The match is not over!” snapped Kaz, spitting blood. “We cannot end the match until one of us has reached five.” Shouts of agreement from the other young warriors followed.

Cef stomped to Kaz’s side and grabbed him by the arm to wrench him close. “I say when a match is over, not you. Your father has summoned me to discuss matters of the tribe. I was going to give the Kifzo a rest and cut off training early but it would seem that you all have too much energy remaining.” Cef released Kaz’s arm and looked out at the young Kifzo warriors. Most were smart enough to put their heads down before Cef’s piercing stare caught them. Tobin saw his uncle look out over the training yard and then down toward the shore on the outskirts of the village. “Ten laps around the training ground and then a mile swim in the ocean. Only then may you return to the barracks for dinner and rest.”

Kaz wisely held his tongue until their uncle left the yard. He shouldered past Tobin. “This isn’t over, brother.”

Tobin watched him go with a sigh. I didn’t expect it to be.

The other Kifzo began lining up for their run. Just as they were setting off, Tobin met the eyes of a few of his fellow warriors.

Is that respect? Several gave him a slight nod. At least something good came of this.

Tobin’s wandering thoughts about gaining the respect of the others were interrupted by Durahn and another warrior named Charq boasting about sneaking out to visit one of the village’s whores. Tobin glanced over his shoulder and saw many of the Kifzo hanging on their every word, even laughing when the two warriors talked about slapping the woman around afterward. Put off by such talk, Tobin scowled and faced forward. He saw Kaz frown in Durahn and Charq’s direction before distancing himself from the group. After hearing another cruel remark, Tobin picked up his own pace.

* * *

Tobin crouched near the side of an open window, hugging the wall as he listened to his father and uncle discuss the matters of their tribe.

While the other young Kifzo warriors slept in the barracks, Tobin snuck out once again in hopes the night air would clear his head. His walks would usually take him through the training ground or even around the outskirts of the city, but tonight he wandered into the heart of Juanoq, to his father’s home.

He inched closer to the window’s opening and peered around the frame.

“A villager reported that they saw him sneaking away earlier tonight. I had his home searched and found it empty,” said Tobin’s father, Bazraki.

“Why would he do this now?” asked Cef.

Bazraki grunted. “I cannot guess the man’s thoughts. He hasn’t been the same since his family died in that fire months ago.” There was a pause. “When he started to openly question my decisions in front of others, I suspected his loyalty was turning. I’ve been too busy with other matters to act sooner.”

“I can send some men from the army…” started Tobin’s uncle.

Bazraki cut him off. “No. As much as I hate to admit it, Suran had influence over some of our regular soldiers. I won’t risk them being lenient toward him. I intend to use the Kifzo. They are our elite forces and this is the perfect opportunity to determine who among them will be Warleader.”

Tobin’s eyes widened and his heart raced in excitement.

“They’re still too young. They aren’t ready,” said Cef.

“I have greater trust in their ability to succeed at this task than the regular warriors.”

“Now isn’t the time to decide who will be Warleader. We’re still years away from entering into any real battle. This is not what I had in mind for the Testing.”

“This is the perfect chance to gauge their worthiness on something of importance,” said Bazraki. “A Warleader must be determined now. The sooner the others grow accustomed to Kaz’s command, the better.”

“And what if Kaz does not win the Testing?” asked Cef.

Bazraki snorted and puffed his barrel chest out. “Why wouldn’t he?”

“There are several others who’ve excelled in training.”

“Durahn?” Bazraki asked as he brought his hand up to rub at his chin.

Cef nodded. “He’s one.”

“Kaz will best him. None of the other candidates are any real challenge.”

“Even Tobin? His squads have beaten Kaz’s several times this past month on the training ground and he’s rapidly improving each day.”

Tobin felt a rush of pride at the recognition. Such a compliment was a rare thing from his uncle.

Bazraki shrugged. “Kaz will defeat him. My son is meant to lead my army.”

“Is Tobin not also your son?” asked Cef.

There was a long pause as Tobin saw the two men stare at each other. “Enough of this back and forth,” snapped Bazraki.

Any joy Tobin felt from his uncle’s comment was washed away by the lack of acknowledgement from his father.

“The Testing will be tomorrow,” continued Bazraki. “See that it happens. And make sure one of the candidates is Nedan. He has no real chance of succeeding, but it will appease his father if we include him.”

Tobin pushed away from the wall and with shoulders hunched skulked off into the night.

As he passed several of his father’s patrolling guardsmen, he slipped away from their watchful eyes with ease. At the edge of the village, behind a half constructed building, he found a seat atop a pile of grey granite, still warm from the heat of the day. He looked around at the work still needed on the building and sighed.

As part of their physical training, the Kifzo were tasked with building much of the small city his father ruled over. Bazraki was an ambitious man. It was his desire that Juanoq would one day be the capital of not only the Blue Island Clan but also the greatest city in Hesh.

With the other island tribes constantly opposing Bazraki’s plans, Tobin knew his father’s patience would only last so long.

His uncle taught the Kifzo during training that their purpose would be to defend the Blue Island Clan. Though Tobin never shared his thoughts with anyone, he knew that his father would also have no qualms about attacking the other island tribes if it meant bringing the Blue Island Clan under one ruler. And to do that he needs a Warleader to lead his army.

Tobin’s dreams of becoming Warleader began at the age of five when his mother died. Training to be a Kifzo in his father’s elite army was the only life that he could remember. As usual, those brief thoughts of his mother caused him to reflect on his remaining family.

Tobin’s uncle was a hard man, but Cef would still give him occasional praise and recognition. Those small acts of kindness did much to counteract the constant ridicule and abuse Tobin received from Kaz. Tobin wished he knew why Kaz hated him, but at least he got some sort of reaction from his brother. His father, on the other hand, was completely indifferent to his second son. Bazraki neither showed signs of love or hate, and Tobin could never understand why.

He would not even recognize me as his son.

He looked out into the clear, starry night. It was quiet except for the occasional chirping of insects and the faint lapping of the ocean’s waves. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists.

The Testing will begin tomorrow. “I will make you proud, Father,” Tobin whispered.

An image of Kaz’s hateful stare flashed in his mind. Tobin opened his eyes. “And perhaps you will show me respect as well, brother.”

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