This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.
Someone flicked Zion’s forehead and he stifled a yelp, opening his eyes. He had dozed off, soothed by the stillness and the fragrant lavender that hung drying from the ceiling. Solas stood with his arms crossed, a smug smile playing across his lips. Zion noticed his damp hair and the scent of the olive oil soap the Order bought from the bedouins. He wondered if Solas had bathed merely to rinse after the trial or if he was trying to rid himself of the smell of Redheart.
“Did the Council change their minds?” Zion asked. “Or is it already time for me to be disciplined ?”
“Get up,” Solas said, ignoring his question.
Zion held up his ruined shirt. “Will I need clothes?”
“Garth? Get the boy something to wear.”
Zion’s fingers moved quickly, telling Garth to forget it. The healer looked between the two, half rising from his chair. Solas’ smile had vanished but Zion stood, pulling on his ripped shirt, and held out his arms to say he was ready as he was. Solas’ fingers twitched once, calling him a name that would bring any other two men to blows. Zion raised his chin slightly, lessening the gap in their heights, and smiled at his mentor. To his surprise, Solas snorted and turned, preceding him out of the room, without saying a word. Solas did not speak as they made their way through the wide halls, giving Zion plenty of time to remember those first brutal years as he struggled against the Brothers, the other novices, and the sinking fear of failure that threatened to engulf him before the trials.
As they passed various doors, sounds wafted out–mandolin music, singing, voices raised in monotonous repetition. They learned more than killing–more than Zion thought his brain could hold at first. A true assassin must be able to take up any role, any place in society necessary to gain him access to his mark. He winced as he remembered his failed attempts at every musical instrument the Brothers tried. Brother Calver had not been surprised, saying his hands were more fit for casting nets than playing the harp. For once, Zion was only too happy to agree.
“Well, Brother Solas?” Zion finally broke the silence, knowing it was calculated to make him speak first. “Are you going to take me out in the forest and leave me for a day and a night? I passed that test on my first year. No?” He quickened his pace and turned to walk backwards in front of Solas. “Perhaps three days in the pit? Or was it four? I did not think I would ever be able to straighten again.” He searched Solas’s face for any hint of expression, but the assassin was impassive. Zion let his expression slip into one of barely controlled panic and did a slight jig. “Not dancing lessons, for the love of Avior, don’t say more dancing lessons.”
Solas’s left hand shot out and gripped the front of Zion’s shirt, pulling him to a clumsy halt. His other fingers pressed against Zion’s windpipe making him gag before he relaxed against the grip, feeling for a moment like the kitten Rael had killed so many years before.
“Watch your mouth, boy. Do you think the Council is not searching for reasons to cast you out? Do you know how long a lone assassin lasts before the Council decide he is too much of a risk–that he may too easily become a weapon, ready-honed for someone else’s hands?”
Zion felt a cold tendril wind down his back and instinctively clamped his mind against the tingle of fear. They were told that they could leave at any time in their training, that they would be trusted to keep the secrets of the order, knowing full well the consequences if their lips loosened. But no one left by choice. Solas’s threat was not an empty one. The Order created tools and a tool was only useful so long as it obeyed the hand that wielded it.
“How long does it take?” Zion asked.
Solas’s heavy brows lowered and Zion swallowed hard feeling the pressure of Solas’s fingers as his Adam’s apple moved.
“How long does what take?” Solas growled.
“How long does it take to forget you are a man with a will of your own?” Zion knew if he looked away, he would never have the courage to question his mentor again, so he stared into Solas’s dark eyes.
“For some, the first month. For others,” the assassin’s hand tightened briefly around Zion’s throat before releasing him. “Never.”
Zion waited until Solas had turned away before massaging his throat, aware of how easily the older man could have ended his life.
“Come on. We don’t have all day,” Solas said over his shoulder.
Zion padded quietly after his mentor, wondering how long he had before he pushed Solas too far.
This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.
Before the week was out, the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palatable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
“There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
“Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls.
Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
“And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
“Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
“What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
“The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
“But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
“That wasn’t one of the rules.”
Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long, but Zion had seen the tremor that ran through his hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. Brother Calver was afraid of him.
It may seem like I haven’t been writing–but I have, just not here other than a few appearances for Friday Fictioneers and Write Club Fight Club (if you’re unfamiliar with these, please check them out!). As I near the halfway point of my graduate school program, the looming prospect of coming up with a thesis is starting to feel real. I have a novel that’s been in the works for a year and a half that I’d really like to use as my thesis, and all my writing energy (when I have it) is there. I have the luxury of a captive audience in my classmates and assigned workshops, but I don’t know if this manuscript would have ever had the potential it does without critique.
Writers talk a lot about discipline–and it’s important, crucial to creating and finishing good work. But, I think we also tend to beat ourselves up when we’re not writing–when the words are elusive and life happens. Sometimes, rather than tormenting ourselves for missed word counts or scrapped drafts, we just need to let go and live.
I’ve gone to three concerts in the past two weeks–two for bands I’ve seen before, and one for a brand new band–and it never ceases to amaze me how music just makes everything fall away. I saw Bear’s Den last night and several of their songs are the kind that make you inhale involuntarily, because you forgot to breathe, because you forgot that your body existed, that there was anything other than the music and the stage lights.
Another round of Write Club Fight Club pits me against JM Payer–so vote for your favorite!
Originally posted on Write Club Fight Club:
Please take a moment to look at both fighters, which one appeals to you more. The titles will link you to their story. Fighters names are removed to try and even out any odds and are reflected in no particular order. Feel free to add comments below for their improvement, as well as the improvement of WCFC. Don’t forget to tell us who won!
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“I remember holding on
To every prayer I said at dawn
Like, get me home, I promise I’ll never leave”
Before you think I’m channelling Baudelaire, never fear–although, there’s plenty to be said for him and his poetry! I’ve noticed there’s several new faces in my follower column and, as I’ve been sadly MIA from this space, I wanted to thank all of you (new followers and old) for reading and following and generally making this writing thing feel less like shouting into the void. If you’re new, I’d love to get to know you. If you’ve been following along for a while, mea culpa–I haven’t forgotten you or this blog, thanks for staying with it.
Lastly, because the only words I seem to have to spare these days are the words of others, here’s a little rock n’ roll from some Texas boys to spice up your Thursday.