He shall save his people, fighting the religion that prophesies his coming.
—Elanqua the Prophetess
I wanted to hear the quiet. Shirtless men conversed with leather-clad women over a fire. Children snickered as they weaved between tents, playing games of tag. Chickens clucked and pigs grunted. Noise, noise, noise.
I walked a stone’s cast from the village center, attempting to escape the sounds. That’s when I heard it. Silence. The quiet tension had been building for nearly a season. The wild beasts had ceased their roars, the birds stilled their songs, and the crickets sang no background chorus. Even the hot breeze blew silent, nearly searing my skin with each blow.
A forest bordered our settlement on two sides and a mountain’s face on the third. I stood at the edge of the cliff, just beyond the village, overlooking the valley below.
Silence. Uncomfortable to me, even.
At the base of the valley, the dry creek bed meandered between steep cliffs, lined by skeletal trees that had lost their leaves from the heat. I squinted at a flicker of movement. My stomach rumbled. Small dots the size of pebbles moved in formation at the bottom of the valley.
It couldn’t be the enemy. They would never come so close to the village. There had been no battle invitation, no trumpet announcing their arrival. Yet when the sunlight reflected off their bronze armor and metal collars, I knew I looked at the enemy. But why? What had changed?
“Breziaks!” I ran toward the village. “Breziaks, Breziaks, Breziaks!”
Eloq’s lightning! They’ve never attacked this close to the village. Again I wondered why.
I forced my legs to quicken, my gasps to slow. “Breziaks!”
Many villagers gaped at me while others emerged from their tents. Some men stood, crossing their arms with furrowed eyebrows while others bent ears toward me. Yet they did nothing save look at me with confusion. My skin grew warm. I wanted to hide from their scrutiny.
“That can’t be,” Dahkqua’s father said. “There’s been no battle invitation.”
I shook my head. “But…but I saw the Breziaks!”
Elihu’s father ran, his eyes fixed on the precipice at which I stood. We all watched him in silence. After studying the valley, he turned, forming a cone with his hands over his mouth. “Breziaks!”
Chaos began. Men rushed from the forest, gathering a stack of coppers swords that clanked against another. Another chased pigs into the pen.
“Women and children, to the cave!” shouted a man, guiding little ones toward the mountain.
“Gather your weapons!” said another, running toward the cliff where I had stood.
As I searched for Mother. I stopped. A man crossed my path. Woven between the skin of his breast, he wore Eloq’s Bow—the emblem of manhood. The polished metal object was constructed by demigod ancestors with sharpened points at both ends. It was as thick as two fingers, half as wide as a man’s torso, and shaped like a crescent.
I recited its inscription.
He who wears Eloq’s Bow.
Shall fight and win, ‘gainst e’ry foe.
He who wears it in his chest,
Becomes a man, Eloq’s blessed.
A breeze caressed my skin as several more soldiers passed. Tomorrow, I would be a man. The cave stood before me, howling with the cries of the children who had been swallowed in blackness. Too many times I’d been stuffed inside the shallow cave, crowded next to crying children and shushing mothers, sucking air as if through ten blankets while heat radiated from the smallest of bodies like a fire. Nowhere to escape from those the villagers that surrounded me like a disease.
I could not remain a boy forever. Eventually, I would have to face death. And perhaps death was better than the suffocating safety of the cave. Was I ready? The call of battle beckoned me. Fear demanded I stay with Mother. The anxiety of the cave pushed me away.
I clenched my shaking fists. Today, I fight!
I sprinted toward the men, suppressing fear while anticipating my first kill.
“Cordenqua.” Father emerged from our cedar-planked home, carrying weapons and ducking beneath the door-frame. He gazed at me in silence.
“I-I thought I’d…” I lifted my chest. “I’m going to battle.”
His perpetual frown deepened, highlighting the battle scar below his bottom lip. “You’re not a man yet. Stay with your mother.”
Pagreas, our military commander, sauntered toward us. He was a thick, short man with a bald head and an eyebrow that bridged the space above his nose. He tossed his dagger in the air, catching it by the handle.
“Come now, Corden,” Pagreas said to my father. “He’s but a day shy.”
“Now’s not the time for debate.” Father cinched his breastplate to his rear armor with leather ties, covering his Bow, then fastened his wristguard over his forearms. He adorned his armor with the same practiced motion with which he planed an oak canoe or sawed a Knobblebark log.
“Ah, Corden. The great Eloq’s Thunder. Ever so somber. Come, now. Young Cordenqua spotted ‘em early enough, we’ve plenty of time. Let the boy fight.”
Father shook his head, sheathing the scuffed matted blade. “He’s not a man. He’s not ready.”
“He’s one day shy. And besides, young Cordenqua’s got more strength and twice the wits of half these men. It’ll be good for the boy.”
I looked at Father, silently pleading. I am a man.
Father folded his arms across his wide chest, scanning the cliff’s edge. He looked like a mountain—solid, immovable. For years his commanding presence had chased the spirits of the punished from the shadowed recesses of our home—ever in command, ever fearless.
Until now. Father tightened his fist, released it, and tightened it again. He hadn’t done that since Mother caught Downriver Disease. His anxiety heightened my own.
“They’ve never attacked this close,” Father said. “It worries me.”
Pagreas chuckled. “Yes, yes. Fighting like cowards—attempting a sneak attack and so close to home.” Again he tossed his knife and caught the handle. “All the more reason for him to fight. They deserve justice, and by Eloq’s Lightning, we’ll deliver it. Loyal to tribe, fearless in battle.”
“Loyal to tribe, fearless in battle,” Father said, repeating the tribal oath. After one final look at the cliff, he shook his head and smiled. “Very well.” He squeezed my shoulder, sending warmth throughout my body.
“Stay by my side, son.”
I grinned, hiding my trepidation then followed Father toward the cliff where our army waited.
“Men,” said Pagreas. “Our strategy is simple. Stand atop the cliff and release the boulders. It’ll be like dropping rocks into a barrel.”
The men chuckled. We were about a hundred strong, arrayed with swords and bronze battle armor. The veterans polished their swords while the novices shifted their feet, glancing at the approaching Breziaks.
My own fingers trembled, dripping sweat onto the mud-cracked dirt. I took a step backward, trying to distance myself from the crowd without being noticed.
“Don’t worry, son.” Father stood before me, both hands on my shoulders. He stooped to look into my eyes, smiling. “Tonight, we’ll hunt elk.”
I beamed, before frowning. “But…the ceremony’s tomorrow. Mother—”
He tousled my hair. “We’ll recite the prayer while we hunt.”
“Won’t that scare the—”
He placed a finger over his lips and winked. “It shall be a silent prayer.”
Again, he squeezed my shoulders. He handed me my sword, bow and arrows, and armor.
“But today…do what I say, and you’ll be safe.”
My eyes widened as I viewed my sword. The blade was nearly the height of my waist, the hilt engraved with the image of a lightning bolt. After sheathing it, I lifted my armor over my head, savoring the scent of the leather straps as they sunk into my shoulders. I wrapped my quiver and bow around my torso.
I’d long waited for this day—the chance to prove to Father I was a man. The first battle was the crowning event in every boy’s life, but I anticipated this day for another reason—I would finally see my father fight. Eloq’s Thunder, he was. Severing the heads of enemies, overturning the course of battles, and inspiring the timid. When he walked, people gaped. When he spoke, they bowed. Stories of his bravery, told over a raging fire, entertained and inspired our people through entire winters.
His confidence melted my anxiety while heightening my excitement.
“Do we have someone guarding the cave?” asked Pagreas.
“Yes,” Father responded. “Pahk and Ruhl are there, each with several men.”
“Very well.” Pagreas withdrew an arrow from his quiver. “To your stations, men.”
The soldiers fanned out around the precipice. Father squeezed my shoulder, leading me to join the rest of the men.
The enemy began scaling the face of the valley, grabbing rocky handholds for leverage. The clank of their sword hilts on their armor chanted rhythmically, as if directing a battle march. Our men lifted large logs, dropping them over the precipice. The booming sound of hewn trees meeting enemy armor cracked the air, scattering birds in the trees.
“Stupid,” said Father. “They’re dead before they even begin.”
I smiled and nocked an arrow. The feeling was familiar, one that I’d learned under my father’s tutelage. I waited for a target to come within range.
I saw the snarl of an enemy soldier. As he approached, I struggled to aim with my trembling hands. It’s an easy battle. Father said so. I’m in no danger. As he neared, my nervousness swelled. What if they climb the mountain before I can nock another arrow? I counted our enemies, uncertain how many I could kill before they scaled the cliff.
My breath stopped short.
There were too few of them.
“Something’s wrong,” I whispered. I squinted at the enemy, counting the number of soldiers. Only twenty. “Something’s wrong!”
Screams filled the air. I whirled, looking at the cave. Arrows pierced the chests of the guards. More arrows flew in all directions, thudding against trees and clanging against battle armor.
A decoy. It was unfathomable.
The men roared as they rushed toward the enemy.
“Mother!” I yelled.
Father grabbed my shoulder, halting my momentum.
“Stay here,” Father said. Too stunned to object, I remained by the cliff and watched the battlefield with horror. It wasn’t anything like I imagined. A host of Breziaks emerged from the forest, releasing the pigs, their eyes fixed on the cave. Their haunting battle cry echoed off the mountain’s face. The villagers charged. Some dropped as arrows found flesh. The Breziaks abandoned their bows, grunting a terrifying battle cry as they unsheathed their swords.
The two sides met between the cave and the forest. Swords clanked against armor. Red-stained bodies fell from both armies and death cries filled the air. Chickens and pigs ran amuck, dodging the bodies of dying men while weaving between homes. Outnumbered by half, our army pressed the Breziaks back, away from the cave’s entrance.
The distance from the enemy to the cave, to Mother, was too short. I trembled as I searched the tops of heads for Father. Between the forest and the cave, he stood, swinging his sword as several Breziaks attacked at once.
Eloq’s Thunder! What others had said about him in battle was inadequate. I felt as if I watched the god himself fight for us, holding back the line of Breziaks with the discipline of a trained soldier and the elegance of a dancer. His face looked both tranquil and focused.
A deflected dagger landed between plates of armor, piercing his shoulder.
He fell to one knee and three men broke past him, while two continued their attacks.
Fear and inhibitions fled. I released an arrow into a Breziak’s neck, just above their steel collar. First kill. Dropping my bow, I unsheathed my sword and sprinted the remaining paces, screaming my first battle cry.
“No!” Father regained his footing, slashing at the onslaught of men. I grabbed a dead man’s shield as I ran, closing the distance. Two enemies swung. I blocked one with my shield and the other with my sword. I kicked one soldier, causing him to fall as Father thrust his sword into the man’s stomach. As the remaining man shifted his weight, I lifted my sword.
The enemy’s eyes glazed, a dagger protruding from his chest.
Father stood behind me, his arm still extended from throwing the knife.
“I said to stay!” Father tightened his grip on his sword, scowling.
As I opened my mouth to speak, another enemy charged Father. I screamed, but too late. Sparks flew when his blade struck Father’s armor. The enemy thrust again as Father stumbled. I swung while Father turned his body. As the enemy’s sword approached Father’s armor, my sword deflected its course.
The weapon stuck between Father’s breast and rear plate.
I sucked in a breath. Father went rigid and gasped. His eyes rolled back and he fell sideways onto the sword.
“No!” I screamed. I lifted my sword and battered. The enemy blocked each attempt with his shield, but had no weapon to return the attack. His blood-stained cheeks trembled. The collar around his neck pulsed with his racing heart. As I pressed upon him, his movements became sluggish. A resurgence of energy, borne of rage, pulsed through my veins. Over and over, I slashed until the man dropped his shield. He knelt, struggling to maintain balance as his energy waned.
Then I cut off his head.