By Myisha Haynes
Kumi let out an undignified squeal as a club slammed just inches above his head into the trunk of an oak tree, raining down splinters of bark. His face burned in embarrassment; he could hear the laughter of his fellow warriors-in-training even over the clacks of their blunted wooden swords.
"Like we practiced, Kumi: block, don't duck." The master's voice was agitated and tired.
"Sorry, Master Cathael. I panicked." Kumi mumbled, shuffling off to retrieve the waster from the yellow-green grass and dead leaves where he had dropped it in said panic. He scrambled to get back into sparring position, shaking the bark from his dark dreadlocks that spilled out of a not-so-elegant ponytail. Wayward locks swung into his bewildered face, obstructing his view. If it had not been apart of their uniform to wear their hair long, Kumi would have cut them long ago.
"That much is obvious." Master Cathael replied. Like the other masters, Cathael's own hair, twisted into a braided knot at the base of his neck, was light and fine in contrast to the dark-haired and dark-complexioned warriors.
Kumi stood a head shorter than his master, and nearly a half a head shorter than the other young warriors he had trained with for most of his life. At the age of fifteen, while most of his fellow warriors were in the process of building muscle mass, growing hair in manly places, and shooting up like overzealous weeds, Kumi still resembled a twelve-year-old whipping boy, scrawny and mostly hairless.Across a large, yellowing field dotted with twisting oaks, twenty-seven young warriors sparred with one another underneath the blistering sun, sweat pouring down in rivulets over their faces as they lunged, parried, and dodged. These were the Dánaidh, the warriors of East Adaeria Island, a group of young men trained to become the protectors of the mainland of Adaeria from the moment the set foot onto the island. Some took to it faster than others did. Kumi was not one of them.
With their odd numbers, one of Kumi's group was always short a partner, leaving Master Cathael to step in. They rotated sparring partners, and when the time came for Kumi to face Master Cathael, all of the previous day's training slipped from his mind, replaced by his basic response of fight or flight. Flight seemed to still be registering, but Fight had all but disappeared.
They weren't even real swords, which made Kumi feel that much more embarrassed when yelped whenever one flew towards his face. But when Master Cathael struck, it was with the force of twenty years in the Royal Adaerian Army behind him, and heavy wooden sword or not, Kumi ducked.
"And you're standing as though you're constipated," Master Cathael said, pushing the inside of Kumi's legs with the flat of his sword to force him into a better stance. Kumi was momentarily caught off guard by a sword being shoved in between his legs, but shuffled his feet outward and crouched. Master Cathael hit him again. "Look at Jahari. His stance strong and firm, like a bull ox." Kumi glanced over his shoulder at Jahari, muscled protégé of their warrior sect.
Handsome and brawny as he was stupid, Jahari was indeed reminiscent of a bull ox, Kumi agreed, all muscle and no brain. He sparred with a finesse and grace that seemed unnatural for a young man of his size or thought capacity. Jahari's own sparring partner, a tall but scrawny boy named Mahlah, cowered and ducked the blows much like Kumi had, but Master Cathael did not reprimand him. Kumi frowned.
A few more failed attempts at properly parrying later, the Master whistled and called out to boys in the field, "Change partners!"
Glad to be free of his master's scrutiny, Kumi rotated to the left, and Mahlah became the Master's partner, his knees quivering as Master Cathael cast a steely gaze at Mahlah's limp grip on the hilt of his sword. Kumi was left to partner with Jahari; he made little effort to hide his displeasure.
"Are you ready?" the mound of muscles asked Kumi, holding up his own longsword. For as long as they'd been training together, every year Jahari had been the star pupil of each of their masters, and Cathael was no different.
They bowed to each other, and the moment they had straighten back up, a sword was being thrust towards Kumi's face. He yelped, again caught off-guard—he supposed it would help to pay better attention—and jerked his own sword in front of him just in time so that Jahari's sword clacked when they met. The Bull Ox stepped forward and lunged at Kumi, and Kumi stumbled over his feet as he jumped backwards, bringing his sword up again to parry.
"You seem to be getting better," the Bull Ox said. Kumi, however, could not hear Jahari's compliment over his own panicked yelling. Jahari swung the sword high over his head and brought it down above Kumi's where it was met with another satisfying clack. Impressed by his miniscule display of bravery, Kumi stopped screaming long enough to chance a glance at the Master, who was exasperatedly whacking Mahlah's legs and shoulders with the flat side of his sword to coax him into standing less like a freshly-birthed calf.
In that split second, Kumi suddenly felt something hard knocking under his chin, and looked back at Jahari. His copper brown eyes were laughing so hard Kumi thought he could hear them. "I suppose I spoke too soon."
Kumi frowned again, and Jahari's sword burst into blue-green flames.
Now it was Jahari's turn to scream, though his, Kumi admitted, sounded a lot manlier, like the roar of a lion that had hot embers blown into his face, rather than Kumi's bleating sheep cries. Jahari dropped his sword like one would drop a suddenly flaming object and leapt back, nearly tripping over himself. "Magic, Kumi?" Jahari said in a strained whisper, rushing to throw dirt and stamp out the flames before the others started to take notice.
Kumi knelt down in the dirt to help, frantically grabbing handfuls of it and tossing them on the flames. "It was an accident," he whispered back, spraying Jahari with flecks of spit as panic seized him.
"Accident?" Jahari's eyebrows shot up. "We're fifteen—you shouldn't even be able to use magic anymore. If Cathael catches you—"
"Shut up, shut up, I know." The flames rose higher.
By this time, the other warriors were beginning to take notice of Jahari and Kumi squatting in the grass, stamping the ground and throwing clods of dirt onto Jahari's rapidly disintegrating wooden sword and seemed to find it far more interesting than continuing with their practice.
"Kumi! Jahari! What in the gods' names are you two doing?" Master Cathael had abandoned his efforts with Mahlah once he noticed the majority of his students had their attention directed elsewhere.
Jahari let out a creative string of curses that caused Kumi to rethink his judgment on Jahari's intelligence. "Kumi, quick, do something." Jahari said, making very un-manly shooing motions with his dinner plate-sized hands. He stood up, stepping in front of Kumi and the flaming sword, obscuring it from Master Cathael's view.
"What do you expect me to do?" Kumi said, and the flames rose higher still, all but licking Jahari's shins.
"What's going on here?" From around Jahari's tree trunk legs, Kumi saw Master Cathael's jaw was clenched so tight he thought the master's teeth would crack under the pressure. "Jahari, I would've expected better of you. And Kumi, what the hell are you doing down there?"
"Uh…gardening?" Kumi offered.
"Are those flames? Kumi, are you practicing magic?"
Kumi was sure he could hear the master's teeth grinding. "Return to your quarters, Kumi; you're dismissed for the day. Jahari, you can follow him."
Jahari worked his mouth into the beginnings of a protest, but before an indignant plea could come from it, the master turned on his heel and strode back to Mahlah, who had been watching the proceedings with undisguised amusement, more than likely glad to have the master's ire directed away from him.
Kumi stood up, and the dirt that hadn't been smeared into his tunic fell to the ground. The blue-green flames fizzled and extinguished.
"Is there any reason why you couldn't have done that before?" Jahari hissed as Kumi fell into step behind him on their way out of the field.
"I told you, I can't—it was an accident. It's like trying to force a sneeze." Kumi said.
"What are you doing still practicing magic anyway? You shouldn't even be able to unless... Have you've been using it all this time? You have, haven't you?"
Kumi barely registered Jahari's accusations as they crashed through the waist-high grass on their way back to their commune. He was too preoccupied with what punishment he was surely going to get from the Master once the lesson back at the training field was over. He was sure he was going to get hole duty. His stomach churned at the thought.
The commune was easy to spot from far away, even if a passerby wasn't looking for it. It sprouted up from the yellow-green stalks of grass, made of crumbling dark adobe, large enough to house not only Kumi and his twenty-six peers, but the other Dánaidh who also trained on East Adaeria Island. The compound was made up of ten barracks, each separated by age from ten to nineteen. Of the ten barracks, Kumi and Jahari's had the largest number, and their quarters, meant for fifteen to twenty warriors, were crowded and cramped with twenty-seven.
The overgrown grass eventually gave way to dark dirt the color of the barracks, and Jahari and Kumi came upon the high gate that separated the commune from the fields. But the gate was apparently just for appearances; there were no guards at the entrance, and no door for that matter.
Inside the gate, the small square that sat in the middle of the ten barracks opened up before them. Still so early in the day it sat empty, the other Dánaidh out training in the fields.
"Kumi, are you even listening?" Jahari was saying as they passed by the well in the center of the square, large clay pots used for bathing leaned against the crumbling stone. To the right of the well a few yards away, a dusty-colored stray dog was rolling in the dirt, tongue lolling happily from his mouth and his wagging tail stirred up eddies of dirt. It stopped rolling mid-way through a particularly thick clump when it saw Kumi and Jahari approaching, righted itself, and came bounding towards them, tongue flapping.
Kumi patted the dog in greeting, and a plume of dust engulfed his hand. "Do you think Master Cathael is going to report this to Aelin?" Kumi was surprised to see Jahari's impassive face slip into an expression of anxiety at the mention of the Chief Overseer.
"For your sake, I hope not." Jahari replied as the two left the square and turned west, the stray trotting at their heels.
The West Barracks were made up of Barracks Fifteen through Nineteen, the East Barracks numbering from Ten to Fourteen. Kumi and Jahari were only a summer away from moving to Barracks Sixteen. As the warriors grew on the island, they rotated around the commune to the barracks of their corresponding age. And as the numbers increased, so did the size of their living quarters; as it stood, Kumi, Jahari, and the other boys of Barrack Fifteen had just enough space to lay down on a mat of woven hay; standing up in their quarters was out of the question.
Kumi and Jahari bowed their heads to enter underneath the low doorway, passing the large dining hall packed with three long tables and twenty-seven chairs and out to the quarters in the back of the barracks. Just like the gate, there were no doors, only thick walls of adobe with a low ceiling and floor to match, a hallway stretching between two rows of ten cells.
There were no assigned quarters for Kumi's sect. Without enough cells to hold all twenty-seven, the seven unlucky boys who got back to the barracks last at the end of each day of training grew very aquatinted with the hard dirt outside. Kumi was usually Unlucky Number Twenty-One or Twenty-Two, and had grown accustomed to shivering all night underneath the cloudless sky with the six other latecomers. The stray dog that now followed him into an empty cell had befriended him during those many cold nights, though Kumi had never thought to name it.
"Sorry, by the way," Jahari said suddenly from the cell he was in, next to Kumi.
Kumi had been considering lying on the straw mat to savor the feeling of peace before his onslaught of punishment, but as Jahari's words, he peeked his head out of his cell and looked over to Jahari. "What?" The dog, seeing the free mat, circled inside it twice, flopped down upon it, and lowered its head on its dusty paws, big brown eyes watching the proceedings with interest.
"I suppose if I hadn't provoked you, your magic wouldn't have flared up like that." Jahari replied, and Kumi crawled completely out of his cell to look Jahari in the eye, making certain this wasn't his idea of a very unfunny joke. But Jahari's face was neutral and, to Kumi's surprise, even a little sympathetic.
Kumi supposed that for a mound of muscles masquerading as a fifteen-year-old boy, Jahari wasn't all that bad. He crawled back into his cell and waited for Master Cathael to return.