Well of Bones

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Chapter 2

“The Marion does not bend to ruffians. An enemy vessel crossed the three-mile-limit and we sunk her.”

Captain James Kro before a naval tribunal, Twelfth day of Darkness, 3315

The warm sun boasted a large array of colors through the ocean spray. Swords glinted in the sun as Jake trained with one of the marines. The deck bobbed and swayed as the ship moved onward, so they went through the motions at half speed. To Jake, it seemed like a dance, but perhaps the safest way to train aboard a vessel. Though Jake had been trained as a boy, the marine managed to show him several new tricks. Ungentlemanly tactics, perhaps, but effective. He wanted to learn more before they reached Mount Bronta but the marine was sweaty and tired. He had been training in the hot sun all morning with his squad on the swaying deck. Jake graciously thanked him and he returned to his other duties.

Jake leaned over the gunnel and let the briny spray cool his face. He watched the water speed along below. The ship’s keel sliced through the choppy sea as the deck rose and fell with each swell. Rough water thundered as it crashed into the thick hull. Seafoam swirled around the whitewashed hull to the stern. Along its stern, just below the quarterdeck, the ship’s name stood out in gold lettering. Jake could read the lettering upside down but he still could not believe he would ever find himself aboard the legendary S.S. Marion.

The Marion was the pride of Brenar. Not one schoolboy in Logan was ignorant to the story of “The Three Mile Limit” incident which plunged the Marion and her crew into the realm of legend. As Jake explored the ship, he was not disappointed. The vessel certainly lived up to its reputation.

The S.S. Marion’s crew were thought of as the best of the best in the queen’s navy. Jake watched the marines garrisoned aboard drill daily with musket, sword, and axe. The sailors, deckhands, and officers worked the rigging and rudder with complete accuracy and blinding speed. Though the Marion had not seen combat since “The Three Mile Limit” incident, Captain Albreight evidently wanted to be sure his crew would measure up to their legacy. Jake believed he had accomplished and maintained that standard. Most of what Jake had read regarding the Mighty Marion was from the time of Captain Kro. Under Kro, Albreight had kept the crew drilled and prepared. That hadn’t changed after Kro was promoted to Admiral and Albreight took over command of the Marion, as far as Jake could tell.

Jake pushed off of the gunnel and wiped the salt water from his face with his sleeve. Walking along the deck, he noticed a crewmember emerge from below deck with a couple of apples.

“May I have one of those?” Jake asked. The deckhand grumbled something and shuffled passed. By then Jake had an idea of how things worked on the ship and since they were nearing the end of their voyage he could try his hand at manipulation. “I didn’t know we were allowed extra rations,” he said rather loudly.

The crew member snarled and threw an apple at Jake’s chest, making a thumping sound. The apple rolled under a longboat. Jake chuckled and bent over to pick it up but the apple rested against someone’s leg. Brom was laying on his back, snoring softly in the shade of the longboat. Jake poked Brom with the toe of his boot. No movement. Jake kicked harder and Brom jolted awake and moaned. He shielded his eyes as he slinked out from under his shady nap spot.

Brom squinted as he grumbled, “Why would you wake me from such a fine sleep?” Jake didn’t answer and sat on a crate nearby, holding a knife and his apple. Brom yawned and stretched. “I was dreaming of Sarah Plat.”

“Is that the one with the hognose or the unibrow?” Jake asked with a forced straight face as he sliced a chunk free from the apple and popped it in his mouth.

“Neither. You must be thinking of the Hardrow sisters,” Brom retorted.

Jake stopped chewing for a moment to glare across his nose.

“Now, which one forced you to walk her home under threat of physical harm to your person?” Brom asked as a wide grin stretched across his face. He hunched over like an ape and hopped to the crate next to Jake, making monkey noises. Jake hit him with the back of his hand. Brom chuckled.

“She may have forced me but you took the other on a walk, willingly,” Jake spoke with a mouthful of a fresh slice.

Brom scoffed and playfully pushed him with his elbow. Sitting in silence for a while, they looked around the deck. The sailors were dressed down and sweating in the sun as they pulled lines and tied off various ropes. They must be nearing shore to require such movement aboard. A rush of anxiety filled Jake at this realization. The Count said it would be more difficult than Jake could anticipate. He had been thinking about this the entire voyage.

Captain Albreight and Count Varro stood tall at the bow, still in their pressed uniforms. Albreight held his beautiful, brass spyglass with both hands as he peered out over the water. The other knights spread over the deck. Some sleeping, others sharpening their blades or checking their flintlock mechanisms on their pistols. Jake had learned this to be typical. Any downtime a knight had was spent checking and maintaining equipment.

Jake’s gaze crossed Sergeant Brutus Fane who cleaned the salt spray from his horned helm with an oiled cloth. He candidly studied the large black man. Jake recognized that type of helmet from his readings, but he couldn’t quite place it.

Then, two hands clamped down on their shoulders, making them both jump. Several other candidates for knighthood saw this and grunted with half-cocked smiles. A satisfied chuckle filled their ears from directly behind Jake.

“You boys nervous yet?” the knight known as Amir asked with a sly smile as he stepped out in front of them.

Jake shook his head no and Brom yes. Amir chuckled again. Jake had met the man before, but only in passing. Just enough introduction to know Amir to be the second sergeant under Count Varro’s command. From what Jake had noticed so far, he wore a smile everywhere he went and he spoke to anyone who would engage in a good conversation. Amir was quick to laugh and always offered a joke. His curly black hair was drawn to a loose, almost sloppy bun with a few short locks swinging freely across his temples. Jake did not know if Amir was his surname or not. It was the only one he had ever heard. Perhaps names worked differently in the sandy isles where Amir had been born.

Jake asked as courteously as he could, “Sergeant Amir, is that your family name?”

“No,” Amir said with a chuckle, “where I am from, your full name is your full history. If you have a year or two, you could learn the whole thing: Amir Abn Fa’had Abn Nazir Abn Farran Abn, Abn, Abn, Abn, son of, son of, son of. It goes on and on. Amir is fine, for brevity’s sake.”

Very different, Jake thought. He would have to remember to write this down when he could get to his notebook.

“I didn’t just come along to give you girls a start,” Amir said. “I came to let you know that we should reach land today and you should make certain your things are packed and ready. You will have to carry them up the steps of Mount Bronta.”

“Sergeant, if I may ask,” Brom began as Amir started to turn away. “The Order of Apollo was created to fight the creatures of the night, but they are just myth, right? How can the Order be real if the monsters were not?”

Amir studied him for a moment before blowing out a breath. “Some believe the evil wretches to be myth, but I believe they existed to some extent. Enough to warrant the knighthood. This was well before my time, of course. I suppose they could have been unnatural things that people could not rationalize in those times. Perhaps their descriptions and heinous deeds have been exaggerated over the years. Emperor Leone’s advisors are known as warlocks, but I believe this to be a scare tactic to keep his people under his bootheel. No matter. The creatures are gone from this world. We are more military than monster hunters these days.”

“How can you be sure they are gone?” Jake asked. “The world is such a big place. New things are discovered every day.”

Amir followed Jake’s gaze to Brutus. Sergeant Amir sighed and sat across from the soldiers on another crate.

“I have never met a giant,” Brom said as he too followed Jake’s gaze. “He is the largest man I have ever seen, like the shadow of a mountain.”

The knight held up a single finger for silence, checked over his shoulder, then leaned in close. Amir wiggled his fingers and waved his hands in front of their faces as if to set a scene of mystery.

“The Klawthurai are the people of the dark continent’s great desert. Their nomadic tribes are constantly in search of resources as well as honor and glory in the eyes of their gods. This leads to the tribes warring with each other over cattle herds and watering holes. In Brutus’ tribe, the honor from the old warrior father was passed to the young warrior son in the form of their ‘death faces’: their helmets they wear into battle.”

The Klawthurai tribesmen. Recognition flooded into Jake’s brain, but he had read the Klawthurai were pygmies.

Amir peered over his shoulder again. “That face on Brutus’ mask is what his ancestors wore when they met death on the battlefield. The greatest honor his tribesmen could ever achieve is presenting their helm to their eldest son or dying valiantly on the battlefield with their death mask gazing skyward so their soul would not get lost on the way to their heaven. Brutus was the heir to his father’s honorable gift; the only son. When he would not stop growing, the tribe’s elders forbade Brutus’ father from presenting his helm, though he was getting too old to wear it himself in battle. The elders believed Brutus was deformed; a bad omen. When Brutus’ large appetite was no longer appeased by the tribe’s meager servings of cow blood and milk, he was banished. His father secretly presented the helm to Brutus as he departed and gave him instructions to uphold his family’s honor and fight well wherever he was needed.” Amir bowed his head as a bleak expression occupied his normally cheerful face. “His father was most likely marked as a disgrace and Brutus took a vow of silence to atone for the sin of bringing shame to him.”

Jake’s mouth hung open as he listened. “Is all that true?”

“I don’t know,” Amir said with a chuckle, “the man never speaks. It’s what I was told by one of the others. All we know for sure is that he wears a Klawthurai helmet and that he’s big, black and he never says a word unless he’s praying to his ancient gods. Even then, he’s quiet.”

Amir smiled and shook his head as if he had fooled them. He continued in a lower tone. “When Varro met Brutus, he was sitting in a small pub. There were several men attempting to keep him from enjoying a meal there, poking fun at his race asking if he had escaped his masters. Apparently, Brutus was very patient but they persisted. When weapons were drawn, Brutus grabbed a woodcutter’s axe from beside the hearth to defend himself. He dispatched all attackers with one chop each. He almost cleaved one in half. Varro was only slightly impressed until he saw him kneel beside each of his fallen attackers and pray for their souls in his native tongue. Varro knew a black man would hang for killing white men, no matter how large. He offered Brutus asylum within the Knighthood.”

Brom snapped from the story. “How could a man who worships different gods ever serve Apollo?”

“Just because his gods bear different names does not mean he cannot oppose evil. Apollo understands a man’s true intentions.” Amir stood just as Count Varro called for him.

“I must go,” Amir said as he straightened his jacket and left.

The other knights-to-be shot a skeptical look at the curious recruits. They hadn’t taken the time to get to know each other. Why would they? The failure rate of the training to become a knight was over half on average. Most candidates failed in the first few weeks. It was rumored that some even died during training.

“Land ho,” a sailor called from the top of the main mast.

The pair stood and caught their first glimpse of land in weeks. Jake’s stomach turned on itself and a lump grew in his throat. What if he failed and would have to leave Brom? What if Brom failed and would have to return to the infantry? In the distance, hazy, gray shapes took form. The rocky coastline and jagged cliffs jutted up from the crashing waves. Whistles blew and upper crewmen barked commands. The ship turned, headed directly to a tall, coastal peak: Mount Bronta.

#

Jake and Brom gasped for air as they hauled their heavy packs up the nine thousand steps of Apollo. The salty coastal air burned their lungs. They climbed above the sound of waves crashing on the rocks and gulls squawking. Only the whipping wind and heavy breathing could be heard up that high. The other candidates fared similarly; all panting and heaving one foot at a time up the steep stone. Below, the busy port and paved trade route inland toward Logan bustled with ships, wagons, and horses. Above, the knights reached the top of the steps, or at least what Jake hoped was the top.

Choking on thin air, the pair heaved themselves up the last few steps. Jake noticed a stone image of Apollo standing tall on his chariot drawn by three horses with fiery manes. Apollo looked out over the sea with bow in hand. A basin at the foot of his middle horse overflowed with clear water. It welled up from deep inside the mountain, spilled onto the peak and flowed down the side opposite Jake. Along its base, Jake tried to make out a worn inscription in the old tongue.

Jake translated softly to himself. “Apollo: archer, bringer of knowledge, champion of dawn, vanquisher of the night.”

Those who worshiped Apollo believed the son of Zeus to have been overwhelmed combating the night every day, drawing his chariot of fire across the sky. They believed the inevitability of evil things coming out each night were due to Apollo only being able to defeat the darkness itself. Therefore he shared his knowledge with the first Knights of Apollo on that very spot at the tip of Mount Bronta. The god charged them to defeat the wicked things that took advantage of his absence each night. The Order took the golden Eye of Apollo as their symbol to represent his omniscience through them. The Order had since become less and less populated by zealots and more and more by those wishing to do good. Jake was certainly not a zealot and he was not sure about the gods but he could not shake a feeling that the gods watched over the realm of man. Perhaps this feeling was just conditioning or indoctrination passed down from thousands of worshipers in the past. Perhaps the gods created this world by design. Jake could never be sure.

The knights stood around the statue, taking turns sipping from a wooden bowl dipped in the stone basin. Some pretended not to notice the wheezing candidates. Jake felt a hand on his shoulder. Varro nudged him forward.

“Drink your blessings from the shrine,” he ordered gruffly.

The recruits downed their gear and took sips from the pool as three tall men wearing dark brown robes approached slowly, each step in time. The middle and tallest man wore an ornate medallion on a long golden chain. The Eye of Apollo at its center bore a shining yellow gemstone. Jake thought the man might be the archpriest to be wearing such a jewel. He embraced Count Varro and smiled behind his long white beard.

“It has been too long, Headmaster Fray.” Varro spoke reverently and bowed his head.

“Much too long I would say.” Fray’s voice was weathered and raspy but not weak. The Headmaster passed Varro with a short nod and stood in front of the recruits. They all snapped to attention except Jake. When he realized his absentmindedness, Jake followed suit. Pay attention, he chastised himself.

“We have returned with recruits deemed worthy of a chance at knighthood,” Varro announced, returning to the Headmaster’s side. The old man nodded in agreement, then raised his hand, palm facing the candidates.

“I saw their coming in the rising of today’s sun. Apollo approves of their arrival.” As he passed them to greet the other knights, Jake noticed the many scars that covered his wrinkly face. The man must have been long absent from combat yet the marks of his service remained. Perhaps Headmaster Fray fought monsters as a younger man.

The Headmaster knew every knight by name and spoke with each one individually. Meanwhile, Varro brought recruits over to the clifftop opposite the stairs they had climbed. Below them stretched an expansive plane, speckled with all different colors of horses roaming free. In the center of the green, at the foot of the mountain, stood a mead hall from days of old.

“Down there,” Varro pointed, “is where you will be appointed Knights of the Order Apollo if you pass your trials. As of now, you are candidates of the Order and nothing more than hopeful soldiers looking for a chance to die gloriously in the service of Apollo. You will congregate with the rest of the candidates at the mead hall and board the wagons bound for the training grounds in the north. You will train for three months and return victorious or in defeat.”

Jake’s insides fluttered like they would before a battle, but his face remained placid. Brom did not hide his feelings as well. He stood agape, bewildered. Too much new information about where he would spend the next few months but nothing of what he would be doing.

Varro continued, “Your trials will be difficult and discouraging at times but ultimately rewarding. Good luck and may Apollo watch over you.”

The headmaster called Varro to him.

Brom looked at Jake with wide, worried eyes as the Count walked away. “We are loading onto the wagons down there?” he asked.

Jake nodded his head.

“So why did we bring our packs up here?” Several knights within earshot chuckled.

“Your first and easiest trial: climbing Mount Bronta with all you bear,” Amir answered with a burley exult.

Across the way, the Headmaster stood with his hands together in his baggy sleeves next to another robed man. Though younger, perhaps thirty years old, the other monk radiated confidence and wisdom one could only obtain through experience. He stood with straight-backed shoulders and a lifted chin. To Jake, he seemed like a man who had lived three hard lifetimes but he couldn’t point out why. The monk’s eyes flashed to Jake and he felt as if the monk had weighed him in an instant, determining his worth. Jake felt exposed and quickly diverted his eyes.

“Varro,” Fray called as the Count approached, “this is Master Salvo. I believe you have met once before?”

“We served together in Craton Pass.” Varro nodded reverently to the monk. “Were the physicians able to save your hand, Master Salvo?”

Salvo pulled his left sleeve up revealing a brass hook lashed to his forearm with a leather harness. “I’m afraid not. There was nothing to be done. Too many pieces missing.” He covered his hook and stood again as Headmaster Fray did. “It is flattering for someone of your fame to remember a comrade in arms from so long ago,” the monk said with a smile and bow.

“You were a valiant knight who fought bravely. When you took up the cloth, your reputation remained,” Varro said with another bow.

Headmaster Fray put a hand on both of their shoulders and began leading them away from the group but Jake found himself drawn to them out of curiosity. Attempting and apparently succeeding to be incognito, Jake walked casually along the clifftop to where he could still hear their conversation.

“Master Salvo has begun testing a new weapon he thinks will revolutionize the battlefield,” Headmaster Fray said. He did not hush his tone.

Varro’s eyes flicked between the two priests. “What is it?”

“It’s a muzzle loaded weapon capable of reaching far beyond musket range with accuracy,” Salvo said as proudly as one could in a hushed tone.

Accuracy at a greater distance would revolutionize the battlefield, Jake thought excitedly. One could reach out to the enemy line before being within their effective range. Skirmishers could set up ambushes from afar and disappear into cover before their targets could retaliate.

“How does it work?” Varro asked.

“Patience Count,” Fray said as he gently shook Varro’s shoulder. “We will set a demonstration for you when it is complete.”

#

The wagon rocked as twelve young men and women traveled up a cobblestone road. Jake’s haunches ached already, so early on their long ride to the training grounds. Making it to the top of the second set of switchbacks, Brom almost bounced off of the bench he was trying to keep under him.

“Maybe you should grab the wagon so it doesn’t get away from you, Brom,” Jake joked.

The girl next to him laughed and the tall slender boy next to Brom chuckled as gruffly as he could manage.

The wagon driver turned around abruptly and yelled for silence, looking right at Jake. Wild-eyed and uglier than an old toad, the man resembled an ogre with mange. He lacked some teeth and the few that remained were crooked and yellow. Bushy, salt and pepper eyebrows peaked downward to make a very serious expression: the only one the candidates had seen on him so far. Master Salvo, who had been riding beside them on a gray horse, fittingly called the driver Mister Grim.

Varro and the rest of the knights stayed behind at the Hall of Apollo healing their wounds and enjoying a hard-earned rest. There was plenty of time while the candidates attempted to complete the trials. Grim whipped the horses and the pace quickened slightly as the wagon came to the apex of a saddle they had been climbing for the past few hours. The majority of the candidates had been recruited from the army, but several oddballs held Jake’s attention: two women, a tramp, an aristocrat and a new world native.

Jake’s eyes flashed to the girl next to him. He believed her name was Margaret. When she found him looking at her, he quickly moved his gaze to the other woman. She sat at the front, tapping her index finger on her thigh. She seemed jumpy and nervous, eyes wide and darting. Both her eyes were black and her lip was fat and split in the middle.

He had read about magistrates giving female criminals the choice between a nunnery and The Order of Apollo. Though more dangerous, The Order was a paid position. Being a nun was not. Women with children would enlist in hopes of supporting their family. The twitchy woman seemed to fall into this category. Jake inspected the girl next to him out of the corner of his eye.

Clean and kempt, she did not fit the description of a typical woman of the streets.

Jake leaned to Margaret and spoke softly. “How did you end up here?”

“I volunteered,” she answered in a harsh whisper, but Jake detected sadness as if it was not entirely her choice.

“Couldn’t find a husband,” the young man called Duncan chimed in.

If a woman could kill with her eyes, Duncan would have been cut into a million pieces and scattered to the wind in that moment.

“True, my absence frees my younger sister to be married, but this was my choice.”

“Is he rich,” Duncan poked, “your sister’s betrothed?”

“I earned this. What about you, pretty boy?” Margaret snapped. “Proving your worth to Daddy? How much did it cost him to secure your seat in this wagon?”

Jake thought he heard Grim chuckle to himself without turning around.

The Knights of Apollo were strict in their selection process. Only those who demonstrate the will to do good and the ability to handle themselves in a fight were accepted in most cases. Bouts with bare hands were common during the selection process. There were rumors, however, that some nobles might make a generous donation to the Order to be rid of a troubled son without losing face among their peers.

Margaret might have been correct about Duncan. Dressed in finer clothes than most, he lifted his chin as he spoke in a pompous manner. Jake admitted he had his fair share of good looks but Duncan stunk of nobility. Jake imagined him among the rest of the blue bloods who often visited his father’s house, strutting in a cloud of perfume.

“Your father has doomed you,” the tramp said without picking his gaze up. Wearing tattered and dirty clothes, he glared at the floorboards with hard eyes. “Either you return to him a failure, or die a hero, he wins and you lose.”

“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine, Mister—” Brom said.

“Roy,” the rough man snapped.

Jake suspected Roy was a penitent. Men of the cloth from all over would send local sinners or criminals to make penance with the gods through service in the Order. Jake knew this was Roy’s situation, then wondered what his delinquency was. A sinner or a criminal? Perhaps both.

“And what about you, savage?” Duncan asked casually.

Margaret shot Duncan another of her lethal looks then turned to the aboriginal. “What are you called?”

“Dogwa,” he said with a grunt.

Jake recognized the native’s geometric arm tattoos from a book concerning aboriginals of the new world.

“Modrak?” Jake asked.

Dogwa gave Jake an intrigued look and nodded once in affirmation. The Modrak tribe were commonly referred to as savages as with the other native peoples. For the most part, that title was inaccurate. When treated with respect, the native tribes generally kept to themselves. However, if they thought they were treated unfairly, they would not hesitate to wage war in the most brutal and savage manner. Jake admired this when most white men would fear it.

He also knew that Dogwa’s most apparent feature, his facial tattoo, would draw attention wherever he went and frighten most “respectable” folk. Each Modrak brave was given either of two facial markings: “The eyes of long seeing”—a dark strip tattooed horizontally over the warrior’s eyes—or the one Dogwa had been given, “the mouth of war”—a black tattoo that covered the lower half of his face so that, in the night, his teeth showed brightly against blackened surroundings. An intimidation tactic.

A young boy was marked like this when he earned the title of warrior. Jake shivered. Dogwa made a formidable sight. His head had been shaved other than a thick strip of long black hair from the middle of his forehead to the back of his neck. The strip of hair flowed over his left side with an eagle feather braided in.

The wagon turned with a curve in the road and a distant, high mountain lake appeared through a break in the thick evergreens. The blue-gray water stretched between steep, wooded slopes, cradled in a high valley. Jake smelled the strong scent of pine when a gust of wind carried it through the wagon. Breathing deeply through his nose, the smell reminded him of home. His warm breath fogged in the cold air.

A shiver rolled up Jake’s spine. The air grew colder as they descended into the valley. A cradle of chill. At the lake’s center, a wooded island floated in the glassy water.

#

Reaching the lake, the wagon was traded for three row boats. The water was clear and deep and teemed with fish. Jake dipped his hand into the frigid water. Mister Grim, who was in the boat in front, whipped around with his wild eyes trained on Jake.

“Get your mitts out o’ there,” Grim hissed. Jake whipped his finger out of the freezing water. “The lake troll would pull you in an’ eat your legs to the bone before you could call out for help. All we would hear is a splash. Spit the rest o’ you out. Just likes the legs. He done it before.” Grim turned back around and continued under his breath. “We will have to fish you out an’ send you home wrapped in some of our linen, so your mother and father can bury you.”

It sounded like old-world superstition to Jake but his eyes were drawn to the deep. He thought he could see a shadow sink out of sight. Something big. Something watching.

The boats slid into the smooth stones on the small island. Master Salvo slipped into the tree line and Dogwa was the first to follow, seemingly not nervous at all. Jake looked over his shoulder. Grim was tying the boats and noticed Jake watching him. The ugly man straightened and pointed to the trees with a hint of annoyance. Through the shadowy pine and fern, smoke curled up. He could smell coffee and cakes.

The trees opened up into a wide grassy clearing in the middle of the island. There was a fire pit with several instructors standing and sipping coffee from tin mugs. The warm liquid made pillars of steam rise into the frosty air. To their left was a gravel pit lined with logs. To their right, a row of targets on bales of hay. Behind them was a tall structure composed of logs, rope ladders, platforms, and support lines.

Master Salvo stood at the center of the instructors and began speaking as Grim joined them. “Candidates, you are standing on holy ground.”

Some of the soldiers stood at attention and others looked around, curiously taking it all in.

Salvo looked annoyed as he continued. “This is your first step in achieving knighthood. Every Knight of Apollo you have ever met, seen or even heard of, began his or her training here. This is the training ground of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers. Consider it an honor to be here, to bleed here, because not many can say they have.

“On these grounds, you will learn the importance of discipline and teamwork. You will learn to trust your brothers and sisters at arms. You will learn that fighting with your head can be the difference between sweet victory or bitter defeat. On these grounds, you will learn to run faster, hit harder, shoot better, and ultimately kill flawlessly. You will learn the importance of living respectfully, fighting honorably, and dying gloriously. You will learn the code of combat by heart.”

The instructors all joined Salvo in his chant, “Let your enemy fall by your sword. Make this his destiny. If you have lost your sword, use a rock. If there is no rock, use your fists. If you cannot use your fists, use your teeth. If you must die, do it, but first make your enemies pay for your death. Make that your destiny. Apollo will watch over you in battle and send angels to guide you to the feast upon your death. Glory to the grave brings glory thereafter.”

Master Salvo continued alone, “In this place, your teeth will become weapons, your fists will become stone, and your mind will be the sword that no man can disarm.” Salvo opened his arms as if to bid the candidates welcome. Jake had almost forgotten Salvo was missing a hand. He hid his disability well.

Duncan raised his hand. “Sir, where will we make camp for the night?”

Grim’s eyes narrowed. The next moment was silent; none made a sound. Duncan froze at the position of attention, looking at Grim in his periphery.

Grim lunged forward, his eyes bulging. His hand flattened, like a knife; fingertips jabbing violently into Duncan’s sternum. Grim flexed his neck and spit flew through the air as vapor when he yelled, “Who said anything about making camp, you worthless maggot? You must first earn your place as an annoying fly on my sleeve before I say you can go to sleep.” He grabbed Duncan’s collar, yanking him to the ground at his feet. “Push-ups! Now!” He crouched next to the terrified candidate and continued yelling obscenities.

“Don’t know how to do some push-ups?” Grim yelled. “They’re easy. All you do is push up!

The other instructors moved forward deliberately. Their neck veins bulged as they yelled for everyone to pair up and fight, to prove themselves worthy of sleep. As the odd man out, Roy was attacked by two instructors at a time, both loudly asking where his partner was. “Has no one chosen you because you frighten them?” “If you are so terrifying then you should be able to clobber us both.” Roy swung a fist at one, only to be struck by the other from behind. Battered and bleeding from his lip, Roy fell to the ground and protected his head and neck with his arms. Finally, one of the instructors pointed to Duncan, still pushing up to the side. “There is your partner. Go push with him. Don’t get up until he does.”

Brom and Jake faced off immediately, both had their hands up, guarding their face with clenched fists and their ribs in their elbows. They began exchanging strikes as the instructors ordered, almost in unison. Jake chose Brom to put on a show and he suspected the same of him. He did not wish to harm him, so he made it look as though his punches were doing real damage. Brom followed along, distributing his own light punches. An instructor swooped up next to them and saw through their scheme with ease. For every punch they pulled, he struck them across the back of their thighs with a cane.

“Hit him harder,” the instructor yelled. Jake threw another weak punch he thought was more convincing and received another lash. “Harder, make your opponent pay for simply choosing you. Make him pay in pain.”

Brom smiled at Jake and threw a wide left hook that Jake blocked easily. Jake did not notice Brom’s swinging right until it made contact with his jaw. Jake tasted blood welling up in his mouth as he stumbled backward. He returned the smile with bloody teeth and answered with three quick body blows that made Brom grimace. The instructor, seemingly satisfied, stepped back and watched as the young men exchanged savage punches and kicks into the dusk. They were not cold anymore.

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