He was my best friend, but my father had killed his. And some things cannot go unavenged.
“Blood is thicker than water,” he yelled to me on that windy mountain peak, his sword to my neck.
I stared into his brown eyes. Love and fear and pain and determination danced inside them. I smiled at him, even as I could feel my hand dangling in open air, and said, “But you need both to survive.”
“Kathman. Porton,” the instructor called, reading off the list he held in his hand.
Weaving between all the boys, I stepped into the circle made of stones, my new sword banging against my leg. My opponent, Porton, did the same. He was half a head shorter than me, his skin a dark tan, his black hair cut short. Atheian.
I gripped the hilt of my sword tightly.
We bowed. Straightened quickly.
“Turn. Take five paces.”
My feet shuffled in the sand as I tried to make my paces as small as possible. I had watched the older students do it many times.
“Draw your weapons.”
There was that wonderful sound, like the blade was slicing the very air. Our movements, both mine and Porton’s, almost in sync.
I spun around, surprised to see the Atheian much farther from the center than I. His paces had been full steps. He stared at me, but I could not meet his eyes.
And then there was no time for shame. Our swords met with a mighty clang, making my ears ring so I could not hear the cries of our classmates. Not that I had time to listen to their advice anyway, nor the desire to do so. This was my first duel. I would win it on my own.
Ducking and jabbing, I tried to touch his armor, but each time there was the purposeful clank of blade on blade. At the same time, I blocked and parried his blows, keeping the tip of his rapier at bay, but only just. It was a continuous whirlwind of movement. Seconds were hours. Minutes, days.
My hand arched up. There was again that sound of steel on steel, but it was followed by a soft thud as my opponent’s sword hit the ground. A small cloud of dust rose around it. The tip of my sword hovered over his throat.
It was as if a spell had been broken. The cheers funneled into my ears and my chest heaved uncontrollably. I sheathed my sword with a shaky hand. Porton slowly reached down and retrieved his from the sand. He held it awkwardly, like he didn’t know what to do with it.
“You should have won,” I said.
His eyes grew wide.
“I didn’t take the full steps as you did.” I held out my hand.
He stared at it, then he gave the smallest smile and shook it. “Thank you.”
I just nodded. “My given name is Jahrd.”
“I am Yodsh.”
That was how he and I, who should have been mortal enemies, began our life-long friendship.
Yodsh gave me his tiniest grin, but there was no humor behind it. “Says the man who still has his father.”
I was silent.
“Have you been struck dumb?” he asked. “You must have been. Jahrd Kathman is never without words.”
He was correct. But then he almost always was. I said nothing not because I had nothing to say, but because I had far too much. And too many ways to say it.
Yodsh looked into my eyes. A tear trickled down his cheek. “I am sorry, brother.”
I gently grasped the side of his sword. “I’m not. My father is dead.”
“What is it like in Atheia?” I asked him. I had just finished a long ramble on Zuther, my country.
Yodsh looked surprised at the question. He often asked me questions about my life, but rarely spoke of his own. He preferred to listen than talk.
“Well,” he said. “It depends.”
He pulled a piece of grass from the ground, twirling it between his fingers. “Whether you are below or above the poverty line.”
I squinted into the sun. “Which are you?”
“I used to be above.”
He tore the blade of grass in two. “My father was killed at war.” The shredded grass drifted to the ground.
I gazed at the spot where it landed. “I’m sorry.”
The silence stretched as I tried to gather the courage to ask the question, almost afraid of the answer. Finally, I took a deep breath. “Which war?”
“The Atheian-Zutherian War.”
My stomach felt shriveled to a hard cherry pit. “Oh.”
I grasped for a new subject, backtracking through our conversation. “How do you attend the school if you are below the poverty line?”
“My mother saved every one of the compensation payments the military gave us. Not that they were ever much. But over many years, they were enough.”
My insides were not feeling any softer. “Yodsh?”
“May I ask you one last question?”
“I do not see what has stopped you before.”
I waited until he sighed and said, “Yes, Jahrd, you may.”
“Do you know who killed your father?”
He shook his head, plucking another blade of grass. “No one knows. They just found him out on the battlefield, a hole through his abdomen. There is one clue though. A small lizard scale left on his tongue. A marker.” Yodsh turned to me, his brown eyes hard. “I swear to you, Jahrd, as my best friend, that I will use that clue to find my father’s murderer. And kill him.”
I didn’t reply, just stared at the grass in his hands that he’d pulled apart without realizing it. Because then I knew what Yodsh would not find out until years later. My father had killed his.
Our friendship would not end well. It could not.
“He’s… dead?” Yodsh said.
“Yes,” I said.
“How?” His sword wavered over my throat. A small stinging pain welled along my palm.
I closed my eyes, the horrible memory playing on the back of my eyelids, each gory detail. It almost seemed more vivid than when it truly occurred. The blood was such a bright red. “I thrust a dagger up into his heart.”
Yodsh was quiet for eons, then, “You?”
I nodded, the sharp edge of the sword cutting into the soft, sensitive skin under my chin.
“But why, Jahrd?”
I opened my eyes. Yodsh was not the only one crying anymore. “For you, brother. And for me.”
We stared at each other for several moments. And then Yodsh yanked his arm back, arching it high, and threw his sword. He offered me his hand. I took it and he pulled me to my feet.
Together we stood and listened to the dull thunk of metal against rock as the sword fell down the mountainside.