The boy watched his mother sleep. The sky was black, its stars hidden behind the rolling mists pouring into the valley from the eastern peaks, rolling down and away from the faint beginnings of morning light. The boy watched his mother breathe, as he did every morning, watched the flowing mass of wool blankets rise and fall like waves around her. He watched the whispers of light touch the edges of her, glowing and flickering at the outline of her legs, the rise at her hips, down to her waist and up to her shoulders. He liked the way her red hair glowed in the last faint firelight of their hut's one candle just before it burned out. Soon, Rezden would be at the door and the boy would be up and out, into the woods, until the sun reached its peak. Soon, the boy would be nocking arrows and arcing them into straw targets, then into the herds of wild boars in the lowlands, or into the scattering V's of the migrating geese making a quick stop in the lake before continuing South for winter.
For now, he would watch his mother sleep while he chewed on the wild corn husks he smuggled into his hut after last night's training. He found them growing in the forest of dead trees. Most of the corn had been eaten by the boars, but inside one of the hollowed out trunks, two stalks had managed to find enough sustenance to produce four small ears of corn, each. The boy knew he wasn't to eat unless instructed to eat by Rezden. He knew if he were caught with the corn, the penalty would appear in long, swollen stripes on his shoulders and the backs of his legs. It would also show in the deepening valleys of skin between his ribs, as he would be denied food for two days.
Mother stirred, turning suddenly onto her back and sucking in a terrified gasp. Her arms thrashed around her head and she cursed harsh whispers in a language the boy had never heard. Her convulsions caused the candle to wobble and hiss into its wax pool. The boy sat up, about to call out to her, when she stopped. Her arms stayed outstretched, as if caressing some unseen face. Her harsh whispers softened and her arms slowly lowered back to their resting place on her chest. The trembling flame bounced new light across her form, and now, lying on her back with her hands and arms at peace, the boy could see the firelight glistening in the tears on either side of her face.
It wasn't the first time. Her early morning terrors had happened yesterday, and the day before that. The boy considered the last time he watched her sleep peacefully through an entire morning.
The candle hissed a final time, burned to completion. The hut went dark.
He couldn't remember the last time.
The soft crunch of purposefully quiet footsteps brought the boy to his feet. Rezden. The corn husks were stashed under his head rest and he was already wearing his shoes. He grabbed his bow and quiver from their post and strapped his knife belt around his waste. He knew now which board to stand on for complete silence. He knew how to pull the handle on the hut's door so that it could be opened without the squeak of metal on metal, and he knew just how hard to lift the door while opening it to avoid any creaking where the wood and the hinges met.
He slipped through silently and closed the door again with a faint click.
Rezden stood before him, the mass of a tree trunk in his dark brown cloak. The boy could only see his outline, a black emptiness, like a hole in the world. Rezden was alone this morning. The boy was first.
Rezden turned without a word and the boy followed.
They made their ways silently along the worn paths of dirt between huts. The boy watched Rezden's feet, as he always did, and couldn't understand how that much mass and weight, and those giant feet, made so little noise in the dirt, across rocks or bark or grass. Or anywhere. The boy would hold his breath and soften his own steps and still could barely hear any sound from Rezden's footfalls.
Unless Rezden wanted to be loud.
Five huts marked the trail. Each hut produced another child, another boy and two girls, and the group made their way to the fifth hut. Rezden approached first. Once he was still, the four fanned out in a perfectly even line behind him, equal distance apart and by descending height order, and waited in silence. Rezden was silent, as well. The four waited to see if they'd been quick and quiet enough in forming their line. They would know if they'd made too much noise, or if their line wasn't straight, or if they'd been too slow, if Rezden's head turned back toward them ever so slightly. He wouldn't turn to look at them. He wouldn't say anything. He would turn his head and tilt his chin downward and the children would bite their lips and work to hold their breath and calm their accelerating heart beats. Move silently, show the simple discipline of straight lines, pay attention. Each child would lurch forward in their minds to what might be their penalty later in the morning for a misstep. Each child tended to anticipate the penalty they'd hated the most in the past.
One child tensed as she thought she saw Rezden beginning to turn his head. Her mind flashed to the water dragon game. That game entailed crawling down on hands and feet from the top of golden hill to the lake, filling their mouths with water, then keeping the water in their mouths on the crawl back to the top. The crawl down took a quarter of an hour. The crawl back up with a mouth full of water took longer. The children knew they would all need a complete mouthful to finish the task. To swallow any, or choke along the way, would mean failure.
Once at the top of the hill, the dragons were instructed to breathe their fiery dragon breath over the entire surface area of one of the large, flat rocks on the ground. “Engulf the stone in your fire,” Rezden would yell. The rock would need to be soaked, from top to bottom, on every side, all the way around. If it wasn't, they would be told to try again, back down the mountain on all fours for a mouthful of water, and back up again. The worst day had seen the group down and up the hill four times before succeeding. They pulled splinters and small bits of rock from their palms and fingers for weeks.
The boy saw them all holding handstands for minutes at a time. They would be instructed to hold their handstands while Rezden brought a thumb-thick switch down on the bottoms of their bare feet. If they cried out or fell to the ground, they would be instructed to crawl to the lake below where they would do handstands with their heads under the water. The boy had taken enough water up his nose the last time they endured this torture to pass out. Rezden dragged him out of the water and left him there to choke and cough the water up, or die. The boy had choked up the water and, once mostly conscious, was dragged back into the water to continue.
Each child knew to be ready before first light. Each child knew to listen for Rezden's silent approach. Now, standing before the final hut, the four children wonder what is keeping the fifth, Porano, from appearing, and they wonder what penalty they will have to endure because of his disobedience.
Rezden is motionless. The children think, multiple times, that they see him start to move. They think they see the subtle twitch of a hand, the shifting of a foot, but he stands and watches and waits. His back is to them so they can't see his face, but they all have an idea of the look that is on it.
Porano has never been late before. He has never failed to appear, never made a mistake that cost the group in lost luxuries or endurance of pain. He has never felt the full force of Rezden's instructions in discipline. He has never needed it.
Rezden finally moves. He turns to his right and continues walking up the path, now away from the huts and toward the rising glow over the eastern summits. The children follow, each waiting for what they feel is the right time to steal a glimpse back toward Porano's hut. They each glance in turn when they feel Rezden isn't looking. The hut remains silent and still as they crest the hill and turn left toward the thickening of the forest. As the huts disappear from view, the boy wonders if he will ever see Porano again.
Rezden stops and his hand shoots up over his head. The children stop. Rezden extends his little finger and thumb out from the fist he made and all four children nock an arrow and prepare to draw. His eyes are tracking the upper tree line, above the line of sharpened log fencing that stabs into the air above the village at twenty-five feet. His eyes are tracking back and forth, following some dark and shifting shape, some wraith, just beyond the wall. Then he drops his head. The darkness and mist are limiting sight. He is listening. His head twitches to the right slightly, then suddenly left. The children strain to listen, too, and after holding their breath through ten accelerating heart beats, a distant branch cracks high up in one of the trees.
Rezden kneels and turns his face to the sound. His arms reach out and he points in the direction he wants the children to go. They move, fanning out into a curved line and converging in the direction to which Rezden is pointing. Once the children are on the move, tracking the source of the noise, Rezden lets his hands drop to his sides. He sits down, dropping his head and closing his eyes to listen.
The boy lets out a short whistle. The line spreads out. They run in aggressive bursts, stop and listen, then sprint again. They are nearing the barrier wall when another branch cracks under the weight of some unseen creature. They stop, bows ready and arrows aimed upward. This time, the crack of the branch is followed by another sound. It is high pitched, rough, gravely. They can see the branches trembling in one tree, then a moment later in another tree, closer now. The hoarse screeching is getting louder. The screeches are now punctuated by clicking sounds, like stones being smacked together.
The girl on the left side of the line, Arva, knows the sound better than most. Her eyes narrow to see it and she is too busy staring for the right sign of movement in the branches to notice her ready arrowhead trembling. She knows these beasts. She knows their powerful wings and their clawed feet and hands and the jagged teeth twisting through their long, narrow snouts. She's seen them up close. She's felt the rush of air blown about by their wings, she's heard their claws scrape wood and stone.
She's smelled the stinging rot of their breath after one of their croaking screams.
She's seen what they can do to a child.
“Karpie!” goes the cry. Before the cry is finished, the Karpie's wings close just before its feet and arms hit the earth. It takes a moment to steady itself after the impact. Then it rears up and screeches again, scraping large furrows into the pine needles and dirt and sweeping chunks of dirt and rock into the air in violent flurries. As the children fan out, the Karpie looks to each one. It chooses the nearest child. They always go for the nearest target.
One of the boys, Gome, is the nearest target. The Karpie doesn't wait to posture or try to intimidate anymore. It pulls at the ground, at a full run in seconds, and leaps at him. Gome knows the Karpie will leap and he is ready. He looses his arrow before sprawling onto his back. He flattens his body and falls on the ground in time to see the Karpie's front claws tear through the air above his face. The Karpie sails harmlessly over him and crashes to the ground on the other side. It slides into a tree and stumbles. But it isn't deterred. It turns back, its eyes even more wild with its violent hunger rage. But Gome's arrow found its mark. As the Karpie tenses for another attack, it can feel the strength leaving its limbs. It is receiving the message that it is wounded, that something is wrong. Instead of leaping again, the Karpie looks to the other children and hisses its poisoned venom to the ground in thin, sticky streaks. Another arrow whistles through the morning air and slips through the Karpie's neck, lodging in the tree beside it. The furry body shudders and a thick line of blood arcs from the neck wound onto the dust and stone at the winged creature's feet.
As the Karpie stumbles backward it fights to muster another scream. The noise begins in its throat, rises into its mouth, then stops. A bow twang sends an arrow into the Karpie's face, the broad head striking just below the Karpie's left eye. The arrow tip destroys the Karpie's skull and lodges in its brain. The impact locks the beast's legs into a toe-curled death spasm they will never escape. With its legs locked, the Karpie falls face first into the dirt. Three convulsions shake strange chirps from the body and then it is still.
The third arrow arrived from a strange angle. All of the children notice and they turn to see its origin. From the dark mist, Porano shoulders his bow and puts the arrow he'd had ready back in his quiver. The children watch him walk to the Karpie, slam his ax into its skull three times, and dig out his arrow. He looks down the shaft to see if the arrow has been warped or damaged. He wipes it off using the Karpie's fur and lets it join the others in his quiver.
The other four children watch this process, and then look to Rezden. Porano didn't appear from his hut when he was supposed to, and yet now here he is. Rezden is still kneeling where he spotted the Karpie. The children know there must be some penalty for Porano's tardiness. They know they will suffer in some way, even though he was here to claim the kill.
“To the portal,” he says.