I walked through first, my brother Piers on my tail as always. Piers looked straight ahead like a cat hunting a mouse, even though nothing lay in the courtyard but rain-filled divots and manure. But that was Piers—never had much sense. Short and lean because he didn’t eat enough. The youngest of seven on a poor farm has to fight for his meals, but Piers always let his sisters have their fill first. At least until the blight came, and we had no food at all. Mella went to a convent, and I set off for Lord Hesting’s army on the coast. I hadn’t wanted to take Piers with me, but along he came, acting like we were bound for a jaunt along the creek instead of three months hitching rides in hay carts and walking on blisters. Hesting would take anyone, so they said, even if all they wanted us for was sweating all day with a shovel. But it was safe work, put food in our bellies, and every man in the army had a chance to be a Saracen if they wished. If the worst happened and I made it in and Piers didn’t, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about him starving.
We lined up in two rows of four in the yard, Piers and me in front along with Flatpate and Big Tym. Piers flashed me one of his big, trusting smiles, the same one I had seen every day of my life upon waking. Behind me, some of the other lads mumbled and shuffled, perhaps regretting not making water on the road. I stood still, my back straight. If Piers felt confident, then I had to at least look like I was, too.
“Who’s first, then?” Sergeant Pelkin strutted up the line, puffing his stink breath in our faces. I’d only met him the first time that morning when he came by the road, asking who wanted to be a Saracen, and his gargoyle of a face hadn’t gotten any easier on the eyes. I was surprised when only eight of the boys raised their hands, after almost a year of hard labor. Some of them had tried and failed before, I figured. Perhaps the others simply preferred to live as cowards in a ditch.
“You,” he said, pointing at Big Tym. Thank the gods I wasn’t first. “Step out.”
Tym puffed up his chest and walked. Big as an ox that lad was, and perhaps as bright. Told me once he had wanted to be a Saracen since he had learned to think.
Pelkin looked him over and gave an ugly version of a grin. “The Lady has a test. Pass it, and you begin training. Survive the training, and you’ll be a Saracen.”
The Lady. The Sorceress, he meant. At the mention of her, a fresh unsettling went through me. Her tower loomed over the yard, round and thin, its roof draped in her violet and gold banner. Did she watch us from it now? The windows seemed empty, but a Sorceress’s ways were beyond reckoning.
“Slisa,” Pelkin said. “Come forth.”
She stepped into the yard, tall and dark, with long hair with thick black eyebrows. I’d never seen a woman like that, of the Godsmount Forest tribes, and neither had Tym apparently, because he puffed out his nostrils and adjusted his trousers like he was hiding something. Slisa ignored him and held up a thin wooden rod half as tall as herself. “Kyeth,” she said, turning slowly so we all got a look.
“That’s what she calls it,” Pelkin put in. “I call it a yardstick, because it takesthe measure of a man. Slisa, when you’re ready.”
She nodded, turned to Tym and held the stick in both hands, parallel to the ground. “Take.”
He snickered, as did I and the lads. Was this Pelkin’s sense of humor? The measure of a man? Tym must have been two and a half of her. He walked up, grasped the stick with both hands, and yanked.
Slisa stayed put, though the tendons in her calves and forearms seized with the effort. Tym smiled and re-adjusted his grip, readying a pull that would yank the woman across the yard if she did not let go. But his eye drifted, down to where the hem of her shirt passed near her breasts. He leaned forward, his hands going slack, and in that instant she spun the stick and smacked him on the cheek.
He fell into the muck, and all of us laughed. Then he was up again, forehead redder than the mark on his cheek, massive fists clenched. “You!” he shouted, and sprinted toward her.
Slisa brought up the stick, pointing its end at him. It extended itself, bridging the distance between them in an instant, and collided with Tym’s forehead between the eyebrows.
He stumbled, like his brain hadn’t caught up with what happened, then collapsed, blood running down his nose. Where the stick hit him, a little divot had formed in his skull, like the horse hoof craters in the yard.
“If you want to give, then be ready to be given,” Pelkin said as two footmen dragged Tym away. “Who’s next?”
Murmurs ensued. The air in the yard had grown grim as quickly as the stick had lengthened. My jaw went slack and my feet glued in place as I stared at the smear where Tym had lain. No one would choose to go next now, not unless they were craz--
“I’ll go,” Piers said, stepping forward.
Piers! What was that little musk-weasel doing? Pelkin nodded and Piers approached Slisa, who held the stick as before, shortened to its former length. No, it was too soon, I should have gone first. Seconds dragged by as my mind whirled. It would be all right, as long as he didn’t try to hurt her, as long as he didn’t do something stupid.
Piers, not do something stupid? He was doomed.
He stood facing Slisa, the shortest of the lads by far, but his height equaled hers and so they peered into each other’s eyes. She did her best to match his gaze, but no one had a penetrating stare like his. They stood there long moments, then more, until Pelkin grunted with impatience. Piers held out his hands.
“May I have it?”
Slisa gave him the stick.
The crowd gasped, me not least among them. Piers went over and handed the rod to Pelkin. The old sergeant only let his shock show for a moment before he composed himself, giving Piers a little bow of respect. “Go inside the castle, boy. You’ve passed.”
“May I wait over there?” Piers asked. “I want to watch while my brother passes as well.”
Perkin’s doubtful look told me two people passing in the span of one morning would be rare indeed, but he assented nonetheless.
“That was it?” a voice behind me whispered.
“The runt figured it out,” Flatpate said. “It’s simple.” He stepped out of line, leaving me standing alone in front. “I’ll go next, Sir.”
He leered at the lithe woman with his right eye, while his left drifted uselessly in its pear-shaped socket. Flatpate got his name from an encounter with a wagon wheel as a boy, and I wondered if it had affected his disposition as well. His favorite activity in the time I’d known him was to piss in the beds of his fellow recruits holding his sides and shaking with glee when they laid down for a rest.
“Give it here, eh?” Flatpate gestured toward himself in a vaguely lewd manner.
Slisa remained still, rod held in front of her.
Flatplate cleared his throat. “Oh--may I have it?” He sneered at the still impassive woman. “Hey, what’s your problem? I asked nicely.”
He made a grab and she pulled away, just out of his reach.
“You gave it to the runt!” Spittle flew from his buck teeth. “Damn southern whore!”
He made a lunge and got a hold of the rod, but it bent and stretched, pliable as tree sap. Flatpate lost his balance, went over and ate dirt. When he saw Slisa pointing the re-hardened tip between his eyes, he looked as if his head might pop off. His fingers crushed the ground and his teeth gnashed, but somehow he contained his urge to spring at her until he had crawled far away out the front arch, gods-knew-where down the road.
“You’re next, ‘brother.’” Pelkin pointed at me. I swallowed the stone in my throat and stepped up. The view from the center of the yard seemed like leagues away from the line. Piers looked expectant, not an inkling of doubt in his eyes. I could have laughed at how stupid I was, thinking the worst that could happen was me joining the Saracen without him. What now, if I failed? Would Piers refuse to join in solidarity? Which was worse, having my brother march off to die alone in a faraway battlefield, or having him stay, holding his superiority over me for the rest of my life?
I clenched my jaw to fight the panic. Think! What had Piers done, how had he solved the riddle? I call it a yardstick, because it takes the measure of a man. The stick was a mirror, reflecting weakness, taking lust and pride and rage and casting them back. What were my weaknesses? I had never thought to list them. Perhaps that was my weakness, not knowing what my weakness was?
Flecks of brown dotted Slisa’s green eyes, irises ringed with alluring black. The stick was mere inches away, daring me to take hold of it. I held my breath, reached out and grasped.
The world turned gray. Not the gray of a wolf pelt or limestone, but an absence of color, like the time between dreams and waking when nothing exists. My mind was trapped deep in an abyss, and I fought to surface. When my vision cleared, I stood in a vast, low-ceilinged room, adorned with hanging plants and statuary. A tall woman stood with her back to me, violet and gold robes shimmering in the lamplight.
“Welcome to my home, Geoff,” she said. Her voice fell on my ears like a gulp of ale hits the throat on a summer day. “Do you know who I am?”
Of course I knew who she was, but my profound confusion made me doubt any knowledge I may have had. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of incense. “I thought you lived in the tower,” I said dumbly. The room in which we stood was too large for the tower, but everyone knew magicians could bend time and space to their will. “How did I get here?”
She turned and smiled. “You are not here. You are standing in the courtyard. Go ahead and look, but do not linger—your observation will bring you out of coherence.”
I didn’t know what she meant until I reached the window. The grounds of the castle stretched out before me, and directly below was the yard, with my brother, Pelkin and all the rest, frozen, watching statues of Slisa and me holding the stick. When I laid eyes on the still image of myself, my head throbbed, the scene blurred and I had to step away.
I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear the fog and find the next question just out of reach of my tongue. “...why?”
“To be selected as a Saracen is a rare honor, and to survive the training even rarer. I believe you and your brother will both prove worthy, if you decide to follow his path.”
“If? Of course I will. I wouldn’t let my brother join without me.”
“That would be your choice. But before you make it, I wish to show you something.”
She motioned for me to join her. I moved cautiously. Nighttime stories of the sorceresses were returning to me, how their gaze could hold you in their power, or turn you to stone. Was this all a ruse to force me into slavery? Try as I might, I could not find a reason to believe so; Lord Hesting already had me digging ditches all day every day, what more control did he need?
The Sorceress showed me a metal plate inscribed with ancient runes, upon which a stick of incense burned. “Breathe deeply, child.”
I inhaled the bitter smoke. My mind swam further, and my knees began to buckle. I was about to warn her of my impending collapse when I felt a sharp pain in the base of my neck. The Sorceress had pressed into me the tip of a sewing needle. She smiled, and the room folded.
I was not myself. I was another man, in another place, seeing through his eyes and inhabiting his body. I shared his thoughts as well, and his knowledge. I knew his name was Von, and he was a Saracen. Beside him, his comrade Seil crouched behind a tree trunk, the morning sunlight dappling her dirty armor. They waited on a mountainside, just north of the Fivelakes, listening to the enemy approach.
How many? Von signed to a scout further up the ridge.
The scout, a lady of the forests like Slisa, signed back. Two score footmen, and five something else.
Something else? Von motioned to Seil, and the two of them crawled through dead leaves and brush until they reached the top of the ridge. Soon distant marching sounds turned to a visible platoon. The footman mainly lay behind the something elses: five Kerodons and their handlers. One of the Kers raised its brown, hairy head and sniffed, red eyes glowing, spiked tail swishing back and forth. But its handler yelled and yanked on its chain, and the beast raised no alarm. Its feet made man-sized impressions in the dead leaves as it continued downhill.
So the rumors were true; the Pembers were advancing down through the gullies. But even if Von hurried back and gave warning, the Kerodons would wreck havoc on the Coalition if they were allowed into the open field. From the look on her face, Seil recognized it as well. They could not slink away and let this platoon pass without condemning thousands to die.
“Two against so many,” Seil said sadly.
“Saracen have beaten worse odds.”
She nodded, and it was settled. Seil, his sister in arms, training comrade and longtime friend. He wished he could speak of his love before they set forth, but a touch on her armored shoulder would have to suffice.
He signaled for the four scouts to join them, then spoke to the leader, who was armed with a tunic-full of daggers and a short bow. “We are going to take them, alone if need be. If you fight with us, you will die.”
“This is our future? You have seen it with the gods’ sight?”
“I have.” A lie, but it was not fair to barter the scout’s help for a false hope. Besides, if he turned out to be wrong, the women would be too elated to notice the inconsistency.
“We will take up positions along the ridge, harry them with arrows,” the leader said.
“Wait for our signal,” Von replied. He pulled out a vial of potion hanging from his necklace, no larger than a little finger, and recited the words of the spell. Some Saracen put the liquid on blotter paper to conserve it, but for this battle he placed the dropper directly on his tongue. The bitter taste spread down his throat, familiar but never welcome.
Seil smacked her lips, completing a similar ritual. “Should we attack from the front or back?”
“Yes,” Von said. The potion was already taking effect. The forest grew more vivid, the colors brighter, until it passed into a realm apart from the true world, as if he stood amongst an artist’s rendering. Von drew his swords, one long and one short, leaving his other equipment behind. He lowered the opaque eyepiece on his helmet. Inside was a special light, fashioned by a sorceress to complete the spell. Von held the question in his mind: front or back? He had to pose a strict binary, dedicate himself fully to one path or another depending on what he saw. He closed his uncovered eye and spun the mechanism on the eyepiece. It would remain open less than a second. A flash meant attack from the front, no flash, back.
Von saw a flash, a pinprick of light, and jumped straight down into the gully with Seil to cut off the surprised point men. The pair raised their spears just in time to take arrows in the chest from the scouts. The lead Kerodon handler dropped his chain and ran, leaving the beast to scratch the ground and puff smoke; it had already caught the scent of blood.
Von did not see the flash, and turned to run up the ridge. With no equipment to carry he was fleet enough to pass the column before they noticed what was happening, but Seil was faster still, bouncing off a rock outcropping ahead of him and landing sword-first on the footmen’s commander as he brought up the rear. The Kerodons, aware the battle had joined, struggled to turn in the narrow gullly. In a part of his mind, Von could see his other self fighting the front-most beast, but that could not affect him. He knew his other self was watching him as well, though not directly, for to look too closely at one’s alter-ego was to risk breaking the spell. And so the pair of men shared one mind while remaining separate, and the two battles raged on.
The Von fighting the Kerodon spun his eyepiece again. Dodge left or right? Strike with small sword or large? He had trained so long that each small decision came without thought, the flashes guiding him in both directions. The spells had to be short in duration, because they were embedded in the larger split he had cast with Seil, but nevertheless they gave him an advantage. The Kerodon sank its teeth into his leg as he rolled left, so he dropped that path and became whole again, moving right and away from its jaws.
Meanwhile, his other self slashed at a dozen footmen behind, back to back with Seil. Where a spell was of no use, his conventional training and experience could carry him through. On both sides of the split the footmen were panicking, though for different reasons. The lead Kerodon was dead, but now he hoped to make the others turn and trample their keepers as they headed up the slope. The longer the battle took, the more the paths diverged. They had to turn the tide in one soon, or risk losing the choice of which to make real.
The second Kerodon stood his ground. Larger and meaner than the first, it shook the arrows off its neck and whipped its tail, catching Seil in the back. She fell, her spine bloodied. Von yelled and jumped in, but a footmen was already there, thrusting his spear through her. Von’s longsword found his chest, the grip rattling in his palm as it pierced mail. That was it, then; the rear attack would have to be chosen. Von dared a look in that direction and shook with horror.
“Retreat!” a footmen called, though only Von’s other self could hear it. The remaining soldiers and handlers ran downhill, leaving the pair of blood-drenched Saracen standing alone, panting. The Kerodons thundered ahead, gaining momentum. Nothing would stop them now until they reached the field. Seil’s face carried a haunted look. Von’s voice cracked as he tried to find words.
“I know. We have failed, and to succeed I must die.”
“We’ll choose both paths.”
She shook her head. “It is not allowed. Kill me.”
“I won’t.” Tears flooded his eyes.
“Kill me now, so I will not be tempted to choose.”
She dropped her sword and stared at her feet. Von raised his longsword and cried out in anguish as his hand fell.
The Von in front closed the path so he did not have to see. The other reality faded, leaving him standing alone, his heart pounding. The Kerodon roared flame and licked its lips. Von screamed, tensed, and channeling his rage, he leapt.
I gasped and fell back. The Sorceress found me on my rear, holding my aching head.
“Who are they?” I muttered through the pain. “Were they real?”
“They were. But they are not from this time. What you saw happened many years ago.”
I held my face in my hands, overwhelmed with grief. In some ways I felt I was still Von—perhaps a part of him would always be in me.
“Why did you show me this?”
“Because I wanted you to see what Saracen gain, and what they lose.” She picked me up, pulling my hands away to look me in the eye. “A farmer may buy a cow, not knowing if it will develop blisters the next season. But he takes comfort in his lack of knowledge, in his inability to undo the choice. Who could say whether his other path would not be worse? What is done is done.
“But to be a Saracen is to always see the consequence of your choices. To bear the full burden of any path you take, even at the cost of what you hold most dear.”
“My brother,” I whispered.
“Indeed. Your brother has great potential, as do you. But to allow you both to join presents a danger. Although all Saracen are brothers and sisters, you two share a deeper bond. The time may come when you fail in your duty because of your dedication to him.”
I looked away. I did not want to hear any more, but I had to know. “What should I do?”
“Do what you will. I have told you what I must.” Her voice faded and the fog enveloped me again. “You will have only a moment, but a Saracen must learn to decide quickly.”
I blinked, and I was standing in the yard, my hands on the stick. Slisa’s green eyes searched me. Did she know? My brother cocked his head. I had to pull him aside, tell him everything I had learned, not just about the Saracen’s spell, but the intensity of battle, the blood and chaos and screaming. I couldn’t let him join them, couldn’t let him die in agony like that.
No time—Slisa spun the stick and it came loose from my hands. Instinctively I reacted, grabbing hold and twisting, both of us pulling in a test of wills.
To be a Saracen, a soldier. It meant so much more than what I had believed when I entered the yard. Von’s life was one of suffering, yes, but also one of honor, of duty, of bonds no one on the outside could understand. Who was I to deny my brother that choice?
The elder, that was who. He was my little brother, mine to protect forever.
Slisa switched her grip and pushed, knocking me on my heels. My brother’s face floated before me. Just a boy, but he would be a man when he entered battle. Was I helping him, or holding him down? Could I let him face his own choices, even if one was to ask me to slay him?
I didn’t know. I couldn’t see the future. But that was a gift, and I no longer took it for granted. I wanted that life for myself and for him, and if the time came when he needed my help, I would make my choice, and try to make it the best one.
My feet caught in the dirt and I spun, taking Slisa off-balance and whirling her to the ground. She rolled away, leaving the stick in my shaking hands. I stood tall and it changed, lengthening, adapting to my height. Taking its measure.
I only hoped I could live up to it.
© March, 2014 Will Weisser
Will Weisser is a speculative fiction writer and software engineer living in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, USA. He has previously had a story published in Devilfish Review e-zine.