Toka moved away from the downward strike of the sword. Through the slits of his helmet, he could see his attacker stumble forward, as he had expected, to hit the shield of his opponent.
"I thought I had taught you better!" Toka laughed as he used his shield to help his friend stay upright. "Keep your balance at all times."
The man stepped back and raised his sword. "I will not be so easily fooled this time."
The swords clashed together and they separated. Warily, they circled each other and looked for an opening.
"Shall I show you my final lesson for the day?"
"I will teach you a lesson, little man."
The boy smiled to himself. His neighbor was the sword instructor in this region, but had long ago conceded Toka was equal or above his own skill level. But the boy had to be better as he would eventually take over as the Supreme Master of the Land, once the current master was dead. Not that the neighbor expected such an occurrence any time soon. The old warrior seemed to be ageless.
"Silvius, you make me laugh." Toka stepped forward and feinted towards his opponent’s head. With a smile, the man prepared to defend against the standard overhead downward strike. The sword never made it as the shield came up into view. Silvius lost sight of the sword and tried to step back and find his opponent. Toka had raised his shield to obscure his opponent’s view and shoved with all his strength against Silvius. While Silvius was off balance, Toka reversed the overhead strike and brought the sword up under the shield and struck out at his leg.
It would appear that his trick would work, until Silvius pushed back and caught him off balance. The sword never made it to Silvius? leg as Toka was pushed over backwards. Screaming in triumph, Silvius watched the boy fall. But Toka continued to roll and came back up and planted his feet for the rush he was sure would come. Silvius didn?t disappoint him. With all his momentum going forward, he didn?t have time to block the thrust of the sword to his stomach.
As it was, the wooden sword bounced off the protective slats tied around the man’s ample waist.
Silvius swore as he felt the hit.
Toka screamed in triumph, "Ah, ha!"
"How in the Gods? names do you think of techniques like that?" Silvius spat out as he threw his own wooden sword down on the ground.
"I just think about what you wouldn?t expect and then do it."
"I have never seen a fighter fall to the ground and get back up like you do."
"I?ve had a good teacher."
Silvius thought he was being paid a compliment and then laughed to himself. He had to agree with the boy. His grandfather was the master of dirty tricks in hand-to-hand combat. It was always an honor to practice against him or his grandson. Even a teacher could learn new tricks, as he had been taught here today.
Pulling off his helmet and body armor, he took a cloth and wiped the sweat from his brow. The twin suns had warmed the day and waves of heat were rolling across the fields. A slave brought them a jug of water and began to pick up the weapons from the practice field.
Sitting on the ground and looking out over the Middle Sea, Silvius glanced at the young boy who had so easily beaten him. Feeling a lump in his throat, he had to keep a tight rein on his emotions. He genuinely felt sorry for the young man as Toka had lost his mother and father just a few months ago. Silvius had also lost members of his family in the plague that had struck the city of Ka?an. Shaking his head at the thought, it was a miracle the sickness had been contained in the city alone and didn?t strike the Seven Ruling Families of the Plains.
Another slave brought them some bread and fruit. Leaning back against a small tree, Silvius grabbed a bunch of grapes and began to pull the round, sweet spheres off the vine and throw them in the air, then catch them with his tongue. Already, Toka was snoring in the light shade keeping them from the worst of the twin suns? heat.
Looking at the grapes gave Silvius a thought.
Soon, they would begin the Mid Sun Passing. Usually, two suns would be visible in the sky, except when the planet passed between them. When such an event took place, only one would be visible. During this time, the snows on the mountains would melt and heavy rains would cover the land and protect them from the heat of the suns. It was the best time for growing crops and the grapes, which would be used to make his favorite beverage, fermented grape juice.
Toka sat up with a start and Silvius dropped the bunch of grapes. "What?"
Standing, Toka looked over the crops. A slave was screaming the boy’s name and he took off in a dead run. Silvius had a bad feeling of foreboding and ran after the boy. Unfortunately, he was right.
The tear rolled down the boy’s face and fell to the earth. He brushed away the tears that followed and held his breath as the pain of his loss threatened to overwhelm him. It was the first time he ever had to bury someone close to him.
The slave had found the old man this morning, slumped over in his favorite chair. A cup of Ka, Ja root tea had slipped from the old man’s fingers and shattered against the rough wood floor.
Granther had been the old man’s name. He was the boy’s last living relative. In his grief, he didn?t hear the slave walk up behind him and interrupt his thoughts.
"Master Toka...the grain has been loaded onto the wagons. Do you have any further orders, sir?"
It took a few moments before he was able to answer. Too much had happened in such a short time. First, his grandfather’s death and then, a scroll from the new King of the Roman Republic. His thinking was sluggish and he fought to find the right words. "Yes, Hilidia, please take the other workers and go to the House of Leim. The Matron of the House will protect you."
"Will you be along soon, Master?" the man asked.
It was still strange to be called by his father’s title. Toka shook his head in the negative and dismissed him with a wave of his hand. He needed time to be alone.
Indecision seemed to plague the man, he felt he must say something. "I am sorry to visually witness your loss, Master, and the other workers asked me to convey their sadness at the passing of Granther into the Death World. He will be sadly missed by us all as he was more a friend than a master."
Even through his sadness, hearing the slave’s concern warmed him inside. Toka sighed. He would miss them, as Hilidia and the other slaves had been like family to him as well. Absentmindedly, he reached into his toga and pulled out a scroll. "This is a message for the Matron Leim. Follow the main road to the east. When you reach the keep of Leim, I order you to give the Matron Leim this scroll. Then follow her instructions without question."
The man looked surprised. "You are not coming with us, Master?"
Master Toka didn?t reply as he sank within himself and tried to work through his grief, so the slave turned to leave.
The head slave’s gait was slow and deliberate. He suffered from severe headaches and would get dizzy at times. The attack of the wild boar had surprised him. Knocked to the ground, his head and neck had been crushed and mauled. If not for the quick sword thrust of the master, he would be dead. Hilidia smiled at the thought of his salvation and the killing of so worthy an adversary.
They had eaten well that night. They had always eaten well while under Granther’s care. As Hilidia approached the wagons, he called his son to him and walked off to the side. Whispering a message in his son’s ear, Hilidia slipped a knife into the boy’s hand and then hugged him.
Master Toka could hear the shouts of the slaves as they began to move down the road to Cera. He hoped they would be safe. Even within his own sorrow, he felt fear for the families who helped him work this land. However, the rumors of the advancing Barbarian army were too numerous to ignore. He had to get the workers to safety. He chuckled to himself. The workers?he had never shared his father’s belief in the keeping of slaves. Most of the children he had grown up with and he considered them more as friends than just slaves.
He had helped work the land and labored beside them night and day to bring in the harvest, even working long after the slaves had gone to their rest. He didn?t begrudge them a bit as this was his land and he felt he should be the one to set the example and work the hardest. That, too, was now at an end and the future was clouded and unsure. He didn?t know if he would ever make it back to his home, where he could sit against his house and watch the twin suns set behind the mountains and reflect off the waters of the Middle Sea.
The scroll he was sending to the House of Leim would give his slaves their freedom. On the other hand, he would answer the king’s call to arms to defend the city of Ka?an from the Barbarian Horde threatening the New Roman Empire. Taking his grandfather’s breastplate, shield and sword, the young man filled his sack with grain and a few extra pairs of clothes. With a glance at the horses, his face broke into a knowing smile and he grabbed an extra shield and sword.
Before leaving, he stopped one more time to look at Granther’s grave.
"I will be back to see you again, Granther. I will not let the savages destroy what you fought to protect your whole life. May your journey to the Death World be without incident. Tell my mother and father that I love them." Wiping the tears from his eyes, he turned and looked at the twin suns in the sky. He would have several hours before nightfall and the horses were well rested. Tying off the reins of the packhorses to each other so they would follow in a single line, he grabbed the mane of his mount and threw a leg over its back and started on his way.
Toka glanced down the road the workers had taken and was amazed they were already out of sight. He must have spent more time at the grave than he thought. The movement of the horse was gentle and soothing. He hadn?t slept well the night before and dozed for a bit. His horse, Thunderhooves, knew the way and kept plodding along. The boy could, and had in the past, fall asleep at the drop of a hat, but the faithful steed was used to it.
Toka woke, slumped over the neck of the horse. Thunderhooves had known it was time to stop and Toka glanced around. The long shadows of the trees denoted this fact. Patting Thunderhooves on the neck, he slipped off his back. He then pounded stakes in the ground to tie the animals to so they could graze. Once finished caring for them, he pulled several sacks off the packhorses and dragged them off to one side. Picking up limbs from a dead tree, he made a pile and stuffed moss and leaves underneath it.
Pulling a small tin box from his pocket, he blew on a small coal and watched as it grew hot again. Carefully, he bent down and placed the moss on top of the coal and blew again. When it burst into flames, he hastily pulled his hand back. The leaves soon caught fire and he sat back with a look of satisfaction on his face.
"Josf," he called out, "would you like something to eat?"
A bag on the ground began to move. "Can you untie the top of the bag please?"
Toka laughed and untied the knot. A young man crawled out and stood up. "How did you know I was in there?"
"You snore," Toka said.
"I do not," Josf muttered. "My father told you I was in the bag." He was indignant he?d been found so easily.
Toka shook his head in laughter and went back to tending the fire. "I asked if you wanted anything to eat."
"I?m starving," Josf said as he came to sit down across the fire from his master. Toka looked at Josf, who was the son of the head slave and his best friend. He noticed his friend was dressed in rugged clothing and looked like he was ready for a long journey. Underneath the rough homespun shirt, he could see the slave’s muscles ripple as he tended the fire.
"What do you want to eat?" Toka asked him.
"Forgive me, Master Toka," the slave said as he jumped up. "I have forgotten my place. I will prepare us something."
"Josf," he called out, "come and sit down." His friend jumped at the sound of anger in Toka’s voice. Reluctantly, he walked over and sat back on his heels; ready to meet any demand his master would have of him. "Sit," Toka commanded him, and the man did.
"Josf," he started, "we?ve been friends ever since we were old enough to remember. When I sent your father to the House of Leim, I also sent along a scroll. The scroll gives you and your family your freedom so you?re no longer a slave. You do not serve me or my family any longer."
Josf broke down in tears. "Have I not given you good service, Master? Will you leave me in the wilderness to fend for myself?"
Toka went to him. "You and your family have always given good service to my family, my friend. Listen to me," he said gently, "you are my friend. I wouldn?t leave you by yourself."
Josf seemed in shock. "What will I do with myself? I own no land and don?t know a trade. I will starve to death. Oh, Master, please do not do this?I beg of you."
Taking Josf in his arms, Toka hugged him. "The land you grew up on is yours. I have given each of you a section of it. If you want, you can take one of the horses and follow this road to the House of Leim. You should be able to catch up with your family in a few days."
Josf sat for a moment. "And what of you, Master? Where will you go?"
Toka sat back and looked into the flames. "I will go to the city of Ka?an. The new king has sent out a decree to the Ruling Families of the Plains. He has ordered all men, women and slaves of twelve and older to come and defend the city."
"Defend it from what?"
"The Barbarians are on the move again. From the messages to the Families, it would appear the savages are less than a month’s ride away. The cloud of dust on the horizon indicates to me anyway they are much closer than the new king realizes, so we must make haste to get to Ka?an before they attack."
Josf could only sit and look at Toka for a long moment. In less than half a day, his family had been thrown out of the system they had belonged to for generations. On top of that, his master was going to war. "I will go with you, Master." Josf announced suddenly.
"My name is Toka," he said softly. Walking to the packhorse, he pulled two items from a bag and walked to the fire. Reverently, Toka placed the bundles on the ground and began to untie the knots. As he moved the cloth aside, the firelight glittered off a shield. The other bundle revealed a sword.
"This was my father’s shield and sword," he said softly. "I want you to have these weapons."
Josf was overcome with emotion. "You really want me to come with you?Toka? And you want me to fight, too?"
"Yes, my friend. We will need every able-bodied man to defend the city." Josef sat quietly, as if not sure he understood all the changes that happened in the last hour. The twin suns had disappeared behind the mountains and darkness began to fall upon them.
Turning to another pack, Toka reached in, produced a bird and began to pluck it. When he was done, he speared it with a sharpened stake and then propped it up over the fire. He kept quiet and let Josf think for a while. A moon passed overhead and shed light until it disappeared over the mountains. Five slower moons moved over the mountains and followed the first.
Turning the bird to make sure it cooked on all sides, Toka sat back and pulled his sword from its sheath. Taking a soft cloth with oil, he began to rub it down and remove any signs of rust.
"Will you teach me how to use the sword, Master Toka?"
"We will begin in the morning." Toka’s grin was hidden in the darkness. His plan had worked. The smell of the bird was drifting on the night breeze and he felt his stomach growl. Josf slipped a knife from his pocket and began to slice off chucks of meat and placed them on a leaf. Quietly, he placed the food beside Toka.
"What is the purpose of oiling your sword?"
"Get yourself some meat and sit beside me. Then I will show you why." Josf did what he was told and returned.
"If you look at the surface of the blade, you can see small pits where the rust is beginning to weaken the metal. When you oil it, this protects it from the rust, for even blood will damage a sword if left on too long. You want the blade to be as clean as possible. When you cut through another person, if there’s rust or a knick in the edge, the sword can become stuck and allow the other person to strike at you, or leave you exposed for attack from another quarter."
Josf shuttered at the thought of cutting into another human being. Toka acted like he didn?t see the movement and continued.
"You can use the shield to defend your body from the sword of another, arrows or a javelin thrust. I have a few tricks I can teach you to use the shield to block the opponent’s view. Then you can strike from underneath and take off a leg or stab him in the gut."
Josf stopped eating as Toka continued describing the horrors of battle and looked as if he would throw up. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come with the master.
But then Josf remembered his father’s order. He would follow this order until it was his turn to take the journey to the Death World.
Later that night, rolled up in a piece of woolen cloth, Josf thought about the words of Master Toka, now just Toka. He could remember when Toka had been born and even though Josf was a few years older than the Master, the two had hit it off almost immediately. At the showing of the new baby, Toka had cried at everyone except for a young boy, who held the small bundle in his arms. A boy called Josf. Whenever the baby couldn?t be quieted down, the master had called for Josf to rock the boy to sleep.
As Toka grew in age and stature, the two boys became inseparable and would have been considered brothers if not for one being a slave and the other the son of the master.
Both of them shared mischievous adventures that should have gotten them killed, but by the grace of the gods, they had been spared. Like the time Toka decided he would learn to jump from tree to tree like a squirrel. Taking a running leap off an outcropping of rock, he flew through the air and grabbed what looked like a stout handhold. The branch held for a moment and a smile graced his youthful face. It was soon replaced with a look of horror as it snapped in two and he began to fall toward the ground.
Clutching at anything, his weight tore a path through the upper part of the tree. With a scream of pain, his journey stopped at a branch thick enough to stop his plunge toward death, but at the expense of several layers of skin and a few broken bones.
Using a rope, Josf had helped lower the pathetic looking human squirrel to the ground. Taking some Ka, Ja root, he cut out the black heart and put it between his young master’s gum and cheek to help with the pain. Then Josf ran to find his mother, who would discreetly help bandage the young master’s wounds. It was a task the slave had to perform many times and she kept the boy’s secrets close to her heart. Boys were meant to be boys and getting cuts and broken bones were just a part of the path to manhood. She wasn?t sure if the older Master would have shared the same viewpoint, but what he didn?t know, wouldn?t worry him.
Then Toka reached the age where he was required to learn how to run the land and handle a weapon. The two boys? time together was severely limited, but even after a long day of sword practice, Toka found occasions to wrestle and share time with Josf, who in turn, was being schooled by his father to someday become the leader of the slaves. Two different paths, but one solid friendship.
In the dying embers of the firelight, Toka looked over at his friend and thanked the gods Josf was with him. It would help with the loneliness and fear of being on his own for the first time on the way to Ka?an. Chocking back a sob at the memory of Granther, he turned over and finally fell into a restless sleep.