By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
When they reached the tent, Butu went to his blankets and dug out his marbles. Zasbey left with promises to bring back dinner and dire warnings not to leave the tent.
“Let's play,” Butu said when she was gone, pretending nothing had happened.
Paka retrieved his own bag and sat in the tent opening, where the evening breeze trickled in.
Paka was a few inches taller than Butu, but he hadn't grown in months. His sharp features and rich, molasses-brown skin would make him twin to his great-uncle, the kluntra of the Kadrak, once he could grow the moustache the man favored.
Remi retrieved a pouch and looked at Hatal, who sat on his blanket with his back to them. The cousins looked a lot alike, though Hatal was shorter. They had cinnamon complexions, round faces and large feet.
Butu grinned as he drew the playing circle and pulled out one of his marbles – an amber, a rare stone for the desert and one of his favorites. The other boys made no move to join him, their pouches of marbles unopened.
“Want to try again tomorrow?” Butu said into the silence.
His friends didn't respond, but a look passed between Hatal and Remi.
“You fell,” Paka said suddenly. Remi went very still, and Hatal curled up a little bit tighter. “That means you'll be leaving like the kluntra's son.” Tears welled up in his liquid brown eyes.
“I'm not going anywhere, shumi,” Butu said, but even he could hear the doubt creep into his voice.
About three years ago, Butu and Zhek had met in a challenge similar to the race. Zhek's father had begun training his son with a sword, and the third-cycler had taught anyone else who wanted to know, so he could practice swords with his magic, which for some reason the trainer wouldn't let him use. He even taught Jani.
Butu was his best student, but because of Zhek's formal training, Butu could not quite catch the kluntra's son. The challenge was like the race — all in good fun, with bragging rights for victory. They fought on the roof of the stables under two full moons — Galdera and Tirlum, the yellow and blue moons. Butu knew the advantage was his. The kluntra's son was a better swordsman, but he couldn't sense things around him in the dark nearly as well. Soon after the fight started, Butu hit Zhek in the back of one knee. Instead of counterattacking, Zhek lost his balance and slid off the roof. The boys had scattered as shouts of alarm rose, leaving their friend.
Zhek never came back, and whenever Butu had seen him since, the kluntra's son glared at him as if he, personally, was responsible for all the world's troubles.
Zhek didn't come back. Neither did Losi or Miter.
Butu put a hand on Hatal's shoulder, but spoke for everyone.
“Zhek was as big as a mule when he fell, though. Of course the kluntra wasn't going to let him keep playing with us. I'm still too small to be a miner or soldier.”
Please let them not send me to the fields, Butu thought.
“Paka would make a much better soldier than me.” A wink. “At least until I'm taller, and then even Zhek doesn't have a chance against me!”
Hatal snorted, but looked up. Paka wiped his face and grinned. Butu stood and slapped Hatal on the back.
“C'mon, Hatal. Let's play marbles. You name the game.”
Remi tossed a leather pouch at his younger cousin, who caught it with a sly grin.
“Do you even need to ask?”
Butu grinned back. “Not really. If I gave you your choice every time, we'd never play anything but Sentinel.”
They all laughed, and Hatal unfolded and joined them. He tossed a clear, quartz marble into the center of the circle and dropped six plain, red granite marbles around it. Then he and the other boys dumped all of their marbles on to the sand, outside the drawn circle.
“Sentinel guard our villagers, guard our clan and guard our kluntra,” Hatal chanted. “Sentinel stop the pillagers, save the people of Turuna.”
His pile of marbles, made from various materials from sandstone to iron to semi-precious ones like Butu's amber, grew into a lumpy, humanoid figure about six inches high. Hatal stared at the others, daring them to question his craftsmanship.
Butu, Paka and Remi said their own chant, turning their marbles into thumb-high soldiers, the invaders to this town of marbles. Butu placed his amber general, a miniature model of himself with no features, at the head.
Each boy took a turn ordering a soldier into the field, and then Hatal advanced his sentinel, his only defense against the triple threat. He groaned as one of Butu's soldiers caught one of his villagers, dragging it away while Remi sacrificed a soldier to defend it. Butu's soldier dragged the red granite marble out of the circle and the three assaulters gave a small cheer of victory, which was short-lived as the sentinel crushed three more attackers with one blow.
The game would be won for Hatal if he defeated all the enemy soldiers, almost three hundred. He would lose if his six villagers or the kluntra were captured and removed from the field. The odds did not seem fair, except his three opponents were not supposed to work together — each of them sought to pull the kluntra or the most villagers from the field. Their soldiers could attack each other, despite the threat of the sentinel.
Eventually, Hatal lost because Remi and Butu worked together. Paka sided with Hatal in moaning about it, so a rematch was set up.
They were well into this game, laughing and panting, the remains of their dinner strewn about, when Zasbey came back to the tent she shared with her husband. She stood in the opening for a minute, watching them. They stared back, Butu hardest of all. He thought she scrutinized him the most. Then she went inside.
“She'll be better when Mak gets back,” Butu said as they went back to the game, in which Paka's sentinel struggled to defend its four remaining villagers. “She's all lonely and alone.”
“When's he get back?” Hatal asked.
“Another week, at least. Had to go all the way west, to the Nukata.”
“So far away,” Remi said. “Must be a big trade.”
Paka shook his head. “Sounds more like an alliance. Maybe a marriage or a fosterling. It's been a long time since the Ahjea fostered an al'.”
The Turu had three-part names. The first part was the name chosen by their parents, and the third part was the name of their clan, but the middle part described their relationship to the tribe's ruling family. An al' was directly related by blood to the clan's kluntra — a son or a father. An el' was a close relative — a niece or nephew, a sibling or an aunt or uncle. An un' was a distant cousin. A ku was a man who had been adopted into the clan after giving up any claim to his birth clan — a rare event — or a woman who chose to pursue a trade of her own instead of marrying. A tem was an orphan or a foundling of the clan.
None of these boys did, but Zhek used to use Butu's tem status as an excuse to boss him around before the rooftop sword fight. Zhek was an al', after all. He would one day rule the Ahjea, while Butu would never be anything better than a laborer or soldier under him.
My parents ... Butu suddenly had the unwilling thought as Paka cheered a successful assault taking out several of Remi's and Hatal's soldiers.
Butu couldn't remember his parents or anything else from before the Ahjea made him a tem. Zasbey had told him simam had killed his parents. The poison wind roamed the shanjin and turned any adult it caught outdoors into a statue that crumbled like a dried out sand castle when you touched it. Because simam never harmed children, though, it left a trail of orphaned babies and children wherever it went.
He didn't question it. Clans thrived because of their children, be they al' or tem. The Treaty of Mnemon, which governed day-to-day life among the tribes, prevented the capturing or kidnapping of children from another clan. But once in a while he would wake from a nightmare of suffocating heat and scratching sand stinging his face.
“It's Jusep!” Hatal hissed to them
By the time Butu came out of his musings and blinked at the board, all but depopulated by Paka's last strike, the other three boys were already on their feet.
Jusep walked silently but made no effort to sneak up on them — not that he could have if he'd tried. The imposing figure, towering twice Hatal's height and four times his weight, clad in robes of muted blues in the moonlight, stared down at them with eyes made whiter for the deep brown of his face. Zheldesa shone off his shaved head. Past the kluntra, a shadow moved near another tent. In spite of the darkness, Butu could sense it was Pater. He knew Zasbey had moved to near her tent flap, as well. He hoped she would not come out.
And is that Jani, behind us somewhere?
Jusep's stern gaze took in the boys, one by one. “That display today could have damaged our relations with the Kadrak.” His voice was calm, but it was the tone of voice that used to send Zhek scampering to seek other company. “I hope you've been thinking about that. You need to learn to keep your eyes open.”
“Our eyes were open,” Butu protested. “It wasn't a rule to run outbound blind.”
Jusep's hand moved faster than a snake, and Butu bent out of the way just in time to avoid the blow. The kluntra withdrew and went on in the same terrifying calm.
“You do not talk to me like that, tem.” He looked at Hatal, Remi and Paka in turn. “I said keep your eyes open, and that's what I meant. Tomorrow I want you three to tell Zasbey what you think that means. Clean this mess up and go to bed.”
Us three? I'm being sent away just like Zhek and the others.
The fosterlings exchanged wild glances with Butu and fell over themselves trying to put away their marbles and disappear. Butu remained standing, chin high, but his stomach twisted.
I interrupted something important. He's sending me to the fields for sure.
Butu scrambled for an apology, an explanation, anything that might change the kluntra's mind. Mining was dangerous and thankless, but it had to be better than the fields, right? He opened his mouth to speak, but a look from Jusep silenced him.
“Come with me,” was all Jusep said, and turned on his heel to walk away.
Stunned, Butu glanced into the tent, where three sets of eyes reflected moonlight back at him.
“You'd better go,” Remi said softly.
He sensed Pater had gone, and Zasbey was back in bed. Jani had moved closer, and he wanted to go to her, but Jusep was one tent away already and might look back at any time.
The mines will make me stronger while I finish growing. Maybe they'll let me join the army after a year or two, Butu thought, and walked quickly to catch up to the kluntra.
They walked with their backs to the green moon, Zheldesa. The kluntra was also barefoot, but his enormous feet never quite touched the sand or pebbles beneath them. Butu had never noticed that before. He looked down at his own feet, and suddenly gasped as a sharp stone stabbed his heel.
“It's time you were given a job, Butu,” Jusep said without turning around.
Butu opened his mouth to plead his case, but the shock of the pain had driven it out of his mind. “A job,” he repeated. The pain had left, but he still had nothing to say. “Is this because I fell? Like Zhek fell?”
“Yes,” Jusep said, turning around. Butu cursed himself silently. “For tems there's three choices: the mines at Pophir, the fields or Gordney as a sordenu. I don't want you in the mines because your games could cost lives.”
Butu's heart sank, but he said nothing. Maybe if I keep practicing with the sword every night after the farming is done, I'll get so good with it that I'll be allowed to join the army in a cycle or two.
“I doubt you have the patience for the fields, though that's where I'll put you if you cross me one more time.”
Butu stared up at Jusep and blinked. But that must mean…
“Gordney!” Butu blurted, despair changing to delight instantly. “I'm to be a sordenu!”
Jusep nodded, but no emotion touched his face. “This is not a reward. You once bested Zhek with a sword, which shows you have promise, and Pater championed you. With any luck, you'll learn some discipline.” He leaned forward slightly. “But if you don't, I'll have you in the fields in time for harvest. Do I make myself clear?”
Butu nodded vigorously, grinning. I'm going to be a sordenu! It was all he could do to keep from running around Jasper shouting it to everyone.
“Good. Then go to sleep. You'll report to Seargeant Aeklan in Gordney at dawn tomorrow.”
Butu walked away, already imagining the glorious victories he would win for the Ahjea. Butu felt Pater join Jusep, and their whispered conversation pricked in his ears.
“He's too small. He won't even survive the first march,” Jusep said, sounding weary.