“We draw our personal darkness around us to keep us safe from the sun.” Tanith Lee
Father always wanted a boy. He blamed the armaya, the curse, that held our people in the desert that he got me; for mother’s death he blamed only me. Though I can maybe understand that. Only maybe though. I do tend to do the exact wrong thing when doing the wrong thing causes the most trouble. That’s my armaya. I couldn’t even be born right; I had to come kicking into this world feet first. I’m surprised he didn’t just leave me in the desert then.
To be honest, I call him father in name only. A dozen different men of the company along with their women — wives, mothers, and sisters — were my family. I was passed from tent to tent like so much laundry that needed looking over for a time before it was someone else’s burden. There’d be brief interludes when I would be returned to his tent in some futile attempt to reconcile us. As if that’d ever happen. The only thing that came of that is I learned to dodge the fist and the foot, and how to hide the drugs in the food in ways he’d not notice so he’d sleep and leave me be. Not that I think he’d care if he did taste the added ingredients. I think the life left him on the day of my birth and all that remained was a shell that moved when the company moved and stopped when the company stopped.
It was during on of those in between times that they first noticed me. By “they” I mean the shadow walkers — the small group of men and women the Captain sent out on special missions in ones and twos. The ones that sometimes didn’t come back and nobody spoke about afterwards. They seen me skulking around the quartermasters tent trying to liberate a chunk of sugar. I thought I’d been so careful, so quiet. I was just slipping out the back when a hand fell on my shoulder and my life changed. I’m still not sure if it was for the better.
Like the rest of the children of our company, I’d been taught the ways of the desert. The ways of sand and water, the ways of knife and arrow. From listening to the recitations of the Annals at night I thought I knew my place and where my place would be. The shadow walkers had other plans for me.
They’d seen something in me that set me apart from the rest of the youngers and invited me into their circle. Daily lessons in the life of the company remained the same, but at night they taught me the ways of the shifting darkness and how to make it my friend. They taught me how to track the beetle across the windswept sands. They taught me the properties of the plants, beyond what the surgeon and cook taught us all. Most importantly they taught me patience and how to bank the angry fires I carried in me to temper and focus my will.
Though they’d probably never admit it, but I think I taught them patience as well. They had to have plenty of it not simply kill me and hide the body for all the trouble I brought down on them from the Captain. Sometimes I’m surprised the Captain never ordered it himself.
Against all odds though they were able to shape me and tame me. At least enough, and when I turned twice twelve and one year they were to present me to the Captain with their request that I formally join their unit. Then the unthinkable happened. The armaya was lifted. Don’t ask me how we knew, but to a child, the whole company felt it. Maybe it was something in the wind, or a clarity of the sky and stars that had never been felt, seen, or smelt before.
Before anyone really realized, a good number of the indentured fled along with a scattering of the company bred with them. I overheard the Captain and the wizard Ralben discussing it and what should be done. The wizard counciled the Captain to let them run. Either the desert would claim them or not, but they were beyond the border of the Company and those that remained were the faithful.
In silence I returned the tent of my father. I found him in a drunken slumber. I suppose he was either celebrating the new freedom or drowning his sorrows yet again. I guess I will never know though. I quietly cut his throat then, and took down his tent to stash it with the spares the quartermaster always had. Everyone just assumed he’d run off with the others.
We marched hard that night and by morning came to what they told me was river. Before we left out on that journey, I turned to were my father lay in his shallow grave. “You were right about one thing,” I said, “you said you’d never leave the desert.” I then turned and joined my unit and never looked back.