Chapter 1: Brom
Brom’s life was about to change forever. Today he was going to take his first step toward doing something that mattered, something to be proud of. Lightning crackled in his belly—a new sensation that had started this past week. The lightning came upon him when he was inspired, which was every day now that he’d found his vocation.
The beautiful spring sun beat down on the five boys who sweated in the practice yard. The smell of springtime flowers and budding trees punctuated Brom’s soaring spirits, but even better was the lingering scent of dust, which hung in the air from the final bout between himself and Thol. Thol was bigger, stronger, and looked more like what a guardsman should look like, but Brom had put him in the dirt. Now Thol stood stone-faced and breathing hard in the line of five boys, ignoring the trickle of blood leaking from his nose. Brom stood next to him, also breathing hard.
Guardsman Roland walked slowly across the front of the line, got to the end, reversed direction and walked slowly back.
“Impressive,” he said.
This spring the guardsmen of Kyn had put out the call to every able-bodied young man who wanted to carry a sword and protect the village, who wanted to become a village guard. Hero’s work.
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Every boy sixteen and older had rushed to try out.
Now it was down to five, and Roland was going to choose the two who would train to become village guards. Two. And one of them was going to be Brom.
There had been thirty in this line at the beginning of the week. Now there were only five, and Brom had bested them all.
He’d outfought them. He’d outridden them. He’d shown an aptitude for tracking through the woods. When put to the test of diplomatically convincing a group of villagers to stay away from the dangerous springtime mud pits and head back toward town, Brom had excelled. He liked people, and they responded to him. This was what he was made to do. The lightning surge of inspiration crackled inside him when he put his mind to this work. It carried him with an enthusiasm he’d never felt for Father’s work.
Father was going to be livid when he found out Brom had been accepted into the village guard. He’d thought Brom, because of his size, would wash out in a day. Of course, Father also wanted Brom to follow in his own footsteps as a builder.
Brom’s father was stocky, wide-shouldered, and big-muscled. A perfect physique for hauling and cutting stone. He was also even-tempered, except when it came to Brom, and patient. Repetitive, mind-numbing work didn’t bother Father at all.
But Brom wasn’t stocky. He had a slight build and average height. He had quickness, but not brute strength. Hauling stones in the hot sun was torture for him. He had no sense for it and no desire to gain one. Brom longed for greater things: adventure and the opportunity to make a real difference. Spending monotonous, sweat-dribbling, muscle-aching hours cutting stones…well, it sounded like the worst life imaginable. Except, of course, for the drab existence of being a farmer, which was the only other livelihood available in the village of Kyn.
So when they’d put out the call for guardsman trainees, it was like Brom had received a stay of execution. He had one chance—just this one slim chance—to take hold of his destiny, and he was determined to grasp it with both hands.
Guardsmen had a life akin to the legendary Quadrons, the mystic warriors who came from the Champions Academy and rode across the kingdom righting wrongs and dispensing justice. Of course, Kyn guardsmen only patrolled the perimeter of Kyn. And they didn’t have magic. But it was the closest thing to becoming a Quadron Brom was ever going to have.
After all, just like the Quadrons, guardsmen rode horses. They trained with weapons. They stood as the shield against brigands who might harm the people of Kyn. In short, they did something that mattered.
That was the life for Brom.
Guardsman Roland stopped in front of the line, exactly in the middle, and looked at each of the boys in turn.
“Brom Builder,” he called out, and it was like a jar of butterflies had been opened in Brom’s stomach. “Please step forward and face your fellow applicants.”
Brom stepped forward. He’d seized this opportunity, and he was about to rush through a door to a new world.
“To the rest of you,” Roland said. “I would like you to look upon young Brom as an example for you all. In every area, from feats of arms, to tracking his quarry, to crowd pacification, to the administrative needs of the guard, he has excelled.”
Brom was surprised to see that two of the remaining four applicants actually looked happy for him. Garn and Thol didn’t, of course. Thol glared daggers at Brom, and Garn looked just as resentful. The twins had excelled at the tests, more so than any of the other hopefuls aside from Brom, and he knew they’d wanted to take the two spots together. Now only one of them would.
“Brom has all the qualities we prize highly here in the Kyn village guard,” Roland continued. “All save one.” Roland turned to look at Brom, and Brom felt a sudden jolt to his euphoria. “Brom Builder, you are expelled from these barracks forthwith. And should we ever have another opening, you needn’t bother applying.”
Two gasps burst from the line of boys.
Brom felt like someone had scooped his insides out and thrown them on the ground. He couldn’t breathe.
“W-What?” he whispered.
“What makes the guard strong, young Brom, is each guardsman’s ability to follow the rules. A solemn bond to work together. An unbreakable fellowship. Without this, there is no trust. Without trust, there is no fellowship. I have no room in this guard for a rule breaker.”
Brom’s dream turned to mist in front of his eyes, but still he tried to grasp it.
“W-What rule, Master Roland? What rule did I break?” he asked, though he could feel the heat in his cheeks as his face grew red. He knew exactly what rule he’d broken. And somehow, so did Roland.
During this last week, the guardsman applicants were required to live in the barracks. During the day, they were given tasks about the town, or in the nearby forest, but at night, they were to unfurl their bedrolls in the practice yard under the stars and sleep there while the real guardsmen slept in their bunks.
They had been strictly prohibited from leaving the barracks at night. But Brom had sneaked out last night, stolen away to the graveyard to meet Myan the miller’s daughter.
Myan was as cute as the day was long. She had a round face and a button nose with freckles that just drove Brom crazy. Her lustrous brown hair curled down to her chin, cut shorter than most girls in town, and it exposed her pale, slender neck.
All the boys had become intriguing to the village girls the moment they’d applied to become guardsmen. But it was Brom who Myan had approached. She’d stopped him yesterday after he’d successfully helped Guardsman Lothu relocate the half-dozen villagers who’d gotten too close to the springtime mud pits. As Lothu had been talking with Myan’s father, the miller, she’d sidled up next to him and whispered in his ear.
“Meet me tonight?”
Brom’s eyes had widened.
“At the graveyard,” she had whispered, her breath tickling his ear. “At midnight.”
Gods, she’d smelled so good, like fresh flour. Brom had told her she was intoxicating, and her smile had come out like the sun rising through mist.
She’d touched his arm and repeated, “Midnight.” Then she’d run away to rejoin her father.
Was he supposed to miss that chance? Myan wanted to meet him! It was going to be just the two of them, alone, and who knew what would happen? He’d been longing to kiss her—every boy in the village had—since early spring when her dresses suddenly got tighter in certain areas.
He’d thought about how he was breaking the rules, but the thought only lasted a moment. What was the point of that rule, anyway? There wasn’t one. Was he supposed to simply let the opportunity pass him by, let some other village boy take his spot while he was confined to the barracks? It wasn’t as if getting a kiss from Myan was going to make Brom a worse guardsman.
So he’d put all of his skills into solving the problem of how to escape without detection. He’d envisioned it as a personal test for the village guard. He was going to pit his wits and skills against actual guardsmen.
He’d waited until everyone was asleep in the barracks and practice yard, save the night watchman, whose rounds Brom had memorized on the third day. Brom had evaded him with ease, climbed over the guardhouse wall and run into the night. And he’d met Myan. Gods, he’d met Myan, and it was everything he’d dreamed it would be. They’d kissed until his lips hurt. After, he’d taken her safely home. Only once she’d slipped through her window, turned, and blew silent kisses at him, did Brom finally return to the practice yard.
He’d successfully sneaked back in, evading the guard and not rousing his sleeping fellow applicants. After crawling safely into his bedroll, he must have lain awake for another hour, staring up at the stars and feeling as though the gods had conspired to give him everything he’d ever wanted.
He’d been so sure no one had seen him. But obviously, one of the other applicants had awoken during his absence, had somehow noticed he was gone.
Brom turned to glare at the four boys still lined up. Two of them looked bewildered. Garn and Thol, however, had begun to grin. The truth became as obvious to Brom as the nose on his own face. They were the ones who’d told on him. Now they’d both be in the guard.
And Brom wouldn’t.
He quivered with anger and frustration. He wanted to invite Garn or Thol, or even both of them, to the practice ground again. He wanted—
Roland put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t blame another,” Roland interrupted him, “for your own wrongdoing.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Brom said. “It was just… It has nothing to do with being a guard!”
“It has everything to do with being a guard. You left these barracks last night, flaunting the rules to go to the town graveyard to consort with a girl.”
Brom was dumbstruck. How… How did he know that? If Garn or Thol had seen Brom leave the barracks, that was one thing. They’d know he’d gone missing. But how could they know where he’d gone…?
A wash of guilt swept over Brom. Myan! Gods… If they knew where Brom had been, then they knew who he’d been with. Myan had said her father would kill her if he knew she was out of the house at midnight. Now punishment would come swift and hard upon her. Of any crimes Brom might have committed last night, that was the worst.
I’m so sorry, Myan, he thought, even as he forced himself to look up, to clench his teeth and look into Roland’s disapproving eyes.
“You have great skills for a young man of sixteen,” Roland was saying. “But did you think no one in the guard had greater?” Roland shook his head, then looked at the other boys. “The rest of you look upon Brom as an example. This is what happens to someone—even someone so talented—who breaks the rules. Ask yourself: do you want to be a rule breaker? Such arrogance can only lead to a fall.”
Brom swallowed, and tears burned his eyes. He looked at Garn and Thol with their slitted, backstabbing gazes.
“I understand the impulses of a young man,” Roland said. “By gods, I do. But they do not stand above our rules. They do not stand above our fellowship.” He pointed to the gates that led out of the practice yard. “Go now, Brom. Don’t come back.”
Dazed, Brom turned. A moment ago, he felt like he could fly. Now, it felt as if his legs could barely hold him up. Roland and the other guardsmen had praised him every day, day after day. And now, suddenly, he was nothing? And for what? He went to the wooden barracks wall and numbly retrieved his bedroll. When he reached the gate, he turned.
“You talk about fellowship?” Brom said, his voice shaking. He looked at the smugly satisfied Garn and Thol. “Then good. Take them as your fellows and take your pointless rules. Let the twins guard your backs like they did mine.”
Roland’s face reddened.
Brom left the barracks and he didn’t look back.
Todd Fahnestock is a writer of fantasy for all ages and winner of the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age Award. “Threadweavers” and “The Whisper Prince Trilogy” are two of his bestselling epic fantasy series. He is a 2021 finalist for the Colorado Book Award and winner of the Colorado Authors League Award for Writing Excellence for “Tower of the Four: The Champions Academy.” When he’s not writing, he teaches Taekwondo, enjoys family life with his wife, son and daughter, and plays vigorously with Galahad the Weimaraner. Visit him at www.toddfahnestock.com.