By N.O. Sweatman
Oxleyiin edged through the invitees, keeping to the peripheral of the surging mass of youths surrounding the bonfire. Being inconspicuous was never an option, his mixed racial heritage negated the considerable stealth and unassuming demeaned he had carefully cultivated. The last group of bullies had also broken his nose, again, and left him with a black eye. Still, none of them looked any better, and he didn’t think any of them would be trying to jump him again. A group of nervous young men, clutching mugs of ferment and laughing artificially, glared at him with superiority attitudes only slightly larger than their egos. Small for his age and the object of much negative biases and prejudices, life had equipped him with an uncanny ability to sense negative situations, his instincts were currently screaming. All the youths assembled radiated fear and insecurity, not that Ox could blame them, his own stomach was a mass of strangle vines. The once a rotation going away party was never a time of joy, and despite the Elders constant reassurance, he didn’t believe the selection would be random.
“Flame and Assault, what in the forest are you doing here? The standards must be real low this rotation.” Joskeer jeered.
“Shut it, we are all on the same limb.” Istvaan frowned at Joskeer, and turned to addressed Ox, “Tears of the angel Ox, you are a red hot mess. You didn’t sneak in did you? I know how you love to thumb your nose at the rules, but you can’t be of age yet?”
Ox shook his head, he didn’t go out of his way to break rules, they were just nearly all stupid, so his attitude was indifference, not rebellion, and being a mess had not been his fault, if he didn’t defend himself he would have suffered more.
“I’m not of age, but I got a button, so, no choice,” his stomach constricted further.
“Flaming runt,” Joskeer dismissed him and searched the crowd for someone more interesting to talk to.
Ox wanted to touch the small disk with his name inscribed in the pocket of his cowl, he resisted the urge, instead turned the button in his hand over white knuckles.
“It has to be a mistake, you should have said something,” Istvaan was genuinely concerned, Ox was surprised, and touched, but the big youth had always played fair.
“Mum did,” Ox shrugged. It didn’t bode well that her words have fallen on deaf ears.
The much anticipated the drum’s began booming, louder than Ox’s racing heartbeat. The youths surged towards the Elders. One of them towards a death sentence.
“Strengthen your heart Ox.” Istvaan clutched his fist to his chest. “The bag is shaken, last rotation it was someone closest to the fire whose button was drawn.”
Ox nodded, Istvaan was right. The youth chosen last had been a simple lad from the cave complex next to the one where his mothers House was located. If you had to send someone to certain death from a warped perspective it made sense to send someone who was simple. Or a cripple, like the youth from the rotation before. Or if you didn’t have a spare youth with a disability, a despised half cast kid would potentially also do the job. Ox shivered, why else give someone two rotations younger than the usual age a button? But if he hadn’t turned up his selection would have been automatic by default, the elders had at least made a pretence of checking all the youths names against the list.
Joskeer’s face had become a stone, Ox hadn’t realised the bully would be so frightened, but he should have, most of the bullies he had encountered were cowards. The mummer of voices stilled. The air was thick with a palatable dread. In single file each youth marched passed the Elder holding the bag and under intense scrutiny dropped the button he had been given inside. Hearing the tinkle of his contribution Oxleyiin steadied his pounding heart. No one called his offering into question.
The bag was shaken, several Elders on a raised podium making a show of ensuring the continence thoroughly mixed. Ox wasn’t sure how they were going to rig the outcome. If he was doing it he would have made sure the participant’s name was not in the bag, kept it aside, and only pretend to draw one out. But he was sure his button had joined the others.
“For the privilege and honour of representing the people of Xiaan one youth will be selected to joint the ranks of the Commanders. He will leave to train for three rotations with their envoy immediately.”
They always said that. The exact same words even though everyone knew the mother of the youth selected would receive a missive expressing sympathy for the death of her beloved son some time in the following rotation. Ox sort for The Envoy among the Elder on the dais. The Commander stood to one side, not a big man, unattractive short bright gold hair, no beard, not good looking, dressed oddly and surprisingly young. Ox would have thought they would have sent an older representative, someone to add dignity to the occasion, evidently his people were not even valued enough for the Commanders to bother with a pretence anymore. It was weird to contemplate the going away party and selection process had originally been devised because so many first-born sons had wanted to become Commanders. Of course that had been before the Revolution, before they became a hated people, before the attempts of genocide and power games and rules that kept them subjugated and would end their culture and race within the next few generations.
Without further preamble a blindfolded Elder shuffled forward, Oxleyiin was too short to see the slight of hand he was sure would follow. The youths below collectively held their breath. Ox thought of his mother, the Commanders had executed his stepparent as an instigator of civil unrest last rotation. He had come close to losing his life then. Surly one tragic per family was enough, but life didn’t work like that, after all his mother had already lost his parent. If selected, he wasn’t sure how she and his sister and little brother would cope. The House was already impoverished, and the neighbourhood was becoming increasingly unruly as deprivation spurned more desperate people to drastic measures. They didn’t need the Commanders to finish them off now, the Xiaanes were doing a fair job of it themselves. He had been teaching his sister to fight, not an orthodox activity for a girl-child, but she had always been feisty, taken to it with great enthusiasm and skill. Would it be enough to keep them protected if he was chosen? When he was chosen?
“Oxleyiin, of Tivadaar,” the Elders voice was strong, and echoes back off the surrounding wall.
Ox grunted, clutched his button still in his cowl to his chest. The reality crushed down like rockfall and an involuntary shiver ran up his spine. He had acted without honour, but now he had proof the Elders had cheated. Not a surprise but he was young enough to still feel disappointed. His analytical mind thought through the process. The blind man must have already had a button with his name on it in his hand when he reached into the bag.
“I am Oxleyiin of Tivadaar,” he made his way to the podium mounting the steps up to the dais quickly. Galvanised to action moving cleared his mind.
The Commander came forward, a slight frown on his face. He glanced between the man removing his blindfold and Oxleyiin. Nodding to himself once he gave Ox a sympathetic smile. Ox got the impression he had worked out what had happened.
“I am Commander Flagsteen. You have been selected son, so, such as it is, I may as well attach the fractal.” he hesitated momentarily inspecting Ox’s face carefully, and then held the sparkling orange gem like object out for Oxleyiin to admire.
It was a thing of beauty. Flat with nine radiating arms, it was disappointingly small, only the size of his smallest fingernail. Each rotation it was always an orange, granting the wearer super Powered Endurance, not that he would live long enough to master it’s use. He had tossed up the different scenarios, considered exposing the Elders and not accepting the fractal, but sure they would send him anyway and however small the fractal may increase his chances of survival. Not that accepting or refusing fractal had made a difference to any of his predecessors. Ox stoically held out his arm while the Commander expertly made a small incision, drew a single drop of blood and gently placed the fractal against it. He then took a strip of cloth and bound his upper arm. A shiver of intense cold and then heat raced through his body, the Commander raised and eyebrow and slightly shook his head. Ox hadn’t heard anything about this, a slightly euphoric feeling, the ache of his broken nose and the pressure surrounding his lack eye disappeared. The Commander gave him a wink.
One of the Elders started, and another’s jaw dropped. Ox wondered what had happened, he became the recipient of confused and amazed expressions.
“You Healed him?” The Elder who had been blindfolded accused the Commander.
“Of course, I won’t abide by my charge, our single Xiaanes representative going off to training looking like a victim of abuse.” Commander Flagsteen raised an eyebrow at the Elders.
“What does it matter?” An older man muttered; his voice was laced with regret.
“It matters to me, I have been commanded to serve training the lads for the next three rotations, my hope is, previous, let’s say expectations will be subverted.” Flagsteen held the older man’s eye.
“It won’t work, others have tried, there have been other brave individuals,” the older man was scrutinising Oxleyiin’s face. “I guess his parent was one.”
“Yes, I knew him from child-hood. He grew to be a man of great honour, didn’t know till just now he had a son, and you return the favour of his sacrifice for you by throwing his son the forest?”
Commander Flagsteen spoke softly, but his words had an effect on all those on the dais. Guilt, anger, regret. Ox was finding the conversation hard to process. How could this young man have known his long dead parent? His mother had been reluctant to talk about him, all he had was a name, and the knowledge he had fought and died in the Revolution. A couple of the Elders shifted uncomfortably, others sneered, most remained stoically stone faced. Ox waited for a response. How great a man had his parent been that even one of the enemies would acknowledge him and spoke of him with respect.
‘If you want to say anything now is the time.’
The Commanders voice was in his head.
Complex emotions fought. Did he want to expose the deceit of his own elder? It wouldn’t change anything. They would still send him.
He lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. “I am ready to go Sir.”
Commander Flagsteen nodded and said nothing as Ox slipped his original button into the Elder who had been blindfolded hand. He didn’t make a fuss but there was no reason for them not to know he knew they had cheated.