In the shadow of the Tower of Bones the child soldiers drilled.
They stood in ten tightly formed groups, twenty across and five deep. They wore armor made of cowhide cut into leaf-shaped patches, stitched together like scales with sinew, and brushed with mason resin. They held shields of leather and bronze over stumpwood, clutched spears cut from tree limbs and tipped with shards of flint, masterfully chipped to an edge fine enough to shave hair from flesh.
Zakra knew the last part well. His head still burned from when they’d scraped his hair from his scalp earlier that morning, especially where careless haste had flayed layers of skin. Wet beads trickled down his shaved head. Some sweat. Some blood.
He’d arrived with the other young recruits two days ago beneath the light of the new moon. They’d stood a few hundred paces from the Tower’s vast and terrible foot. Centurions had pushed and tugged them, jostling them barefooted over the barren landscape of pebble and sand until they stood in columns, their feet planted within crude cobalt-blue outlines. How many thousands of feet, Zakra had wondered, had filled those spectral footprints? How many thousands would fill them after he was gone?
For hours they stood at attention, shivering in the pale moonlight. They were all but ignored by the centurions, except for one grizzled veteran, an immune, who strolled through their ranks clutching a slender three-foot vine staff.
The immune stopped at each child in turn. Some he glanced at perfunctorily. Others he circled, measuring, examining. Those who shifted or moved, however slightly, received a sharp rap on the upper arm. Zakra earned this stinging rebuke after he moved a hand a few inches to scratch an itch on his thigh. Anyone who spoke, whimpered or, worst of all, cried, was smacked harder on the buttocks. If that didn’t solve the problem, they were struck again. Only a handful needed a third or fourth blow. But one… After the tenth crack of the vine staff, the immune raised an arm, and two centurions appeared and dragged the prostrate form away like a rag doll into the night.
By moonrise the following day, Zakra had been stripped of his leathers and furs, shaved, and scrubbed. His ear bars, rings and bracelets were wrenched from his head and limbs. Centurions brushed his tribe’s markings from his upper arms with stones dipped in glue and rolled in coarse sand. He’d been outfitted and armed and herded into his century.
There was no food or water, rest or sleep. Just a cold and brutal rush, driven by shoves, lashings and booming taunts. “Move it along, arselings! Move it along! Move move move, you slow, sorry, witless little shits.”
Had he a moment to dwell on the last day and a half, he’d have crumbled into tears where he stood. But his mind was focused on keeping the butt of his spear from touching the ground. Just as it had been for the last twelve long hours.
What had begun as a dull burn in his shoulder was now an unbearable fire that crackled through his entire arm. It flared into his chest, back and neck, shot seismic waves into fingers that shifted between agony and numbness. His only respite came when a boy two rows behind him dropped his spear. Then Zakra, along with the rest of the century, was forced to do three dozen pushups while the boy who’d dropped the spear was told to retrieve it and just stand among them. At least then the pain spread itself more evenly through his upper body.
He wondered now if the boys in the century to his right felt the same. He watched from the corner of his eye as their spear-dropping offender stood, head up, eyes forward, perfectly still–a lone pharos in a writhing sea–as all around him his fellow recruits pressed their knuckles into the rough earth, bodies rising and falling, their count ripping from their throats in tortured breaths.