Ghalen heard them coming. The sound of so many horses galloping down the road to his home was unmistakable. He rose from his bed where he'd been nervously waiting and moved to look out the window. His attention was immediately drawn to a cloud of dust large enough to cover the breadth of the road and spread out into the grass on either side of it. The golden rays of the late afternoon sun made the dust cloud sparkle, giving it an ethereal appearance. However, Ghalen knew it wasn't bringing anything heavenly to his doorstep.
In front of the cloud were two columns of riders on horseback, heading straight for their small estate. Their presence meant that his family had been chosen in the lottery for the Honorable Recruitment.
Turning away from the window, Ghalen looked around his bedroom. It was a modest space, neat and big enough to fit his furnishings, which consisted of a bed, rocking chair, and a small wardrobe. Most of the room had been given over for the table, stool, and supplies he used to create the art he sold in the town square on feast days. It was a warm, comfortable room. A triple beat of sadness, fear, and excitement pulsed in his chest at the thought that after today, he might not see it for a long while.
Ghalen closed the lid over the effulgen stones that brightened the room before leaving to head downstairs. On his way out the door, his glance fell on the travel bag he'd prepared early that morning. He considered bringing it with him, but decided to leave it behind for now in order to keep his father from unduly stressing.
He went down the stairway also lit by small effulgen stones, through the gathering room, to the front of the house. His younger sister Sadira was already waiting there, her bag sitting next to the front door. Ghalen met her gray-green gaze for a moment of silent understanding before they both nodded. It was time. They turned at the sound of their father's footsteps approaching from his bedroom down the hall.
Darius was a handsome man. Although they shared the same rich, dark skin tone, Ghalen didn’t look anything like his father. Today, his usually calm and smiling face was creased into lines of worry as he spoke to his children.
"I heard them coming too. Let's meet them outside."
Together with their father, Ghalen and Sadira stepped outside to wait in the garden. Out of habit, Ghalen touched the thick leather vest with its high, halo collar buckled around his torso to make sure it was secure before he walked out the door. They only had to wait for a short time before the riding party reached their home.
The main party of riders hung back, while two warriors in the Agymah dynasty colors of dark red and gold rode directly up to the house. Ghalen noted right away that the warriors didn't wear the stiff vests that he and his family wore. Either they were sure in their ability not to be carried off by the predators that plagued the five kingdoms, or they trusted in the reputation his hometown had as one of the areas where snatchings were rare. Although the southern region of Illumai was warm and sunny, here, many trees had been cut down, sacrificing shade in order to eliminate places for the winged predators to roost, and thus reducing their presence. Still, snatchings did ocassionally happen.
"Nuuru family," one of the warriors called out.
Darius stepped forward. "Yes. We are the Nuurus," he said with a bow.
The warrior dismounted and returned his bow before coming forward.
Ghalen eyed her as she approached. This wasn't his first time seeing an Agymah dynasty warrior, but it was his first time seeing one of such high rank. She was of medium height, with skin as rich and dark as the pigment he used to depict the soil in his landscapes, and had thick red hair pulled up into a bun that sat high atop her head. Her makeup and face paint were still neatly applied, even after the no doubt sweaty ride across the South. Black lipstick glossed her full lips. A wide, blood red band swept over her eyes from temple to temple and a single gold line ran beneath each eye down to her jawline.
Her uniform consisted of a modified shendyt; the warrior's kilt split all the way up to her hips on both sides to allow for ease riding on horseback. Both the front and back panels of the kilt were dark red, and beneath it she wore tight black leather briefs. The edges of the shendyt were trimmed in the same black leather, with heavy gold embroidery on the front panel. Her knee-high black leather boots were similarly decorated with gold, with buckle closures that caught the light with each step. She wore a black and gold band on her left bicep, with an iridescent red stone that proclaimed her rank. Ghalen knew enough about the Agymah military forces to know what that particular stone meant: Commander. Her wristbands were metal as well, inlaid with a design that Ghalen couldn't make out from where he stood. But the design on her chest plate was clear - the roaring bear of the Agymah dynasty.
Ghalen reached out for his sister's hand and clasped it in his. One of them would leave today - off to serve their ten and one military service. One year of training and ten years fighting before they could return home - if they survived.
The commander spoke with Darius first, officially announcing that she was there for the purpose of the Honorable Recruitment and that the Nuuru's had been selected. It was a formality, as everyone in the kingdom knew that the Recruitment occurred every four years. She handed over the card with the official Agymah seal stamped in glittering dark red ink with the Nuuru's name written below it, which Darius accepted with another small bow. Once the card was accepted, she moved in close to eye first Ghalen - then his sister.
Ghalen returned the woman's stare with a steady gaze, remaining still as she looked him over, as did Sadira. Neither of them were afraid to do their duty and serve. After several long moments, long enough for a bead of sweat to make its way from the nape of Ghalen's neck all the way to the base of his spine, the warrior finally decided.
"Him," she said with a nod toward Ghalen.
Ghalen's heart stopped for a brief moment before it started thundering so hard his chest felt as if it vibrated from the force. That mix of sadness, fear, and excitement from earlier swirled within him once more - so strong this time he thought he'd cry or shout or both. He'd been chosen.
Before the fact that his life was about to change had a chance to sink in, Darius moved to stand in front of his son, as if to shield him from the warrior who had selected him.
"No! He's only nineteen. Too young to fight."
The Agymah warrior raised a single dark eyebrow at the outburst. "The boy is old enough and fit enough to hold a sword. He comes."
To Ghalen's surprise, his father stepped into the commander's personal space and gripped her arm. "Please don't choose him. He needs to stay here, away from the wars."
Ghalen squeezed his sister's hand tight - not because he was afraid, but as a show of support and comfort. By begging the warrior not to take Ghalen, it appeared as if Darius would be fine if he took Sadira, who was a year younger than Ghalen and just made the cutoff to be eligible for service. Ghalen didn't understand why his father was behaving this way. He'd always loved Sadira, treating her as his own even though she wasn't his child by blood. But lately, as the season for the Honorable Recruitment grew near, Darius had begun expressing his hope that Ghalen wouldn't be selected for the Recruitment within his children's hearing. He'd hurt Sadira deeply with his words, although she'd tried to keep it from showing.
Ghalen released his sister's hand after one more squeeze and stepped forward. The warrior was eyeing the fingers gripping her firm bicep with barely restrained displeasure. Ghalen gently took hold of his father and pulled him off her.
"Father. Please don't shame our family this way. I've been called to serve the kingdom and I'm proud to go." Once Darius was moved to the side, Ghalen faced the commander on his own, his back straight and chin level. "I'm Ghalen Nuuru. I accept my selection for the Honorable Recruitment."
The warrior nodded in approval but didn't allow time for more conversation. "We leave now. Get your belongings or depart empty handed."
At the order, Ghalen rushed back inside the house and up the stairs to his room, taking them two at a time. He burst through the door and grabbed the bag he'd thankfully had the foresight to pack. Bag in hand, he paused to take one last look around his room. He thought it best not to linger however, not knowing what the warrior waiting for him would do if he took too long to return.
His heart pumping with exertion and excitement, Ghalen ran back downstairs and outside. Darius and Sadira were in the same spots as before. The warrior had already remounted her horse and withdrawn back to the main group, giving Ghalen privacy to say goodbye to his family.
His father's face was ashen, eyes big and dark with fear. Ghalen hated to see him this way. But he was also surprised at his reaction. Darius had always known that one of his children might be selected for service. The Honorable Recruitment was the law of the land. The Nuuru family name had been drawn in this quadrennial's lottery and Ghalen was the one chosen. His fear that he was sending one of his children off to war was understandable, but Ghalen couldn't help but feel a slight prickle of resentment that he wasn't receiving a proud send-off as was tradition during the time of Recruitment. Still, Ghalen tried to reassure his father before he had to ride away.
"It'll be all right, Father. I'll train hard and fight well. We'll see each other again. I promise."
Darius made a visible effort to calm himself, smoothing a hand down his vest and clasping his hands together in front of him, before saying his parting words to his son. "Visit the priests as soon as you are able, Ghalen. Listen to them, they will guide you. Attend prayer at temple every day without fail. And keep your mind and heart pure, always."
"Yes, Father. I will."
Darius finally managed a smile and pulled Ghalen in for a tight hug. When he eased back and released him, he looked as if he wanted to say something more. Instead, he pressed his lips together before turning to the Agymah warriors waiting for his son.
"When will he return?" Darius called out across the garden. The rider next to the red-haired warrior answered this time - an older man, his hair buzzed low, with stripes of red, yellow and black painted in a diagonal across his face.
"When he gets leave."
"When will that be?"
"When he gets it."
After that unsatisfactory exchange, Ghalen took a deep breath and moved to hug his sister.
"I'll miss you, brother," Sadira whispered sadly while they clung to each other.
"I'll miss you too," Ghalen said as he squeezed her tight. "I know Father has been behaving strange lately. But he loves you. Mother's passing and worrying about the Recruitment have been hard on him. He'll be back to his old self soon, I'm sure of it."
They parted, and Sadira wiped the tears from beneath her lashes. "I hope so."
Ghalen teased his sister, hoping to put a final stop to her tears before he had to leave her behind. "And don't spend too much time with that boy from the next estate over. I've seen the way you two flirt."
Sadira laughed and swatted his arm, amusement taking over the sorrow in her eyes. "He wishes I would flirt with him." She lightly pushed Ghalen's shoulder. "Go on. They're waiting for you."
His bag slung across his back, Ghalen walked toward the line of horses, pausing in front of the red-haired warrior. He thought he should do something official, but he had no idea what, if any salute was appropriate. A slight smile touched the warrior's lips, as if she understood the reason for his hesitation. Seeing the smile on the stern face slightly eased the nervous butterflies tumbling about in his belly. She jerked her head toward the line of horses behind her.
Ghalen walked between the columns of horses, his skin prickling with awareness that the other recruits were watching him. He kept his gaze straight ahead until he reached one of only two remaining riderless horses. From that, Ghalen assumed that he was one of the last to be conscripted, and they would be returning to the palace city after they made one final selection. Thankful that he was an expert rider, Ghalen easily swung up onto the mount's back.
Once he was settled, he looked over the others from this region who'd been collected for their ten and one. There were many, nearly two dozen. Two he recognized from town, although he didn't have a relationship with them. A few of the others stood out to Ghalen, although they were wholly unfamiliar to him. There was a tall, dark-haired girl with a serious face who sat very straight atop her mount. Next to her was a smaller girl, sitting slouched in her saddle, with hair the same bright silver as a full moon. Behind her was a petite boy with warm brown skin and golden hair. Their eyes caught for a moment and the boy flashed Ghalen a quick smile. Ghalen dipped his chin once in acknowledgment, then turned his attention back to the home he was about to leave behind for the next eleven years - or possibly forever - if he was unlucky in battle.
His small family had moved to where the garden met the road to watch him depart. Sadira was putting on a brave face, but he could see that her cheeks were again wet with tears. His father looked nearly frozen with fear. It hurt Ghalen to leave him this way, but there was nothing he could do. The riders were leaving, the columns turning in a horse shoe formation to go back the way they'd come down the Nuuru's drive. When it came his turn to move out, Ghalen lifted his hand in a final wave, smiling as his family returned it. Then, he put heels to his borrowed mount's sides to ride away.