Hoshi was fourteen. He had just turned. This would be the day he’d have to start an apprenticeship. He sat on the hillside outside his village, watching the sun rise. He had gotten up very early to come out here. He breathed in the crisp morning air, fresh with dew. Small insects started to buzz around the high grass. Birds were waking as frogs began to quieten. Hoshi’s stomach rumbled. He stood up, slowly, stretching. He was still tired, even though everything was waking up. His family would also wake soon. If Hoshi didn’t choose an apprenticeship with his father’s approval today, he would become the carpenter his father was. He had even already learned more about working wood than most people did. He knew he‘d be a good carpenter if he had to be. Maybe even an artist.
But that’s not what he wanted from his life. He wanted more. He had come to this hilltop in hopes the Skyknight would arrive. But he was nowhere in sight. Hoshi wanted the skies, and the Skyknights were the only ones who could offer him that. But they were agents of the Emperor. His father expressed reluctance to allow him that path in life. The Empire had conquered this region. This village, and the country it had been a part of, was a peace-loving country. They had been here, with their traditions, their folklore and tales, their ways, long before the Empire started to spread.
Hoshi’s father saw the Empire as a disease. A plague that spread across the land, bringing the worst elements of every land it conquered to every other part. Hoshi wasn’t so sure. He thought the trinkets, the trade, the songs and stories that came from the other parts of the Empire didn’t detract from the value of his family’s traditions, but rather added a rich complexity of tradition from all across the land.
Hoshi started to walk down the hillside, the cool, wet blades of grass parting for him, not before they left their chilly marks on his legs. He started towards the bison farmer. He would bring milk home for breakfast. His family kept their own chickens. He would visit the baker as well, bring home some fresh bread.
The bison farmer already had fresh jugs of milk available in his stand. He also had cream, butter, cheese, and some yarn. Hoshi pulled out the small bills that had replaced their money years ago, when the Empire came, and offered the right amount in return for some milk and cheese.
“Hoshi, you’re up early,” the bison man greeted.
Hoshi shrugged. “It’s my day of apprenticeship.”
“Ah,” the merchant grinned. “That’s exciting. You are a smart young man. Have you given any thought to the trade you’d want to learn?”
Hoshi knew he’d face a lot of potential recruiters today. “I have, but I haven’t made any final decisions yet. I’ll keep my mind open.”
The man nodded. “You’ll come later for your mother and sister? I’ll have some dyed yarn available.”
“Maybe,” Hoshi replied, “I know Mother is still working on the robes she finished. She’s embroidering them now.”
“Well, if she needs anything, you come back and let me know.”
“Will do,” Hoshi said as he headed out of the man’s stall. His basket was already a bit heavy. He hoped to get the bread quickly and make his way back to his house before he got too tired. Of all the places in the village, this place was the busiest, since there were farmers and tradesmen, merchants of all sorts setting up shops in the stalls provided for them.
Despite that, the village was rather quiet, even here at the market. It didn’t take him long to make his way to the baker’s stall.
“Hey,” the baker seemed pleasantly surprised, “look who’s up early. How are you doing, Hoshi?”
“Good,” he rolled his eyes a little, “it’s my day of apprenticeship.”
“Ho ho,” the baker grinned, “you don’t want to bake, do you? It gets terribly hot by the oven.”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t ever learn to make the bread as good as you do, anyhow.”
The baker grinned at the flattery. As Hoshi predicted, the baker gave him an extra loaf in his basket, taking the money in return. Hoshi was excited, because the bread was still warm. With breakfast in hand, he quickly headed back home.
His village was small, it didn’t take very long for him to get there. The sky was blue, the sun low on the horizon when he got home, birds singing all around. He slowly opened the door into the kitchen, and grinned to find his mother was already up.
“You’re up early,” she observed with a smile, “happy birthday.”
“Thank you,” Hoshi placed the food basket on the table and hugged her firmly. Somehow, in the pit of his stomach, he knew this day would determine the rest of his life, it would change everything. He could no longer live as a child, and that terrified him. He knew over these past two or three years, he had developed enough to really contemplate life, to appreciate it in ways he couldn’t as a young child. But he had still been a part of his parents’ household. He hadn’t near the responsibilities of a real adult. It was a luxury he would not be afforded any more. He was scared, and the embrace of his mother helped ease that fear some.
Together they made breakfast. Hoshi had his first cup of tea, which helped invigorate him for the day. It was hot, and sweet with honey, and good. His mother made omelettes with fresh eggs and the cheese Hoshi got from the market, along with some peppers and herbs from her garden. They toasted thick slices of bread, slathering butter and honey all over them.
Hoshi’s father and little sister Shianna woke before long. Hoshi ruffled the girl’s hair, nodded to his father as they entered the kitchen. She giggled, her little doll dangling from her grasp. She pushed herself up onto a chair around the table. Hoshi’s father, though visibly still exhausted, seemed pleased to see Hoshi up. He patted Hoshi on the shoulder as he took the cup of tea prepared for him and sat at the head of the table, taking a deep draught of the hot, sweet liquid. He grunted in deep appreciation of the veritable feast set before them.
Though happy, they were all still mostly very tired, so they ate in quiet. Not silence, as they passed things to each other and made some conversation. But, mostly, they were still quiet. It was a comfortable quiet, peaceful. The food was heartening, filling and warm. The tea was strong, and flowed freely. Hoshi tried to enjoy the innocence, the familial love that would soon be too rarefied to enjoy much more of.
“You got up early, today, son,” Hoshi’s father finally started them towards the inevitable. Hoshi sighed, nodded.
“Been keeping an eye out for the Skyknight,” Hoshi admitted.
“Hoshi,” his father’s voice grew stern, “you know how I feel about them.”
“Yes,” Hoshi nodded placatingly, “but I also know how I feel about them, and this is the last day of my life I can do anything about that. I have to make a choice today that impacts the rest of my life. It would be a shame if I started accumulating regrets so young, wouldn’t it?”
Hoshi’s father grew very quiet, somber. The storm he was struggling with inside was creating waves of emotions across his features. Eventually, the man got himself under control, and soberly nodded. “Yes,” he acknowledged, “yes, it would.”
Hoshi had done his best to be respectful. He had kept quiet, he had not said anything that could be construed easily as an outright insult. He had hoped his father could be the bigger man and accept what his son had to say. Hoshi was proud of his father, he felt like he had gambled wisely. “So,” his father continued soberly, quietly, “any luck? Has the Skyknight flown in yet?”
“Not since I came home with breakfast,” Hoshi admitted, looking down at his plate. “but there is still plenty of time, isn’t there?”
His father was quiet, sipped his tea, looked down at his food. After a moment, he nodded. “Absolutely,” he agreed. “You don’t have to make your choice for some hours yet.” Hoshi easily heard the tone of hope in his father’s voice, hope that the Skyknight would not make it today. Hoshi could barely blame him, so didn’t grow angry. He just nodded and continued to pick at his breakfast, sip at his strong, sweet tea. If he was honest with himself, he realized that what tantalized his father with hope threatened to overwhelm him with fear.
What if the Skyknight didn’t make it today? What if some terrible weather in a far-off territory of the Empire delayed him, or some marauders had ambushed him? Hoshi could put off his final decision for a few hours, but he couldn’t put it off another day. He was nervous. He pushed down the anxiety, and realized that he had no way of verifying such fears until the day was over, and so ought to focus on the present moment and the options open to him.
His father insisted on waiting with him. He promised not to harass him about his choice. He simply hoped to be there when his son made the decision to shape the rest of his life. Hoshi couldn’t presume to deny him that. They agreed to return to the market once they had cleaned up after breakfast, and let the chickens out of their coop for the day.
Their preparations took a little bit of time, as Hoshi expected. He could feel his father’s enjoyment of their time together, and he realized he felt secure in their daily rituals as well. He felt a sudden pang of guilt, for what he wanted, for how he wanted to distance himself from his family, from his father. His father was a man that dealt with change poorly, and while Hoshi relished the idea of progress, he understood that his father had grown secure in the familiar, and had a certain level of anxiety borne of losing that security.
They made their way to the market, though slowly. While Hoshi was anxious to see if the Skyknight had arrived, if he hadn’t, his impatience wouldn’t make the man arrive any sooner, and besides, Hoshi’s father was in no rush, rather, he was more interested in putting off Hoshi’s inevitable decision as long as possible. They didn’t even make it to the market before they heard the screaming, coming from the edge of the village. Hoshi locked eyes with his father: they knew the family who lived in that direction, and once they each verified that the other heard it, they bolted in the direction of the cries.
What they found, Hoshi would never forget. He had seen death before, his village had its share of accidents, its share of illnesses, and its share of elderly people. He had never seen anything like this before. Just trying to wrap his mind around what he faced, he couldn’t help but think of the butcher’s stall at the market. He felt himself gag, the smell already a dreadful mix of copper and excrement, but steeled his resolve, as there were still screams coming from inside the hut.
Glancing towards his father, he followed his lead. His father had already drawn his own knife, making his way to one side of the front door of the hut. Hoshi drew his own knife, which he had, like his father, for utility. He had never even drawn blood with it, not even on their own chickens: his father always killed and dressed the chickens when they were ready to eat them.
“Please, no, she’s only a girl,” a woman’s voice pleaded inside the cabin. Hoshi and his father locked eyes. All the bodies outside were the men of the family. Whoever was still inside must have been having their pleasure before they decided to move on. Hoshi’s father nodded slowly, then raised his hand to count down from five. On the last finger going down, he went in first, Hoshi quick behind him. There were three men with swords, and a woman trying to shield her daughter from one of them, a man who already had his pants down, waving his sword around as if to doubly make his point.
Hoshi’s father made quick work of the man’s point, which elicited a terrible, high pitched scream from him that reminded Hoshi of a dying boar. Then Hoshi’s father made short work of the man’s squeal, grabbing the man’s hair and pulling his head down against his own chest, and then sliced across the veins thus exposed. Hoshi was nearly as stunned by the display of brutality as the man’s companions were, but not quite. He took the time they wasted to be stunned to rush one of the others, grab his head, and shove the point of his own knife into the man’s temple. After a quick twist, the man was on the ground with the first one. Now it was two to one, and the last man was just a kid, barely older than Hoshi. HIs face plainly displayed the panic he was feeling. He swung the sword around like a maniac, keeping Hoshi and his father at bay until he made his way to the front door. Hoshi could hear his screaming, almost as if for help, while he tore off into the morning hours. Hoshi’s father turned to the woman and her child, calling them by name.
“It’s alright,” he sheathed his knife. “We heard the screaming, we came to help.”
The mother was already crying her thanks, and Hoshi’s father took the time to make sure they were alright, and suggested they not go outside for a little while. He and Hoshi would come back, he promised, with help from the village, to help them take care of her husband’s and sons’ bodies. Once the two women were settled, Hoshi’s father indicated that Hoshi follow him outside. He wearily stepped out into the daylight, knife drawn, Hoshi behind him. Both sets of eyes darted around, looking for signs of the last marauder. Too late, Hoshi saw a group of about twenty men just at the top of a nearby hill, one of which was the straggler they had missed. Too late, Hoshi saw them, and he was too late to save his father the arrow that pierced his gut and brought him to his knees.
“No!” Hoshi bellowed, grabbing his father and pulling him bodily behind a nearby woodpile. There were cheers of delight from the band of men on the hill when the arrow struck its mark, other arrows barely missing both of them as Hoshi dragged his father to cover. Hoshi glanced up just barely over the edge of the woodpile, and saw that there was one man directing the others, and he was sending a couple to go around the hut, most likely to catch Hoshi and his father from behind. Hoshi’s heart skipped a beat: he felt panic bubble up most unwelcomely, and knew that he had little time to prepare for his next fight. He glanced at his father, who was panting, pale and sweating, the arrow deep in his belly.
“They’re sending men around the back to catch us unawares,” he whispered to his father, whose eyes flashed flinty with a bit of anger at the situation, then glazed over with pain. The older man nodded his understanding, but his strength was clearly fading, and quickly.
“Come out, come out, little boy!” The band’s leader called from the hill. “You give yourself up, and we won’t hurt you.” He sneered as he said this last. “In fact, some jobs just opened up, I think with a little work, we can get you filling one in no time.”
“I think your mother opened up last night!” Hoshi screamed, feeling a small sense of satisfaction at the look of insult on the man’s face, “because I filled her up in no time, too!”
“You dung heap!” The man bellowed in rage, flecks of spittle spraying away from his bright, tomato-red, shiny face, even from this distance. “Kill him!” He screamed, Hoshi assumed to the men he had sent around the back of the house. Quickly, Hoshi propped his father up, who at this point was barely breathing, and had him facing the direction where the men would come from. Then, Hoshi hunkered down near the ground, just at the corner of the house, and prepared for them to come.
In a few moments, there was some shuffling. Hoshi’s father tried to raise a bow to fire at the bandits, but he was too slow, and a couple of arrows sunk home with sickly thuds in his chest and gut. He winced, breath releasing in a groan. The two men started jogging towards Hoshi’s fallen father. Part of Hoshi’s mind broke apart, as he realized he had used his wounded father as bait and as a distraction so he could do what he was about to do. Before they even realized he had turned the table, Hoshi had stabbed the nearest one straight up into his armpit, severing muscles, tendons, and slicing open arteries and veins. A slick heat poured out over Hoshi’s hand, and he felt strumming along the knife blade moving down his arm as he pulled the knife free of the flesh. The bandit was already screaming, trying to pull his arm closer to him, to cut off the gore pouring out of him. The other was mid-spin, trying to bring the bow in his own hands to bear on Hoshi. But Hoshi was just as quick as he was, and he was more prepared for the situation. Hoshi closed the distance between them in a spiral motion, staying just in the man’s periphery, out of reach of the bow, until he was within arm’s reach. Then he ducked under the man’s arrow, slicing his knife into the bandit’s outstretched wrist, cutting tendons and releasing the man’s grip on his bow. In the moment where the man’s reflexes took over, and he reached over to try and catch the bow in his other hand, Hoshi stood up and stabbed his knife behind the bandit’s ear, hard, snapping the blade into the man’s brain and back out. In a moment, Hoshi was alone again, behind the wall he was using to hide from the bandits on the hill.
He collected all the weapons he had available. His father’s knife he slid into his belt, not to use it, but to keep it. He collected the bandits’ bow and arrows, putting them in a row in the ground in front of him. He had taken a couple of warning shots at the bandits on the hill. For a few precious minutes, they were at a stand-off. Hoshi couldn’t emotionally cope with the violence of the situation, but physically, he was able to rest some.
That didn’t last long. They were organizing, and Hoshi was beginning to feel panicky, desperate. It looked like they were getting ready to send another party around behind the house, as well as storm him from the front, with some archers staying back to provide cover. Hoshi shuddered, but decided he would do everything he could to make sure they wouldn’t get to the women inside. His father died protecting others, Hoshi could only do as much.
They began to move, the first party aiming to go around the house. Hoshi tried to get a few arrows off, but they were prepared, and their archers volleyed with him to provide cover. It looked in every way to Hoshi like he was about to die, before he had the chance to become a man, before he had the chance to decide what kind of man he was going to be.
In that moment of despair, a it was almost like the sky came alive with thunder. Hoshi’s eyes were drawn upwards and met the silhouette of a winged creature much larger than any bird Hoshi had ever seen. In the moment it blocked out the sun he could see it clearly, but just as quickly, it began to dive, and the glare made him shade his eyes with his hand. As the wyvern dived, it was obvious where it was diving for, and as it reached within striking distance of the ground, a jet of flame burst out of the wyvern’s open mouth, engulfing a line of the bandits, a single arrow shot expertly bursting through the leader’s neck. His gurgling to the ground was seen by Hoshi, but most of the bandits surrounding him missed it, as they were all either running for their lives, or their clothes and fat had combined to make them flame like giant wicked candles, their screams blocking out most other sounds.
Hoshi took the opportunity, as most attention had been diverted away from him, to step out and take some clear shots at some of the bandits trying to escape. His last four arrows each found a mark. In minutes, the only sound left was Hoshi’s own breathing and the crackling of the flames. The beast landed nearby, taller but clearly leaner than the only other animal Hoshi had seen that size: the buffalo. The man bestride the wyvern’s back seems regal atop his mount. He quickly swung his leg over and planted both feet to the ground in one swift movement. He approached Hoshi, a small bow taut with arrow aimed right at him. Hoshi quickly dropped his own bow, raising his hands in surrender.
“Thank the gods you’re here,” he said with relief, “I couldn’t have held them off any longer.”
“What happened here?” The soldier asked kindly, lowering his bow but keeping the string taut and the arrow notched.
“The family,” Hoshi waved towards the house behind him, “they were attacked by bandits,” Hoshi pointed towards the blackened field with his chin, “my father and I heard them screaming. We were on our way to wait for you, actually. When we got here, we found the men dead, and the women were about to be raped. My father and I killed the scum that were in the house, all but one. He escaped and let the others know what happened. When we came out to fight, they killed my father.” Hoshi was explaining it all as if it had happened in a book, or to someone he had heard about. His mind was still too numb to really feel his father’s loss.
The skyknight nodded, replacing the arrow to its quiver. He hung the bow on his shoulder. “Lead me to the women.”
Hoshi nodded, and went to the door of the house. He knocked, “Emma, Kiri, it’s Hoshi. The skyknight has arrived. The bandits are dead, we’re coming inside.” With that, he pushed the door open slowly. As he stepped inside, the skyknight both followed him, and they saw that the women had each found something heavy to bear should they need to fight. When they saw that Hoshi spoke the truth, the mother, Emma, started to cry.
“Oh, dear,” she muttered, “you’re covered in blood. Where’s your Papa?”
Hoshi looked at her, empty inside, and just shook his head. Emma cried all the more. She reached out as if to embrace Hoshi, as if to comfort him. He let her, not knowing what else to do.
“Ladies,” the skyknight said softly, “I must got to the village to get help. With the bodies of your men, and we can dispose of the bodies of the bandits.” Emma nodded understanding, and the man left the hovel. Emma led Hoshi to a small, basket-woven chair, and pushed him into it. Hoshi still felt mostly nothing, his heart numb for the time being. He didn’t even notice when the tea was placed in his hand, but the warmth of it was slightly comforting, and the bittersweet flavor of it with the scalding presence in his throat helped to ground him.
“Hoshi,” Emma’s voice, while still trembling with tears, seemed firmer. Hoshi remembered, she was an adult, she had been for a long time. He was supposed to become an adult, today was supposed to be his first day. If this was how it was going to be, he didn’t want any part of it. He blinked away the tears, and looked up at her. “Hoshi,” she repeated, “I need you to tell me what happened.”
“We chased that guy out, but he had a head start. He also had help, on the hill. Father and I, we were caught by bowfire. We were able to hide, but Father had been struck. They tried to send ambushers around the back of the house, but we saw them coming. Father distracted them, since he was hurt anyway, so that I could attack them from behind. Just when the others decided to overrun me, the skyknight arrived, and his wyvern doused them all in flame.”
Emma nodded slowly. “Your father died a hero, Hoshi. You must remember that. You and he saved our lives today,” she indicated herself and her daughter. She thought for a minute. “What were you and your father doing this way, anyway?”
Hoshi cried, “we were going to wait for the skyknight. Today is my day of apprenticeship. I was going to ask the skyknight if he would take me on as an apprentice.”“It doesn’t quite work that way,” a manly voice said softly, as the skyknight entered the small domicile. “But I understand your local traditions, and I am honored that both a brave young man like you and a hero like your father would have considered such an option. I would be more than happy to bring you to the Imperial City, to see you enrolled in the Skyknight Academy. Would that be acceptable to you?” The man looked down at Hoshi, who could only stare at first.