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First Born : Excerpt : Chapter Three

First Born
By Astra Crompton

Life has ways of exchanging one lot for another. Kathiz lost a beloved mother, found hate for an unforgiving father. He abandoned one life, only to fall into another. He passed from one set of experiences to the next. By the age of thirteen, he had finally remembered how to genuinely smile and laugh again. He had grown taller and ever more stretched by the Auspice of Meshura.

The day the household of RnGregin had found the ‘wild jackal’ bedded down in their wheat, there had been much debate as to what should be done with the youth. At first they had agreed to do no more than clean him and fill his belly. However, as the circumstances of his flight were revealed to them, the RnGregin family had decided to let him stay. He had since mastered the arts of the farmland, to plant and sow, to tend and harvest. He was dutiful, learned quickly, and worked hard. As the years passed, he became one of them, a son by any measure.

His new family consisted of Gremyn RnGregin – a sturdy farmer of the RnClans, his wife Mavani, and their daughter Adonai who was a year and a half older than Kathiz.

Both being born under the Auspice of Meshura, they had quickly become friends and rivals. As clever, quick-witted and sharp-tongued as Kathiz could be, she kept pace with him on every venture. Since his arrival, she would try to outdo him in work and crafts, offering constant challenge that forced both to develop all the faster, yet more often than not merely landed them both in trouble. By the nature of their competition, both ended up over-stepping their bounds, falling to injury by pushing themselves too far, in hubris claiming to be able to accomplish that which they were not yet ready for.

They had been inseparable for years, spending their waking hours in each other’s company, and sharing a room to sleep. This week, however, Adonai would be getting her own in the attic space Mavani had been building for the past few months.

Kathiz had noticed the changes, of course. Spending that much time everyday with the girl made it hard to miss. Her Auspice marks were fading. Her knob-knees were smoothing out, her hips shaping into a gentle curve, her hands filling out the stick-thin digits and softening the edges of her slab-palms, breasts beginning to swell beneath her tuziyula. Her face was shifting, the mouth pulling in, the eyes becoming lidded and angling to the proper form of a Muzina adult. The deep red of her RnClan hair – the hue of berries – had taken on a new lustre, and her mother had said it was only a matter of time before her sheets would bear the same colour. It was no time to have a boy sleeping in her bed.

“What does it feel like,” Kathiz had asked her, “when the Auspice marks start to go away?” He’d been inspecting himself daily to see if he too had begun his shift towards becoming a man. So far, nothing. She primly tossed her braids and grinned at him, the Meshura grin shortened to a coy smile.

“It feels like the glory of being a woman, which you’ll never know!” He rolled his eyes and slapped lightly at her. She laughed and sat back against the chimney. “It itches, a bit. I feel like I’m pinching in,” she murmured, rubbing at her lips.

“You look like you are.” Kathiz agreed, staring at her. She punched him in the leg.

“Thanks a lot, Piolas.” She stuck her tongue out at him. He raised both hands in supplication.

“Would you rather stay all stretched out like Meshura?” He paused, and then pointed at himself, crossing his eyes and pulling his slash mouth wide. “You wanna look like me forever?” He asked. She laughed at that, her voice moving into a warmer, deeper realm of sound. He liked it, the way she was changing. But it made him restless for his own coming of age to begin.

“I’m sure you’ll grow up handsome, Kathiz.” She nudged him with her toe and smiled nicely. He made a sound of disagreement and flicked some unkempt T’Clan fire-coloured hair back from his face.

“Nah. I’m not born under the Auspice of Ishala. They get beauty. I get brains.” He paused, a sly look on his face. “Not very attractive, a lot of thinking and no good face to put forward, is it? Not even any Shama brawns to even things out?”

“Hey!” She protested, gesturing at herself. “Remember who you’re talking to, you oaf. We’re of the same Auspice!” He laughed and dodged another punch.

“Yah, well, you don’t have anything to worry about. You’re turning out fine.” She laid off trying to punch him and smiled, sitting back and bringing her knees up to her chest, hooking her arms around the baggy fabric of her pants. “It’ll be quiet without you in the room downstairs.” He added, looking thoughtful.

“Well, I won’t be far. I’ll still be under the same roof.” She patted the stone tiles as if consoling him. He kept as straight a face as he could manage and asked,
“Does that mean I’ll still hear you snoring?”

“Kathiz!” He dodged the next punch with a roll, and sent himself flying off the roof. She let out a shriek and leapt to the edge to look over. He’d landed in a stack of hay and was struggling to pull himself out of it. She exhaled and watched to make sure he was alright. “I do not snore!” She hollered down at him, and couldn’t help but laugh as he slipped and fell back into the pile.

Two weeks later, the last of her Auspice marks had faded. Her mother had collected the sheets with her first woman’s blood on them, and they had burned them on the altar to Isham in thanks that Adonai had turned out healthy and well-formed. But more than her body had changed with the coming of age. She was a woman now, an adult, and everyone began treating her differently.

The villagers addressed her in more polite tones. Her actions were mentally noted; her reputation had begun building. What kind of woman would Adonai RnGregin be? With every word she spoke, every person she interacted with, they were forming their opinions.

Beyond that, the young women and men of the village began paying her notice. She had more than three suitors, two women and one man, by the time the year was out. Kathiz was now a child in her care, despite how close their ages were, and she took every opportunity to remind him of this fact. He teased her about the love-struck youths and maidens that sent her ribbons and flowers; she retaliated by making him run errands for her.

The teasing was all in good fun. He was proud of her, and seeing the stage of life she had stepped into, he began to have some concept of what he himself faced. He could not compare it directly, though. She had given thanks to Isham for her woman’s blood. He would have to face the male Test of Pain. He began to wonder, even though Gremyn was not his father, would he represent him? He would have to go to a city to be tested properly. Where would he be taken? Ganos? Lakka? They knew of what had happened to him before coming to them, but he had never been able to say the name of the place for fear of crying. It seemed ill fortune to take the Test that would determine his place as a man in this world in the very city that had ended his mother’s failure at her own Test of Pain. He prayed to Isham every night that She would influence Gremyn to choose the Testing Houses of Lakka.

As it turned out, just over a week after his fourteenth birthday, he felt the first pinch in his skin. It felt like a bite at first, and he began fingering his foot to find the source of the pain. He found no trace of a welt or puncture and shook it off as his imagination. But throughout the rest of that day, his foot kept aching. When he stepped down on it, it felt as though he were walking on broken pottery. He scoured his boot, but there was nothing in it. A few days later, after the discomfort persisted, he noticed that his ailing foot was smaller than its mate. The two longer toes remained proportionately longer, as they should, but all of them had shortened, and his foot itself seemed to be changing shape. He went to Gremyn and showed him, wondering if it could possibly be his coming of age. He found the man working on braiding a new tether for the sather bridles, deft hands working to fold layer after layer of dried sinew together. Gremyn shrugged and said,

“I was of the Auspice of Shama, Kathiz. I stretched out, not in. Wait a couple days, take some of Mavani’s liniment and keep your foot well-stained so that you don’t get stretch-marks in case it is. If you notice any more changes, let me know. We’ll need to book your Test of Pain, if it is.” Kathiz felt his heart leap in his chest, a mix of excitement and fear.

“You’ll represent me?” Gremyn smiled at this and tousled his hair affectionately.

“You are family, Kathiz. Of course I will represent you.” Kathiz bowed to him in thanks, hands up in a prayer triangle.

“Where will we go for the Test?” He asked, tentatively. Gremyn saw nothing odd with the question and shifted his sinew braid over his knee, putting a clamp on it to hold his place.

“Oh, it depends on who has an empty slot for you, mn? There’s Ganos, of course, Lakka, if they’re both full, Yalili – though they’re usually booked with the students from the Imperial School of the Yanez.” Kathiz took a breath and offered both hands in supplication.

“Can it be Lakka?” Gremyn quirked an eyebrow.

“Lakka, eh? We can try it. See if they are available. I’ll send a messenger in a few weeks, if this is indeed your coming of age.” Kathiz bowed his thanks again and kissed Gremyn’s cheek before running back to his chores, limping ever so slightly.
The pain never increased to an unbearable point, but the itching feeling and the pinching Adonai had mentioned spread through his body, as if fingers crawled beneath his flesh, pulling and prodding him like clay, gradually reshaping him.

His skin tightened over his muscles, the chubby insulation of childhood being carved away. His joints lost their swollen shape, smoothed into hinges that moved with grace for the first time in his life. His long, boney fingers filled out into strong, muscled man’s hands. His mouth drew in, still full-lipped, but shaped now with a curve as that of an ever-present smile. His light blue eyes lost their round, staring look, grew almond-shaped and bright, his nose softened and rounded, his ears smoothed back against his skull instead of sticking out sideways. His wiry, ever-mad hair finally allowed itself to be styled and shaped. Gremyn gave him some scented wax, and using the water trough as a glass, he began to style it up and off his face. He could not see himself, not in full, but he could feel it. He was becoming a man.

Then Gremyn took him aside and with some amount of embarrassment, asked him,
“Has…er, has it happened yet?” Kathiz stared at him blankly, startled by how much closer he was to looking Gremyn in the eye.

“Has what happened?” He asked. Gremyn coloured a little and pointed a finger in a quirky little gesture.

“Have you uh, felt passion yet? Has anything stirred?” Kathiz frowned at him, not understanding. Gremyn shook his head and patted him on the shoulder. “Why don’t you take the day off work, head down to the village, and sit by the fountain. Give a good look to the young men and women, and see if anything…happens.”

Kathiz headed down to the village in new boots that actually fit and a new pair of pants, his bracers on, and a simple vest instead of his jacket due to the heat. He thought over what Gremyn had said, tried to think of anything that he might’ve heard as Adonai was reaching her coming of age that could explain this. The only thing he could think of was her woman’s blood. He wondered, suddenly, and a little worried, if men too had a form of blood. If women’s blood meant them ready to be mothers, then could men’s blood enable them to be fathers? The idea horrified him, and he began imagining all sorts of gruesome ways that he might start bleeding.

He shook his head, and picking up his pace, hurried on to the village square. Maybe he would find Adonai and she might have heard something in her new circles of adult friends that would explain this.

As he walked into town, the sun felt warm and bright on his skin, and his mood lifted. He saw many people he knew and greeted them cheerfully. The baker who used RnGregin’s flour stopped in the lane and turned to regard him.

“By Isham’s grace! Is that Kathiz?”

“Good morning, RnAlan!” he smiled in return, heading over to her. “How are you?” he asked pleasantly. She waved a dismissive hand and then cupped one of his cheeks.

“Never mind me, look at you! You have been busy growing these past months, haven’t you?” He grinned but said nothing. She inspected him further, turning his face from side to side, touching his ears and hair, running a hand down his shoulder and hip. Satisfied, she stepped back smiling. “Well, how about that. You grew into a handsome man. Have you taken your Test of Pain, yet?”

“Ah, no. RnGregin is trying to book one in Lakka. He says I need to have…er…I’m not sure exactly, but something is yet to happen.” He offered lamely. She laughed aloud and patted his shoulder.

“Oh, don’t you worry, you’ll understand when it’s time. Go, sit by the fountain and look at your new peers. You’ll understand soon enough!” She gave him a pat to the seat of his pants and scooted him off. Perplexed, he waved good-bye to her and headed towards the fountain in the village square. He heard and saw the youths before he got close enough to discern if any were friends he knew. It was the season, it seemed, there were plenty of others milling around the fountain, all with the fresh glow of development about them, the unsullied skins and shapes that they were all newly wearing. There was a grace to this dance, these shy gestures and coquettish chatter. Like bees flitting through flowers, or birds calling from one tree branch to another. Kathiz came into the light and found a spot on the stone bench to listen and to watch. The young males were jostling and joking, pulling stunts and tricks, showing off their prowess and grace. A swarthy, short RnClan boy began a dance, and with several of the girls singing the melody for him, he performed high kicks and leaps, spinning through the air in a swirl of saffron fabric. A cluster of the youths – Kathiz included – gathered to watch him, clapping to the beat and offering hoots and cheers as the boy performed hard and then harder dance steps. One youth sitting on the fountain stone got a flush in his face watching the other dance, a T’Clan youth just out of the Auspice of Ishala, beautifully formed with delicate nose and lips, wide, honey-coloured eyes, long braided T’Clan hair. After the dancer managed a double back flip, the T’Clan youth sprang up from his seat and seized the other boy with both hands, and without a word kissed him hard on the mouth. The young men and women hooted and cheered, goading the two on. As if some sign had been given, other adolescents leapt upon those peers that had captured their attentions, hugging and groping. Those remaining laughed and stepped out of the way, gathering to talk and poke fun at those taken by the passion. Kathiz found a new seat on the fountain, carefully giving room to a girl and the boy she’d draped herself on. He watched the boys, compared himself to them, inasmuch as he knew of himself. He turned his attention to the girls, and felt himself smiling, watching the sway of their newly shaped hips, the lightness in their steps, and grinned as three got up to do a swaying priestess’ dance.

“Kathiz?” He jumped as a voice spoke in his ear. Turning he saw Adonai sitting on the stone, chin resting on one propped knee. She smiled suddenly, “I thought it was you.” He cupped her shoulder in greeting and grinned full-out.

“Adonai, sovan! How have you been? I haven’t seen you much at the farm lately.” She was still smiling and shrugged her shoulders.

“I have been busy…dancing.”

“Ah.” He nodded, a mischievous light in his glance. “Dancing like those boys are dancing?” He asked, gesturing to the RnClan dancer and the lover he’d found himself entangled with. She raised a hand to slap at him, but it fell instead to the stone between them.

“Perhaps.” She replied coyly. Then she was quiet, watching Kathiz watch the youths frolic. A boy scooped up one of the girls and sat her upon his shoulder as she laughed and pretended to struggle. Kathiz couldn’t help but chuckle, and clapped his hands in approval. He felt a hand on his shoulder and, turning, caught Adonai looking at him.

“What is it?” He asked, curious about the look on her face. She opened her mouth to say something, but instead shook her head, the hand slipping away again. “Ah,” he said with an air of arrogance. “The passion has taken you. You want me to scoop you up, eh?” She blinked at him, and shifted her face to watch as the girl managed to wriggle out of the boy’s grasp and was now being playfully chased.

“Perhaps,” she murmured. Kathiz blinked at that, the smirk falling off his face. She was silent for a moment, and then she looked back at him. “Have you taken your Test of Pain, yet?” It was Kathiz’s turn to shake his head.

“No, your father is booking an appointment for me in Lakka.”

“Why Lakka? Why not Ganos; it’s closer.”

“I asked for Lakka.” He paused, shrugged. “I’ve never seen the sea; why not Lakka?”

“You’ll be gone for a long time if you go to Lakka.” Adonai replied, a little too quickly. Kathiz leaned forward, looking at her.

“Maybe a month, yeah. So what? I’ll be back.” She looked at him again, and cupped his shoulder. He grinned and shook his head. “Why so serious, Ada? It’s not like I’ve seen you for the last three weeks!” She made a sour face and stood up.

“You’ve been wretched company the last three weeks, that’s why. ‘Oo, my feet hurt, ah, my face is pinching in, oh, it hurts to laugh…’” She smirked and jammed her hands on her hips. “Are you any more fun now that you’ve done maturing?” He stood up as well and mimicked her pose.

“Any more fun? If I were more fun you couldn’t handle it.” Kathiz replied teasingly. She took his hand and drew him away from the fountain.

“Prove it, Katholas.” He followed, a little baffled and then laughed.

“Oh, no! I’m not dancing!” Adonai locked her fingers with his and pulled him into a step. Someone had brought out a drum and was tapping out a rhythm. He shook his head and stepped into the corresponding form.

They began to dance. The others youths already dancing shifted over and joined in the performance, the girls singing and the boys clapping along to the drumbeats. The boys jumped, the girls spun, and like a flow of barley in the fields, the group swayed to and fro, making patterns with bodies and limbs. They changed partners as the form went on, and Kathiz found himself breathlessly and unexpectedly face to face with a girl he’d never seen before. She was soft and curvaceous in his hands as he lifted and spun her, bringing her back down to chest and then ground. Her hands were small and firm, her eyes the deep blue of midnight skies, her dark red hair long and loose. He felt his cheeks flush, the beat of his heart pumping in the centre of his chest. She winked at him as they moved into the next form, and he nearly missed his step, so startled by that simple gesture of favour. He turned her and stepped backwards, she leaped, he caught her in his arms, and as he lowered her again, she kissed him lightly on the lips.

Ah. This was what Gremyn meant. He knew it as suddenly and as powerfully as he knew his own blood in his veins. Thought and function slipped down through his spine, a waterfall crashing through him, concentrating all its force and power into his pelvis, and with the throb of blood, he suddenly understood the gesture that Gremyn had made. He missed the next step, and the following one, and the six after that. He was switched back clumsily into Adonai’s arms, but he kept turning his head trying to catch sight of the girl with the long hair. Through the mesh of limbs and the shifting fabrics, he caught her glance. She grinned at him, offered another wink. He felt himself grinning back, like a fool.

The next thing he knew, the dance was finished, and he was itching to do something about the pressure in his groin. It was nearly unbearable, but he couldn’t find the words to say anything intelligible. He caught sight of her again, on the other side of the fountain, talking with a couple of the girls. He caught her eye and raised a hand in greeting. She saluted back, and he was reduced to a dumbly grinning boy again. No thought in his head but her.

Adonai seized his hand and began dragging him away from the fountain. He felt disoriented, confused. “Ada, what are you doing?”

“Perhaps you’re the one with the issues of passion, eh, Kathiz?” There was a strange tightness in her voice. He felt the heat receding a little, looked around for the long-haired girl, and couldn’t see her.

“What? Hey, where’d she go?” Adonai made an angry sound and punched him in the shoulder.

“Pay attention, you dolt! I’m not going to carry you home.” Kathiz felt the heat slip farther away, the pressure easing, the clarity returning by degrees.

“What? Why are we going home? We were having such a good time…” She shot him a look and he fell silent, finding her frightening when this angry.

“We were, that is, until you slipped into passion-fever and got back your old Meshura feet. You had no rhythm at all!” She rolled her eyes and shook her head, letting go of his hand. “Come on.” He followed after her, smoothing down the front of his pants, then stuffing both hands into his pockets.

“Why are you so mad, Adonai?” He asked, his tone low and careful. “I couldn’t stay your little brother forever. I, too, had to grow up. You did it first, y’know. You stopped hanging out with me. I’m not mad at you for it, so what’s going on?” She snorted as he was talking, but by the end of his question, she stopped still on the path.

“You did grow up. You’re a fine man, Kathiz. I… I’m happy for you, I am.” She turned to look at him, reached out and awkwardly took his hand back in hers. “Maybe going to Lakka is a good idea, after all. Now that…” She faltered, her expression twisting for a moment, as if a shadow had passed over her face, then she was smiling again. “Now that you’ve found passion, you can go for your Test of Pain. Then you can become a true citizen of Muzin. Who knows, if you do well enough, maybe you’ll get a plot of land, too.” She fell silent, looking at him, and then she shook her head. “Let’s go home.” The anger had left her, but in its wake something else had been revealed that Kathiz did not recognize. Her hand in his was not the rough, demanding hand of their childhood together, but soft and tentative and sweating. He swallowed, confused and very much out of sorts, letting her lead him home.

A few weeks passed before Kathiz and Gremyn set out for Lakka. Kathiz had spent the time going down to the village, always looking for the long-haired girl. He’d gotten to dance with her a few more times, managed to steal a couple of kisses, and each time it set him on fire. Adonai was never far, though. She had pulled him away on several occasions, and the girl had just laughed and waved to Kathiz as he was dragged off, shrugging his apologies to her. He never did find out her name.

The night before he was to leave, there came a knock on his door. He scrambled to make himself decent, distracted as he was from touching himself. Splashing himself with cold water to encourage his erection to go down, to little avail, he cast about for another solution. He jumped into his baggiest pants, and as he was tying the string, called for his guest to enter.

It was not Gremyn, as he expected, but Adonai. She held a grey sleeping robe closed over her body and had let her hair down. He blinked, a little surprised, and remembering the state he was in, sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Er, sovan, Ada.” He offered, feeling a little self-conscious. “Are you alright?” She shook her head, dark hair catching the lamp light.

“No, not really, Kathiz. Can I come in?” He blinked and offered a tentative smile.

“You have already come in, Ada. You want to talk?” He patted the bed next to him and smiled a little more surely.

“Not really. Well, yes, alright.” She spoke in stilted tones, as if each word was separate from the rest. She stepped forward, long legs bare beneath the robe. She sat on the edge of the bed and put a hand lightly on his knee.

“Are you sick?” Kathiz asked, brow furrowing into a perplexed expression. She shook her head. “Are you sad?” He offered, trying to think of why she might be out of sorts. She shrugged, not really committing herself to answer. “Ah, have you got passion-fever for someone?” She looked up at him, blue eyes as deep as those of the girl he fancied. He smiled broadly and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Oho! So you do fever for someone. Boy or girl?” He asked, rocking her a little.

“Boy,” She murmured, head tucked in to his neck, hair on his shoulder.

“Have you confessed your love? Or is it lust?” He teased. She slapped his knee weakly. “Ah, must be love, then. Otherwise you would’ve hit me harder.” She didn’t respond to that. He squeezed her shoulder lightly. “Oh, come on, Ada. Don’t be so upset. You’re nice-looking. Why don’t you just tell him.” She sat up and looked at him.

“Kathiz.” She was deadly serious. He let his grin subdue to a mild smile. She shook her head, tucking up one bare knee, wrapped an arm around it, and rested her chin. “I can’t tell him. He’s so oblivious.” Kathiz laughed and shrugged.

“What boy isn’t? Take me for instance, I’m useless at figuring stuff like that out.” She shot him a hard look.

“I know.”

That was all, just two words, but Kathiz felt the floor give out beneath him. “Oh, Ada…” He breathed, aghast. She lifted her head, scrutinizing him. “It isn’t… You don’t… Ada?” Useless words, he never was terribly eloquent when it came to moments of feeling.

“Yes, Kathiz.” Her hand was still on his knee. She gave it a light squeeze, and he became suddenly very aware of her presence and her scent, and the fact that he still had a half-hard phallus poorly hidden in baggy pants. He panicked.

“But, Adonai, you’re…you’re family. I mean, you raised me like a sister!” She sat up straight, the robe opening up as the naked leg fell away, her thigh a warm, rich colour in the light. Kathiz swallowed.

“‘Like’ a sister doesn’t make me one, Kathiz. Look at me…” He looked. She was pretty enough, all long limbs and smooth lines, large eyes and soft mouth. But she was Adonai…wasn’t she? “I am a woman, now, Kathiz. Why won’t you think of me as one?” She took his hand in hers, and hesitating, lifted it to her breast.

“Ah, wait! Ada…Adonai…wait…” Kathiz pulled his hand away, stood, paced, shaking himself out. “I…that is to say, I…” He murmured lamely. She stood and wrapped her arms around him.

“You have the passion-fever too, Kathiz. It’s rather obvious.” He felt his face go a deep shade of crimson, nearly the colour of her hair, and whispered an admission.

“What was that?” Adonai asked, looking into his face, a hopeful smile on her mouth.

“I said,” Kathiz repeated, a little louder, “I wasn’t thinking of you…” She slapped him, hard. He saw the arc of her arm coming for what seemed like days before it hit, but he did nothing to avoid it. He knew his words would hurt her, and that he deserved to feel a little of that pain. But he had to be honest. He could not pretend that he felt something for her that was beyond the love for his family. He would not lie.

She stepped away from him, pulling the robe up tight around her shoulders, its pale grey making the livid shade of her face stand out starkly. She didn’t say anything, merely stood before him, shoulders hunched but still standing tall, her lower lip quivering. He spread his hands in apology, but didn’t say anything. What could he possibly say? Adonai simply turned and left the room.

In the morning, when he set out with Gremyn, she was feeling unwell and did not come down to send him off. Gremyn gave Kathiz a knowing look, but Kathiz wouldn’t respond, and so Gremyn did not ask. They took the sather and cart and began the trip down to Lakka.

“Are you nervous?” Gremyn asked as they stood outside the Testing House under the portico shade. Kathiz hugged his arms around himself, squinting up at the farmer who had raised him to manhood.

“A little. It’s one thing to be told this will be the ‘most pain I’ve ever felt in my life’, it’s entirely another to try to imagine what that will feel like.” He offered a hesitant smile. “Will it be worse than breaking my ankle?” Gremyn laughed and slapped Kathiz on the back.

“Much worse, my boy.” Gremyn fell silent as another young man and his father left the building, the boy walking stiffly. Gremyn and the father exchanged nods, and then Gremyn turned back to Kathiz. “That reminds me. Will you choose to keep your scars, or have them healed?” Kathiz blinked. Gremyn offered a gruesome grin. “Oh, yes, you will be scarred. The choice is whether or not you want them to show. Some choose to, as a mark of pride. I didn’t, I only made First Degree, nothing really to show off.” Kathiz remembered vividly the swollen red welt that his mother could never have healed. He sighed and shook his head.

“I don’t want to keep them. No matter how far I manage to make it, I don’t need the feeling of the marks on my body to remember this sort of trial. These things stick with you, here.” He gestured to the heart beneath his sternum. Gremyn smiled and pulled him into a hug.

“You have become a fine young man, Kathiz. I am proud of you.” It was while they were thus embraced that a clerk came out and looked at them.

“Kathiz T’Kazan?” Addressed, Kathiz turned and put on a brave face. “And you must be Gremyn RnGregin?” The farmer nodded in response. “Very well,” said the clerk. “If you will come this way, please…”

They followed the man into the relative cool of the Testing House. “Your Test is scheduled to begin in a few minutes. If you would please answer the questions of the attending priest?” The clerk left them in a small antechamber, where a long-fingered old man sat behind a desk.

“Good day, Kathiz. Good name, for a trial such as this, mn? Like the Warrior – a good, strong name.” The man offered a kindly smile and shuffled his papers. “Now, I have a few questions requiring answers in order to properly assign a reward when the Test is finished.” The priest dipped a stylus of sran wood into a pot of ink, and Kathiz watched in amazement as he proceeded to tap the excess off the nib, and then write. Actually write – true Priest’s Runes – across a thick sheet of vellum. He stared in wonder, and the priest, smiling, asked his questions about Kathiz’s parent’s names, his birth city, his current age. Kathiz answered them all in a daze, watching his words transform into ink on the parchment. “And you sir, are not his father, but his…?” The priest asked, bluntly, but not unkindly.

“I am his guardian, sir. Kathiz lives with me and my family, in the farm village outside Ganos.” The priest nodded his approval, and marked down his name in the angular lettering. He made some calculations on an abacus and nodded, making a few annotations of the date of birth, including day of week and month, then the current date, and his own signature.

“Very well, the forms will be awaiting you when your Test is completed. Go into the sauna, change your clothes, and take the albeyekin. By the time it fills your blood, all will be ready. Be strong, Kathiz. This is the turning point of your life.”

“Thank you, sir.” Kathiz replied, his stomach feeling like a tight knot in his belly and his skin already clammy with perspiration.

Gremyn led him into the sauna room and stood by as witness while the attendants stripped Kathiz naked, scrubbed him clean from head to foot and then, sitting him on a warmed marble slab, passed him a ladle. On the silver spoon was a thick, oily black liquid. It had a bitter, acrid stink that Gremyn remembered instantly. Kathiz obediently took the full portion and on direction, held it under his tongue for as long as he could, and then swallowed it. Then they laid him back and began circles of massage that helped to move the poison through his bloodstream. One of the attendants, in low tones, explained what they were doing, and Kathiz, feeling very much like a child, listened with rapt attention.

“Muzina blood heals too well, you see. The albeyekin makes the blood swell and release too many endorphins. They are chemicals in your system; they make you feel all sorts of things. In this case, they stimulate the pain sensors. They will make everything feel like hurt. You will ache when you breathe. Anything that touches you will feel like a sting or a bite. Do you understand?” Kathiz nodded beneath their circling hands, already feeling a strange, hot tingling spreading out through the flesh of his chest.

“And then I have to endure its pain?” He asked. The man gave him a stern glance,

“And then we beat you senseless.”

“Oh Goddess, are you serious?” Kathiz asked, aghast. The man nodded. Kathiz felt the first nerve in his leg set afire as pain went shooting down it. The dread in him solidified into something palpable. He began to understand what this would mean.

“There are three levels of the Test of Pain. First, you must endure ten lashes with a series of whips. If you succeed in this, you pass to level two. There you must endure twenty lashes with chains and cat-o-nine-tails. If you can handle that much, you pass on to level three. There you must endure thirty-five brandings with heated pokers and iron bars. At any point, if you vomit, pass out, or scream, you fail. Do you understand?” Another dozen tongues of flame went dancing down his legs, following the trail of the massaging fingers. He nodded.

“Can I cry, at least?” The attendant shrugged.

“I don’t see how you will be able to stop your eyes from watering. But remember, if a sound your throat produces is perceived to be a scream – that will end it. It’s best to clench your teeth and make as little sound as possible.” Kathiz turned his face to Gremyn.

He remembered the moment outside, in what seemed another world, when the man had said he did not make it past First Degree. Kathiz truly began to comprehend why. The attendants reached the ends of his extremities and, after a quick rub and sharp pinch, they swung him to sitting up.

“How do you feel?” the head attendant asked. Kathiz tried to wiggle his toes and felt nothing but searing fire from the knees down. He winced, squeezing the tears back from his eyes.

“I feel like lying down and not moving for a long time…” Kathiz replied slowly, finding that even the roots of his teeth hurt in trying to talk.

“Still able to talk? Alright, we’ll give you another few minutes.” The attendants let him sit, and proceeded to fold up his pants and tuziyula and tuzi jacket and clean up their instruments and basins. As he watched them, Kathiz found his vision start to swim. Black speckles began to dance before his eyes, and if he tried to focus on any particular object in the room, bright flashes of pain would render him momentarily blind. It was better just to close his eyes entirely. Then the pain spread to the very surface of his skin, and even the touch of his arms against his sides, or the stone beneath his naked buttocks ached unbearably. He tried to shift, but that hurt, so he jumped off the marble slab and landed with his feet on the floor. The film of water splashed up around his ankles, and he let out a small cry of dismay as every droplet seemed to sear and burn.

“Hot! Too hot!” He cried to the attendants, and they returned swiftly.

“What do you mean, hot?” Kathiz was gasping now, sweating fiercely, his arms held out to the sides and eyes squeezed shut, gasping for breath.

“I feel like I’m on fire!” Kathiz gulped, struggling to bring in air. The attendants exchanged glances.

“It doesn’t feel like aching muscles?”

“No, no, much worse than that, my skin feels like its splitting open! Am I bleeding? Am I ruptured?” He had an edge of panic in his voice. The attendant leaned forward, careful not to touch him.

“Open your eyes, Kathiz.” With a great struggle, Kathiz fought against the searing pain and did as he was told. The attendant was a fuzzy blur before him, with streaks of unnatural colour firing across his face as if he were being painted by invisible hands. The attendant took one look at the black spots that had formed at the end of the capillaries in the boy’s eyes and stepped back. “Ey kalla! He’s having a reaction to the albeyekin. Open some windows, lads.” They rushed to get stools and hook-bars to open the steam windows under the roof. Gremyn stepped forward.

“What’s happening? Is he going to be alright?” The head attendant waved him back against the wall.

“I can’t say; this doesn’t usually happen. I’ve only seen it once before…”

“Is it because he’s Cursed?” Gremyn asked lowly. The attendant turned on him.

“What?” he asked, his brows pulled down into a tight line.

“He’s… He’s a First Born.” Gremyn replied, nervously watching Kathiz gasping away for breath. “Is it the Curse?”

“Ishalai zol! What do you think? Why didn’t you say anything to the priest?” Gremyn felt tears welling up in his eyes and hastily brushed them away.

“We’d never seen any sign of it. Sure, he hurts himself more often than most people, but nothing seriously bad has ever happened. Nothing like this. Oh, Goddess, protect him, he’s a good boy!” Gremyn pleaded, sobbing as Kathiz doubled over, dry retching. The head attendant voiced some brisk commands to the other two men in the room and himself left for the Testing Chamber.

“Shall we abort the Test?” one of the attendants asked, half-directing it at Kathiz and half at Gremyn.

“No…” Kathiz gasped, stretching his hands out into the air, eyes still shut, reaching for the sound of the voice. “Isn’t…this…how...” He trailed off gasping. Coughing, he let out a cry of pain and swallowed with a wince. “How…it’s…supposed…to be?” He panted a lungful of air and then turned to Gremyn. “It’s worse…than…breaking my…ankle.” He squinted through one eye at him, and then, with a gritting of teeth, squeezed it shut again.

Moments later, the head attendant returned and addressed Kathiz. “Do you feel you can continue?”

“Why not?” Kathiz asked with a gasp of air. “I’m here. I’m in pain. Let’s get…this…over with.” Gremyn sobbed loudly in the corner, and though Kathiz couldn’t see it, he was smiling for him. The attendants exchanged a glance, but no one spoke. This was the boy’s decision to make. If he chose to proceed and could not cope, he would fail the Test entirely, and he would have to learn a lesson about rashness and arrogance.

“I have asked the testers to open the windows so that you may breathe. When you are ready, they will accept you to begin.” Kathiz reached his hands out towards the head attendant.

“Which way?” He asked shortly, trying not to speak if he could help it. The attendant reached out to touch his hand, something they were not supposed to do. The other attendants did not speak, merely watched, as with gritted fangs and stumbling footsteps, the Cursed boy was led blindly into the Testing Chamber.

“Welcome, Kathiz T’Kazan.” The head guard of the Test of Pain had a deep, booming voice. If Kathiz had been less preoccupied with how much his body hurt, he would likely have been terrified. “Level one begins now. Turn your back to us.” Kathiz slowly shuffled around until the attendant pressed him to stop. Then, with a nod at the guards, the attendant left the room.

Gremyn was still in the sauna room. The attendant looked over at him. “Will you not witness his trial?” The first crack of whip cut the steamy air and Gremyn flinched, remembered all too well how it felt – and unable to imagine what it felt like for this boy with the albeyekin wild in his veins. There was a pause, audible breathing coming haggard from the Testing Chamber. The second crack sounded, and there was a thump of body heavily hitting ground. With a deep breath, Gremyn crossed the threshold and walked into the fire lit gloom where the Test had already begun.

Kathiz was on his hands and knees, long fingers braced against the clay beneath him, eyes squeezed shut, two bright red welts across his naked spine. The third whip cracked out, arcing effortlessly from the attending guard’s hand to lightly connect with Kathiz’s skin. Instantly his spine arched backwards, the muscles tensing like ropes under his skin as the pain ricocheted through his nerves and spread. Gremyn bit down on his knuckles to keep from making noise, watching as Kathiz struggled. Already the saline was dripping through his sealed eyelashes; already the discoloured strain was in his face as he tried to hold his breath.

“Come now, you must breathe, boy. We even opened the windows so that you could get enough air.” Kathiz shuddered an inhalation, and no sooner had he done so, the fourth whip landed, perfectly aimed to continue the criss-cross pattern across his back. A grunt of sound came out of Kathiz’s throat as he clenched his teeth together, lips pulled back in a snarl. He tried to push himself up to his knees, but the fifth lash took him while he was off balance and he went sprawling forward, snarling and scrambling to get up off the floor, feeling as if he had fallen into a pit of lava. He stood, chest heaving, and body dripping with sweat, for a moment with eyes open. The fires in their braziers seared pain into the fibres of his retinas. Gasping, he shut his eyes and turned his face away from the heat.

“Turn around, Kathiz.” The head guard commanded. Slowly, he turned his back to them again. His fists clenched, then recoiled from the touch of their neighbouring fingers.

The sixth lash set him flying forward again, and he landed hard on knees and hands, a small whimper rising and falling in his throat. He spat blood onto the clay, sucking the salt back from where he’d bitten his tongue. He choked on the act of swallowing and, hacking, took the seventh lash right above his hip bone. The sound that came out of him was a low growl, and he coughed on the blood still flowing in his mouth. He spat again, bracing his hands on the clay, the fire dancing up his arms.

Gremyn held his breath. Two more lashes would surpass his own achievement in the Test of Pain. Most didn’t make it much further than this. Kathiz took the eighth lash and punched his fist into the hard-packed floor, but rather than distract from the pain on his back, it merely added to it. He sobbed, blood mixed with saliva dripping through his clenched teeth. The ninth one came faster on its heels, giving him no time to recover or brace himself. With a squealing snort, he nearly shouted and gnashed his teeth, fingernails clawing the clay.

Only one more and he would have passed the First Degree. He was aware of it, in a distant, muted place in his mind. But he focussed on it with all his strength, pouring his heart and soul into that stubbornness. Ten came hard and sharp, instead of across, straight up and down, following the spine. The places where the whips had overlapped bled in thin trails that poured like searing wax down his back. He twitched from their contact, but could not bear to reach back and touch the wounds. He could not see them, but in his mind’s eye he imagined them as yawning gashes, entire strips of flesh taken out of his back, gaping, bleeding flesh glistening. He saw his mother’s face in his mind’s eye, the face burning, and the horrible stench of her cooking flesh, and could not help but wonder if she had not felt that moment, felt herself burning as the soul was driven off the flesh by the smoke.

Someone was shoving a cup to his lips, he snarled, and water was poured down his throat. The act of swallowing felt like the liquid was filled with pins that stabbed and scraped the whole way down. He coughed and immediately felt the first wave of burning acid wash up the back of his throat. He heard Gremyn’s voice in front of him.

“Rest, breathe, Katholas. You have passed First Degree. And you have surpassed me. I am proud of you!” Kathiz, with ragged breath in lungs that felt filled with smoke turned his face up to the man acting as his witness, but did not have the coherence to smile. “There will be a short reprieve and then Second Degree will begin.” Kathiz felt a sob ripple through him. He couldn’t handle much more of this. Not without screaming, or throwing up, or losing his mind. He simply couldn’t… But he also couldn’t quit. He had to go on until his body failed. This was not a test of cognitive courage; this was a test of the limits of one’s body and endurance. So be it.

As Second Degree began, and he heard the lengths of chain drawn down the wall, with each link sounding like shattering glass in his ears, he began to weep, his shoulders shaking, his eyes burning with the itch of saline. The first blow landed, flattening him to the floor with its weight. Every link bit into his flesh, each one seeming a dagger that had become lodged in, cauterizing the wounds with fire. As the height of the sensation grew to an impossible level, he landed hard on his chest, his heart jolting behind his sternum, his skin scraping as if across brambles.

“Enough! Please!!” Kathiz screamed, his voice tearing in his throat, pushing himself up on his elbows. With his throat and mouth not tightly closed, his body revolted, and he vomited all down his chest and onto the floor.

Isham has mercy, even for the accursed; Kathiz passed out of consciousness.

Astra Crompton lives in Victoria with her husband, two cats and leopard gecko. She is an artist, illustrator, graphics and game designer, hand-crafted seamstress and author. You can follow her work at:, and

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