Authors: William Bernhardt
The Black Sentry
The Black Sentry
Copyright © 2014 William Bernhardt Writing Programs
Published by Babylon Books
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
The Black Sentry
Other Books by William Bernhardt
The Shine series:
Part 5 - Who’s Gonna Stop Me?
The Ben Kincaid Novels:
For young readers:
Equal Justice: The Courage of Ada Sipuel
Edited by William Bernhardt:
For Ralph, my favorite storyteller
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it
is the only thing that ever has.”
gripped the winnower tightly in his hands, knowing that how he handled it would determine the rest of his life.
He stared into
the face of the enemy, barely five feet away, eyes narrowed, lips thin, his own winnower poised and ready to strike. Soon the battle would begin. And it would not end until one of them was finished.
his palms, loosening his grip. He wanted to set the winnower down and wipe his hands dry. But just as he considered it, he heard the doleful sound of the commencement gong. There was no time now. No time for anything.
The best strategy, as he had been tol
d dozens of times, was to take the offensive, to strike first. But he found himself unable to move. His feet felt riveted to the red-dyed stone beneath him. His enemy leapt forward the instant the gong sounded, remaining on his own yellow-colored portion of the Arena floor, but edging as near to his opponent as possible. He held nothing back.
The enemy never did.
The enemy took a swipe at him, blade end out. Fortunately, he stood far enough away to avoid it. The winnower whistled in front of his face, missing him by inches. The winnower was about four feet long. On one end was a round and cone-shaped bulb, solid enough to stun but not to cut. Combatants used it to batter and pummel, or for a quick jab to the stomach. The other end was a sharp fan-shaped blade. A swipe across the neck or through the gut could be fatal.
is enemy changed grip, tucking in the sharp end and swinging the bulb around like a club. He saw it coming. He sprang backwards–though not quickly enough. The bulb battered him on the shoulder, knocking him to his knees.
He tried to scramble
to his feet, favoring his injured left arm. He still had time to do something. If he only knew what that might be.
He checked the red intertwined paths, desperately
seeking an opening. The Arena was a large octagonal grid. The floor of the grid was divided into intersecting parts, half red and half yellow. Each combatant was required to remain on his color. To step onto an enemy’s color resulted in an immediate penalty: the enemy was permitted free run of the entire grid for one turn of the glass, while the transgressor was still restricted to his own color. Rarely could anyone survive such an enormous disadvantage.
saw another swipe of his enemy’s winnower coming, this time low. He leapt up into the air. The winnower whooshed beneath him.
He had to keep moving
. If he took another hit, it would be the end. The end of everything.
, he told himself. You can do this. You must do this.
Gritting his teeth, he
lunged forward, winnower first. His enemy parried his blow easily, then followed with an extra rapid-fire thrust.
struggled to retain his grip, falling forward. He lost his balance and almost tumbled onto his enemy’s color. Flailing wildly, he stopped himself at the last possible instant, jabbing his winnower into the ground. But the temporary loss of control left him vulnerable. A moment later, he felt the harsh thud of a bulb slamming into the side of his head.
hurt like nothing he had ever experienced before. His eyes watered. He rolled onto the red, trying to crawl back to a safe place. But he knew no place would remain safe for long. Even as he struggled to catch his breath, his enemy scurried around the grid, zigzagging down the yellow path.
whipped around, jabbing low with his winnower. For once, his enemy was surprised. The stick caught between his legs and he tripped, spilling headfirst toward the ground.
. Now if he’ll just fall into the red...
But his enemy was t
oo smart and too nimble. Even after losing his balance, his enemy displayed superb reflexes and extraordinary athletic skill. As he fell, he executed a perfect midair forward flip and landed on his feet–still standing on the yellow. Without waiting another instant, the enemy whirled around and battered him on the front of his face.
His head exploded
. Blood spurted from his nose. The whole grid spun around him, whirling in fuzzy red and yellow circles.
a heartbeat later, his enemy pressed the winnower hard against his throat.
This was more than defeat
. This was complete humiliation.
“It’s done,” his enemy said, his voice harsh and direct
. “Your life is over.”
Daman found himself unable t
o speak. His head swam and his thoughts collided. He felt barely conscious, gasping for air.
“That’s it, then,” his enemy said, still pres
sing the winnower to his neck. “You’re dead, or you’re a grunt for the rest of your life, which amounts to the same thing. Which would you prefer?”
He felt his face flush
. He grabbed the end of the winnower and pushed it away. “I would prefer that I knocked you off your polished boots for once, Mykah.”
The other boy grinned
. “Should I let you win? What good would that do you? Daman–when’s your birthday?”
“Less than two weeks away.”
“Practically tomorrow. And if your combat skills don’t improve, your sixteen-year old butt will be—”
“I know what will happen
,” he said, cutting Mykah off. He wiped blood and sweat from his face and, with effort, managed to push himself to his feet. “My parents remind me every day. I don’t need to get it from you, too.”
“I’m only trying to help
. The more you practice, the less likely you are to...”
thought, silently completing the sentence. Freeze? Die, or be sentenced to something even worse? “I know preparation is important.”
“You need to
change the way you think about the Winnowing. It’s more than just a ceremony. It’s life or death. It’s the single event that decides everything.”
“When my time comes to enter the Arena and face my opponent
“Not your opponent
.” Mykah frowned.
. That’s what I kept thinking as we fought. The enemy. But how can someone be my enemy when I have no reason to dislike them?”
“I know you don’t like to fight, Daman.
“I can fight,” he said, perhaps to
o quickly. “I just want something worth fighting for.”
“You can’t expec
t to understand everything about our world. The Sentinel moves in strange and mysterious ways.”
I don’t want to talk about it right now. I should be home.”
ogether they walked toward their homes in the village. His leg ached from the combat, but he was not about to let that show. His face was caked with blood, but he brushed it off and acted as if nothing unusual had occurred.
Mykah said was true, of course. And everything his parents said as well. If he proved victorious at the Winnowing, he would join Merrindale’s elite. He might become an Administrator, one of those who ran the village and enforced the Sentinel’s Laws and Ways. Perhaps he could even join the Black Sentry, as Mykah had done. At the least he would be given a respectable trade. But if he lost...well, he preferred not to even think about it.
glanced at Mykah, still silently trudging beside him. He treated Mykah shabbily and he knew it. They had been friends for as long as he could remember–longer even. Mykah had always been stronger and braver. Mykah had faced the Winnowing two months ago like a hero. Now he wore the distinctive dark uniform and goggled headgear that identified him as one of Merrindale’s most important citizens—a lawkeeper. He already had a fine house. Soon a wife would be assigned to him, then a slave. Perhaps several slaves, as his career progressed.
generously agreed to these daily practice sessions to improve his skills, to teach him a few tricks that might be useful at his Winnowing. But nothing Mykah tried or taught made any difference. Time after time, when he heard the commencement gong sound, his heart clutched and his feet froze and the combat was over before it began. Every time he fought, he lost. And if that happened again in two weeks, his life would be finished. He was so worried about it he could think about little else. He tried as hard as he could. He was strong and smart and thought himself reasonably brave. But he never won.
He did not want to live a low, debased life, sep
arated from everyone he ever knew or loved. He did not want to disappoint his parents. His fear that he would do both tore him apart. And it did not help that everyone kept reminding him just how close his Winnowing was.
ched Mykah’s home, a three-room thatched-roof cottage with real glass in the windows. He had it all to himself, at least for the moment. He waved goodbye and tried to choke back the thoughts coursing through his brain. He knew he shouldn’t resent his best friend–but he did.
left Mykah’s neighborhood and entered his own, where the houses were smaller, regardless of how many people lived in them, the windows were boarded over with wooden planks, and the roofs leaked during the rainy season.
Since he was a small boy, he
had counted the houses on his street. It had helped him find his own home–since all the houses looked alike. Each house followed the same pattern and was built in precisely the same way. To a small boy, it could be confusing. Now he did it out of habit.
A few moments later, he
arrived at his home. He opened the front door quietly, hoping he could get to his room without attracting much attention.
Once again, his hopes were dashed.
He found both his mother and father standing just beyond the door waiting for him.
,” his father said. His mother looked at him, her eyes like small stones.
returned, barely above a whisper.
..” He knew his father was trying to act casual, as if there was nothing in particular they wanted to know. But the effort was wasted. “Did you do anything of interest today?”
tried to avoid the subject, even though he knew it was pointless. “Nothing much.”
His father nodded
. “But I notice your face is red and bruised.”
“Every day this week you’ve come home bruised or battered in one way or another. Did you have another practice session with Mykah?”
sensed his father already knew the answer to his next question. His mother, unfortunately, was not content with tacit communication.
“Don’t you think we have a right to know what happened?” she asked.
“He beat me. That’s what happened. He demolished me. Like always.”
this is important. Your whole—”
time for dinner, Martha?” his father said, cutting in.
She gave him a harsh glare, then acquiesced
. “Past time. Wash up, then come to the table.”
arrived at the dinner table, he took his traditional seat silently, hoping they could get through the meal without discussing the obvious subject. As soon as he was seated, Xander, their slave, served the food.
Xander was relatively ne
w to their household. Father was the village baker, not an Administrator or one of the more prestigious tradesmen in the community. It had taken his father twenty years to accumulate enough Merit to have a slave assigned to him, and even then, all he got was a boy, one not much older than his son. By comparison, Mykah, as a member of the Black Sentry, would probably have enough Merit for an adult slave before the end of the year.
sensed that his father didn’t much care whether he had a slave, perhaps even preferred not to have one. His mother was just the opposite. She never ran out of tasks for Xander. She had assigned him virtually every household chore imaginable.
tried not to look at Xander as he passed by. Like all members of the slave class, he bore the Deformity–a protruding purplish bulge over his left temple. The Sentinel had decreed that all those bearing the Deformity should be slaves. They lived apart and were never permitted to participate in any of the village’s social events.
der served the meal.
He noticed that Xander
had failed to give him a boiled potato. “Boy.”
Xander stopped, then turned
. He did not speak. Slaves were not permitted to speak, except in response to a direct question.
.” He noticed his father giving him a strange look. Xander moved hastily and deposited a potato on the plate. He hovered for just a moment, as if waiting to see if anything else would be required.
“Thank you, Xander,” hi
s father said. “I think that’ll be all for now.”
Xander shuffled off to
his position at the end of the small dining room.
is mother barely waited a bite. “Daman, you know how much we worry about you.”
I’m doing everything I can.” He did not mean to be insolent. The words just spewed out of him. He was so tired of it, all the pressure, all the guilt, the constant sense of his own inadequacy.
rying isn’t good enough. The Winnowing will determine the course of your entire life.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
“If you win, you’ll have everything–a good job, a good home. Merit.”
“I know, Mother.”
“But if you lose, you could be killed.”
“I won’t be killed.”
“If you lose, you’ll do work day after day for the rest of your life. You’ll be stuck in a hole you’ll never climb out of.”
s wrong with menial work?” he said, intentionally not looking at his father. His mother covered her face with her hands. “Oh, Daman, don’t say that. Not even in jest.”
“Father is a baker
. That’s not so bad.”
“Your father spent twenty years shoveling human waste out of the sewers before he was deemed to have enough Merit to be a baker
. And baking hardly puts him at the highest level of village society.”
“If I have to shovel, I’ll shovel.”
His father cleared his throat. “Son...there’s more to it than that.”
If you lose,” his mother said, “you’ll be taken–blindfolded–to another village, where you’ll remain for the rest of your life. We’ll never see you again.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t already kn
ow. I don’t see why you have to keep hammering away at this every—”
“Because I’m your mother.
” She looked at him with wide and pleading eyes. “You’re my only son. The only son I have and the only son I’ll ever have. I only want the best for you. I want you to have more than—” She checked herself again. A moment later, she restarted. “There hasn’t been a night I haven’t thought–what if your father had prevailed at his Winnowing? Think where we might be now. A better job, more slaves. More—”
s father said quietly, “perhaps this isn’t the time.”
“Then when?” she shot back
. “In two weeks it will be too late.”
“Surely we could talk about something else.”
“Daman, I don’t mean to make you unhappy. But this is so important.”
s father cleared his throat, then made a quick jerk of his head toward the corner, where Xander stood at attention.
s mother fell silent. The Sentinel frowned on displays of strong emotion. They were potentially harmful, disorderly. And she wouldn’t want to start even the whisper of a rumor that she had disobeyed the Laws and Ways of the Sentinel.
Her voice was barely a whisper now. Her eyes watered. “Think about what we’ve said. If there’s anything more you can do, anything at all—”
ll try, Mother,” he said, fighting back tears of his own. “If there’s anything I can do, I will. That’s a promise.” But even as he spoke the words, he had no idea what he could possibly do. His future was all but written. He would lose his Winnowing, and be exiled, and be condemned.