The Heroes of Rokan-Jin
The Duke of 10,000 Scythes
A hot wind blows across your face, grains of airborne sand grate against your skin. Below you, across the dunes, is a small village of mud-brick and rough sandstone. It is quiet in the early light of dawn, and the people are only just stirring.
You secure your veil across your mouth and nose, and turn to your horde, dressed and accoutered exactly as you are. They wait on the dune behind you, their horses restless, their silhouettes standing out in stark relief to the rising sun. You raise your scythe, and see them silently raise theirs in unison. The Reaping will soon begin.
Down across the sand, hoofbeats thundering in your ears, you see the villagers scurrying out of their homes. They are taken by surprise, but you are pleased to see they have reacted with admirable alacrity, and are manning the defenses by the time you reach the entrance. The soldiers see you and your horde, see the banners, hear the shouts and chanting, and lower their weapons. The gates are opened, and you ride in to the ragged cheers of the townsfolk.
They are staggering out of their homes, their children clutched at their breasts, but they are waking up quickly as the horde passes through. They cheer your title, full of fear and wonder, and you take a moment to listen. The Duke of Ten Thousand Scythes, they chant, over and over. You let them continue for several minutes, giving them time to finish waking up, to hug their children close. But you have a schedule to keep, so you finally nod to your lieutenant, who raises a single fist, and they fall silent.
Your soldiers ride along the streets, the townsfolk lifting their babies up for inspection. Every child over a year of age, but under two years, is on display. Some are passed over, some are taken. In either case the mothers might wail, for it is both a sadness to lose a child and an honor to have one chosen. You are among them, indistinguishable from the other members of the horde, looking over children and judging their future strength, speed, and cunning. Your senses become impossibly sharp. You can smell an eventually overactive pituitary gland in this one, hear future asthma in the cry of that one, see the early stages of a minor skin condition in a third. The third one has promise, so you nudge one of your soldiers over.
And then you see her. She is only a year and a day old, small, thinner than the others. Not sickly, but not hardy either. She is not one that any of your horde would choose. But she does not cry. She looks around with clear eyes, eyes that take in the world without flinching at the noise of the horses and the emotion of her mother. Despite two millennia of life, you are not sure what to expect of this one. And so you guide your horse over, lock eyes with her mother, and extend your hands. The mother is frightened, saddened, overjoyed. She takes exactly 27 seconds to hand the child over to you, and stares longingly even after you have pressed the money into her palm and ridden away. The child looks back at her mother until the crowd blocks her view, but she does not cry.
The horde has no parents, only brothers and sisters. The children, once brought in to the Oasis of the Endless Vigil, do not even know who chose them. They are placed in the care of the elders, those warriors who have become frail, or who have lost the taste for battle. There is no shame in this. Only those who are better than human may fight at the Duke’s side, for only the strongest can stand against the Mad Tides.
The girl is given a name, the first one she has ever had, Ari. Though it is unbecoming, you cannot help but check in on her, from time to time. You watch her train, and grow, but never do you speak to her, save when you speak to all the children. They come to know you as a distant father, or perhaps a grandfather. But above all, Ari and her new siblings know you as the Duke. For one day, they all aspire to ride in your horde, serve under your command, and die at your side.