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Chapter Two - The Sweepers

Matren floated there for a while, voices coming and going as they please like the tide washing in and out. Sometimes he could make out their words, others it was an indistinct muttering static. He felt the water around him grow choppy and turbulent tossing him around back and forth. He felt the pull of the tide and was helpless to react. It pulled and tugged him along its winding path for what felt like an age before finally depositing him on a pillowy shore of flowers and sunlight. The sand was soft and gentle under him and so rather than explore he felt grateful to be comfortable for once in the last three years. Matren simply laid there long enough that he had forgotten he was scared of being caught, scared of being burned alive and scared of dying.

With a jolt his eyes opened to sharp, painful light. He blinked hard against the brilliant sunlight streaming in through nearby window. He raised his arm to block the light and was shocked to see how clean his skin was. He looked about himself and found that somebody had cleaned him head to toe, and fixed his hatchet job of a haircut to boot. It was far neater and comely, falling in layered waves and no longer draping like curtains past his ears. It had returned to its gorgeous honey-oak brown and felt smooth as spun glass as he ran his hands through it. His filthy black fingernails were trimmed and sparkling clean. He found several blotches of a sweet-smelling substance on several scars and minor scrapes he had acquired both recently and over the past three years.

Turning his gaze away from himself he examined his bed, a real proper bed. He couldn’t contain himself and reflexively smiled. Even if it was a dream, at least it was a good one. The linens were crisp and clean and smelled like sunlight and spring rain. The bed was soft and the pillow plush. He felt like he could sleep for decades here. Every thought of his was bent on staying. He knew he needed the rest, the ease of a life that didn’t involve scrounging for food in trash bins. He needed the comforts of home, but it wasn’t his home.

Matren forced himself to get up out of bed and examined the room for any way out. Nothing good happened to him, and people didn’t just take away an orphan to give them a home, or clean and clothe them without ulterior motives. He’d heard of dark groups that stole children for foul and nefarious acts of depravity, even some for sacrifices to their dark gods. He wouldn’t stay around to find out just what sort of Hell he had been taken to.

The room was quite austere, about twenty paces wide but only ten long, with a single door at the far end and a single window near his bed. A lone nightstand of polished mahogany stood by the bedside, there was a powder-blue vase with images of a cloudy sky. Flowers with shimmering emerald green petals were set within. They filled the room with a smooth, redolent attar that he couldn’t quite place, but it had an unmistakable calming effect. So, he picked up the vase, opened the window – which to his surprise was left unlocked, a foolish oversight by his captors no doubt. He chucked the vase out the window, watching it sail down three stories and then plummet down the bluff and into the churning sea below. The scent was quickly evacuated along with its calming sensation. It would be easy to slip some sort of drug into the water of the vase, or onto the flowers so that the soporific effect would keep Matren incapable of escape or without the ability to fight off his kidnappers.

He frowned. His room was quite high and he thought he saw shattered bits of the vase and emerald green specks swirling about the surface of the water below. He didn’t know how to climb very well, didn’t know how to swim, and he doubted even if he could make it to the ocean that they were near anywhere he could safely escape to. At least it made sense why his window was unlocked, the only reason he’d want to go out through it would be to end his life, and though Matren held it as an option it was an ultimate move of desperation and little else.

“You wouldn’t survive the fall. And even if you could swim and managed to miss the rocks, the currents would slam you against a different rock and break every bone in your body upon them. Of course, if you really don’t like Badran’s beef stew, I wouldn’t blame you for thoughts of suicide just to be rid of it. But I would hope you’d at least try some,” the man said, lifting the try up to show Matren, “it really is a lot better than it smells.”

Matren whipped around, grabbing at a knife that was no longer on his person. He flicked his eyes to his hands, confused, then back to the man standing in the doorway with a covered tray. The man smiled and inclined his head in a friendly greeting. He had raven-black hair parted in the middle that fell just past his jaw. He had highborn features like Matren, almost what could be described as beautiful. His ivory white skin and dark blue eyes the color of shaded sapphires were by far his most striking features. His pearly white teeth sparkled when he smiled. Matren felt comforted somehow by his familiar features and his affectionate attitude. This only made Matren warier. He was convinced something dark and dangerous was going on. And that any attempts – especially successful ones – to keep him placated, calm and desirous of staying were of the highest threat.

“My name is Alkir,” he said with another friendly nod.

Matren stared at him and the tray of food. “Why,” croaked Matren.

The man motioned to the now-empty nightstand. “May I?”

Matren backed away from it so far that he was nearly in the corner like a frightened animal. Alkir, taking this as a yes, walked to the empty nightstand and set the tray down upon it. The cover for the food was a high dome of polished silver. Its reflection warped the room around it. There were two glasses beside it, one with water and another with some yellowish-orange liquid that had a slight foam about the rim where the surface of the juice touched the inside of the glass. There was only a spoon there, no knife or fork that he could see. Yet another sign of something deeply amiss, and yet a small but growing voice of reason was beginning to take shape. The spoon, for all intents and purposes could have been there because that was all that was required to eat beef stew. Though Matren’s table manners and social understandings were elementary if they even existed, deep down he doubted that most people would serve soup to a guest with a knife or fork.

Still, Matren was not easily swayed and he stared at the spoon intently. He began to think of the various ways he might use it to win his freedom. If he could get close enough he could jab it into Alkir’s eye and perhaps pop it out, with the pain and loss of sight he should be able to make a run for it without too much reprisal from Alkir. But, he knew there were many people who brought him. At least he remembered several voices. He could only assume they were here too and attacking one of their own may enrage the others, making whatever horrors they had for Matren all the worse. Then again, if they were enraged they were more prone to simply kill him outright instead of torturing or abusing him as he had heard so much of before. A swift end was better than a prolonged agony.

Alkir moved away and Matren went to the tray, lifting the lid and using his examination of the food with the lid tilted and blocking Alkir’s view of the tray to steal the spoon and hide it along his forearm, held gently in his hand. He set the cover back and let his arms hang slack, only then finding out he had pockets. Something he hadn’t had in several years. So he gently placed the spoon within as he pocketed his hands as well.

“I didn’t think it’d be a good idea to let you starve, if you’re asking why I’m bringing you food,” Alkir said, “however I don’t think that’s what you really meant. If you mean why did we take you instead of killing you and burning you alive like those ungrateful wretches in that backwater village? That’s a pretty easy question to answer, except I’m afraid it’ll take quite some explanation.” Alkir motioned for Matren to sit on the table and eat.

Matren stared blankly at him, sat but resisted the siren call of the mouthwatering beef stew. His anger and suspicions were beginning to wane. The protective wall they had afforded him was crumbling and the luscious scent of real meat and hot vegetables was making his stoic façade impossible to maintain. After a few minutes it became clear to Matren that Alkir wasn’t going to give him answers unless he ate. Matren opened the lid and set it down but only stared at the food then leveled his gaze at Alkir. For all he knew it could be poisoned, and he wasn’t interested in doing anything but getting Alkir close enough that he could attack and escape. So he nodded towards the food, to get his message across.

Alkir sighed half-heartedly. “Oh, alright! I don’t know why you’d think we’d poison your food. We did just bathe, clothe, and heal your hurts as well as provide you with a nice little bed to sleep in. Honestly!” he huffed, “You’d think we were going to fatten you up to eat you!” he said incredulously walking over to the bowl. He leaned down lazily, bringing himself within striking distance of Matren.

Matren leapt at the chance and sprung like a coiled snake at Alkir’s eye. Alkir had only just realized the spoon was missing when Matren was already halfway to his eye. With a lazy wave of his hand he diverted Matren’s hand, gripped his wrist and forced his hand open with only a meager jolt of pain. He then took the spoon from him and in the same smooth motion pushed Matren gently onto the bed while he bent over the bowl of stew and sampled it. He sipped the broth and then took a bite of carrot and cubed beef, so tender it was almost melting.

He then backed away, leaving the spoon in the bowl and motioning to it. “See? Completely harmless,” Alkir blinked and looked around thoughtfully for a moment, “actually, that’s pretty damn good! Badran must not be on chef duty today.”

There was nothing on his face that would suggest he just deftly defended against a blinding strike from Matren. His soft and gloved approach told Matren he knew what he was planning and what he would do, though Alkir never tensed in response or gave away that he knew. Matren looked at him, then the spoon, completely nonplussed.

“I wouldn’t,” Alkir suggested softly, “You’re welcome to try of course but you won’t get anything accomplished you didn’t before. I don’t want to hurt you. To be honest I’m a little impressed. Most people in your condition would be more eager to eat than to check if it’s poisoned and use that as a trap to lure me in so you can do what? Gouge out my eye and run away?” he asked, watching Matren curiously.

Matren nodded in reply and then began eating, always keeping his eyes on Alkir. Alkir began talking again, smiling and spreading his arms wide, “See, we understand one another now. You eat and I’ll explain. If you still want to stab that spoon into my eye after I’m done, feel free to give it another go,” he said with a chuckle.

Matren grumbled and hazarded a look at the stew. It was thick and rich with vegetables and chunks of meat. He hadn’t ever had beef before. They never had much money when he was growing up but it was a fortune compared to what he now had to his name. He had smelled it before, once or twice and this was always what he imagined it’d taste like. This was, by far the most delicious food he had ever had the pleasure of experiencing. While his mother had always made sure Matren was fed and healthy, the food lacked richness to its ingredients. At that point Matren hardly cared if it was poison, there would be nothing to stop him from eating it all.

While Matren ate, Alkir held up his side of the unspoken arrangement and explained, “Your mother, may she rest in peace, was a member of our order. You may have heard her mention us. We’re often called the Sweepers. Of course that’s nothing but a colloquialism for what we do. We restore balance to the world, stop evil people from doing horrible things and sometimes we have to do horrible things ourselves in order to establish balance. Your mother left us – willingly I might add and sought a normal life. She was allowed to leave under the singular agreement that if a time came that we needed her, she could answer our call.

“Naturally when we sent out the signals and she didn’t get in touch with us, we worried. Search parties were sent, hoping that she simply did not receive them. She was not the type to abandon her duty. Instead we found she died, of a simple fever,” he had said, his disposition changed completely and he practically spat, “all because those worthless farmers couldn’t be bothered to keep proper medicines in stock! We burned them for her, we burned them for you. So that they might understand how it felt when Selese was taken from us. They would never know what terrible thing they did by letting her die and treating you as they did. Not a single one of us was in disagreement about what we should do,” as he spoke, and changed subject he calmed, like a flame that had flickered and burned out all of its anger leaving only a sad calm, “you were supposed to be taken. Gently as we could, back to our Order. We had seen how you were forced to live, and we wanted to give you a way out, a way to have a family but more importantly to have a purpose. You have inherited your mother’s strengths and her will is strong within you. You managed to escape from under Menkir’s grasp. Trust me that isn’t something even the best soldiers are capable of doing. That’s not even something I am capable of!

“We want you to take up your mother’s legacy. It is the least we could do to honor her memory. Or you can start life over with a new name if you want. To anybody who goes looking for you, to them you’d just be another poor victim of a terrible blaze that swept through King’s Valley. Whether you stay or go is your choice, we won’t keep you without your permission, but know that if you do leave we cannot take you back. And if you decide to stay, you can’t leave without permission. This is a one-time offer and we cannot help you if you leave beyond giving you a new name and home. Know that you will be trained as a member of our Order, you will learn things that no other is privileged to know. You will be cared for, and you will have a family. I can guarantee you will never go hungry again, never be without proper medical treatment, and you will have the skills to defend yourself when the need arises. That is all that we can provide for you and more. Tell me, what has the world outside these walls given you Matren?”

Matren digested both the news and the stew in equal measure while thinking about everything that he was told. He had heard his mother mention the Sweepers before, and he had seen her do some rather amazing feats of acrobatics but she would always play it off as a joke. Telling him that she used to be a dancer and dreamed of travelling with a troupe of acrobats but her parents would never let her. Matren placed the tray back onto the nightstand and looked at Alkir trying to see something that his eyes could not tell him.

“Why would you do this for me? I don’t know you people. I’ve only barely heard my mom talk about the Sweepers once or twice. What do you get out of this? Nobody EVER does anything for free. I’ve learned that much about people,” snapped Matren.

“You’re right,” Alkir said, raising his hands in surrender, “we do get something out of this. You’ve got some excellent instincts, and you were able not only to slip Menkir’s Gaze, but also wound Askrin, who is far from a pushover. Even had we not thought to educate you, your display definitely would have caught our attention. We would gain a Sweeper who may even surpass your mother, who was one of the best Sweepers we’ve ever had. We’re offering you a way to have a better life and to make a real difference in society. But we’re not going to lie. You will be one of us and serve our Order just as we all do. Your power and skills will join ours and we all benefit from each other’s strength. We will make you strong and skilled. In return you will join your strength to ours and we will all grow stronger for it,” Alkir said with a soft, inviting smile.

Matren looked down then back up at him. “Will I be strong enough to help those like myself? Will I be safe from their courtly reprisals?” he asked cautiously.

Alkir smiled broadly at his interest. “The Sweepers are immune to even the wrath of Kings. If you join our Order you will be afforded that very same privilege. You will come to trust us as brothers, sisters and mentors. You are welcomed and safe here Matren. Know that we only wish the best for you, because the best for you is also the best for us. We have a mutually beneficial agreement that would be foolish to turn down. But we afford you that option out of respect for your mother and for you. Should you wish it, we would disappear from your life forever and you will be free as you desire without ever seeing us again.”

“Would I not be free as a Sweeper?” Matren asked.

“You would have a creed to follow, a set of rules that governs everything we do. But do not worry, they are simple and are not an exacting law that has no room for interpretation. If you break a creed, but can prove how it was not broken then you have nothing to worry about. Additionally if you avoid breaking any creed you also have nothing to concern yourself with,” said Alkir.

Matren took a moment to think over what was being offered; the skills and strength to overcome his adversaries and to help those that needed it, but most of all he would have a purpose. All his life after his mother passed was bereft of both purpose and any means to acquire one. He did naught but barely manage to survive until the next day. By all rights he would have been a town vagrant, unable to be further educated, unable to be an apprentice of any kind. He would have no prospects and would die alone and useless. More importantly, his mother was a Sweeper of some renown and that more than anything else is what settled his mind on the subject. Being a Sweeper would allow him to get closer to her, in a way he could learn more about her and be closer to who she was than he ever had as a child. It was a way in which Matren could hold onto that connection with his mother who loved him so dearly.

Matren stood suddenly, looked at Alkir and said, “Make me a Sweeper. I will surpass my mother and honor her memory by being better than she could have dreamed.”

Alkir smiled and clapped his hands together, rubbing them vigorously. “Excellent! First, I think we need to get you some more food. You’re barely skin and bones. What are you, about a fifty pounds soaking wet? You won’t be learning anything without the fuel to keep alert. You wait here and I will get more food delivered to you, and see about getting you a proper room,” he replied.

Before Matren could say anything Alkir had turned on his heels and left. The door was left slightly ajar so Matren crept over to it to look out the hallway. The flooring in the hallway was hardwood that had been polished to a brilliant golden glow. The hallway was lined with rich, thick piled rugs of deep reds and soft creamy greens. There were an innumerable amount of tapestries hanging along the walls near his room. They were adorned with swooping curved symbols that made little sense to Matren besides an aesthetic purity he couldn’t quite explain. He padded out barefoot onto the carpeted flooring, looking both ways down the long hall with hanging glass lanterns every fifteen paces providing a dim but adequate light. There were no windows, only more wooden doors all painted red with black iron handles. None of the doors had a lock and he was surprised that nobody was in the hall keeping watch over him, or any of the other guests – assuming there were any of course. Spaced evenly between the doors were a variety of dressers of some dark, polished wood. It was so smooth and slick that it reminded him of a mirror, and when he approached the nearest dresser and leaned towards it he could just barely make his face out in. Matren was sure that even if he had a proper mirror he wouldn’t readily recognize the face that was gazing back at him.

Instantly he remembered his mother’s pendant and clutched at his simple white shirt, closing his small fist around the cold, heavy metal pendant. Relieved, he let out a sigh and went back to his room to look for the pocket watch and waterskin. He searched the single drawer of the lone nightstand and found his effects inside, minus the rags to which he had no sentimental attachment to. He hoped they had been burned, if only for the sake of cleanliness. He took the watch out and placed it into his pocket, the weight of it and the pendant upon him were comforting and made him feel secure in a place that was intensely foreign to him. Even if his life would be better here, he missed the misted King’s Valley and all that it represented. It wasn’t better, or even good, but it was familiar and a deep piece of him ached for that familiarity. The changes terrified him. That old house that had been just as forgotten and neglected as he, if it hadn’t been burned he vowed he’d go back and restore it to its proper glory.

Reaching to his mother’s pendant, he closed his fist tightly around it and said, “I am Matren Kurnal, my mother was Selese Kurnal, she died three years ago and she was a Sweeper. I am now twelve years old. I am alive, the rest of the world may believe I am dead, but I am alive. My name is Matren Kurnal, and I will be a Sweeper.”

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