At the edge of the encampment, a woman lays flat on her pallet, struggling to give birth to her firstborn child. Her brow is coated with sweat, and she grits her teeth, trying not to scream in pain, as the contractions, each one more powerful than the one before, grip her bulging midsection. The midwife stands at her side, materials at the ready, prepared to assist when the need arises. A tall man, his long broadsword belted at his waist with another across his back, stands near the entrance to the shelter, watching and waiting . . .
The sun is just beginning to set when the thin, annoyed screams of newborn babes finally emerge from the tent near the edge of the encampment. Mere minutes later, the man emerges, carrying, not one, but two infants. He raises them high in the air and shouts to the crowd that has gathered, “Hear and witness! I claim these children as my own to carry on my legacy!”
From that moment, though they are only minutes out of the womb, their fates are sealed.
* * *
Two young children, a boy and a girl, stand silently beside their father, staring out at the shifting sands of the desert. The Sindal Mountains rise gracefully in the distance, the setting sun appearing to balance precariously on their misty peaks.
At eight years, the children are nearly identical. Their only distinguishing features being the lengths of their hair, with the girl-child’s slightly longer. Among a race of light-colored people, their straight black locks and glittering onyx eyes set them apart. Both wear lightweight garments that shield their entire bodies from the harsh, burning rays of the desert sun, and each carries several long daggers at the belt. Even their expressions are identical, stern and harsh, making them seem older than they truly are. They are old souls housed in young bodies; children who have never known childhood. The children rarely speak, save to each other, and are nearly always in each other’s company. They can always be found within sight of each other, as though afraid that should they separate, they would never again see one another.
Finally, the man turns and reenters the encampment, but the children stay where they are, facing the setting sun. They remain standing side-by-side until long after the sun has sunk below the horizon, thoughts and emotions flowing between them through the twin-link, comfortable in their outward silence.
* * *
The children have reached their eleventh year, and they are inseparable. When they stand side-by-side, it is nearly impossible to tell them apart, so alike are they in look and manner. Even their builds are alike, despite the fact that one is male and the other female. The only thing that truly defines one from the other is the length of their hair, as the girl’s hangs nearly to her waist, despite being restrained in a tail set high on her head.
Their eyes glitter like polished black onyx in their tanned faces, and their hands are calloused from hard work and daily training. Now, they wear heavy broadswords in addition to the daggers. These children seem too small to be able to carry such large weapons, yet each wields it with surprising ease. Already, they can defeat nearly half the warriors of the tribe, and are well on their way to being strong and skilled enough to force the rest to their knees.
* * *
Two teenagers, features almost perfectly identical, stand in the center of the practice ring, preparing to spar. They are fourteen now, just on the edge of adulthood. Though still the same height, there are now small differences between them. His shoulders have begun to broaden and his body to fill out as he progresses towards manhood, while her body is on its own path as she begins the journey from girl to woman.
They have learned all that their father can teach them. During sparring, they have each defeated all of the other hunters and warriors in the tribe, proving that, alone, each is more than powerful. But together, with their twin-bond linking them, they are nearly impossible to beat. They have forced even their father, the strongest and most skilled of the tribe’s swordsmen, to kneel before them in the ring. The only ones they cannot triumph over are each other.
They salute each other and draw their swords in unison, the harsh sound of metal-on-leather creating a unique harmony between them. Then they begin. Their blades come together with a loud clang, and the fight begins. It becomes a dance of blades and bodies as each tries in vain to force the other to the ground. Here, facing each other, the twin-bond that aids them so well against others is now their enemy. Just as they sense each other’s moves when fighting together against others, so does the same occur now against each other.
Finally, they come together for the last time, blades locked. Though they can last for hours, these battles always end in a draw, whether it be daggers against sword or sword against sword. No matter how fiercely they fight, neither twin can defeat the other, for they are equally matched in skill and strength. Yet these battles are not in vain. With each fight against each other, they increase their stamina and agility. They learn other ways of combating foes, and build not only their individual strengths, but their combined strength and that of their twin-bond, as well.
In the beginning, their father set out to teach them the way of the sword, the path of the blade, but even he never dreamed just how far they would go down that path. Now, as he watches them simply stand together in the center of the arena, dripping sweat and content in each other’s company, he wonders what he has created, and just what his creations, no, his children, will become.
Chapter 1: 1 Year Later
The fight begins in silence. There are two combatants: one wielding a pair of daggers, the other a broadsword. A young woman crouches at one side of the arena, slim hands holding the daggers in a loose, yet secure, grip. A long braid of raven-black hair swings down to lightly brush her waist, and glittering black eyes shimmer like polished onyx, catching her opponent’s every move, missing nothing. Her fellow combatant is a grown man. He stands opposite her, broadsword held at the ready in scarred, calloused hands.
Only one person watches the fight. A young man, unarmed save for a small dagger at his belt, stands silently at the edge of the arena. His onyx-black eyes, perfectly matching the girl’s own, study the fighters carefully. Both his tanned face, framed by short black hair, and the lean frame of his body are perfectly relaxed. Yet there is a tension that says he will react instantly if the need arises.
For a long moment, the fighters simply remain like this, neither one moving. Then, as if cued by an invisible signal, both spring into action. The man moves first, launching himself toward the girl. She waits until he is nearly on top of her then shifts out of the way, one of her daggers slipping beneath his sword. She turns the blade away at the last moment, so the flat side of the dagger raises only a dark welt on his side, rather than breaking the skin. He approaches her again, more carefully this time, yet still with all the ferocity of his previous attack.
The only sounds are the hollow clang of metal-on-metal and the grunts of the man. The girl says nothing, moving like a graceful dancer as she avoids his blows and lands her own. After just over half an hour, the fight is over. The man, breathing heavily with sweat pouring down his face, stands motionless before her, his broadsword on the ground at his feet. She holds a dagger to his throat, barely touching the delicate skin.
Finally, she speaks for the first time since the fight began. “You’re dead.” Her voice is soft and low, but there is a hard edge to it. With that, she sheathes her daggers and walks out of the arena to where the young man stands. Without a word, he puts an arm around her shoulders, and they walk away from the arena in companionable silence. And as they leave, it is impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins.
* * *
Several days later, the twins stand with their father amid the lush grass of a small oasis, watching the setting sun once again balance on the misty, needle-thin peaks of the distant Sindal Mountains. Their mounts, sturdy desert ponies, graze quietly on the greenery behind them.
“You received a message from the Desert Lord,” the boy comments quietly to their father. He stands beside his sister, one arm wrapped around her shoulders, supporting her as she leans against him.
The man darts a surprised glance at his son. “Who told you that?”
A faint smile flickers across his son’s face. “You are angry. That always happens when he sends you a message.”
The man turns to face them. “What makes you think I am angry about anything?”
Both twins watch him with piercing black eyes, so different from his own. He shudders inwardly at their gaze, especially that of his daughter.
“You know you cannot fool us, father,” she says, breaking her usual silence. The girl rarely speaks, preferring instead to leave such activity to her twin. Her voice is low and harsh, reflecting her surroundings. “What did the letter say?”
Her father sighs, relenting. He knows he will receive no peace until he reveals the contents of the missive brought by the king’s messenger. “The Desert Lord summons all the able-bodied.”
“Why?” The twins ask in unison, onyx eyes still focused on him.
“A war has begun. The Amirians, it seems, wish to take the desert as their own,” he answers disgustedly.
His daughter nods. “You are going to fight then,” she says. It is not a question, but he decides to answer anyway.
“Yes. I am going to fight.” He is quiet for a long moment.
His son begins, “You have something-”
“-more to say, Father,” his daughter finishes.
The man sighs, realizing it is futile to try to hide anything from his children. “You’re right. I do have more to say.” He turns to face them. “You are both fifteen now, and there is nothing more I can teach you. The Desert Lord is drafting all the able-bodied into the tribal army.”
“And you want us to join the fight as well,” the girl replies quietly. Once again, it is not a question, but he nods in reply. Her brother pins the man with an emotionless black stare. She continues, “You wish us to prove ourselves, and, by doing so, raise your status in the eyes of the Desert Lord.”
When he makes no reply to his daughter’s comment, his son speaks up. “Is it not enough, Father, to know that we have proven ourselves the best before the clan? Must we prove ourselves to the rest of the clans as well?”
“I have no choice,” the man says tightly, neither acknowledging nor denying the words of his children. “We will leave in two days for the Tribe Army’s camp.” With that, he turns to recapture his horse. When he is mounted, he glances over his shoulder at the twins. “I will expect you to be ready at that time.” Then, he jerks the beast’s head around and kicks it into a gallop in the direction of the clan.
Both twins let out soft sighs, and the girl leans against her brother. He tightens his grip but remains silent as they stand watching the sunset. Thoughts and feelings flow silently between them through their twin-bond.
Finally, he breaks the silence. “It would seem that we have no choice, sister. But I cannot say as I am pleased about the situation.”
“Nor do I,” she whispers. “He uses us to further himself, as though we are simply possessions.”
“He has never truly considered us people, little one. You know that as well as I.”
She shakes her head in disgust. “All the same. I do not mind fighting in practice or training, but to hurt another simply to show that we are better? I despise such ideas.” She sighs heavily. “But such is our birthright.” The girl falls silent.
For a long time, both lapse back into silence, once again gazing out at the sunset. Finally, as the last rays of golden light fade behind the mountains, the twins turn away and walk, hand-in-hand, to where their mounts stand in a light doze. Moments later, the paces of their mounts matching perfectly, the twins return to where their clan camps.