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by Jeff
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #1666652
One good book is worth more than all the swords and shields in the realm.

One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years.
To read is to voyage through time.

— Carl Sagan

I couldn't believe that all he gave me was a stupid book. My father was many things, but today was the first time I considered adding senile to the list. He was never a particularly generous man, but this seemed a bit cheap even for him; especially considering the occasion.

As was the custom of our people, it was my duty – along with the first born sons of the other regents – to accept a tour of duty in the Outer Realm, where extreme temperatures, dangerous terrain, and warring tribes of savages made the land far less hospitable than the oasis of civilization we enjoyed within the Inner Realm. We were given some speech about tradition and training and honor, but I wasn't alone in feeling that there must be a better way to recognize the heirs to each house without subjecting them to a year of life-threatening hardship.

I had tried to convince my mother and father to send my good for nothing younger brother Gaius in my place, but after hearing the unfortunate news of Lord Damara's eldest son being dismembered by a band of savages last year (and realizing that his second eldest son was now embarking with my group), it became clear that the oldest in the family wasn't necessarily the sole heir so much as the first in what could be – depending on the size of the family and their luck in the Outer Realm – a very long line of heirs. At any rate, it definitely explained why so many of the houses prided themselves on having many, many sons. With the number of sons who didn't return, it wasn't hard to understand why the regents would desire half a dozen sons or more, hoping that at least one of them would survive to inherit the house.

All of this insight only served to fuel the outrage and offense I felt at my father's gift. Other sons had received new armor, finely crafted weapons, or other equipment that would help ensure their survival out in the wild. Even Lord Damara gave his (second) son a heavy shield, and our house had twice the status and wealth his did! What was I supposed to use the stupid book for? Bashing in the heads of savages that crossed our path? It was certainly hefty enough to do the trick; I'll give the old man that. It had a worn, leather cover with no inscription and no title. The pages, from what I could see of them, looked yellowed and faded, brittle from age and use. The worst part was, at several hundred pages, it was heavy and would take up a good portion of space in my pack. The old man even had the audacity to smirk when he handed me the gift!

I considered leaving it behind in favor of something more practical, but with my entire family watching me prepare for the journey with morbid fascination, I couldn't very well leave the one thing behind that my father had given me. Without looking at it or even opening it to skim a few pages, I tossed it into my pack and promptly buried it beneath clothes and other supplies.

The farewell was more emotional than I would have thought or liked; I think it dawned on everyone that this would be the last time each family would see their eldest sons for at least a year, possibly the last time they would ever see us.

It was early morning when we set out for the Outer Realm. It would take us three days to make it to the small keep that would be our home for the next year; three days of harsh conditions, marching through sand and rock and all manner of gray and brown countryside. Gone were the green fields and lush trees of the Inner Realm, replaced by a landscape which was either already dead or slowly dying. There were no towns or villages along our path; no one was foolish enough to actually live out here, except for the savages of course. Outcasts from society, they lived independently from our laws and morality. While none of us had ever seen a savage, we had all been told stories about them, often by our fathers when we were younger and they wanted to scare us. Fierce warriors. Tattooed. Pierced. Cannibals. There were seemingly endless tales of the savages, from those who had braved them in generations past.

We thought it would be an uneventful three days of marching, but the second day brought with it our first lesson: one should always be prepared in the Outer Realm.

A tribe of savages blindsided us as we were marching through a small valley. It was brutal; most of us didn't even have our weapons readied when the first arrows struck the boys at the front of our marching order. The savages weren't nearly as fearsome as we had been led to believe, but they had the element of surprise, the advantage of knowing the terrain, and absolutely no sense of fighting fair. We would learn soon enough that ambushes and concealed traps would be part and parcel of the experience out here.

Three of us fell in that first attack before we were sufficiently capable of defending ourselves and able to repel them. It wasn't easy, but our combat training and superior weapons allowed us the advantage over their crude technology, once we were on even ground. Still, three of us wouldn't even make it to the keep alive, and I noticed – with more sadness than I had anticipated – that I sincerely hoped Lord Damara's third son would succeed where his brothers had failed.

Had we arrived at the keep with our entire group still intact, we might have complained about the lack of cleanliness, or poor quality of the rations stored in the cellar. But with three of us now buried in the surprisingly large cemetery on the neighboring hillside, we somehow didn't feel it justified to complain about stale jerky and the barrels of oats that would likely comprise more than one of our meals each day.

That first night, we were attacked by the savages again. They were easily repelled and we maintained our numbers with the aid of the keep's strategic defenses; we took it more as a "welcome to the neighborhood" greeting from the Outer Realm's indigenous inhabitants. Still, I'm sure the skirmish proved the point they were hoping to make; that there was no place we were safe, and no time that was off limits. We had to be on guard every moment of every day (and night). The knowledge of our relative vulnerability, and the need for constant vigilance, wore on many of us; most of us slept fitfully, if at all.

I was one of the ones who couldn't sleep. Seeing Lord Damara's son die in front of me had taken a greater toll than I could have imagined. My first thoughts were of myself, having to go back and tell him that his son had died. But then I thought of his family, and how this would mean that their third and last son would have to go through this next year, and how they risked not only grieving for the death of three sons in three years, but also had to face the now probable possibility that they would have no male heirs to their house. They would lose everything; their house, their wealth, their status. They would be cast down from high society and treated worse than the peasants. Peasants in our society could at least be excused for their shortcomings because they had never had privilege to begin with. But to have it and lose it through one's own failings was inexcusable.

And then I thought about the possibility that I might not make it back. That Gaius might not make it back. Our family only had two chances at an heir and, notwithstanding my own desire to live – which was not an insignificant motivation – I began to think less about what I was entitled to, and more about what this journey meant for my family.

Feeling a pang of homesickness, I reached for the one item I had been given by my father. The book, which had remained forgotten in my pack since I stuffed it in there, was a surprisingly welcome relief. I traced my fingertips across the worn leather cover, savoring its supple exterior. As I flipped through the pages, I was astonished to find that this wasn't a printed text like the books in our libraries at home; this was handwritten and, from the looks of it, by more than one person. It was a journal! I recognized the last set of entries, written in my father's unique scrawl, and quickly noted that his predecessors in the journal were his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. It was an account of their time spent in the Outer Realm, filled with their experiences and insights when they were our house's eldest son.

I read the book cover to cover that night. It was filled with an incredible amount of information, both practical advice and personal thoughts, describing their hopes and fears as they struggled to survive and lost other sons, many of whom they had befriended out here. This book contained the key to our survival. My father's parting words, to me, were the same as his forefathers to their sons:

Shields break and swords dull. Knowledge will always be your most steadfast weapon against an enemy. Use the wisdom of our past to ensure your future. When you return home, return with your own wisdom for your sons, and bequeath it to them when it is their time. Our family's success is built with our heads, not with our hands.

True to the words my father had written, the finely crafted weapons and equipment of other houses that I had so desperately envied while back in the Inner Realm proved to be less useful a gift than my book. There were many battles with the savage tribes of the Outer Realm, and their shields did indeed break, and their swords did indeed dull. But the information in my family's journal allowed us to spot the traps and ambushes laid for us before we walked into them, and taught us how to live off the land and survive here and minimize our losses.

And suddenly I realized why our house was so revered; why so many of the other regents deferred to my father even when they had more holdings or greater wealth. It was because my father had saved their lives out here, just as I was saving the lives of those regents who would serve their houses with me. Our family's book had not only ensured our own survival, but the survival of many of the other sons, who would now and forever be counted among our most loyal supporters and greatest friends.

I wondered why my family was the only one who gave a book like this, instead of weapons and equipment.

Years later, when I was preparing to send my own eldest son on his journey to the Outer Realm, I gave him the book and he shot me the same indignant glare that I had given my father when I was his age. I couldn't resist the urge to offer him the same self-satisfied smirk my father had given me. He would learn soon enough.

It was then that I also realized why no one else had a book. In an ever changing world where there's always a new, exciting technology, it's easy to believe it will make our lives better and our jobs easier. But our people's greatest strength will always be our ability to evolve our minds and learn from the past.

Maybe one day the other houses will learn what ours learned five generations ago. Until then, our tradition will endure alone.


(2,000 words)
© Copyright 2010 Jeff (jeff at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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