Yaun hid. The men roamed about the village, looking for him, two at a time, their feet treading down the soft earth of the smouldering village. Each footfall like a battering ram.
“God and his saints will protect us,” his mother had said, but they hadn’t. His mother had been split from nape to nave by a broadsword. He had never know there was so much blood in a person.
Yaun would have survived, would have stayed in that village, but he was the unluckiest son, and always had been. In among the men came Jantris, tallest of the dead men. He was a star warrior who wielded a vorpal sword art. His brow was clad with precious stones and his clothing was finer than the others, and less smeared with blood. Yaun could feel the heat of his breath even from his hiding place, but his limbs were too frozen with fear to move.
It took them less than an hour to find him, petrified, under the old water trough where he clung to the mud. He had been bathed in that trough, when he was a baby, and played with the pigs.
He was brought before Jantris, and the men laughed like hyenas, and made a motion as if to chop off his head with their bare hands, but they didn’t. Instead, Jantris, tallest of the storm lords, leant down to Yaun. His eyes were bright, like glowing smoke.
“Now you are dead,” he said, and handed him the hilt of a sword.
Yaun cried at first, for his family, but then the men, with their hyena faces and lolling tongues, would slap him until he stopped.
“Dead men have no families,” they said to him. They painted his skin with the burned ashes of his village and forbade him to wash. The sword that the star lord had given him was a rough tool, and heavy, far too large for his small frame. He couldn’t cry so he bit his tongue and tried to remember home, and his mother, but all he could think about was the raw smell of blood.
“I cannot remember my home,” said Yaun.
“We will beat it out of you eventually,” they said plainly, “Every trace.”
The men with the hyena faces did what they had promised.
“You will forget the face of your mother,” they said to him, so he did, between each crack of the lash. Instead, he learned how best to clean their weapons and wash their blood soaked clothing. He carried water, spare boots, and ammunition.
Yaun worked very hard, for he had been an obedient son, and grew quite strong, for he constantly lugged around that heavy iron sword the master of the company had given him, and the men with hyena faces ate extremely well. The whole company ate well in those times. It was a fat age for killers. They tramped from town to town where men with perfumed breath and powdered faces would pay them for every lopped off hand. Often they would come right back to the home of a former employer on the behest of a new master, and burn it to ashes. Each time they visited a town, they would find or make many motherless little boys to make into dead men, and so their company grew tenfold.
Eventually Yaun became aware that some time had passed, and nearly everything had been beaten out of him. All that was left was just a set of eyeballs in a hollow skull atop an overlarge body with callused hands, and feet that kept tramping forward. It was oddly freeing.
Jantris was crowned with stars and had a long stemmed pipe of fine make he kept about him. His skin was smooth and dark and his eyes were a lion’s eyes.
“Now that you are completely dead,” he said to Yaun one day, “We can fill you with useful knowledge.”
You are already a dead man. From the moment you started to exist, death has bored into your ribcage and settled in your chest. It has its fingers into your very bones. When you are born, death is very small and weak, but he grows stronger every second, until he will wear you like a second skin. Do not fool yourself into thinking he is not there. You will feel him. Do not deny his presence. You must swallow death, and make him a part of you, and make of your ribcage a home for him.”
-Yaun, the dead King of Swords 10-143