Chapter 1

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Batu looped his arms through the basket's leather straps and hoisted a full load of logs onto his back. He tugged the left strap tight, then did exactly the same to the strap on the right. He leaned forwards to test the weight, then stood upright again. Everything was balanced. Everything was equal.

He took a deep breath and wiped his right eye with his right hand. Then, with his left hand, he wiped his left eye.

Batu turned around, keeping the soles of his sandals on the floor. The dusty track in front of him was clear. Just eighty-four steps back to his home. Forty-two for his left foot, and forty-two for his right.

As usual, he led with his left. One. He stepped with his right. Two. Left again. Three. Then right. Four. His pace quickened. Five, six, seven, eight.

He glanced across the scrub-land bordering the path. Children were kicking an inflated horse bladder between them, running freely, playing in a way he never had. He sighed but didn't lose count.

Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.

Batu raised both hands to his brows, shielding his eyes from the late-morning sun. Birds soared across the clear blue sky calling to one another in shrill bursts of song. He snorted. He could never be a bird. Counting steps was bad enough, imagine having to keep track of the number of times you've flapped each wing. He dropped his arms to his side.

Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. A quarter of the way there. So far so good.

"Hey, freak!" A slender boy rose up from behind a sandthistle bush to the side of the path.

Batu cursed. Taban on his own was bad enough, but today he was flanked by two other boys, thick-set and piggy-eyed. The brothers Uchi and Ottu.

Batu shuffled his left foot. Twenty-three. He did the same with his right. Twenty-four. He stared at the floor.

"Ignoring us won't work," Taban said. He walked towards Batu. The two brothers followed him. "You're an embarrassment to the whole village."

Batu raised his head. He'd heard it all before. If he just kept quiet, Taban would get bored and leave.

"Look at you," Taban continued. "You're as big as a grown man, yet you spend your days fetching and carrying like a child. You're worthless. A big, dumb worthless freak."

Taban's words washed over him like a wave of noise. Batu focused on his own legs. They were balanced. The counts were the same for both feet. Everything was equal.

Taban's jaw moved up and down as he spat out another insult. Batu kept still. It would soon be over, and then he'd be able to get back home.

"You'll never get to go out with a raiding party," Taban said. "Why would they want to be lumbered with someone like you? You'd only slow them down and put them in danger."

Uchi laughed, and Ottu patted the curved wooden sword hanging from his cloth belt. "I bet he's never even swung a practice blade."

"I'll wager you're right," Taban said. His lips curled into a smirk. "There's only one way to find out." He stepped into the center of the track. "Uchi. Pass him your sword."

The stocky boy pulled his wooden blade from his belt and held it out, hilt first.

Batu stood motionless.

"Take it," Taban said. "Let's find out what you're made of."

Batu shook his head. He couldn't. Taban was trying to draw him into a fight. And fights meant chaos and disorder. He'd be out of balance before he'd even drawn breath.

Taban drew his own wooden sword and held it out in front of him.

"If you don't take the sword, I am going to strike you in the face."

Batu stared at him. He sighed. A blow from a wooden sword was sure to hurt, but it was preferable to the agonizing pain he was sure his sister would suffer if he didn't keep things equal.

Taban eye's flicked to his companions. He took a deep breath and lifted his sword high.

"Alright, freak, you asked for it." He stepped in and swung the blade in a savage arc towards Batu's head.

Batu's eyes followed the path of Taban's sword. He braced himself for the impact, but, at the last possible moment, Batu reached out and yanked the sword from Uchi's hand. He raised it above his head.

The wooden blades clashed together. A painful wave of vibration jarred down Batu's arm. He managed to keep his grip on the hilt, but the impact seemed to catch Taban by surprise. His blade deflected away, and he lurched sideways and stumbled to the ground.

Batu hardly noticed. The weight of the sword in his right hand, while his left hand remained empty, was intolerable. His chest tightened, and his breathing quickened. Unbidden images barged into his mind. His sister's face, tears streaming down her cheeks, and his aunt screaming in agony.

He moved his left hand towards the sword's hilt. He had to restore balance before it was too late.

"Get him!" Taban had got to his feet and picked up his sword. He swung it forwards. Batu sidestepped to his right. Taban's blade scythed through the air. It narrowly missed Batu's cheek.

Batu's head throbbed. The pressure to achieve balance grew with every movement.

Ottu rushed forwards, pushing past his weapon-less brother. He locked eyes with Batu and tapped his wooden sword against the palm of his hand.

Batu raised his own sword. He feigned swinging it towards Ottu, then changed direction and, with all his might, brought the wooden blade down against Taban's shoulder. The boy cried out and dropped to his knees.

Ottu was still coming. Batu turned around. The basket of logs on his back lurched precariously, but he stayed on his feet.

His heart was pounding in his chest, yet the waves of dread, that moments ago had surged through his body, seemed to be subsiding.

With his sword out in front of him, he moved towards Ottu. The boy didn't slow down. Ottu roared and cocked his sword arm ready to strike.

Batu's mind cleared. Everything was simple. He didn't need to think, he just had to act. 

He waited until Ottu was nearly on him, then whirled to his right. Ottu couldn't change direction in time, and the basket of logs strapped to Batu's back caught him full in the face. Ottu groaned and sprawled to the floor.

Batu stepped away. He waved his sword in front of him and glowered at his last remaining foe, the unarmed Uchi. For a moment Uchi stood his ground, his hands balled into fists, then he appeared to think better of it. He bent down next to Taban and helped him to his feet.

"My father will hear about this, of that you can be sure," said Taban. A smirk spread across his face. "He won't allow this to go unpunished."

Batu dropped his sword and slipped his arms out of the basket's straps. The logs thumped to the floor.

"It's too late to throw down your weapon," said Ottu. He stood up and limped over to his friends. He gestured to Taban's arm. "You should have done that before you struck the Thane's son."

Batu couldn't focus on Ottu's words. His heart raced and sweat beaded his forehead. The freedom he'd felt during the fight was gone, replaced with a gnawing sense of foreboding. He'd allowed himself to become unbalanced and no good would come of it. The images of his aunt and sister, distraught and in pain, returned more vividly than before.

Batu sat down on the floor and stretched out both legs in front of him. He buried his face in his hands and started to sob. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his right sleeve, then he did the same with his left.

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