On the day of my Bonding my mother cried. When I awoke she was weeping, and my father held her, comforting her. I asked what was wrong, but they did not answer me. I asked my mother why she cried, and she sobbed harder into my father’s shoulder. He finally took her to their chambers and laid her on the bed there. My father returned with his own sad smile. We ate a morning meal, and we spoke of the war, the People, and even the weather, but not of my mother.
“Why does mother cry?” I asked.
“I shall not speak of the Bonding,” he replied. He had warned me long ago that there would be no discussion of the Bonding on the day it was to happen. This was a custom as old as the Bonding itself. He had told me that if one is not ready when one wakes on the Day of Bonding then they never shall be. But surely this could not be why she cried.
“Does mother think I will fail?” I asked.
“I shall not speak of the Bonding,” he replied again. I knew the Bonding was dangerous. This was common knowledge. It was known that as part of the ritual, the initiate must slay a wild boar, but surely that wasn’t it. At only 16, I could already keep up with my father, who was himself one of the Bonded. I was nearly as strong as him, and could outrun him at any distance shorter than a league (beyond which his Bonded endurance was too much to keep up with). I had no spellcraft yet, without a Bond of my own, but I had studied all the texts long and hard. I would be ready for the power that would course through me, and my teachers all said I had the makings of a great warlock. I had trained years for this. Since the day I was chosen as a candidate I had been preparing. The slaying of a boar, for which I was told I would be allowed a knife, seem like childsplay.
“Surely she does not think I will fall to the boar?” I laughed, but was met only by a sad look in my father’s eye. “She does not think I will fail at the Bonding itself?” I said more worriedly. Everyone knew that those chosen as candidates to be Bonded who then failed at the task were sent away. Banished, never to be seen again. I had never considered I might fail at the Bonding itself, but if I did it would no doubt be like a knife in the heart of my mother.
“I shall not speak of the Bonding,” was all my father would say. He looked down to his arm, where one could see the dark roots of his Bond running just beneath the skin. They made him look sickly at times, as the skin over the roots was darkened with a black and green hue. At his shoulder, where the Bond had been planted, small spade-shaped leaves of green shot through with violet veins hung like the scales of a toxic lizard. The first buds of the season were forming among the leaves. In a few weeks, when they bloomed, my father would be called upon to perform some Great Work.
When the morning grew late, and the Sun was high in the sky, filtering down through the canopy, my father took me to the river, where the other potential Bonded were gathered. The priests came down to the river shortly after to examine us. The came to each of us in turn and told us to remove our clothes. The examined us, and those they deemed healthy were told to bath in the river and clean thoroughly. Two were sent away and the other four of us bathed in silence. We were warned before entering the river that we should speak as little as possible today. This was the tradition. We were examined once more coming out of the river, and then we were led up the path, back to the village. We came back into the village naked, but there was no one to see us when we arrived. The priests drummed on a tightly strung deerskin as we walked, and the people knew to be away when the bonded passed. Again, this was the tradition.
We came to the temple and climbed the stone steps. At the entrance stood my father and three other Bonded. The priests formed us into a line and sent each of us ahead to speak with the Bonded in private. My ears were trained to hear things far away, but I think the Bonded were using some spellcraft to dampen their sound. I heard nothing of what was said. I was last in the line of four candidates, so I watched as each candidate ahead of me went forward, had their conversation with the Bonded, and then were sent passed them into the temple. The last to go before me was a girl about my age with skin like the night. She seemed so confident and sure of what was going on I felt compelled to appear so as well. I had long feared other candidates were being told more than me. My father had told me some things to be sure. He had told me that I would have to kill a wild boar, he had instructed my training, he had even demonstrated how one wielded spellcraft. Yet every time I had questions on the details of the Bonding, on the specifics of the tests, and the rite of Bonding itself, he always had the same answer. “I shall not speak of the Bonding.”
Finally, the girl in front of me went forward to speak, and I was alone on the steps.
It seemed to me that the conversation over her lasted the shortest, because I had barely started to prepare for my turn when the girl moved past the Bonded and they beckoned me to come up. I climbed the rest of the steps and faced the four Bonded. The first was my father, the second was a portly man with his Bond right in the center of his chest, the third I could see no evidence of his Bond save the veins that crisscrossed his pale skin, and the third was a woman with Bond upon her left hip. I felt their eyes on my body, naked and still wet, and it seemed like I was livestock being evaluated before a sale.
“You wish to be Bonded, young one?” the woman asked me. Her voice held the same sad somber tones that my father’s had had all morning.
“Y..Yes,” I was becoming more nervous now.
“You sound unsure, young one,” the portly man said, “Are you certain this is what you want?”
“Of course,” I said hastily, “I am simply nervous sir.”
The exchanged a look. A look of doubt. Even my father shared in it. I felt betrayed, but I showed no sign of my frustration. I was determined to pass whatever test this was.
The man without a visible Bond spoke, “You realize that there is no going back once you begin the Bonding. Not all pass the test.”
“I know. I am ready,” I replied, trying my best to sound sure.
The other three looked to my father, who in turn looked at me. I stood tall and firm. My father sighed and nodded. The other three shared a look just between them, and they nodded in turn.
“Go,” my father said, “Inside the temple, the priest will take you to the Bonding place. Where your final test will be.”
I was ready. I was sure of it. I had killed worse than boars in the forest. Even if this boar was monster bred by temple Bonded, I would not fail to kill it.
I took the steps two at a time, and was greeted at the top by the priest.
“Are you ready?” he asked. I nodded, and the priest put his arms on my shoulders. Our foreheads met, and he whispered a prayer from my protection and for strength. He led me back into the labyrinth of the temple, until we came to a circular room opened to the sky. He left me alone in the room. The walls were smooth stone save for four wooden slats covering indentations about four feet up and equidistant about the room. The floor of the room was stone like the walls, but cut with grooves that led to a small hole at the center.
A minute later, the priest returned with two acolytes, dragging with them a tightly bound and muzzled boar. It was…smaller, and more tame looking than I had imagined.
The priest approached me, leaving the acolytes to drop the tied up animal on the floor with a grunt, and he handed me a stone knife.
I was confused.
“Kill it boy, then we will begin.”
“But…,” I hesitated, “Like that?”
“Yes boy. Like that,” the priest responded flatly.
“But I thought–”
“I know what you thought, child,” the priest looked sad, “but this is how it is truly done. You will understand by the time it’s over.”
He pressed the knife into my hands and gave me a gentle nudge towards the boar. This seemed wrong somehow? How could this be a final test for the Bonding? The acolytes were even holding the boar to give me better access to the beast throat.
“One long slash, child. Then things will become clear.”
I hesitated, but I had come this far already. I cut the boar’s throat. It couldn’t scream around the muzzle, so instead it made what sounded like a sigh if a sigh could sound terrified.
The blood began to spill out quickly, and both acolytes went to work. While the priest held his hands aloft and chanted a prayer of some kind, the acolytes covered their hands in blood. The rushed back and forth between the boar and me, and they began painting me in the boar’s red life’s-blood. I didn’t know what to do, I stood still and let them paint me. They painted lines, tangles, loops and coils all over me. It was warm against my bare skin, and I imagined steam rising off the red tracks and lines.
Finally, the priest stopped his chanting and addressed me.
“I am told by your father, child, that you are an excellent runner.”
I nodded, then I felt the acolyte’s painting a solid circle on my lower back.
“Are you ready for the Bonding, child?”
I nodded again.
Another priest entered the chamber, carrying three things. The first was a gag, the second a set of chains, and the third was a small wooden box no large than an oyster shell. The slates in the walls were removed, revealing strong metal hooks. The box was opened, revealing a large rough seed like the pit of a peach.
“This, this is your Bond. We shall plant it in your flesh, and if it grows you shall be Bonded. This is the final test, not the boar. The boar is merely blood, merely food for your bond. It will be painful, and if it does not take, it will kill you.
“This is the truth of the Bonding. There is no exile for those who fail, only those who know and refuse to take the final test. Those who take the seed, they are Bonded or dead. So for the last time I ask you child: is this what you wish?”
I didn’t know what to say. All my life I had been training to take the Bond. I had studied the Bonded, and trained with them. I knew how the magic of the Bond work, taking life force from the Bonded in exchange for strength, endurance, and command of Bond’s magic power. I had studied the art of spellcraft intently, had made my body as strong as possible in preparation to share my vitality and to enhance it. I knew I wanted a Bond. But now, finally here, it seemed that I had no idea what I had actually been training towards.
No. I could not quit now. I had come too far, and had trained too hard to turn back now. I looked the priest in the eye, and I nodded.
The chains were attached to the hooks on one end, and then strong manacles were clasped around my hands and feet. The chains were pulled tight, lifting me off the ground, face down. The priest held out the gag, a simple piece of wood wrapped in leather.
“Take it,” said the priest, “and bite down hard.”
I did so. The priests took the seed from the box and placed it on the circle of blood painted on my lower back. It felt cold. Ice cold.
I felt it move, then a pressure on my skin, then the pain started.
I wept the day my son asked to begin training to join the Bonded. By our law I could not deny him the training, and by our law I cannot tell him the truth. None of them can know until the last moment, when they have already given so much, it is almost impossible for them to refuse. We must do it this way, for if they knew what the final test was, what it actually was, then none of them would wish for it. My own bond, on my back above my hips, is its own grim reminder of that test. We Bonded are needed, for no one else can keep the People safe, can perform the great works we are called to create, things that would take a thousand men and cost many lives. We need the Bonded, so we cannot tell them. And when he asks me the questions, the ones I know I cannot answer, I say to him what my father said to me:
“I shall not speak of the Bonding.”