Flash Fiction: Reasons for Silence (1228 words)

When they joined the service, they left everything behind. Anything that could earn a coin, they sold. They gave away family treasures. They passed inheritances to younger sisters and brothers. They abandoned homes they’d spent all their lives in. They left behind their second names, if they ever had them, and their families. They sold every book and trinket and shoe they had touched every day. They arrived at the barracks barefoot, with a sack of coins and the clothes on their backs. The coins, they handed to the master at the gate. Inside, they traded their clothes for the brown shirt and breeches of the initiate.

And then they left their voices. The barracks were never a silent place, clanging with metal, thrumming with booted heels, but the initiates didn’t speak until their training was complete.

Haiden never questioned why. It had always seemed obvious to her, even as the reasons flipped and altered from one year to the next.

First, it had just been tradition. The masters had all done it in the ages before them, and they passed it on in fairness. Haiden would not be the first to break something hundreds of years in the making, would never open her mouth and break a silence that hugged them like the wind, just because she could.

Then, watching some of her year mates do just that – say good morning before the masters caught them up in the early light, or hello when they weren’t listening, or I like this sunshine a lot better when I’m not running or that cloud look like Master Pyrat’s nose to you? whenever they could slip it under a thump or a clang – she thought it was to prove their dedication. They smirked on every word, as if they were heroes of the rebellion for every syllable. And then they left, in the middle of the night or at midday, because they ran or because they were asked to leave. And only the silent remained.

And they listened, hard. Every instruction was the first and last they would receive. Standing at attention, hands clasped behind her back, she ticked off her fingers to count the words as they fell out of the master’s mouths. She memorized them, repeated them back to herself without moving her lips, and counted the words to make sure she had every one. She could watch the others in the line, tapping their toes, or nodding along, memorizing too. There was nothing else to do when they couldn’t ask them to repeat, couldn’t ask someone else later, couldn’t whisper it to themselves.

They heard the masters in their sleep, instructions on how to stand, how to hold a blade, how to roll into a fall, how to hold a person without letting them hurt you and without hurting them, how to drop a person to the ground, how to hold a shield in a line. Every word carved into their mind weeks before it was carved into their flesh and bone. And that was the reason for their silence.

It was harder to stay quiet, standing in the sparring lines. The masters called instructions, timed their strikes and blocks so that they could watch and correct. The fewer corrections they gave, the faster the calls came, and the harder the hits landed, until Haiden was accidentally gasping, groaning, crying out, then snapping her lips shut and grinding her teeth down against the next hit.

All her year mates all did it – set wordless shouts where they’d only intended a breath – and they all shut their mouths against in the same disappointed way, and gaped at the older initiates who managed to tumble over each other in the yard without a sound. Third and fourth years slammed elbows into each other, slammed fists and knees and heels, took blows to the stomach, chest, shoulder, arm, thigh, knee, heel, and made no sound except for the dull slap of skin on cloth. And it was terrifying.

In a flash, half way between breaths, Haiden realized that was why the masters demanded silence. For the discipline it trained into them, and the way it chilled the air in their opponents lungs.

They swallowed shouts, and they aimed for silence. She learned to watch the others’ shoulders, hands, knees, feet, to see when they were going to fall and know how hard they were going to hit the ground before they touched down. They crossed their wrists when they were finished, too weak to continue the fight. They held up a fist when they needed a pause, a breath. They held up an open palm when they were hurt, when they needed help. And Haiden watched for it, until she could see the motions clearly as she could hear a shout. She crossed her wrists, held up a fist, opened her palm, and swallowed every other sound.

The day she realized she had run the yard in silence herself, she grinned as if she had shaken a mountain by the roots and torn it to boulders with her bare hands. It was years later, and she thought maybe that was the reason too: proving to their young hearts that impossible was just a word that someone had painted over difficult.

The day they received their uniforms, they claimed bunks in the main barracks, took their blades into their own care, and spoke out loud. Haiden sounded like another person in her own ears, and she laughed a little at the sound. The others were laughing too, at themselves, at the tones of friends whose faces they had known for years but voices were surprises. Jaques had a voice so high, everyone in the room knew he was going to be called Squirrel for the rest of his life here. Det had a voice so deep, it rumbled from his chest, and it looked like it surprised him as much as it surprised everyone else. Ornai sang like a bird, quiet for the first few weeks while she learned how to use her voice again, then louder than any of them would have expected. Wensi quoted books. Farram complained. Varre told jokes, even when they told her to shut up. And they all laughed, as if that was the best way to use a voice, and they were never going to give it up again.

Haiden couldn’t imagine most of the masters using that as a reason, but it was good enough for her.

The next day she strode through her first patrol. People walked by, and she watched the set of their shoulders, the way their hands curled easy at their sides or knotted around the straps of their bags or hid in their pockets. She watched their strides, some lazily long, some snapping from the knee as if they would be running if something hadn’t been holding them down. She saw their feet, some sliding along the pavements, some coming up too high. She thought she saw crossed wrists. A fist. An open palm. Wordless, voiceless, clear as if they had shouted in her ear.

Haiden blinked at the open city.

Her partner, an older man who seemed to have sunk back into his initiate silence with the pleasure of a small child with secrets hidden between his fingers, stood beside her and smiled.

“There’s a reason they call us the Watchers,” he murmured.

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