“What was that?” I ask. It’s not the first time I’ve had that question. It is, in fact, the only thing I had been asking all night.
As if emphasizing a different word might produce a different answer.
Anthea is stumbling along, slumped heavily against me as she lurches forward. The ordeal has drained her. But she manages to rasp, “We told you. It was Lord Ath.”
I’m not sure how long its been since we lost him. Most like because of the fact that the sun hasn’t made up its mind on whether to be day or not. Or perhaps the fact that Clarissant keeps nudging us away from small clefts of rock or clusters of trees. Her sudden change in direction has made it hard to measure how far behind us Lord Ath truly is.
Presently, the air is hot and soupy as she shoves my right shoulder. “Turn,” she snaps, and the movement is echoed in Anthea, who is using me like a walking stick. I get the sense that Clarissant is herding us.
The ground fissures at my back with an ear splitting grumble, spewing up clumps of dirt and tufts of grass as it peels apart. Clarissant has already explained that we are outside of its–what had she called it? The zone of transformation? Even a few steps shy of a zone will keep us safe. It’s why Clarissant is calling us away from landmarks she deems dangerous.
When the dust behind us has settled and the ringing in my ears has finally faded, I decide to ask her, “How do you do that?”
“Training,” she breathes. She’s huffing, mopping at her brow with an equally-sweaty forearm.
I wish I could say I were in better shape. But. Well. Look at me. I’m a slippery sweaty mess. My clothes are soaked through and I can feel rivulets of sweat, long since turned cold, running in rivulets down the back of my shirt. I’m still not conditioned for this world.
“My friends paid the price for teaching me,” Clarissant continues. Her voice is low, almost inaudible. The lessons she recounts seem rehearsed. I’m not sure if she knows she’s speaking. “A stray orange leaf on a popler. Clumps of silt and wet clay in a desert. Nimbostratus clouds on a hot, dry day. Small signs like the deep breath before the plunge.”
I think I understand what she’s talking about. Maybe. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s fine,” she tells me, and she quickens her pace, ahead of Anthea and I. Her back says, It’s all your fault. But it’s fine.
“Don’t blame yourself,” Anthea says. Something rattles in her throat with each exhalation. Anthea seems to sense my thoughts. I wonder if she’s used the Higher Power to read my mind.
“We’re a few days away from the next stillzone,” Clarissant calls back to me from her vantage on a rock spearing the apex of a crested hill. “But we can bed here for the night.” She bites back a grin, and I can see her eyes on Anthea. “There’s enough Ever Changing Land between us and Ath. We can afford some time to rest.”
The sun is still smothering the air in its heat, making my clothes cling to me, sopping wet. I’m not sure how she knows what time it is. But when she mentions bedding, I feel suddenly heavier. Is this how Anthea feels? I wonder.
Anthea, who is looking at Clarissant hungrily. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it. I’m not sure. So I decide not to say anything.
Clarissant, it would seem, makes the same decision. She cannot meet Anthea fast enough, and her attention is only of her as she pares her away from me. “I’m here,” she tells Anthea. “I’m here. I’m here.” as she leads her gently leading her into the shade beneath the hill. I reluctantly follow. Do they need time to themselves? I wonder.
When I finally sit underneath the stone, cooling in its shadow along the hill’s descent. The process of peeling off my shirt is more alike to the picking of dead skin. It hits the ground with a wet slop. I sit on the edge of the shade, watching the horizon buckle and spew into ash. I resist the urge to look behind me. I try to give the two of them their privacy.
Anthea and Clarissant are curled up behind me, higher up on the hill in the spearing rock’s shadow. Their limbs are entwined, draped lazily over the other. Their noses touch as they whisper things against each others’ lips in hushed voices. Clarissant’s crossbow sits behind her.
It’s not about you, I tell myself. Don’t be so arrogant, Peter.
I decide need some time to myself. Or perhaps they need me to need it. So I grab my sword and sheath and fumble my way downhill. It is treacherously steeper than I anticipated.
This feels familiar, I realize. Having to leave two people to their…intimacy? Is that it? Someone else has done something similar to me, back on my homeworld, haven’t they? Who was it? My brother? Do I have a brother?
(I have a brother. Huh. I suppose this should shock me. It probably would, if I could remember anything outside of the fact that he exists.)
Which leaves me with two options: stew in my sadness, my loneliness; and bask in this temporary ostracization.
I can do. Something. To get my mind off of it. And Anthea and Clarissant will come for me when they need me.
(If they need me.)
I can remember the sword-forms Toric taught me years ago. He was a King, I think. Exiled to Strathbury after an uprising in his distant lands. After I helped him reclaim his throne, his help became instrumental in uniting the farthest flung regions together against the Great Evil. From the lands of the Far East to the boiling heats of the Far South to the sea-faring lands to the Far West.
He helped unite them all. His word as the True King restored to his throne. He pledged on his honor that all Kingdoms should trust me. That he was my friend. And that they should unite under my banner to defeat the Great Evil. Unite under the King in the Mountain, my friend had said.
He took my sigil as his own, in later years, when all nations had united under his rule. His and mine. It was our sigil. Our sigil—
—What was our sigil? What did Toric and I choose? I can’t remember.
I realize that my hands are curling around my sword’s leather grip. I adjust my stance. I can remember the forms Toric taught me. I just need to train my body to execute them. My body still needs to catch up to my mind.
I put my right hand close to the guard and cup my left palm around the pommel. Just shy of holding it. It will steer your attack, Toric had told me. You’ll have more point control this way.
I try to execute The Thrush Knocks like I did back in Strathbury. I adjust my stance, making infinitesimal tweaks in preparation. This foot farther back; bend that knee; left hand over right, arms crossed on my right side. The form is just a pinwheel from my stance. Easy enough. Bring it up and down on an imaginary head, get back into my stance and stay light on my toes.
But the edge alignment is off. If I was in a real battle, it would’ve glanced off to the right of my enemy’s helm.
I’m so frustrated at this–so focused on my first mistake that instead of recovering, I tangle everything else into my fear of making another one. When I pull back into my stance I’m leaning too far forward. The left-hand-on-top is at eye level instead of aligned with my breast, which is almost parallel to the ground as I lean heavily on my forward foot.
Again, Toric’s voice tells me.
(This is supposed to be easy, I think. One of the easiest forms. One of the first I ever learned. Why can’t I do it? I’m not sure.)
I spare a glance back to Anthea and Clarissant. Anthea’s shivering. A movement which sprinkles ambient in a blanket about her that only I can see. Clarissant is telling her something, softly.
It’s his fault, I imagine her saying. It’s all his fault.
(I really should be focusing on my forms, I realize.)
Left hand over right. Breast level, sword pointed down. One foot forward. Not too much weight. This time when I pinwheel the blade I think I’ve got the edge alignment right. I make a few last minute tweaks as I fall back into my stance that I know could’ve gotten me killed in a real fight. It would’ve been better to let the mistakes happen instead of trying to fix them halfway through.
It helps to know what you’re doing wrong before you try to fix it.
So I try again, and accept my mistakes through gritted teeth as my muscles hesitate to go back into their stance. I hold back from overcorrecting or throwing the blade into the grass and storming off.
When I try again, I don’t make any big mistakes. Noticeable ones.
The Thrush Knocks. Weakly, at least. But it knocks.
It wouldn’t have cleft through anyone’s helm, but it would’ve made my enemy’s ears ring. And if they riposted, I would’ve been ready to deflect it.
But because I’m impatient, I decide that this time I’ll add a defensive maneuver onto the end of The Thrush Knocks. Raising the Bar is supposed to put my blade flat at eye level so that I can peel a thrust away from its course.
But because I’m not used to executing The Thrush Knocks, and because I haven’t tried Raise the Bar in five years, after I pinwheel half of my brain tries to go back into my stance, while the other half goes to Raise the Bar.
The result is a twitch. A sword-spasm. My hands flail, unsure of what to do. That’s when I throw my blade into the grass and curse. I turn back to my companions to make sure they didn’t see. But when I do, they’re upright and staring downhill at me. I can’t tell if they started looking before or after I cursed.
I collapse, folded into a sitting position. I’m staring at the ground and the gleam of the blade I can see between slivers of grass. I let my frustration come to a boil, and then I exhale it.
I have to try. I have to succeed to taper through this and return home. I have to get home. I have to.
Again, says Toric’s ghost. And I obey. I execute The Thrush Knocks again and again and again. I’m tempted to include Raising the Bar, but I decide I won’t try that until I can execute The Thrush Knocks three times with good form.
There are a few moments where I manage to get two in a row. But that makes me overeager and screws it up on the third try. I rush through it, or forget to go back into my stance once I’m done.
There are a few times when the sweat pouring in sheets down my brow spills into my eyes, and I have to blink it away in the middle of my form. One time this happens as I’m about to pinwheel my blade and I nearly tear it through my shin.
I resolve to be more careful in the future.