There in the settlement, between the Prospect River and the Splitmouth Stream, Edzie and Stray began manifesting what would eventually become their trademark behavior. Edzie, as the older girl, had her mother’s favor, and she leveraged it to indulge in restlessness and distraction, sometimes to the point of truancy. Stray was loyal and attentive, quick to make friends and impress adults, whose only faults were a short temper and a weakness for Edzie’s bad influence.
So it was that one summer, in Edzie’s eleventh year and Stray’s tenth, they ended up occupying a field on the north bank of the Splitmouth, beside a grove of orebark trees. The largest of the orebarks was bifurcated about three feet above the ground, and one of its spurs had been hewn right at the split. Edzie, wearing a warm-weather brivsa, hood down, draped loosely about her shoulders, had taken a seat on the half-stump. She was trying, unsuccessfully, to lose herself in a book she had borrowed from Mistra Septa. Nearby, Stray and his friend Boyle whacked at one another with wooden rods, shouting rules and curses and interjections. Edzie was always amazed at how much time they could spend engaged in this activity.
Boyle had been Edzie and Stray’s neighbor since the tribe had migrated, and he and Stray had become close friends. Both Stray and Boyle still had the diminutive awkwardness of boyhood, but Stray was already developing some weight in his upper body. Boyle, by contrast, was distinctively thin, with large feet and ears. Both Stray and Boyle had a significant amount of migrant blood, so their skin was lighter than Edzie’s… Boyle’s a softer, more olive brown, and Stray’s a creamy beige. Edzie, who shared her mother’s chestnut hair and deep bronze skin, may as well have been a spirit of the netherworld, lingering at the margins of their imaginary landscape.
Edzie’s attempt to read (How the Grasscat Lost Its Tail) was failing miserably, so she allowed the book to droop in her hands so she could watch Stray and Boyle play-fight. Boyle had been assigned the role of “Badlands Bandit,” so he held his rod close to the end, simulating the short-handled swords of the Western tribes. Stray was playing the noble Concordance Warrior, so he held his rod like a katsun, with the hands about a foot apart, spanning the whole lower half of the weapon. This gave Stray much more control over his movements… Boyle’s flailing seemed both reckless and faltering. Edzie noted that Boyle was probably hesitant to hit Stray with the full force of a swing, for fear of genuinely hurting his friend.
Stray was significantly more confident than his playmate. He parried Boyle’s attacks carefully, and only occasionally ventured a counterattack, which he would always miss intentionally. Thus, Stray was able to maintain his dominance, while prolonging the game and sparing Boyle any hurt feelings. Edzie observed this exchange for a number of minutes, and a great many close calls were averted, with only a few bruises sustained.
Eventually, growing tired of parrying and striking, Stray evaded a clumsy overhead swing and took three large strides back toward Edzie. When he had reached a safe distance, he pointed at the confused Boyle and cried, “A Dissa A Casa!”
Boyle wrinkled his brow. “What are you doing?”
“I’m striking with a Caesurite spell! You’re knocked over!”
Boyle took a moment to process this turn of events. Finally, he objected with umbrage: “No fair! You’re a warrior, not a Caesurite Monk! You can’t just use their spells like that!”
Edzie burst out laughing, suspending the boys’ disagreement. “Did you just make that up?” she shouted to Stray.
“No! I mean, I tried to use some of their words.” He turned back to Boyle. “And besides, the Caesurites ARE warriors!”
Boyle opened his mouth to argue, but Edzie cut him off. “Oh, quiet! You know that’s not how it works, right? They can’t just say some word, and bash somebody!”
“And how would you know?” Stray demanded. Boyle looked curious, as well, having already forgotten his dispute with Stray.
“I read all about it in Mistra Septa’s guide!” Edzie answered, vaulting off the tree stump. “She lent it to me when I asked her about being a Monk.” She looked at the two boys, who were momentarily at a loss. “Do you want to know how it works? It’s a lot different than that.”
Stray threw Boyle a glance, and then turned back to Edzie. “Okay, show us. Let’s see if we can do it.”
Edzie took a few steps toward them, recalling the old guidebook that had explained the Caesura practices. It came back to her in a rush, and she mustered an authoritative voice. “Okay, so there are four things they learn how to do. But they’re not, like, spells… they’re just ways of controlling your mind and body. They call them emanences.”
“That actually sounds a little boring,“ Boyle interjected, but Stray silenced him with a wave of his hand.
“They’re called… wait… the Cry, the Step, Silence, and… Slowness. No, not that. Stillness. That’s it.” She counted on her fingers as she repeated them: “The Cry, the Step, Silence, and Stillness.”
“She’s making this up,” Boyle said, knowing he was no longer relevant to the conversation.
“What do you do?” Stray urged, eager to try some new trick.
“The guidebook only had some general stuff about them,” Edzie continued. “Some of them don’t sound like you do very much. Like, Silence is all about seeing and hearing things, so they can do stuff like… hear footsteps from miles away, even if they’re barefoot. It sounds cool, I know, but I have no idea how they would do it. And Stillness is even harder… it’s about slowing your breathing and heartbeat down, and changing its timing, which I guess is useful for focusing, but I don’t know how that one works, either.”
“How about the other two?”
“The Cry is, like, chanting, so your voice, like, goes with…”
“Harmonizes,” Boyle offered.
“Yeah. Harmonizes with everything around you, even sounds being made by the stones and trees and dirt. So you can try listening to the quietest sounds you can hear, and then humming along with them. That’s one way to practice.”
Edzie allowed a minute of silence to pass, and then joined Boyle in looking expectantly at Stray. Stray had closed his eyes, and was completely motionless. All together, the three Denorians noted the low, steady rustle of the tree’s leaves, and they heard a distant conversation drift past their ears. As they waiting for something to happen, Edzie and Boyle began noticing a third sound, a very quiet hum that was growing gradually, and seemed to be coming from the air around them.
Edzie and Boyle realized at the same time that the sound was coming from Stray. It didn’t seem to harmonize with anything in the environment, but he was doing an admirable job at keeping his tone steady, and increasing his volume on a smooth, glacially-paced gradient. Finally, he stopped and opened his eyes. “How did that sound?”
“Good, I guess!” Boyle ventured. Edzie shrugged.
“Okay, what’s the last one?” Stray asked, fully caught up in the exercise.
“The last one is the Step. That’s where you move as slowly and smoothly as possible, and keep your balance… umm… it said it was all about being aware of every part of your body.” Her eyes went glassy as she tried to remember what the book said.
“So stand on one foot,” suggested Boyle, not sure how serious he was being. Stray put his arms out and complied. They stood there in silence for a few seconds, and then Stray’s balance faltered and he put his foot down. He looked at Boyle, then at Edzie, and then inhaled and exhaled, and raised the foot again, determined to keep his balance until he felt satisfied with himself.
Edzie turned her gaze back toward Stray, and started counting silently. After a few seconds, she said, “Okay, now try to kick. Like a low kick, like you’re kicking over a chair.”
Stray kicked with his free foot, and wobbled, but managed to remain upright, and returned to his balanced position. He stayed up for another few seconds, and then had to stabilize by toeing the ground. He only allowed a slight compensation before he returned to his one-legged stance in the middle of the clearing.
“Hey,” he said, still concentrating on his own body. “You try it.”
It wasn’t clear who Stray was talking to, so Edzie simply ignored him. Boyle shook his head. “No! I don’t like balance games! You’re too good at them!”
Edzie spoke up again. “Okay, Stray, now try kicking again, but this time, draw it out over five seconds, as smooth as you can.”
“Five seconds isn’t THAT long,” Boyle noted, and then asked, “Hey, Stray, can you do it without holding your arms up?”
Stray was already in the middle of his kick, which was causing him to teeter and compensate considerably, so that he looked like a tree limb being shaken by gusts of wind. He managed to fully extend his kicking foot, and left it hanging there for a moment. As he began to draw it back, he overbalanced to the rear, and he stumbled and had to catch himself on one hand. He murmured a mild self-rebuke, but when he looked back up, he found that Edzie and Boyle both seemed impressed anyway.
“Pretty good!” Boyle said, hoping nobody called upon him to attempt the same performance.
Edzie nodded, and then said, “Anyway, that’s what I know about them. I don’t know where people got those stories about…”
Edzie stopped mid-sentence, hearing her name come drifting across the empty field to the North. Stray and Boyle looked at each other, and Edzie craned her neck to see where the voice was coming from. It continued yelling, “Stray! Edzie!” over and over, growing louder with each call. In a few seconds, the three young Denorians saw Elkansa’s figure, stomping toward them over the field.
As Elkansa approached, they found she was no longer calling out… she was grunting their names in seething frustration. “STRAY! EDZIE! And you too Boyle! You are supposed to be at lessons! They’re already half over by now!”
Edzie started walking. Stray and Boyle dawdled for a moment, looking at each other with theatrical embarrassment. Finally, Elkansa ordered them to walk, and they snapped out of their reverie and hurried along after her. Edzie muttered a feeble apology as they all converged into a group, walking across the field toward Mistra Septa’s pavilion.
“You damn boys, you’re always so distracted!” Elkansa fumed as they marched. “If you wander off and miss half your lesson again, I will wake you up every day – I’m talking to YOU, Stray – and make you sit quietly all morning, so that when the first session begins, I can walk you personally to Septa’s!” She picked up her pace, driven to agitation in her stormy mood. “And you, Edzie. I don’t know why you let these two murts drag you away every morning, when you could read in your own mother’s garden! You may as well be another little boy!”
“Sorry, mother,” Edzie said again, trying not to smirk. They reached the dromos behind Septa’s pavilion and turned right on the walking path, respectfully circumventing the private space around the small Denorian dwellings.
Stray lagged by a few steps, dropping into stride beside Edzie, as Boyle trudged along ruefully beside Elkansa.
“She always yells at me,” he whispered, almost in tears. “You’re the one who wanted to go down to the field.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Edzie said, trying to project remorse. “Sometimes it seems like she doesn’t know which of us is which.”
… … … …
The walk to Septa’s pavilion was not a pleasant one, for all three of the truants knew that they were being passed from one reprimand to another. The pavilion was a sheltered grove of wooden posts hung with Huskin leather, accessible by a small break in the hides that obscured the activity within. As they approached, Elkansa hissed at them to fix their brivsas, which they did, pulling up the hoods and wrapping the scarves loosely around the lower halves of their faces. Elkansa stopped a few feet from the pavilion entrance… when Boyle hesitated, she practically shoved him inside. Edzie and Stray followed a few steps behind, resigned to their duty.
As they entered the shadow of the pavilion, they could tell the usual lecture had ended, and the class had entered its period of informed discussion, which tended to occupy the last thirty or forty minutes of each session. They stepped into the shade of the drapings to find the usual attendees, all in their places… Sola and Luna lounging near the rear, Ghada sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the middle, Brill and Varda and Leanne and Prawley and fifteen other children of the tribe all scattered around the crowded interior.
Edzie only managed to catch a few words about riverfolk migrating into the Azural plains before she was noticed, prompting a sudden, horrifying silence.
Meekly, Stray performed the boundary ritual, turning his palms upward and muttering in Old Concordage, “Entren atrista bransa Dissadae, sevastrin vastris.” (“On this ground, we defer to Dissadae, the guardian guarded.”) Edzie followed suit, and then both hovered there, heads down, waiting for some kind of reaction.
“Well?” Mistra Septa demanded. “Find somewhere to sit.”
Stray and Boyle hastily navigated the carpet of bodies, managing not to kick anyone in the head as they found a gap to sit in. Edzie was quicker and quieter about it, but she was also more picky about crowding out her fellow students, so she ended up on the opposite side of the pavilion, sitting a few steps to the left of Sola and Luna. They all looked up to meet Mistra Septa’s stern gaze.
“So,” she said, her quiet voice belieing a ferocity in her tone. She was a compact woman with a commanding posture. She never raised her voice, but in her silence there was the echo of an inexplicable suppressed rage. More than any of the other Mistras, she commanded the deference of her class, and she did it without any kind of theatrics. “There are three young people here who had something so important to do, they felt they only needed to make time for the final few minutes of our class session. I’m sure, whatever duties they were performing, we will all be impressed by their urgency.” She looked at Edzie and Stray, in turn, and then her gaze settled on Boyle. “So what was it? Please tell us.”
Boyle ventured a look up, and in the line of Mistra Septa’s gaze, he jerked his head back down as though something had been thrown at him. “Nothing, Mistra Septa,” he said. “We were just playing, and we forgot.”
“That doesn’t sound right,” Septa replied, radiating contempt. “You must just be too modest to tell me.” She turned to Edzie. “How about you, older sister? Will you own up to your exploits this afternoon?”
Edzie didn’t even bother looking up. “I’m sorry, Mistra. I let myself become distracted in the afternoon sun. I should have been ready for class.”
Mistra Septa paused, only for a moment, to fashion a response, when Stray spoke up, unwilling to be cowed into submission. “We were learning about the Caesura, Mistra! Edzie was showing us how the Monks practice their arts!”
Mistra Septa turned theatrically toward Stray. Some of her poisonous contempt drained away, and her face took on an ambivalent expression. “Is that so?” she said. “What a noble pursuit. Edzie, are you finally putting the contents of my guide to good use?”
Edzie remained silent. Septa accepted this new turn in the conversation, but she was not satisfied with the amount of contrition her charges were showing, so she kept pushing them. “And what did you learn from your wise sister, Stray? Please enlighten us.”
Stray took a moment the absorb the challenge and calm his nerves, and then he answered with what confidence he could muster. “We learned that there are four ways of practicing the arts, Mistra. They’re called Emanences. They are… the cry, the step, silence, and slowness.”
“Stillness,” Mistra Septa corrected him, feeling her indignation draining away in the presence of Stray’s small act of courage. Edzie heard Sola giggle behind her, and rolled her eyes. Mistra Septa continued: “And what did you learn about them?”
“We didn’t know what to do with three of them,” he answered. “But we tried two of them. The one where you hum, and the one where you balance.”
“Impressive! I am glad you have taken such an interest in my order!” Mistra Septa said. Then, she recovered the disgust her voice had lost, and she went back to her admonishment. “But you might have learned that in a few minutes here in class, and somehow, I doubt it was worth the loss of two whole hours of instruction that you won’t…”
Stray’s voice leapt like a blade from a sheath, neatly interrupting Mistra Septa’s monologue. “I can show you!” Sola and Luna’s giggles intensified, and a few more erupted from other parts of the room. Edzie suspected that Stray was about to humiliate her, but she suppressed her objection, hoping she could just disavow the whole affair.
Mistra Septa wasn’t sure how her scolding had been so derailed, but she ceded control of the situation. “I see you still want to prove something to us, Stray. Go ahead. Show us.”
Every gaze in the pavilion fixed itself on Stray. He hoisted himself up to his feet, looked down, and took a deep breath, preparing for a performance. Edzie heard a whisper off to her left, and felt a pang of embarrassment. After a moment, though, the embarrassment faded, and she felt something more tender creep up in its place. Boyle, for his part, was captivated, his agony of humiliation momentarily salved by Stray’s confidence.
The whole pavilion, including the rigid Mistra, waited for a few empty seconds. Then, they registered a faint hum. A few students looked around, and as the tone grew in volume, Edzie heard Sola or Luna whisper to the other, “It’s him, he’s doing that.” Each child, one by one, realized that Stray was the source of the sound, but before anyone could pass judgment, they saw him raise one foot in the air. His arms tensed up a bit as he fought to establish his balance, but they remained at his side. His eyes were closed, and he was absolutely stone-faced, but his expression was serene.
Someone in front of Edzie whispered, “What is he doing?” Edzie felt her uncertainty give way to the faint but growing warmth of admiration.
Stray remained on one foot just long enough to stabilize, and then he started a second movement. Over the course of a full fifteen seconds, he rotated at the waist and extended his raised leg, still bent at the knee, counterbalanced by the weight of his torso. From this position, he pivoted smoothly into an extension of the leg, pantomiming the slowest, smoothest kick any of his peers had ever seen. When his leg reached full extension, he stopped, and then retracted it slowly. He had almost brought it back to its starting position when he finally faltered, letting the raised leg drop to the ground and almost falling forward over the students in front of him.
The whole class gasped in time with his stumble, and there was a ripple of laughter at the boy, trying as hard as he was. Edzie knew that none of them, save herself and Boyle and perhaps the Mistra, understood how difficult Stray’s feat had been. The giggling diffused into a low murmur of conversation, which went on for a few minutes unchallenged.
The Mistra looked on in silence, her expression unreadable. When Stray’s moment had passed, Septa diverted the conversation back to the session’s topic. She concluded her lecture and answered a few questions, but Edzie could tell her thoughts had left the classroom and she was not about to return.
… … … …
… … … …
As punishment for missing their lessons, Edzie and Stray were made to wake up at dawn the next morning. They spent those early hours helping Elkansa grind and mix the paste they used to repair the walls of their dromo. After a frugal breakfast of blusterwheat bread, they turned to the task of patching cracks and filling holes. Neither Edzie nor Stray showed any aptitude for this task… Stray kept forgetting to let the mud dry in his hands before he applied it to the wall, so it kept running out of the gaps. Edzie, for her part, wasn’t very good at deciding which gaps to fill, so she was subjected to a continuous stream of corrections by Elkansa, who kept noticing large, unsightly fissures that she had missed.
By midday, all three of the laborers were tired and impatient. Elkansa told Stray and Edzie to find their own food, and left to visit Varda’s parents, a short walk to the southwest. Stray ran off to Boyle’s dromo, where he hoped to be fed and entertained until Elkansa checked in around dinner.
Edzie, for her part, decided to go visit Baliban, the Mistra who conducted his class out on the eastern side of the settlement. It was a refreshing walk – about eight kilometers northeast – and she guessed that he would be almost done his second session of the day by the time she got there.
The youths of the Denoria tribe were expected to attend one or two Mistras’ sessions per week, but discouraged from squeezing more than one into a single day. The four instructors, all Monks on long-term assignment from the Order of the Caesura, had entirely different curricula, and taught a different lesson each day. There was no strict sequence… generally, each session could stand entirely on its own. The Denorians were expected to learn their life-skills at home, and the Mistras’ sessions were designed to provide them with a broader familiarity with the kingdoms, cultures, and histories of Pantempus. They were a proud, nomadic tribe, but they were not isolationist.
Edzie was a curious outlier among the Denorian youth. Where most of her peers always went to the nearest Mistra, and only occasionally took a class at a different pavilion (generally for some special lesson), Edzie was known for visiting all of the Mistras on her own, traveling across the breadth of the settlement in her free time. She was infamous for missing sessions when she was expected, but she was also known for showing up unlooked-for, sometimes attending three or four classes in a single week.
Edzie set off in the mid-afternoon, donning her summer brivsa and draping its scarf loosely over her shoulders. She was sanguine as she passed Boyle’s dromo, waving to his father, who was outside stripping flesh from a skein of Huskin leather. She could hear the din of the boys inside. Past Boyle’s house, she crossed a rocky stretch of empty ground, and kept to the gap behind the following row of dromos. A ways off to her right, she could see the shape of a large wooded area alongside the Prospect River, which was just out of sight. After a half hour of walking, she reached Surcrossing, a shallow ford across the Splitmouth. The ford was only as deep as Edzie’s ankles in some spots, and the deeper furrows were traversed by wooden planks weighted to the riverbed. Edzie reached the opposite shore with a pair of wet feet, which she dried off in a patch of grass before continuing up the path.
She was now on the east side of the main settlement of the Denoria tribe. Here, the dromos were sparse, and she only passed a few pedestrians on her way up the path. When she was due south of Baliban’s residence, she had to divert to the right, leaving the path and crossing a grassy expanse dotted with small private vegetable gardens.
By the time she approached Baliban’s plot of land, Edzie had a tiny line of sweat running across her forehead, right at her hairline. She slowed her pace as the dwelling approached: fairly large for a Denorian dromo, with the standard gathering room and small bedroom, but also with a private annex, a second bedroom, and a study, where Baliban kept books, supplies, and memorabilia. A few meters to the southwest of the house, Baliban’s teaching facility, the “East Pavilion,” stood proudly in the soft sunlight. It was a round wooden structure, nine posts with a roof of planks, perhaps fifteen meters in diameter. It was currently open to the daylight on all sides, but there were six leather curtains rolled up beneath the roof, always available for privacy and protection from inclement weather.
There was no sign of the Mistra or his students. Edzie must have arrived later than she thought, or Baliban had finished early.