We were the warriors of the plain, safekeepers of the voice
Now we are the quiet peoples, adrift on the obscure side of time
... ... ... ...
Edzie had been in bed for a long time… forever, it seemed to her… but she was still wide awake when the conversation in the gathering room got loud enough for her to hear it.
The first voice was her mother, Elkansa, a distinguished pillar of the Denoria tribe, who had trouble controlling her volume. “Tamlis, now is not the time for this decision. Go to sleep, and things will be clearer in the morning.”
The second voice belonged to Tamlis, Elkansa’s lover for the past three years. Edzie could hear the hesitation in his voice, the tremble of anxiety, even as he mustered a level of seriousness that wasn’t characteristic of him. “No, Elkansa. I’ve already made the decision. I need to go now. Please don’t make it harder on me.”
As she listened, Edzie rolled to the edge of her cot, shifting slowly enough to prevent the wood frame from creaking. When she was close enough to swing her legs over the edge, she pushed herself off to the ground, landing softly and in perfect silence. She started moving toward the entrance to her room, and then paused to gather up her nightshirt in her right hand, to keep it from tripping her up. Suddenly conscious of the whispers of the fabric, she waited to hear more conversation.
“Why? Why are you suddenly so restless?” Edzie was only six, but she knew her mother’s voice, and she could tell Elkansa was keeping a reservoir of frustration concealed under a layer of grave sobriety.
“Kansa, it’s not sudden. Or, it shouldn’t be. I’ve spoken to you before: I love you, but I am not happy out here in the Pastures. But every time I try to talk about it, you just demand reassurance, instead of listening to me. You never wanted to hear me out, so I’ve been forced to make my choice on my own.”
As this exchange proceeded, Edzie crept to the entrance to her room and leaned out into the corridor. Light spilled in from the hallway, emanating from a single thresh lamp on the center table. She could see the shadows of her mother and Tamlis… the latter was shifting uncomfortably in his seat, half-standing and then sitting down again, not sure how to conclude the conversation.
Elkansa was not finished with him, though she already knew she was losing her way on this. “I just don’t know how you could do this to Stray.” She paused, her silence soaking in contempt. “You may be suited to a life of travel and… who knows what else… but your son is not.”
“A life of travel? Of course not.” Tamlis sounded confused for a moment. “Kansa… you didn’t think… you thought I was going to take Stray with me?”
“WHAT?” Elkansa struggled to control her volume as outrage slipped into her whispered voice. “You are leaving your son behind?”
“Of course Stray is staying,” Tamlis said, apparently more confident in this than in any other aspect of his decision. “Your tribe is strong, and it'll make him respectable.” Elkansa scoffed slightly at this, but let Tamlis continue. “And you're a better parent than I will ever be. You and Edzie and the tribal elders have already accepted the boy, and I couldn't think of a better place for him.”
Edzie had glanced down the corridor to ensure that both adults were wrapped up in the conversation. As they talked, she stole down the hallway toward the bedroom at the end, where Tamlis occupied a cot, and Stray slept on a platform in the corner. By the time she reached the bedroom, the voices were far enough away that she was no longer processing their words.
As Edzie crossed the threshold into Tamlis and Stray's room, quiet as a gust of wind, her memory danced over a few recent memories. Tamlis had been taking longer walks, later in the evening, and Elkansa had suspended their habitual lunches and dinners together. Edzie hadn't understood the significance of these events, but now it was beginning to dawn on her. Tamlis had always been a warm, ebullient presence in the household, which was sometimes grim and serious without him, but in the last few months, his demeanor had darkened, like some bright light inside him was beginning to falter. A shadow had passed over him, just as Edzie's was preceding her now, slipping silently into his bedroom
Tamlis’s room was sparse, like all Denorian dwellings. His cot was in the center of the room, its head against the far wall and its foot facing Edzie. In the far left corner, there was a small accumulation of belongings, gathered in a disorganized pile: clothes, personal items, and documents, barely contained on a wooden palette. In the near corner, to Edzie’s right, was Stray’s platform, hidden under a shapeless pile of blankets. On the left wall, there was an unused exterior door, covered up by a plank of wood wedged into the opening. On the right wall, about five feet up, there was a window, also covered by a plank of wood. The wooden shutter was slightly dislodged, but wedged in firmly enough to keep out bad weather and over-curious animals.
Edzie approached Stray’s platform, hoping he was still asleep. Stray was a year younger than Edzie, and she knew how naively attached he was to his father. For a moment, she was afraid his bed was empty… she was horrified at the thought that he might overhear his father’s departure… but then she saw the woolen covers rise and fall with glacial slowness, and she knew that, at least for this moment, he was protected. With this relief, Edzie felt a wave of sympathetic helplessness, an abysmal vulnerability in the eye of an empty universe.
Suddenly, Edzie was aware of footsteps coming down the hall. She realized immediately that she had to hide, lest her mother discover her eavesdropping… Elkansa was infamous for her creative disciplinary measures, and Edzie did not want to get caught in the conflagration of her current mood.
“If you are going to go…” Elkansa’s voice was still a ways down the hall. “Then hurry up and go, before I decide on a more severe sanction for your... … failures of character.”
The footsteps… clearly Tamlis’s leather sandals… were still a few meters away. In a panic, Edzie scanned the room. She would have hidden beside Stray under the covers, but she didn’t think she could keep him quiet. Her only chance was the window, which was along the nearest wall. She reached it in a few bounds and jumped up, wrenching the board aside with one hand and pulling herself up with the other. She settled into the square crevice and hooked her fingers around the plank to pull it back over herself. In her haste, she felt her fingers lose their purchase, and the board dislodged and fell.
Edzie winced, hearing the clatter as the board bounced off the ground.
At the same time, she was conscious of something in her fingers. She blinked, her muscles and nerves petrified, wondering what happened to the sound, and then realized her hand had followed the board and barely caught it before it fell. A wave of relief passed through her, and she lifted the board and wedged it into the window frame in front of her. It wasn’t completely secure, but it was enough to keep her concealed, and keep the window’s moonlight from attracting Tamlis’s attention.
Tamlis arrived at the entrance to his bedroom. He worked silently, pulling a tangle of leather straps from under his bed. He turned to his cache of belongings and arranged his outfits, a wardrobe of two pairs of linen trousers, a canvas tunic, three shirts, and a few miscellaneous undergarments. He bound these into a bundle and strapped them to his back, and finally retrieved his katsun, the traditional Denorian weapon, which, in his three years with the tribe, he had only just started learning to handle. He tucked a few more odds and ends into the pockets in his clothing, and he selected a light brivsa, made of soft linen for warm weather. He slipped its hood over his head and wrapped its wings around his neck and shoulders, forming a scarf that hung loosely above his chest. Fully prepared, he stood up, leaving only a few papers and scraps of fabric on the palette.
Tamlis turned toward Stray, still asleep on his palette. With somber steps, he moved out of Edzie’s view, but she could still hear him, barely above the threshold of audibility. He was saying farewell to his young son, consigning him to the care of a tribe of strangers.
“I’m sorry, Stray. First your mother, and now me. I’m sorry I couldn’t make a life for you where I could be happy too.” Silence flooded the room, and then Tamlis’s voice returned. “But you can grow up to be a good man out here. … Better than your father, I hope.”
There was another fissure of silence, and then Tamlis’s footsteps crossed the room and receded down the hallway. Edzie heard her mother’s bitter voice, pronouncing some curse as Tamlis passed, and then the house was still and quiet for about ninety seconds. Eventually, Edzie became aware of a new set of footsteps, quieter than the first, stopping in the entranceway.
“Come on out, Edzie.”
Edzie remained frozen, hoping, by some strange miracle, to keep her presence secret.
“I see that you are not in your room. There’s nowhere else you could be. It’s time to come back to bed.”
Edzie pushed the plank aside with her foot and dropped to the floor. She glanced up at her mother, and then turned her eyes down in chastened disgrace. Her mother didn’t move, so Edzie shuffled to her side, preparing for some kind of reprimand. They turned back down the hallway and returned to Edzie’s room in silence. By the time she was climbing back into her cot, Edzie realized no scolding was imminent… Elkansa’s eyes were far away, gazing over some troubling, endless inner horizon. Edzie pulled her covers back over herself and looked expectantly at her mother.
Finally, Elkansa returned to the present. In a low speaking voice, serious and insistent, she spoke in Old Concordage, the fading language of the eight tribes: “Amadja lesonor avre sewombris.” (“It is time to listen to your mother.”)
Edzie nodded, and Elkansa knelt before the bed to speak directly to her daughter. Having confirmed Edzie’s attention, she returned to the common tongue. “Now that Tamlis is gone, Stray is going to become a true Denorian, not merely a stranger’s child living in our village. I have no fears for your future, Edzie… you are my daughter, and you will make me proud. However, Stray has become our responsibility, as well, and we must make sure he grows up to be a wise and respected tribesman. I will become his mother, and I can do a great deal for him in that role, but not everything. You must be something to him that I can’t be… you must be his first friend, and his best. Can you do that for me, Edzie?”
Edzie nodded, mirroring her mother’s seriousness. She was too young to fully understand her mother’s expectations, but she could tell she was being called upon to help with a great burden. Also, she knew she would miss Tamlis, and she pitied Stray, but she was glad he was staying, because he had already become a welcome member of their family.
Elkansa stood up, and her voice leveled out, recovering the casual authority for which it was so well known among the Denorians. “Now get whatever sleep you can, because you will be getting up at dawn tomorrow to help me prepare supplies for this week.” She turned and left the room, and after a few minutes, the lamp in the gathering room was extinguished, leaving only traces of moonlight from the west-facing window to light the ceiling of Edzie’s room.
... ... ... ...
We were a warrior culture in a peaceful era, swinging our blades at each other idly while the rest of Pantempus traded, danced, dressed, and fucked. From our first words, we were taught to feel a connection to something deeper and older… something in the earth, in the loins, in the thick fur of the Huskin herds that we followed… but if we had stepped out from under our elders’ shadows, we might have realized that these were just so many more pretensions, games we played to placate ourselves. We were stronger and quieter than the children of the cities, but we were children nonetheless, and our traditions were just as frivolous.
We were a culture of survival, strong and womanly, with a mother’s fearlessness and a sisterhood’s fierce durability. The girls my age were always engaged in their games of status, vying for the validation of our mothers and the affection of our fathers. They trained, they politicked, they tutored the boys and each other in war and romance, and the tribe lived on their energy, as it always had. I should probably have been like them, especially given my parentage: Elkansa, one of the pillars of our community, and no father as far as I could tell, since I was the product of an impulsive tryst at an inter-tribal ceremony. Nobody was more suited than I to a proud, accomplished Denorian tribal life.
That isn’t how things worked out, though. Instead, there were the three boys, our lost causes: Boyle, perceptive and troubled, Ghada our beautiful prince of blades, and Stray, my adopted brother, who was at once nothing, and everything, and finally, only himself. If I have any story to tell, it is the story of me and Stray… I’ll leave the others for more worthy voices to recount.
... ... ... ...
Tamlis often woke early and wandered the Denoria settlement (perhaps to calm his restless nerves), so when Stray awoke the next morning, he thought nothing of his father’s absence. Edzie and Elkansa were already at the table in the gathering room, slicing and stringing fleurberries for drying in the late summer sun… Edzie might have been in a terrible mood, having been dragged out of bed at dawn, but she was too preoccupied with her concerns for Stray to indulge her own stormy disposition. When Stray appeared from the hallway, Edzie just glanced at him impassively.
Elkansa invited Stray to share a morning meal, and while they ate, she did her best to break the news of his father’s absence. She spoke gently, and avoided referencing emotional triggers like abandonment and loneliness. She simply told him that “your father has left us,” and to Edzie’s relief, Stray – being too young to fully appreciate the implications of the statement – didn’t even ask why, or how long. He simply accepted Elkansa’s reassurances and listened to her talk for a while.
Elkansa delivered one of those soliloquies that had become her trademark within the tribe. She talked about finding happiness, and discovering the power of family, even among people you were still getting to know. She repeated relentlessly that she and Edzie would take good care of him, and asked him to work hard – this was always a central theme in Elkansa’s speeches – to find happiness with the tribe, who would support him in all his future endeavors. Edzie simply nodded along with her mother, wondering whether Stray was really understanding what she was trying to tell him.
For her part, Edzie allowed her role in Stray’s life to shift over the next several months, as he slowly came to realize the truth of his father’s absence. Before Tamlis’s departure, she had treated Stray as a playmate and occasional annoyance, like a childhood classmate who happened to live with her. Afterwards, she began to integrate him into her budding tribal communities… bringing him along when she played with her friends, teaching him practical skills as she learned them from her mother, and generally acting as his chaperone and mentor. She would not have taken to this older-sister role, except that she sensed Stray’s need for it, and for him, she was willing to bear the responsibility.
That same summer – which ended with Tamlis’s departure – had seen the final thinning of the grasses around the Denorian settlement, and the increasing skittishness and truancy of the Huskin herds that they depended upon for meat, milk, fur, and leather. The tribal elders knew what this portended, and so, that autumn, they sent out a mobile band of scouts, rugged hunters and proven warriors from respected Denorian families, to find the tribe a stage for a new settlement, somewhere in the Pastures. The tribe then went about their business, storing meat and harvesting produce for the winter ahead. It was more difficult, with the Huskin herds so avoidant, but the Denorians were no strangers to an occasional scarcity, and they had survived much worse in the past.
In the middle of winter, as Edzie and Stray explored the frostbitten headwaters of the Bristle River, a few of the scouts returned with an account of their search. They had discovered an empty expanse of level grassland, lightly wooden around the edges, just north of the Prospect River, perhaps eighty leagues to the southeast of their current settlement. The Prospect River was an eastern branch of the Range River, and it led through the Pastures into the Crag Mountains, where it passed near the Envoclajiz temple, the stronghold of the Order of the Caesura. This would be an auspicious location for the Denorian settlement… the constant stream of pilgrims to the temple would ensure that they saw more traffic than most of the eight tribes, and they might take on an unusual number of transients as a result.
This new settlement was also further east than most of the other Concordance tribal lands, and unusually close to the mountains, so it would be the first line of defense if an aggressive contingent of the Fisher peoples ever attacked from the east. The eight tribes of the Concordance saw this as a sacred duty accorded to their culture, and the role of easternmost tribe was held in especially grave regard.
After two days of vigorous discussion (mostly inter-familial arguments and vain squabbling), the Denoria elders unanimously agreed to accept this responsibility. The site along the Prospect River would be their new home, and so it would remain, until the Huskins were driven away again, anywhere from five to ten years hence.
At last, as Spring began, the Denorians started striking their dromos. It began with the boldest and most trustworthy women and their families, yanking the wooden roofs from their clay houses and stripping away the calcified outside layer of the walls, so that the wind and rain could reclaim the earth. They gathered their belongings and the wooden frameworks of their structures, and those few who kept domestic Huskins lashed them up, and they gathered their lives into old wooden carts and saddlebags and began the long journey to the southeast. When these enterprising families arrived in the area surveyed by the scouts, they made some necessary decisions: the main body of the settlement would be on a flat plain just north of the Prospect River, overlooking the plains to the west and Cragstep Road to the south. They began building the watchtowers and the Huskin pens and storehouses, assembling the skeleton of a fully-functional tribal homestead.
As the Spring and Summer progressed, the rest of the tribe followed in waves, assembling caravans of a few score families every few weeks. They followed markers left by the scouts and the first settlers, but it was still a hard journey... they had to cross the hushed and hurried waters of the North Range River, and though the Pastures were mostly flat and level, there were areas of exposed stone, rocky folds in the landscape that gave the carts a great deal of trouble. The days went from temperate to sweltering hot, and in the late evenings, armies of mosquitoes harassed them, and their only defense was an exhaustion that brought an impenetrable blanket of sleep. The tribe tried to have healers ready at both ends of the journey, but there weren't enough to send one with every caravan, and several dozen tribespeople died of exertion, injuries of travel, and minor diseases while they were in transit.
As the Denorians arrived safely in their new homeland, they all agreed that it was worth the unusually long trek. The land was fertile, many herds of Huskin wandered the larger grasslands, and three rivers met near the settlement: the wide, noisy Prospect River, flowing from east to west; its tributary, the Glancing River, a jagged interjection from a ridge of foothills to the southeast; and the modest Tenebre River, meandering through the open plains to the north and making a gentle contribution to the Prospect as it thundered off toward the greater Range River.
As the summer drew on, dromos began springing up like wildflowers in an untended garden. A large central court was established toward the north side of the village, and a path radiated outward from its massive fire pit, heading east and west. Most of the villagers built their dromos in the vicinity of the central court, with the craftspeople and handworkers congregating along the western branch of the main path. A small stream ran through the center of town, dividing raggedly as it reached the Prospect River, and the tribespeople began referring to it as the Splitmouth. There, near the two rivers' rendezvous point, some of the tribesmen who had come from the Delta Cities built a row of piers, and they established an unconventional Denorian fishing neighborhood.
Not all of the Denorians settled in the main village along the Prospect River. A smaller satellite community appeared along the Rush Creek, some sixty kilometers northwest of the main settlement. This satellite village became a haven for hunters and scouts and restless men, and the road that led to the main settlement, along the Tenebre River, became well-trafficked with Denorians in search of game, or in need of peace and quiet. A third community also lingered on the outskirts of the land, to the northwest... this tiny village, a mere fifty families, was mostly composed of the original scouts who had discovered the land and staked their claim to its riches.
As the winter approached, pilgrims along the Cragstep Road gazed curiously upon the new Denorian settlement, and though the tribespeople attempted to ignore them, they eventually acquiesced to building a bridge, so that trade might be facilitated and a few of the travelers could be accommodated. Once the bridge was finished, the travelers named it the Twilit Bridge, honoring the soft glow of the landscape when the sun caressed the horizon opposite the Crag Mountains. Though the Denorians weren't thrilled about the attention this brought to the settlement, they were also proud of their new home, and came to identify with the bridge as an important touchstone of their village.
So, in their seventh and sixth years, Edzie and Stray joined the Denorian tribe, warriors of the greater Concordance, in starting a new life on the banks of the Prospect River.
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.
Edzie approached the door to Baliban's dromo, whose wooden plank was ajar. She peeked through the gap, and called his name a couple times, but there was no response. She stepped out of the shadow of the doorway and lingered in his yard for a moment, and then she meandered over to the East Pavilion. There was a low wooden stage in the center, whereupon she sat, discouraged at the thought of making the walk home. A moment later, she found herself terminally bored, and stood back up, eager for some way to amuse herself.
For a while, Edzie contented herself with drawing pictures and patterns in the dirt with her foot. The floor of the pavilion was fairly clean, so her scribbles barely showed up, but at certain angles and in certain lights, they became visible for a moment. Edzie played this game idly, pondering meanwhile the incident with Stray and Mistra Septa the previous afternoon. Stray's small act of defiance in the face of the Mistra, which had seemed so innocuous at the time, had lingered in Edzie's mind, and now she found herself replaying it, trying to visualize all its incidental details. Edzie knew Stray had done it largely to serve his own ego, but she also knew – knowing the boy better than anyone else in the tribe – that he did it partly to protect her and Boyle from rebuke.
Edzie wondered, for a moment, whether Stray, in defending himself from Mistra Septa's scolding, had also been defending himself from Elkansa's judgment. This seemed like the type of thing that Mistra Eryn might say... she always had obtuse theories about these sorts of social situations. Edzie herself dismissed the idea quickly... she knew that Stray was simpler than that, and in a way, more noble. He had sensed a challenge, and in defense of his pride and his friends' self-respect, he had risen to it.
For a little boy, she thought, he was strikingly womanly: a stalwart defender of his social territory, the stable center of gravity for the people in his circle. She wondered if he might eventually become one of the few male heads of households in the Denoria tribe, or perhaps a male tribal elder... he seemed to have the patience and the charisma for it, at least.
Eventually, Edzie couldn't think of any more pictures to draw, so she turned to practicing the katsun formations her mother was teaching her. There were sixteen in all… some tribes had more elaborate practices, but the Denoria had settled upon the most important subset, and their warriors were well-respected for it. Edzie didn’t have Stray’s natural aptitude, but she made up for it with her perfectionism. After every repetition of a form, she would pause and recalibrate her shoulders and hips, hearing her mother’s carping in her head.
She spent a few minutes searching for a stick that could stand in for a katsun. There was nothing of interest around Mistra Baliban’s house, and the pavilion was cleared out and tidied up for the next session. Finally, snooping around his garden, Edzie stumbled across an old digging wedge lying in the soil. She picked it up to examine its head, and found it was already nearly dislodged from the four-foot wooden handle. A few shakes, and the wedge-head dropped off. Edzie was confident that she could claim it had happened before she got there; wooden handle in hand, she headed back to the pavilion.
The rod was about half the weight of a katsun, made of softer wood, and badly balanced, but it would work for a bit of practice. She thought about taking the forms in prescribed order, but eventually decided to start with the ones she found easiest.
Low, hovering, hands apart. Number three, attack: feint from left, kick, thrust.
Low, weight on back foot, right hand centered. Number seven, withstand: parry thrust, step inside, assert the body.
Low, stable, left hand loose. Number nine, intercept: wait for cue, horizontal strike at waist, shift into follow-up form.
When the gravelly baritone of Baliban’s voice interrupted her, it was disconcertingly close. “How studious, Edzie! I hope your teachers appreciate your dedication!” Turning, Edzie found him leaning against one of the posts on the far side of the pavilion, attired in his eggshell Mistra’s robe, with a pair of hard-soled walking shoes substituted for the traditional sandals.
“Hello, Edzie. Would you like a partner for practicing your forms?”
Baliban was in his young fifties, nearing the end of his oath to the Caesura... within a few years, he would no longer be bound by the order, and he would be free to leave his post as a Mistra to the Denoria tribe. In his decades with the tribespeople, he had evolved from an ebullient young guru to a weathered sage, his good humor tempered but fully intact. He had always been broad in the shoulders and chest, but in the last few years, the tribespeople had seen his posture dip and his belly distend, so he was now on the portly side.
Edzie agreed to match him, and he spent a few minutes searching for a practice katsun in the front room of his dromo. When he came back out, he carried a wooden staff with the lower half carved into a handle... lighter than a true katsun, with its metal point and fused blade, but certainly better-balanced than Edzie's gardening stick.
At length, Baliban stood before Edzie, idly swinging it to loosen up his arms. As he did so, he glanced in her direction and flashed his wry smile. "So, battle maiden, are you going to slay me with my own garden implement?"
Edzie assumed a basic stance, raising her mock weapon in front of her. Baliban began cycling through the basic striking patterns, announcing each one in advance. Edzie would have taken some offense at this patronizing treatment, except that it gave her the mental space to hold a conversation. Besides, she clearly remembered her mother's words: action and adaptation must keep happening, regardless of attention and distraction. Exercise your muscles, not your mind.
"So... number two... your mother and Stray are well, I take it?"
"Yes, and food is plentiful, and mom says we're growing fast." Edzie parried and circled as she spoke, refraining from mounting any counterattacks for the moment. "She says when I master the sixteen forms, I'll be ready to kill my first Huskin. She's already claimed one of the grazing females for me."
"An important... number three... moment for a young woman!"
"Did you have to do it?" She measured her words carefully, taking breaths between steps.
"Not at your age." Baliban side-stepped, feigned a lunge, and then returned to the default defensive stance. "The people who raised me were merchants from the Delta, and they had no such custom. ...number four... When I took my place in your tribe, I was already an adult, but your people had to treat me like a child. I learned to keep a dromo, kill and prepare my food, and fight, fifteen years later than you all."
"Was it hard?"
Baliban slowed down for a moment as he plumbed his memories. "It was unfamiliar. But life with my family, and then my training with the Order... by the time I got here, I was capable of adapting." He was striking without warning now, though he hadn't intensified his pace. Still, he was finding every attack met with a competent defense. "You are very quick, Edzie, for someone just learning."
"You're being nice."
"You are mistaken," Baliban assured her, fully sincere. "If you mean the compliment, it was simply an observation. And if you mean with the attacks, I assure you... if I tried any harder to hit you, I would just expose myself for the clumsy bristlebear that I am."
Edzie could see that he was, in fact, starting to struggle, breathing more audibly and letting his footwork lapse. She let her own reactions slow down to match his rhythm. There was no reason to be pushy, and besides, she was already moving on to her next topic of conversation.
"Mistra, when you lived at the temple, did you learn the emanences?"
Baliban raised an eyebrow as he advanced. "Indeed. All the monks have to learn the fundamentals of the four paths. What brought this to mind?"
Parry, step back, parry... Edzie let her body react to Mistra Baliban as she explained her interest. "Yesterday, before Mistra Septa's lesson, Stray tried doing some of them. The Cry and the Step, by humming and then moving really slowly."
"Ah, right." Mistra Baliban retreated a few steps, now too involved in the conversation to keep thinking about his forms. "The way of Inselsin... that's the Step... never my strong suit. There's too much of me for me to keep track of all of it at once. Aaraya, though... the Cry... I picked that one up pretty well. I still use it sometimes, when I need to get myself realigned."
Seeing that Baliban was no longer practicing, Edzie lowered her wedge handle. "Stray thought they were magic powers. He thought you could knock somebody over by saying words of power. I told him it wasn't like that."
Baliban nodded thoughtfully. "Hmm. I see."
There was a moment of ambiguous silence between them. Suddenly pensive, Baliban walked around past Edzie and sat down on the wooden platform at the front of the pavilion. Edzie joined him presently, laying her wooden weapon beside his own. His unexpected hesitation had piqued her curiosity.
"It's not, right? I mean, the monks can't make things happen with their minds and stuff, right?"
Baliban glanced at Edzie and half-smiled, still caught up in his own thoughts. "Well, if you're talking about the stories you children tell when you're supposed to be sleeping or doing chores, about words that can kill grown men and make lightning strike, then you're right, nobody can do that."
He looked away again, his gaze drifting. "But even in the Order, we have our stories."
"Like what?" Edzie was already impatient, even just having to ask.
"Well, it's believed that the students of Ademah... Stillness... at least, the most accomplished ones... can hear the softest sound for miles around, and can see types of light that are invisible to normal eyes." He gazed aloft, seeming to search the skies and the air, as he sorted through the stories in his head.
Edzie remained silent, at attention.
"And it is said that the followers of the cry, Aaraya, can intone a chant in a meditation room, or even in a cave on the mountain, and the hum will continue, sometimes for days, after they've left."
"Wow," Edzie said, trying to remember more from Mistra Septa's guidebook. "I wonder if I could learn them?"
"I am sure you could, if you ever joined the Order," Baliban assured her. He hesitated a moment. "Although... I'm not sure you would be suited to such a life, living in a temple and practicing meditation all day."
"I could do it," Edzie declared, unwilling to be discouraged.
Baliban chuckled in reply.
“So...” Edzie spent a moment formulating her subsequent question. “So if you hadn't come out here, to teach our tribe, do you think you could have learned to do those things? Would you have spent your whole life at the Envoclajiz, learning to be a powerful monk?”
“My whole life?” Baliban was mildly amused at the thought. “No, I would never have become one of those Prima Caesura adepts that you all whisper stories about. All monks have certain plateaus for each of the arts... some level where they no longer have the talent, or the drive, to go any further. Besides, we monks are as varied as you tribesfolk. Few of us want to spend our whole lives doing one thing. I certainly didn't... I wanted to be out in the world!”
“Like in our tribe?”
“Precisely.” Baliban was now fully present, smiling softly as he accounted for himself. “And also, all the other places I've been. Dror, Horizon, the old kingdom up the Tempus River, and Tundras out on the Stoneside... the Order has given me many chances to see many places, all in the name of Dissadae and the Caesura.”
He smiled fondly, lost in younger skies. A couple figures were approaching from the west, but Edzie didn't say anything, and Baliban kept talking. “I know I don't travel as much anymore, but you should have seen me ten years ago, back before you were born. I would be gone for whole seasons out of the year. Just ask your mother... the other Mistras must have hated me then, making them take up all my slack.”
The approaching figures, two Denoria girls who Edzie didn't recognize, stopped at the edge of the pavilion and gave the Blessing of Dissadae. Baliban looked toward the new arrivals, and stood up promptly. “Ah, hello, Bayla, Tevni. This is Edzie, from down in the central quarter.” He turned toward Edzie. “Edzie, my lesson is starting in a few minutes. We're learning about the reconstruction of Bhijanica after the Succession Wars. Will you be staying for it?”
Edzie did some calculations: two hours might keep her later than she had planned to stay, and she wasn't sure she wasn't still on her mother's bad side after yesterday's truancy... but the temptation to stay for the session was strong, and Edzie didn't need much convincing anyway. She shrugged, nodded, and took a seat toward the rear of the floor to wait for the rest of Mistra Baliban's students.
... ... ... ...
... ... ... ...
By the time Edzie arrived home, the daylight had turned orange and the shadows had turned blue, and the air temperature had dropped by five degrees. She found her mother and Mistra Septa at ease in the gathering room of her home, having finished their katsun lesson for the day. Mistra Septa had been learning martial techniques from Elkansa since before Edzie was born, and she remembered a time when they would exhaust themselves with their exercises, night after night. For the past couple years, their rigorous sessions had declined to about two a week, and they spent the rest of their practices idling and venting.
When Edzie arrived, Mistra Septa was at the table, and Elkansa was beside the door, binding scraps from today’s harvest of vegetables. They were not caught up in any conversation… at the moment, each seemed to be occupied with her own thoughts (Edzie was always amazed at how long adults could spend in this state). When she passed through the doorway, they both offered their greetings, Septa in her formally self-conscious style, and Elkansa with typical curtness.
“Edzie, where is Stray?” Elkansa held Edzie’s gaze for a moment, continuing to strip and bind her scraps.
“I don’t know. At Boyle’s, I think.”
“Go find him.” Elkansa’s voice maintained its stubborn neutrality, which she rarely allowed to lapse. “Tell him I will not prepare dinner until both of you are here, and if you take too long, you will have to find your own food.”
“Okay mom,” Edzie assented, and then turned to acknowledge her teacher. “Nice to see you, Mistra.”
“Well met, Edzie. Will you be at our lesson later this week?” Mistra Septa shared a certain sternness with Elkansa, which many young Denorians found off-putting. Edzie, on the other hand, found it reassuring, because she could sense the warmth in it, even if it was habitually suppressed.
Edzie nodded, smiling softly. “Yes, Mistra. Perhaps the day after tomorrow.”
“And punctual this time, I hope?”
“Of course, Mistra.” With a nod to each of the adults, Edzie hurried out of the gathering room. She jogged halfway to Boyle’s dromo, and then relaxed her pace, realizing she had no particular urge to be stuck at home for the rest of the evening.
Boyle’s dromo was a few hundred yards to the north, across the walking path. Dredda, Boyle’s father, sat on a stool near the front entrance, stooped over a bucket of water. As Edzie approached, she saw that he had washed the few metal implements the family kept for cooking and eating, and was now using the same water to rinse some of his and his wife’s clothes. He heard her footsteps and glanced up at her, smiling. Edzie could see Boyle in his father’s face, though somehow, between generations, Dredda’s unassuming smile had morphed into Boyle’s wry smirk.
“Hello, Edzie! What brings you to my workroom?”
“Hello, Dredda. I was looking for Stray. Is he here?”
“No, I’m sorry, young lady, but he left an hour or so ago. Boyle is inside, doing whatever it is he does.”
“Do you mind if I say hello, and see if he knows where Stray went?”
Dredda gestured toward the open door. “Not a problem. I hope he can help.”
Edzie stuck her head hesitantly through the front door, feeling as though she was trespassing. She found herself in the gathering room, which had three doors leading off in different directions. The ones in front and to her left were dark. She saw the steady glow of lamplight flickering in the right-hand room, and set off in that direction, still mildly uncomfortable in the unfamiliar house. A few paces from the room, she could see Boyle through the entranceway, sitting on the floor with his legs crossed.
Boyle glanced up as Edzie arrived. He had a wooden plank before him, and an old parchment manuscript to his right. In front of him, on the plank, was a piece of brown scrap fabric, whereupon he had drawn some figures and diagrams with a whittled charcoal pencil. Whatever he was doing, Edzie had clearly interrupted a fairly intense train of thought, because it took him a full four seconds to greet her.
His greeting finally came out as a disarming “Hi, Edzie!”
“Hi, Boyle.” She reclined in the doorway. “I was wondering if you knew where Stray went.”
“Oh yeah.” Boyle didn’t skip a beat. “He went out to the western watchtower. He went last week, too… said he likes talking to Genefre when she’s on duty.”
Edzie didn’t balk, though this news was unexpected. As far as she knew, Stray’s whole life was fully secondary to hers: spending time with the same people, worrying about the same lessons, always easy to find if he decided to do something on his own. Edzie barely knew Genefre, except that she occasionally chatted with Elkansa after council meetings, and she assisted Mistra Gita’s crafting lessons a few times a week. Now, knowing she'd have to follow him all the way to the watchtower, she was sure she wouldn’t be home until long after Elkansa had given up on food. Part of her regretted this, but part of her was glad for the excuse to keep drifting through the settlement, reveling in the privacy of the open air.
In the fast-fading light of the evening, she took off west, passing her own dromo without looking up. She crossed a loose lot of half-built shacks, stepping gingerly between excavated earth and neglected piles of old timber, avoiding the thicker shrubbery, which someone in the area might have been using as a garden. Passing through, she reached the Splitmouth… there were no easy crossings in this part of the settlement, but there were wooden rafts dragged up on the bank every few hundred meters, all kept for public use. She had to walk almost a kilometer before she found one on her side of the river.
The other side of the Splitmouth was officially the west side of the settlement, with the central court and the Chronoboros a ways to the north. Edzie pulled the raft ashore, and then set off almost directly west. She passed south of the spacious Huskin pens and the cluttered avenue of merchants' huts and stands known as Handworkers' Row, and continued walking parallel to the major East-West Road that linked the two halves of the settlement via the Central Court. Most of the day’s bustle of activity had ended, but she could still hear a murmur of foot traffic and conversation. Edzie was walking between dromos and storage sheds now, impinging slightly on other residents’ territory, but she was careful to be inconspicuous, and nobody gave her a second look.
A few people crossed her path as she walked by, returning, presumably, to their own homes down near the docks on the Prospect. The homesteads had grown more sparse, and now she was in a largely empty field, with an occasional glimmer of lamplight marking a window in the distance. She knew that the larger Western storehouses were off to her right, but they were unlit, so they were fully lost in the deepening dusk. From her left, she could barely hear the rush of the Prospect River. Luckily, the clouds were sparse on this particular night, so the moon was generous in showing her the ground she was stepping on.
By the time the western watchtower came into view, the wind had picked up slightly, and Edzie was starting to feel the chill seep through her brivsa. She put up the hood and pulled the scarf tight around her face, like she was preparing for some formal introduction, and it gave her a moment of relief from the breeze. The sky around the horizon glowed with the light reflected from the fields, and the skeletal silhouette of the watchtower broke up the sedate blue. Edzie felt her steps softening as she approached, and by the time she reached the ladder leading up the scaffolding, she was as quiet as a breeze grazing the grass. She could hear a conversation happening above her, but she couldn't discern its content without getting a bit closer.
Within the first three rungs of the ladder, she recognized Genefre's voice.
“... would make a good tribal elder. At least, my dad always said so, though I think it's because she was quick to defend him when my mom got mad at him. I never told her how much I appreciated...”
When Edzie pulled herself up to the fourth rung, the wood emitted a tortured groan. The conversation abruptly stopped, and Edzie heard Genefre scrambling to ready her weapon and look down over the edge of the platform. It was too dark for her to identify Edzie, so she called out for an acknowledgment.
“Hello, Genefre, it's Edzie. I was wondering if you've seen Stray.”
“Oh!” Genefre processed this news for a moment, still looking down over the ledge. “Of course! Feel free to come up if you want, Edzie. I was just talking about your mother, actually.”
Stray's voice followed, sounding slightly guilty. “Hi, Edzie... is Kansa mad?”
“No, I think it's okay. She's not making us dinner, but I don't think she means it as a punishment.”
Edzie reached the platform several seconds later, pulling herself up and settling into a crouch. Stray was sitting on the middle bar of the guardrail, and Genefre was leaning against it on the other side. She had left her lighter tunic behind in favor of a Huskin pelt, which she had draped over her bandeau and most of both arms, and she had worn a winter brivsa lined with grasscat fur. Edzie silently admired her foresight, having condemned herself to a bristling chill in the night air. Genefre was twenty-four, well-regarded among the tribespeople, with a strong bearing and a patient demeanor. Her initiation scar wasn't visible... it was probably somewhere on her chest or back... so her foremost distinguishing feature was the strand of burgundy thread that she had braided into her shoulder-length hair.
Genefre took a moment to size up the situation, and then tried to restart the faltering conversation. “Nice of you to join us, Edzie. Can you and Stray stay long?”
“We probably shouldn't,” Edzie replied, her voice touched with shyness. “Mom told me to come get him.” She caught Genefre's eye for a second, and then looked back down. “You know mom pretty well from when you were kids?”
Genefre smiled. “Yes. From when I was a kid, not her. Your mom is a bit older than me... when I was your age, she was already making a name for herself with the elders. Your mom helped with some of my katsun lessons, back when I was that age, and she was a really excellent teacher.”
“Edzie is doing those now,” Stray interjected. “I don't really get it.”
Genefre raised an eyebrow. “What don't you get?”
“I don't get why we all have to learn to fight, when everybody just spends all day herding the Huskins and working around the village. I mean, they tell us it's best to run away if something scary attacks us... why are we all being treated like we're supposed to be warriors?”
Edzie was taken off-guard by the question. As far as she had considered it, they were taught to be warriors because they were a warrior tribe. All eight of the Concordance tribes were warriors, and they all measured one another by their military prowess. Yet, as far as Edzie knew, they hadn't been involved in a violent conflict in nearly a century, since the last incursion by the Fisher tribes from across the mountains.
She glanced at Genefre, expecting an answer, and discovered that Genefre was already looking back. There was a moment of pregnant silence between them, which Genefre finally broke. “Come on, Edzie. If your mother is still the same woman I remember, then you know the answer to that question.”
The answer came to Edzie in a flash, like a ray of sunlight through a cloud. “Readiness. She says we always have to be ready, because we could be called up at any moment to defend the Envoclajiz from the Fisher tribes.”
“Yes, well-put,” Genefre confirmed. “And how are you doing with your forms, Edzie?”
“I don't know,” Edzie answered honestly. “I'll know when mom tells me I'm good enough.”
“When she's ready, she has to kill a huskin!” Stray exclaimed, excited at this prospect.
“Yes, as will you,” Genefre replied. “Most of our parents make us do that when we're about Edzie's age. It won't be long for you.”
“Yeah, I don't know if I can do it,” Stray said, scrunching up his face. Then something occurred to him. “So wait, how come Sola and Luna have to kill a grasscat, instead of a huskin?”
“That's later,” Edzie explained. “They're fifteen. We all do the initiation when we're fifteen, in front of the whole tribe. That's when you get your initiation scar. The huskin slaughter is just an informal thing.”
Stray processed this information, and then turned to Genefre and asked, unexpectedly: “When you did it, did your father get to see?”
Genefre stammered a little. “Yeah, and my mother both.”
Stray nodded, and suddenly lapsed into silence, turning and looking out across the Huskin fields. From this distance, you could barely see the line of the Tenebre River, which met the Prospect several kilometers to the west. Now, at night, you could only see the blanket of unbroken shadow, a placid ocean beneath the field of summer stars.
Edzie let Stray inhabit his private world for a moment, and then she interrupted him as gently as she could. “Are you about ready to head home?”
Leaving Genefre to her post, Edzie and Stray started walking back east, crossing the open field under the watchtower’s gaze. Walking side by side, they navigated by the moonlight, both concentrating on the uneven ground in front of them. The sound of the Prospect River dominated now, occasionally synchronizing with a breezy rush of distant leaves. Every few steps, they were serenaded by the croak of some singing insect, but these were sparse, so far from the water. The only signs of civilization were the dim pinpricks of the thresh lamps in the distance.
“So,” Stray said as they passed into a patch of taller grasses and river weeds, “do you think you’re good at the forms?”
Edzie shrugged. “I guess. I’m trying to be good enough for mom. She’s really serious about this stuff.”
“Yeah, especially with you. She’s really been teaching you a lot.” He paused, and then spoke more quietly, as if to himself. “More than me, at least. All she wants me to do is memorize them.”
Edzie felt a pang of annoyance, which turned almost immediately to sympathy. “Well, I’m a year ahead! She’s just starting you with the practical stuff.”
Stray was not interested in false reassurance. “No, she worked harder with you, from the very beginning. You started earlier than me, and she never just went over lists of forms with you. It’s not because I’m an outsider, either… she’s serious about it with Mistra Septa, and all her other girl students. It’s because I’m a boy… she doesn’t think I can do them as well as you and her.”
Edzie considered offering him another consolation, but she realized almost immediately that he was in the mood for honesty. “You might be right,” she said, finally. “Mom is pretty traditional. You probably have a lot more to prove than me.”
“But you think I can do it, right?” Now he wasn’t looking for honesty, so much as a pledge of faith. Edzie was not a person to come to for that sort of thing, but for Stray, she could spare it.
“Yes, Stray, I know you can do it, just as well as any of the girls in our tribe. You already use the forms sometimes, when you play with Boyle. It’s so natural for you, I think I’m the only one who’s even noticed it.”
Stray betrayed a shy, wavering smile. “Thanks, Edzie.” He paused, only now getting to the crux of his inquiry. “So I was wondering… since your mom is teaching you so much, do you think you could show me? I want to learn… I want the chance to learn… the forms as deeply as you do.”
Edzie cocked her head slightly. “Show you?”
“Yeah, like, you teach me the advanced stuff that your mom is teaching you. So I can start practicing the hard stuff on my own.”
Edzie considered Stray’s request as they walked. They had nearly reached the Splitmouth, and she started scanning the bank for the boat she had left. She turned north, with Stray close behind… as they trudged over the grassy earth, she thought about taking on a new responsibility as Stray’s clandestine katsun teacher. At first, she was inclined to turn him down, simply for the sake of her own convenience. When she thought about it, though, she found herself becoming more favorable, especially when she thought of it as a subtle protest against her mother’s monolithic seriousness.
Pushing through the flora on the riverbank, she and Stray came suddenly into a small clearing, and at that moment, Edzie’s frame of mind shifted decisively. She stopped, and Stray almost bumped into her. Edzie turned to face her adopted brother, who stepped back nervously.
“Okay, Stray. I accept. Whatever mom teaches me, I’ll pass on to you, as long as I’m good enough at it.”
Stray smiled, preparing a grateful cheer, but Edzie interrupted him. “So we’ll start now. Have you memorized all sixteen forms?”
Stray shook his head.
“Well, first off, I can at least tell you what they mean, and maybe that will help you remember them. There are four types.” She paused to break off a branch from a fallen limb, and when she returned to her position, she was holding it like a katsun, hands set apart. As she listed each of the four types of maneuvers, she pantomimed them. “First, there are the Attack forms. Second, there are Defense types, which mom sometimes calls the Withstand forms. Those are ones where you’re supposed to hold a position and deflect attacks.”
“And there are four of each, right?” Stray asked.
“Yes. Third are the Intercept forms, where you parry attacks and then follow up with your own attack. Those are the hardest. Fourth are the Withdraw forms, where you give up ground so you can find a better position, or regroup.”
“Or run away.”
Edzie took a lunge at Stray, feigning a whack at his knee. “NO!” Laughing, she relaxed her stance. “Well, mom would say no, never, but yeah, you’re right. If you’re obviously overpowered or outmatched, the Withdraw forms will let you get away.”
“Okay, I think I got it,” Stray said. “Attack, Withstand, Intercept, and Withdraw. That’s way easier than the numbers.”
“Yeah, but you have to learn the numbers too. Don’t lose track of those.”
Edzie shrugged. “I don’t know. Because you do. Sometimes people… the elders especially… will ask you to do the forms in order.” She swung her branch idly, listening to it whistle in broad arcs. “But there’s even more to the four types… like, if you take any pair of two types, they make a special group.”
Stray laughed. “Like a group of groups? That’s weird.”
“It helps you understand all of them. Like… Attack and Intercept are the striking types. And Attack and Withdraw are the positioning types.”
“How about withdraw and intercept?”
“Those are called the weak types, or passive types, because you’re supposed to be making space for the opponent’s attack. So the other two… attack and withstand… are the strong types, or active types, because you’re asserting yourself.”
“I think I get the idea,” Stray said, his brow furrowed. “I won’t remember them all, though. There’s too much to memorize.”
“It’s okay. You can actually diagram them, and they’re a lot easier to remember.” Edzie glanced down at her makeshift practice weapon, and then tossed it back into the underbrush. “Okay, that’s enough for now. Let’s head home. I’m hungry.”
Edzie turned and started walking. They saw the raft about a hundred meters on, and turned toward it. Just as she was getting there, she heard Stray scamper up behind and look for a way to help move the vessel. As they pushed it off the bank and hopped up on its wooden deck, she saw that Stray was carrying something behind him. It was the stick Edzie had used to show him the forms, and as they crossed the Splitmouth, he was clearly fighting the urge to swing it around and slay imaginary beasts.
Stray managed to keep the stick for several weeks afterwards, playing with it less and less frequently, until one day Elkansa needed a replacement leg for a stool in the gathering room, and the toy katsun was finally recruited for a more practical purpose.