The initial attack on the hunting lodge had not gone well. Afterwards, Kai had spent the evening in meditation. In a moment of zen focus it dawned on him that although he was doing great works, protecting this land with his new friends, he was no closer to proving himself a man.
He had acquired skills in the arts, both Druidic and Arcane, and his mastery of all the elements was complete indeed. Thanks to his studies with the elves, he could even call upon the Spirit of Life. He had then, fulfilled the purpose of his Pilgrim’s Walk: he had discovered the forgotten powers of the world. There was more to discover, yes, but he felt he could move on to the next step. Forging his own Seong-In… for which he knew no translation in Common, but it was the weapon or tool of a man that would mark his path in life.
The morning however, came with unexpected and unwelcome news. Brond made his peace with the party, even with his Dragonborn antagonist, and promptly left. He said nothing to the young man who secretly looked up to him, as the first man he’d met in this part of the world.
The man who stood for the kind of manhood Kai was no closer to achieving. Brond could drink, he could inspire – in a rough sort of way, he could charm whomever her pleased into his bed. He could fight, not gracefully like Kai, but passionately, cunningly, in a way that won wars not protected monasteries.
And he hadn’t even given him a look before he left.
As the others returned to the hunting lodge, the young monk decided he had to do something for himself, not just be a player in someone else’s battles. So he slipped away from the group on quiet sandal-clad feet, his wiry form slipping into the treeline, and followed after Brond. He had no reason for stealth, save the fact the further he went without saying anything, the more embarrassing it would be to finally announce his presence.
Finally, Brond made camp, settling down around a fire. Kai was about to step out and say something when he saw him roll out his bedroll away from the fire, in the shadow of a giant oak. Soon, Kai heard him snoring like a champion.
Kai stepped out of cover, wondering what on earth to do now. Why had the mercenary gone to – Kai’s hand moved almost before he heard the twang, snatching the crossbow bolt out of the air before he even saw it whistling towards him from the inky dark. He spun, summoning the winds to hurl it back the way it came, but was cut short by an exclamation.
Brond. And all too awake.
“I thought Cunto the Dragon might come back to finish me off. I didn’t think he’d be twat enough to send you.”
He dropped his crossbow and walked towards Kai with a slow, deliberate stride, hands open. Kai had seen that walk before. Brond liked to wait till he was nearly touching the enemy before drawing his rapiers. It gave them less warning.
“Nobody sent me.” Kai dropped the crossbow bolt
“So what are you doing here, kid?” Brond kept coming, steadily closing the distance.
Kai whipped out his shortsword, holding it tanto style in front of him. Brond didn’t break stride. If the sword bothered him, he didn’t show it.
“What’s with the cutlery?”
He was getting close now. Kai stepped backward, matching Brond’s steady pace.
Maintaining the distance. “I couldn’t… you didn’t say anything…. I…” Inwardly, Kai lamented being raised in a monastery where silence was often a ritual. It so often left him lost for words when it mattered most. “Our first meeting was a happy one, you took me in like a brother, invited me to drink with you, we’d go on to fight many battles together. I didn’t want our parting to be me knocking you out and fighting your sister. I thought I was doing what was best.”
“So what do you want, a fucking hand job?”
Kai stumbled over a root as he backed away, but kept his balance. He always kept his balance.
“I want our parting to mean something, not just a series of mindless battles. I realised I’ve learnt from Wizards and Druids, I’ve learned about the arcane world but I don’t know the real world like you do… I was hoping you’d share with me your world, before you hang up your swords, before you give it up. I want you to show me how you fight.
“Fucking hell, kid, you already know how to fight.”
“I know the art, not the fight you’ve lived.”
Kai’s back struck a tree, halting his retreat. He thrust out with his sword to keep Brond from advancing – but before his thrust was complete Brond was upon him, rapiers flashing.
Before he could react, Kai felt one of Brond’s blades pressing into the side of his throat, precisely on the death point that he had learned about in the monastery. The other pressed down on Kai’s sword, keeping it wide.
They were face to face now. Kai could see the criss-cross of scars on Brond’s cheeks, feel his breath on his lips, smell the sweat on his skin.
For a moment, Kai thought about summoning a storm of wind to remove his opponent but he stopped… when had his once friend become his ‘opponent’… was he? Or had Kai’s own actions driven Brond to that?
“You want to be a swordsman? You’ve got my sister, you’ve got the dickless lizard. Why come looking for me?”
Kai felt the rough bark of the tree jutting into his back as Brond steadily pushed against him. After all this time, the man just didn’t understand. If only he could find the right words.
“I want to fight like a man, with feeling, not just a monk, going through… forms.”
Brond stopped pushing. He looked intently at Kai for a long, still moment.
“You don’t want to be a swordsman, do you, kid?” He smiled, as much as he ever smiled.
“You want to be a soldier.”
He stepped back, sheathing his rapiers. “OK. We’ll start now.”
Kai started breathing again. He hadn’t realised he’d stopped. Feelings of relief and even elation rose in him, but he reflexively suppressed them with a calming mantra. Now was a time to stay focused.
He brought his sword up again in a neutral stance, ready to begin his training. But Brond grasped the blade in his mail-clad hand and uncurled Kai’s fingers from the hilt. “That comes later,” he said gently, and tossed Kai’s sword over to the ground beside his own backpack.
So what now? This was not at all what Kai had expected, but of course he should have guessed there would be movement exercises, just as there had been when he trained with his staff. The sensei had insisted he master seventeen combinations of flowing motions of arm and leg before he was even permitted to touch a -
“STAND TO ATTENTION, SOLDIER!” Brond’s sudden shout startled Kai from his reminiscence.
Attention? Of course. He tried to imitate the weird rigid pose the troops he had seen at Master Burne’s tower, standing up straight, chest puffed out. “Stupid fighting-stance,” Kai had thought, “how are you to flow around attacks from this position?” He softened his knees and brought his head down to see his opponent.
“WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU CALL THAT? ARMS STRAIGHT, PALMS AT YOUR SIDES, FEET TOGETHER, EYES FRONT! NOW, SOLDIER!” Kai followed the barked instructions as best he could, Brond shoving his arms and shoulders into the right positions. He stood still while Brond walked slowly around him.
“If you want to be a soldier, you will stand to attention in the presence of a superior. HAVE YOU GOT THAT?”
Kai blinked. “Yes, I’ve got that.”
“Hai sensai!… er… SIR?”
“You will stand to attention until I tell you otherwise. Do you understand?”
“Yes – yes sir.”
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“Yes sir!” Of course, stillness was the most fundamental of all the forms of movement. It was the beginning of all monkish training. But to find this understanding here in the West – Kai would never have imagined there would be such sophistication here. Perhaps he had underestimated this culture all along, perhaps hidden under the rough exterior was a subtle and ancient -
Brond’s mailed fist smashed into his jaw, knocking him to the ground. Kai looked up, startled.
“STAND TO FUCKING ATTENTION!”
“Yes sir!” Kai sprang back to his feet, assuming the attention stance once more. His jaw ached, but still he had to suppress a smile. This was a familiar exercise. In his first year at the monastery, he and his fellow acolytes had lined up every morning at dawn, adopting the stance of the day, remaining in position while the sensei’s assistants had beaten them with sticks. The last monk to break his stance was awarded the honour of serving the master that day. By the end, Kai had served the master more often than any other monk. All he had to do was not fall down. It wasn’t about the physical after all, it was about the -
Brond’s punch to his gut knocked the breath from him, but he remained standing. He cleared his mind of doubt and apprehension, focusing his spirit on the stillness of his body.
Then the onslaught began. Punch after punch, slamming into Kai, ferocious, relentless.
Finally a headbutt that sent Kai reeling back, tripping, falling.
“THE FUCK ARE YOU PLAYING AT, SOLDIER?”
Kai wiped the blood from his eyes, propped himself up on an elbow. Saw Brond standing over him, tall and pitiless.
“WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU NOT STANDING TO ATTENTION?”
He had failed again. The monks who had trained him had been skilled and wise, but no match for Brond in raw brutality.
Brond kicked him in the ribs. “CALL YOURSELF A FUCKING SOLDIER?”
Kai felt the Spirit of Fire reach out to him. It wanted him to use it, to retaliate. It tried to feed his anger, to lash out with earth, air and fire. He had weapons all around him. He felt the temptation to use magic (for it was always a temptation, to give in, to use the easy road, just to say the word, move the hand, and let the unearthly power flow through you, after all, you were its master, what could go wrong?). A part of him wanted to change the rules and beat this attacker down with the truths of the world Brond would never grasp.
But that was not today’s lesson. Zen discipline took over burning elemental passions.
Kai forced himself to stand again. He would succeed. He would show Brond that he could make it through this trial. Centring his Ki and making the pain and confusion merely things that existed, not that were happening to him, he prepared to accept any blow, however strong, without wavering.
Brond tripped him.
Kai rolled with the fall, but before he could complete the move and leap back up Brond was upon him, kicking his sides, stamping on his arms, keeping him down.
“STAND THE FUCK UP, YOU LITTLE PRICK!” Brond’s boot smashed into Kai’s crotch, sending a tidal wave of pain through his body. Kai fought to control the pain, to escape the blows, but there was no respite. Brond kicked him in the kidneys, the face, the neck.
The onslaught only stopped when Kai reflexively threw up an age-uke, a move he’d long since trained to also cast up an arcane shield.
Brond paced around the blue/purple radiance surrounding Kai. “Pathetic. The fuck do you call that? IS THAT STANDING TO ATTENTION? IS IT, SOLDIER?”
The light dissipated as it always did, and Brond laid in again, his boots striking harder than ever. Kai rolled and curled, but the kicks kept coming. Was Brond really going to keep going until…
Beneath him, the ground seemed to pitch and sway. Everything was blurred. He made one last effort to raise himself up on agonised limbs, only to fall face down in the muddy grass. It was gritty and sour in his mouth.
“YOU ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF AN OFFICER, YOU SNIVELLING CUNT! STAND TO FUCKING ATTENTION!”
Kai wanted to get up so much, but his body refused to obey. A beetle crawled up a blade of grass in front of his right eye. The left eye wouldn’t open.
Through the beetle the boy could sense the Spirit of Life, he could have closed his wounds with a thought… but he’d hid behind spells as a boy, choosing to bend the elements, not fight hand to hand. Choosing to find his manhood in spell books and scrolls. No, if he was really to be a man, he would learn Brond’s way.
“FUCKING PATHETIC! CALLS HIMSELF A FUCKING SOLDIER, CAN’T EVEN STAND TO ATTENTION? USELESS CUNTING BAWBAG, ON YOUR FEET!”
His left hand twitched. He closed his fingers on a tuft of grass. Pulled himself up a few agonising inches. His right leg shifted, took some of his weight. Sweat and blood mingled on the grass beneath him.
He raised his head. Moved his left leg. Managed to kneel.
“SNAP TO IT, MAN!”
Kai’s legs trembled, but he forced them to let him stand. Groaning through clenched teeth, he brought his feet together. Straightened his back.
“EYES FRONT, SOLDIER!”
Kai looked up, staring Brond in the face. Blinking through the blood. Defiant.
Brond nodded. “Any cunt can learn to stay on his feet, but sooner or later someone’s going to knock him down. When you get knocked down, and you get up again – that’s what makes you a soldier.”
Still Kai stood, trying not to sway.
“Beer’s in the backpack.”
Kai limped toward Brond’s pile of possessions. Fingers fumbling, he opened the backpack. It was full of bottles. Beside it, his shortsword lay discarded.
“Bring us a couple each. After that, I’ll show you where to stick the pointy end.”
“Hai, Sensei!” Kai bowed, this was hardly a dojo, but he would respect the training ground all the same.
“Yeah, whatever. Beer.”
Kai’s people had a saying: you don’t know a man until you fight him, and you can’t call him brother till you study under him.
Kai already knew Brond. Soon, he would call him brother.