“Can I haggle?” Al asked.
“No,” Raulin said at the same moment Anla said, “Yes.”
“I don’t want to be here all afternoon,” he explained.
“He’s getting better at bartering,” she said. “I think it’s a good skill for him to work on.”
“All right,” he said, shrugging. “No more than a half-hour, Wizard.”
Al took off at a quick pace to the shops in Lacara, hoping to be rid of the weight of chopped wood for at least a few hours. The other three took their time, knowing that it was too late in the day to set out for Mount Kalista.
Al met them at the entrance and held out a flat hand, palm up, to show his wages. “I got three coppers for four logs.”
“Good,” said Raulin. “Now, do you have an extra pouch or bag?”
“I think so.” Al slung off his pack and rifled through it, finding a leather drawstring pouch and holding it up.
“Put your coppers in there and any money in the future. If you can manage to haggle a pair of work gloves for three coppers, then buy them. Otherwise, you can continue to wrap your hands.”
“I have money,” Al pointed out. “I’ll just go buy them.”
“I know you have money. I don’t want you to spend any of your money on your supplies; I want you to spend your ax money on it. Gloves, straps for holding bundles, holsters, whatever you need, you buy only with that coin.”
“Because most people, unless they’re particularly vain, have a hard time noticing incremental progress. They don’t see their muscles develop, they don’t notice their skills improving, but they can say ‘I chopped this much wood, sold it, and bought these gloves with the money’. And then they’ll chop more wood, sell that, and get a better pair. At some point they’ll be able to show off their beautiful pair of sturdy gloves with tiny stitches that don’t blister their hands and see how far they’ve come.”
“Oh,” Al said. “That makes sense. Did you come up with that?”
“Sort of. I’m basing it off of something my order did. I didn’t arrive in Merak knowing how to lasso like I do. I had to work at it. I chose to focus on that for two reasons. The first was I noticed it was something the kids my age weren’t training much in; they preferred throwing knives, foot races, strikes on opponents, things like that. The second was, rather than beads or high quality leather for our masks, the reward was a rope. It was practical, not flashy, extremely rare, incredibly light, and would never fray. It wasn’t something a Merakian would bother striving for, but I saw it for what it was immediately. So, I worked hard for it and wound up taking several records. I was the best they had at Arvarikor at any level, even the trivrens. It wasn’t raw talent, it was hard work.”
“I’m glad you won it,” Al said.
“Thank you. For your sake, I’m glad I did, too. So, think of what you want your ‘rope’ to be. You’re probably not going to do any better than your current ax, so I wouldn’t save for that.” They stopped in the center of the village and looked out. “My, that is quite a view.”
Lacara was at the north end of a very wide valley with rich soil that produced hundreds of flourishing vineyards, the grapes fat for the sweet wine harvest. Hills of yellowing green grass rolled gently between the hard border of an eastern forest and the slopes of a large, snow-capped mountain in the west. Off in the distance, towards the southern mouth of the plains, was a town that encroached on the slopes.
“I don’t think we’ll make that today,” Raulin said. “I’ll get us rooms at the inn.”
“How are you doing, Al?” Anla asked. “Tired?”
“Yes! But, it’s a good kind of tired.”
“This coming from the man who loves to sleep in, huh?” She gave him a teasing smirk.
“Well, yeah. It’s worth it.”
“While we’re waiting, did you want to start my magical ethics lessons?”
“I did agree to that, didn’t I?”
“I think you insisted upon it.”
“Ah, well.” He cleared his throat. “I can sum up my first class into two sentences: ‘Any form of magic can be sexualized, militarized, and commercialized. You should be very careful about how you use your magic when keeping those in mind.”
Anla laughed at this. “I’m not surprised Amandorlam said something like that. Do you agree?”
“Every kind of magic we’ve been taught about works under that criteria. It’s very easy to sell what you can make or your services. Most magic can harm someone else. And as for the other thing, please don’t ask me to elaborate.”
“Are you sure? I’d be curious to your thoughts on how those criteria apply to Tel’s magic. Telbarisk?” He turned from his intense study of the mountain. “Have you ever used your magic to make Kelouyan happy?”
“Yes,” he said. “I used to carve statues for her from rocks that I found. Sometimes I’d paint pictures on the water of the pond and I’d sketch things on the ice in the winter.”
“No, I mean…when you were with her, just the two of you, showing your love for each other.”
“Oh,” he said. “There was this thing I could do with a soft breeze that she loved. I would…”
“Yup, yes, I believe you,” Al said, putting his hands up in front of him. “No need to go on.”
“I think he’s blushing,” Anla said with a mischievous smile.
“I’m wondering why we were speaking about such things in front of him. He’s Ghenian and Ghenians are very bashful about coupling and nudity.”
“That they are,” Anla said. “I’m teasing him. Go on, Al. You said I should be very careful about how I use my magic.”
“Yes. It was once thought that the limitations of a person’s magical ability was an indicator from the gods that they should limit their magic. Then, they discovered other forms of magic that had no limitation. The choice became either to reject those kinds of magic as immoral and ban them or understand that not all magics are equal and to work around them.
“Amandorlam chose the first approach until it didn’t work and their wizards began to feel pressure from both without and within. Wizards began to compete in a cutthroat fashion instead of working with their fellow man to get a slightly larger piece of the pie. Finally, Amandorlam established the ICMU, the International Committee on Magic Use, to help establish regulations. That’s why I was assigned to Whitney as a Touch switcher wizard. There were a few other wizards for a city that size; I wouldn’t be drinking like a gargoyle during a storm nor licking the rainwater from a drying puddle.”
“The lesson being not to use my magic greedily, since Amandorlam doesn’t like it.”
He sat on a stone wall near the village’s mill. “It’s more that you should feel brotherhood keenly with others who use magic, whether or not it’s the same kind. And you should take what you need or give what is needed, but no more.”
The mirth of teasing gone, she asked, “Did you ever feel like you got enough to cover your needs?”
“I took what I needed, and no more. It wasn’t me who was unsatisfied.”
She took his hand in hers and squeezed once. “My father always said that chivalry tarnishes quickly in a murky world. It’s hard to stay a noble man when everyone around you takes advantage of that.”
“I’m beginning to see beyond myself and I’ve noticed that.”
“Bad news,” Raulin said as he returned, “depending, of course, on who you are. It will take us a good day to reach Mount Kalista. Therefore, it would make sense to stay at the one inn in this village. Sadly, though, there are only three rooms and they are full of people with the same idea as us. Headed to a retreat, from what I heard.”
“So, we’ll go ahead a bit and camp?” Al asked.
“I don’t think we’ve ever camped on a plain. It was a little sparse south of New Wextif, but we still had some cover.”
“And we will tonight. We won’t venture too far from the village and we’ll take to the woods over there,” he said, pointing to the east, which was to their left. “I don’t camp out in the open unless I absolutely have to.”
“Oh,” Al said flatly.
“It seems Al was hoping to get a break,” Anla said.
“Three days and we’re complaining?” Raulin tapped his finger on his crossed arms.
“No! No. I’m not complaining.”
“Good. Because you know what happens to whingers.”
Al’s lips parted with the fear of that becoming reality. “I’m not complaining. It seems like a beautiful valley and I wondered what it would be like staying out there for a night.”
“Hmm. Seven months left. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of beautiful places. Off,” Raulin said, waving him away with hand. “You need to go get us more wood for our fire. See that pine that sticks out a little closer to the road? We’ll be near there.”
Al said nothing more, turning east and diving into the woods after a small tree to chop down.
Anla, Tel, and Raulin walked slowly past the edge of Lacara. “How is he doing?” she asked.
“He’s taking well to his training.”
“Do you think it’s a wise thing to teach a man who tried to take his life less than a month ago how to use a weapon?”
“It wasn’t what he asked me, but how. And also it was what he wasn’t asking me, that very thing we’re all still worried about.”
“He’s doing better,” she admitted. “But, I still worry that he’ll have another episode.”
“That’s why we watch,” Tel said. “We have to be vigilant, now that we know what to look for.”
“And we’ve left him alone in the woods, with an ax.”
Raulin turned around and walked backwards for a few moments.“We know the signs now and we know to look for them. He seemed absolutely fine when he left. He’s seemed fine the last few days. I know it seems dangerous to give the wizard his ax, especially after what he tried with Sakilei, but I actually think this will be good for him.”
“All right,” Anla said. “But we need to watch over him.”
Raulin clicked his tongue once. “You can’t patronize him. He’ll figure it out and he’ll get angry, just as he’s starting to come into his own.”
“What do you suggest? Tel and I aren’t trained to sneak around like you can.”
“Why sneak around? I’ve been keeping him on a short leash three times a day for a half-week. Or, I should say, he’s leashing himself. He wants to learn. He wants to keep himself busy. If you’re concerned enough to want to watch him, keep him occupied. Find something he wants to hear about, or ask him about something, and he’ll be happy enough to tie himself to you. I’d even say that whatever he asks, tell him.”
Their journey to Mount Kalista the next day was full of conversation. Anla could tell that Al wasn’t fully interested to hear about her people, but he did ask questions about things he had seen in the Dreelands that had confused him. Tel was suddenly very interested in the Br’vani, which Al was happy to speak about.
And Raulin continued Al’s training. At lunch, they veered off the road and found a scraggly copse of trees, a dozen in all if bushes counted. “Let me see the swings,” he asked Al.
Al donned the new pair of gloves he’d bought in Lacara after he’d sold the extra firewood. It wasn’t high quality and Anla’d had to sew the holes in between the fingers, but they were his ax gloves and they beat wrapping his hands in strips of cloth that slipped. He gripped the ax with both hands and positioned his feet as Raulin had shown him, then chopped overhead, at top angles, then from the sides, high and low. He then ran through the same one-handed. “Excellent,” Raulin said. “You’ll need to practice these every day while I’m on my contract, but you’re making good progress. Your body is beginning to gain its sleep-moves.”
“After some time you will be able to perform any cut without thought, as if you were doing it in your sleep. Your body will react before your mind knows what it’s doing. That’s really the secret to being a great fighter of any kind; don’t think about fighting.”
“And what should my mind be doing?”
“Why does it need to do anything?” he said, leaning against one of the trees. “I spend large swaths of my day in fighting mode, not thinking about anything.” After a few moments he said, “A little self-depreciating humor, Wizard. I wish you would have laughed at that. It would make me think you didn’t agree.”
“Sorry,” he said, continuing the cuts in the rhythm and order Raulin had taught him. “I was busy not thinking.”
“Good,” Raulin said with an air of a laugh. “Now, I want you to try those against this tree.”
“What did the tree ever do to me?”
“Ah, I see you understand where this is going.” He took out his knife and made a few gouges in the bark. “Head,” he said, pointing at the top rounded mark, “collarbone, ribs, thigh. We’re starting with the major areas. I want you to do these with the tree to get a sense for hitting your mark. Bone doesn’t stick your ax as much as bark will, but you need to get used to that feeling. Note that I pointed above the collarbone and below the ribs. You really want to hit the neck and that space between the ribs and hip.”
Al paused at this for a moment before continuing. Yes, the idea was to kill a man if need be. His blade might some day chop a man’s body and drain his life before him. He did his best, though, not to think of those wood chips flying as blood spurting. “Mind if I ask you about something?”
“As always, ask away. Whether I answer or not is another matter.”
“What was your name before you became Raulin Kemor?”
He thought about this for a moment. He had suggested to Anla and Tel that they engage with the wizard as much as possible, so do brush him off would be hypocritical. “Derrin,” he said.
“Derrin,” Al repeated as he pulled the ax from the tree. “You were born that?”
“No. ‘Derrin’ means ‘boy’ in Merakian. I was called that with all the other students, novices, and apprentices in Arvarikor, save the girls, who were called ‘ashki’.”
“Must have been confusing.”
“Must have been effective. You had no identity and therefore you always made sure you were watching your teachers. If they looked at your and called out for your attention…well, let’s just say they wouldn’t try twice.”
Al tried to relate to this and failed. When he was a student, he was still Dominek and was awarded the privileges that came with it. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right, Wizard. It gave us something to strive for. Work hard so that you could one day make a name for yourself. And a rope.”
“What was your name before that?”
Raulin took a deep breath. “That is something I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. Try something else.”
Al yanked on the ax, trying to pull it from the tree. It finally dislodged and he went flying back several paces. “You need to make sure you’re feet are always planted.”
“I know,” he said, feeling a bit foolish.
“If you know then do it.”
His nostrils flared, but he said nothing, continuing with his training. Several slips later and he growled from beneath his teeth, then looked quickly at Raulin, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I’m not complaining.”
“No, you’re venting your frustrations. It’s different. Whinging means you’re trying to convince someone either to do something for you or to stop it from happening. This is more like letting the steam out of the kettle; it let’s you know your getting somewhere.”
“I feel stupid.”
“Oh, is that what finally made you snap? A little ax stuck in a tree a few times? That made you feel stupid? You know you’re not; that stole of yours is proof enough. You’re just…uneducated in this. You’re not good at it, but you will be.”
“’Uneducated’. That stole of mine has no accolades about speed or strength. I’ve never been good at physical pursuits.”
“Did you try?”
“No. It was best to concentrate on what I could do well.”
“So, you’ve never pushed yourself? You’ve never spit-shined from copper to gold as they say in these parts?”
He had to think about that in between his swings. His academic pursuits had come fairly easy to him. The ones that were a little harder had required some studying, but he’d never had a mountain to climb. “No. Have you?”
Raulin flicked his knives out of their sheaths. “These did not come easily to me at all. It surprised and frustrated me because I had been taught fencing as a child. And like fencing and this,” he said, gesturing to Al’s work, “knife fighting is memorizing moves until you bolt up from a nightmare in a position. But, it’s so brutal and fast and savage. There’s no poetry to it. You expose yourself by running into your opponent in hopes that you can end the fight in seconds. Fencing is a sport that rewards good form with points. There’s no sport in knifing a man, just luck and bravado.”
“Can’t you return to it? Pick up a sword somewhere and use that instead?”
“For fun, I suppose, but my job is to avoid fights and then end them in seconds. Also, swords aren’t exactly easy to carry around stealthily. These are good weapons for a thief.”
Al stopped and turned towards him. “Answer me truthfully, without the sarcasm and airs you normally put on: if you could stop being a trirec, would you?”
“Yes,” he said quietly but without hesitation.
“Would you be willing to trust me with that task?”
“If you can find some way to release me that doesn’t involve my death or incarceration, then yes, I would.”
Al went back to his routine. “Let me do something for you that I’m good at.”
“What do you have in mind?”