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Caldera 2 – Blackwood

April 3, 2007

The sword whistled past Caden’s ear before coming to an abrupt stop a finger’s width from his shoulder. She’s too fast. Although it was only a wooden practice sword, it would still hurt. He had seen recruits receive broken bones from blows that weren’t nearly as good as the ones that were nearly hitting him now.

He was in a training hall that was on the same lot as Blackwood’s temple, sparring with Lileas, who seemed to be the acolyte of the temple, although he had not yet seen the master. She was short, the top of her short, spiky blond hair only coming up to his chin. The paleness of her skin and hair was a striking contrast to the traditional clothes that they wore, thickly padded grey shirts and loose pants. All of this made her seem even faster, and for a moment he wondered if she was just an avatar of Arkos, but discarded the idea.

Damn! A bead of sweat rolled down Caden’s forehead, and although he tried to blink, he wasn’t fast enough and he momentarily lost the vision in his left eye as it spasmed, trying to rid itself of the salt. Fortunately for him, Lileas decided that she had proven her point, and stepped back, lowering her sword until it’s tip was by her right knee. He followed suit, stepping back and matching her bow.

“I’m surprised that you’ve survived as many battles as you have without knowing how to fight.” She smiled. He wiped his forehead with his left hand, and smiled faintly back at her. She doesn’t even look like she’s been fighting.

“The spear is a much better weapon for the battelfield. Swords are for gentlemen.”

Her grin grew. “Would you like to test that?” she asked, indicating the practice spears that were racked along one side of the practice hall.

Under other circumstances, Caden might not have agreed, it just wasn’t fair to pit a sword against a spear, but the bruises on his wrists convinced him to make an exception. He nodded and returned his sword to it’s spot on the rack, replacing it with one of the spears off of the wall. It was a little bit taller than he was, and its head had been replaced by a stuffed leather ball, but otherwise it was nearly identical to the ones that he preferred.

It appeared as though Lileas hadn’t moved, which Caden didn’t find at all surprising. She was still smiling as he took up position opposite her, this time a few steps back. Her face became serious and blank again as her sword rose to with its point again at the level of his throat. He resisted the urge to rub the hollow of his neck where her sword had struck him the first time he had tried to attack.

“Ready?”

He nodded, and for a heartbeat, she was still. He was just starting to think that he would be all right if he were just able to keep her from closing with him, when she came forward. How did she do that? He felt the floor vibrate through the bottom of his bare feet. At that same instant, her sword was up inside his guard and pressed against his neck.

Over the past seven years, he had killed more men than he cared to remember, and although he rarely thought about it, he knew that they were all more like him than not, just men doing a job, and it was clear to him that Lileas was different. Different from him and different from all those men that he had fought with and agaist on those muddy, blood soaked fields.

This was not a job for her, not a profession, not even a mere calling, and he felt envy at that. He could see it in her eyes. The mastery of her body and her weapons were only a means to an end, a tool for which the end seemed strangely dissassociated from the means. I wonder if she’s lost someone, too? When he was sparring with her, he felt empty, the entire world was reduced down to him and his opponent. It was tempting to think that he could put everything, all the pain, all the loss, into training. But would I ever be able to move forward without pain? Would I be trapped in a state of false tranquility? He couldn’t be sure, but he suspected that the answer was yes.

“Why do you fight?” he asked as they once again backed away from each other.

She didn’t respond, but brought her sword to her left hand. He took his cue and placed the butt of the spear on the ground, holding it vertical with his left hand as they bowed towards one another.

“Time for dinner,” she said as she walked over to one of the walls to re-rack her wooden sword before moving to the exit. He followed suit, and they bowed as one to the shrine of Arkos in the far corner of the hall before heading back to the temple.

* * *

Blackwood was a much smaller town than Helena, and it’s temple was similarly smaller and simpler, the main chamber barely larger than that of the training hall. The two of them were in one of the smaller rooms of the temple, the only one that seemed suited to any sort of social interaction. The temple was constructed out of the same wood as the training hall, and the walls of the room were decorated, if sparsely. The two of them had finished a quiet dinner, and they were sitting and drinking tea. Behind Lileas, there was a calligraphy on white cloth that read ‘harmony and strength’, and Caden found his eyes creeping back to inspect it, seemingly of their own will.

“The previous master of the temple did that one,” Lileas said when she noticed him studying the calligraphy.

“Who succeeded him?”

“No one, yet. I have sent word to the temple in Alos, but have yet to recieve any reply. It is unimportant, though. What are your thoughts on the calligraphy?”

Caden’s eyes again returned to the calligraphy. It was big, as tall as he was and half again as wide. It must have been important to the former master. Each stroke of the two symbols had been done as one movement, and one could see where the paint had missed spots and where it had started to run out at the end of some of the longer strokes. Parts of it reminded him of blood that had been smeared on rocky ground by a wounded soldier dragging himself to safety, but the piece taken as a whole seemed to radiate vitality.

“I don’t know,” Caden said, and then went on sheepishly. “It seems sort of obvious, when you think about it. A fractured army is a defeated army.”

“Yes, that’s the essence of it. What he was trying to get at, though, was not the idea, but the centrality of that idea, not just that you must be in harmony with others, but that you must also be in harmony with yourself.”

* * *

Caden’s wrists hurt. Even through the thick guards, Lileas’s sword had left bruises, and this first morning was only the beginning of it, it would probably take weeks for him to heal. Hopefully the price was worth it. Lileas had given him some pearls of knowledge during an otherwise silent dinner, expanding on the importance of harmony and the center.

When the two of them approached each other in the center of the training hall, she no longer wore her easy confidence, and this time, when the tips of the wooden swords met, he held his position instead of moving out into one of the stances he had been taught in his previous life.

Her tip weaved underneath his, lightly tapping his sword on each side in turn, making hollow sounds that sounded like the swords were having a conversation. Although her movements were easy and appeared to be neutral, Caden knew that what she was really doing was probing him, looking for a chink in his defense.

Lileas seemed to jump, but instead of moving up, she moved forward. The motion was smooth, there was no acceleration, and it seemed as if her movement had no beginning, no end. Her sword moved upwards, readying for a strike, and before he could react, he felt the sting of her sword against his aching wrists. He wasn’t sure how it happened, but his sword was no longer pointed at her throat, but was instead just above her right shoulder.

“What happened?” he asked.

“You lost your center.”

“But I was focusing on keeping it. Why did I lose it?”

“You were focused on my sword. Your center is the relationship between your blade and my body, not your blade and mine.”

When she said it, he could see what had happened in his mind. Saw how his sword had followed hers when she attacked.

“Thank you,” he said, bowing before resuming his stance to fight again.

All of the training and fighting that Caden had done started to come into play as he integrated the new concepts into his style. He knew that it would take him months to become totally comfortable with them, and years or decades to master them, but after several hours of sparring, Lileas was beginning to have trouble getting through his guard. The hall dimmed as the sun started to set, and Lileas finally stepped back, lowering her sword.

“That is all,” she said after they had bowed to one another, and walked over to the wall to rack her wooden sword. Caden went to the wall as well, and followed her lead. Before he could step away, she walked down the wall towards the shrine, and pulled a sword off from the middle of the rack there. It was a real sword, not a wooden one like the ones they had been practicing with.

“Given your fondness of the spear, I thought that you might appreciate this,” she said as she undid the ties that bound the sword to the sheath. It was long, the blade looked like it was at least five palm-spans longer than his arm, rather than the one or two spans that were common. The blade was clearly old, but it was well made and looked as though it had been well cared for; the long, curving blade could probably split a hair down the middle. Although it didn’t have the jeweled grip or the inlayed sheath that was common for gentleman’s swords, it was still quite beautiful.

“I cannot accept this. It is too nice for someone like me. I do not need another sword.” Lileas had re-sheathed the sword, and she was holding it out to him.

“Normally, I would agree with you, but my instructions were clear.” She didn’t withdraw the offer, and after a moment Caden took it from her. It was lighter than it looked, and when he pulled it out to look at the blade, it came out as though it had been oiled. He closed it again, and the sword rested back in the sheath with an almost inaudible click.

The light was fading quickly, and Lileas led the way out of the hall. Waiting for them was a short, balding man, who held a cloth bag. The man looked as if he had just arrived, he was still straightening his clothing when the two of them exited the building.

“Thank you, Gabriel,” Lileas said as she took the bag from him. Gabriel gave a short bow to her and left, walking quickly back towards the main road. Caden had seen him the night before as well, but the man had not spoken then either. Lileas handed him the bag, and he was confused, it smelled like fresh bread.

“It is time for you to go, now, you will find your belongings in the stable. I must attend to the temple. Good luck. Take care of the sword and it will take care of you.” With that, she started to walk towards the temple.

“Thank you!” he shouted at her. He took a couple of steps to follow her, but her bearing made it clear that it was time for him to go.

Akati was waiting for him in the stable, saddled and indignant at having to wait for him. On top of his clothing was a strap that, upon closer inspection, matched the sword and would allow him to wear it over his back, which was fortunate, the sword was much too long to be worn at his hip like the one he had left behind at the temple.

He packed his gear and left Blackwood behind him.

Chapter 3 can be found here.

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