Thursday, May 14, 2009

Last Breath of the Warrior

"Three days of sweat and fear, Anezren. Three nights of worry and ceaseless vigilance. All the culmination of twenty eight years of struggle, and this is my reward." Saraphel looked up at her older brother, who was standing, staring out the window of their home. "Before I even joined their ranks I dedicated my life to the Ithan Anul, and they care nothing for it. I was the most devout of the hopefuls. I was by far the most skilled with the idedras. We are a high family. But even so..."

Anezren sighed and turned from the window.

"I'm sorry," he said in his orator's voice. And he looked it, though he had never been thrilled with Saraphel's desire to join the Ithan Anul. "Marrodis already has a place in their ranks and even Herucard was a Shrine Knight." Herucard, their father, had in fact been barely a Shrine Knight. He had sworn the oath and had been annointed with the blood of Vheros, but his dedication had always been more to his family than the Ithan Anul, his profession always mor a politician's than a sacred warrior's. "Perhaps the Abathani have shown us enough grace. Perhaps it is time for another family's child to take their place."

Saraphel shook her head. Let someone else have their honor. And yet neither Marrodis nor
Herucard had possessed the same passion that she had for that holy order.

"Did you not want to join the Ithan Anul yourself?" she asked. Only Anezren had shared that fervor, and yet here he was, urging her to be calm in light of the most bitter disappointment.

"I did. I did. But that was not the direction I took. When Herucard and Amurel died I stepped forward as I had to. Without me, who would have led this house? Marrodis? I love my brother as well as you or any, but he is no leader. And we both know that you would not have led. Just like Marrodis, that is not your talent." He stepped forward and kneeled next to her chair, resting his hand on her face in brotherly fashion. "So I took up the burden, and to fulfill my task properly I was unable to pursue my ambitions. I refused to follow in Herucard's footsteps; if I were to be one of the Shrine Knights it would be with my breath and blood. He embarassed us with his actions," Anezren stood again; his voice hardened, "and I refuse to do the same. So do not speak to me, little sister, of paths unwalked. I, too, have given up opportunities to Marrodis, and I bear him no ill will. I expect you to do the same." As he left, his steps echoed harshly on the wooden tiles.

After the last whispers of his presence died out, Saraphel stood. She reached over on the table and picked up her idedras, a rod of translucent green glass the length of her arm and two finger-widths thick. It was sharpened at both ends and could be gripped in battle either with the lengthy cloth cuffs of her tunic, allowing it to slide graceful and deadly through her hands, or in her bare hands themselves, affording her an unmoving grip on its haft. She carried it with her out to the courtyard where a large spot of earth had been beaten flat and hard, and for the next three hours she moved incessantly, the idedras always sliding, arcing, dancing around her and occasionally flying up, briefly free, into the air itself. As the sun began to set over the Nibar-ban-Ath, Anezren came and joined her in the courtyard.

The sparring was fierce. Anezren had been Saraphel's primary teacher for the idedras. Finally, after nearly an hour of combat, Anezren had Saraphel on the defensive. He had slowly been gaining momentum throughout the fight, and finally Saraphel's fatigue was her undoing. He slid his hand, covered by his cuff, along the length of Saraphel's idedras, using the motion to throw her weapon wide. With his other hand gripping his own weapon directly he brought it forward in a thrust that would have impaled his sister had she not stumbled, off balance, out of the way. In doing so, Anezren managed to disarm her, and her idedras was sent spinning off across the practice yard to land in the grass.

They both stopped, Saraphel panting and bent. Anezren was barely breathing hard, looking coolly down at his sister, the tip of his idedras not quite touching the grass at his feet. He walked over and retrieved his sister's weapon, then returned to stand in front of her. The sky was rich and royal blue overhead, dark and full. Saraphel had raised herself fully upright by the time he got back. He offered his idedras to her.

"Well?" he said. She was silent. "You know your responsibility, Saraphel." Again, she was silent. "When an idedras touches the ground..."

She took his weapon without a word, stone-faced. He held the defiled idedras vertically, stabbing up into the heavens, a scrap of light in the courtyard, empty and dark, the courtyard itself silent except for the scratch of wind on wood and Saraphel's still harsh breathing. One mirrored the other.

Reverently Saraphel raised her brother's idedras. She held her breath. This had been her life. This, and the canticles and memorizations, the ceaseless vigils, the pilgrimage to Altiol. The dreaming, day and night, of the silvery gray of the Shrine Knights' vestments. And the constant knowledge of her brother's strength. How he had striven for that same grace. How his gift of leadership had become a curse. How he had given it all up for his brother and sister. She swung, horizontal and pure, committing herself entirely to the blow.

The two idedras met, let out a snap like the sound of the first rains striking the roofs of Altiol, and Saraphel's weapon shattered, the shards splashing out into the night, a sparkling hail that hung in the air for just a moment. That fog of glass shards was called kethet taru in Kir'drasoran. It meant "last breath of the warrior."

Anezren led Saraphel back to the house. As they walked, he sang a soft song, like parents did so often with their children. She could hear it fall through the darkness as he made his way into the house through a different door. Entering through a different door was another common practice with children.

He left Saraphel and returned to the large area that served as both his bedroom and the family's common living room. No lights were on in the house, but despite the gloom Anezren could make out all the familiar elements. Just beyond the two pillars that marked the entrance to the room were the two tables his grandfather had fashioned from bleached gray driftwood taken out of the Nibar-ban-Ath. The three wooden chairs lined the wall next to the right-hand table. His spartan, ancient bed was against the left wall. His great-grandfather had fashioned that bed like a funeral table - tiny walls around the edges, one single plank for the surface - to remind those who slept in it of their ultimate duty. It was the right and responsibility of the head of the family to sleep in that bed, and Anezren approached it gladly, almost eagerly. All was dead silent, impatient and waiting for the words to fall from Anezren's lips. He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment before he could speak.

"You are her oldest brother. The head of the family. You are the watchman. You sacrificed everything for her and Marrodis!" There was disgust in his voice and he almost choked. "But yet, you denied her her highest aspiration! What sickness is this that causes you to fail your blood so? This one thing, your goal, the satisfaction and protection of your brother and sister that have almost become your children. But you failed. It was your dream as well, Anezren, and if you cannot undo what evil you have done, your body will float in the cold waters of the Nibar-ban-Ath. Do you hear me, Anezren? One week. Life or death. So it is for Saraphel's dreams. So it is for your duty. So it is for you."

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