"Where the heart goes,
the sword will follow."
-- Traditional Warrior's Village saying
It takes a fool or a madman to fight a war in winter. Flik wasn't certain which category Luka Blight fell into. But December had come, and there had been no negotiation of a winter truce.
His breath steamed as he opened the doors of the castle, and he took the moment to curse softly. North Window was the furthest north he had ever lived, particularly during the winter. The Warrior's Village had been cool during the winter, yes, but not cold; snow was a rare happening, once every ten years at most, and even then no more than a light dusting. For someone who had grown up in that environment, to look out the window of his second-floor tower room and see nothing more than the moon glinting over a sea of white was disturbing, to say the least.
Viktor had laughed at him -- predictably enough -- and told him to put on an extra shirt and quit bitching. But Flik had noticed that after one too many instances of Flik shivering silently through the night, wrapped in quilts and blankets in their unheated room, Viktor had disappeared into the woods; had come back the next day, battered and snow-capped and grinning, dragging a heavily-salted bear hide behind him. "Five days for it to tan," Viktor had said, "and you'll have a blanket that will keep you warm."
Flik hadn't said anything at the time past a simple thank-you, but it was the best and most thoughtful present that anyone had ever given him.
The steel of his sword was chilled against the palm of his hand, and he hunched his shoulders over beneath his cloak, which was far too light to serve as proper winter attire. The sun had barely started to color the sky with the faintest hints of dawn, and the sky was a dull grey, as though someone had poured a handful of dust into the vats for smelting when the horizon was being forged. He let his eyes fall to the clouds in the distance; it was there, Viktor had told him, that snow would be visible, before it actually began to fall.
Flik sighed. New weather patterns to learn, yes; and this one was harder than most. He had dim memories of snow from his childhood, one afternoon in February when it had been bitterly and unreasonably cold, and his sensei had taken the children outside and let them each hold out a hand for the crystals to melt upon tiny palms that were already callused and accustomed to the weight of a sword. He had been eight -- no, seven, for that had been the year that Katriona had gotten married and Eliezar had died during his test of manhood. Seven years old, and his hand had already known the shape of a sword's hilt.
It was not the same sword that he held now, of course, not his Lady's namesake, hand-forged steel. Most of the men in the army fought with practice-blades when they were not on the field of battle, but Flik held the belief that warriors should train with the weapon that they would use in the thick of actual war. It had been his sword since he had been fifteen; he could still remember the way it had felt in his hand the first time, the unfamiliar alien reach of it, the days and weeks and months of stretch and strike, over and again, each motion graving itself into muscles unused to that particular weight, that particular heft. It had not been long before the sword had come to his hand easily and lightly, unbidden, when he reached for it. It had not been long before he had known its every inch.
Perhaps that had been why he had given it her name (after so long with his blade unnamed, unalive, while he searched for the one that would serve him well). Perhaps even then, he had known that he would never have her skin beneath his hands, never be able to learn her every curve and every angle, never be able to let his breath fall on her ivory and cream perfection. No, he would never know her in the way that he knew his sword, and so he had given it her name, so that every time he wrapped his hand around the hilt and felt the roughness of the tang beneath his fingertips, he could call her face, her image, to mind.
Perhaps that was how the Warrior's Village custom had taken form; perhaps the elders had known, centuries back, whichever elders had started the tradition, that it was better for a warrior to love his blade than it was for him to love a woman. Women come and women go, but the sword was always there.
He faced the east with unerring precision (dim dark glow filtering from behind harsh grey clouds, but morning after morning of the same routine had taught him, if nothing more, in which direction to make his obeisance) and let his body flow into the stance of calm and rest. The blade of the sword was cool under his lips as he pressed them to its surface, and the words sprang unbidden; ritual, though never indifferent. "In your name, my lady," he murmurred, "do I dedicate my work."
Some mornings he walked the old patterns, every move careful and well-choreographed, strike flowing into block flowing into strike in a way that had been old before his father's father had walked the earth. Some mornings he closed his eyes and called the old ways back up from whatever tiny corner of his brain that would forever and always be a son of the Warrior's Village, steeped in tradition since the time a sword had first been placed in his hand. Some mornings he closed his eyes and felt as though he could open them and see his sensei standing there with a frown on his face, waiting to correct the one imperfection, the one elbow turned too far, the one hip not held high enough.
Some mornings he just closed his eyes and went where the sword took him. That, too, was one of the marks of his exile; heresy to any other, to alter the kata passed down from grandfather to father to son. But Flik could feel the peace, the calm, the stillness that welled up inside him from the old familiar motions, and could feel the flow from motion to motion almost as a living thing sleeping inside of his chest. Nothing that brought such peace could be wrong. Even if it was not traditional.
Perhaps it was fitting that his work on the morning of the winter Festival, the festival of the sun-goddess Amaranya, be of the less traditional type. Or perhaps it was irony. It was a long, ageless moment (but oh, too soon, forever too soon) before he opened his eyes again, coming to stillness, the cold of the misty morning chased away by the heat of his body. He could feel the eyes that lingered on him before he even turned to regard the slender and shivering form.
Hix was watching him, clad in hakama and clutching his sword -- clutching, not holding, not carrying. Flik was deep in that sense of no-mind, where all that mattered was sword and arm; he did not speak. They stood there -- granite on a cliff looking out to sea, motionless. And then Hix took half a step forward, his elbow twitching, and thrust his sword out -- hand gripping hilt, blade vertical, point facing the ground. A request, wordless and in the vocabulary drilled into them both year after year.
A request that could not be granted. A request that by their shared rules should not have been made.
Train with me, sensei, Hix's eyes said, and my sword is yours for you to teach me, his position said, and never before had Flik looked into eyes that were looking back at him with such a mixture of age and innocence -- never before, in all of his years, had anyone turned to him and held out a sword with the bow of highest respect -- and in that one moment it all came crashing back down around him. He took a step back. "No," he said, and he could see the spark of courage in Hix that had prompted him to come forward flicker and start to die. "No, Hix, I can't -- I cannot be your sensei, I have not earned that title. I can't earn that title. I have been cast out for almost longer than you have been alive."
Something eased in Hix's shoulders -- not rejecting me, he's not rejecting me, he's rejecting them because they rejected him but he's not rejecting me -- before the boy squared them again; his voice was firm even through its reediness. "You were the best, sensei. Out of all of us, you were the best. They still speak your name."
Flik took another step backwards; he could feel his voice rising, could feel that peace and balance slipping away from him. "They should not. I did not ask them to. I did not ask them to speak of me. I gave them no right to be the ones who tell my story." A pause, as he tried to quell the mixture of anger and shame that rose in his throat. "By their own rules, they should never speak my name again."
"That isn't the point." Perhaps it was the early morning air, but Hix had found his courage somewhere; standing there and facing Flik, the grey of the impending storm reflected against the grey of his blade, all traces of the coltish boy burned away in the crucible of the dawn. "I've seen you. You have much that you can teach me, sensei." He bowed his head, and his voice fell into the old familiar patterns. "I have been away from home for long, but I have kept the traditions. My father was a warrior and his father before him. Take me in your hands, o sensei, as you are a warrior and your father before you, and teach me what you know."
Hix's voice was singsong, formulaic. Flik took a deep breath, feeling the frozen air searing his lungs. "You don't know what you're asking."
Hix looked back up. "I know that I stand before the greatest living warrior of my generation. I know that I am asking him to teach me in the Way."
Flik took another deep breath and let it out, slowly. He had been waiting for this conversation. That did not mean that he had been looking forward to it, but he had been waiting. "I have not seen you at the sunrise, Hix."
"I -- what?" Hix recoiled slightly, just enough to set him askew. That was not a reply that he had been expecting, Flik could tell. It threw him off-balance, out of the endless serene pathways of question and response.
"You say that you have kept the traditions. You say that your father was a warrior, and his father before him." Flik let his voice slip into the same singsong that Hix used, gently mocking. "But I have not seen you greeting the dawn in all the months that we have been here together. I had not seen you greeting the dawn in all the years we served together once before. And yet now, today, on the day of the festival of Amaranya, you are here before me holding your sword and asking for me to take you in hand." He paused, and his voice lost the sing-song, becoming nothing more than a quiet breath. "My father was a warrior," he said, quietly, "and his father before him. And I have left the path of their traditions. But I greet the dawn every morning."
Hix's shoulders slumped. "I -- I try, sensei," he said, sounding small and lost and fragile. "I don't understand a lot of it. I want to. I can look at you and I know that you understand it. You live it. I don't. I don't know what they're talking about, a lot of the time. You'll teach anyone here, I know that much. But you don't teach them the old ways. You just teach them how to fight. I want to know what else you know. What you wouldn't teach to anyone but one of the Way." He paused, and swallowed once, hard. "Because I know that they have said that you are dead to the village. I know that they have said that your sword is broken, your honor scattered, your father and your father's father shamed by the path you have taken. But I don't care because you know more about the Way than any sensei I've ever had before and I want you to teach me what you know." He ran out of breath and paused again. "...Please."
Flik turned; without having to look, without needing the distraction of physical eyes, he knew that the sun was beginning to summit the horizon. Quickly, he must end this quickly, and with little heed paid to the pain of memory that Hix's words conjured. "I know," he said, simply. "Your father was a warrior, and his father before him. It's in your blood." He turned back and met Hix's eyes, squarely. "But that doesn't mean that it's in your soul."
"I want it to be!" A flock of birds, startled by Hix's suddenly raised voice, took flight and winged to perch in the rafters of the tower. "I want it to be enough. I want to be enough. I've studied, I've practiced -- I've done it all! Why can't I feel it? What do you know that I don't?"
Echoes of a younger man rang in Flik's ears; the words were different -- oh, how different -- but the sentiment the same: a young man railing against the confines of that which they have told you and looking through that to try and find that which is true. And Flik simply asked the question that he wished that someone had asked him, all those years ago -- before the horrible endless battles, before the shame, before the decision that had shaped his life. "Why do you want to?"
Those young eyes, so much like his own and yet so different, haunted him as Hix looked back up. "I don't understand, sensei. Why wouldn't I want to? It's what I was raised for."
So many years between them, and yet their answers were still the same. "I thought the same thing, once," Flik said, quietly. His sword, lying fallow in his hand for so long, was a cold weight beside him, standing mute testimony to the choice that he had made. "I was sixteen, and I knew everything. I wanted to see the world. And when I did, when I got out there and saw, I knew that I could never go back."
"Why?" The question was barely a breath, from someone who could not understand the reasoning, from someone whose only thoughts from the time he was young had been to belong. "Why -- if you could do what you can do, if you could be who you are, why would you want to leave? Why here? Why did you never go back?" The words rushed from Hix, as though they had been building for years. "I never even knew you. I was two when you left. But all of the teachers, all of them, they all talked about you, even after -- even after. They said that you were the best student they'd ever seen. They said that you were the best swordsman in generations. They said that you didn't have to think, didn't have to prepare, that you just did it. Every single one of us hated you, you know that? Each and every single one of us in my year-group were so sick of hearing about you that we just despised you. I expected to hate you when I finally met you. I expected to hate you because you were so perfect." Hix ran out of words, stopping, biting his lip, dropping his eyes. "Why did you leave, sensei? When I got home, after the Liberation War, they asked me: why did he leave us? Why did he make us cast out his name? And I didn't have an answer."
Flik closed his eyes and sighed. That was the one question he had been expecting, the one question that he had been dreading, since he had first seen Hix and Tengaar again. And he could not quite verbalize his answer. "I changed," he finally said, slowly. "The Village didn't. The Village can't. And if you stay here long enough, you'll find that when you go home, there aren't anything but alien faces staring back at you." He lifted a hand to run it through his hair, sweeping his bangs back off his face. "It's a different world out here. There are different priorities. I came out here and I found that there were an entire world that I had never seen before. And the more I saw of it, the more I realized that the old ways ... just don't apply anymore." It was not the true answer. But it was the answer that he could most easily voice. He rather suspected that there were parts of the answer that he would not even tell himself.
And then, because Hix was looking at him with eyes that pleaded to understand, Flik continued. "There are other things, Hix, beside the Way. There are other things that should be part of the Way, but they are not -- because of tradition, because of inertia, I don't know. But I knew that once I had seen them, I could not go back, not and leave those things undone." He paused, picking through words, finding a way to answer. "After I had passed my trial and returned to the Village, my sword was still unnamed. But I knew. I knew that I could not stay in the Village and leave that work undone. The elders did not agree, and when they told me that I must choose -- I did. I chose my own way, not theirs."
"I thought the same thing," Hix said, and his voice sounded small and lost. "I came out here, and I stopped keeping the old traditions. I stopped bowing to the sunrise. I stopped offering the first drops of anything I drink to the gods. I stopped doing all of it." He challenged Flik with his eyes. "But you do all of it, every last bit. I've seen you. How can you say that you don't hold to the old ways when every move you make is part of them?"
Flik heard what was not said: and how can you say that you will not teach me, when you keep to the old ways yourself? And he was tempted to answer that question, rather than the question that had been asked. "I keep the old ways because I believe them," he said, slowly, picking out his words one by one. "I keep the old ways because I believe that they are true. They can't take that from me. The Way is not wrong simply because those others who follow it are mistaken." He searched Hix's face, looking for an answer, and did not find it; but the smallest hope that perhaps his young kinsman was sincere prompted him to make the offer that would mean his death if it ever spread further: "And if you can look at me, look me in the eyes, and tell me that you believe too -- then I will teach you."
He could see the uncertainty in Hix's eyes. "I believe," Hix insisted, but it was the insistence that came from trying to convince oneself of something, the insistence born of the desire to hear it spoken and therefore give it weight, give it reality. "That's why I'm here. It's the festival of Amaranya. I didn't want to just let it slip by without doing something. Why won't you help me?"
"Belief is for every day, Hix." Flik's response was weary, tired; though he had just begun his day, it already felt too long. He had his answer. "Not just the days of festival. I'll teach you swordwork. I'll spar with you. But I can't be your sensei."
"You mean won't," Hix corrected, sharply. "You can. You just won't. You're still following their rules even though you say that you aren't." He threw up his hands, forgetting that one of them still held a sword; Flik did not blink as the blade sang by and Hix's voice rose. "You're just a hypocrite. You keep the old ways when they suit you -- you forget about the part that you don't want to deal with. You forget about the parts that involve passing it on. You forget about the parts that obligate you to teach the Way. You can't pick and choose. You can't follow the Path when you agree with it and not follow it when you don't." Frustrated, Hix let his hands drop, the sword whistling by again.
Clang. Like Hix, Flik had forgotten the sword in his hand. That sword had been in his hand for years longer than Hix had been alive, though, and he and it moved so smoothly together that the motion had been completed before he was even aware of starting it. Steel scraped over steel as Flik blocked the strike that Hix was only half-aware of making. He was close enough to hear Hix's suddenly raspy breathing, close enough to practically smell the sudden fear.
When he spoke, it was in a voice leeched of color, quiet and deathly. "This isn't a game, Hix. This isn't a joke. You think that you can come between me and the sunrise on the morning of the Festival of Amaranya and throw duty and tradition into my face, as though you can shame me into picking up something that I put down fifteen years ago and swore that I would not pick up again. You think that you can come to me with a child's demands -- you, with a named sword in your hand, who should know better than to call into question the honor of one your elder -- even one who has been cast out. You think that you may appoint yourself the keeper of my conscience." Hix's eyes were wild around the edges, but he didn't move. "I tell you, Hix of the Warrior's Village: I am a warrior as my father was before me. And there are times that you must break a tradition in order to save it."
Hix wet his lips. "I don't understand."
Grey, grey, grey like the sky overhead had been on the day he left his home behind him. Flik let the sword drop. "I know you don't. You're not supposed to. I keep my honor. I have always done what my honor calls me to do. I will not explain it further to you, nor to any other." He turned away again, and his eyes fell upon the line of the horizon; the sun had risen, risen unheeded, and he fought down a rash of anger and regret that he had missed his one chance of the year to be heard once more by the gods of his fathers; for it was on this one morning, this one day out of all the year, that Amaranya would hear the voice of one who had been cast out. Hix had kept him from that ritual. "But I will tell you this: what I have done, I have done because there was no other choice."
He turned back to see Hix facing him, face slack with lack of understanding; but Flik couldn't be angry. "Go back inside," he said, dully. "Go back inside, and go and sleep until you need to wake again. It's too early to be awake if you are not awake for a reason. And a happy Festival to you, Hix."
Hix watched him for a long minute, pale and nervous; he had not seemed to notice the sunrise any more than Flik had, nor did he feel the lack. For half a moment, Flik knew the other face of the coin of Hix's anger: for Hix, it was you, who were so attuned to the Way, why did you leave?, and for Flik it was you, who were not cast out, why can you not feel the Way burning inside you like the fire that burns me? Perhaps they would both be happier if they could have switched places, Flik thought; but the past fifteen years had taught him nothing if not the fact that no man could walk another's path.
Hix finally turned to go, sensing that Flik would speak no more -- and then turned back, as though there were something he still needed to say. "You were the best," he said, slowly, and this time it was not a demand but an offering. "They still say that."
A lost and lonely child, standing in a courtyard, holding a sword that was too large for his tiny hands, while around him fell the first snowfall of a generation. Flik put the image aside. "I know."
He waited for Hix to go back into the castle before he turned once more towards the east. Perhaps Amaranya would still hear him.
[ For Tenshi and Joy, who reminded me about the fandom, and for Mooncalf, who provided the bearskin. ]