“Why do you seek strength, little Rain?” Charok asks me, interrupting my daydreaming.
“To be strong. To fight the Defiled. To defend the Village.” I answer mindlessly. They're all part of the village precepts, which I never bothered to memorize. All pretty standard 'be good, don't be an asshole' sort of things. I'd do that anyways.
“Those are the words you think I wish to hear. Why do you seek strength?.”
More fortune cookie advice. God dammit. Why do I seek strength? “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of the women.” I chortle.
Charok smiles for a second, but it disappears when he remembers he's being stern. “Go reflect on my question. Return with a serious answer.”
“Just go, little Rain. Half an hour at least. Think on it.” I'm being dismissed. He's shooing me.
I wander around.
I just need to be strong. Why do I want to be strong? Doesn't everyone want strength? No one wants to be on the bottom of the food chain, low on the totem pole. A serious answer. I don't know what he wants.
Suret and Pafu are following me around. They're getting fat from idleness. I make myself a promise to run them more often, and let them go swimming more when we get back. Every now and then, they run off to chase something. They come back satisfied more often than not. I don't even see what they're eating, but they come back crunching on something, happy as a clam. Wait... That doesn't make any sense. How are clams happy?
After I feel enough time has passed, I return to Charok. He's been whittling. Tiny little wooden figures, intricate and detailed. He made several of them in the time I was gone. I guess he just sat there, the whole time.
“I didn't know you were so skilled at carving.” He has a finished carving beside him and I pick it up to look at. It's a bear, on it's hind legs. A little rough, but the knife work is intricate. Impressive. Charok just shrugs, and keeps whittling. I stand up and walk over to where he's sitting and squat down to talk to him. “So, what are we doing out here. Besides having a nice lunch?”
“Why do you seek strength?” Charok asks the same question again.
“Not this again.” I roll my eyes. More bullshit. “Why do you want to know?”
“I already know the answer to my question, little Rain. I want to know if you know it as well.” Charok looks at me silently. I think about it. He's family. I might as well say it. He'll understand.
“I want to be strong, so if anyone tries to hurt me again, I can fight back. So I can defend myself.” I tell him. He stares at me a moment before speaking.
“If that is why you seek strength, then there is no need. We can go home immediately. You can continue learning with Taduk, and become an herbalist. It is a suitable profession for you. You are good at caring for others.”
Wait, what? “I don't understand. Why will you not help me?”
Charok looks at me like I'm an idiot. “I am helping you. You do not need strength to be safe. No one will ever hurt you in the village, Rain. No one will make you a slave again. The village is a safe place. We will protect you. Go be a herbalist, Rain.” He doesn't get up. He just sits there, watching me.
“But I need to be strong!” I blurt it out.
Charok smiles gently at me.“Finally. You admit it.”
“You need to be strong. You are driven to it. That is why you work so hard. That is why you seek strength. Why is that?” Charok looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to answer.
“.... Because I am afraid.” There. Now he knows I'm a coward.
“There is no shame in fear. It is a constant companion in our lives.” Charok puts his knife and half-finished carving down. “You have suffered much. In this past year, you seem to have recovered much.” He looks at me, prompting me to speak. He's patient, while I gather my thoughts.
“I haven't. Completely recovered.” I mumble. Charok just nods, and waits for me to continue. “I still have thoughts about my time there. Every day. When I am alone, I close my eyes, and the memories return. It's like I'm helpless all over again.” I look at Charok, steeling myself. “That's why, I need to be strong. So that can never happen again.”
“Then let me tell you a story about myself. Perhaps it will help you find your Balance.” Charok settles back, leaning on Pafu. “When I was your age, I hoped to be strong as well. I had no talent in the Forms, in their demonstration or insights. Seeking Balance was easier for me, almost as simple as walking. In regards to overall strength, I was average, among my generation. Nothing stood out about me, a plain person of no accomplishment. So I worked hard, harder than anyone else, whilst hiding my efforts, as if they made me less. Through some stroke of fortune, I was able to convince Alsantset to fall in love with me. Baatar was .. not pleased.” Charok chuckled at that. I was sympathetic. Baatar as a Father-in-Law is intimidating.
“I am the son of a baker, no match for the splendid daughter of the Iron Banner. Baatar was not alone in this belief. Many shared his view, and believed themselves better suited for Alsantset. But they were of no consequence to Alsantset, and we were married despite it all.” Knowing Alsantset, she probably beat the crap out of those other guys, and threatened to run off and marry Charok anyways.
“Alsantset's dream from childhood, however, was to ride beneath the Iron Banner, the company founded by her father. I could not allow myself to stand in the way of her dream. So she left for a seasons tour, shortly after we were married. While she was gone, I worked harder than ever, to cultivate, to become stronger, strong enough to fight beside her, to join her on her adventures.”
Charok paused, lost in some memory. I was quiet. This was the first I was hearing any of this. I thought they had joined at the same time. I've had a serious lack of stories lately, and this was popcorn worthy.
“I found that, after she left, I could not find my Balance. Every time I sought it, I was assailed by images of her in trouble, thoughts she would be injured or worse. I could not sleep for fear. I wanted to ride out to find her, although I had no idea where she would be, and no reason to believe she needed my help. I tried to busy myself, exhaust myself with work and training. Even so, the thoughts would not end, and my cultivation suffered. As it stood, even if she returned home safely, I would not be able to join her in the following year.”
Charok looks at me and gestures for me to follow him. He brings me to the edge of the plateau. I look down. I can't tell how far the drop is, but I do know I wouldn't survive the fall. “I ran all the way out here, on foot, convinced she was injured somewhere, needing my help. I was sure of it, frantic. Until I saw this view. My tired, exhausted self, collapsed here and I stared. I looked at this view, the beauty, the majesty of it all. And I realized the strength inherent in it. I laid here and ordered my thoughts.” Charok stares off into the distance.
After a long pause, Charok turns to grin at me. “I realized I was letting my fear guide me. I was being driven by it, and in my fear I was pushing everything away. I had told no one of my troubles. My friends, my family, they had no idea of my thoughts. I held my fear, deep inside, letting it consume me, until I was half mad and running out in the night following phantom feelings.”
“I haven't gone on any half crazed quests, if that's what you're implying.” I haven't been that bad. Right? I feel like I seem pretty put together.
He gives me a look. He knows. About my insomnia. Why I work myself to exhaustion. Why I always keep busy with something to do. I have the good sense to look sheepish.
“You know the rest. This is why I brought you out here. To tell you my story. To tell you that you cannot let fear control you.” He gives me a hug. “I do not equate my ordeal to yours, or imply any failure on your part. That you have come so far in such a short time amazes me. I admire you for it, for your willpower, your strength.” He looks me in the eyes. “But you cannot allow your fear to drive you any longer. Not if you wish to be strong.”
“So what do I do? Wait for an epiphany, like yours? How does being afraid keep me from reaching Balance?” It's so frustrating. I came out here hoping for some technique, some insight, some method to follow. How do I deal with this?
“Fear does not stop you from the attaining the State of Balance. Being controlled by your fear is stopping you. In your fear, you are pushing away all who would help you. You busy yourself, hiding your pain and giving false smiles. The heavens will not aid you, not because it rejects you, but because, in your fear, you reject the heavens. I cannot tell you how to deal with your fear. I can only tell you that you have people who care, and are willing to share your burdens. You are loved little Rain. Remember that.”
Charok takes out his knife, holds his arm out, and cuts deeply into his forearm. “I swear an oath to the Heavens. I will not allow my brother Rain to ever be taken from the People. Should any try, we will rise as one, and wipe them from existence. This I swear to you, with the Heavens as my witness.” The blood spurts from his arm, in short vermilion bursts.
“Hurry and heal the wound, Charok. You'll pass out from blood loss!” I think he nicked an artery.
“That cannot be done, little Rain. An oath made to the Heavens requires sacrifice. It will heal naturally. Should I break my oath, it will exact a price from me.” Charok smiles weakly at me. He's losing a lot of blood. I grab some styptic powder and bandages from my pouch, and start working. “Idiot. How are you supposed to keep your oath if you die of blood loss here.” It'd be easier to work without the tears. Charok pats me on the head with his free hand.
It isn't the fear of my time as a slave. Not anymore. I know it. Charok will protect me. I believe him wholeheartedly. I know that if I am ever taken, he'll kill everyone who tries to hurt me. The only way he doesn't is if Baatar and Alsantset kill them all first. I don't have to worry. I don't need strength because they will be my strength. That burden has been lifted from me.
I know the problem though. The real problem is I'm an adult man reincarnated as a kid. I know now, that's the real reason why I can't find my Balance. Why the Energy of the Heavens rejects me. It's because I don't belong here. I've known that the whole time, so does the Heavens. I'm fooling them all, my new family. Taking advantage of them. I'm not really one of them. I took this body from one of their kin. He's the one who belongs here. I don't deserve their care. I don't deserve their love.
I can't keep fooling them like this. I can't stay with them. I don't deserve them.