He never told the story to Alsantset. Sarnai only knew because she pried it from him after he returned, demanding to know where he had been. He had grudgingly told her, and she had called him a fool. All the same, she had helped him through the fear.
When the banner chose its members in the spring, Charok had fought the strongest out of those he thought he could defeat. And lost. So he tried a second opponent, and another, and then one more, before finally winning, still unsure after so many years if he won on merit or pity. Alsantset had been bewildered by it, couldn't understand why he fought so hard to join. She was happy he had made it, but upset at his recklessness.
Rain was asleep. After needlessly binding the wound, he had asked for some time to think. He returned to the cave and curled up with Suret, and spent some time in thought before falling asleep. Charok let him rest. Rain worked himself to exhaustion each day, and did not sleep enough. The bags under his eyes grew darker by the week.
Charok absently scratched the wound. The boy worried too much. The Heavens would exact its price for the oath, and seal the wound. No need for the burning powder that itched incessantly, or the discomfort of bandages. No infection would occur. Charok allowed Rain to treat him because it seemed to make him feel better. He let out a slow breath. Even after this, the boy still felt obligation. He had yet to understand, there was not cost incurred when he received aid, no unbalancing of scales. For family, you help because you can.
Rain stirred a moment before waking. The sleep had refreshed him, but it seemed he still needed time to contemplated the day's events. Charok did not press him to speak, and began harnessing Pafu. Rain stood and began doing the same to Suret.
The ride home largely uneventful. They crested a peak overlooking the village. It was still a half-hour's ride away, but they could look down upon the entire village. Charok could even make out their home. Rain had stopped Suret, studying the vista of the village below. Charok waited patiently. The boy was in deep thought, and they were in no rush.
After a long time, Rain finally spoke, for the first time since the plateau. “This is a beautiful place. I am grateful to have been brought here.” He watched a few moments more, before directing Suret into motion.
Charok frowned. What was on Rain's mind, that he would act so? He seemed forlorn, looking at the village. No matter. They would be home soon.
They returned well into the evening. Rain returned to his room, and after looking in on the twins, Charok returned to the room he shared with his wife. He walked up behind her, who sat in front of her mirror, combing her hair.
“How did it go, beloved?” Alsantset asked, quietly.
“We rode out. Had lunch, and talked. As to whether he can find his Balance, only time will tell.” Charok shrugged his shoulders.
“Will you tell me of your day with Rain today? You were so cryptic about it.”
“We spoke. I told him of my difficulties reaching the State of Balance. That is all, my flower.” Charok shared his misgivings with her. “I do not know why, but little Rain behaves as if defeated. He was so cheerful yesterday, but today … I do not understand. I thought after my story he would be more resolved.”
Alsantset pursed her lips and furrowed her brow. She knew he did not wish to speak of his difficulties to her. His pride would not allow. She knew and understood, allowing him his secrets, but her concern for Rain compelled her to ask.“Exactly what advice did you give him?”
Charok shrugged. “I told him that in his fear, he was pushing us away, and pushing away the Energy of the Heavens. To reach balance, he would need to stop allowing his fear to control him. With how strong he has shown himself this past year, it should be a simple matter.”
“And what did he say when you told him this?”
“Nothing. He made no comment about it.” Charok paused, and saw his wife's eyebrow raise, inquiringly. “He made some comment on the ride home. He was looking at the village, and he spoke about how he was grateful.”
Alsantset frowned. “Why does that give you pause, beloved? He has said so before. What were his exact words?”
“I believe the exact words were 'This is a beautiful place. I am grateful to have been brought here.' I do not know why I found it odd, my love. He was so distraught.”
Alsantset sat for a moment in contemplation. She stood and grabbed her beloved. “You are sure, those were his exact words?” Charok nodded, and she rushed out of the room. Charok followed behind closely. What had his wife realized?
She opened the boy's door, surprising him. He sat on his bed, still unchanged from the journey.
“You said, you were grateful 'To have been brought here'. Not 'to be here'.” Alsantset was visibly upset.
“Uh, what?” Rain was bewildered, confusion in his eyes. Charok was confused as well. He didn't yet understand what had prompted this interrogation.
“Do you intend to leave?” Alsantset was almost accusing the boy. Charok moved to calm her.
“What? How did you know?” Rain's eyes widened in horror. “Can you read my mind? It that something you can do?”
Any other time, Charok would have laughed. His wife did seem to have such an ability at times. The look on his face. This was no laughing matter however. Why was the boy thinking of leaving?
“You are Rain, of the People. Student of the Healer Taduk, Ward of The Captain Baatar. Brother to Alsantset and Charok, Uncle to Tali and Tate. You belong here.” Alsantset declared to him. “Tell me little brother, what have we done to drive you away so?”
“I-It isn't something you've done wrong. You've all been nothing but kind to me. Everyone has treated me so well. But I...” Rain stopped speaking, unable to look at either of them.
“Foolish boy. Hear me speak.” Alsantset spoke, as an elder to a child. “The past matters not. Whatever you have done, whoever you may have been, from the moment you spoke before the village, you became Rain, of the People.”
The boy remained silent. Alsantset continued, relentless, almost panicked.
“I know not what secrets or reasons you hold that compel you to flee, and I care not about them. I tell you what I know. You are my brother. Not by blood, but by choice. Nothing you have done or will do can change that. You will remain here, in the home we share together. If you leave without a proper explanation I will hunt you down and drag you back by your ears. Do you understand?” Alsantset stood, glaring at him, almost frantic, waiting for his answer. “Speak!” She demanded him.
“You don't understand. I am not … I don't belong here. You saved me, because of my eyes, but I am not … I am not one of the People. You've been misled. Tricked. I don't deserve to be here.” Rain was in tears, unable to look at either of them.
Alsantset let out a breath. “So that is why you are scared? Why you hold yourself away from us? You believe we have been fooled into loving you?” She stepped forward, taking Rain into her embrace. “Idiot. Mule headed idiot. That is why you wish to flee?” She grabbed his face and made him look at her. “Listen carefully. Your eyes are why we saved you from the slavers. They have nothing to do with you being here. Mother told you, the day you arrived in the village. One is not born of the People. They are chosen.” She was crying now. “You were chosen by myself, by Charok, to be a part of our family. If not us, by Taduk or by Father. By any member of The Company. We all saw you beaten and abused, sickly and half-mad. We saw in you your strength of will, unbroken by your abusers, and every one of them asked to stand for you. Father demanded the honor.”
Charok joined in the embrace. “We brought you before the village. You stood before us, and spoke your name, as one of the People. You truly belong here. Accept it in your heart, little brother.”
They stayed like that for a long time. A family.
I yawned, stretching out the kinks in my back. A feathered mattress, my bed is not, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I wash my face and go to wake the twins. Wet bed sheets. I didn't wake them last night. That's okay though. We go through our morning routine, and head to the dining room.
Breakfast is special today, a huge assortment of steamed buns and dumplings. I have no idea how Charok has the time to make all of this, by hand. He makes so much food every morning. It's astounding to me. He even makes enough to share with some of the other families. He moves so quickly in the kitchen, it's like he has 4 hands. I eat slowly, savoring each bite. It's the least I can do, knowing how much effort goes into making it.
After breakfast, I saddle up Suret. She's just as excited as yesterday. I give the twins each a hug goodbye, and wave to Alsantset and Charok. They're standing next to each other, hand in hand. They smile at me, supportive of my decision.
I follow the path I took yesterday, up to the peak that overlooks the village. It's colder than yesterday, and it'll probably be even colder tomorrow. Winter is almost here. I let Suret run off to enjoy herself, and sit down to organize my thoughts.
I've been here in this world for over a year and a half. I guess that means my birthday passed at least once. But I don't know when my birthday is, so that means I get to pick. What day to pick is obvious. The day I stood in front of the village, and became one of them. The 3rd day of the 10th month. I was twelve when I was sold to the mines. That makes me fourteen now.
I smile and take in the sights, looking at the village where I'd spent my last year. It's beautiful. Every time I see it, it takes my breath away. A peaceful, quiet, hidden village, filled with some of the most amazing people. I'm thankful to each of them. To Baatar, who saved me. To Taduk, who healed me and educated me. To Alsantset and Charok, who love me and fixed me. They gave me a new life, a place to belong. I may have lingering phantom memories, but that doesn't matter anymore. It's just a part of me. Who I used to be is not as important as who I am now.
My name is Rain.
I am of The People.
I belong here. In this world, in this village.
I know this. I accept this.
This is my home. With my family.
I close my eyes and start the breathing exercises.
Time passes. A minute, an hour, a day, I don't know how long.
My nerves tingle, from my scalp down to my toes.
The pores on my skin open.
A warm refreshing breeze moves through me.
It settles in my stomach, a soothing feeling.
I feel safe. Alive. Accepted. Protected. Like the embrace of a loving mother.
For the first time in my training, I reach the State of Balance.