Huushal sat beside the fire, lost in his thoughts. His hand was finally healed after several sessions with Taduk, but it had not improved his mood. Watching Rain groan awake each morning with a splitting migraine had put a smile on Huushal's face though. The arrogant little runt deserved having his head cracked by Ma, for humiliating him like that. Huushal had asked for a spar, and Rain had played with him, mocked him, his punches just light taps, no chi contained within the strikes. At first, he had thought Rain's abilities over-exaggerated, that Ma was bragging about her spars with the runt. The broken hand was luck, Rain's head dropping down at the wrong time. That was until his Pa had smacked him on the head, berating him for being so arrogant, explaining the fight as if he were a child, loudly and in front of everyone. It was even more humiliating than the spar.
Then he had to watch Rain's spar with Ma, which was ridiculous. He was a runt, barely 170 cm tall, almost comical when standing in front of Ma. Broad shouldered, by narrow waisted, a slim little twig, for Ma to pick up and snap. He thought the spar would be a farce, a joke to watch, while everyone praised the favored foundling over his mediocre skills. That thought had disappeared almost as soon as the spar began. It wasn't fair how fast Rain could move at times. Usually he moved like a turtle, careful, deliberate movements, but when fighting with Ma, Huushal almost couldn't keep track of him, dashing from one place to the next, his arms and legs a blur as he attacked. It wasn't just speed either, twice he managed to push Ma back, far more power than Huushal could muster. Ma wasn't holding back too much during the spar either, he'd fought her often enough to tell. She went easier during the spars with him, at least, Ma seeming to go hard at Rain, sending him to the ground, multiple times. Each hit from her made Huushal wince, imagining himself on the receiving end. If it were him facing Ma like that, she would have flattened him in seconds. At least she made him throw up, at the end, Rain spewing soup and half eaten noodles on the floor.
A meaty hand clapped down on his shoulder, and Huushal looked up at his Pa. “Still fussing over the spar, boy? It's been days, let it go.” A rough, grizzled man, his Pa always seemed laid back and relaxed. “Yer bigger, stronger, and faster than he is, but despite all that, he's a better fighter than you are, it's the Mother's truth. He could whoop you from one end of the village to the other.” Pa chuckled, patting him on the back, settling down next to him. “You might be more his match, in full armor and weapons, but it would still be a skewed fight, and I wouldn't put money on you. You were too cocky, fighting him the way you did.”
“He's just a little foundling, a former slave. Why does he get so lucky, to be Baatar's disciple? To be so close to Sumila? He doesn't deserve it. If Baatar had chosen me, I would be even stronger than Rain is right now.” Huushal vented, the words flowing from him, unable to hold them in.
“Ha, is that what this is about? Being Baatar's disciple, and so close with little Mila? You sweet on her boy?” His Pa was almost shouting now, Huushal urgently signaling for him to lower his voice. “Bah, yer Ma mentors you, and does it well. You feel she has wronged you in your training? You been chosen to represent the village for your generation. Be proud of that. Don't let someone being mightier discourage you. Besides, your head's been too big for your britches lately. This'll do you good, having a rival.”
“Ma is a great teacher. I don't need Baatar, not anymore, but Rain humiliated me out there on purpose. He was just playing with me, showing off for Sumila.” Huushal didn't truly believe that, but he huffed it out anyways.
Elia sat down in front of Pa, leaning into him. “I don't believe that to be true. He's a gentle boy, always playing with those kids and those pups. I didn't sense anything malicious from him.” She frowned at Huushal. “And you were a little heavy handed, breaking his nose like that. You both were in the wrong, but you should at least know better. We raised you better then that.”
Hanging his head down he was unable to meet her eyes. “Yes, mom, Sorry.” He had lost his temper, but Rain had seemed so smug during the spar, it was aggravating.
She took his face in her hands, lifting it to look at her. “I want to tell you a secret. Never tell anyone else about this.” He nodded, face mushed between her hands, before she released him. “Your Ma, the strongest person I know, had nightmares for a week after she brought Rain back. Crying like when we were little girls again, alone and lost in the forest. She had nightmares about you suffering, like he did.” A deep sigh escaped her lips. “When she brags about how proud she is of Rain, it doesn't mean she isn't proud of you. She just takes pride in the fact that he has come so far, that she was a part of saving him from something terrible. She loves you, Huu, and is just as proud of you, and it would mean much to her if you made friends with Rain.” Elia stood, patting him on the shoulders. “You're both of the People, and both very strong. You should not be in conflict with one another. Any glory you earn is shared, as are any burdens.” She leaned back into Pa's arms.
Huushal continued to stare at nothing. He'd been foolish, and prideful. It wasn't because Baatar was Rain's teacher. Ma is just as good, if not better. Rain was just better than Huushal, at the moment. Maybe it was his talent, or his drive, the why didn't matter. It would not always be this way, Huushal vowed. He would work harder than ever, no more looking down on his opponents. He would prove himself, if not at the competition, then in true combat, and afterwards all would speak of Huushal, Sentinel of the People, Disciple of Ghurda. Then, Sumila would look at him and forget all about that runt. He smiled at the thought, and settled back to find Balance.
Mila rested the rod on her shoulder, a look of satisfaction stamped on her face. She had always thought Rain's methods of training were odd, but she was happy to help in this particular instance. Beating him soundly helped relieve all her frustrations with him, especially with all the added pressure Mama put on her lately so as to not lose to him during sparring. It was a close thing sometimes, his improvement was nothing short of astounding.
Rain sat on the ground meditating, healing his injuries, so Mila walked off, unable to sit and watch Rain, like Lin did every time as if fascinated by his face. He wasn't even that handsome. When asked why she stared, Lin would simply scrunch up her face and ignore her. That silly girl, any criticism of Rain, and her mood would sour. She ignored the stares from other people sharing the campsite, soldiers and travelers alike. It was embarrassing from the villagers, but these were strangers. Why should she care what they think? She sat down at the fire, gratefully receiving a bowl of delicious rice porridge from Charok. Travel rations were hard on the belly, but Charok's camp cooking was a delight.
“Tired from your workout, eh Mila?” Charok was grinning at her, an odd twinkle in his eye. “Thank you for helping my little brother all the time. He has an odd notion of training sometimes. I'm sure he appreciates it as well, if he hasn't said so.”
Reddening under his scrutiny, Mila mumbled back at him, focusing on her meal. Everyone kept suggesting she be paired with him, but Mila was unsure. Lin was enthusiastic about it, always bringing up his good points, and how well the three of them got along. That was true, but Rain had indecent tastes, always running off to the whorehouses. Well, twice, but still something he shouldn't do. Would he even be satisfied with only two wives? What if he chose a third, one that Mila and Lin wouldn't get along with? Or worse, a fourth and fifth? What's more, he didn't even seem interested in her, never chatting or flirting, never asking about her day, or taking her hunting. The only time they shared together was training, and his endless questions about training. She pouted, worrying about her lack of charm. Even if she wasn't interested in him, why was he not interested in her? Was she lacking in some way?
Mama sat down beside her, arm snaking around her shoulders and pulling her in for a hug. Mama always knew when she was upset, and was always there to help. They sat together like that in comfortable silence, enjoying the starry sky while Mila ate, deep in thought. Huu had expressed interest in her as well. He was handsome, but too sulky and moody at times. It was adorable how red his face turned when he spoke to her, something she enjoyed seeing. He would probably be just as indecent as Rain, if not more. Chakta had two wives, so Huu would probably expect to have two wives as well, and Lin would never give up her beloved 'Rainy'. Mila sighed in frustration, leaning on Mama for support. Forget it. She was still young, and had time to decide. Things could change, she may meet some young heroic warrior at the contest, someone who would shower her with affection, instead of always asking her idiotic questions, or asking her to do embarrassing things in public.
The contest would be exciting and different, testing herself against the best youngsters in the Northern Province. The prizes held little draw to her. Mama and Papa were always willing to take her hunting for a Heart, and she was too young to have more than two spiritual weapons anyways. Her core would need time to stabilize and grow, before she would be able to brand a third. Just branding her shield had taken the better part of a week, leaving her exhausted and a little embarrassed. At least Rain was even worse, taking almost two weeks to brand his first. No, the allure of the contest was different for her. Mila wanted to see the world, travel to different places, meet people from all different cultures. Reading about it was never the same, she had to see it all firsthand. Winning the contest could help convince her parents to let her go do just that. They were always saying it was too dangerous, and she should wait until she is older, but others her age were joining the Imperial Army, to fight the Enemy and protect the citizens. What was a little travel, compared to that?
She turned to look back at Rain, still deep in meditation, focused on his training. She couldn't lose to him, especially at the contest. She would need to work even harder, to keep ahead of him. She could just picture his stupid delighted face if he were ever to win. Infuriating. Brushing off her palms, she stood and walked off to an empty area, performing the forms, immersing herself in the State of Enlightenment.
Standing atop the battlements, Baatar stared out across the Bridge, silently brooding. A desolate swathe of land, brown grasses and pooling water, the frozen winter landscape in transition to spring, this was the forefront of the war against The Defiled. After two decades of tedious patrols, putting down mongrels and freshly ascended demons, the Iron Banner had finally earn the privilege to stand here. He inhaled deeply, the cool crisp air filling his lungs, the prickling of nose hairs a familiar sensation. He was here to fight, to kill, to defend the People, to defend the Empire.
Pacing back and forth at his post, Baatar eagerly awaited the attack. It would come, it always did, Defiled pouring out from the frozen wastes, charging forward alongside monstrous aberrations of nature, commanded by Demons inhabiting fabricated shells, nightmares given physical form. He felt his face break into a small smile, in anticipation of a challenge. A true Demon, one who had spent enough time in physical form, molding it's body to create the perfect weapon, such an opponent would be worthy of fighting. None of the half formed mongrels, or unskilled Defiled he had hunted in the past. The Enemy had come in smaller numbers, in the past few years, but still they came. The rumors spoke of a gathering of tribes, uniting under one leader, and Baatar could only hope they were true. An enemy needed to be strong, to be worth fighting. He no longer wished to be a hidden dragon, he aspired to soar in the skies, his name spoken throughout the Empire.
“Come now, Baatar, yer tiring me out, pacing like that. Calm yourself, have some tea.” Ghurda sat on her stool, her teapot on the wall, almost looking dainty despite her massive frame. “It's Iron Goddess Tea, they sent it up especially for you, the Iron Captain.” She guffawed, laughing in that abrasive way she did. He snorted, continuing to pace about, ignoring the rude woman. Ten years, she had served with him, the bear of a woman, and still she grated on his nerves. That Chakta could stand her was a testament to his fortitude and patience.
She was a notable warrior, a boon to have in any combat, but incredibly difficult to like. Rude of manner and harsh of tongue, without any tenderness to balance it. He was angry at her for brutalizing the boy during their spar. His last day to spend with his disciple, Baatar spent tending to his cracked skull rather than drinking and laughing together as they often did. The woman had no concept of holding back, trying to strong-arm the boy into submission, especially in front of everyone like that. How dare she, considering she had been present for his rescue, seen what he had come from. The poor child had grown well in the last few years, but even then, a callous beating was too much.
The boy had not shamed him, however. A good showing, the forms prominently displayed within his actions, he was skilled beyond his years of training. Fierce and varied, his attacks had been Inspired, as he controlled the early stages of his spar against Ghurda. His counter to Killing Lunge, his usage of Prancing Stride, a combination of Darting Fang into Uplift the Sequoia, as well as his unique version of Dancing in the Grass, a brutal and efficient series of attacks, all aimed to break bones and cripple his opponent. A shame that he had started so late and struggled at finding Balance in combat. His core was too undeveloped still, too little chi for him to use, too unstable to perform anything but the most basic of tasks. It would be years in developing, far behind his peers. The boy was near unrivaled at self healing, something for him to take pride in, but some things simply could not be managed without enough chi. Within a decade, the boy would be a Healer of great skill, perhaps making his fortune traveling through the different mountain villages, or even capable of being a Bannerman, albeit perhaps not as skilled as Gerel. His future was limitless, this little pup he had rescued, growing into a fine young man before his eyes.
“Yer butt is wagging so hard, be sure not to fly off the wall, Iron Captain.” That damnable woman, with her jarring laugh. That damnable tail as well, he should just lop it off.
Turning to scowl at her, he snapped, “You went too far, sparring against the boy like that, damaged him too badly. He is on this journey to bring glory to the People, and you could have caused him great injury, dropping him on his head like you did, beating him about like a striking post.”
“Finally! After five days of pouting, the Iron Captain finally speaks his mind.” She continued to slurp at her tea languidly, leaning against the crenelation. “I disagree with your opinion.”
That was it. She looked off into the distance, as if those simple words were enough to calm his anger, and nothing more needed to be said. His hands twitched behind his back, aching to grab the damnable woman by the throat and choke her. It would be bad form, however, to engage in a brawl upon the battlements, a terrible loss of face. Taking a deep breath, he uttered a single word. “Explain.”
“Yer Mentor, she has the right idea about the boy. Push him. Hurt him. Forge him. If it were up to Rain, he'd stay home all year, hiding, only leaving for the whorehouses when he feels the itch.” She shot a look at him, as if blaming him for the boy's lusty behavior. He was a young man, they all had those urges, and each dealt with them differently. “He's a good child, but too easygoing, without goals. He trains hard, no doubt about that, but not with the right frame of mind. You can see it in his choice of training. He trains to be beaten, when he should be training to kill. He has a defeated attitude, and all your coddling only fosters it.” She returned to sipping her tea, once again ending the conversation, almost dismissing him.
Pounding his fist against the wall, he returned to pacing. She wasn't wrong, but not wholly right either. The matter of the boy's attitude had concerned him for some time, but to be so harsh and overly aggressive was not the correct decision. His arguments with Mentor had been long and loud, each too stubborn to relent in their opinion. She continued to berate and hammer away at the boy, unaware or uncaring of his fragile nature. “His attitude aside, it would be of no help if the boy breaks from your administrations.” He muttered it, a weak argument, but all he could say.
“That's the problem with you Captain. You treat the boy like porcelain, to be handled gently. He was broken once before, but he is whole now. He may break again, but he is no porcelain. He is iron, scrapped and made whole, and it is our job to reforge him. What we aim to do, what you should do, is temper him into steel, so that he will not break again.” Ghurda stood, handing the teacup to a nearby attendant. “We shall have to continue this conversation later, Captain.” She pointed at the distant horizon. “We've some company, and should prepare to receive them properly.” A smile flitted across her face.
Staring out into the distance at the gathering dust cloud, Baatar felt his lips peel back, teeth bared in a grin. After decades of waiting, this was his time. The Enemy was finally here.