Fear’s Lesson

Winter: 15 years at the Monastery, Summer, fourteen months after attempting to fly

“No.” Sunar shook his head and backed away from the two chairs. Gorshun pushed him forward.

“Yes!” replied Gorshun in an exasperated tone, “You are more than ready, and you know it! You held a third more than your weight on your wings already!”

“One time! One time I managed that much weight, and you didn’t even tell me how much!”

“That is because when we did tell you how much, you instantly dropped it all! What has happened to you Sunar!?! You used to be completely fearless, now you won’t push yourself in anything unless an adult tells you should, and even then you sometimes back away!”

Sunar felt heat rise in his belly, Gorshun had never stated this outright before. He closed his eyes to shut out the words, the sounds of the other two Titans agreeing with his friend. The fury built in him, stoked by the truth of their words, and his denial of that truth. He knew the denial for what it was, but that only made him more angry.

“I AM NOT AFRAID! I have never been afraid, you know that, I am trying to protect myself, to be safe. Push the limits, yes, but don’t go sailing past them! You all know better!”

Seban, the gravel of an adult dwarf beginning to sound in his voice, answered, “Winged Titan, you do not fear? Prove it. Get into position between the chairs, let yourself hang by your wings. You can, we all know you can, let us see for how long.”

Sunar screamed in rage, and it took all of his control not to let the scream turn into a sonic shockwave. The effort forced some degree of calm, and he spoke through gritted teeth, “You want me to try? You want me to hurt myself to prove it to you? Fine, I will!”

He turned, walked up to the chairs, spread his wings, and stood balanced on his toes, ready to fall forward and catch himself by his wings. His vision distorted, and his balance wavered. The chairs seemed to be a thousand feet tall, and he saw only blackness beneath them.

He stood that way for an eternal moment, then saw red instead of black. “NO! I will not do this! I will not push past my limits to appease you three! One day, maybe soon, when I am ready, I will do this, but not now!”

He turned, saw three faces blank and still as stone staring back at him. Something about those still visages held him and cooled his rage. No need to beat his rage against those stones. He spoke softly, and made sure to put the tones of apology into his voice, “Seban, Lenar, please, get the weights. Let us test the wings again as we have, for a bit longer.”

All three of them turned their backs on him, and began to walk away. Anger welled up in him again, and betrayal, Lenar spoke this time, but none of his friends slowed, “Titans do not abandon each other, Winged Titan, this is not that. Titans help and challenge one another, and we all made a promise never to hold one another back. To help you in this, though, that would be to hold you back. We cannot. We are sorry.” With that they sped their pace, and walked away.

Sunar did not remember sitting down, nor did he acknowledge the tears on his face. He would not cry. He Would Not Cry!

***

The next day Sunar stood in the hallway above the pool, staring at the window he had tried to jump from those months before. He tried to step toward it, but could not. He had done this many times over the past few weeks, each time he intended to at least get closer, each time he failed to do so.

A hand came from behind him and slapped his cheek. His ears rang, his vision danced a moment, his weight went all to one foot. He turned in fury, fighting in the halls was strictly forbidden, and he wanted to know who dared.

A fist this time, aimed squarely at his face. He ducked, or tried to, but only managed to move enough that the fist hit his forehead instead of his nose. His head rocked back, and he sidestepped, then his heart sank. Master Ikthan had attacked him!

His mentor stood there, straight as a post, one hand behind his back and one hand, now open, before him. He regarded the Master for a moment, then watched the hand move with blurred speed to slap him across the cheek.

His heart pounded and his blood ran cold, why would the master attack him? He backed up on legs that felt like noodles. Ikthan spoke, his voice cold, “You are being attacked, Sunar.” Another backhanded strike, this one landed painfully -and embarrassingly- on top of his head. The speech continued, every few words punctuated with another strike. “You are being challenged, yet you do not rise to meet it. You do not stand. You do not fight. What is wrong, Sunar? You think me so invincible? I use one hand, I use no feet, I have repeated the same three attacks every time, and yet you just take the blows! You have let fear own you Sunar!”

Ikthan shook his head, but continued to speak, continued to strike, and continued to advance. “You have grown, Sunar. Grown in strength, and in wisdom. In the foolishness of your childhood you had no fear, and believed this to be courage, despite all we tried to teach you otherwise. Now, finally, you have learned to have fear, but still the lesson of fear eludes you. Tell me, Sunar! Tell me, what is the purpose of fear?”

Sunar felt his heart beat faster, and then faster still. His breathing came in ragged gasps, and he could barely speak. He had let fear grip in, and that left him in the control of what he feared, of the attacking hand and the voice behind it. The words came unbidden,

“Fear has a purpose: it is the file of the mind

If you fight the file, it will cloud your senses until
    Your eyes see only darkness
        Your ears hear only bells
            Your mind loses thought

If you embrace the file it will hone your senses until
    Your eyes see all detail
        Your ears hear all sound
            Your mind embraces all thought

You must ride your fear as the dolphin rides the wave
You must harness its power, but deny its control
This is courage: to master your fear,
to use it as a tool to sharpen the ki, and overcome the challenge
If I ride my fear, I can prevail”

Ikthan nodded, but did not slow his attacks, “Yes, my student. This is what fear is, but you still do not understand. What is the key of fear? What is the difference between the coward and the brave man? You believed, as children sometimes do, that courage was the absence of fear. You know now it is not! What is courage then?”

Sunar heard his ears ring, saw his eyes fill with darkness in which a hand floated to strike him, grasped at straws of thought which fled from him. Finally one came which he could hold, one thought, the chant of fear. He spoke it, the words tumbled over each other, trying desperately to answer the question of the striking hand,

“Fear is a crashing wave,
Fear is the file of the mind which sharpens the senses
I will ride my fear as a bird rides the gale
until I own my fear, and it becomes my strength”

The hand struck again, but Sunar clung to the one thought as though drowning. He repeated the chant, stronger this time, and again, this time louder, and again, this time with force behind the words. His mind began to clear. He felt as if he had begun to rise above his fear. He imagined it as a wave, one which he had to surf. He imagined himself balanced above it, allowing it to carry him along, but directing where it went.

His mind was, again, his own. His vision cleared, and he heard a voice ringing in his ears. His own voice, reciting the chant over and over. The hand came in again, but now he saw past the hand. He saw the arm, the elbow, the shoulder. He brought his own hand up to meet the strike.

The hand rebounded, and came in again. He met the attack, still chanting. He met the next attack, and the next, his own voice now rang in his ears. He finally lashed out himself, took a shot at the shoulder which pushed the hand at him.

He felt his palm connect with the Master’s shoulder, and wanted to laugh, to sing his victory to the heavens, but he did not.

Another voice, Master Ikthan’s voice, filled the corridor, “Enough! Well done, Sunar. Now what have you learned? What is the difference between the courageous and the cowardly?”

Sunar stood straight to answer, “The coward is overcome by his fear, Master Ikthan. The brave master their fear, they learn to overcome it and, maybe, to use it to sharpen themselves.”

Ikthan nodded, “Very good, and the absence of fear?”

He felt his cheeks heat, remembering stupid risks taken so often, “Only the fool has no fear. No sense of his own limits, nothing to overcome. I have been a fool twice. Once to mistake foolishness for courage, and a second time in mistaking cowardice for caution.”

Ikthan nodded once more, then shook his head. “You have been a child, Sunar, and have done as children do. It is time to put that childishness aside, now. You have finally learned fear, and courage. Come, now, to the widow, look out upon the pool and the valley.”

Sunar took a step toward the window, and felt the fear rise up in him; a frothing mass which tried to pull him under. His first instinct was to deny it: to push it down or away, but it simply continued right through his efforts. He concentrated on staying atop the foam, and took a step. His fear rose, and he rose with it, let it propel him toward the window instead of away.

The pool sparkled blue, the valley shone with the white snow of winter. Everything was sharp, crisp, every texture had an edge of detail he had never seen. He felt Master Ikthan’s hand on his shoulder. No words were said, they didn’t need to be, that touch conveyed worlds of meaning all their own.

Finally he pushed away from the window, and took off down the hall. Master Ikthan called after him, “Where are you going, Sunar, in such a hurry?”

He looked over his shoulder and smiled, “I need to find my friends, Sir, and some chairs!”

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