Summer: 14 years at the Monastery, Spring, four months after attempting to fly
Water cascaded down the not-quite vertical face of the Babbling Wall. Sunar’s stomach clenched almost painfully as he stood in one of his favorite spots; on the path which led up to the ‘wall’ and passed under the great torrents which shot out of the mountain on either side of it. He watched the less torrential, but still brisk, flow of water skip over the small stones protruding from the wall, and then fall out into empty space hundreds of feet above the river below. The pit in his stomach seemed to stretch all the way down to the water below. He shook his head and refused to let himself hide behind euphemisms, behind the FEAR which gripped his body. Fear which contrasted with hours of calm reflection spent trying to pick out the quiet babbling of the water across the rocks over the roar of the great waterfalls coursing to either side of it.
He had not come here for quiet reflection.
Gritting his teeth, he narrowed his eyes and flexed his fingers, then – leaning forward – he grabbed two of the wall’s small stones, and let the rush of water flow over his hands. His feet stayed on the path as he looked around to make sure his friends had not found him. His mind raced, distracted with the thought of his friends, I came here without them, but why? Because I wanted to do this myself? Or because I knew they would not let me back out. I only have to move a little further to get on the wall. One foot up, off the path, onto the stones below my feet. I got that far last time!
“Pull it together, Sunar!” he muttered. “Bring your foot to the wall! Make it move. Do not look down. Don’t look at the drop, at the price of failure. Look at the wall, look at the handholds, at the water flowing over them. You can do this! You could have months ago when they found us here and chased us off. Now move!”
He stared up the slope of small rock hand-holds, and the almost gentle water cascading over them. This was one of the greatest tests in the temple: a test of skill, strength, endurance, and will. Few ever tried it, even fewer tried it without a safety line. He wanted to move, knew he could, but his feet seemed to have grown roots. With a roar, he pushed himself upright, then walked away.
The next day, Sunar stood with the other apprentices of his level, watching as everyone took a turn at the Barrel of Sticks. He fought to keep the impatience off his face as he waited and – in an attempt to distract himself – focused on the rope which ran from the barrel to the ceiling. He began counting the knots which had been twisted into the rope that held six foot barrel just above the floor. One of the more junior apprentices had put two sticks through the barrel, meaning that he would have four obstacles to dodge as the rope unwound itself.
He used to love this exercise, because it had always been one of the few times where the instructors would let him push himself past the others. He smiled inwardly as the apprentice stopped winding up the barrel. Only forty turns, and only two sticks. I did more turns and three sticks my first try. He fought down a feeling of derision at the thought. You know better than that. Each of us is on his own path and must take it at the pace that is right. To look down on one who is behind you is to fail to see the steps ahead! He repeated the mantra several times as the barrel started to spin and the apprentice moved to avoid the sticks jutting out of it.
He is doing well, certainly better than last time we did this. Sunar thought, as he frowned slightly, He’s almost through the first set of spins, the barrel will reverse soon now. His timing is not changing though… and there he goes. Sunar winced, but managed to keep from shaking his head as a fast-moving stick impacted with the apprentice’s head hard enough to promise a few days in the infirmary. That looked painful. I have never been hit in this drill, but I have taken enough lumps to know how much a stick moving that fast hurts. At least there aren’t very many more people in line ahead of the four of us. I used to envy the ones that went last, now that I am one, I’m just impatient.
At last, after all the less advanced students had finished, he and Gorshun stood watching as their friends use six sticks, and twice as many spins as anyone else had, while still managing to dodge with ease. He felt a smile crease his face, and looked to see Gorshun wearing the same grin.
Gorshun whispered, “The Titans are out in front, as always. Of course, our friends have raised the bar, perhaps we should raise it again?”
Sunar felt his grin widen, and nodded, “All four of us did that same level last time. Perhaps we should up it, as only we Titans can?” His best friend nodded in reply, and they washed Seben finish up his turn.
Gorshun eagerly leapt forward, and added three more sticks to the barrel then began spinning it, causing the rope to twist.
The adept watching them cleared her throat with great force.
Gorshun grinned, winked at her, and continued to spin the barrel anyway. She tapped her foot impatiently, and he deflated a little, pulled one of the sticks out then continued spinning the barrel while pointedly not looking at her. He kept spinning until finally the adept gave a sharp clap of her hands. He still refused to look at her, but he didn’t try to spin it farther, either.
Sunar felt like a contest had started within his own body as Gorshun released the barrel and it started to spin. A warm pulse of excitement beat in time with a steady confidence in his friend, clashing against a cold dread of how badly Gorshun could be hurt.
Seben leaned over and whispered, “Has Gorshun gone insane? The barrel is spinning too fast. He could end up dead!”
It took effort for Sunar to keep his voice confident, but he did it. “This has been too easy for both him and me the last few times, and you know it.”
A prickling feeling passed across the back of his neck, and he glanced at their instructor. She had somehow had managed to stare at him without taking her attention from Gorshun. He and Seben exchanged a look, then turned their attention back to Gorshun and his trial.
At last the barrel wound down, and Sunar stepped up. Gorshun glistened with sweat, but a proud smile showed on his face. Sunar knew he could do the same thing, easily, and mentally prepared to do just that. As they passed each other, though, Gorshun gave him that look. The one that said ‘show them how it is done’.
He smiled inwardly, his friend’s confidence crashing over him as a wave of warmth which chased down the cold doubt that had plagued him before. Grabbing the stick Gorshun had been made to discard, he inserted it, and then pushed to get the barrel spinning; but that cold dread came back. He managed a few more turns, then, as the cold in his gut crept outward, he stopped. With a hand that had started to shake, he pulled the extra stick out, and started the barrel spinning again.
He refused to look at his friends, to see the relief on Seben’s face or the disappointment on Gorshun’s. He did wind it up a few more turns than Gorshun had been allowed to, but could not force himself to do more. His hands began to feel like lead, so he let go and stepped into the rhythm of the dodge.
Master Ikthan stayed in the shadows, out of sight of his apprentice students. If they had seen him, they would have probably been confused by the small frown which creased their teacher’s face as Sunar effortlessly avoided the sticks and completed the drill.