“Pride In Exile” is a short story by Bonnie Elizabeth. Copyright 2013
Today I am free. It has been a long road; one that has taken me away from the life I knew and brought me to a new place and a new way of being. As I walk upon this shore, my feet bare upon the sand, I realize that this place is where I was meant to be. There are four people standing near the boat that has left me here. There are others beyond the trees, creating shelter, building a fire, finding food. I am still getting used to the idea of my freedom.
No one here knows who I am or what I’ve done. They don’t recognize my face or the name that I give. I am no longer hiding behind a false name but using my real one, as if it is the most natural thing in the world. This is still new to me. When someone asks me for my name, I still pause trying to remember the name that I am using, only to realize I am done with that. Being free is less of a destination than a learning process.
I was born to privilege the like of which most of these folk could never even imagine. In the Allied Kingdoms, my family was one of the richest. We left the ruling to others, always provided they did what we wanted. Our name, Kingmaker, tells all. We made more than one king in more than one realm. My older brother holds the reins of the family fortune, my sisters and their husbands administer their own small areas, although still living in luxury.
I, however, am here. The island, of course will be claimed by the Kingdoms some day. I’ll likely be dead unless dumb luck brings one of the Jarvanian fleet to our shores. The shoals and reefs around the place make it unlikely any other sailors would manage without destroying their craft. Even the Jarvanians are likely to damage their ship, which means it is unlikely they will ever try to come here. The sailors of Jarvani love their ships; some say they love them even more than their wives.
The shoals and reefs are what will keep me free. That we made it was dumb luck which has been the way of my survival. Turning away from the beach, I decide to wander beyond the tree line to see what my fellow colonists have done in the time I’ve spent walking.
“You’re joining us,” Tellmach says, seeing me wander into the clearing where they’ve started setting up lean-tos. I see one complete and three others that will be finished by the time the sun sets. There’s another that will be done before the evening fire burns too low. If we crowd, we can all fit under some sort of shelter. While the sun has felt warm, becoming hot, now at mid-afternoon, no doubt when it disappears from the sky we’ll be cold. The weather in this area has been fickle as well, so who knows what storms might find us? I hope that we’ve built the shelters so that their solid side protects us from the wind.
“What can I do?” I ask. I realize I have few useful skills. I have never built anything. There is no money to count. I’ve done time in a jail of my own making for killing a man. I could kill again if the situation presented itself but I have hopes that it won’t. I might hunt but I’m unlikely to be good at cleaning my kill. There were other people to take care of the messy details for me.
Tellmach looked around, seeing the women weaving the reeds that would cover the tops of the lean-tos. Two men were placing supports, creating nails of smaller pieces of the hollow wood that seemed to grow wild upon the land.
“There’s an extra cutlass over there. Perhaps you can find something to use as a whetstone to make it sharper.” He nodded in a direction that took me away from the central area. I took a look at the cutlass. I remembered an area off by the beach with some large rocks. I went there in search of something to use as a whetstone.
It wasn’t lost on me that I was being sent away from the working group. I could have as easily held up timbers for one of the lean-tos as the other men. I could have worked with men and women down by the boat, securing it to the beach and removing everything useful for our stay here. Even here I was being isolated as if my very being could infect others with what I was.
Still, today there was that sense of what I am. I am free. If only these people could understand that freedom. I found the stones easily enough. There was one there that would do for my purposes. It wasn’t so large that I couldn’t move it to the angle I needed, but not so small that I’d wear it away. My chosen stone had not yet had the roughness of its finish worn away.
I began to pull the cutlass across the stone, quickly at first, then slowly. Gradually as I alternated the speed, I found the rhythm I needed. While I might be from a rich house, every man learns to sharpen his own sword. Perhaps especially in a rich house a man learns to keep his own sword sharpened. The angle of the cutlass was different, which was why it took me awhile to find the rhythm but when I did, I found myself getting lost in the work.
My brother would laugh to see me sharpening this poor excuse for a weapon. Mine had always been of the finest make. I knew the names of the top ten master sword makers in all the Allied Kingdoms. But for one, I had visited them all. I never went to war. My sword uses were strictly ceremonial, although I practiced daily. I could best anyone in the arena where I trained. At least I thought I could. Looking back, perhaps they let me win.
My ego won’t let me say I’m not good. I am good. I know the forms and can execute them with the grace and finesse that comes only after the learning has passed beyond the mind and into the muscles. The sword, the sword dance and I were one. At a certain point my teacher only worked me, pressing a point of laziness here and there but teaching me no more. It was only when I met the Ji-Shian acolyte that I began learning again, the learning that would lead to killing a man.
There is an irony of course, given that Ji-Shian is seldom used for violence. The people who practice it live so far up in the mountains that no one bothers with them. They’re self sufficient with their sky-oxen, born and bred to the highlands and the little mountain goats that give milk and live on nothing but the weeds that penetrate the rockiest of terrain.
I was practicing the highest level of sword moves with the master of the garrison in Leslayel when this woman strode up. We didn’t realize, the master and I, that she was a woman until she spoke. Her hair was cropped short, the ends ragged like that of a peasant boy. Her smudged face suggested the same. One of the men watching us went to her to ask her leave. She held up a hand to him, as if saying halt, but made no other move as she watched us. Her very stillness made the ring go quiet.
The master and I became aware of the silence around us. No one was wagering bets. No one was making cat calls to the various missed opportunities within the match. The master and I rarely made mistakes but often missed an opening in order to prolong our sparring. It was an unspoken agreement between us. Another of those unspoken agreements passed between us and we dropped our swords in unison to find out what had made the crowd go quiet.
“What’s going on?” It was the master’s duty to find out. I may have the superior breeding but it was his duty to protect me from threats, as if I couldn’t protect myself.
I walked over to pour water from a pitcher into one of the cheap cups that sat around the arena.
“I was watching you fight.” The voice was light and lilting. There was an accent I couldn’t place but a decidedly feminine voice for a youth of that height. I found myself looking again at the newcomer.
Under the heavy leather tunic and breeches made of some cloth I didn’t recognize, though it looked harsh and uncomfortable, I could see a faint outline of a feminine curve. How my sister Luysia would have loved this, I thought. She ran around in boy’s breeches whenever she could get away with it. She and her husband maintained the farm lands far from the city so her appearances in public, and thus, in the gowns required of a woman of her station, was minimized.
“This is a private area. It’s not open for just anyone to watch,” I heard the master reply.
“Yet here I am.” I had to give the woman credit for her audacity.
“How did you get here?” Even the master was taken aback by her answer. His voice was now more curious than angry but there was an edge that I remembered from earlier training days. He was waiting for his opening, feeling for the weakness.
“Alar-Miran suggested I watch. He was behind me but someone stopped him for questioning.”
Alar-Miran was the Master’s greatest rival in sword play, better, even than I, although I could hold my own with the two of them. Alar-Miran was beholden to no one. He taught swordsmanship to whom he would no matter what anyone said. He wasn’t fond of either my family or the current royal family. As a result everyone kept an eye on him.
I tried to recall what I knew of his latest adventures. He’d been gone for nearly half a year. He’d been seen walking the paths to the mountain passes. Some suggested he would go the lands beyond, although few ever tried the trek and only a handful had returned in living memory. There was little to be said of the lands across the mountains. They were not part of the Kingdoms. The Allied Kingdoms hugged the coastal waters, following the great rivers into the valley areas, but never crossing the mountains that created a natural boundary any barbarian neighbors.
Explorers talked of lands beyond the mountains, rich with wildlife and forests. There were deposits of metals the likes of which we had never seen and stones the color of sky. Romantics went there but no caravans of people. The people living in the mountains disliked large caravans in their remote villages. Once past the Barrier Peaks, there were even more savage peoples on the other side. Not one of the returning travelers brought back knowledge of a language. It was said they spoke only with grunts and signs.
No one expected Alar-Miran to return. There was much speculation around town when he was spotted. I, myself, hung around the taverns not trusting my aids to pick up the gossip I wanted. In fact, I suspect I never thought to believe it was him. Now, here this woman stood saying he sent her to the practice yards of LesLayel’s garrison. The master looked down his nose at her but the name gave him pause.
I moved forward into the main tunnel to get a look, to verify her story. If Alar-Miran were around there would be a crowd. I wasn’t the only one with that idea but the men in the garrison were well trained. They moved back a pace to allow me to pass. I may not wear a crown but no one wanted to get on the wrong side of my family.
Down the corridor I saw nothing. At the first turning, where to go left takes you to the dormitories of the lowest of the garrison soldiers, I saw nothing. I wasn’t surprised. Such a place would not suit Alar-Miran. I kept going. At the t-intersection ahead of me, I looked to the left again, but there was nothing down there. To the right, I saw a small crowd. I turned toward it, recalling that this way lay the outer barracks. The garrison’s sword maker worked down this way, as did a number of the other outfitters. The garrison was well supplied, with the gold and goodwill of my family.
Ahead I could see that bald head. He had more wrinkles upon his face and his clothing was ever more threadbare but yes, it was definitely Alar-Miran. He looked up from the sword he was holding, balanced across both hands, testing it, and met my eyes. The fire that lived in them chilled quickly when he recognized me.
“So it is you,” I said walking closer. The crowd parted as those who recognized my voice gave way. Those who didn’t turned, and upon recognizing my face, gave way themselves. Alar-Miran didn’t bow, didn’t acquiesce as he should have. He stood looking at me.
“Indeed it is. Eresmene, isn’t it?” He was polite. Who could fault an older man for not having a good memory? Yet within that question lay the implication that I and my house were not worth the effort to remember.
I inclined my head. “It must have been a long trip indeed.” I tried not to grit my teeth as I spoke but to speak as smoothly as my father had taught me when confronted with petty insubordination.
Alar-Miran bowed his head as well. “Of your family you were always the one most in tune with the sword. I take it you’ve met my acolyte.”
“Are you a priest then?” I asked. “Only priests have acolytes.”
Alar-Miran smiled gently as he shook his head. “In our lands, perhaps, but I’ve been gone. It is a term used for the Ji-Shian masters in their lands. She has agreed to teach me. To address her thus gives her the same respect as if you were to call me Master.”
Again the thinly veiled insult, as if I would ever need to call him master. I nodded “Did you steal her then? Ravish her and make her an unwilling slave.”
Alar-Miran laughed as if I said the funniest thing in the world, though I meant it seriously. I was quite taken aback.
“As if,” the other man said between hoots. “I have sent her to the Garrison to watch, teach and perhaps even learn though I doubt any of you have much to teach her.”
“Perhaps in the bedroom,” my eyes were narrowed. I might look with amused tolerance at my sister and her breeches, but like everyone else, I knew women had a place. Some might argue what that place was, but no one would say it was holding a sword. Everyone knew that no woman could best a man. We had a stronger body, a longer reach, heavier weight. She’d be killed within minutes if that was the intention. No doubt she counted on a man’s restraint against the prohibition of hurting a female.
Alar-Miran stopped laughing. “I wouldn’t try it if I were you.”
I smiled and turned back. Some of the men from the arena had followed me. Perhaps half of them continued to do so as I made my way back the garrison master. The woman stood there, calmly as if she had all the time in the world.
“Alar-Miran is indeed here,” I announced to those still waiting. “He claims that she knows Ji-Shian and can best a man in swordplay.”
The garrison master chuckled, quietly. He was far more polite than I. We looked at each other, wondering who would be the first to challenge her. It would be my right to offer first. He didn’t want to overstep his bounds. I didn’t make the silence stretch for long.
The woman gave a graceful bow of her head, letting me lead her to the center of the arena. For the first few minutes she barely held her sword up. It was no doubt because she was incapable of holding it for as long as I was. Her arms were thin, although wiry. I danced around her, wanting to show her my stuff but not coming to close to hurting her. That would be unthinkable. I was in the middle of a complex move when her sword swished across my middle, something that could have opened my guts had she put any force behind it. I stopped the move abruptly, surprised.
“You put too much emphasis on your strength. Some day it will desert you.” She moved back, as if to wait for another pupil.
I narrowed my eyes at her and began again. Once again, she carelessly fended off only the charges necessary, mostly watching me, stepping easily aside from even the most complex moves. This time she stopped me with a well placed kick behind the knee and then the sword was at my throat. I couldn’t complain it was unsporting. The kick was so well done, that I could have placed my knee exactly where she planned to place her foot.
We went at it again and again that afternoon, until I was sweating. She hardly varied her tactics, hardly moved. In fact, between rounds while I chugged water from the jug handed me, she yawned. This only increased my determination. I started watching her as she watched me. Fatigue wore me down so that I was reduced to parrying only those blows that she sent my way. During the last round she was smiling. She still beat me easily but before she left, her back straight and true, as calm and fresh as if she newly climbed from the bath she said, “You are learning. Finally.”
We all stared after her, watching her go.
I cannot begin to tell you of the torment I went through for the next several months. I thought I’d be free if only I could best her in sword play. How young I was and little I knew of real freedom. I finished sharpening the cutlass returning to the present.
The sun was setting as I set aside the whetstone to take the now gleaming cutlass back to the encampment. There I could see the lean-tos were all but done. The women were still weaving the mats for the roofing of the last of them. The men had gathered rushes for the floors of those completed. It was a peaceful sight.
We ate dinner together. The people there neither avoided me nor included me. I could have been anyone. It was what I wanted, but even after all these months of traveling with them, I found it hard to get used to. I answered questions when asked. I took my turn sharing stories around the fire, though my stories were from the time of my exile. When it came time to crawl into the lean-tos I found a place among the bodies that night. We all slept easily until dawn came once more.
The next day was not unlike the first, although we spent more time finding food to supplement our supplies. The trees had fruit and someone dug up a root that seemed to cook up decently. No one died eating it, nor did anyone shudder at the taste. Someone managed to bag some sort of large water fowl with an arrow. It was larger, closer to a turkey than anything else, but it was adapted to water not land. When cooked, the flesh was tender and succulent, with a slight hint of saltiness that came, perhaps, from its time in the water.
I followed the hunters and bagged the next one myself. I also managed to get two small ducks. One of the women managed to catch fish. We would eat well. While those of us with hunting skills explored the lay of the land and water, others continued to build. One of the lean-tos was now fully enclosed. Another enclosure, this one being more solidly built was larger. It would be a communal gathering place during storms when the lean-tos were not enough. Soon we would build shelters that allowed us to live as couples, should we so desire.
“Aren’t you the Eresmene Kingmaker who was exiled from the Kingdoms?” one of the younger men asked the next morning. We were eating breakfast of some nuts with a sort of milk from one of the gourds found on the island.
I glanced up to see everyone looking at me. Perhaps I hadn’t been taken at my word. Perhaps my name was more recognized than I hoped. I felt shame fire my face. Someone near me patted my arm.
“Why were you exiled?” he asked softly, the redness of my face giving an answer all suspected.
“I killed the Sword Master, Alar-Miran.”
There were nods around from two of the older women in the group and one gray haired man. They had heard the story.
“But there are stories saying he wanted that to happen.” Tellmach sat proudly at the head, proud of his knowledge. Ironically he was more certain of that than I, though indeed there were such stories.
“Didn’t he even train you to be able to kill him?” That came from one of the youngest men in our group. He was barely tall enough or strong enough to hold even the curved blades these folks adopted.
How did they know so much? Certainly Alar-Miran had brought the acolyte to train someone to kill him. Had he always planned that it would be me? It was hard to say. Certainly part of her job was to train someone to best him in sword play. That it was someone from my family could only have added to his joy. After all, even my family couldn’t completely bury cold blooded murder.
I nodded silently, pushing away my bowl of food. I wanted to wander the jungle now, to get away from them. My freedom, my ease was gone from me just like that. I could hear the Acolyte’s words within me, “You will be free when you leave behind the cares given you by others. You will be free when you act from your own heart and understanding and not from the lessons of another.”
So I looked up. I would tell my story to them as best I could, not worrying about how they took the tale. I would be as honest as I could.
“Alar-Miran twisted the words of the Ji-Shian,” I began. I was no Acolyte to tell the full truth. I was only me, telling my truth as best I could. This was my tale. There was no one to contradict me. It was the tale I knew in my heart.
“Or maybe he didn’t,” I was able to add. “Maybe I was too ready to hear the twisting of the words that told me I should listen only to the words of my heart and not the words of another. Maybe I was too ready to let go of the lessons of my forebears. “
After I trained for close to a year and a half with the Ji-Shian, she disappeared. She left no word with anyone, taking only her small packet of goods and her sword. No one saw her leave. In fact, I was one of the few who questioned it. I went to Alar-Miran to find out what he knew. Surely, if she were his teacher, he would know.
“Not finishing teaching her about the bedchamber?” he asked when I spoke with him.
The Acolyte and I had no sexual bond. She had ceased to be a woman to me but was just another man against whom I fought. I didn’t grace his comments with an answer.
“Do not look to me. The Acolytes do what they will. Isn’t that what they teach? You do what you want?” He was taunting me.
“And if I wanted to kill you?” I asked. Alar-Miran laughed at me then.
“As if you could.” In the last months I had trained as I had never trained before. I was good when I began, but I had been like a child in its infancy compared to my skills now. His commentary made me angry. I left that day but that taunt grew in me.
I had to show him. I called him out to the arena. He refused me. This was an insult to my honor, to my family name. There was nothing illegal about it but the insult rubbed at my ego.
So I found him at his own small arena, still teaching boys. I came early, as the sun rose, while he and his students were barely starting the day. I didn’t want him to argue that he was tired. I challenged him. I was at his arena, in front of his students. To refuse would be cowardly.
He bowed to me. We fought. I was surprised at his lack of grace. He flowed through the moves taught to all kingdom swordsmen with ease, but he understood little if anything of what the Acolyte taught me of the Ji-Shian moves. I bested him easily. He smiled and bowed as if to give way gracefully.
“You taunt me as if you are better than I am and this is the best you can do?”
“I am an old man. Alas you cannot go back to challenge me in my youth.”
I held my sword at my side. I was far angrier than I should have been. He could see the heat flooding my face. He smiled, turning his back on me to teach his students.
I wanted to thrust my sword into his back but I left.
“Have you really learned all you can of the Ji-Shian?” he called after me. “You must do what is in your heart.”
That day I thought he meant I must do what I wanted, which more than anything was to kill him. As I took my sword up, he didn’t defend against me at all. He just smiled at me, chuckling a little as if he had the last laugh at my expense.
My family, of course, was mortified at the killing. It was senseless. Even I could not fully explain what I was thinking at the time. My father managed to get my death commuted to exile.
I lived for several years in the hills among the tribes. I heard them talk about the Ji-Shian acolytes. I tried to find one but if any of the hill people knew, they weren’t talking to me. I found myself bored by their simple lifestyle and suffered beyond belief for two harsh winters. The next summer, I walked back into the Kingdoms taking the name of one of the tribal people I met. I might be poor but I would be warm.
I moved from town to town, sometimes offering my services as a swordsman but careful always to be only average. In three places I was recognized. Once I was nearly arrested, fleeing from the town’s small garrison. I would have been killed had I not had a stroke of luck. I felt it unfair that I was told to do what was in my heart only to have this horrible life visited upon me. I acted on my heart. It had destroyed my life.
I walked across vast lands, still hiding, moving ever farther south, coming finally to Jarvana. I wanted to be on a ship, away from the Kingdoms. I was often hungry or thirsty. As I moved slowly southward, I realized my days were made up of doing what I wanted rather than what I should. I realized that I no longer really had wants in my heart. Traveling was enough. When I got to Jarvana, I felt a pull to see their sword master, one I had never had opportunity to meet. Even as rich as we were a trip that far was cost prohibitive. I’m not sure of the time it took me on foot for I had ceased to count the days and weeks.
The only way to get to see him was to give my name, my real name. He was the one who pointed me to this ship, leaving the area. As he said to me, “Alar-Miran did everything he could to die a thousand deaths. He took foolish risks, engaged foolish youths in fights better left un-fought. He schemed small schemes for the pleasure of making the wealthy squirm. He wasn’t above carrying a poisoned dagger to be sure he came out ahead. To be sure, you attacked him, but if he wanted to win, you would be dead, in a fight as unfair as he could have made it. As, in fact, he did. For if you are found here, you will die as he wanted, won’t you?”
“With that he gave me money for passage on your ship. I gave you my real name, expecting to die as he suggested I might, but I no longer cared. I had been played. That I was alive at all had nothing to do with me but everything to do with luck.” I looked at the circle of people as I finished telling my tale.
There were nods around the circle as they took in my words.
I had another tap on my shoulder. I looked over at the man sitting next to me. He had been the right hand man on the ship.
“I am running from the law because I stole food for my family when I was a boy. I have no love for your family but you are working fairly here. Your talents for killing are well used in keeping us safe and bringing us food.”
One of the women laughed at that. “And some of us are still wondering about the bedchamber.”
I found myself coloring again. Women, rich women, never talked like that. They laughed harder to see my cheeks burn.
“Good then. It is settled. You are a killer. The rest of us are thieves and whores or both. None of us have the luxury of judgment.”
We settled back to eating companionably. After we finished eating, I took the bow and the cutlass to go in search of more food. I was indeed free.
If you liked this story, you can find purchase this story or others by Bonnie Elizabeth at your favorite retailers. You can purchase “Pride in Exile” here.