The Journey - Part 1
The time had come once again for my brother Jero and me to make the annual pilgrimage to see my parents' graves. My parents rested under an old oak tree overlooking my home town for which I marked to remember where they were buried. It had been one full year since last I last visited them.
We chose a deep grass pasture as the easiest path to start our journey carrying only what we needed, like food and water and a few medical supplies.
As I walked along side my brother I heard a voice shout down from an embankment overlooking the pasture. I turned and saw my friends had come to see me off. "Bye Atu, we'll miss you!" Persia said, waving happily at me. Veno, her twin brother, and Kesho, another friend, were standing beside her.
I innocently waved back at them, but suddenly felt the sharp, stinging pain of something hard hitting me in the back of the head. My brother had stuck me with the side of his fist. "Hey, what did you do that for?" I said annoyed and angry.
"C'mon, you're wasting time," he said. "We need to make the first marker before dusk. We started late."
I sighed perturbed, but knew Jero was right. I had wasted too much time getting ready for this trip. I was so excited last night that I couldn't sleep. When I finally fell asleep I awoke late the next morning and it was a race to pack my things for this journey. It was always a hectic time for me despite it being a blessed event.
I live in a small rural town that teaches its children that fighting is a necessity to survive. The world is a dangerous place and violence is everywhere. But I loathe fighting. I'm last in my class and my brother is my tutor outside of school. He's very strict when it comes to my tutelage, but I still don't understand why fighting is so important. He told me one day I'd understand. But I doubt it.
An hour into our journey we reached Bauna Gorge. We took a narrow pathway alongside the enormous fissure and quickly came to a rickety old bridge strung together with weathered antiquated rope and planks. The gorge was several kilometers wide and seemed bottomless. "Is this thing safe?" I asked Jero, when I stared down into the abyss.
"Why do you always ask the same question every time we come here?" he answered. "You know it is. Now stop acting stupid and c'mon."
I lowered my head depressed. Jero sighed. "I'm sorry, you're not stupid," he said.
I looked at him with the hint of a smile. Jero was my brother but not by blood. He adopted me. I was orphaned after a band of thieves killed by parents robbing them of all their worldly goods as they shopped in the market place. I swore I'd avenge them. But I came to loathe violence after I forced to participate in classes that taught it. So I was at a crossroads. Weeks after my parent's death Jero found me shivering in an alleyway covered with a thin blanket in the dead of winter. I was half-frozen. He had felt sorry for me and gave me a place to sleep and helped me regain my strength. That was four years ago. Now I was an honorary member of his clan and the sole survivor of my family.
I started to cross the bridge slowly making sure not to look down. Jore crossed behind me. I knew as along as he was with me I'd be safe.
"Been a long time since we made this journey, eh Atu?" Jore said.
"Uhm," was all I muttered. I was distracted.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Why do we train so hard to fight?" I asked.
He seemed annoyed by the question, but then said, "Because warfare is the world's new currency." He continued. "For people like us who live in small rural villages with little income battling opponents from other villages and winning prizes brings in wealth for the entire village. We fight to survive. It also aids us in defending ourselves from thieves and murderers, who are everywhere."
"I want to avenge my parents but is violence the answer to everything?"
"Not always, sometimes negotiation can prevent an undesirable situation. There are times when delegation is more tactful than combat. But it is rare. It's not economically viable. Combat settles deputes. Regulation of combat brings order to chaos. In the case of your parents you know there is only one solution." I nodded. "Four years ago when I found you huddled in that alleyway - shivering with cold, homeless, malnourished - I knew there was a person worth saving. I took you under my wing and proclaimed you my blood brother and a member of my clan. I vowed to help you hunt down your parents' killers. But you have to trust me and train hard to grow stronger or they'll never be avenged."
I nodded again agreeingly.
Soon we were on the other side of the bridge and I found my mind wandering again, and my brother noticed it. "Listen, now that we're on solid ground I think we should get a little training in. You look like you need a distraction," he said.
"I'm already distracted," I said.
"Exactly, you're analysising again," he said. He dropped his pack and it landed with a blanketed thud. Dry dirt kicked up from the impact caused by a three month draught the land was experiencing at the time. Jero picked up a stone about the size of a closed fist with his right hand and juggled it.
I watched the stone and swallowed nervously wondering what he was going to with it.
"I trained you, brought you up as my brother, you're now a member of family," he said. "Four years have gone by and you've surpassed my expectations despite your dislike for fighting. Now its time to show me how much you've learned…"
I watched as Jero threw the stone above his head and with a swift roundhouse kick broke it into several smaller pieces and launched them towards me at maximum velocity. I reacted defensively and flipped backwards several times to avoid the debris and jumped out of the way of their path. The stone fragments embedded themselves in the trunk of a nearby tree.
I looked back at the damage and was stunned. Jore had never used that much power against me before. I looked towards my brother and saw Jore pick up another stone. He repeated his previous action and I repeated my actions to maneuver away from the fragments.
"You're good at running away, Atu," Jore said.
He clapped his hands and slammed them to the ground creating an earthquake. The ground shook violently and it took everything I had to keep my balance. This is when my brother attacked me again and sucked punched me in the stomach. I cradled over from the pain. Jore then grabbed my hair and arched my head back. I looked at him frightened, as if was a different person.
"You must be prepared for every eventuality, Atu. The elements can be your ally if you utilize them properly."
He let me go and I rolled away from him. I felt my stomach pain begin to fade and I got to my feet. "That wasn't fair using that maneuver against me," I said, more frustrated than angry. He folded his arms across his chest and laughed at me. "What's so funny?" I said.
I felt a swell of anger suddenly overcome me and I attacked him without volition. "I don't like being laughed at!" But he anticipated my actions and stepped aside and I stumbled in the dirt. He grabbed me by the collar of my hair again and threw me back on my ass.
I felt the back of my head but ignored the pain and jumped to my feet. But Jore swept my legs from underneath me and I fell on my ass again. "You're too impulsive, Atu" he said. "Command your emotions and they will drive your actions."
I got up again and used my head as a battling-ram into his stomach. He staggered back feeling the blunt force trauma and then grabbed me, throwing me back. I repeated my actions but he caught this time. I knew I had to do something he'd never expect and I head butt him in the face. He dropped me and staggered back putting his hands to his face. When he removed them I saw that his nose was bleeding. I then saw a hint of a smile on his face.
I stepped up my attack and performed a leg sweep knocking him on his ass. Then I pounced on his chest with the full force of my body and he exuded a heavy groan when my knees made contact with his lower body. But he pushed me off and I rolled several times before stopping.
Jore sat up and twisted his body to face me. He felt his stomach and snorted out a smirk. "Good, you're improving, but you need to add more strength to your attacks," he said, and got to his feet. "Don't be afraid to inflict damage. Your opponent won't hesitate to kill you, so neither should you. Treat each opponent as you would a mortal enemy. Defeat your enemy before he defeats you."
I felt the anger that had overtaken me sink and disappear as I contemplated his words. They resonated in my mind like so many ancient teachings I studied in school. But for some reason they meant more coming from Jore than anything I read in text books.
He came over to me and put an arm around my shoulders. Then he smiled and said, "C'mon, let's carry on. I'll be dark soon and we still have a long way to go."
We picked up our packs and continued on our journey. Soon we came to a densely packed forest that we had to pick our way through with our bare hands to get to a babbling brook in the centre. This took most of our time and it began to get dark very quickly as soon as we reached it.
We had not reached the first marker, but Jore decided it was in our best interest to camp here for the night. So we unpacked our gear and built a campfire. There were creatures that came out at night that preyed on innocent travelers. Since this was an open area I knew it was safe.
The brook looked inviting so we stripped and dived in. Moonlight bathed the area in a blue hue and the coolness of the water began to ease my troubled mind. I felt embarrassed about my performance when fighting Jore and I knew I could better. I didn't like to fight, but I was starting to realize just how important his training was, and I had to prove that I was worthy of his tutelage.
"What's on your mind?" he asked.
"Nothing," I lied.
An hour later we were sitting around the campfire. Its incandescent glow produced demonic shadows that danced all around us creating a fearful uneasiness for me. I had never told Jore of my fear of the dark and I sat as close as I could to the fire to hide it. But I wasn't hiding anything from my brother. My face obviously told Jore about my fear.
"There's nothing to be afraid of, Atu," he said.
I looked up at him, taking my focus off the fire. I was watching the flames alter colours and listened to the crackling of the wood in an attempt to distract myself from the surrounding darkness, but it wasn't working.
"I'm not afraid," I said, but my tone was contradictory to my words.
"What have I taught you about the essence of fear?" he said. I shook my head unable to remember. He shook his head disappointed. "Fear is paralyzing to the body and it can be your greatest enemy. You need to control it before it controls you."
"How do you control fear?"
"Use it to your advantage," he said solidly. "Your opponent may be bigger, stronger, taller than you, but that doesn't make him smarter. He's just over confident and that's his ultimate weakness. Fear is an internal struggle for which each individual handles differently. I know you're afraid of the dark, Atu, and I can't take that fear from you, but I can comfort you in the knowledge that there's nothing in the dark that isn't in the light."
I tried to believe him, but I couldn't. "I'll try to remember that," I said what I thought he wanted to hear.
He nodded, and then said to me, "It's late and I'm tired." He lay down on the ground next to the fire. "We have an early start tomorrow. You should get some sleep too."
I lay down next to the fire, but I found myself unable to sleep and gazed longingly into the fire. For some reason I found myself trying to remember what my Mother's voice sounded like but it had been so long that I had completely forgotten. Even her face was starting to fade from my memory.
When Jore fell slept I snuck away and wandered into the forest to urinate. I also wanted to face my fear and prove to myself that I had the ability to control it. In the dark the sounds of the forest was enough to make me run back to the campsite, but I didn't run back and neither did I move forward.
I tried to conquer my fear, but the howl of a wolf broke my concentration and I jerked sharply in its direction. I heard twigs snap underfoot and something approached me. Then I saw the green-eye glow of a pair of eyes looking straight at me and froze in place. Soon I found myself surrounded by five more sets and I knew I was in trouble. A pack of wolves, I told myself.
A wolf took a step forward and I took a step back, but I immediately returned to my previous position as another wolf forced me back. "You don't know who you're messing with, wolves," I said, my voice relieving my nervousness.
I readied myself to fight them, but suddenly a whistle resounded through the air and the wolves halted. "This one's not for eating," a voice said. Then a man stepped out from the darkness into an outcropping of moonlight. He had a weathered face and long thin hair. "He's too small to fill your bellies."
"I'm not small," I said defensively.
"How old are you boy? You look awfully young to be roaming around alone in the forest late at night. It's not safe. Danger is everywhere." The man said.
"I'm fourteen and I can handle a little danger, sir."
The man snorted, and then said, "Not by what I saw a moment ago, kid. You were terrified by my pets. You couldn't move."
"I couldn't move because they had me surrounded, I wasn't terrified," I said, the level of my voice louder and more aggressive than I wanted it to be.
"I can sense your fear, boy…"
"I'M NOT AFRAID!"
"If I was a malicious man I'd demand you prove it, but I didn't come to pick a fight. I came to sell information."
"And what information are you selling, old man?"
"You are Atu Benru of the Korin Clan, are you not?"
"How do you know who I am?"
"I make it my business to know things, I'm a trader and I have information to sell you. Information I know you've been looking for."
"And what information do you have?" I asked. "I am in no need of information nor am I seeking any."
"You're lying, boy, I can hear in your voice and I know you'll want to hear what I have to say. The information I have is about the bandits who killed your parents. I will give it to you for a price."
My heart sunk and for the first time in the longest time my mind focused on one thing: what this man had to say. "You know who killed my parents? Tell me!"
"How much are you willing to pay for the information?"
"How much are you asking?" I eagerly said.
"Ten thousand Dora," he said.
My eyes widened with shock. "I can't afford that!"
"I know you can. Your adopted family is wealthy and your brother is a known competitor in the games. Ten thousand Dora is nothing for valuable information like this. I would think you'd want to know who murdered your parents."
"I do, but I don't have that much money on me."
"How much do you have to offer?"
I took out my money pouch and opened it. "I only have fifteen hundred. But that's better than nothing." I said, and showed it to him.
"That's not nearly enough for information like this. Wake your brother and ask him for the rest. I know you're traveling to see your parent's grave. You and he have been doing this every year for the last four years."
"How do you know this?"
"Like I said, boy, it's my business to know things," he said.