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I had stayed a week in Muspuahtche when the first Smoke Walkers came to kill me.
After the council, Askuwheteau took me the home of an old man who had little interest in me, but his wine was good and he liked company while he drank. This suited me fine. At the end of the day, he would awaken from a nap and, shortly after, a trio of young women would come to the door of his little bark and bough house with food. I took to retrieving it, and the three stared curiously at me and passed me hot clay pots and cloth-wrapped packets; fried chicken or fish and bread one day, a stew of squash and apple and potatoes the next. I’d give them the previous day’s pot and the old man and I would eat, and then he’d get wine. We sat outside on a blanket beside his door and drank. People walking by waved but he didn’t acknowledge them. By the time I’d had enough and went in to sleep, wrapped in a wool blanket on an animal-skin bed on the floor, it was well after dark, although the sun was still visible above the mountains. It never got quite so dark as I thought it should except for a few hours around midnight. In the morning, the old man would already be up and about, squinting and tottering on his cane, giving me a bare, scowling nod at best. I liked him.
The first day I bathed in a big basin. My clothes were whisked away and, while they returned my blue Serehvan turban so that I could wrap my head, the rest were beyond repair, I was told. I got new clothes in the local style, skins and the finest wool you ever saw and an old bearskin cape to keep me warm. It was a cold country. I rested and drank with the old man and slept for a long time. When I awoke, already it was light and the sun was high. In the cold, for that place never came to feel warm to me, I went to the broad street and green place behind the main walls. There, I stretched and trained. I lost myself in the Way, moving, feeling. I sparred with the biting wind, not as I had once fought the knife wind, but as a partner, a friend.
There is no summoning or calling in what some call sword-magic or sword-wizardry. It is focus, and fortitude, and will. It is nothing more complex, or more simple, than belief.
That morning I fought the Wind Way. There are spirits in all things, and they may be entreated and placated and forced, and it requires no charts or chants, no etchings or blood or whatever else stupid thing it is that theurgists require. These are crutches.
“Face me,” I whispered, and I willed, and the wind obliged. When a breeze came, I let it press me. The stick I had found on the beach came up in my hand and I let it speak to me. A wind drove down at me, a sudden turning, gusting up. I caught it, the stick in my hand like a Toji greatsword once again, and deflected, giving ground only to whirl, to catch the breeze unawares. With a gentle sweep, I carved and the air parted. It shuddered with a sound like deep, distant thunder, but rolling through my bones. Then it drove back at me, darting whisps, a long press, a feint low, an attack high. I raised my makeshift sword. What the weapon is makes no difference. I deflected, shifted under, swept my own attack up and again felt and heard the shuddering of the air fracturing, parting, coming back together in a rush and a clap.
“Very fine.” I looked up and Askuwheteau stood some distance away on the green sward. His club rested on his back and he grinned his broad grin and thudded a fist to his chest, something I took to be like clapping. While the wind rushed away, I returned my stick to my belt and gave him a Serehvan salute, touching my breastbone, face, and forehead in sequence. As focus faded and the world returned, I saw many others had paused to watch. Four warriors riding elk, a group of children, mouths hanging open, some tradesmen with their tools and a few farmers on their way inside with a load of crops in barrows. All had stopped along the road to stare. When I noticed them, they returned to their affairs as if embarrassed.
Askuwheteau came nearer, and beckoned as he turned to face away from the main road. “Come,” he said. “I would show you something.” With a light sheen of sweat cooling my brow in the mist and chill breeze, I followed.
We wound along the step pyramid and then away, through the low, stone creekbed-like roads, flanked by cliffs of black timber houses, smelling of moss and damp and wet wood. Passing these, we went to the far edge of the city. Most of the houses there were bark and timber, sturdy and stout but small. Smoke issued from the roofs. Small gardens surrounded each structure, and a few sheep and pigs wandered free between the houses, raising their heads and scampering a few steps at our approach and then going back to cropping the low grass. Two shaggy dogs, big brown things with eyes hidden by hair, took to following us. My guide and I didn’t speak.
When the mist ahead began to clear, Askuwheteau pointed without a word. No farms or homes, at this end. Above a rank of bogs for farming berries, separated by green earthen walkways, a great gray form at the edge of the city began to emerge, towering. The mound walls surrounding the city came together and then seemed to huddle away, leaving a stone step to part them where it came down from the great shape. My eyes followed the stones up, into the mist, and as we neared the structure beyond became clear. It was a looming thunderhead, foreboding, shadow and stone. Trees as great as mountains overhung it, clung to it, their roots binding and curling, digging into the masonry, jealous fingers. The temple, for temple it was, hung above us like a threat, itself leaning out from the mounds and the mountain just beyond, with black windows ready to swallow us and broad terraces like open hands reaching out.
“The Crade temple.” I stopped to stare, breathe, listen. I could almost hear the instructors, the students, the ring of steel and the hum of will. But there were none of these things. The temple was long neglected and empty, a hollow shell.
“The first.” Askuwheteau took a few more steps and then beckoned me and grinned. “Maybe.”
“Why have you taken no students?” I followed while we began to mount those crumbling steps, passing up and into a history older than the world.
“I am no teacher.”
“You are skilled enough.”
“My thanks for such confidence.” I chuckled at him and he gestured out to the sides, to ancient statues that guarded the way, so old they no longer had faces but for the green moss and trailing vines. “I could not do justice. My first responsibility is as a Story-breather. But I thought you should see it.”
At that moment, I had the sense of being watched. In silence I tried to look around with nonchalance, but in the trees and mist and red woods, I saw nothing. It was a feeling that would follow me throughout most of my time in Rowatokon.
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