A Novel of Corona
By R. A. Salvatore
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2004 R. A. Salvatore
All rights reserved.
Walking in the Clouds
Brother Bran Dynard stepped out of his room into the brilliant morning light. The sun reached down through the few patches of cloud, which were really no more than jagged lines of white torn by the fast winds. Bright flashes dotted the terrace and the bridges, as puddles from the night's rainfall caught the rays of morning and threw them back into the air with exuberance.
Brother Dynard walked across the landing to the waist-high railing and leaned over, looking down at the clouds that drifted across the mountainsides below him, then looking past them to the valley floor, hundreds and hundreds of feet below. Though he had grown up just north of the mighty Belt-and-Buckle mountains, though he had sailed around the eastern fringes of that great range, right under their shadow, Dynard could never have imagined looking down on the clouds.
Looking down on them!
He noted the sparkle of the river snaking through the valley, weaving around the sharp stones and red-streaked rock that seemed to grow right out of the mountains. In the six years he had been here, this view of the strange land that the nomads of Behr called Crezen ilaf Flar, the Mountains of Fire, had never ceased to amaze Dynard and had never ceased to send his heart soaring with the possibilities of ...
Of anything. Of everything.
When he had left Chapel Pryd of the Honce holding of the same name on his Journey Proselyt (as the monks called their evangelical missions) seven years before, weary Brother Dynard had never expected any of this. He had served the Church of Blessed Abelle well, so he had thought, through his twenties and past his thirtieth birthday; and it had come as a surprise to him when Father Jerak had pointed him south for his mission. "Go to the desert of Behr," the elderly Jerak had told him one cold and wet winter's day in God's Year 47. "If we can turn the good people of Honce from the dark pagan ways of the Samhaists, then surely even the beasts of Behr will not be beyond the call of Blessed Abelle."
"The beasts of Behr," Dynard quietly mouthed, and how many thousand times had he sarcastically repeated that denigrating phrase used by the fair-skinned people of Honce when referring to the darker-skinned people of the great desert to the south of the Belt-and-Buckle.
The Behr were nomadic tribesmen, wandering the windblown sands of the desert from oasis to oasis, from the sea in the east to the steppes far in the west. They rode misshapen beasts—humped horses—and spoke in gibberish, so said the men of Honce who knew them. An excitable lot, they were, by all reports, quick to laugh and quicker to anger, and fierce in battle—as would be expected of any animal, so the general reasoning in Honce went.
Thus it was with great trepidation that Brother Dynard had sailed on one of the small, shore-hugging fishing boats from Laird Ethelbert's domain. He hadn't known what to expect of the southerners; could these people even properly communicate? Were they merely savages or animals?
His string of surprises had begun before he had stepped off that fishing boat, for the structures of Jacintha, the largest settlement in Behr, exceeded anything Brother Dynard had ever before seen, even in the great Honce city of Delaval. White towers topped with brightly colored pennants captured his imagination that morning on the boat. And to this day, what he most remembered about Jacintha was the colors of the place, the brilliant hues and dazzling patterns of the clothing and the rugs. So many rugs! The city seemed to be one sprawling marketplace, anchored by the great houses of the tribal sheiks, more elaborate and beautiful than any of the castles of Honce, and shining pink and white with polished stone. The city bristled with energy, with life itself; and it was there that Brother Dynard believed he truly began his journey and found his heart once more. Before Jacintha, he had walked with weariness, dour and depressed, but a few weeks in that place had him alive again and ready to spread the good word of Blessed Abelle.
He spent many weeks in Jacintha, learning the ways and the language of Behr and coming to recognize the ridiculousness of the labels his people placed upon these civilized and cultured people. Then came the months when Brother Dynard had traveled with the nomads through the stinging, windblown sands and in the shadows of the great dunes. He spoke with the tribesmen about his faith, of the great Blessed Abelle who had found the sacred isle and the gemstone gifts of God. He showed them the gemstone powers, using the gray hematite, the soul stone, to heal minor wounds and afflictions. And they had listened, and they had been amused and tolerant, though not amazed at all, to Dynard's surprise. A few even seemed genuinely interested in learning more about this wondrous prophet who had died nearly a half century before. From those potential converts, Dynard had heard of this place, Crezen ilaf Flar, and of the mystics who lived here, the Jhesta Tu.
According to his guides, these mystics could perform feats of magic similar to those Dynard had displayed, only without the use of any props, gemstone or otherwise.
And so, on a blistering summer day nearly six years before, Bran Dynard had arrived in the valley below his present perch, in the dry bed where the spring waters now ran as a river, at the base of the magnificent staircase, built into the mountain wall, that wound up to the lower terraces of this mountain monastery, the Walk of Clouds.
Thinking back to that day now, it seemed to Dynard to be a lifetime ago. And indeed, in the six years since, he had learned more about himself, about the world, and—he truly believed—about God, than in the three decades he had lived before that.
And he had learned about love, he silently added as his gaze drifted to the solitary figure who had come out on the open walk to perform her morning exercise ritual. Warmth flooded through Dynard as he gazed upon SenWi. Ten years his junior, with delicate, birdlike features and shining black hair that hung to her shoulders, the brown-skinned woman had won his heart almost upon first glimpse. She smiled often—continually, it seemed!—and filled her steps with a bounce and twirl that made her movements more of a dance than a walk.
Dynard watched her precise turns and twists now, as she wove her limbs gracefully and slowly through the ritual of practice, stretching her muscles and playing one against the other in moves to strengthen. The wind gently ruffled her loose-fitting clothing—the off-white ankle-length pants and her rose-colored shining shirt, decorated with intricate embroidery of flowery vines. The light material rippled and whipped, but beneath the clothing stood the anchor of a solid form.
For there was a strength about SenWi, though she wasn't much more than half Dynard's weight.
How could she ever love me? Dynard wondered as he looked down upon the beautiful creature, with her round face, dark brown eyes, and her delicate lips, perfectly shaped and balanced and brought to a pouting peak so that a hint of her white teeth showed when she assumed her typical expression, as if she were always smiling.
How different she was than he, how much more beautiful! Brother Dynard could not help but make these comparisons whenever he looked at her. Her nose was a button, his a hawkish beak. Her body was smooth and flowing, her every movement like the bend of a willow in the wind, while he had ever been a stiff-legged and somewhat hulking figure, with one shoulder forward. His black hair was thinning greatly now, more and more each day it seemed, and his once sharp jawline now possessed ample jowls.
SenWi had not fallen in love with him at first sight, as he had with her. How could she have, after all? But she had listened to his every lecture and participated in every discussion with him in those first months after his arrival, often staying late after all the others had retired, to press Dynard for more stories of the wide world north of the mountains. Dynard could still remember the moment when he had realized that her interest went beyond curiosity in what he knew and had seen, when he had realized that she wanted the stories, not for what they revealed about the world but for what they revealed about him, about this strange white-skinned man from another world. Through Dynard's tales, SenWi had discovered his heart and soul, and somehow—miraculously as far as he was concerned—had fallen in love with him and had agreed not only to formally wed him but also to travel with him back to his home in Pryd.
But first they had their respective tasks to complete.
The thought brought Brother Dynard's gaze to the row of clay pots lining the back of another terrace. The mere sight of the pots, wherein pieces of iron had been placed with wood chips, brought to mind all the condescending and dehumanizing slurs of these southern peoples that Bran Dynard had heard throughout his lifetime. "Beasts of Behr" indeed!
These southern people had found a new way to prepare iron, to strengthen it considerably by transforming it into a metal they called silverel steel. The process was difficult, the items made of it very rare. For a Jhesta Tu mystic, one of the very highest trials was to take this steel and to craft with it a light and mighty sword.
SenWi had been working on hers for years—every day, one fold a session. Brother Dynard remembered the day her work had begun, marked by a grand ceremony that had all the four hundred mystics of the Jhesta Tu assembled on the terraces, praying for her success. Amid the hum of their intoning, the blessed roll of silverel steel had been borne up the mountain stairway by the younger members of the sect. Thin enough to ripple in a gentle wind, the piece was just under four feet wide and, if unrolled, nearly twenty feet long.
Great heated stone wheels had pressed the metal to this thin state, so thin that the entire roll weighed but a few pounds. It had to be light, for this roll—all but the tiny pieces that would be trimmed at the end of the process—would become SenWi's sword, one inch at a time. That was her task: to take this piece of marvelous metal to a specially designed table that had been constructed within her private rooms for the single purpose of crafting her weapon. Many times had Brother Dynard asked about that secret process—asked SenWi and all the masters of the Walk of Clouds who had so warmly welcomed him into their home.
But, alas, this was one secret they would not tell.
Dynard couldn't complain, for the generosity of these mystics had been more than he could ever have imagined. They listened to his stories of Blessed Abelle, of his Church and its precepts, of his hopes of spreading the word. They didn't deny him the opportunity to preach his beliefs to any in the Walk of Clouds, for these mystics saw Bran Dynard as a source of increasing their knowledge, and to them that was all important. In return for his gifts of the gospel of Abelle and his instruction in the use of the magical gemstones, the Jhesta Tu had taught him their disciplines spiritual, mental, and martial—though he hadn't become very accomplished in the latter! They had welcomed his questions and welcomed, too, the blossoming love between this strange man from the northern lands and one of their own.
And they had given Dynard perhaps the greatest gift of all: they had taught him to read their language, which was quite different from that of Honce. And they had loaned him a copy of the Book of Jhest, their defining tome.
So many of their secrets were revealed within the pages of that massive tome: the lessons of concentration, of movement memory, the dance of the fighter, the dance of the lover. It was all there, and the Jhesta Tu masters offered it freely to this visitor from afar. They had provided Dynard with a similar-size and length book, but one whose pages were as yet unlettered, and had bade him to copy the work so that he could take the duplicate back with him when he returned home, and share it with the people of the northern kingdom.
"But would that not compromise your tactics and understanding of battle?" a shocked Dynard had asked when he had been presented with the intriguing prospect.
Gentle old Master Jiao had answered without hesitation, "Any person capable of understanding our martial dance will have first taken the time to learn the language of Jhest. Even then, the words are meaningless unless one first absorbs the wisdom of the Book of Jhest. Without that wisdom, without that totality of understanding, there is no power; and in one who finds that totality of understanding, there is no threat."
Every day, as SenWi went to her work in which she would accomplish but a single one of the thousand folds that would form her sword, Brother Dynard retired to his own room and sought to precisely copy a few lines of the weighty tome. He had done quite a bit of similar scribing in his first years as a follower of Abelle and always before had approached the task with trepidation, though with devotion. For bending over the table, quill in hand, had brought him aching shoulders and neck, and had left his eyes bleary. His new friends, though, even had an answer for those maladies, in the form of the morning exercises they had taught him, the gentle stretches and the connection to the earth beneath his bare feet.
He stared down at SenWi, glad that she was not aware of him at that moment of her own sweet dance. She rose to the ball of one foot, lifting her arms gracefully as she did, extended her other leg, and used it to send her in a slow turn. As she came around, her left arm swept across, with her right following, fingertips to the sky, moving straight out from her chest. Her balance shifted and she smoothly landed on her other foot. A series of shoulder twists followed, each arm coming forward in turn, hands sweeping in a rotating motion as they retracted to the opposite shoulder, then slicing back across her chest and rolling forward once again.
She went down in a sudden waist bend, her feet turning, and then she rotated back to her right, where she repeated the motions.
It looked like a dance, a graceful celebration of the wind and the earth and life itself, but Brother Dynard understood it to be much more than that. This was the basic martial training of the Jhesta Tu, and each pivot was designed to put the warrior face-to-face with another opponent. The form on which SenWi was now working, sing bay wuth, was designed to defeat three opponents; Dynard had watched it in fierce practice sessions and had come to appreciate its worth.
Even if it had been but a dance, the monk from the north could not deny its simple and graceful beauty.
Nor could he deny the beauty of the dancer, whom he loved beyond anyone he had ever known.
SenWi ended her exercise, standing perfectly erect and still. She closed her eyes and steadied her breathing.
Dynard understood the posture. She was aligning her ki-chi-kree, the line of spiritual energy the Jhesta Tu believed ran from the top of one's head, the ki, to the groin, the kree. To the Jhesta Tu, this ITLχITL was the line of power, of balance, of strength, and of spirit—the very energy of life itself. Finding perfection of that line, complete alignment, as SenWi was now, was the key to true balance.
She finished by lifting her arms up, thumb tips touching, index fingers touching, in a salute to the morning sun. And then she bowed low as she brought her arms back to her sides, her whole body perfectly still except for the bending at her waist.
Brother Dynard gave a great sigh as the woman walked back into her private quarters to resume work on her sword. Then he, too, faced the rising sun and went through his practice. Not nearly as proficient as SenWi, of course, he nevertheless managed to get through sing bay du, a routine designed to battle two opponents, front and back, with some measure of grace. Then he came to the part he most enjoyed: the stance of the mountain. He found his line of chi, head to groin, and consciously extended that life energy down his legs and through his feet, rooting himself to the stone of the wide terrace. A strong gust of wind blew by, but Dynard didn't budge. He felt the strength of the earth grasping him, becoming part of him, and felt as if he wouldn't flinch if a large man charged into him at full speed. Once he had achieved the posture, he allowed himself to absorb the sensations of the morning: the smell of the flowers, the warmth of the sun, the soft feel of his light clothing brushing his skin. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Highwayman by R. A. Salvatore. Copyright © 2004 R. A. Salvatore. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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