I was born into wealth. To some, this might be understood to mean that I had an idyllic childhood. They would be wrong. My people have many laws and rules. One of the strictest rules is that families who are out of favor are fair game. That is to say, others may feel free to take what they want from such a house by theft or by force if they can, without the worry of legal and law enforcement interference…
Once in a while, I would see our security chief cleaning and sharpening his weapons in the morning. A very meticulous man, he usually worked on weapons maintenance in the evening hours, unless they had been used. He could not abide a dulled or notched blade.
Projectile and distance attack weapons are banned in our society. That is the surface excuse. The real reason such things are not part of the violence of my people is, that most houses either fear them beyond reason or have protections in place. These protections are often passive defenses such as physical or energy barriers. The more active defenses ranged from borrowed active mechanisms using technology from other worlds to talented individuals and teams working with less pedestrian methods of energy manipulation that primitive people might call “Magic”.
The would-be criminals would never be found, and the word would be passed around the aristocracy that we were still not an easy victim.
Our unfortunate social status was my grandfather’s fault. If his challenge to the rule of the empire had not failed, our lives would have been different. He had been a proud man. He had been proud of our historic connection to the Akanum. His pride had proven unfounded when the duel between himself and the emperor ended in a draw. They both died when the two men of power created portals that intersected. The resulting planar shearing forces tore both of them apart and flung the bits randomly across the nearest universes. No parts were ever recovered of either man. The next emperor was chosen from the previous one’s heirs and my family was laughed at quietly in court. My father had to be recalled from the front lines to take over the running of our house.
Father brought me back with him as a baby. I was the child of a union with a woman of a lower, but not common, family. She died in battle right before my father was recalled. Her family had their own problems. They had no resources to waste on fighting for or raising me. I was less than a year old when I was brought home. My only memories from growing up were from living in this house and being raised by it’s servants and slaves. I saw my father on special occasions and from time to time, usually when I was in trouble.
The most fun I had growing up was with Lord Standt. He was a grizzled old veteran of the front lines who was in charge of house security. His family lived in another wing of our house, so I rarely met his son. When I was first able to walk, I was taught by Lord Standt. We started with basic movements. I have seen many of the recordings of those training sessions. He would gently explain the rules of a game we would play. The rules would be simple, and the movements would be easy. There would be a small treat for winning the game and a small, but unpleasant, penalty for losing.
At the age of five, I had been playing the games for years and the slowly increased levels of difficulty matched my growing coordination and strength. Lord Standt, who I now merely called Standt, sat me down. Instead of our usual games, this was to be a ‘lesson’. My first official lesson with the man who was to become my personal teacher.
“Young Solan.” he always called me Young Solan. Never my last name of Dothstaire and never Lord Dothstaire as was technically correct. “It is time you learned of the five forces. They imbue everything with their power and their gifts as well as their weakness. This is not physics. This is a philosophy that is at the heart of the warrior’s way I will teach you. Science, history, language, and religion will be taught to you by other tutors. They will begin tomorrow.
“To use the forces correctly on combat, you must understand them. Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind are the basic forces. Mastering one or more of them will make you a frightening opponent. Master all of them and you may seek to master the fifth, Will. ” With an economical flick of the wrist, he flung a small blade that had been hidden in his sleeve to sever a cord in the rafters of our drafty instruction hall. Down rolled a tapestry-like none I had ever seen in our home. It was plainly designed but had clean lines that showed the beauty that comes with fine materials and attentive crafting. On the backing the color ivory was emblazoned a list in a rich, dark, red lettering:
Earth = Strong
Fire = Fast
Water = Flexible
Wind = Untouchable
Will = Unpredictable
“Young Solan, learn this list and think on its meaning. Each move I have taught you has a basis in one of the first four forces listed on this tapestry. I will give you new lists as you are ready for them. Each list will teach you more about each force.
“Have you mastered the force of Will Standt?”
“No, young Solan. I have not. I know enough of the four to prepare you for entry to The Cloisters when you come of age at fifteen years old. If you learn all I can teach, you may be selected to learn directly from a master of the Five. Such a master is known as a Stolath. I am a mere Stogar, a teacher of the Four. When we are training in combat, you will address me as Stogar, or Stogar Standt. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Stogar Standt!”
“Good! Now sit where you are for the next hour and memorize this list and think about how it applies to what I have already taught you. After that hour, I will test you to see if it has helped you understand what you already knew more clearly. In time you should be able to earn the rank of Stad’e. It will mean that you are no longer a lowly child, but have become a true martial artist who will seek even greater rank.”
At first, it seemed a strange thing to make me do. How could words make a difference in hand-to-hand combat? Eventually, I began to see how a certain strike might require the attitude of an unyielding rock. One had to be strong and persistent, like a boulder that falls on my opponent. I saw that there were strikes that were meant to be fast and relentless as a wildfire., I began to see how certain blocks would require that I be like the river, moving with my opponent and resisting them while not directly opposing their strikes. Other defenses were all about making your opponent waste energy trying to attack while being as elusive as the wind itself.
When Stogar Standt returned, he stepped into the room and took a solid stance with knees bent slightly and his feet at shoulder width. I could see now that this was an Earth stance. I responded by taking what felt like an Air type stance.
Standt lunged forward with a hard, fast strike that seemed to use the coiled strength of his entire body. I slipped to the side so that the energy of the strike was wasted on thin air, missing me entirely. Recovering from the failed attack, he came back with another hard, fast strike. This time the stance was lighter and less braced for full extension. I recognized this as being based on a fire style. I responded by switching to the stable, but the flexible stance of a water defense. His attack was absorbed by the pliant resistance of my defense.
Stepping back and giving the small bow we always ended our games with, Standt gave me an approving smile. “You have made a good start on your education in the ways of combat. You noticed I suspect, that Earth and Fire are most easily used for offense, while Air and Water seem more suited to defense. I need you to spend some time in the coming week thinking about how Earth and Fire can be used for defense and how Air and Water can be used for offense.
“For now, practice what you have learned for two hours a day. I will test you again next week.”
Thus began my training as a warrior. As an aristocrat, I was not expected to be much of a warrior. I would be expected, once I came of age, to enter the imperial army for a few years as an officer, then return home to live off of the profits from lands conquered in my tour of duty. As the scion of a house in ill favor with the empire, however, I could expect to face duels and covert attacks from peers as well as the occasional assassin.
Over the years, Standt taught me the secrets of the four forces. He would sometimes be surprised by my use of his teachings. At eight years of age, I became good enough to spar with Standt’s son, Slaith. He was sullen and hid his anger badly.
After one particularly brutal session, when I was ten years old. We came to a draw a number of times until I found his pattern and turned the tables on him, he muttered something under his breath. “What was that Slaith? Speak plainly!”
As he turned, his eyes opened wide with rage. “Is that an order little lord? Must I cower and beg your pardon?” he asked with an insolent glare as he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his stained white practice uniform. “I said that this training is wasted on little lordlings like you! I have to join the invasion forces at the front next year. No cloisters for me since my family lost our keystone. No, I am a commoner now. I have no chance to restore my house. Now my father makes me abase myself in what remains of a fallen house and play punching bag to its spoiled offspring!”
“If you feel my training is such a waste, why not challenge me to a duel? Surely the ‘Great and Powerful Slaith’ can defeat me. Then we could demand he stops wasting your time. If I win, you shut up and we train as if we were brothers!”
“Brothers! You sicken me! I would never treat such a weak and useless thing as you like a brother!”
“If I am so weak and useless, what have you got to fear?”
“Very well! I accept your challenge. I will meet you in the rear courtyard at noon. Bring your best little lord. I will not be gentle like in our practice!”
“And I will not be as gentle as I have been. “
At this point, I left him still glaring at me in the yard. I took one of the rear stairways to my rooms on the sixth floor.
As I opened my door, Standt stood up from his chair in front of my fireplace. “So, was it your plan to anger him so much before challenging my son?”
“I am Stogar Standt right now young Solan. Tell me why you seek this fight and why you do it in the way you do.”
“Stogar Standt. I want his best in the ring. As long as I am ‘Little Lordling’ to him, disdain and fear of retribution mean he will not give me his best. If he holds back, how do I learn and improve? If he is not really trying to hurt me, then I will not know how to deal with an opponent who is.”
“Sound logic. Truthfully, I was waiting for this. You had to take this step on your own for it to be real. Once this is done, you may reach the rank of Stad’e. I will be at your fight to validate the results and assure myself and other interested parties that the wager is also honored.”
“How did our wager come to your ears Stogar Standt?” I asked.
“I have ways of knowing all important events within these walls young Solan. And I will observe how you train and interact with your new ‘brother’ if you win this fight.”
” I will win,” I said. “I have held back as well. I have some new combinations of attack and defense that he has not seen.”