Chapter 2 – Caiden
After dinner had been cleared, the forge fire banked, the animals fed, and the stalls cleaned, Caiden found himself immersed in his nightly studies. As he had done each night since his earliest memories, Caiden listened to Trom and settled his focus, concentrating all his energy on the movements of his awkward body.
As usual, they began with the simple Cat Step, a movement done with ease and little effort. As the hours wore on, the poses became more and more difficult, a challenge to both the body and the focus of the mind. Caiden’s body shook with effort and pain, the strain painting deep furrows in his brow. And yet, Trom did not let up. If anything, he pushed Caiden harder, making him hold the increasingly complex positions for significantly longer periods of time, pushing to imprint the memory into the boy’s muscles.
Even as his body and mind were strained to the limit, Caiden found time to reflect. For years his father had subjected him to this nightly regimen, Trom assuring him that this practice was a means to healing his body and building his physical strength. Caiden recognized it for what it was. His father pushed him desperately, drove him, night after night, not so he would be healthy but so that he might one day belong. So that the time would come when he might someday be physically and mentally strong enough to walk among the other children of the village, so that he might be one of them and not the outsider he currently was. This torture of mind and body was derived out of love, Caiden reassured himself.
Caiden’s brief flight of mind was interrupted by a sharp reprimand from his father. Somehow Trom always knew when the boy’s mind wandered, no matter how briefly.
Focusing again, Caiden moved into Horse Stance, one of the most challenging positions for anyone, never mind a boy with twisted and stunted leg muscles. Even as he did his best to gyrate his hips, and align his legs, he knew that he would be unable to please the harsh taskmaster who was his father. So, it began, as it did whenever Caiden was unable to perform to the highest standards.
“Caiden, son, your movements must be flawless, your form perfect! How many times must I remind you, boy?”
Trom was seething, his anger and contempt clear in every line of his body.
Knowing he was a disappointment to the man before him, Caiden’s already strained mind and body began to falter even more. His muscles cried out in agony; his legs shook like those of a newborn fawn.
“Focus, son, focus!”
Gasping in pain, knowing he could never be the son his father wanted or deserved, Caiden collapsed to the floor. Quickly, he hung his head, but not before seeing the sad shake of his father’s head and the resigned drop of his shoulders.
“Take a moment and grab some water, boy. When you return, we will move into Black Tiger Steals Heart. Well? What are you waiting for? Be quick about it or we’ll extend practice by another hour tonight! I’ve been working on an increasingly complex pattern that I think will help you develop your leg strength.”
As fast as his strained muscles allowed, Caiden pushed himself up from the cold hard floor. Limping, he dragged his broken body out the door toward the refreshing promise of the well.
He stepped out into the cool stillness of the night, complete darkness surrounding him. He began to walk the well-worn trail from instinct, his ears picking up the familiar sounds of the surrounding countryside. The soft chirring of crickets, the familiar hoot of the owl that nested in the small barn that housed the horses and milk cow, and the breeze rustling the trees that sheltered the small compound where he made his home with his father.
Caiden reached the stone well at the center of the compound. His arms screamed as he dropped the bucket down, filled it, and began to drag its weight upward. Once he had it to the top he undid the rope, emptied half of the water back into the well to ensure there would be no waste and carried the bucket back toward the barn that also served as their makeshift dojo.
Caiden knew better than to drink before offering refreshment to his master, his father. He had only made that mistake once. Honor and respect of elders came before self-fulfillment, which was viewed by his father as selfishness.
Upon his return Caiden moved into a kneeling position on the bamboo mat at the feet of his father. Carefully he placed the bucket in front of himself and proffered his father the dry ladle, proof that he had delayed his own gratification. Caiden knew when he saw the smile on his father’s face that he had passed the test. For everything with Trom was a test.
Pleased, Trom helped himself to the water before offering his son a few meager sips from the ladle. Too much indulgence was never a good thing.
Much too soon for Caiden the bucket was pushed aside, and practice began anew. Trom demonstrated the forms, forcing Caiden to repeat each one twenty times until each position was clearly imprinted into the boy’s mind and muscles. They moved from Black Tiger Steals Heart into Precious Crane Swims through Lotus, to Lion Opens Mouth, and onward to Angry Snake Hisses.
Countless hours afterward, beyond sunset but still far from dawn, when Caiden was both physically and mentally drained, Trom called a halt to the grueling and rigorous practice.
“Well done boy, let’s clean up, dry off, drink some water and then we’ll head inside to complete our daily meditation.”
Exhausted, Caiden allowed himself a small groan inside his head, careful to let nothing slip into Trom’s hearing. He was exhausted and knew meditation lay ahead. Still, he was determined to please his sire.
Entering the small house, Caiden’s eyes quickly sought his father. Trom was already seated in meditation position on the floor. His feet in lotus position, hands resting on his knees, eyes closed. Despite his apparent blindness, Trom spoke, “Be seated, son. We will focus only on the basic meditation before retiring this evening, it has been a long day.”
Caiden had yet to figure out how his father was able to sense his presence in the room. He recalled how he had made a game of sneaking into various rooms as a child, always trying to catch his father unaware. Despite everything, he was never able to mask his presence from Trom.
Slowly, his father’s voice began to fill his head. Softly, “Son, focus your body, align your spine with the meridians, bring your attention to your breath. Always, the breath.”
Caiden’s eyes popped open to the bright light of dawn flooding the room. For a moment he lay on his sleeping futon, blinking in confusion. Today was Sunday, his one day of rest and relaxation, the day he could sleep late and escape the drudgery of his usual chores. Then he felt the thrill of excitement as he remembered, Akira was coming.
Almost every Sunday, Caiden’s Uncle Shymon, Aunt Irial, and cousin, Akira, would visit the blacksmith and his son.
Eagerly, Caiden rolled up his sleeping mat and moved across the room to splash lukewarm water on his face from the basin that sat on the small chest in the corner of the room. Carelessly he raked his fingers through his hair and dressed in the simple loose cotton trousers and shirt that made up his daily uniform.
He could picture the flow of the day in his mind. His uncle and aunt would come slowly up the lane through the trees, their horses trudging along, stirring up the dry summer dust, their cart almost brushing the encroaching trees. They would pull up beside the smithy and Caiden and Trom would move forward to help his aunt dismount before he would lead the horses off to be fed and watered.
After the horses were cared for and housed in the barn with their own animals, they would make their way into the house. There everyone would sit cross legged around the small dining table, sipping steaming cups of green tea, and eating a midday meal while Shymon and Irial brought Trom up to date with the happenings from the local village.
When the meal and gossip were finally done, he and his cousin would join their parents in the field for their practice session. Depending on their performance and focus they would eventually win their freedom.
Occasionally his uncle or father might draw it out, joking about their abilities. In the end though, the result was always the same, admonitions to be careful, to return for the evening meal and then the blessed freedom of an afternoon exploring the surrounding forest.
Today, Caiden was looking forward to their freedom and adventures even more than he usually did. He had found something amazing during one of his solitary hikes through the trees and he hoped Akira would be as excited to see it as he had been when he found it.
Stepping into the living area, Caiden raised his eyes to the stove. As usual, no matter how early he rose, Trom was already gone, deep at work in the forge. So it was that Caiden set about making the morning meal.
Carefully, Caiden fanned the banked coals in the stove until the flames became hot against his face. He added the necessary wood from the tinder box and set about making the warm rice cereal that was a staple for their breakfast. By rote, he measured out the necessary grains and water, bringing the mixture to a boil, stirring, and then finding the perfect spot on the stove to allow the cereal to set.
While the rice simmered on the stovetop Caiden cubed the fresh mango and placed it in a bowl on the low wooden table in the center of the living area. He ladled fresh cream from the milk bucket into the pitcher and placed that beside the ripe fruit, then he went once more to the stove to check the readiness of the cereal.
Just as he was ladling the warm rice cereal into two carved wooden bowls and sprinkling it with the brown sugar his father loved, Trom walked through the door. His face was split by a tremendous smile, his blue eyes twinkling in his usually serious face.
“Son, wonderful news! We are ahead of schedule this year, the village order is well in hand. Now that doesn’t mean we can be lax; we need to keep pushing hard but barring any substantial errors things are looking better than they ever have before!”
Trom paused as his eyes took in his son at the stove, the mango on the table, and the pitcher of rich cream.
“Alright, boy, I know it’s Sunday and there are other things besides our work to occupy your thoughts. I’ll speak no more of it today. As soon as I’ve washed at the basin we’ll sit down to the table. It’s always a good day when a man can sit down with his son and enjoy his favorite breakfast!”
With that Trom made his way toward the bowl of warm water, glancing back at his son he said, “I hope you’re ready for a big day today. Your aunt, uncle and I have plenty of practice scheduled for you and Akira before your adventuring begins.”
All through breakfast Caiden wondered which of the myriad skills and pattern sets his father would have them practice. How much time would it take from the precious moments he and his cousin spent exploring the woods? Would he even be able to show her?
After everything was tidied and in place, Caiden found himself haunting the doorway hoping for a glimpse of the family he loved.
Suddenly, there was a burst of movement along the lane. Akira rode her mighty destrier, Akhal, into the clearing. Her dark hair blowing wildly as she leaned into her mount’s thick sweaty neck, pushing for even more speed. Reckless almost to a fault, she moved with the confidence of someone born to the saddle.
Immediately upon her heels Shymon and Irial appeared, driving their steeds forward with equal abandonment. The wagon had been left at home this week.
Caiden’s face broke into a smile of its own as he watched them race down the lane, there were no other people he loved more apart from his father, of course. And while they were not truly related to him by blood, they were family.
Caiden sometimes wondered idly where they had come from. He knew that they were family friends of Trom’s from the wars, but war was something his father never talked about. Both his aunt and uncle had fought as leaders in the First Lord’s military.
Trom had been a blacksmith for the army earlier on in his life. Maybe that was the connection? However it had come about, the friendship was longstanding and solid.
Caiden allowed his gaze to move past his cousin, to take in the sight of his uncle and aunt coursing down the path at a breakneck pace. At first glance one was forced to wonder how two such opposite individuals had ever found one another.
Uncle Shymon was a great big bear of a man. Aunt Irial often joked that all she needed to do was cover him with some tar and fur and she’d have her very own pet bear to do tricks for her. Indeed, everything about Shymon seemed big. His great shaggy red beard sprouted wildly from his large bluff face, his hair, no longer bound in a warrior’s knot, and as red as his beard, flowed in massive waves halfway down his back.
Shymon’s laugh was as expansive as he was, booming from him and echoing through whatever room he happened to be in. He was loud, carefree, and friendly. His uncle never lacked for company, always having someone willing to share a pint of beer, a round of cards, or a table with him.
Despite this affability, his uncle was not a man to be underestimated. Shymon was the magistrate for the local village which required him to deal with all manner of criminals and to assign consequences that fit the crime. It was in these judgments that one came to understand how he had earned his warrior name, Red Death. Shymon’s justice was swift and sure. In keeping with his sense of honor, his uncle served as both magistrate and executioner.
Shifting his gaze to his aunt, it was easy to see where Akira had inherited her beauty. While Shymon was a great bear of a man, Irial stood no taller than five feet. Slender and soft spoken, she gave the appearance of being fragile and delicate.
One only needed to spend an hour or two with his uncle and aunt to realize that Irial was no wilting flower overwhelmed by the power of the sun. Her eyes could pierce your soul, quickly putting even the largest unruly young man in line. As the village’s local healer, Irial was often forced to deal with people at their worst. She was well known to whisper soothing noises to a patient, tell a funny story to lighten a tense situation, and negotiate a peaceful end to a local squabble. Barring that, she was not above twisting an ear or delivering a swift kick when gentler methods would not prevail.
Even though they appeared so different, they really were well suited to one another. This loud overly large man and his small quiet wife. The perfect match.
With a start, Caiden realized that the trio was almost upon him.
Akira in the lead, drew his gaze. Although they were of a similar age, she was as different from him as anyone could possibly be. While he shambled through life, fettered by his crippled body, Akira marched boldly, her body both slender and strong. Her long dark hair, very similar to her mother’s, fell in a wild tangle down her back. Her eyes, a striking violet, conveyed an unshakeable sense of self-confidence.
Akira was widely recognized for her beauty among the villagers. This beauty, along with the powerful station of her parents, guaranteed that she would be sought after by the greatest nobles from across the lands.
But it was more than her beauty that drew people to his cousin like moths to a flame. Akira was one of those rare people whose inner beauty more than matched her exterior. She was the first to offer comfort to a hurt child, to feed a hungry peasant, and to protect those weaker than herself.
For Caiden, that was not what defined her the most. It was the fact that Akira never treated him with anything other than respect. There was never any sense of pity from his cousin. In their many adventures together there was often a sense of extreme competitiveness. Whether it was climbing trees, participating in a foot race through the trails, or swimming across the lake, Akira never let up. Much like Trom, she pushed him to be better than he was, to strive and move beyond the physical limitations of his body. He was her equal and for this simple reason, Caiden loved his cousin.
Suddenly, they were upon him, their mounts breathing heavily. Their laughter filling the air. Lithely, Akira sprung from Akhal’s back, landing softly on her feet. Trom was at Irial’s side, his hands around her waist to lift her to the ground. And then Caiden felt himself lifted, spun, crushed in a bone jarring hug while his uncle pounded his back with a fist the size of a ham. The day he looked forward to week after week, day after day, had finally begun.