Saying morals are relative destroys our inner strength. And the strength of story. It unravels the framework, the structure, and the heart of the story, which ought to tell us something about how relativism works – or doesn’t – in us.
If we believe relativism, it’s like trying to fight on dry dunes. The sand is never stable, giving us nothing to rely on. That tyrannical belief begins in us, when we redefine, excuse, and explain what we can about our circumstances in attempts to justify our actions. Relativism is the mark of the bad guys. There is no solid ground to stand on, no reliability. It is false, deceptive ground. We can build no lasting framework, no structure here. There is no place of inner strength to find. Wyldling Trials and The Shadow Elf’s Mission reveal inner strength in their good characters because they fight on the rock, or a least toward the rock. They are fighting relativistic thinking. That fight between the relativistic villain and the underdog who says, ‘no, the same rules apply to you and everyone,’ is a forge. Often a forge of pain.
As we have said, there is always some kind of pain in training: from that of tearing, expanding muscle, to rigorous trial of spirit, to heart-pain that makes room for compassion or which turns that which is weak inside to steel. … Hence, forging forces are needed in the inner arena. The training arena, the gladiatorial arena, and the liberating arena of ideas where spirits strive through the ages—all have served this purpose. When a fantasy story combines the external elements of training, the contest, and the gaze of witnesses with high inner stakes of the moral war, we have a great story and fly through the pages . . . –Fantastic Journey pg. 145
You can’t have any kind of story that rings true, that has a framework, or structure, or heart without objective morality, which is a rock to us. What inner strength we have comes from what we stand on, from our rock. We must choose, we do choose, relative truth or objective truth in every circumstance. Will we tell ourselves tales or the truth?Oddly enough, the more relativistic a character in a story is, the more we hate them. As I say in Fantastic Journey, “Principles, or their lack, drive the blade in every world.” We use the blade in a right or wrong way. Every moral rock, all reality attests to this, even the reflections of reality we call story.
What ground do you choose to fight from? What is your rock? Or rather “who” is your rock? Yourself or???
Until next time,
Azalea – Crossover, Find the Eternal, the Adventure
People sense inner strength in people around them and in stories. That inner strength of right leads to fairness and stability. “Fair” means what is right, what is just. Readers tend to be attracted to good stories where the author defends the right and the characters are deeply invested in the outcome. Aren’t we all interested in being treated fairly?
Defending the right always appeals to us deeply, when it is our right in question. But what about when it is another’s right in question, and we are in the wrong? Then the measure of “fair” must be the same for both, or it is not just.
Acknowledging the truth of wrong and taking responsibility for where our actions lead is a major part of fairness and justice. It opens the door to mercy and enables change. It starts with telling the truth to ourselves.
“She. The witch. Did something to me.” I coughed as if there still might be a chance to purge myself of it, but even now, I could feel it settling into my heart, weakening me. If only I’d listened to God right away, rather than allowing myself to revel in my misery and anger.
In a culture that increasingly rewards split tongues, encourages the insanity of lying to yourself and others about gender and your very identity, approving evil in so many forms, “right” and “fair” are a breath of fresh air. Don’t let anyone redefine those words and make a good word mean something bad. Challenge what they say. Is it true? Is Social Justice really just? Is it right? Is it fair?
A good story cuts through the confusion, lasers through the vague screen of responsibility shifting, the darkness of untruth, and rebukes evil. It shows us what a just world could be, what it should be, and picks a rose for us from the garden of heaven to give us an inkling of what the future holds if we pursue true justice, fairness, and mercy.
A great story helps us understand our own confusions as we follow our heroines and heroes through their confusion, and see through it to the truth. An excellent story clarifies right and wrong, enacts fairness, justice, and mercy. It helps us see the truth of many things.
Jenelle Schmidt’s Steal the Morrow illustrates this well.
Olifur hung his head. “I didn’t take the shot,” he choked. “I couldn’t. I had my arrow ready, but…”
“Why didn’t you shoot?”
The gentle question startled him and Olifur looked up, confused. He considered the question. Why hadn’t he taken the shot? The moments of terror flooded back to him and he swallowed hard. “I couldn’t tell which one was Bet,” he said. “I didn’t want to hit her.”
“That doesn’t sound like fear taking over,” Fritjof said. “That sounds like wisdom.”
Olifur frowned, his emotions a tangle of shame and confusion. He couldn’t speak. Words failed to materialize.
Fritjof kept speaking. “You might have frozen for a moment,” he allowed. “But you didn’t let it take over. You acted. You drew your bow, but when you realized you might hurt a friend instead of your foe, you waited. Instead, you saw that you could help me, and you did. Lad, you didn’t run away, nor did you stand there frozen and unable to move. You did what you could with the tools you had. Probably saved my life and Bet’s with your actions.”
This snippet of a Fantasy Gaslamp adventure has the earmarks of inner strength, justice, fairness, mercy, and defending the right, all over it. How many earmarks can you find?
So while we search out fantasy adventures, and fight alongside the struggle for good in their pages, remember our true strength and ability and training, and the moral battle. And whether we are strong or weak in body, winning our battles first lies in the unseen realm. Then that war spills into the seen. We should be ready to fight as best we may in both worlds to defend the right.
Conflict in the spiritual arena makes or breaks a story’s characters. Conflict in that arena also builds up or tears down something in us as we read. That thing is goodness. How do we face the inner battle, how do they face it? Much depends on how that battle is portrayed. Through the characters, their actions and reactions, is the author of the story leading us on an adventure of hope, or through a tale of despair?
Characters we admire can inspire us to goodness, or characters can drag us through the ugliest levels of inhuman evil. I started to watch the series 1883, and I pulled it out of the dvd player very soon. When I watch or read something I want to be encouraged, warned, taught, inspired, and given strength to go on by a real look at people, not have indifference to darkness and evil rubbed in my face, and worse, my spirit. All we have to do to know evil intimately is to look inside. We don’t need anyone to tell us how corrupt we are.
People who try to rewrite our perception of history and claim it is valid because it is reality, are not doing us any favors. I especially hate it when they try to make out that people of past ages were as bad as we are, and end up showing the worst of us. Is that going to do anything good? Is it true?
We enjoy our heroes and heroines, handsome and beautiful or not, whether they overcome together or are pitted against their enemy alone. Their spirit, their strengths, and yes, sometimes even their weaknesses, endear them to us—when they show themselves human, yet with a capacity for greatness. [That is reality. All of us have the capacity to rise above greed, hate, and evil in all its forms, in Christ. We have been given the gift of change. Story is about change in ourselves and changing things.] Things we all wish for. We all wish to be brave, to overcome wind and wave and monster—to be a hero to someone, even if only in the ocean of fantasy. –Fantastic Journey pg. 51
Elisa Rae’s newest release showcases a conflict that shows beautifully how the spiritual arena can change characters for the better, from the lowest verbal spat to running for your life. Whether in a literal arena or that of a court, the stakes are high, and every challenge gifts us the capacity for growth.
“I long to be free.” I blushed. “He says I am a fool, wishing for something I can’t comprehend, but I understand enough. I wish to make my own decisions and not consider what would please my master.” I clasped my hands at my waist and bowed my head briefly. “You probably agree with him.”
“Quite the contrary.” Greyson glowered at the far wall. “Freedom is precious.”
After a moment of stilted silence, he spoke again. “Be at peace. Bartle will see that Silda does nothing to harm you when reporting to her mistress. And if the servant doesn’t attend to the warnings, I will see to it personally.” His ominous tone sounded almost malevolent.
I watched his expression for a few moments, debating what kind of fae he was. There were so many possibilities. He was too large for a sprite and too small for an ettin, not to mention possessing the wrong coloring. It would be rude to ask, and considering clothing completely covered him form the neck down, he seemed to be possibly hiding his true nature.
“Lord Greyson.” A halfling with glasses tucked into the wild thatch of hair at the top of his head bowed to Greyson.
“Lord?” Panic tightened my chest. Had I been overly familiar with a noble of the Unseelie court?
“I have need of your verification of this order for three hundred barrels of Tiren blackberry wine,” the halfling explained, holding up an invoice.
“Pardon me, my lord.” I curtseyed. “I really must return to work.” I hurried off without waiting for a response, my heart thundering in my chest. An Unseelie nobleman–I had been casually conversing with a member of the court. What a fool he must think me.
The Unseelie’s Wallflower
Because freedom truly is a precious thing, fighting for it carries the most risk. And the highest reward. Never stop fighting for it. Above all, for the freedom to do right, to do good. And doing that often calls out evil. Be wise as serpents . . . There is a wise and foolish way to wage war, of course.
The Unseelie’s Wallflower is a great tale, and one you will enjoy if you like stories of fae and humans and clean, adventurous romance. You can check it out here.
If you can’t get that one at the moment, read one of your old tried and true stories where the battle was hard, the conflict stiff, and the reward worth it all. If not immediately, in the end.
Not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good. Now there’s a reality possible in the arena. Think about what helps you overcome in your arenas of conflict. What stories stiffen your spine when you are in the grip of the enemy and everything hangs in the balance?
For many of us, beauty has the strength of a Siren call, to put it in common terms. In other words beauty draws us like a lodestone, a powerful thirst, the call of the West, our true North.
This applies to the beauty of good things in the moral sense, the beauty of form in the physical sense, and the beauty of being in the spiritual sense. When one of these is present in a person, a flower, a creature it draws us. We sense by the beauty of its being that it is real. When all three capture our awareness we are a goner. In the best way.
Some things are a blessing to lose ourselves to. Beauty is one of them.
A friend of mine is releasing a book May 30th that shows us one aspect of beauty.
A purple flower swayed in the breeze within reach. I touched the smooth petal as if it might comfort me. I sensed its hearty energy within. So calm. At peace. Doing what it was made to do—use its beauty and invigorating scent to attract. It had no worries. How I envied the plant for that. I wanted what it had. The petal in my fingers stiffened and browned. I released the plant as if I’d killed it and been caught with the murder weapon in hand. –The King’s Curse, by J. F. Rogers
Do you see the context? The attraction of beauty and our ability to destroy it, even unintentionally. What is the cure for our curse? I think you may find some of the answers in my friend’s book.
I challenge the idea in the blanket statement that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Depending, again, on context, this may mean only that people have different beliefs about what constitutes the beauty of form, etc. In that context, of the beauty of form, it may be partially true in the sense of perceived beauty. Still, it is much more true that many things and people and forms are beautiful in their created selves, whether we ever see them or not and despite what we think of them.
This makes my heart sing, that beauty exists. That it exists and thrives outside of me, even despite me. Great stories show us beauties “that pierce like swords” as C. S. Lewis has said.
He says further of The Fellowship of the Ring, “Even now I have left out almost everything–the silvan leafiness, the passions, the high virtues, the remote horizons. Even if I had space I could hardly convey them. And after all the most obvious appeal of the book is perhaps also its deepest: ‘there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valor, and great deeds that were not wholly vain’. Not wholly vain–it is the cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment.” Isn’t that truth beautiful? About illusion, disillusionment, and our present fight against evil? Are we fighting?
All these beauties are worth fighting for, worth seeing and appreciating. Imaginary worlds are wide places of ideas, where the truths of the unseen can be painted in awestriking colors, such as in The King’s Curse by J F Rogers.
As I mention in Fantastic Journey,“Are we not seeking the beauty we have tasted somewhere, that strength that came to us at some time, that moment when a scent drifted past, as if it were a touch or a thought from another world? That time we were reading and a whole universe opened up, which had never existed for us before?” – pg. 10
Story impacts us by reflecting choices and results, thus helping us see the difference we can make in the world of the book, and in our own sphere.
Maybe that is another reason we love the adventure of voyaging in the fantasy realm. For the magic and mystery of discovery, where choices matter and we impact everything we touch. –Fantastic Journey pg. 74
How do you think stories reflect choices and consequences and the reality of life?
Well, some things are clear. We cheer when the bad choices of villains bring the consequences of justice to their door. Or, if there are mitigating circumstances that make us weigh justice and mercy, then our brains smoke a little, which is all to the good. Our brains are too flabby, and in need of exercise. Whether the villain gets his just deserts, or another chance with a helping of his deserts, or simply overwhelming mercy, choice always brings results.
The choice to pursue what is good and right brings fruit also, including the riches of goodness itself to ourselves and others. If good choices also brings pain at times because of the reaction of a villain, at least it is not pain brought because we chose badly. For our bad choices harm others, even if on so small a level that they simply care what happens to us.
Sometimes the reflection of story is about the choice of another on our behalf, after they see our choices. Such a story is E.G. Moore’s The Last Dragonfly. Etoiny chooses to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She chooses knowledge instead of the status quo. True knowledge, after weighing good and evil, not simply what she is told. She decides to allow the wide world in, instead of remain in comfortable insularity. Others around her make their choices. One will follow a heart of greed. Another will see the error of thinking Etoiny is a foolish child. One will love her to the end, and the last will discover what they missed. But there is hope for the future, in more opportunities, choices, and change. Though there is a point where choice may not be changed.
We cannot choose our circumstances, but we can, we must, we do always choose our reaction to our circumstances. Is it not almost always so in story, and life? The desire of our heart influences our will, our will determines our choice, and our choice always brings fruit. But thank God, He gives us the gift of mercy, and change. As it says in the movie, The Redemption of Henry Meyers, the greatest gift of God to man is change. I love that. The fact that we can change, we can do right, we can be kind when our hearts are changed. It comes down to choice.
I am thankful for mercy. I am thankful for justice. I am thankful for goodness. Today, how many times must I choose between good and evil? Stories bring us face to face with choice, result, and their impact. A glimpse into another life can rip away our excuses, and show us our own faces. It can also show us what we want to become, who we want to be like. Let’s make heroes and heroines, in both worlds. May choice change us.
One such hero that comes to mind immediately is Jonathan Renshaw’s Dawn of Wonder, The Wakening Bk 1. If you haven’t read the story of Aidan’s brave coming of age, you’re missing out. A curious, vulnerable, indefatigable hero, his tale is humorous, epic, and delves deep into choices. All at a good pace.
But what do you think gives strength to good choice, to bad choice? What chains a result to its choice? How are we bound by choice? How are we liberated by it?
As Alice Ivinya says in Crown of Glass, released yesterday, “I wonder if sometimes it is hard to know what is right and what is wrong until we’re forced to fight for it. And hard to appreciate something until we are forced to wait for it. Maybe sometimes, the darkness has to happen for us to understand the nature of light.”
In other words, often we don’t pay attention to right and wrong, or think deeply about it until forced to fight for the right, against wrong. And darkness shows light for what it is.
What choices do the heroes and heroines you read about make? How do they influence your thinking? And your choices?
Strength begins in the spiritual arena. Our Stormpoint for this month is how conflict in fiction spills into battle in the inner arena.
Inner strength draws evil, or pits us against it, as our authors’ books this month attest. C. J. Milacci’s Fugitive of Talionis has a heroine who is top of her class as a kidnapped trainee but who is just at the beginning of her inner journey that will strengthen her or break her. That’s the thing about hard circumstances. They make us more bitter and defeated, or wider of heart, stronger in both spirit and body. For each affects the other, as the inner arena touches, even directly feeds, the outer parts of us.
Paths of fantasy, under water or over wold, take us to interesting places and wondrous spaces, not to mention introducing us to fascinating people where every character is involved in the battle we all fight.
Fantastic Journey – The Soul of Speculative Fiction and Fantasy Adventure Pg. 8
Gaining the skills to survive, the will to conquer, the hope that makes us look up, the courage to fight, all drive us to become strong. And the simple yearning for justice, that evil will not always rule by force and fear, that also strengthens us.
But where are the roots of spiritual strength, and what are the results? The roots of every strength are in truth. The true truth of your circumstances. The truth of what you think. The truth of what you believe. The truth you act on. The truth of what is real, not what you wish were real.
“Call me crazy,” Nika says as we walk around some old rubble, “but I thought you were going to share a little more than that.”
I rub the back of my neck. “Remember Ava?”
“The girl who died in the river?”
“Of course I remember her. Not something easily forgotten.”
She goes quiet, and I can tell she’s replaying the scene in her mind same as I am. I can still see Ava slipping from my grasp into the clutches of the river. Her lifeless body washing up on shore hours later.
“What about her?”
“Leddington is her hometown.” I let the words sink in.
I lick my lips. “I need to tell her family what happened. Tell her sister that with her last words she wanted her to know that she loved her. You get that, right.”
She nods. “Yeah. I’ll back you up.” . . .
“I need to do it, Nika. But how can I face them when I’m the reason she’s dead?”
Nika stops and grabs my arm. “Bria. You’re not the reason Ava’s dead. She drowned because of Commander Ark, because of Colonel Valarius. Not because of you.”
“Maybe.” I shrug. “But I couldn’t save her.” I stare off into the distance.
Nika squeezes my arm that she’s still holding. “But you tried.” . . .
“I just wish I could have done more. Wish I could have held onto her. Kept her alive.”
“It’s not your fault. But I get it.” Nika ducks under a branch. “You’re not the only one with regrets. I have them too.”
I look over at her in time to see a flash of pain sweep over her face.
“But we can’t let those regrets rule our lives. God’s forgiven us both, and He has a path for us to walk in. If we allow ourselves to be hindered by everything we wish we could change or undo we’ll never really be able to walk in the freedom of God’s plan for our lives.”
I let her words sink in, not sure how to respond. Silence stretches between us, but somehow I think we both need it. As we hike the last miles of the forest, I can’t help but wonder what Nika regrets.
Fugitive of Talionis – ARC
Turning from the false and following what is true gives us strength and leads to more strength.
The impact of choice remains to be seen. Candace Kade’s Enhanced demonstrates this.
Note: The first part of this post was supposed to be live January 15th, but my website was down. So please forgive the two-parts.
It is here! Jaye L Knight’s Daican’s Heir! Or almost. It’s due to release the 17th.
For three years, the Resistance has suffered under oppression—first from Emperor Daican and now from his daughter. In her quest for vengeance, Davira has ripped Arcacia apart, and more blood is spilled every day. Newly married, all Jace and Kyrin want is to be able to live their lives in peace. In order to do that, they must help restore the rightful heir to Arcacia’s throne.
Carrying the weight of everyone’s hopes for the future, Daniel works every day to be the leader and king they have all fought so hard to see him become. With the Resistance and their allies from all across Ilyon united behind him, he prepares for a final confrontation with Davira. But to do so will require facing the full might of Arcacia’s military and Davira’s wrath.
When Jace and Kyrin become the primary targets of her ravenous hatred, Daniel finds himself in a race against time to stop his sister and avoid the bloodbath she is determined to unleash. Can he find a way to protect his loved ones and bring peace to Ilyon or will Davira succeed in bringing them all to their knees and destroying everything they hold dear?
Pre-order available now. It’s releasing February 17th!
Recently we talked about how fantasy inspires us. One thing it inspires in me is inner strength. Good courage.
Over the coming year I plan to touch on the following. What is inner strength? What is it’s impact in the spiritual arena? How does choice enter into the issue? How does beauty affect inner strength? What forges our inner strength? Villains are also strong. Can we tell good power vs the villainous? How do we sense it in others? We must also forge the steel of our metaphorical blades. Why moral relativity weakens us, and the reality of morality is essential. What a lack of inner strength results in, and what untold riches inner strength gives to us. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Right now it is time to dig deeper into what that elusive inner strength is.
At root, it is the ability to hold to truth against opposition. It is not stubborn blindness or wishful thinking. For the truth must be searched out, and tested. If we find a lie, it must be abandoned. If what we find is true, we must hold to it, no matter the odds. Inner strength is also the will to fight for what is right.
Truth must be searched out. The beauty, the mystery, and the adventure are vital to our spirits. Fantastic journeys invite us to search beyond what we see for truth, to dig deeper for courage. –Fantastic Journey pg. 313
When you dig deeper, what do you believe inner strength is?
Apprentice Level – Creative Point, progress excerpt from Falcon Heart revision.
“It is a dolphin. It will not hurt you!” Abul swam beside them, his dark arms graceful in the sea foam. “You can swim, you eel!” Kyrin yelped, and shoved Abul. He pushed down on her shoulders and dunked her. The sea beast slid by under the water; sunlight played over its back. Abruptly it turned to a speeding shadow, disappearing toward the depths. She pulled herself to Abul’s ankles and clung, dragging him under. She ran out of air, and came up. Alaina and the ships wheeled by. Abul grabbed her from behind, and they went under again, spinning. Would the dolphin come back? Kyrin broke the surface, and pulled her clinging hair from her face, laughing. She stopped short. Dolphins ringed them in a great circle, splashing in and out of the water. Leaping and crying in their creaky voices, they parted the waves around the scrambling clot of swimming slaves in a great, flashing wheel. For a moment one sea beast stood on its tail five yards from Tae, who towed Winfrey toward shore with an arm about her. Winfrey’s eyes shone. One blink and another—and the dolphins dived and were gone. Alaina looked after them with longing. Kyrin ducked her head under the heaving swell. Retreating clicks, wails, and squeaks came to her over the sea-sound. She held her breath as long as she could and came up with a great gasp. Panting beside her, Abul leaned back with a sudden whoop, water dripping from his chin. With a mock scowl she chucked a handful of seawater at him to cover the warm wet welling in her eyes. The dolphins were free and beautiful. While they wove through the water the slaves were taken out of themselves, caught up by that power, that beauty. Winfrey smiled, floating on her back, and Tae nodded at something she whispered. Did they feel the surge of sweetness, the almost-sorrow of longing, as if something here would dance in them forever? – Falcon Heart, pg. 95, 96.
Revision is coming along, as you can see! We are currently at pg. 152
This month of March I’ve been working on Path of the Warrior, the first entry in Book III of the Falcon Chronicle series.
Here is a sneak peek:
We wrestle with memories to find meaning.Without knowledge we live in emptiness, for life and death have no purpose. Memories give sight through the mists of time. Where do I come from and where am I going? The watermarked parchment rustles. I read words written in quill and ink and a man’s soul.
The night was dark and warm as blood. Unseasonably warm, as the maples had not leafed in the courtyard. On nights such as these the tiger walked unheard. Tae Chisun rolled the silk-smooth paper in his hands and tucked it into the message case.
He took the lamp from his table and handed it to his messenger. He did not mind darkness and silence, not when he had his sword and his hands and feet. “Rangdo, run fast, and we may yet preserve our people.”
His student nodded, his thin face sober, and ducked out into the driving rain. Embroidered with black sigils of officialdom, the band tied about his head directed water away from his eyes and down his back.
Tae rested his hand on his long sword, the hilt familiar under his fingers.
To his people of the Land of the Morning Calm, the tiger symbolized strength and protection. His brothers in the hwarang, the full flower of the warriors of his people, worshipped that tiger spirit, and followed Seon, the Zen. They fought with sword and bow, hand and foot, with a prowess that even the Hsuing Nu heard of on their far Northern steppes and respected.
Now he must fight with his heart, mayhap every drop of his blood—against enemies within and without.
Did his messenger know he carried Tae’s life and that of his people in his hands? Tae resisted the compulsion to draw his blade. It would be an easy thing to follow, to ensure loyalty.
He let his fingers slip from the sword hilt. He had known before he began his message to Jun-ho Tsing, rebel kuksun of the five thousand massed outside the gate, that one rangdo with a false tongue walked among his two hundred. Tae’s heart beat heavy in his chest.
During training, his students emulated his every hand strike, feint, and sword-blow as he led them in the honored techniques of Subak and Taekyon as the sun rose over the rim of the world, glinting flame on the water of the river they practiced beside. Over time they grew strong. Their feet flashed high in jumping kicks and sent their mounted opponents’ hats of horsehair spinning to the ground. The punches of the most adept cracked ribs like dry pine—could crush an attacker’s throat—shock the heart so it ceased to beat. Their open hand strikes knocked a man senseless, disrupting the nervous system, or in precise combination brought the touch of death.
His rangdo—two hundred students who aspired to become hwarang, as he was. Tae had thought every one of them sought to serve his kuksun’s family, their village, their land. Sought to serve with the same honor as the favored Tae Chisun—who held the hand and heart of their kuksun’s daughter, Huen.
Tae’s breath stopped a moment. Favored. Yes, he was. And with the dawn he would be Kuksun Paekche Kim’s most esteemed hwarang—or he would be dead.
Surely his most trusted messenger was true. Would his rangdo carry his offer to Jun-ho Tsing of the five thousand? Or would he try to rise above his rank and take the message elsewhere, yearning for Kuksun Paekche Kim’s favor? Did his messenger believe with the kuksun that it was an honorable path to fight to the last child? The other villages would follow Paekche’s example.
Tae grunted. Taxes always went to an overlord, be it king or kuksun. Better that it was to rebel Jun-ho Tsing than the lord of death. The village had little food left and many rangdo, who ate much. Tae swallowed. He had not tasted the hot bite of Huen’s fermented cabbage and spice for days.
He stepped out into the wet dark and shut the door. Who knew the undercurrents between the villages better than its protecting kuksun, with his hwarang and rangdo warriors? The rebel Jun-ho Tsing would need them all to oversee his new land and people. So Kuksun Paekche Kim might live, and his brothers, down to the lowest rangdo. Satisfaction tugged at Tae’s mouth. Life—and his Huen’s smile.
He would see her live—if it meant his own death. His mouth tightened. He had a task yet to complete. Rain misted against his face, the budding maples smelled sweet.
He carefully wrapped his sword-hilt against the wet and slipped away.
Molten fire shone along his blade in the light of the lamps from his old master’s open door. The door yet quivered on its hinges.
Tae kept to the shadow.
Standing under the square door-arch in his leather and cane armor, Woon Chong said nothing. His mouth pulled up in a sneer and he drew his weapon, stepping down to meet Tae. No one stirred behind the carved porch pillars, no voice or clatter of dish came from within the house.
Tae retreated farther into the dark; the light must not blind him. He kept his weight even, not lifting his feet from the mud. He must feel his way along the earth; avoid the stray branch, the deceptive puddle, the rock that would turn.
Woon Chong shifted his heavy frame, circling him, a floating feather. Noiseless, he lifted his blade from his side, slicing up and across Tae’s body in an adder-swift strike. But Tae was not there to be gutted.
Woon Chong rained heavy blows on him, precise with hate. Steel grated on steel and sparked. Tae’s blade gave before his hwarang master’s, deflect, attack, and deflect—until the moment Woon extended his arm. Tae struck his wrist. Woon Chong’s sword spun away and thudded to earth.
Tae locked Woon’s arm behind him, his blade at his throat. His master did not dare try to throw him. His chest heaved under Tae’s hand; his breath whistled hoarsely. Not for Tae, the mountain-cat playing with the mouse.
He gripped him hard. “I am sorry.”
When Tae returned to his command post the rain had washed the blood from his hands and the tears from his face. Dawn was near. The traitor had struggled and pleaded. But he could not let Woon Chong live. Such a one would betray again.
Tae swallowed hard. The same might soon be said of him.
And they must not find him with Huen, or she would be accused. When he first saw her he had been rangdo to hwarang Woon Chong.
That morning, his master ordered him to display the way of the sword with one of his brothers, to show their skill before the kuksun’s daughter, who walked through the courtyard.
She had been such a bright spirit, her cheeks soft as a slender peach, her deep brown eyes reminding him of those of a water-deer. Her words to her maid when she saw them, before she brought her hand to her mouth, were swift as the red that crept up her neck, a rosy blush on her golden skin.
With a sudden rush, Tae had disarmed his brother in a moment. Huen laughed at the surprised rangdo’s stare of disbelief at his empty hand where his sword had been. And red-faced Woon Chong ordered Tae to strike his brother with the flat of his sword. Tae stopped after three blows.
Woon yelled at him to continue, and Tae bowed, held out his sword hilt and said, “I did not teach my brother the sword aright.” He bent across his brother’s back and took the rest of his master’s instruction.
As Tae returned from washing his bloody back after the sword lesson, he contrived to pass near Huen. He overheard her quiet aside to her maid. “That rangdo has a spirit about him. A tiger, yet with the gentleness of the deer …”
She said it thoughtfully, words that would be cause for blood coming from any other mouth. Tae thought her rather perceptive. He had bowed deeply, straightened, and met the sardonic gaze of his kuksun, who stood just beyond his daughter.
Tae touched the rough wood of his command post door. From the beginning, Woon Chong had sought to protect his place as hwarang, driving the rangdo under him mercilessly, without care for life, limb, or purpose. No warrior among them attracted their kuksun’s notice without paying a price to Woon Chong. From then on, Tae performed his master’s toughest tasks. They had made him strong.
Tae bowed his head. Even now he did not lift his sword without reason—and held it until his task was finished. His master had been the last.
He wiped his eyes. Woon Chong had thought to kill those hwarang of rank around him and sell the villages to Jun-ho Tsing. To gain a new kuksun who would place him at his side, as Kuksun Paekche Kim had not. One who had reached enlightenment would call him demonic—one who walked with greed and hate.
Tae stepped inside the command post, wiped his blade, and slid it slowly back into its wood sheath. His own journey had not begun in truth.
Before his test to become hwarang he went to the Chin mainland to study scribing, medicine, and the arts of war. His questions had been many. Why did he yearn for joy? Why did life and the earth feel broken?
In the Chin place of learning he found answers to his questions of the stars. A man, shunned by the rest, had showed him the Book of the I AM.
Tae settled himself against the command post wall and laid his sword before his feet. Seon, as his people put it, did give power. Inhuman strength, to both flesh and spirit—but never the power to dispel his darkness. That grew ever heavier.
Tae smiled wryly. Strange that one could seek enlightenment, the end of delusion, and be so deluded. Caught in so much darkness that there was no light to see it.
The pages of the Book had reflected as a pool the ugliness of his hate for Woon Chong and the other dark things crowding within him. Turning his face toward the Buddha, drinking the power of Zen, did not change their existence. He caught back a short laugh.
And after what he discovered, he could no longer petition the spirits of river and hill or follow the way of the Zen. He had beaten the man who asked him why a warrior feared the truth.
But it haunted him, would not leave him. The promise of meaning and purpose kept him close until he read the Book further and was answered.
The Master of the stars gave the path of meaning to all things he created.
Tae’s throat closed. He had known he could never attain rightness as the Master of the stars was right in all things. Compassionate, just, pure, strong, the Master of the stars was good. Loving men, he existed in himself. Tae was evil, and condemned. But then love and sacrifice expunged his darkness.
He knew swords. The Book’s edge was keen, dividing the pure from the impure. But unlike any other sword, the Word within the Book’s pages also healed.
The Master of the stars paid his blood-soaked debt and sent him on to live, to love, to grow in joy. He was not master of his own fate. He was not God. But the Master of all cared about him, walked with him, taught him to wield the sword in both worlds, in the realm of spirit and flesh. The pieces of the universe slid into place. He had asked pardon of the man who showed him the Book, and they parted as brothers.
Tae tipped his head back against the wall and shut his eyes. He took truth and left the power of Seon, the Zen. But it was not comfortable, dividing intentions, and hearts, and men. Though life held much suffering, his lord overcame it. His Master would bring him to his land of joy in the end, where suffering ceased forever. That time might be very near.
The thin cane door bent under the blows. “Open, in the Kuksun’s name!”
Tae lifted his head from his knees. The door burst open.
They took his sword and seized him, two men for each arm. Six guards marched him between them into Kuksun Paekche Kim’s presence.
Tae knelt one moment before the guards forced him down. He would die with few faces to witness his dishonor—Paekche gave him that. He raised his head.
Paekche’s mouth was flat, his black eyes hard. A frown wrinkled his wide brow beneath his black hair in its simple warrior’s knot, bound by a green silk band stitched with the sigil of the house of Kim.
Had Huen’s hands fashioned that band with pride and joy? Tonight her father would bring her sorrow, whatever he decided. Tae let out his breath. If his blood were of the house of Kim, however distant, it would be easier to convince his kuksun. But for that there was no remedy.
“My Kuksun.” He leaned forward, baring his neck in trust, whether his kuksun raised his sword above him or no.
“Why?” Paekche growled. The stinging blow of his hand numbed Tae’s cheek and rocked him back on his heels. The carefully shaven lines of Paekche’s beard framed the sides of his square chin.
“How could you give us to Jun-ho! Do you seek higher rank so fiercely? Is the spirit of the tiger dead in you? Has the leader of my hwarang turned his back to his enemies?”
“I do not give our people to Jun-ho Tsing, I give them life.” Tae’s jaw hardened. “A man’s heart is not determined by his rank. And the tiger—in spirit we run together, and bow to the Master of the stars alone.”
“So, you raise your name beside the tiger’s, and seek my seat?”
“No, most honorable Kuksun. I fight for our land, and for you. That both may endure.”
Paekche paced back and forth on the dais. His silk slippers whispered over the polished wood. His robes loosed the scent of cloves, star-anise, and musk.
“Did your lord of all not die without lifting his hand for his kingdom?” Paekche’s voice was harsh.
Tae could not stop his back from stiffening. The guards pressed down on his shoulders, but let him rise to his knees, so long as he did not lift his gaze in this moment. He strove to keep the heat from his voice. “He died for us, honorable Kuksun. And he rose from death to build his kingdom—in our hearts—in any who wish purity and strength.” He let out a weary breath. “He holds my heart in his hand.”
“As I, your Kuksun, hold your body.”
“Yes. As does Huen, who holds my heart also.” Tae lifted his gaze. “My Kuksun—I seek Jun-ho Tsing’s face that you and Huen may live, and the house of Kim. He will need you. There is no need for blood.”
Had Jun-ho Tsing even received his rangdo’s message? Two might not be enough. Tae prayed with all his might one got through. “As for the stolen burial land, though our ancestors remain in our memory, bones cannot speak, or touch, or laugh. Their dust sleeps; though that earth is sacred, would they not rather we walk in life, than for our blood to water the ground where none can touch them?”
Paekche lifted his hand. The men holding Tae’s arms stiffened, their fingers binding as steel. The sixth guard stepped forward, a moon-blade halberd in his hands.
It was his answer. Tae’s chest tightened and his breath came short. He bowed his head. He had one thing left to lose.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt of Falcon Dagger Bk III, Path of the Warrior
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