By the time the knock came the next morning, Sh'ra was dressed and ready. She would not give Le'un the satisfaction of catching her off guard again. Bracing herself, she opened the door.
"Good morning, Sh'ra" Hey'at greeted her with a kind smile.
The walkway over his shoulder was deserted. He was alone.
"Where is Le'un?" She asked hesitantly, not ready to let her guard down,
"His work keeps him elsewhere this morning. I only asked him yesterday because I could not serve as your guide. My apologies again for that. Do you wish for Le'un to meet you each morning instead?"
"No!" Sh'ra interjected.
Hey'at responded with a quizzical look. Perhaps, she had been a little too zealous.
"Is he... a friend of yours?" Sh'ra asked as they took the lift down, the motion bothering her less this morning.
"Le'un?" Hey'at questioned, startled, his mind seemingly elsewhere. He was not a talkative man, but Sh'ra appreciated his calming presence, like the warm glow of the silent sun cresting the horizon after a chilly night.
Sh'ra nodded. Then realized Hey'at was not looking at her. "Yes, Le'un. Are you two... close?"
"Yes," said Hey'at, his mind distant once more.
Sh'ra was unsure if he was going to elaborate on his own, or if she would need to prod him. He continued after a short pause.
"He is a great man, and my dearest friend. I would not be alive without him. After... well, that is not important. Suffice to say... Yes. There is no one I trust more."
"More than O'lum?"
Hey'at's face broke into a wide smile at the question. "Trying to get me in trouble are you?" He said with a laugh, nudging her shoulder affectionately with his own.
The lift settled gently onto the ground. They exited, beginning the walk to the western ridge. Hey'at silent beside her once more.
"What does he do? Le'un."
"He leads a team of researchers."
Sh'ra's heart quickened. She was not sure why. She stared sidelong at Hey'at, wanting more. Nothing came easily from this man.
"What do they research?"
She tried to make the question sound casual. Hey'at stopped, turning to gesture at the mountain behind them.
"He searches for resonances in the stone of the mountain."
"Resonances? What does that mean? And why would the mountain exhibit them?"
"You would need to ask him, for that is the extent of my knowledge on the matter. All I know is that he believes there is an untapped power in the stone."
Dread filled Sh'ra, "In the stone?"
"Yes. It sounds unbelievable, but his experiments have shown some promise. And... to be truthful, we are desperate Sh'ra."
Hey'at must have mistaken Sh'ra's tone for incredulity. That was probably for the best.
It was Sh'ra who was distracted from the conversation this time. They were passing the spot where Lorn had met her yesterday. Disappointment rose in her at not seeing him there again today. And shame for the disappointment.
"Looking for someone?"
"What? No. Just..." She searched for a question to ask. "What is that building?"
She pointed to the tower with no windows or doors she had circled the day before. Hey'at swung his head to follow.
"That? That is the tower of Ha'leth."
He said it as if she should know its meaning. When he saw the lack of recognition written on her face, he continued.
"As in, Ha'leth's spear. Originator of the phrase: 'straight as Ha'leth's spear'?"
“I know the phrase. I didn’t know where it came from.”
"Not many outsiders do. That, my dear, is Ha’leth’s Spear.”
“Yes. But come, or you will be late."
Sh'ra took a last glance at the tower’s pitch black walls, wondering at the mysteries it contained, then hurried after Hey'at whose lengthy gait had taken him almost out of sight.
The training grounds were little more than a bare patch of rock, the western edge bounded by a cliff plummeting to the floor of the valley below. Sh’ra stared out at the dizzying depths below.
Hey'at greeted the trainer as they drew close. Sh'ra groaned at seeing the configuration of equipment laid out in the yard. She had hoped for something different from the day before, but it looked like they would be suffering the obstacles again today.
Lorn gave her a small wave from across the yard. She refused to acknowledge it. Hey'at saw it though and gave her a curious look.
"Lorn!" He yelled across the yard.
"Uncle!" Lorn returned, elated to see the man. "Will you be staying for the training today?"
"Not today. I have some business in the city. I see you have met Sh'ra already. Do you mind walking her back to the lift this evening?"
"I don't need..."
"I would be happy to uncle." Lorn responded over her, with a slight bow. His face held no smirk, but Sh'ra could feel it pouring off of him.
"Thank you. Tell your parents hello from me.”
"Of course, sir."
Sh'ra gave a derisive look, but it was lost on him.
"To your places!" The trainer bellowed across the yard. Sh'ra reacted instantly, not wanting a rehash of yesterday. Tardiness was not tolerated.
The training was everything it had been the day before and worse. Her body still ached from what it had endured the previous day. There was no time to complain though. From one move to the next. Never stopping for more than a moment. Her breath always three steps ahead of her, no moment provided for her to catch it.
From climbing, to crawling, to fighting barehanded, to climbing again, to rope obstacles. Up and down. Over and under. Lorn always a few steps ahead of her. Her body nearly collapsing underneath her. She refusing to give in, refusing to let him win. He always winning.
He did not gloat. That made it worse. He extended a flagon of water to her instead. She ignored him and walked to get her own, only swaying a few times on the uneven ground. What was she trying to prove? That she could walk a few feet and get her own drink? No, she was not trying to prove anything. She did not need to prove anything. It was him who was trying to prove something. He was trying to win her over. It was not going to happen. She did not hate him, but that didn't mean she had to like him.
After he knocked her to the ground for the third time in their sparring match, she had had enough.
She lunged at his legs, all her anger boiling over. He dodged, sending her face scraping against the sharp stone.
"Why are you even here?!" She yelled at him. "Isn't this for initiates?"
The faces of the other trainees mirrored her own frustration with him. He was clearly better than them all. His presence only made them all look worse.
Without him, they would all have been on fairly equal footing.
She lunged at him again. He made to dodge again as he had before, but she anticipated it. Swerving to her to match is movement, she caught him below the waste with her shoulder.
She made contact. Only, instead of him crumpling to the floor underneath her, he twisting, rolling his body along her back, landing lithely on his feet while she smashed into the ground. She struck the dirt with her fist, but chose not to rise again.
"That's enough Lorn." The trainer interrupted. "Perhaps it is time to share why you are here, undergoing initiate training for a second time."
All eyes turned toward him. For the first time she had seen, Lorn shrank rather than grow under the scrutiny. He grew stiff, pivoted on his heel and made for the watering can.
"Come Lorn." Said Fisk, standing in the center of the ring marked off for sparring. "Best me, and I will let you keep your secret."
"You know I cannot beat you.” replied Lorn without turning.
"All the same, come. I wish to demonstrate to these initiates."
"Demonstrate on someone else. I'm thirsty."
Fisk shrugged his shoulders, redirecting his attention to the others who had lined themselves along the opposite edge of the ring. A blur to her left drew her attention as she got to her feet. As soon as the trainer had turned his back, Lorn spun and leapt at him. Sh’ra made to cry out, to give warning, but it was already too late. Lorn was in the air, about to collide with the center of the trainer's back.
Fisk’s reaction appeared to happen in slow motion, apparently disconnected from Lorn's movement, but also in conjunction with them. As Lorn twisted in the air to aim his strike, Fisk bent forward. It could not have been more than a few inches.
It was a mix of instinct and intention that Sh'ra had never witnessed. Lorn had leapt expecting to contact Fisk's back at a certain point in his fall. Fear sprinted across his face. He twisted, desperate to recover.
As he twisted, the trainer lunged backward, driving his shoulder into Lorn's left side, toppling him awkwardly to the ground. His body crunched as it hit the stone. The trainee beside Sh'ra winced.
Lorn, back on his feet instantly, dove for the trainer's ankles. Fisk neatly sidestepped and delivered a brutal kick to the boy’s midsection that left him groaning and coughing on the ground.
He tried to rise.
Lorn nodded, sinking back to one knee, clutching his stomach. Fisk turned back to the group of trainees, hands clasped behind his back.
"Lorn went through this training years ago. He was the best in his cohort. As the best, he was entrusted with his first mission. But he was sloppy. He let his anger override his judgment. Now he is here with us again, hopefully learning what he did not the first time."
The trainer paced in front of them as he spoke, meeting each of their eyes.
"The reason he is here instead of working his punishment off hauling stones in the mountain is because in spite of enduring the loss of a companion, he carried through with the task he was given. For this he is to be admired."
A look of sorrow mixed with pride came over Fisk's face as he spoke.
"Still, he is here, and so must learn. You, what was his mistake in attacking me as he did?"
"Sir! He should not have attacked you from behind. This is dishonorable." The girl beside Sh'ra bellowed in military fashion. What was her name?
"Anyone else?" The trainer asked, giving no indication of whether the girl's answer was correct.
"He shouldn't have jumped! It left off balance and unable to react to your counter.” Offered another boy further down the line. Several others jumped in with explanations of their own.
Sh'ra replayed the movements of the fight in her mind. She could find no fault in his approach. He simply was not as quick as Fisk. She thought further back.
"The water pitcher." Sh'ra said aloud, mostly to herself.
"What was that girl?" The trainer turned on her, cutting through the clatter of the other trainees.
"The... uhh... the water pitcher sir. He should not have set it down."
"What does that have anything to do with the fight?"
Several of the trainees smirked, preparing for Fisk to tear her answer apart.
"It gave away his timing. You heard him set it down. That's how you knew when he was going to attack."
Lorn's eyes widened. He glanced back toward the spot where the pitcher sat on the rock.
"Now, that is an interesting answer. What do you think Ho'ri? Did Lorn give himself away with the pitcher?"
A tall, lanky boy stepped forward from the line.
"It's possible sir. I don't remember a sound myself, but it would have been a significant marker if you had been listening for it."
"Well done, Sh'ra. It is an excellent answer, but it is not Lorn's biggest mistake."
"Any other takers?"
Everyone stared back at him in silence.
"I should not have attacked you." said Lorn.
"Also wrong." The trainer responded. Then he waited, comfortable in the silence that made them all squirm.
"Since no one has an answer, I will let you all sleep on it. Come tomorrow ready with an answer. We will run the bear and crow until someone discovers his mistake.”
Everyone groaned at this. The bear and crow exercise was a brutal combination of strength, endurance, and agility that had left them all exhausted the day before.
Sh'ra walked the path back to the city alone. Fisk had pulled Lorn aside for a private conversation and she had seen no reason to wait for him. She was perfectly capable of returning to her home without assistance. Still, she was not surprised when he she heard pounding feet on the path behind her and turned to see him running up behind her.
He slowed as he drew level with her. They walked for several minutes, neither speaking. Sh'ra grew more and more frustrated with him, that he would just assume that she wanted him to be near her.
"I know you probably don't want to walk with me." He said, breaking the silence.
She did not respond, hoping this would indicate agreement.
"I understand that." He continued, in a subdued tone. As if he could understand.
"Are you serious right now?" She seethed, turning on him. He took a few steps back, apparently surprised by her tone.
"I..." He stammered.
"Why would I want to walk with you? Why would I want anything to do with you? And you think you can come here next to me and say that you understand and that is somehow supposed to what? Make things better? You don't understand Lorn. You will never understand what you have put me through. You would have to have a heart to even come close and that is clearly not something that you have!"
She raged at him, releasing everything she had held back. She could not land a blow on him, but he had no defense against this verbal assault. She placed a finger to his sternum as she said it, forcing him backward off the path. He stumbled, falling into a sitting position.
He did not get up. Instead, he lowered his head, his shoulders heaving. Was he laughing at her? No, he was crying.
She backed away, not knowing how to respond to the unexpected display of emotion.
"I'm sorry Sh'ra. I... I didn't know. I do understand." He choked out between sobs. "The one I loved was taken from me as well, killed by a stranger's knife. I thought... I thought killing him would make it feel better. The rage and hurt, it was too much. I thought killing him would make it, would make me feel better. But it didn't. It didn't do anything. And now I am punished for it."
He slammed his palm against the ground as he said the last.
"The man Shin killed... that was your…?”
She let the question hang, unsure how to complete it. Lorn's head bobbed the affirmation. Sitting beside him, Sh'ra stared out across the stony ground, processing the revelation.
"Wasn't he your brother?"
"Not by blood. Our families have been close for a long time."
She put an arm around him, and he rested against her shoulder. In the stillness, she sat with him.
They walked the last distance to the city together. She glanced at him from time to time, at the boy who was no longer her enemy. As they neared the gate, she impulsively took his hand and gave it small squeeze. Nothing about him felt threatening any longer. Instead, a different feeling grew within her - a fierce desire to protect him.
“I will keep your secret Lorn. But, what would they have done had they found out?"
In the Stone clan, they would have hung together, in the same noose, from the east wall, their bodies carrion for the crows. Lorn only looked at her confused.
“My secret? What do you mean?"
She explained the punishment in the Stone clan. Horror spread over his features.
"That is… horrible. No, they don’t do anything like that here. They send us out to fight together, as they do with all other joined ones. That mission was to be the first of many. It was the beginning of our lives together. Afterward, we were to come back her for our joining. Instead, I returned alone. And everything here reminds me of him.”
His eyes grew watery again, and she tightened her grip on his hand. They walked together through the gate to the city.