II—Leave-taking

 

(Aizhou, on the border with Derkarya, 4 Redleaf, 1005)

 

"Kara?"

Deep brown eyes narrowed in annoyance when all that answered the man's echoing shout was silence. Cupping large hands to his mouth, the curly-haired farmer drew in a deep breath and shouted again, "Kara!"

Still no reply from the orange-maned child. Aizu scowled. He'd told the boy to stay close this day. It figured the little whelp would decide to wander off after being warned not to do so. And probably all in innocence too, his curiosity having been caught by something. Little brat.

Five years had passed since that fateful night when the last of the Fox clan had come to the former weaponsmith's humble home. At first having seen the boy as something of a burden—even if the pay had been outstanding, the fact remained Aizu had been asked to raise someone else's son after having lost his own—the barrel-chested Bear had come to grudgingly love the bright-eyed, active child who had filled their house with noise and innocent chaos. It was anxiety now that fueled the brown-haired farmer's sharply-worded thoughts—fear that on this day, when the silver-haired Lopayzom warrior was due to return for his annual visit, something tragic would happen to the redheaded boy because he had decided to wander off. After growling under his breath to his ancestors for patience, Aizu bellowed out to the surrounding forest once more. "Karavasu!"

"Any sign of him?" asked a feminine voice, the tone apprehensive. Large, sapphire-hued eyes scanned over the lush vegetation surrounding the somewhat isolated homestead as Amiyana helped her husband look for any sign of the missing boy. Balanced atop the woman's right hip, a huge-eyed toddler stared off into the distance, her mother's arms holding her close while the curly-haired baby chewed nervously on a chubby fist. In the years since agreeing to care for the orange-maned orphan, Amiyana had been blessed with two other children of her own, ones who were as strong and healthy as the boy she'd come to view as her own eldest son.

"None," Aizu sighed, glancing back over to his wife, his dark brown gaze full of worry.

"He's probably not far at all. He knew he was supposed to stay close because Lord Arjuna is due to visit today."

"I know. Doesn't make me any happier that I can't find him right now, though," the Bear clansman grumbled. Giving his beloved, slender wife a long look, the former weaponsmith's rather plain face took on an expression of wary sympathy. "Ami . . ."

"What is it?"

"You do realize that this time, if Arjuna's pleased with the boy, he will probably take Kara with him."

The brunette frowned, then gravely nodded, her dark blue eyes watering with tears at the thought. "I know . . . He's grown so well, and that was Arjuna's intent all along." Realizing that her little daughter had slid down some, Amiyana hefted the toddler back up to rest against the curve of the willowy woman's waist. It would still hurt, seeing the sunny, orange-haired child leave for good, but it would not be as heartbreaking a loss as the death of her own firstborn had been. She had a three-year-old son and year-old daughter now of her own—and she sensed it was time for her adopted son to follow his true destiny.

"I'm going to miss him too," Aizu grudgingly admitted. Realizing that the child in question was still unaccounted, the lumbering farmer shuffle-thudded across the domicile's well-tended grounds. He prayed to the spirits for the boy’s even as he muttered darkly in frustration and apprehension at the child's disappearance. Slamming the sturdy wooden gate shut hard enough it made the ancient cast-bronze bell faintly ring, the Bear clan-member once again bellowed, "Karavasu!"

 

The sound of a ringing bass voice shouting his name on the wind tore the young child from his wide-eyed fascination with watching the sunlight glint off fish scales just under the surface of the water. Gasping, the boy rose from his crouched position; a stray breeze ruffled Kara's tousled mane of orange-hued hair as his large-eyed amber gaze scanned the way back to the farmhouse for any sign of the familiar, hulking form of the man shouting for him.

The pond truly wasn't far from the house at all. Nestled in a tree-lined hollow between the fenced grounds of the dwelling and the main road, just off to the right of the trail leading from road to gate, the spot's remoteness was far more a function of illusion than one of distance. All Kara would need to do to see the fenced yard once more would be to scramble to the top of the hollow. However, he was never allowed to come here unattended, and he knew it. He was certain to be in trouble with Unca Aizu, especially with the tone of voice the child heard in his shouted name. And yet . . .

Large, amber eyes glanced back at the still waters of the sun-dappled pond. He'd so wanted to see the fish again; though wild animals, the big, glimmering fish of black, white, orange and gold were tame enough, willing to swim lazily to the top to gulp down insects caught and haphazardly tossed onto the liquid mirror's surface. Unca Aizu had brought him here many times, talking about how there were places where such fish—called koyom—had been kept by people in man-made ponds and were willing to suffer the stroke of a finger against their backs when people came to feed them. Kara had yet to get the wild koyom to let him touch them—his chaperoned visits to the pond near the house hadn't been enough for that—and now he felt like he'd not see these particular fish again for a long time to come.

Kara sighed wistfully, giving the pond one final look. If it hadn't been for the feeling that something was going to happen—a something that would take him away from everything he knew and loved—he would have done as Unca Aizu had asked and stayed in the yard. But he just had to see the fishies one more time, and Auntie Ami was too busy with the babies while Unca Aizu always walked too slow and didn't like having to lurch down the uneven, grass-covered slope that lead from the dirt trail down to the pond glimmering in the hollow.

A cool breeze raced down the hillside, the tall stalks of grasses bowing before it and Kara's shaggy orange hair being mussed by its invisible touch. With it came the sound—yet again—of the huge farmer shouting the child's name, this time with a note that made the boy nervously gulp.

Uh oh . . . Amber eyes wide in alarm, Kara leapt into a run, dashing against the wind to climb up the hillside. The sooner Unca Aizu could once again see him, the quicker the big man's temper would cool. The long sleeves of his brown linen shirt flapping in the wake of his frantic dash, the young boy burst through the tall grass and patch of gnarled, ancient trees surrounding the pond. So intent was he on making it to the dirt trail between the farmhouse's gate and the Imperial road, he never even noticed the horse and rider already there.

A flash of orange, brown and tan burst onto the timeworn dirt trail, instantly catching the large animal's gaze. Frightened by the sudden commotion, the white-dappled gray stallion whinnied and reared up. Deadly, iron-shod hooves pawed the air.

The shrill neigh and the sudden darkness of a shadow falling over him made the little boy stop dead in his tracks. Looking up and seeing the threat looming above, Kara screamed and stumbled back, away from the rearing horse. His sandal-adorned foot caught on the hem of a loose-fitting pant leg; the boy fell back hard against the earthen trail then instinctively huddled up into a little ball, bracing for the crushing blows of hooves while screaming again in terror.

The flare of a spirit energy aura just to the left and near to the ground—too close to where his frightened stallion pawed the air—shone bright as the sun in the silver-maned rider's mystic senses. Realizing someone was there, the jade-eyed warrior pulled hard on the reins, yanking the stallion's head away from that bright gold aura. "Ho, Azani! Ho!" the rider's rich baritone called out, emphasizing his command to move away from that miniature sun of oja. Iron-lined hooves shuffled in the dirt, kicking up small billows of dust, as the horse struggled to comply with his master's demand. The moment the dapple-gray's stance returned to all four hooves against the ground, the rider swooped from the saddle in a swirl of silken clothing and silver-hued hair. The traveler pulled up short, deep-jade eyes wide in astonishment at what he saw.

"Karavasu!" a deep bass voice shouted. Heavy footfalls heralded the limping but deceptively fast former weaponsmith's lumbering gallop down the trail leading from his gate to the Imperial road beyond. Deep brown eyes wild with fright for the boy's safety, the farmer made to dive toward the huddled, terrified figure and scoop it up—only to be halted by the tall, silver-maned form of the rider stepping between the huge man and the child.

"Don't," the newcomer commanded, his voice low but holding a tone of warning.

"What do you mean, 'don't', Arjuna?" Aizu shouted, dark brown gaze boring angrily into the richly attired nobleman.

"Calm down, Aizu," the Fox warrior murmured. "I suspect the boy's safe, and right now you wouldn't be able to touch him." As the hulking farmer stared in astonishment at Arjuna's words, the elegant swordsman swooped down and grabbed a handful of the dirt that lay on the earthen trail. Straightening to his full height, Arjuna said, "Watch," and then tossed the dirt onto the shuddering, huddled boy.

The big Bear clansman opened his mouth to protest at Arjuna's action, only to leave his mouth hanging open in astonishment as the dirt skidded down something invisible to once more lie upon the ground, never once touching the boy. "What in the nine hells . . . ?"

To the trained warrior, the answer was obvious and in plain sight. Golden spirit energy remained flared around the terrified redhead, forming a crude shield against energy and physical attacks. Had Azani's hooves fallen where the boy lay, they would probably have slid off the primitive, instinctual barrier, leaving the child unharmed. Impressive . . .

The sound of the curly-haired Bear caught Kara's attention, bringing the boy out of his frozen state of mind of waiting for the crushing blows that had never come. He lifted his head up, saw the familiar form of his Unca Aizu, and immediately burst into tears while struggling to his feet.

The golden aura dimmed to virtually nothing, the primitive shield shattering like fragile glass, in Arjuna's mental senses. The swordsman continued to watch the boy as Kara hugged the big farmer around a leg, the child sobbing in fright. There was no doubt now, not with that inadvertent demonstration. That much raw talent cried out to be honed to perfection rather than waste away untapped.

"Shh. It's all right now, Kara," the brown-haired former weaponsmith murmured soothingly to the still-frightened child. Bending down, Aizu gathered up the boy into his arms. "You're safe," he continued, hugging the child and gently stroking the soft orange hair on the back of Kara's head.

As the boy calmed down, his crying dwindling off into sniffles and the wiping off of tears from his still slightly chubby cheeks, Arjuna spent a moment to retrieve his dappled-gray stallion. Azani had gone from being startled to munching contentedly on the surrounding grass, sensing that his master had everything under control. Metallic-gold tassels swung delicately from the lower edges of the leather reins as the magnificent horse sedately followed his rider back to where the Bear clansman and the boy stood in the middle of the trail.

"I'm sorry, Unca Aizu," the redheaded child said, his soft voice hitching with ever-calming sobs, "I'm really sorry. I know I wasn't supposed to leave the yard but Auntie Ami was busy with Shanu and Liana and I know how much you hate walking down the hillside but I wanted so much to see the fishies again so please don't spank me, Unca Aizu." Large amber eyes puddled up with more tears at the very thought of punishment. "I won't wander off again."

"That's good to hear, little one," Arjuna responded as he drew abreast of the wide-shouldered farmer and the boy.

The sound of a strange voice caught the child's attention. The watery golden gaze shifted to stare at the tall swordsman with the silver-hued topknot. "Ara?" Kara yipped, the sound his characteristic murmur of wonder, surprise or alarm. "Oh . . . I know you. You were here for my last birthday. Are you here for birthday again?"

Aizu glanced over at the richly clad nobleman. "He's not—"

"Yes, Kara, I'm here for your birthday again," Arjuna answered, his voice interrupting the farmer's response. Someday, he'll need to learn the true significance of this day, but for now, it's enough to call it his birthday. In a way, it's correct.

The orange-haired boy stared for a moment longer at the man holding the reins of the dapple-gray horse, all thought of a potential spanking from his Unca Aizu gone—especially since he didn't get the feeling that the curly-haired farmer was still angry enough to carry out such a punishment. "But it's not just my birthday that's why you're here," Kara declared.

A pale eyebrow lifted in surprise. "Oh?" Arjuna murmured, his baritone voice holding a note of amusement and challenge.

The little boy gravely nodded, but refused to say any more. Instead, he turned away and buried his face against the Bear clansman's broad chest.

Aizu sighed, then gave Arjuna a helpless shrug even as he hugged the boy closer. "Well, let's get this over with," the former weaponsmith muttered darkly.

"Let's," the noble-blooded swordsman agreed. "The steel's shown its quality. Now it's time to forge the blade."

 

The confines of the farmhouse were clean and comfortable, the small luxuries increasing in number with each passing year. The woven reed mats covering the floor were thicker than the former ones and the pillows that served as chairs were no longer thin and threadbare but fluffy and embroidery-decorated. As the two boys played with carved wooden horses off in a corner of the large room that served as the main living area, the trio of adults sat upon the pillows, a low table between them of black lacquered wood inlaid with a design of mother-of-pearl shards forming a peacock under a cherry blossom branch in full bloom. Upon the surface of the beautiful table sat a formal tea set of carved pale green jade; the smooth plate held the pot decorated with a low-relief carving of a dragon traveling through clouds and a single handleless cup also showing the dragon in the sky motif. The adults held the other three cups as they carried on their low-voiced conversation.

"Forgive me, milord, but I still think it's too soon," the willowy brunette murmured. Amiyana kept her sapphire gaze focused upon the surface of her honey-sweetened green tea, not able to look at her longtime friend's now-impassive face. When she did lift her head, it was to check on the two boys playing nearby. For the moment, her little daughter was asleep, leaving the young wife free to attend the informal conference. "He's only five . . ."

"And has already manifested some form of clan power," Arjuna responded. "That is something that cannot be lightly discounted. One that young already able to harness such energy could become a danger to those around him—"

"No," Amiyana interjected. She blushed when she felt the intense stares of the two men on her; she masked her nervousness by taking a long sip of the tea.

"I believe what my wife means is that she doesn't believe Kara would innocently use any ability in a way that would harm others," Aizu muttered.

"It wouldn't be responsible for any of us to take that chance," the Lopayzom swordsman replied. After taking a sip of his own cup of tea, Arjuna glanced over at the child in question. The redhead was, at the moment, caught up in a pretend horse race with his dark-brown-haired, younger companion; the two boys made galloping and whinnying sounds as they waved the carved wooden horses about in their hands. He seems like any other boy, now, the silver-maned warrior thought, jade-green eyes remaining focused on the only other known living member of the Fox clan. No hint at all of his aura, but it had been so strong when called upon. "The sooner I can train him, the sooner he can keep such power under control."

The Bear clansman gave his noble guest a long look. Gently setting the delicate stone cup he held down onto the peacock-decorated table, he grumbled, "You came here looking for any excuse to take him from us this time, didn't you, Lord Arjuna?"

Thin lips tightened in a subtle expression of annoyance. "I will admit I have planned all along to take him with me this year. He's five years old, and will soon legally be my son." Arjuna shifted his verdant gaze back to the hulking farmer. "His destiny isn't among fields and farm work. His true sphere is among nobles and courts."

Amiyana remained silent, deep blue gaze remaining fixed upon the cooling liquid within her cup.

The curly-haired former weaponsmith snorted. "I'm truly surprised at that, milord."

A pale eyebrow lifted in a quizzical expression. "Indeed?" Arjuna asked.

"So much effort to be put into someone you merely intend to be a weapon of your vengeance. Why?"

The faintest of smirks lingered upon Arjuna's stunningly handsome face. "You remain as astute as ever, Aizu. But as a maker of blades, you should already know the answer. The entire sword must be kept in mind and worked on if it is to be the finest weapon possible."

"It's not fair . . ." Amiyana said, her voice soft and sounding on the verge of tears. "He's barely had time to be just a boy and already you seek to forge him to fit your ideal?"

Arjuna shook his head; the silver strands of his topknot swayed gently with the movement. "Life has never been fair, especially among the noble class."

"Let him be a boy just a while longer, then hone him into the warrior you wish him to be," the brunette sighed. At last she turned to stare her long-time friend in the face. "Or give up this wish within you to join the others, milord. Surely they will not resent you your life." Noting the steely expression remaining upon the Fox swordsman's face, Amiyana shook her head, a tear rolling down her cheek. The thought of Kara leaving for good was painful enough, but to also see the proud Arjuna embrace the idea of death when all his obligations were fulfilled made the moment even worse.

A soft voice interrupted them all. "Auntie Ami?" Blinking in astonishment, the trio of adults stared at the source of the sound. Kara stood there, having silently made his way over to the table with none of the grown-ups noticing his approach. Though the boy's amber eyes were full of concern, a sunny smile graced his pretty face. "Don't cry. It's going to be okay," the orange-maned child said, stepping closer and giving the woman who'd cared for him a tight hug.

Amiyana couldn't contain her sob as she gathered the boy up in her arms and hugged him back. "Oh, Kara."

"Please, Auntie, don't cry," Kara repeated. "I'm supposed to go now. I've known it all day long. That's why I had to see the koyom one last time."

At the child's words, Arjuna stiffened, then turned a questioning, slightly irritated look on the crippled farmer sitting on the other side of the woman and boy.

At a momentary loss for words, Aizu could only shrug helplessly. He and his wife had never once mentioned to the boy that he could be leaving them that day, just in case their suspicions were found to be without merit. "I swear, we said nothing," the big, curly-haired man finally choked out.

The silver-haired man's annoyance broke through the overwhelming sadness Kara had been picking up from his beloved auntie. Pulling back away from the brunette far enough to gaze at the swordsman sitting there, the child emphatically shook his orange-haired head from side to side. "They didn't say anything. Honest. I just knew."

"Oh?" Arjuna challenged, his dark-jade gaze fully focused on the boy.

Kara gave the upset warrior a haphazard smile before hugging his beloved auntie one more time and giving her a kiss on the cheek. Then he slipped from her embrace, his youthful visage one of seriousness and bravery, and took two steps forward. Standing before the argent-maned noble, Kara silently waited.

A hushed stillness fell over the farmhouse's main room while the two Fox clansmen looked at one another, the Bear couple quiet observers. Arjuna had expected the child to say something more, but when it became obvious the redheaded boy was just standing there, waiting, the silver-haired warrior finally spoke. "Yes, Kara?"

The boy's expression remained one that was serious and brave. "I'm ready to go now."

A pale eyebrow quirked up in wonder. "What, no refusal? No crying and pleading to stay here?" Arjuna asked.

Orange locks swirled as the boy shook his head from side to side again. "I hafta go. I'm scared and sad, but it's time—and maybe it'll be fun too." Kara lifted his large-eyed gaze back up to the argent-haired warrior. He blinked, the expression on his chubby-cheeked face shifting to a thoughtful one as he tilted his head to the side. "Are you part of my real family?" the child blurted.

The question startled Arjuna, though he hid his surprise. "What makes you ask that?"

"Well . . ." Kara frowned, thinking of a way to explain it. "You feel kinda like me," he said, then turned and gestured with a little hand at the still-staring peasant couple. "Not like them."

"Oh? How are they different?" the argent-maned swordsman prompted, intrigued.

"Well . . ." the child repeated, obviously thinking hard about how to put his thoughts into words. "If I were to imagine everyone as animals, then they'd be different from you and me. Unca Aizu there," Kara paused and pointed at the wide-shouldered man, "well, he's a great big bear. Really scary too. And Auntie Ami? I see her as a really pretty bird with a long neck and really long legs." Not noticing the looks of utter astonishment on the faces of his foster parents, Kara turned his serious gaze back to the warrior seated there. "But you, you'd be a fox—a white one. Not red like me."

"I see . . ." Arjuna murmured, inwardly astounded. A quick glance of his jade-green eyes at the Bear clansman and his wife convinced the pale-haired nobleman that they'd never told Kara their clan affiliations. Is it possible . . . ? Looking back down at his only remaining kinsman, Arjuna queried, "What about Shanu and Liana? Can you imagine them as animals too?"

That question made Kara burst out into a peal of child's laughter. "Of course," he replied, still giggling. "They're roly-poly bear cubs, but I bet Shanu's gonna grow up to be as big and scary a bear as Unca Aizu is."

"You're probably right, Kara," Arjuna responded, stunned at the implications. The child can already distinguish the various clan auras? he wondered. Resolving to test the child's apparent skill in the immediate future, the swordsman continued, "And to answer your question: yes, I am part of your real family, though probably nothing more than a cousin at most."

"Ah, so that's why I hafta go," the orange-maned boy said, nodding as if that answer rendered everything else logical.

Arjuna solemnly nodded. "Well, then, little one . . . If you're ready to go, please go wait outside by my horse while I finish talking with your 'aunt' and 'uncle'."

The boy gravely bowed, then turned and gazed wistfully at the only parents he'd known. Fighting back tears—it really was scary thinking about leaving everything he knew behind for who-knew-what out there—Kara dashed over and gave his beloved auntie one more hug and kiss. "Love you," was all he whispered to her before closing the space between himself and the crippled farmer. Giving the big man a tight hug, Kara said in a barely audible voice, "Love you too. Sorry for all the times I got into trouble." Then he was gone, running outside on his still slightly chubby legs.

"Damnation," Aizu muttered, wiping reluctant tears away. Glaring over at Arjuna, he said, "I'll never forgive you if you carry out what you have in mind. Yes, he belongs in the circle of warriors and nobles. Yes, his destiny is to be a swordsman as the nobility of the Fox has always been. But he doesn't deserve to be raised merely as an extension of your desire to give back to the Raven as good as they have dished out."

The argent-haired noble scowled. Rising to his feet, he murmured, "There are many years yet between now and that time. Many things can happen in such a span."

Amiyana wiped the tears from her eyes, and then stared up at her long-time friend. Perhaps, then, there was the faintest glimmer of hope. Perhaps Karavasu could work the magic of his presence on Arjuna as well as he had done for herself. After all, the orange-haired boy had helped so much in the healing of her wounded heart. Maybe Kara could help heal Arjuna too.

Deep-jade eyes remained focused on the barrel-chested farmer. "I shall continue to give you a yearly payment on one condition, Aizu."

The farmer gave Arjuna a questioning look. He'd known from the beginning that the income would be temporary, and Aizu had invested wisely for just this day, when there was no more reason for the Fox warrior to pay him.

"I want you to make a sword for the adult Kara will one day become."

"What?" Aizu sputtered, astounded. "Are you insane, milord? You know I can't—“

"Hypocrite," Arjuna hissed, verdant eyes narrowing.

A long silence weighed heavily in the room as the two men glared at one another. Snorting softly in derision, Arjuna broke the impasse. "You dare criticize me for my intentions regarding Karavasu, yet you fall back on claiming you can't forge him a sword? Your arm and leg were crippled, Aizu, but not your mind. At the very least, you can design one and direct another in the making of it."

The Bear clansman growled, then stood and humbly bowed before the silver-maned noble, knowing he'd been bested. "I beg your forgiveness at my outburst, milord. I shall accept the commission, if you are still offering it."

"Then it's settled," Arjuna said. "Send me a list of what materials and labor you need to establish a foundry here, and fear not about the cost. Karavasu deserves a sword worthy of himself, does he not?"

"Of course, milord," Aizu agreed, nodding, though he continued to watch the noble with a wary, deep-brown gaze.

The whisper of silk accompanied the tall swordsman as he walked to the farmhouse's front door without a single glance back. Glittering strands of platinum-blond hair floated on the breeze as Arjuna pushed aside the sliding door and stepped out onto the porch composed of sturdy wooden planks. Noting the young child standing next to the magnificent stallion—Kara was fearlessly petting the horse on the animal's left front leg while Azani contentedly munched away on the emerald grass of the yard—a smile came to the warrior's thin lips. Crossing the short distance, Arjuna mussed up the boy's already tousled orange hair. "Come, little one. It's time."

"Ara?" Kara glanced up, momentarily startled. Then he brightly smiled and gave the tall man a nod of affirmation and acceptance.

 

 

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