There comes a time in every man’s life where he must dig deep within himself, find his inner most strength, and face who he truly is, at his very core. Henry was pretty sure that women had to do this as well, just not as frequently, as they seemed to be born knowing who they were, and what they wanted.
He envied them that, and hated them a little for it. Mostly he just wished they would be a little more upfront about it all, as it would save some people a great deal of time and bother. By some people, of course, he meant himself.
Henry Blake had never been good with women, and he had noticed they had never been good with him either. On his end, it wasn’t any sort of shyness, or social awkwardness, or physical deformity. It was a simple inability to even remotely grasp anything about the fairer sex.
For their part, it seemed he just bored them, but he was pretty sure that was just his low self esteem speaking at the moment. Not that he had always suffered from such a problem, normally he didn’t. Of course, normally he didn’t sleep in a depression in the dirt beneath a outcropping of rock, either, so he supposed everything was subjective at some point.
In fact, only three weeks prior, Henry had been no different than any other man in the small hamlet of Rivershire. A blacksmith by trade, as his father before him, and his father before him, and so and so on, back several generations, and who really cared?
Henry slumped down in his hole, staring morosely at the narrow, slow moving river his pathetic pretense at a hovel overlooked. His business, his home, all his worldly possession, even his wife and his dog, were gone now. Taken from him by the thrice damned tax collector Barl Stringham.
He frowned past the week’s worth of black beard that he had grown since he had dropped his knife in the river and lost it. As he sat there, Barl was living in his house, with his wife, petting his dog.
The dog part bothered him the most. It wasn’t any particular attachment to the dog, so much as it was the sheer pettiness of Barl to not even let him keep a single companion. One small thing to keep the sense of abject failure at bay, the overwhelming loneliness and despair that had threatened to crush him ever since the day Barl had strode in and declared him to be in default on his taxes and seized all Henry had worked his entire life to obtain.
But no, Barl had taken even the dog. Miranda, Henry’s wife of ten years, had thrown herself at the man the way arrows fling themselves at targets, with utter precision. In the end, Henry had been left with nothing but the clothes on his back, and the sword that lay at his side.
He looked at the sword, his hazel eyes growing sad, the edge of anger fading as he considered his sole worldly possession. It wasn’t a fancy looking weapon, bore no great distinguishing marks, or was in any other way terribly remarkable. Broad of blade, with a leather wrapped hilt, it was simply a sword and nothing more.
But, Henry thought to himself, it was a sword he had forged with his own two hands. It was sturdy and sharp, reliable in a world that suddenly wasn’t, and the only thing he had left to hang on to, to keep the depression at bay. It was his craft, his skill, and his sweat that had brought it into the world.
If a man could do such as this, he felt, then he could lift himself up from nothing, from living under a rock with naught but the clothes on his back. A man such as him could rebuild his life.
This wasn’t a set back, he told himself, but an opportunity, an opportunity to reinvent Henry Blake. He could make a new man of himself. A better man. He could build a new life, even better than his old one, with a bigger house, a more beautiful wife, and an even better dog.
Henry crawled out of his shelter, stood on the bank of the river, and looked up at the sky. He could do this. He could turn these lemons into peaches, or whatever the old saying was. All he needed was a plan. A plan, and the determination to see it through.
“Today!” Henry shouted at the sky, “I take my first step on my new life. Today, I make a new man of myself. Today, I begin my journey to become the most powerful bandit that has ever lived!”
So, not a great plan, he had to admit. There would be trouble with the King’s Guard, at the very least. Still, when a man had nothing but the clothes he wore and a sword, he had to be realistic when he set about remaking himself.
There was only so much you could do with those tools, after all, and being a Bandit King was the only thing he could think of that wasn’t incredibly, impossibly, beyond his ability to grasp.
Nodding to assure himself he was on the right path, since no one else was around to do it for him, he picked up his sword, squared his shoulders, and marched down the river bank, heading for the King’s Road Bridge. It was a commonly traveled road, and he was certain it would take no time at all to seize upon an unwary traveler he could extort money from.
It all seemed a little rude, he knew, but there were priorities here. He’d been eating frogs for the last three weeks, and step one to becoming the most feared and revered bandit king in history required a full stomach.
He was sure that whoever he stole from would understand, and not begrudge him overly much. After all, in his position, they’d probably do the same thing. In fact, Henry was sure they would, and he knew, in his heart, he wouldn’t begrudge them either.
He squared his shoulders as he walked, and set about making his face as mean and intimidating as possible. Little did he know at the time, but Henry Blake marched not to fill his belly, but to fulfill his destiny.
Henry scowled as he sat behind the bush that grew at the edge of the bridge, the same spot he had sat in for more than a few hours now. Enough that the sun was directly overhead, beating down on him with the same mercy Miranda use to show. Or perhaps, slightly more.
Four hours, at least, he figured, and not a single traveler on the only road that went anywhere for miles around. A major trade road, with merchants coming and going all hours of the day and night.
Yet there it sat, empty as far as the eye could see. He deepened his scowl and hugged his knees to his chest, thinking that perhaps life was playing yet another cruel joke on him. Had any other bandits set up their operation here, he was sure they would already have more coins than they could carry.
But not today, not for him, oh no. That would have been too easy, too simple a way to fill his belly and start his life fresh, free of the pain and sorrow it had brought him till now.
Stupid life, he thought, stupid travelers, stupid tax collectors, stupid wives and stupid dogs!
It was too much to bear. He was defeated, hungry, homeless and he smelled bad. Bad enough he could smell himself. Somehow, someway, his plan had come unraveled, and he was lost, a broken compass spinning wildly, with neither direction nor focus.
“I never should have stayed in this town,” he grumbled. “All the people here, known them since I was born, and look at me, squatting behind a bush, waiting to rob some random person just so I can eat. Should have moved to the city and told Pa where to shove his traditions.”
It wasn’t his father’s fault, he knew, or even his own really. It was Miranda’s fault for the most part. He had always known she was a bit of a conniver, but she had been beautiful, and he’d had a crush on her since they were children.
No, he thought. No, it’s not even her fault. Not really. He knew, when he faced it, when he had the courage to face it, that all he suffered now was his own doing. He’d believed Miranda when she had cooed in his ear, eager to be on the arm of a self made man. He’d smiled and said he understood when his friends, the very people he’d known his entire life, had asked for extensions on paying for work done.
He was, and always had been, far too nice, and understanding. That was his fault, and what had wrought all he suffered now. He had done it to himself by never standing up and saying no.
“Well,” he muttered. “That ends today. I’m keeping my butt right here till someone comes along, and I’m going to take what I want. Everyone else does it, and I can too!”
The words sounded hollow in his own ears, lacking in both conviction and sincerity. It made him angry to hear his own voice, meant to be strong, coming out a whining whimper.
Infuriated at himself and the world in general, Henry stood, clutched his sword, and turned to face the road, determined to follow the path he had chosen, to make himself be the man he wanted to be. A strong man, a resolute man, a man of action. A man who could say no.
To his surprise, a lone figure was in the road ahead of him, far away yet, but definitely approaching. Henry smiled, determined to seize the opportunity and do as he had sworn he would. Part of him felt bad for the traveler, but he pushed that away. That was the old Henry, and look how he’d ended up.
Dropping back into a crouch, he watched as the figure in the road drew closer, and soon noted that there were at least three things wrong with this person. He hadn’t noticed them at first, but as the traveler drew closer, he couldn’t help but see them all, and that old voice rose up again, urging him to abandon this foolish path while he still could.
He pushed those thoughts away as the figure drew upon the bridge. The first thing Henry noted was that it was a girl, a young one he thought, surely no more than ten or twelve. What kind of bandit attacked a child?
The hungry kind, he reminded himself.
As the girl moved onto the bridge, he noted she wore the robes of a monk, similar to, if not exactly like those of a kindly order that kept a monastery in the mountains not far away. He’d never really met more than two or three of them, but they had always paid on time, and were extremely polite.
Still, that was then, and this was now, and now he was hungry and lived under a rock.
She drew close to the bush, only a dozen feet away now when Henry realized the third thing. The monk wasn’t a child at all, but a halfling. A halfling woman, and a monk.
Monks had lots of money, didn’t they? Henry found he wasn’t sure, but felt certain they must. How else could they afford to make vows of poverty if they weren’t loaded?
No time left to dither, he told himself, and leaped from behind the bush, holding his sword menacingly. The monk stopped and stared at him in mild curiosity from beneath the wide brim of her straw hat.
“Hold, traveler,” Henry declared in his boldest voice. “I am a bandit, and I mean to rob you!”
The monk continued to regard him curiously, but not fearfully, for several moments, looking him up and down with the greenest eyes Henry had ever seen. Barely over three feet tall, her posture was relaxed, her eyes calm, betraying her complete lack of fear of him.
“I don’t think that’s how it goes,” she said after several more awkward moments of silence.
Henry blinked. “How what goes?”
“If you mean to rob me, you are obviously a bandit, and as a bandit, you obviously mean to rob me. Declaring both is pointless.” She shifted slightly, leaning comfortably on the staff she carried.
“Ah, yes, well,” Henry said slowly. “This is my first day at this job, so there’s bound to be some kinks to work out.”
“Oh, I see,” the monk replied, nodding her head in understanding. “I can imagine you are very nervous, as well.”
Henry blinked again. This wasn’t how he had imagined things going. “Of course I’m not nervous. Why would I be nervous? I have a sword, while you have a stick. Not to mention I’m a good bit taller than you.”
She looked at his sword, and her staff, then back at him and nodded again. “Both are true, I give you that freely. However, you aren’t holding the sword right at all, and I can use both the stick and my height to knock your feet out from under you with ease.”
Henry gaped. “Not holding it right? Now see here!”
“Where?” she interrupted.
“What?” Henry stammered.
“Why?” she countered with a grin. “I like this game.”
Henry brandished the sword at her. “I am playing no game, woman. I mean to have your valuables, and I’ll not be deterred.”
“Much better,” she told him. “Though, I’d hold the sword a little higher if I were you.”
“Keeping the blade slightly above eye level on your opponent makes them readjust the direction of their vision, so they can’t see what else you’re doing,” the monk replied with a wink.
“Ah, right,” Henry responded slowly. “I knew that. I was just checking to see how knowledgeable an opponent you were.”
“Of course. Very wise of you to do so, if I may say.”
“You may, and thank you.”
“You are most welcome.”
Henry felt the situation spinning away from him like a pinwheel in a strong wind. He forced himself to take a deep breath, raised the sword in his hand slightly, and set a stern scowl onto his face.
“No more games, monk. Hand over your valuables now, or face the consequences.”
“What are the consequences?” she asked calmly.
Henry felt his tongue go limp in his mouth. He hadn’t thought about that before now. What, indeed, were the consequences if she didn’t do as he said? Would he kill her, and rob her corpse? Could he do such a thing?
Henry felt his conviction waver at that moment. He’d never hurt another person in his life. Never even so much as a bar room brawl, or a fit of anger. Now, suddenly faced with it, he didn’t know if he could.
“You won’t like them, I can promise you that,” he blurted. It was an empty threat, and he knew it.
“How do you know?” she asked, not the slightest bit ruffled. “I don’t even know. Perhaps I will like them. It’s impossible to say while they remain undefined.”
“Stop that!” he shouted.
She looked somewhat surprised at the anger in his voice. “Stop what?”
“Twisting everything around! You think I don’t know what you’re doing, but I do, and I want you to stop it right now!”
“I’m not doing anything,” she replied. “I’ve barely moved since you leaped in front of me.”
“You’re playing word games,” he snapped. “Head games as well! You’re trying to confuse me, and I won’t have it!”
She cocked her head slightly and looked at him with a touch of sadness in her eyes. “Are you certain? It’s a great deal more fun than the alternative.”
Henry felt like his face was on fire. He’d never felt so angry in all his life as he did right now. Not even when he’d trudged from his own home and started sleeping under his rock. Nothing, and no one, had ever made him feel like he simply wanted to explode the way the halfling monk before him did now. To treat him as if he were a child, to play games with him like she was, it was simply too much. It was, in a word, intolerable.
“Give me your valuables, right now, or I swear, I’ll do you bodily harm.” His voice was hard with desperation, a sound he detested, but in that moment, his stomach rolling with hunger, he found, with some shame, he could live with it.
“I am truly and deeply sorry,” the monk said softly.
“Sorry? For what?” Henry snapped.
He was talking to nothing, though. The monk had vanished, right before his eyes. It took him a heartbeat to realize it, and another to see that she hadn’t vanished, she had jumped, straight up. From there, everything happened so fast, he measured it in heartbeats, and it took only four.
One when she landed on the blade of his sword, perfectly balanced, an impossible specter, grinning wildly as she spring-boarded off of it.
Two as she flipped over his head, a tight ball, small and incredibly fast, too fast for his eye to really follow.
Three as her foot impacted the back of his head with staggering precision, a blow so strong, he was a bit surprised when his brain didn’t simply shoot out the front of his skull.
Four when he hit the ground, face first, eating a mouthful of dirt.
Henry lay there for some time, just taking it all in. His sword lay a few feet away, where it had fallen from his hand as he’d gone down. He couldn’t so much see it, as he just knew it was there, much the same way he knew the halfling was still there.
He knew, because it was far too humiliating for it to be any other way. On top of everything else, all the recent trials he had been through, this was the proverbial cherry on top.
Henry lay there, face down, and contemplated the direction his life had gone, and the direction his attempt at a new life had taken. He thought about it all for some time, trying to grasp it as he was sprawled in the dirt, unmoving.
“Are you alright?” the monk asked as she crouched next to him.
“I think that depends on your definition of alright,” Henry replied without looking up, his words muffled slightly by the dirt in his face.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said softly, her small hand touching his shoulder gently. “If I did, I apologize.”
Henry laughed at that a bit. “The only thing I have you could have possibly wounded is my pride, and even that has abandoned me now.”
She said nothing for some time, but sat motionless, her hand on his shoulder. The touch was kind, if a touch could be described as such. More than gentle, it was warm, and compassionate, it spoke of who she was as a person, and who he had become.
He found he couldn’t stand the latter, and without meaning to, began to weep. He wept not for all he had lost, or who he lost, but for himself. He wept at the loss of his sense of who he was, who he had been, and more importantly, what he had been.
In the last three weeks, Henry had lost more than his possessions, wife and dog, he had lost himself, and he had refused to see it. He had lost faith in himself, in the things he had always believed to be true and right about himself.
Through it all, his tears and his realization, the monk stayed, her hand the rock he now felt himself clinging to amidst the storm that raged in his heart. For a moment, that simple gesture became the only solid, constant thing he had to hold on to.
“I’m sorry I threatened you,” he finally told her, as the tears slowly passed.
“It’s okay,” she replied.
“No,” he said, finally rolling his head to the side and looking up into that vibrant green gaze. “No, it isn’t. This isn’t me. This isn’t who I am.”
She smiled softly. “Who are you, then?”
“I don’t know anymore,” he admitted.
Squeezing his shoulder, the monk settled down onto the ground, folding her legs under her as she slid the small backpack she carried off her shoulder. From inside it, she produced several sticks of dried beef, and held one out to him, saying, “Eat with me, and tell me your tale. Perhaps, in the telling, you will remember yourself.”
Henry pulled himself up and sat with her, eating what she offered, and told her everything. He held nothing back, the story of his life spilling out of him like water from a shattered dam. He shared it all, right up to the moment he had accosted her in the road.
“A sad tale,” she murmured when he finished.
“Of my own making,” he added.
“All tales are of our own making,” she replied with a smile. “It’s all in how we choose to tell them.”
“I have no idea what that means,” he admitted.
The monk shrugged. “One day, I’m sure you will.”
Henry nodded and sighed as he pushed himself to his feet. “Thank you for the food. I appreciate your kindness, and again, feel I should apologize for delaying you in your travels. I’ll let you be off, with my deepest gratitude for listening to my story.”
“Where will you go?” she asked as he gathered his sword.
“Back to my hole under a rock, I imagine,” he admitted. “After that, I’m not sure, but I think I’ll find my way.”
She stood, bowing to him deeply, asking, “May I entertain a thought?”
Henry paused, looking at her in surprise. That she would even ask such a thing after what he had done made him marvel at her. With a smile, he responded, “All you want.”
“Come with me,” she said.
Henry felt his jaw drop. “Come with you?”
“Yes,” she told him with a bright smile.
She shrugged, pointing down the road. “That way.”
“What’s that way?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then why are you going there?”
“Because, it’s the direction my journey is taking me.”
Henry wasn’t sure at that point if she was entirely sane. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”
“It’s a simple tale, really, the story of me,” she said, turning to stare down the road with eyes that grew distant, wrapped in memory.
“I was born an orphan, left to the monks of the monastery in the mountains behind us, raised in their ways. Of all the lives I can imagine, it was the best I could wish for, and I wanted for nothing, and knew only contentment.”
She looked back up at Henry then, and he couldn’t fathom the expression he saw in her eyes. “But my master, the only father I’ve ever known, said that my life, and my training, was incomplete. He said that my destiny lay elsewhere, and that I should seek it, and know the world, that I might grow wise, and thus, be complete.”
“He threw you out?” Henry exclaimed in shock.
She shook her head, laughing. “No, not at all. He sent me on a quest, one that I will not understand until I finish it. Only when I have completed it, will I know what it was, and from that, I will learn what my destiny is.”
“That makes no sense at all,” Henry told her.
“What in life does?” she asked.
He nodded, admitting, “Good point.”
“I am Petalwynd,” she announced suddenly, bowing again. “I would be honored, Henry Blake, if you would join me in my quest.”
Henry looked back at the river, to where his rock would be, and thought of his time spent there, fearing a sudden rise in the river, or a cold snap during the night. He thought of the village he had lived his life in, and all that he knew there, both good and bad. He thought of his failed attempt to be something he wasn’t, and his failed attempt to be who everyone wanted him to be.
He thought of it all, and looked back at the halfling monk, who had shown him kindness without pity, compassion without condemnation , and felt himself smile.
“Let’s see what’s down the road.”
Petalwynd smiled, and together, they set out, walking towards the destiny they now shared, and Henry felt a small surge of pride when he didn’t feel the urge to look back. Not even once.
©-2012 Cain S. Latrani