Blades of Light and Honor
by Tyra Tanner
Twilight was the hour of honor.
The moon hung like a pallor of hope, a shining flag of surrender or, perhaps, a glimmering promise. The fall of dusk upon the field could be the moment Swordsun had been waiting for. She had chased the Warrior’s Reward for many years and, for all of those years, it had been her burden to deliver it to others.
The sun brushed the edge of the horizon, its tendrils of light snaking upon the evening-still grasses. She cast her eyes upon the fallen rays, and inhaled sunlight.
Swordsun snapped her arms above her head and thrust the sun’s energy into her hands. Two deeply curved sabers of golden light formed in her palms, their long blades leaking sunlight from the edges.
Across from her, Moonbreather filled his chest with a great breath, then he clapped his hands together. The moonshadows appeared one at a time. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. They rose from the ground like ghosts, their shimmering outlines wavering in the dying sunlight. They bore the image of Moonbreather, his stature, and even his reverence, transported into their spectral forms. In their hands, they each held a single dao.
Swordsun’s heart leapt in her chest.
Five moonshadows! Surely today was her day. Before the night fell in earnest, she would join the great warriors fighting in glory in the Forever Skies. Anticipation coiled inside her, ready to burst.
The moonshadows came for her.
For the smallest moment, as their forms ghosted toward her in eerie unison, she considered abandoning honor. She’d heard whispered tales of others departing the Path and taking their Reward by not fighting to the best of their ability. But even as Swordsun longed for her Reward in the Forever Skies, she scorned such deceit.
As the moonshadows neared, she breathed sunlight into the soles of her feet and rose on wings of light.
One, it fell, the moonshadow nearest her, as she descended to the earth with blades extended. Two, it faded, the moonshadow to the right, as she breathed light into her blade, lengthening it, and dispatched the shadow to the nether. Three, it floated, the moonshadow behind her, as she rolled on the ground and sliced both of its ankles, severing it from the power of the earth and forcing it to rise harmlessly into the air. Four, it faltered, the moonshadow before her, as Swordsun drove it back with the right-left-right beat of her blades and the long-tuned tempo of her feet. Five, it froze, the last moonshadow standing, as she turned her attention toward it, and grinned.
As the last moonshadow dissipated into the evening light, Swordsun turned to Moonbreather himself.
“It is an honor,” Moonbreather said, then lunged.
Moonbreather fought well and long. His talent exceeded that of his moonshadows. Swordsun marveled at the strength of his roundhouse kick to her chest that sent her flying into the darkening sky. She felt respect when he breathed himself into the earth and erupted again behind her. Their fight continued until the sun had disappeared behind the horizon, and the moon shone strong in the sky.
“It is not honorable.” Moonbreather stepped back, eyeing the distant haze of gray light.
“Honor remains as long as the sword remains,” Swordsun replied. She could continue to fight for a while yet. Once the sky was bleached of all light, her sabers would disappear, and Moonbreather would accept a postponement of their challenge.
And yet, as Moonbreather stepped into her and she saw his weakness, she realized there would be no need for a postponement. With a quick lunge of her left foot, Swordsun drove her blade into his heart.
Moonbreather fell to the earth.
Swordsun bowed above her fallen opponent. Her eyes drifted to the skies, the Forever Skies, still denied her. The words burned in her throat. “You are honored.”
* * *
The villagers parted for Swordsun.
Moonbreather’s body hung limp over her shoulder. She held one hand on his back, another on his legs. She had waited in the dark while he bled out. Then she had wrapped the wound and shrouded him in black cloth. Now, under the swollen lamplights, Swordsun cut through the watching eyes, the eyes that glowed in the firelight, the eyes that were heavy with disappointment, even if Swordsun couldn’t see them clearly, she knew, oh she knew, and she gently laid Moonbreather’s body onto the prepared cart.
The villagers came forward, placing items into the cart. Fine linens, bags of silver, handwoven tapestries, and barrels of barley and oats surrounded Moonbreather’s body, piling up until he was a small black lump in a rich bed of gifts. It was the honorable thing to do; and yet, it was the third time this season that the people of her village had been required to offer congratulations to the opponent’s village by giving their finest tokens.
The villagers repeated the words under their breath. They sounded as hollow as her own. “Moonbreather is honored.”
* * *
Swordsun stepped into her two-room home to see Bladesun sitting on the stone floor, her eyes closed, her spindly arms resting on her even more spindly knees. Wisps of black hair trailed over the young girl’s shoulders and back. A shard of moonlight lit Bladesun’s face.
“You’ve done as you were told?” Swordsun asked.
Bladesun nodded once, eyes remaining closed, the picture of reverent contemplation.
“You meditated on the Sun’s emptiness for the duration of my absence?” Swordsun asked.
Another nod. Swordsun took note of the dirt on the child’s face, the mud on her toes, and the thick knots in her hair.
“You are most faithful, my student.”
Bladesun’s eyes popped open. “I’m sorry, Swordsun. I heard the children playing in the square. I only left for a little while.”
Swordsun held back her smile. It comforted her to know that Bladesun would always be a poor liar. She had too much honor growing within her tiny form. “It is well you told me, Bladesun.”
Silence spread between them. Bladesun blinked up at Swordsun, her brown eyes weighed with words unspoken.
“Speak, my student.”
Bladesun had come to her nearly three years before. Her parents had noticed the gift of the Sun inside the child and had sent her to Swordsun for training. Swordsun held the honor of training Bladesun with as much care as she held her blades of light, but only time would tell if Bladesun would become a master. The child was highly distractible. She was prone to disappearing in the sanguine fields to dance amid the ivory stones and pink blossoms. Many a day, she returned with a crown of flowers in her hair.
“It pleases me that you did not die,” Bladesun said.
“To die is the Warrior’s Reward,” Swordsun replied. “To honor the Path to reach the Forever Skies is the soul of the fight.”
Bladesun blinked up at her.
Swordsun should take her to the sacred pools and lecture her on the glory of the Eternal Fight. Perhaps it was Swordsun’s fault that the child had not shown aptitude for the Path. Perhaps Swordsun had allowed her too much freedom.
Yet Swordsun held back. The double-edged Path of the warrior was not a light yoke to bear: train to be unbeatable for the sake of honor, yet hope to die in battle in order to be granted the privilege of waging war in the Eternal Fight in the Forever Skies. Two sides of one coin, Swordsun fought within herself to honor both. Her young charge needed time to learn the balance between honor and reward.
Behind Bladesun, two small bowls of rice had been set out.
“You have prepared a meal?”
Bladesun bit her lip. “I got hungry.”
“But you have not eaten?”
“I got hungry, then I thought about you fighting Moonbreather, and I got un-hungry.”
“Then it is time to eat.”
Bladesun’s grin rose slowly from the corners of her mouth, but once there, it remained in place like a sliver of moonbeam hanging in the night sky.
* * *
The challenge arrived on a gust of wind. The gold-embossed paper landed on Swordsun’s kitchen table and unfolded itself to her view. Windknife would be honored to meet Swordsun on the plateau outside of the Windcharmer’s city.
The journey was a long one, but Swordsun did not take it alone. Bladesun skipped in her wake.
“Bladesun, tell me. How much light can you inhale from the sun?”
“When the sun is in the sky, light is endless, master.”
“That is right, my student. Now, how much light should you inhale from the sun?”
“Only what a daughter of the Sun needs, no more.”
“Very good. And how much light is required to chase the wind?”
Bladesun froze her feet, wide eyes alarmed. The well-worn bridleway stretched before them in a clean, open line to the horizon. “Really?” Bladesun asked.
“Every warrior must know how to run.”
“But in the village, you said not to.”
“In the village, you could hurt someone. Here, there is openness.”
Bladesun’s young face lit with eagerness. Swordsun inhaled light, pushed it into the soles of her feet, and rose on streamers of sunlight. Bladesun followed her example and did the same.
The two daughters of the Sun raced over the open ground with their feet made of light, scouring the path faster than a horse could sprint. Swordsun’s breath pounded within her chest as light coursed through her being. Eagerness bubbled within the confines of her heart as the spires of the Windcharmer’s city came into view. Perhaps this time. Perhaps this time.
* * *
Wind sliced across the stone plateau.
Windknife sat with legs crossed, his lean body resting on nothing but an invisible tuft of air.
Swordsun approached the warrior and bowed. She had left Bladesun in the city under the care of the Windcharmers. They would honor Bladesun’s need for training if Swordsun were to receive her Reward today.
A cloudless sky spread from horizon to horizon, and here on the top of the world, there was naught but two warriors come to meet in challenge. There were no witnesses, nor had there ever been at any of Swordsun’s battles. If honor could be measured and exacted, then it wasn’t truly honor. The warrior accounts to herself alone.
“Is the presence of the sun acceptable to Swordsun?” Windknife asked.
“Yes. Is the strength of the wind acceptable to Windknife?”
“May the children of the Wind glide for endless days upon its embrace.”
“May the Sun shine on your people.”
Swordsun inhaled light and unleashed her golden sabers. She prepared her feet and presented her blades. Windknife dipped his arms low to the ground, as if scooping an invisible ball.
What happened next took only a small moment of time.
Windknife threw the balls of air behind him. The force propelled Windknife forward with such speed that Swordsun could not withdraw her blade. Perhaps, if she had known his intention, she could have acted in time, but this thought only occurred to Swordsun after Windknife had already thrown himself onto her blade. The saber of light protruded from Windknife’s chest.
Swordsun released her sabers, which vanished on the wind, and staggered backward.
Windknife’s lifeless body lay in a heap, blood spreading outward on the gray stone beneath him.
Swordsun fell to her knees.
The wind buffeted her, a gale fierce enough to drive the rivulets of blood across the stone. Thoughts came slowly. In her mind, she replayed the moment over and over again. Could it be? No. No warrior would do that. But he had. She had seen it. Her eyes did not believe her sight.
It was unheard of.
It was dishonorable.
Windknife had cheated.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Tyra Tanner