Red woke up from his dream. It was not quite dawn, yet, which was just the way it should be. A good swordsman awakes at first light and begins his practice before even the farmers are awake.
As he begins his routine, swinging his sword around in loose, large arcs, switching hands, switching stance, warming up, he thinks about farmers, who aren't up yet because they're not swordsmen. He remembers that his parents had been farmers. They hadn't lived in town, but in a small sod house somewhere between Fair and Grass. He had had a sister then and he had shirked his chores.
The family hadn't gone into town much, only for the fairs, and that was business. Folks keep to themselves during business. At least folk were supposed to. Red never did. He loved the noise and the movement of the fairs. He loved the stories and the plays and the jugglers. He especially liked the sword fighting in some of the plays. No haggling. No dreary rebukes in plays. It was "foul varlet" and "have at you, then". That was so much better.
When he was six, Red had run away from his family when they left the fair early, having conducted all the business they needed. He had gone back to the fair. You would have thought he had burned down the grain tower, the way they went on. It's not like his work was all that much to miss.
But they had grabbed him back and fretted for - well at the time it felt like forever. They took him to one of the hermits. The hermit was standing on his head, which was a thing of no small interest to a boy. He stood on his head in a hut too small to lay down in, without sticking out the front door. So maybe he stood on his head always. Father said you never could tell with hermits.
So the hermit stood on his head and listened and Father slowly fished the words to explain the difficulty out of his craw. The words came reluctantly through his whiskers. Mother and Sister stood by, plainly stating by their posture that it was not the place of womenfolk to speak under these circumstances, but to stand supportively, proud of their discretion, distrustful of strangers.
The hermit listened to it all silently. And then was silent for a piece after that. Father and Mother and Sister waited patiently. Red fidgeted. Eventually, the hermit spoke, still upside down.
"There is a sage in Four Towers who has a bodyguard. The bodyguard refuses to take students. But he could teach very well. He's waiting for a student to demand to be taught and to attack him when he refuses. The student must be very patient, for the bodyguard will beat him up, not once, but many times before he relents and begins teaching."
And then the hermit gave instructions on how to get to the sage, who did not live in a tower, but in a small house with a wall and a garden.
There was a good deal of silence after that.
Finally the hermit said: "The boy has only heard stories of fighting. Perhaps it is more boring than farm chores, when it's what you do for a living, rather than what you watch on a stage."
Father had considered that for a deal of time and then had nodded. He had spent the next two weeks drilling the directions to the sage into his son. Memorization had never been Red's strong suit.
He could still remember the lesson. Down the road east to Slope. (smack) ((If he didn't answer, or if he got that bit wrong.)) Down the slope and follow the south road until the road crosses a big river with a bridge. (smack) Across the river, you'll come to the town's back, which can't be entered by strangers. (smack) Go around the town to the big gate - it's a big town and a long walk. (smack) Go in the main gate. If the guard asks you, say you have come to work for a sage. (smack) Go straight ahead. The road will be covered with bricks, like a fancy wall. (smack) There will be a water fountain in the middle of the road. Turn left there. (smack) No, the other left. (smack) Keep walking until you get to a house with a low wall around it and a garden in it and a statue in the garden of a minotaur. (smack) That's a big man with the head of a bull. (smack) Don't knock on the gate, go right in and knock on the door of the house. (smack) Tell whoever answers that you are there to learn to be a great swordsman. (smack) And don't go away until you've decided that you want to be a farmer. (smack) (Oh, sorry)
So Red had taken the two loaves of bread and the dried fruit and meat and had gone. It had been an adventure, pretending to be a swordsman attacking tall grass with a stick as he walked along. Joining the caravan in Slope. Going to the sage's house. If he forgot his instructions, all he had to do was hit himself upside the head, and he'd remember at least the next bit.
He had been a little worried that the garden wouldn't be there, what with Father never knowing with hermits, but it was. And so was the statue. And so was the front door, which was opened by a big, burly, greying man with a patch on one eye and more scars than Red had ever seen before.
Red had forgotten what to say, or maybe Father had never told him. So he skipped the asking to be taught and just attacked the man. With his stick. Which broke. He woke up in the garden. There was a much smaller, older grey man, who laughed and pointed out the weeds in the garden. When Red had proved that he knew which were weeds, the man said that if he was willing to weed the garden, he would be fed. But that he'd probably better stop irritating Urich or he might get hurt.
The garden was smaller than a farm, so Red didn't mind too much. If he didn't weed, he didn't eat, on a day-by-day basis. And no one got mad either way. So he weeded most days.
He had trouble getting Urich to teach him. Especially because he kept forgetting to ask. But Urich seemed to know. Red tried all the traps he could think of. Once, Urich told him he'd have a better chance of trapping him if he didn't try to use his sword. (Stick, but Urich said sword.)
"It's no good without a sword," Red had blurted. And Urich had smiled. He had drawn out the beating a bit that day, blocking Red's sword thrusts and flails with this hands. With His Hands! His hands must be so hard! But that distracting thought had earned him a ringing hit on his head and the lesson was over.
His hands were so hard. It was amazing. But maybe it was part of being a swordsman. So Red had hit himself in the hands with his sword. Then he had gone out to the garden to weed. Later he had noticed the bronze sword that the minotaur statue was holding. It was pointed down and Red could reach it with his hands easily. So he started hitting it, the way that Urich had hit his sword. To build up his hands. He did it every day after his beating and before the garden and sometimes after the garden, too.
One day he found Urich watching him as he hit at the statue's sword. "Where did you learn to block like that?"
Red didn't know what blocking was. "I'm doing what you did."
The next day Urich didn't come out the front door. Red heard him grunting and walked around the house to find him doing odd motions in a small clearing in the back. Red watched the stretches. He watched the warm-up with the lead sword. He watched Urich use a wooden sword to smack a big wooden pillar that he later learned was called a pell. He watched him pull a real sword and pretend to fight first one, then two and three imaginary opponents. Red was rapt. He sat very still and didn't say a word. When Urich turned to walk away, he took up the wooden sword and attacked him, as always. As always, he was beaten, and rather quickly. But Urich used a wooden sword to beat him today. Red was in heaven.
The years passed. Once he heard Urich say to Sage Turchall, "I never could have figured out how to explain what I did with a sword, not if my life depended on it. But he doesn't need to be told. He just soaks it in."
More years passed. Red got better. He got padding, so that Urich could beat him more firmly without worrying that he'd hurt him too much.
More years passed. One day Red beat Urich. Not beat him down, but beat him as if - if it had been a real sword he would have been dead. It was spooky. Urich immediately talked about when Red would be leaving. He was a swordsman, now, and to learn more he'd have to fight for real. He didn't have to leave right now. He had a year to think it over.
Slope was a good place to go, for a swordsman. Or home, if he had one.
Red thought it over and couldn't decide. So a year later he went to Slope, since it was on the way and he had to go that far. Once he got to Slope, it occurred to him that he was no longer sure where his family's farm was. He had never been far from it, except for the fair. And he had had his head full of the fair then. When he left he'd had his head filled with remembering the directions to the sage's house. This was embarrassing.
He didn't want to have to ask where his people lived. Then it occurred to him that his family had always used descriptions when speaking among themselves. Father was Father or Husband. Mother was Mother or Wife. Sister was always Sister. He could recall no other names. Unless you counted Farmer or Goodwife or Young Miss. He had been Young Mister or Lad. It didn't do to give your names to strangers.
So he couldn't even ask. This was more than embarrassing. When the caravaner asked his name, he used the name that Urich and Sage Turchall had used. He called himself Red. He mumbled it. And when the bandits came, he took out his frustration on them. Being begged by the drovers to stay in Slope helped his mood a good deal. They thought he was wonderful. And Father had said not to come back until he wanted to be a farmer. If he happened to run into them, that was fine. He could ask about his name then. He wasn't a stranger, after all, and it wouldn't hurt if he knew it.
So he pretty much cleared up the bandits in Slope and he got to meet the Sheriff for it. He asked the Sheriff about his family, but the Sheriff had come from down in the valley and didn't know. He invited him to Fair, though, in case they came back through. But they never did, or else he didn't recognize them any more.
Oh, well, thought Red as he finished his exercises and sat to watch the sun come up. Remembering never was his strong suit. Father had said that more than once. He tapped his breastplate and smiled. But now he had shiny red leather armor. That was just as good as a strong suit any day.