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Chapter 14 - To Stand a Day and Night

As they snapped his bone-and-torch staff, Art could only think of how he'd narrowly escaped death. As they put his neck upon the main hole of the pillory, his left wrist in the smaller hole to its left and locked the top of the pillory down, and bound his right arm behind his back with rope, handling him with quite a bit more roughness than necessary and giving him a number of bruises all over, he could think only of relief that Kashya hadn't seen fit to apply any of the more severe penalties on him. Death, torture, amputation, permanent bodily injury -- what he'd feared more than anything -- he had been spared from; and for now that was enough. All else he could recover from.

But even as he found himself bound to the pillory, he felt his relief transforming into outrage. Who did the sisterhood think they were, to sentence him to such? They were but outcasts of the monastery, they only had power here because they had fled here as one, and none in the village dared to challenge them; how soon they forgot their status as exiles, to think themselves qualified to adjudicate others? And with a verdict of such length! Almost an entire day and night in the pillory, when the standard punishment lasted no more than two, maybe four hours?

Damn that Liene, he thought. Where he felt indifferent to most of the other sisters, he hated her. He wouldn't have been in this mess had she not took it upon herself to arrest him. She had injured him, and he could feel his heart demanding his revenge, even as he knew he would not have it.

Kashya and Akara had strode away from the proceedings, several of the sisters alongside them. Now he found himself trapped in the forced bent-over position, helpless and surrounded by a crowd full of hostile faces. Liene approached, several of the other sisters following right after. She stared him in the face with a look of sheer anger, and yanked him up by his hair before knocking his head down. Confined as he was in the pillory, he could feel new bruises at his nape and on his chin. "You," she practically shouted, "Scum. Of. The. Earth," she said, punching his face with one hand and then another. By that last punch her fist came away covered with blood; he was bleeding from his nose, he could barely open his left eye properly, and his face ached. "Don't think you can get away with it this easily," she said as she then kicked him in the waist, causing him to grunt in pain. She spat at his face. "Say your prayers of thanks, bastard."

Warriv and Taril rushed up to get between her and the sisters flanking her, and Art. "Isn't that enough, Liene? He's been punished; you had what you wanted," said Warriv, his arms spread out wide to prevent her getting past him. -- "You dare stand in my way?" Liene said, glaring at him with her right hand clenched around her spear. -- "Your captain has already passed judgment. What would she think if she saw you trying to change the punishment that she'd already declared?" -- "For the likes of him? I doubt she'd care, and she's left already."

"Speak of the devil," Taril said, looking behind Liene. With a look of shock Liene whipped around to check behind her. "Ha, made you look," said Taril. Her face a snarl, Liene turned around and stuck her head mere inches from Taril. A lesser man would have taken a step back, but Taril then noted, "Any closer and you'd have your first kiss. Not that I'm complaining. You are a damsel, are you not, sister?" He chuckled as Liene backed away with a look of revulsion and embarassment.

"A knave such as him doesn't deserve another moment of our time," Liene said, before turning around and marching off, with Orianna and Elly following right after, and the expectant crowd dissipated, muttering amongst themselves.

Warriv turned to Art, then with a kerchief wiped the spittle off Art's face. "She shouldn't bother you any more, after the number Taril pulled on her. Don't let it get to you. One day will pass soon enough. Tomorrow morning we'll talk to Kashya, talk some sense into her, with any luck she'll allow you to stay in the village. If not, well tomorrow the caravaners are probably all going to be headed west, no fortune to be made staying here any longer without any wares to sell, so don't you mind the exile."

"Thanks Warriv, Taril, I honestly don't know how I'd make it without your help." Art then turned to Nathan, Penny, and Selena, who only approached after the sisters had left. "Nathan, Penny… Sorry for disappointing you like this. I really only meant to do good by you, when I went into the forest this morning."

"Don't you worry," said Nathan, -- "We know your heart is in the right place." -- "We'll get you supper," -- "So don't you fret about a thing," -- "We'll take good care of Selena, won't you dear?" -- "Yes, husband love, she's just the most adorable thing, we'll feed her, and bathe her, and tuck her into bed tonight," said Penny, her hands holding Selena's. -- "Everything will be all right."

"I still can't believe the sisterhood would overreact to such a minor matter," said Warriv. -- "No, I understand why they did it. Not saying that I deserved it, but I can see where they're coming from." -- "Nothing can excuse this treatment. I absolutely have to go petition Kashya about this."

"Don't be rash, Warriv, that would accomplish nothing. The captain doesn't have the option to do much differently." -- "I see tons of options. For one thing, she could have said not to banish you." -- "And what, earn the ire of her fellow sisters? She is their captain, and relies on the trust of her subordinates. She has to lead them in battle, too, and the sisterhood is at war. What if the redskins attack this place and they lose because Liene, Sasha, and the others questioned her judgment? Many people would die. So that doesn't happen, my suffering is but a minor sacrifice."

Warriv stared at him with a look of pity. "I can't believe you'd actually sympathize with the sisterhood on this."

Art smiled. "Hey, someone has to. And if it's not them, then it has to be me. Plus, it makes me feel a bit better about this. Or what am I going to do, nurse my anger for a day and a night, then go and do something stupid? At least this way, I can be at peace about it. It's not the only reason, either. She has to show the villagers who's in charge, since they'll be residing here for some time and will have to deal with the villagers. Best way to do that is by punishing someone whom almost everyone believes deserves it. Someone who isn't a villager, because the villagers may take offense at the sisterhood taking action against one of their own so soon after having just arrived."

"That doesn't explain why they'd punish a caravaner," said Warriv. "We're just as upset with this as the villagers would have been, had it been one of them."

"Ah, but the caravaners, for the most part, haven't known each other for their whole lives. Most just got together for the expedition, they'd only expected to see each other for a few months before everyone goes their separate ways. Some, like Johann and Tyler, we only met a few days ago. Besides, didn't you just say that most of the caravaners expect to leave tomorrow? Once we've left, there's just the villagers that the sisters have to worry about. No one offended, who can return to the village to do anything about it at any rate."

Selena came forward, her face a mess of tears. "I'm so sorry, Art, so sorry," she managed, between sobs and gasps. "When we saw you were gone I said I'd go looking for you. I went everywhere in the village but couldn't find you and I started crying and when the sisters asked me what's wrong I told them about how I couldn't find you anywhere in the village, and they said they'd help look for you and… and if I hadn't done that, they wouldn't have gone looking, they wouldn't have found us," she said, and burst into still more tears.

"Selena, don't blame yourself," said Penny, rushing to embrace her. "You did the right thing, asking the sisters for help. No one would have expected things to turn out like this, and besides, the sisters have been sending patrols around the village for days. They may have stumbled across you two regardless of what you'd have done. There now, good girls don't cry," she said, wiping the tears off the little girl's cheeks. Selena then seemed to put in a might effort to swallow her sobs and wipe the tears out of her eyes. "That's a good girl."

"Warriv and I'll keep watch, scare off any troublemakers," said Taril. -- "Oh don't be foolish," said Art. "I can't possibly trouble you with that. A day and a night is a very long time. You'll regret it before an hour's up." -- "Actually, I'm regretting it already," replied Taril, nonchalant. "Well then, we'd best go back to the house before we get the splash from splattering egg yolks." -- "Watch it Taril, you're going to give the village kids some very nasty ideas," said Art, grinning.

The group bid their leave, leaving Art alone in the village square. With nothing to occupy his mind, he felt the pain of his severed wrist, the burning sensation still there, still making it tender, bringing tears to his eyes as the thought of it reminded him of what he'd lost. The other wounds, cuts from blows from the midget warriors that had managed to cut through the layers of his gambeson. The bruises all over him from his rough manhandling at the hands of the sisterhood. His nape and back felt stiff and sore from being forced into a hunched over position for so long without any respite. The bottom of his feet, sore from the pressure of standing all the time. His wrist and neck, chafed. His arm muscles, sore from keeping in such awkward a position for so long. Pain after pain after pain after pain, some of them falling out of his consciousness as other pains replaced them, before returning; none of it ever going away.

He'd not wanted to hold a grudge against the sisterhood, after all that his rational mind had told him. Yet, pain had its peculiar way of inculating hatred, and so he found himself hating. Loathing the world, with all its cruelty. Detesting the sisterhood, for having heaped misery upon him. Hating himself, for being so weak, detesting himself for his foolishness.

Why had he even bothered to help them? Oh, he'd been such a fool, he thought; and how he'd gotten his due. He'd not really wanted the recognition from the sisterhood for his deeds; had his fight at the monastery never came to light, had the sisters never heard of how his leading the beast around bought them the time to escape, he wouldn't have minded. He'd not expected all this to be brought up the way it had: as a desperate defense at his trial, rather than as an accomplishment to hold in pride.

What had the sisters done to earn his loyalty? Fight the invaders to buy time for the caravaners to escape? Or just to keep their monastery from falling into enemy hands? It was their only home, after all, and their base of operations. Had he felt sympathy for them only because he'd seen how they'd suffered, how they'd lost their allies? Had he wanted to help them only because they and the caravaners shared a common enemy? Had he went to help them in the first place because of, dare he admit it, naive, romantic notions of chivalry? He was drawing a blank.

The sisters… Fuck Liene. Fuck Sasha. Fuck Kashya, too, for that matter. Diane… She'd come through for him at the end, but only after he'd put in all the effort to maneuvering her into the position where she could do so without risking her skin. Other than that, he barely knew her. And he'd not really gotten to know any of the others. At this point, he felt closer to Gheed than to them. The sly merchant at least knew of Art's background at the Flying Feather School. He at least hadn't been complicit in the latest turn of events.

That's it, he thought; when he got out, he was going to leave this damnable place, leave this deplorable excuse of an order to its fate. Those sisters wanted him gone? Fine by him, then. When the invaders, the redskins or the beast, inevitably came for them, and slaughtered them, well, he'd probably rejoice at that, for it would at least mean the sisterhood got what it deserved. And the rest of the villagers, too, for that matter, seeing as how none of them had stepped forward to defend him at his trial. By then, he, and Warriv, and Taril, and the rest of the caravaners would be long gone, and they'd be safe.

Selena, he thought. This place would be the best for her. Here she had a doting couple who'd take care of her, though he didn't know for how long they'd put up with her. He couldn't expect that they, whom he had hardly known for two days, would accept such an imposition on their lives as to take care of someone so young. But if they didn't… Elsewhere she'd have no one save Art, who couldn't well support the both of them. Warriv might agree to provide for Art's upkeep on his travels; they were long time friends, after all. But Selena, who was she to Warriv? Just another person Art had met. He might not be so happy to have to keep her around and feed and clothe her as well. No, the only palatable option here was for Selena to stay with the Bedfords. And if he had to beg for them to take her in, well, he resolved, for her, he would beg. He could do that much, for the sake of her future.

He would be leaving her in good hands, then. She'd be staying here, he'd leave, he'd never see her again… The thought of it brought tears unbidden to his eyes. No, that wasn't all; if he just left and never returned, and the Bedfords just continued on living here, then when the invaders came and destroyed the sisterhood, she'd be killed too. And he found that he cared for her, wanted to protect that innocence, that bundle of joy. She had a place in his heart that none of the others -- not even Warriv and Taril -- had. He couldn't let anyone hurt her. But with him exiled and with only one arm… He couldn't do even that much.

What to do? he pondered, for a very long while.

At first he'd felt acutely aware of the eyes of the villagers and caravaners as they passed on by, the accusatory glares of the sisters as they changed their patrol shifts. He'd rather be in the pillory somewhere far from prying eyes, or where no one he knew could see him brought so low. He couldn't bear for them to see him this way, couldn't bear the shame.

But after minutes, then hours, passed, with countless people walking past him, some with pity in their eyes, others with suppressed anger, and other still passing by with complete apathy, he'd come to terms with it. He figured everyone who would see him this way already had. Soon enough, he began to long for something to do, someone to talk to, to break this spell of monotony for him. Even getting some stones thrown at him would be a nice change of pace. This intense boredom was slowly but surely killing him from the inside.

When the sun had drifted across the sky and halfway descended to the horizon with its golden light, some of the village children showed up, looking at him inquisitively, but they wouldn't touch him, and the promised splattering by eggs never happened. Instead one of the boys flicked a finger at his nose, to which Art feigned "Achoo". Several of the girls giggled and the boy did it again with a grin, prompting Art to feign it again. "What, isn't anyone going to say bless you? No? Fine; bless me."

"Heh, you're funny. I'd not seen you before. Who are you?" asked one of the boys. -- "He must be one of the travelers," replied a girl. -- "You shouldn't talk to him," said another. "He's a criminal. You know what a criminal is?" -- "Damn right I know what a criminal is, you buffoon!" -- "Why don't we let him tell us?" -- "Shh… What's wrong with you? Don't bother him." -- "Why? It's not like he's got anything better to do."

Nothing better to do. That was it, he thought; he had nothing better to do, not with the monastery pass closed to caravans, not with his loss of his main hand, not with his loss of any desire to help the sisters. He felt lost, adrift. What would he make with his life, once the morning arose and he walked away from the village? He had nowhere to go. And the tears upon his cheeks had nowhere to go but down.

Who knew a single day could feel so long? The wait felt interminable, and he suspected that the pain he bore doubled the length of the day. It certainly felt that way. Had he been blindfolded, he could have sworn that he'd been in the pillory for a day and a night now, and yet the sun had only barely set. Aching in pain, throat parched, beyond starving, helpless in his hatred, feeling miserable and lost….

Selena suddenly slipped into view, smiling, her golden hair done into twin tails, and changed into a new dress, frilly and green. "Hey Art, miss me?" She held a pewter bowl and spoon in her hands. "Ta-da!" she said, thrusting out the bowl to show him the vegetable soup within, lentils and beans and onion and tomato, with hardly any spice or meat. The heavenly aroma of it wafted up to him, and immediately his stomach began its desperate growling for his attention. "You… like this soup, right? Here." She lifted the spoon up to his lips and her partook.

"I do proclaim this soup the most delicious food in the world," said Art, a bit of the soup slipping down his chin. "When did you befriend an angel, to get ambrosia like this?" -- "Ch! Heaven? Penny made this," -- "Well please tell Penny that her food is the best, for it is absolutely wonderful. And while you're at it, can you also tell Nathan that he's lucky to have picked such a skilled chef for a wife." -- "Sure, I'll tell them that," she said as she fed him another spoonful. -- "Oh, and can you also tell Selena that Art wants to thank her for feeding me." -- "Haha, I got that," she said as she looked at him askance but breaking into another smile.

All too soon Selena finished feeding him the soup. "Well, that's all," she said. -- "And I loved every spoonful of it. Including the part that fell down my chin," he said, staring at the dribbles that had formed a little pool on the ground. "That tasted wonderful too." -- "What, you didn't even get to eat that!" -- "Ah, but in my mind I did. Thanks for feeding me. I think I owe you both a lunch and a supper, now." -- Selena looked at him with a troubled frown. "Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Penny wanted me to help with chores. She's been teaching me how to sew," she said with a big grin. "She says I've done enough sewing for one day and that I can go do whatever I want. But since you can't… Want me to stay with you?" -- "Well I have to admit, it hasn't been all that exciting being stuck in here. You sure you want to?" -- She nodded gaily. "Of course."

She sat down, propping her back against one of the posts of the pillory. For a few moments they kept in silence. Then she turned herself around to face him. "Okay, just sitting here is boring. I don't know how you manage it." -- Art made a helpless gesture with his hand. "Does it look like I have much of a choice?" -- "Ooh!" she said, clapping her hands excitedly. "Tell me a story!" -- "Really? Well, once there was a man who told a girl a story, and got put in a pillory for telling it. Then the girl asks the man to tell a story, and he says, once there was a man who told a girl a story," -- "Stop stop stop!" -- "But I'm not done yet. He told the girl a story about it, and got put in a pillory for telling it. Then the girl asks," -- "What do you mean you aren't done yet? Aren't you just repeating yourself now?" -- "Really, I'm not done. See, then the girl asks the man, aren't you just repeating yourself? And he says, nope, because this time I have a visitor."

The visitor, Diane, walked up to Art. -- "Oh," said Selena.

"Um, hi," she said, looking fully embarassed. "Are… are you busy?" -- Art waved with his hand. "Seeing as I can't do very much right now?" -- "Ah, I mean, I know it's a bit late now…" -- "Oh don't worry about that, seems I'll be up very late tonight."

She looked away for a few seconds, looking utterly embarassed, as she wrung her hands. Then she took a deep breath and turned back to face him. "So… I just wanted to apologize. For earlier… For not having spoken up earlier, I mean." She looked at him, as if seeking permission to continue, and when Art kept quiet, she stared at the ground as she continued. "I thought I recognized who you were right away. But, I thought, given what elder sister Liene was saying, that it couldn't have been you. I couldn't be sure… And when none of the other sisters spoke up, I… I just froze. I wanted to speak up, but I just couldn't say anything, it was like my mind was telling me to just blend into the surroundings, don't speak up, don't get noticed. You know? I wanted to run away, but the fear held me in place too. I… I felt so utterly trapped. And then… then I thought I must be mistaken about you, yes, yes that's right, it couldn't, had I thought up all these reasons why you weren't you… But in the end all of that was just me trying to convince myself. Telling myself why it was okay for the sisters to be rid of you, put you to death or whatever they would do. And I couldn't… I couldn't speak out. I just couldn't!" She looked away, stared at the ground by her side, and stared fixated at the ground as she continued. "If you hadn't said what you had, making me realize that it was indeed you, and saying what you did… If you hadn't said that, I wouldn't have dared to speak up. So, I just wanted to say," she said as tears fell down her cheeks, "I'm sorry for not having spoken up earlier. I'm so, so sorry…" She gave a soft chuckle. "There. I finally managed to tell you. I'm… sorry I took so long to tell you. I--"

"Hey, why so serious?" asked Art, feeling bad for her. He put on a smile. "After all, the sentence wasn't anything too terrible. Could have been an awful lot worse. Like that uncommon inconvenience people call death. And you did speak up, at the end."

"But… but only because you had said so much, and when it was almost over! I'm sorry, I should have been the first to speak up, should have done it right away, should have interrupted Liene and told her in front of everyone that she was wrong about you," she said, her hands balled up into fists at her sides. "But I just couldn't…"

"And I should have stood my ground against the beast. After all it had done, I should have fought and slew it, or died trying." He looked up at a surprised Diane. "What, you think I'm some kind of hero, and fought against the likes of that? No, I fled right away. Right after you. Want to know a secret? Everyone feels fear, even the best of us. And because of it, we -- I -- have done some things that I feel very much ashamed of."

A memory, of all the people in the cellar dungeons who he'd abandoned to their fates, knowing just how awful theirs were. Compared to that, his current punishment was but a slap in the behind. They'd have no escape from a much crueler suffering, a suffering he could have prevented, had he dared risk being discovered while still within the monastery.

"Still, I shouldn't have kept quiet as I had. I had been trained to fight as a warrior of the order, trained to not shy from such hardship. Now I've both fled from the invaders and fled from my duty to speak out against injustice and untruth… What kind of warrior am I? What good am I to the sisterhood like this?" -- "You needn't be so hard on yourself. Everyone hits rough patches at times." -- "But none of my sisters have this problem, it's just me. I'm just not as good as they are, at everything." -- "You're selling yourself short." -- "No, I'm just being honest here. I know I have shortcomings compared to my sisters. I can't aim as well as them, or shoot as far, I take longer to learn the ways…" -- "Yet you, and only you, spoke in my defense, when all others kept quiet." -- "They would have too, if they were there and saw you. And if they had, I'm sure they wouldn't have waited so long to speak up. They wouldn't be so afraid of elder sister Liene like I am… I try and I try to stand strong, but I just can't do it… All the others are so much stronger than I am, and I don't know what to do." She wiped tears from her eyes.

Art mused for a moment. "You want to be strong? Then you must make a promise to yourself. Promise that the next time you face a most difficult decision, you will not flinch away from it. That you would accept the role you have to play. If you wish to repay me, that is all I ask."

She shot him a wistful smile. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said so much. I don't know what's come over me… You know, I spent the last few hours debating whether I should even have approached you. I'd been so ashamed of myself, so afraid of what you'd say to me, that I hadn't the guts to speak to you till now."

"So what made you put aside your fear?"

"Easy. I realized that you were in the pillory. The way you are now, what could you do? Chew me out for what I did? If you had, I'd have just given you a slap across the face and walked away, and you wouldn't be able to do anything about it. Now that I've spoken to you, I feel a lot better now. A burden off my chest. And you turned out a lot nicer than I expected. You… aren't just feigning it, right?"

Art smiled and tapped the pillory with his fingers. "Why don't you let me out and find out?"

"Mmm, must have forgotten my keys somewhere. Oh that's right, Kashya probably ate them. And she'll bite my fingers off too if I tried to finger them off her."

"Mmm, very voracious appetite, that one, she chewed me up too," replied Art, and they burst out laughing. Then, more seriously: "Did Liene scream your ear off after I left? She looked quite the storm when she departed."

"Elder sister Liene just got carried away, is all." -- "I'd hate to see what she's like when she means it, then." -- "She just wants the best for her younger sisters, keep us safe from anyone who would do us harm. I don't expect you to forgive her any time soon, and I can only imagine what it must be like for you right now, but if my word holds any weight with you, please don't seek retribution against her. She is my dear elder sister after all."

"Spoken like a true sister," said Art, looking downcast. "I wish I had such a close family as you. You don't know how fortunate you are, having someone you can call someone 'sister' around every corner."

"What's it like?" asked Selena, looking up at her.

With a smile, Diane plopped down on the ground before her, tapped a finger against her lips. "Let's see… You live pretty much your whole life in the monastery. I joined when I was thirteen. Doesn't take long before you get to know everyone there, and then it's like we're all one big family. We eat together, bathe together, sleep together, train together, fight together. You have your elder sisters, who take care of you and who act as your mentors, whom you can always turn to for help. And you have your younger sisters, who look up to you and everything you do, and you want to watch after them and make sure that they're as happy as they can be, and it's just wonderful to watch them grow and--"

"Can you be my sister too?" asked Selena, patting her hands together excitedly. "And then I can call you big sister, and you can call me little sister, and…" -- "Ha, you want to join, do you? Think you might be a bit too young for that?" -- "What, me young? I'm a big girl now!" -- "A bit bigger then," Diane replied, toying with Selena's cheeks. -- "Hey!" -- "What, you don't think we do this to our younger sisters too?" -- "What? No way." -- "Oh yes we do, little one. Whenever bow-mother and order-mother aren't around, we fool around. All. The. Time."

"It… sounds wonderful," said Art. "If things had been different, I'd have liked to join too." Too bad the monastery had fallen. Too bad most of the sisterhood might as well be dead to him, after what they'd put him through.

"You mean the 'if you were born a girl' kind of things being different? Because if you tried to join, most of my sisters would take it the wrong way."

Then he noticed Selena on the verge of tears, as did Diane. "What's wrong?" she asked, as Selena sniffed and sobbed. "Was it something I said?" -- "Uh, yeah, something you said." -- "I want my mommy…" -- "There now, don't cry," she said, wrapping her arms into an embrace. Then with a start she looked up at Art, her expression schooled. "I… I didn't know. I'm sorry for your loss…" -- "Now who's taking things the wrong way?" -- "She's not dead?" -- "No, I meant I'm not the father. I'm not related." -- "Ah. So she is dead?" -- He was about to say 'yes', but with Selena right there, he couldn't bear to say it. "No," he said with a nod.

Selena asked, "Uncle Art… When are you going to go back for her?"

"When we find enough friends to go with us," he said. "When we have the sisters with us to help retake the monastery, we'll get mommy out of the dungeons," he said, grimacing as he said those lies. "Then we'll get her back." -- "Promise?" -- "Promise."

He had no idea how he was going to do anything like this. With the sisterhood treating him as an outcast and him being banished from the village starting the next day, it seemed Selena's dream of reuniting with her mother was further today than it was yesterday. Then, he thought, given what form that reunion would take, it was probably better this way.

Diane took one look at his crestfallen face and he knew that she knew that there would be no getting Selena's mother back and that Selena had yet to know it.

Diane looked around, seeming at a loss. "I think I may have overstayed my welcome… Is anyone else taking care of her? While…" -- "While I can't take care of anyone? Yes, the Bedfords. Also, I think it may be getting past her bedtime." -- "I'll take her home." -- "Selena," Art said, "Go with her, okay? She's gonna take you home." -- She extricated herself from the embrace, then taking Selena by the hand, led her away. She turned back for a moment. "Stay strong, Art."

"Thank you for coming by to visit. And for speaking out, in the end. It means more to me than you could know. I'd really started to lose faith in the sisterhood, till you came."

As he watched the two of them receding down the street, he wondered, since when had he come to trust her to take care of Selena? He'd only spoken with her for such a short while.

As the dusk dragged on into night, the stars began to shine out from the blue. For Art, the time passed so terribly slowly, ever acutely aware of how much it hurt to have to stand in this awkward position, constantly shifting his weight about to try to alleviate the soreness that started from his wrist and neck all the way down to his aching feet, without any hope for respite. When those muscle cramps happened, he'd strain to try to get them relaxed, but given his limited range of moment, that proved difficult, and so his muscles kept cramping up again and again, here in his upper arm, here in his leg, here in his back… It left him feeling weak. He didn't know how long he could keep this up. And another entire night of it! He'd never expected being pilloried could be such torture.

He'd not realized how precious his freedom of movement was to him until he'd lost it. He thought he could give anything, do anything, just to be given a few more inches to move.

It had gotten late at night, and few people still milled about in the village square. None had approached him in hours, and he felt like he was losing himself. He had to find something to take his mind off… He started going through the meditation of inner peace:

Slowly, let your eyes fall shut of their own accord… There is no past, no future, to take to heed… There is only the now… Focus the mind inward...

Peace fell upon him, washing away his awareness of his aches and sores, erasing the slow passage of his penance upon the eternity of time.

This, at last, was something he could spend hours doing, that he'd trained in for years. When he'd finished with one mantra, he began another, then another. One focused on inner awareness, another on thankfulness, another on eternity, another on growth, another on spirituality, another on love, yet each of them another reflection of the same way. He'd memorized plenty of mantras and guided meditations over the years, first at the Flying Feather and then with Arid Mesa. He felt thankful that he'd learned so many and meditated so much.

Learning, meditation, ways. Then, a thought struck him. There was something he could do, something he'd missed for a while now: The way of the puppeteer. He'd been using the skull-and-torch staff while working his necroturgy. But, as he recalled had happened when he had attacked that shaman and gotten his staff chipped, it left a major weakness. The moment he lost hold of the staff, or it became damaged to the point that its carvings ceased to function, he'd lose all his necroturgy, and if that happened, no amount of practice using it would do him any good. And given that he couldn't use his right hand, he'd much rather he be able hold a shield in his left hand than a staff. The moment he learned the way of the puppeteer innately, he'd be able to do just that.

The sisters would not be pleased, a voice of his mind told him. But then, he'd stopped caring what the sisters wanted. After this night, he was done with them. He'd leave, whether he wanted to or not, and he'd chart a new path for himself. And with his right hand missing, constantly seeing new difficulties that loss entailed? Having necroturgy to act as a surrogate hand seemed like a better idea with each passing day.

The problem now was that he had no clue what the mantras of the way were. He'd not studied under the Grand Cycle School, which taught the way of the puppeteer. He didn't know the basics of the way, only what he'd managed to figure out from using his staff. He didn't know the mantras, only the feeling of the way it evoked in him. He'd never tried to reverse engineer an innate adeptitude of a way from just the feeling of the staff, didn't know if it was possible or if it might cause problems later on down the line. Surely it couldn't be easy, or people wouldn't become disciples of these schools?

But he didn't have much of a choice. The Order of the Grand Cycle was hidden somewhere on another continent some six or eight thousand miles away and he doubted he'd ever visit there in his lifetime. And with the monastery pass under enemy control and him in a pillory…

Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, he tried to summon up the feeling of the way of the puppeteer. The essence, as he recalled it, was that of himself being in control of puppets of bone, making them dance to his every thrust of will, a choreography of harmony in perfect synchrony, utter control of his minions at his fingertips. He imagined what it must have felt like. He… thought he might have grasped it? If he had, the evocation must have been tenuous at best. It certainly felt quite weak, but a shadow of what he experienced when he held the staff. He tried again, and again met with no more than a paltry sensation of control. He felt like an imposter trying to control dolls not bound to his fingers by any strings, and that cognitive dissonance… it threw him out of his attempt. He tried again, and again, but each time he could feel only himself trying to achieve the feeling he wanted, never the actual feeling he wanted.

Damn it, he thought. He knew what it should feel like, he knew it! If he felt it again, he was sure he'd be able to recognize it for what it was. And yet he couldn't bring himself there, couldn't quite evoke the feeling as he ought to. Like knowing what it felt like to be deep in the way of inner peace, at one with the world, and knowing what general thoughts to keep in mind in order to arrive at that place of mind, yet because he was only trying to recall such a feeling rather than actually going through with the meditation, he was not quite getting there.

What was he missing? Well, the mantras, of course. But beyond that came preparatory studies, experiences, all with the benefit of instructor guidance. The way of the monolith, was not merely a few short lines to be memorized and recited. When he first began to learn the way of the monolith, his master had first instructed him and his fellow students in a litany of poems and essays. Against the Wind, a collection of stanzas in heroic couplet by Bikhari. The Three Guardian Stones, A Treatise, by anon. Here I Stand, an exhilarating song whose lyrics he could yet recall to this day. Histories of the Stone Faces, by the historian Iprid, detailing the lore and circumstances surrounding the magnificent faces a long vanished indigenous people had once carved in some fifty forty-foot-tall standing stones in their tribal lands. And many more. They'd also visited the Candelabra Beneath the Earth, a most beautiful and enormous limestone cave that glowed orange and blue and green from bioluminescent fungi; and had spent many a day mining in the nearby silver mine to gain an appreciation for the hardness of the rock entrapping the silver, in a very much tactile way. From those experiences he had gained an in depth understanding of the resilience of solid rock that struck awe into one's soul, approached from every facet. So that when he called upon that mantra -- For a hundred years here I have stood. The winds blow past, the rains pound down, yet day after day I hold fast, implacable, unmoving, unbreaking. -- he knew its truth at a level far deeper than what anyone who merely read those woulds could experience. That was what was missing from his attempts.

If he wanted to truly evoke the feeling of the way of the puppeteer, then, he had to find within him that same intensity and depth of understanding. What did he have to work with, that he'd experienced with the way of the puppeteer? He thought back to when he'd seen the shamans animate their fallen to engage him upon the battle at the monastery, tried to let it consume his thoughts. No; that seemed less an experience for a way of the puppeteer than one of a way-of-getting-your-ass-kicked-by-bloodthirsty-undead. What about that time he'd shattered the skull upon the chimneytop and reanimated the incisors, sending them at the fleeing shaman to force it to cover its eyes? But what he got out of that would probably be a way-of-keeping-the-other-guy-looking-away-from-you. When he reanimated those bones to perform a little skit for Selena? That one seemed to hold promise.

He held in his mind the image of himself toying with those bones, making them dance at his whim while Selena watched in rapturous attention and he planned out what scene to make next. The little bones standing in place, floating around, bobbing up and down with nothing but his mind to control it, an entire troupe of little performers at his beck and call. He held that image in his mind, then checked the feeling it evoked against what he knew he felt when holding the staff. He was definitely on the right track; this experience, personally felt, bore meaning to him.

Yet it seemed only a fragment of the full picture, and a very imbalanced one at that. Adulterated by the intrusion of Selena on his memory, when she had nothing to do with the way of the puppeteer. Polluted by his own considerations of how to proceed with his tale, which focused on story planning rather than adept control. And back then he'd been holding the staff, too, and so his mind had been overwhelmed with the forcibly evoked feelings provided by the staff, meaning he'd been diverting much of his attention on trying to tap into more of the same as on his first attempt.

He tried again, and again, trying to envision scenes from his experiences that involved control of some aspect or another. His mastery over his sword, his calligraphy, his mastery over his own limbs. Whatever he considered having any bearing on the way, he attempted, mixed and matched with his experiences actually working with bone. Him being put on trial for necroturgy. What he envisioned the shamans must have felt when they reanimated their dead brethren. How he envisioned the sisters must have felt when they saw their slain sisters rising against them. How Liene and Sasha must have hated him for what he practiced. All this, and more, he wove into an amalgam of emotions and memories, tried to hold all of them at once, or at least tap into as many as he could one after another.

But it wasn't enough. He'd wound up with some horribly misfigured version of the real thing. Supercharged with emotion, surely -- if he contained the feelings he and others must have had of their relations with necroturgy, how could it not? -- yet of the wrong kinds of emotions, the wrong sensations. What he had here was concentrated storm and fury, making nothing. He didn't need a bone at his fingertips to know he'd not reached the level he needed to even get a single bone to move.

Art shuddered. All about him the village shrouded in darkness, the stars twinkling above in their thousands amidst lazily drifting clouds of shadow, all hint of dusklight gone. The wind brought with it cold of night and he'd nothing on but his tunic. How he wished for his old gambeson back, torn or whatever. He shivered until his muscles strained from shivering so much, and still he felt colder than ever.

In silence, with eyes closed, he tried again to channel the way of the puppeteer. If nothing else, at least it kept his mind away from thinking about his suffering and from thoughts of revenge, from his thirst, from the cold, from all the wounds he'd suffered, from all he'd lost. From everything that, collectively, came together to render it impossible for him to sleep. He poured his attention to his task, even as he knew it to be an exercise in futility.

And then, after an eternity abandoned alone to the darkness, he saw the glorious peep of the sun.

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