Pushing the Limits
Jessie looked at the confident, reassuring face of Gavin, and then glanced around the field, taking in the very convincingly real looking, unfamiliar gymnastic equipment that was scattered all around.
She looked around to see where the incredibly strange, armored figure Gavin had introduced as Master Katarese may have gotten to.
She spotted the armored figure of Katarese standing, apparently lost in thought and gazing, unmoving, into the rift that led to the Dreamtime. Just standing there, watching the chaotic motion of floating islands and distant figures.
It occurred to Jessie that Katarese stood in what Gavin called her mind, staring through a rift that separated her mind and should from that floating place… that suddenly felt like a part of hell itself, just a few steps away.
Was this her mind that she stood inside, or her soul? How could she be standing within herself? Was she only dreaming a point of view, a focus for her outward thoughts turned deep inside to what was going on?
She looked around her once more, and really tried to take it all in.
The entire area was most convincingly real, from the strangely fashioned structures of the gymnastics equipment, some standing nearly as high as the tallest building of Keep MacQuarrie, to the smallest blade of grass. She could feel the wind whispering past her cheek, the warmth of an unseen sun on the side of her body, the push of the air when she shifted her balance.
And yet, Gavin said that everything here was the result of imposing your own vision on the world around you. From your own self image, to the clothes you wore, to forging a sword out of nothing more than a mental image and your own will to make it real.
Here she stood. She could feel the softness of the ground under her booted feet.
What kind of mind could imagine all of this, in such detail, and make it real? Who could have such strength of will and breadth of imagination?
It suddenly, finally got through to Jessie. She stood within her own mind, and this being standing in front of her was imposing his own will on her, not on the Dreamtime. Everything she saw, and everything she heard, her every impression was being manipulated and controlled by Gavin, and he was displaying an imagination and will that she frankly didn’t think it possible she could ever come close to holding strong, no matter how many years she would be trapped in such an environment.
Her, or anyone else human.
She was completely and totally under his control. Or was she?
If he was in control, would she be able to think these thoughts? Would she be given the time to think, and reason, realize her position and come to suspect him?
She shuddered as she felt her mind race away from her in fear. She actually felt the moment her paranoia and doubt took hold, as the entire field shuddered around her in sympathy to her racing emotions.
She watched from within herself, staring at the warm sky and the green field and the reassuring woods around them, as everything began to crack apart, splintering like a reflection in a broken mirror, everything shifting crazily at different angles, strange purple and black flashes of light pulsed through everything as if lighting the world from behind a thin curtain.
Everything tilted crazily, down was no longer under her feet, and she knew she floated and moved in different directions at the whim of her own panic as the world of her mind spun out of control.
She knew, knew she was panicking, but knowing it did nothing to stop it. She felt completely out of control of herself, and in that one moment realized the truth of what Gavin had said.
She really was in her own mind. And she wasn’t used to being herself. She didn’t even know if she could be herself, anymore. She had spent her whole life yearning to be something she wasn’t, and tried to show everyone what they expected to see, while working in secret with Fergus to get what she told herself she wanted.
She had lived her whole life keeping her outward face showing what she wanted others to see… and she did it by exerting continuous, rigid control.
But in here, in her mind… to lose control of herself for a second was to let slip everything she kept restrained.
All the fear. All the terror. All the grief at losing her father, her mother, her brother…
All the rage.
And here, in her mind, in this world, to lose control was to let the rage run free and wild, until she regained control.
Regained control. She had to regain control.
But it was impossible! This wasn’t the same as standing in the real world, in the midst of calm and still woods while she tried to get a hold of herself and her emotions when they ran wild!
She never imagined how much she relied on the world around her being calm while she struggled to rein herself in.
The world around her seemed to dissolve into a mad storm of winds and rain, lit only by constant raging flashes of lightning and the constant purple and black pulses.
There was nothing, nothing but the storm in her mind, and her within the storm.
It wouldn’t stop! Her panic grew, as she fought and clawed to regain control. She fought, growing increasingly frantic until she felt herself unable to hold a single thought, the rage outside feeding the panic within, spiraling out of control.
She lost herself in madness. She felt it as she slipped away, lost the very ability to think, and was left with feelings, pain, fear, terror and a punishing stress as if the weight of the earth pushed down on her from all sides, smothering her, keeping her from breathing, panicking even harder at needing to breathed desperate to get just one breathe, clawing at the earth, and then she slipped, and lost even that, and vanished into the blackness.
And then, for one brief, flickering moment of relief, she felt the pressure become more than she could expect even herself to withstand, and she accepted it. She gave up, and let go.
And then she slipped away and was gone.
She felt, for a moment, totally at peace.
She knew she was lying in a warm, soft blanket, her eyes closed, the clamminess and chill of an early fall morning pushing on her face.
The sounds of a young woman chanting in a strange tongue came to her as if from a great distance, strange words whose meaning were unknowable but the tone was comforting, and gentle. She knew Bane was with her, and watched over her as she slept, and she smiled as she slipped once more into the darkness of dreams.
She awoke again, and knew she was still dreaming.
And she was calm enough to enjoy the strangeness of the thought. “To awake into dreaming, how strange it is. How could I describe this to Lauchlin, without him laughing at the clumsy words?”
She sat up, using her hands to twist around and push herself up from the stone beneath her.
She had been lying on the cold stone floor of the main hall of her father’s keep, in the corner nearest his chair at the table, and she knew why. When she was a babe still in swaddling, her mother had told her how, when she was taken with night terrors, nothing could calm her and let her rest except being brought in a basket to her father’s side, and in those days he often worked late into the night, in the great hall, lit by torches and surrounded by his men.
Her mother enjoyed telling her how her father would work long hours, with her there sleeping peacefully in basket on the floor by his side, the air filled with smoke from pipes and the fire and talk of hard men fighting to claim this valley as their own.
And here she was, back in the hall, lying on the hard stone floor.
And feeling utterly at ease.
“Thank you, Da,” She said, as she rested her hand on the back of her father’s chair for a moment. She felt them coming, and let them come, the tears welling up and falling like a gentle rain.
She just let it happen, and it all came out in a steady stream, all the pain and fear and horror she had felt from the very first time she saw, from her secret place deep in the woods, the glow of the fires rising over the walls of the great keep.
She just let it come, and saw around her all her family and everyone she had loved, coming into being out of the air and walking as if still alive in the hall, but she knew it was just her memory of them that made them real, and she was grateful, oh so grateful that she could remember them all like this, hale and hearty as she had last seen them, and without the wounds that death had brought.
It was the thing she had feared the most, when she buried her family the next days after the Orc attack. that she would never be able to remember them as they had been, but would be forced to remember them as they were where they lay in the ruins and the smoked and charred ash.
It was only because she trained with Fergus in secret, learning the secrets of the sword that her father had said was not proper for a woman with the future she had before her, that she had not been in the Keep on the night of the attack, and that she had survived when all others had been slain.
It was only due to her disobedience that she was alive, and had not fallen with her family like she should have.
But the tears came down, and though she still felt the deep pain of having somehow betrayed her family by still being alive, she felt, deep in her heart, that her father and mother would forgive her for staying behind.
She stood straight and looked around the hall. She felt the tears continue to fall, and felt they might never end, but they felt clean. Fresh. She felt them fall, and take with them some of the poison she had kept in her heart since the fall.
And as the poison left, there was more room in her heart for the strength to fill her. the strength to do what she knew was right.
To take back this hall, and this valley, and continue the work her father had started, making this a home for their line. It had always been the dream of her parents, to secure this land as the home for their family and loved ones. This valley had been in her family’s heart since her grandfather had first found it while scouting back in his youth, and something here had burned in heir heart ever since.
And Jessie would make it their home once again. Nothing would stop her from keeping the dream alive. Nothing.
She let the hall fade around her, and let nothing fill the space in it’s passing. She imagined a calm, clean light all around her, without ground or sky, just a peaceful light, and so that is what surrounded her as she cried, proud and alone. She relaxed for a moment, and then, as if giving in to a duty that must be done, determined that it was time to see the rift once again.
As her determination grew, she felt as much as saw the rift she had been shown in the valley appear, looking the same as before.
She gazed into it calmly, just standing before it and passively gazing into it. nothing she saw registered on her. She was, for the moment, in some mental state where she felt at peace, and she tried to stay in that state, a little afraid to think abut it too much in case all the anxiety and self awareness would begin the cycle of stress and fear all over again. She felt fragile, like the slightest stress would pop the feeling of peace she had like a bubble, and even as she idly thought these things, she knew that the feelings she had were somehow precious, and could not be expected to last, and so she should enjoy the feeling while she could.
She stood thus for what felt like a long time, although she made no effort to try and judge the passing of minutes. It was enough to stand, and let the tears flow, and just be. Nothing on the other side of the rift registered on her eyes, it was simply a riot of color and light that changed and flickered and helped her thoughts to drift. She remembered her brother, and how proud he made their father with his skills at the sword and lance, and how he dreamed of someday being good enough to be tested by the Masters and bringing fame to their family name. She remembered her mother, and her gentle smile, and how she somehow could always see through the confusion of any problem, but always let their father think he was the one that made the decisions, by deftly asking simple questions that helped focus their father’s attention on the parts of a problem that really mattered. She could see things so clearly, no matter how confusing they seemed.
And she remembered her father, his strength, his determination, and his patience with her. Jessie knew he had loved her, even when he forbade her from learning the sword. She even knew he had understood her, knew he had recognized the burning fire within her to learn and master it, because she had seen he had that same fire himself. As good as Lauchlin had been, it was Jessie that had inherited her father’s burning love of the fight and the blade and the absolute commitment to the dance.
He had forbidden her to learn the blade, because she would need to be approved by the Duke as an appropriate bride for one of the leading lords, and it just wasn’t appropriate for a high lady to also be a blade master. but it was also her father that had taken Fergus aside, and given him permission to teach her in secret, and then pretended that he didn’t see the strength grow in her arms and legs, the calluses grow on her hands, the inevitable scars on her hands and wrists.
She loved her father, she loved her family… and always would. And she missed them terribly, and always would. But maybe… maybe it would not be a betrayal of them, if she continued to work towards the goal. If she continued to work towards making their dream a reality, and regained control of the valley once and for all.
She thought of the hatred in her heart of the Orcs, the raging hatred she felt towards them for what they had done. And she thought about how she felt, now that she knew that whatever else the Orcs were, their raging hatred of humans had been forced on them by the dryad.
but even though she knew the dryad was the true cause f her families’ death, and the real one to blame in this, she didn’t hate the dryad. She still hated the Orcs. She could feel the anger, low and hot and simmering, just thinking about the Orcs. They may have just been the tool the dryad used, and she knew, knew that it was stupid to blame the tool for the work of the hand that wielded it, but she couldn’t help it. The Orcs did the deed, and she hated them for it, and would gladly see every last one of them die.
But, as she gazed into the rift, she could tell herself that as long as she didn’t act on that hatred, and o something that her father would disapprove of, then she could live with it. Like so much else, she had to do what was right, not what she wanted. If she was lucky, truly lucky, then maybe someday what she wanted naturally would be the right thing to do. Wasn’t that part of what Gavin had said she must be? A person that did what came naturally, without struggle?
How long she spent, thinking these thoughts, she had no idea. She let her mind wander where it would, and drifted in her moment of peace. Since the moment she had let go, she had felt this way, and she nurtured it as best she cold.
But finally there came a time when she knew that she had stood idle long enough. She stirred, and turned her head away from the rift, and gazed around her to see if all remained calm and white.
Standing there, not to far away but not too close, were Gavin and Katarese, looking none the worse for their experiences.
With what Jessie know knew, she looked intently at Katarese.
The figure was definitely that of a man, tall and with a strong frame under the exceptionally heavy steel armor he wore. Every inch of him was covered in black steel armor that moved and shifted as if alive, growing spikes and blades one moment, developing overlapping plates the next, constantly shifting, but never, ever exposing the man, not for one second. the only feature that never changed was the slash across the covering of his head, whether helm or hood or mesh, a gap always existed that was filled with darkness, fro which two brightly burning pits of blue flame danced. Katarese seemed to be always in motion, but Jessie saw that the impression was misleading, because it was the armor that was constantly in motion. Katarese himself remained almost preternaturally still, and when he did move from place to place, it was with a truly unearthly grace and economy o motion, as if his bones were joined by liquid fire at the joints rather than honest muscle or ligament.
Gavin was the one that finally drew her attention, however. Something about Katarese had a timeless quality to it, as if he just wasn’t all there anymore. Katarese just seemed too distracted by something only he could see, to be completely in the present.
but Gavin, Gavin was here, and what Jessie finally noticed as his key feature, was that whatever Gavin looked at, he gave his complete attention. He did not drift away in thought, he did gaze at the sky, his mind and focus never wandered. his focus remained strong and constant at all times, and she cold tell that this was his normal way. He somehow knew all that went on around him, and was aware of it, but his focus was always centered on what he felt was the most important thing of the moment.
And at the moment, that focus was on her.
“It’s sorry I am that I lost control, Lord Gavin. I’m right glad to see you weren’t harmed none by the storm. I thought you might both have gone through the rift, or maybe been lost yourself in my panic.”
Gavin smiled gently. ‘No, milady, you need have no fear for us. We have weathered far worse in our time, I’m sorry to say.”
Jessie felt a chair be where she wished it beside her, and moved to sit in it. She noted, idly, that it was the same design as the chairs in her fathers hall, strong wood dovetail jointed and pegged, and covered in long wearing brown leather.
She watched Gavin closely as he looked to his side and noticed the chair that had appeared there, a twin to the one Jessie sat in, and smiled as he moved to sit down.
“I’ve been doing a good piece of thinking, Lord Gavin. About all of this, and of you and the walking cheese grater over yonder. I really think I need to know. Why are you offering to help me? No offense intended, but what’s in it for you?”
Gavin sat back in his chair, and thought for moment. Jessie could almost see his thoughts flow, as he considered and decided just how much he should choose to tell her. And she knew that, whatever he might say next, while it would be the truth as he knew it, it would be a far cry from the complete truth, or the whole story he could tell.
Gavin finally leaned forward, and with a gravely troubled expression, said, “That you ask that question is really one of the main reasons, Jessie.”
“You shouldn’t trust me or Katarese. I’m glad you are watchful. You need to be watchful of everything. The hard part will be learning who to trust, and letting yourself trust those you finally decide have earned it. But you must be careful, and I’m glad you aren’t just walking blindly into anything, with me or with bane.”
“But when Katarese and I put your soul back together, in the process we learned everything that you had ever seen, everything you had ever heard, and everything you have ever known, from the time you were born.”
“Although you may not be able to consciously recall it, everything that has ever happened around you since you were born is still a part of you. As you grow, and learn, and widen your horizons, you will constantly be reinterpreting things that you thought you knew in the light of new knowledge and understanding. But we were able to see everything from the moment of your birth, every conversation held around you, and we had an adult perspective with which to pay attention.”
“Things have changed, a great deal, since I last walked your world.”
“Since the time I died at the hands of that axe, and my essence was sent into the chained prison of the Dreamtime, the entire continent of my birth went from a single Empire loosely forged from a scattering of feudal fiefdoms paying loose allegiance to Emperor Ricardon, through the upheaval of Ricardon’s invasion of the north, the Elven counterattack and absolute defeat of the human empire at their hands, the following hundreds of years of elfish judgment of the human empire, the fall and the pheasant revolution, the rise of the middle class the reforming of the empire to control the entire land, and then the sudden and complete destruction of everything by the forces of death and darkness, and the fleeing of your ancestors, the survivors, to the northern shores, where they remained for hundreds of years as refugees, on the very banks of the land that they had tried to conquer, and where they lived on the sufferance of the elves that ruled their.”
“At least a thousand years have passed in the mortal word wince I was chained to the Dreamtime. Your ancestors grew into a coastal community, and the few scattered nobles that had survived the journey to live in exile there forged the noble houses, while those that had protected them on the journey, and the members of the army of light tasked with guarding them grew into the permanent force of protectors that serve4d them.”
“It was inevitable that, with the north permanently under the control of the elves, the nobles houses would refuse to lose their grip n the only land that they could ever call their won, and seek to return to this doomed land.”
“This world you live in, this land you and your people continuously seek to reclaim from the Orcs, pushing ever farther into the mountains. This all used to be under one human Empire, before the fall and the Diaspora. And while the ruins of the coastal cities were reclaimed by the noble houses, and are now the coastal kingdoms you and your people refuse to have anything to do with, you and the rest of the borderlanders are all descended from the guards and soldiers that protected the civilians on your journey. Protecting the people, fighting threats to peace, and working to reclaim the lands that were lost to you is bred into your very blood and bone.”
“But you know nothing of so much. You had, in all your life, never heard of the Loremasters, or of Paladines, or indeed of any gods other than Tyr. And you have said you and your family worship and respect Tyr, but there has never been any thought to receiving guidance fro yr as an actual voice or insight to help guide you on a path.”
“You know of the Orcs, of course, and why they are so unlike the Orcs I know from my time is explained by the tampering of that fel wood witch, but you have, in all your life, living here in the very heart of the mountains along the spine of the land, never heard of the Dwarven peoples, or the Centauri, or the Shakkarans, or even of he world gates.”
“It confuses me greatly. And it worries me more than I could possibly say.”
“I can understand, in the confusion and the long years, that so much of knowledge could be lost. But I cannot, in any way, understand what could have happened that would still the voice of Tyr.”
“Tyr has two principles that we who serve him abide by.”
“We protect the innocent against all who would harm them, and we uplift the innocent until they are capable of protecting themselves.”
“That is what we do. That is the very heart of it, and all else has grown out of it. the trappings and additions that came, over the years, to fill in the gaps. Rules of law about this or that, fine lines and judgments, and such that get written down or added. But at the heart of it are those two principles; protect until they can protect themselves, then stand back and let them get to it while we search out someone else that needs protecting.”
And all the time, the voice of Tyr guiding us along the path.
“When I was ripped from the world, I came here, where the voice of Tyr cannot be heard. But at least I was content knowing that there would always be others to listen to and heed Tyrs call.”
“Now you have come, and Bane tore you free from the anchor in the Dreamtime, plunged your soul and the fragments of so many others back into your body in the land of the living, and brought Katarese and me along with you.”
“And still, I hear not the voice of Tyr, in a land that screams out for his guidance and his strong hand.”
“Jessie, what I get out of helping you is the fulfillment of my sworn duty, gladly performed. To protect you form the dangers of the Dreamtime, until such a time as you can protect yourself jsu8t fine.”
“And the moment you are able to stand alone on firm footing and hold your own against the Dreamtime, I can promise you I will be doing all I can to leave you, and find out what has happened to my lord to silence his voice, and to pick up the threads of the church and put things right. And not past time, either.”
“Now, you have endured enough, and more than enough for one night. It’s long past the time you should have risen, and I can feel the concern of your friend bane as she sits over you. there will be time in the coming nights to worry about learning. For now, all I can offer you is the assurance that we will be here, and we won’t interfere with you or anything you do. We will stand watch here at the rift, and guard until next we meet.”
“Now go. It’s time to rise. You have plenty to deal with in the light of day.”
Jessie held on to her place for a few moments. It felt important, somehow, to make a point of showing that she was capable of deciding on her own when she was ready to leave.
After a few minutes silence, however, she realized that while her feeling of peace was still somewhat there, she did feel a bit silly, and even a little petty, sitting there to make a point about who was in charge.
She laughed aloud, startling herself, and let herself relax….
And woke up, once more, in the warm blankets, the morning dew cold on her face.
Pulling the blankets closer, she sat up, and smelled the welcome aroma of fresh pan biscuits, and uncured bacon frying nearby.
Feeling remarkably strong, she scrambled out of the blankets, and scurrying around in the tight tent, got dressed and poked her head out to look around.
There, kneeling by the fire not too far away, was bane, working at keeping one pan moving over the fire while another was pushed up into the coals.
Without looking around, Bane said, “I was beginning to think you were never going to wake up. it’s good to now that the smell of bacon can get through to you. now come and get some food in you. We’ve got a big day ahead of us.”
Bane kept the bacon pan over the fire, but used the dagger she’d been stirring with to point back down the trail.
“I’ve seen signs that an Orc party are headed up the trail. We’re on limited time if we’re going to get you ready to get through the wards before they get here.”