(An excerpt from a forthcoming episode)
Kieran thought it was a child walking to the gates of the monastery, although the hair on his cheeks and chin changed his mind.
Kieran shouted to him.
‘What are you doing there?’ he said.
The young man looked up with a pensive but heartening smile.
‘Ah wish to train as an Iron Boxer,’ he said.
His voice carried up to them, a honeyed drawl, long on the vowels and sweetness with monophthongs present in his pronunciation of I. Kieran chuckled and shook his head.
‘You’re too short, go away,’ he said.
The halfling smiled and shook his head. Kieran was sixteen years old, but twice the height of the prospective student, and he enjoyed looking down upon him.
‘Ah wish to train, sir, that’s all,’ he said.
The young man sat down, crossed his legs and sat in front of the gates through the night. When someone came to the gate, he was still there. Kieran didn’t enjoy mocking him from a distance, so he came out and stared at the halfling and sneered.
‘You would not pass the training, little man, we are doing you a favour,’ Kieran said.
Up close, Kieran saw he was a halfling. The Iron Boxers came from centuries of tradition and it had taken decades of internecine debate before they allowed half-orcs into their ranks, although they had staff who came from different regions, but they did not train.
The halfling smiled and shook his head.
‘My appreciation for your concern is pleasing, but ah wish to train as an Iron Boxer, sir,’ he said.
Kieran laughed in his face and walked away. He heard the halfling thank him as he walked back inside the compound.
A second night passed. Rain fell. The halfling sat underneath the open sky without complaint. Students made a point of walking along the battlements, or leaving on importune errands to observe him.
On the dawn of the third day, Kieran went out, all the humour gone from his demeanour.
‘Look, you’re wasting your time and mocking the school, halfling. You’re too short, you’ll never pass training and you’re…’
Kieran struggled to find a reason to deny him and screwed his face up with frustration.
‘You’re too well, you’re a halfling,’ he said.
The halfling smiled and stared into Kieran’s eyes with warmth and acceptance.
‘Please, sir, ah wish to train here,’ he said.
Kieran grimaced and stepped back, hands balled into fists.
‘Do I have to strike you to get you to leave?’ he said.
The halfling shook his head.
‘You are free to act as you wish, but ah will not leave until you accept me as a student,’ he said.
Kieran pursed his lips, debated going and getting a quarterstaff from the armoury, but decided he did not wish to look foolish in front of his fellow students.
The halfling waited a third night. He did not eat, nor sleep, and when it rained, he sat beneath it until his hair hung over his face.
Sifu had walked to the capital and back, a long trip which he carried out on foot, so it was on the afternoon of the fourth day that he found the halfling sat outside the gates of the school.
The halfling looked up at him. He smiled, bunches of thin wrinkles bursting into being at the corners of his hazel eyes, and he had tanned skin from endless hours beneath an open eye. His beard was long, plaited into a single, thin rope which swung from his chin below a wide, full-lipped mouth. The robes were clean, but worn, judging by the symbols sewn into the sleeves, faded from exposure.
‘Sir, ah wish to train at the school,’ he said.
Sifu stroked his long white beard as he studied the halfling.
‘How long have you waited?’ he said.
The halfling looked at the gate, then up at the battlement. No one refused him yet, but perhaps this man might save them the effort.
‘Three days and nights, sifu,’ he said.
Sifu studied the halfling’s face, saw a similarity of bone structure and expression, then realised who the young man was. He bent forward at the waist and offered his hand to the halfling.
‘Then you will come inside with me,’ he said
The halfling stood up, smiling as he winced at the return of blood to his extremities.
As they walked, Kieran strode towards them, puzzled by Sifu’s companion. He bowed to him, but as he arose, his face was hard with irritation.
‘Sifu, I forbade this man from starting training,’ he said.
Kieran’s voice was bright and bold, but it faltered as Sifu looked at him with dismay.
‘You did, but I am allowing him to,’ he said.
Kieran could not look at the halfling, afraid to see vindication there, but focused on Sifu. He pointed at the halfling.
‘Sifu, we have not accepted such a..student before,’ Kieran said.
Sifu soothed down his beard with his fingers.
‘Have we had them serve us meals, Kieran?’ he said.
Kieran turned red as he struggled to remember, perspiration gathering at his hairline as his humiliation bloomed under the benign authority of Sifu’s gaze.
When he could not answer, Sifu raised the index finger of his right hand upwards.
‘Clarence, Kieran, served here for thirty years. He bought us meat and produce when the cattle grew sick, and when the Vivarians cut off the wheat routes, he smuggled in bread,’ he said.
Kieran recalled lessons about the history of suppression the Iron Boxers faced. He had used such anecdotes when trying to impress the village girls.
One, in particular, Stephanie, leaned into him when he spoke of the deeds of former students, crushing her breasts against his upper arms as he spoke. Such memories, seething with adolescent frustration and humiliation, stung him in the present.
‘I did not know,’ Kieran said.
Sifu tutted under his breath, unable to look at Kieran.
‘You didn’t, Kieran, you cannot see those who cannot benefit you,’ he said.
Kieran’s throat was arid, tight from humiliation as he looked at Sifu, then the halfling who watched him with benign acceptance. His lack of malice was galling to Kieran, who would have enjoyed this had their positions been reversed. When he stepped aside, they walked past him and through the gates.
As they walked, Sifu grinned and looked down at the halfling.
‘Didn’t your grandfather pass the coin to you?’ he said.
The halfling reached inside his tunic and retrieved the thick, rough milled coin and held it in his open palm.
Sifu chuckled and shook his head.
‘Why didn’t you give the coin when you first arrived?’ he said.
The halfling looked up, frowning as he palmed the coin again.
‘Ah wanted to come here with no help, sifu,’ he said.
Sifu looked down, wrinkles like scars in the corners of his eyes and down his cheeks, but his eyes shone with a childlike warmth and delight. He chuckled as he shook his head.
‘Your grandfather warned me about you, Mr Brandywood,’ he said.
Ron chuckled and put the coin back into his tunic pocket.
‘He said the same of you, as ah recall,’ he said.
Sifu chuckled again as he patted Ron on the shoulder.
‘That he did, Mr Brandywood, that he did,’ Sifu said.
Kieran tried to forget the sting of humiliation, and even attempted to make Ron’s acquaintance, although it was only if he thought Sifu was observing him, which satisfied none of the parties involved, so he stopped.
It was the last time for months, Sifu laughed with him. After Ron’s acceptance, all the sentiment fled from his manner and soon, Ron learned what it was to fear him.
It was here his training began.