Ocularum Excerpt

The Training Yard

The training yard was a new addition to the grounds. Cedar Kannon stood facing the line of targets set back against the edge of the clearing. The wind rustled through the trees and tickled his nose, brushing his black hair back from his brown face. Condi- tions were not ideal for archery, but he had put this exercise off for too long already. Cedar straightened his broad back against the breeze and flexed his lean limbs. His dark eye focused intently on the target in the distance. He steadied his breathing and tried to wipe all else from his mind, but his thoughts kept wandering back to the Druid Village.

After the battle in the trees, Cedar had been able to convince the other clerics that combat training was necessary. That scuffle may have been the first in many decades, but it would not be the last. He tried to block the memories from his mind, but they fil- tered through the cracks of his internal barrier like grains of sand, images of blood ob- scuring his vision of malicious eyes and sneering faces. They were only fragments, his memory patched in a quilt of pain, with no story emerging from the confusion. He squeezed his eyes shut, but that only intensified the flashes. Setting his bow on the spongy grass, he stretched his back and arms and paced back and forth along the length of the range, each footstep a miniature meditation. He had always been a calm individual, but now, he found he needed the meditation almost as much, if not more, than his bow.

Certain clerics of the Order had always trained on their own, such as Brother Sain- Clair with his sword and Brother Borus with his axe. Many of the clerics were acade- mics, however, and Cedar counted himself among them, even if life on Senegast had necessitated hunting skills. When his father had insisted Cedar learn the bow, he hadn’t seen the point. He knew he would be entering the Order. He looked back on those days and was glad for the training now.

Feeling calmer, Cedar resumed his position in front of the target. He lifted the bow with his left hand and knocked the arrow with his right, breathing steadily. As he breathed, he pulled the bowstring back and focused his remaining eye on the target. But his sightline was off. He released the arrow, and sure enough, it buried itself three inches from the center of the target.

“Blast it!” he hissed under his breath. It was the same every time.

A crunching noise behind him interrupted his self-flagellation. He turned to see Mia, frozen, as if caught in an invisible vortex. She stood there momentarily, her pale face drawn, poised to bolt like a gazelle on the plains in Senegast. She cringed when she saw his face, pity and guilt alternating in her blue-green eyes. He flushed but tried to keep his face expressionless. He held her gaze, silent, and without speaking turned back toward the target arranged at the end of the yard. As he walked toward the tar- get to retrieve his arrow, he heard her quick, light footsteps retreat back toward the Compound.

Anger, embarrassment, and self-pity swirled inside him, making his stomach cramp and chest tighten. He tugged hard at the arrow lodged in the heavy cloth of the target and cursed when it snapped instead of dislodging. He threw the broken arrow on the ground and stalked back to his original position. He glanced back at the spot where Mia had stood, ran his fingers violently through his hair, and kicked the ground with a booted toe.

Had she seen his poor shooting? Was that why she pitied him? Or was it his face? The ragged scar snaked out from under the patch secured around his head. The patch covered the knot of still-pink scar tissue where his right eye used to be. It had been months since the injury, but Cedar still felt occasional jolting nerve pain shooting into his head; the itching was even worse though. None of these trifles touched the deepest wound of all. Mia.

He’d loved her, helped her, fought by her side, and she couldn’t even look at him without pity. Or was it disgust? He clenched his fist and then fought to relax it. When he woke up in the infirmary, not sure where he was or how he got there, searing pain cutting through the haze enveloping him, his first lucid thought had been of Mia.

“Mia,” he’d said, his voice barely a whisper and tried to sit up.

“She’s fine,” Brother Mortis, the young, stern medical cleric, had said, a soft burr in his voice, as he pushed Cedar back down into the mattress. “You, however, are not.”

Cedar let himself be guided back down to the pillow. Every muscle, tendon, and nerve in his body, each in turn, lodged a formal complaint with his nervous system. “What happened?”

“You were injured,” said Brother Mortis.

Cedar winced as he raised a hand gingerly toward his head. He ran the fingers of his right along his face, creeping slowly toward the source of the worst of his pain. Brother Mortis plucked Cedar’s hand from his face just as it approached a heavy ban- dage.

“Best not disturb the wound, just yet.”
“My eye?” asked Cedar, his voice quavering slightly.
“I’m very sorry. We couldn’t save it.” Brother Mortis squeezed his hand gently. “The

damage was severe.”
He lay immobile in the bed, but the world seemed to spin around him. His eye. It

seemed a cruel joke. He blinked his one remaining eye and rolled his head slowly side to side, watching Brother Mortis’s freckled face enter and leave his field of vision as his head turned. He swallowed hard and felt an unnatural calm seep into his body. “The others?” he asked finally.

Brother Mortis looked uncomfortable, and Cedar’s heart rate quickened briefly before he could reach toward the calm again.

“You said Mia was fine.”
“She took an arrow to the shoulder, but it’s healing nicely.”
“Then…” Cedar said slowly, his throat thick.
“Brother Mallus,” said Brother Mortis. He ducked his head down and cleared his

throat. “The Druids killed him.”
Cedar closed his eye, picturing the young cleric, his guileless hazel eyes and

cheerful grin, both permanently now just a memory.
“The last thing I remember is walking down a hallway and into a large room in the

Druid Village,” Cedar said, his eye still closed. He heard Brother Mortis shift in his chair.

“’Tis not surprising considering the head injury. The hole in your memory may re- turn, perhaps in bits and pieces or perhaps entirely. ‘Tis too early to say.”

Cedar nodded. He was still trying to process everything the medic had said. Noth- ing could bring Mallus back, but at least Mia was alive and well.

It was many weeks before Cedar was allowed to leave the infirmary. His memory had started to return by then, but only in images and dreams. He saw them sometimes when his eyes were closed, grotesque vignettes captured in gory stills. He saw blood and felt pain and sometimes woke sweating and clutching his face as if trying to keep his eye from slipping out between his fingers. He shivered now, eye staring past the target, even though the breeze only gently tickled his face.

In those weeks in the infirmary, as his bruises healed and scars knit over the wounds, Mia had never once come to visit him. At first, he would ask after her. Then he became convinced that she really had died, but they didn’t want to tell him.

“You’re lying,” he said fiercely to Brother Mortis one day. He couldn’t remember precisely when the outburst occurred, as the days ran together when bedridden. “I know you are. If she were well, she would be here by my side. I know it.”

He remembered trying to get out of the bed again, tears stinging his good eye and pain throbbing through the socket on the right side of his face. “She would be here,” he said again, his voice less fierce as dizziness overcame him. Strength left his wasted body quickly, and he once again had found himself lying on the mattress; a sheen of sweat clung to his face and neck. The tears, the weakness, the desperation. It embarrassed him then, and it embarrassed him now thinking back on it.

The medical clerics hadn’t been lying to him. Mia was fine. They tried to tell him she’d been constantly at his side since she’d been capable up until the day he woke, but he wouldn’t hear it. The last time he had seen her, her luminous blue-green eyes had held his. Her fear for him had been palpable between them.

But from the moment he awoke, every day that passed without her presence hard- ened the crust forming around his heart. It wasn’t only his head that scarred. By the time he finally saw her, the pain had been replaced by anger, anger like he’d never known before. He was never one to rage. A calm, even temper was hallmark to the Kannon family, a combination of disposition and meditative techniques embraced wholeheartedly and taught from a young age.

This anger was a foreign invader in his psyche, and it fed off images invading his meditations and dreams. The Druids may have maimed him when they took his eye, but they violated him when they took his peace. And where was Mia when he needed her? Pitying him, unable to hold his gaze. She was silent in the face of his pain.

Lifting the bow once again, Cedar knocked another arrow against the weapon in a smooth motion and tried not to overthink it. Just let it flow, he thought and took a deep breath. To his frustration, his right hand shook worse than before. Nostrils flaring and full lips pursed, he tilted his head to try to put his only eye as close to the sight line as possible. And, loose! The arrow sailed toward the target, and Cedar willed it with his mind to land true. But, it veered, hitting even farther from the center of the tar- get than before. His shoulders slumped. He dropped the bow onto the spongy grass and dropped his head down, lifting his hands to massage his fingers with his temples.

There was another crunch behind him. Not again, he thought and turned slowly to see who he’d embarrassed himself in front of this time. Sister Aja Rayvenne stood in the same spot recently occupied by Mia. Her long, thick hair was plaited in a heavy side braid, brown and lustrous. Her eyes bore into his like an exotic cat, slanted up- ward and amber against her brown skin. She stood confidently in the trim, close fitting moss-colored leathers of the ranging clerics. Only the rangers got away with wearing the leathers inside the Compound. Even so, she must have just arrived back from a scouting mission, still wearing the light grime of the forest. Cedar imagined she must blend into the surrounding forests with ease, but in this moment, she popped against the stone wall at her back. He flushed slightly at her gaze.

“Brother,” she said finally and bowed her head slightly, after having her fill of look- ing at him. The formality of her address contrasted with the disconcerting nature of her stare.

“Sister Aja,” he said, returning the bow, trying not to mumble. “Looks like you’ve been ranging. A successful mission, I hope?”

“How’s your head?” she asked, ignoring his question. She started to walk toward him, seeming to interpret his question as an invitation to converse. As she came clos- er, Cedar saw she was still carrying a bow.

She really must have just arrived. “It’s fine. I think I’m just struggling with the men- tal repercussions at this point.” He smiled wryly and gestured his head back to the tar- get where his arrow still stuck as proof of his diminished competence. He felt embar- rassed all over again, but no one expected him to be as good a shot as a ranging cler- ic. He was an engineer after all.

Her amber eyes followed every movement of his head and hands, like a stalker preying on a rabbit in the forest. “I’ve brought you this,” she said, her voice soft to the ears, with a mild lilt in its inflection, but blunt and crisp in its tone. She held up the bow she’d been carrying.

Cedar looked at her, puzzled. He held out his hand and grasped the bow in his left. It sat all wrong, bent funny. He bit his lip.

“No, no,” she said. “Use your other hand.” She took it back from him and held it up in her right hand, pretending to draw an arrow with her left.

“But, I’m not as strong with my left hand,” he said in protest.

“Perhaps you aren’t now, but you’ll be more accurate if you can see the target properly. It’ll just take practice.”

He took the bow back, grasping it slightly awkwardly in his right hand and lifted it to his face. He could see right down the sight line. “I see what you mean,” he said, slightly dazed. “How could I’ve been so thick?”

She waved away his question with an elegant brown hand. “Why would you think of such things? You’ve always been an admirable shooter, but it’s not your specialty. It’s mine.” She smiled at him, her teeth white. Cedar was surprised to see dimples form, lending her austere features a momentarily girlish charm.

“Thank you,” he said, trying not to stammer through the words. “I hope it was not too dear.”

“No, no,” she said and put her hand on his shoulder. “Not too dear at all. Please, take a shot. I’d like to know if it’s balanced properly for you.”

Feeling self-conscious, Cedar turned to face the targets for a third time. He raised the bow back to his face and awkwardly knocked an arrow with his left hand.

“The balance looks fine,” Sister Aja said, as she circled around behind him. “Here, though, lower the bow just slightly. You’re compensating for what you think is weak- ness in your right arm. Yes, like that,” she said and pushed his arm down an inch or so.

His left hand quivered, and the arrow trembled. “This shot’s going to be terrible.” “Perhaps,” she said.
He loosed the arrow, and it launched, shaking violently in the air before landing

short of the target. Cedar groaned, his embarrassment for the day finally peaking.
“I appreciate your efforts, Sister,” he said, “but this is hopeless.”
“If you appreciate me,” she snapped, “then practice! The only thing hopeless

about your situation is this conversation.”
She took the bow from his right hand and snatched an arrow out of the quiver

strapped to his back. In one fluid motion, she raised the bow, aimed and shot the ar- row directly into the center of the target. “My left is my off hand as well,” she said and handed the bow back to Cedar. “Practice! ‘Tis all the thanks I need.”

Easy for you to say,” Cedar thought. It’s your specialty, after all.

As if reading his mind, she narrowed her cat eyes at him and gave him a solid poke in the chest with a long finger. “Perhaps you’re right, and your problems are all up there,” she said and tapped his head. “But if you want what was taken back, you’ve got to fight for it. None of it’s easy.”

He smiled a wry smile and nodded. “You’re right Sister,” he said. “I could use your help.”

“Call me Aja,” she said, softness spreading through both her tone of voice and her face.

“Aja. Thank you.”

She smiled again and squeezed his upper arm. Her grip was firm. Everything about her seemed hard to him, but he thought that was what he needed just now.