Honour and Duty

© 2000 by Scorpio Milo

This page was last modified: 2000/03/21


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It was dawn at Sanctuary. The sunlight chased away the shadows clinging to crevices and ground irregularities, but the air was nonetheless still cool. In the great stone arenas, several scores of novices had already begun this new day of training under the supervision of their masters. The hubbub was deafening.

Only some hundreds yards away, three young adolescents were running as fast as they could toward the village located a few miles away. Their faces were covered with sweat, both because of the intense effort and because of the dull terror tormenting them. They were fleeing without ever turning or slowing, barely waiting for each others, fully centered on their goal, both so near and so distant. The village. The exit door that would allow them to leave the island.

They had been preparing this for the last two weeks. It was difficult to escape from Sanctuary. On daytime, there was the training. On nighttime, many guards were on watch. Finally, they had decided to leave soon before dawn, when all the novices went back to their training places. They had planned everything. They would take the first boat to leave the island and head for Athens as soon as possible. Once there, they would only have to mingle with the population. Nobody would ever find them, even if they were pursued. The money they had obtained probably wouldn't last very long, but they were sure they would find a way to manage nonetheless. They had abilities, knowledges. They would manage. They just had to reach the village. As fast as they were running, it wouldn't take them more than one hour. No guards patrolled here, nobody would be able to block their way.

Running. Keeping running. They felt no exhaustion yet. Their plan implied that they had to be able to reach the village without pausing even once, and they were almost certain they could do it. In a few moments, they would come to a gorge leading through the steep hills. Once they were past that spot, they would have left the lands of Sanctuary and it would be near impossible to find them. Only a few minutes still... The gorge opened before them and they entered it without slowing for an instant. The cliffs surrounded them on both sides, hiding the sun and drowning the gorge in deep shadows. The three novices were running as fast as they could, rushing straight ahead at full speed, without ever looking sideways or behind. The end of the gorge was there, no more than a hundred yards away. A few seconds still...

The sun suddenly emerged over the dark cliffs, and one of its rays reflected on a metallic surface, right in front of them. The three novices froze abruptly in their wild flight, realizing they had just been caught.

Rigel emerged from the shadows, his Cloth blazing under the morning sun, and the adolescents stiffened, terrified. He was their master. It was he who conducted their training everyday, so hard they had finally chosen to flee. They were afraid of him, almost physically.

The Orion Saint looked at each of the novices and sighed inwardly. He had hoped he would never face such a situation. Obviously, in vain. Three of his own novices fleeing Sanctuary. He had fast noticed their absence and it had taken him only an instant to catch up with them, but, nonetheless, he felt it as a painful personal failure. He had failed in his duty as a master.

One after the other, he watched the adolescents, who were almost trembling. The first one was Jorham. This was hardly a surprise. A boy with black, ever disheveled hair, thinner than most of the other novices. His deeply tanned skin was scattered with scars accumulated during his training. Rigel never had much hope for him. Jorham was already nearing thirteen, and he still did not show the barest understanding of the principles of cosmo-energy. It probably wasn't bad will, rather an incapability to learn. Rigel had meant to free him from training in a few weeks if he did not make any progress. Some people simply did not have the potential to become Saints. But now, it wouldn't be possible anymore.

The two other novices had shown much more promise, and Rigel felt bitter disappointment when he saw them. The first one was named Arenn. A ten year-old, short boy, with golden hair and a quick smile. He didn't smile right now. His face was so pale that Rigel thought he was going to faint. Why had he wanted to flee? He was always the first one to accept training, always the most enthusiastic for proposed exercises. He laughed easily and always seemed to be in a good mood, even when covered with bruises. He had a real thirst for knowledge. He listened, he understood, he remembered. Rigel had always considered he was the most likely to win a Cloth among the score of adolescents he was responsible for.

The last one was named Doria. Rigel was heart-wrenched when he saw her. She was the only girl among his novices, a twelve year-old child with black hair falling just over her shoulders. Calm and quiet. She, too, had this thirst for knowledge, but it showed differently. Doria was detached, thoughtful, analytical. She spoke little, never saying two words when one was enough. Silent, even when she received blows during the training. Rigel had talked with her on a few occasions and had come to the conclusion that she was much deeper than most novices. She had a surprising intelligence that went unnoticed until it expressed itself in their discussions. Rigel was not yet sure of it, but he had a rather clear intuition that she was beginning to show a rudimentary cosmo. He had intended to verify this as soon as he would get the occasion. He had even thought about doing it that very day.

What a waste! And what was he supposed to do, now? Rigel felt a painful uncertainty taking hold of him. How could he take such a decision? What did a Saint of Athena have to do in such a situation? What would his master have done?

Rigel shivered. He knew very well what Algol would have done. In his stead, he would already have killed the three runaways without granting them any mercy. Leaving Sanctuary without authorization was forbidden to all who weren't Saints, and it was especially true for novices. As a general rule, guards could freely go to the village when they wanted. Not novices. Only the Saint responsible for their teaching could give them the authorization. Rigel had the impression that he was seeing Algol's face before him, his hard eyes staring at him unblinking. The three novices had violated one of the most fundamental rules of Sanctuary. They deserved death. Immediately. Without appeal.

But they were only children! his torn-apart conscience screamed. Merely children! They were so young... It would be a crime to kill them now, when they still had their lives before them!

No. Not children, the implacable voice of Algol replied immediately. Novices, who had accepted to follow the training of Sanctuary in the hope of becoming Saints one day. Age was irrelevant. They had committed themselves. They had to respect that or suffer the consequences.

How could they have committed themselves when they had been forced to train perpetually since their infancy? retorted his conscience. None of them had the opportunity to make a real choice. Nearly all of the novices of Sanctuary were orphans or abandoned children. Few of them had really been able to decide. And, even if it had been the case, how could they have been able to understand what they were committing themselves to when they had been only six or seven year old at the time?

All these reflections are vain and useless, the voice in his mind answered immediately. Feelings must not interfere with a Saint's judgement. Your goal must be the preservation of Sanctuary. By letting them run away, by refusing to kill them, you create a breach in the laws of Sanctuary at a time when it is already weakened. Soon, other novices will run away and others still, and Sanctuary will wither instead of recovering. The only way to insure security in times of trouble is to impose an iron discipline, without granting any exemption. Sanctuary must survive, and the price matters little.

Rigel took a deep breath. The novices still did not move. They seemed animals facing a hunter. They were afraid of him. An inexpressible, unlimited fear. Rigel suddenly felt disgusted with himself and his task. What did they do to these children? By what right did they ruin so many lives? Until that day, he never had the impression of being cruel with his novices. Hard, inflexible, yes. But not cruel. He did only what was necessary. Didn't he? Doubt began to gnaw at him. The fact that Jorham had wanted to flee did not surprise him much. But Arenn and Doria? Two of his best novices, perhaps the two best of all. So very promising, always ready to learn, to progress. What had he done to them that they decided to run away? He couldn't remember.

"All right, all right," he said to forget the questions troubling him, "stop being fools and go back to the arenas immediately."

He tried to take a light, casual voice, but only silence answered his words. The breathing of the novices could barely be heard anymore.

"Do you understand?" he nevertheless insisted. "I won't take any measure. Maybe I was too hard with you, it is possible. I will consider that all this was my responsibility. Now, go back to the training and I'll forget what has happened."

Silence, again. The novices were staring at him with wide eyes, shivering convulsively. Their clothes were drenched with sweat and they were still unmoving. Didn't they understand what he was telling them? Or didn't they trust him?

"Listen..."

Suddenly, like a rope drawn too tight and suddenly breaking, Jorham started to run. Straight ahead, heading for the end of the gorge.

"Stop!"

He was running as fast as he could, a mad, terrified expression on his face. But he didn't stop. In spite of his fear. Or because of it? Rigel felt as if a multitude of contradictory thoughts and emotions invaded his mind in a deafening chaos. He had no time to think, he had no time to decide.

Jorham went past Rigel without him reacting and continued running without slowing, leaving the cliffs behind him and following the indistinct path leading to the village as fast as he could, jumping from stone to stone, avoiding all the obstacles.

The blow went off when he was already a hundred yards away. It hit him behind the head, crushing the nape of his neck and sending him crashing on the ground like a dislocated doll. Rigel had not even turned.

"And now," he said in a voice that had become as hard as steel, "go back to the training."

A long silence followed, as the wind started to rise, sending clouds of dust in the air. You did it, it whispered to Rigel. You really did it.

"You bastard!"

Rigel started. Doria was marching toward him, her fists clenched.

"You killed him, you son of a bitch! You just didn't bear the thought of not being able to torture him all day, did you?"

Rigel repressed an impulse to back away as Doria planted herself in front of him, looking incensed. She didn't even reach to his shoulder, but each of her words intensified the remorses inhabiting his mind, and he felt terrible doubts. Was it true? Was it possible? Rigel forced himself to be calm. No, no, he should not think that. He had assisted the lessons of the other masters of Sanctuary on several occasions. Himself he had had to endure Algol's training, and, later on, Aldebaran's and Aiolia's. He was not harsher than they were, he knew it.

"Doria," he said in a voice that wanted to be firm, "you're not allowed to question my acts and decisions. Now, you're going to turn and go back to the training."

"No way! I'll never go back there! You can kill me, too, if you want, that will be better than your teaching!"

"All those who want to become Saints one day have to follow this training," answered Rigel with more calm. "That's what you wanted, wasn't it? You told me so several times. You wanted to wear a Cloth one day. I told you you would have to suffer for it and you answered you were ready. Why did you change your mind?"

"Because I couldn't stand it anymore!" Doria burst out. "All days fighting and stupid exercises. Barely sleep and barely eat. Sometimes deprived of food or forced to spend the night training again. Punished for the slightest misdemeanor. Never rest. I couldn't stand it anymore!"

She was really furious, now, as if it was the first time that she had the opportunity to vent all the resentment she had accumulated during the years. Her cheeks, ordinarily pale, were red with fury. And her eyes were full of hatred and anger.

"All those who bear a Cloth today have endured this, and worse still," said Rigel, trying to keep his cool. "I did, too."

"And you take revenge on us for what you suffered then," Doria spit to his face.

Rigel went white. How could she say that? How did she dare? Compared to Algol's training, his own was nothing! He had never forced them to fight to death among themselves, he had never punished them with the same severity as his former master had.

"You don't know what you're talking about," he replied, his face hard. "Now, go back to the training immediately, that's an order."

"No! Never!"

A great shivering ran through Doria's body and a night blue aura covered her, surrounding her as a second skin. Cosmo! She had really discovered her cosmo! Weak still, almost flickering, but its existence could not be contested.

"Doria," tried again Rigel, "I recognize the fact that you discovered the cosmo inside of you. I can teach you how to master it. In a few months only, you'll be able to contend for one of the vacant Cloths. I'll give you the means for it, you have my word. You'll be a Saint! I'll help you. Trust me."

Doria's dark eyes narrowed.

"I don't believe you."

And Rigel knew, with an absolute certainty, that she wouldn't give up. She had taken her guard, as if she intended to fight, and her cosmo was now blazing as a sign of challenge. And this expression, in her eyes... Rigel knew it. A few weeks ago, on a night when a violent storm had raged, he had forced his novices to climb a seventy-feet high, very steep cliff. Holds were few and slippery. Most of them hadn't managed to climb more than a few feet before giving up. Doria had succeeded. She had fallen several times, when she was already nearly at the top. She had gone back to it. Her clothes had soon become tattered, drenched by the pelting rain and stained with blood. But she had succeeded. And, when she had finally arrived at the top and looked at him, her eyes had had the same expression.

"All right, then," said Rigel, spreading open his arms. "Attack me, if you want."

Doria stroke with all her strength, increased tenfold by her fury. Her blow almost reached sound speed. There was a muffled sound when Rigel took the impact in the chest, where the Cloth did not protect him. But he did not flinch, did not back even one centimeter. Doria took a step back, breathing hard, then prepared to strike again.

Blood spurted out, spraying Rigel's Cloth. Doria opened her mouth for a silent scream. Her eyes showed that she did not understand where that terrible pain piercing her came from. Then life left her and she fell backward, inert.

Unmoving, his whole forearm dripping with blood, Rigel stared at the body a long time. Then he raised his eyes and looked at Arenn, who had still not moved. The face of the fair-haired novice had become a mask of horror, and he seemed to be unable to make the slightest movement. Rigel looked at him with a strange expression. He was the last of the three runaways. If he refused to go back, all this would have been in vain.

"Arenn."

The child started and wanted to back away when he saw Rigel approaching him, but he was too terrified even to try anything.

"Arenn, you're going to rejoin the other novices and go back to the training. We will never again speak of this. Do you understand me?"

Arenn did not react, as if he did not understand what was said to him. Then, very slowly, he nodded, unable to emit the slightest sound.

"Then go."

Arenn turned and started to run toward Sanctuary as fast as he could. Unmoving, Rigel waited for him to disappear. Then he turned and looked at the two bodies lying in front of him. His knees suddenly gave way under him and he collapsed on the ground and vomited for a long time. When he was finished, he felt empty.

He went and fetched them, the frail and thin body of Doria, the skinny and emaciated body of Jorham. One after the other, he took them in his arms and brought them to the cemetery of Sanctuary, a vast place, out of the way, where flowers grew. There, he dug a grave for each of them and gently layed them down into them. He muttered a prayer to Athena, then closed their eyes. They looked like children resting after an exhausting day. Innocent. Peaceful. He began to cover them with earth. This was difficult to him. Then he went and fetched two heavy stones, and inscribed their names on it.

Finally, he stood back and kneeled in front of the two new graves, his fair Cloth all covered with earth. After a moment, he started to cry.

The End


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