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When knowing's not as good as doing

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Paksenarrion sat the red horse easily as she rode into town, early evening light painting the wide road golden. Brewersbridge. Again. How many years had it been? Enough that the shape of the place had changed, new rows of houses where once had been fields, trees cleared back to a rocky outcrop she hadn't even known was there. But the Inn still beckoned, a happy murmur of custom through the open doors, and the cheerful smell of good cooking permeating the air. She thought about the simple pleasures of riding into the stableyard, paying for a room and a good meal, enjoying the company of old friends.

There was a pressure in her head, though, turning her toward the far end of town, toward a still-familiar grove. She didn't know why. She didn't need to know why, only that she must heed it. The horse seemed to know the way as well as she, though he had never been here before. He didn't hesitate at the entrance to the grove but strode through with his steady, long stride, and the quiet noises of the town were muffled by the thick trees.

She dismounted by the fountain. The sense of familiarity was overwhelming; the sight of the low, rough building, the quiet splash of the water in the fountain, the distant birds and small animals. A faint smell of woodsmoke lingered. The door to the house was open.

"Hello?" she called, after loosening her girths. The horse lowered his head agreeably and began to crop the tall grass. There was no answer. She wondered if something could have happened to the Kuakgan. Was that why she was here? Was he injured, attacked? The evening was peaceful; as she looked around the clearing it was hard to believe that any violence could mar this quiet.

A movement drew her attention to the house. A girl stood in the doorway, silently regarding her. She was tall, slim and dark, dressed in a dun robe with a red sash. A girl, but near a woman.

"Have you come for the Kuakgan?" the girl asked hesitantly.

Paks nodded. "Is he here?"

"He should be back soon."

They stood observing each other. The girl had strong wrists, broad shoulders. There was a healing scar across one cheekbone; it looked like it had been a deep cut. She eyed Paks with the suspicion of a wild thing.

"I'm Paksenarrion," Paks said at last, feeling as though she ought to make the first move. "I've known the Kuakgan for many years."

"Oh!" she seemed startled, almost scared. "How did you--did he send for you?"

"No. I was just traveling in this direction." It seemed easier than trying to explain her urgency. But the girl expected the Kuakgan to send for Paks, or for someone in any case? "What's your name?"

"Lissa." No surname, and her crossed arms and closed expression did not invite further inquiries.

"And you're a friend of the Kuakgan?"

"I'm--"

"Paksenarrion!" He stepped out of the undergrowth as if materializing. He looked much the same; same dark, weathered face, beard shot with grey, and eyes that seemed to see right through her. "You look well."

"I am well," she said, smiling. "I see you have a visitor?"

"And now two. Will you come in? Are you hungry?"

"You know me well." She followed the other two through the low door and down a step into the wide room. A fire was already snapping in the hearth, and a wrapped vessel on the table steamed with the rich odor of a meaty stew. The Kuakgan set out plates and served them, and the three of them ate in a busy silence, exchanging a few words about the food. It seemed right to be sitting quietly at this table, taking care of basic needs. The warmth of the fire and the soft light of evening in the trees outside made Paks feel rested. Still, she could tell that there was a story here, and that this was what she had come for. There was no need to hurry it.

When they had finished and the Kuakgan had gathered the dishes, he sat back down and stretched his feet out toward the fire. "How far have you ridden today?"

"I've been on the roads for a few weeks, stopping here and there, staying at granges," she answered. "It's like that, sometimes. I didn't plan to end up here--"

"But sometimes matters seemed planned out for you."

She nodded.

"You're wondering where Lissa came from, I don't doubt," he said meditatively, after a pause.

Paks looked at her, sitting quiet and indrawn at the other side of the table. "You've never had someone staying with you, the times I've been here."

"She was in training with a Kuakgan, but matters required me to intercede."

Paks raised an eyebrow. She knew nothing about what it meant to be a Kuakgan; he was the only one she had ever had dealings with.

"I'm very glad that you arrived. I had hoped you would; I--should probably start at the beginning. There's a lot of tale to tell, and you need to understand why I feel you're the person I wished to speak to." There was a hesitancy in his words that she was not accustomed to. He needed her help; that wasn't something she expected from him, either. And it clearly involved Lissa. Was he going to keep the discussion private?

"I'll help in any way I can," she offered at once.

"I thought you would, but wait until I tell you the story. Lissa was being trained to become a Kuakgan. I can't tell you much about that process, but it's not unlike the ways in which Paladins are trained. There's an innate ability; not all have it, and it needs to be nurtured to develop it for proper use."

Lissa stirred, clenching her hands on the tabletop. Her expression was hard to read.

"Stay," he said to her. "Drink some water. It will be well." There was a softness to his voice. Paks watched with interest as he rested a hand on the girl's shoulder; she could almost see the ease that flowed through him.

"You make it sound as though she's no longer in training."

"Indeed, she is not." He sighed heavily, rubbed his hand up and down her shoulder. "Lissa killed a man."

Lissa's face closed in on itself, eyes clenched shut, her hands fisted on the table. "I didn't mean--" she began, voice wavering.

"She was pushed beyond endurance, and as a result another talent manifested itself. Lissa is a berserker."

Paks shook her head, though not in disbelief. "Such a thing is possible?" She'd heard of them before, but doubted that she had ever met one in all her years of fighting.

"Lissa killed the Kuakgan who had been training her, and as she is we cannot--there is no way she can reshape herself around this, this trait. We do not use; we observe and set right. There's something in Lissa's inner self that cannot live such a life. She's become a blade. It is for me to see what sort of weapon she's become, and whether she might be put to a good use."

"But--why? How did it happen?"

"That is Lissa's story to tell. Perhaps tomorrow you might walk with her, and spar, see what skills she has and where she might go."

 

***

On the next day Paks sparred with Lissa, who had surprising speed and agility. She seemed very cautious, until Paks clipped her one on the head, and then she went mad and knocked the hauk out of Paks' hand, and seemed ready to brain her until Paks pinned her.

Lissa spoke of how she was chosen as a Kuakgan trainee; how she was raised since childhood as kuakkgannir and had never contemplated a different way of life. The awareness of life, of the cycles of nature and living in peace with the natural world, is second nature to her.

But they must speak of who she killed; it was because of Lissa's sister, and the stranger who had his way with her and the fact that Lissa would have killed him had her Kuakgan not intervened. She hadn't meant to hurt him, but she had been too far gone. He had only been attempting to prevent exactly what ended up happening. Only later, with the blood drying on her hands, had she even realized how much chaos she had caused.

***

The Kuakgan thought that she might sign up to serve with a militia or as a guard with a noble house, or even as a mercenary, as Paks had... but they agreed that it would be too risky. Lissa wasa danger to herself and to others. It will take years and great discipline for her to learn to control the impulsivity and the battle-madness that comes upon her. It's the sort of thing that Paks has a vague inkling of, with memories of her early days in Phelan's service, days before she had honed her battle instincts with practice and awareness.

"I think I could train her," Paks said slowly, sitting that evening with the Kuakgan in the firelight. She reflected on the ways in which Lissa still seemed to be moving through life with a wary eye, as though she felt trapped by the need for control. There had to be a better solution for her.

"I think it has to be someone like you. If she couldn't be trained to fight I'd have to keep her here, keep her isolated, and I fear what damage that might do to her mind. She needs a fresh path."

Pals sat quietly in thought. She'd been living the life of a Paladin for so many years now, without a home, but welcome many places. It suited her--had suited her well. It had offered many things that came naturally to her, and the satisfaction of that inner voice, the voice of the gods. It was strange to think of taking what amounted to an apprentice. An apprentice Paladin? Only time would tell. It felt right; she had come here for a reason, after all. Lissa needed someone to teach her, and who better than someone who understood the conflicting impulses of fighting and healing?

"I feel I should offer her that path," Paks said at last.

The Kuakgan shot her a rare, quick smile. "I hoped you would. I think you can show her a new way, while respecting her kuakkganni ways. You have great sensitivity for a warrior, Paksennarrion."

"So I've been told," Paks answered, and reflected on the surprises the morning would offer. How would she begin with this girl? Where would they go? The uncertainty didn't weigh on her, but filled her with a mounting sense of challenge and excitement. She had always loved to teach. "I think Lissa and I will get on very well."