Dragonsteel Prime Chapter 37: Bridge Four 7
This chapter comes from the 2000 draft of a book called Dragonsteel. Some of the settings, situations, and characters were repurposed into The Way of Kings (2010).
As soon as Jerick stepped into Ki Tzern’s camp he realized all his assumptions about armies in the Eternal War had been wrong. He had based them on the single, faulty example of Demetris’s camp. Walking through the Tzend camp’s structured ranks, Jerick was able to see what a true army was supposed to look like.
The buildings were all sturdy, permanent structures, as opposed to shacks and tents, with a wooden palisade around the perimeter to serve as both a means of defense and a reminder of place. The guards who stood at the gate’s doors wore uniforms that were without wrinkle or stain. There even appeared to be a temple to the Lords near the center of the camp.
A messenger had been sent ahead to warn of Tzern’s arrival, and a group of healers rushed out to collect the wounded as soon as the camp came into view. The unwounded soldiers saluted one last time to Tzern as they entered the camp; then their officers dismissed them, and they went their different ways. Jerick’s bridgemen, uncertain what else to do, simply followed Tzern’s white and gold form as he walked through the gate.
As they passed into the camp, the sense that this army was a place of order impressed itself upon Jerick. The buildings stood in neat rows, men practiced in formal ranks and sparred in neatly roped-off squares. It was also a place of camaraderie. Men were seen talking in groups—not wandering packs, like in Demetris’s army, but friendly gatherings. Most importantly, Jerick realized that for most of the men he saw, those who were not in uniform, he couldn’t tell if they were bridgemen, footmen, or officers.
They paused after walking just a brief distance, waiting as Tzern met with a group of rushed, worried attendants.
“It’s paradise,” Kep whispered beside him, scanning the camp.
Gathban chuckled. “Perhaps not paradise, but definitely an improvement.”
As Jerick’s men were ingesting their new surroundings, Ki Tzern turned from his adjuncts and waved them over. “Men of the Fourth Bridge,” he said, “I welcome you to my camp. I’m going to assign you to the north division, but for now consider yourselves on leave. After today’s ordeal—not to mention the time you spent with Demetris—you’ve earned it.”
The men regarded Tzern with confusion for a moment. “Leave?” Gathban finally said.
Tzern smiled slightly. “Yes, leave. You’re on vacation. You’ll still get paid, but for the next two weeks you won’t be required to go on any runs. Farrle here will lead you to your quarters.”
A soldier to the side nodded, waving for the crew to follow. They stood for a moment, stunned at the idea of an extended break. Before leaving, they paused, turning collective eyes on Jerick.
“Go ahead, men,” Jerick said, a quiet knot of sorrow twisting in his chest. He knew that would be the last order he ever gave to Fourth Bridge. “You will be well-cared for here.”
Dente cleared his throat. “It was a pleasure, sir.”
Jerick nodded, uncertain how to respond. “I . . .”
“It’s all right, sir. You don’t belong in a bridge crew,” Gathban said in a subdued voice.
“A man belongs where he finds friends, Rock,” Jerick said, resting his arm on the enormous man’s shoulder. “I would rather be a bridgemen with the lot of you than a noble in any king’s palace. Take good care of them, Rock.”
Fourth Bridge stepped back and saluted in one silent motion. Their actions weren’t as fluid or as sharp as those of the soldiers from Tzern’s camp. However, there was no less respect in their eyes. Jerick watched them go, following with his eyes until they disappeared.
“I fear you’ve made me a liar, young Jerick,” Tzern said beside him.
“I once claimed that no good thing could ever come from Demetris’s training.”
“It almost didn’t, sir,” Jerick responded quietly. “The battle we fought today was little more than sparring when compared to what we had to go through to make Bridge Four what it is.”
Tzern nodded, understanding, as he turned to his waiting adjuncts. “The east division is to go on immediate leave for the next two weeks. After that, begin to rebuild it with new recruits and transfers. Don’t send it on any difficult runs for at least three weeks.”
“Yes, my lord,” a tall man in a white and gold uniform answered.
“Leave. . . .” Jerick said again, shaking his head. In Demetris’s camp there had been no such thing—at least, not for bridgemen.
“Yes,” Tzern said, beginning to walk again as his adjuncts dispersed, “you aren’t the only one to notice a little free time improves morale, young Jerick.”
“Sir!” a voice said. A man, shorter than any Jerick had even seen before, was scurrying down the camp’s main path. He looked like a child, but he had the face of an adult. His legs were short and stumpy, and he wore a simple white outfit.
The tiny man puffed as he approached, moving quickly. “Sir, the bridges?” He spoke with an accent that was sharp and irregular, almost unintelligible. Compared to this man, Tzern spoke Fallin almost as if he had lived in Yolen all his life.
Tzern shook his head. “We lost all four, Sung,” he replied.
“By the Lords!” the little man wailed in despair. “It is a miracle!”
“You mean disaster, Sung,” Tzern corrected.
“Yes, a disaster,” the little man cried. “What will we do?”
“I’m certain you can make us some more, Sung,” Tzern reminded.
“Not unless we get more wood,” the little man said, walking in circles, anxiety coating his face. “What with the disturbance up north, our supplies are plentiful.”
“The supplies are depleted, not plentiful, Sung,” Tzern corrected, informing him of the proper Fallin word.
“Yes, that too!” the little man groaned.
“I don’t suppose you’ve had word from Dellanios?”
“No, sir. Not in months.”
Tzern cursed quietly. “Where is that man? He always disappears when we need him most. Well, just get to work on some new plans, Sung,” Tzern requested. “We need a mechanism to lock the wheels, otherwise the Sho Del will just push them into the chasm every time.”
“Yes sir. A locking mechanism! Of course, that would be completely frivolous! I shall get to work on it immediately.”
With that the tiny man hurried away. Tzern just shook his head, waving for Jerick to follow him.
Jerick nodded, walking down the path beside the general. Eventually they arrived at a rectangular, one story building. Inside was a table with a large map of the Shattered Plains on its top, a smaller table with colored stones on it, and several chairs—not stools, but actual chairs. Tzern took one of these, and gestured for Jerick to take another.
“Now, young Jerick,” Tzern said contemplatively. “You are going to answer some questions for me. First of all, I want to know why the son of a nobleman is pretending to be a common bridgeman.”
Jerick looked up with surprise, objection in his voice. “My lord, I—”
Tzern held up a hand, cutting Jerick off with a gesture and a commanding look. “Understand,” Tzern warned, not dangerously, just firmly, “one thing I expect from all who serve under me is the truth. No amount of bravery or ability to lead will help you in this camp if I cannot trust you.”
“I understand, sir,” Jerick said frankly. “But, I am not a noble.”
“A bastard son, then?” Tzern asked. “Raised by a guilty father, then expelled when you became an embarrassment?”
“No, sir,” Jerick said, pulling out his castemark. “I am a lumberman, though I was trained in the palace of King Rodis of Melerand.”
“I find that difficult to believe, young Jerick, castemark or no,” Tzern said, his voice contemplative. “My homeland may be Tzendor, but I know enough about Yolish politics to be aware of caste temperaments.”
“What this youth says is true, my lord,” a new, familiar voice said from the area of the doorway.
Jerick’s head snapped around. “Frost!” he exclaimed enthusiastically.
The old scholar bowed slightly. “Young Master,” Frost simply returned.
“This is the one you’ve been following, Frost?” Tzern asked with a musing smiled. “Interesting.”
“No doubt, my lord,” Frost said, entering the short-ceilinged room. “I am very curious to know where you found him.”
“Actually, he found me,” Tzern replied. “But that is a story for another time. A lumberman raised in the king’s palace. You must be a special young man.”
Jerick shrugged. “That is where life took me, my lord.”
Tzern didn’t answer immediately, instead sitting with a contemplative look on his face. “All right, then, Jerick,” he finally said. “Now that is resolved, perhaps you can answer a more perplexing question for me. How, in the middle of a cloudless day, did a bolt of lightning strike down that Shen Da rider just before it killed you?”
Jerick felt himself grow cold. “I don’t know, my lord,” he answered truthfully.
“I listened to your men as we marched back to the camp,” Tzern continued. “They say the White One himself attends and protects you.”
“The priests say he watches over all of us,” Jerick responded.
“Isn’t it curious, then,” Tzern continued, “that lightning is not the tool of Oren, but of his brother Keth the Black?”
Tzern’s eyes caught Jerick’s and held them for a long moment, as if searching for something. Finally, the tall Tzend turned away. “Regardless, one thing is obvious. You are no average lumberman. I saw you jump through the center of that Sho Del illusion.”
“Sir?” Jerick asked with perplexment. “It was only an illusion; it wasn’t really there.”
“Ah,” Tzern replied, “but even knowing that, most men cannot force themselves to do such a thing.”
“It has to do with the nature of Sho Del illusion, Young Master,” Frost explained, noting Jerick’s continued confusion. “The Sho Del do not send images themselves, they just project an imprint into your head—a general set of instructions. Your own mind translates those instructions, creating the things you see. Each person who sees a Sho Del illusion is really creating the image in their own mind, assembling it from the things they have seen before. That’s why the illusions seem so real. A person can know logically that he is seeing an illusion, but since his own mind is creating it, filling in every necessary detail, it can still feel completely tangible to him.”
“Men often die from Sho Del illusions,” Tzern added. “Most soldiers, jumping as you did, would have convinced themselves that instead of passing through the illusion, they had run into it. They would have fallen to the ground, as if knocked unconscious.”
“I don’t know how to respond, sir,” Jerick confessed. “I knew it was an illusion and that I couldn’t let it distract me.”
“A good enough answer,” Tzern decided. “All right, Jerick, one final question. I always let men choose how they will serve. You may return to your bridgemen as their leader, and no one will think less of you if you do. You may be trained as an officer, and perhaps some day command a division—or even camp—of your own. Or, you may try something else.”
“Something else, sir?” Jerick asked carefully.
Tzern nodded toward the door, and Jerick turned, looking through the open portal. Just beyond, in one of the roped practice squares, two men were fighting. They wore no uniforms, though one was wearing a green vest and the other a blue one. Instead of practice swords they were holding real weapons. A small crowd of men had gathered around the sparring area, watching quietly.
The match was almost a surreal experience. He couldn’t be certain, not quite, but it seemed as if their motions were a little too quick, a little too fluid, to be a real battle. It wasn’t the blunt, forceful fighting of battlefield soldiers, or even the sparring of a fencing match. It was like a thing rehearsed, with each motion placed in precision.
As Jerick watched, the blue warrior spun, leaping into the air and placing his foot against one of the guard ropes. Though the rope should never have been able to hold such weight, the man pushed off of it into a flip, twirling in the air over his opponent. The green-vested man, however, had begun spinning himself, sticking out his foot as he rotated in an attempt to trip the man who had yet to land. Blue dropped to the ground, then immediately hopped, barely clearing Green’s attack, while at the same time bringing his own sword down.
Metal rang against metal as Green, still spinning from his attempted trip, thrust his sword back, blocking his opponent’s weapon without even looking to know where it was. Still spinning, his foot having yet to complete its trip-rotation, Green thrust his second foot into the air and caught Blue on the side of the head, pulling him to the ground.
Green was on his feet first, his sword plunging at Blue, who was still on his back. Blue paused, watching the sword plunge at his heart. He seemed as if he were going to do nothing. Then the world stopped. Jerick felt drawn into the battle, as if everything about him—the building, the watching soldiers, the sky and the earth—were focused on this one event. The green-vested warrior hung in the air, his blade just inches from Blue’s chest. Blue lay on the ground, his arm pulled back as if in a punch. Nothing moved—nothing could move. Then Blue’s hand suddenly snapped forward with an audible crack, smashing into his opponent’s blade at an incredible speed. The second warrior’s steel blade shattered in two by the blow.
Blue was on his feet a second later, swinging his sword at the now-disarmed Green. For a moment it appeared as if he would behead his opponent. The weapon, however, stopped just before Green’s neck.
“They are called the Tzai,” Ki Tzern said from behind. “My elite soldiers. Your third option, young Jerick.”
“I worried that something might have happened to you, Frost,” Jerick confessed, standing in his new room. He wished he had something to pack in the chest at the foot of the bed. His few possessions—a writing quill, some paper, a few coins, and some clothing—had apparently been confiscated by Demetris, who had branded Jerick a rebel and an insubordinate. Tzern’s officers had barely managed to release the five men left behind from the detention cells.
“I arranged to have myself transferred to another camp as soon as I could,” Frost said, standing on the other side of Jerick’s new quarters. It was a modest chamber, but a large improvement over the cramped tent of Demetris’s camp. It felt good to once again have a room to himself.
Jerick smiled. “You always did see things more quickly than I, Frost,” Jerick said, looking at the empty chest, then shutting it with a shake of his head. “I’m surprised you didn’t head back to Melerand as soon as you realized how hopeless I was.”
Frost smiled slightly. “I realized that before we left, Young Master,” he said. “I checked in on you from time to time—even considered approaching you and suggesting we return home. Each time, however, I sensed that you were not ready, and so I left.”
Jerick sat down on the room’s small mattress, leaning back against the wall. He searched for the words to describe all he had seen and done over the last year, the death, the loss of friends, the nightmares, the pride of seeing his men fight. “Oh, Frost,” he said with a sigh, “I’m glad I came here but . . . what in the name of the Lords was I thinking?”
“You weren’t thinking much, as I recall, Young Master,” Frost said, seating himself on the floor. “You felt as if you had been rejected, that your life had collapsed.”
“It’s been so long.”
“Only a year, Young Master,” Frost noted. “I suspect the world has changed little in such time. You, however, are a completely different matter. Have you looked in a mirror lately?”
Jerick shook his head. “Mirrors are a luxury Demetris’s army did not have.”
“Here,” Frost said, standing and retreating to the room next to Jerick’s—the scholar’s own quarters. He returned a moment later with a medium-sized mirror.
Jerick was stunned by what he saw. When he looked into the mirror, his own face didn’t look back—his father’s did. Firm and experienced, the face before him wore a dark curly beard. The body that accompanied it wasn’t as wide or burly as his father’s, but it was much taller, and powerfully well-muscled in its own right. It also had a litheness that Rin had never possessed. Jerick raised a hand to his face, feeling the beard with hesitant fingers. He’d never actually seen his reflection while wearing it.
“By the Lords. . . .” Jerick whispered. Who had stolen away the boy he knew and left this man in his place?
“You realize, Young Master, that there is another option left to you, one beyond the three Lord Tzern offered.”
Jerick looked away from the mirror. “Returning to Melerand,” he inferred.
Frost nodded, placing the mirror beside the wall.
Jerick thought for a moment. Then he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “I’m not certain I can do it. Not yet. I’ll have to think about it.”
“You still think you can win enough glory to earn the princess?” Frost asked.
Jerick shook his head. “It’s not Courteth. It’s just . . . I’m not ready yet. Not ready to face them.”
“And?” Frost asked, sensing there was more.
“And . . .” Jerick said, his eyes darting involuntarily toward the practice squares.
“Ah,” Frost said with understanding. “The Tzai.”
“What are they, Frost?” Jerick asked, somehow knowing that Frost would be able to answer. “How do those men do such amazing things?”
“Are you certain you want me to answer that, Young Master?” Frost replied pointedly. “My explanation may go against some of the things you have read.”
“I don’t care,” Jerick informed. “I stopped ignoring truth after my first few months as a bridgeman.”
“Well, then, Young Master,” Frost began. “Your answer lies within an understanding of the Three Realms.”
“That much, at least, is true?” Jerick asked.
“Oh, yes. There really are Three Realms of Existence, Spiritual, Cognitive, and Physical, though they are not what men think them to be. Your scholars tell you the Spiritual Realm is that of the gods, the Cognitive Realm that of the Sho Del, and the Physical Realm that of man. The truth is that most things exist in all three realms.
“Everything you see around you, animals, rocks, and plants, has a Physical nature. You know that, you can touch it with your Physical nature. However, all things also have a Cognitive side and a Spiritual side as well. The Spiritual is its soul, its ideal nature. The Cognitive is the thing that mediates between an object’s Physical side and its Spiritual side.”
“The mind,” Jerick surmised.
“You could call it the mind,” Frost admitted, “though that doesn’t necessarily always hold true. A rock, for instance, has a Cognitive nature—a weak one, but it has one nonetheless. The Cognitive is what determines an object’s placing in the world—in effect, it remembers where the object is in relation to the rest of the universe. When the Sho Del use their minds to speak with one another, they are speaking Cognitive to Cognitive. When they send illusions to your warriors, they are doing the same thing.”
“Then the Sho Del are creatures of the Cognitive,” Jerick noted.
“Not exactly,” Frost corrected, holding a finger into the air. “The Sho Del tend to have powerful Cognitive sides, true, but they exist primarily in the Physical realm, just like humans. Men can have powerful Cognitive sides as well, though humans vary wildly from person to person. Some have more Cognitive power than even the greatest of Sho Del, others have so little they are only slightly better than a rock.”
“I’ve met a few of those,” Jerick mumbled.
Frost smiled. “You, Young Master, appear to have a strong Cognitive side.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because [REDACTED] is Cognitive magic. When you look at the world [REDACTED], what you are really doing is looking through the eyes of your Cognitive self. Almost like you have slipped into the Cognitive Realm for a moment, and are peeking out at the Physical world.”
“And when I use [REDACTED] to . . . change things?” Jerick asked quietly.
Frost paused. “I wasn’t aware you had gotten that far,” he admitted. “The essence of [REDACTED] is changing things—using Cognitive energy to make alterations in the Physical world.”
“And what these Tzai warriors do?” Jerick asked. “Is it the same thing?”
“No,” Frost corrected. “The Tzai go the other way. They use their Cognitive energy to affect the Spiritual realm—though they do it quite innocently.”
“Innocently?” Jerick asked.
“General Tzern is a brilliant man,” Frost explained. “But, like most brilliant men, he doesn’t accept the idea of magic or mysticism. When his men meditate and practice, they are focusing their Cognitive power, but they simply see it as a training technique. When a Tzai shatters his opponent’s sword with his bare hand, what he is really doing is gathering his Cognitive energy and using it to break the sword’s Spiritual aspect. Any alterations made to an object’s Spiritual side have immediate, and often violent, repercussions in the Physical world.
“Tzern’s warriors don’t see that side, however. They think their hand shatters the steel, when it really has little to do with the process.”
Jerick nodded slowly. What Frost was saying was different from what he had been taught. It was like a clearer vision of what the Trexandian scholars were trying to piece together. He only paused briefly to wonder how Frost knew so much. He trusted the words—somehow he innately understood that Frost was speaking the truth. Topaz was right—the old scholar was something much more than one first assumed.
Frost rose, brushing off his simple gray robes. “You should sleep now, Young Master. If what Lord Tzern said is true, then your day has been a difficult one. We will speak again in the morning.”
That night, sleeping was more difficult a proposition than was to be expected. He tried to turn in early, but to no avail. Six months ago he would have given nearly anything for a few extra hours of sleep. Now he found himself completely unable to use the time given to him.
Instead, his mind raced. He thought about his time in the Eternal War, his men, and his suffering. He wondered if he could turn down an opportunity to run when he had the chance, knowing that another year here—even in Tzern’s camp—meant more death, more pain, and more blood. He wondered if Ryalla remembered him.
Just after sunset, a knock came at his door.
“Come,” he said.
The door opened slightly, and General Tzern appeared. Jerick quickly moved to stand and salute, but Tzern waved him to be still.
“I saw your candle burning,” he said with his staccato accent, “and thought I’d drop by.”
“I have much to think about,” Jerick admitted.
“I understand.” Then, Tzern paused, searching Jerick’s eyes in his ineffable way. “You see them, don’t you, young Jerick?” Tzern asked quietly.
“See what, sir?”
“The nightmares and the visions,” Tzern continued. “The deaths of men you knew, the horrors of battle. You see them when you sleep.”
“Every time I close my eyes, sir,” Jerick admitted.
“Then know this. The Sho Del’s illusions aren’t the only visions Tzai are trained to overcome.”
Jerick thought for a moment. “Thank you, sir,” he said quietly.
“Good night then, young Jerick.”
“Sir,” Jerick said as Tzern moved to close the door.
“I’ve made my decision.”
Tzern’s eyes searched his own, then he nodded. He had seen the answer therein.
“Come to my office in the morning and we will begin your training.”
This marks the end of the Bridge Four sequence in Dragonsteel Prime.