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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 41: It Lies Not In Our Power To Love Or Hate…I'm not sure how, or even why, I found myself standing in front of the hospice where Prax still resided. When I took the time to think about it, I supposed there were a number of reasons. Primarily, I was the one that put the girl in there. Oh, Gabrielle had beaten her up rather well, but I was the one who had tried to tear the girl's life thread in two with my bare hands.
We had heard that Yu Pan had done very well with the girl, healing her broken wrist in one sitting. Even Gabrielle seemed rather impressed by that. I was still a little hazy about how Yu Pan actually used this energy that he and Gabrielle called the way, but I took Gabrielle's amazement to mean things didn't usually happen that fast. I did remember that it had taken Solan a bit longer with Yu Pan, but then again my son was very much like me…quite proud and mule-headed. Perhaps Yu Pan's magic took longer to reach through such thick heads as ran in our family.
Yu Pan had explained that Prax had changed a great deal overnight. It was due to a visit from the Goddess Artemis, he suspected. The girl he described to Gabrielle and I, without betraying any of Prax's confidences, took us rather by surprise. I humorously asked Yu Pan if he was sure he hadn't been in the wrong room. He chuckled at my joke, indulging my humor as he always did.
Gabrielle smiled after speaking at length with the old Healer and I heard her mutter thanks to Athena. My silent thanks went to our patron Goddess for another reason entirely. Seeing Gabrielle at peace over Prax's well being made me feel much relieved. She had been fretting over Prax for the last three days, since Yu Pan had initially met with the girl.
So, now I stood outside Prax's door, listening to my sister read to the girl. Selene had changed quite a bit herself. Much more confident, she didn't hold back in telling people about her inability to read. A disability that fast became a problem of the past as she practiced nearly every waking moment. She must have thought me a dolt to believe that was the reason why she spent so much time with Ephiny, but I left her with that fantasy.
Ephiny and I never spoke of that relationship. I suspected that it was more on Selene's part, perhaps a schoolgirl crush. I honestly didn't know how I felt about it, and I truly didn't know what we would do once we left Amazonia. Someone's heart would be breaking, of that I was sure. Then again, I believe that was part of the reason why the entire situation didn't bother me as much as it could. I knew that shortly, Selene would be leaving with us and Ephiny would stay with her people. Cold of me, I suppose, but Selene's welfare had become as important to me as if she had been my daughter and not my sister.
Shaking away that caravan of thought, I wondered once again what I had been doing there. I didn't know if it had anything to do with my own feelings of sympathy for Prax or if I had simply been responding to Gabrielle's tender heartedness. I felt as though I owed Prax at least a little something. At least some dialogue between us to show that there were no longer any hard feelings. Maybe it was selfish. Perhaps I had only been thinking of my past. Athena knows I didn't need more Amazons hating and holding a grudge against me.
"Sounds spellbinding," I said from the doorway.
"Hi!" Selene jumped up from her chair and met me at the door.
We embraced and she placed a kiss on my cheek.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Spying on you, of course," I answered.
Selene laughed at my good-natured jest and slapped me in the stomach with the scroll in her hand. I grunted and wondered why all the women in my life loved to hit me there. I started to believe that I should go back to the days when I wore armor across my chest and abdomen.
I looked over at Prax. She just sat in the chair and stared at the two of us, a small bit of wonder or perhaps amusement on her face. Few people saw the Conqueror like this, and it always took them by surprise. I truly believed that most people never considered that the Conqueror might have family, as if I had just sprung from Zeus's head like many of the other Gods.
I had no idea how to greet Prax or what sort of reception I might receive, so I simply waded right in.
Again her look of surprise. I admit that part of me enjoyed placing that look on their faces.
"Um…Well met," Prax replied.
An uncomfortable silence stretched out until Selene jumped in. "Um, I better get going. I promised…well, I've got some things to attend to, so—"
That quickly she said goodbye and was out the door. Prax and I looked at each other, both a little confused.
"I guess that just leaves more for us," I said, drawing out the small wineskin I had under my vest. Tossing it into the air, Prax caught it neatly with her good hand.
"Nice grab," I said as I sat down on the chair that Selene had recently vacated.
"Thanks, and thanks for the thought, but I don't indulge." Prax politely handed me the wineskin.
I noticed her eyes never quite met mine. Wondering if she was lying or simply felt as uncomfortable as I did, I asked, "What do you indulge in?"
"Training mostly…drills, you know. At least I hope I'll still be able to." She turned her splinted hand over and briefly examined it.
"I didn't say that for any sort of apology."
"Good, 'cause you're not getting one," I answered. One more look of surprise. I figured I was about three to nothing in that regard.
"What I mean is—look, I never meant to hurt you. Well, actually I did, but not this bad."
"Funny, it looked a lot like you wanted me dead from where I stood."
"Point taken." I smiled at her dry humor in spite of my attempt not to. "I guess I really was, but you have to understand that wasn't me. I mean, it was me, but it wasn't."
She just stared at me as though I'd been speaking another language.
"I sort of lose myself when Gabrielle is threatened."
"The Amazons say you become a monster in battle. Is that what they're talking about?"
"I believe it is. I suppose you're one of a very few who are still alive after seeing my dark side directed at them."
"Then I'll consider myself lucky."
"Still and all," I began. "I'm uh…sorry about…you know." I indicated her still splinted hand.
"Me, too—I mean being sorry for my part in the whole…you know."
Both being warriors we apologized the only way we knew how. We each understood, and I believe that was enough.
I took a large swig of wine. "You sure?" I asked, extending the skin in her direction. I knew she was old enough.
"Positive. Can't take the taste. Why are you drinking so early in the day?"
"I'm getting married soon…again."
"Yea, but…I mean, you are getting married to Queen Gabrielle."
"True, and that does make it slightly easier, but—and don't let anyone tell you different—the marriage ceremony is not one of those things that gets easier every time you do it."
"I'll remember that."
"Don't get me wrong, I love Gabrielle. It's just the ceremony. You have to be polite and smile all day…"
"Wear uncomfortable clothes…" Prax added.
"Yea! Why is it they make fancy clothes so damned uncomfortable?"
"Guess it's the only way we know the difference between an every day event and a ceremony," Prax replied.
She chuckled, and I truly wondered what had happened to the Prax who had so recently tried to end my wife's life. This certainly wasn't her. This girl's personality actually seemed quite agreeable.
We talked for a short while about the things two warriors will speak of; training techniques, weapons, and old battles. We hadn't been at it long when Yu Pan appeared, basket in hand.
"Master Yu Pan." I rose to greet the Healer and bowed slightly.
"Tong zhi zhe," he addressed me in the more formal manner he used when we were in public.
"Tong what?" Prax asked, looking at me.
"It's sort of a way of saying Conqueror in his language," I answered in an evasive fashion. There had been a day when I wanted nothing more than to be known as that. With age, experience, and eventually wisdom, I grew embarrassed by the arrogant desire. Yu Pan never used it to demean, however. I truly believe it was his way of paying respect. After all, no matter how I did it, I had achieved something that no other man or woman had ever done.
"As close as your language comes," Yu Pan explained, "It would mean ruler of the world."
I was glad then when Yu Pan changed the subject quickly, or rather pulled the light away from me with his next words. "You have learned no Chinese yet, Táifeng?" Yu Pan asked.
"Not yet, but now that I know someone who speaks it…" She looked at me again.
I smiled at the name Yu Pan had bestowed upon Prax. I wondered what she would think once she realized what it meant for it was obvious that Yu Pan hadn't yet told her. "To be honest, I only know enough to get me by. Gabrielle is quite fluent, however."
"Oh," Prax answered.
I could tell from her expression and the tone of her voice that she would have enjoyed confronting snake-haired Medusa slightly more than going face to face with Gabrielle again. Was it shame she felt or fear?
"Well, I better get out of here, so you two can—"
"Do you have to go?" Prax interrupted to ask.
That surprised me, but Yu Pan didn't blink.
"I—um I—" I had never sounded more confident or eloquent. Why would Prax want me of all people to stay with her during Yu Pan's treatment? The old Healer couldn't possibly frighten her. He was as gentle and understanding as anyone alive.
"If you have stuff to do, though, I understand," Prax said to my confused stammering.
I saw it then in her eye. Yu Pan didn't actually frighten her; rather it was simply the fear itself. Her expression, childlike and apprehensive, easily explained it. For all Prax's misdeeds, attitude, and bluster, I had forgotten that underneath it all, she was still more child than adult. Perhaps the expression was so easy to identify because the girl reminded me a great deal of myself at that age, so much anger, and no knowledge of how to manage it.
It was a child's fear of the unknown that I saw in her face. I certainly didn't know what help I could lend, but if my mere physical presence was what Prax desired, then it was the least I could do.
"Hey, I'm the Conqueror, right?" I replied. "I can do whatever I want to do."
"Great!" Prax replied.
Her response sounded relieved, and I hoped Yu Pan didn't take offense. He welcomed me to sit, however, with his customary smile and good grace. If it had not been for his Far Eastern features, anyone would have believed he truly was Gabrielle's father, so alike were the two of them. I was certain that if he didn't want me there, he wouldn't have hesitated to tell me so.
"Shall we all have some tea first?" Yu Pan asked.
We all agreed and I smiled. The old Healer never did anything without drinking tea beforehand. He seemed to have a never ending supply of herbs and powders, and no two cups of the brew ever tasted the same to me.
Yu Pan went about brewing the tea. I sat by the window, out of the way. He spoke to Prax, telling her some interesting stories about his homeland. Listening to his words caused my mind's eye to envision the great mountains and open, sweeping plains of Chin once again.
When we were nearly finished with our hot drinks, Yu Pan reached into his basket and pulled out a small bundle. It looked as though the outer wrap consisted of banana leaves. Opening the package, he held it out, offering me the contents. I looked inside and murmured a sound of joy.
Taking one, I nodded. "I can't remember the last time I had one of these. It must be at least twenty summers."
"What is it?" Prax asked. She had politely taken one, but then sniffed tentatively at the edible object in her hand.
"Lotus root," I replied. "When it's sugared like this it tastes better than any sweet treat Greece has to offer."
Yu Pan nibbled on his own piece of candy. "The lotus plant grows in the lakes and ponds of Chin. Floating atop the water is its beautiful flower, sometimes pink, sometimes white. The root is shaped like a large bulb, but when it is sliced, as these are…" He held up a slice so that the light shone through the nearly translucent fruit. "We call them candied flowers."
It was true. The thin, round slices had holes all the way around the edge, with one hole directly in the center. They did appear to be flat flowers. I had previously tasted them raw in salads and even in the occasional cooked dish. The lotus root was a pale cream color, but these candied versions were a dull orange. Very tasty. I would have to remember to convince Delia into purchasing some if they could be found in Corinth.
My mind had wandered with my own thoughts, and I came back to the present when Yu Pan stood before Prax, examining her hand. Prax grimaced. I knew the very act of clenching her teeth in pain must have caused an additional ache in her broken jaw. In fact, once Yu Pan had removed the splints and bandages on Prax's hand, he ran his fingers along the line of her jaw. He pressed a few spots on her throat, then around her ear.
"This is quite interesting, Táifeng."
"Interesting good or interesting bad?" Prax asked.
"A very good thing. I believe that we can do something about your jaw very easily. Are you bothered by needles?"
"Needles?" Suddenly Prax looked anxious.
"It will not hurt at all, but it is a way of healing that I realize you are unfamiliar with."
He went to his basket and removed a roll of something. It turned out to be a split bamboo mat, rolled up tightly. He released the ribbon that held it closed and unrolled it upon the bed where Prax sat. Her eyes went wide at the sight of the many long, thin metal needles.
"You're gonna stick those in my face?"
"No, I will insert them in spots along your neck and shoulders. Do not fear, oftentimes, it is the fear of the unknown that is more frightening than any battle. I will tell you exactly what I plan to do."
So, Yu Pan did understand why Prax had asked me to stay. I should have known.
"I don't know…" Prax said.
"It is, of course, your decision, Táifeng, but let me say, what we conjure in our mind far surpasses reality. In fact, nothing ever hurts quite so much as our imagination tells us it will."
Prax visibly swallowed, and I felt the need to enter into the conversation. "It really doesn't hurt at all, Prax. I've had insect bites that felt worse."
"You've had this done, then?"
"It's been a long time, but yes, I have. Believe me when I say, I felt no pain at all during the procedure. Besides, you can trust Master Yu Pan."
Prax was silent for a moment. I could see that she did not want to appear the coward. That was the warrior in her. She looked up at Yu Pan, who waited patiently beside the bed. How could anyone look into this man's eyes and not have confidence in him?
Obviously, Prax was not one of them. "I do trust you, Master," she said sincerely.
Yu Pan lightly placed a deceptively frail looking hand over Prax's injured one. "I will do nothing to cause you to feel as though your faith in me has been misplaced. May I sit here?" he asked, as he indicated a spot next to her on the bed.
"I said that I would tell you everything I planned to do. First, Táifeng, we need to discuss aspects of the way, of which we have not yet spoken. In the last session we experienced together, energy itself was enough to begin to heal your broken body and spirit. The more extensive the body's hurts, however, the more complex the healing must be. Energy, even a strong and youthful energy such as yours, will not be enough to heal all your physical injuries let alone the hurt that I feel exists in here…" Yu Pan pointed at Prax's heart. "And here," he added, pointing to her head.
Prax straightened her posture, indicating a somewhat more confident appearance. "I'm a quick study, Master. Tell me, what must I do?"
Yu Pan looked pleased. "Very Good." Once more, he opened up his basket and pulled out a large, flat seashell. He quickly set a good amount of herbs to smoking inside the shell. He fanned the wisps of grayish green smoke with one hand, and the entire room soon became filled with a pleasantly clean, lemony odor.
"The energy that you used previously to heal yourself, the energy that I harnessed and directed for you is called Qi to those who understand the way. Everyone's Qi is subtly different, but to all it exists as your vital energy, your life force. It flows through you at all times.
The herb that I now burn is actually a process that, in your tongue, means moxibustion. That term is used because the herb is called moxa. The Etruscans call it artemisia vulgaris, but I believe that here in Greece, Healers know it as mugwort."
"You make it sound as though it's rather special," Prax commented.
"It is, at least for what we shall attempt first today. The burning moxa can affect the flow of one's Qi. It is especially effective in combination with the needles I shall use."
"How will I know if it's working? I mean…when does it take affect?"
"It is not if. It simply does."
"Do you remember when we spoke of balance and harmony within our lives?"
"Yes. You said that Gabrielle is so good at living the way because she works so hard to achieve a balance of all things in her life."
"Quite right. The idea of balance is something we take from nature. Just as mortal beings strive to live their lives in pairs, so too does the concept of pairs exist in nature. The night has the day, the water has fire, and just as the moon and the sun live in perfect harmony, the light and the dark balance one another. We call this harmony among pairs of opposites yin and yang, two halves that combine to make a whole.
Healing your broken wrist was merely teaching you to encourage your body to realize its own ability to heal itself. It makes no sense for a Healer to treat a hurt, however, without also treating the cause of such hurt. The method that I use to heal is fu zheng. It requires supporting the body, giving it the tools it needs, in order for it to treat the cause."
"So, I'm going to heal myself?"
"In a manner of speaking. Your part will be to work to put your body into a position where it can do this healing."
"And your needles will help my body do this?"
"Indeed. I cannot do it all, but I will give you a start. It will be very hard work, Táifeng, and you will only go as far as you believe you can."
"Pretty strong words."
"It is a very powerful concept."
"So, where do we start?"
"We will work on the most basic concept first. Your Qi is most important, but I feel as though it has become…for lack of a better word…blocked. The reason I do not yet understand."
"Can you…un-block it?" Prax asked.
Yu Pan smiled at Prax's description. "I suppose blocked may have been the wrong term. Right now, we will call it more of a redirection."
"I'm ready when you are…I guess."
Yu Pan had Prax remove her top and wrap a sheet around her torso. I assisted her while the old Healer politely stood with his back to us. I grinned, and Prax merely shrugged in his direction, smiling up at me. Yes, she was like me in many regards. She didn't have any idea why Yu Pan would act in such a noble way.
Prax carefully cradled her broken hand in her lap. I placed a pillow there and it seemed to have helped immensely. She sat in the chair beside her bed, Yu Pan standing behind her. Just as he had promised, he explained everything he did.
He initially wiped her skin with moistened leaves that smelled rather medicinal like eucalyptus. I had seen the procedure, even had it used on me, but my one weakness would forever be having sharp pointy things stuck in my skin. A shiver ran up my spine, and I thanked Athena that Prax couldn't see my face from where she sat facing the window.
"If you feel any more pain than a momentary pressure, please say so, Táifeng."
"When will you start?" Prax asked.
"I have already begun," Yu Pan answered.
Prax turned her head slightly to see three of the slender metal needles sticking out of the top of her shoulder. "Whoa. I never even felt it."
"Once the dam is broken and we are able to direct the flow of your Qi to the correct parts of your body, you will experience an initial rush of power. It is not something that you will necessarily feel instantly, but your body will reap the benefits. I believe that this preliminary discharge of energy will be enough to accelerate the healing of your injured jawbone."
"I'm all for that. Does that mean I'll be able to eat real food again?"
Yu Pan chuckled as he worked. "If all goes well today, I believe that by morning you might eat what you desire. You will be sore for this is no miracle we perform only acceleration."
"You're amazing, Master Yu Pan."
"I thank you, my Táifeng. You should give yourself recognition also. Remember that it is your Qi. I merely act as a intermediary."
"Can I…Can I ask you a question?" Prax looked almost embarrassed, so I pretended to be concerned with something outside the window.
"Of course," Yu Pan replied.
A deafening silence echoed through the room for a few tedious moments. Whatever Prax wanted to know, she was having a rather difficult time expressing it.
"It's about the pain—"
"So sorry, have I injured you?" Yu Pan quickly apologized, evidently thinking that his needles had caused some hurt.
"No, it's not now. It's—I mean I…" Prax sighed and decided to start again. "You said before about the pain I had in my…in my heart." She self-consciously looked down at the hand in her lap. "You said that you could heal the pain there just like here." Prax indicated her injured hand. "Is that true?"
"Is that what you wish?"
"I guess I want the hurt to go away, but I don't know how to make it happen. Seems the harder I try to forget about what happened to Timara the angrier I become at the people responsible." She lowered her head once more. "Or who I thought were responsible."
"Perhaps I can help you help yourself." Yu Pan carefully cleaned his needles as he spoke. He replaced them in their rolled bamboo container. "How does your jaw feel?" He asked, probing the line from Prax's cheekbone down to her chin.
"It actually doesn't feel bad. In fact, I can't feel much here at all." Prax reached up to touch her chin. "Sort of numb. Is something wrong?"
"Not at all. It is not unusual for a sudden burst of energy, Qi, to temporarily deaden the nerve endings in the affected area."
"Oh, okay. And about the other?" Prax asked.
I wasn't certain whether Prax spoke of her hand or the inner healing with which Yu Pan had promised to assist her.
"Let me explain the method we shall use next. After the explanation, I shall tell you a story."
"I have spoken of Qi, of how it is in everyone as their life force. I have directed your Qi for you in order to heal your body, but I cannot do that for your inner body."
"But you said—"
Yu Pan held up a hand. "I cannot, but you can. I can teach you to enhance your Qi, to direct it to specific areas. You see, Qi is generated in the mind and produced through breathing. When you learn the secrets to this special breathing, you learn the secrets to harnessing your Qi and using it to your benefit. Manipulating your Qi, modifying its flow in this way is Qigong."
"I can do all this just by breathing?" Prax asked.
"Some use breathing techniques to manipulate their Qi, others use exercise, and still others access the power through meditation. With any one of these techniques, you can produce much stronger healing effects than by simply directing your Qi to certain areas of your body. So strong, in fact, that you can achieve the healing that you desire."
"Then that's what I want to learn."
"It is not simple. The instruction is easy, but Qigong requires commitment and discipline. It cannot be taught for one instance, rather it is a way of life. It becomes a way of living and thinking, even a way of doing battle. You must be prepared to live the way if you desire to learn. If you are not ready to make such a commitment, then perhaps we should look to another healing method, one that is slower and requires less dedication."
"I guess I don't know what to say," Prax said.
"The choice is yours, and I will be glad to assist however you decide. Even if you do choose to follow the way, it will take many more sessions together in order to teach you the fundamentals. Relax and listen to this story. Allow your decision to wait until morning, after you've had time to think about it. Speak with your family and get a night's rest before you choose. Yes?"
"Sure, I guess so. Yea, okay, maybe that's best," Prax answered, uncertain at first, but then suddenly sounding more confident. "I'll talk to my mom tonight."
"A very good idea. Listen well to your mother's words. She very well may have a wisdom that you have previously overlooked."
"I will, Master Yu Pan. Thank you."
"Would you mind if I lit my pipe?" Yu Pan asked us.
"Not at all," we both answered.
"I always tell stories better when I smoke," he said.
I had often caught the old man sitting alone, puffing on the long stemmed pipe. The tobacco always smelled sweet like fruit.
"I will tell you a true story, Táifeng. One that I feel will have special significance for you. There was a young Greek girl, a very talented, exceptional child. Due to the Fates taking a hand in her life, perhaps rather unfairly, she suffered much adversity. There wasn't an abuse or an indignity that she hadn't experienced.
Through it all, however, she kept her faith, faith in her Gods, as well as in herself. For she knew, deep in her heart, that great things were to come her way. It wasn't something she was always consciously aware of, more like a feeling. It would invade her dreams at night, but she never spoke of it to anyone. She realized that she would have to suffer these indignities to stay alive. If she could simply stay alive long enough, her lot in life would surely change.
Even as an adult, the young woman's lot in life didn't change much. She had no family to protect her, so men used her and then tossed her away. There was one particularly damaging event in her life. A group of men raped her so brutally that she was quite near death when I found her. Being that she had such a strong heart, however, she went through the healing process quicker than most and eventually learned the way.
Her desire to live the way changed not only her outer abilities, but it slowly altered her inner self, as well. In time, she began to see a change that she had not anticipated. There still existed that same old feeling that she was meant for something great, but this was different. Soon, she developed a compassion that was greatly beyond what people normally felt. Everyday this compassion grew until she could show no contempt for any man, even those who wronged her.
Then came a day that would change her life, for many reasons. What stood out most was what happened when she once more ran into the men who had raped her. She recognized them, but in their drunken state, they never became aware of her. She had a choice, perhaps the biggest in her young life.
You see, she had come to be an amazing student of the way, her skills perhaps rivaling my own. She most certainly held the ability to send each of these men to the land of death. I do not know her mind, but I can guess that it was an agonizing decision."
Yu Pan paused in his story and I realized it had grown quite late in the day, so engrossed were we in his tale. He went to the fire grate and tapped his now cold pipe, removing the tobacco. He slowly and deliberately packed away all his belongings.
"Well," Prax said. "What happened? Did she kill them? They damn well deserved it."
"No, Táifeng, she chose to live the principles of the way. She left the men as she had found them, never the wiser about her having been in the same room."
"Surely the Gods owed her a bit of revenge?" Prax asked. I could hear a touch of anger in her voice. There wasn't a woman alive who wouldn't have understood taking revenge for such an act.
"True, but she chose instead to act in such a way where she could live with herself. She adhered to perhaps the greatest principle of the way."
"Which is?" Prax asked.
"It lies not in our power to love or hate."
"I'm not sure I get it."
"On it's face, it does confuse, but when you look deeper, the meaning is revealed. Mortals are not Gods. We do not see all; know all. It is only for the immortals, who possess great foresight, to have the power to judge. Many people who deserve love receive only ill, and there are many who deserve no more than our contempt, yet they achieve all they desire. Now, my Táifeng, are you wise enough to decide who will receive love and who will not?"
"No, not when you put it that way."
Yu Pan smiled, his point made. He prepared to leave, but Prax had one last thing to say.
"I know who the girl in the story was and why you told me, Master Yu Pan."
"Oh?" Yu Pan answered.
"Yea. The girl was me, right? You're saying that I should learn to forgive the people I think are responsible for Timara's death, and then I'll be able to heal inside. Right?"
Yu Pan smiled, but it was a rather sad smile. "I must go now. I am quite tired." He bowed to me and I rose out of respect. He turned to look back at Prax.
"I thought you knew. The girl in the story was my best student…Gabrielle, your Queen."
He walked out after that, leaving Prax and I just staring at one another.
To be continued in : Chapter 42: Sweet Chance That Led My Steps Abroad…
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