That was the first lesson. Just breathe, and feel yourself breathe. Lash closed his eyes, and sent himself into the rhythm of it, into the expanding and contracting of his ribs. The early morning air was cool, and wet from the marsh, and it poured into his lungs like a waterfall. In each breath you take in some of the world around you, his teacher had said, and in each breath you send something of yourself out. There was peace in that rhythm, in the pattern of changing and being changed. As the calm washed over him, he could feel his fear and anger from the last few moments begin to fall away.
Let go . . .
He felt the weight of his body pushing into the earth. He could sense every part of himself pressing down into his feet, through his sandals, and into the wet soil. He could feel his feet sliding, just a little, with each moment he stood still. Knowing the weight of himself made him present in this place, and this moment.
Let go of everything you don’t need.
He relaxed every muscle he wasn’t using. He released the tension in his jaw. He let his shoulders drop. His muscles had reflexively tightened in surprise, but now he quietly asked them to be still.
He could hear the birds singing in the trees at the edge of the marsh, unconcerned with what had just happened. He could hear the reeds blowing in the breeze, bending with the air without breaking. He could hear the bandit’s heavy breathing as he got to his feet, and the sloshing sound as he clumsily got up from the mud.
Listen to yourself.
Lash’s mind wasn’t present yet. It was dwelling on the last few moments. The bandit darting suddenly from the brush, striking immediately with a poorly kept sword. He hadn’t even bothered with a threat, but went straight for a kill with a downward stroke. He must be used to landing that attack; as Lash slid cleanly back and out of the way, he saw a look of surprise on the bandit’s face.
The weight of his robe on his skin. The touch of his hair on the back of his neck. The cool air against the heat of his brow. The grip of the sword in his hands. He was holding it too tight, and the texture of the handle was cutting sharply into his hand. He softened his grip until he was holding it like a painter holding a brush; like a painter a swordsman’s movements must be smooth and fluid.
Anger. Fear. Worry. Confidence. Pity. Defiance.
They all spoke inside his mind at once, shouting for his attention. Trying to silence them would only make them talk louder. Instead he invited them to sit around his fire, and speak to him softly.
The bandit was on his feet now, with both hands on his sword. His first attack had been inelegant, but well practiced. Lash wondered how many travelers the man had sunk into this marsh, the weight of their bodies pushing them into the wet soil. But the bandit was used to farmers and tradesmen, with no training in combat. Even caught off guard, it had been easy for Lash to slip away and kick the bandit to the ground.
But now the bandit was on his feet again, and readying himself for a second attack, his face full of anger and embarrassment.
“Drop your sword, and go.”
Lash didn’t owe him this kindness, and he didn’t deserve it. No matter how desperate the the man was, there was no honor in attacking travelers on the road. But killing clouds the mind, and leaves a voice that’s hard to quiet.
The bandit didn’t even pause to consider the offer, and moved in to strike again. Lash had only a few moments to observe him, but it was more than enough. He held his sword too tight. His muscles were tensed in anger and fear. His mind was not present. He couldn’t hear the birds singing in the trees.
The bandit sprinted the last few steps, his sword drawn back for another downward strike — the only attack he knew, it seemed — this time expecting to lunge farther than Lash could retreat.
Lash softened his gaze, as though simply looking at the horizon. He trusted his mind to tell him when the moment was right, and his body to move when asked. All he needed to do was supply the will, the heart of the thing.
One step. One motion. In an instant, he pushed his foot into the wet soil, thrusting his weight into his sword. He called the tension back into his body, just at the moment of the strike. The bandit had expected a retreat, not a lunging stab. The timing was perfect; the bandit had no time to react, and his momentum carried him into the attack.
The bandit’s sword made a wet thud as it stuck into the ground behind him, an echo of the moment before when Lash’s sword found its mark. He hadn’t even started swinging down yet when he was struck.
Lash’s sword slid out smoothly as he reversed back into his stance, back into his place of calm. He was the painter holding his brush, surveying his stroke, looking at the part of himself he’d put into the world, and judging its worth.
The bandit fell to his knees, his face showing all the fear and anger that was rising within him.
Lash sheathed his sword, and dropped to his knees before the man. For a moment they looked at one another, as though each was seeing his reflection in the water — the same image, but with all the features flipped.
Lash watched the bandit’s face as the fear and anger fell away, leaving only sadness and desperation. With his last bit of resistance broken, the bandit’s body relaxed, and he began gasping for air.
It’s done now. You can’t escape it. Don’t push the pain away. Feel it. Feel everything.
Soon you’ll be part of this place. Listen to it. Listen to yourself.
All that you had, you’ve lost. Let go. Let go of everything.
Breathe. Change and be changed. Find peace in the rhythm of it.
And at those words, the bandit stopped gasping, and fell into long, controlled breaths. Finally every muscle relaxed, the weight of his body pushing him toward the earth.
Anger. Fear. Worry. Confidence. Pity. Defiance. They all sat silently around the fire in Lash’s mind. Nothing to say.
Lash stood, and only then realized that he’d never let go of his sword. He was now holding it too tight again. The bandit’s sword was still stuck into the ground behind him, a miserable marker for a miserable grave.
After a moment, Lash walked on. He did not feel his breath, or the weight of his body. He did not know if his muscles were relaxed or tensed. He could not hear the birds singing. But he had only left the temple yesterday, and he still had much further to travel.