Gimel sat against a low wall, resting from his latest endeavors with a kadari stick. His opponent, Tau, stood before him, smirking.
“You’ll never learn to fight like a man, if you’re not a man to begin with!” he jeered, and walked off with a swagger.
Gimel was cast down. Wasn’t he a man? No, he told himself, he was what all the boys called him – a silly little Mother’s Pet. None of them had let him forget that awful time nearly four years ago when he had cried in the carriage. None of them had offered to be his friends either.
Gimel threw himself full length on the ground, ready to cry from frustration and loneliness. What was the use trying anymore? There was no one to try for. No one to care whether he failed or not. In the back of his mind, he knew that this was not true.
Kaph cares. Gimel knew this was true. He had seen the hurt and disappointment in Kaph’s eyes when – and it was often – he failed in his training. Kaph doesn’t count! He’s not my father. Oh, how I wish I could just go home! A momentary pang seized his heart, and he struggled to keep from crying.
Fortunately for him, at this moment a gong was sounded, signifying that it was time for training to stop, as the evening meal was served.
Gimel took his portion and sat at the end of a long bench, a wide space between him and the next boy over. He knew the other boy didn’t care. He raised a handful of rice to his mouth, and was chewing it when Kaph stood up at the head of the room. This was his custom, to stand and announce the latest challenge which they were to train for. Gimel was tempted to ignore him. Why listen anyway, if he wouldn’t succeed?
“My sons,” Kaph began, and Gimel half tuned out, “I am happy to see how far most of you have come.” Gimel painfully knew what the ‘most of you’ meant – him. “I believe wholeheartedly that you are ready for the most difficult assignment of all, “Kaph continued, and paused dramatically, “Dragon Fire!”
Several boys gasped, but it was a gasp of delight. A fire of eagerness kindled abruptly in Gimel’s breast, and he sat up and listened carefully as Kaph went on.
“You wonder, of course, what this name means. Ah, my sons, it is an honorable assignment indeed, for you all know that a dragon is not to be tamed lightly. They are reserved for the Krachack, and those who train for that position. Therefore, this coming week, I will hold contests between you to see who is fit to undertake it. Four will be chosen, those capable, and like to the four elements which they represent.”
A murmur erupted at this, and Kaph held up his hand to silence them before continuing, “Yes, that is why you have been out into categories. When you first came I evaluated you to see which element best suited you. It was preparation for this very assignment. This is a tradition elicited in part by the fact that there are four elements which your dragons represent: Fire, Water, Sky, and Earth. In order to fully be able to control such a beast, one must be suited to the element which one represents. You know which element you have been categorized as, therefore you will know what to expect when the winners are chosen.
Now, this tradition which I explained, is where our opponent, Daleth, has erred greatly. This is where we may catch him, if you learn to control your respective dragon well, for undoubtedly his students will not be suited to the element they represent. I once berated him for this error, but he has ceased to listen to my reasoning, and will doubtless continue in his folly.”
The students looked at each other and grinned. They knew by now, that Kaph’s School of Arms had supplied the last Krachack as a result of Daleth’s slip.
Kaph nodded soberly. Gimel couldn’t understand why Kaph was always concerned for Daleth’s school. Why be concerned about your enemy?
“Master Kaph,” a student stood up, “May I be permitted to speak?” Gimel saw with anxiety that it was Tau, and his heart sank in foreboding. Tau was ever pushing to hurt him.
“You may, my son.” Kaph assented.
“Thank you.” The boy bowed briefly, then turned to his companions, “Brothers, this assignment, Dragon Fire, is an enormous honor to compete for. We all deserve it. All but one.” Here he looked pointedly at Gimel, who shrunk back at his gaze, “Why should we be dishonored by his competing against us for the appointment to Dragon Fire? You all know as well as I do, that he is not fit to undertake it – why should we bear the pain of watching him train more?”
The room buzzed with conversation, as the other students commented to each other. Gimel had never felt more alone! He could see that they all agreed he was not fit. Why wasn’t he, anyway? It was their fault! They had not wanted to train against him. He had often not gotten the practice he supposed Kaph thought he needed. His face flushed with anger, and he stood up for the first time during a meal.
A hush fell over the room, and the other boys stared at him in astonishment. What? Gimel putting himself forward? They nudged each other and grinned.
“Master Kaph, may I speak please?” Gimel asked, his voice plastered with all the dignity he could collect.
Kaph smiled at Gimel, “Yes, my son, speak.”
“Brothers,” Gimel began, sweeping his hurt gaze over the group, “I am almost ashamed to call you such. For the years we have stayed with Master Kaph, he has always taught us to work together, to build each other up, for that is how we will defeat Daleth’s students. He has taught us to accept each other’s faults, and to make up for them in our own behavior. But,” Here he paused, and then continued again, no longer trying to hide the anger he felt, “I haven’t seen his wise teachings being manifested in your behavior at all this evening. When did Kaph teach us to put down a comrade? When were we told to criticize or persecute a brother?
“Master Kaph, I beseech you not to listen to what my brother has suggested – that I not be permitted to compete for Dragon Fire! You have heard them – you have seen how none but three of them offer to practice with me. You know how you were nearly always obliged to choose someone; they would not volunteer. Master, is it my fault I am ill equipped? But give me a chance – I will do my best, and if I fail when trying my hardest, what dishonor is there?”
The room was silent for several minutes, and Gimel could hear some crickets chirping outside. His comrades looked at each other, shocked that Gimel had stood up for himself, and afraid, for he had exposed their behavior to Kaph. What would he do to them? Their faces had grown a shade paler before Kaph finally stirred.
“What you say is quite true, my son.” he admitted tiredly, “I have done my very best to teach all of you to behave as one – teamwork, my sons! Teamwork! Only by teamwork may you earn the post of Krachack. But ever since your arrival, you have belittled this son, who is certainly not the least of you in strength. Why? Because he displayed regret for leaving his family to an unknown fate! O my sons, tears are not weakness! They are signs of love, and caring! When someone you love is parted from you, are you not sad? This is no reason to persecute your brother, whom, of all people, you should build up!”
The boys hung their heads and slid their feet uneasily on the floor. How could they have been so foolish? Oh, what would Kaph do to them? All but Tau looked ashamed of themselves. The said lad stared sulkily down at the table, brows knit in disrespect.
“For your punishment,” their teacher said slowly, “you are not allowed to speak to each other, unless it be to Gimel, and you must include Gimel in your practices, so that he may feel the brotherhood which I have endeavored to instill in you. Now go to your beds. I have had enough of you today.” Kaph sat down heavily, and for the first time in four years, Gimel remembered that he was an old man. He gazed anxiously up at his teacher, and slowly stood up, supposing that he was to return with the other boys.
“No, Gimel, and you, Tau, please stay with me. I would like to speak with you.” Kaph did not smile. Hesitantly, Gimel watched the other boys leaving, then he and Tau approached Kaph with a respectful bow. Tau bowed stiffly.
Was it something I said? Gimel wondered uneasily, Am I in trouble, then?
“Tau,” Kaph began, his face old and wrinkled, “I have seen you belittle Gimel in front of the other boys. Do you not realize that they look to you for leadership? What you do, they all do. This, my son, is entirely against the code of this School in Arms. You will not train with us any longer, but leave immediately tomorrow morning. Now go.”
Gimel’s eyes widened in horror. Never before had any of the students been dismissed! Tau’s face was black with anger. Who were they to make him leave? He deserved the post of Krachack! Gimel watched those thoughts cross Tau’s mind, for they read in his face like a book. Tau caught Gimel looking at him and glared darkly before stomping out.
Gimel was a little shaken up. If Tau was dismissed, what was Kaph going to do to him?
“Have no fear, Gimel.” Kaph smiled warmly, and the tired lines vanished from his face. Gimel was astonished at the change. How could this kind man have looked so old and tired a few minutes before?
“I would like you to accompany me to my quarters, if you would.” Kaph explained, “You cannot believe how old one feels when dealing with such quarrelsome students. Ah, I’m not as young as I used to be.” he looked sadly into Gimel’s eyes. “But come, let us walk.”