ILLUSORY
6th April 2006
momaw@nhvt.net

Once long ago, in a place whose name is lost to antiquity, there was a particularly warlike race of people. The land they called their own was rough, with high windswept ridges of barren rock seperating tiny valleys that could be farmed, where the individual tribes lived apart from one another. A comfortable existance could be had in the valleys, but they fought constantly over resources like iron, quality timber, weapons, even over seers and artists.

A curious and brutal custom of their culture was that duels were fought on any number of occasions. To settle a dispute; to advance in social rank; sometimes even merely for entertainment. The rules were settled beforehand, so the participants knew how they should proceed. Duels that were in earnest, regarding serious matters, would result in the loser having one finger of their right hand removed; if they had no fingers left, they were killed. A tribe's ruling council kept some control over who fought and when, otherwise everybody would slaughter eachother in a month.

A renowned warrior of one tribe was named Oakuun. His father was on the tribe's council as war leader, and his brothers were all skilled with the bow, spear, and fighting axe. But Oakuun had grown up spoiled and arrogant, and did not treat his fellow tribesman well. Nobody dared challenge him on a point of honor because he was large, strong, and well-equipped. And totally undefeated.

One year, Oakuun become enamored of the herbsman's daughter, Zanina. Her skin was clear but well toned; her form slender but muscled; her tongue witty but her manner kind. When the herbsman saw that the warrior would court his only child by his late widow, he was instantly saddened. While Oakuun would provide for her well, materially, he was a poor excuse of a man in more important ways. He went to the council for advice.

"What can I do to save her from this animal?", he asked. "I cannot abide even the thought of his leering face in the same room as my beloved daughter."

Kurda, Oakuun's father, was well aware of this son's behaviour; but it was out of his hands now. A father cannot control a son grown, only suggest. And suggestion had failed. So, though it grieved him to admit it, he agreed with Thismi the herbsman that Oakuun must not have the daughter.

"You must deny him, that much is clear." The other council members nodded but frowned.

"Yes, that much is clear. But he will want to fight."

"Of course. If there's anything I did right, I raised him to be a marvellous fighter. I think... I think, if it comes to that, I will challenge him in your stead. He would not attack me, if I forced the issue that way."

"No, honored sir, I don't need you to fight my battle for me. If needs be, I will defend my own daughter. I seek only your understanding, if I should be forced to kill him."

Kurda and the others on the council exlaimed in surprise, and took a hard look at Thismi, thinking perhaps he had changed somehow. But no. He was still an old man, wrinkled, sunspotted, with only one finger remaining on his right hand. His clothes were sturdy but plain, with fragments of herbs and leaves stuck in places, and his hands stained by his medicines. He was an acceptable warrior once, perhaps. Half a century ago.

"Thismi, if you lose, you must die. You have no more chances." Kurda held his palm up and spread his fingers to illustrate. "Your daughter would go to the beast too, so you would die in vain."

Thismi smiled a thin, mischevious smile. "Trust me, I know what I do. I can defeat him."

Despite pleading on the part of the council, he would not listen to any other course of action, nor would he reveal his plan. The council at length grew tired and angry, and finally sent him away telling him to do whatever he thought best. They didn't expect him to live through the week.

Oakuun came to Thismi's shop two days later, slamming the door open and bellowing for him to come out into the light. The herbsman dusted his hands on his apron and came out. Oakuun towered over him like an adult to a child. The hilt of one of the few steel swords in the tribe poked over his shoulder, he carried a studded wooden shield on his forearm, and he was armored in hardened leather with iron plates. Thismi sized him up, waiting for him to speak.

"I have decided that you shall have the honor of presenting me your daughter as a bride," Oakuun growled menacingly. His sycophantic followers snickered a few paces away.

Thismi said nothing, he merely leaned forward and spit on Oakuun's boot.

For a moment, time stood still. The towering, muscled man looked down at the glob of spittle oozing down to the dust as if he didn't know what to do next. He decided that ripping Thismi to pieces was a good plan. Roaring in outrage, he took a huge step forward, hands hooked into talons to break the impudent herbsman's neck.

"Challenge!" Thismi shouted, darting back out of reach. "A challenge!"

Oakuun, suddenly conscious of heads turning and people pointing, replanted his feet and clenched his hands. A grim, cheerless smile oozed onto his face. "An excellent idea, old man. I'll have a bride, that's for certain. But will she have a father? I think not." He turned and took up the call: "A challenge!"

It wasn't long before the duelist ring in the middle of the town had been cleared of tools and material, then hastily raked and flattened. The tribe gathered. Most of the men looked at Oakuun tightening his armor and checking his sword, then at Thismi scuffing the dirt with his toe, and shook their heads sadly. Most of the women shed a bitter tear. Most of the children were sent home so they wouldn't see what happened.

At last there was no reasonable preparation left to make, and the council assembled on the sideline.

"What is the challenge!", they called loudly.

"I claim this man's daugher as my wife."

"And I refuse this man's claim."

"Marriage is blood, and a matter of blood must be final. Do you still wish to proceed?"

Oakuun gave the ritual gesture of acceptance firmly. Thismi paused the barest suggestion of an instant, looking across to Kurda's unhappy eyes, then gave the gesture also. Kurda's shoulder slumped, he gritted his teeth, and shook his head.

"Are there any conditions to your conflict, herbsman Thismi? Warrior Oakuun?"

"I have no conditions."

"None." Oakuun drew his sword and settled his hand on its grip.

"Then the challenge is declared, the challengers are met, and the gods are watching. None may interfere until it is complete." The watching tribesman took a step away from the circle, and the duel began.

As expected, Oakuun came forward with determination. He expected to spit the old man with one good thrust. Or perhaps lop his arm off, if that stroke was better. He expected this to be over quickly. He did not expect Thismi to disappear.

Stopping in confusion as the crowd gasped and muttered, he blinked, then tentatively chopped his blade through the area where the man was a moment ago. The sword swung freely and didn't contact anything. The sweep reversed into a half circle, then into a full circle, spinning on his heel as he realized the extent of the problem. Still, he hit nothing.

"Fight me, you sorcerous wretch!" He flailed his way quickly over a large area of the dueling ring, the people near the edge darting backward in alarm. There was no reply. He flailed back the other way, sword tracing enormous flashing arcs and whining dangerously from its razor tip.

"Is he even in there?", one watcher pondered in bewilderment. Everybody looked around the circle, and saw that Thismi could not have passed through the throng without having to push somebody out of his way.

"He must be, I guess. But...?"

Oakuun had gotten his fill of this game, and slammed his sword angrily into the ground, cursing. "What say you, elders? What manner of duel is this! The coward challenges me, and then won't fight!"

The council of elders turned to eachother and deliberated quietly a moment, then turned back.

"The duel is just. He met you in a manner of conflict of your own choosing. You both had the right to discuss special rules to the combat, but no requests were made. You arrived in harness and with a weapon, so it is clear that you were expecting to fight hand to hand. You've simply been outmaneuvered. The duel is just, and is not over. Continue."

"Continue what! He's scurrying around like a rat! We could dance around all day and accomplish nothing."

"Perhaps that was the intent. Continue."

Oakuun sat on the ground in the center of the ring, sword across his lap, cursing everything in sight and waiting for Thismi to attack him. He waited for several hours. The sun set behind a high ridge, the air grew cool. Nothing stirred. Many of the tribesman grew bored of watching with nothing to watch, and went to their homes, ready to dash back at a moment's notice.

Guards were posted around the ring with torches, to make sure Oakuun didn't leave. The frustrated warrior scoffed at that, pointing out that Thismi could walk right past them. The elders agreed, and had water poured around the ring to leave a moat of mud. Any attempt to cross it would leave footprints. They also had two of the tribe's hunters patrol with their dogs for signs of fresh scent in case he had already slipped out.

It was the girl Kini who discovered Thismi, the next day. Her mother was old and stiff, and the herbsman made her a special tea every week. Kini was sent to see if the herbsman had left any of the tea prepared, to take back to her mother. She felt rather odd poking around in his house when he wasn't there. She was so nervous that, when a voice quietly greeted her, she gave a piercing scream and bolted out the door.

Half a dozen of the tribesmen came racing down the street with spears in their hands, to fend off wild animals, or perhaps a raiding party. Instead they were faced with Thismi in his bed robe, yawning and rubbing sleep from his eyes.

"What are you doing at home!" they exclaimed, training their spears on him. A duel was a sacred thing, and it was unthinkable that he should abandon one.

"Sleeping, of course. And thinking about breakfast."

"But you left the challenge circle!"

"No, I was never in the challenge circle."

This calm statement demolished all of their questions and left stunned silence. Finally, they decided that the council would need to puzzle this out and escorted the half-dressed herbsman back to the center of the village.

The council stared in astonishment. Oakuun, groggy from forcing himself to try and remain alert all night, stiffly got to his feet. "Traitor! Coward! I'll finish this now!"

"Stop!", the council roared as his foot was about to cross the edge of the circle. "Thismi, explain what has happened here. Is the duel over? Did you forfeit?"

"No, the duel is not over. The enemy is still in the circle with warrior Oakuun."

"But you are the enemy. How can you be out here, and visible, and at the same time be in the ring and invisible? Speak sense, or we'll declare your opponent the winner!"

"I could be in any number of places, visible or otherwise." Thismi made a complicted motion with his hand and muttered something under his breath... and a twin of himself appeared from the air. Another motion: another twin. He made a score of them, the people around him backing away in awe. Some of the twins started walking around, tightened their belts, or sat down. The center of the village was full of Thismis everywhere.

"So you see... What Oakuun is fighting is illusion. It's still there, or at least it could be." A Thismi-copy sprang to life inside the circle and made an obscene gesture at the warrior.

"This is ridiculous. What a stupid game to play. I demand satisfaction! Let the coward step into the ring in his own true self and I will finish this." Oakuun scowled at the people watching, looking for support. But he didn't find any. Most of the faces were thoughtful, or stern, and he suddenly realized that he didn't have any friends here.

The council glanced at eachother, speaking eye to eye. Then they looked at their herbsman, and his flock of illusory images, and reached a decision. "No, not a game Oakuun. Thismi is right. Your enemy is illusion, and you're still fighting it. You'll be fighting it until you die of thirst, unless you forfeit the duel. You came well prepared for a battle of iron, but he has defeated you in a battle of wits."

"Well what was I supposed to do? I've never heard of a duel fought this way. What of tradition!" Oakuun was starting to panic, now.

Thismi spoke in his own defense. "By tradition, a frail graybeard would not demand to fight a warrior in his prime either, would he? Do not forget that I challenged you, not the other way around. You should have been on your guard from that moment forward. Now, will you yield to me?"

"And what terms would you offer?" Oakuun practically spit the words.

"That you leave my daughter Zanina alone. Never speak to her beyond the necessary. Never touch her. Never stare at her, or talk about her. She is not yours, and never will be yours."

In the end, Oakuun was forced to agree to these terms. Though he fought for many days before admitting defeat. It was plain that he surrendered to the necessity of self-preservation, not out of repentance.

Zanina had no shortage of marriage proposals after her father won his duel. It became more a matter of not having enough time to properly interview everybody. Thismi let her make her own choice, and when the lucky lad was told the good news, it was made clear that he would be taught the arcane arts if he wanted to learn. For Thismi well understood that strength, and its counterpart weakness, could both be an illusion. That a good man was defined by the truths of intelligence and character, and not by how powerful others may see him.