A few month's prior to the epilog from Barrayar...
"Sergeant!" the five-year-old cried. His own weight jammed his ribs into the crutch entangling his left arm, and the scrambling fall had somehow hooked his leg braces together at the ankles. His right arm, too, was inextricably cuffed at the biceps to a perpendicular crutch that levered his upper arm to a useless angle. He couldn't bring either hand into position to push himself over onto his back. He lay on his side, trapped. By the crutches. By the braces. Trapped by his own feeble body. He pounded a tiny fist against the polished wooden floor. Tears slid down his nose and across his lips. And after Father had asked him, specifically, NOT to cry. Shame piled on the frustration. He tried to stop. He licked at the tears -- tasted snot. He was blubbering like a baby. He tried to gather his strength, recover some control. He took a deep, shuddering breath. And drove his ribs harder against the grip of his crutch. The added pain surprised him. He couldn't help it. Miles wailed.
He could hear -- feel, really -- the deep thudding vibrations of heavy boots pounding up the back stairs from the Residence "butler's kitchen". Somehow, he already felt himself comforted. Sergeant Bothari was coming. Sergeant would make it better. But he hated it, too. Hated waiting. Hated needing. Almost, somehow, hated his Sergeant. That made him sad. And the hate and the pain and the shame and the sadness and the frustration exploded inside him. He screwed his eyes shut tight, pounded his fist, wailed even more, and thumped his useless legs against the wall --
And felt his ankle caught in a strong hand. But the bootsteps still thudded on the stairs. Who --?
"All right, Lord Miles," a quiet voice soothed. Miles blinked away tears as he was straightened from his cringe. Captain Koudelka's face swam into focus. Father's secretary. The captain squatted at Miles's feet, one hand maintaining balance on a stout wooden cane, the other gripping Miles's right ankle. Koudelka studied Miles's face for a moment, then turned his attention to the linked leg braces. With a gentle frontways tug he slid the previously inextricable fittings apart. Miles gasped a little in surprise; he hadn't tried kicking that way. Then he gasped again, catching up on the breathing he'd missed while crying. Koudelka released his ankle and inched forward, still crouching. Miles saw it took a sort of awkward three-part waddle of step, stick, and step. But the captain quickly reached Miles's arm and had just released him from his right crutch when the floor thundered beneath them, announcing Sergeant Bothari's arrival.
"Milord, what were you doing?" Sergeant asked. He'd come to the core of the matter instantly. "You were supposed to be in bed!" Reading, while his Sergeant fetched snacks. But the viewer's text seemed different from what he remembered of the printed copy. Miles had been hobbling about for almost a week now, and the library was only meters away. Memory had warred briefly with curiosity... then, in alliance, had impelled him into the hall. He'd gotten nearly halfway, before--
"He's walking, Sergeant," Captain Koudelka answered. Confirmed. "Nearly everybody does it." He pushed himself to his feet, handing the crutch to the towering armsman.
"Not the boy," Sergeant growled, snatching it. "The medtechs have a strict therapy schedule and even then he need spotters, padding--"
"You mostly need practice, Lord Miles," Koudelka interrupted.
Miles had managed to roll off the other crutch and sat up, sniffing. He dragged his sleeve across his nose and stared, blinking, back and forth at the adults. His Sergeant reached out for the crutch, then leaned the pair against the wall. "C'mon, boy, I'll carry you back to bed." He knelt beside Miles in the long- familiar way.
"The less you carry him, the farther he'll go," countered Koudelka.
"I'll be the judge of that," Sergeant growled.
"Just help him up--"
"The therapists say--"
*Thwack!* Miles startled at the noise of that impact, and watched in fascination as the wooden cane bounced from wall to floor and rolled away in a sweeping semi-circle. But startlement and fascination gave way to astonishment as a gleaming steel blade flickered into existence between his face and Sergeant Bothari's.
"Since when have you obeyed therapists?" Koudelka hissed.
Miles watched as his Sergeant's eyes crossed slightly to focus along that edge, and flinched as muscles bunched in Sergeant's neck and jaw. Bothari's head turned slightly towards the Captain, glittering eyes seeking a target. Miles drew breath to shout. But the swordblade flashed, to reappear right beneath, touching, that clenched jaw, and Koudelka's quiet voice, still soothing, murmured, "Be still."
Was he talking to Sergeant or to me? Miles wondered. It hardly mattered. Nobody moved and the only sound was the still-noisy wheeze of Miles's own post-wailing breath. He saw the flat of the blade dent the close-shaven skin of Sergeant's throat, and the pulsing throb of some vital artery beating just above the deadly edge. His Sergeant slowly, carefully leaned back from the blade, which followed, maintaining a steady pressure. The pressure, and the leaning, continued until his armsman was more than an arm's length away.
"I should crush you like a cockroach," Bothari rumbled.
"You could try," Koudelka answered, calmly. "It's been tried. With everything from stock sticks to nerve disruptors. And I'm still walking around to tell the tale. To MY therapists. The ones who said I'd never walk. Or dance. Or fight. The therapists want us in therapy forever. You should remember that, Sergeant."
The venom Koudelka brought to that word was one Miles had tasted daily, but never himself dared spit. And nobody ever talks to the Sergeant like that.
Miles pulled his legs beneath him, wondering what he could do. Strangely, Koudelka still held his left hand stretched towards Miles, as if ready to help him to his feet. Maybe, if he moved quick enough, he could grab that hand, pull Koudelka off balance, and -- he didn't know what.
But Koudelka seemed to notice Miles's attention. He glanced back and said, "Get up, Miles." Without turning, keeping his blade in position by touch, he spoke again. "Sergeant, give your boy his crutches. Put them in his left hand."
Miles took Koudelka's hand in both of his own and pulled hard. He managed only to pull himself upright, the Captain's strength effectively ignored his weight. Bothari, as instructed, had retrieved the crutches and passed them, silently, to Miles. Miles concentrated a moment on getting his arms and grips settled properly. When he looked up, Bothari had backed away slightly and Koudelka had shifted the point of his swordstick towards the Sergeant's chest.
"Now, Lord Miles," Koudelka asked, without looking at him, "where are you supposed to be?"
"In bed. Reading." Miles answered, wide-eyed.
"And you, Sergeant Bothari, where are you supposed to be?"
A snarl. "Kitchen." A long silence. "Snacks."
Koudelka nodded. "Mm-hmm. And I am supposed to be in the library preparing for Milord Regent's afternoon meeting with the Lord Auditor Vorparadjis. Hmm. If you will hand me my cane, Sergeant, I suppose we can all just walk away from this little incident, be where we are supposed to be, and forget this ever happened."
Bothari bent and scooped up the stick-sheath by the end. He stood formally, slapped the stick's other end into a palm, and thrust both arms out straight, as at "present arms" -- the stick crossing out over the blade still poised at his chest. "If you didn't have that blade, cripple, you'd be my meat."
"If I wasn't crippled, Sergeant, I wouldn't need this blade." Koudelka smiled thinly. "Not to handle an old man like you."
Miles watched his armsman's lips tighten, almost curl, in what he might almost have guessed, in some other circumstances, was some strange sort of smile. Bothari's eyes diverted towards Miles just enough to acknowlege him, and through clenched teeth he rasped, "Go on, boy, walk away."
Miles darted glances back and forth at the foes watching, waiting, fearing, anticipating... then decided there was nothing he could do. He tightened his grip on the crutches and turned back towards his room, forcing one leg ahead of the other, determined to get to his bed, and his bedside intercom. This was a job for his mother...
His feet seemed to find some sort of new rhythm and his speed picked up. He lifted his arms, centering on the weight of the crutches for balance. Go faster. Move --
"God, he can walk," he heard the Sergeant murmur behind him.
"Ss." Captain Koudelka hissed, even more faintly. "...thing wrong ...th his ears. "
Miles froze. And nearly stumbled. With greater walking speed came momentum. He'd have to get used to that. He recovered his balance and half turned to look back at the foemen --who still held their pose --
-- but looked at him. Not at each other. And they'd relaxed ...
"You tricked me," Miles shouted, furious. He hopped a bit, completing the turn, and stomped back, (stomp the crutch, stomp the foot, stomp the other crutch, stomp the other foot), accusing them with every step. "That. Was. MEAN! That was a scary trick!" He got just close enough, then spun, lashing out, to whack his Sergeant at the back of the thigh with the shaft of his left crutch. Sergeant Bothari hopped aside from the second strike, bringing the stick sheath down for a parry. "Now, milord--"
But Miles had braced that crutch a moment, freeing the other for a swing at Captain Koudelka. Who, not expecting the sudden change, collected a satisfying knock right on the knee. Koudelka raised his blade towards the ceiling, away from both Bothari and Miles, and flailed his left arm for balance. Miles recovered his own balance, and twisted to deliver what he was sure would be an over-balancing thrust at Koudelka with the right crutch tip. But Bothari intercepted him. They wrestled for control of the crutch and Miles missed seeing, only heard, Koudelka thud against the wall. The Sergeant wrapped Miles into a confining hug and lifted him, ignoring the boy's kicks and writhing.
"Dammit, Bothari, quit carrying him." The icy smooth challenge in Koudelka's voice evaporated, and a plaintive note of exasperation replaced it.
"I should let him kick you down the stairs."
"I will, too." Miles promised. "You're mean. Both of you."
"S'right, boy." the Sergeant grunted.
"Not mean, Lord Miles. Tough."
Miles twisted in Bothari's arms as Koudelka approached. He'd shifted his sword to the left and leaned on it as a cane -- carefully not-bending the knee Miles had bashed. Miles felt a tiny glow of rage assuaged blossom in his belly. I'm still going to kick you downstairs...
Captain Koudelka didn't seem to notice. "Life is tough, Lord Miles, and you've got to be tougher. Your Sergeant can't carry you forever."
The stony face above Miles grimaced. That might have been disagreement. But the Sergeant stooped slightly to lower Miles, crutches and all, back to floor. Maybe he thought the Captain was right. For the thousandth time Miles recognized that nobody was harder to read than the big man holding him. Miles stomped a crutch on a mirror-polished boot but provoked no additional reactions. Can't say it with crutches -- "I'm mad at you." he declared aloud.
"No, Lord Miles, it was my idea. But listen to me. I know about therapy. I know about crutches, and falling, and crying and not being able. Look at me. I know."
Mother had said the captain was wounded in a war. And Miles had always seen the cane. He hadn't known it was really a sword, before, though. That's pretty cool... But now Miles looked at Captain Koudelka closely, seeing for the first time. Saw the tracery of scars on the back of his hands, on his neck. Looked at the careful balance, the double-check of a hand on the sword. Had the captain ever moved without someone or something within reach? Miles thought back. Well, yes, but the man just seemed to be consistently more careful about things... "Nerve disruptor" his mother had said. That meant -- but then -- Captain Koudelka shouldn't be able to --
"I see." Miles admitted, slowly.
"And I still fall down and I still cry. Sometimes. But I walk, and I dance, and, if I have to, I fight. If I can do it, Lord Miles, I promise you, I promise, you can do it."
Miles thought about that. "The therapists did that for you?"
"I did it for myself. And you can do it."
Miles thought about that, too. "Can you run?"
Koudelka's face darkened. "I don't have the balance for that. But you do. You've got the balance, and the strength, and most important, Lord Miles, you have the time. You'll be able to run. You'll be able to climb trees --"
Bothari snapped, "Later."
" -- or you can swim. You --"
That arrested Miles's attention. "You can swim?"
"Best thing in the world." the captain assured him. "Doesn't take quick reflexes OR strong bones. By next year you could--"
"Father's taking us to the lake THIS summer."
The exasperated note in Koudelka's voice went one pitch higher. "Lord Miles, listen. You have time. If you just push yourself steadily--"
"The therapists have a pool. Indoors. Can you teach me to swim?"
"When you're ready Lord Mi--"
"You scared me, and you threatened my Sergeant. You owe me one. I want you to teach me to swim."
A grinding noise in Bothari's sinuses, that Miles had learned to interpret as a chuckle, echoed in the hallway. "Do it, Kou. The two of you can compare scars."
"Yeah!" Miles agreed. "Hey, can you dive? Can you teach me--"
"Lord Miles, you can't--"
"You PROMISED. You said, 'If I can do it, you can do it.' So, can you dive?"
Koudelka looked over Miles's head at the Sergeant. "I suppose some academy drown-proofing techniques would be good precaution anyhow..."
"Can you? I'm mean, you can at least go to the edge and jump in, right? I could learn--"
"Hush, boy. He'll do it. He owes me, too. Don't you, Kou?"
"Or could I swing on a rope and --"
"ALL RIGHT," Koudelka surrendered. "Swimming lessons. I'll set it up with your therapists."
"And be there in person," Bothari confirmed. He held up the captain's stick-sheath as if hostage to the man's agreement.
"I'll be there," the man promised. "But first, Lord Miles, I really am supposed to be in the library preparing for your father's meeting"
"I'll go with you," Miles asserted. "There's something strange about the text in my book viewer --" The boy grabbed at his crutches and set off, slightly ahead of the captain. "I want to find the original; might need you to get it down from the shelves for me... Oh Sergeant, can you bring the snacks in there? And bring extra for Captain Koudelka, would you?" Miles gave up on stomping and tried to recover the rhythm and balance he'd moved with earlier. A grinding noise filled the hallway behind him. No bootsteps. Bothari was just watching them. Koudelka appeared not to notice Bothari's amusement. Maybe he didn't hear it. But Miles heard. Nothing wrong with MY ears. A satisfactory retribution extracted from Koudelka, Miles began plotting his revenge for his Sergeant... now what would it take to scare HIM?
This story is based upon characters and concepts created by Lois McMaster Bujold. All additional characters and all scenarios shall be considered the property of Ms. Bujold, and used by permission.
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Last updated: November 15th 2002