Sunday, August 21, 2011
Talon of the Unnamed Goddess
I knelt on the hardwood floor with the other five remaining members of my seventh year aerie. We waited for Master Jiang to speak. He was a thin man, average height with long gray hair and goatee, and the piercing gaze of a deadly bird of prey. I froze when his eyes settled on me for a moment.
"You six are what remain of the one hundred and four candidates we admitted seven years ago. You have demonstrated your suitability to be considered for membership into the Raptor Clan through your hard work, adherence to our rules, and by surviving your first four Ordeals," Jiang said, pausing as if considering his next words. "One more Ordeal awaits you. The three who triumph will be allowed to continue training. The other three must leave."
I detected no hint of an apology or concern as to where the others would go. Each Ordeal purged half of the remaining students, the clan's method of extracting the best. Ninety students had failed to survive them, and eight were asked to leave because of poor performance in their studies, laziness, or failure to obey the rules. I loved my life as a student, but I hated the Ordeals.
"Your Ordeal will begin tomorrow at first light." He waved his hand to dismiss us.
I bowed and rose. My aerie exited the room in a solemn line.
As the door closed behind us, Kolek grabbed my arm. "Aisha, where will you go after you lose tomorrow?" He smirked. "You survived by luck and treachery over the years. Many made the mistake of feeling sorry for you, and you took advantage of them. I hope you're my opponent tomorrow. You'll get no sympathy from me."
My stomach twisted. I had arrived at the Raptor Clan's remote fortress, the Aerie, with vengeance as my only thought. Raiders had destroyed my life when they raided my village, killed and kidnapped my people. I was off in the forest exploring when I should have been working in the village. I returned to smoking ruins and dead bodies, the only survivor not dragged into slavery. After burying the dead, I made the week long trek through the mountains to the home of the legendary Raptor Clan, hoping to be accepted as a student, to become a skilled fighter, and to find and kill the raiders who had killed my parents and kidnapped my younger brother. If I failed tomorrow's Ordeal, I had nowhere to go, no family and no village.
"I'm not lucky enough to draw an easy opponent like you, Kolek." I refused to back down, although he was one of the better fighters. He said something under his breath as I walked away.
I had been frail when I came to the Aerie. I could not have competed against any of the others in a fair fight, so I learned to outwit them. I’ve become stronger than most women because of my rigorous training and developed excellent reflexes and balance. My speed makes me a good knife fighter. Constant training keeps my figure lithe and trim. My face is typical of the mountain people of the Camori: long and narrow with high cheekbones, dark-brown almond-shaped eyes, straight nose, full lips, and pointy chin. I love my long midnight black hair worn in a horsetail with a small blade woven into it.
* * * *
I stepped out of my room onto the portico the next morning. Students in their simple brown cotton tunics and pants crowded the edges, a zealous audience. A group of clan members, clad in black were among them. I stopped for a moment to survey the courtyard where my Ordeal would soon start, a two-acre square yard, covered with white gravel. A portico led from the yard to hundreds of rooms that abutted the massive gray walls of the fortress, their roofs forming a wide parapet. Above the walls, I could see the snow covered peaks of the Camori Mountains.
The sun shown brightly in the cloudless sky. Above the foothills the mid-summer air carried a chill. I stepped onto the gravel of the courtyard where the rough surface improved our sure-footedness. I would need that today.
Normally the area would have been swarming with activity: students exercising, stretching, and practicing fighting techniques with swords, knives, bows, or with nothing at all--using only the natural weapons of the body. Today, only my seventh-year aerie was there as I walked over to join them.
We waited without looking or speaking to each other. After a few minutes, Master Jiang strode toward us, followed by three masters. He would control the Ordeal from inside the circle. The others would judge it from the outside.
"Seventh-year students," Jiang said. "The Ordeal today is with knives. The winner is the one who draws, in our judgment, significant first blood or who forces their opponent out of the circle. You will cease fighting immediately upon my command. If a contestant dies, it will be the decision of the judges whether the death was intentional or accidental. If it is determined to have been intentional, Master Dragos will decide the student's punishment. Is this clear?"
"Yes, Master Jiang," we said in unison. Ordeals are serious contests. Real blades increased the risk. My hands shook. Only the best would move from student to Talon, from nestling to bird of prey.
"We have paired the three strongest students with the weakest. This is in keeping with the Clan's intent to select the best to become a Talon." Jiang pointed to two students to enter the circle, marked off in the gravel. The student considered the best would be paired with the fourth best, the second best with the fifth, and the third best with me. I felt no surprise when Tellac, tall and lithe, entered the circle although I would have thought Olsim, his opponent, would have been rated lower than forth.
The two opponents circled each other. Olsim seemed cautious, his motions jerky. He scored first, a scratch to Tellac's arm but received two cuts to his arm in the exchange. The contest ended a few seconds later when Tellac darted in to leave a shallow slash from Olsim's neck to his belly.
Several minutes later, as I expected, I wasn't summoned into the circle for the second contest, but my stomach knotted when Kolek wasn't called either. He was a skilled knife fighter, fast, aggressive, and sadistic. My blood pounded in my chest as he looked at me and his lip curled into a contemptuous smile.
I didn't fear being hurt. I feared being forced to leave the Aerie and having my dreams smashed. Think Aisha. Keep your wits about you. I struggled to slow my breathing. I was prepared for this Ordeal even if my preparation had been with cunning. I couldn’t help but smile and felt his glare.
Time after time, Master Jiang had told us, "Emotions kill." Kolek always got excited when he fought. He enjoyed causing pain and often lost his temper. I could use both against him, but I would need time, skill, and my wits.
I must gain control of my raging emotions. But how? I could do that by not caring, but I did care. The Aerie was my life. I forced myself to think calmly about what fueled my fears, losing the Ordeal, having to leave, or not being a Talon. I needed to blur my feelings, to stop thinking about what might be. I focused on slowing the rapid beat of my heart.
"Too scared to move, Aisha?" Kolek said, jolting me back to reality. The second contest was over. Melor had won, as expected. His opponent's blood dripped in a line on the gravel as he was carried out injured but alive. "Take a good look. That's you in a few minutes."
"I'm more worried you'll cut yourself, Kolek," I said with a chuckle. I had reached a strange place. My vision had changed, expanded. I drew my knives at Master Jiang's "ready" command and could sense Kolek's confusion at my composure.
"Begin," Jiang said and moved away from us. I looked towards Kolek but not at him. I could see more than I had ever seen before. I saw Kolek's slight coiling as he prepared to lunge and sidestepped him as he thrust at me. I made a puny thrust with my left hand. I could have cut his extended arm when I sidestepped him but held back. It would only have been a shallow cut.
"Dung face," I muttered loud enough for him to hear, hoping to enrage him. It did.
Only seconds later, he lunged at me with both knives, going for my throat. I sensed this was more an attempt to scare me than to score a winning cut. He didn't move in close enough for a killing blow. He needed me to be scared. He craved it. I parried and jabbed his arm hard enough to draw blood. He answered with a slash that left a few drops of blood running down my hand.
I held back any left-handed blows I knew wouldn't end the match. The longer we fought the stranger I felt, as if I watched from above. I saw Kolek's subtle shifts in weight and muscle tension as he prepared to slash. I heard his breathing. He muttered a curse. Behind me, I heard Jiang's movement as he shuffled out of our way.
Kolek dove in, scoring another nick to my right arm. His right hand dropped. I knew his anger had overcome caution as he plunged his knife in a fierce thrust toward my stomach. I twisted sideways, using my left knife to block his blade. With an upward move, I slashed across his wrist. A gush of blood splattered over my hand and onto the gravel.
I stepped back as Master Jiang shouted, "Stop."
Snarling with fury Kolek threw his knife down and grabbed his wrist. "Damn you, Aisha!" His face twisted in anger. He turned towards Jiang. "She cheated."
"You're right, Kolek. I had a sharp knife." I had won. With one stroke of my knife, I had become clan.
Master Jiang walked over to Kolek and examined his wrist. "The gash is deep but not fatal. Aisha, you, Tellac, and Melor are declared the winners of the fifth Ordeal."
The three masters left the courtyard. Jiang motioned for me to join him. "Aisha, do you know why I placed you in the last rotation?"
"Because I was the weakest."
"No, we considered you third best, Kolek, last. You have a distinct disadvantage if I consider strength or reach. You are smaller than the average woman and much smaller than the average man. But you are two steps ahead of most students. You survive because you are always thinking, 'What if?' I believe you could have defeated Tellac had I paired you with him." He cocked his head and a smile twitched his lips. "Was your left blade ever weak or did you always fake that?"
I grinned. "I faked."
Talon of the Unnamed Goddess is available on Amazon and Smashwords, only $2.99.