Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Archery Master's Children (3/?)

S’toh shook himself. Their father had declared a free day in the middle of the week, which was rare, and he was slowing them down with all his thinking. Picking up the pace slightly, he led his sisters on until they reached a crossroads. They stopped. “Where do you want to go?” he asked. “What do you want to do?” As the oldest he was used to being in charge. As Sothi’s brother, however, he was also used to his “authority” being questioned or completed disregarded.

Dropping her pack to the ground, Sothi placed her hands on her hips. “You mean you don’t know what we’re doing?”

“Yeah!” H’tsi chimed in. Her pack with the bow and quiver she let slide down her arm until it drifted gently to the dusty road.

Much as Sothi disliked S’toh’s being in charge, she had looked forward to having a sibling to be in charge of herself. So it was disconcerting that H’tsi proved to be downright bossy. Sothi ignored whatever she didn’t like, just as she did with S’toh. Sometimes, though, the sisters would join together. Then they were a very dangerous combination, because although Sothi was easygoing and not bossy at all, nor did she like being in charge, she was stubborn. Rocks in a river could be worn to smoothness before Sothi would change her mind.

Sothi was a frustrating opponent, but an unfailing ally. If ever he was in a battle, S’toh knew he wanted her at his side. She would never run. She would never desert him, even if all his army did.

H’tsi tapped her foot. “We’re waiting.” And of course H’tsi would be yelling at the army for being such cowards.

Sothi lightly smacked the back of her head. “Just because we are still waiting doesn’t mean you get smart.” Eyebrows climbing toward her hair, she turned to S’toh. “But she does have a point.”

S’toh dropped his own pack onto the dusty ground and stuck his hands on his hips, just as Sothi had done a moment ago. “You’re always complaining that I make all the decisions. Father gave us the day off. I thought I’d give you the day off, too.”

Probably it was H’tsi who giggled first. She was only just seven summers old, after all. Sothi wasted no time joining in, though.

S’toh leapt over his pack, reaching for his youngest sister. Who tore off running in the direction they had just come from, her laughter carrying over the dry flats. Grazers lifted their heads from the tall grass, exposing their positions. Sothi, who had dropped down to sit on her heels, waved the animals back to their business. “Don’t mind the strange children. They’ll tire themselves out soon enough.”

Most of the grazers went back to their work as if they understood her—or understood the nature of children. The jumpier ones, the skittish ones, quickly went searching for a new place to graze, however.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Archery Master's Children (2/?)

Someday soon S’toh was going to be in B’den’s situation when he went to be the student of, and be fostered by, the Archery Master for the North. S’toh thought he would have an easier time of it, though. Because the hair of the people in the North liked to lie down flat, instead of rising in tightly curled springs like the people of the South, it was their custom to braid it away from the face. Men of war, in particular, wore special braids to indicate their status. Even B’den, with his pale sunlight hair so very different from everyone else’s including the other Northern students (for they had hair as dark as any South-dweller) wore a braid on either side of his head. Like the armguards and the finger-gloves that even Sothi and H’tsi wore, in the North they were signs that B’den belong to the Northern Archery Master’s house, and that he was a student there. For that reason he had been allowed to keep both braids, though the rest of his hair had been cut close to his head. The other three Northern students, none of whom were in any way related to the Archery Master there, had a single narrow braid at the base of their skulls.

When S’toh went to be fostered by B’den’s father he would follow the Northern province custom of allowing his hair to grow long, but in deference to his own father’s house he would be allowed to braid it as close to his head as he could manage. Though that time was at least a year away, possibly even two, S’toh was already collecting stories of great warriors, North-dwelling as well as South, to weave into the braids when he plaited and re-plaited them. That was the Southern Province custom for plaited hair. It was a way to teach children the stories of their people—the great exploits and sometimes even the failures. The stories were woven into the plaited hair, one braid for each warrior, or one braid for each exploit if the warrior had been a great and adventurous man. There could be braids also for the great kings who ruled the provinces and for their Sister-Queens, or even the consorts married to the brother-sister co-rulers.

When H’tsi had been very little, Sothi had braided many braids in her sister’s hair, telling her the stories of Sister-Queens and Kings’-Wives who had done great things at the sides of their brothers and husbands. Now that H’tsi was growing old enough to remember, Sothi only made as many braids as her sister had stories. Often that meant only two fat plaits on either side of her head that were nearly all undone by day’s end. Sometimes Sothi would be merciful and plait half-finished braids for half-remembered history. Sothi’s own head was always full of small, tightly plaited hair. The woman who cleaned the house for their father, Assua, also did Sothi’s hair once a week. She would sit on a stool while Sothi sat on the floor, H’tsi in her lap, reciting history and the exploits of the great Sister-Queens, co-rulers with their Brother-Kings, and the exploits of the Kings’-Wives, while S’toh stood in the door listening. From what he could tell Sothi particularly liked the King’s-Wives that defied convention and stood up to their husband’s sister-Queens. At least a dozen braids were dedicated to them alone.

S’toh planned to have as many braids as Sothi when he was in the North, if not more. There were certainly more stories to choose from among the Brother-Kings and Queens’-Husbands. He wondered if anyone in the Northern Archery Master’s house knew the history of the Southern provinces well enough to correct him if he recited them wrong.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Year Abroad

She enters the room grinning, arms out, ready and demanding hellos and hugs. He’s first in line. She envelopes him in the hug, in her joy, making up for his lack. She pulls back just enough for a kiss, presenting her cheek. When he moves in, smiling now, infected by happiness he doesn’t understand, she changes the angle, unchastening it, giving it a heat and fervor that is unexpected and questionably welcome. But he responds. At only a few inches taller than she, his height is just average for a man. And perfect for kissing someone only a few inches shorter than he.

She pulls back, grinning still into the sudden and profound silence that becomes a dull roar. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says for his ears only. She ducks in, kissing his cheek before he can react, then untangles herself from his grasp. He watches dumbly, numbly, as she hugs everyone else and kisses none.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Archery Master’s Children

The Archery Master’s children traveled everywhere together. S’toh because he was oldest and had been sent. Sothi because her brother was only two years older and needed help taking the things their father had sent, and bringing home the things people sent to their father. H’tsi because she was too young to be left unsupervised near the lists and the weapons—and because she would not be left behind. And so the Archery Master’s children traveled everywhere together: S’toh with his bow and quiver, Sothi with supplies and provisions, and H’tsi with Sothi’s bow and quiver.

Everyone always presumed that H’tsi carried a second bow for her brother, or that it was equipment to be traded. It was inconceivable that a daughter, even a daughter of the Archery Master, would know how to shoot. They did not consider that the Archery Master would find it inconceivable that any of his children, even a daughter, not be able to shoot. The Blacksmith’s daughter knew her way around a forge. The Cattle Driver’s daughter knew how to wrangle steer. Even the Headman’s daughter knew how to twist up a man’s words to best suit her purposes, just as her father did and just as her grandmother had when she had been Headwoman. People felt differently about daughters learning the arts of war, though. Yet the Archery Master is certain that if the Sword Master had been blessed with a dozen daughters instead of a dozen sons they would not only wear the bracers representing their father’s house, but they would also know how to wield the swords that represented their father’s skill.

Sothi and H’tsi both felt quite naked whenever they couldn’t wear their armguards over the inside of their left forearms, or the special three-fingered gloves they wore on their right hands to protect their fingers and palms. H’tsi’s armguards and glove were decorated with painted flowers, but they would wear away now that she had begun practicing on a tiny bow of her own. She would get new ones as she got older and longer limbed and grew out of the ones she had.

S’toh, of course, was expected to know everything a 14 year old could know of archery, and perhaps more. He was the Archery Master’s son after all. The only son. It was expected that he would someday be Archery Master himself, though it was hard to imagine his father as anything other than tall and lean and strong. Even now, though he had declared a rest day for both his students and children, S’toh could picture his father at the lists, the muscles in his arm bunching under brown skin shining with sweat. The morning was not very old, yet sweat was already breaking out on S’toh’s own forehead. A glance back confirmed that H’tsi and Sothi were sweating, too. It was going to be another scorcher, as the Northern Archery Master’s son put it. Of course it was the season of ‘scorchers’ so it was to be expected. The Northern Archery Master’s son, whom they had rechristened B’den from the longer Breaeden, had been dismayed to learn that the Archery Master, unlike most people living in the hot Southern provinces, did not break for midday just because it was midday. They would continue on through the lesson, under the full noonday sun until the lesson was done. Only then would they break for the afternoon meal.

B’den had been with their father, being fostered and apprenticed to him, since the cool season which, this year, had gotten as warm as it ever would get in the Northern provinces. He had been unhappy when he had been unable to convince the Archery Master that he B’den shouldn’t have to cut his very long hair. “It is my rule that no one in my training should wear anything that will hurt their aim with the bow. That includes hair,” the Archery Master would say to B’den every time the matter came up. When, one time, he added, “Not even my own daughters are exempt from this rule,” S’toh, Sothi and H’tsi knew the matter was closed. B’den would have to submit to the rule or return to his father, the Archery Master for the North, in disgrace. They had told him so, the girls pulling self-consciously on braids which were plaited close to the skull to satisfy their father’s rule without flouting public convention. It was not typical for girls to wear their hair braided close all the time, but it was not wholly unusual either. It was even acceptable since there was no mother or auntie or girl-cousin to keep up with their hair.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Fry Confrontations

The seriousness of his gaze held her eyes, kept her from turning away and doing whatever it was she had been going to do. “You don’t ever talk to me.”

Frowning with incredulity drawing her brows together, she set down her half-eaten hamburger and tilted her head to one side as if studying her face. “I don’t ever talk to you? Jack, you’re always complaining that I talk too much.”

“About nothing.”

“Yeah, well… And you’re constantly badgering to leave you alone.”

His jaw clenched. “You know what I’m talking about.”

Her expression cleared. “Actually, no. I don’t.”

He stared at her again, eyes hard. Confusion and ambiguity crossed her face. Then both passed and she stared back at him with patience and transparency and calm. He slapped the table. She flinched.

“I hate it when you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Withdraw like that. You never tell me anything.”

She rolled her eyes. “I tell you lots.”

“About nothing.”

“All you want to hear about is nothing,” she shot back. “You don’t want to hear the heavy stuff. You don’t care.” She shrugged. “So I don’t tell you.”

Now he frowned. “Why do you say that?”

“You never ask. You tell me all about your self. You talk about things that interest you. You…and then when I try to tell you something you turn the subject and it becomes all about you.” She shrugged again. “So you don’t care. Fine. It used to bother me but I’ve gotten over it.” She reached for her half-eaten burger. “It’s no big.”

He stared at her while she ate, as she flatly ignored him. She was finished with her burger and was starting on her fries when he asked, “How long?”

Not looking at him, she shrugged. “Feels like always, but it probably hasn’t been that long. How long have we been friends?”

“Ten years?”

She nodded. “Then maybe the last five or six.” She looked up from her fries. “Why?”

He shrugged. She went back to her french fries.

He stole a fry. She grinned. “Hey! Thief.”

“I don’t have any fries.”

“Well next time buy some!”


Wednesday, June 24, 2009


"When I tell you to put your hands up!" Three yelled over the roar of the dirt bike.

"Are you nuts!" Nine shouted back.

"You're the one in a gunfight wearing a skirt!" Three snapped back. "Just do it!" That got her a poke in the ribs, but she couldn't really feel it through the light body armor. "Fine! When a tree branch knocks your head off or the bad guys get you in the-- Okay, get ready!"

"You're serious!" But she tightened her thighs around her sister's waist anyway.

"Ready...ready...ready... NOW!"

Nine lifted her hands. Almost immediately something hard smacked her fingers. She curled them automatically, dragging whatever it was out of the low-hanging tree branches. She took a quick glance at the insignia on the back before jamming it on her head: a stylized number 3.

An engine sounded along the rutted dirt path. Then shots. Three glanced over her shoulder. They were too far away to land anything, but that jeep was going to gain over their two-person heavy dirt bike.

"Wearing a shoulder holster," she shouted.

Nine stopped her systematic pat down and reached unerringly for the guns. With one arm wrapped around her sister's waist, she twisted on the dirt bike and fired back. "They're gaining."

"Figured they would."

The shots stopped for a moment. And then started again, aim closer. Bark spat in their faces. Three flinched in spite of the face mask she was wearing. She began weaving across the road. Nine twisted around to fire the other gun.

"Drive straight! Can't shoot."

"My driving is keeping us alive!"

"Says who?!"

"Ha! Says me. There's extra clips in my pockets."

Nine reached for one just as Three saw what she was looking for. "Never mind that! Hold on. We're turning."

"Right?" Nine must have seen it, too. She knew the forested area just as well as her sister.


Both sisters put their left foot down as Three spun the bike in a tight one-eighty. Nine slipped both guns into her Three's pockets and tucked in close. Three revved the engine then went spitting down the road. The jeep never stopped or slowed. Neither did they.

Three kept a careful eye on the jeep, their distance, and the road. In her head she was counting. The guns were hot inside her pockets. She didn't like them so close to the ammo, but there was no helping it. Nine must have been counting too because she suddenly tightened her grip around Three.

Three jerked the bike sharply to the left, off the tiny service road. What they were on was little more than a dirt path. It was barely wide enough for them, and way too small for the jeep behind them. Three kept going full throttle--until Nine jabbed her with one of the guns.

Taking the hint for what it was, Three slowed the bike until they could walk it down the dirt road. Nine pulled off her helmet. "You have got to dying in that thing."

Three peeled off her face mask. "Just a little." She began stripping out of the single-piece body armor. Her hair and clothes were plastered to her body. What the heck were you doing having a gun fight in a pink floral sundress?"

"It fit the mission parameters this morning."

"Yeah, tell it to dad when we get home."