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.