H’tsi jammed her small fists into her hips.
Reading the impending fight like a black storm cloud on the horizon of a clear sky, Sothi put her hands on her sister’s shoulder. “Stupid boy.”
H’tsi snorted. “Yeah.” Skirting S’toh and the dead snake he still held, the girls went through the packs and redistributed the contents so that Sothi could carry her strung bow comfortably. She was glad she’d brought her shorter, less elegant hunting bow. Sothi had always had the bad habit of breaking or ruining things that were either expensive or hard to fix. Her father’s rule about replacing what you carelessly broke wasn’t limited to bows and arrow shafts. As such Sothi had an apprenticeship with every craft master within a day’s walk of the village, and there were still some she couldn’t learn from until she was older. The longbow she’d broken at least three times that year alone, but she was sure that was partly due to her still growing skill as a bow-maker. She still couldn’t do it from start to finish on her own, after all. She just didn’t have the arm-strength. S’toh and H’tsi never did anything worse to their bows than snapping the string. S’toh, though, was on his way to being as good a tailor as he was an archer.
All re-packed (S’toh had even stored away the snake) they started off down the road, making minor adjustments to the straps on their packs as they went. Silence reigned over them for a few meters as they each thought their own thoughts. None of them were particularly looking forward to the watering hole anymore, but they weren’t ready to go home either.
After just a few minutes, H’tsi was beginning to feel like they had always been traveling the road and always would be. That couldn’t be true, of course. She remembered eating breakfast very early that morning, after the chores had been done. She remembered because B’den had been sitting by the East window as the sun rose, and she had been staring so much at the way his hair turned true white (not just golden the way other blonds she knew did) that her father had chucked her under the chin and reminded her to eat. She might have thought the Archery Master was mad, but his eyes were smiling. S’toh and Sothi, also sitting to breakfast, had thought she was silly she could tell. B’den had no idea what was going on.
He was nice, but really clueless sometimes. B’den said it was because it was just him at home, and since most adults were clueless they couldn’t teach him much about clues. Except the Archery Master of the Northern Provinces, who was B’den’s very own father, was very smart and had taught him lots of stuff. And now, of course, he was with them in the Southern provinces and they were all his foster sisters and brother, even though he was older than they were and mostly wanted to spend his time with their father’s older students and the village boys where were his age. Still, he called their compound home (eventually he’d started calling it home as well as still calling his North home home), he shared a room with S’toh, and when the family went out he went as part of them. Assua, their housekeeper, didn’t do that. She went out to worship with her own family.
B’den had even gotten into a fist fight with a village boy because of how he was making faces at Sothi. The Archery Master had punished him for it, but not as badly as he would’ve if Father had been really mad. They’d all told him so. H’tsi could tell that he hadn’t really believed them, although why would they lie to him about that, especially when he was now their brother? He hadn’t believed them until some weeks later when he and S’toh and another of Father’s students got caught in a mob of other kids watching a fight happening some ways away from the village—between the village and the school. Then the Archery had been passing mad.
Sothi had told on them. Which H’tsi had been mad at her for. Sothi had tried explaining it to H’tsi, about how it was bad for the boys and their reputation and the reputation of their father. She had said it was best for them and the other kids who were watching the fight, and the kids doing the fighting. “Sure it was a good thing for the ones that were fighting,” H’tsi had said sharply, hands on her skinny hips.
Sothi had rolled her eyes and shook her head. It was always easy to get her annoyed, but usually she didn’t want to fight so that was a challenge. “You’re too little,” she’d said. “You don’t get it.”
“The boys aren’t happy that you got them in trouble,” H’tsi had pointed out. “They don’t think it was a good thing.”
“Nobody wants to get in trouble. They’ll get over it.”
And they had—a lot quicker than H’tsi had thought they would. It wasn’t even a whole week later when both B’den and S’toh started talking to Sothi again. H’tsi thought that B’den might have been ready to be friends sooner, but wasn’t sure if he should. But he was right behind S’toh when he went up to Sothi on the training yard with some stupid question about bow-pulls. Sure Sothi knew a lot about bows since she had busted up more than anybody else, but Dugé had been in the yard, too, and he was their father’s best student. If it had been her that Sothi had gotten in trouble she would have stayed mad for at least the whole week.