Shira Loesdotter sat on a on a large granite rock, overlooking the valley. Below her was a small city surrounded by patchwork fields. Dark dots walked slowly through the fields. Some were kine, a small cow about the size of a goat, and some were horses.
She sighed. Shira’s long legs hung over the rock. In the distance she could see the tent city of the Ahrah. She was tall and lean in contrast to the Ahrah, the people of the land. Her hair was as light as cornsilk and her eyes were a dark blue. It was obvious from her looks that she was not from the same people; the Ahrah were short and stocky with dark skin, hair, and eyes.
But even though she was not Arah, it did not stop her from participating in the Ahrah’s most coveted sign of adulthood: The Awakening.
No one knew why some children woke, while others never woke at all. After her awakening, Shira could see past the ordinary world into a world of sun and shadow. It was so real, so there, that once you saw it, this ordinary world became a little dim.
Shira had been ten.
Shira had slipped from her bed early. The window had beckoned with the scent of roses drifting from the garden. Behind her the other orphans were still sleeping. Underneath the window, the bushes burst into vibrant shades of red, pink, and yellow.
A sprite danced in the sunshine, praising the sun and flowers with her body. Energy emanated from every living object. It was like seeing a halo around every living object. Even the rocks had a silvery-gray sheen.
Just before the morning bell rang, her sight dimmed as chaos shattered the quietness. The sprite drifted away, looking for a more peaceful spot to bask in the morning sunshine. Her wings beat lazily.
As always, confusion reigned in the orphan’s quarter. Children threw pillows and blankets helter-skelter around the room as they scrambled to brush hair and teeth. They must be dressed before the headmaster entered the room.
Shira dressed, trying to recapture the moment of peace, but it was impossible to think through all the noise.
Soon the room quieted. Oor stood at the doorway. He walked towards Shira, holding out his hand. Everyone in the room turned to stare at her.
She saw a faint glow of blue travel from his hand to hers. They looked at each other—the little girl and the old man.
“Come,” he said.
It seemed so long ago. The trees swayed, sending the soft smell of fir. After the awakening, it was sometimes hard to focus. She closed her eyes to feel the soft wind as it brushed against her cheeks. Quiet. Peace.
She ducked. A stick swung past her head.
“Now girl,” said Oor. “You shouldn’t get lost in your thoughts.” There was a quiet chuckle in his words. He swung again.
Shira leaped off the rock and onto the ground. She stepped back, and she tripped on a stick. As she fell, she grabbed the stick and stopped Oor’s next swing.
Crack. Ouch. Oor’s stick went smacked her on the ribs.
Oor laughed. “Come on,” he said. “Get to work and no cheating.”
She stood with a flair and stood waiting for the next hit.
Shira could cheat. She had a gift of calling the sprites of the woods when she was in danger. To the uninitiated, it seemed like magic when the sticks would jerk from their hands and fly away. Of course, Oor knew better. The sprites were also mischievous. They liked to annoy Oor.
Shira grinned. “It’s my best defense,” she said as she tried to keep away from the Oor’s stick. Still unable to fight him on equal terms, she looked for tree to climb. Oor caught her across the back as she jumped for a tree limb. That would hurt in the morning.
After dancing around the rocks and trees, Shira slid and fell. “Ouch” she said on the ground. She watched Oor. He waited for her to get up.
“Don’t give up,” he said.
“Nope,” she laughed. “I think I am done. See my ankle is twisted.”
“That’s the old twisted ankle ruse,” Oor laughed back. “I have used that one in my time.”
“No, really,” Shira protested, trying to look small and defenseless. Even though Oor knew better, he leaned down to take a look. Using her supposedly hurt leg and anke, she knocked him on his backside. She enjoyed the picture of Oor on his back, taking deep breaths.
“Now, I’m tired.” Oor never admitted to tiredness. His job was to train her as a warrior. Now she was concerned.
“You need help?” she asked. “You won’t flip me?” Her voice trailed off when she saw his grin.
“That was the plan.”
“Truce?” she asked.
“Truce,” he said.
Shira crawled to Oor. They helped each other up, using the stick, trees, and anything else that they could lean on. Finally, they were both standing.
“Time for school,” he said.
She groaned. Math, Reading, Philosphy, History and even Geography. Sometimes they would take time off for magic. She didn’t get enough time to hike or be by herself. It was hard work and not much fun. She groaned again.
“If someone were watching,” Oors eyes twinkled. “They’d think you had been beat by an old man.”
As Shira and Oor limped back to the city, she tried to explain her strategy. Oor just hummed, “as in how to get beat strategy?”
She liked Oor, but he could be annoying when he was amused by her mistakes.
Oor was a quick, lithe man who had been a weapons master in Corsindor before becoming a servant of the Ahrah. He’d traveled many leagues and was fond of telling stories about their southern neighbors. One unlikely story was that there were cannibals down south. Oor insisted that they liked young soft female flesh. At ten, she had been scared silly of those cannibals. Now she just laughed at Oor’s stories.
By the time they reached the stables on the outskirts of the tents, Malkiah was waiting for them. He was tall for an Ahrah–as tall as Shira. But in every meaningful way, he was Ahrah.
Malkiah had never touched her except when they were practicing fighting moves. It was unclaeren to touch female flesh. Shira considered Malkiah silly. After all, they trained together. He could not avoid touching her when they were on the field hitting each other with sticks. Malkiah came from an old Ahrah family who lived by the old rules. His mother still wore a veil, which covered her face and left her dark round eyes uncovered.
Since the Council had taken over governing the Ahrah, many of the old ways for females and males had been abandoned. The elders and elderesses had warned of the danger of disregarding the rules of the gods. But, the new robes were less confining. And the girls liked showing their faces. The younger generation seemed disrespectful to the old ones.
Malkiah slid out of the shadows of the stables and touched Shira’s arm. Shira was shocked. She pinched the back of his hand. Malkiah grimaced.
“Stop,” he said. “Loesdotter, Oor.” He nodded to each of them. “The Counselor requires your presence.”
Malkiah lead them to Counselor’s door. Shira grimaced behind his back.
“Oor, you will wait here.” Malkiah motioned Shira to the door. She tried not to say anything to further anger Malkiah, but it was too much fun.
“How’s your mother?” she asked, then slipped through the door. Now Malkiah only had time to glare at her back. He turned away.
The Counselor stood as she saw Shira. Her white robes whirled around her. Shira walked towards her and bowed deeply.
“Child,” said the Counselor. “There is no need for that here.”
“What do you need?” Shira knelt at the Counselor’s feet and looked up at her. The Counselor looked old and worn. Her skin was papery from an old illness. Eyes bruised. Shira felt her stomach clench. The news must be bad.
“You are still young,” the Counselor sighed. She peered into Shira’s eyes, looking carefully at the iris. She touched Shira’s cheek.
“I need to tell you your story.” She paused, “when you awakened, we knew you were one of the great ones. But, we were confused. We lived in peace. We were guarded from our more bloodthirsty neighbors by the great veil.”
She continued. “We decided to teach you all of our secrets. We gave you our best warrior to be your mentor and teacher. In a few years, you would have been ready to sit on the Council.”
“But, I am not ready.” The words burst out of her mouth.
The Counselor smiled. The lines around her mouth and eyes eased and she looked younger. “No, you are not,” she said. “I have had a vision, which concerns you.”
“In my dream, I saw you running through the woods with a spear in your hand. You fought the Corsindor’s warriors. Under your feet were the skulls of the Ahrah. You were fierce, but eventually they pulled you down. A hairy man howled and pierced your breast with a sword.”
The Counselor laid her hands on Shira’s cornsilk locks. “Cut your hair. Burn the locks. Your destiny is not here.” A tear rolled down her cheek.
“You are to leave tonight after the banquet. Tell no one.”
The main tent held the banquet hall. As the sun came down, the tent went from yellow to gold. As the light darkened, the tent turned white. Inside were all the nomads of the Ahrah. Ahrah from the farthest ends of the country had arrived for the gathering that happened once a decade. It was a chance to sing, dance and tell stories. Many of the younger Ahrah met their mates at this gathering. It was a time of rejoicing.
Inside the tent, were large tables filled with goat and sheep dishes. Vegetables and fruits made the tables groan. They came from around the country plus some from Corsindor. Shira had no idea how the stuffs from Corsindor came into the country.
Shira walked through the tables, greeting friends and not-friends alike. She had not grown old enough to have enemies, Oor was found of saying. She was careful to nod to the more powerful Council members.
As Shira walked by the Council member’s table, Cianne, Malkiah’s mother, touched her. Shira stopped. It was not polite to ignore any of the older members. Cianne’s face was covered with by a white veil. Her breath moved the veil back and forth slightly.
“Sit with me,” she said. Cianne was one of the more powerful faction members of the Ahrah. It was ironic that she wanted the men to have more powerful positions like the old days. But, because of the wars with Corsindor, many of the men had died. The veil had changed all that. Corsindor could not encroach on Ahrah land, and even better none of the Ahrah died more wars. Because of the shortage of men, most of the powerful positions were filled by women. In fifty years, the Ahrah had turned to a matriarchy. Another reason for the changes was the low birthrate of boys. No one knew the reason.
Cianne considered herself blessed because she had one of the few boys. It was never good when Cianne wanted to talk. She spent most of her time trying to persuade Shira to become more female. In her heart of hearts, she wanted Shira to marry Malkiah and give her many many grandsons. The new blood would do their family line a world of good.
But, Shira needed to relinquish her place as “God’s Warrior.” How silly that Shira being female would be considered a warrior. Shira knew what Cianne was thinking because her eyes glittered. It boded another argument.
Oor told Shira many times that politeness was a strategy. Since Cianne was a not-enemy, Shira should listen to Cianne.
Shira bowed her head and sat at the tables.
“This is Shira.” Cianne announced to other members of the table. The table was filled with older men and women of Cianne’s age. Shira bowed again to the table.
“She has been taught well,” said an old man, his beard hanging to his chest. The old lady next to him bobbed her head. She did not speak, but put some meat on the older man’s plate. “She is not one of us,” he continued.
“You need to learn the epistles of Canroh,” he said. “Woman is a bright jewel. Speak not. Her beauty radiates.”
“Man is the ox of his family,” said Shira. “He feeds and protects his family.”
Cianne’s eyes twinkled. “Canroh was wise,” she said.
Shira was wary. Cianne and her cohorts had spies besides Malkiah. But, they weren’t rude or blunt. Maybe they wouldn’t ask about her meeting with the Counselor. Shira tried to look unconcerned. Hopefully Cianne would not ask her outright. It was not the way. But, the old man did not seem to be of the same nature.
“You had an audience with the Counselor,” the old man said. Shira put some lamb in her mouth.
“Umm,” she said. She wiped her hands on a handkerchief, chewed, and then spoke. “She is kind.”
There was nothing more to be said. Even the old man could not ask her outright what had happened. Only Shira could tell. And the last words from the Counselor were not to tell anyone. She excused herself from the group. She could feel their eyes on her back as she walked across the tent towards Oor.
“The elders cornered you,” Oor said in amusement. Sometimes Shira wished she had Oor’s humor.
“Yes,” she looked at them. They were still watching her. “I wonder, what has changed? Last week they wouldn’t talk to me.”
Oor nodded. They went to the tables to eat. Shira didn’t know when she would have this much to eat.