The huge gray boulder rested on the edge of the ridge. In the last ice age it had probably been pushed to this remote spot and left by the ice. It was colored with varying colors of tan and white among the gray crystals.
Today Shira was not inspecting it. Today she was sitting on top of it and gazing down into the valley below her. The sheep looked like little white dots and she could see young boys following the flock in the brown and green patchwork fields.
Her long legs were slung over the boulder and she kicked them idly. The sun beat down on her and she had taken off her head scarf and her light corn-silk reflected the sun that had found its way to her. She shook her head to feel the air through her silky hair.
Down below she could see the tent city of the Ahrah. She had come here to be alone so she didn’t have to talk to anyone. Every day some woman thought she wasn’t covered enough. She had stood in front of too many women for too many years. Besides she had been picked to be a warrior. It was a break with tradition. Among the Ahrah women ruled their tents and families with an iron fist. The men fought and defended their family and their herds of sheep and goats.
The Ahrah lived in these temporary quarters because they believed that one day they would come home and then they would build permanent structures. They only built wooden stalls with covered roofs for their horses.
Shira shifted on the rock. She scraped her hands on the rock, feeling the texture of rock. She would like to sit here forever. But she was here to think and she was not getting much thinking done.
Not far from here was a meadow filled with wildflowers. She could go there and watch the little ones, tiny sprites with wings, flit from flower to flower. They would sometimes pull out their pins and attack the bees. But even that pastime didn’t thrill her. She was growing up and she was not wanted among the men of the Ahrah.
It was obvious that she was not one of them. She had the light skin of the Northern people while the Ahrah were more swarthy with dark brown eyes. She was tall and slim while their women were busty and moved like they were dancing. Their women looked good in the robes and head scarves, while she looked like a child, trying to imitate them.
There was no reason to keep brooding here. She turned to slip off the rock when a large stick swung past her head. She automatically ducked and rolled to the ground around the boulder. She grazed her shoulder and winced, but kept rolling.
The stick whooshed again and almost hit her shoulder as she jumped to her feet. She faced her mentor, Oor.
Oor was barely taller than Shira. She stared into his brown eyes, watching for the next attack. Normally she would have enjoyed the practice, but she had come up here to have time to herself. She gasped as she tried to get her breath back.
“Girl,” Oor said. “You should be alert at all times.” He frowned at her as he prepared to hit her with his long bamboo staff. It rested easily in his hands. His stance was low so Shira was sure he was going to sweep her off her feet.
She jumped as he swept the staff to her feet. Then he hit her ribs when she wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way. She knew the drill. If she wasn’t there, he couldn’t hit her.
After a whirlwind of blows she fell to the ground. Suddenly she could see time slow down. This was why she was being trained. She saw the staff come down and she caught it.
It took a lot of energy to be able to see time slow and she had only a few moments to act before she would be unable to do much more than lie on the ground like a grounded fish.
She pulled the staff hard and Oor landed on the ground. She heard a hard “whoof” as he fell on his side. They lay there on the ground getting the air back into their lungs.
She rolled over and took a long look at Oor. He was in magnificent shape for an old man. There was not an ounce of fat on his body. Many of the women in the tribe would have considered it an honor to have him live in their tents. He was handsome too. His beak of a nose had been shattered. His face had started to wrinkle around the eyes and mouth.
There was a story about Oor. That he had left the tribe to go to their lost home. Another people lived there now. He had learned hand-to-hand and the way of the sword. When he had tired of adventure, he had come home.
He had no wives and no children. He taught the boys and men self-defense and war. Shira was his only female student. But then she wasn’t Ahra so there wasn’t a prohibition for teaching her the arts.
“Truce?” asked Shira. She felt concerned about how long it took for Oor to stand up. He used his staff to stand up and dusted the dirt off his pants. He was one of the few who didn’t wear a robe. Shira dusted the dirt of her robes.
Oor looked pointedly at her bare feet. She put on her boots and laced them up. She liked going barefoot because she felt more energy when her feet were touching the earth. Oor had showed her in one of their sessions what happened to bare feet when fighting.
He had stomped her foot and Shira was sure that he broke her little toe. She listened to him after that and wore shoes. Oor wasn’t all warrior, but in the last few days he had stressed self-defense.
“Truce,” Oor said. “You skipped your lessons.”
Shira groaned. “Why do I need to learn math, history, and geography? Isn’t that only for the ruling class?” She could hear a short whine come out of her voice. She hated school. She would rather fight or sit here and watch the sprites.
It was not that she was lazy, it was just that she rarely had time alone.
Oor grabbed her by the elbow. “Are you going to help an old man down the trail?”
Shira laughed then. “Old man?” She did slip her arm into his. “See that rock, old man? Don’t trip?”
The dirt path wound back and forth like a snake down the mountain. On the sides of the path were a forest of firs. Their needles swayed at the slight breeze. The trees shadowed them as they walked down. Shira took a deep breath of air. The smell of sap smelled like a tree had farted. It followed them down the mountain until the trees thinned and then instead of trees there were bushes.
They stopped and picked some blackberries on a bush that had spread across a huge clearing. Shira kept a look out for bears. The bears liked blackberries too and could strip a bush in less than an hour. She could usually tell when a bear was around because the bush would shake.
Even Oor, great warrior that he was, was wary of bear. Their claws could rip and tear and their teeth. Well, Shira gave them the respect they deserved.
Both Shira and Oor walked with a little bounce, while grabbing a few berries and eating them. Shira’s stomach was growling because she hadn’t eaten the oatmeal that morning. In fact she was supposed to make some that morning for Oor.
“Should we save this for our meal tomorrow?”
Oor shoved another another handful of blackberries in his mouth. There was a twinkle in her eye.
Shira agreed with that sentiment, so she ate some more. The berries burst in her mouth making her feel happy. She rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand to get the stickiness off her face, then licked the rest of the berries.
When they reached the tents, Malikah, one of the council members’ sons waited next to the wooden fence posts that marked fenced corrals for the horses. Privately, Shira thought that Malikah looked like a younger Oor. He always looked like he could handle himself in a fight.
He spent a lot of time with the horses. Malikah was traditional in his ideas. Shira and Malikah had been trained together by Oor. Unlike Oor, Malikah would never touch her with the sticks or his fists. He would practice the forms with her, but he never went farther than that.
Oor had told him in her presence that the people down south did train some of their women to fight. It was rare. So Malikah needed to learn how to defend himself from any swordsman whatever their gender.
Malikah had laughed at the suggestion. Oor was the one who used to tell them stories of cannibals that lived amongst the southern people. If one wasn’t true than the other wasn’t either.
Besides Malikah came from an old Ahrah family. His mother still wore the veil and covered her entire body. Shira had seen the contempt in Malikah’s eyes when she had quit wearing the robe. It was new times and the Council had allowed it. What more did he want?
So having Malikah waiting for them unsettled Shira. She felt her stomach twist a little.
“Shira Loedsdotter. Oor,” he said, formally. His lean body straightened and Shira could feel his aura seeking to surround her. He probably didn’t know he was doing that. Still she stopped and waited. “The Councilor requires your presence.”
Shira and Oor followed him around several of the home tents. Shira grimaced behind his back. Oor gave her a sharp nudge. She composed her face to a more neutral expression, which was not a smile, but not a frown either.
When they reached a large tent set in the center of the small village of tents, Malikah said stiffly, “Oor, you will wait here.”
He gestured to the flap of the tent. Shira slipped in. She knew that Malikah was glaring at her back. She wanted to laugh, knowing that that bigoted young man wanted something that she was getting… a visit to the most powerful woman of the Ahrah.