The Measure of a Warrior
Casting a glare at the tree trunk, I gathered my strength. I took a step forward and flowed into the liquid motion which I had been taught, swinging my arm down at the bark. Following through with the movement, I recovered, finding my balance and turning to look at the tree.
I hadn't even scratched it.
"No!" exclaimed Mawrrl from his perch on a nearby branch. The Acini jumped lightly to the ground. "Two year old kittens could do better than that. You need to put your strength into it. I know you're strong enough." Taking one of my hands in his, he examined the bindings of my cha'rhal. "I have a feeling you're not putting enough wrist motion into your swipe, either," he said.
I looked down at the cha'rhal and sighed. The Acini weapon still looked strange on my hands: a pair of fingerless gloves, each with four long knives attached to the back. The cha'rhal allowed Acini to use their natural clawing motion while holding a spear or other weapon. With it, the Acini were fierce and deadly warriors.
I, however, was clumsy and dangerous to others and myself while wearing the knife gloves. When Trrl first gave me my cha'rhal I almost put my eye out. I was better with the weapon now - but not by much.
"Try again," said Mawrrl encouragingly. My instructor effortlessly vaulted back into his tree. "One more go, and then we'll go back to climbing."
I groaned. When I asked to be trained as a warrior so that I might fight the Unknown by my mate's side, I had no idea how strenuous the practice sessions would be. After training all day I still had to return to my family's tent and be a mother to my daughter, and a wife to my mate. My days were very long.
Glowering at the tree again, I focused my thoughts. The steps Mawrrl had taught me came naturally now, and I poured through the movements toward the tree. Wrist motion, I reminded myself as my arm came down.
Follow through. Balance. I looked at the tree.
Four neat slash marks were impressed in the bark.
"Good!" said Mawrrl. "Now, come. It's time we moved onto something else." He jumped to a higher branch giving me room to climb up.
I wanted to bask in my success for a moment, but I knew that Mawrrl would not permit me that luxury. I wanted to do anything other than follow him up the tree. Climbing. I hated it. Looking up, I judged the distance to the first branch while undoing the bindings of my cha'rhal.
"No!" said Mawrrl again. "Leave them on. You need to learn how to climb with them."
"But I can't!" I said, flattening my ears. "I can barely hold onto the trees as it is. The cha'rhal will just get in my way."
"When stalking or in battle, you will not have time to remove or refit your weapons on a whim," he replied sternly. "If you cannot learn this, you will never be a warrior."
I grimaced and looked at my stubby claws. Lupani fingers are as long as humans' are, but the claws are blunt and rounded. Useless for climbing trees. And the knives on the cha'rhal, while strong, could not support my weight.
Looking up once more, I jumped and grabbed onto the lowest branch, pulling myself up. If I did not have the proper equipment for climbing I would have to improvise.
"Come." Mawrrl turned and jumped into a neighboring tree, and then to the next. The Acini had retractable claws with which to grasp the trees. And he wasn't wearing cha'rhal. It's easy for him, I thought sullenly. He paused, waiting for me to follow.
The trek through the trees was difficult, and Marrrl kept up a swift pace. While my balance came naturally due to my training, judging distances and angles occupied most of my mind. The stout pine trees were still covered in places with snow, or a thin veneer of ice. The air had lost deep winter's icy chill during the past few weeks, but it was still too cold to melt the snow.
Winter was almost over. The Canyon of the Wind was a perfect wintering ground, and I soon learned why my band of Acini had chosen it. The canyon walls kept out most of the wind and snow, and great herds of strange deer-like creatures gathered in the surrounding forest. It was cold, but not unbearable.
Tryla, my daughter, was growing quickly. She had spoken her first word: "Mother," in Acini. Trrl was ecstatic, but I was dismayed. I did not want my daughter to grow up knowing nothing about her Lupani heritage. From that moment on, whenever I was alone with her I spoke only in Lupani. If she learned nothing else of her ancestry, she would at least learn her birth tongue.
Nothing more had been said about the coming battle with the Unknown. The Acini went about their daily lives as though they were unaware of the doom hanging over them. I asked Kirin about it one day while we scrubbed clothing in the canyon's stream.
"Raol said that the battle is on the other side of the coming summer," she replied. "Why do you want to worry about it now?"
"We should be preparing," I said. "Plans should be made. Something should be done!"
Kirin looked at me and dropped back into our native language. "What would you have us do? The Unknown is just that: unknown. Apart from the riddles that the spirits reveal to us, we know nothing of what is to happen. How can we prepare for something we don't know of?"
"But... but Raol said that the Unknown would use the other Children against us," I said. "Surely there's something we can do about that."
She sighed. "Everyone who is able is learning to fight. Even the Old Ones are practicing with their spears, remembering the movements. We will be prepared." Wringing water out of a piece of clothing, she added, "It isn't good to dwell on what is coming."
Mawrrl's hiss startled me out of my reverie a moment too late. He had stopped, perched on a branch and was looking at the ground intently. My muscles had already committed to the spring, and I shifted my balance, trying to land next to him on the limb.
My blunt claws scrabbled at the tree bark looking for any purchase. They found none. I fell to the ground.
The fall knocked the wind out of me. I gasped for breath, blind to everything around me until I felt a hand on my shoulder. I expected to see Mawrrl, full of reproach, when I looked up.
Instead I saw a strange Vulponi face. "Goodness, are you hurt?" he asked in Basic. I blinked dumbly at him, trying to recall how to reply. He smiled when he saw that I was dazed but uninjured. "I didn't know Lupani grew on trees."
"Give her a moment, Simir," said the Vulponi's companion. The human grinned at me. "She looks like she's had a rough couple of months."
I groaned as I slowly climbed to my feet. I realized how I must look: dressed in skins, and the cha'rhal on my hands. The cha'rhal! I remembered the weapons just as the human looked down.
He made an exclamation of disgust. "She's gone feral, Simar," he muttered, taking a step backwards. Taking a long knife out of a belt sheath, he glanced around at the trees. "There's probably a whole band of devil cats around here."
Simar lifted his lips in a snarl. "Put that away, Matt. I'm sure she wouldn't -"
Everything became a blur, happening too fast to follow yet slow enough for the moment to last a lifetime. Mawrrl was suddenly in front of me, baring his teeth at the human. I saw the human lift his knife as if to stab at the Acini.
But suddenly Matt had no throat. In its place was a wide red maw, oozing blood. He made a loud gurgling sound, falling to his knees before collapsing face down. Mawrrl flicked the fingers of his bare right hand, spattering droplets of blood on the white snow.
A loud Vulponi snarl made me whip my head around. I saw Simar pull out his own knife and take a step toward my teacher.
I intercepted his blade with my cha'rhal as it plunged at the Acini and easily twisted the knife out of the fox's hand. His other fist flew forward to strike at my face, but it met my blades as well. He lifted his head to howl in pain. I slashed at his exposed neck.
His shrill howl was cut off in a sputter. Large brown eyes searched mine, then became dim. He sagged to the ground.
Time slipped back into normal speed. I noticed that my hands were blood red. So were my legs. So was the snow I stood on. So was the body slumped against my feet.
I took a hasty step back and started shaking.
"You did well, Ralya," my instructor said. He put a hand on my shoulder. "I am very pleased."
"I... I killed him," I whispered. My gaze was fixed on the fallen fox, and the growing red stain on the snow.
Rawrrl lifted my chin so that I looked into his eyes. "They saw you were now Acini. They would have killed you. You were right to defend yourself."
"But I didn't have to kill him!" I lifted my head toward the gray clouds, unaware of my tears and the whimper that escaped my lips. "I could have... I could have just..."
"What?" The feline spoke in a gentle whisper. "Run? They would have returned with more men, and tracked us back to the canyon."
I looked down at my cha'rhal, watching the blood drip off the sharp tines. The sweet smell of blood filled my nostrils. "I know," I hissed, choking on the Acini words. "But I didn't have to kill him."
Rawrrl jerked my chin around to face him again. His oval pupils narrowed as he looked at me. "The Unknown was using them. It takes every opportunity to strike at us, using whatever it can touch. This is only a taste of things to come, Ralya." He let go of my chin and stepped back. "Are you afraid?"
I nodded, not daring to speak.
"Good." The Acini warrior moved to the corpses and began riffling through their pockets. "Fear will keep you alert and focused. But don't let it take over. You must be in control."
The march back to the canyon was long and silent. Rawrrl said nothing about returning to the trees, so we walked below their snow-heavy branches. The blood dried on my cha'rhal. It will need to be cleaned, I thought distantly.
When we returned to the village Rawrrl told me to be ready for the next day. More training. I nodded dully and ducked into my tent.
Trrl wrapped me in a warm hug, smoothing back my head fur. The sobs that had been building in my chest finally burst free, and I clutched at him and cried.
"Ralya?" Trrl asked. "What's wrong?"
Between sobs I told him the story. The trees. The strangers. The fight. The blood. He listened quietly, holding me tightly.
"I... I killed him," I whispered into his chest.
He traced a single claw down my cheek. "I am proud of you," he said finally.
I pushed myself away from him. "Proud? Proud? How could you be proud of what I did?" I cried.
"It takes great courage to act as you did. You saw him moving to attack Mawrrl, and you reacted in his defense. With no thought for yourself." He leaned forward and took my hand. "As a true warrior would." His thumb caressed the pads of my hand. "You will fight well against the Unknown."
I shivered. Could I do it again? Could I raise my hand against another person? Would I be able to take another life - and another and another and another - to defend my Acini family?
That night, after Tryla had fallen into a quiet sleep and Trrl was purring in his, I rose and went out into the frigid night. The moon was full, and I walked for almost a mile beneath her benevolent glow. I was learning more and more about the Acini's spirit world, but my native gods still seemed tangible and alive to me. I knelt in the snow and lifted my voice in prayer to the moon.
I prayed for guidance.