Friday, April 2, 2010
The apple crunched satisfyingly in his mouth, sweet juices bursting and then flowing down his throat. Lakhoni edged closer to the fire, looking around at all of the people gathered in Gimno's fire circle. The small circle seemed to tremble with the intensity of the conversation going on around him.
When Gimno and his warriors had arrived, Lakhoni in tow, with tales of Usurpers in the area, people had flocked around them, asking questions. Many of those people now sat or stood in Gimno's fire circle, nervous chatter echoing off the stones. Tattoos glistened and flickered in the firelight. Food was being served and eaten at the same time and Lakhoni felt like he might make apples his only meal for the next few days.
It felt like a lifetime ago since the last time that Lakhoni had eaten a fresh apple. And having this one was really due to luck anyway. One of Gimno's warriors had spotted an apple tree full of ripe fruit soon after leaving the village. They had all filled pouches, blankets, pots and even tunics with as many apples as they could carry. Arriving at the cavern laden with apples and news of Usurpers some hours previous; the chaos had yet to subside.
Lakhoni knew he shouldn't eat so many apples in one sitting, but he couldn't stop himself from grabbing a fifth one. He felt like he hadn't eaten a piece of fruit in years. Weeks of dried, roasted, boiled meat and bland root vegetables along with heavy, coal-baked bread made the apples taste as if they were a gift from the First Fathers.
Chewing more thoughtfully now, and fully warmed after the journey through the cold winter day, Lakhoni rose and wandered around the fringes of the crowd. As he moved, he caught snatches of conversation, voices raised in angry tones.
"- find them and destroy them!"
"We must take things slowly and carefully. They are the invaders and-"
"- retrieve our birthright.."
This last caught his attention. It seemed strange that any of the Separated—a people that seemed to have left behind their birthright with Lemal's people of their own free choice—would want to reclaim a birthright that the Usurpers had stolen from Lemal's great grandfathers. Why would a people so determined to remain aloof and apart from a society that used to be home want to take back power stolen so many years before?
Lakhoni knew that every child of King Lemal's people heard the story—it seemed that the chief of the village had told it every year during the mid-autumn celebrations. After the First Fathers had all traveled across the great waters to the east, guided by the light of the Great One, a conflict had erupted. The father of the First Fathers had died, leaving his four sons and their families and cousins on their own. The two youngest sons had claimed to be chosen by the Great One to rule, but the two oldest, knowing it was a sin to fight family, had argued gently. When the younger brothers had raised their arms in anger, the older two had taken their families and fled into the wilderness to the south.
King Lemal was a descendant of one of those two older brothers. The Usurpers, somewhere far to the north, often invaded, trying to claim all of the earth for their greedy power, but Lemal's people—the People of Promise—had always fended the Usurpers off.
It was said that the Usurpers practiced all kinds of evil, sacrificing humans and doing unthinkable things with animals and innocents.
Now it seemed the Usurpers had made it farther south than anyone could remember seeing them.
And, for some reason, they had visited Lakhoni's village, and maybe even gone into his family's hut. Why? Lakhoni drifted away from the crowd, heading in the direction of one of the training rings in the middle of the cavern. After a long minute of drawing a complete blank, Lakhoni stuffed the core of his apple into his mouth and shook his head.
It was none of his concern. His only thought now should be to do all he could to gain the total trust of the Separated so that he could find a way to escape and get to the city of Lemalihah. And there he would find his sister and guide the sword of justice to fall upon those who had murdered his family.
He stepped between the two tall stones that had been placed as a portal to his favorite training ring. A cursory examination of the four circles where warriors trained made it seem that they were identical. But Lakhoni had quickly found that appearances were deceiving when the floor was stone of multiple hues and shapes. His favorite training circle had several dips and a small knoll near the center. When he stood upon that knoll, he felt like he gained a height advantage—and he knew he needed all the help he could get.
Gimno had agreed that Lakhoni was probably at his adult height—which was not much taller than the head of a donkey. Lakhoni remembered that the last time he had been measured, his father had declared him to be just over eleven hands tall. While this was probably average among the descendants of the First Fathers, it seemed like the men of the Separated were all unusually large.
So Lakhoni liked his knoll. He had run, dodged, ducked and rolled around this training circle enough to know where all of the depressions and bumps were. Looking around, he was glad that most of the people were still at Gimno's circle, leaving him free to work alone. He didn't like having an audience, especially when he was practicing Feather Leaps.
He strode across the circle and stood atop the small, rough knoll. He placed his feet shoulder-width apart and closed his eyes, letting out a slow breath. Sucking in another long breath, he focused on the feeling of his feet on the stone, willing his body to become completely still. In a brief moment, he had centered; his body feeling nearly one with the stone beneath him. Gimno said that he would learn to center so well at some point that if a running boar were to slam into him full-tilt, while he was centered, he would not be moved.
Lakhoni didn't know yet if he believed that, but he knew that he felt strength infuse him with each moment that passed as he stood still and calm.
Reminding himself to keep his breathing even and steady, Lakhoni began to flex his leg muscles. He pushed them to become tighter and tighter, willing his breathing to remain even. When he felt his legs might snap, he bent his legs slightly and launched himself forward. He stretched his right leg forward, aiming the ball and toes of the foot at a small rise on the ground. He tightened the muscles of his right leg and bent it the moment before his foot came in contact with the rise. Pushing off almost before he landed, he flung himself to the left now, his left leg tight and his foot aimed carefully at another small rise.
This was the Feather Leap; it was how Gimno had descended the entrance shaft to the cavern of the Separated on the night that Lakhoni had first been taken in. The objective was to be in such control of your muscles and actions that you could push off anything quickly and easily—and through this be able to change your movement and its direction with astonishing speed. Gimno insisted that a man could dodge arrows from an army with the Feather Leap.
Lakhoni knew he couldn't dodge an apple core thrown by a child yet, but he intended to master this technique. Pushing off his left leg, he sprang across the ring to another rise, and then another. Soon he was nearing the portal stones. Elation filled him. He knew he was spending too much time on the ground before each succeeding leap, but he also knew he was doing better than ever before.
Gathering all of his strength and forcing it into his right leg until it practically hummed with tension, he pushed off the last rise. He shot off the ground and reached toward the top of the stone. Gimno had done this and had leapt easily to the top of this portal stone two weeks previous.
He was going to make it!
His knees slammed into the stone with an explosion of hot pain. In a flash he knew that if he were to hit the ground as askew as he was, he could break a leg. Frustration at himself filled him even as he instinctively pushed off the stone with his arms before he could slide too far down and hit the ground. He arched his back as far backward as he could, envisioning himself doing a back flip and hopefully landing on all fours. He had to tuck his legs—like this—tight up to his body and fling his arms hard in the direction of his mid-air tumble.
He hit the ground, balls of his feet landing first, his legs bending quickly to absorb the impact and his right hand coming down immediately after. He stopped moving, feeling as if he had landed lighter than he could have hoped for.
Lakhoni stayed that way for a moment. The dark brown and black hues of the cavern floor filled his vision. By the Fathers. He glanced at his posture. He felt like he had landed like a cat, or a spider—lightly and in total control. The flip he had done passed through his mind; he felt like he could almost see what he had made his body do.
"How did I do that?" he asked the ground. He pushed himself to his feet and glanced around. Nobody was near; nobody had seen. He briefly wondered why he cared that none of the Separated had seen him, but the thought left him as a glimmer of understanding lit his mind. "I thought I was going to make it. I lost focus on my actions and forgot the moment." He knew this was why he hadn't gained the top of the portal stone. Gimno had said, countless times, that he had to be in total control of each muscle and that anticipation, fear, and other emotions too often got in the way of that control.
That must be how I did the flip. It was like I was watching myself. Lakhoni shook off the surprise at what he had done and focused on his state of mind during the flip and his landing. He needed to be able to do that kind of thing again. It must have been the danger of breaking my leg. I knew I couldn't afford to do that. I wouldn't get out of here for months. It had been the need that made him focus. The urgency of staying healthy seemed to have cleared his focus so much until it was sharp as the edge of a fine obsidian dagger. I need to be able to focus like that again.
The pain in his knees faded as he walked slowly inside the perimeter of the training ring. He thought about justice and rescue; the mission he felt commanded by his family to fulfill. As he did so, keeping his breathing calm and even, envisioning his family and village, he felt his focus sharpening. It was almost as if he could look around and see the stone huts of his village instead of the stone walls and huts of the Separated. His family and friends walked and smiled in his imagination.
This is my focus. Purity of intention. Justice for the death of innocents.
He strode across the ring again, gaining his knoll and centering himself quickly. He took a deep breath and flung himself forward. He feather-leaped from rise to rise, feeling a delicious strength and clarity fill him.
As he leapt, he considered trying the portal stone again. He decided against it. He would try another day when he was stronger.
He landed lightly back on his knoll, his breath still even and feeling as if he had taken a refreshing walk.
Tingles of surprise splashed up his neck and on his scalp. He spun toward the voice.
Gimno leaned casually against a portal stone, regarding him with bright eyes. "Well done! Still needs work, but you've been practicing, I see."
Digging frantically for the crystal-clear focus he had felt moments ago, Lakhoni grinned at the tall, fiercely tattooed man. With a feeling of sudden rightness, Lakhoni felt his focus return. "Who needs practice?"
"You still do, but that is good work." Gimno smiled at Lakhoni's insolent tone.
"I've got time."
"You do." Gimno turned and gestured for Lakhoni to follow. "Come now. You are due for a haircut."
Lakhoni followed, stroking his head with one hand. Gimno was right. Lakhoni hadn't noticed it, but he now had some thick fuzz covering his entire scalp. And his youth patch at the top and front of his head was almost a half-thumb length.
He followed Gimno as the tall man wove between huts, making his way toward a side of the cavern Lakhoni had never been to. This was the side where the small man who had led the sacrifice of the boy lived. This was-
Lakhoni could tell by Gimno's body language where the man was heading: directly toward the hardened leather-covered wood door of the spiritual leader of the Separated. Was it possible that the man who had killed the boy was to be the person who would shave Lakhoni's head?
Would he use the same knife that was used to kill the boy? A tremor of fear ran the length of Lakhoni's body. Fury followed on the fear's heels. Then fear came again. How could Lakhoni hide his revulsion from this man? And if the man detected Lakhoni's true feelings, there was no doubt what would come next.
Gimno stopped a few paces in front of the door and clapped loudly three times.
Lakhoni glanced around, wondering if he could make his escape now.
It would be certain death.
The door to the hut swung outwards, and one of the red-dyed men stepped out. He looked at Gimno questioningly.
"This cub is due for a haircut."
The red man glanced at Lakhoni.
Fear made Lakhoni's muscles go soft. He suddenly felt the need to use the privy. He had to focus again!
"Come," the red man said and turned back into the hut.
Gimno followed, ducking slightly to avoid knocking his head against the top of the doorway.
Lakhoni stepped forward, the darkness inside the hut and the darkness he knew to be in the murdering man who lived there filling him with terrible fear. But that darkness beckoned him forward and he could not resist it.