In which we meet Takoda Ironcloud.
“It is time, my child.”
From a hole in the hut’s ceiling, a shaft of sunlight knifed through the incense-filled darkness to silhouette an old man standing at the hut’s doorway. In her contemplation, Takoda had not sensed him come in. He wore the orange robes of a Master and his sinewy biceps lay sharp and defined beneath sun-baked skin.
He looked down on Takoda with a face as cracked and etched as old oak. “Are you prepared for your trial?”
“I am, Master Achak.” Takoda unfolded her stiff legs, and with a grimace, stood.
“Though I have failed already,” she said. “I was unable to purge myself of worldly desire.”
She stared at the ground, her fists clenching and un-clenching at her side. “I thought myself free of prideful thoughts, but when you stepped in, I felt, a thrill of excitement, a desire to prove myself to the village and to my friends.”
The old man chuckled, a quiet gravely sound like the rustle of fall leaves. Leaning heavily on his wooden staff, he considered her with dark, bright eyes.
“My daughter,” he said with a chuckle. “The first test of Becoming is the test of spirit.” He leaned on his staff and nodded. “You recognize now the weakness of flesh as a vessel of spirit. But...” He smiled and held up a finger. “Once you achieve the mastery that eliminates self, return to this old fool and instruct him on your secret.”
He stepped closer and laid a hand on Takoda's sweat-soaked arm. “Your next test is the test of combat and flesh. You have been well versed in both.”
He stepped away and drew open a blanket draped across the doorway. Takoda squinted, raising a hand against the golden dawn streaming into the room.
“The last trial in your Becoming is a test of mind. For that, my child, you must rely on what you have learned.” Achak's heavy-lidded eyes lifted and met Takoda's tired red ones. “The Becoming, my child, is not an end to your struggles, but a beginning. The struggle of life is always a struggle to maintain balance.”
With a nod to the man who had not only served as instructor and guide but surrogate father Takoda stepped from the smoke laced confines of the ceremonial hut and into the dawn of her Becoming. The first step of many along her journey to enlightenment.
“Fight well, my daughter.” The old man took Takoda’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “And may the Goddess light your way.”
Despite thirty-six hours of ritual purification in the sweat lodge, Takoda felt a lightness in her step and a firmness in her stride. She shook away the fatigue and drew a cleansing breath. Unlike the choking fumes inside the hut, the air outside was bright with the scent of pines and dark leafy oak. The blue-white gleam of a quarter Earth hung like a faded gem in the morning sky while the twitter of birds and the breath of wind formed a background against which she weighed her surroundings.
It had been years since the right of Becoming had been attempted in East Shore and people had traveled from kilometers away to witness the event. Forming a sea of curious faces and hushed conversation, the crowd huddled at the edge of the training field.
Ignoring them, Takoda delved into her psyche, focused her breath and pushed her awareness outward. This was her place. This was her home. Her skin prickled with the touch of the breeze, her ears sang with the beat of a sparrow’s wings and the shuffle of the crowd.
Takoda sensed the thick ivy ceiling of the training field above her and the rows of columned trees which supported it. She sprang up and grabbed one of the vines and propelled herself across the dangling ivy ceiling, sending out kicks and punches before landing on the ground and shaking out her stiff shoulders. This was her place, her home. Every limb and every branch on the practice field, every handhold, and every barrier was known to her, a part of her. She closed her eyes and rose to the balls of her feet as five robed figures disengaged from the crowd and stepped onto the field.
She sensed her attackers close.
Takoda recognized the tread of her Abbey brother, Ahmik, his familiar footfalls nearing as he crept in from behind. She waited for the whistle of Ahmik’s blade before stepping to her right as the weapon whisked harmlessly past, then with the grace of falling water, Takoda dropped to a knee and kicked out a leg. It caught Ahmik’s ankle and swept it from the ground. Before her friend hit the dirt with a sharp, pained grunt, Takoda was in motion, diving into a shoulder role.
She arose in a fighting stance before Steven Peters, an acolyte from a neighboring village. He skidded to a halt in front of her, eyes wide and white before sending a clumsy punch streaking towards Takoda’s face. With the back of her hand, she deflected the blow before stepping in with a punch of her own.
Her stroke raced in before halting a millimeter from Steven’s throat. A shout from the crowd tore the air as Achak wave his red flag indicating a kill.
“Out!” Achak barked. “Both out!”
Steven and Ahmik both dropped to a knee; heads bowed in defeat.
Takoda caught her breath as she considered the remaining attackers. Like Steven and Ahmik, two were acolytes from nearby villages. They shared a nervous glance before moving to encircle her.
The third was an older man, a master whose face Takoda recognized but couldn’t quite place. He seemed in no hurry to join the fray, saying a word to someone in the crowd and laughing. He turned towards Takoda and considered her with vacant dark eyes. Upon meeting her gaze, the corners of his lips tilted into a grin.
Takoda pressed her palms together and focused her thoughts. Her thumbs brushed lightly against her chest as her eyes narrowed with an intake of breath. The approaching acolytes halted and shared an uncertain glance before raising their staffs and rushing forward. As they did, Takoda dropped into a crouch. Her knuckles swept across the grassy earth as she sprang upwards in the moon’s lighter gravity rising two, three, four meters into the crisp, Lunar air.
Arching down towards them, she watched in satisfaction as they skidded to a halt and readied their defense. At the last instant, Takoda snagged a tree branch and pumped her legs like a kid on a swing. At the height of her momentum, she left the acolytes behind letting go and rotating 90 degrees to catapult herself the ten meters separating her from the monk. A bold move she knew, leaving enemies at her back yet the initiates were not her main threat. It was the older man who might defeat her.
Takoda landed only paces away from the monk, tossing herself at the priest with a swinging sidekick. He easily sidestepped her assault and snagged Takoda’s collar bringing her flight to a sudden, choking halt. Takoda would have hit the ground and the Becoming would have been over had she not twisted at the last instant to land on hands and feet. With viper-quick speed, he swung his staff towards Takoda’s head. She danced away and it hit the ground with a thud.
Before she could regain her feet, the priest rotated the staff and drove it into Takoda’s gut. Like the willow, she accepted the blow, flowed with it, flowed around it. She snaked her arms up the staff and twisting, forced her hips into the pole’s center. Using her body as a fulcrum, she threw her weight against the staff and stripped it from the priest’s firm grip. Even as the weapon came free, Takoda sensed the acolytes nearing. Continuing into her spin, she released the captured staff and sent it cartwheeling through the air. It caught the nearest acolyte in the forehead and with a woodeny, thud, ricocheted into the crowd. He took two wobbly steps before collapsing to his knees.
Achak whipped the red flag as the crowd erupted in cheers.
Behind her, Takoda heard the second acolyte's staff slice through the air. With no time to react, Takoda stiffened. She adjusted her stance, twisted her pose. Bone became stone, muscles became oak. With an earsplitting crack, the pole hit Takoda’s back and snapped. For an instant, her attacker gawked at the broken stave waggling in his hand like an inverted ‘V’. Ignoring the pain, Takoda cocked her leg and struck. The kick landed with a hollow thud and sent her attacker flying into the crowd. Achak rushed to the spot waving the red flag and grinning.
“Out of bounds,” his voice boomed above the crowd. “Out!”
Takoda had but one attacker left.
The two combatants circled, feint for feint, blow for blow, Takoda's acrobatic speed against the priest’s balanced control. The older man moved in with a flurry of punches and kicks driving Takoda back.
Her breath came in sharp, tight stitches. Her ribs ached; her lungs were fire. She could feel the night’s fatigue draped over her like a veil. The priest sneered in icy disregard and a smile formed on his lips. He was going to win, and he knew it.
It was the grin that undid him. Takoda remembered now where she'd seen him before. It had been almost a year since she and Achak’s journey to Komarov. They’d taken the stage to the Gaean temple for Takoda’s final testing in preparation for her Becoming.
This priest had been on the council of elders. The only one who’d spoken up against her.
He’d treated her as one might a child, scoffing that a girl of her age barely justified the rank of acolyte much less an attempt at Becoming. He’d worn the same smirk of self-satisfaction when he’d raised his hand in the lone vote against her.
Takoda straightened and leveled a finger. If he expected a petulant child, Takoda would supply one.
“You cannot beat me, old man.” She dropped into a crouch, knuckles balled on the earth, toes digging into the moist grass. “Now is when you fall.” With a shout, Takoda covered the ground between them in two loping strides throwing herself airborne as she did.
Her kick was ill-timed and awkward. A groan arose from the crowd as it whistled harmlessly past. The priest added his own momentum to Takoda's, intent on flinging her into the crowd and securing her defeat. But his eagerness the toss her from the ring was the monk’s undoing. He didn’t note, Takoda’s hand as it darted from beneath her robes. He didn’t see Takoda’s fingers twine in his sleeve.
As she flew past, Takoda felt her grip on the monk’s robe slip. Her fingers dug for purchase cracking with the effort until they bit into the material and held. Swinging around with her foe at the pivot point, Takoda tucked in her legs as the momentum spun her around. In an eye-blink, she’d swung all the way around virtually twisting off the priest’s robe.
As they tumbled to the earth, Takoda shoved the priest before her, landing atop the older man with a thud. With her fist raised for the killing blow, Takoda sat astride him grinning like a kid on a carousel horse.
Achak whipped the red flag. The fight was over. Takoda had won. The crowd went wild.
Before she knew it, Takoda was dragged to her feet and hoisted onto their shoulders. She was surrounded by familiar, grinning faces. Takoda’s victory was the village’s and they shared in her joy.
Many of them rushed off before her as she was carried to the edge of the village. When they set Takoda down, she stood before a gauntlet of villagers extending a hundred meters along the road out of town.
Those carrying her slapped her back good-naturedly and shook her hand before finding their place in line. Takoda stared down the double row of friendly faces. Many she knew, most she didn’t. All of them waved leafy branches over their heads chanting words of encouragement and blessing in the ancient tongue.
Achak stepped up beside her. “You have done well, my child.” He glanced over his shoulder where the defeated priest stood glaring at the proceedings. “Though, not everyone is happy with the outcome.” When Achak turned back to Takoda, his eyes sparkled with unspoken mirth.
“I have prepared your vision bread.” From a leather pouch at his side, he removed a palm-sized package wrapped in brown paper. “Remember to chew it thoroughly before swallowing.” Next, he produced a ceramic pot no larger than his thumb. “The ointment will help with the scratches and dings.” He glanced over at the scowling priest. “I know, it’s not strictly allowed, but what the Gaean council doesn’t know won’t hurt em’, eh?” He gave Takoda a conspiratorial wink before stuffing the items back in the pouch and placing it in her hands.
A drum had been found and it pounded out a fast-paced running song as the elders chanted the ancient words from the before days.
“Master,” Takoda asked. “do you have any final words of advice?”
Achak’s eyes gleamed. “For life, or for the Becoming?”
“Either.” Takoda shrugged. “Or both.”
The old man nodded; his lips pressed into pale thin lines. “Well. You’ve still got a sixty-kilometer run ahead of you, then a flight across the sea. You’ll be excited and want to move fast. I advise you to pace yourself, and when you’re flying, it helps to focus on the horizon. Don't worry about the Harpies. They've not troubled a priest in over two-hundred years.”
“And life? Do you have any advice on that?”
Achak grinned and placed his hands on Takoda’s shoulders. Cheers at the head of the gauntlet sparkled down the line. “Send her in!” they called, “Send her in!”
“Keeping your eyes on the horizon and pacing yourself is always good advice,” he said. “The rest is the Goddess’ will.”
“I’ve taught you all I can,” he said, giving Takoda a shove. “The rest is up to you.”
Despite its ceremonial nature and the familiar smiles in the crowd, Takoda’s stomach hitched at the prospect of entering the gauntlet. Most, especially her friends, had stripped lilac branches from their gardens or carried the long, soft ferns from the wood’s deep shade. Others held the traditional and far more painful bamboo stalks.
The drumbeat quickened as Takoda stepped into the gauntlet and began the final leg of her Becoming. The air was thick with the swish of branches as they brought them down on her back and head. The sharp, fresh scent of broken eucalyptus and lilac fused with the familiar odor of unwashed bodies and the nearby Moscoviense Sea.
With the end of the gauntlet in sight, Takoda’s mind drifted to the task ahead. She’d considered her route many times before opting to run along the sea cliffs instead of taking the valley. It added an extra five kilometers, but there was less of a climb and once she… Holy Hell!
A fiery whip slashed across Takoda’s back eliciting a yelp of pain.
“That’s for Spot,” a quavering voice yelled.
When she looked back, Takoda spotted old Widow Bilks glaring at her from the crowd. The old woman’s toothless grin was wet with unspoken malice, and in her hand, she held a bitter root vine. Free of the gauntlet, Takoda, picked up the pace. She winced feeling the bitter root lash like a hot blade across her back. It would bother her for hours. She looked back once more, her home, her friends, and her past dwindling in the distance.
Damn, that widow Bilks. Takoda thought, rubbing at her shoulder. The hag had never forgiven her for running over her stupid cat. Takoda had to laugh, the old woman had finally gotten her revenge.