A light breeze, blowing a couple grains of sand past the tent, made it to the ears of Arinthia. It was an obnoxious sound, brushing against her tent and causing her to wake up. But it wasn’t the only thing that was keeping her from sleep. The scratching of a tiny volmont spider grated against the grains of wood on one of the tent’s poles. Five feet away from her tent, she could hear a plains hopper, a small insect, chomping away on the grass.
Like all Xibians, Arinthia was blind, but with keen ears that more than made up for it. She could hear a blossom fall from a flower, or the first drop of rain splash from almost twenty feet away. If sounds grew too intense, she was able to shut them out; a light gift that came with the curse. Blindness was not a deterrent or handicap to her people. For thousands of generations the Xibians had lived without sight, the very concept of it being foreign and incomprehensible to them.
Arinthia arose yawning, and put on her robe. The dandel hide felt good against her skin on such a cold morning. Winter was coming, that much was certain. She could even hear the change of seasons crackling in the air.
Crawling out of her tent, she was greeted by the thumping of a pair of footsteps walking in a wide gape, carrying a quick stride. Everyone in the village recognized it to be that of Keyro, one of their top hunters.
“Good day, Arinthia,” he said, too loudly which almost hurt everyone’s hearing. “How are you this fine day?”
“I don’t know,” said Arinthia, “seeing as the day has only just begun. What do you want, Keyro?”
“For you to join me on the hunt.” The air whistled as he extended an arm.
“And by hunt,” she formed the sentence slowly, “do you mean that I’ll be able to carry a bow and take down animals as well?”
“That’s silly!” he made no effort to disguise his disgust. “You’re a woman. Your job is to clean the carcasses and to cook.”
“Can’t do it! I’d probably burn it, or season the meat with the wrong herbs.”
“It’s not that hard!” protested Keyro.
“Then if it’s not that hard, then I’m sure that you can manage.”
“But it’s not a man’s job.”
“Nor is it my job either,” said Arinthia, hoping to cut the conversation short.
“You really need to be put in your place!” he chided.
Arinthia sighed inwardly. No such luck.
“You were made by Father above to be subservient” continued Keyro, his finger noisily cutting through the air. “What do you think he’ll say when your spirit passes through the gates of the dead, up the bridge to the island above? Can you imagine how disappointed he’ll be in his disobedient daughter, always mouthing off? He’ll teach you a lesson, you can be sure. Father will punish you by having you clean the pots and pans of the Eternal Kitchen forever.”
“Well, if that’s the case, then I’ll have an ally in Mother above,” huffed Arinthia. “She’ll chastise him as only a woman can, and she’ll make him sleep alone while she takes all the royal bedding. Then she’ll threaten him with an annulment of their marriage.”
“How dare you speak lightly of Father above!” roared Keyro.
“How dare you!” she raised her voice even louder, hoping to cause his ears to bleed, “to even think I’d want to be sealed as your companion when you’re not a man, but a mere boy who failed his rite of initiation.”
Now she could her Keyro’s blood flush in his face and the grinding of his teeth. In a sense, she could hear his anger, and it was palpable. Her sharp tongue had cut through a nerve.
“If you weren’t a woman, I’d slap you across the face,” he hissed.
“What difference does it make it I’m a woman or not,” she retorted. “You shouldn’t be hitting anyone, be it male or female.”
A heavy staff thudded upon the dirt, reverberating like an earthquake. “Lay a hand on her and I’ll lay my staff on you,” came the raspy voice of Jorgek.
“You don’t scare me, old man!” boasted Keyro.
Stupid, Arinthia thought to herself. If you wanted to lie, you had to lie well. Keyro couldn’t lie to save his own life. He couldn’t even control the thumping of his own heart. The perspiration streaming off of him, like a roaring river, didn’t do him any favors either.
“Shall I knock you on your backside,” ventured Jorgek, the air rushing against his staff as he raised it up in intimidation.
Keyro backed off, the thudding of heavy footfalls as he ran off.
“That impudent brush hopper!” exclaimed Jorgek. “My dear, did he” – The old Xibian paused, completely puzzled. Arinthia was laughing. “I fail to see what’s so funny,” he said.
“You don’t?” she asked.
Arinthia had always loved Jorgek. The oldest of the Xibians in the tribe came across as grumpy and bitter to many, but that was only because they never made time to get to know him. Those who did found a kindly old man under the rough exterior, quick to right wrongs. In that sense, he was much like Arinthia.
She had known him for years. When she was a child, she had originally feared him. But unlike all the other children who were terrified of him, she alone had approached him, having possessed the courage that many her age had lacked. It was the courage to listen to each and every one of his footsteps. To hear the way he gritted his teeth in frustration, or the sound his eyelids made when they opened and closed. She let her ears swallow and digest each of the old Xibian’s sounds until she grew to learn what kind of a person he was. She grew to hear his inside appearance, not his outside. His heart was the most useful in helping her come to a conclusion regarding his personality. Certainly he yelled at young children to keep their distance, and he didn’t, generally speaking, have much patience with just about anyone else, even those his age. But when people were frustrated or in pain he was the first to lend a listening ear if they would let him.
It wasn’t to say that she became friends with the old Xibian overnight. Jorgek had many social barriers he had put into place to guard himself with. But in time, just by listening, she began to relate to him. This slowly opened up communication, and eventually a mutual understanding. Then, as the years passed, a friendship blossomed like a flower in the spring after a long winter. From her later childhood to the present it was common for her to hunt with him in the fields, to help him make leather from the wild shagrits, and to sometimes just philosophize about life. He had taken upon himself the mantle of a grandfather she had never had.
There were only a couple of topics that were points of contention among the two of them. One such was regarding the Vun. Jorgek believed peace should and could be made between them and the Xibians, whereas Arinthia knew better. Those that could see were enemies, having killed her parents and many others. They had robbed her people of their birthright years ago. Some things could never be forgiven. But she could forgive Jorgek for holding that faulty viewpoint.
Regardless, she wasn’t thinking of any of her qualms towards him at the moment, being far more grateful that he had come to her aid. Hence her laughter. She was laughing because she knew that he would be there, for at least a little while longer, to protect her.
“You should have heard the way he ran off, the way his heart was about to burst through his chest, and the noise of his sweat flying off him,” laughed Arinthia.
“My dear girl, I heard it all,” said Jorgek. “I’m not deaf, yet. But when I am, you know what to do.”
Indeed she did. If a Xibian ever lost his or her hearing it was considered an act of mercy to take them upon the altar to offer them up as a blood sacrifice. When one had outlived their purpose, their blood could potentially heal the land if the gods were well pleased with how they lived their lives.
“I do,” said Arinthia. “But let’s not think of that now. Did you not tell me yesterday that you wished for the two of us to go hunting this morning?”
“Yes. I’m so glad you remembered,” his teeth clacked and his lips smacked into a smile. He sighed. “But I digress. I’m getting old. You know this. What hope does an old Xib like me have against the freshness of youth?”
“You mean to tell me that you just lied about being able to give Keyro a beating? Don’t doubt yourself, old man. You’ll grow senile before you lose the strength of your legs.”
“Why, you’re just as impudent as he!”
Arinthia shrugged. “Did this just now dawn on your mind? Don’t tell me it took you over fifteen years to finally come to that conclusion. I want to think that your mind is as quick as your legs.”
“Ha!” laughed the old Xibian. “My fists are the quickest, and if you insist on being treated like a man rather than a woman, I’ll knock you on the ground so fast that you won’t hear the wind rushing past my fists.”
“No, I give up,” she laughed. “You really could give me bruises.”
“You’re absolutely right on that account. When I was a young man, I was the envy of the tribe, able to take on the chief himself. I could have any woman I wanted. I was the pinnacle of” –
“Now you’re just making stuff up,” interjected Arinthia. “Are you going to keep babbling on? At this rate the herds will have moved out of our territory.”
“My dear, you know perfectly well that my hearing is superb and that I would have been the first to hear them. Not you. But I do grow weary of your biting tongue. Maybe some good old hunting will shut you up.”
“I think you’re right. I’m growing impatient.”
“Then there’s only one way to cure that,” he said in agreement, the bones of neck cracking as he nodded. He took off, the air whistling to a near screech because of his speed. After all these years, age hadn’t slowed him. He still soared over the land, even with a staff in hand. It was Arinthia who had to keep up.
Each blade of grass sloshed and some crunched under his feet, depending on the amount of water they had received. The flapping noises of the tents against the light breeze and the crackling of the morning fires grew fainter as they neared the mile mark out of the tribe.
They were approaching over the Dead Plains; a misplaced name if there ever was one; considering they were far from dead, or being anywhere near the thresholds of death. Rather, the plains were living and breathing with all manner of life placed by the loving parents above. Soft thuds of insects echoed throughout the Dead Plains, accompanied to the thunderous tunes of the hooves of the mighty shagrits. Sometimes the mighty shagrit beasts snorted, causing the air to reverberate around their breath. Arinthia could slightly hear the brushing of a shagrit’s fur when a small fly landed upon them. Aside from the shagrits, other animals could be heard nearby. From the ground came a light but steady scratching, as the tiny claws of the little blue and red moles constructed their tunnels. Sharp teeth gritted, like a rocks being scraped against other rocks, about a quarter of a mile away. It was the ulyix’s getting ready to hunt their prey, the shagrits.
Arinthia chided herself. While her ears were too enraptured by the cacophony of nature, Jorgek had already found a suitable hiding place behind a boulder. The air whistled a musical note around his bowstring as he slowly pulled it back. The first kill would be his. Not that his obtaining the first kill mattered in the scheme of things, but she and the old Xibian had a contest as to who could achieve the first kill. For a moment it looked as if it would be his. But, as luck would have it, Jorgek, in his anticipation, didn’t pull the bow string back far enough and the arrow clanked on some rocks just a couple of inches away from the shagrit’s hoof.
The rumbling of dirt being kicked up from the lumbering beast indicated that it was running to the west. With no time to lose, she took a shot at the beast. Her arrow whistled through the air, singing of death, piercing her ears. But it found its mark. The shagrit fell to the earth. The beast’s heartbeat, still pounding like thunder, grew fainter and fainter until it was mere whisper, to whence it was no more.
“Looks like dinner is on me tonight,” boasted Arinthia.
“I let you have it,” snorted Jorgek. “Besides, I’m getting too old for hunting and cooking anyway.”
“And yet you were able to outrun me,” she pointed out to the old man.
“Is that so? No wonder I had no energy left for hunting.”
“Come, old friend,” Arinthia patted his shoulder. “I’m going to prepare you a dinner fit for a village chieftain, using only the finest herbs and spices.”
“Such as the kind you can get from the fields on any day,” he pointed out.
“You have no imagination,” laughed Arinthia.
“I’m afraid I burnt mine out many years ago,” he sighed.
“No matter, old man. Dinner is still on me.”
Back at the tribe’s encampment, Arinthia was greeted by the gossip of the women and the girls, and it was no wonder. She had blood on her from when she and Jorgek had carried down the large shagrit (something that was very unbecoming of a woman, both the hunting of an animal and the lifting of anything heavy) and they could smell it. It was a sour and bitter smell that reeked of death. To further the indignation of the tribe, Arinthia had broken another code by not washing after she had cut up the pieces of meat to leave hanging out by her tent before cooking them. If a woman or a girl was to get herself dirty, she was to wash herself immediately, something Arinthia had always refused to do. It was bad enough when the women of the tribe got a speck of dirt on them, but to have specks of blood, that was blasphemy to the gods themselves.
Jorgek would have fended her from the malicious gossip and the outright verbal abuse, but he was incapacitated, having hurt his back helping to carry the strips of meat of the animal. Not that Arinthia minded being alone. She saw herself as far from being a damsel in distress. She could hold her own, particularly against the three primary instigators, even if they held important positions of power within the tribe. There was Zylin, a daughter of a high priest, Hymla, one of daughters of the chief’s advisors, and finally, conducting herself with the greatest of pomp and the greatest of self-aggrandizement, there was Kywal, the Chief’s daughter. Zylin and Hymla followed Kywal as though she were a goddess herself, worthy of their admiration and subjugation. Certainly the chief’s daughter did order them about, but in the end they found it worth it to be a part of the elite. There were numerous members of the tribe who they snubbed their noses at, but Arinthia was the one they enjoyed showing their condescension to the most, and the reason was obvious. For at least the other women, even though they were of lower rank, still knew their place as women. But it stirred the hearts of Kywal, Zylin, and Hymla to anger that Arinthia couldn’t accept her place.
“Still acting beastly, I see,” Kywal’s voice grated like a spear piercing animal bone. “Really Arinthia, would it hurt you to exercise more feminine restraint and dignity?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Arinthia shrugged. “I had no one as an example to learn it from, least of all you three.”
The grating of Kywal’s fists clenching, along with the rapid beating of her heart, collaborated together to produce a dissonance of rage. By the sounds of things, Arinthia knew that she had crossed a line, but she didn’t care. Though Kywal wanted to strike her, Arinthia knew that she wouldn’t. Even those at the top of the hierarchy had their code of honor that they were expected strictly to adhere to, for it was given by the gods themselves, and defiling it could invoke a great cursing.
“Ignore her,” Hymla implored Kywal. “She’s just a leech, hardly worth getting upset about.”
“Leach!” exclaimed Arinthia. “You must be mistaken Hymla. From what I understand, you three always leach after what your fathers provide. As for me, I provide for myself with my own hard work.”
“Such insolence!” shrieked Kywal. “Are you insinuating that we are idle?”
“I didn’t think it was much of an insinuation as it was a statement,” retorted Arinthia, not being one to miss the mark.
“I’m sure the gods will forgive you if you strike the smugness from her face,” Zylin goaded Kywal.
“Remember the precepts,” Hymla reminded her two friends in not so much a humble way, but piously, in the hopes that they would show Arinthia that they were every bit her superiors.
“You’re right,” said Arinthia, hoping to humor them with her false humility, though she knew it wasn’t very likely. “I am unworthy in your presence, and I could certainly cultivate a spirit of meekness in following the precept the god and goddess have set before us, which, in my case, is learning to be more lady like.”
“I guess we can’t all grow up possessed with natural grace,” Kywal feigned pity. Her insincerity was evident enough, but if she would toy with Arinthia, Arinthia would toy with her. “Perhaps I was too hard on you,” the chief’s daughter continued. “Bad habits aren’t easy to break.”
“This is true,” said Arinthia. And unable to resist one last jab she added, “Just as many of us who have the unfortunate habit of spending our time in the company of spineless urchins who only tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need to know.”
“Indeed,” huffed Kywal, the sound of a storm raging in her as her lungs inhaled oxygen.
Kywal walked the opposite direction of Arinthia. Zylin and Hymla trailed behind her like two obedient canyon wolf pups.
Sadly, the gossip didn’t stop with those three. As Arinthia made her way back to her tent, the whispers flew through the air, stinging her ears like hornets. It went without saying that the other Xibians knew that whispering, no matter how low they tried to keep their voices, amounted to very little. Rather whispering was just considered a form of being polite within their culture. Why? She could never figure that out. There seemed to be something condescending about pretending to be polite when one could just be upfront. At least with honesty you didn’t have to worry about trying to conceal your heart rate. Yet, she didn’t care as much about the gossip circulating among the adults. For there’s was spoken to one another more in a voice of concern, instead of condemnation, for Arinthia, unlike how Kywal and her two lackeys spoke of her. Yet, a tribe devoid of gossip would be the ideal.
Putting these thought out of her mind, Arinthia took an old tree branch to carve into a spear. Finding a good rock to sit on, she started to whittle away the large and bulky branch laying across her lap. This wouldn’t take long. Each time her knife carved a slice off, the branch grew thinner, more elegant. Spears weren’t the only things she carved out of wood. Over the years she had become quite skilled in carving everything from bowls and spoons to little wooden sculptures. Her favorite carving were two little wooden statues she had made of her parents. She had carved their likeness not long after they had passed away, when she was a girl of seven years of age.
Her parents had been lost to the Vun, the rival tribe. Because of this, she would always hate the Vun. She didn’t need her leaders telling her how evil they were. She already knew. When she was a little girl, she couldn’t take up a spear to kill those who murdered her parents, so she tried to honor her parents by preserving their likeness in a carving. It went without saying that her carvings weren’t perfect to start out with. It took her many years to get the likeness right, but she never doubted that she did eventually achieve their nearly, if not a perfect, likeness. She had carved many things since then, but the little wooden statues of her parents would always be her favorite.
The time whittled away just as she whittled away on the wood, and soon she held a spear in her hands while her feet sat in a hill of wood carvings. It was a good spear. It would find its mark.
Sufficiently hungered, it was now time to prepare dinner from the hunt. She was about to gather sticks of wood for the fire pit beside her tent, when she heard the sounds of footsteps and the rattling of wood.
“You shouldn’t be up and about,” said Arinthia. “You hurt your back.” Jorgek’s muscles reverberated like a fierce wind as he approached.
“Listen to that,” the old Xibian said. “It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”
“I thought I told you to let me take care of dinner.”
“I did. You said you’d cut and cook up the meat. But you didn’t say I couldn’t gather firewood for it.”
Arinthia sighed. He was a stubborn old man. “Just put them down and take a seat, old fool. “And please, let me take care of the rest.”
“Can I at least start the fire?”
“With the way your back muscle is strained right now, I’d rather you not, lest it grow worse.”
Despite the grumpy Xibian’s protests, Arinthia was already on her knees over the fire pit, scraping her knife against a flint. So accustomed was she to using a knife and flint that she had a fire blazing in no time.
It was beautiful. Each of the fire’s flames were a different instrument, making music slightly distinct from the other, but all blending together to make a chorus of pops, crackles, and low rumbles. Fire! It was the song of life, but also the song of death, and it sang of both.
Arinthia roasted the meat over a spit. She breathed in the heat of the flames while giving a prayer of thanksgiving to the god parents. The prayer would last for the whole duration of the cooking of the meat. While praying, she would continually place sticks upon the fire when it was called for. The meat and fat sizzled like a rainstorm and popped like a cork above the fire. When her ears detected that the meat was fully cooked, she ceased her prayers, and cut a couple of slabs off of it for Jorgek and herself. She handed Jorgek a wood plate, she had carved, with a piece of meat on it.
“Ah, your parents would be proud of you,” Jorgek smacked his lips upon taking a bite out of their kill.
“For my cooking, old man?” she asked.
“You young people always just assume,” Jorgek indigently shot back. “I was going to say that they would be proud of what a strong and independent woman you turned out to be.”
“I was of the mind I was supposed to be subservient.”
Jorgek sighed. “Who’s giving you problems, girl? Let me know, and I’ll give them three times as many.”
“Would it be a fair fight? It would be three against one. And you’re so, well, old.”
“Don’t underestimate my shriveled body, because I have the strength of ten young men,” Jorgek boasted, his hand banged against his chest like a drum.
“Yes, but you’d have to then take on the chief and his advisors.”
“Oh, so it’s them. Yes, that does cause a problem. Ah well, I do think your parents would be proud of you.”
“Especially if I avenged them of their murderers,” she nodded.
“Would your parents want you to harbor revenge in your heart?”
“They would want me to avenge them,” Arinthia found herself growing tense.
“Revenge or avenge?”
“Is there a difference?”
“I don’t think so,” said Jorgek thoughtfully. “Do you?”
“Yes,” said Arinthia resolutely. “They killed my parents.”
“That’s what you’ve often said, young lady. But who, who killed your parents?”
“The Vuns,” said Arinthia impatiently.
“But which Vun?”
“Does it matter?”
“If you want justice, then it better matter,” a bone Jorgek had thrown aside knocked against a log. “Only one, or a few of them, are guilty of killing your parents.”
“They are all Vun!” she protested.
“And they are all individuals,” added Jorgek.
Arinthia inwardly fumed, not bothering to hide the beats of her heart from him. The old man was so reasonable in many aspects of his life. Why couldn’t he be reasonable enough to see that the Vun were monsters beyond any sort of empathy? They were even worse than the Korrigans, who they also had to listen for. She took a huge bite out of the shagrit meat, feeling she’d rather choke on it than have to listen to anymore of Jorgek’s nonsense.
“Have you ever stopped to ask yourself how the Vun see us?” the old Xibian pressed the matter, not one to be deterred.
“As prey to hunt.”
“And we don’t hunt them?”
By now Arinthia was growing increasingly exasperated. “That’s different,” she snapped. “We are hunting them so they don’t kill us first. Ours is out of necessity and protection, not out of pure enjoyment.”
“And yet it would seem to give you pleasure to kill all the Vun for what a couple of them did to your parents,” stated Jorgek gravely.
At a loss for words, Arinthia finished up her meal before throwing the bone into the fire, which snapped much like her heart. “I don’t bask in your company in order to be put down,” she curtly told him as she left the fire to crawl into her tent.
“Offense is not my intent,” said Jorgek. “But I do know that you are far too intelligent to just buy all the lies that the chief, the elders, and the priests give.”
As fantastic as her hearing was, she still managed to block out what he said.
Inside the confines of her tent, Arinthia found solitude. Behind her bedding of furs was a mantle she had carved, and upon it were her little wooden statues of her parents.
Silently she spoke to them, but not by whispers as that would still be loud enough for Jorgek, who was still sitting by the fire outside, to hear. Instead, she opted to speak to them just by engaging in meditation. She told them that she would still avenge them, and that though she wasn’t taking on the role of a traditional Xibian woman that she still hoped to make them proud of her. The more she poured out her heart the more the tears poured out. But she wouldn’t give Jorgek the benefit of hearing her cries. In order to stop the tears from hitting her knees, she pressed her palms to her eyes, in the hopes of muffling the sound.
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