The Horns of Monk’s Hand Monastery shook the rocks as she raced out of the Fanten Forest and across the lower meadows. At the crossroads, Ari Ara halted and stood defiantly in the buffeting wind. The trail down to the village stretched out, wide and predictable. She cast a glance up toward the black peaks of the High Mountains. She had spent the second half of last winter up there . . . but the deep snows nearly froze her at night – and that was after the coldest months had already passed. She turned reluctantly to look at the village. The thatched roofs huddled together like a cluster of haystack sheep. The villagers spent cramped winters inside, bickering and teasing each other. She made a face. She would not go to the village and apologize. It wasn’t her fault – not all of it. The very idea of asking for forgiveness rankled her. She’d rather winter in the mountains.
The Horns of Monk’s Hand roared again. Ari Ara pivoted toward the sound. A laugh leapt out of her throat and echoed off the black rocks. She wouldn’t go to the village. She’d go to the monastery! If it was a choice between a cold winter in the mountains or humiliation in the village, she chose neither! Wasn’t that her name? Ari Ara. Not this. Not that.
Ari Ara shifted her fate in a single determined stride. She ran over the rough stones of the boulder slide. A thrill tingled in her blood. The monastery was not forbidden, not exactly, but the Fanten disapproved of the warrior monks and their endless preparations for battle. Ari Ara had been told to steer clear of them. She shivered with rebellious anticipation and increased her pace as she hurtled down the series of switchbacks that carved across the jagged slope.
She leapt onto the carved steps that stretched from the village all the way up to the monastery. The ancient buildings at the top crouched low to the ground, chiseled out of the mountainside and rumored to stretch deep into the rock behind the tiled roofs. Ari Ara remembered sneaking in once, years ago, only to be chased out by the monks. It was a place of severe angles and rambunctious orphans, serene meditations and fierce fighters. Monk’s Hand Monastery brimmed with fascinating contradictions . . . but Ari Ara was determined to carve out a spot for the winter. That would show the Fanten Grandmother, she thought. Ari Ara climbed the stone steps two at a time, chuckling delightedly.
The Horns rumbled in her bones as twilight fell. She threw back her cloak as she reached the top, hot but barely winded. The steps were nothing compared to a lifetime of scaling the High Mountain slopes.
Minli, the one-legged orphan she’d met once in the village, was standing at the top. He was a slight boy with dark brown hair that stuck out in several directions, looking like a bird’s nest atop his thin neck. The cuff of one leg of his pants was tied in a knot where his knee should have been. He had lost his limb from a sword’s blow before he could even walk, one of the villagers had told her in a hushed tone. Someone had bundled him up and left him on the stone steps of the monastery in the dead of night, his leg gone, but skillfully healed. Most likely by the Fanten, the villager had speculated.
Unlike the other orphans who had been sent up from the overcrowded orphanages in Mari Valley and were originally from the Border Mountains, Minli was considered one of two Monk’s Hand orphans – Ari Ara being the other. She felt an odd kinship with the one-legged boy and had made small gestures of friendship whenever their paths crossed. Neither knew who their parents were or where they had come from before appearing in the crater valley. They were simply considered part of Monk’s Hand, along with craggy mountains and sweeping mists.
“Look who showed up for the autumn feast,” he said, grinning.
Behind him, the monastery bustled with motion. Grey-robed warrior monks scurried across the three-sided courtyard. Small orphans shrieked with excitement and bounded in all directions. Dusk deepened over the shoulder of Old Monk Mountain, the looming giant peak that rose high above the monastery. Lights had already been lit inside. Ari Ara sniffed the air.
“Are they baking bread?” she asked.
“Yes, and sweet rolls.”
“It’s the bread I like best!” she enthused. The Fanten made nothing like it. During the summer season, she fared on porridge boiled from High Mountain grain. She reached out and ruffled the loose ends of his cropped hair. “How goes it, you old monk?”
“I’m not a monk and I’m not old . . . and you should be nice to me,” he advised her smugly.
“There’s a visitor.”
“Who?” she asked, immediately curious.
“That’s why you ought to be nice to me,” Minli teased.
“Pfft, there’s a hundred monks who’d tell me,” she shrugged, but when he said nothing, she cajoled him, “I’ll give you my next sweet roll if you tell me now.”
Ari Ara’s eyes widened and she nearly toppled down the steps.
“No!” she exclaimed, craning her neck to see if she could spot the man.
Shulen was the greatest warrior on record in a thousand years. He had been the First Guard of Queen Elsinore, and then to her daughter, Queen Alinore. He had commanded the War of Retribution against the Desert People after Queen Alinore’s death. In the Capital, he trained the nation’s fiercest fighters. Now he was here at Monk’s Hand!
“He’s searching for candidates for the Guard. Rumor says that Shulen is looking to train up another Emir Miresh.”
Ari Ara whistled. Emir Miresh was a legend across Mariana . . . and he hadn’t even grown facial hair. He had been chosen as Shulen’s apprentice at age eight and had swept the Trials every year since he was ten. No warrior stood a chance against him -except Shulen.
“So, they’re searching for Guards. Any likely candidates?” Ari Ara mused.
“Who knows? He might have simply come here because we have so many orphans. You know how the saying goes . . . ”
“Good soldiers make orphans,” she quoted.
“And orphans make good soldiers,” Minli finished.
Ari Ara shivered at the saying. The villagers muttered it in tones that promised revenge against the Desert People for the numbers of Marianan orphans that poured out of the Border Mountains. They didn’t seem to consider that the saying rang true for both sides of the conflict, and the Desert People had orphans that they might be training into soldiers, too.
Mariana and the Desert People had been fighting since the dawn of time. For a brief moment, when Queen Alinore fell in love with Tahkan Shirar, the Desert King, there was a shocked and wild hope of peace. People spoke of that time with a tone of wistful yearning . . . and an acrid bitterness for its loss. Those times sang of prophecy and legend. The coming of a golden age was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but then, swift as a thunderstorm over the mountains, their hopes were dashed. Power-hungry factions – no one knew whose – attacked the Queen, stole the Heir to both thrones (or so it was said), and vanished. The Queen died and for over a decade, violence had reigned, each side blaming the other for the Lost Heir and the dead Queen. The western border was littered with orphans, and many of them were sent to Monk’s Hand Monastery to be trained into fighters.
“So, when are the Trials?” Ari Ara asked, certain that Shulen would test the trainees.
“Before or after supper?” she asked, more interested in bread than fighting.
“Soon. Let’s grab you a bowl of soup and bread. You can eat while we watch.”
Minli hobbled quickly on his single crutch. One shoulder bunched up higher than the other, reminding her of a small crow she had once found with its claw caught in a twist of string. His black orphan’s tunic flapped loosely at the sides, several sizes too large. Ari Ara followed behind him as they threaded through the brimming crowd. Spectators had already packed under the overhangs that ran along the sides of the rectangular sand-filled courtyard. No one paid attention to Ari Ara in the commotion.
Inside the kitchen, the kitchen monks chopped and argued. The two head cooks were an unlikely pair. One was thin as a broom handle and twice as knobby; Ari Ara secretly nicknamed him Nobstick. The other was round as a kettle with a shiny bald head. Teapot Monk – as Ari Ara irreverently decided to call him – hollered at them as he barreled through with a tray of sweet rolls ready for the oven.
Ari Ara closed her eyes. If there was a heaven, she imagined it to be the monks’ kitchen with all its chaos and glorious smells, mouth-watering dishes and steaming heat. She could boil porridge, crack nuts, and scrounge for apples, berries and herbs in the High Mountains, but the arts of the kitchen were sheer miracles to her. Minli thrust a spoon in her hand and slopped a bowl of soup into the other. He snatched up a small loaf of bread, then nudged Ari Ara out of the kitchen before they were caught.
“Hold on,” he warned her.
The last bellow of the Horns accompanied the final streak of the sunset. The monks, blowing through the huge carved instruments that stretched the entire length of the buildings, made the droning sound reverberate on and on. Ari Ara’s soup rippled in the bowl and spilled over the edges. Her marrow rattled inside her bones.
When they stopped, the darkness and silence were absolute. Then she heard a flurry of rustling as the senior monks settled into cross-legged positions along the three sides of the courtyard. A torch flared and the carved face of Shulen illuminated in the gateway of the monastery.
“Are there any warriors here?”
His voice rang out in the old ritual challenge of the Trials, carrying with it echoes of all warriors since time immemorial.
Around the courtyard, the monks lifted torches into the holders on the stone pillars that held up the tiled overhang roofs. The younger monks stepped forward, along with all the trainees, and some of the boldest orphans. Ari Ara scanned their faces curiously as she licked the spilled soup from her fingers. She knew a few of the boys by sight. The rest were unfamiliar, as were the two girls who stood in the line. One of the monks dragged a tiny little boy back under the overhang. Ari Ara grinned. Usually the orphans were sent to apprentice in various trades when they reached ten years of age; that eager lad would undoubtedly be kept at Monk’s Hand to train as a warrior.
Minli pointed out the ones who had come up from the Capital hoping to qualify for the coveted training positions at Monk’s Hand Monastery. They ranged in age, the younger ones wishing to join the entry-level cohort, and the older youths seeking to join the intense trainings of the warrior monks.
A monk shifted his position and blocked her view.
“Psst!” Minli hissed. “Up here.”
He had hopped up onto the open window of an inside room. The wide stone ledge provided just enough space to perch upon. She passed her soup and spoon up to him then jumped up in one fluid motion, twisting in midair as she did on the large boulders in the High Mountains. Minli returned the soup, spoon, and bread. They fell silent as the Trials began.
The first round was for the beginners. Ari Ara watched with only half an eye. The warm, flaky bread occupied most of her attention. Minli nudged her to watch. The older warrior monks – the ones that ran the trainings and drills – surrounded the hopeful youths. Each carried some humorous or unusual object in his hands: a plate, a wooden sled, a woven basket, one of the kitchen monks’ enormous stew pots, a mattress cot, even a rolled up carpet. They brandished them at the trainees who ducked and dodged. The oldest monk leapt into action with a feather duster and a ferocity that soon had the trainees backpeddling. While the onlookers laughed, Ari Ara quickly noticed that the older monks weren’t just fooling around with those objects; they were rapidly encircling the trainees, trapping them inside a solid ring.
“Those knuckleheads better break out soon or they’ll be caught,” she muttered as she slurped her soup.
Two of the boys and both girls broke through. The rest were caught – except for one audacious boy who leapt into the stewpot and then over the monk’s startled head. Everyone cheered for that one. A gong sounded. The monks broke apart, bowing and brandishing their implements. Scores were assessed and recorded for each participant. Highest marks went to the five who had broken free.
“Now the ruckus,” Minli informed her in a whisper just as a storm of movement broke out. Unarmed monks and trainees wheeled around each other in a bewildering whirlwind.
“See the poles with red scarves?” Minli explained, murmuring in her ear. “They’re supposed to capture one of those scarves while the warrior monks try to block them. There’s one white scarf, too. The match ends as soon as someone snags that white one. Anyone not holding a red scarf gets points taken off their score.”
Ari Ara quickly sat up and scanned the poles for the white scarf.
“It’s not there,” she grumbled.
“It doesn’t have to be on a pole,” he clarified. “Sometimes it’s on a belt or tied around a leg or arm.”
Ari Ara searched again. She blocked out all the other sights and sounds. She narrowed her vision to find the white scarf . . . just like searching for a lost lamb on a distant hillside. A sudden flash of motion caught her eye.
“There!” she cried, elbowing Minli. “Shulen’s got it. Look at him!”
Ari Ara had never seen such a sight. Shulen moved like water, grace and strength pouring off his every gesture. The white scarf was audaciously tied around his head, but no one seemed to notice him. He prowled tiger-like through the ruckus then stood stock still in the center of the courtyard. It was the hush of the spectators that alerted the trainees. They turned on Shulen, chasing him here and there.
Why were they moving as if stuck in honey? Ari Ara wondered. Then she rubbed her eyes. It was simply that Shulen moved so fast! Her mouth fell open. The ruckus continued. One red flag after another was snatched from the poles. Shulen stayed several steps ahead of even the fastest trainees. When the last red flag was pulled down, he leapt backward and held the white scarf aloft. The gong sounded.
“No one was ever going to catch him!” Ari Ara commented in an awed voice. He was a tiger playing with butterflies.
The monk in front of them turned around with a scowl and motioned for them to be silent. In the courtyard, pairs were squaring off for sparring matches. The applicants were paired according to skill levels and would work their way up in rank, moving from challenger to challenger. Ari Ara and Minli watched, whispering to each other and betting on the winners. Neither child had coins, but each carried the obligatory pocketful of polished river stones that all the young people collected. By the second stage of the matches, Minli had acquired most of hers.
“How do you know?” she complained in disgust.
“I watch them practicing,” Minli explained. “I know who’s steady or clever or fast or just plain strong.”
“Who’s the best?” she asked him.
“Of the trainees? Brol, probably,” Minli answered, pointing to a powerful, dark-haired boy who had just heaved his opponent off his feet. “He’s already training with the younger warrior monks.”
Ari Ara shivered slightly as Brol beat his challenger back with ferocity that made her uneasy. She began to watch everyone more carefully, noting the foolish mistakes and stupid moves. Everyone is an expert from the sidelines, Ari Ara thought, grinning at her own impudence in critiquing the warriors-in-training.
“You ought to train,” Minli suggested. “I can’t, not with my leg, but you’re quick and strong.”
“And get whacked in the head? No, thanks,” Ari Ara objected with a frown.
They flinched as a trainee took a painful blow and one of the girls swept her opponent off his feet with a swift kick.
“I’m interested in dodging blows,” Ari Ara stated, “hopefully by a mile or more.”
The sparring rounds made her increasingly queasy as long wooden poles replaced unarmed fighting, spears followed poles, and sword duels brought the individual trials to a climax. There were other weapons that the monks trained with, Minli informed her, but they would not be using them tonight. Ari Ara winced, watching a close shave with the sharp edge of a sword. No one was clumsy enough to be seriously hurt this evening, but Minli told her about other times when people had received painful injuries.
“Has anyone ever died?” she asked.
“Not recently,” he answered in such a somber tone that she decided to stop asking questions.
Soon, the closing gong sounded and the sparring pairs exchanged ritual handshakes and salutes. The aroma of sweet rolls wafted as the roster of scores was carefully compiled. She saw Brol standing with the other trainees, looking pleased. He had done very well in the sparring matches and stood a good chance of receiving the highest score of the Trials.
Ari Ara leaned forward precariously as a monk walked by with a tray of sweet rolls held aloft over his shoulder. She snagged one as Minli hauled back on her belt to keep her from falling over.
“Here,” she said, handing it to him and keeping her earlier bargain.
He offered her half, but she shook her head, taking another bite of the small loaf of bread. The roster of accepted trainees for this year’s session at Monk’s Hand was announced.
“No surprises there,” Minli commented.
Most had passed, including the two girls. There were few women warriors, Minli informed Ari Ara when she asked, but they did exist. In the Capital, there was a women’s cohort who were ranked at the highest levels. The two girls who passed today would likely study for a few years at Monk’s Hand, then go to the Capital to complete their training as apprentices of the warrior women. Only three applicants failed the Trials: a very small orphan who could stand again next year and two youths who shrugged amiably at the news.
“They received word last week that they could apprentice to the tanners in Mari Valley,” Minli told her. “They only stood Trial because they said they would. Neither showed much aptitude.”
Shulen stepped calmly to the center of the courtyard.
The craggy, weathered warrior wore his iron-grey hair long, tied at the nape of his neck. His face bore more scars and crevasses than the rocky mountain slopes. The deep folds of his eyes were lined with wrinkles carved less by age than by his relentless battling with the world. He was as dark as the forest, half-shadowed in secrets, skin tanned to a gleaming shade of old bronze. He turned to the Head Monk.
“Perhaps it is time for the announcement?”
“Yes, of course,” Head Monk said with a respectful bow.
A quiver of excitement ran through the crowd. The Head Monk smiled genially at them. He was a round and comfortable man who no longer trained with the warriors, though his battered nose attested to his past. A slight limp plagued him on damp days and he now preferred the warmth of a fire rather than the heat of a battle; but he was respected among the warrior monks, kind to the orphans, and skilled at managing the complex details of the monastery.
“It is our honor,” he said, “to welcome the Great Warrior Shulen who will be in residence at Monk’s Hand Monastery this entire year, training monks and students of all levels, and preparing the most dedicated to enter the Guard.”
The crowd gasped and broke out in excited chatter.
“Unbelievable!” Minli exclaimed. “The Stone One? Here?”
“The who?” Ari Ara asked.
“The Stone One – that’s what they call Shulen down in Mariana Capital.”
It was an apt nickname. The hardened man had a carved quality to his presence, almost as if he had been chiseled out of the mountainside. He looked like an ancient statue awakened by magic. He neither smiled nor frowned, simply stood in the center of the courtyard with an infinite patience, waiting for the noise to die down.
Head Monk waved his hands for silence. Gradually, reluctantly, the monks, orphans, and trainees calmed.
“Let this be an inspiration to all,” Head Monk said. “Hopefully, you will listen to your teachers better this year, and perhaps certain students will stop avoiding the drills that give them the strength to follow such an honored path as that of the warrior.”
He shot a pointed look toward a pack of young trainees. From the darkness, a student groaned. The gathering laughed.
“Now,” Head Monk continued, “it is time to honor our little orphans. Tonight, as by tradition, some will be moving into the trainees’ wing to begin their paths as warriors-in-training. Others will be leaving tomorrow to start new lives in apprenticeships. Many of the ten-year-old girls will journey to the Sisters in Mari Valley to finish their upbringing with those gentle exemplars of modesty and charity. It is a night to celebrate a great many changes. Would all the orphans come forward?”
The crowd stirred as the shortest heads squeezed through to the front. Ari Ara offered Minli assistance down from the ledge then gripped his elbow.
“You’re not leaving, are you?” she asked.
“No worries, there,” he assured her confidently. “I’m the best scribe they’ve got! I’ll be at Monk’s Hand until I’m older than Shulen.”
She breathed a sigh of relief and let him go. He made his way out into the courtyard and lined up next to the others. She peered curiously at the young people her own age, wondering at how different their lives had been. The girls had never chased wolves away from the flocks, she guessed, just as Ari Ara couldn’t imagine being sent away from Monk’s Hand to study with the Sisters. She shuddered at the thought.
Head Monk spoke to each in turn, assigning their new positions, gently teasing the more mischievous ones. The boys went first, followed by the girls who had been assigned to apprenticeships. Lastly, he stood before the girls who were to be sent to the Sisters, reflecting for a moment.
“Hang on,” called the monk in front of Ari Ara. “You’ve forgotten one!”
He spun and plucked her from the ledge.
“What! No – you can’t – I’m not -” she bellowed furiously.
“Not an orphan?” the monk laughed, hauling her onto the courtyard.
“Yes, I’m an orphan, but I’m not your orphan.” She twisted in his hands, slid through his grip, and wrenched free.
“Catch her!” someone called.
Ari Ara dove to the side as the monks lunged. She rolled across the sands of the training area and leapt back to her feet just in time to spring away. Someone snatched at her cloak and she spun, throwing the end over his eyes in a trick she used on the sheep, blinding him until he let go. She whipped away. A warrior monk tried to grab hold of her – she dove head first through his wide-legged stance. As she scrambled to her feet, a trainee snatched her belt from behind and hauled her backwards. She tensed against his weight, digging her toes into the sands, then unexpectedly released, sending him flying onto his bottom. She rolled out of the tumble. She darted left . . . then right. A pair of trainees collided. A few spectators cheered her on. Someone dove for her legs; she leapt over his head. She dodged another. A circle formed around her. She imitated the little boy in the Trials and took a running leap to spring off a startled monk’s shoulder out to the other side. Ari Ara whirled, not thinking, just moving, looking for an escape.
Shulen’s voice cut through the noise like a gong. The monks and trainees froze. Ari Ara leapt at her chance. Shulen calmly caught her by the arm.
“Don’t,” he advised as she tried to break free.
He regarded her with an odd expression that bordered on a smile.
“Who might you be?” he demanded.
“Ari Ara,” she answered hotly.
“Is that a name?” he asked, incredulous. “Not this, not that?”
She glared at him and didn’t answer.
“And you say you’re not an orphan?” he asked.
“No,” she corrected. “I said that I’m not their orphan. I don’t belong to Monk’s Hand Monastery and they can’t send me to the Sisters.”
Shulen stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“Whom do you belong to, then?”
“No one,” she answered, boldly and truthfully. She tossed her wild red hair out of her eyes. “I belong to myself . . . and only I tell myself where to go.”
“Indeed,” Shulen commented, raising an eyebrow. “And why didn’t you show up for Trials?”
“I’m a Fanten shepherdess,” she answered indignantly, “not a solider.”
Shulen’s face grew stern.
“There are no soldiers here. Only warriors.”
“What’s the difference?” she spat out with an irate shrug. “They both make wars and orphans.”
The monks cried out angrily at her words. Shulen held his hand up for silence.
“A soldier is hired by the nobles and battles for their causes. A warrior takes an oath to defend the defenseless, even at the cost of his own life.”
Ari Ara shrugged . . . such distinctions made little difference to the dead. It was cold consolation to orphans whether their father died under the sword of a warrior or a soldier.
“A Fanten shepherdess,” Shulen repeated with a scowl. He stared at her for a long moment. An expectant hush fell over the assembly. Then he pinched a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger, easily blocking her incensed attempt to knock his hand away.
“Fanten do not have hair like yours,” he pointed out.
“I am not Fanten,” Ari Ara replied with a defiant tilt of her chin.
“Then what are you?”
Not this. Not that.
Shulen tilted his head back and roared with laughter.
She blinked at him in surprise. He can laugh? she thought, stunned.
The old warrior held her at an arm’s length and regarded her from head to toe. A strange expression crossed his face. His eyes narrowed with questions and a spark of light she could not interpret, as if hope and despair fought a battle behind his eyes. Finally, he said,
“You will be my apprentice.”
The monks and orphans gasped at her defiance. Shulen raised an eyebrow.
“I’m only taking one.”
“I’ve heard the Great Lady only has one dancing rat terrier – but that doesn’t mean I want to be it,” Ari Ara retorted, using a common Fanten saying.
Shulen hid a smile.
“Show some respect,” Head Monk insisted, bustling over to them.
“Not until he does,” Ari Ara muttered. She ducked under the cuff aimed at her head.
“I’m so sorry, Master Shulen – ” the Head Monk started to say.
Shulen cut him off.
“Ari Ara of Monk’s Hand, Fanten shepherdess of the High Mountains,” he addressed her formally, “I will be standing here at daybreak tomorrow, ready to offer my skills and trainings,” his lips twitched in wry humor, “which are not insignificant. If you should deign to grace me with your presence, I will rise to the challenge of teaching you.”
Their gazes met and locked.
“I will only wait for you once,” he added warningly.
Stone-grey and blue-grey eyes matched wills. Then she broke contact, twisted free, darted from the courtyard, and ran off into the black shepherd’s cloak of night.
Author/Activist Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Way Between, The Dandelion Insurrection, Billionaire Buddha and Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars, the cohost of Love (and Revolution) Radio, and the co-initiator of Live Share Grow: A Movement for the 100%. She is a trainer and social media coordinator for Campaign Nonviolence and Pace e Bene. Sun attended the James Lawson Institute on Strategic Nonviolent Resistance in 2014 and her essays on social justice movements appear in Counterpunch, Truthout and Popular Resistance. www.riverasun.com