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Keshu: The Rites of Maturity

Author: 
Peek-Ereel

I remember our rites of maturity as though we took them yesterday. Keshu the Black Fin, war hero and founder of the movement for an advanced Saxhleel society, earned her sobriquet completing these tests—and she began to build her reputation and solidify her relationship with the companions at this time as well. All of the companions exceled in the tests: Keshu, Vos-Huruk, Tee-Wan, Xocin, and even me (at least until the final test). Yes, we accomplished great things, but much of the credit has to go to our instructor and mentor, the raj-deelith, Drameencin.

The elder teacher was ancient. Supposedly, he was old when our egg-parents hatched from the communal nest. But age didn't seem to slow Drameencin. More like a fine mold or a fermented ooze, he just got better with every passing season. By the time we became his students, he was at the top of his craft and we were poised to become his masterpieces. He followed the usual methods of instructing young Saxhleel, making sure we conformed to the needs and requirements of the community and teaching us advanced techniques for hunting and tracking and crafting. But he took us beyond the source of the river to also enhance our peculiar talents. We weren't just interchangeable eggs in a basket to Drameencin. We were individuals, and Keshu especially thrived under his tutelage.

The Saxhleel rites of maturity consist of multiple tests of skill and bravery over the course of multiple days. Some of the tests are set, used by every Saxhleel community throughout the greater marsh. Others change, depending on location, time of season, or the specific tastes of a community's raj-nassa (the elder leaders). Our rites included three difficult tests. How Keshu performed at these tests showed what kind of person she was blossoming into.

The first of these tests was "The Trial of the Lost Centipede." We were each directed to reach into a barrel and pull forth a single marsh centipede. If you've never seen a marsh centipede, they are excellent specimens of great size and nasty temperament. The average marsh centipede is as long as the span of your outstretched fingers and as thick as your wrist. The centipede selected is decorated with a distinctive mark to identify it. Then they are given to runners who race into the wilderness and release them. Our test was to track our specific marsh centipede, capture it, and return it to the raj-nassa alive and well. Now, tracking a specific centipede through an overgrown marsh is no simple task. It takes skill, patience, and even a bit of luck.

Xocin recovered his centipede first, but in doing so he disturbed a haj mota. In order to elude the hidden hunter, he was forced to wade into a deadly patch of quicksand. Keshu, who happened to be passing by at the time, distracted the haj mota and sent it scrambling in the opposite direction. Then she circled back and rescued Xocin from the sucking embrace of the pool of mud and sand.

By the time Keshu tracked down her centipede, it had gotten itself into a terrible situation. A trio of hostile nagas was hunting the plump, many-legged creature, hoping to make a meal out of it. To complete this part of the maturity rites, Keshu could not allow that to happen. Without hesitation, she slipped into the dark water and swam toward the trio, submerged and hidden from view as she made her approach. Vos-Huruk, who was returning to the village after collecting her own centipede, happened upon the scene and watched as the event played out. She reported what happened and now I am writing it down for posterity's sake.

As the naga hunters circled and closed in on their prey, Keshu silently rose from the dark water like a black fin on the prowl, a vicious dagger in each hand and a look of determination in her eyes. She dispatched the first two nagas with quick slashes of her blades, advancing toward the third before her initial kills had barely sunk below the surface of the marsh. By the time the last naga realized that death was fast-approaching, it was too late to defend himself. He fell without providing even a token resistance to the single-minded Keshu. She scooped up her centipede and followed Vos-Huruk back to the raj-nassa.

 

The first of our three difficult tests completed, it was now time to begin our second rite of maturity. This was "The Trial of the Perfect Bowl." It was as much a test of our crafting skill as it was a test of humility and confidence. The goal, we would discover later, was not necessarily to make the most ornate and complicated bowl we could devise, but to demonstrate that simple and utilitarian could also reveal perfection.

The test consisted of three parts. First, we had to acquire the components necessary to craft our bowls. Then we had to locate the hidden crafting stations that had been set up in dangerous parts of the marsh for just this specific purpose. Finally, we had to craft our bowls and present them to the raj-nassa for judgment—before the crafting stations succumbed to the dangerous locations they were placed in.

Each of us was provided with a specific material our bowls had to be constructed from. For example, Tee-Wan had to secure the shell of a rare three-clawed mudcrab, while I had to acquire the husk of a krona nut and Xocin needed to find the perfect branch from a dragon's tongue tree. While each of these presented a particular challenge, we were afraid for Keshu when we heard what her primary component had to be. She needed to steal an egg from a haj mota nest! Not only were haj motas extremely protective of their nests, the brittle shells of the haj mota egg were notoriously difficult to work with. More often than not, the shells crack when not worked with the utmost care and expertise.

Keshu, now called "the Black Fin" as the tale of her success in the first rite spread throughout the village, headed out to locate a haj mota nest. Since she had met one of the massive creatures during the previous trial, she decided to return to that area to start her quest. She spent an entire day watching the marsh, observing the comings and goings of the haj mota. It soon became evident that the creature was a doe and that it had a full nest somewhere nearby. Of course, there are few creatures as dangerous as a mother haj mota protecting its eggs, and Keshu would have to tread carefully to successfully complete this part of the trial, let alone survive to finish the entire rite.

Now, Keshu wanted to steal an egg from the nest, but she didn't want to harm any of the remaining eggs or injure the haj mota in the process. She believed in making as little mark as possible on the world as she passed through it. So once again she set out to distract the haj mota and lead it away from its nest. In this way, she hoped she could acquire an egg without having to face the creature's wrath. This time, she gathered a bundle of orange-grass and marsh roots—a combination that few haj motas can resist—and used the intoxicating aroma (at least to the haj mota) to draw the creature away from its nest. Then she tied the bundle to a water lizard and sent it scurrying into the deeper marsh. The haj mota followed after it, leaving Keshu's path to the nest clear.

There were three eggs in the nest. Keshu didn't select the largest egg, or the egg with the thickest shell. She took the smallest egg, because its mottled shell looked smooth and perfect to her crafter's eyes. She saw the bowl within it, waiting to emerge. What she hadn't seen, not until the last possible moment, was the male haj mota stalking out of the marsh and heading for the nest. She barely had enough time to slip away before the male reached the nest and noticed that an egg was missing. She listened to its roar, a mix of anger and loss, as she made her way to her crafting station.

Keshu's crafting station was set atop a log platform above a massive patch of deadly quicksand. She had to craft her bowl before the entire station sank into the marsh. She worked quickly yet carefully, expertly removing the very top of the egg to use as the basis for her bowl. She cleaned it, polished it, and added the reagents that would strengthen the shell and make it suitable for use as a vessel or container. She wrapped up her work and bounded off the platform just as the mud sloshed over the top and began to pull it completely into the marsh.

As the raj-nassa examined each of our offerings in turn, we were able to look upon some truly impressive feats of crafting. But it was evident that Keshu had overtaken the field this season. Her bowl, crafted from the simplest haj mota shell, was elegant in its modesty and beautiful in its purity. It needed nothing but to be true to its natural form, and Keshu masterfully let that natural form shine forth—even as she turned it from a brittle shell into a strong, unbreakable bowl.

 

Our third and final trial on the way to complete our rites of maturity was "The Trial of the Stalking Hackwing." In some ways, this was the most dangerous of the rites we had to participate in to earn a place in adult society. Each of us was placed in a cage with a single, huge hackwing. The predatory bird was a vicious creature, strong and confident, every bit as capable a hunter as any of us—and it had the ability to fly. We had to allow the giant bird to attack us and draw blood. If we knew what we were doing, we let it strike so as to bloody us but not incapacitate us. Then the hackwing was released. Our goal: catch and kill the hackwing that marked us before it could do the same to us.

Vos-Huruk and Xocin each took a beak strike to the leg. Both wounds were superficial, drawing blood but not ripping muscle or breaking bone. Tee-Wan allowed the hackwing to pierce his left arm, cutting a long but shallow line from his elbow to his shoulder. Keshu miscalculated a leap back and allowed her bird to cut her across the temple, just above her right eye. But I failed this part of the trial completely. I let the hackwing drive its sharp beak directly into my chest. The healers said it barely missed my heart. Even so, I was injured too badly to continue, and I would have to wait for another season to complete my rites of maturity.

Keshu wanted to check on me, make sure I was going to be all right. The raj-nassa wouldn't hear of it, however, and ordered her to continue with her trial—until either the Black Fin or the hackwing was dead. So with a final glance to make sure the healer was assisting me, Keshu wiped blood out of her eyes and ran into the wilderness. As was traditional, she had no weapon or armor. Just her body and her wits. It was time for the hunter to survive the hunt.

Have you ever been stalked by a hungry hackwing? The experience can be disconcerting and more than a little frightening. Often, you only hear the beating of wings and the rush of air overheard. Sometimes you notice a shadow pass by. Rarely, you catch a brief glimpse of a wing or a talon. And, if you show the slightest weakness, the hackwing dives in and attempts to wound you. Then it simply waits and follows until you collapse from loss of blood. In the case of the rite, we were already bloodied by the hunting birds. They were going to come after us—one way or another. The trick was going to be in anticipating the attack and countering it with an attack of our own.

(I keep saying "our," but realize I was effectively out of the test. I was injured and weak and barely conscious for most of the remaining portion of the trial, only learning what happened later, after I was healed and the rites were finished for the season.)

Keshu led her hackwing into a portion of the marsh where open sky was at a premium. She wanted to use the tree trunks and canopy to her advantage, cutting off all but the most direct paths between the hackwing and her present location. She moved deeper into the trees, flattening out the approach so that when the hackwing finally attacked, it would have to come for her not from above but from a horizontal direction at more or less ground level.

As Keshu waited for her predator and her prey, she broke a sturdy branch from one of the trees at a steep angle, creating a makeshift spear with a ragged yet pointed edge. She braced the spear and her back against the tree trunk behind her and positioned the point so she could raise it quickly when the hackwing appeared. She didn't have to wait long. Thinking that its prey had finally succumbed to blood loss and stopped to die within the cluster of trees, the hackwing swooped down and flew toward Keshu along the exact path she had planned. At the very last moment, Keshu angled the spear up and let the hackwing's speed and trajectory do all the work.

The hunt was over. Keshu was victorious. She had completed her rites of maturity and was ready to take her place as an adult member of the community. And the first thing she did was rush back to make sure I was still alive.