The chieftain Denyy exited her tent early in the morning and took a long inhale of the air around her. A spring rain was imminent, that she could tell as one might tell a river from the ocean. But another feeling encroached faintly in her sense, an omen, perhaps…it was not familiar and her vision of what was to come was clouded. Sorcery afforded her plenty of transformation abilities, but if one had the aptitude and the discipline, hints and glimmers of the future were possible too, in the mind. She looked towards the sun only just risen above the treeline and wondered. Then as her gaze dropped, she saw Eirene soaking her ankles in the shallow waters of the river.
Denyy raised an eyebrow as the young girl sat patiently among the children splashing and frolicking about her. Not even when one of the children tried to drench her with an attempted tidal wave did Eirene move or appear irritated.
Perhaps she is calm now, because of the great sadness put upon her… Denyy thought, unable to shake the sympathy she felt for Eirene. But then she could not shake off the memory of Eirene’s aura for the first time either, experiencing the sheer energy waiting to be unlocked – it was exhilarating to wonder what the young priestess was capable of! And it had been many years since Denyy came upon a worthy student. But how to tempt that energy to the surface? Could be it be done through gentle prompting?
Or maybe, it was better to prod the anger within. Denyy remembered all too well the almost frantic letters from Eldwin, his tone of exasperation at the ferocious temper of a little girl who otherwise was a sweet girl. It had made her laugh heartily back then reading the escapades of young Eirene Nielaa, and had she not read those letters, had she not known that Eldwin was not a man prone to lies or exaggeration, she would not have believed that the young girl wading in the river was the same as the one described in those letters. Astrum has trained her well, Denyy observed, scolding herself for thinking it a shame that Eirene had been raised now to be so contained. What power and skill she could achieve if she was taught to channel her anger properly…
Her eyes shifted to Cendril sat quietly sharpening his blade. His eyes however were not downcast. They were fixed entirely on Eirene. A faint smirk on her lips forming, Denyy swept her furs around her and walked over to him. As she approached, Cendril did not take his eyes off Eirene still, but stopped sharpening and moved to his left on his seat.
“She truly is a strange creature. Half of our people would’ve have shooed the young ones away by now, not least give them a scolding.” Denyy observed. “But not her. Patience is a rare thing to find our tribe. Or perhaps it is resilience.”
Cendril said nothing and continued to stare at Eirene, who was now letting her hair be braided with lilacs.
“Tell me, Cendril: what was her power like, when she aided you in the forest?”
“It was not like anything I had experienced before.”
“It was not like anything I had experienced before.” Cendril repeated, finally breaking his gaze from Eirene to face his chieftain. “But whatever it was, it worked.”
“And yet you do not trust her still.”
“She seems rather unaffected about the sudden loss of her home and family. Unusual for a girl of her age.”
“Or she is well trained at containing her feelings, no matter what they are. The Isles of Astrum are not known for raising girls who wear their emotions on their sleeve.” Denyy interjected, finding herself in defence of the strange girl who had wandered into their path. “Perhaps you ought to relate to her in that regard.”
“That still does not mean she is worthy of trust. She may be contained, but we need women with fire in their blood to live here. I cannot yet see whether she has that capacity, or whether she is just water from the Isles whence she came.”
Denyy pursed her lips in thought. She knew he did not lie, but he was holding part of the story back and she knew what part it was as well. For the first time in years, Cendril had met someone with power that was both natural and uncorrupted, someone who in one small moment had bewitched him with it, and then mystified him with her naiveté. His pride would not let him admit this out loud and this then amused the Chieftain somewhat. Nevertheless, she needed answers about this priestess and they were needed soon.
“I want you to teach her combat.” She said. Cendril started sharpening his blade again.
“She is a healer, not a warrior.”
“Of course, for if you had been born of Astrum, you would likely be a priest by now.” Denyy snapped. “But she is in Syvina now and we are the warriors of Hoaeda. If she wishes to stay here safe, she will need to learn. I expect her training to begin today.”
As she got up from her seat, Denyy noticed once more that Cendril’s gaze was drawn back to Eirene.
“Remember what I said about her eyes, Cendril. She will not be a replacement for all those years ago. They are not eyes for you.”
The warrior looked up at his chieftain.
“She is the ocean, she is born of it. The Isles of Astrum have raised her well, but you cannot make a home for her with you.”
“And you would know?” Cendril’s eyes narrowed.
“If you sought to be her equal, perhaps there may a bed to make for the both of you. But you seek to possess her and that will be your undoing, Cendril. The ocean cannot be held. She will not take to being controlled and I would heed you not to pursue doing so.”
Cendril, without farewell, rose to his feet and made his way towards Eirene.
Denyy allowed a faint smile to grace her face. It had been too long for him. Now that this mysterious priestess had arrived, his interests had been reawakened as clearly as though someone had lit a fire under his nose. The only question was whether Eirene would know or understand what was coming her way, especially from a quiet, brooding warrior who had shown her kindness that was rare for him to show.
As soon as Cendril approached the edge of the river, the children that had been playing there scattered and only Eirene was left standing. He looked down to her feet submerged in the water and then back up to her young face, which bestowed upon him the smallest of smiles.
“I see you have acquainted yourself with the children of Hoeada.”
“I suppose, though I have yet to take any names.” Eirene replied, standing up and keeping her feet immersed in the water of the river. “They found my hair and my old robes to be most unusual when they first saw me yesterday.”
“As I said before, few of us venture far from Hoeada, let alone outside of Syvina.”
And neither would I have done until recently, Eirene thought to herself. She remembered all those years ago now, when High Priest Eldwin asked her if she wished to continue her journey to becoming a priestess. Perhaps she should have chosen differently. It had not been long after she had chosen that her mind began their wanderings again and ever since, it was always the same question: what was beyond the Isles of Astrum? What more was out there?
And now, in the most unlikely of circumstances, she was getting a taste of the fruit of knowledge she had been longing to take a bite out of. Eirene looked around at the Hoeada camp, still amazed by its size and the vast array of colours, smells, textures. Everything was right here for her to get immersed into, to help her forget the grief of her old life, and maybe learn a new one, one that might teach her things she could only have imagined of. It was so easy to get lost in it all.
“The chief has requested that you learn combat.” Cendril interrupted her thoughts. He had been watching her for a couple of minutes gazing at the camp, trying to decide what she might be thinking about. Eirene could not disguise her surprise at his statement.
“I must confess, I have never thought to use a weapon in my life, much less use one.” She murmured, ashamed to admit the brutal truth: that when it came to worlds outside of Astrum, she was behind and almost completely ignorant.
Sensing her discomfort, Cendril cleared his throat and continued. “It is tradition that every member of Hoeada tribe learns even the basics, even if they wish to learn no further than that.”
“Oh of course, if it is tradition, I will not refuse.” Eirene agreed, albeit reluctantly. “I suppose that it will be today that the Chieftain wishes me to begin?”
“I will be your teacher and I warn you, I do not tarry, nor will it be a journey that you will likely enjoy. Do you think that is something you can manage?”
“Then I am lucky indeed, to be trained by the best.” Eirene smiled a little, feeling more at ease knowing she would commence her training with familiarity. Cendril for his part bowed his head only slightly, uncomfortable and not used to the flattery he had just received.
Just as he was about to lead her away, however, Eirene then spoke up. “May I make one request before we begin?”
Cendril raised an eyebrow at her.
“Show me around the tribe.” She said, her voice suddenly wistful and eager. “I want to learn your ways.”
“Learn our ways?”
“If I am to be accepted into your company, I think it is only appropriate, as well as a desire of mine to truly learn the lands beyond the home I have left.”
The warrior examined her face carefully for any trace of insincerity and found none. Maybe the girl could be trusted, at least for now.
“Follow me.” Cendril instructed Eirene, walking towards the tents. She obeyed eagerly, catching up to his side and immediately observing her surroundings. Every tent was made from mixtures of cow and pig, most of the leathers weatherbeaten by sun, rain, or snow. The camp appeared to be ordered into sections from what Eirene could tell without Cendril explaining to her: wise women in one place, cooks and healers in another, hunters, mothers and children, and the most famed group of all, the warriors of Hoeada.
The men and boys in this area of the encampment were either half naked or clothed in hard leather, skins bronzed, hardened muscles by hours of training. One of the younger ones, not too far off Eirene in age, raised his head in her direction as she and Cendril passed. When he spotted her and stared for a few seconds, he nudged one of his comrades, who also looked her way. Both of them grinned at her, flexing their muscles as though they were showing her how they would use them to effect with her.
Eirene was not ignorant to sex and the frustrations it wrought among adults. She had seen the nuances of the village people and sometimes even the priests and priestesses of the Eistr Mariskh, the way some would convey such thoughts with even a look. Even Ynys, boyish as he had been, had not escaped her eye as they left their childish years. Her cheeks flushed a little at the memory of them swimming in the ocean once, his chest and legs beginning take on a manly definition that made her curious at least. Yet despite her knowing of these acts between men and women, she had no clue as to how to respond to the way these men gazed after her hungrily. She had no understanding yet of how her young and developing curves into womanhood were something the men of Hoeada not only desired, but celebrated.
Cendril merely looked at the young warriors and they instantly returned their attentions to whatever it was they were originally doing. Eirene relaxed once again, now that the attention had been diverted.
“If you cannot already tell, those are our First Bloods. They are the youngest in our ranks, and therefore the stupidest.“ Cendril explained once he and Eirene had put enough distance between them and the warriors.
“They cannot be so stupid if they have been chosen to become warriors?” Eirene replied, a little confused at Cendril’s harshness towards the young men.
“It is not their weapons they are stupid with, but their cocks.”
“Brash language is common place also in Hoeada. It is not habit for the men especially to use the more formal conduct that I am sure you have been used to at Astrum. You had best get used to hearing it.”
“I see.” Eirene commented drily, not quite comfortable with the notion. “So if the First Bloods are your lowest ranks, who presides over them?”
Cendril said nothing for a moment as he guided them into a hut filled with uniforms and weapons. A wrinkled and burly man was forging some steel, his hammer singing as it beat away at the metal. Sensing extra presences in the hut, he looked up to see the new arrivals waiting for his acknowledgment. The old man nodded at Cendril first before squinting his eyes at Eirene.
“Well, you could not have picked a tinier girl. This little snapper would not fit into any of my armour here, Tupha.” The man spoke bluntly, eyeing Eirene as one might appraise a horse.
“It is the chief’s request that she learn combat, so you will have to fashion her with some, somehow.” Cendril replies, equally as short in his answer. The old man snorted.
“Do not test me, Tupha. I can still teach you the ways of a hammer, and not the kind you would want to experience, I wager.”
“Just hurry and do it, M’mfudi.”
The man, now named M’mfudi, harrumphed indignantly and instead turned his attention to Eirene, who was gazing at all the armour and weaponry, trying to assess which would be used, when and how.
“What is your name, girl?“ M’mfudi barked at her.
Eirene, slightly startled at his address to her, bowed her head a little and answered, “Eirene, sir.”
M’mfudi hooted with laughter. “Sir, eh, girl? Most certainly, you are not from these lands. I should hazard a guess - Elbira?”
“No, sir, the Isles of Astrum.”
“Ah, the pretty Isles of Astrum across the sea. I see it now, yes. A dainty healer.”
“Not so dainty that I should learn combat and sorcery.” Eirene shot back, insulted to be referred to as such. M’mfudi laughed again.
“She bites as well. A good find, Tupha.” He commented appreciatively to Cendril, eyes twinkling with mirth before looking at Eirene’s narrowed eyes. “Stay your temper, little lady, I only jest. I too come from lands considered grand, beautiful and perhaps with dainty hearted people. Not so like me now, after years living in Syvina and elsewhere.”
“And which lands would those be?” Eirene asked, still wary of the old man’s humour. She did not like people to assume her character in such bluntness as M’mfudi had, but she was willing to accept that maybe she misheard his intention, for he was still addressing her jovially and not with any jot of malice.
“My homelands are that of builders: Maco.” M’mfudi said almost wistfully, his eyes a little less in the present. Then he shook his head and went about making some armour for the newest arrival.
“I have heard of Maco. I must confess I have always wished to travel there.” Eirene murmured, equally wistful at the idea of travelling to Maco, the kingdom famed for its glorious buildings and craftsmen.
“You would enjoy it, I am sure, little one. It taught me the basics I needed to make my way in the world.”
Eirene thought quietly for a moment. “What brought you to Syvina?”
“You ask many questions.”
“There is always much to learn.”
Although his eyebrow was raised, as though he had found her answer impudent, M’mfudi was beginning to like this girl. She was a welcome change from the brash arrogance of the First Bloods he was often charged with.
“Come back for your armour in a little while.” He said.
“Will you not need measures for such a tiny girl?” Eirene quipped quickly and with humour. M’mfudi smirked.
“As you will find in Hoeada, a man’s eyes are enough.“
In what ways, Eirene wondered, though Cendril then did not give her much choice to think on the matter, for he gently placed a hand on her back and guided her away from the hut. When they stepped outside, the gang of warriors that were outside had now left, to Eirene’s relief. The warrior and the priestess began to walk together in silence.
When Eirene came to a stop to look around again, Cendril finally spoke. “In answer to your question, we have four ranks. First Bloods, then Fledglings, the Seasoned, and the highest of all, Great Wings.”
“Like a phoenix.” Eirene murmured as the flag of Syvina came into view above the hut in which she had been first brought before Chieftain Denyy.
“It is our sigil after all.” Cendril agreed with her. “And that where you were brought to the chief is the Ish-Br, the grand hut of Hoeada. All important meetings, ceremonies and so on are hosted there.”
Eirene nodded, looking at the Ish-Br and feeling shiver down her spine. It was grand, indeed, both in size and in appearance.
“Is there anymore you wish to see of Hoeada before your training must begin?” Cendril asked.
Shaking her head, Eileen replied, “Seeing now how truly expansive Hoeada is, I should imagine it might take more than a day for me to familiarise myself.”
“Then let us not tarry.”
Following Cendril still, Eirene began to dread what was in store for her. She hoped the weapon he might provide her would be small to start with. The thought of trying to hoist and swing a greataxe or a mace did not sit well with her. He began to lead her away from the encampment, and it was then she became confused. How was her purporting to teach her to fight, if there were no armour or weapons to hand?
The pair finally reached a quiet clearing near the river, where there were no children or tribespeople to bother them. Spotting Eirene’s bewilderment, Cendril explained, “Combat is more than the mere strike of a sword or bow. It is about how you position yourself, pace yourself, how you read your opponent and anticipate their movement, how to find their weaknesses and then, only then, do you strike.”
“I see.” Eirene frowned, still not understanding fully how he intended to start. “Forgive me, but I supposed that combat meant that weapons would be involved.”
Smiling faintly with amusement, Cendril said, “We do have a weapon already, Mistress Nielaa.”
He slowly approached Eirene, who held her breath as he came within a hair width of her space. Then before she could ask him another question, his foot hooked around her ankle, pushing forward in sharp and upwards motion and making her loose her footing. Eirene gasped as Cendril used also a hand to push her, which left her falling onto the ground in a puzzled heap.
“Our greatest weapon, at our most primal moments, is our body, if one knows how to use it.” He stated, towering above her with a satisfied grin on his face.
Scowling, Eirene tried to raise herself to her feet, only to be pushed back down as she came to midway height by Cendril. Hitting the ground with a harder thud, than the last, Eirene couldn’t help yelping as her buttocks met the floor.
“So if you have been pushed to the ground, one must think how to escape the advantage the attacker now has. Where can you from now?” Cendril continued, his smirk widening a little.
He went to grasp her to her feet, but before his hand came anywhere near her, Eirene scrambled backwards at speed, before hastily coming to her feet.
Keeping his surprise contained, Cendril said, “You are a quick learner, indeed.”
Eirene didn’t like the way he was smirking at her. He was enjoying her struggle, enjoying the way she had reacted at being caught completely off guard. It reminded her of Annexa and those bitches back on Astrum, who would taunt her until she could have cried with frustration, and for the first time in a while, she felt her blood beginning to simmer. At the very least now she could fight back without reprimand now. This was combat after all.
“So how does one begin with using their body to attack or to defend themselves?” She asked, her voice still steady despite feeling aggravated by Cendril’s teasing, aware that he was looking at her intently with his violet eyes, studying her..
So she does have fire in her blood, Cendril observed, impressed that she wasn’t backing down from him. Perhaps she wasn’t all the water of the Isles of Astrum like he had suspected before. He still didn’t trust her entirely yet, though her interest in Hoeada and her willingness to engage was slowly convincing him that she would be a benefit to the tribe. But he wouldn’t admit that the old witch Denyy was right yet.
“Footing and awareness are the first steps.” He explained, motioning for Eirene to come to him once more. Eirene did so, though her steps were hesitant.
Cendril gently took her and spun her so her back was to his chest. His hands then gently moved her arms and legs into a position that was slightly dipped, with her arms out in a protective stance. He spoke gently in her ear, “You should be able to move back and forth on the balls of your feet, ready if someone intends to attack, or if you attack them.”
Nodding, Eirene began to move backwards and forwards on her feet like she was instructed to do, her feet almost bouncing on the ground and with the delicacy of a dancer. When he was satisfied that she was ready to take the next steps, Cendril left her back and came to stop in front of her, adopting a similar stance to hers.
“Awareness is keeping your eyes on your opponent, watching constantly for the slightest of movements -” He suddenly lashed out with an open palm, as though he would strike her. Although her arms blocked the attack, Eirene wasn’t quick enough to move out of the way, “- so if you need to avoid the strike or repel it, you are ready.”
“So if I go to strike you like this -“ Eirene brought her own fist back, before sending it in the direction of Cendril’s face. He caught her arm by the wrist with ease and pushed it away, still keeping one arm aloft to keep his face protected.
“Then I can block you.” Cendril affirmed, noting that she was still keeping her stance.
Trying again, Cendril went to strike her again with the flat of his palm, but this time, Eirene ducked out of the way, took his wrist with difficult in her tiny hands and pushed him away.
“Good.” He said, continuing to try again, sending his hands in different directions at her, each one either blocked or deflected no matter how unsteadily, and still, Eirene never lost her stance. To try and catch her off guard, Cendril stuck his foot out to try and trip her around the ankles. Taking note of how he did so last time and refusing to fall victim to the same mistake again, Eirene merely pulled her foot away and used it against him by doing the very same action he had intended to do on her.
Falling to the floor with no sound, Cendril immediately recovered and struck out with his hand, grasping Eirene’s other ankle planted on the floor and yanked it forward. She yelped as she landed on the ground with a heavier thud before, hissing at a cut on her hand before wiping it crossly on her clothes.
“And when I saw watching constantly, I mean at all times. Like then, you stopped when you thought I was down. You have to be certain your opponent is never getting up again before you let your guard down.”
“I understand.” Eirene said, pushing herself up to sitting and dusting grass from her knees.
Seeing that she already looked a little tired, probably because her physical fitness was so far away from his, Cendril spoke again, but this time gently. “This will take many months to learn in full, Eirene. I wish I could say that you had time to learn perhaps in the slower ways your Isles of Astrum may have offered you for priesthood, but in Syvina, survival and being a warrior relies on learning hard and quickly. Are you willing and up to the task?”
Definitely today, Eirene had underestimated somewhat how difficult combat could truly be. Up until being confronted by a man so much more powerful than she, she had not realised how unfit she was in body. But she couldn’t give up. She never did when her studies or her classmates were difficult in Astrum, she never did when her temper had failed to be contained, so many times. And ever present on her mind was her dear Mama and High Priest Eldwin. They would not want her to stop either, no matter how strange of circumstances she now found herself in. For her to survive and give up would be an insult to their memory, of all the times they had kept encouraging her forward.
After much thought and seeing that Cendril was waiting for an answer, Eirene replied, with confidence that she had a feeling she wouldn’t have later on during lessons, “I am.”
Cendril then smiled properly for the first time since they had met, pleased to see that the fire inside her was more than just a flicker easily blown out by a breeze, and held out his hand, ready to help her to her feet.