Talla's Fallen Temple Ch. 14byxtorch©
"What in the nine hells is this?"
Tina turned to look at Talla, who was holding up an assignment card in bewilderment.
"What's it say?"
Talla flipped the card over and showed it to Tina.
The only things on the card were the current date and a curious symbol: a semi-circle with a horizontal arrow bisecting it and extending past its borders on either side.
"It's a bow and arrow," Tina said. "Military training."
Talla shook her head.
"We take military training?"
"Of course," Tina said. "Weren't you listening in History?"
"'If no one stands on the wall, the city will fall'," Tina quoted.
"So they train us to stand on a wall?"
"Shooting arrows and what not," Tina went on. "Some of the trusted men are supposed to be on the inside, too."
Would Zhair'lo be one of the trusted ones? Talla imagined so.
"Every Virgin has to take some training," Tina explained, shrugging. "They take you in big groups, so they can do the training all at once. You're gonna suck at it, though, without any Form upgrades. We all do."
"I've got one in Strength," Talla protested.
"And giant boobs getting in the way," Tina added as if Talla hadn't spoken.
The teasing tinged with jealousy was the sort of thing Talla was used to.
"Oh, but you have to head over right away," Tina pointed out. "They start at seventh bell."
That made it only slightly better than doing laundry. Talla supposed it made sense to get this sort of thing done before the heat became oppressive.
"Head over where?"
"Form," she said. "Show them the card and they'll direct you."
Talla's face fell and turned pale.
"I'd go with you," Tina said. "But I've got to get to work, too. You should be done by third bell, though. Come find me in the baths?"
It was still their favourite meeting place, where they'd get together with Yua and whoever else could make it.
Talla nodded, her mouth suddenly dry, and turned away. There was nothing further that Tina could do for her. She feared even to give her friend a parting hug, lest that damage her composure. She was going need all of her resolve, wasn't she? Just to keep it together? How many days of training would she need? She could have asked Tina, but she wasn't going to do so now. Any reversal of course would break her at this point.
She passed out of Endowment Hall into the plaza in front of it. Women were milling around, just getting ready to start their days. Their utterly normal, completely non-frightening days.
Talla went through the crowd, trying not to think of anything at all and failing even at that. She knew where she was going and couldn't hide it from herself.
Wooden beams. Wooden walls. Wooden tables.
She mustn't think about the tables.
Somehow, she ghosted her way out of Endowment's triangle entirely and found her way across the Goddess's domain to the gates of Form. Dozens of other girls in white skirts were standing at the gates, already waiting.
Talla turned to see Yua and fastened her gaze on her cheerful friend.
"So glad you're here," Talla stammered before clamping her mouth closed, not trusting her voice any further.
It wasn't just Yua though. Lara and Salee were there. So were Anzha and Nadine and all of the others who had been Sealed Virgins.
Talla heaved a sigh of relief. She wasn't doing this alone. There might be a hundred or so girls going in with her.
'Wait,' she thought. 'Does that mean ...'
She started looking around at the other groups of girls, clustering around those they knew. There was Natta, who had been the winner of Talla's Initiation, bunched up with what Talla took for Sweetness Virgins. For a moment, Talla thought to search for Zoe, but remembered that Zoe would, naturally, be on the other side of these gates. Possibly this training session was only for Endowment and Sweetness anyway. There might be other arrangements for those inside Form.
A wave of relaxation came over her. Friends were abundant. She would take the comfort of home along with her when she went to Form this time. There would be no trouble. She would do nothing suspicious. They were going to teach her how to use weapons and she was going to listen intently and diligently obey every order.
There would be no need for tables ... or whips.
Talla began to relax, letting the sounds of the other girls giggling and talking wash over her like a warm shower.
"Attention!" a voice cracked over them all.
Quite suddenly, the chattering came to an end. It was understood that one of the talents of From was that its women could do that with their voices.
The one speaking was not someone Talla had seen before. She wore black leather, shoulder to ankle despite the heat, and a wrought iron circlet on her brow. Her dark hair was parted in the middle and swept back over her ears, accentuating her sharp nose and her deep, blue eyes.
Those eyes glared over her captive audience.
"Those attending military training will enter now," she commanded. "Show your cards and keep them. Do not lose them. You will need them to gain admittance every day for the next four weeks."
There was a cadence in the woman's voice that disturbed Talla, almost as if she were used to singing but chose to put a lilt in her voice to punctuate the beginning of every sentence. It was a style of speaking faintly reminiscent of the manner in which Shanata had taught them before their Initiation.
The girls filed silently through the bronze gates, all pretence of amusement having been hammered away with a single shout.
Two guards stood just inside the gate, sternly demanding the display of cards, while the woman in black leathers walked at the head of the column.
Instinctively, without being aware of it, the girls had sorted themselves into two files. There appeared to be about eighty of them in total, as best Talla could tell. She waved her card in the air as she entered, refusing to make eye contact with the woman assigned to check it.
Down the long central road they went. Where else would they go? It was obvious, wasn't it? Where else could they do any military training except in the same giant courtyard where the Bazaar had been held?
That courtyard had, once again, changed. It wasn't empty, as it had been when they'd been here for punishments. It wasn't festooned with colourful fabrics and full of excited women as it had been for the Bazaar.
No, they'd done something entirely different this time around.
At one end, where they entered, there were two rows of thin, circular bales of hay mounted on what looked like artist's easels. At the other end was a long platform, parallel to the rows of hay bales, built on scaffolding about three metres high.
The woman in black marched them around the edge of the field and brought them to the midpoint of the hay bales and the scaffolding. The girls, assembling themselves unevenly, gave the clear impression they were out of their element. Their discomfort told the story of people who wanted to leave, even while that same discomfort kept them in line.
"Allow me to introduce myself," the woman in black intoned as she took a place between the girls and the bales of hay.
She continued hammering on the first word in every one of her sentences.
"My name is Gillian. I am an Officer of Iron. I am your instructor. You will address me as 'Mistress'."
There was a long pause, not because Gillian was unsure what to say, but because she wanted them to feel awkward.
"In times of strife," she went on, "it is the women of Form who are trained to go out beyond the walls and wreak havoc among those who would bring us harm. The rest of you stand on the walls and defend the city."
It was clear, from her tone of voice, which group held the higher honour.
"Today you will learn, as women have learned before you, how to loose an arrow."
Another long pause.
"You may not consider it very likely," she said. "But there may some day be barbarians at our gates. And if no one stands on the wall, the city will fall."
Her voice softened for a moment, losing all of its beat but none of its inhuman menace.
"It would be a shame," she cast her voice with a mockery of sadness, "if your sisters in Form returned victorious only to find a city in ashes."
Gillian drew herself up again and returned to her former mode of speaking.
"There are twenty instructors today. You will be broken into groups of four. You will be taught the basics of handling a bow. You will learn to notch an arrow. You will learn to loose an arrow. You will learn to be lethal to your enemies and safe at the backs of your friends."
Lethal to my enemies, Talla thought, and safe with my friends? I can't promise my friends anything, but my enemies are going to get what they have coming.
"Take it," Kenji whispered.
Zhair'lo had seen the deer coming up the path toward them, unaware of their perch above it.
The tree in which the two Hunters waited divided a deer trail in two, the halves of the path rejoining on the other side of the giant oak trunk. Once they had seen it coming, the only choice the deer had was as to whose arrow would fell it.
And the beast had chosen Zhair'lo's side of the tree.
If Kenji's voice had been heard by the animal, so many metres below, it gave no notice. Perhaps that was another skill of the Hunter -- the pitching of a voice to some subtle register that left their communication secret.
Zhair'lo knew what to do.
He notched his arrow and waited.
The target was not yet in position, but he had all the time in the world.
Talla stood at the bottom of one of the cheap wooden stairways that led up to the top of the scaffolding. Above her, untested women of both Endowment and Sweetness were taking turns with instructors. Clumsily, they were holding their bows, notching their arrows and trying to hit the little red paper targets on the bales of hay below them.
Absentminded, she looked down at the bow she'd been given. It had a nice, smooth, wooden finish -- nothing like the rough-hewn look of every other wooden surface in Form. The bow didn't creep her out the way almost everything else made out of wood did.
This was elegant; well-made; comforting. She placed her left hand on the grip, feeling the way it fit into her hand. She gave a satisfied nod. There were no nightmares buried in this wood.
Somewhere, perhaps in an unseen hall or even on a rooftop, women had begun to sing. It sounded like the music from the Bazaar -- the song she'd heard when she'd met Zoe. Talla found comfort in those notes, though they were so faint that it seemed even a light breeze would steal them from her ears.
"Next!" the instructor called.
The girl in front of her -- someone from Sweetness probably, given the slimness of her chest -- stepped down from the platform and swept past Talla. For a moment their eyes met before the other girl's gaze fell to Talla's cleavage and jerked back up again. She opened her mouth to speak, a look of glee on her face, but Talla was already moving up the stairs, propelled by a sudden desire to get to the business of loosing an arrow.
The woman waiting at the top of the scaffolding was tall enough that she looked down at Talla even though they were standing on the same level.
"Well, good," she said, a note of surprise in her voice. "I see you've got a proper grip."
"I do?" Talla asked, though it was barely a question.
She knew she was holding it properly. It felt exactly right.
A quiver, overloaded with arrows, hung from a post at the front of the scaffolding.
"Now take an arrow between your index and -" the instructor stopped speaking in midsentence.
Talla had, by then, already taken an arrow between her fingers and notched it against the bow string.
The Form woman let out a light gasp.
"I see you've been paying attention to those in front of you," she said with admiration. "Well done."
It might have been that the wind had shifted, because the singing voices were getting louder and, with them, Talla's desire to launch her arrow grew stronger.
"Which is my target, Mistress?" she asked.
'What is your target?'
Those were Master Lyric's words, repeated over and over.
'The heart, if you can get it. If not the heart, then the lungs.'
There were few ways to bring a deer down quickly. The beasts could run a long way if you didn't hit them right, and then you'd be tracking their blood for a kilometre or more.
'If you can't get either of those, then what?'
'The neck? Why?'
'If you can take out the artery in the neck, the deer will collapse in seconds.'
'Correct, but that requires mastery of the bow. Or a lot of luck.'
The deer was directly below Zhair'lo. He braced himself, his left leg half-wrapped around a nearly vertical bough; his right extended to a horizontal limb. The bow was drawn to the point where the back of the arrowhead nearly touched wood.
His angle wasn't good for the lungs, what with the way the animal was twisted, picking at something on the ground and the heart was well protected by the spine and plenty of tough back flesh.
Zhair'lo's eyes narrowed as he set his sights on the side of the animal's neck.
He took a breath.
'Today,' he thought. 'Today I am the master of the bow.'
And he loosed his arrow.
The song echoed in Talla's head, so loud now that she had to believe the choir was marching through the courtyard somewhere behind her. She ignored the words of the instructor, taking aim not at the first, nearest row of targets, but at the second set that was placed another twenty paces farther back.
"You're a bit high, dear -"
A voice breathed in her ear, scarcely louder than the wind.
"Now!" it seethed.
And she released the bow string.
The arrow twitched around the shaft of the bow, straightened itself out and slid through the air like a whip, planting itself nearly dead centre in the red paper target in the middle of the farther stack of hay.
Talla felt a wave of pride and satisfaction wash over her. The left half of her mouth bent up in a sneer of triumph.
"Halt!" came the shout from below the scaffolding.
"Bows down!" the instructors shouted, following close on the heels of the initial order.
From under the platform, Gillian marched out and looked back towards the section on which Talla stood.
"Who loosed that arrow?" she asked, her voice sharp with command.
Talla held up her bow, still tight in her grip.
"I did, Mistress."
Gillian raised a finger, pointing it at Talla's instructor, and gestured with it in Talla's direction.
"She wants you to take another arrow," the woman whispered to Talla. "Do it again."
Below her, Gillian turned around to watch the target.
Talla did as she was told.
It felt different, this time, almost foreign. If she hadn't known, on an intellectual level, that she'd just done this, she would have sworn that this was her first time.
But her muscles remembered. She notched the bow just as she had before, pulled it back with the same strength. Part of her brain told her how much she should aim above the target to make up for the way it would drop on the way there.
She aimed. She exhaled. She released.
It sailed as it had before, planting itself just a handspan below her first shot.
Gillian turned back to face Talla.
"So it wasn't an accident."
Talla took this for a compliment. It was all she was going to get, as Gillian was already returning to her place under the scaffolding
"Good work, dear," her instructor nodded approval before calling out, "Next!"
She brushed past a girl on the stairway, still in a daze. How had she done that? She had been watching the other girls, but she hadn't been paying any attention to how they'd held their bows or arrows. And yet, with the bow in her hands, she'd known what to do.
Where were those singers, anyway? She could have sworn they'd been right next to the platform, from the volume of their voices. But the singing had stopped and they were nowhere in sight.
A bright eyed girl popped up in front of her.
"I'm V'shika," she said excitedly. "I thought it was you."
V'shika nodded, blinking and flashing her eyelashes to clear away faint traces of tears that were welling up.
"He sent me to you," she whispered.
V'shika leaned in closely.
"Zhair'lo," she whispered through her teeth. "He told me -- he told me what -- well, I want to help."
Talla felt panic rising up from her stomach.
"We can't talk here," she hissed back.
"Of course not. Then where?"
"I always come out through the main gate -- when I Serve," Talla said. "Meet me there at half way to the seventh bell, by the fountain."
V'shika's smile went all the way up to the dark circles under her eyes. Talla imagined that the girl hadn't been sleeping well lately.
"Okay," she said. "You're on. I'll be there."
The Sweetness girl gave her a last smile -- an eager grin that Talla found disturbing in its intensity -- before dashing off to return to her line.
"Ho!" someone called out as they entered the camp.
Since it was early in the evening, the campfires were just started and their light was dwarfed by the setting sun which cast an orange glow over the Hunters scattered about the clearing.
"Ho," Kenji answered.
Zhair'lo had let his mentor take the lead, hauling the front end of the spear from which their captured prey hung. It was a moment Zhair'lo had been looking forward too since he'd brought the beast down.
"Nice catch," another Hunter said, honest admiration in his voice. "You?"
Kenji shook his head and gestured behind him.
The Hunters now gathered around as they moved into the centre of the clearing.
"Look at that ..."
"Right through the artery ..."
"Tore off the side of neck ..."
"A Masters's shot, Zhai."
His first kill, and it had been done exactly right. Zhair'lo couldn't help but grin as he accepted their praise.
"Let's stoke a fire and cook this thing," Kenji ordered. "Who has Is'ka's kit?"
"We're going to cook the whole thing here?" Zhair'lo asked.
"The Carters won't be here for a bell or two," he said. "They can have the rest of the kills that come in later. We'll let them take a good chunk of this one, too. Don't worry."
There were a pair of metal posts with wyes at their tops, designed purposely as a place to hang up prey animals. It was onto the first set of these pairs of posts that they places Zhair'lo's kill. The assorted hunter immediately began butchering it, separating its organs and meats and placing them into cooking vessels.
One of them clapped Zhair'lo on the back.
"Don't worry, lad," he said. "A mighty fine stew we'll make for ya."
Hunters could be dead still when they needed to be, but when movement was needed, it was done with a stealth and efficiency that Zhair'lo had yet to attain. In short order, much of the organ meat was cut up in to cauldron over a suddenly roaring fire, thrown in with potatoes, carrots and a good size chunk of Is'ka's spices. Other chunks of venison were pierced with a spit which the men took turns to rotate.
It appeared that, in celebration of his victory, Zhair'lo wouldn't have to do anything this evening.
This gave him a few moments to look down the path toward the city -- that path that the Carters and women would use to reach the camp this evening.
Something was wrong, but he couldn't put his finger on it.
Nevertheless, every time he looked down that path, he felt a shiver go up his spine, as if he expected some horror to come his way.