Chapter 018: The day of the ceremony and the night of the storm

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Twelve years earlier...
 
In the far south of North Blue, without any other inhabited island or settlement nearby, lay the tiny, crescent-shaped island of Puamoku. The inner edge of the crescent held a sandy beach stretching almost from one end of the island to another, bordering a deep, clear cove. The outer edge of the island consisted of a steep cliff, sloping downwards in the direction of the beach. Between the cliff and beach, there was a landscape consisting mostly of a semi-dense forest.
 
And forming a border between the forest and beach, set up in what was practically a line, a collection of small huts, placed on platforms raised up by long, wooden stilts. The huts were mostly built out bamboo-like stalks held together by twine, with roofs that were made from sheets of bark that had then been covered by layers of woven grass. Starting at the trees just outside this long village, rope ladders and simple walkways could be found, set up as to allow traveling the forest without disturbing it too much.
 
This was the village of the Pua tribe, the only population that Puamoku had seen for hundreds of years. The island was outside the boundaries of most maps, no outsider had reached the island in known Pua history, and the Pua themselves were no travelers - while they had boats, they were primarily small bark canoes, used only for fishing. They would rarely venture outside of the cove, and when they did, it was only at times when the fish inside the cove were sparse. The Pua themselves lived their life as it passed and were not overly concerned with their own history - while they had several traditions that were passed down from one generation to the next, they kept no records of things that had passed and left no permanent marks behind, so any knowledge about how the Pua tribe originated had been long since lost. They were a self-sustaining people, living in harmony with the island's nature, not taking more than they could use and using everything they would take. The population of the island barely totalled five hundred, with more children than adults.
 
More than anything, the Pua were a tribe of hunters. The most important tool to them was the bow, and every Pua child started their archery training at five years old. This basic training took place in groups separated by gender until the age of twelve, when they would instead be assigned a partner based on what skills they had shown during the past seven years. Each pair was put under the watch of an older instructor, and this three-person unit formed the basis of their next six years of training. This pairing ceremony occurred four times a year, on the day after the third full moon since the last ceremony. It was one of the most important events in the life of every Pua child, considered by most to be second only to their coming of age celebration at sixteen.
 
And this was the day of one such ceremony. Most of the tribe had gathered at the beach to witness it, and in the middle of this group stood a half-circle of six children - four boys and two girls. Five who had had their twelfth birthday since the last ceremony, one who had voluntarily waited three additional moons, as there had been an odd number last time. The majority of pairs consisted of one boy and one girl, but the children themselves could request someone to be paired with. Facing the six children were five older Pua members, of which the two - one man and one woman - that had been responsible for the larger boy and girl groups these six had been part of took center stage. They were dressed in the standard Pua clothing, skirts woven from rush grass and tops made out of thin silk. The clothing did not differ between males and females, but it was more common for the males to eschew the top. The six children also wore the traditional ceremonial clothing of the Pua, a longer sheet of silk wrapped around their shoulders and draping down across their backs almost like a cape, dyed in an irregular rainbow-like pattern. Such rainbow dye was also used for the clothing of the chief and his family, otherwise most Pua clothing was only a single, plain colour.
 
The male instructor was the first to speak up. He was of average height, with a well-defined build, tanned skin and short black hair.
"To the six standing before me, you have gone through the first phase of your training, but now it begins anew."
"Today you will each be paired with one of your tribemates, and with them receive further guidance from one of your elders," the female instructor said. She, too, looked physically fit, slightly taller than the man beside her, with braided hair reaching just below her shoulders. Over her right ear, she wore an ornament consisting of a green flower and a white feather. Starting at age twelve, all Pua women started wearing such an ornament - which was called a lifewing - over their right ear. It was considered a symbol of life and love, and women who had promised themselves to another (even if the man in question was not always aware of this development) would start wearing it over their left ear instead.
"First I wish to call on Soandi Taeha and Soandi Ageha," the male instructor spoke.
"We are here," two boys replied in unison. They were nearly identical in several aspects - height, facial features, even their voices were similar. The only visual difference between them was in their black hair, as while both of them wore it in a single braid, Ageha's was at least twice the length of his brother's.
"The bond you share as twins is stronger than any that we could hope to provide you with. You have demonstrated this to us time and time again, by coming up with strategies and techniques relying on being two that trust each other implicitly. We see no reason to discourage this, and so we have agreed to your request."
"Our thanks," Taeha said. One of the other instructors, a woman looking to be slightly older than the one in the middle, wearing her white and black lifewing over her left ear, stepped forward.
"And so, the one who has chosen to continue your training is Nokuva Seresi."
"Allow me to cultivate your skills," she said.
"We accept your guidance," the two of them replied.
"Next, I wish to call on Soanva Miryn," the female instructor said.
"Yes!" one of the girls replied excitedly. She had long, black hair, and over her right ear, a red flower and blue feather.
 
Soanva Miryn had always been quite the peculiar girl among the Pua. While the first bow she had constructed at the start of her training was of greater quality than many would achieve with even their third or fourth bow, she was never quite satisfied with the simplicity of it - and so had set out to make something different. After months of experimenting in her spare time, she had created a rudimentary compound bow with a body built from three connected but separately moving segments rather than a single curved piece. Despite less than encouraging comments from the adults of the tribe, she continued searching for ways to improve her bow that would better allow her to utilize the limited strength she had. By the time of her ceremony, she was using one unlike anything the Pua had ever seen, with better aim and distance than many far more experienced than she were able to get from their weapons. But her experimenting hadn't been limited to her bow - she had also turned to her arrows. By studying the different ways to make fire that the Pua knew, she had come up with a mixture that when applied to one of her arrows could be ignited by a spark, something she had added a small mechanism on her bow to do. She hadn't perfected this aspect yet, though, as it didn't always work - sometimes the arrow would not catch fire at all, in which case the prepared arrow was less effective than a regular arrow, and sometimes it would burn too much, reducing the arrow to mostly ash before it could reach its target.
 
"You are a prodigy with the bow the likes of which Pua has not seen in a long time. Even if all do not agree with your methods, there is no mistaking your skill, even if it relies on methods that you alone understand. For that reason, we believe that pairing you with one skilled in archery that adheres to the regular ways of the Pua would be a mistake."
"I understand," Miryn replied.
"I now wish to call on Noandi Emaku," the male instructor said.
"Present," one of the remaining boys replied. He was the tallest of the children present, with quite the lean build for his age. With the exception of a small, braided ponytail on his left side, his hair was fairly unkempt.
"You have shown great ability at tracking prey and a good understanding of trapping them, so even if you have always shown more proficiency with the knife than the bow, you have the makings a very capable hunter. Your patience and determination have been admirable in every task you have undertaken, and we believe that you can grow even more with the right partner. This is why we have chosen to pair you with Soanva Miryn."
"I am humbled by your words," Emaku said as one of the two other instructors stepped forwards - a tall man with a muscular build, with many scars visible on his body. He had short hair and a mostly trimmed beard, and appeared to be the oldest among the instructors present for this ceremony.
"And so, the one who has chosen to continue your training is Soredi Addoma."
"Allow me to cultivate your skills," Addoma said.
"We accept your guidance," Miryn and Emaku replied.
"And then, I wish to call on Nokudi Kaniya..."
 
~~~~
 
Under the supervision of Addoma, Miryn and Emaku soon found each other, and not only as training partners. Already fascinated by her engineering and archery skills, it did not take long for Emaku to become completely smitten by Miryn. They did not speak much about it to each other, especially not when Addoma was around, but before even a year of their training together had passed, Miryn had started wearing her lifewing over her left ear. For partnerships consisting of a boy and a girl, that is to say the majority of them, it was more common than not for the two of them to become romantically involved - and after completing this stage of training, marry. Or, as the Pua called it, join together as lifemates.
 
As could be expected, Miryn and Emaku spent practically all of their time together as time went on. Emaku's tracking and trapping skills in combination with Miryn's extraordinary archery made them into one of the best hunting teams on the island, and Emaku and Addoma were among the few that encouraged Miryn's experimentation with her bow and arrows. Even if some of their elders still considered what she did a breach of Pua tradition, the pair of Emaku and Miryn seemed to be well on their way to be one of the most successful partnerships that the tribe had seen in generations.
 
Until...
 
It was in the late summer of the third year after Miryn and Emaku's ceremony, when the weather had started heralding the change of seasons. It had been a particularly breezy day, but the Pua had not considered it anything out of the ordinary. Puamoku was in an area where the weather was prone to swings, especially as new seasons were approaching - and leading up to autumn tended to be the most unpredictable of all. Sea breezes would often be followed by tropical storms, something the Pua were no strangers to. As the breeze picked up in intensity as the night fell, the Pua knew what was likely to come and started sheltering themselves, either in their houses or in small caves scattered around the island. They counted on a loud but ultimately harmless storm the likes of which they had already seen two of this lunar cycle, and so did not do make any further preparations.
 
But tonight's storm was much more than the Pua had expected. The strong winds howled through the forest, tearing branches off the trees, razing many of the Pua's rope bridges. The sea crashed against the rocky coast, spraying seawater even over the ridge. While some of the Pua's raised huts were swaying in the wind, the inner cove of the island was sheltered by the natural barriers, and so anyone who stayed within the village was not in any real danger, despite the weather.
 
But those who had been elsewhere when the storm started had more to worry about.
 
Miryn, Emaku and Addoma had ventured out in a small bark canoe to fish in the cove, as their training now involved survival, to the point where they were only allowed to eat food that they had caught, grown or gathered themselves. They were no strangers to the whims of the sea and the weather, and especially Addoma knew what a storm could result in. They had for the first time during their training gone past the mouth of the cove, which put them at a considerable distance from the safety of the village.
"Miryn, Emaku..." Addoma said and looked at them, to confirm if they had picked up on the strengthening breeze as well. This could be a good part of their training - it would take them too long to row back before the storm descended upon them, so they would have to come up with a solution fast.
"We know," Miryn said and nodded at her instructor and partner. Addoma gave a nod of approval back, wordlessly telling them to handle the situation. With all the time they had spent together, Miryn and Emaku barely needed to talk to each other to know what they wanted the other to do, something that was to their advantage when hunting.
"Here," Emaku said and laid his fishing pole down in the boat. Miryn brought hers in as well, and they had soon lashed the two poles together. Miryn removed the cloth she had been wearing on her upper body and tied it to their frame, creating a makeshift sail. Emaku then used a length of rope to secure one of their oars to the back of the vessel to serve as a rudder.
"Very good," Addoma said, impressed at how fast they had come up with something, especially given their lack of resources. And just in time, too - the storm had just made its presence clear as the canoe-turned-sailboat started skimming towards the island. But like the rest of his tribe, Addoma had underestimated the strength of tonight's weather. He had thought that if they did not manage to figure out what to do, the worst thing that could happen was that they got a bath and probably lose the fish they had caught, which just was a lesson they had to take. But as he watched Emaku hold on to the oar to steer them and Miryn kneeling in the middle of the canoe, holding on to their improvised sail while trying to keep balance, he noticed that the wind had picked up far faster than he had expected and the waves were already going higher than they usually did. He held on to the sides of the canoe as a sense of dread welled up within him, but there was nothing he could do at this point - any rope they had had already been used by his students, and if he made any movements, it would only serve to unbalance them.
 
And unbalancing was exactly what Miryn didn't need right now. She stayed as still as she could, acting as the support for their sail, but the canoe was rocking more and more as the waves were assaulting it. Suddenly, just as the canoe touched the entrance to the cove, a strong gust caught the sail. It caused her to lose enough balance that she had to let go with one hand, desperately grasping for the side of the canoe to steady herself.
 
Her hand never found its goal. Instead, it was met by one of the several swells rolling across the canoe, sweeping her off the side. As she was still holding on to their sail, the combined force of the waves and the powerful wind quickly carried her into the sea, away from the island. She, like all Pua, was a good swimmer - but even someone with another fifteen years of experience would find themselves challenged by what she had been cast into. Emaku let go of the oar, extending his hand towards her, but it was impossible for her to reach it. Addoma lunged himself out of the canoe in an attempt to reach her, but it was far too late. A wave immediately hit him, almost throwing him back inside the canoe. Knowing it was impossible to do more, Emaku pulled him back on board, and knew they had to make a decision fast. They looked in the direction where they had last seen Miryn, but the only thing they spotted was bits of the sail she had been holding, ripped apart by the storm and sea. They looked at each other, and without saying anything knew that preserving two lives was a preferable outcome to losing three. Holding on to each other, they pulled the oar they had been using as a rudder back in, used what rope they had to tie themselves together and used all the strength they had left to brave the storm and row back towards the beach.
 

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