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Coming of Age
I turn seventeen today. The rest of the boys and girls born seventeen springs ago do, too. If we pass the tests given to us, then we become adults. And six of us—three girls, and three boys—will be chosen to race.
The earth this morning smells of horses. Horses, which our village survives upon. The smell of clean hair and hay and stables drifts on the breeze as I leave the hut. It’s early in the morning. Down the trodden road, I see the others slowly leaving their homes as well. It’s tradition for the children to leave home before the sun breaks the horizon, so that they can finish the tasks the village elders give them before the sun goes down again.
I turn at my name. It’s Kyter. He races up to pound me on the back. He’ll turn seventeen today as well.
“Ready for this?” I say, draping an arm around his shoulders. He grins.
I frown, confused. Seeing this, Kyter laughs. “The races!” he reminds me. “They’ll choose you.”
I roll my eyes, and shove Kyter. He stumbles away, but pops back up. I lunge for him, and grind my knuckles into his hair. I let him go, smirking as he sticks his tongue out at me.
“Especially,” Kyter adds after a moment, “Once they choose Nesim.”
“Watch your tongue, Ky,” I bite, although secretly I love the idea. Nesim… I wouldn’t mind being the one to race her.
The trickle of children becomes a steady stream as we crowd into the Elders’ tent. There are four Elders, ancient and wrinkled, but each with a skill that granted them their position. He Who Rides, and She Who Rides, both the best horse riders of their day. And He Who Raises, and She Who Raises, the ones who raise the best horses that we trade with the nomads and the other villages that are days’ rides away.
We divide into girls and boys, sitting on opposite sides of the tent. I’m careful to sit in the middle of the boys. There are nine of us, and eight girls. The air is warm and dense, and far above us, smoke from a smoldering fire escapes from a slit in the roof. The Elders rise, and one by one they speak to us.
Those Who Raise the horses go first. They tell us of the importance of family, and that those we care for come before all else. On becoming a man, becoming a woman, we must accept that others come before ourselves. We no longer work for ourselves alone, but towards the life of the village we depend on.
Those Who Ride speak next. They remind us of our pride and our passion. That we have accomplished great things. We are not mighty warriors, we are not great artists or cravers of adventure. But we live nonetheless. And when we raise and ride our horses, the world flies beneath us.
And then, they sit. My breath catches as they begin to tap out rhythms on hide drums. The smoke in the air seems to thicken, and the boys around me begin to whisper to each other. Across the tent, the girls do the same. I see Nesim, with her shiny brown eyes and plaited black hair. She is clearly well-liked, and in the half-smile on her face, I imagine I see an undercurrent of anxiety. The same we all feel—what if we don’t past the tests?
Most are simple. We prove ourselves in speed, in hunting. We present wooden carvings or horsehair blankets. The Elders judge us, as well as the other respected old ones in the village. These are simple, and we only just listen to the schedule of tasks the Elders give us.
Then, in a sing-songy voice, She Who Rides holds up a hand, and the drums stop.
At the same time, no small accident, so does the whispering.
“Those Who Race, at the Celebration of the Coming of Age, shall be these…”
It’s boys first, always boys first. “Illi Sornsson, Mardel Demsson, and Hida Jessasson.”
My heart officially stops. I’m racing. Equal parts fear and elation run through me. The Races are the Elders’ sense of humor, although the tradition runs back years and years and years. Three boys race horses with three girls. The girls get a twenty-meter head start. It doesn’t seem fair at first. But they must get to the end of the road that runs through the village before the boys catch them. Because the boys catch the girls by giving them a kiss.
Kyter punches me in the shoulder as the whispering starts again.
“What?” I demand, offended.
“You are racing Nesim!” he says, and shoves me again with a grin. “Excellent!”
I grab the back of his collar, sure I’ve just had a heart attack. “Say that again?” But my eyes drift over to the girls across the tent. There’s Nesim, in the middle of them, laughing and whispering. Our eyes meet, and she stares me down while still talking to her friends. It would be fatal to glance away—that’s the type of girl she is. She’s more a stallion than a mare—strong and beautiful and itching for a challenge.
A thought strikes me down as Kyter drags me out of the tent. What if I don’t win?
We’ve done well, Kyter and I. We’ve brought forward the horses we’ve raised from birth. We’ve presented our best carvings, we’ve shot our best with the bows and the spears. All the tests, we’ve passed, or at least, we’ve failed none.
We wear our best clothes, because today’s been the most important day we’ll live. Clean black cloth, bright ribbons and bells. Now, the whole village emerges from spending the day in their homes. They bring out food and lanterns and music. Our families come out, and I leave my friends for an hour to be with them.
My father wraps me in an engulfing hug. My mother cries. My brothers and sisters laugh, and remind me to visit them once I’ve got a wife and a home for myself. The littlest ones tug on my clothes, and I pick up the youngest, Nali, our baby girl, born two winters ago. I push up her shirt, and put my mouth on her stomach and blow, vibrating her belly and making her giggle. Like all growing children, the others laugh at us, and declare me to be old and silly, when they secretly wish—
Well, wishes are of little use, but we all make them.
I leave my family, and go to bring in my horse from the grazing grounds. The plains that surround us are mostly barren, but they are filled with grass and dry grain, perfect for the horses, and small birds and other animals. I click my tongue against the roof of my mouth, toc, tic-a, toc. One of the dark shapes sleeping raises its head, and climbs to its feet at my greeting.
Shora is a mare, brown in color, not too remarkable. A little like me. She has a black stripe down her nose, and is speckled black and white over her body. She is small but muscled, and is intelligent. Sometimes, I think she talks to me in her own horse language. Once or twice, I think I’ve managed to answer back.
“Shora-girl. Race tonight.” Her ears flick forward at the second-to-last word. “Nesim’s my match. I’m scared out of my mind, Shora. Will you help me win tonight?” She nuzzles my shoulder, and I’m convinced she ignores my question on purpose. “No treats until after the race, Shora-girl,” I scold, mock-angry. It’s impossible to be mad at her. I slide up onto her back, and with gentle pressure from my knees I direct her into the village.
Catcalls and whistles drift up from the crowd. My face is on fire, of course, and Kyter takes advantage of this, jogging below me and whispering things too annoying to repeat. “If you don’t leave this instant, I will take all your clothes and scatter them over the steppes so that you have to walk naked trying to find them!” I threaten, and finally, he goes away.
Nesim is waiting with the other two girls. I give her a small smile, and nod slightly. She smiles tightly back, and now I’m sure—she’s just as nervous as me. She grips her horse too tightly with her calves, and her fingers are tangled anxiously in the mare’s mane. No one else seems to notice, but everything about her seems obvious to me.
Except, of course, what she’s thinking, which I am both desperate to know and utterly terrified of.
Illi and Mardel, boys I’ve know since birth, race before me. Illi loses his race, and so does Mardel. However, the girl Mardel chases, Gara, trots her horse up to him as he crosses the finish line dejectedly and pecks him on the cheek. As he visibly perks up, I stick my thumb and ring finger into my mouth and whistle loudly, following the rest of the crowd with glee.
“Come on, Hida? Going to prove yourself?”
I nearly fall off of Shora, but Nesim’s already on the move, her mare strolling up to the girls’ marker. Had she actually said something, or was it my imagination? I direct Shora over to my marker, the one farther back.
I strain my ears for the high shrieking of a reed flute, the notes that will tell us when to start running.
I glance at Nesim, ahead of me, and swear. She’s already cantering away, bent long over the mare’s neck, and I can hear giddy, exhilarated laughter trailing behind her, fear and anxiety gone as her mare’s hooves pound into path.
“Go, Shora!” I hiss, and like a stone shot from a sling, she bursts into movement.
The beaten-dirt road is maybe a mile long. It ends atop a hill in the distance, marked by a simple, empty hut that is no longer used except as a place for children to play. As Shora and I sprint, we kick up whorls of dust that dance away on the breeze. Our path lit only by the stars and lanterns along the road, we begin to gain on Nesim and her mare.
I imagine I’m close enough to see her smile. She turns back, and her hair whips into her face as she squints at me. What is she thinking? That she’ll show mercy on me? I don’t want mercy. I want to best her. If she’s a stallion, I’ll be the first to ride her. The certainty I have, with this one thought—I’m going to be the one to kiss her—makes me whoop with the sheer joy. I shiver, and lean sideways to reach out as Shora begins to inch alongside Nesim’s mare.
Nesim glances sideways just as I grasp her waist and pull her towards me, our legs brushing as the horses canter side by side. Our heads bump and I clumsily press my lips to hers. They are cold in the night air, but her breath is warm and alive. A second later, pulled away by the movement of the horses, we are separated. I’m breathing hard, wondering if she really just let me do what I just did.
Our eyes lock.
For a moment, a span of heartbeats, we are quiet.
“Did you just—” I begin hesitantly, but then she laughs delightedly, and her mare instantly sprints ahead. The sound is wild and free.
After a moment of shock, I realize this doesn’t surprise me. I whoop again, and lean low over Shora’s neck, willing her to catch up to Nesim and her mare.
I’m quite hopeful, because stranger things have happened, it seems.