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Graduation Day MAG
The wind whistled past Oar's ear. It told of many things: a small wolf crouching in a densely populated thicket awaiting the moment to spring on its prey, a young buck; a graceful swan quickly guiding her signets to the safety of their marshy nest. These sounds flew past Oar's ear within seconds.
The forest is lively today, he thought. I wonder if Jart heard it all? Oar looked over at his companion to see him stealthily trying to creep closer. Jart stepped on a dry twig and froze, his face contorted in surprise at ruining his cover yet again. Oar smiled broadly, and then quickly motioned for his friend to follow him; their teacher was getting ahead of them. Jart scurried forward, snapping dozens of twigs along the way and making faces that implied he was stepping on glass.
Both Oar and Jart were 16 and would be considered men today if they could make their first kill without Master Keen's assistance. They were both tall, yet Oar had a more fluid way of moving. He seemed to blend into the shadows, creeping closer without his prey noticing. Oar's eyes were black and hostile, his build wiry, with pale skin and sharp features. In contrast Jart was gangly – all elbows and knees – and his curly brown hair bounced when he walked. He had a bright stare and freckles covering not just his face but his whole body.
They were both dressed in hunting garb: gray cloak, brown breeches and tunic, and a bow and quiver. Oar also carried a half-arm sword. Oar put a long finger to his lips and winked at Jart, who grinned. Oar sensed the boar up ahead.
They heard an owl hoot. It was Master Keen's signal. Through a series of hoots and clicks, they deciphered his message: “Approach quietly.” The boys exchanged mischievous glances and quickened to obey their teacher.
On the far end of the clearing ahead was a large briar – the boar's den. Master Keen was crouched behind a low thicket, arrow nocked and ready to fly. He glanced back at the boys and scowled at the noise they (namely Jart) were making. Oar shrugged and Jart smiled.
Keen was quite old but as agile and silent as a fox. His black hair was tied in a severe knot. Oar had tried to copy him, but his hair was too stubborn and he didn't like it long. His hair was usually halfway down his neck, with the bangs parted down the middle. He brushed a lock back, and then was irritated at himself for moving for such a trivial reason. Master Keen had worked with them for weeks to build up their ability not to fidget. The number-one rule of being a tracker was not to move, and in this forest, that rule was the thread between life and death.
A squeal drew Oar's eyes from his teacher to the boar's den. The pig was emerging from the briars. Its large tusks were the first out, followed by its nose, beady black eyes, and large head. The beast was five-feet tall at the shoulder!
Master Keen motioned for the boys to battle the boar. Oar was determined, yet fearful; the monster could gut him with a single tusk. He glanced at Jart. His friend nodded and gave a shaky smile.
Oar moved to the right of the boar, while Jart went to its left. Both nocked an arrow; Oar strung up an extra one to give his attack more sting. Master Keen had taught him this, warning that it required extra concentration and that one twitch could loose both arrows and alert the prey of your position.
The boys zeroed in on the pig, their faces tense. Oar nodded to Jart, and the arrows soared through the air, two piercing the boar's tough hide. Jart's arrow punctured the beast's shoulder, causing it to rear on its hind legs and bellow. One of Oar's arrows clung to the monster's flank. Oar heard Jart cry out with alarm; his second arrow had just barely missed Jart's shoulder. Both boys' eyes widened in panic: the pig had heard Jart's cry. The beast turned, locked its eyes on the boy and began its charge. It lowered its tusks and bellowed a war cry.
Oar took off running. He would not let his companion die. He drew his short sword and staggered after the stampeding monster.
I'm going to die! Jart thought. I'm really going to die! I'll never be able to tell Sopha I love her … never kiss Mum good-bye … never roughhouse with my brothers again … never become a man with Oar by my side! Good-bye, world! Life was sweet while it lasted. Jart decided he was going to go down kicking. That way, at his funeral, Oar could tell them all how courageous he was.
Jart smiled past his fear as the boar approached, its tusks just yards away. He drew his bow, nocked an arrow, and stood defiantly with his shoulder facing the oncoming beast preparing to impale him. He let his arrow fly and it hit its mark, right in the monster's snout! Jart felt like dancing!
The pig squealed horribly, shaking its head, trying to dislodge the arrow, but to no avail. It stayed put, the swan feathers quivering. Jart pulled out another arrow and let it fly, but this time it missed completely. He cursed softly and was about to send another when the boar began its charge again.
Oar sprinted, not caring if he stumbled. His main goal was to reach the pig before it gored his friend. His short sword was drawn, ready to slice into its thick hide. He screamed a war cry and stuck the blade into the pig's left flank. The metal sunk in clear to the hilt. The beast shrieked in pain. Oar tried to hold to the monster but was thrown off. He pulled out his bow and arrows, letting the shafts fly and hit in a steady beat. Oar smiled, his friend was going to live.
The pig sunk to its front legs, blood frothing from its mouth. It snorted and fell onto its face, a last grunt escaping its maw.
Across the clearing, Master Keen smiled; his students had taken down their first beast. Tonight they would celebrate in the Main Hall of the tavern and get first pick of the boar's succulent meat, as they were carried into manhood.
Jart and Oar clasped one another's forearms, laughing, dispelling the tension and drama they had just survived. Keen was about to step forward and congratulate them when he saw the pig's head move. It wasn't dead, and the boys were just inches from its sharp tusks. He realized he could not reach the beast before it took at least one of his apprentices' lives.
“Oar, Jart! Run!” he screamed, praying they would hear him. They didn't. He raced across the clearing, determined to protect them.
Oar clasped his friend's upper arm, relief and pride swelling in his chest. Jart felt the same. Tonight at the feast he was going to kiss his mother and ask Sopha to dance. He smiled broadly and jumped for joy. He was going to experience life! “We did it,” Jart exclaimed, hugging his friend fiercely.
“We did it ourselves, with no one's help! We're men, Jart!” Oar cried gleefully.
Where is Master Keen? Oar wondered. He looked over to his teacher's hiding place and saw him racing toward them, waving his arms and yelling. It sounded like “Run!” Why would they need to run? Oar wondered. The beast was dead at their feet … wasn't it? Oar glanced down and saw the pig's snout move.
He swiftly turned to Jart who had just noticed Master Keen and was trying to decipher the words his teacher was shouting. Oar acted quickly. “Take care of yourself, Jart,” he whispered. “You were a true friend.” Oar shoved his friend out of the way as one of the pig's tusks thrust into his calf, causing him to fall. He was now at the mercy of the boar.
Keen saw Oar fall as he shoved Jart out of the way into a patch of briars. He cried out in pain but quickly scrambled to help his friend. But there was nothing he could do; his arrows were spent and he had no other weapon.
Keen pumped his legs harder; he had to get there before the pig became mobile and did more damage. As he ran he reached for his owl-feather arrows and his willow bow, aiming at the boar's head. He raced forward, a third of his mind set on his feet, another part aiming the arrow at the pig, and the last worrying for his apprentice's safety. He released the arrow, stopping just long enough to launch the shaft straight into the hollow beneath the pig's skull and shoulders. With any luck, the arrow would dig deep enough to puncture its heart. Lady Luck appeared to grace Keen today, for the arrow hit its target. The boar dropped, never to get up again.
When Keen finally reached Oar, he found Jart kneeling by his side and patching up his ankle with a bit of cloth from his cloak. Jart made a joke about wishing Oar had thrown him into something besides briars. His face and neck were covered with scratches. Keen knelt, smiling widely, his eyes nearly watering with relief and pride. Jart and Oar would live to be men.
Later that evening, Oar and Jart sat at the high table in the Main Hall, awaiting the freshly cooked boar. The low ceiling was decorated with herbs, the walls bore torches, and the whole village filled the hall. Grumpy old Fren was there, Tona the town crier, the Yzar twins, Kiip and Pore, and Jart's family: his tall redheaded father and plump mother, whom he kissed and twirled, his sweet sister and three older brothers who had pounced on him. Jart smiled broadly, content.
Oar was feeling something different. He was proud that he had killed the boar with his friend by his side, but he had no one to share the moment with. He felt empty. He lived alone and had no family. His mother had died during childbirth and had never told anyone who his father was.
Oar took a sip of mead. They were allowed to drink the brew for the first time tonight; it was also tradition for the new men to ask someone to dance, particularly a young lady. Oar didn't know whom to choose. Jart would select Sopha.
He glanced at the crowd, trying to be polite in his mental comments. A woman stood by the back wall, holding her husband's arm. She's pretty, Oar thought. But I would probably get a black eye from her husband if I asked her. He continued looking, rejecting several others – one was too tall, another too old, a third far too young.
He could ask Jart's mother … no, he couldn't. This was his manhood night.
A flash of blond hair caught his eye. Who's this? He thought. A newcomer? She must have arrived with the traveling bards. She was beautiful … gorgeous, really. Her hair was spinning as she twirled with a man who could have been her father. She smiled gaily, and her dimples were visible across the room. She wore a shiny blue dress and had white flowers in her hair. Oar made up his mind: he would ask her to dance.
After what felt like ages, the boar was brought out. Every morsel was devoured, and according to tradition, Oar and Jart chose the first pieces. When it was time for the fathers make toasts, Jart couldn't have been prouder while Oar felt like disappearing. No one would toast him. All eyes would turn his way and then dart back as people remembered that he was Oar Noonesson. His face burned with shame and he sank down in his chair, hoping to sneak out before Jart's father finished.
When the toast ended, Oar felt like he was going to die. Everyone was staring, but then with a loud cough, Master Keen stood up, his black and gray hair gleaming in the torch light. He raised his pint of mead, staring into its bubbly depths thoughtfully. “I would like to speak on behalf of Oar tonight, seeing as his father isn't present,” he said, glancing at Oar, who gave him a grateful nod.
“Today Oar proved, along with Jart, that he is a man. I am so proud of him. He faced a five-foot boar this very morning and, with Jart's assistance, killed it.”
Keen paused to gather his thoughts. “My fellow comrades, people of this village, join me in raising your mugs to these two young men. They have truly earned it.” Everyone in the hall stood and toasted the boys.
Oar had tears in his eyes. He caught Keen's gaze and thanked him with a heartfelt look. Keen smiled, and said, “To Oar and Jart, the men.”
“The men,” the village replied. Everyone drank and then applauded enthusiastically.
The rest of the night was feverish and fantastic. Oar asked the blond bard, named Jree, to dance, and to his pleasure she gleefully accepted. Oar hardly felt the sting of his wound, and Jree didn't seem to notice as she laughed in his arms. Jart asked Sopha, who seemed the proudest and happiest person in attendance that night, and she hung on Jart's every word, not letting go of his arm once.
They twirled around and around until all four of them were dizzy. Then they talked long into the evening. The night was perfect, and Oar finally felt like he belonged. F