Scarlett opened her eyes. She had made it across the arena.
Apparently, she was one of the last ones who had made it out. The other girls were standing to the side, tending to their multiple wounds and watching the last two girls who were struggling to make it across.
One of them was Pakuri.
No one could see what went on in her spirit world, but something or someone was making it hard for her to walk across. She thrashed and pushed and fell down, getting up to continue.
Scarlett joined the other girls and asked a matron to help her remove her leather armor. It was almost stuck to her skin in the place the tiger spirit had scratched her. Some of the girls had clearly been crying, probably too upset by what the visions showed them. No one would dare ask a trainee what they had seen.
Scarlett wasn't too shaken, but then again, she had been confident that she would pass this last test.
The visions of the past had confused her, and the visions of the present had only made her more resolute in wanting to become a Karaina. She had something to fight for.
All of a sudden, Pakuri howled and fell to her knees one last time, opening her eyes. She had made it across.
Scarlett counted how many girls had made it. Ten, out of seventeen. The ones who had failed were nowhere to be seen.
She was glad Voty had made it. Even if they weren't close friends, she was one of the sweetest girls from the group. The same could not be said from Pakuri, who talked to no one and intimidated even some of the trainers with her size and roughness.
Now came the hardest trial, at least for Scarlett.
Last year, two trainees who had succeeded in completing all the trials had been rejected by the rheas. Scarlett had never seen the girls again, but Mimbi told her that one of them became a star watcher. Everyone said there was no shame in being rejected by a rhea, that they had their ways and they knew best. But it said something of you if the birds didn't want you. That there was something soft or weak in you that the rheas couldn't ignore, and made them silently tell you that you were not enough to become a warrior.
The High Chieftess appeared on her black and grey rhea, which looked battle worn and tough like its rider. A thick scar fell from its forehead to its beak. The bird moved with long and elegant strides, and behind it, at least twenty rheas followed. They moved in unison, like a small cloud of black, grey and white feathers.
Scarlett had read of ancient times where men and women would be introduced in formal, structured gatherings, and she couldn't help but think that the ceremony looked must have looked like one. There was an almost palpable tension in the air, and it seemed like everyone held their breaths.
She had watched the ceremony from the stands every year for as long as she could remember, but only by facing the rheas up close did she notice their penetrating gaze.Their large eyes scrutinized the seven girls, analyzing them in whichever way they analyzed their future riders. It must be a tough decision, thought Scarlett. She had trouble deciding what patterns to paint on her arms every day, and the birds had to choose a human companion for life.
Only death could separate a rhea from its rider.
Scarlett made fleeting eye contact with two or three of the biggest rheas, but they swiftly moved their eyes towards the other girls. Without announcement, the rheas broke their formation and began to circle the arena. Some swayed their heads back and forth between the girls as they walked, others ruffled their feathers and looked uninterested in searching for a rider.
Mimbi walked up to a black and white medium sized rhea and bowed. None of the other girls moved, and the only sound came from the crackling pylon. The rhea looked down on her and turned away. It was the night's first rejection, but Mimbi straightened up and continued to walk as if nothing had happened. Some of the other girls followed her moves and mimicked the rheas' movements, staring them down as if trying to intimidate them in return.
Voty was the only one who smiled and greeted every rhea she passed with a small nod. Scarlett sighed and smiled as well. Sweet, sweet Voty that couldn't help but be friendly with anyone who crossed her path. All of a sudden the crowd groaned, and Scarlett turned to see that Mimbi had been rejected again. Other girls were bowing and the birds kept turning away.
Soon, cheers filled the arena with the first rhea accepting Pakuri's bow. The rhea lifted its neck and sat on the ground, inviting Pakuri to mount it. Pakuri swung her right leg over the bird and sat on its back, stroking its neck with her hand, and the bird began to hum. Together, they circled the arena to growing cheers and applause. Then Pakuri stopped to watch the rest of the girls from above her new partner.
Scarlett realized she wasn't moving, or had even attempted to greet a rhea. Enthralled by the ceremony, she barely felt her wounds anymore. But a familiar sense of despair choked her, reminding her of what she had to do.
She was terrified of making the mistake of bowing twice to the same rhea. The birds would notice and surely judge her.
A haughty looking rhea picked on its feathers a few meters away, and Scarlett decided to give it a try. There was no way out of the dance other than getting rejected by all of them, or approved by one. Slowly, she approached the conceited bird and bowed. The bird stared her down and immediately turned away. Scarlett knew she shouldn't be offended, but it seemed like the rhea didn't even take its time to analyze her. Maybe it had noticed straight away that Scarlett was not worthy.
More cheers came from the crowd. This time, it was Mimbi who had found her rhea. Scarlett had eyed that one for a while, because it was the darkest of them. It was said that the strongest rheas were the ones with the most black feathers, and the white ones were the smartest, but also the weakest.
Mimbi mounted the bird and rode away to join Pakuri.
Scarlett strolled around, trying to look calm and composed. She took a step towards a grey rhea who seemed more interested in picking at its feathers than in the ceremony, and it turned around and fled before she even reached it. Two more rheas reacted the same way when Scarlett approached them, and Scarlett knew it was over. They knew, sensed or felt or understood that she could never be a karaina without fire of her own. She began to contemplate a graceful retreat, to say that it was all a mistake and that she had just wanted to be a Karaina to be with her friend.
Then, something poked her back.
The arena went silent and Scarlett felt hundreds of eyes watching her, and she turned around to meet the two black eyes of a white rhea. Scarlett hadn't seen it among the others, maybe because it was also smaller than the rest. The rhea ran, circling Scarlett and stopping a few meters away.
Scarlett scowled at the rhea in front of her. It sauntered towards her and ruffled its white feathers. Then it closed its eyes and bowed its long neck, its head almost touching the ground.
The rhea had bowed to her.
Had that ever happened in recent history?
Maybe the bird confused me with someone else, she thought. Do I even deserve to be a rhea rider? I won't bring it honor or glory, like the rheas supposedly want.
How does anyone even know why a rhea chooses its rider?
Maybe this one wants a quiet, complacent life and knows that all the battle it will ever see is patrolling the border for cougars and bandits.
But the bird wasn't moving. It opened its eyes and looked at Scarlett, as if asking, what are you waiting for?
She took slow, sluggish steps towards the bowing rhea.
Every movement sent waves of pain through her body. The rhea lowered its body and rose its head, as Scarlett swung one leg over its torso. The bird's rough feathers scratched calf and thighs. The rhea rose, with its one and only rider on top.
Scarlett rubbed its neck and looked around for the first time since entering the arena. Not far from her, Mimbi rode her larger, grey and blackish rhea towards the crowd. But the crowd wasn't looking at Mimbi.
Hundreds of eyes stared at Scarlett and her rhea, the first bond to have come from rhea to a human that they remembered.
She thought of a name for the rhea, her rhea.
"Sunu," she said. For thunder.
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