Tradewinds 01: The Islands
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In the tropical islands of another dimension, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as one boy's life is blown way off courseâ€¦
Chapter 2, I
The two young combatants stood face to face, staves held in traditional fighting stances.
For their age, their looks of intense concentration might otherwise have seemed comical if not for the fact that they were balancing on a small boat. The boat drifted in the middle of a pond, one of several to be found on their island home. Beyond the small clearing, light jungle and deciduous forest dominated the inland landscape, giving way to larger trees in the high lands.
Two other kids watched this spectacle, though its two chief participants remained oblivious to them.
The boy, barely eleven but tall for his age, and still blissfully unaware of any unexpected sea voyages in his future, twitched an eyebrow to shift his black headband, which bore the symbol of his family in white. Clad in the traditional loose-fitting pants and open robe that were common dress in this realm, he stood on the bench near the bow of the small boat in bare feet, his wiry-muscled feet shifting back and forth to keep his balance.
A triangular silver medallion, a gift from his father, swayed gently back and forth with his movements, catching glints of sunlight as he balanced precariously on the wobbly vessel.
“You should have waited for the others, Max…” challenged his opponent, the equally young girl balancing on the other seat to stern. Cleo was shorter than Max, but no less formidable. She had grown bored with mere practice, and wanted to have a little fun. In spite of the green headband she wore (marked with her family’s symbol, as was the custom in these islands), a short sweep of dark blonde hair slipped and hung over her left eye— ordinarily her look, except in training— as she continued, “Now you must face me!”
She laughed melodramatically, as only children truly can, then swung her staff at him.
“Ha!” Max countered her attack, shifting his feet to keep his balance. So Cleo was bored— he was game. “You’re not that tough!”
Their staves clashed several more times, each successfully countered— though labored— as they had been taught. The boat tilted gently back and forth with each move. They were both exercising a new vocabulary of combos Max’s parents had taught them, but were pretending it was a real fight.
“Bold words, coming from just one man,” Cleo shot back with her usual bravado. Most Outlanders would have classified her as something of a tomboy, not understanding that the local culture in the Islands had no concept of gender roles beyond mother and father; for here anyone did anything, including the fighting arts.
She swung low at Max.
Who managed not only to jump over her attack— a move he could have done on solid ground— but to land on the boat rather than in the drink. It was a lucky move, a bit advanced for their age, a move that amazed them all, including Max.
A fact he tried to keep to himself as he told her, “You’ll have to do better than that to defeat me!”
He brought his staff down on Cleo, but she raised hers to block it.
“Ha!” she laughed, “even Carlton could catch that move!”
“I heard that…” Carlton muttered, still standing unnoticed with his friend, Lance. Carlton was a year younger than his friends, and not up to their level in the athletic department. Truth be told, he was a little below par even for his own age when it came to such things, and though his ears were often singed with such commentary, he never let it get in the way of their friendship.
He and the other watcher, Lance, had just come back from helping Max’s parents, and his own father, Ron, who was their third teacher, put away the training equipment to find that Max and Cleo had grown bored just woodenly throwing blocks and attacks at each other, and were all-out sparring. They attacked each other swiftly, and from varying angles, doing a dance they had been learning since they were old enough to walk. By now they were pushing each other to the limits of their fledgling skills, and no longer had enough time or breath to waste on snappy comebacks, which Lance thought was for the best, as Ron always said they talked too much.
For a game, it was getting kind of intense.
Then Max struck the end of Cleo’s staff, a little below her hand as she was shifting her grip, and flipping it out of her hands.
“Oops…” Cleo said sheepishly as she watched her weapon arc through the air and hit the water with a short splash. When she turned her attention back to Max, she found his staff pointed at her chest.
“Oops is right, Cleo,” said Max. He laughed in his good-natured manner, pleased at having mastered this new technique. “I practiced that move just for you.”
“Same here, Max…” Cleo smiled wickedly. She leaned hard to port, then starboard, using her leverage at the wider, more stable end of the boat to maintain her own balance. “Enjoy your swim!”
“Whoa!” cried Max as he fell overboard, caught off-guard by Cleo’s strange counterattack, landing in the pond with a high-reaching splash. He came up a moment later, coughing and sputtering.
“Yeah! Cleo!” Lance called out, giving himself away. It was odd enough to see Max disarm her for a change, but her counter was unlike anything he had ever seen before.
“That does it!” cried Max as he stood up in the waist-deep water, for the first time noticing his friends. Yet in spite of his embarrassment, or perhaps because of it, he couldn’t help laughing as he grabbed the side of the boat, pushing it over and declaring, “You’re goin’ down!”
“Hey!” cried Cleo as she lost her balance, for even being at the wider end of the boat offered no advantage this time, landing on the other side from Max.
“What was that for?” she demanded as she surfaced, retrieving her staff and shaking her dripping hair out of her eyes.
“For being the dirtiest…” Max began, trying to keep a straight face as he reached out for his own staff, “most underhanded fighter I’ve ever seen!”
Underhanded, yes, but as any of their teachers would have pointed out to them, clever and resourceful as well.
“And proud of it!”
“Cleo!” Max reached out and splashed her. By now, though, he couldn’t help laughing again. As sudden and embarrassing as this turnaround had been, it was all in good fun, and he could still see the humor in it. “I beat you fair and square!”
“Yeah right!” Cleo splashed Max back.
In seconds, they were both splashing each other wildly. Lance and Carlton were also laughing as they watched this strange new stage of the battle. Eventually, Max and Cleo stopped splashing, laughing too hard to keep up the fight, and waded ashore.
“That was pretty cool,” Cleo told Max as she wrung out the front of her drenched tunic.
Cool was one of those words a lot of Outlanders brought with them, and it had really caught on with the last couple generations here. The language of the Ancestors was still taught— and spoken as a private, “insider” tongue in the presence of Outlanders, and to this day was only taught to those who lived in the Islands— though everyday speech was a very flexible tongue, able to assimilate almost any word or phrase. Max’s mother and father, and his uncle, who were among the few to ever leave the Islands and find their way back, often said that it was the common tongue of much of the outside world. Their elders were often quick to remind others that the Ancestors originally came here from another place, and brought this rather widely spoken language with them.
“Who won that anyway?” Max asked. He took off his short robe and twisted it, wringing it out as much as he could. He then shook his head and swept his hair back, retying his headband.
“How do you win?” Lance wondered aloud. Though not quite as tall as Max, he was almost a year older, and a natural athlete. For all their own innate talent, the only way Max and Cleo kept up with him was by training really hard.
Lance’s father was the captain of a fishing boat called the Horizon, and Cleo’s father, Ian, was his first mate. He was an average fighter, but possibly the best living, able-bodied sailor in all the Islands. He and Nora knew their son was a natural, gifted athlete, and were honored to let Max’s parents teach him, but Ron often added with a smile to let him handle the finer points of seafaring. For they of course hoped he would also captain a ship of his own one day.
“I don’t know.” Cleo smoothed out the lower half of her tunic, having wrung it out as much as she could. “Hey! We should do that again some time!”
“How about tomorrow?” One reason why Cleo and Lance were Max’s best friends was simply because they were always looking for whimsical new games to play.
“No…” Cleo thought for a moment. “If you do stuff all the time, then it gets boring.”
“How about right now?” Lance challenged. He loved a good challenge, and this game looked like fun.
“Why don’t you challenge Max?” asked Carlton. “At least he won’t dunk you!”
“Keep talking,” Lance laughed, confidence shining in every syllable, “and I’ll challenge you.”
Carlton shut up.
He was one of those whose name was an oddity in the Islands, for Carlton’s family had an unusual naming tradition, going back generations. One of his ancestors acquired a big book of names from many places, and Carlton’s mother, just like her mother before her, had named her child without repeating any of the names that were already crossed out.
“Let’s go, Lance,” said Cleo. She was still fired up, and after all, the worst that could happen to her was that she’d get wet again.
Though he doubted it would get them in any trouble, Carlton still hoped none of the grown-ups came by during their little exhibition match. It wouldn’t be the first time Cleo’s devil-may-care attitude had gotten them in trouble. Of course, it was not as if Lance or Max suffered any lack of adventurous spirit, either.
While Carlton worried about these things, Cleo waded back out to the boat, Lance striding in right behind her. Max and Carlton settled in to watch. This was going to be a good show; while Max and Cleo were about evenly matched, Lance would provide her with an even greater challenge.
“Max!” Lance called out, “Would you give us a hand?”
Fetching the staves, Max took off his robe— not wanting it to get all wet again— and waded back out and held the boat steady. He remembered that he and Cleo had already been on the boat when they started their game, so this was a fair method. Now Lance’s clothes were as wet as Cleo’s. He handed each of them a staff, then headed back to shore to watch.
It was time to let the games begin.
“Now…” Lance said, with his usual mixture of determination and enthusiasm, “we’ll see who gets dunked this time!”
“Are we going to fight,” Cleo demanded, with that bold, reckless smile both he and Max always envied her, “or are you just going to talk me to death?”
“Good one,” Max laughed. More than anything though, he had always coveted her flare for bold comebacks, as well as her casual intensity.
Just as Cleo was always trying for Lance’s breezy confidence. And, for all his natural skill, Lance secretly wished for Max’s uncanny instincts. Yet, of course, at their age, being bold and fearless still comes rather easy.
Cleo followed her bold words with an equally brazen move. But Lance was good, easily ahead of her or Max in his training. He could block her strikes with ease, but wasn’t as accustomed to balancing on the boat.
That helped level the playing field.
At one point, Lance not only jumped over her first low swing, but even managed to jump her backswing.
“That’s no ordinary piece of work.” She smiled, remembering that one from one of Max’s father’s stories. “He’s good.”
“How dare you speak of me in the third person!” cried Lance in a comic burst of outrage. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but it sounded cool. It was the sort of thing their teachers often said when they were sparring. Most likely, it was one of those grownup things, or one of their parents’ many insider jokes.
The match went on for a good couple minutes, Lance clearly holding his own against Cleo. She already had her warm-up against Max, but getting off to a cold start hadn’t seemed to slow Lance down any.
Though she wasn’t consciously aware of it, Cleo’s fighting instincts had begun to push toward ending this quickly; although warmed up from her bout with Max, she had also burnt up a good deal of her energy going all-out against him. The downside of youthful energy— as she was now discovering against a fresh opponent— being that it came in bursts but held little stamina.
The clash of staves continued for another moment before Cleo knocked the staff out his grip with a circular sweep of her own. It was a move she was getting pretty handy with, the main reason why Max had put so much practice into his own disarming techniques of late.
“No way…” Cleo’s little trick had definitely taken the wind out of Lance’s sails as he stared at the staff now pointed at him. She had improved since the last time he had sparred with her. He now knew that he had tried to get too fancy, and had clearly underestimated her.
Their teachers— all of them, not just self-defense— would have been well pleased to see them starting to use what they had learned as second nature, beginning to understand it. And of course, to know themselves a little better for it.
Cleo twirled her staff, snapping it back to her side, and bowed to him, visibly proud of having prevailed not once, but twice, against daunting odds. Her bow was just a slight bend of the back and nod of the head, nothing elaborate. Like her friends, she had been told that in other lands, those who took their eyes off their opponents could be in for a world of hurt.
Yet perhaps she was celebrating a little too soon.
“Lance!” Max called out as he retrieved his lost staff and chucked it back to him, “It’s not over yet!”
“What!?” Cleo screeched indignantly.
But Max was going to get his dunking. Just not the way he thought. For as Lance reached out for his staff, he lost his balance and fell in.
For her part, Cleo broke out laughing, poetically vindicated for Max’s interference.
Even Lance was laughing. For their ages, he was just too good to make any mistakes with.
Still laughing, Cleo sat down in the boat, telling Lance, “I beat you fair and square. Now you have to push me ashore!”
Deciding it was a fair rule, Lance set his staff inside the boat and pushed her back to shore, saying, “If I had caught that staff, I could have defeated you.”
As Cleo climbed out of the boat, she appeared to stumble, knocking an unsuspecting Lance off his feet. His fighting skills might be a bit more advanced than hers, but Cleo was still the undisputed master of the practical joke.
“Like you did the first time?” she intoned with that dervish smile of hers. She then set about mooring the boat to a post at the edge of the pond.
Still Lance would not let her have the last laugh so easily, scissoring his feet and tripping her while her back was turned. She hit the ground laughing as he rolled to his feet.
“Little help?” Cleo giggled, holding out her hand.
And Lance fell for it. Even as he reached down to help her, she pulled him down.
“Gotcha again!” she laughed.
“Okay, okay…” Lance muttered as he got up, “you win.”
“You should have seen the look on your face!” was Cleo’s response. That was what really did it for her. Then, in a voice that was just a little too over the top to be taken seriously, “Besides, you should never turn your back on the enemy! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
“With friends like you…” and Lance smiled as he said it, “who needs enemies?”
That day all four of them seemed to be on a roll, it was just one laugh after another.
“You know,” said Carlton, “that really isn’t in good sport.”
“Shut up, Carlton,” the others said, almost in unison.
“Well, it wasn’t,” he muttered.
They then turned and started down one of the island’s many paths.
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