THE SUN FESTIVAL
It was the first night of the Sun Festival and there was a feast in the Dsarin tower. Then came the dancing by the bonfires. When the drums started, Nyssa let the rhythm take her far away to her inner place. If she closed her eyes, she could forget the excited crowd and the conversations were slowly drowned by the music. She could feel the shadows cast by the flames around her, creating the illusion she was only another ghost among them.
The teenager moved her blades as extensions of her arms. She would swirl them around her swiftly, loving the sound of the edge cutting through the air, so close but never touching her. She was fascinated by the flashes of light reflecting on the silver metal and the long pieces of red translucent cloth floating around her.
Her feet were light on the sand, following the beats of the drums. Around her naked ankles and wrists were metal bracelets that would jingle at every movement. Nyssa was in her own world, oblivious of the now silent audience. It was only her, the swords and the drums. And the chanting that would join temporarily before fading out again, interwoven in the rhythm. She was a flame spirit answering the call of the Sun.
When the last beat was struck, she stopped. There was a moment of silence before the spectators started to applaud and whistle. The dancer looked up and she was a girl again, with a red dress and paint on her face. Catching a glimpse of a smile on her father’s face, she felt pride as she bowed and retreated, leaving the spotlight to the next group of performers. Later, there would be the Legend and she was looking forward to it.
As Nyssa got further and further away from the tower and the center of the activities, it got darker and quieter. The sky seemed brighter though, as the stars weren’t obscured by the fires. The Flame Raiders had set up their blood-red tents the furthest for that reason. After cleaning herself up and putting on a more casual dress, Nyssa also exchanged her dance swords for her usual pair, though she wouldn’t need them here. She was safer in the middle of thousands of strangers during a night of the festival than anywhere else. There were rules and blood was only to be shed during the tournament. Nevertheless, her blades were exceptional of workmanship and the proof of her status within her tribe.
Nyssa braided her hair loosely on one side and grabbed a scarf to wrap around her shoulders before leaving her tent. As she started walking back towards the gathering, she heard a noise to her left. Putting a hand on her swords, she stopped and turned around as a silhouette came out of the shadows.
“Nice moves out there. Not planning on using those during the tournament, I hope?”
A man came up to her and smiled, looking down at her as if she was still a child. Nyssa recognized her older cousin whom she hadn’t seen in a long time; both their tribes wandered different parts of the endless desert. She relaxed, but still didn’t let her guard down. She never really liked him and preferred to keep the encounter as short as possible. Walking past him as if she hadn’t seen him, she didn’t even bother answering.
“Oh, don’t ignore me now, Nyss. No hug for your favorite cousin?”
“Get lost, Kerrem.”
He only laughed and caught up to her as she kept walking towards the tower.
“So where’s that little friend of yours, you know, the guy that always followed you around?”
Kerrem was referring to Solon, a boy that was only a year older than Nyssa. When they were kids, they used to play together all the time. Then, he learned she was someone important, being the daughter of the chief, and started courting her, hoping she’d fall in love and marry him. Her father always liked the boy and asked him to be her bodyguard for a while. It didn’t work out very well as she had become very good at sneaking away from him. They weren’t friends anymore and he was engaged to some girl from another tribe. The mixing blood between tribes happened a lot. Her father’s younger sister had left the Flame Raiders to marry another chief far away. It didn’t mean anything; it was just the way it was. Alliances were ephemeral in the desert, they fluctuated as dunes moving with the wind.
“He grew up,” she answered, avoiding details.
Kerrem kept following her, impervious to her indifference. He didn’t take her seriously, he never did. To him, she was just a girl.
“So, you’re barely old enough to participate in the tournament this year. Are you going to? I mean, I know girls rarely do, but I heard you’re different. If the dance was any indication, you might have a chance to make it through the first round.”
“Why do you care?”
The tournament was held the three last days of the festival. Men from every tribe would fight to become the Champion, the ultimate warrior of the desert. It came with a prize, of course, but the title was the only thing that mattered. It was prestigious for the winner and for his tribe. Nyssa remembered her father had won the first year he had participated, twenty years ago. He had been 17 then. He had married that year and founded the Flame Raiders the next. She was walking in the footsteps of a legend.
“I’ll be fighting, of course,” Kerrem said nonchalantly. “I doubt we will cross paths as I’m way out of your league, but in case we do, don’t think I’ll go easy on you because we’re related!”
She hated the way he spoke to her, as if she was inconsequential. She couldn’t wait for the tournament. The pairings were random; she could be matched against anyone. She was so hoping it’d be him.
When they got back to the tower, the last dance was ending. People were setting up for the Legend, a tradition to close the first night. One of the elders of the desert would sit between the bonfires and tell the story of how the world came to be. Nyssa loved it, she only heard it once ten years ago, but it had become her favorite tale instantly.
“First came the Great Spirits.”
The elderly woman chosen for the storytelling didn’t have to speak very loud. Everyone was quiet, even the children on their mother’s lap, attentive to every word.
“There are four of them, named after the element: Water, Air, Earth and Fire. They created this land and surrounded it with water. Lesser Spirits were born as plants and animals were created to populate this new world. The Greater Spirits looked at it with pride and named it Terra.
Then came men. Gathered into tribes, they were scattered all around the continent and lived peacefully under the guidance of the Greater and Lesser Spirits. They were in perfect harmony with nature, grateful for food and shelter it provided them.
Then came Chaos, born of the weakness of the human heart. As the tribes grew larger and settled, they started fighting over the land and blood was shed for the first time. The Era of Darkness started, a never-ending war.
The Greater Spirits didn’t like to see their creation being destroyed, so they decided to intervene and put an end to the human quarrels. To do so, they chose four men as their vessels, champions amongst their people, and they shared their wisdom and strength.
The Water Spirit chose as its Champion a wise man who believed he needed to know his enemies in order to defeat them. Knowledge as his sword and shield. Assembling those who agreed the best offense was a good defense, the Water Spirit fled to the northern islands, rising the tide to isolate his people in order to protect them.
The Air Spirit preferred an archer that took down his enemies from afar. Taking the best marksmen, he led them to the eastern mountains. Taking refuge in high ground, the Air Clan learned to survive with the eagles, keeping an eye on the battlefield from above and shooting anyone who would try to follow them in their natural fortress.
The Earth Spirit, mocking both, claimed the plains for his own. His Champion was a strong war leader that believed in strength of numbers. Together, they would destroy anything in their path. The new Earth Clan started to build villages to mark their territory, unwilling to give anything to the weak.
The Fire Spirit chose a swift warrior that wouldn’t back away from any challenge. He rallied those whose heart was strong and lead them south. The Fire Spirit burned all the land, marking it for his chosen ones and daring the others to try to take their land. The desert would provide the Fire Clan what they needed as long as they knew how to find it. In itself, it was the best defense against the invaders as it was full of deadly traps invisible to the eye of the enemy. The Fire Spirit taught his people how to survive in the harsh desert, walking with the sun and stars, and following the signs of nature.
While the Water and Air Clans cowered in their sheltered homes, the Fire Clan grew to be the strongest despite being the smallest. Exiled in the south, they would spar with the Earth Clan that kept growing behind their wooden walls, but no one ever could catch them as they knew the sands better than anyone.
One day, the Fire Clan will claim the plains as their own, the land of their ancestors, and take back what is rightfully theirs.”