This is the first in a series of stories dealing with the youth of Nooj.
A/N: This is a continuance of the more than year-long study in which I have been engaged, searching for the reasons why Nooj is as he is. It has been fascinating, to me, and I am not yet done.
The Making of the Man
Life had never been easy of the island of Kilika, nor had it ever been excessively hard. It was a good place to grow up if you were an adventurous child with a taste for danger. Beyond the confines of the sole village lay a forest, or perhaps it should be called a jungle, crossed by a few paths which ultimately led to a pilgrimage temple and, inevitably, to the sea again. The temple was a mysterious place, guarded by the militant priests of Yevon and housing secrets largely hidden from the inhabitants of the village. The more daring of the young villagers liked to make the perilous trek through the tangled herbage to the very steps of the temple and leave a token there as a symbol of their courage. It had become a traditional rite of passage during the year before the young began their formal training in the arts of war and self defense. Since the tangled underbrush concealed both wildlife and natural pitfalls, there was sufficient risk in the exercise to challenge even the bravest of those who attempted the feat but not so much as to move the Elders to ban the practice. Besides, it weeded out the unfit.
So when the four friends decided it was time for them to try their mettle in the geste, none of them was inclined to quail. The quartet had been together since birth. Born in the same year and thus raised in the same crÃ¨che, they were closer than siblings and had shared many adventures in their more than twelve years on the planet. This promised to be just one more.
For all their closeness, the four were not so similar in personality and talents. The mixture of traits added to the strength of the group. There were three boys and one girl. Why they had formed so tightly knit a friendship none could remember but they had early gravitated toward one another and away from the others their age, each finding something valuable in the association. There was Aquil, a boy who laughed as much as he talked - which is to say, a great deal. He was a little below average height, thin and agile as an otter whose principal delight was to play jokes both practical and impractical on his peers and elders. Then there came Langt whose graceful inches made him the object of admiration from all who saw him. He was a quiet youth with a gentleness which had frequently led others to underestimate his persistence and resolution. Talya was the girl; she was brave out of proportion to her size with the absolute determination to prove herself the equal if not the better of her three male companions. Finally, there was Nooj who was the accepted leader of the little band. He had never been formally chosen to be their chief; it was that, from his earliest days, he was to be found at the front of every enterprise and had been silently followed by any he deigned to lead. He was taller than his three companions and had always seemed older than the others who shared his age. As one who tended to seize any initiative, he had begun practicing secretly with a dagger he had found fallen from some adult's belt and now wore hidden in the small of his back beneath his bloused shirt.
Unaware of the indulgent eyes of their elders, these four made their preparations for the next day's adventure. Since only Nooj had a proper warrior's knife, the other three had to content themselves with the light spears they had learned to use to fend off wild animals. That weaponry was expected to be adequate for their purposes and was duly sharpened. Because the season was the warm one and the journey would only last, at most, a single day, they had no need to bother with bedding and since the vegetation of the island produced a number of edible fruits, they had no need to carry food. Water was stored in canteens which they hid in the tall grass near the village edge where they could be picked up at the last minute. Secrecy was of the essence.
Talya sidled up to Nooj and pulled back her jerkin to expose a black hilt which made a dramatic contrast against her white belly. "I sneaked this out of the Proctor's supply room."
"What is it?" He asked with interest. "A real knife?"
"No, just one of the throwing ones. You know, the ones with the leaf blades we don't get to touch for another year. I thought it might be useful to cut our way thought vines and stuff." She looked up at him hoping for his approval.
"That was well done; you were thinking clearly," Nooj gave his approval rarely but when he did, it was offered unstintingly. "You're a fine team member." He patted her on the back and she blushed fiercely. She wished she had been born male so she could be exactly like him.
"Is everybody ready?" He cast the sort of inspecting eye across his crew that he had seen his instructors use on similar occasions. "All right. One at a time, drift over the bridge. We'll meet at the first monolith on the main path. Casual now. Don't attract attention. Drift." He leaned with elaborate ease against the pilings of the last house in the gathering, watching through the open gate as his followers meandered across the savannah separating the village from the jungle. One by one, with exaggerated care, they disappeared beneath the dark canopy. When the last flicker of movement had died away, he began his own progress toward the rendezvous.
It was not in Nooj to stroll, but he set as leisurely a pace as he could, idly swinging his spear to decapitate the low-growing flowers as he went. He had gathered his waist-length mane of hair up into a single braid wound like an infinity sign on the back of his head. His boots were polished as they always were and he strode with a predatory grace which always made his elders think of famous warriors from the past. At this age, he was as yet unaware of how others saw him and so behaved in accord with his nature without the self-consciousness which would later afflict him.
At the meeting place, the other three shuffled their feet and cast quick nervous glances into the underbrush. Aquil had a tendency to jump at every rustle, explaining that he was just alerting the group.
Nooj looked speculatively down the central path, "There are branches off to both sides a little further on and I have heard of a secret path through the tree tops which is free of most fiends and other dangers. There is also supposed to be some place where you can overlook the port hidden somewhere in here. Now, team, this is the time for us to make a decision. We all have our tokens, don't we?" He paused while they searched their pockets for the ceramic discs on which they had scratched their names. "All right then. We can go straight down this path - it probably leads right to the temple - or we can explore some of the other trails in here or cut through the jungle, ignoring the paths. What do you want to do?"
Langt stepped forward first which was unusual for the quietest of the four. "I think we should just do it as quickly as we can and get out of here."
Her fists planted on her hips, Talya tossed her head and sneered, "Scared, Langt? I want to see some of this place before we go. This may be our last chance. You know how the elders get ... I expected them to catch us before we got in here today."
"Naw," Aquil rubbed his ear thoughtfully, a habit of his when he was more nervous than usual. "They got to let us do this once. Everybody does it - it's like a righteous passage or something. But," he lowered his voice ominously, "if we get out - they'll be no coming back in."
Langt made a little squeak and turned even paler than his normal color. "Let's just get it done and finished. Let's hurry." He turned to face down the wide passage way. Aquil and Talya looked at Nooj.
"No! I think it would be more interesting to look around a little before we head for the temple. As Aquil says, we may never get to come back. Let's cut through the jungle. Are we agreed?" He challenged them with his stare.
A loud 'aye', a nod and a grudging 'I guess so' and the four pushed their way into the wilderness of vines and palmetto. Talya took the position just behind Nooj; they were the two with the short handled sharp blades able to cut away obstacles. The other two boys ranged behind, looking to the sides, their spears ready to fend off any attackers.
It was with a satisfying sense of frightened valor that they stabbed fiercely if ineffectually with their weapons at the various small animals which scurried across their feet. And they thought themselves wonderfully clever to identify and avoid the snares, both natural and man-made, which threatened to trip them up. Aquil breathed happily, "It's a great day for adventures!" just before he tumbled head-first into a pile of leap mould with a startled cry.
Nooj reached down and hauled him up with a one-handed tug. "Watch where you're going. If you make noises, you'll attract the attention of soldiers."
"Soldiers?" Langt quavered.
Talya laughed softly, "Of course, soldiers. You think Yevon just patrols the temple?"
"Yes, I did. I didn't think they were out here, too."
"C'mon, let's go," Aquil urged, scraping the debris out of his hair with grubby fingers.
They entered a small clearing and sat down to catch their breath and drink some of their water. Nooj squatted back on his heels and began to trace idle figures in the fine loam of the ground, acting as he thought a military strategist would act.
"What would happen if we killed a soldier, Nooj?" Langt asked, frowning with worry. "Would they arrest us and kill us too?"
"Don't be so silly," Talya retorted. "Nobody would know we did it."
Aquil chimed in, "Besides, what makes you think kids like us could kill a real soldier? They're trained and everything."
Nooj stated with quiet certainty. "I could kill a soldier."
The others, startled, stared at him. "You could kill a soldier? How? What with?" Aquil blurted out without thinking.
"With my dagger or my hands if that was all I had. It's not the weapon; it's the will."
Talya looked at him with awe in her eyes, "Yes, I believe you. You could kill a soldier. Will you?"
"If one crosses our path or threatens us - I will kill him." Nooj did not hesitate nor did he smile.
"Well, not me. I'm not killing anything except animals or fiends. I think it's wrong to kill other people." It was Langt, of course, looking intently at his feet as he defied his leader. "Aquil?"
The smallest of them, the sly, merry one, tugged at his earlobe. "I dunno. Guess I'll hafta wait and see how I feel when I see one. It hurt the first time I killed an animal. Don't know if I could kill a man or not."
Nooj sprang up suddenly as though a spring had been released in his legs. He strode restlessly about the clearing, twitching his spear like a lion its tail. "And you're planning to be Warriors? You're babies, scared of defending yourselves. The only other man here is Talya. She's got more courage than you two brats will ever have. We start our training in a week and you're still too feeble to fight for your own lives. Go on back home to your nurses. I don't want you anymore." It was a long speech for the taciturn Nooj.
There was a shocked silence. The others had not expected this. They had been a team for a long time and had dealt with other disagreements; none of them thought Nooj would ever dismiss them.
Talya, who had risen when her idol did and was leaning against a tree with her arms folded, said, "He's right. I've got more balls than both of you put together. Go on back. Nooj and me'll go on to the temple and leave our tokens. Maybe you can learn to be fishermen or something."
"Cancha take a joke?" Aquil smiled ingratiatingly. "I was just teasing, kinda thinking out loud. I'll kill anything that crosses me. Bring 'em on." He raised his fists in a belligerent pose.
"Langt?" Nooj looked at the hesitant, willowy youth.
"I'll come, but I won't fight. ... I didn't want to tell you yet, but I'm not going to train as a Warrior like the rest of you. I'm going to study for the priesthood." He glared defiantly for a moment.
"The priesthood? The Yevon priesthood? Why?" Aquil yelped.
"Because I want to." Langt looked down at his hands.
"It has to be more than that, just wanting to." Talya was uncharacteristically gentle.
Langt nodded ruefully, "It's like it's meant to be. Like there's a voice in me saying that's what I'm supposed to be. I dunno; it's hard to explain."
"Leave him alone. It's his choice and his right. You don't have to kill, Langt. I'll kill for you. You do what you have to do." Nooj decreed with firm authority. "I will do what has to be done to keep us safe." He turned and directed, "Let's get going. It's not much further."
Soon, they were able to spy the steps leading to the temple ahead of them. A paved area with a check-point barred the way at the foot of the staircase. It was of no matter to the little group; their objective was nearer. Just at the place where the path turned toward the temple was a tree with a hollow place in its trunk. Into that hollow, generations of Kilikan youth, proving their courage, had dropped their personal tokens to prove they had made the trek and had come within sight of the enemy fortifications.
"OK." Aquil shoved his token into the slit in the tree and turned on his heel. "Done! Let's get outta here" He grinned nervously over his shoulder.
Langt moved forward with graceful dignity as though he already wore sacerdotal robes and, with long, slim fingers carefully inserted the disc bearing his monogram. He was silent but behind the smooth brow he was making note of the fact that this would be one of his last purely secular acts. Within the week, he would be a novice embarking on the first leg of the long journey toward realizing his vocation.
Like the budding Warrior she was, Talya crept upon the tree as she would later creep up on sleeping enemies. She reached out and without touching the bark or stirring a leaf, dropped her proof of identity inside the cache.
Nooj started forward to deposit his coin when a rustle in the underbrush alerted them.
A Yevonite soldier blundered into the narrow path, leisurely doing up his trousers. His eyes goggled at the sight of the four young people watching him with surprise and alarm. With a flustered air, he hastily swung his rifle around and, bringing it to bear on the little cluster, demanded, "Wh - what are you doing here, you heathen spawn? - Put your hands up ... no, lie down on the ground, flat on your faces." He made a brusque gesture; they were only children after all.
Aquil looked at the armed mans red face and began to drop to his knees. Langt sank down like a bird coming to rest on the branch of a tree. Then the voice of Nooj rang out, deeper than any of the others had ever heard it before, "No! You will not do that. Stand and fight like men." He drew his dagger.
"Fight? Like men?" Aquil looked at his leader with wide eyes as though their captain had grown two heads or had transformed into a chocobo.
"I will not fight." Langt murmured from his prone position. "I am to be a priest." It was unclear whether he was instructing himself or declaring his principles.
Talya who had faded back into the forest while the soldier had his attention focused on his buttons, slipped as silent as a shadow from behind a tree in back of the man. Her little knife was in her hand and the tip was aimed at the man's kidney. Nooj saw her at once but made no sign, keeping the soldier's eyes fixed on him and his weapon.
Aquil noticed Talya as she made her move, swiftly plunging the throwing knife into the side of the Yevonite. He moved forward to pull her out of danger and simultaneously thrust out a foot to trip the wounded man. Langt was startled by the crash of the plummeting body and rolled quickly away from the arena, still praying.
With a practiced leap, Nooj was astride the fallen man, his knife at the throat of the soldier. His hand was not shaking which surprised him; he had thought his first real battle would be more alarming. Then the man gave an angry bellow, surging up to his feet and throwing off the much lighter boy. He turned on Aquil with a roar and, seizing the youth in a furious grip, threw him against a tree, stunning him.
Nooj dived for the man's torso, aimed his blade at the midsection where bone would not deflect the thrust. The blast of the rifle's firing sent waves of sound through the jungle and spun Nooj around where he stood. Scarlet bloomed on his right sleeve near the shoulder. He looked, swiftly evaluated the situation, and switched the knife to his left hand. In one smooth sweep, he buried the dagger deep into the belly of his adversary and, continuing the movement, neatly eviscerated the man. In the confusion, the four did not realize at first that the soldier had been slain. Nooj was the one who initially saw that no one with such a wound could live. As his knife came free, he toppled back to the ground, unable to wrench his gaze from the sight of the gaping slit in the man's abdomen through which the grey opalescent coils of the intestines spilled, falling onto the ground as the dying man sagged forward.
They heard the crashing sounds of a party of guards who, alerted by the noise of the gunshot, had come to investigate. The glitter of armor reflected among the fluttering leaves like a warning of danger flashing in the distance. The shouts and curses of the men sounded like wild beasts ripping through the silence. Terrified, the young group froze for a moment during which time had no meaning. Then, reality came back with all its perils.
"Let's get out of here," Talya grabbed the staggering Aquil by one arm and the traumatized Langt by the other. "Come on; they'll catch us. Nooj, can you run?"
"Of course, it's just a small wound." he answered although the entire right side of his shirt was dyed red and the color was spreading down his trousers. "I'm all right. How about the others?" He just managed to control the chattering of his teeth and the quaver in his voice.
"They'll live. Just go! Come on. We've got to get out of here!" She was too preoccupied to notice his pallor or how his hands were shaking.
"Not along the path. It's too easy for them to see us." Nooj pressed his left palm against his wound to try to stop the dripping blood from marking their escape route. He led the others into the thickest part of the growth, adroitly slipping through the trees and into heavier cover.
"Here," he hissed, "Get down. They can't see us here."
Talya stowed her two, now functioning, charges safely away and turned her attention to Nooj. Sweat shone greasily on his brow and his jaw was rigid, his teeth clenched against the pain from the damaged arm. His eyes were half-closed, glittering with tears as he breathed in short panting gasps.
"Let me look," Talya pried his fingers away from his shoulder. She tore away the shirt and exposed the area the projectile had struck. The arm just below the joint was shredded and pulpy, the tissue torn away from the bone by the heavy shot. Methodically, as though she had done it a thousand times, the girl ripped the remainder of the sleeve into narrow bands and began to carefully bind up the bleeding limb. She wrapped it tightly to compress the vessels and slow the loss of blood which was debilitating her leader and hero.
Nooj lay against the bole of the tree and accepted her ministrations. He was feeling sick and weak, not just from the pain and the blood loss but also from the memory of what he had done. He could feel the slippery texture of the soldier's intestines and the thought made him retch feebly. He had killed a man. Of course, he had earlier boasted he would do so if necessary but he had never thought he would be faced with the need so soon and that the actual deed would be so unlike what he had imagined it would be. Blood was so hot when it gushed over the hand and the smell - that coppery reek - would not leave his nostrils. He let his head droop back further and wondered if he should re-think his plans to be a Warrior. He did not think he would ever be able to do this again. Maybe he was a coward at heart with no stomach for the killing of men.
He hardly felt the canteen pressed against his mouth and only reflexively swallowed the slightly stale water that trickled down his throat. It began to choke him and he coughed, sending throbs of new pain through his arm. "Where is my knife?"
"You stuck it back in your waistband before we ran," Talya answered softly. "It's still there; I noticed it when you sat down. How are you feeling?"
He shook his head and considered. "Better than I did. You're a good battlefield medic. Where did you learn?"
Without smiling, she answered, "I always knew I'd be a Warrior and I figured I had better learn how to do the things you need to do when you're fighting, so I asked some of the old women to show me how to dress wounds."
"Without telling us?"
She shrugged, "It was just a hobby. When do you think we can get moving again?"
He pushed himself to his feet. "I'll look. Talya, you stabbed that man, you know."
She shrugged again, "I had to; he was going to kill you. I'm all right. I didn't feel anything."
Unintentionally, they had ignored the other two. Now Aquil demanded their attention. "Is everybody all right? Langt is praying."
It was Talya who hastily answered before Nooj could say something he might later come to regret. "Will you two be able to make it back home?"
"Yeah. Why? You and Nooj gonna stay here?" Aquil tugged at his ear lobe.
"No. I just want to know if I need to keep an eye on you as well as Nooj. You know he's hurt?"
"Bad? Did he kill that soldier? I couldn't really tell what was going on." The boy twisted his shoe in the loam underneath.
Surprisingly, Langt responded to that question, "Yes, Nooj killed him. I saw it. He cut his guts out. That's why I've been praying - for both of them. It is hard to die but I think it is harder to kill." He looked at his captain with solemn compassion, almost love.
"Let's stop talking nonsense and get out of here. The squad's gone past us and is looking for the culprits somewhere else. We need to get as far back toward the village as we can before they come back. My arm will be a dead giveaway if they see it." Nooj stood unsteadily at the edge of the faint path they had followed into their sanctuary.
"I have a Potion, Nooj. Take it." Langt held out the small vial on his palm.
"No. I can manage. A Warrior cannot afford to get too dependent on things like that. Let us go." He led the way down toward the open walkways with cautious steps, moving as silently as one of the wild animals who made their homes in the forest. The other three followed with equal care, Talya bringing up the rear so she could deter pursuit from that position.
With the most exacting calculating care, the little party made its way to the juncture of the network of paths. There, they felt somewhat safer and paused to assess their condition.
Talya suddenly gasped, "Nooj, you didn't leave your token. The soldier came and then ... Give it to me, I'll run back and put it in." She offered her hand.
"Don't be foolish. There's no need for me to drop a token. I have better proof than that of my being here today." He indicated the lumpy bandage on his right arm.
"Yeah, come on let's go home." Aquil started down the path to the port. "You coming, Langt?"
"Wait," the soft voice answered. "We need to get our stories together and decide how much we're going to tell our elders."
"You're thinking about keeping some things back? You, a priest?" Talya mocked him.
"I'm not a priest yet and I don't want to get all of us in trouble about what Nooj did."
"What he did was done to protect us. If we hadn't fought back that soldier would have captured us and our people would have had to pay to get us back. Is that what you wanted?" Talya was not to be placated.
"Yeah, if we cost them a lot of money, they'd really be mad." Aquil thrust out his lower lip in defiance.
It was Nooj who stepped in to lay down the law. "We can't lie. They'll notice I have a hole in my arm and that it was made by a rifle. We have to tell the truth. They may punish us but they'll be glad we got back and didn't get caught. Wait and see. Our elders will be glad we defended ourselves. We tell the truth, all of it. No lying, no holding back. Honorable Warriors ... and priests do not lie." Brooking no further resistance, he turned his face toward the gate and led on. He had just set down the first tenet of his personal code. No lying, not ever, not for any reason.
The other three followed silently, aware that something major had changed but still not sure what. They only realized that the day had not been the lark they had expected, that they felt neither proud nor vindicated. It would be a while before they knew exactly what they thought. So they straggled in their forlorn line toward their home each occupied in accessing his own reaction.
Four children had left through the stockade gates which separated the jungle/forest from the village. Four individuals returned, no longer the cohesive quartet they had been since early childhood but altered in the indefinable way people are changed by unexpected, fateful events. Their feet had been set on the paths they would henceforth follow until they made their endings. They would never be children again. Not yet adult, they were stranded at that point where decisions must be made without sufficient information and choices are forced without guidance. Oh, they must tell the tale of their adventure to the elders and receive both reprimands and praise but they had passed beyond the ability of their seniors to control. They had commanded their own destinies and must walk each his own chosen way.
Langt was the most serene and content with his lot. He had proved to himself that his vocation was true. He had looked upon the madness of his generation and had been unmoved from his conviction that peace was the proper goal for a man of strength and courage. It was with a new dedication to those ideals, which he had discovered to be at the heart of his character, that he passed through the gates, ignoring the exclamations of the guards at the state of the little party.
The quicksilver Aquil, the playful ferret of a boy was stilled as though a quieting hand had been laid on him. He, like all children, had played at being the hero and slaying the enemy - both human and fiendish. But he had not thought it would be like it was. His games had not included the pounding heart, the cold sickness in the pit of the stomach, the abject, overwhelming fear. He had thought he would stand up like the man he was not yet become and dare the consequences with bravado if not courage. So now he felt shrunken and younger than he had been when he had last passed through these gates. That was not the way things were supposed to be. He had lived through a life-altering event; why was his life altered in this direction?
Talya was at ease within herself. She had been tested and had passed. Even within her own hyper-critical mind, she had passed. She had not faltered in front of her idol, had not failed him. It was her skill which had saved his life. She had not a doubt on that score. Without her, he would have bled to death back there in the underbrush. That knowledge was enough for her. That she had stabbed a soldier of Yevon meant nothing beside the fact she had saved Nooj. She walked with the step of an Amazon and glowed almost visibly, wearing the bloodstains on her clothing like combat medals.
A short distance behind the others, Nooj was lost in his own thoughts. He was having difficulty in sorting out what he felt from what he thought he should feel. He had read his history books and pored over the biographies of the great Warriors of the past. From them, he had formed an image of what he thought he would feel when he finally killed his first man. There would be a melancholy mood, a looking-back-with-regret sorrow that he had been forced to take a life. No truly heroic figure took pleasure in doing the brutally necessary things demanded of one during battle. Genuine Warriors always sought the peaceful, the diplomatic way. Or so the books stressed over and over. That he had been wounded should only have added to his distress. It was not a good thing for men to fight and harm one another. He looked as deeply inside as he was able but could find none of these things. His arm hurt; he vaguely wondered if he would lose it but he could not find it in him to regret what had happened. His momentary doubts had vanished and he had forgotten they had ever been. To his surprise, he felt completed by what he had done, as though a part of him which had been missing had slipped into place. It was with an unseemly relish he savored the memory of the blade slipping into the soldier's belly and the rush of the steaming intestines through the long slit he carved. Nooj turned his face away from his companions lest they notice, even on his stoic countenance, the exultation just beneath his skin. He was jittery with anticipation, longing for his next opportunity to engage and destroy the enemy. With the rigid discipline he had begun exercising from his first self-awareness, he composed himself and, taking long strides, moved to the head of the group and led them back into the palisaded village. He had become a man - for better or for worse - and had begun the long task of defining what kind of man he would be.