Sticky hot jungle air clung to her open back, little beads of sweat slowly trailing down her skin. It was the beginning days of the warm season, coming right after the ruthless cold of winter. Streams of light shined down between the cracks of dense overgrowth high above their heads. A group of macaque monkeys passed by overhead jumping from one thick twisting tree vine to another. They paid no attention to a group of small children below on the jungle floor.
They were a gang of scrawny, sun-kissed children. All were barefoot and had peculiar shaved hairstyles which would make them appear wild to any foreigner visiting the island. Instead of playing and running around like the other kids their age, this group in particular were still and silent. They stood in a circle, surrounding a boy and a girl holding a snake.
Because from down below on the jungle floor, a gang of small sun-kissed children stood in a circle, surrounding a boy and a girl.
"Tipene," The girl said, cradling a creamy white, yellow spotted snake in her hands. The reptile constantly slithered around like water in a disturbed pond, the young islander girl shifting her arms to match the rhythm of its flow. She moved closer to him, cocking her head. "It is said the great warrior who slayed the giant of the pond can withstand anything. He was invincible. Nothing could hurt him and the sound of his footsteps make even the most ferocious of tigers run away, afraid."
The beady eyes of the snake captured and held Tipene's gaze. Sweat not caused by the smoldering heat of the jungle trickled down his forehead but he dared not move. The girl smiled softly, stroking the top of the reptiles smooth scaly head with her index finger. Her eyes flashed up under thick dark eyelashes, shining bright green like emeralds in a forgotten cave.
"Only time was more powerful than him; it is more powerful than all of us." The snake wrapped its slender body around her arm, squeezing softly but she was far from concerned. "Will you be the warrior of legend? Are you the perfect warrior?"
Tipene swallowed thickly and nodded his head, "Yes."
The girl stared blankly, a cold detached look glossing over her eyes. She motioned for him to raise his arm and he did so hesitantly.
"Prove you are. Feel the bite, take the poison. Only the warrior can survive."
All the other kids drew in closer, eyes wide waiting with bated breath. Apprehension filled the air around them as inch by inch the snake's head drew closer to the boy's tanned arm. The reptile was perfectly still. Only the flash of a thin tongue slipping out of it's lips moved, tasting the air. The snake tensed in her palms, muscles coiling.
"Do not be scared. The warrior shows no fear."
She extended her arms, and the snake hissed lowly, a warning. Ready to strike.
They all jumped when an unexpected voice disturbed the trance they were all in. A tall rough man emerged from the foliage, a long machete held in his hand and a furious look upon his ragged face. Citra backed away, the snake hissing at the new arrival, its body now squeezing with intense pressure on her small arms. In long swift strides the man crossed the distance between them and in a flash grabbed the snake and ripped it away from her, flinging it into some bushes.
Citra's chest tightened in fear. She barely had time to raise her arms when the man smacked her good on the head. She cried out in pain, clutching the pounding of her skull. Another pained cry escaped her lips as the man pulled her hair tightly, making her head burn. The man didn't let go, but instead addressed the other kids.
"All of you! Get back to your homes before I feed you to the crocs!" He barked. They scrambled away, none daring to see if the man really would. They heard scary stories of the man, Tane, from older kids, and knew he was not to be trifled with. Tane huffed and marched back the way he came from pulling Citra along by her hair. She hissed but her hands stayed by her hips, curling and uncurling. Sometimes he would give it a harsh tug just to punish her more. It continued like that until they broke through the foliage of the jungle and into an open grassy field.
He finally let go and she skittered away rubbing her sore head.
"What were you doing with that snake?" He questioned, crossing his arms over his wide tattooed chest.
She bowed her head, adverting his stern gaze. "Nothing, Uncle."
He snorted and crouched down to be eye level with her, "Tell me child or your father will hear of this."
She frowned but remained stubbornly silent. After a few seconds he sighed and grabbed each of her wrists, forcing her palms up.
"You see this?" He said, shaking her hands, "Snakes are unclean. Dirty. They are bad creatures and should not be touched. They stain hands with wickedness. You are lucky they haven't stained yours. But you won't be next time. Do you understand, Citra?"
She lifted her head and nodded, "I understand."
"Don't play with snakes, Citra."
He looked into her eyes as if searching for something. It made Citra feel uncomfortable. Her Uncle had a way of looking into a person's eyes and just knowing if they were keeping secrets or were lying or if they were guilty of something. He could single someone out and strip them clean like a boar's skin. It was no wonder he was one of the most intimidating warrior in their tribe and the best teacher.
Tane was a warrior with tough skin, yet when she looked at him with wide innocent eyes, the eyes of a child who didn't no any better, he sighed and swatted her head. "Come. Your father and brother returns from Chinu today. You should not be out playing, child. Your father expects you to greet him and your brother, such is the duty of a daughter and sister."
Tane walked off towards the direction of his house. Citra had to jog to match his long strides. Through the long grass fields, passing by the village and heading along a trail leading to the outskirts of the village, was were his house was. Her Uncle was well respected in the tribe but everyone knew him to be a private person. Some of the younger kids would dare each other to see how close they can get to his hut, but none ever had the guts to actually get close to it.
As they passed through the village, she was enchanted at the sight of pretty twinkling lights that were strewn across the tents in the main market square. It made her more excited for the celebration tonight. The village held many parties and festivities but this one was the biggest every year. They were celebrating the coming of newly fresh warriors who passed the trails of Chinu as well as honoring the tribe's ancestors. It would also be the first time Citra get to dance with the other older girls in a ritual to welcome home and congratulate their new warriors.
In the village, families were all inside preparing for the arrival of their sons coming back from the Chinu. Tane walked with his head high, an air of authority surrounding his tall form, and why should he not? He was after all one of the most respected elders in the tribe along side his brother Anaru. They, with many other young men, fought in the great war that united all the tribes on the island into one strong, empire. But that was before her time. She only heard of the war through stories told by her father. Now all the Rakyat people lived together and that is the life she knows.
"Go get ready. They will be coming soon." Tane ordered when they reached his house.
Citra skittered off, her bare feet padding on the wooden floorboards, making some creak and moan under her weight. She went to the kitchen and grabbed a bucket, filled it up with water and went out back to wash herself. Her hair was still dripping wet when she entered her small room. Opening a chest shoved next to her bed, she pulled out a plain tube top and a skirt. After she dressed herself, she slipped on bracelets beads on both of her wrists and golden ring anklets around her ankles. Lastly, she headed outside to collect mangoes as a welcome home gift to offer her father and brother.
The mango tree was the only thing that seemed to make her Uncle relax. She sometimes spied on him as he tends to it. It was an odd sight to see an intimidating man look so calm and strangely sentimental. She asked one time why he had only mangoes and not banana trees or apple trees.
"It was your mother's favorite," He would say and that would be that.
It is her brother's favorite too.
Sometime later when she picked out the ones that looked the most juiciest, she heard her Uncle call for her. Heart skipping a beat, Citra dashed towards the front of the house, careful not to spill any of the fruit she held in her arms. She made a sound of discomfort as she tried to stop one from already slipping over her arm.
When Tane looked at her he snorted and shook his head, "Child, grab a basket before you drop any of those." She hummed in agreement and toddled inside the kitchen and dumped all of it inside a basket with relief. "I see them," Tane's voice drifted inside.
Citra sucked air in sharply. She quickly went outside with the basket and went to stand beside her Uncle. She found herself unconsciously bouncing on her heels and forced herself to stop. Tane didn't like it when she moved around too much and most of the time he would swat her on the head when she got too antsy. He was strict like that, especially towards his students on the days she watched the class. One time, when she was fidgeting too much, he told her she looked like a cowardly deer. She stood straighter than an obelisk from then on.
They were silent as they waited. From the distance, she squinted to see two figures traveling down the path. They were too far to make out clearly but Citra knew it was them. Her chest tightened at the sight. Too long they have been gone. What must have been weeks felt like months to her. She wished they didn't have to be gone for so long but that was that way it is. Chinu was no short ritual. It was a set of trials meant to challenge young boys transitioning into the strong men they will become. She did not know what partook in those weeks. Girls weren't allowed to to participate in Chinu.
It did not mean that girls were banned from training too. They had certain rights towards learning how to hunt and train in combat yet they were mostly expected to work in the fields, cook, and care for the village. The last great women to not only participate in battles but lead some was her mother. The elders would say she was the true goddess warrior.
Citra herself was always eager to learn how to fight. When they were young, her father would try to teach her brother how to use a knife correctly or how to shoot an arrow. Suffice to say, her brother was more interested in playing jokes and getting into trouble with friends. He quickly became labeled as the village troublemaker. Citra, on the other hand, begged to be taught too. She was patient when learning but when she failed to do things right she was quick to become frustrated and most of the times give up. She's hot-blooded, her father's friends would say. Just like Tane when he was younger.
It wasn't until her father and brother left her in the care of her uncle Tane did she truly learn how to fight. She didn't have to beg to be taught. Instead he simply asked if she desired to learn and when she said yes he would wake her up early in the mornings to teach her. Unlike her father who was always mellow with her, even brushing off mistakes like they were nothing, Tane was the complete opposite.
He was strict, expected her to learn after one try and punished her when she failed. It grew to the point she would have tears running down her cheeks with her demanding to quit. He never let her, though. Instead he pushed her to her limit, which was very small for a little girl. In the end, through tears and sweat, she could throw a knife accurately, block and swipe, and shoot an arrow, albeit at an non-moving, nonliving object. It was a huge accomplishment for a little girl and for the first time she felt pride in herself and in her abilities. But nothing felt better than when her uncle placed a hand on her shoulder and smiled down at her in approval.
Citra exhaled slowly, every nerve in her body jittery. Finally, finally, two figures, one tall and one short, approached the house and she couldn't help but smile. As custom, Tane was the one to greet her father and brother first, giving heavy pats on their backs. Citra didn't wait too long after to welcome her family home.
"Welcome back, Papa!" She cried, colliding into Anaru and wrapping her small arms around his thick waist. Her father let out an oomph sound and patted the top of her head.
"Citra, I almost didn't recognize you. What have you done with your hair?" He asked, running his fingers through short coarse locks.
She stepped back, glancing at her brother shyly and said, "I cut it. Uncle said it was too long and would get in the way, so I cut it."
Anaru looked wearily at his brother, "He told you that did he?"
"It's more practical if she ever wants to become a warrior." Tane grunted in response.
Citra warmed at hearing that.
"She's not going to become a warrior." Anaru said, and that warm feeling cooled down.
She blinked in surprise when she felt a pinch on her cheek. "Those for me?"
Citra turned to see her brother, and all the warm feelings came back in floods. She had almost forgotten how beautiful his green eyes were. Almost.
"Vaas," She breathed and threw herself on him, giving him a tight hug. Oh! How it felt so good to have those arms around her too. Like the entire universe had been skewed and just here in his arms everything fell back into place. After squishing him the best she can, she stepped back, not too far, and showed him the basket. "All of it, for you. I picked the very best ones." She grinned triumphantly. She handed him one and he took it, his fingers brushing against hers lightly. Vaas bit into the juicy fruit, sweetness exploding in his mouth.
"Thank you for taking care of Citra. Remind me to give you a gift of my gratitude." Anaru said, clasping his brother's shoulder.
Tane did the same, grinning back, "How about the sweet cocoa butters in the rolling hills and a shark's fin while you're at it."
The two brothers laughed, knowing that Anaru would get all those things even if it was a joke.
"Now!" Anaru swooped down and snatched Citra, placing her on his shoulders. "Back home we go. I think I've forgotten what an actual bed feels like!"
"See you at the celebration." Tane called after them, "And Citra! I expect to see you in the future at my classes."
Citra looked back and smiled at her uncle. She waved goodbye. Even though she was back with her father and brother, a small part of her was sad to leave her uncle. She had enjoyed their time together.
When they entered their home everything looked the same as the day they left it, except for the sheen layer of dust settled everywhere. Anaru placed Citra down and went to the kitchen to unload the fresh pack of kills he's got before arriving at the village. Immediately, Vaas started straight for his room but Citra blocked his path.
"Vaas tell me how did it go? What did you do?" Citra shot, burning with curiosity.
"Citra, leave your brother alone. He is tired from the journey, and will need all his strength for tonight." Anaru said over his shoulder as he laid a dead komodo dragon on the kitchen counter.
She pouted and stepped aside letting Vaas continue down the hall to disappear into his room. She followed him with her eyes, staring at his exposed back. It was more tanned than she remembered.
Anyways, don't you have a dance to practice for tonight." Anaru inquired.
She blinked, tearing her eyes away from Vaas' room door. "Mhm" She hummed.
"Then run along child, don't be late." When Citra didn't move and kept on glancing at Vaas' room Anaru sighed, "You will see him later. He is no longer a kid anymore, he has no time to play. Now go."
"Yes Father," She mumbled, and with one longing look at Vaas' room she left the house.
All the young girls going to dance gathered in the shade underneath an open wooden patio. There were plenty of giggling as most of the girls talked about the boys- no men who returned home while putting on organic makeup from bashed fruits and powder spices. Citra stood awkwardly in place, wondering if she could sneak away back to Vaas and climb through his window when a pretty older girl approached her.
Citra knew who she was, recognized her as one of the kids Vaas likes to hang out with in his gang. The girl's name was Kalai. She was nice enough, helping Citra throughout dance practice but they weren't close by any means.
"Citra, let me help you do your makeup." Kalai said with a smile and lead the younger girl to sit in a small opening. "So, did you see Vaas? How is he?" The older girl asked as she began applying makeup on Citra's face. Citra smiled shyly and shrugged. When Kalai turned away to lather more cherry gloss on her fingers, Citra dropped her smile and stared at Kalai with a cold intensity. Citra smiled again when Kalai faced her and rubbed her index finger on her mouth, painting it bright red. The older girl sat back when she was done, examining her work. "You look so pretty Citra. When you grow up you'll have no trouble finding a husband."
Outwardly, Citra smiled politely. Internally she cringed at the thought of marriage.
When the sun began to set, the dancers began putting on their traditional costumes and accessories. They wore straw skirts lined with wooden beads making it so each time they moved the beads would create a sound emphasizing their steps. For shirts they wore bright colored red, blue, or green tube tops underneath heavy sets of necklaces. Lastly, the were adorned with a crown of flowers.
The girls rehearsed their dance recital a few more times before an elderly lady ushered them out of the patio and towards the village square. They were lined up hidden behind a building. Citra peaked around the edge. The whole village seemed to have come, and that was over a 100 or so all sitting or standing, watching the older male warriors perform a battle dance. Fast paced drums matched the jumping and rolling of the warriors, so fierce and fluid in their movements that Citra became mesmerized.
Her eyes wandered away for a while, searching for her family. Of course, they sat at the very front beside the other high elders in their tribe. Citra's heart bloomed when she saw Vaas sitting with them. He didn't see her but that was OK. He will pretty soon.
The dance ended with the two men bowing at each other and walking off stage. Citra's stomach churned as the drums changed into a familiar rhythm and the girls began running out. Since she was among the youngest and smallest of the group, Citra was placed in the front. Her queasiness melted away when she locked eyes with Vaas. He gave a small smile and Citra felt like she could do anything.
She was not a great dancer, never have been interested in dancing, but she danced her heart out for Vaas. She wanted to impress him and nobody else.
As soon as the dance ended, Citra bounded her way to Vaas only to see him get up and leave.
"Where is Vaas going?" She huffed, plopping between her father's crisscrossed legs.
Anaru ruffled her head, "He was chosen to perform tonight. It is a great honor."
"Perform what?" She demanded, making her father chuckle.
Right after he said that, the great fire pits were partially covered, dimming the light. Chanting arose, like whispers at first yet they grew louder and louder until they sang strongly, sending chills through Citra. She was drawn in, eyes wide and lips parted in wonder as water streamed onto the stage, making the ground muddy. The drums beat in time with the chanting, rising to a crescendo. Citra felt herself rising with it, holding her breath at what was to come.
She gasped quickly when the music and the chanting abruptly stopped, the light from the fires going out completely. A hushed silence fell over the crowd. Steadily, the fire grew again, revealing a boy standing in the middle of the stage, his body covered in tatau. She realized in awe that the boy was Vaas.
The drums began when Vaas began, matching his steps as if when he stepped the very ground itself shook. He moved with the grace of a warrior, twisting and turning, a long dagger in his grip that he cuts through the air with precision. He flicks his wrists and like magic the dagger moves in impossible ways that hypnotizes Citra. She holds her breath when he glides the edge of the dagger over his shoulder and along his chest. She was so sure he was going to cut himself but no blood was spilt. And his face, there was so much emotions displayed on his usually mischievous looking face. To Citra he looked like an entirely different person.
No. He looked like someone he can become.
She jumped when Vaas stomped the ground, splashing water everywhere. From the slow twists he began to make jerky violent movements. He stomped the ground many times, the water added an extra effect to the anger he was portraying. He swiped the dagger with the intent to kill, slicing it along the muddy floor leaving straight cut lines. He finished by jumping and landing to kneel on one knee, head bowed over his dagger.
The beating drums slowed down yet grew stronger when the whispering came back. Out of the corner of her eyes, a dark figure moved past her and onto the stage along with other dark figures. They were men painting all in black with hideous masks covering their faces. They all carried curved daggers and circled Vaas.
Citra wanted to warn Vaas of the danger but she remembered this was just a performance and he was in no true danger. Still though.
The chanting turned ominous as one of the dark creatures raised his sword above the unknowing Vaas. Suddenly, Vaas jumped up and twisted around, slashing the dagger across the creature's chest. Of course the dagger didn't touch the man, but the creature went down with the banging of the drums. The stage broke out in deadly chaos. Vaas battled against the creatures, dodging their attacks and retaliating with brutal force.
She laughed at them. How could they possibly think they can beat her brother? He was better than them, better than them all.
Pride filled her when Vaas defeated the last of the dark creatures, but it was not over yet. The chanting grew angry, the drums beat wildly. From the crowd to the left of her emerged a man painted all in red with stringy dreadlocks sprouting from a red mask he wore. The mask itself was horrid and terrifying, a disturbing open mouthed grin on its face.
Citra finally pieced together what kind of play this was. How could she not have noticed sooner. The Warrior and the Giant of the pond.
The giant swayed his body, sizing the warrior up. He stomped towards the warrior, raising his arms high above his head to intimidate his opponent.
Citra grinned in delight, knowing what was to come. Because despite how terribly big and scary the giant was, the warrior was not afraid.
Vaas the warrior raised his dagger and cut the giant's head clean off its body!
An explosion of red powder hid the two from view and when it cleared away Vaas stood triumphantly, raising the mask of the giant high and dropping it on the floor.
What Citra saw was the warrior bathed in blood and the Rakyat bowing before him, worshiping him as the god he is.
Music filled the night air. People danced around a huge fire pit, getting drunk on sweet, rich wine that tasted like honey in a bees nest. Of course, none was shared to her. Vaas got a sip, but he grimaced as it went down his throat. Sitting with a group of girls, Citra kept stealing glancing at her brother across the fire who was surrounded by his own fellow peers.
"I heard he was the best at each trial." One of the girls said.
"My father said he did better then Tane when he was his age." Another girl piped up.
Citra listened, and inwardly shook her head. They were all stupid not to have realized Vaas' potential until now. She had always known Vaas was meant for greatness. He was her brother, after all.
"I'm just glad your Dad won't be so hard on him all the time." Kalai said quietly, a private conversation between her and Citra. "He's always pushing your brother so hard to become... I don't know. To become something he doesn't want to be."
Her words annoyed Citra, and she made that known by glaring at her. "What do you know," Citra hissed defensively, "You know nothing of what my brother wants and don't pretend you do! I'm his sister. I know what he wants and what he doesn't want" She stood up abruptly, her face hot and stormed off, leaving behind the sound of music and the warmth of the fire.
She didn't know where she was going. She just knew she needed to get away. Be alone.
Citra was not surprised to find herself walking towards the beach. The walking had soothed her anger some, but it did little to help with turmoil in her mind. It was at these moments she went to the beach. It relaxed her the same way nurturing the mango tree did for her uncle.
She wiped angry tears away, ashamed she had cried over such a trivial thing. Kalai meant no harm, not really, but the older girl didn't know how much it hurt Citra to hear her say that. Speak as if she knew Vaas better than Citra did. His own sister.
The anger returned, like an oven in her chest. How dare that stupid girl say that. She doesn't know what she speaks of. Citra knows her brother better than anyone else. Loves him more than anyone else. Citra would die for him. Would Kalai? Citra thinks not.
With a frustrated grunt, she kicked sand in the air. It did little to alleviate her anger.
"Citra," a voice said behind her. She whipped around to see Vaas, tatau-less and costume free, looking like his normal self again. He walked up to her and cupped her cheek, concern in his eyes. "What happened. I saw you speaking with Kalai. Did she say something to you?"
Citra shook her head and slipped away. She sat at the edge of the water, close enough so the waves can wash over her feet. Vaas took a seat next to her.
They didn't talk for a long while, simply listening to the sound of the waves crashing gently on the beach floor, enjoying the cool night air and the view of the moon casting pale blue sparkling light on the dark sea water.
The peaceful moment was interrupted by Vaas playing with her hair. "I can't believe you cut it all off."
Citra frowned, "You don't like it?"
"No, no I like it." He grinned easily, "It doesn't really matter. You're still you."
She smiled at that and rested her head on his shoulder, snaking her fingers between his.
"Did you miss me?" She asked.
It was a simple question with a simple answer. It shouldn't have taken long to reply. She stared at him intensely, the peaceful mood dripping away as the flames of her anger melted it.
He didn't miss you, he didn't miss you, he didn't miss you - he hates you hehate-
She started to slip her hand away from his when he clutched it tightly, almost painfully so. He looked into her eyes, "Of course I did. You're my sister."
The tension between them was thick in the air. It all swept away by a smile from her.
"I missed you too," She confessed and leaned in, placing a soft peck on his cheek. She continued, each time electrifying her lips when they came in contact with his skin. She went to kiss him on the lips but he turned away, his face cast in shadows. "What's wrong?" She asked, giving his hand a light squeeze.
When he didn't answer immediately, she grew anxious.
What happened? What happened? Why are you doing this to me
Vaas looked at her and smiled, but there was something off in his eyes. "It's nothing." He kissed her forehead and crushed her against him playfully. She laughed but didn't move away. She liked being this close to him.
"Oh," Citra left his warmth, fishing something out of her pockets. "Here..."
He took it and held it out, examining the necklace. The string was made with the course leather of an animal hide, a metallic clip holding it together. Hanging from it was a simple, crudely shaped green glass leaf that looked suspiciously similar to some of the beer bottles Tane liked to drink.
Vaas touched it, turning it side to side. "Did you make this?"
Silently, she nodded, resting her head on her knees enjoying just watching him. He quickly put it on and smiled.
"Do you like it?" She asked, pleased that the necklace looked good on him.
"I do, thank you." He hugged her again and Citra was convinced her heart was going to explode.
They laid on the beach, talking far into the night and at that moment, the world was perfect.
He was all hers. Her warrior. Her perfect warrior.