Yin and the other boys had walked all morning, and now the sun was high above them. Each boy carried only a spear that he had fashioned himself from a branch of a hasta tree. Aside from the thin covering of mud they wore to protect their already dark skin from the sun, they wore no clothes. Their nakedness was symbolic; a spear was all a Kareen warrior needed to survive.
Yin’s brother, Hung, walked beside him. Brothers always stayed close together. The boys did not share a mother or a father; their relationship was closer than mere blood relation. When they had been old enough to leave their mothers, the tribe’s shaman had taken them to a sacred place and joined them together as brothers in the sight of their ancestors. That had been more than ten years ago now.
The boys boasted and bluffed among themselves. It was a way for them to turn their minds away from the trial they would soon face. A way for them to pretend they felt no fear. It was not considered honourable to boast about oneself, but that’s what brothers were for.
“Nobody is faster than Yin,” Hung was telling the others. “When we were hunting on the plains, I moved carelessly and startled the gazelle we were tracking. You know how fast they are! Any other would have given up the hunt, but not my brother! He ran after the beast. It dodged and weaved, and used all its tricks, but it couldn’t shake him. Yin had started skinning it before I even caught up!”
The story was true, for the most part, though the gazelle had been young and confused with fear. Still, those details wouldn’t have made for a good boast. The other boys ate up Hung’s words.
One of the boys said, “Running is a good talent for a coward to have.” Such words would have earned death, had they been spoken between two men. Among the boys, however, the insult was just a part of the game.
“My brother is strong. A true warrior,” he continued. “When we last went hunting, a jackal tried to steal our kill. Gilg grabbed it by the tail and threw it so high and far that it landed in a tree!” Gilg flexed his biceps and the other boys hooted and cheered. He was no older than any of the other boys, but already he was the size of a grown man.
The boy’s chatter died as they came at last to the proving ground. It was a wide oval of dark sand, tucked away from the scrubland between a series of narrow stone outcrops. It was a sacred place to the Kareen tribe. Only the men came here, and only then for the rituals of honour.
At the far edge of the ground stood the men of the village. Unlike the boys, the men wore clothes they might have worn into battle, and their faces were decorated with war-paint. Each man held two spears. They waited, silently.
The tribe’s shaman stood in the middle of the ground. His body was painted a dusky red with bright white dots and lines running up his arms and legs. The shapes drawn on his cheeks made it seem that he looked at you with four eyes instead of two. His headdress bristled with feathers.
When he saw the boys approach, he let out a high, ululating cry that startled a bird from its nearby nest. The men all struck their spears together in time and began to chant in low, deep voices. The air was filled with sound. The shaman called out to the ancestors, speaking words of power and purpose.
The adults quieted as the boys reached the edge of the ground and halted. The sudden silence was an act of violence that hinted at what was to come.
The shaman called for two of the boys to come forth: Jin and Tekk. The two boys stepped forward casually, even eagerly. They seemed proud to be the first ones named. Neither of them looked nervous at all. It wasn’t even his turn, and yet Yin’s own heart was pounding.
The shaman brought them to the middle of the ground, and one at a time, inspected both of their spears. They met with his approval, and he nodded. He handed the weapons back to the boys, and stepped away from them. He raised his hands, and the men began to chant again, beating their spears together in a slow rhythm.
The brothers lowered their weapons and began circling one another, each adopting a low fighting stance. Tekk was the first to move, thrusting his spear violently toward his brother. Jin knocked it away almost casually. The two would have played at this game often, practicing for this moment; they knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses well. Only, this was no longer a game.
Tekk’s second thrust was a feint, and as Jin moved to block a blow that never came, Tekk slashed, this time his spear finding flesh. A dark line of red appeared, running down Jin’s side, dripping with blood. Jin’s only response was to smile, proud of his brother’s skill. The first drops of blood hit the sand, and the pace of the chanting increased.
Encouraged by his success, Tekk made another stabbing motion with his spear, but Jin slipped to the side, avoiding it. While Tekk was off balance from his attack, Jin’s spear thrust forward, straight towards Tekk’s throat. Tekk saw it coming and twisted aside, but he wasn’t fast enough. The spear tip cut cleanly through the side of Tekk’s neck, and the boy cried out in pain and surprise. He let go of his spear with one hand to clutch at the gash in his neck. Jin took the opportunity to attack again, this time drawing more blood from his brother’s leg.
Tekk stumbled and nearly fell. His face had gone pale and he clutched his spear to keep himself upright. He smiled as if he saw something that only he could see. Jin returned Tekk’s smile, then thrust his spear deeply into his brother’s chest. Tekk remained standing for a few moments, then his eyes rolled up into his head, and he collapsed to lie lifeless in the dirt.
The Kareen believed that when a boy became a man in this way, his brother’s soul entered his body and the two became one. Yin had heard some of the men talk about this moment, about actually seeing the spirit of the fallen leave their body and enter the other. Yin only saw a boy he had known die. The other boys cheered and clapped.
“A good fight and a good death,” Hung commented.
Yin wondered what he would do when his time came. Hung was a part of him. Life would be meaningless without his brother by his side. He pushed the thought away angrily. He knew what he had to do, and he would do it. That choice had already been made. What remained was to see if he was brave enough to face it.
The shaman dipped his finger in Tekk’s pooling blood, and then marked Jin’s face with it. No emotion showed on that face. If Jin mourned for his brother, he kept his pain hidden. A warrior could not afford to show weakness.
“Jin-Tekk,” the shaman said solemnly, “you are now a man. Take your place with the others.”
Jin-Tekk joined the men. Two of them, Jin’s father and Tekk’s father, greeted him with smiles and open arms. Jin-Tekk had two fathers now, and the men would share a son.
Tekk’s lifeless corpse was dragged unceremoniously from the grounds.
The shaman called for the next pair of brothers to step forward. It was Yin and Hung.
“Come on, Yin!” Hung grinned eagerly, showing his teeth. Yin smiled back, but said nothing as he followed the larger boy out onto the proving ground. He feared it would be the last time he would share a smile with Hung. “Remember to keep your guard up. And don’t let me exploit your weak side,” Hung whispered as the shaman approached them.
He felt a surge inside of him that he had not felt before. A kind of power that thrummed through him. The blood in his veins wanted to fight. Was this what the men called warrior’s blood? Did Hung feel it too?
They each held out their spears for the shaman to inspect. The old man carefully examined the workmanship of the weapons, nodding to himself. Yin knew he would approve; The spears had been well made.
The spears were handed back to them, and the shaman stepped away, hands raised to the sky. The circle of men began to chant. Yin’s blood resonated with that sound.
It was Hung who attacked first. He struck out with a powerful blow that would have ended the fight immediately if Yin had not been fast enough to dodge out of the way. His brother’s spear cut the air beside his head and he felt the wind from the blow tickle his face.
Acting on instinct alone, Yin ducked and Hung’s following slash sliced harmlessly above his head. Yin knew his brother so well he found it almost easy to anticipate his movements. For years they had lived their lives as one, but now he felt an even deeper connection that had not known before.
He would not win if all he did was dodge; he had to strike. He jabbed at Hung’s belly with his spear, and his brother pulled his own weapon back to defend. The clack of their spears was lost amidst the greater rhythm that filled the air.
Hung knocked aside an attack then stepped forward, getting too close for Yin to use his weapon effectively. Hung charged, intending to slam into him. This was a tactic that Hung had never used in their sparring. Had he been holding back? Yin barely had time to wonder before their bodies collided and he was knocked to the ground. His spear slipped from his hand as he fell, landing a pace away in the dirt.
He coughed out dust, bright specks flashing before his eyes. Hung stood over him, spear ready for the killing blow. Yin didn’t wait, but rolled to his left as fast as he could. He heard the sound of Hung’s spear connecting with the sandy ground where his head had just been.
Yin grabbed his spear from where it had fallen, and twisted just in time to leap out of the way of a second attack that would have taken him in the throat. Hung drew back his spear for another attack.
Still not on his feet and gripping his spear awkwardly, Yin aimed a thrust directly at Hung’s knee. His attack connected, penetrating more deeply than he had expected. Hung’s weight had been on that leg, and he fell, eyes wide with shock, spear dropping from his hand.
Yin scrambled to his feet, and kicked his brother’s weapon away. He lowered his spear tip, pointing it towards Hung’s chest.
His brother’s hands clutched at his ruined knee and blood leaked through his fingers. The way his leg bent seemed impossible. Hung looked up at his brother through his mask of pain and managed a smile. He would not go to his death like a coward, but would face it like a warrior. Yin felt proud of him for that.
The beating of the spears came faster now, urging him to kill Hung and claim his place with the men. Every lesson of his upbringing had been preparing him for this. He had played through this moment in his mind a hundred times. He felt the eyes of his tribe on him. Their chanting felt like a force that came from deep within himself, making his bones vibrate, pushing him towards action. He knew what he had to do. He had decided long ago what his choice would be.
“I will not kill my brother,” he announced. He had intended to speak firmly, but it came out a croak.
The beating of the spears continued; only Hung had heard him. His brother’s smile vanished, and he shook his head.
“Don’t do this,” he mouthed.
“I will not kill my brother!” This time he shouted for all to hear. The clack of spear against spear faltered, and the chanting died away. Hung looked up at him unbelieving, betrayed.
The shaman was suddenly there, demanding he end Hung’s life. “If you do not pass this test, you cannot ever be one of the Kareen. We will have no cowards among us-”
Yin spoke, cutting the shaman off sharply, his words loud and clear. “What is bravery, if not holding to what is right even when all around you cling to what is wrong? What is bravery, if not doing what is hard when the benefit is small? What is bravery if not risking everything for those you love?”
“Yin,” Hung groaned. “Please. You will be sent west. Exiled from the tribe; alone until you die!”
“Then come with me, brother,” Yin replied. “We can make our own lives together, away from this madness.” In all the times he had played through this in his head, he hadn’t let himself believe that Hung might accept that offer, but now he couldn’t keep hope at bay. Everything would work out, so long as Hung came with him.
But Hung only shook his head and looked up at him as if he had never seen Yin before. Tears leaked from his eyes.
“Don’t you care that you are failing the test?” the shaman hissed. “Your honour and your manhood depend on this moment. Kill him now, or you’ll forever be a child.”
Yin shook his head. He had thought he would be angry, but if anything, he felt pity for people who believed such things.
“I’ve passed my test,” Yin said, making the shaman blink in surprise. “Those who have failed stand all around me. When your time came, you didn’t stand by your brother. You killed him. Just because you were told to. A man makes his own decisions. A man carries his own honour. I am a man. A man cannot live in a village full of coward children.”
With these words, he turned towards the west and walked. The villagers – he could no longer think of them as men – turned away from him as he passed. His brother’s voice rose in a wail behind him, calling for him to come back and kill him. To finish the ceremony, and do his duty.
He would not hear his brother’s voice again for a very long time.