symbolTo Win the Prize

      The young man standing before Kahlen was like many of the others.  Fresh out of the service, he was fit and full of himself.  Kahlen could barely remember when he had been the same way.  Time had a way of either balancing one’s outlook on life or killing you.  Kahlen reflected wryly that, since time had not quite managed the latter, he himself must therefore belong in the former category.  He looked the man up and down critically.  “You’ll do, Morag.”
Morag grinned.  “Thank you, Honorable Kahlen!”
       Kahlen just frowned until Morag stopped grinning.  “It was not a compliment.  Your service record does not matter in the field of archeology.  I said that you are adequate.  You have yet to prove to me that you are more than that.”
       “Yes, Sir!”
       “Report to my study after breakfast tomorrow.  You have much to learn, so we will begin your training right away.”  Morag nodded and strode off.  Kahlen watched him go.  Did this apprentice have the necessary passion and perception to succeed?  Time would soon reveal the answer.

        Later that evening, Kahlen laid aside the scroll he’d been working on and stretched.  He looked up to find Orqina standing at his shoulder with a warm glass of 'Iw HIq.  The girl… Kahlen stopped himself.  No, Orqina was a girl no longer.  She was a woman.  Her trim waist, broad hips, and lovely face with its delicate ridges should have had the young men howling at her door.  The number of potential suitors had been reduced by her status as his assistant.  Those suitors who did decide to approach had been decimated further by Orqina’s own standards.  The last young man had been violently driven off when he showed no appreciation for her intelligence, lively wit, or love of history.  Kahlen smiled proudly, took the glass, and sipped the thick, sweet liquid.  “How goes your examination of Roq’s last shipment of artifacts?”
“Slowly.  Few of the fragments are large enough to handle without instruments, but I am beginning to see a pattern in those I have been able to positively identify.  Apparently, there was not a single bloodline belonging to that House but several related ones.  Interestingly, there are overlaps in some of the dates.”  Orqina could not keep the excitement out of her voice.

“Do you have a preliminary hypothesis?”

“Oh yes!  Indications so far point to annihilation of the House from the inside.  We do not have enough evidence to positively confirm such an event, but it would fit the evidence Roq has uncovered to date.”

 Kahlen took another sip.  “Very interesting!  Would you say that the current body of evidence disproves the official history of the actions of a rival House?”

       “No, a hypothesis is not established fact.  What we have so far only sheds doubt on the official record.  It does not disprove it.”

“I concur!  It will be interesting to see if your hypothesis holds up as more artifacts come to light.”

       Orqina smiled.  “It is getting late.  Did you need anything else, Sir?”

       Kahlen shooed her out the door.  “Go to bed, Orqina.  If I decide I need something else, I am perfectly capable of obtaining it myself.”  Once the door had closed behind her, Kahlen raised his glass in a salute to his late friend.  “A daughter to be proud of, Torg!  Rest well!” 

       Early next morning, Kahlen briefed Morag on the projects currently under investigation.  “As you can see, Morag, we have several areas of interest.  What think you of the developments so far?”
       “Fascinating, Sir!”  Morag was enthusiastic.  “You have accomplished far more than your reputation divulges.”
       “My reputation is based on conclusions.  One cannot number in-progress studies as concluded.”  Kahlen opened the door and called.  “Orqina, come to my study, please.”  He turned back to Morag.  “We have one dig currently active.  My assistant has been doing most of the investigation on it.”  He smiled at Orqina’s arrival.  “Morag, this is my assistant, Orqina.  She will brief you on our active dig.”
       Morag looked incredulous.  “A woman?”  He turned to Kahlen.  “You have a FEMALE assistant?”
       Kahlen’s smile was gone.  “Yes, I do… and she is far more knowledgeable than you at the present time!”  He waved dismissal at Morag.  “I have other tasks to attend to.  Orqina will brief you on the active dig.”
       Orqina resisted the urge to slap Morag.  She would not dishonor Kahlen with such an unprofessional display, but she didn’t have to pretend that she appreciated Morag’s words.  “Follow me, Morag.”  Orqina stalked out the door without waiting to see if he actually did.

       Two days later, Morag was put to work removing matrix from some of the recent artifacts.  Orqina noticed that he insisted on using the largest scraper available.  She stopped him.  “Morag, that scraper is much too large for the artifact.”
       Morag scowled at her.  “This needs to be finished sometime in the next year.  A smaller scraper will take too long.”
       Orqina pushed over a scraper half the size and a small brush.  “Use these.  The smaller scraper can get into the crevices, and the brush can remove the loosened matrix easily.”  When Morag continued to scrape away at the artifact, Orqina shouted, “MORAG!”  Her shout gained his attention, and he sent the scraper gouging into his thumb.
      Morag jumped to his feet, his thumb dripping blood.  “STUPID FEMALE!  DON’T YOU KNOW BETTER THAN TO DISTRACT A MAN USING A TOOL?”  He nodded at the blood spattered desk.  “Clean that up while I fix my thumb!”
     Orqina wet a rag at the lab sink and hurled the sodden mass into his face.  “CLEAN IT UP YOURSELF!”  By the time Morag got the water out of his eyes, Orqina was no longer in the lab.

       As was his custom, Kahlen retired to his study with Orqina after dinner to discuss the day’s work.  It was normally a relaxing event for both of them, but Kahlen noticed she seemed agitated this evening.  He could guess the reason why.  “So what think you of the new apprentice, Orqina?”
       Orqina scowled.  “He is impatient, and he thinks too much of himself.”
       “Agreed, on both counts.  It is an unfortunate failing of many young men.  Have you read some of his essays?”
       She nodded.  “I have.  They’re absolutely brilliant.  I find it hard to believe that the author of those essays is the same person who cannot seem to do the simplest things in the lab.”
       “Intellectual brilliance does not guarantee practical knowledge.”
       “I know, Sir.  I am trying to instruct him, but he doesn’t want to listen to me.”
       Kahlen sighed.  “I understand, Orqina.  If he wishes to continue as my apprentice, he will need to learn to listen to you.  I will speak to him about it tomorrow.”
       "Thank you, Sir.”

       Kahlen sat in thought long after Orqina’s departure.  Morag, for all his failings, was a very promising apprentice.  On the other hand, Kahlen would rather cut off his right hand than lose Orqina as his assistant.  Morag’s disrespect to her must stop, but it would not ensure automatic respect.  He let his mind wander back in time.  He considered himself fortunate to have enjoyed the association of some very wise mentors.  One, in particular, had always stood out.  He could see Vrenn’s seamed, old face now, and spoke to the vision.  “I do not think you realized just how much I appreciated your wisdom, Sir.  I wish you could lend me some of it now.”  Kahlen closed his eyes in remembrance as he drank.  The man had seemed ancient and ageless at the same time.  Vrenn had never instructed… he set challenges that allowed you to instruct yourself.  Kahlen smiled and nodded to himself.  Vrenn had given him the answer he needed.

       Kahlen woke Morag and Orqina at dawn the next morning.  “Come, we are going on a journey.”
       “Where, Sir?”  Morag looked at Orqina who shrugged.  She was just as mystified.
       “You will find out soon enough.”  Kahlen led the way to his transport.  It was piled with camping gear.  Once everyone was safely inside, Kahlen opened the throttle and aimed the transport at the distant mountains.

       Half a day later, the transport came to rest at the mountains’ foot.  Kahlen began unpacking the gear.  “Set up camp.  We stay here tonight.”
       Orqina was well used to Kahlen’s style of camping.  She began to set the tents into his preferred configuration.  “Has there been a discovery here, Sir?”  It wasn’t like Kahlen to withhold information like this.
       “There is a discovery to be made here.  You will be working on it tomorrow.”  Despite their best attempts at persuasion, his companions could pry no more details from him.  Dinner was spent with much small talk and little information.

       Kahlen waited until breakfast the next morning to enlighten his campmates.  “I have a challenge for the two of you.  You are to climb the mountain behind us.  Go as high as you can.  When you decide to turn back, take a twig from that location and return with it.”
       “Twigs, Sir?”  Morag was dubious.
       “I fail to see the challenge.”
       “Do not underestimate the degree of difficulty, Morag.”  Kahlen scowled.  “The climb is difficult.  The terrain is rough, and the air gets thin halfway up.  There are several trails up the mountain, but it is easy to go astray or fall.  I overcame this very challenge many years ago, but it was a struggle.  There is a prize to be had, if you can find it.”
       “Sir, with all due respect, Orqina should not do this.”
       Orqina rounded on Morag.  “You refuse to listen to me!  Now you are trying to say what I should or should not do!  WHY should I not do this?”  She glared at him.
       “You are a woman.”  Morag seemed to feel that stating her gender was sufficient explanation.
       “How observant of you!  I would never have known I was female if you hadn’t mentioned it.  Now, explain to me why I should not attempt this challenge!”
       “Kahlen said it himself.  The challenge is difficult and dangerous.  That places it into the realm of the warrior.”  Morag turned to Kahlen in appeal.  “You were a great warrior, Sir.  Can you not get her to see reason?”
       Kahlen shook his head.  “Orqina is perfectly capable of deciding for herself if she wishes to attempt the challenge.  She is no longer a child under my protection.  The climb is difficult… not impossible.  I believe that Orqina has the strength and skills to succeed.”
       Orqina glowered at Morag.  “I accept the challenge!”
       Kahlen handed them each a pack.  “Here are first aid supplies as well as sufficient food and water for one day.  Use them wisely.” 

        Many hours later, Morag and Orqina had reached the tree line.  They paused, both of them gasping in the thin air.  Morag broke a twig from the nearest tree and turned to start back down the trail.  “Where are you going?” Orqina called.  She motioned to the trail still leading upward.  “Kahlen said that we should go as far as we could.”
       Morag snorted.  “He also said to bring back a twig from the point at which we turned back.  There are no trees or twigs beyond this point.  Therefore, this must be as far as we should go.”  He started back down the trail and called back over his shoulder.  “Go ahead if you wish, but I will be the one with the prize.”
       Orqina threw a stone at the departing back.  It didn’t make contact, but she felt better anyway.  Why had Kahlen instructed them to go where there were no twigs and bring one back?  Orqina shrugged.  Kahlen would never have sent her on this challenge without a reason.  She turned and started upward once more.

       An hour’s hard going later, Orqina ran out of upward.  The land sloped steeply down in front of her with no trail in evidence.  Morag had been correct.  There were no trees or bushes to be seen.  The ground yielded plenty of stones but no twigs.  Orqina scanned the immediate area.  What could she take with her to prove where she had been?  She looked in the direction of the setting sun and caught her breath. 
       Beyond the ridge on which she stood, a broad valley surrounded with lushly forested hills opened out.  From her current vantage point, Orqina could see all the way down the valley to a meadow rimming a vast lake.  As the rays of the setting sun dropped into the valley, the forest became an embroidered tapestry of deep green and black; the meadow became a brocade of gold, copper, and deep purple; and the lake became a mirror of silvered turquoise.  Far beyond the lake was a hint of more hills and mountains.  If she squinted a bit, she could almost imagine what might lie beyond them.  Orqina let her eyes drink in the beauty as the light slowly faded.  She felt suddenly very small and inconsequential.

        Kahlen was worried.  Morag, now dozing by the fire, had been back for hours with no sign of Orqina.  Had she fallen and been injured?  Had her mind become muddled in the thin air?  He needed to search for her, but it would do no good for the searchers to stumble around in the darkness and end up needing searchers of their own.  “Morag!” 
The dozing young man started awake.  “Yes, Sir!”
       “Turn in.  We will begin searching for Orqina at first light.”
       “Yes, Sir.  I knew she was going to get into trouble.  She is too headstrong for a woman.”
       “Yes, she is headstrong.  That is one of her best qualities.”
       “You have learned much, Morag.  However, you have yet to learn one of the most important lessons.”
       “What is that, Sir?”
       “That a camstick’s measurements never change.  It will give you the same results regardless of a person’s gender or occupation.”
       “I will keep that in mind, Sir.”
       “Be sure you do.  You will go much further in life.”
       “Yes, Sir.”  Morag headed for his tent.
       Kahlen yawned.  He should get some sleep as well, but his mind was far too active to allow such a thing.  He retrieved a scroll from his tent and settled down by the fire to read.

       Kahlen woke with the sun’s first rays and a knot in his neck.  He had fallen asleep by the fire.  Fortunately, the scroll he had been reading had landed in his lap instead of the ground.  He returned it safely to his tent.  Morag was already up and had the search equipment ready.  He handed one of the packs to Kahlen.  “Ready, Sir?”
       “Let us proceed.”  Kahlen shouldered the pack and headed up the slope.

       Not more than an hour into their climb, Morag saw movement far ahead.  He called out, “Sir!  I see something!”  There was no answer, but Morag heard Kahlen moving toward him.  He pointed as the older man reached him.  “That direction, Sir.  I could just barely make out the movement.”
       Kahlen nodded and cupped his hands around his mouth.  “ORQINA!”  It was a shout meant for a battlefield, and it echoed back from the surrounding hills.  As the echoes faded, Kahlen motioned Morag to be silent. 
       Long moments passed.  Morag shook his head.  “It must have been an animal, Sir.”  Kahlen silenced him once more.  “Wait.”  The breeze shifted and both men heard the faint call.  “Coming!  Coming, Sir!”  Kahlen sat on a log and opened his pack.  He motioned to Morag to join him.  “We may as well rest and have a bite to eat.  It will take her time to get here.”

       Orqina came into view just as they were finishing their bites.  She looked puzzled.  “I thought you would both be in camp.”
       “I became concerned that you had not returned and decided to search in case you had gone astray.”  Kahlen seemed matter-of-fact, but Orqina could read a hint of relief in his voice.  “I am glad to see that my concerns were unfounded.”
      She smiled.  “I’m sorry to worry you, Sir.  The view at the top is so beautiful; I could not bear to leave it while I could still see it.”
       “You managed to make your way down the trail in the dark!”  By Morag’s expression, he was perplexed.
       “YES, I DID!”  Orqina then turned her attention to Kahlen.  “You didn’t tell me that there are bioluminescent mosses along the trail.  Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, it was just enough for me to find my way.”
       Kahlen’s mouth twitched.  Orqina could tell he was suppressing a smile.  “I did not tell you because I did not know.  I have never been up this mountain at night.  If you have been traveling all night, you must be exhausted.”
       “I didn’t travel *all* night.  I found places to rest along the way.  I am tired but not exhausted, Sir.”
       “Excellent!”  Kahlen handed her a piece of fruit.  “You can have breakfast while we return to camp.”

       Once in camp, Kahlen called a meeting around the fire.  “So, who has won the prize?”  He looked inquiringly at Morag and Orqina. 
       Morag stood and waved the twig he had taken from the mountain.  “I have the prize!  You instructed us to bring back a twig from as high as we could.”
       Kahlen nodded.  “Very good, Morag.  Did you follow my other instruction?”
       “I instructed you to go as far as you could and bring back a twig from the point at which you started down.”
       “There were no twigs beyond the tree line, Sir.”
       “So you went only as far as you needed to go.”  Kahlen took a sip of his tea.  “I see.  Orqina, what have you brought back.”
       Orqina hung her head.  “I did not bring anything back, Sir.  There were neither twigs nor bushes at the top.”
       “What did you see at the top?”
       Orqina smiled broadly.  “It was beautiful, Sir!  There is a valley and a meadow and a lake.  There are other hills and mountains in the distance.  The colors and textures were so rich they almost hurt to look at them.”  Orqina was trembling.  She knew Morag would probably think her descriptions stupid and her reaction to the sights a sign of weakness.  So be it.  “I felt that I could see into forever!”  She looked at Kahlen.  He just signaled her to continue.  “I know the feeling, Orqina.  Did you come to any conclusions while you were there?”
        “Yes, Sir.  I have come to the conclusion that the world is far more important to me than I am to the world.”  She laughed. 
       Kahlen nodded.  “Then you, Orqina, have won the prize.”
       Morag jumped to his feet.  ‘But, Sir..!”           
       “But nothing, Morag.  A prize is something of value.”  Kahlen took Morag’s twig and bent it in half.  “You gained nothing more than a token of where you were.  Orqina, by her efforts, gained something beyond price… an understanding of herself.  It is a prize which needs no token.”  He handed the twig back to a stunned Morag.  “You are a brilliant scholar, Morag.  If you wish to continue learning about the past, you must be willing to go further than required for no other reason than curiosity.  You must perceive what is with an open heart and mind… not through the fetters of the ‘warrior filter.’  You must be willing to imagine not only the possible but the improbable as well.”  Kahlen paused then continued, “Do you now begin to see, Morag?”
       Morag slowly nodded.  “I think so, Sir.”  He looked at Orqina.  “I am sorry for the way I have acted, Orqina.  I thought less of you because you were female and not a warrior.  I know now that I was wrong.  You proved yourself just as capable of meeting a challenge as I am… perhaps more so, because you were willing to go further.”
       Orqina smiled.  “Apology accepted, Morag.  Perhaps we can start over when we get home.”
       Kahlen clapped them both on the shoulder.  “An excellent idea!  Pack the camp and let us get back to work!”

To Win the Prize -- Susan Stahl, Auygust 2011

       Kahlen’s challenge stems from a Cahuillan legend that teaches the virtue of collecting prizes and not mere tokens along life’s journey.  In reading the legend, I could almost hear Kahlen’s voice in my head… hence the challenge of the legend became Kahlen’s challenge.   


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The Above is a work of fiction. All characters are fictional, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

Copyright © Susan Stahl: June 2011. All rights reserved, re-print only with permission.

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