The sun filtered down through the forest canopy as gently as a butterfly kiss, and Kest reached out an arm languorously to swipe his hand through the motes dancing in a nearby sunbeam. He shifted his bare back against the warm, slightly rough grey expanse of rhino on which he currently rested, scratching an itch between his shoulder blades on her hide. The great beast rumbled out a throaty note that vibrated through him, responding to and sharing in his lazy pleasure. He patted the broad back beneath him and lifted his head to make sure they were still pointed in the right direction. The great trees of the Beast Isles towered a hundred meters into the sky, with trunks as big around as a chief’s house and great spreading branches festooned with vines, creepers, stealthy animals, and who knew what else. Yes, the tribe’s summer grounds were no more than twenty minutes from here. The clearing was on a rise just past a jungle-choked ravine that bisected the trail somewhere in front. They’d get there. Everyone was expecting him. They won’t expect what I’m bringing with me, though!
Kest had spent the last five nights in the deep brush for the last phase of his Levynfragk, the Bonding Trial. Some of the children bonded early when they went to the Stone of Menhir, but that was not the way of the hunter. The hunter was patient and moved only when the moment was right. So he’d been led out to the densest and fiercest part of the forest blindfolded and smeared with the ritual paints by his father, the chief, and the huntmaster, wearing nothing but a loincloth. At sixteen, he was being given the trial two years earlier than normal, but when he had demanded the right, no one could deny him. He’d been ready last year, if everyone was honest about it. Already the grandmothers were eyeing him for their granddaughters, and they were none too subtle about it. They’d collar their youngling girls by an arm or an ear as he walked past and point out to the girls how the dragonflies warped in their flights to follow him or to comment on the strength of his hands or calves. They always made sure he could hear even though they pretended to be whispering. He supposed he should get used to it – much and more of the same would follow until he chose a woman. They all knew he’d be their chief before too many more years. He had tried for so long not to acknowledge it, to just act like one of the other boys – but he knew it too, and he was tired of growling small just to not scare the other pups.
So he had gone to Puldaergna, the chief, at the even-eat on the night of the new moon as was required, grasped him by the bicep as a man, given him the ritual blow of respect, and said he was ready for his Levynfragk. The mothers had started up the song for the death of a child even before the great-bellied chief had given consent. He had to wave the women to silence in order to heard. It irritated the big man, who certainly could foresee Kest wearing his feathered horns within a span of years, but he was not so selfish as to deny the younger man the right to find a bond-beast when he was so obviously ready. Kest liked Puldaergna. He was fair and kind-hearted, but he had the temper to lead the Oema tribe to war when it was needed. He hoped to be a chief of the same stripe as the big man when the time came. In most ways, at least.
And now he came, belly full, not a scratch on him, not a hair out of place in his long brown braid, and riding the largest wild rhino he could find. He’d had to cross into the grasslands beyond the forest to find her, and had actually spent the better part of a day in Scrub Hill tribe lands searching for just the right beast. Everyone was expecting it. The fact that the other tribe would have killed him on sight just made it more exciting. He came within a stone’s throw of their scouts no less than three times that afternoon, and none had so much as smelled him. All the watchmen were of the Garou bond, and they had their red six-legged hunting beasts with them, so it took some effort.
The massive rhino rumbled at him, and he perked up from his somnolent reverie. They were approaching the ravine. To the north and then down, he cast at the beast. She snorted and turned her head to walk parallel to the rift, searching for a pathway down that she could manage. He knew it was somewhere nearby. It was a crude kind of communication he had just done, the merest sending of direction and intent without any nuance, but most of the Leyvn-kin spent months at home with their newly-bonded beast before they could manage so much, and he’d known this one only four days. She was a sturdy one, this rhino. She bore him well. He patted her side again, washing approval over her. She ignored it, of course – she was not so weak-willed as that – but he thought her pace might have quickened just a little.
And there it was: a wide, well-worn game trail descending into the deep ravine that would support this great lumbering beast. Down they went, and Kest sat upright, kneeling with one leg to each side of the spine, in order to help her through the choking vines and overhanging trees of the narrow ravine. She wouldn’t like pushing through the underbrush. She’d need some encouragement. The nettles wouldn’t bother her thick hide, but she could easily get tangled in the ropy vines that hung from the trees that arched out from the steep, overgrown hillsides. South and back up. I help. He wasn’t sure if that last bit was clear, but with a shudder and a huff, she began picking her way through the deep grass in the shadows of the narrow ravine. He leaned forward, and balancing with one hand on her many head horns, reached beyond her snout to lift a wrist-thick murder vine out of the way. He was careful to avoid the thorns. He had no desire to spend the next three days squatting over a pit, leaking bloody stool.
The path back up should be visible by now. Did we miss it? He tried very hard to mask his concern. Rhinos were not particularly sensitive, but at an early age his parents had noticed nearby animals becoming agitated whenever he got upset. He broadcast his emotions – his self – far more widely than anyone he had ever met. It was one of the first signs that he was not an average Pacari. They should have seen it, even then. It was all the animals. I’ve been set on this path from the first. But, oh, how mother will weep – I wish I could save her that. He pushed that aside. He would do what he needed to do when he presented himself to the tribe. Worrying about it beforehand was just borrowing trouble. Pay attention, ratling. You’re going to grab an adder thinking it’s a vine with how distracted you are.
His self-admonition came a moment too late, for as he focused on his surroundings, he realized that the forest had gone hushed moments before. There was a snarl at his right flank, and suddenly pain ripped across his bare back as a heavy weight crashed into him, throwing him from the rhino’s back. He crashed down through the branches, crying out in shock and anger, pinned under the writhing, rippling weight of a predator. What is it? The rhino trumpeted in alarm, stamping and snorting as it caught wind of whatever it was that had him pinned. Its massive horny rear foot thundered down only inches from his head. Stop! he cast out desperately with all his strength. The foot shuffled away uncertainly, and the weight on his back slackened as his attacker caught the force of his mental sending.
He didn’t hesitate – gathering his limbs beneath himself, he flung his body back with all his force, shaking his assailant free. Twisting to face it, he found himself face-to-snout with a garou. It had the blunt snout, rounded ears, and sleek form of a jungle panther, with a mud-red pelt, six strong legs, razor claws, and a hunter’s instincts. This was a young one, or else Kest would have been dead already. He must have followed me back. It sprang at him, claws out, snarling fiercely. It used its middle pair of legs to pin him in place as they all did, but he anticipated the move and lifted his arms clear of his sides before the claws dug home so that they didn’t get trapped. He put his strong, knotted hands under the garou’s jaw and pushed, and the toothy maw clacked shut over his shoulder. This close, embraced by the beast, he could hear the screaming growl in its throat through the pelt.
From the corner of his eye he could see the great rhino. It had managed to turn itself around in the narrow slot of the ravine and had its horns lowered, ready to charge and skewer the smaller animal with its great snout horn. No! Kest commanded. He had no desire to be either gored or trampled in the midst of it all. I do it. He rolled over on top of the garou, and it spat and thrashed. He had a vise grip on its throat, and he kept his face buried close against it to protect himself. Pulling his knees in close, he thrust his feet into the inner hip joints of its rear legs, spreading them wide to keep the hunting cat from raking its rear claws into his belly. Disembowelment was not on the list for him today. The claws still digging into his sides were unpleasant enough.
No kill, he cast at it sternly, finding the tone of a mother putting down a rowdy cub. Enough. And with that, the cat went limp, convinced of its role. He held its throat for another moment and spat a thick gobbet of spittle onto the young male’s muzzle, establishing his dominance. Then he stood, considering his options. One of the Hill tribers must have scented me after I left and sent his garou after me. Sloppy, Kest. He’s newly bonded, obviously, or I wouldn’t be able to master him so easily. The garou was only half the size it would be when full-grown, but already impressively muscled and well-kept. The other one I found earlier is far bigger – no need to bring this one along. He had no desire to steal anyone’s bonded mate. He addressed the garou, which watched him warily, tail lashing. Go home. No chase. It yowled at him, making the rhino stamp in warning, and shot off into the underbrush in the direction of the grassland hills. It wouldn’t bother them again. And if the beast’s Leyvn-kin found it harder to control and communicate with his mate over the next few weeks because of Kest’s intrusion into the garou’s mind, well, he couldn’t find it within himself to feel too sad about it. The unknown Hill triber had sent the thing to kill him, after all. He took stock of himself, and winced at the deep punctures from the garou’s claws along his ribs. All’s well. Let’s go, he sent to the rhino. A little blood on the skin would look good when he arrived. So much for ‘not a hair out of place.’ He was glad he didn’t have far to travel; he’d need flame paste soon to fight off infection in those wounds.
But when he reached the edge of the tribe’s clearing, striding strong and confident alongside the rhino, he faltered and his heart dropped into his stomach. No one was waiting for him. Not even Binmara, who had let him sit in her family’s fire-circle before he left, who had whispered to him that she would not yell if he slipped into her nighttime furs before the Trial. Her eyes never left him when he was in sight, and yet she was not waiting. Not that he intended to make the pretty girl his jarda – he had years yet before he intended to pick a woman – but, still, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Empty wooden octagons of the tribe’s shelters greeted him, their clay roof tiles a dull gray in the sunlight. Everyone was supposed to be lined up, anticipating his victorious return. Not even Mother and Father are here. It was so… wrong! He’d been dreaming of it for months. This was his moment, and no one was here, like he was some sort of outcast. Even when someone failed the Levynfragk and came home beastless, still the person’s family came out to greet them and cry together. Where is everyone?
There was a low muttering coming from beyond the octagonal summer huts. It sounded as if everyone in the tribe were conferring together quietly, but there were occasional peaks and lulls in the sound that pricked at his memory. He recalled a tribal meet with the Death Hollow clan in the winter grounds when he was a child. They were a friendly clan, with good obsidian knives and bone tools for trade, and after the final feast together, a young, massive Bear-kin stepped forward to the fire and challenged the old and ailing chief of the tribe for his position. Relations between Oema and Death Hollow were good, so Kest and his kin were allowed to watch the fight. Their chief was stooped and gray, his muscles gone slack and hair tufting in his ears, and the young Kest could not imagine that the oldster could long withstand the heavily-muscled giant who had challenged him. He looked as much like a bear as the brown, shaggy beast that stayed by his side.
And so the two tribes had circled the clearing, nearly a hundred and fifty strong, and spoke quietly among themselves as the two men and their massive bears clashed in the center. Death Hollow folks had pointed out the strengths of the two men to the watching Oema tribe members, and there were sudden hushes as the two in the middle came to grips, and then rushes of speech and cheering as one gained an advantage over the other. It had sounded exactly like what Kest was hearing now. Someone was challenging Puldaergna for chieftain status. No! He was supposed to be the next chief; they all knew it! Who would do this? He broke into a run, telling the massive rhino to stay put.
Just as he thought – everyone was circled around the meeting dell, and two men grappled in the center. One of them was Puldaergna. His massive belly gave him away instantly. Ice rimed the inside of Kest’s guts, and he pulled up short behind all the others. No one had noticed him –they were all absolutely focused on the fight, and rightly so. A change in chieftain was the greatest upheaval the tribe would experience in a decade. The man currently trying to pull the chief’s arm from its socket was a stranger, tall, broad, fair-skinned, with a heavy gray beard and long hair held back by a leather braid with a crystal woven into it across his forehead. He was swathed in a high-collared, long-sleeved black robe of curious batting that split at the hips, revealing black pants and boots held close to the body by straps. Who fights in black at the height of summer? And why is Pul fighting him? No outsider could replace him! Who would follow a foreigner? The two men were alone in the circle. Where is Kyrak? The chief’s beast mate, a wizened and cranky old rhino missing the tip of its horn, would never leave the man’s side at a moment like this. Has the bearded man killed his beast? Is that what this is about? He could make no sense of it. Outsiders were for trading with, gaining information from, and for killing if they proved untrustworthy – but they were not for fighting. Pul had slipped the robe-clad man’s hold and delivered a punishing blow to his opponent’s ribs. Kest winced in sympathy, but the man barely grunted, falling back and regrouping without any apparent discomfort.
“I had hoped this would be done before you returned,” a quiet voice said in his ear. He turned, and Mama was there, smiling her crinkle-eyed love and patting his shoulder. Kest hugged her, and a bit of the ice inside him melted. If Mama was smiling, things couldn’t be so wrong as they seemed. The shorter woman gave him a tight squeeze, but quickly released him as he squirmed and protested in pain. Her arms had clamped down right over the wounds in his sides. Stepping back, she eyed the puffy claw-marks with a practiced gaze and without a word reached into her hip bag, bringing forth her ever-present pot of fire jelly.
“Mother, what’s happening? I don’t understand!” He tried to keep the whine from his voice. He was a man now, and would handle his disappointments with strength and calm. But never had he expected to be robbed of his just recognition by the tribe at the same moment he was embarking on his grand plan! Did someone find me out? Impossible. I haven’t said a thing to anyone. Did they follow me during the Levynfragk? That also seemed unlikely. Who would sneak through the wilderness just to follow someone who was supposed to weather the trial all alone? Besides, he would have seen it. No, his secrets were safe for the moment… though had things gone according to plan, he would have been in the midst of revealing them even now. “This man doesn’t think he’ll be chief, does he?” The broad man fought with a ferocity and precision he had never seen, fists lashing out like whips, feet planted solidly, face impassive. The odd batting of his deep black robe gave him a tattered aspect, almost as if he were a spirit of death. Pul rushed him and wrapped the man in a crushing hug, trying to knock him off his feet. Landing on your back with the fat chief’s weight atop you was a good way to lose a fight, but incredibly, the man did not move. It was as if Pul had rushed a boulder.
“The man came to us this morning wanting to ask a boon of our tribe,” his mother explained in hushed tones, “but refused to say what it was until he had met Puldaergna in combat.” She applied the fire salve to his ribs, and Kest bore the searing heat of the cleansing jelly in silence. “There was something about not trusting a man you’d never fought, which might just be the biggest pile of spoor I’ve ever heard.” The black-clad stranger hit Pul in the face, and the stinging slap of flesh on flesh echoed through the clearing. The chief staggered and shook it off, blood dribbling from his nose and smearing across his bare chest. “I asked Pul to wait for you – I knew you’d be upset if no one was waiting – but the man had already drunk of our water, and Pul is always wanting to do things the right way. The request of an honored guest is to be met immediately unless there is harm in it; you know that. ‘Honor to the tribe before honor to the one,’ is how he said it.” It was one of the chief’s favorite things to say.
“So the honor of a stranger means more than mine does,” Kest muttered bitterly. His mother frowned and jabbed a thumb into his ribs near one of his wounds, and he jumped. He gave her a guilty glance.
“He was right, son, and you know it.” Kest sighed and nodded, and she rubbed his shoulder. “You will have your day, Kestrigan. You will have many days in the sun. If you cannot give up one of them in favor of someone else, then perhaps you are not so special as the crones all say, hmm?”
He stared at the fight and did not respond. She was right, of course. She usually was, and when he resisted her wisdom it never ended well. He gave a grudging nod. He would bring great change to his tribe and many old ways would soon die, but respecting wisdom and giving honor to a visitor would not be among them.
Pul was standing over the foreigner as he rose from the dirt – Kest had missed how he had fallen – panting like a bellows and taking advantage of a moment’s respite. But no – it was more than that. The chieftain’s eyes were rolled back in his head, and his arms were out wide, stiff and corded with oaken-hard muscle. Then Kest heard a rumble in the fat man’s throat as if he’d swallowed a beehive, and he understood. Pul was calling on the strength of his beast. A great honor to this stranger, to call forth such power just to fight him. The young hunter tried to swallow his jealousy, and watched as the big man’s bare arms, normally a deep tan and now flushed with the dull red of battle heat, suddenly blanched of color and developed deep wrinkles and folds, taking on a visible, thick hardness. He had called on the skin of the rhino, and his powerful arms were now gray, hard, and thrice as strong as they had been before. Kest’s respect for Pul inched higher at the sight – he’d never seen anyone change so much of their body so quickly.
The chieftain gave a great, two-handed overhand blow to the base of the wraith man’s neck. It fell just as he was about to gain his feet, and for a silent moment he stood unnaturally still, a glazed look in his eyes, the two men locked in a silent tableau – the one a dark, tattered ghost, the other with arms wrought of stone. Then the stranger’s knees folded, and he pitched forward into the dust. For a moment the young man feared that he was dead, but Pul used a foot to roll the man onto his back, and his chest still moved. The chief himself was still heaving labored breaths – it had been some time since he’d had to fight – but his voice was strong and steady as he put a foot on the center of the man’s chest, holding him down. “Does it suffice? Have we taken each other’s measure?”
The man did not seem inconvenienced or annoyed in the slightest as he lay submissive beneath another man’s foot, but merely said, “It is enough.” His voice was quiet but commanding, drawing the ear and the eye without being intrusive. Pul stepped back and offered the man a hand, which he took graciously. He stood and brushed the dirt from his robes. He’s not even sweating. Nor breathing hard. How is that possible? It was hot and wet in the forest this time of year, with the pall of humidity wrapping itself around you like a wet, hairy pelt from morning till eve. Kest was sweating just standing there, and the stranger’s immunity to the heat seemed like an injustice pointed directly at him on a day when injustices aplenty had already been thrust upon him. His dislike of the man solidified in his heart and wedged itself into the young hunter’s awareness. He decided that this haughty foreigner ought to be grovel at the feet of the Oema clan. It will happen. I will make it happen.
Pul turned to the crowd, holding his rhinoform arms to the sky, completing the ritual of the contest. “Under the eyes of all, I claim victory! We are strengthened, we prosper!” The gathered tribe responded with hands slapping their own bare skin – the men hitting their chests, the women the soft skin on the inside of their forearms – sealing the statement as truth. Kest joined in respectfully. It was as if the sound of his skin was perceptibly different from everyone else’s, for the moment he began slapping, Pul zeroed in on him. The chief’s face lit up, and he crowed, “The hunter returns!” All faces turned toward him, and the whispering amongst the tribe took on an excited, speculative tone. Kest’s heart soared. He was not forgotten. His mother stepped back from him to allow the Leyvnfragk to proceed. A circle of space opened around him as everyone took their places.
Pul turned to the stranger. “Forgive us for a moment, friend. There is an important thing to be done.” The man nodded and backed away, letting the circle of the tribe close in front of him. At least he has sense enough to recognize that he has no part in this. The families had arranged themselves in an arc with the chief in the center, the horns of the arc pointed at Kest, who stood directly across from the big chief. Each man stood behind his mate, their children arrayed in front. The crones stood between the families, forming the links of the tribe. There were no old men. Beast Riders never saw old age. And over there was Binmara with her parents. She gave him that slow, sultry smile, but he was too nervous to acknowledge her.
The young hunter tried to slow his racing heart, but his body disobeyed him. This is it. Will they cast me out? What if he kills me in a righteous rage? His heart quailed, and for a moment he considered letting the moment slide, simply completing his manhood ritual as everyone was expecting. There would be other days, other times to reshape their culture. Did it have to be today? He stood proud before his tribe, feet planted and head high, but inside he wavered and trembled, and the terrible indecision had not passed when Puldaergna began the ceremonial words.
“There was a boy we sent out to the wild five days past. Are you he?” The big-hearted chief said the words with a smile. He was supposed to be solemn and stern, but he loved the tribe too much. It was a failing that the men muttered about in their cups, but no one truly minded. Kest certainly appreciated the silent encouragement, but it weakened his resolve even further. I could send them all back. No one would ever know.
His face betrayed none of his turmoil. “I am not.” His voice was steady and strong, but still his heart was pounding. The distraction of the stranger and the fight had jarred him, left him off-balance. It’s not the right time. I’m not going to do it.
“Then who are you, stranger?” Pul’s eyes shone with pride. He had given Kest nearly as much training as his own father, and had always treated him with care and respect. He would be so disappointed. Was changing things truly so important? Maybe he wasn’t wise enough – maybe there were reasons for having the bonding be the way it was that he simply didn’t understand yet, couldn’t understand yet. Maybe he needed to be chief first.
“I was the boy who left, but I am that boy no more. A man I come back to you.” No, I am right. This needs to happen. We will be the greatest tribe of all the nations. I am right… aren’t I?
“A man has a beast. Where is your beast?” Most hunters came to the tribe riding their beasts, making this a purely rhetorical question, but Kest stood alone. He saw a few of the women tuck their chins toward their mates as they whispered confusion, looking around. He had walked with the rhino into the clearing where he expected this ceremony to occur, but now he was glad to be standing alone. The drama of the ceremony was heightened this way. It made it mean more. He cast his thoughts out strongly. Come to me, rhino. Be proud.
There was silence in the clearing, and then the subtle crack and crash in the brush of an approaching beast. A hush settled on the tribe, and then his rhino came around the last hut, trumpeting loudly as she came into view, swinging her massive head from side to side, swaggering as only such a mighty beast could do. A sigh of satisfaction ran through the crowd that sent a shiver of pride up Kest’s spine. She was the largest beast in the tribe by a fair margin, with no fewer than eight horns adorning her brow and nose and more jutting from her shoulders. And he had brought her. She came to his side and he put his hand on her pebbled hide. At his touch, she lowered her head in submission. “Here is my beast.”
Pul walked forward and placed his hand on the rhino’s largest horn. Now is the time. This is the moment. Do I do it? I’m not going to do it. I can’t do it. The big-bellied chief opened his mouth to complete the ceremony, to welcome him as a new hunter for the tribe, and Kest felt a flash of sudden ire. Am I a coward, to leave off from what is right because I fear the disappointment of those who see not the path? If he did not act today, he never would. Come out! he cried out silently.
The words died in the chief’s throat as he heard more crackling in the brush. His head swung around in time to see a massive garou stride past the huts. It was old enough that its red pelt had started to fade to brown, and it bore the scars of many battles, but it was fierce of eye and heavily muscled. It padded forward without fear. Behind it came a massive wild koira, loping easily by the garou without any concern, despite the natural enmity between the two species. The muttering among the tribe rose in pitch and took on a confused, concerned note. Pul looked to Kest, eyes wide, and the young hunter returned his gaze steadily. Behind the koira came a wizened old brown bear missing an eye. That one had not been easy to bring to heel. A snowy horned owl wafted down, alighting on the rhino’s uppermost horn. Bringing up the rear was a high-domed sand tortoise, its steps slow and deliberate. A chameleon perched on its shell.
The creatures arrayed themselves in a line with Kest in the center. The buzz of the tribe had risen to a roar, and the chief’s face had darkened, his lips drawing closed in a hard line. The young man’s heart was pounding. There was no going back now. This is how Kest had spent his five days in the wild. A new hunter on his Leyvnfragk tracked the spoor of his beast, crept to its lair, and then, over the course of days, lassoed it to his soul with ropes of will, until finally he was able to return to his people bonded to the totem beast that best represented the depths of the hunter’s soul. Kest had returned with all of the proudest, noblest totem animals that could be found within three days’ ride. It was unknown. It was impossible. A beast rider bonded to one beast, and it had always been so.
Kest raised a hand and gestured to the animals. “Here are my beasts,” he declared.
He might as well have broken one of the great jungle hornet hives in the middle of the circle. One of the crones set up a wailing dirge, the men argued angrily with each other, and more than one of the children began to cry at the outburst. Pul swung his head from side to side, his arms still gray and hardened, looking like an old bull rhino brought to bay by a pack of koira. His eyes were clouded and angry. Kest knew this would not be easy for him, and even less so for his parents. A quick glance around the circle and there they were. His father stood behind with his hands on her shoulders, and his mother stood with hands clutching her belly as if she’d been kicked. They looked small, and sad, and old. They both met his gaze, and the disappointment he saw there was worse than swallowing a fistful of fire jelly. He looked away and around at the others, but no one else would meet his gaze. Many were too busy arguing to even notice him looking, but some stood with eyes down, looking ashamed. Pretty little Binmara was one of those.
The chief gripped him hard by the arm, pulling him close and speaking low. “What are you doing, Kest? Are you saying that all of these animals hold your soul? That’s not…! Do you mean to leave the tribe? What is this?” He seemed genuinely baffled and hurt.
Kest grappled with his words, trying to find the way to communicate both the respect he felt and the need that drove him. “No, of course not! I’m staying. This… it’s what comes next, Elder.” They were the wrong words, and he knew it even as they left his mouth. Anger sparked in the big man’s eyes, and he began to turn away. “Please, wait. Let me speak to them. Just for a moment. Please, my chief.”
He didn’t want to let Kest speak – he could see it in the set of his craggy, weather-worn brow, the stark lines of his frown. But Pul was a good man, a good leader, and he followed the rules. Kest had brought back a beast, and when a hunter wished to address the tribe, he could not be denied unless he hadn’t been bringing in his share of the game for more than a passage of the greater moon Quora. A lesser chief might deny him out of pique, but not Puldaergna. He grunted at the young man – it was nearly a growl – and turned to the crowd of the Oema tribe. Their circle had collapsed as families conferred and shared their outrage. “Quiet!” the chief thundered. Silence came gradually, but everyone turned to him soon enough. “A hunter wishes to speak.”
When they realized that he was referring to Kest, the talking and yelling began immediately. At least old Marganna isn’t singing anymore. Pul had to shout them down again, and he moved aside to let Kest face them. Never had the young man seen so many hostile faces. Everyone liked him. Or they had, until now. Somehow the universal regard he’d enjoyed with the tribe before made the anger at his betrayal burn even hotter.
“My elders and my family, please hear me.” Kest had always had a smooth tongue, and he used all his charm and skill as he spoke. He knew he had to. “I’m sorry for surprising you. I didn’t know what else to do.” The eyes were still hostile. His grandmother, Father’s mother, spat on the ground as he looked at her. Thank you, Gran. Always the kind one. “We are Oema – that’s what we’ve always been. That’s what we’ll always be, and I am one of you too. I come to you and say that my heart holds the Rhino. Can you deny it? Have you ever seen such a perfect cow?” he asked, scratching the hide of the beast at his side affectionately. He noticed the older hunters appraising his catch. She was indeed massive and well-formed. He had chosen carefully.
“I went to her first. I knew I had to find the perfect one. I spent many hours in Scrub Hill lands to find her, and the hill tribes never once scented me.” Except for the garou that tracked me back and nearly killed me before I noticed it. He couldn’t say that, of course, and a little bragging was expected of a new hunter. It made them feel like they understood him. He’d need that. “I was riding on her back less than two days into my Levynfragk, but my heart said that my trial was not done.”
There was low muttering again among the kin, but he thought it was tinged with a little more approval this time. A hunter should never stop halfway down the path. And what other new hunter could ride his beast in only two days? He put on the most earnest expression he knew, one that pleaded, one that sought understanding. “And this garou was hunting us in the hills. I could sense him, and I knew… I felt that I could know him too. The Garou was in my soul as well. So I sent out my will, and he came.” This was not entirely true. He had known that he would bring back all of the totems by the time he was twelve. But the garou had been hunting him, and it made for a good story, even if the truth was that the cat had not bent to his will nearly that easily. “One by one, they came to me. Not until the last totem walked at my side did my heart say it was done. And look – they are all mine every bit as much as the rhino is mine.” The muttering rose at this, but it could not be denied. There sat the totem beasts, docile and obedient.
“I knew this would upset you all, and I am sorry. Hunter I am now, but I’m still half a child, and my elders are wise. I followed my heart in this. But I am not so special! Look at them – I think we all could do this. Think of how mighty the Oema would be if each of us battled with all the totems beside us!” It was too loud; no one could hear him. His father was arguing with the hunter next to him – but it was his father shaking his head while the other man pointed to Kest’s mean old bear. My parents will have the hardest time of any of them. No one loves change, but for your own child to bring it is unthinkable.
He had spoken his piece; he gestured to Pul, ceding to his authority. No one else noticed. The fat, powerful man stared at him with a surprising amount of calm, his gaze searching and thoughtful. Kest returned the look with as much equanimity as he could muster, unconsciously counting the seconds before looking down so that he would seem neither weak nor disrespectful. Dancing that line was a skill he had long since put into his bones. The chief crossed to him and put a heavy hand on his shoulder, facing the crowd. “I wish you had waited,” he said quietly. Kest’s mind raced, but he couldn’t unravel the sense of the older man’s words. Waited for what? For him to die? For me to be chief? I have waited!
The chief raised his hands to the others, and they gradually subdued themselves. More than a few of the women were crying. His mother was one of them. Her face was composed, and she did not sob, but water streamed from her clear, wise eyes, and Kest felt that familiar pang of shame even more sharply than before. The strange fighting man stood five paces behind them all, watching with calm interest, tall enough to see everything over the short, muscular Pacari islanders. Kest wished the earth would swallow the man up. This is for the tribe, foreigner. Begone. The bearded giant looked Kest in the eye and quirked an eyebrow at him almost as if he had heard the thought. Impossible.
Pul let the silence hang for an uncomfortably long time, looking from the tribe’s families and back to Kest. Then he inspected each of the totem animals in turn, touching them each on the forehead. The young hunter cast calm to the animals, willing them to stillness, but still the old bear growled at the chief. The old chief proceeded down the line without acknowledging the bear’s warning or showing the least hint of wariness. When he reached the rhino, he stroked her horn and murmured to her fondly. She nudged forward against his touch playfully. He looked over to Kest, skewering him with his gaze. He spoke loudly, intending everyone to hear. “It’s an unbelievable thing you’ve done, Kest. What hunter knows his own heart well enough to name his totem at your age? What hunter has a soul so great that all the totems are within it? It makes to people wonder, and doubt. But I ask you, young one,” the chief cried, making sure everyone heard, still touching the rhino. “What is her name?”
Kest blanched. “Her name?” His mind raced back over the last several days. Did she tell me her name? She must have. They had crossed the hills and the sands together, and she responded to his every request. She belonged to Kest – she must have said her name. And yet he recalled nothing. What is your name? he cast desperately at her – and then recoiled in shock and pain, clutching his head as his loud, echoing thoughts bounced back at him like a tree branch someone had been holding out of the way. Pul gave him a hard look and shook his head. He… he blocked me! How did he do that? He hadn’t even known that was possible. The rhino cow stared at him sedately as if waiting for him to speak to her.
“I don’t know,” he whispered into his hands. The tribe muttered at each other, not hearing him. “I don’t know her name,” he said again, loudly this time. Pul had wanted everyone to hear, and Kest would not mutter his answers or hide from his tribe even though his shame felt like standing in a bonfire. “We worked together and travelled to gather the others, and she follows my lead. She is my rhino. But I haven’t learned her name.”
The chief paused for effect. “Do you know any of their names?” He seemed sad.
Kest ground his teeth. “No, my chief.”
The older man’s eyes softened and seemed nearly pitying. “And do they know yours?”
Kest had thought he was already at the apogee of shame and suddenly discovered otherwise. Tears pricked at his eyes, and he clamped his lips together and looked at the ground. He didn’t trust himself to speak. He shook his head jerkily. The clearing was totally silent.
With his hand still on the rhino’s horn, Pul turned toward the others, speaking for everyone’s benefit. “Our beasts are not tools, to be taken up when needed and thrown in a corner and forgotten after. They are not dumb, and they are not tame. They are us. They are what make us Pacari. They are friends and companions and shields and spears. We care for them and they care for us.”
His lecture to the young ones complete, he turned back to Kest. “You move with the beasts, Kest, and they love and obey you in ways I have never seen before. You may even be right that our traditions limit us, and that we could have a larger stride in this world. But even though you bring a string of totems in your wake, you do not know their names. You have not bonded, and that is what a hunter of the Oema does. He chooses his beast and bonds with it. It stays with him for life. They become one. All you have done is found some pets.” He spat the word out like the epithet, and Kest shuddered as if it were an arrow in his heart.
The chief walked away from him, sad and angry. “We need no pets here. Send them away. You have failed your Levynfragk. You are not a hunter for our people.”
Kest knew nothing of the next little while – his shame and failure shut him off from the world as it went about its business and forgot him. When he returned to himself, he was sitting in the dirt right where he had faced the others before, but they were gone. His animals were gone, too. The others must have turned them away, led them off with food and gentleness until they were out of the summer clearing. They were never mine. They just tolerated my presence; went along with me out of curiosity and good will. He was amazed that he hadn’t seen it. How could I have been so stupid?
Only a few people remained. Pul was speaking to his parents, an arm around each of their shoulders. Whatever he had told them, they nodded as he gave them each a pat on the back and walked quickly to their hut without a backward glance at him. Whatever shame he felt, he was sure they felt double, and it was his fault.
Now only the chief and the tall stranger remained. Kest was embarrassed to think the man had witnessed the whole thing, but beside everything else, the feeling was a small and insignificant thing. He felt oddly unanchored, as if his head might float away. It all seemed so unreal. When the sun had stood overhead he had been the chosen one of his people, and now he was nothing, and yet the sun hadn’t even touched the treetops yet. It was an impossibility, and yet it remained. Shaking his head, Kest stood. The two men were talking.
“…have yet to discuss the boon you wished of us,” Pul was saying.
“Perhaps today is not the proper day for such a thing,” the man mused in his quiet, commanding voice. He sounded educated, wise. “Had I known such an event was in the offing, I would never have imposed myself.”
“The tree falls when it wills,” said the chief. It was another of his sayings. Things happen as they happen, and wishing otherwise is useless, was what he meant. “In truth, I should have seen to your request before, but I was excited for the boy’s return. I am sorry.” Aren’t we all? Kest knew he shouldn’t stand there and eavesdrop, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. After all, it wasn’t as if he was hidden. He was no more than fifteen paces from them. “Tell me your need, and we will see what can be done.”
“I seek something that is of great worth to my people in our fight,” the man murmured. His voice put Kest in mind of a garou’s paw – velvet soft and malleable, but with a hidden capacity for violence. It was an arresting voice.
“Your fight,” said the chief dubiously. “You are a Black Island man, yes? Is it the demons that I hear people speak of?” His tone left little doubt as to what he thought of such tales.
“I do not ask you to believe in creatures you have never seen, and will hopefully never see. But we do fight, and not against each other. Call them what you will – dangerous beasts, spirits, or whatever – but our fight is real. I seek an object that will aid us, but to reach it I must go through unknown ways and great danger. I need a tracker and a hunter to lead me through the deep forests of the mainland.”
Pul nodded. “And you want one of us to do it?”
“I can pay your tribe well. There will be much danger, and we may not return, and I will compensate you accordingly. All others speak of the Oema tribe as the bravest, and so I sought you out.”
The chief snorted. “We’re the closest to the coast, is what you mean.” The black-robed man spread his hands and gave a little smile. Kest hated that little smile. He hated this man who had seen him shamed and ruined his return. It would all have been different if he hadn’t shown up. He couldn’t help himself. He spat noisily in the dirt.
The chief swung around to look at him almost as if he’d forgotten Kest was there. Then his face lit up. “I have just the man for you,” he said to the foreigner.
That was when Kest knew his life had ended.