A Gathering of Chaos, Chapter 2

The sun filtered down through the forest canopy as gently as a butterfly kiss, and Kest reached out an arm to idly swipe his hand through the motes dancing in a nearby sunbeam. He shifted his bare back against the warm, pebbled expanse of rhino on which he rested, scratching the itch between his shoulder blades against 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 through the towering trees. Yes, the tribe’s summer huts 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 up ahead. Kest ignored the sudden twist of anxiety in his guts and laid his head back. His rhino would get him there. Everyone was expecting him. They won’t expect what I’m bringing with me, though!

Kest had been in the deep jungle for the last five days on a ritual hunt for a bond-beast. Of all the two hundred people of the Granaal tribe, only Puldaergna, the chief, was bonded to one of the great rhinos. Finding one had been the first thing Kest had done. It hadn’t been easy… but it hadn’t been that hard, either. Sneaking into Oema lands at the edge of the Scalegrass Desert was no great task for a hunter as talented as he. He’d convinced the great cow rhino to come with him by nightfall. The rest of his trial had been even more productive than that.

The massive rhino rumbled at him, and he perked up from his 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 newly-bonded spent months at home with their 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.

The hardest part of his trial had been to convince old Puldaergna to allow the ritual at all. The whole tribe had been shocked last year when he held back from bonding when the tribe made the pilgrimage to the Gathering at the Great Menhir. All the others his age and many even younger had stepped into the milling concourse of animals around the huge standing stone and found a willing beast to pair with. He hadn’t told anyone, not even his parents, but only his own pride had held him back at the Gathering. Everyone found their beast at the Gathering. It was so… common. Kest was going to be the next chief of the Granaal; everyone knew it. He meant to be one that was remembered.

So he’d collared old Bekkan, the shriveled, white-haired elder who knew all the old lore, and pestered him for stories of heroes and how they found their beasts. He’d had to cobble together half a dozen old tales of dubious origin, but eventually, Kest convinced Bekkan to tell the chief that in the times before the old gods left, under certain circumstances, great hunters went searching for their beasts in private rituals of bonding. The tribe had been abuzz with the old stories for the better part of a moon’s turn.

That was why, when he had gone to Puldaergna at the even-eat during the new moon, given him the ritual blow of respect, and said he was ready for his bonding ritual, the great-bellied chief had had very little choice in the matter. The mothers had started up the song for the death of a child even before Pul had given consent. It irritated the big man, who certainly could foresee Kest wearing his feathered chieftain’s 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 Granaal 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. So long as they don’t tie me to a tree and leave me for the ants when they see what I’ve done. It was not an unthinkable outcome. The Granaal were fiercely traditional, and Pul moreso than most. He’d once thrown a man from the tribe when he insisted over and over that the tribe use a new spot by the river for their summer grounds instead of the time-honored location. This isn’t the same at all. That fellow was an idiot. I’m to be the next chief; they’ll listen.

Kest peered over his rhino’s head, and there it was: a wide, well-worn game trail descending into the deep ravine that would support the great lumbering beast. Down they went, and Kest sat upright, kneeling on either side of the rhino’s spine, hands out to push back the choking vines and overhanging branches of the narrow ravine. Nettles wouldn’t bother her thick hide, but she could easily get tangled in the ropy vines that hung from the trees and made a green roof overhead. South and back up the other side. 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, carefully avoiding 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 quell his rising concern. Rhinos were not particularly sensitive, but at an early age he had learned that any animals near him became 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, all at once. I’ve been set on this path from the first. They’ll have to accept it. Will they accept it? No, they’re too locked in their ways. I just don’t know. Pride, excitement, and fear mingled in his chest as he imagined how they’d all look at him when he stood before the tribe. With difficulty he pushed the thoughts aside. He would do what he needed to do and accept the consequences. Worrying beforehand was for the weak. Pay attention, ratling. You’re going to grab an adder thinking it’s a vine with how distracted you are.

The thought came a moment too late. The forest had gone still while he wrapped his head in tangled thoughts, and a shockingly loud snarl at his right flank made him flinch. Pain ripped across his bare back as a heavy weight pushed into him, throwing him from the rhino’s back. He crashed down through the branches, crying out in fear 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 a handspan 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 majka. It had the blunt snout, rounded ears, and sleek form of a jungle panther, with a mud-red pelt and six strong legs that ended in wicked claws. It was a youngling. Kest would have been dead already otherwise. How long has he been following me? It surged at him, claws out, snarling fiercely. It used its middle pair of legs to try to pin him in place as they all did, but he anticipated the move and lifted his arms up and away from his ribs before the claws dug home, accepting the pain in his sides as the price for being able to fight back. He put his strong, knotted hands under the majka’s jaw and pushed up with all his strength. The toothy maw clacked shut on empty air beside his ear instead of in his throat. This close, embraced by the beast, he could hear the screaming growl vibrating in its chest through muscle and 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 majka, 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 and shoulders were bad enough.

No kill, he cast at it sternly, finding the tone of a mother putting down a rowdy cub. Enough. It yowled angrily at the air, thrashing in his grip. Shifting his grip on its throat to give himself more leverage, Kest let it surge forward a finger’s length and then slammed its head back against the ground. Bad cub! No more! 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. Sloppy, Kest. If this were a bond-beast sent after you by its human instead of a half-grown cub, all your grand planning would have died before anyone knew of it. The majka 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 addressed the majka, which watched him warily, tail lashing. Go home. No chase. It snarled at him, making the rhino stamp in warning, and then shot off into the underbrush. It wouldn’t bother them again.

He took stock of himself and winced at the deep punctures from the majka’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. He was glad he didn’t have far to travel; he’d need flame paste soon to fight off rot in those wounds.

But when they climbed out of the ravine and approached the edge of the tribe’s clearing, Kest striding strong and confident to hide his fears, he soon faltered, his heart dropping 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 karda – 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 tufted grass roofs a dull, faded green in the sunlight. Everyone was supposed to be lined up, anticipating his victorious return. Not even Mother and Father are here. It was… wrong! He’d been dreaming of this for months. This was his moment, and no one was there. Where is everyone?

He heard a low, multi-layered 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 made him think of a contest of strength, but such a thing was ridiculous. The Granaal did not fight amongst themselves; the only reason for a one-on-one fight with everyone watching would be if someone were challenging Puldaergna for the chief’s horns.

Again he heard a sudden hush chased away by a rush of speech and cheering. Was he imagining the slap of flesh on flesh? A loud smack was followed by ooohs from many throats, and he knew he was not. Someone was challenging Pul. No! Kest 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 noticed him –they were all absolutely focused on the fight, and justly 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, pale-skinned, with a braided 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, torn-thread quilting 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 flame paste.

“Mother, what’s happening? I don’t understand!” He tried to keep the whine from his voice. He was a man now, and he 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 trial? 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, it was impossible.

“This man doesn’t think to 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 broken-loop threading of his quilted 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 red salve to his ribs, and Kest bore the searing heat of the cleansing jelly in silence. “He said something about not trusting a man you’d never fought, which might just be the biggest pile of spoor I’ve ever smelled.” 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 you know Pul will always do things the right way. ‘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, giving her a guilty glance.

“He was right, son, and you know it.” Kest grimaced 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 change to many of their ways soon enough, but respecting wisdom and giving honor to a visitor would always be the right things to do.

Pul took three rapid blows to the chest that would have left dents in a tree, followed by a sweeping kick to the face that sent him stumbling back. The stranger seemed to be able to put power into his strikes far greater than his tall, rangy frame ought to allow. Pul retreated, panting like a bellows and taking advantage of a moment’s respite. But no – it was more than that. The chieftain’s eyes 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 brown, 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 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 stranger darted forward, his head lowered as if he meant to drive the crown of his head into Pul’s sternum. With a roar, the chieftain dropped a mighty two-fisted blow to the base of the wraith man’s neck just before he barreled into him. The black-robed graybeard bounced off Pul’s belly, loose-limbed, and tottered for a silent moment. The two men held the silent tableau for a long, breathless fistful of heartbeats – 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 Kest thought he might be 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 in the slightest as he lay submissive beneath another man’s foot, and 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 sticky in the forest this time of year, with the pall of humidity wrapping itself around a body 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 grovel at the feet of the Granaal 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. The moment he did, Pul zeroed in on him as if the sound of his skin was perceptibly different from everyone else’s. 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 old half-recovered ritual of the bonding trial to proceed. A circle of space opened around him as everyone gathered with their families and looked to him expectantly.

Pul turned to the stranger, shaking his arms loosely as the rhinoform faded and the brown of his skin returned. “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. Pacari men never saw old age. And over there was Binmara with her parents. She gave him a slow, meaningful smile, but he was too nervous to acknowledge her.

Kest tried to slow his racing heart, but his body disobeyed him. This is it. Will they cast me out? The beast bond is at the very heart of what it means to be Pacari. 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. For all that no one had heard of a bonding trial a moon’s turn before, the chief was fully invested in the drama of it now.

“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 over the years and had always treated him with care and respect. He would be so disappointed. Was changing the way of the Pacari 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?” Kest had the sense that Pul had intended this to be a purely rhetorical question, but Kest stood by himself. 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 on the far side where he expected this ceremony to occur, but now he was glad to be standing alone. The ceremony was more memorable this way. It made him more memorable. 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.”

Puldaergna 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 contemptuous ire. Am I a coward, to leave off from what is right because I fear the disappointment of those who see not the path? Am I the chief they’re waiting for or not? He suddenly knew that 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 majka 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 great koira, one of the mighty wild dogs of the forest, loping easily by the majka 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. He had bonded with all of the proudest, noblest animals that could be found within three days’ ride. It was unknown. It was impossible. A beast rider might bond to more than one beast with many, many years’ experience, but never in all the stories had a new hunter bonded so many. Kest was showing the tribe something unprecedented.

He 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, 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 fear and confusion he saw there were worse than swallowing a fistful of flame paste. He looked away and around at the others, but no one else would meet his gaze. Many were too busy arguing to even notice, 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…! How? Is your mind fractured? 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. “This… is what I can do, honored elder. I wanted to show you all. I am what comes next.” 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 moon. 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 Granaal 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 that old crone 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. Somehow the universal regard he’d enjoyed with the tribe before made the anger at him upending the Pacari way 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 Granaal, and I am one of you. 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 Oema lands to find her, and the desert tribes never once scented me.” 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 on the first day of my bonding trial, but my heart said that my task 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 on the same day they bonded? He put on the most earnest expression he knew, one that pleaded, one that sought understanding. “And this majka was hunting us in the hills. I could sense him, and I knew… I felt that I could know him too. The Majka 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 bond a multitude of beasts by the time he was twelve. But the majka 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 beast 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 mightiest beasts of Pacari, 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. I know it. Why do we keep ourselves to only one bond-beast, or perhaps two if we live to a great age? We can be more. Think of how mighty the Granaal would be if each of us battled with all the great beasts of our land beside us!” The arguing amongst the tribe grew too loud and no one could hear him. He clamped his lips shut, wishing his people were a little less stupid.

Kest 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. “You should have 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.

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 bond animals in turn, touching them one by one 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 split it among so many? And at your age? What hunter has a soul so great that all the beasts can live within it? It makes to people wonder, and doubt. Some of us are old, and we wish to be done with our doubts. So 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 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 himself 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 though you bring a string of great beasts in your wake, you do not know them. You have not bonded, not truly, and that is what we do. We choose a beast and we give ourselves to it. It stays with us for life. We become one. All you have done is found some pets.” He spat the word out like an 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 trial. You will not be 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, but nearly everyone was 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? I am the world’s greatest fool.

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 lingered. Kest hated 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’d been the chosen one of his people. Now he was nothing, and the sun hadn’t even touched the treetops yet. It seemed impossibile, and yet reality refused to shift back into its proper course. Shaking his head, Kest stood. The two older 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,” Pul said. “In truth, I should have seen to your request before all this, but I was excited for the boy’s return. I am sorry.”

Aren’t we all? Kest knew he shouldn’t hang about 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 ten paces from them.

Puldaergna opened his hands to the man. “Tell me your need.”

“I seek something that is of great worth to my people in our fight,” the man murmured. His sound put Kest in mind of a majka’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 Isle 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’ve never seen and hopefully never will. But we do fight, and not against each other. Call them what you will – dangerous beasts, spirits, or any other thing you wish – 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 mine to be this tracker.”

“I can pay well. There will be much danger, and we may not return. I will compensate you accordingly. All others speak of the Granaal 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 somehow if he weren’t here. He couldn’t help himself. He spat noisily in the dirt.

The chief swung around at the sound, skewering Kest with his gaze. Kest’s shame rolled back over him like a wave. I have less self-control than a child. Everything I do is wrong.

A shrewd glimmer sparked in Puldaergna’s eyes. “I have just the man for you,” he said to the foreigner.

Kest understood immediately. In truth, it was an elegant solution, quick thinking worthy of a wise chief. Sold to a stranger in shame. He was too shaken, too tired to feel outrage or despair. If only I had waited. I’m a child and a fool, posturing like a man and begging to be taken seriously. He’s right to cast me off. He looked to the black-robed stranger who now controlled his fate and resigned himself to the fact that his dreams were dead and his best days behind him.