1st Chapter

   Beneath the cover of a dense cedar curtain, two boys knelt on fertile ground, waiting, spears gripped within their tight fists. For the first young man, patience was beginning to fray. He’d waited too long. It was hot. And the sun would not stay up forever.

   The other boy was less troubled. Dogahn’s eyes had been fixed for several endless moments, watching a female perched atop a low lying branch. He wondered what she was doing, captivated as she flitted from one wide branch to another, silently, almost effortlessly.

   Sneaking through the few holes in the surrounding canopy, the late spring radiance warmed the well-tanned skin on his back. The same rays reflected off the vibrant blue and red feathers atop the female’s head, drawing Dogahn’s gaze from her frame, up her slender neck, to her intelligent eyes. She was exceptional. Everyone said they were a bewitching species, but this one was especially beautiful. His father had told him he’d eventually develop an interest in them. Dogahn now realized how right his father had been. His father also told him he’d need to study them diligently if he ever wanted to catch one. Dogahn was enjoying doing just that.

   Up in the majestic cedar, the female’s eyes darted back and forth between the object of her attention and the two juvenile hunters on the ground. She knew they were there, crouching, hidden, their eyes following her. But she could ignore them for now. As long as they stayed where they were. But for how long would they remain still? They were impatient beings. Unpredictable. She cast her eyes back up the gently sloping hill, to what really interested her.

   The first, eager boy, Tiriz, looked down to the dirt, at the spear lying uselessly within his white-knuckled grip. How long would he have to wait? Like most boys his age, he disliked waiting. He didn’t hike so far just to sit and watch. He wanted to put his spear through something. Finally deciding he’d restrained himself long enough, he shifted his weight, pushing off the ground with his fist.

   Dogahn gripped his friend’s wrist, holding it tightly, pulling Tiriz back close to the ground. Tiriz shot him an annoyed look. Dogahn shook his head.

   “What are we waiting for?” Tiriz whispered.

   Dogahn shrugged his broad shoulders. He was well muscled for his age and wore his dark hair down to his neck. He kept a deerskin cord wrapped around his head to prevent the wind from blowing his long locks into his face. “Just wait,” he said.

   Frustrated, Tiriz looked up. The sun was near its zenith, a few of its harsh rays beating down on his browned face. Despite the shade, it was hot. He didn’t want to stay there forever, crouching in the heat. They had to get to it. How were they going to catch any gazelle sitting around? He shook Dogahn’s hand off and sprang up, ripping through the brush.

   “Tiriz, wait,” Dogahn called. “You’ll-” He abandoned the warning, resigning himself instead. There was no stopping his friend now. He took off after him.

   Tiriz charged ahead fearlessly before planting beneath the female’s tree, ready to commence his assault. “Azaria. What are you doing?” he hissed.

   The pretty young woman ignored her friend. From the shade of the cedar and oak, she squinted at the scene unfolding atop the Great Temple. A flock of vultures circled high above the massive limestone structure. Below them, a mountain range spread across the horizon. It circled around and met again far behind her.

   “Azaria,” Tiriz said.

   “Shhh. Hold on, Tiriz,” she hissed back, just loud enough for the boys below to hear.

   Azaria’s eyes returned to the circular, stone structure on top of the hill. Several figures stood on a wooden platform that encircled two towering central slabs, in predetermined positions around the altar. Two elders approached the cedar planks lying across the two main stones. Azaria could see what lie on top of the altar, but didn’t understand it.

   “Azaria. You’re looking the wrong way. The gazelles are that way,” Tiriz said, pointing opposite to the direction the girl was looking. She ignored him and he plead again to his best friend. “Dogahn, what’s she doing?”

   Azaria dropped silently out of the tree, nearly landing on top of him.

   “Shhhh,” she said, with her index finger to her lips. Before running off to the northwest, she briefly turned and whispered. “The Ta’araki are at the Temple. I want to see what they’re doing.” She disappeared through the trees, keeping low and out of sight.

   “Azaria, where are you going? Who cares about the Temple?” Tiriz said. He turned to Dogahn, “Where’s she going?”

   “I don’t know. But we’ll never find out here,” Dogahn said, grinning widely before sprinting after her.

   “Dogahn. Those gazelle are going to get away. Dogahn,” Tiriz called again. But it was too late, his friends were either out of earshot or ignoring him. I knew we shouldn’t have brought her, he said to himself.

   Azaria ran quietly past the great trunks, heading west of the Temple. She wanted to be downwind of whoever was there, to avoid detection. When she reached another cedar closer to the Temple, she scrambled up its sturdy, low branches.

   Dogahn reached her first. “Azaria, what do you see? Who’s at the Temple?” He too shared the other boy’s desire to continue their hunt. But he was also curious about whatever it was she had discovered. The Great Temple was forbidden to unaccompanied children, and therefore had always served as an undeniable mystery for the more adventurous among them.

   “It’s the Ta’araki,” Azaria said. “Dogahn, it looks like someone’s on the altar.”

   “What? Who?” Her claim was implausible. No one had died recently. Why would there be a person on the altar?

   “I don’t know. He’s not Natu. It looks like he’s wearing Kebar dress,” she said. “Fahim is standing above him.” She emitted an audible gasp and instinctively brought her hand to her mouth. “I just saw him move. I think he’s alive.”

   As she described the scene, Tiriz came crashing through the underbrush, not caring who heard. “Azaria, what the-” he said before catching himself. He’d heard most of her explanation as he arrived. “Wait. Fahim is standing above who? Who’s alive? What?”

   “SHHHH,” the other two said.

   “Get down.” Azaria spat out the command.

   The Ta’araki co-leader, Fahim, was staring right at her. The old woman was known for her exceptionally keen hearing, but less so for her sight.

   The other Ta’araki turned in the same direction.

   As they did, Azaria froze, terrified she’d been seen. The punishment for spying on the Ta’araki would be horrific. They’d probably… Actually, she didn’t know what they’d do. She’d never heard of anyone caught spying on them before.

   The frail old woman brought her leathery hand to her brow to block the blinding rays. After a few tense moments however, she lost interest and returned back to her task. Fortunately for the three young teens, the sun’s glare obscured her view.

   “That was close,” Azaria said. “Tiriz, be quiet.” As she rebuked her friend she receded back into the cover of the great tree’s branches.

   “Okay, but what’s going on?” Tiriz whispered back, fully aware of just how close they’d come to being caught. He didn’t relish the idea of being punished for a stupid girl’s crimes.

   “I don’t know. It looks like the Kebar is tied down,” Azaria said. “Fahim has something in her hand. I can’t make it out.”

   “Let me get up there. I want to see,” Tiriz said.

   “No,” Dogahn said, pulling on Tiriz’s leather tunic. “Just watch from here. You’re going to get us in trouble.”

   “What me? We shouldn’t even be here. Azaria is the one who wanted to see.”

   Azaria hushed them both.

   Fahim was mouthing something and gesturing upward with her hands.

   Azaria strained to make out the signals, but didn’t recognize them completely. What she did understand didn’t make sense.

   After an eternity of strange signals and unintelligible grunts, Fahim placed a ceremonial blade on the throat of the man lying on the altar. She slashed it in a quick, clean stroke.

   The rest of the Ta’araki chanted, beckoning with their arms to the heavens, inviting the hungry avians above them to come down. Dark, crimson liquid gushed out the man’s neck and pooled around his head and upper torso.

   Azaria inhaled silently, cupping her hand over her mouth and turning her head away.

   Dogahn and Tiriz saw just enough to realize what had happened, including the blood dripping from the sides of the altar.

   The Ta’araki continued their dance as the three young adults watched paralyzed, sickened and terrified.

   Fahim stepped back.

   Another elderly Ta’araki, her mate and co-leader, Takur, took the knife. He finished the job she’d begun, completely removing the foreign man’s head.

   The three teenagers were too shocked to notice the wind reverse.

   Atop the platform another of the Ta’araki, a large middle-aged man, caught the scent first. “Someone is here,” he roared, jumping down from the platform. He landed with a gracefulness unusual for his imposing stature. Standing half a head taller than most men, his shoulders were broad. His chest was thick and dense with heavy muscles developed from as many suns spent hunting and wrestling as performing his Ta’araki duties. Powerful legs carried his massive frame quickly to his prey. He ran west toward the shifting wind, pulling a spear from its quiver on his back and then setting it in his thrower.

   Several of the younger Ta’araki were right behind him, their spear-throwers in hand as well.

   Azaria detected the wind’s shift after hearing the man’s yell. She dropped immediately out of the tree. “Let’s go,” she said under her breath before charging back into the thick of cedars.

   Her stunned friends needed no urging and slashed through the grove close on her heels.

   The big man arrived just as the three young encroachers disappeared completely into the wood. His heart dropped when he recognized the young woman’s dress. He knew her scent as well. He slowed, not wanting to catch them, knowing he wouldn’t be able to anyway.

   “Azerban, did you see them? Who were they?” asked Umar, a Ta’araki of one of the neighboring camps.

   “They were too fast, I couldn’t identify them,” Azerban said.

   “But did you see who they were? Were they Natu or Kebar? Or someone else?”

   Azerban hesitated, not sure how to answer. If he said they were Natu, he was sure Fahim would have the Ta’araki questioning the entire camp. She would eventually pressure out the perpetrators. On the other hand, if he claimed he saw Kebar, the repercussions could be even more severe. Paranoia would spread like wildfire if it was believed their rivals had witnessed the sacrifice. He considered claiming it was youngsters from another of the neighboring peoples, but the idea soured in his gut as he contemplated it. He’d be asked for details. The questions would continue until he was spinning a web so large it would likely collapse under its own weight. “I didn’t see them,” he finally said, continuing his original deceit. “They were gone too quickly.” He wasn’t sure Umar was convinced, but was grateful the Swan Camp man didn’t press him further.

   When they returned to the Great Temple Fahim interrogated them.

   “I saw three figures through the trees, but I didn’t see who they were,” said Izyl, an attractive female Ta’araki from one of the other camps. Her hair was an unusual shade of reddish brown, which along with her tall and shapely figure, made her very popular among the men of her camp. She had broken the tie with her mate several winters back after catching him with another woman. Since then she chose to stay untied, pursuing casual relationships with many men. She always ended them prematurely when she felt overwhelmed. She had notoriously left a trail of desolate hearts in her wake.

   Fahim stared at her, expecting more.

   “Azerban had the best look at them,” Izyl added. She hoped to divert away that piercing gaze and in her haste forgot to use her elder’s proper title.

   Fahim turned and addressed Azerban directly, but with a gentler tone, “What did you see?”

   “Only that there were three,” he said, sure she’d see through his deception.

   “Who were they? Did you see their clothing? How old were they?” Each question carried more force.

   “I didn’t see them, they were gone too quickly.”

   Fahim’s growing annoyance was visible. She’d never been particularly skilled at masking it. “Surely you saw more than that,” she said. “Did you not see any details of their garments? How is it you cannot even tell us their ages? Were they fully grown or immature?”

   “Not by choice, Ta’araki. But they must have been younger,” Azerban said. He was flustered internally, but would not allow his nerves to betray him. He kept his tone mild and his hand steady. “They followed the wind and were under cover before I could make out any details.”

   Fahim glared for a long while, clearly skeptical. “If they were Kebar we can expect reprisal attacks,” she said. “If there is nothing else you will tell us, it is unfortunate.”

   He winced at her choice of words.

   “Azerban,” she said. “Take one with you and follow their tracks. I want to know who these spies were.”

   “Yes, Ta’araki,” he said. “Hadir, come with me.” Happy to be rid of Fahim’s penetrating glare, he jogged off into the cedar grove.

   His acolyte, Hadir, struggled to keep up with him.

   Azerban followed the fresh footprints into the woods and after a short while knelt down to inspect them. But he’d already seen enough. He was only delaying, calculating how to handle his acolyte. The tracks were easy to follow. The three children had been careless in their haste. A small part of him was disappointed. They’d been taught better, to run without leaving a trail. But then again, he could hardly blame them. They were likely scared witless.

   “So it looks like you were correct,” Hadir said upon catching up. He was still a young man counting twenty winters behind him. Azerban liked him, was proud in his decision to make him his acolyte. Although Hadir wasn’t known for his bravery – he could hardly throw a spear – he did possess other qualities Azerban admired. He was hardworking, loyal and dedicated to his pursuits. And where he lacked in physical prowess, he made up for in mental capacity. To his great frustration, Hadir had never been one to attract the eye of the females. He was tall enough, but on the portly side, with no clear muscle definition and a rounded face.

   Azerban was sure he’d see better suns though. ‘As Hadir rises through the ranks of the Ta’araki, the young women will surely take notice,’ he’d told his mate more than once. ‘Or at least their fathers will,’ his mate had always answered.

   “There are definitely three of them,” Hadir said. “It looks like a young woman and two young men. I’d say twelve winters, maybe thirteen. They all appear to be of fit build, and very fast, especially the girl and one of the boys. Exceptionally fast, I’d say. Ta’araki, come to think of it, this looks like it’s-”

   “I know who they are, Hadir.” Azerban had humored the boy for long enough, letting him show off in front of his superior. But his acolyte wasn’t known for his tracking skills either. “The girl is my daughter and is fourteen winters. Dogahn was no doubt with her. The other boy was probably Tiriz. The three go off hunting and exploring together more and more lately.”

   “Ahhhh,” Hadir said, wise enough to know he’d been put in his place. He regretted his fervor in trying to impress his elder. It wasn’t the first instance he’d let that particular desire get the better of him. It’d been his downfall his entire life, trying to overcome his shortcomings by impressing others with his great intellect. It never seemed to work for him the way he wished it would.

   “Sorry, Ta’araki. I guess your daughter will be in a bit of trouble.”

   “I will take care of this.”

   “Of course. What do you think Fahim will do?”

   “She’ll be angry and suspect I’m hiding something.”

   “So you mean not to tell her? But she gave you direct orders to-”

   Azerban interrupted him again, more sternly. “I told you. I will take care of this. If Fahim questions you, tell her your tracking skills weren’t good enough to discern any other information. She’ll believe you.”

   “Yes, Ta’araki,” Hadir said, his head hanging in front of him.

   Azerban regretted his harshness, but it was necessary. He was sure his acolyte would do as instructed. Hadir had always been loyal to him first. It was part of the reason he liked him. He was more worried about his daughter, specifically how he should handle her trespass. It was a grave crime to spy on a Ta’araki gathering. How could she be so stupid? And of all the events Azaria could have chosen, why this particular one? He cursed her silently on their way back to the Temple, questions buzzing through his head like pesty water-flies. How should he handle the matter? Should he confront her? And her friends? Or should he pretend he never saw them? What if they told others of what they’d seen? Would they be smart enough to keep quiet? He closed his eyes and shook his head, frustrated and confused. Even as they approached the Great Temple, his mind was swirling with indecision, a disposition he wasn’t used to. One he found he detested. Nevertheless, the best path forward remained hidden and all were strewn with hazard.

   The three young Natu did indeed follow the wind, each silent as they ran, lost in their own shock. Azaria led the way out of the cedar patch, toward a cliffside that shadowed the river below. Atop the steep cliff lay a trail leading back to Boar Camp. She knew there’d be little cover immediately ahead if any Ta’araki had chosen to follow. But short of running through the high grasses just north, there was nothing to be done of it. Charging through the grasses would make too much noise and only slow them down, increasing the chances someone would catch up with them. And there was no way down to the river from here. They’d just have to run as fast as they could and hope for the best.

   She didn’t slow to a more moderate pace until she was sure the Ta’araki would not catch them. Luckily, the elders weren’t known for their stamina or racing abilities. Her calf and thigh muscles ached. She couldn’t remember ever keeping a sprinters pace for so long. She could only imagine how Tiriz must feel, who’d never had any interest in becoming a Runner. Slowing to a walk, she interlocked her hands behind her head. She hung her head back as she struggled to control her breathing.

   As the three approached the camp, they were met by a small pack of large, black dogs. One of the canines ran straight at her and then jumped up. He rested his gray paws on her shoulders and licked her face with vigor. “Hello, Grayfoot,” she said, scratching behind his sizable ears with both hands. She was happy for the comforting presence. His uncanny knack for arriving at the right moment always surprised her, but never more than now. He hopped down and ran circles around her, stopping only to sniff Dogahn and Tiriz, before jumping on her again. “Down, boy. I’m happy to see you too,” she said, pushing him off. She bent down and stroked the sleek fur along his back. His coat was shear, and his snout long and thin. His slim frame sat high atop lanky, but powerful legs. All four domesticated beasts sported the same athletic build, well-suited for chasing down the vast herds of gazelle in the area. Only small variations differentiated one from another.

   Azaria greeted the three other dogs, scratching the tops of their heads briefly before continuing on, with Grayfoot close on her heels. As they entered a sprawling, lively camp the other canines left for more appealing interests.

   Dogahn gripped her arm before they entered. “Azaria, what was that? What happened back there?”

   “I, I don’t know,” she said. It was the first moment in her life she’d had reason to question who she was – the proud daughter of an influential Ta’araki. She didn’t know quite how to deal with the unfamiliar wave of emotions sweeping over her. She’d always looked up to her father, respected him with great reverence, loved him without condition, delighted in his company and – every once in a while – feared him. Now she was baffled. She was distraught her father had been so clearly participating in an act he’d always taught her to be profane – the taking of another’s life. Of course there were occasions when killing was considered justifiable – defending one’s camp or loved ones – but this didn’t seem to be one of those. She knew there must be a good explanation for what she’d seen. She just couldn’t fathom what it might be. She turned away, her bottom lip quavering.

   Dogahn put his arms around her. She looked up into those vivid, hazel eyes so many girls remarked upon, realizing why. “Well,” he said gently. “We can’t tell anyone what we saw. Let’s never mention this to anyone else.” She nodded gratefully and Tiriz confirmed the pact without the slightest of objections.


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