Blood sprayed out across the sand as waves lazed up and down the shore. The spear was embedded deep in the boar’s side, sending the beast hurtling to the ground. Laying there under the steady, overbearing sun, the boar heaved and sighed, its chest rising and falling in panic. Life had started to fade from its beady eyes.
Shem approached his quarry slowly, partly out of caution, partly from exhaustion. He grasped the spear firmly and pulled it from the beast’s side. Blood shot across his chest and he rubbed it into his skin, adding a vicious hue to his otherwise copper tone. He watched the boar gasp its last few breaths and then fade. Shem could hear his friend Pura panting as he finally caught up.
Doubled over, Pura looked as if he were about to be sick. He glanced up at the corpse that lay on the sand, out of reach from the ocean’s gentle grasp. “Nice pig,” the smaller boy noted, “You could have left it for me.”
“But then what would I have killed?” Shem lowered himself to one knee, lifting the carcass onto his shoulder. He grunted as he stood up, still a head taller than his friend even with the creature weighing down on him. “Fair is fair in the new moons hunt.”
“Yea, but you would have killed something anyway.” Pura wiped his nose. “You didn’t need to kill the biggest boar.” Next to Shem even some of the older hunters were no more than sticks and twigs.
“If I want to eat more of it than the rest of the tribe, I do.” He struggled to find his footing in the soft sand. “If you give me a hand getting it back, I’ll give you a portion of my hunter’s share.”
Pura’s face betrayed his skepticism. “How much is this ‘portion’?”
Shem nodded to the one right next to his head. “Pick a leg. This one looks pretty strong.”
“The hind thigh?” Pura asked. “The kind of muscle needed to move that bulk…” He wiped his mouth. “Sure thing.” Taking the beast by its tusks Pura heaved it ahead of Shem, stumbling to keep pace. “You can slow down a bit, you know.”
“Slow down? Why would I want to slow down? I bet no one will be back yet with their kill.” Shem wanted to get the best spot on the fire ring to make sure the meat would be cooked thoroughly. Boar meat was tender; more so than any other kind that could be found on the island, but it required more time to cook.
“No one will be back because none of the other boys are crazy enough to keep a chase up all morning.” Pura was struggling to keep the boar’s head elevated. While Shem was tall and muscular, other boys were still finding their shape, still defining themselves, though their roles had already been set. The son followed the father, stepping in his footprints as the previous generations had done. Most wanted to be hunters, but sometimes the will of the gods demanded other things.
Shem chuckled. “And that is why I will be leading the hunts in the days to come.”
“You would think, considering his father, Dego would have some say in that.” Pura had found his rhythm, almost skipping back across the sand.
The mention of Dego elicited sighs and disappointment from most tribesmen. Every kind word that could be said of Shem would be one that flew right over his pint-sized friend’s head. He was faster than anyone else in the village, to be fair, but it was a skill learned to avoid the island’s creatures rather than chase them. Dego’s father had hoped that being friends with a promising hunter would instill discipline in his son, but even Shem could only do so much.
Soon enough the boys found firmer ground where the sand gave way to grass and dirt, an emerald blanket draped over the island. The mountains Kono and Karo stood on either side of the gaping valley, the twin peaks of the goddess’ island Konida. Shem shouldered the beast again and Pura was able to maintain stride with his larger friend now that he was unhindered by the boar as they began the trek across the valley back to the village.
While the boys had walked back across the island, the sun had barely moved in the sky. Today was the long-day of the year, and the night would be short, but it would be one of the few times in the year that both moons would rise and fall at the same time in the same phases, so bright it would seem that the sun had never set. Shem had risen with the sun, well before the other boys and set out with the men to start the hunt, determined to make his first kill as a man one that the tribe would remember for generations.
Arriving at the village, the shadow of Kono beginning to crawl across the grass-hut roofs huddled at the base of the mountain. The middle of the village opened up on a large ring of stones and when Shem arrived at the ring he dumped the carcass on the largest one he could find, the spine of the boar snapping with a deafening crack. Several of the hunters had already returned and their prizes littered the ring. Shem could not help but feel proud that his own prey dwarfed the total of the other hunters combined. The hunters were circling the ring, judging each others efforts, Galen and his group chief among them.
Galen kept an air of calm about him as he approached Shem’s boar, slowly looking over the rabbits and foxes that were draped on the fire-side of the stones. “It’s a real shame the deer are in hiding.”
“That’s what happens during mating season,” Shem responded. He often wanted to talk about the craft with Galen, easily the most accomplished hunter in the tribe. For now. “If you want a big kill, you’re going to have to put in the time.”
“Absolutely.” Galen paused beside the boar, grabbing it by a tusk and flipping it over to take a look at the kill wound. The hunter was powerful and tall, his arms like tree-trunks and his skin dark from days out on the prowl. Most of the tribesmen used green paint to tattoo themselves once they had reached adulthood, but Galen’s skin had become so dark that only blues and whites would suffice. “You’ve got some real potential.”
Shem could feel his chest swelling. “As the gods will it. I’m sure that Dego will return with a fine kill.”
The mention of his son caused Galen’s eyes to dart towards his hut, disappointment shaping his thin lips.
“Dego’s still asleep, isn’t he?” Shem shook his head, almost unable to believe his friend could be this lazy. Almost.
Without responding to Shem, Galen reached down and picked up one of the smaller stones. As the head hunter, his hut opened up on the ring, drawing in warmth from the fire ring during the colder nights. He weighed the stone in his hands, judging the distance across the ring. He hurled the stone, a grey-blue missile that flew overhead and dipped into the hut with a resulting “OW” ringing out across the village.
“THE SUN IS OVERHEAD, DEGO.” These words were spoken every day. Shem had hoped that today of all days they would be missed, at least. After a few moments of silence a mass of hair and scrawny limbs stumbled out into the midday light, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Mmmggh,” he mumbled.
“What was that?” Galen shouted across the ring.
Dego swatted the question away like a fly buzzing around his head. He shuffled over to the fire ring, turning and slumping against one of the larger stones as he rubbed his eyes.
While Dego was getting re-acquainted with life, Galen was going through his daily re-acquaintance with the state of his son. He shook his head and began walking away, muttering, “Why can’t he be more like you Shem?”
Walking around the ring, Shem found Dego stretching his arms as high as they could go, which for Dego put them a full head below Shem’s chin. “How a veritable god of the hunt like Galen gave birth to a baby bird like you is beyond me.”
Dego licked his lips. “His is the skill; mine is the hunger.”
“You can’t keep feeding on the tribes’ hunt forever Dego. Your hunger is already as vast as the goddess’ valley. If you don’t start helping with the hunt, we’ll have to double our efforts every year to keep up with you.”
“Sounds good to me,” Dego replied as he pushed a thin pinky into his ear, twisting it around and removing a decent layer of wax. “I should clean my ears more often.”
“I would be surprised if you cleaned them at all,” Shem said. “How did you think you were going to complete the New Moons hunt if you were sleeping the day away? You know the hunt has to be completed before the sun disappears below the horizon.”
“I know no such thing,” Dego protested. “I know only that I am not fit to be hunter.”
“Not…?” The idea that a son would defy to follow his father in life was staggering enough, but refusing his lot in life was inconceivable. “Your father is a great hunter. You should be learning everything you can from him.”
“I don’t want to be a hunter,” Dego said. “I would make a good shaman though. I bet I would put sack-o-bones to shame if I tried.” He looked over to the largest hut that sat squarely at the head of the ring, the entrance of the village down a dirt path directly opposite. Wisps of blue smoke filtered out through the top of the structure, smoke that would have spent the morning building up around the quiet chants of the shaman as he cast his bones into a fire.
“If Galen was my father…”
Shem paused, the words lingering, but Dego felt the full weight of them. Shem would bring up what he would do if he was the son of Galen, or Ikrut, or Furon, and it always reminded the boys that they should consider themselves lucky.
“Your father would have been proud to know you,” Dego said, punching Shem in the arm. “You could snap the neck of a deer with those arms.”
“Thanks, Dego.” Shem nodded towards the wilds beyond the village wall. “We should get going, you have only half a day to complete the hunt.”
“I don’t care about the hunt…” Dego went back into his hut, emerging a few minutes later with a flint knife and shoddily assembled spear. Part of the ritual demanded that the hunt be accomplished entirely on the young man’s own abilities, from the crafting of the weapon to the choice of prey and the final killing. The last part, Shem knew, was what troubled his friend more than anything. While Shem and the others were following the hunters around, learning the signs animals left behind when they traveled or the way to navigate the island using the sun and the mountains, Dego would hide out by the river and pretend to fish, always returning with an empty net.
“Before we go, you might want to wrap yourself up, unless you want some beast to end your lineage.” Shem pointed at Dego’s bare legs and the small boy laughed nervously as he retrieved the doe-skin his parents had crafted for him, wrapping it around his waist and tying it tightly at his waist. “You should consider cutting some of the skin, you don’t have that much to cover.”
“Some of us have modesty,” Dego retorted, securing his spear to his back and slipping his knife between the fur and his hip. “We should get going.”
In silence the pair left the village with the sun at their backs.
* * *
The light was beginning grow weak, an uneasy orange glow lay over the trees and ground. “We shouldn’t be here,” Dego protested as Shem led him deeper into the woods. “This is Kokri land.”
“Kokri may hunt here, but they do not own the land,” Shem said. “If we find something, I can help you drive it out of the forest and onto Tenma grounds.” Dego was sure Shem could do what he said. His skill had already made him the pride of the tribe; the men strongly believed that he would be drafted by the Tenma’s raiders rather than be allowed to continue as a hunter. The Kokri tribe’s raiders were fearsome, and the sole reason that the Tenma had been unable to gain any hunting grounds beyond the base of Kono.
Shem stayed close to the trees, using their shade to mask his presence. Dego, attempting to follow, tangled his hair in a low-hanging branch and struggled to break free.
“Do you want us to get caught? If you’re so worried about attracting attention, then tread lightly.”
Dego nodded and slowly reached up, taking the branch and using his knife to cut through it until it was severed. He noticed Shem looking at him, eyebrow cocked, and pointing to the still tangled branch.
“What?” Dego asked. “It makes for good camouflage.”
Quitely the pair pressed on, weapons at the ready. A faint trail had led them into the forest and to Dego any sign of their quarry had long since gone cold, but he was not the hunter that Shem was.
Kneeling near a patch of moss, Shem examined a faint impression. “The water is still pooling in the hoof-print. If you bring in a deer out of season, you will impress everyone.” He smiled. “Everyone.”
“Please,” Dego snorted. “If Tulla is going to pay attention to anyone, it’s going to be you.” He vaulted over a tangle of branches that Shem had cleared with a single step. “Even a deer out of season is nothing to that pig you landed.”
“I’m sick of hearing about my pig!” Shem hissed. “The hunters went on about it. Am I a fragile vase? I know how good I am. I know that they have been counting down the cycles of the moons until I was able to join them, day in and day out.”
“Calm down Shem, your eyes will pop out.” Dego pushed past his friend, keeping low as he clambered over the gnarled roots of the forest floor. The spear he had secured to his back bobbed up and down like the razor sharp fin of a lackadaisical shark as it maneuvered through a reef. If the pint-sized islander had even a fraction of a shark’s tenacity, he might actually be able to kill something.
The moss covered roots eventually died away to flatter ground that was covered by a thin layer of mist. Dego reached down and felt around for any depressions that seemed unnatural, finding sporadic hoof-prints.
“Something’s…wrong about these tracks.”
Shem followed Dego’s example and felt out the trail, his eyes narrowing. He began to scan the area around them, uneasy with the lack of clarity. “The prints are unnaturally spaced.”
“That or the deer started having a spasm mid-stride,” Dego noted, half joking. He hoped he wasn’t.
“Someone laid these tracks out, got anxious at the end and slipped up.” Shem turned around so he and Dego were back to back. “We should get out of here.”
As the pair edged their way back up the path, rustlings began to stir up all around them. The dark shapes of men emerged from behind the trees, arrows pointed at the boys. The thick mud that covered their skin could not hide the gleaning smiles of grim satisfaction.
“Kokri,” Shem cursed. “RUN!”
Dego did not question the order, ducking and taking off across the ground, arrows whispering past him. The odd arrow clipped his hair or got stuck in it. He cut between the trees along the forest floor, serpentining to avoid his pursuers. Without looking back, he knew that Shem was long since gone, but he could only hope it was not in the clutches of the Kokri.
He did not know what direction he was headed in, only that it led away from the dark men with clean smiles and gleaning eyes. The tribe warned their children from the earliest days against the Kokri, and Dego was not keen to find out first hand why.
Up ahead he could see light, running towards it until he broke through the tree-line onto a rocky shore. Looking back over the canopy, he recognized the backside of Karo. Shem had led him on a hunt to the other side of the island. Again. Without traveling back through the forest, it would be close to midnight when he eventually collapsed in his hut.
With no other choice, Dego began to walk along the shore.
The northern shore of the island was of a rougher variety than the others. Galen had once explained that this was the reason the Kokri took to raiding while others survived purely on the hunt. While the Tenma had clean streams and even beaches to fish from, the Kokri had only their forests, dark and twisted and difficult to hunt in.
Walking in silence was maddening. Dego looked along the shore, realizing he had rarely been around these parts and that he should take as much in as he could, the sinking sun pressing him onward.
Walking past a large crag, a shine in the water caught the boy’s eye. Peering out, he noticed it again; something bobbing up and down in the water, only briefly catching the sun’s light before dipping down again and then rising on a cresting wave. Curiosity took hold of Dego and he climbed over the rocks to the sand, scattered as it was across the shore. He went to the shoreline, the water rushing up to his feet and then receding before it touched his toes.
As he watched, the water came rushing back in and dropped a small, silver-scaled egg in the sand.