The village was alive with the sounds of celebration. Seeing the thin walls provided momentary relief for Dego after his long journey home. His feet were sore from walking along the northern coast, but he had been able to avoid running into the Kokri again, and that was worth the extra distance alone. The last of the sun’s rays had dipped below the horizon some time ago, signaling the end of the Twin Moons hunt.
As soon as he entered the village, Dego cut along the wall and kept to the shadows. His father and mother would corner him as soon as they saw him, something he couldn’t afford right now. He felt the small pouch he had fashioned from some of his deer skin, making sure the egg inside was still safe.. At first, he hadn’t wanted to take it, the egg unearthly as it nestled into the sand under the dying glow of the day. His hunger got the better of him and he had never seen an egg like it on the island before. The egg was barely larger than his hand. He wondered how it would taste.
Winding between the huts Dego drew closer and closer to the center ring. He could feel the heat from the fire and smell the roasting boar skin. Shem was probably already tattooed with the mark of a hunter and preparing to take the first bite of his kill. In another year, Dego might be able to wear the mark as well, even if he didn’t care much for it.
Having reached his hut he tried to sneak in through the front. He figured that he could bury the egg in a discrete corner of the home and retrieve it after the celebrating finished. Before he could step foot inside the hut a powerful hand grabbed him and pulled him away.
“Dego! You’re ok!” Shem lifted his friend clear of the ground and almost crushed him with a hug. “I thought the raiders had gotten you.”
Dego wriggled free of the painful grip, breathing freely once his feet were back on the ground. He didn’t understand why Shem used any weapons. The hunter could easily crush the neck of any beast in his grasp.
“I’m fine, I’m fine…I made it to the shore and followed the tree-line until I made it back to the goddess’ valley.” He dusted himself down.
Shem laughed, patting Dego on the back. “Glad to hear it. That explains why it took so long for you to get back. Come with me, your mother was ready to skin me alive for leaving you behind.”
“Uh…” Dego held the pouch tightly. “I’ll join you in a minute.”
“What?” Shem grabbed Dego by the wrist. “Come on, Dego. You’re missing everything.”
Shem dragged his friend into the bump and grind of the feast, the hunters already finishing the bulk of their food. Some of the newly confirmed men were lining the ring, watching the boar intently as it rotated slowly over the fire. Thinking quickly, Dego took the egg out of its pouch and rolled it across the firm ground, watching as it disappeared between two rocks in the ring.
Dego’s mother leapt to her feet as soon as she saw her son, rushing over and hugging him tightly.
“Dego! I’m so glad you are alright!” As soon as she let him go, she smacked him on the back of his head. “Are you crazy? Why were you and Shem going into the Kokri forests?”
“We were following some deer tracks, but they turned out to be false…”
“I know that,” Hoga said. “But you should not have been anywhere near those woods.” She hugged Dego again. “It doesn’t matter, I’m just glad you’re safe…”
“Geez Hoga, not only did I fail to kill anything but now you smother me in front of everyone…” Dego pushed away from his mother, his face stretched into a sour scowl. He started walking back along the ring, counting the steps he had taken until he came back to where he had left the egg. Reaching down he felt around between the rocks but found nothing there. He peeked over the top of the ring, both disappointed and relieved that the egg had not rolled into the center where the tribesmen were dancing around, freshly marked and loaded up on the drink of the gods. Dego had not been looking forward to drinking it himself, it always left a foul taste in his mouth. He could not understand how his father enjoyed drinking it so much.
Without warning, Dego was snatched by his hair and lifted up so that he was face to face with Galen, the hunter’s nose red and wearing a broad, drunk smile.
“So. I see you’ve returned,” he slurred. “You have returned empty-handed.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised.” Galen put his son down, patting the boy on the head. “I think that with another year or two, we can make a hunter out of you yet.”
“Great.” Dego brushed his father’s hand away with a slap. “I’m going to go get some meat.”
“Good idea, keep feeding off of the efforts of your tribesmen…” Galen stumbled off to congratulate Pura and some others on their impressive kills, although everyone was still waiting on the sweetly roasting boar at the center of the fire ring.
Dego continued to feel between the rocks for the egg, each time coming up empty and eliciting a not so subtle grumble from his stomach. He had found that the more bizarre the egg looked, the better it tasted. Boar’s meat with an egg cooked over it would be something special to savor.
At last Dego’s fingers found the scales of the silver shell and his heart leapt. As he pulled the shell out, he found that was all there was: an empty shell, fragments scattered on the ground.
* * *
Since his return to the village, Shem had enjoyed no shortage of compliments and praises on his skill. Tulla had been buzzing around him like a fly to rotting meat and Dego’s sudden return was a welcome reprieve from the whole ordeal. Now that his friend had disappeared back into the crowd he was once more exposed.
Tulla seemed to appear out of nowhere, smiling broadly and brushing her dark locks away from her face. “There you are Shem! I thought you had vanished.”
“Oh!” He looked around quickly to see if Dego was anywhere nearby, but to his disappointment he was cornered. “Sorry about that. Dego finally made it back and I had to make sure he was ok.”
“A great hunter and a caring friend…is there anything you’re not good at?” Her laugh was faint and airy. Other boys in the tribe thought of Tulla as the ideal candidate for a wife. She was thin with long hair, almost as long as Dego’s, brilliant golden eyes like the other villagers and able to cut with a knife well enough to skin an animal without it even noticing. She probably was the ideal woman, but Shem just didn’t see it really.
“I wish I was better at finding some time to myself…” he muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Shem wiped his nose. “Have you been enjoying the food?”
“No, I have been busy preparing the center piece. I was offered my pick of the litter and I thought, what better way to establish myself as the best cook in the village than by cooking the biggest kill?” She nodded over her shoulder to the boar, the corpse dripping with juice.
“I see.” Shem glanced at the knife dangling at Tulla’s side.
“I think it’s almost ready. Want to help me carve the boar?” She looked expectant and Shem knew that if he said no, he could very well be the first thing she carved into that night.
Reluctantly he clambered over the fire ring and stood before the fire, a roaring flame that rose to his own height. The heat was almost enough to melt the mark from Shem’s chest. He had been able to withstand the continuous pain of the needle as it had pricked his skin, leaving the horns of a stag that, in time, would develop into a full design wrapping around his chest and arms. If he could handle a needle, he could withstand such heat. Taking the beast by its tusks once more, Shem heaved the spit off the supports and dropped it on the mat that Tulla unrolled.
“Help me turn it over,” she asked.
Shem gave the pig a kick, turning it over to its backside, but to his surprise there was a large hole in the boar’s stomach. He looked at Tulla to see what she made of this. Her face twisted into contained rage.
“Dego!” she shouted across the village. “What have you done!”
Within moments the small island boy was by her side. He looked guilty, even though he probably had no idea what he had done. He was normally to blame for any mischief or oddity that occurred in the village, so it was a safe bet he was responsible for this as well.
“Tulla? I heard you call, what do you –“
“You just couldn’t wait, could you?” She pointed to the hole in the boar’s stomach.
“What?” Dego looked to Shem for support, but the hunter could do nothing more than shrug. “I didn’t do that.”
“Please! You always try to get the first bite in.” She wagged the knife in his face. “How can you be so selfish? This was Shem’s kill. He gets the first piece of the boar.”
“Tulla, really, it’s ok…” Shem tried to say, but she pressed on.
“It’s bad enough you came back empty-handed, but you ignore custom and tradition at every turn! For once, can you not just think of someone else?”
Dego looked like her words had cut deeper than any knife could have. “I’m sorry…”
“Dego didn’t do this,” Shem finally said. Tulla shot him a look cool enough to put out a fire.
“Why do you defend him? This is your big moment. You’re the hunter here, not him.”
“I only thought….”
“What!?” Tulla demanded. “What did you think?”
Shem tried to answer, but he was too busy watching a silver snake writhe out of the boar’s mouth on the ground. The serpent shook itself down, blood and grease splattering around it. The creature looked up at the trio and let out a sharp, shrill skeee.
Tulla looked down at the snake, shrieking at the sight of the thing. “WHAT IS THAT?” Her blade was ready in a flash and came down swiftly, biting into Dego’s arm as he blocked its path.
“Don’t!” Dego seemed to not even notice any pain from the cut, instead scooping the serpent up in his hands and holding it close to its chest. “You hatched from that egg, didn’t you?”
“Egg? What egg?” Shem asked. While the creature looked like a snake, it had small fins on its side and back and when it opened its mouth, rows of shark-like teeth presented themselves. No creature that Shem had seen on the island could claim to have given birth to this thing.
“I found it on the northern shore…an egg with silver scales like these. It just washed up on the beach as I was walking back, and I figured, y’know…if I wasn’t going to get a hunter’s share of any food…”
“You were going to keep it all for yourself?” Shem could feel his head pounding as he shouted. “I share all my food with you!”
“It was only one egg,” Dego said.
“It must have been a pretty big egg for that to hatch from it.” Shem shook his head. “Do Galen and Hoga know about it?”
Dego looked around the fire ring and nodded. “I think everyone does.”
The villagers had gathered around the ring after Tulla shouted, all of them wearing looks of surprise. Galen vaulted the rocks and, after finding his footing again, snatched the creature from Dgo’s grasp.
“What have we got here?” He turned the creature over, running his thumbs along its stomach and prying open its jaws to look inside. “I’ve not seen a creature like this in all my years on the island. Dego, you might just be a hunter yet.”
“What do you mean?” Dego bit his lip nervously.
“The custom states only that you bring a creature back by nightfall. As long as you kill it before the end of the feast, you will be able to eat it and claim your place as a hunter among the tribe.” He tossed the serpent at his son.
Dego looked at the creature in his hands, staring at it as if it were his own child. “I can’t kill it.”
“You were going to eat it a few minutes ago,” Shem said. “What’s the difference between cracking the egg open and cracking it’s skull?”
“It’s not alive when it’s in the egg,” Dego replied bluntly.
Impatience getting the better of him, Galen took Tulla’s knife and shoved it into Dego’s hand. “Boy, if you don’t kill that thing now, I’ll do it myself. No use wasting good meat on the thing.”
“It might be a little late for that,” Tulla noted, showing that the boar had been cleaned out on the inside. The wind running over the open flap caused a faint whistling sound.
Galen’s nostrils flared. “Boy, kill that thing.”
Shem wondered what was going through his friend’s mind, but he didn’t need to wonder much. Dego’s hands trembled as he held the knife and the serpent. He pressed the blade against the creature’s throat, the serpent writhing more violently than before. Ultimately Dego threw the knife on the ground.
“I won’t do it.”
“Won’t or can’t?” Galen demanded. He picked the knife up between his toes, kicking it up into the air and catching it in one fluid motion. “Give it here boy.”
“No.” Dego pressed the serpent to his chest. “I’m not going to kill it.”
“Dego…!” Galen raised his hand and Dego recoiled, knowing that it would soon be across his face, but the hunter paused. He lowered his hand and dropped the knife, falling to his knees as the shaman approached the ring.
The tribe had been silent for some time, captivated by the exchange between Galen and his son, but the presence of the shaman turned that silence into awe. The shriveled man rarely emerged from his hut, but when he did it was with great purpose.
The shaman licked his lips as if he had just risen from a long slumber, rubbing his eyes and shying away from the fire. “Can someone turn that thing down?” He muttered, waving his hand and causing the fire to die down to a low flame. “Much better.”
“Acar…” Galen began, but the shaman silenced him quickly.
Gingerly the shaman extended a single bony finger, stroking the serpent on the head. The creature made a sound that might have been laughter and smiled.
“I see,” Acar said. “We should not kill this creature.”
“Not kill it?” Galen seemed unable to believe what he was hearing. “It’s prime meat!”
“It is but a child, an infant just hatched. Use your reason, Galen. Why kill today what could feed the whole village tomorrow?” He winked.
The reasoning was sound and Galen had no choice but to accept what the shaman said. He backed away, bowing in reverence but muttering something under his breath. Before he climbed out of the ring, he turned and declared: “If we have to keep that thing alive, then it should prove itself useful to us. If you cannot find a way to make that thing helpful before greater Diphos sets, I will kill it myself.”
Acar nodded slowly as he continued to pet the serpent. “I cannot keep your father from killing the creature, boy,” he said to Dego. “But I do not think I will need to concern myself much with that. I have done my part.” He turned, folding his hands behind his back and shuffling back the way he came. He paused by the boar, giving it a meek kick and tutting. “Shame about the pig though.”
“Yes,” Tulla said. “It’s a real shame.” She kicked the ground and stormed off to Shem’s relief.
Shem wiped his brow and chuckled. “That was a close one. I guess you get to keep your little friend a few days more.”
“Yea, but what use is this thing going to be to us?” Dego tickled the creature under its chin. “I can’t imagine it could be very much.”