The petal snake smelled humans. Their unwashed stink wafted on the breeze, detectable even over the scent of roasting meat.
The cold northern breeze blasted its shimmering golden scales, and the beast turned to face into the wind for a deeper smell. Each armored plate coating its body ended in a wicked barb like an upturned flower petal. The snake flicked its tongue again and tasted tangy seawater on the wind. But the stink of humans overpowered everything.
Strike their den. Slaughter them all.
The hundred-foot petal snake rose from its coiled heap. Trees shuddered and boulders crumbled as the titanic serpent slithered northward through the sickened forest. Its sharp scales shredded the bed of dry leaves coating the earth. Though it was summer, the skeletal trees stood bare save for cancerous clumps of blackened foliage clinging to the ends of branches.
The forest stank of death, but the massive snake paid it no mind. The same stench rose from the snake’s glittering gold and blue scales. The branching antlers atop its head shone in the wan sunlight peeking over the horizon. And inside its head, something terrible whispered urgent instructions to the beast’s primal brain.
Kill the vermin. Kill until there’s nothing left. Do not reveal our secret until the last possible moment.
When they see, it will be too late.
The pounding drums and blaring horns grew louder as Alden raced through the village.
His hide slippers slapped the dusty pathways between buildings crafted from towering megafauna rib bones. He finally broke through the clusters of bone huts and arrived in the gathering place at the center. Three hundred humans, the entire Sacram tribe, sat in a grassy ring around a central white marble altar.
Eight village elders stood behind the stone altar. Each whitebeard wore thick wool robes over his frail body with a colored ribbon tied around his right bicep. The oldest man with the longest white beard wore a somber expression on his narrow face. The bone charms woven into his beard clacked together in the wind.
Men beating on large drums and women blowing horns sat behind the elders, playing the gathering music. The spirits of the tribe danced in the air over the assembled gathering as they shared in the excitement. The spirits’ bodies sometimes resembled clouds of formless smoke, but at other times took on the shapes of animals or small misshapen people. The swarm glimmered in a rainbow of color that filled the sky.
Alden skidded to a halt outside the gathered tribe and stand panting in front of his father. He stuck the six-foot bone sword he carried point-down into the earth and let his woven sack of leather armor dangle at his side as he doubled over, gasping for breath. “I made it!”
“Did you?” Jobath stood glaring down at his son with his burly arms crossed over his barrel chest. He was a large man, taller than his already tall son. Coarse black hair lined his meaty arms and poked out of the neck of his golden wool shirt. Like the elders, he wore a thick blue ribbon tied around his right bicep. His thick black beard and shaggy salt-and-pepper hair did nothing to hide the look of disapproval on his wide face. “The ceremony is about to begin, Alden. You need to be more mindful about time.”
Both father and son locked piercing hazel eyes. The only feature that set their similar faces apart was the horizontal black line tattooed below Alden’s eye from his cheekbone to his ear.
Alden bowed his head. “Yes, Father.” The carved bone charms and animal bones hanging around his neck rattled as he straightened up and swung his bag of armor over his shoulder again. The stiff breeze blew again, ruffling his spiky black hair.
“This isn’t just about the ceremony.” Jobath brushed clumps of dust from Alden’s wool shirt and hide pants. “The hunt relies upon timing and awareness.”
“I know, Father. I got caught up in memories, and time slipped away from me.”
Jobath’s severe expression softened. “I know what you mean, Son. I’m going to miss her, too.”
A woman cleared her throat, and Alden turned to follow his father’s gaze. Two women approached them. His mother, Norla, wore a purple wool blouse with a high neckline and a matching skirt which brushed her slender ankles. Bone charm anklets draped her bare feet. Her gleaming black hair hung in a thick braid down her back to her waist and matched the hair of her daughter Felka who walked beside her.
Every member of Sacram tribe agreed that Felka was the most beautiful woman in the village. She had high cheek bones, a pointed chin, a delicate nose, and a graceful neck. Her long, braided black hair lay woven with small white flowers. She’d bound her mane at the back of her neck with a bright blue ribbon and wore an intricate dress woven from blue wool laced with bone beads and sparkling stones. The dress had short, tight sleeves, tightly encircled her waist, and fell to her ankles, leaving her bare feet poking out from underneath.
Like Alden, Felka also bore the sacred tattoo: one long black line from her cheekbone to her right ear.
The women’s anklets of bone charms and colorful stone beads clacked as they approached. Felka smiled at Alden. “I’m glad you could make it, little brother.”
Embarrassment stained his cheeks red as Alden bowed his head again. “I’m sorry. I got caught up thinking about you leaving our home.”
Jobath sighed and put his arm around Alden’s shoulders to draw him close. “It’s not going to be the same without your sister around.”
Both men nodded and hung their heads.
Felka sighed but couldn’t hide a smile. “Mother, they’re doing it again.”
Norla took her daughter’s arm and led her to Jobath. “It’s time, dear. Your father is going to take you to the altar. Alden will be close behind.”
With one fluid motion, Jobath bent down and scooped his daughter up in his huge arms. Felka’s muscled huntress arms looked tiny and delicate as she wrapped them around her father’s shoulders and nestled her face into his bull neck.
The giant man walked forward through a cleared aisle in the seated crowd. Hushed silence fell over the seated families as father and daughter passed them and approached the altar. Alden trailed behind his father and sister, carrying the wool bag of armor and the ancestral bone greatsword.
Jobath set Felka down on her feet in front of the long slab of white granite the tribe used as their altar. The stone stood three feet high and formed a rough oval shape ten feet long and four feet wide.
Felka sank to her knees and placed her palms down on the edge of the table. The beautiful young woman closed her eyes and bowed her head.
The male elders, dressed in their green robes of office, nodded in approval.
Wind from the sea to the north stirred the grasses and the hair of the ritual participants as Jobath stood gazing down at his daughter.
Mirak, Felka’s husband-to-be, walked through the hushed crowd toward the altar. His open wool robe, dyed blue to match Felka’s dress, lay draped over his purple wool sweater and hide pants. A crown of bones rested upon his short brown hair. Sacram custom required Mirak not to approach Felka until her father had handed her over to the care of the spirits and acknowledged Mirak as Felka’s new protector. The groom stopped fifteen paces from the father and kneeling daughter.
Still, Jobath stood looking upon his eldest daughter. Felka’s head was bowed, and she did not see the tears welling in Jobath’s eyes, but the elders did. The Chief Elder gave him a few moments to regard Felka before clearing his throat.
Jobath met the hoary-bearded man’s gaze with a steady look until the Chief Elder nodded and turned his eyes respectfully away.
Jobath took one last look at Felka and heaved a huge sigh, then turned and approached Mirak at the perimeter. Jobath reached out to the young groom and held out his hands like claws.
Mirak met him and the two clasped hands. Muscles bulged as both men pushed and strained in a contest of strength. Jobath was significantly larger than Mirak and began to push him backward, but Mirak rallied and dug in his heels.
Alden kept his expression carefully blank. He knew Mirak was honoring Jobath. Jobath had no sacred tattoo under his right eye and had not been blessed by the spirits, but Mirak did bear the tattoo. If he’d wanted, Mirak could have lifted the older man over his head and hurled him across the village center. Instead, he had allowed Jobath the customary first push and shown deference to his new father.
With a grunt, Jobath stepped back and lowered his arms. Mirak did the same. Jobath nodded to the elders. “This man’s strength will be adequate to protect my daughter.” The black-bearded giant stepped forward and embraced Mirak in a fierce bear hug which swallowed the younger man, then planted a firm kiss on new son’s cheek and held him close.
When Mirak had disentangled himself from his new father, the young groom stepped around Jobath and approached Felka at the altar. Jobath slipped into the front row of the crowd and seated himself on the blanket beside his wife. Five black-haired children with creamy skin and hazel eyes to match Alden surrounded them.
Alden stepped forward to the edge of the crowd and remained at the perimeter where Mirak had stood. He rested the tip of Felka’s enormous sword in the grass and adjusted the purple wool bag slung over his shoulder.
Mirak knelt at Felka’s right side and placed both of his hands on the stone altar beside hers. Mirak bowed his head, and the Chief Elder spoke.
“Our tribe has stood in this place since the time before stories began.” The Chief Elder’s voice was light and wheezy but held great conviction. “Through our bonds with spirits, we have stayed strong against the beasts of the world. In order to continue our stories beyond ourselves, we must bear children, and to bear healthy children in a harmonious village we must make sacred bonds between us. The spirits stand witness as these two children of Sacram come to make their vows and create the next generation of our people.”
Crinkled flesh met cold stone as the Chief Elder placed his palms down on the white marble slab. The other elders did the same. When all were in position, the Chief Elder continued speaking the ritual words.
“Do both of you children come in good faith to make these vows?”
Felka and Mirak answered in unison: “We do.”
Another of the elders spoke next. “Do both of you consent to be bound together in this life until death?”
A third elder spoke. “Mirak son of Korl, do you receive this woman from her father’s care to be your wife and pledge yourself to her protection and care?”
Mirak smiled down at the table. “I do.”
“Will you provide for her in all ways, keep her needs closer than your own, and safeguard her even unto your death?”
“I will do all of that and more.”
A fourth elder spoke. “Felka daughter of Jobath, do you receive this man to be your husband and pledge yourself to his wellbeing and care?”
Two teardrops fell from Felka’s pointed chin to splash against the white granite altar as her face lit with a radiant smile. “I do.”
“Will you provide for him in all ways, keep his needs closer than your own, and nurture him even unto your death?”
“I will do all of that and more.”
Explosions of color erupted across the sky as the gathered spirits launched into a dancing frenzy.
The Chief Elder spoke again. “Felka, this day you leave your father’s house and are bound forever after to your husband. As mother for your family, you will no longer attend routine hunts, and you will fight only in defense of the village. Your job above all other things is to nurture your family. Do you accept this?”
Alden clenched his hand on the hilt of Felka’s greatsword. This would be the hardest sacrifice for Felka because she loved the hunt. But she loved Mirak more.
Felka did not hesitate. Her voice rang out firm and clear. “I do.”
The Chief Elder turned to Mirak next. “Mirak, from this day Felka will dwell with you, and you will be responsible for her. As father for your family, you will be required to leave the most dangerous tasks to unmarried men. Your job above all things is to protect your family and not your own glory. Do you accept this?”
Mirak nodded. “I do.”
The Chief Elder nodded. “The two of you are bound in the sight of the tribe and the spirits. May your union be fruitful.”
“May your union be fruitful!” thundered the entire crowd.
Felka, Mirak, and the elders all lifted their hands from the altar, and the couple stood. Felka reached up and untied the blue ribbon from her hair. With deft movements, she tied the ribbon around Mirak’s right bicep as a display of his married status. Felka’s hair with no ribbon would indicate that she had bound a husband.
The village elders brought out a clay bowl and a wineskin from behind the altar. Felka took both and poured mead from the skin into the bowl. The huntress raised the bowl to her lips, drank half the mead, and lifted the bowl to Mirak’s lips. Mirak held Felka’s eyes with his own as she fed him the mead.
Neither of the hunters spilled a drop.
When the ritual was finished, both husband and wife stood. Felka shattered the bowl on the ground beside her. The two newlyweds embraced, and Mirak gave Felka a deep and passionate kiss.
The crowd roared their approval. Alden’s mother comforted her husband as Jobath sobbed quietly. Tears of joy streamed down his bearded face.
Felka and Mirak turned and walked from the altar to where Alden stood.
Alden met the eyes of his new brother. “This huntress keeps her armor and weapon in good order. Help her to stay sharp.” He handed Felka’s hunting gear to Mirak, who bowed and took them with both hands.
Then Alden turned to Felka. Felka’s eyes were filled with tears, and her face beamed with a joyous smile.
Tears blurred Alden’s vision as his heart swelled within his chest. “Huntress, you leave our home and go to your new home. But you will dwell within our hearts forever.”
Felka rushed to squeeze Alden in a tight hug, and the silent spell over the tribe broke. Suddenly everyone gathered around the new couple, congratulating them and patting them on the back. Alden let the crush of villagers push him away from the couple at the center. Seeing his sister and her husband together at last filled Alden with warm contentment.
The entire tribe moved en masse to the other side of the gathering area where the large roasting pits lay. An enormous puklo, twenty feet tall and thirty feet long, hung suspended over the pit. Alden’s mouth watered at the smell of the roast beast.
Women of the tribe carved huge slabs of meat and handed them out in low-rimmed crockery bowls. Teenagers handed out clay cups filled with beer or mead, with fruit juice for the children. Everyone joined in the celebration.
The wind gusted from the sea toward the village and carried the smell of roasted meat to the men standing guard along the top of the gate. They sniffed the air and licked their lips. Women bearing bowls of meat brought the guards their share to enjoy.
Around the cleared center, villagers lounged in the grass or on cushions and blankets they’d brought from home. The women carved the puklo down little by little, though it was expected to last for three days of feasting. Musicians continued to beat their drums and blow their horns throughout the festivities.
As the music swelled and villagers danced, the women and girls approached Felka one by one. Each woman placed her hand on Felka’s belly and repeated the ritual’s final phrase: “May your union be fruitful.”
Felka blushed as she thanked each woman.
At last, it was time for the father of the maiden to make his speech recognizing the new couple’s union and welcoming them into the larger family. Norla patted her husband on the shoulder in encouragement as Jobath rose to his feet. The music died down, and Jobath opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, a guard’s cry rang out from the canyon wall up above.
“Huge beast coming from the south! It looks like a petal snake!”
Every member of the tribe froze as more alarms rang out.
Norla sighed and set down her bowl of meat and berries. “Smelled the food, I’m sure. I worried this would happen.”
Felka grinned from ear to ear as she turned to her new husband. “It’s still my job to defend the village, right?”
Mirak looked surprised, but he smiled back at his new bride, and his gentle blue eyes crinkled in merriment. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to stay out of it?”
Felka shook her head, still grinning. “Another hunt, and this early? It’s my wedding present from the spirits.” She jumped to her feet and reached for her hunting gear piled nearby.
Her mother’s shadow fell over her, and Felka froze again. Norla loomed over Felka with a scowl on her face. “It’s your wedding day, Daughter. Sit back down and let the other hunters take care of it.”
Alden perked up. Defending the village meant a chance to test his skills against a predator for the first time.
Felka matched her mother’s scowl with one of her own and planted her hands on her hips. “My marriage vows specifically said I’m to act in the defense of the village.”
“They said you could act in defense if necessary—”
Felka cut her off. “And I’m the best hunter in the village, after Grath.” The huntress looked around. “Where is he?”
Norla shook her head. “He said he and his daughter weren’t quite ready for a human ritual. Their race still blames our rituals for the First Corruption.” Norla looked south to one of the huts near the gate, where a purple figure pushed through the dense crowds toward Alden’s family. “But here he comes now. You can let him go instead of you, and he can take Alden.”
Grass squished underfoot as Alden shifted his feet. Nervous energy hummed through his body. Two of the villagers ran up to him dragging one of the enormous greatswords the village kept in reserve. The bone blade was similar to the sword Felka used but blockier and nowhere near as elegant looking.
Alden hefted the weapon anyway, leaning the sword’s blunt backside against his shoulder. The six-foot sword stuck up from his shoulder into the air like the trunk of a pine tree.
Felka shook her head at her mother. “I’m taking this gift from the spirits, Mother. And I need to go to make sure no one gets hurt.”
Norla threw up her hands. “Felka, you’re wearing the village wedding dress. It will get ruined!”
Felka laughed. “I’ll be careful! Not one tear in it, I promise.”
Villagers gasped as the gate guard hollered again, “The snake is almost upon us!”
Grath arrived. Villagers parted at his approach. His appearance always unsettled the humans of Sacram tribe, including Alden. The Aibeck’s body had the same shape as a human, but he was covered from head-to-toe in purple velvety fur. Instead of hair on his head, a nest of purple tentacles sprouted from the flesh of his scalp. Two crystal horns rose from his crown, and the polished clear stone sparkled in the sunlight. A thick purple tentacle for a tail sprouted from his backside. He and walked on two purple legs, but his bare feet had no toes.
Like most of his race, Grath wore little beyond the traditional wide, weighted loincloth, a tooled hide breastplate with matching greaves and vambraces, and various bone jewelry around his neck and bulging arms. A massive axe lay strapped to his back. The four-foot rosewood haft ended in a three-foot by three-foot axe blade of razor-sharp bone laced with silver veins.
Grath’s sacred hunter tattoo was different. Two elongated black triangles were inscribed on each of his fuzzy cheeks. These tattoos began wide at the base outside the jawline but narrowed at the tip and formed spikes which pointed inward toward his nose.
Alden bowed his head as Grath approached. “Teacher.”
Grath acknowledged his greeting with a nod. The Aibeck’s gravelly voice scraped out his rough approximation of words. “We need to get out there and face the beast.” The Aibeck stopped and bowed his head to Felka and Mirak. “Congratulations on your mating.”
Mirak and Felka thanked him with bowed heads. Then Felka turned to Norla. “I need to go, Mother. We don’t have time for me to even get dressed in armor. I didn’t stop being a hunter when I became a wife.”
Norla pursed her lips. She drew a tight breath and pointed her finger in Felka’s face. “Not one tear in the dress. Understand?”
Felka danced with joy. “Yes! Understood!” She snatched up her bulky greatsword with ease. Her bare feet slapped on the grass as the huntress raced for the village gate.
Mirak’s father Korl, a short and sleepy-looking man, and one of Korl’s neighbors approached Mirak, dragging their family’s bone-tipped spear and broad bone shield. Each item took a man to carry.
Mirak took the heavy spear and shield as if they weighed nothing. He passed the ritual blue robe and crown of bones into his father’s hands. “Thank you, Father.”
Korl patted his son on the cheek. “Go make me proud, Mirak. Don’t show off too much for your bride.”
The gate guards sang out again. “The snake is almost here! Hurry!”
Mirak, Alden, and Grath raced to join Felka at the rib-bone gate. Ropes squealed as the guards lifted the gate just a crack to let the hunters duck through.
The last thing Alden heard as he hurtled through the open gate was Norla shouting, “Not one tear! I mean it, Felka!”
The reinforced bone gate slammed into the dirt behind Alden with a boom that vibrated through his hide slippers. With the gate closed, retreat was impossible. The Sacram hunters would have to kill the snake or die trying.
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