A few days later, the burning light from the noonday sun beat down on Alden, Jincra, Braden, Lalaine, and Grath as they stood inside the bone gate at the front of Sacram village. Every human member of the hunting band wore the standard leather breastplate, greaves, and vambraces over their usual attire, which for the men was hide pants with a wool sweater. Lalaine wore a wool blouse and a long, heavy wool skirt. Her green ribbon was tied in a large bow at the back of her head, and a cascade of curly blonde hair spilled down her back. Grath wore only his customary Aibeck armor.
Each hunter stood beside a large riding bird called a kinvalo. Brilliant plumage in unique patterns with varying shades of red and orange and gold made each bird appear a work of art. Curly plumes rose from their heads and long tails. A rich, spicy smell wafted from the natural powder of the feathers. Thick black rings around their glowing golden eyes made the birds appear fierce, but their gentle nature was revealed when one of the kinvalo would bend its neck down to nuzzle the hunter working to saddle it.
Alden’s mostly-red kinvalo chirped at him as he made sure his razor-edged greatsword was seated securely in the sheath built into the saddle. When Alden didn’t respond, the bird gently nipped his spiky black hair.
With a laugh, Alden gave up checking his gear. “Calm down, Vaka. I see you.” The young man scratched the kinvalo along the side of his golden beak.
Vaka purred in response.
Alden turned to the rest of the assembled company. The whole village had gathered to see the hunting band off. Alden’s entire family—parents and siblings—stood together. He approached them to say goodbye.
His mother Norla hugged him tightly. “Remember to eat well, and get your rest at night. Don’t stay up late just because I’m not there to tell you not to.”
“And don’t compete in stained clothing. Wash them.”
“Lalaine is good at sewing and can stitch up any big holes, but you should be able to do the small ones.”
Alden’s father laughed and pulled his wife off their son. “Norla, he’s a grown man. And Grath is with him. He’ll be just fine.”
Norla sniffled. “I know. I know he will. Of course. I just…” She looked at her son with her heart in her eyes. “I just worry.”
“I know, Mother.” Alden hugged his mother again, then disentangled himself from her, only to be swallowed up in his father’s huge arms and chest.
Jobath squeezed the life out of his son, then gripped Alden by the shoulders and leaned down to rest his forehead against Alden’s.
“I’m proud of you, Son, for rising to this honor. Make me prouder still with your actions in the world. Men of the world will not be like the men of your tribe. These new men will test you and challenge your honor. People will tempt you to trade your honor for pleasure, vanity, or power. Nothing is worth the price of your honor, Son. Weak men make the trade, and then regret the loss of their honor for the rest of their empty lives. They want you to do the same so they can comfort themselves by pretending that no one else has honor, either.
“The honorless men of the world will come for you. Laugh in the face of the world. Hold to your honor no matter what else you lose. Force the ashamed, compromising oathbreakers of the world to look you in the eye and weep for what they could have been if they'd only tried. Keep the laws, keep your word, be vigilant in the face of complacency, and be courageous in the face of fear.”
“I will, Father.”
Jobath embraced Alden again, kissed his son on the ear, and let him go.
Alden hugged and kissed each of his siblings. Mirak and Felka were last.
Felka whispered, quiet and close so that her breath tickled Alden’s ear, “Your band looks to you for leadership and healing. Be more than that: be the healing the whole world needs, little brother. That’s what it means to be a Shaman.”
Alden whispered back, “I will, Felka.”
The farewells were finished, and it was time to go. Alden brushed away his tears, stepped into the stirrups, and seated himself atop Vaka.
Braden and Lalaine finished their own goodbyes with their large family, then mounted their bright yellow birds.
Jincra hugged his mother goodbye. He also hugged Alden’s father Jobath, his replacement father who had stepped in after Jobath’s brother, Jincra, had died. Jincra’s mother Hurtha looked weak and was wrapped in a heavy purple blanket with only her heart-shaped pale face and thick brunette hair poking out, but she waved goodbye and called encouragement to Jincra as he settled into the saddle of his own mount.
Grath was last. His daughter Kazra stood at the side of his kinvalo, looking up at her father as he gave her final instructions to carry out during his absence. The young woman was the same age as Alden and his friends. She was also an Aibeck like her father, with a human body covered in velvety purple fur, a nest of purple tentacles instead of hair, two crystal horns rising from the top of her head, toeless bare feet, and a thick purple tail. Instead of the normal hunter’s mark on her face, she bore two tattoos inscribed on each of her fuzzy cheeks just like her father. These tattoos began at the outside of the jawline, were wide at the base but narrow at the tip, and formed spikes which pointed inward toward her nose.
In the fashion of her tribe, Kazra wore very little apart from her weighted loincloth, bone jewelry, and a wide brown leather harness across her ample breasts. The Sacram tribe still weren’t used to her immodest outfit, but the young Aibeck woman never seemed to mind.
Kazra finished saying goodbye to her father and turned to walk back to stand with the rest of the village. Braden and Lalaine were seated not far away. Kazra waved to Braden on her way back to the gathered villagers. “See you later, Braden.”
Braden’s eyes widened in surprise. “Uh, see you later, Kazra.”
When Kazra had passed out of earshot, Lalaine shot Braden a sharp look. “What was that about?”
Braden shrugged. “I have no idea. I’ve hardly spoken to her outside of training.”
“Hmm.” Lalaine watched with one raised eyebrow as Kazra sauntered back into the crowd.
With the farewells finished, the hunting band wheeled their mounts around and rode toward the massive gate. Cheers rang out from the assembled villagers. Sentries on either side of the gate raised the massive bone structure, and the mounted hunters slipped underneath.
Alden twisted in the saddle to wave at his family one last time before the gate slammed down again, sealing the hunters out into the world and marking the beginning of their great journey.
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