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A ride with my father was not the time to have the first blood of womanhood, and yet the hoof Gods gave me this grievance.

I felt the pain in my loins since we rode south from Bronzebuck Village. A sharp ache that moved up to my abdomen. The saddle that'd replaced my old one was cedar, wrapped with fresh boiled leather, still unbroken, and in need of several rides before shaping to my buttocks and hips I believed it was what brought me the pain. That was until the warm liquid ran down my right leg, painting my honeyed-colored flesh the black-red stains of death.

"How am I to explain this to father, Mayhee,"I whispered, running my fingers down the horse's hairy, hazel-colored neck. He shook, not like the jerk when riding away flies, but with a nod and a soft grunt. "I should just tell him?" He shook again in approval. "Father is not one to like surprises, nor secrets ... but he doesn't understand a woman's troubles." The horse grunted in protest.

Mayhee was right, I knew. The first blood was heavy and thick as curdled milk, leaving the trail of hoof prints red and blackened with drops. Not only had it dampened my leg and saddle, but the inside of my boiled leathered skirt. And in the heat, the blood had already clotted and dried, leaving my skin sticky and stinky. Nobody told me it would be this bad: the pain, the blood, and the reek. Why it happened on this day must've been a test from the Gods.

I looked ahead to the man leading atop his mountainous steed; a horse bred for battle and long treks across the plains, glowing bronze, and built as muscular as the man who mounted him. My father sat upright like any true Horn Lord should. Arms and legs stiff, bobbing side-to-side with the rhythm of his horse. He was wearing a worn boiled leathered vest and matching skirt; cloaked in an aurora of sunlight that gave him the essence of a Chief.

"Nhedri, my Filly, come and ride beside me."

I sighed.

When I found my courage, I trotted along his right side, keeping the crimson's stains hidden just until I could find the right words to tell him.

Father glanced at me with his almond-shaped eyes. They were a dark hazel, unlike my mother's nor my bright hazel eyes, and filled with despair and uncertainty; a look he'd worn often in the last five full moons. Maybe it was the day he'd tell me why. I much preferred that conversation over the one of her first blood.

"Your fifteenth summer is on the horizon," He said solemnly, "and a woman you shall become."

He examined my frame, measuring how I'd grown since our last ride, as he always had. Eyeing my thickened rider's legs, firm stomach and chest, muscular arms, and long ravenous-black hair. He smiled with approval.

"You've grown into a Lady Hoof - as bronze, fierce, and vigorous as your mother - and just as beautiful." I felt my cheeks warm,. "Now it is time for you to find a man worthy of your brilliance."

His words did not shock me. Father had no sons and six daughters. And each of my sisters were married to the great Horn Lords of the North: Heathren to the Boretaur Lord Gagrit of the Krowtz Clan; Janot to the Cervitaur Lord Tytork of the Aokee Clan; Rivae to the Satyr Lord, Jorn 'the Crude' of the Nakima Clan; Bethree to the Minotaur Lord Bajunn 'the Bludgeonhart' of the Krayko Clan; and Irainn to the Centaur Lord, Hurrn of their own clan; the Hyquin Clan. Now it was her turn to marry and to serve her father's purpose.

"Have you found one whole will accept my hand?" Mayhee neighed with disapproval. I smiled and gave him a pat. And promised, "I'll always be yours."

Father held his head high, "the problem is not finding you a match - your beauty has all the Lord's of ArkiLa fighting for my approval - the problem is which to choose. You are my last daughter, and the last of our name, you must wed to somebody who'll bore children of strong blood."

I nodded, understanding the task he faced.

Silence crept between us as we rode, yet it failed to keep the birds from their songs, the bees from their hums, and the winds from whispering while brushing against the grains. We trotted on for miles, following the slosh of the river, until its bright blue and white ripples danced before us. From atop my mount, I followed the river both north and south, losing it on each horizon. It was calm in most parts and fierce in others; alive and ancient; full of leaping silvers and stones that were as slippery as ice.

On approach, I noticed the discolored orange stones that marked where the river had reseeded throughout the years. It was always fierce, but the last few winters had been warm while the snowfall had been scarce, leaving it with half the girth it once had; a somber telling of what was to come.

"The Great Cleanse is on the horizon," father said, reciting the same words I'd heard as a hoofling hanging off his knee. "Soon the lands will wash clean for only the strong to survive."

Father yanked on the reins, kicking with his right foot, guiding his horse to the banks for the stallion to drink away his thirst. I followed close behind, listening to the rattle of Mayhee's chops, ready to drink enough for two mares if I'd allowed him to.

At the banks, a cool breeze moved off the river, giving us relief from the sun's draining heat. Only after father peered southward at an eagle, a fish, or whatever caught his eyes, did I dismount to the right side of Mayhee; the same side as the blood crusted on my saddle.

I grabbed a rag from my sack. "I'm going to cool off," I said, kneeling down, allowing the cloth to soak.

Father kept still, fixated on whatever sat down river. "Stay put. I'll go have a look."

I wrung the cloth along my skin, keeping out of sight. Red clear liquid drained down my leg, reviving my honeyed-colored flesh beneath the stains. I peered around Mayhee, who stood snout deep in the river, and squinted, trying to locate what had sparked my father's curiosity. All I found was the flicker of light off the white crests of rapids, and the brownish-blue of the river between us Nothing of suspicion or to ponder about, yet that did not keep my father still.

KhokaK galloped off, beating the river with his hooves, while projecting droplets to the receded mark of the river. I followed them until they were around the eastern bend, hidden behind a family of bank birch that'd stood there since the days of the great Taurs.

I thanked the Horn Gods for my desolation, giving me the time needed to clean the first blood from my leg, saddle, and skirt. The rag was in ruin and so I abandoned it beneath a rock in the river, then drew a second from my leather bag. It took another minute for me to tie the cloth between my legs, tucking the ends beneath the skirt belt to keep the rag in place. It was a tight fit, sending an ache into my loins, biting my lip to counter the pain. At least I felt clean.

Mayhee had more than his fill. He stared southward, ears raised, snout dripping, grunting and jerking for me to make haste and follow in pursuit of my father.

"What is it, boy?"

I searched the southern horizon once more, again finding nothing, but I learned to trust my mount. I eased up onto him, to keep from dripping and causing discomfort. Once mounted, I followed the river down and around the bend where I found father knelt, looking upon a...

"What is that?" My eyes mooned, aghast at the bloodied, four-legged mound of meat laying lifeless in the river.

"A cervitaur." He responded, certain. "The bones and muscles were left ... along with the pelts."

I followed his finger towards a stack of dried, blackened furs; left out to bake in the sun. It seemed the mound had become a squat for flies, while the cervitaur meat was a nest for white, tubed larva to feast and roam upon.

My stomach twisted while the smell of carrion bit at my nostrils, making them burn and itch, and my tongue swell from the grimness in the air. I swallowed to ease my stomach, then looked upon the flesh once more. What once was a Taur of man and beast, was now just torn, black-red muscle and yellowed bone. The eyes, that were likely brown as beetles, were blackened holes, pecked out by some scavenging bird of prey. And the head and torso, made of the same flesh as my own, and four-legged body made from the same hairs and flesh of Mayhee, were the dried, black, piled skins resting on the banks.

"Why leave the furs?" I gasped, using a hand to shield my mouth.

Father corked his head, puzzled by the question. From his hip, he tore a black, serrated blade from its sheath. The handle was cervitar bone wrapped in worn leather. It had seen many seasons, and had many carvings, yet it never had been used to do such butchery.

He aimed the tip and slipped it in between bone, hacking at the muscle between the neck. It seemed a strenuous task as the meat was like baked leather. But once my father put some muscle behind the hacks, it sighed and gave, revealing the hollowed innards.

"Whatever had done such perversions, only did it for the meat." Father said, stone clattering against bone.

"You mean, it was not one of our own?"

He struck his blade between the bones, digging for something, until it popped and plopped into the dirt. He picked it up with two fingers and drew it into the light. I squinted, examining what seemed to be a large ball that appeared weighted and hard as stone, yet it was unlike any stone I'd ever seen before; smooth, and blackish-gray, and rounded as a full moon.

"What is it?"

Father's lips sunk. "The slayer of beasts."

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ErichW

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