Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 5: Rite of the Veil – Part 2

The black-barked trees were still, the waterways placid and tranquil, but Tadi did not allow his gaze to rest in one place. His ears pushed past the sounds of birdcall and buzzing insect, primed for any splash, any shuffle of paw on branch or any intake of breath. He scanned treetops and swamp alike, his gaze lingering only briefly on the splashes of the narthak’s blood before moving on.

The growl did not take him unawares this time. It came directly ahead, behind the largest of the trees, more languid and pained than before. Tadi didn’t smile, only gave silent recognition to the thrill of anticipation that raced down his spine. He waded closer, a crude bola and three toxin-tipped darts in his off-hand while the fingers of his forward hand adjusted their grip on his readied dart. He took a final moment to map the available routes around the waterways, then drew a deep breath and stalked around the tree.

The narthak had been poised to spring, and as soon as Tadi appeared, it launched itself at him. He ducked back quickly and let it sail past him, the air of its passing tugging at his face. He let the first dart fly, but the beast spun away and the missile speared the water. The narthak whipped its head around to glare at him, the yellow nearly gone from its eyes, replaced by bloodshot red. His spear still pierced its side, and bloody lines marred its pristine, onyx hide. The air split with its shrill screeches, and it leapt at him again, claws flashing.

Tadi danced around the tree. The beast struck it with its shoulder, not hard enough to splinter the bark but several twigs and a few confused insects rained down nearby. The narthak curled its body around the tree like a serpent, and Tadi barely managed to avoid being caught as the trunk cracked from the force of its grasp. He threw another dart, and this one sank into the narthak’s rear leg. It never paused, but quickly unwound itself and chased after him.

The blood pumping through the creature’s veins would work to spread the toxin faster, but a single dart wasn’t enough.

Tadi skipped back, spraying curtains of grimy water into the air. The narthak sent waves surging through the swamp as it charged. He growled as he timed his dodge, heart hammering, and threw himself out of the claws’ reach at the last instant. The narthak writhed through the water and reversed course, and Tadi gripped the bola tightly.

No… not yet.

The narthak buried its claws in the muddy ground and took a flying leap at Tadi, who ducked and rolled into a tight ball. Tracks of scorching pain raked his back, but he came up again with his stance wide as the beast landed with another great splash. A wave of water reached all the way to his stomach, but he stood firm, like a tree deeply rooted in the thick mud. A hard flick of his wrist launched another dart at the narthak’s back.

He couldn’t tell if it slipped past the quills, but the creature seemed incrementally slower as it whipped around. He threw his last dart at its face, but it strayed from the mark and lodged in the narthak’s neck. The beast reared back and snarled, claws lashing the air with rage.


Tadi threw the bola as it started to come down. The bark-strip rope wrapped tightly around the narthak’s left foreclaw, and the heavy stones dragged it off-balance. With an angry screech, the creature landed awkwardly on its wounded side, driving the spear deeper into its flesh. It shrieked again, with pain as much as with wrath.

Tadi reached down and gripped the hunk of sharpened rock he’d strapped to his ankle. He darted in and tore open a long gash along the narthak’s uninjured side. His quarry rolled away, spraying water into his face, and the tail lashed out and swiped his feet out from under him. Keeping his head above water this time, he shook his face clear in time to see the narthak scrabbling toward him, jaws snapping. Turgid water mired his limbs, and he couldn’t get to his feet in time to dodge. He saw the black muzzle come closer, its beak opening to expose rows of sharp teeth, and one claw raised high.

Sucking in a deep breath, Tadi threw himself backward into the water and twisted to the side. He heard a churning splash as the claw missed, and a heavy, muscled body landed on his legs. Keeping a death grip on his stone knife, he stabbed and sliced and clawed at the mass of flesh. He felt something soft give way, and a flood of hot liquid poured over his hand. He broke the surface in time to hear a snarling gurgle. He’d torn through the narthak’s throat.

More weight settled on Tadi’s legs as the beast collapsed. A heavy arm landed on his chest and nearly drove him back under the water. He wriggled out from underneath the press and stood at his fallen prey’s side. The redness dimmed from its eyes as the blood flowed from the wound in its neck, and with a last gasp, it went limp.

Panting heavily, Tadi rested his palm on the narthak’s still shoulder. The scales felt smooth and warm, despite their dampness. They gleamed beautifully in the full light of the morning sun.

“Well fought,” he murmured to his fallen foe, leaning against its back where the quills jutted up from patches of soaked fur. He seized one and sawed through its base with his knife, pressing his forehead against its body when he was finished. He wanted to say more to honor the majesty of his opponent, but he could barely form a coherent thought through the storm of exhaustion and satisfaction that flooded him. Briefly, he considered trying to retrieve his spear, but the narthak had fallen on it, and he decided to leave it behind. After all, it was the weapon of his youth, and he was now a man.

Holding the crude knife tightly in one hand and the narthak’s quill in the other, bloodied and bruised in what felt like a thousand places, Tadi stumbled his way back through the swamp.

All thoughts of a dignified return evaporated when his knees gave out on the very threshold of the village. The leaders stood in a row, and the villagers could be seen behind them. All faces seemed to be fixed on Tadi alone as he struggled to get his feet back under him. He dragged his across the crowd and saw nervous anticipation on every face, but none more so than his father. They could not move to aid him until proof of his triumph was displayed.

Grinning, he righted himself and held the narthak’s quill aloft for all to see, and with the last of his strength he threw his head back and unleashed the bellowing cry of a victorious Rath hunter.

The cry was answered by a chorus of roars.

He took a wobbling step forward. His father broke from the leaders’ line and snatched him up into a crushing embrace as his legs threatened to cave a second time. “My son,” he rumbled, his deep voice throbbing with pride behind his heavy, beaded veil. “Today, you are a warrior of Rath indeed.”

“A foolish one,” Tadi admitted somewhat sheepishly, but he managed a smile as his father put an arm around his shoulders and helped him stand. “But the spirit of Rath forgave me and joined itself to my hunt.”

He handed his father the quill, who then passed it to the first leader. Each inspected it thoroughly and gave Tadi a decisive nod of approval.

“Stand and be recognized as a man, Tadi,” his father commanded, his voice easily carrying through the entire village.

Tadi locked his knees and refused to buckle as his father unrolled a pristine, oilcloth veil. With his own double-bladed spear, he cut the tip off the narthak’s quill. One of his fellows handed him a long, bone needle, and with it he drilled a hole through the quill’s center. With deft motions, he tied the binding threads of Tadi’s veil to the quill so that it would forever serve as a clasp for his garment of manhood.

“To be worn always save when a duel is to be fought, or when removed as a show of respect and honor,” his father intoned. “A mark not of concealment, but of humility, a testament to a warrior’s restraint and discipline.” He stepped forward, and Tadi closed his eyes as the cloth settled over his nose and mouth, and he felt his father’s fingertips secure the clasp in place. “I greet you, Tadi… as a fellow warrior and son of Rath.”

Behind his new covering, Tadi smiled until his cheeks ached and bowed his head to his father with respect.

Five smaller yet solid bodies crashed into him, wrapping arms around him and jumping up and down with joy. Tadi freed his arms from his siblings’ collective embrace and tried to hug them all at once.