Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 5: Rite of the Veil – Part 1

Dawn poured pale blue light over the swamps as scraps of mist hovered above the stagnant waters and tangled with the ferns covering the tussocks. Tadi’s breath clouded before his face, as the fine scales on his bare chest flattened to ward off the chill. Using his spear to balance himself on the edge of a floating mud clump, he crouched and pressed his fingertips into the print before him. Only a thin film of water coated his probing fingers. The narthak had passed here not long ago.

Tadi rose and scanned the nearby ground. Another tussock caught his gaze to the right. This one boasted a sizable tree, which meant it was fixed to the swamp floor. He made for it, his legs sloughing through the muddy water without a splash. Near the bole of the tree, he spotted another track and grinned in satisfaction. He’d judged the creature’s path correctly. Beyond the shelter of the tussock, a small forest of slick-barked, black trees spread eastward, the perfect hunting ground for a ¬¬¬narthak. If he could come upon it as it fed, then this would be a swift kill.

A sharp whine buzzed past Tadi’s left ear, along with the ghostly sensation of insect wings. With a flick of his hand, he dissuaded the kisint from landing on him, already searching for the next print. He found it on the far side of the tussock, and there the trail ended. The next patch of ground was some distance away, across the stand of trees. Gripping his spear in both hands to keep it out of the muck, he waded back into the swamp.

The torpid water was warmer than the morning air, which helped further ease the chill. Tadi used his toes to check for sinkholes, his senses on alert for any change in the currents eddying around his ankles. Every few seconds, he cast his gaze upwards and scanned the treetops. It was common for narthak to drag their kills into the trees to keep them from larger ground-bound predators that could steal their hard-earned meals. So far, he detected no movement among the branches. The only sounds he heard were the eerie, hollow calls of pluril birds, punctuated now and again by another kisint flitting around his head.

Tadi let his grin grow. Every nerve tingled with anticipation. His spear, the only piece of equipment he was permitted to bring during the rite, felt molded to his grip. He pictured stalking the narthak from behind, taking it with a single thrust to the back of the head, just below the skull. Under the birdsong, he imagined the distant murmur of voices, as though the people of his village were already welcoming him into full adulthood. His hand drifted up to rub his scaled chin, and he wondered what it would feel like to have the veil settle into place for the first time—

A deep, rumbling growl was all that saved him from being cut down from behind. Tadi leapt clear of the first slash of the narthak’s claws, staring in awe at the beast. Though smaller than some that Tadi had heard of, he still gauged it to be at least fifteen cubits from head to tail. It seemed to dance on the edge of the water almost hypnotically. It twisted gracefully, spraying murky droplets through the air, its smoky black scales gleaming. Two lines of sharpened quills raised along its back as the sleek, furred head turned to face him. Deep within its yellow eyes, a red light flared to life.

A narthak’s hunting stare.

Tadi swore at himself. His quarry hadn’t yet taken a kill, which meant that he was its target.

The narthak opened its beak. Instead of a growl, a harsh screech tore from its throat. Tadi saw its shoulder muscles bunch and threw himself out of its path just in time. It circled back to him before he’d fully recovered, lashing its tail in a wide arc around its body. The thick mass of muscle connected with his stomach and sent him tumbling through the water. He came up gasping, and blindly dodged another claw swipe to put a tree between himself and the beast.

Tadi knew well the speed the narthak was revered for, having participated in group hunts for them since he was tall enough to hold a spear, but facing one in single combat was far different than he’d expected. With only a single target to focus on, it could direct its relentless barrage against him, wear down his stamina until he grew too tired to dodge, and then…

The tree shuddered, and a scaled foreclaw reached around the trunk to slash at him. He jabbed the limb with his spear as he backed away, gritting his teeth in satisfaction when the stone blade penetrated. The narthak’s scales weren’t terribly tough, but such an injury wouldn’t impede his quarry. He shuffled backward through the muck and silt, trying to stay out of swipe range. The narthak lunged for him, and he tried to spring away but caught his heel on a hidden root. He stumbled, and the narthak, not accounting for his failed jump, landed on top of him.

The breath left Tadi’s lungs in a rush as the beast’s body smashed him to the slimy floor. His head went underwater, and the thrashing weight pinning his chest sent panic coursing through his mind. He groped for his spear, fighting the overbearing need to breathe, and stabbed upward as soon as his hand closed on it. The narthak nearly crushed him as it rolled away. A scaled leg kicked him, casting his mind and body into chaos, and his mouth opened against his will to suck down nothing but muddy water.

Tadi broke the surface flailing, the narthak’s angry screeching sounding impossibly loud in his ears. He spluttered and coughed the water from his lungs, greedily pulling in air before he came to his senses. He couldn’t fight the narthak like this. He had to retreat. Shaking the silty water from his eyes, he rolled onto his hands and knees and crawled through the churning swamp. Risking a glance over his shoulder, he saw the narthak still thrashing. It alternated between trying in vain to pluck Tadi’s spear from its side with its teeth and rolling on its back in savage frustration. When the hate-filled, red gaze flashed in his direction, he put his head down and half-crawled, half-swam out of the grove.

Praise be to the memory of Rath, it didn’t follow him.

Even after the narthak’s shrieks had disappeared into the distance, Tadi’s heart raced with apprehension. The myriad dangers of the swamps still surrounded him, and weakened, without a weapon, he was terribly vulnerable. He turned northwest, where the wild tussocks rose in more abundance, keeping a sharp watch on every ripple and object that broke the swamp’s surface. His left shoulder began to throb, and he looked over to see three parallel gashes leaking a trail of blood into the gloomy water, a sure path for any nearby predators to find a quick meal. With an oath he lurched upright, but his head, already foggy from near drowning, lolled dizzily on his shoulders from the sudden motion, and he sank to his knees.

“You fool,” he panted, anger at his own complacency bubbling over. His unpreparedness had nearly gotten him killed, and the Rite of the Veil, the most important trial of his life, was now at risk. He envisioned the faces of his younger siblings from earlier that day, blinking drowsily in the dawn’s first glow yet still eager to see him off. He watched in his mind’s eye as their crestfallen expressions turned away from the village entrance in despair. He imagined his father, standing amidst the other leaders at the village’s entrance, tradition-bound to be among the first to greet a partaker of the Rite.

He could already see the sorrow in his eyes, the slump of disappointment in his shoulders at the realization that his eldest son would not return…

“No!” Tadi growled, balling his fingers around fistfuls of mud. He took a deep breath and relaxed his grip. “No,” he repeated, and let the tension drain out of him. He’d gotten himself in this predicament because he’d lost his good sense. Daydreaming about victory without having taken the steps to secure it. He wasn’t going to continue that mistake.

Looking at himself and his surroundings, he took stock. There was a sizable grouping of hillocks nearby where he could rest and forage for needed supplies. He got to his feet more carefully this time and made his way across the marshy ground. A tall tree stood invitingly at the hillock’s crest, but he ignored the temptation of rest and instead searched the ground beneath it for ¬valess plants. While their sap stung painfully against open wounds, it would stave off fester or fever and stop the bleeding before it attracted predators.

Tadi found what he was looking for and plucked a handful of the broad, blackish-green leaves. Hastily squeezing them in his fists, he locked his jaws to keep from crying out and pressed the crushed mass into his gashes. The oily resin set the wounds on fire, but he distracted himself by tearing strips of bark from a low branch to hold his makeshift bandage in place. When that was done, he found his mind felt sharper, more focused.

“Now,” he murmured, looking around the ground, “what else can I find?”

Tadi spent the better part of an hour searching the nearby swamp and returned to the tree with armfuls of fallen branches, stones of various sizes and consistencies and a wealth of uprooted plants, including a small batch of Quiet Death blossoms that he balanced very carefully on a large leaf. Spreading his supplies in front of him, he allowed a shade of his former smile to cross his face. This is what he should be done at the start of his hunt. Though the laws of the Rite dictated that he could only bring his spear with him, the bounty of the swamp was available, nay, necessary, to succeed in the hunt. He’d thought his experience with the narthak’s ways, and his legacy as the son of the legendary Huthkon, meant such preparations were unneeded.

“You fool,” he told himself, but without his previous rancor. The sting in his shoulder and dull ache in his chest meant that he was alive, and as his hands worked with the tools he’d gathered, he turned his focus to his quarry. The narthak was wounded, which meant that it was even more dangerous than ever. Its rage would make it faster, its attacks more frenzied. Tadi nodded to himself, both as an acknowledgement of the task ahead and as a promise.

He would be ready next time.