3.3

The three of them left for Ghada’s at mid-day, navigating a swarm of gawking, loitering visitors and traveling markets to reach the family’s dwelling. Stray and Boyle each carried a few articles of rarely-used clothing that they felt would be fancy enough for a major festival; Edzie carried nothing, except for her katsun, sheathed along her left thigh. They reached Ghada’s dromo at mid-day, having crossed the Splitmouth near Boyle’s and cut across the settlement behind the East Storehouse. The front entrance was uncovered, the interior steeped in shadow, lit only by the sunlight through the doorway and a few front windows. They called out as they entered, heading instinctively toward a hallway on the right side. After a moment, a young girl’s voice greeted them enthusiastically. Edzie instinctively quickened her pace, and Bellaryn emerged from the hall just as Edzie was reaching it.

Bellaryn had been studying at the Hunter’s Roost for the last two years, a two-day journey to the north, and to Edzie, it seemed like an eternity had passed since they had last seen each other. Bellaryn was fourteen, nearing her own initiation, and Edzie was barely old enough to call her a peer. Nonetheless, the older girl recognized her younger playmate, and she greeted her with an old friend’s embrace, before Edzie could even pause to look her over.

Bellaryn was tall and straight-backed, with thick well-muscled arms and legs and a ruddy tan that told stories of a life spent outside, in the sunny patches within thickets of trees. Her hair was cropped around the height of her cheeks, and shaved nearly to the scalp up around her temples, less severe than her brother’s mohawk, but still rugged and stern. Her features were naturally cheerful, her eyes bright, but normally she held them steady and impassive, her demeanor no less serious and stony than Edzie’s. At this moment, however, Bellaryn’s natural smile lit up her face, and Edzie found herself compelled into a grin.

“Edzie!” she said, almost shouting. “It’s been ages! Shameful! You’re probably grown like a weed, but you look just the same to me, except maybe a little tougher. How’s your mother? How’s Stray?”

Edzie glanced back at the boys, who had stopped behind her and fallen into their own distracted conversation. “I don’t think much has changed,” she concluded. “Mom is still tough on us… Stray especially, lately, but that’s really not such a big change. So nothing much to say about my circle. But I know you have some news, don’t you?!?”

Bellaryn grinned. “You’ve heard, eh? Mother is being recognized as next in line as Elder of Accord, after Keldra! People are afraid it means Keldra is getting ready to step down. I don’t really have any idea, myself.”

“Still, great news for the four of you. Are your parents here, so I can congratulate them?”

“Mother is out talking to people, meeting her friends’ visitors, buying things… you know, her typical day. Father is out back, working on something for mom. Feel free to say hello if you want, but he’s probably too busy to talk much.”

“I’ll leave it til later, then,” Edzie decided.

“Fair enough. We’d better go see Ghada, then. He’s been insufferable, waiting all morning for you three to show up.”

The two girls headed toward the end of the hallway, with Stray and Boyle in tow, and into Ghada’s room. It was impressively large, having been built with both children in mind, but with Bellaryn away, Ghada’s belongings had spread out over the whole space: from an arrangement of practice-weapons and outerwear in one corner to a small table in the other, stacked with cosmetics and accessories. Ghada was leaning over his cot, sorting through some odds and ends for the tailoring session. Edzie gave him a friendly acknowledgment, and then was almost knocked over by Stray and Boyle as they passed through to join him, looking at his small collection of tunics and brivsas and jewelry. Stray and Boyle each tossed their outfits on the cot next to Ghada’s, and they all stepped back to look at them, falling into disordered conversation.

Edzie and Bellaryn both remained at the far edge of the room, observing and forming opinions, though they kept them to themselves for the moment. “I can’t believe how much thought they can put into this,” Bellaryn observed, watching her brother verbally assess his friends’ outfits.

“Do you have anything to do to get ready?” Edzie asked.

“I worked out an outfit, but it only took about half an hour to get everything in order. I think it’s cause mom helped me. She doesn’t quite have Ghada and dad’s eye for fashion, but at this point, she knows how to fit clothes for me better than Ghada does. I don’t have a young boy’s body any more, obviously.”

Bellaryn had indeed filled out significantly since Edzie had last seen her, though she was still lean and athletic. An outfit would have to work around her hips and keep her breasts under control, and a young girl’s tunic wouldn’t do it any longer. Ghada, on the other hand, being only twelve years of age, was still well within the constraints of boyhood. He was already growing quickly, taller than most of his companions, but still a child compared to his sister. He had learned the basics of preening and self-care from his young, handsome father, and had shown an aptitude for it; though taste generally discouraged it in polite conversation, he was spoken of privately as a very attractive youth, an excellent specimen of the traditional Concordance male. He was also well-spoken and quick-witted, necessary corollaries to his good looks.

Ghada was now directing the other two boys to try on their outfits. He already had a look of skepticism in his eyes, knowing that Stray and Boyle didn’t maintain their wardrobes, and that they were going to be hard to clean up. Edzie watched Ghada look over Stray’s outfit, turn it over, and then gaze at Stray’s figure again, trying to decide if it was even salvageable.

“They’re hopeless,” Bellaryn remarked, chuckling.

“Stray can’t help it. He was brought up with two women.”

Bellaryn nodded, trying to decide whether she was supposed to laugh at this. “I suppose that’s true. And Elkansa is a beautiful woman, but she never did have much patience for fashion. How about Stray’s father? Would he have taught Stray some of these things if he had… uhh…” She paused awkwardly, and then spoke quietly, to keep Stray from hearing. “… If he had stayed with your mother?”

Edzie shrugged, making a minimal effort to keep her own voice down. “No, I don’t think so. I was young at the time, but I remember him a little, and Tamlis wasn’t the type of man to make a show of himself. He was more the restless, moody type… from what I remember, he dressed the part, like a transient. … That’s what he was, after all.”

Boyle and Stray had now put on their outfits for the festival, and Ghada was adjusting the folds and tweaking the seams. Stray’s outfit was a draped tunic, mostly the dusky gray of standard Denorian outerwear, but elaborated with a few dark red vertical slashes, dyed by some merchant at Elkansa’s request. It wasn’t very impressive, but it was acceptable… it gave his young shoulders some definition, at least, and fit closely about his waist.

Boyle’s outfit, on the other hand, was essentially a disaster. It was dyed a mottled foliage green, and it fit tight around his chest, practically exposing his ribs, with a loose fold over his shoulders and down his back. At his waist, it settled into an explosion of shapeless fabric, and his thighs and legs were completely lost in a cascade of ill-fitting trouser. At his knees, it suddenly grew close again, emphasizing his skinny legs and drawing attention to his large feet. It would need exponentially more attention than Stray’s outfit… Ghada was still focusing on the latter, perhaps simply to avoid the stress of having to fix Boyle.

Edzie glanced at Bellaryn, and saw that she wore a reserved smile, her eyes wistful and content. She noticed Edzie’s gaze and returned it, speaking with a placid sobriety. “I miss you all,” she said, nodding toward the boys. “Ghada and mom and dad, of course, but especially just being around everybody.”

“Is it lonely up at the Hunters’ Roost?”

Bellaryn shrugged, and then seemed to reconsider her indifference. “Yeah, it is, actually. No kids to spend time with, no Mistras to teach me formal lessons. I’m practically the youngest one there.”

“Is it hard? Are you learning a lot?”

“It’s hard, yeah.” Bellaryn spoke slowly, sorting through memories. “I’m learning to hunt and fight from all my host families… I go from one house to another a few times a week. Seeley, Jagrana… the women all live alone, and hunt for food, and I only stay with them when they have a few days to spend at home. They’re always tired, and they make me dress their game and prepare their meals. Most of them would rather teach me to fight, than take me hunting.”

Edzie chuckled in spite of herself. “So you’re, like, a surrogate husband?”

Bellaryn rolled her eyes, remembering. “Yup, that’s about right. There are almost no real families there… the women who live there are the ones who want to be left alone, who don’t have any use for courtship or tribe politics. The men are the ones who are loyal to the tribe, and want to stay near by, but don’t want to get attached to a wife or a child. I think the Hunter’s Roost lets them provide for the tribe in other ways, like hunting, trapping, and gardening, so they don’t feel like freeloading transients.”

“The women sound like me,” Edzie remarked, half to herself, then said: “That doesn’t sound like it suits you, though, if you miss the rest of us so much. I guess you wouldn’t stay there, if you had a choice, eh?”

Bellaryn shook her head. “Nope, not a chance. After I get initiated next year, I’m coming back to the settlement. I think I’ll petition the elders and find a place to live. Maybe I’ll travel a little with mom, just to see what it’s like, but I don’t think I can be an ambassador like her.” She looked over at Edzie, suddenly registering her friend’s last remark. “So you think you’d live out there, if you could? Maybe when you get old enough to travel on your own?”

“I might,” Edzie said. “It sounds nice, being apart from all the boring tribe business I’m supposed to be helping with. I can’t stand the thought of being at the center of everything, like mom.” She thought about it a little more. “I don’t know about the Hunter’s Roost, though. I think I might get bored. Plus, I don’t think Stray would ever be happy someplace like that, and I think I’d miss him too much if he stayed here.”

Bellaryn felt a pang of remorse, knowing that maturity and independence would eventually degrade this inseparable attachment between Edzie and her adopted brother. She decided not to say anything about it, turning instead to the activity of the boys. Ghada had spent the last few minutes prodding at Stray’s outfit, and he had finally decided that he couldn’t let it go without some trimming and tailoring. He had made a few marks on the fabric with a brown grease-pen, and then he had prompted Stray to remove the tunic and put his regular clothes back on. The two of them turned to Boyle, and Ghada was making exasperated sounds.

Bellaryn made a couple remarks about how the outfit seemed to swallow the boy, and Edzie laughed obligingly. Ghada told both of them to keep their stupidity to themselves, taking a protectively harsh tone, as Boyle remained silent and motionless under the light of Ghada’s gaze. Ghada spent a full fifteen minutes tugging, tucking, wrapping, and tightening, constantly asking Boyle if his adjustments were comfortable. Boyle tried to be useful, and whenever he started feeling like a clumsy wooden scaffold, he distracted himself by joking with Stray about their respective outfits. The girls exchanged quiet witticisms, and offered an occasional unwelcome opinion, but the boys managed to ignore them most of the time.

Watching this spectacle play out, Edzie became aware that Ghada wasn’t maintaining a very strong focus on Boyle. His gaze kept drifting to Stray, who was an oblivious bystander, entirely preoccupied with Ghada’s work on the outfit. When Stray chatted with Boyle, Ghada managed to stay on task, but whenever Stray asked about the outfit or the tailoring procedure, Ghada answered a bit too quickly, as if he was waiting for some chance to make the point. Edzie also noticed that whenever there was eye contact between Stray and Ghada – an occasion that Stray seemed to completely disregard – Ghada would suddenly hesitate in his work for a moment, and he would have to take a breath before he returned to his arrangements.

This dynamic made Edzie mildly uncomfortable, so she tried to disrupt it by asking a question. “So, are you going to do all the adjustments yourself, Ghada?”

Ghada replied with vigor, exhibiting some of the same excitement in talking to Edzie as he had shown Stray. “Almost, but not quite, I don’t think. The seams on Boyle’s tunic are a little weird, and I don’t know how to make the trousers look good around his knees, so I think I’ll need some help from my dad.”

“What else are you going to do?”

Ghada stopped fussing with Boyle’s tunic long enough to give a clear answer. “We need new hair and faces, too! Boyle’s hair needs to be evened out at the bottom, and Stray’s just needs a trim all around. It’s too wild, he’ll look like he’s just getting home from a pilgrimage or something.”

Bellaryn rolled her eyes as Edzie prompted him to continue. “And the face?”

“Not much,” Ghada said. “Boyle hardly needs anything, except maybe a little shading to accentuate his jaw-line, and a little extra color on his cheeks. Stray could use a little covering, to smooth out his skin and darken his complexion a little.”

“See? My skin’s better,” Boyle interjected with snotty self-importance.

“You’re just younger,” Stray retorted. “Wait until you’re in double-digits.”

“Can you do something with their personalities?” Bellaryn snarked. “Touch up their sense of humor, maybe?”

Ghada gave a polite laugh, hoping not to hurt anyone’s feelings, and said, “I think that’s perfectly presentable already. You ladies, on the other hand… I can help you guys out, too, if you want. You both could really use some work.”

“No thanks,” the girls chirped in unison.

“Besides,” Edzie went on, “won’t you have to do it all over again tomorrow anyway? Especially the make-up! It seems like a waste to spend so much time on it now.”

Ghada had asked his own father the same question once, when he was much younger, and now he scoffed at Edzie, so much older, still asking for an explanation. “Well, obviously we have to test everything out first. You can’t just throw some cosmetics and accessories on a boy, assuming they’ll all look good together.” He paused, tugging and folding one of Boyle’s sleeves. “No different from all of us learning to fight. First we learn the technique, and then, before any serious combat, we spar, study our opponent, and review the forms.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Bellaryn conceded. “What did our mothers always say, Edzie?”

“Readiness,” Edzie and Stray said, nearly in unison.

This may as well have been a mystical invocation… before anyone could say anything else, there were a mother’s unhurried footsteps in the gathering room of the house. A moment later, Treya opened the door and greeted her children and their visitors. She was a short, sturdy woman, wearing a traditional Denorian tunic adorned with eccentric accessories from her travels around the Concordance tribe lands: a gold bracer on her right arm, and a cascade of reed-woven lace over her left shoulder. She greeted Edzie and Stray each by name, her face open and warm.

Stray jumped to respond. “Hello Ambassador Treya! Ghada’s helping us get ready for tomorrow!”

“I know!” Treya replied wryly. “He spent all day yesterday talking to my husband about it!”

“Congratulations on your distinction tomorrow,” Edzie offered. “You’ll make a wonderful Elder of Accord.”

“Thank you, Edzie,” Treya said kindly. “And how are you two doing? It’s been quite a while since I last saw you.”

“We’re fine,” Edzie said.

“Have you been traveling?” Stray said, now fully distracted from Ghada and Boyle.

“Yes, in fact, I visited the elders of the Entrane over the winter, and then took the Settlers Road south to attend the vernal festivals of the Aerimus and Hexcalor tribes. The Aerimus gave me this…” She indicated the latticework of dried reeds on her shoulder. “It’s made from the tough reeds they harvest from the Huskin Draw. Would you like to try it on?”

Each of them felt the lace accessory in turn – Stray first, and then Edzie and Bellaryn – and finally, Boyle got away from Ghada long enough to investigate it for a moment, loosening and disrupting some of Ghada’s adjustments as he did so. Treya told them she would be wearing the accessory to the Festival of Emergence, and then she would give it to her husband for safe keeping. It was up to him to decide whether anyone else might wear it for future events.

Ghada soon realized that Boyle wasn’t about to come back and submit to his inspection, so he set down his grease pen and pins and joined the other three children at Treya’s side, looking at her artifact. She talked for a few minutes about the Aerimus… one of the smaller of the eight Concordance tribes, whose elders were famously worldly and authoritative… a tribe whose decorative tokens of status were recognized throughout the Pastures, and even as far west as the Weary Road and Horizon. She herself had spent several years with the Aerimus, learning the finer points of tribal history and diplomacy.

One by one, Treya’s audience found places to sit or recline, and she went on to tell them about the other two tribes she had visited on that journey: the Entrane, the tribe that had accepted her father and father-in-law, a culture of hunters and trappers who resettled far more frequently than the Denoria; and the Hexcalor, a tribe of Concordance merchants, currently living between the Range River and its smaller western branch. It was Treya’s Entrane relations who had encouraged her to become a traveler, inspiring a wanderlust in her breast far beyond the usual Denorian spirit of independence. The Hexcalor tribe was one of the most common stops on her forays, because their central courts were hubs for news, both of the Concordance and of the larger world beyond the Pastures.

They were still talking when Kosef, Treya’s husband, returned from his craftwork in the back garden. He entered from the back, poised and polite, as Treya described the Hexcalor’s merchant curators, and he took a seat on the bed beside Edzie. It was a few more minutes before Treya paused for a breath, and Kosef took the opportunity to ask Ghada, Stray, and Boyle about their preparations. He reminded Ghada that they still had to do the boys’ faces before they went home, and even then, they wouldn’t be finished: Ghada had to do all the necessary alterations to their outfits before the evening was over. The children took the hint, leaving Treya’s shadow to resume their preparations, and Treya was left watching her husband preside over a painstaking process that would continue into the evening.

A few minutes later, when the boys’ attention was back to their primping, Kosef and Treya excused themselves, claiming some valuable time together between their obligations as parents and busy tribespeople.

… … … …

The Festival of Emergence swept up the following day, embracing the settlement at dawn and refusing to let go until the darkness started to soften, twenty-four hours later. Ghada managed to get Stray and Boyle fully dressed and prepared before the mid-morning feast, which all five young Denorians – Edzie, Stray, Boyle, Ghada, and Bellaryn – attended as an inseparable group, waving to visitors, admiring outfits, and sampling vendors’ food along the main path.

The feast itself was mostly freshly-butchered huskin, large locally-grown fruit, and smaller exotic berries, nuts, and raw vegetables. The elders’ table was favored with a platter of boundeer flank, a meat that was rare because the animal was so damn difficult to catch. There were open seating areas around the central court, but the Denorians and their families generally didn’t use them… everybody spent the meal upright, circulating and socializing.

Ghada was invariably complimented by every passing acquaintance, and a few of them noticed Stray and Boyle’s accoutrements, as well… not as accomplished as Ghada’s (or especially Kosef’s, which was rightly famous within the community) but it was enough to keep Stray and Boyle’s egos afloat. Edzie and Bellaryn watched this repeated ritual – some stranger noticing Ghada’s fierce hair and impeccable outfit, Ghada trying to accept the compliment gracefully, but still proudly recounting his routine to anyone who would listen – and found it all very silly and annoyingly charming.

After the feast, there were combat demonstrations and trials until sundown. The first several hours of these pitted Concordance warriors of the various tribes against one another, purely for the sake of sport. This spectacle was limited to proven adults, well beyond the age of initiation, some of them as old as fifty or sixty, paired off as comrades, rivals, and representatives of their tribes. The combat was carried out with fully-forged katsuns, in a broad, accessible stadium. The competitors were required to strike with the wooden edge, and if a serious mistake was made – a bleeding wound, the loss of a digit – there were elders and healers standing by.

These exhibition matches could be won by connecting three direct hits, or by disarming the opponent. The younger Denorians watched with excitement, knowing they would grow to be the ones participating in these matches… indeed, the loudest cheers came from the adolescents, who watched with enthusiasm as their parents were tested. It didn’t grow quiet until the second half of the matches, which constituted a more serious ritual: combat over grudges, a rite that the Concordance tribes referred to as a Reckoning.

There was an enviable solidarity in the tribes of the Pastures, both within the Denorian tribe and across the whole of the Concordance. However, there were still hostilities from time to time, mostly over unequal sharing of resources, or warriors’ children being favored by the Mistras or the elders, or some long-forgotten jealousy that had soured relations between families. Most of these conflicts were resolved at the Feast of Release, when a discourse and gift-giving ritual helped melt frozen-over relationships.

Some rivalries resisted even this annual show of good-will, and these strained situations needed to be vented through a more violent means. Thus, the Reckonings: a series of single-combat encounters designed to resolve the standing hostilities within the Denorian tribe and its closest allies. These matches would take several hours, and were presided over by the elders… in particular, the elders of Harmony, Severity, and Favor. The victory condition was the drawing of blood, so the stakes were markedly higher, though the combatants were required to control themselves and avoid causing permanent injury to one another. In Elkansa’s life, there had only been two fatalities in Reckonings, and both were followed by severe punishment for the perpetrators.

The children watched the Reckonings with intense interest, but they only knew a few of the participants, and even these were mere acquaintances of the families. The Reckonings were followed by a collective breath of relief, tension dispersing into the evening air, and then the tribe and all its guests circulated methodically through the streets of the settlement, making their way to the various feasting facilities that had been established among the residences. The most decadent proceedings occurred at the central court, and this is where Edzie, Stray, and Boyle joined Bellaryn and Ghada to support Treya’s acceptance of her distinction.

After a great many huskin calves had been eaten, and a great deal of milk and liquor had been consumed, the eight elders rose silently from their seats. Within seconds, the whole court fell absolutely silent, and all eyes turned toward the elders, anticipating the ritual. Elder Amiaverta, the elder of Reckoning, began the chant, starting on a middle tone. Following her, each of the other seven elders joined in the resonant song: Lillina the elder of Tales, Keldra the elder of Accord, Hylidae the elder of Harmony, Warryn the elder of Severity, Idilya the elder of Plenty, Yogo the elder of Favor, and Pattrice the elder of Stewardship. They let their chant linger in the air for several breaths, and when they finally allowed it to fade, several hundred of the surrounding Concordance tribespeople had joined in.

Elder Idilya followed up with a blessing in Old Concordance, wishing the tribe a strong memory, a plentiful year, and a perpetual peace. She made a special mention of the Mistras, the four Monks of the Caesura who had taken up the burden of joining the tribes and educating their children. She honored the three champions of the combat exhibitions from that day, and thanked the hunters and herders for the day’s feasts. Finally, she noted the succession ritual that was to take place, and then gave the floor to Elder Keldra to complete it.

Ambassador Treya was brought to the front of the silent audience, followed by Kosef, Bellaryn, and Ghada. She was asked to pledge her life and experience to the Denorian tribe, to accept the mark of succession, and to serve as a guide to her fellow plainsdwellers until her death. Kosef, Bellaryn, and Ghada were each asked, in turn, whether they would surrender their matriarch to the service of the tribe when the time came. They all answered, proudly, solemnly, in the affirmative.

At last, in the final minutes of the day, the ritual reached its climax. Elder Keldra drew the third elder katsun, the weapon committed to her care. Elder Keldra and Ambassador Treya, her chosen successor, each revealed their tribal scars… Keldra’s was on her left side, right at the front of the ribcage, just below the solar plexus; Treya’s was on her back, just under her shoulder blade. Treya dutifully removed her tunic to display the scar, and then, leaving it hanging by her side, she presented her naked upper body to Keldra. Bracing herself with her left hand, Keldra sliced with the katsun in her right, reproducing her own scar on her successor’s body.

Treya didn’t move or flinch, and when the first few drops of blood fell, Keldra raised the katsun above her head. A great cheer arose from the central court, breaking the solemn silence. The noise continued, unabated, until all the food was devoured and swept off the tables, and the liquor was vanquished, and the Denorians had danced by the light of fire and thresh lamps, and the first traces of sun spilled out of the mountains in the east.