His hands were covered in blood when I first saw him. He shuddered, for he thought no one was watching. But I was.
It is—was—customary in my tribe to marry very young. The jungles of Bala Ged are feral and unforgiving, and the phrase “life is short” takes on a sharp new meaning there. Life and Death are close, intertwined. Light and dark play together to make the most beautiful patterns on the jungle floor. Restoration and consumption are happening all around you, every moment of every day. My tribe took their lessons from the jungle wilderness. Childhood and adulthood are arbitrary labels, inflated beyond all bounds of practical importance, luxuries of city-dwellers who do not face down Death on each and every afternoon search for water.
I tell you this because I know your social mores will dictate that you recoil at certain details of my story. You equate age with maturity, you mete out the “appropriate” methods through which individuals may express their biological impulses and your society dictates when one may do so with a blessing and when it is damned. This is because your tribe has the luxury of a prolonged adolescence. This is because your tribe is made up of judges and arbiters and blabbering hatchlings that maintain their uselessness far past the age of potency. My tribe is—was—made up of refugees, and our children were born old souls and taught to live rather than wait for life. You may think us uncivilized, even barbaric, but we were never useless.
We lived on the shores of waterways. My mother would tell me frightening stories of Surrakar to keep me in my bed, and my father would wake before dawn to cut vines for utilitarian purposes, like fishing—before the baloth and such were likely awake. Our tribe was not very old. The village Elders said we were a mixed lineage, with human outcasts from Affa and Kor outcasts from everywhere seeding our blood.
My days would go somewhat like this: wake at first light, help my mother prepare the first meal (often dried fruit and boiled snake egg), then domestic chores such as mending my father’s and brothers’ clothes, then preparing second meal (fish and seedcakes), then lessons with the village matron (these ranged from how to braid a man’s hair to mathematics for efficient trade with outsiders). Third meal was always prepared by the males of the tribe in a huge bonfire in the middle of the village. Roasted giant scorpion was my favorite. My brother Aklua’s favorite was baloth trotters. The women would sing at the bonfires, and my mother’s voice always rang out distinctly. She had a strong voice, deep like the sea and powerful as the Roil wind.
In your years I would be…thirteen. I sat before the bonfire with the flames warming my cheeks and turning my skin pink. The shadows danced across my skin. I was very aware that night because I had just completed an important ritual, and was wearing only clumps of marsh leaves. The boys across from me were staring, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I was to remain silent for the rest of the night, and let the seed sway my mind. The sacred seed had tasted like dung, but made my head buzz like it was full of lightning flies. The marsh plants hung wetly on the vulnerable places of my body. Ritual dress was, as you would say, indecent. I could feel the hot air of the fire creep up my thighs and across my breasts.
There was a boy across the fire and his eyes were green. He was staring more than the others. His name was Rikuhle, and I thought him beautiful. My mother was singing. I remember smiling at Rikuhle, despite it being forbidden during ritual. He smiled back.
He was still smiling as a shadow engulfed his body and the blood erupted from his neck. His eyes rolled back in his head and he finally screamed—but it was cut off, far too short. Not comprehending, I looked past what-was-once-Rikuhle to the horizon. More shadows descended from the west like a wave, rolling through the village. I heard my mother’s song end abruptly, and in an instant, all there was was terror.
I jumped to my feet, keeping low, as my mind registered we were under attack. A wet hiss sounded from close by on my right, but I dropped and rolled. The danger found another mark (I could tell by the brief outcry and the gasp and ripping that followed) and I fled in the direction of our hut. The metallic smell of blood was all around, and familiar voices pleaded for mercy or help but were answered with the crunching of bone and terrible sucking sounds.
Stumbling, I flung myself through the door of my family’s hut and stopped, holding perfectly still. I thought I heard breathing, but my heart pounded so loud in my ears that I wasn’t sure of anything except my own terror.
“Lisra?” came Aklua’s voice. I almost retched with relief.
“Aklua. Mother...where’s Father?” I remember hating how my voice was thin and weak and trembled in that moment.
“Sssh,” he said. Footsteps were outside the wall of the hut. Far away, I heard an infant’s cry suddenly silenced. I pressed my hands over my mouth and swore I would take my own life if I began to weep. Aklua moved gracefully to my left. He had the stealthiest step, the most dexterous hands in our village.
Something tore the reed door from our hut and flung it aside. I felt rage, remembering that my father had woven an intricate pattern into it to please my mother, had replaced our old door with it as a gift to her for Year’s End celebration. My mother had cried when she saw it. It was the Long Embrace weave. She whipped my foot once when I kicked that door in a tantrum. I never did it again.
Aklua had our father’s spare spear in hand, the one with a very large barbed head for hunting water-dwelling reptiles. Aklua sidestepped and held very still near the wall. The strangest thing was that he winked at me. I had always had good sight in the dark, I know he knew I could see it.
Then he turned and as the intruder stepped over the threshold, Aklua hurled the spear at its chest. The intruder was very quick and partially caught the spear, slowing its impact, but it still embedded in its body with a thunk. I heard an awful rasping indignant screech, and for a moment, hoped…but then a sodden wrenching was followed by a thud as the spear fell to the floor.
The intruder held Aklua up in the air by his throat. Aklua grasped at its fingers, gasped, and tried to kick its face. I huddled in the shadows, trying not to scream. The fingers around Aklua’s neck tightened. I saw how the ghastly white forearm was riddled with rich, dark veins. The next thing I remember is Aklua’s head lying to one side, his legs dangling. The killer bared its teeth and lunged forward. I saw its white profile, and its glittering fangs, and thought them beautiful in a wild way. Then I threw up into my hands and all was black for a moment.
Distant, distant screaming carried through the window of our hut. A soft step approached. I wondered, as my head was bowed to the floor and I smelled the dirt of my home mixed with acrid saliva, if the killer had known where we were hiding all along. The shadows didn’t seem to impede the intruder’s sight at all—he was moving directly towards me. I tried to force a calm into my mind. My father had always told me that was what he did before hunting, and it made all the difference between success and failure, between the family starving and surviving.
“Don’t bother.” The words manifested so close to me in the dark that I bit my tongue and drew blood. I was shocked to hear it was a female voice, raspy and wet, but definitely feminine. I realized with shame that I had clenched up my hand and was holding my breath. My intentions were obvious to my assailant. “You’re a pretty thing, well,” she said.
A rustling of footsteps came to the threshold. I kept my palms pressed to the dirt and my eyes down. The intruders all had the same strange accent, but spoke our dialect. Their voices were like the wings of dark birds aloft at night; black on black.
“She’s mine,” said Aklua’s killer.
“Pretty, of course you would,” said another, a male.
“Not much meat on’er. Yes, pretty, though,” said a third, male.
“Bostik-Alur wrapped in tea leaves? What next, is someone going for the pepar?” this voice was thin but sure of itself. I felt drops of sweat form in my braided hair and run down from under the coils at my crown across my temples and to the earth beneath me. I felt my body shudder and pass water.
“Look. She’s marinating herself,” said the leader, with a high laugh. The others cackled as well. But not the female, I noticed. I squeezed my eyes shut. I prayed that one of them would kill me soon. Instead, a sinewy hand jerked me upright.
“Pretty,” smiled the leader. He had red stained lips and large black eyes. He smelled of iron and I turned my face away involuntarily. With a growl, he ripped my ritual garments from my body. I tried to hold still but shivered as all of their eyes inspected me from bottom to top. He put his long-fingered hand with its blackened clawlike nails deep into my braids and tore them loose.
My hair fell out onto my shoulders. This was something that in my tribe happened only between Partners. I had once thought a green-eyed boy would take my hair down for me. It seemed a long, long time ago.
The leader pressed his aquiline nose and searching mouth against my jaw and moved his lips down under my ear and to my neck. He inhaled deeply. His other hand was very cold and grasped the flesh between my shoulder blades.
“Norwion. Said she’s mine,” the female said. The leader stopped, then shoved me down onto the floor. Turning towards the female, he snarled.
“You try my patience, Ghet whore,” he said. He licked his lips. I curled up and tried to be small. The female looked down at me. I remember only very large, violet eyes meeting mine before I ducked my head and covered myself with my arms and crossed my legs.
“Try me outside then, Norwion,” the female rasped. “Our law says we can claim what we slay. I took the life of her male guardian, that means she is mine by right,” she turned and spat blood on the floor. “But you know this, O leader. We tire of your sick ways and newly invented feudal loyalty we s’posedly owe you.”
I heard the group whisper behind the female. I felt a deep longing to know her name. The leader hissed and then uttered a cry, and the fight was taken outside.
The desecrated remains of our home surrounded me, naked. I was left alone, but had nowhere to go.