Tibor bent low in the tall grass. A deep, water-filled impression in the mud lay before him. He pressed his fingers into the divot, gently feeling its walls. Cupping his hands, he began to scoop the water out. Slowly, the shape revealed itself. Two wide crescent shapes, longer than Tibor’s hand.
“Sibu,” Tibor breathed, hardly loud enough to hear over the wind in the grass.
He gently scooped water from two small marks at the heel of the hoof print. Spur marks. A male. By the distance between the toes, Tibor could tell this was a mature male as well. He sat back on his haunches and darted his eyes around him, just over the tips of the waving grass.
There would be few animals more dangerous on the savanna this time of year. A tree lion wouldn’t dare face a rutting sibu stag. And there would be no glory better for a young hunter to take one down.
The brand on the back of Tibor’s neck itched, nagging him. Reminding him it was there. The mark of a man almost healed.
Tibor cast his eyes over his shoulder. His father and the others were still searching for a trail to follow. The tops of their bald heads bobbed as they scanned the ground, clicking and whistling signals to each other. The glory is mine. He scooped up his bow and his three arrows with sponge bark protecting their razor-sharp tips. Tibor kept low, under the sea of beige, and followed the prints.
The distance between them was great, but they were not the marks of a running animal. The sibu stag took long strides on powerful, stilt-like legs. Tibor came to a pile of skat. The stack of tight pellets reeked of the beast’s musk. The stench of the rut acted as an attractant for females and a deterrent for predators. But not this predator.
Lifting his eyes above the grass again, Tibor looked ahead. A stand of acacia trees lay ahead. The stag must have bedded down in the heat of the day. Tibor lifted an eyebrow. There were no other animals around. No distant herds of Ta’ak, no leaping gazelles playing in the sun, only the humming of flies and singing birds. Tibor continued to the trees.
Carefully avoiding the flesh-ripping spines, Tibor snaked through the thicket. A clearing lay ahead, and the stag’s musk hung thick in the branches. He reached the edge of the clearing and on the other side lay a mountain of brown and black fur. It rose and fell with each breath that sounded like the wind. Dozens of birds bounced around and over the beast picking insects from its fur.
Tibor stood to see over the grass. The stag’s massive head rested on the ground with two giant ears twitching flies away and listening in every direction. Even when it slept, the sibu was listening. Antlers like oak branches sprouted from the stag’s head and extended wider than Tibor could spread his arms. Eight points swept forward on each branch and Tibor wondered if they were sharper than acacia thorns.
Defeating this beast would be a challenge. Perhaps I could ask her for help, Tibor thought. He quickly shook his head ashamed to be thinking of her. To speak her name is blasphemy, so thinking of her must be wrong as well. I should have never called upon her before. Never again.
The stag jerked its head up, the birds fluttered in panic, and Tibor froze. Its nostrils flared, sucking in violently. Tibor’s stomach flopped inside his belly. Am I upwind?
He focussed on his sweat speckled skin. Cool air wafted from the south. The stag lay to the east. It could not smell him with this wind. Tibor relaxed but remained still. The stag swiveled its giant antlers, still searching. A neck thicker than Tibor’s torso lifted those antlers with ease. A weapon is only as mighty as the arm that wields it.
Seemingly satisfied, the stag lowered its head back to his patch of shaded earth. The birds settled on its back and continued their pecking massage.
Sinking once again into the grass’s concealment, Tibor selected an arrow and removed the sponge bark, exposing the glinting arrowhead and the venom of the padu toad that coated its edges. He closed his eyes and silently asked for his ancestor’s blessing. Let my arrow fly straight and sink deep.
He rose to his feet slowly, knocking the arrow and resting the long shaft on the thumb of his bow hand. Flexing his back, Tibor drew the bow as dragonflies danced in his belly. He pressed his cheek to the string hand, looking down the arrow with one eye clenched closed.
Before he could second guess himself, Tibor released, sending the arrow flying with a twang. It thwacked the stag’s side and penetrated between its ribs. The beast huffed and jumped to its feet. Tibor froze again, keeping as still as he could, but the stag’s eyes locked onto him. For a brief moment, rage burned in those big black eyes. Then the stag lowered its head, aiming a rack of murderous spikes at Tibor.
A chill rolled down the young hunter’s spine and a lump grew in his throat. He will kill me before the poison will kill him.
Tibor fumbled with another arrow. The stag bobbed its head twice and charged, huffing loud breaths from cavernous nostrils. The arrow slipped from Tibor’s tingling fingers and fell to the ground at his feet. There was no time to knock another.
He screamed and threw his arms out to either side as if to embrace the beast that would grind him into the dust. I must call upon her. He clenched both eyes shut, tears streaming from them and he shouted the prayer he promised to never utter again.
“Ka’ye, take into your hands my spirit!”
The brand on Tibor’s neck burned as if the hot iron still lived in his flesh. Acrid smoke filled his lungs and trailed from his nostrils in dark whisps. The world darkened all around him, and yet the stag charged, undeterred.
I will die with her forbidden name on my lips, unclean, and I shall be damned.
The sibu stag snorted and drove its sharp antlers into Tibor. The young hunter cried out in agony as each point penetrated his flesh. Pain like lightning branched through his body, but the stag passed right through him as if he was not standing there at all.
Tibor patted himself as the pain subsided. No blood. No broken bones. A moment later, the agony he had felt was a distant memory. A shadow of what could have been. He turned around and found the stag lying in the thicket behind him.
It kicked and twitched. The stag’s black eyes found Tibor again, but this time, there was terror in them. Frothy blood welled up in dozens of puncture wounds as if it had been impaled on invisible antlers. It gave several wheezing whimpers and lay its head down in the thorny underbrush.
The other hunters came crashing through the bushes to the west and ran to Tibor with his father at the front. The stag gave a burdened choking noise and one of the hunters carefully moved to its neck with a knife in hand to end its suffering.
“What have you done, my son?”
Tibor said nothing. He could only shake his head as his fingers traced the brand on his neck.
“He called upon her, Omar,” Ekan spat. “It was forgiven before when it should not have been. We cannot abide such heresy.”
“What will you do?” Omar spun to meet Ekan’s eyes. “He is my son.”
“I will bring him before the elders and his brand will be cut from his flesh. We must cast him out.”
“This means death,” Omar said. “I cannot allow this.”
Omar’s eyes narrowed to threatening slits and his fingers wrapped tightly around the haft of his axe.
“The boy was foolish to face a sibu stag alone,” Ekan said. “The beast should have killed him anyway.”
“I will not let you take him-,” Omar fell to his knees with a long straight stick protruding from his ribs.
An arrow. Tibor’s soul had been rent in two. His throat closed, threatening to deny him breath.
The hunter who had loosed the arrow emerged from the undergrowth and spat into the dust beside Omar.
“Father of a heretic.”
Then the hunters’ attention turned to Tibor. They spread out, weapons in hand, and at the ready. Ekan scooped up Omar’s axe. They slowly circled Tibor. Tibor searched for his bow and arrows, but they had been trampled by the stag. Shattered to pieces.
The brand burned on the back of Tibor’s neck. The mark of a man, but what kind of man? The kind who would submit to punishment? The kind who would die at the hands of those who wished to bind him? The kind of man who would allow his mark to be removed under the knife? The kind who would avenge his father.
His lungs filling with acrid smoke. Two dark whisps escaped Tibor’s nostrils, waving in front of his face. The hunters lurched back. Tibor fixed his concentration on the youngest of the three. The hunter’s eyes waxed milky white like the full moon and his mouth fell open, jaw hanging slack.
Tibor thought about that hunter driving his spear into the other and it happened. The younger hunter’s spear entered his companion’s body just under his arm and punched through to the other side. He could not scream. Both lungs and his heart had been penetrated. He could only stand there for a moment, coughing blood down his front before his legs gave out and he collapsed.
When the hunter died on the clearing floor, the young hunter who had stabbed him snapped out of his trance. He screamed when he saw what he had done. He jerked on his spear but he could not remove it from his dead friend. Still, he kept trying.
“I cannot let go,” he shrieked, tugging on the weapon.
Ekan waved Omar’s axe at Tibor.
“Release him or I’ll-”
“You’ll kill my father?” Tibor’s voice was a harsh whisper that seemed to fill the entire clearing. “You’ll cut my brand from my flesh and banish me to die in the wilderness?”
Ekan charged wildly with a roar. He hefted the axe high and brought it down to hack into Tibor’s shoulder. Tibor calmly lifted his hand as if to catch the blade. The axe froze there, suspended the breadth of a single blade of grass from Tibor’s palm. Then, the haft blew apart like a bundle of straw in a violent gale. The axe head spun away into the long grass.
Tibor took a step toward Ekan, pressing his other hand against Ekan’s ribs. In an instant, Ekan whipped away, flying through the air. He crashed through the canopy of an acacia tree. He would have screamed in agony as the thorns shredded his skin, but his ribs were broken. He came to a painful stop, several spiny branches keeping him up off the ground. Ekan hung there gasping.
“Do not move, Ekan,” Tibor said. “The acacia will not continue to tear you apart if you hold still.”
Tibor turned his attention to the hunter who desperately pulled on the spear. He could not free his hands from it, and the spear could not be pulled from the dead hunter. He was trapped and his sobs let Tibor know that he knew it.
Tibor raised his hand and the hunter screeched and shied away from it. Smoke streaming from his nostrils, Tibor stepped to the hunter, giving him nowhere else to escape to. He pressed his palm to the hunter’s forehead slick with sweat. He closed his eyes and envisioned the hunter. He focussed on the hunter’s head and delved deeper. The hunter’s brain floated in front of Tibor’s mind’s eye. Soft. Vulnerable. Then Tibor envisioned rats. Clawing, biting, gnawing rats.
Screams poured from the hunter’s consciousness.
Tibor opened his eyes and the hunter fell to the ground, blood streaming from his eyes and nostrils. His hands finally released the spear shaft.
He cleared the smoke from his lings with a deep exhale and ran to his father. He fell to his knees and cradled Omar’s head in his hands. Foam welled up in Omar’s mouth and his eyes were bloodshot. The poison had taken hold but the pain on his father’s face was directed at Tibor.
And why wouldn’t my father be in agony? His only son is a heretic.
“I am sorry, father,” Tibor wept. “This is not your doing. Pass in peace.”
Omar coughed the foam from his mouth and he caressed the side of Tibor’s face.
“Go into the mountains,” Omar croaked. “Seek the disciples of Ka’ye.”
Disciples of Ka’ye. More like me?
Tibor nodded frantically as tears fell onto his father’s face. He pressed his father’s hand to his burning cheek and held it tightly until life had left him. Still, he stayed like that until long after Omar was gone. Then he reluctantly rose to his feet to burry him.
With Omar safely in the ground, Tibor picked up on of his broken arrows and carefully removed the sponge bark from its tip. He strode to Ekan who still hung in the tree. He stood below him for several long moments, watching the hunters agony.
“You have three options,” Tibor said finally.
Ekan said nothing. He just looked down from the branches like a swamp cat that had been driven up a tree by a pack of hyenas.
“You could pull yourself free of those branches, tumble through the rest of them on the way to the ground, and try to make it back to the village before you bleed to death. You could stay up there and pray someone finds you before a tree lion does.”
Tibor held the broken arrow up to Ekan. He locked eyes with the old hunter. He made sure Ekan could feel the pain he caused.
“Or you could share my father’s fate.”
The expression on Ekan’s face changed from hopeless desperation to realization. There was really only one option, and Ekan knew it. The old hunter pried one arm from the branch that had pricked it over and over, reached out with excruciating effort, and took the poisoned arrowhead.
Tibor did not wait to see what Ekan decided. He turned away and began his long journey into the mountains.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the story. I post short stories every Friday, so stop by next week for a fresh one. Feel free to explore the blog and read my other short stories if you haven’t already.
Also, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel and part one of The Forgotten Ways trilogy, Well of Bones by clicking here. Join the adventure soon because part two of The Forgotten Ways trilogy is on track for a November release. You won’t want to miss it.
Until next week,