Rat King

Bound and Determined

Dem patted the horses shoulder, using him as a windbreak while staring out into the darkness. They had stopped a few miles away from the tribal gathering. Telomere went ahead to talk with the Swiftwind Clan. He was tempted to climb into the saddle, but his confidence was low since hed never ridden; besides, the horse was still nursing an injury.

Half an hour passed with the street rat doing nothing more than stargazing. Was this the same night sky he saw in Thaigmaal? Then, just when he started to feel tired, he spotted torches moving toward him.

He thought that Telomere might bring Ai back, but he knew there were many more from a distance. Even without torches, he could easily pick out Telomere. And, although hed never seen her face, he felt drawn to the woman walking near the edge of the group.

When they were within five meters, Dem stepped away from the horse so that they could see him clearly. The woman from the edge continued forward, along with an older woman with short white hair.

Unexpectedly, the older woman bowed deeply. ”Please forgive this one. In the absence of our Shaman, it was I that pronounced you dead. We would never have left you had I believed otherwise. ”

Dem approached her until he was within arms reach. ”There is nothing to forgive. I would have died in the streets of Thaigmaal without the help of your clan. ” He touched her shoulder gently and pulled her upright.

He was going to speak further but was caught up in a tight hug that threatened to squeeze the wind from him. The woman from the edge of the group hugged him for several seconds before loosening her grip.

She stroked his hair with familiarity, smiling like they were close friends. ”Demitri! I… ” Instead of speaking, she pulled him close again and repeated her initial greeting.

Dem noted that she was quite a bit taller than him and that her hair smelled like the pine needles near his thumal. He had never hugged anyone before, but he understood.

To him, she was a stranger, but the reverse wasn true. She had taken care of him every day for two months. With this in mind, he hugged her back, squeezing lightly. ”Thank you for taking care of me. ”

In what seemed like a formal event, Ai personally introduced him to the other group members. Then, finally, the group started the journey back. They had many questions, and Dem did his best to answer them.

Ai held a blanket around his shoulders, walking close to him and occasionally answering questions. The group paused at the edge of the camp, and Telo stepped away from the others.

Telo shook his hand and bowed toward the clan elders. ”I will take my leave here. I hope to see you at the gathering. ”

Dem knew what the gathering was since Telo had spent nearly an entire day talking about it. ”Ill see you there. ” Dem returned the tribals smile. ”You can introduce me to your sister. ”

Telos white teeth flashed in the torchlight. ”You may regret saying that. ”

Ai pulled gently. ”You will see him soon, Dasai. ”

Dem nodded and let himself be escorted into the Swiftwind camp. He recognized the word. Telo used it often when talking about his sister. It meant sibling, more specifically younger sibling; the older would be called dosu.

Ai turned her head toward him suddenly. ”You don have to use the name I gave you, Dasai. What were you called before. ”

Dem shrugged slightly. ”I didn have a name, at least not that I can remember. I was called Rat by my friends. ” Friends… the word tasted bitter in his mouth.

Ai frowned slightly. ”Up to you, Dasai. ”

”Ill just stick with Dem and thank you for the name. ”

The group stopped outside of a large circular lodge. The two older women motioned Dem inside. Warmth rushed into him when he stepped inside. Even though he was born a street rat, the faint scent of woodsmoke and cooking meat felt comfortable. He turned to ask Ai a question, but unexpectedly she wasn there.

A woman that hadn been part of the group stood in the doorway. Her head was shaved bald and painted white with red symbols. She wore a thick fur robe that draped from her shoulders. Her age could have been anywhere between twenty-five and fifty. ”I am the tribal Shaman; this means I am nameless. I will answer the rest of your questions. ”

Dem studied her for a moment; instead of standing in one place, she dropped the robe onto the furred rugs and moved toward a small cookfire. Beneath it, she wore scant clothing, barely enough to cover her small breasts and womanhood. Unexpectedly, the paint from her head adorned her entire body. ”The fur patch on my forearm is gone. Ive tried everything to remove it. How was it done? ”

”The tattoos you wear block your beastkin bloodline. ”

”How is that possible?

”Hmm… I will tell you everything, ” the Shaman paused for a moment. ”Letting you ask questions will take too long; you don know what to ask. ”

Dem nodded in agreement, noticing that her eyes were bright blue, unlike the other tribals he had met.

”The tattoos on your chest and arms neutralize your beastkin marking because it is made from the blood of other beastkin; myself, the elders, and your family members. ”

”I don have any family members. ”

”You do now. Ai used her own blood to draw your tattoos. Its old magic, passed down from the days of the Beast Empire. ”

”Wait… Are the tribals beastkin? All of them? ”

The Shaman nodded. ”You are surprised. ”

Dem frowned at her words; surprised wasn the word he would use. Living on the street taught him many things about human nature. One of the crucial lessons was that secrets could never be kept. The more people that know, the quicker it will be discovered. ”Tribals walk freely throughout Haraal. If the hunters thought they were cast-offs, all of you would be killed. ”

”Yet, here we are. ” The Shaman moved toward a small stand near the fire and removed a wickedly curved dagger. ”The blood ceremony you are about to undergo prevents that from happening. It would be akin to you being able to stand calmly inside of a roaring bonfire. Even if tortured, the words would not come out. ”

Dem put a hand out to stop her approach. ”Whats the knife for? ”

”I need a little bit of your blood. ”

Dem frowned at the woman. ”And if I refuse? ”

”Then I take all of it and get a full night of sleep. ”

Without thinking, his black blade appeared in his hand. ”So I have no choice? ”

The Shaman smiled at him. ”There are always choices. ”

*****************

The sound of fighting caused Ai to jump suddenly. She took a step toward the lodge only to have an elder block the way.

”You know better, Ai. ”

”Elder Nelisse, he does not know our ways. ” Ai kept her tone and expression polite; the sound of blade striking blade could be heard clearly. ”I should have taken his dagger. ”

”Relax, Ai. It will be fine. ” The elder sounded confident, but that dimmed as the sounds of fighting intensified.

Finally, after nearly two minutes, the Shamans voice called them in.

The scene they walked into stopped both females in their tracks. The Shaman sat across from Dem, gently letting some of his blood flow into the bowl that she held. Shallow wounds marred the white paint that covered her body in a half dozen places.

”You
e very stubborn, street rat. ” She smiled when she said it and sat the bowl to one side before pulling out a small pouch.

”I know. Its a bad trait. ” Dem watched her take out a curved needle and carefully thread it.

”Youll fit in nicely with the other men in the clan. ” The Shaman carefully stitched up the small cut that she placed at the edge of his palm. ”Can you do stitching? ”

Dem nodded. ”Sewed myself up a few times. ”

”More than a few times, I bet. ” The Shaman glanced at the entrance where the two women seemed frozen in place. ”Have a seat; well get started after we
e done here. ”

As promised, Dem stitched a small cut on the Shamans shoulder. Then, after watching him work, she motioned for him to continue.

”You can be as young as you look, street rat. ”

”Maybe. How old do I look? ”

”Twelve at the most. ”

Dem grinned widely. ”Im not entirely sure. My best guess is sixteen. ”

”Sixteen? ” The Shamans tone cleared doubted the words.

”Sorry for fighting. ”

”No, you aren . ”

Dem pursed his lips when he tied off the last stitch. ”Maybe a little. You
e very nice. ”

”Keep that in mind when I tie you up. ”

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