Rat King

Desperate Times

Blood magic, Dem thought to himself while staring at the heavy canvas that served as the roof for the round, fur-lined tent. Although he was aware that the purpose of tribal tattoos was to hide the corruption, whenever he considered the matter too closely, it would slip from his thoughts.

”Did you sleep well? ” Ai watched him from her blankets. The center of the family tent contained a large, circular mattress where everyone slept. Stones warmed by the fire were placed in the middle while everyone slept with their feet pointing toward them.

Dem nodded and took a moment to run his fingers through his thick black hair. Surprisingly there was plenty of room; Ai slept on one side of him and her grandma on the other. Apparently, the sleeping custom was oldest to youngest, starting at the north and moving right. ”Is it time to get up? ”

Ais dark face showed a slight smile. ”Did you really fight with the Shaman? Im glad you weren injured. ”

The youth returned her smile, not bothering to mention that he was much better with knives than their Shaman was, although she had been pretty good. ”Sorry, dosu. ”

Ais smile widened considerably when he referred to her as dosu. She felt the eyes of both her mom and grandmother watching them. Perhaps their broken family would flourish once again. She straightened out her sleeping clothes before pulling a low-hanging curtain across one side of the tent. ”We draw this for privacy; change into your clothes, and well get ready to leave. ”

”Just watch how we do everything, ” the elder Swiftwind woman, aptly referred to as Gram, smiled with a complete set of bright teeth. Her white hair was thick and shiny, tanned skinned, lined with wrinkles that seemed utterly engrained with kindness.

The entire clan moved separately, yet their actions mirrored each other. A few cookfires were lit while the rest of the workforce split between packing the tents and tending the livestock. Within an hour, the entire tribe was on the move, eating their first meal of the day while they traveled.

Dem held tight to the pommel of his saddle while riding beside Ai and her friend Tamra whom she called Tam. Although the Swiftwind Clan had started by themselves, with two days left until the gathering, several other clans were visible.

”Can I call you dasai also? ” Tam wrinkled her nose at the newly adopted member of the Swiftwind clan. Her dark lips curved in a smile. ”I always wanted a little brother; mine are all old men! ”

Dem stared expressionlessly for a moment before shaking his head. ”Did you pick me off the street when I was nearly dead? Or nurse me back to health and sew me nice clothes for my thumal? ”

Ai laughed at her friends antics. Shed been teasing Dem for most of the morning, but unfortunately, her new brother seemed oblivious to Tams charm. ”Give it a rest, Tam. ”

The dark beauty laughed good-naturedly. ”Fine. Ai has herd duty tonight, so Ill take you hunting if you like. ”

Dem glanced sideways at Ai; her pretty face wore a frown. Apparently, herd duty wasn as fun as hunting. ”Telo was teaching me about archery… Im not very good yet. ”

”Telomere? ” Tam scoffed at the name. ”From my understanding, hes not even the best among his clan. ”

Dem didn comment; Telo was finishing his Massat and hadn named his clan. However, Ai mentioned that he was from the Redfox Clan. ”Then I look forward to your instruction. ”

Tam winked at the younger man. ”With my help, youll be an expert by the time your Massat starts. ”

Rather than engaging in further conversation, Dem listened and watched as the Swiftwind Clan marched steadily west. He was able to pick up quite a bit of general information regarding clan life. The Massat was taken at the age of seventeen. It was basically a year of wandering. Young tribal men would use the time to season themselves and travel the four kingdoms. Although the Massat was considered risky, nearly everyone returned unharmed. If you failed to return after twelve months, the clan shaman would get involved. It was said that they could find anyone who had undergone the blood rite.

”Release by opening your fingers, dasai. Pulling back while letting the arrow go will throw off your aim. ” Ai handed him another arrow while scanning for another target.

Dem nodded while notching another arrow. Doing it while on horseback was much more challenging than standing. ”I understand. ”

Ai pointed at a head-sized rock about twenty meters away. ”Try again. ” She noticed several things about her adopted brother. He paid close attention to details and was a fast learner. He replied honestly to just about any question he was asked and always seemed aware of everything around him.

Dem practiced until he started developing blisters on his fingertips, at which time Ai made him stop. The Swiftwind Clan followed their livestock, stopping at midday for a light meal before continuing.

The freshly grown grass was already knee-high. The steady westerly wind caused the vegetation to point toward their destination.

”Father used to say that even the grass knows where we must go. ” Ai noticed Dem watching the horizon. Although she knew his background from the visions he shared during the blood rite, he willingly filled in the gaps by answering questions.

Dem smiled at her words. Ai liked to talk about her father; it is evident that she missed him. ”Thats probably a good thing. It would be easy to get lost here. ” His sharp eyes turned suddenly, caused by an odd movement in the grass. Then, without thinking, he dived out of the saddle. An instant later, the enormous head of the serpent struck his horse.

Dem rolled to his feet, then immediately ducked under his horse when it was knocked to the ground. Crouching low with his blade pointed up; he stared at the predator as he withdrew from its initial strike.

”DEM! ” Tam shouted a warning and managed to bring up her bow despite her horse rearing back.

A loud hissing noise drowned out everything else; its forked tongue slithered out as if tasting the air. Most of its body was hidden by the grass, but the snakes head was wider than a mans body as it hovered threateningly a few meters off the ground. It had smooth sand-colored scales and black eyes that were dark as coal.

Dem hadn moved other than to glance at his companions. Both women had their bows out.

”No sudden movements, dasai. The hunters will be here soon. ” Ai had an arrow pulled back; the livestock had scattered when the snake revealed itself. The sounds of the alarm were already ringing.

It struck suddenly, extending toward Dem in a flash of brown. The street rat dodged to one side, his weapon stabbing deep into the fleshy meat near the hinge of the creatures jaw.

Time seemed to slow as Dems brown eyes brightened; he ignored the pain in his joints as the air around him thickened. Then, the snake struck again; this time, it was exceedingly snow.

Ducking under the head as it moved parallel to the ground, he stabbed deep into the soft scales under its mouth. He gripped the blade tightly as the predators movement caused the wound to turn into a deep, two-meter slice.

Withdrawing the blade, he stepped back and stabbed through the scales on its back. Two arrows hovered in the air, moving toward their target at speed comparable to someone walking. Hot red blood splashed into the air as the second stab turned into another deadly slice. Arrows sunk into the scaly head as it withdrew.

The flowing green grasslands had instantly turned red; the snake coiled back as if trying to retreat from the blood fountaining out of its body.

The sound of horses galloping toward the scene was barely noticeable as the three participants watched the death throes of the sand snake.

A lean man with dark braided hair and corded muscles that rippled under his bare torso was the first to arrive. ”Its dead? ” He motioned to his three companions as they advanced cautiously with their bladed spears held out.

Ai stared at Dem, covered from head to foot in blood; his eyes glowed preternaturally as he studied his surroundings. ”Dem killed it, Huntmaster. ”

The Huntmaster didn comment as his men stretched out the scaled predator. Fifteen meters in length and nearly a meter in diameter, it was the largest sand snake hed ever seen. ”Odd that it attacked like this. They usually bury themselves in the sand before the wet season and don come out again until the desert returns. ”

”Poisonous? ” Dems voice felt sharp like a knife causing everyone within earshot to stare.

Ai shook her head and walked toward him. ”No, dasai. It crushes its prey. ” She used sleeve to wipe some of the blood from his face.

”Well stop early today. Clean him up and bring him to the Shaman, Ai, ” the Huntmaster ordered.

By the time Dem was presented to Shaman, her tent had already been set up. It had taken some time to gather new clothes for the latest member of the Swiftwind Clan.

”Leave us, ” the Shaman dismissed Ai and Tam after they escorted him to her tent. She had a furred cape draped over her shoulders; her smooth brown skin was visible underneath. She clucked her tongue when she saw him. ”Fighting again? ”

”I didn mean to. ”

”Hmm… ” She let the cape slide off her shoulders, exposing the same outfit shed been wearing during the blood rite. ”Your blood is raging; anymore, and you might have changed. ”

Dem tried to answer but found himself unable to formulate the necessary words, even though he understood what he should say.

She lay a calming hand on his head. ”Your blood rite is preventing you from asking the questions you want to ask. ”

Dem nodded. ”What now? ”

”Ill give you another tattoo; this one will be my blood. ” She smiled at the young tribal. ”Don fight me on this. ”

”Your blood? Can I call you, dosu after this? ”

Her laughter filled the tent, throaty like someone who enjoyed humor. ”Ill permit it, but only when we are alone. Going to assign you to the Huntsman. ”

”Do these kinds of attacks happen often? ”

The Shaman shook her head. ”I would guess that your bloodline caused it. Sit on the cushion and duck your head slightly. ”

Dem did as asked, not daring to flinch when he felt cold steel against the back of his neck. ”Cutting my hair? ”

”Yes, this tattoo will be on the back of your neck, near your hairline. ”

”Am I causing too much trouble? ”

”Yes, ” the Shaman smiled when she said it. ”That creature attacked because your bloodline is too pure. Try to stay away from snakes if possible. ”

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