“…you animals ~~ …killed my mates ~~ …I will send you to hell myself…”
Rihas awakens abruptly inside his wikiup alone, entangled within a mass of twisted, sweat-soaked linens. Dreams sometimes exert their will upon his sleep forcing him to relive, with excruciating detail, the day his bond-mates were both killed many seasons ago.
Having been plagued by a sharpening sense of apprehension in the days preceding the tragedy, Rihas recalls the soothing comfort he received from his mates, Kyria and Sarai. Together, they endeavored to ease his inexplicable anxiety. His fondest memories of them are rooted in those few, fateful days and nights. Unfortunately, Rihas’ intuition proved to be prophetic. An aberrant collection of outcasts and criminals had moved into the area and set up a temporary camp undetected. This dangerous group, which was later dubbed a “demon tribe”, had skillfully avoided detection, observing their victims and waiting until scouts were out in the field before striking. The “demons” had one objective; take anything of value, including women, and murder anyone who resisted. Kyria and Sarai both died defending against the surprise attack.
Rihas flew into a delirious rage upon returning to find their broken bodies. Blinded by grief and passionately fueled by shock and fury, he immediately rallied every scout and able-bodied male to wage a vicious retaliation against the attackers. Rihas and his war party quickly located the “demon” camp and decimated it. Not a single “demon” remained alive. Rihas killed the offending tribe’s leader with his bare hands. But that alone was insufficient to quiet his rage. Covered in the man’s blood and bits of entrail, Rihas required subduing by his fellow scouts, who were fearful that he, too, would become a “demon”.
Numerous women rescued that day had all been forcibly taken from various tribes along the “demons” corrupted path. They spoke of abuse and mistreatment, having been regarded more as chattel than mates. A small number decided to remain and live with their rescuers while the majority returned home to their children and mates after regaining strength enough to travel. Word spread quickly among tribes regarding the criminal acts of the “demon tribe” and Rihas’ brutal delivery of justice. Rumors began to appear about a human-predator demigod protecting the Hinterlands. Members of his tribe joke about the legend but Rihas does not find it to be humorous in the least.
Rihas often reflects upon the attack, agonizing over small details and wondering whether he could have done anything to change the outcome. The simple truth is that the “demons” exploited numerous unwritten cultural etiquettes and customs to devise an easy attack strategy. Nomadic tribes scattered throughout the Hinterlands are semi-territorial and prefer isolation over collaboration. As a result, the region’s many migratory family groups rarely interact. Two groups meeting by chance normally communicate through “scouts”, a select elite few who are hand-picked to be trained as hunters, trackers, survivalists, navigators, diplomats, and warriors. More times than not, these interactions result in the incoming tribe continuing on to a different location. Occasionally, tribes will plan a conclave and meet for several days of feasting and revelry where goods and knowledge are exchanged and reproductive unions are brokered. Such interactions are seen as necessary to prevent genetic stagnation. Rihas was still a youth when he was given to this tribe during a feast as a future bonding mate for two young women around his age.
Twelve cycles have passed since the deaths of Kyria and Sarai. Rihas possesses many warm and fond memories of sharing the latter part of his adolescence together with them. They participated jointly in the Rite of Fertility, a ritual celebrated universally by the nomads as a commencement into adulthood and the bonding of mates to one another. The trio produced five children during their four years bonded together. Rihas has been presented with many mating prospects since that time but he has faithfully abstained while continuing to work out his profound grief.
Unable to sleep, Rihas walks silently on patrol around the encampment’s perimeter, catching numerous scouts asleep or unalerted to his presence. They will be reminded of the “demon tribe” attack and punished with harsh training over the coming days. His two sons from Sarai both greet him with the correct call as he approaches. They are each alerted to his presence and recognize him in the darkness without the benefit of sight. He has trained them well. They are already among the tribe’s most skilled scouts. Soon, both will become excellent husbands, fathers, and leaders. It is likely at least one of them will be given to mates in another tribe, just as his middle son, Kyria’s second child, had been been given during the last cycle.
After patrolling, Rihas selects a perch to view the morning sun rising. Before long, he senses a figure approaching. It is Imnah, his first daughter from Kyria and his oldest child, attempting to move stealthily toward him in the morning twilight and catch him unaware. Rihas smiles. Her movements are silent and imperceptible.
“Good morning, Imnah,” Rihas says flatly.
“…how…did…? UGH!!”, she stammers in frustration.
“Your movements are flawless, angel.” Rihas quips, “Now you must learn to heed the flow of prevailing winds.” He pauses to thoughtfully select his next words, “While it is not unpleasant, you do possess a distinctive scent.”
“It would be impossible, my dear father, seeing you chose a perch where one would require wings to approach you downwind.”
“Then it is your loss. But do keep trying!” Rihas chuckles
“I see now why no woman wants you. You are insufferable!” Imnah closes the distance between them from behind, slinking her arms around his middle. Or so Rihas believed. The limbs that embrace him are too small to belong to Imnah.
Japhia’s chipper voice greets him, “But WE will always love you, papa!”
“Wha!??”, Rihas twists in surprise to find his youngest, a child of twelve years also born from Kyria, embracing him.
“I guess it’s your loss, then, Pappa!” she says with a mischievous grin, “Did you hear that Immy? Papa says you stink!”
Imnah is laughing too hard to respond to the jab, “Hahaha! That face! If I could only preserve that precious expression in my mind forever… Hahahaha!”
Rihas looks with genuine confusion between his daughters scanning the area from where they had come then crouches onto one knee to meet Japhia’s height, “Carried you on her back, did she?”
“Tch!” Imnah clicks her tongue, silently cursing her father’s insight.
“Don’t pout, daughter,” Your physical strength, sharp wit, and quick thinking will serve you well.”
“Praise me too, papa!”, Japhia frowns, her bottom lip swelling out.
“Of course, my love. You were very clever!” Rihas gestures toward Imnah, grinning, “And YOU don’t stink!”
Imnah stands akimbo, setting her jaw while wearing an expression signaling her intent to exact some manner of good-natured revenge. Rihas’ smile withers as he observes his eldest child. Over the progression of cycles, Imnah has grown to closely resemble her mother. Now that she is physically a woman, the likeness is uncanny. To further compound the issue, Imnah’s scent is nearly identical to Kyria’s. Rihas finds himself unable to completely contain emotions evoked from the uninvited nostalgia. A hint of tears swells in his eyes as he works to dispel the illusion.
“Papa?” Japhia’s worried query pulls him out of the trance.
Rihas wipes away moisture from his cheek with the back of his hand, “I see much of your mother in you, Imnah. Forgive me.”
Their familial embrace is interrupted by a scout running toward them at a full sprint. By his stride and cadence, Rihas estimates it to be Nadab, one of Rihas’ most promising scouts. He is the son of Jairus, a tanner, who was given to this tribe as a mate for Miriam, daughter of a well-respected scout. Nadab completed his Rite of Fertility last cycle without selecting a bond-mate. Many in the tribe, including Rihas, speculate that he is waiting to bond with Imnah during her upcoming ceremony.
“Nadab!” Imnah exclaims breathlessly before seeing him.
The young man races up the same path used earlier by Imnah and Japhia, shouting.
Upon spotting Imnah, Nadab halts abruptly, poised frozen as though he were still running, “I …uh …Imnah, ah …good morning!” He stammers, first looking at Rihas, then avoiding his gaze. A sense of guilt and embarrassment radiates from the young man.
Rihas studies Nadab, then Imnah. She has backed away from Rihas and is attempting to act composed despite a similar sense of guilt flowing from her. The strong scent of her pheromones drifts thickly into his nostrils,
“I see…” Rihas reflects, ponderously.
“No, you don’t see!” Imnah’s shrill tone reveals her panic, “There is nothing here for you to see!”
Rihas notices her non-verbal prompting of Nadab to interject, but the young man is equally panicked. Mating before the ritual is not prohibited but it is frowned upon. Evidence presently on display suggests these two have already practiced mating, likely within the past few hours unless Rihas is mistaken. Nadab is an excellent scout with good character and an even temper. Rihas can think of no reason to prevent continued discreet relations between the pair.
Sparing them any further drama or embarrassment with Japhia present, Rihas refocuses Nadab, “You came here with a purpose, did you not? I am keenly interested in that purpose, Nadab.”
“Yes!”, he glances again at Imnah, conveying a wordless apology, then back to Rihas, “Oh, right! Women!”, Nadab shouts excitedly.
“Women?” Both Rihas and Imnah speak together, earning the daughter a stern glare from her father.
“Women from the Village of Sensitives! We found them wandering in the Hinterlands. They came seeking our help! One of theirs has become lost in the Graves. They want us to assist in the search!”, Nadab rapidly belches out a nearly incomprehensible scramble of words.
Rihas’ eyes widen. Their timing is far too precise to be a coincidence, “Where are they now?” His tone comes out more demanding than he had anticipated.
“I-in the commons with the women p-preparing b-breakfast,” Nadab answers tentatively, his hesitation being rooted more in anxiety over Rihas’ harsh tone than any uncertainty regarding their location.
Rihas pauses for a moment to think. Women from the Village of Sensitives are widely known for their refusal to reproduce and are reputed to have voracious appetites for fruitless copulation amongst themselves. A rumor regarding the sensitives has recently spread, suggesting they have directed their few remaining young people to find new homes among the nomadic tribes. Given their stagnant lifestyle, It comes as no surprise the population has dwindled to a point of the village dissolving. Still, Rihas cannot help but think they should still be somewhat sustainable given the numbers he witnessed three or four cycles past.
To make matters worse, many misconceptions have arisen regarding the sensitives’ keen emotional perception. They have led some nomads to regard them as witches or mind readers. Rihas’ mother was an empath. She taught him much about the trait before he was sent to live with this tribe. Although the talent seldom manifests in males, Rihas seems to have been an exception. Only Kyria, Sara, and his mother were ever made aware of Rihas’ underdeveloped talent. He has learned to hone his skill to sense strong emotions and mask his own from other empaths.
“Nadab, what is the status of the outsider?”, Rihas asks thoughtfully.
“Still drifting between awareness and stupor, last I heard. Why?”, Nadab asks inquisitively.
“Go with Imnah to the healers. Warn them about our new visitors. Nobody except me answers any question posed by those women. Instruct the healers to remain in their billet. You both will attend to the outsider until summoned. Are your instructions clear?”, Rihas commands, drilling a sense of urgency into them with his tone.
The pair nod meekly, clearly anxious and put on guard by Rihas’ sudden shift in temperament. They turn to leave but have not taken a single step before Rihas calls out to them again.
“NADAB!”, Rihas shouts, causing the young man to flinch. He turns in unison with Imnah.
“Nadab,” Rihas softens his tone, “Be weary of the outsider. I sense deep deception and secrecy from that one.” He gestures in the direction of the healers, “Be on your guard. You have no greater duty than to protect and cherish your mate. Do not fail in that duty as I have.”
“Y …yes, Rihas…”, Nadab manages to utter before being pulled away by Imnah. They rush away together and disappear over a rise, but not before Imnah directs several uneasy glances back toward her father.
“They’re mating, aren’t they?” Japhia says, innocently verbalizing her newfound realization, “I could feel them trying to hide it.”
Rihas raises an eyebrow, smiling. “Very likely, flower. Though it is not our concern. Shall we go greet our visitors?” Among the five children, none had yet shown signs of empathy. Perhaps Japhia has inherited the trait?
“Sure, I guess…”, Japhia says, deflated.
Rihas takes her tiny hand into his and begins to walk toward the commons, “So, I’d like to hear more about that feeling you described. Have you had many more like it…? “