Matters concerning leadership and authority within various nomadic tribes scattered throughout the Hinterlands can appear confusing and convoluted. In most circumstances, decisions governing each tribe are deliberated among elders from the tribe’s most respected and influential families. It is an organic process with no recorded laws. In simplest terms, governing just happens.
In Rihas’ case, many of the tribe’s residents look to him for answers or solutions to problems and often come to him for guidance and mentorship. In actuality, nearly every resident would invoke the name Rihas if asked about the tribe’s leader. He excels far past competence both as a scout and as the chief trainer for the tribe’s young scouts. He is irreplaceable in the eyes of many. News regarding his excursion into the Graves to search for Cedar has understandably been answered with concern, caution, and in some cases, contention. If not for the business of preparing the camp for travel, the topic would have likely presented itself as challenging.
The camp is a flurry of activity as residents work to transform their abode into a traveling caravan. Partially deconstructed wikiups litter the grounds as the tribe loads its gear onto makeshift wagons fashioned from old-world salvage. This location has been favorable and easily defended against predators. The tribe may very well return here one day. But transience is integral to the nomadic people’s culture, and many in the tribe are happy for the change. Rihas can be counted among those who would rather be on the move than sedentary.
He would be first among those preparing for the move if not for Tamah and Mehetabel’s dire warning coupled with his steadily growing sense of inexplicable anxiety. Whether it’s a result of prudence or paranoia, he has decided that the excursion will begin immediately, giving its members a few hours of daylight to progress into the Graves on foot.
Mehetabel had insisted, initially, that all five women traipse throughout the Graves looking for their lost rebel. Tamah and Mehetabel only marginally possess the physical conditioning required to traverse the rugged highlands. The remaining three elderly women are still recovering from fatigue following the comparatively simple stroll from their village to the tribe’s camp. Pointing to the likely outcome that they would become an easy meal for predators ends the conversation.
At mid-day, Rihas gathers the guests and his family, together with elders, for a blessing and the selection of an elder scout during his absence. Rihas installs Nadab into the role of eldest scout until his return and entrusts Japhia’s care to both him and Imnah. It is a bold maneuver on Rihas’s part. The charge implies, somewhat formally, that Nadab is considered family despite not yet having bonded with Imnah.
This day has proven to be unique, marked by exceptional occurrences. Nadab understands the significance of this and capitalizes upon the atmosphere. Acting on impulse and taking actions typically reserved for the Rite of Fertility, Nadab approaches Imnah and then prostrates himself silently before her as he would have done during the ceremony. Imnah is momentarily confused by the gesture. She stares blankly at her lover, who lies wordlessly prostrate before her.
It is an ancient custom as old as the nomads themselves. Young women celebrating the Rite of Fertility paint their bodies with colorful pigments and dress their hair with flowers and jewelry. They emerge together from a wikiup wearing delicate, ashen gowns made from flax and down. Men seeking to be bonded then prostrate themselves on the ground in front of their desired mate. Each woman affirms her selection from among those lying prone before her. Being selected is considered an honor. Rejection becomes a lasting stigma carried by the men who endure it.
All nearby activity has stopped, and the camp around them has hushed to a breathless silence. Awareness hits her hard all at once. She covers her mouth with her hands to hide the shock, then drops to her knees, gently lifting her newly bonded mate’s torso from the dirt. Weeping with joy, she holds his face, now streaked with dirt and tears, kisses and then hugs him desperately to affirm her selection. She looks into his eyes, sobbing. This was as much for Rihas’ sake as it was hers. They both understand that once he enters the Graves, Rihas may never again emerge.
Amid the celebration and cheering, Rihas finally embraces his youngest daughter while she bravely restrains her bursting emotions. Japhia’s sprouting empathic trait will require strict guidance and careful training. Rihas can think of no worse time for him to be away from her. And yet, his intuition suggests that finding this lost woman – or not – is pivotal to the survival of all the Hinterlands.
Mehetabel smiles a rare smile. The nomadic people live and feel with such expressive, colorful, and honest emotions. She will not soon forget this scene or the joyful tears she shed for Imnah. The girl is glowing with fulfillment, joy, and love for her mate. She senses Tamah beside her, similarly captured by the occasion. Tamah looks happily toward Mehatabel while sniffling and wiping tears from her cheek.
She then steps closer, “Did you sense it too?” Tamah asks giddily.
“I did,” she replies slyly as though she were a cat who had caught a bird. Her eyes move to follow Tamah’s gaze, which lands on Rihas embracing his youngest daughter. It lasted no longer than an eye blink, but it was there, as bright as anything she had ever sensed.
“So he is an empath, too?” Tamah swoons.
Mehetabel cocks her head and studies the nomad leader carefully until he makes and maintains eye contact with her. He possesses self-assured confidence but carries himself with humility. He is physically virile and wields a commanding presence. And yet he aspires to do little more than teach children to play with sticks. Most curious is his unexplained ability to effectively and completely conceal his emotions and his presumed empathic trait.
Conjuring a long-forgotten ability, Mehetabel smiles sweetly for Rihas. She must discover which techniques he possesses and to what extent he knows them. More importantly, she must learn whether his skill could be taught to others. She considers these things while actively convincing herself that any interest in him is limited simply to a desire to preserve the Hinterlands and protect these astounding people. Her fascination has no deeper meaning than that of finding and securing Cedar.
These things must be true. The alternative is something far too complex and problematic for her to ponder.
Rihas pauses briefly to capture a last glance at the camp his tribe has called home for three cycles past.
But he does not linger long as he takes point and then begins moving at a pace he would expect from his youngest scouts. Mehetabel is the first to complain. After a short time, he finds the stride best suited for Tamah and Mehetabel, balancing speed with the conservation of endurance for his two companions. They make adequate progress throughout the late afternoon until arriving upon the first of his planned objectives. It is where scouts claim to have found the Outsider combatting predators at the periphery of the Graves. Rihas assumed the account had been a wild exaggeration, at best, or a complete fabrication at worst. He sees now he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Remains belonging to perhaps a hundred large insects, including that of a giant predator with similar shape and anatomy, lay broken and in various stages of dismemberment, strewn across a swath of grassy terrain. A dread silence blankets the scene, causing Rihas to cringe. His companions are far worse off than he. Hunting and being hunted, death and killing. These are unavoidable themes encountered throughout nature. But nothing found in nature had caused this.
He is reminded of the broken bodies he discovered following the Demon Tribe’s attack. He remembers finding them. Rihas suppresses the urge to panic. He had left the monster responsible for this slaughter alone with the tribe …alone with his family. It is then, for the briefest moment, Rihas’s emotional mask falters. Fortunately, both women seem so preoccupied with the ominous scene that they fail to notice.
“Mehetabel,” Rihas gently prompts his contentious companion out of her entranced stupor. “Is this a product of the powerful tribe you warned us about?”
Remaining still but shifting her gaze slightly to meet Rihas’ concerned inquiry, she answers quietly, “No.”
Then, after a moment, she continues, “I see the vehicle over there. We should inspect it and move it from this place. It will provide a safer and faster return trip out of the Graves. Do you agree, scout?”
Rihas stifles a grin. The exchange marks a promotion of sorts, it seems. Whereas before, he was just simply referred to as male, he has now ascended to the station of scout evidently. Perhaps one day, she will honor him by using his given name.
“I would certainly welcome the faster pace.” Rihas quips.
Both companions smirk at the good-natured jibe. Rihas had begun the trek at nearly a running cadence for the women. He had wordlessly adjusted his own stride amid a flurry of vocal dissonance, criticism, and duress originating mainly from Mehetabel.
“Jest at my expense if you must. I’m tempted to throw you out and have you run alongside while I enjoy the ride alone with Tamah.” Mehetabel retorts, half-joking.
The trio moves quickly toward the vehicle, each being somewhat relieved to leave the display of carnage behind them. The machine appears undamaged, though numerous insects had been killed inside. Rihas notices a small trail of dried blood on the floor, “Somebody was injured here. But only slightly.”
“Insects must have come in through these open vents,” Tamah says, pointing toward small, hooded openings on the roof.
Mehetabel nods in agreement, then gestures toward Rihas, “We should start bringing the transport back online, Tamah. If the scout will make himself useful and clean up the carcasses, we can proceed as far as the terrain will allow us before resting tonight.”
Tamah frowns as Mehetabel turns her back and then hurries to the vehicle’s helm. She shakes her head disapprovingly. Rihas senses disappointment and resentment growing within the young woman.
“Worry not, Tamah. We share the work within our tribe according to our strengths. I have no knowledge of this machine or its workings,” He touches her shoulder for reassurance. “I will tend to the insects.”
Tamah nods dejectedly as Rihas begins the messy work of removing the carcasses. His ability to mask any sliver of emotion is impressive. But there are indications his facade is starting to crumble. Still, she does not need to sense his feelings to see the pains of remorse and grief playing across his chiseled face.
She prays earnestly before turning toward Mehetabel that he will one day grant her the opportunity to remediate the sorrow he works so diligently to conceal.