The First Draft of The Darium Arc!

This is the first draft of the first chapter of one of my character’s in my novel.  It is extremely rough, and everything written here is subject to change.  If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or something, and I will reply.  All of the following is copyrighted by Alexander Howard-Fuller, and you are required to receive my permission before posting it somewhere else.  Let me know what you think!

Darium Arc

017 U.D.

Darium pulled his bowstring to his cheek, sighting the small bird perched in its nest, fifteen yards away.  An easy kill, but Darium enjoyed creating challenges for easy prey such as this.  His goal for this one was to get it right in the eye, but only with enough force to barely pierce the brain.  He didn’t want to turn the most delicious part of game to mush.

He breathed through his nose, which was situated above his eyes.  He closed his nostrils, and let small breaths escape through his mouth.  Counter-intuitive, he knew, but years of hunting had showed him that what the elders taught didn’t work for all.  

The swamp melted away from his vision, his focal point the orange feathered bird.  It small eyes protruding from it’s head, only kept in place by accordion shaped muscles.  They darted everywhere, in search of any present dangers to it, and the eggs it sat on. They scanned over Darium without a second look.  Covered in a moss blanket one of the Mothers made, he knelt against one of the many squat trees that covered the land.  To any passerby, he looked like a misshapen rock.

He locked onto his target, and released the bowstring.  The arrow covered in the distance between predator and prey almost instantly.  The bird didn’t even have time to utter a death scream; which was important, because there were many formidable scavengers in the area, and the majority of them wouldn’t shy away from a Parútian.

Darium removed the blanket, folding it away into his rucksack.  He traversed the mud easily, his wide flat feet displaced his weight evenly, allowing him to run easily in the muck.  He jumped, and grabbed the nearest branch, pulling himself up with his long, muscled arms.  He climbed the large tree with precision, jumping from branch to branch, until he came upon his catch.

The arrow barely sunk into the flesh of the bird.  Darium smiled, he had won his challenge.  He pulled the arrow from the bird, cleaned off the wooden point, and placed it back in his quiver with the rest of his ammunition.  He tied the bird’s legs a loop that hung near his waist, and placed all but one egg into a small wooden box that sat inside his rucksack.

He began his walk back to his village, allowing himself to not think for once.  He lived for these small moments of serenity, and strived to leave his life’s problems back at his home.

Darium cracked the top of the egg, pouring the yolk in his mouth.  He savored the flavors of the raw egg, before swallowing it whole.  He walked through the many trees, jumping over the small creeks, always keeping his ears open to the sounds of predators.

The sun lazed about in the eastern half of the sky by the time Darium arrived at the village.  The sense of unease returned as he stepped past the outer border of his village.  He weaved through the huts, heading to the High Mother’s hut.  Darium shook his legs out every few yards, wincing at the pain. His feet always stung from the hard-packed ground.  He could do nothing for it, except spend as much time outside of the village as possible.

He sighted the High Mother’s hut, and quickened his pace.  Only a few more seconds, and he’d be safe.  He glanced around, looking for anyone to impede him on his path.  Almost there. Five more seconds. Four. Three. Two—

“Darium!”

Shit.  Darium shut his eyes, and turned his head to the sound.  A pudgy boy swaggered towards him, wooden sword in hand.  A smirk dribbled across his face as he eyed the scrawny figure of Darium.  Darium ground his teeth, and said, “I can’t talk right now, Oryn, I have to talk to Ni’Mata.”

Oryn circled around him, blocking his path to the High Mother’s hut. “Indeed; I see you were out hunting today, Myta.”   Darium sighed inwardly, Myta stopped stinging years ago, but Oryn just wouldn’t let up with it.

“Call me what you want, the village needs food more than ever.  If that makes me a woman in your eyes, so be it,” Darium said.

Oryn laughed, his bulk shaking slightly; the fat of childhood was quickly transmuting into muscle, “Calm down, Myta, no need to cry.”

Do you see tears? Asshole, Darium thought.

“Darium, Darium, Darium,” Oryn drawled, “I’m only trying to help you.  You want a full head of braids don’t you?  You don’t get braids from killing animals.”

Darium winced as the words spilled from his mouth, “True, but you get food, something you’ve never gone without.”

Oryn stopped, and furrowed his brows, Darium liked to imagine the little wheels clicking slowly in Oryn’s brain.  Well, most likely, it was only one very dusty wheel.

Recognition flashed across Oryn’s face, and the skin by his nose scrunched towards it, “Yeah? That was a good one, shame your mouth is the only strong thing about you, Myta.”  He pushed Darium’s shoulders back, and Darium landed on the ground.

Darium looked up, and sighed at his predicament.  Kids were gathering around now, waiting to see what would happened.  If Darium stayed on the ground, he would never rid himself of that infernal name. If he stood up, Oryn would take it as a challenge, and beat him senseless.  Shit.

Darium stood, arching his back, and dropping into a low stance.  Even he could tell it was sloppy; his brother had been trying to teach him the proper form for months to no avail.  Oh well, Darium thought, time to get my face bashed.

Darium lashed out with his fist, aiming a perfect strike at Oryn.  Darium’s eyes lit up as his body followed through with the punch.  Oryn’s eyes opened wide, his mouth making a small ‘o’.  A broken nose awaited Oryn, and all the other kids would stop with the Myta shit.

Only, Oryn sidestepped the punch with ease.  His hand flicked out, and ensnared Darium’s wrist.  A smile peeked from Oryn’s face, and Darium’s shoulders slumped.  Almost, Darium thought, Always almost.  Oryn dug his thumb into the soft part of Darium’s wrist, and Darium’s long webbed fingers shot open.  Oryn stomped his foot onto Darium’s, and held him in place.  He ran his fingers along Darium’s, drifting in between the index and middle, where Darium had cut the webbing out.

“You a better archer without webbing, little Darium?  How much did you cry when you cut it out?” Oryn laughed.

“Let go of me, Oryn, I get it, I’m Myta.”  Darium squirmed, but Oryn held the boy in place with ease.

“No, that’s just it, you don’t get it.  I told you last time, that I would help you stop this womanly habit of yours, and my Nyma told me to always keep your word,”  Oryn said.

It was Darium’s turn to let the wheels click in his head.  It was when Oryn gripped his first two fingers that Darium truly understood.  “No, Oryn, don’t!” Darium begged.

Snap! Oryn twisted the top halves of each finger in unison until each gave a little pop.  His hand drifted away, and Darium’s fingers shot out in horrid angles.  Darium screamed, his voice cracking into a piercing soprano.  Oryn let go of Darium, and Darium crumpled to the ground, hiding his hand under his chest, and burying his face into the dirt, to hide his tears.

Oryn laughed, “Shit, you are a Myta, screaming like a baby.  Thank me, Myta, you have no choice but to stop hunting now.”

Darium heard a hollow sound, then a large thud.  He glanced up, making sure to hide his tears from onlookers, to survey the scene.  The Ni’Mata stood above Oryn, clicking her tongue against her teeth.  Darium eyed her walking stick, which had a large bulb of gnarled wood at the top, and noticed blood dripping from it.

“Stick out your hand, Darium Ur’Aashum Ur’Kúman Attúm, will you?” Darium had known the High Mother long enough to know that a question was never a question with her.  His hand darted out, and brushed against his collar bone, and Darium let another cry out.

“Shush, Darium, I am assuming that Oryn wanted to end your hunting career?”

Darium nodded his head.

“Well, he looks to have done just that.  What say we even up the battle field?” The wrinkled little woman said.  Darium cocked his head to the side, and furrowed his brow at her words.  Ni’Mata just smirked.

She turned towards Oryn, who had regained consciousness, and let out a breathe, “Oryn Ur’Araar Dayms, you fool.  You ended your chance at becoming a Don’Almal the second you broke his fingers.” Oryn looked at the old crone quizzically, and opened his mouth to say something.  Darium watched, as she brought down the stick against Oryn’s outstretched hand.  Darium saw a flash of pain rip across the boy’s face, before adopting a complacent stare. Darium cringed each time the stick came down on Oryn’s hand; sickened at the mangled appendage.  He couldn’t comprehend how Oryn just stared at his hand as if he was simply viewing a boring fight, barely keeping his focus on it.  Then, Darium looked into his eyes, and saw everything that the boy was hiding.

His life was almost certainly over. Oryn’s eyes could not hide what his face hid so well, the realization of that fact. His fingers twisted in every possible direction, none of them proper.  Darium had a chance at hunting again, even though he probably wouldn’t be as adept as he had been, but Oryn would never hold a sword in that hand.  He’d have to relearn every form to suit his other hand, and he’d never be able to wield the two-handed swords favored by the adults.  He’d be at a constant disadvantage, one that would get him killed in time.  A man with a disfigured hand such as his never lasted long in the Dún Kama.  Oryn would live a brief life of mediocrity, probably just as Darium would.  Darium wondered which of them would perish first on the battle field.

Ni’Mata continued to bash at it, Oryn never moving or letting out a cry.  The small pile of blood and bone that was once a hand twitched violently for a second, and Ni’Mata took that as Oryn trying to slide away from her, and smacked Oryn in the face with her staff.  Blood gushed from his lips, and yet Oryn’s face did not change.

Darium could not take it anymore, his tears had disappeared with Oryn’s hand.  He screamed for it to stop, and suddenly Oryn’s face darkened, and he lashed out in a furor, “You shut up, Myta, watch it.  Don’t you take your eyes away.”

Ni’Mata gave one final whack to the back of the boy’s head, and he passed out.  Gore dripped from her stick, and Darium found himself queasy again.  He curled back into a ball, trying to hide from the woman’s gaze.  The tactic failed miserably, as she grabbed him by the scruff, and dragged him towards her hut.  Darium gathered himself enough to walk on his own, and he stole a glance back towards the group of kids.  They all scowled at him, and each one made rude gestures at him with their hands.

Ni’Mata threw Darium into her hut, slamming the door shut behind her.  She walked to each window, pulling animal hide curtains down, blocking light from each.  She lit a large candle, and the room was bathed in flickering light.  Darium eyed the many shelves in the old crone’s sturdy hut, all covered with a manner of different herbs, trinkets, and oddities.  Rivers of smoke wound their way around the room, they seemed to coalesce around Ni’Mata as she hobbled towards Darium.

She sighed, grabbing her still burning pipe, and chewed on the mouthpiece in silence for a moment.  She walked over to Darium, who was huddled on the ground, staring at the shelves, and smacked him in the head with her stick.  Oryn’s blood splattered against Darium’s head, and he cried out.

“Dammit, Darium, I barely hit you.  You will be a man tonight, you need to stop with these things,” The Ni’Mata said.

Darium wiped the blood from his head, “I know, I know.  I just can’t shut out pain like everyone else.”

The Ni’Mata grabbed a chair from a corner, and sat in a huff, “Darium, it isn’t about shutting it out.  How many times have you been told, pain is life.  You came here through pain, you will leave through pain, but this life that you’ve been given? This life is the only way you can show pain it doesn’t own you.  You take it, you let it have its moment, then you place yourself on its shoulders, and you make your way towards greatness.”

Darium rolled his eyes, “I get it.”

She smacked the table, fury rolling from her mouth, “Darium, don’t you dare take that tone with me.  I have delivered every man and woman in this town, and not a one has the courage to cross me.  If you say one more word in the petulant tone, I will make sure your tongue finds itself at the bottom of the river.”  Her eyes meant the threat.

Darium felt his heart flutter, and a warm tingling manifested behind his eyes.  No, no, no, Darium thought; yes, yes, yes his tears replied, falling from his eyes, dotting his gray skin.  The Ni’Mata’s mouth slammed shut, her jowls shaking heavily at the movement.  She glanced down, smoking her pipe, as Darium composed himself again.

“I’m sorry, I can’t help it.  They’re right, I’m Myta,” Darium squeaked.  He wiped his face with his injured hand, and cried out again, as he hit his broken fingers against his high set nose.

Ni’Mata jumped in, grabbing Darium’s wrist, wrenching it up and yanked each finger back into place.  Darium opened his mouth to scream, but his jaw met Ni’Mata’s foot, and it was over before he could try to scream again.  She threw his hand back to him in disgust, and sat down again, breathing heavily.

Almal Kama is tonight, Darium.  How are you not going to cry out?,” Ni’Mata muttered.

“I will, there is no doubt of that,” Darium said.

Once again, Ni’Mata sighed, she stood, drifting over a especially crammed shelf.  While she was distracted, Darium slid back toward another shelf, and ran his eyes over every single thing on it.  Darium found what he was looking for, a small package, wrapped in leaves, and tied with string.  He quickly grabbed it, and stuck it in the hidden pocket on the inside of loincloth.  He scuffled back to his original spot in time for Ni’Mata to turn around, holding an assortment of items.

“Alright,” She said, “Let’s set those fingers of yours.  I’m not going to lose one of my best hunters to training yard bullying.”  A smile barely touched her lips.

***

His fingers had been wrapped in a gauze, and a piece of Dam’Shu, the flexible plant they used for spears, was bent over them, to stop them from moving around.  Darium thanked her for the work, and the Ni’Mata waved a hand at him as she sucked liberally from her pipe.

“I did you no favors, Darium, I want you to come into manhood just as much as Oryn does.  I just have a different way of doing it.”

Darium opened his mouth to reply, but he had no reply for her words.  He closed it slowly, and began to walk out of the hut.

“Wait,” Darium turned around, “I almost forgot to give you this.”  Darium set his pack down on the ground, and pulled the small box of eggs from it.  He loosened the string holding the dead bird in place near his waist, and handed it over to Ni’Mata with the box.  Her eyes lit up, and she gently touched her lips with her tongue.

“Ooh, I haven’t had a Nynta in years, I thought they had all died out.”

“I thought so too, but while I was on my normal trail today, I saw it swinging its eyes around, and I knew I had to get it.  I grabbed the eggs, I don’t know if you can hatch them or not, but I figured it’d be worth a shot.  They may have been cracked from me hitting the ground, sorry,” Darium said.

She waved her hand, not even bothering to make eye contact as she examined the bird, “It’s fine, Darium, go on, you should wash up before Almal Kama.”

Darium nodded his head, and ran out of the door, leaving the Ni’Mata to pluck the small bird.

Darium exited the house, and ran swiftly down the narrow path towards the main area of the village.  As he ran, the huts bordering the path grew increasingly extravagant.  He waved to the small children playing on the trail, and he zigzagged around them, taking care not to interrupt their games.  As he neared his family’s hut, he heard a great bit of din.  Sweat poured from his forehead as he listened to the voices.  He struggled, and failed, to hear the individual words, but he knew who was speaking.  He sprinted up the last bend to his house, and his heartbeat matched his pace.

He stopped a few feet from the large man yelling at his fathers.  The large braids covering most of the man’s head shook violently as he pointed at each of his fathers and siblings. Oryn, stood next to the man, his head hung low.  A third body stood in between Oryn, and the large man, playing with his four braids as the man screamed.

“—His hand.  This is an outrage, and can only be settled with blood,” The man screamed.

Darium walked slowly, his blood roaring in his ears.  He stepped on a stick, and Tyre, Oryn’s older brother looked back at Darium.  His eyes lit up, and his lips parted in a gruesome smile.

“Father, he’s here,” Tyre pointed at Darium.  Oryn’s father swung his head around, and the same grin ripped across his face.  He pointed at Darium, and said, “There he is, that little Myta.

Darium’s Nyma’Paan pushed through them, and beckoned at his son with an outstretched hand, “Darium, come here.”

Darium ran towards his birth father, making brief eye contact with a sneering Oryn before swiveling his head back at his Nyma’Paan.

“Oryn says you broke his hand, Darium, is it true?” The smallest smirk appeared on Darium’s father’s lips.  Darium’s heart fell, as he spoke the truth, “No, Paan, I didn’t.  Oryn broke my fingers, to warn me not to hunt,” Darium raised his mended hand to show everyone, “The Ni’Mata came, and she broke Oryn’s hand with her walking stick.”

The smile disappeared from his Nyma’Paan’s lips, and he sighed as he straightened his back.  Darium slipped past his Paan, and almost made it past his other father, before his huge hand fell on Darium’s shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. His Nyma’Daan spun him around, and Darium had no choice but to see this conversation through.

“You see, Ollayu? My son had no part in your son’s broken hand, which is unfortunate, but that’s beside the point.  You should take your screaming down the road, to the Ni’Mata,” Darium’s birth father said.

“I blame your son, still.  If he wasn’t such a Myta, my son would not have had to break his fingers,” Ollayu growled.

Darium’s Paan uttered a sharp, guttural tone, and shook his many thin braids around, “Remember who you are talking to, Ollayu.  Call my son Myta one more time, and I will part you from your limbs, and leave you alive.”

Ollayu pulled his foot back, and nodded towards Darium’s Paan, “Alright, my apologies, but there is a need for retribution.  Look at my son’s hand, he’ll never be able to swing a sword with it, let alone accomplish a simple spear thrust.”

Darium’s other father walked up, and touched his Paan’s waist, “Retribution?  Your son’s life is not over, my brother had but one arm, and he made it five years in Dún Kama,” he said, rubbing Darium’s Paan’s back, causing his muscles to relax.  Darium watched his birth father’s angry expression fade away.

“Llyno, your brother was a fluke; if he had had two arms, he would’ve been a god, and your husband would not be second in line for ruling,” Ollayu nodded at Darium’s Paan.

Ollayu eyes drifted to his son’s mangled hand, “I love my boy, but he is no Llyno.  His chances of greatness in Dún Kama were already low, but now?  Now, he is nothing.  He may well be Myta himself.”  Oryn stared at his father, his eyes glistening as the words leaked from his mouth.  His head lulled forward, and Darium noticed the ground below Oryn’s head had become wet.  Darium averted his eyes quickly, lest Oryn notice that Darium witnessed his shame.

“I understand Almal Kama is tonight, so we need not soil this day with bickering over settling this affair, but tomorrow is a different tale,” Ollayu said.

Darium’s Nyma’Paan nodded his head, “Very well.”  Ollayu nodded, and clicked his tongue towards his boys as he walked away, beckoning them to follow, “Ollayu?” Darium’s Nyma’Paan called out.

Ollayu swiveled his head, looking back at the small family, “Yes, Aashum?”

“I am sorry for your loss,” Aashum said.

Ollayu scowled in response, whipping his head away from Aashum.  Aashum laughed to himself, and walked back into the large hut.  Everyone else parted, letting Nyma’Daan walk through next, before fighting amongst themselves to be third inside.  Darium’s twin, Panaan, was the victor of the skirmish, bounding behind their parents in glee.  Darium trailed inside after even the youngest; he never saw the point in fighting over some so inane.

Aashum sat in the head seat, reserved for the greatest warrior in the house.  He tied his many braids back with a large hair tie. Each braid symbolized a life taken in Almal Kama.  His husband, Kúman, took his place next to him; his expression seemed to mirror Aashum’s thoughts.  He could not think of what to do with his true son, Darium.  The oldest of his loins, and certainly the smartest, but Darium wasted his gifts on Myta trivialities.

Darium refused to grasp the importance of keeping the village strong.  A man’s duties were to his village, to his people.  Duties that could not be shirked, that needed constant tending.  Almal Kama was not simply an excuse for men to let out their aggression, but to weed out the weak, and leave only those fit to breed.

Aashum cursed himself for not pressing The Teachings onto Darium, instead letting Darium find his own path.  Aashum found himself agreeing with his father now more than ever, and he hated himself for it.  It was painfully obvious to Aashum now, that boys should not be allowed to have choices.  Choices are an adult’s privilege.

Aashum watched his son skulk through the door, and he found himself scowling at the boy.  He quickly masked it with the stern look his father was so found of.  Darium wandered to his twin’s side, and Aashum baffled at the fact that two people who looked so alike, could be so different.  Darium, the soft spoken, yet devious one, and Panaan, the valiant, and determined brother.  The thought vexed Aashum to no end.

He felt a soothing touch against his hand.  He glanced at it, and saw his husband’s beautiful, slender webbed fingers caressing his.  Aashum’s eyes travelled up his arm, and landed on Kúman’s face.  A proud chin, and caring eyes greeted him.  That chin, and those wondrous eyes could be seen in all of Kúman’s children. Aashum sometimes forgot which children were his, and which were Kúman’s.  It did not matter, Aashum thought of all of them as his own.  Though, he had to admit, sometimes he found himself wishing Kúman’s seed created Darium.  He loathed himself at the thought.

Aashum waved Darium over, and Panaan followed behind.  Darium knelt before Aashum, bowing his head in respect; Panaan merely dipped his knee towards his birth father.  They all knew their value, but Aashum could not tell if that was for the good.

“Darium, what will I do with you?” Aashum asked.

Nyma’Paan, I curse my cowardice, and my presence sullies the family name,” Darium recited, head bowed low.

Kúman smiled wryly, “You always speak formally when you know you are in trouble, my dear Darium.  We are your fathers, not some powerful warlords you are trying to gain favor with.”

“Your Nyma’Daan is right Darium.  I’m your father, the formalities only annoy me,” Aashum said, gritting his teeth.

Darium nodded his head once more, “I apolo— Sorry, Paan, I can’t help it.  I know I’ve let you down yet again.”

Aashum sighed, “Darium, I do not matter, you do.  You should want these things, and I don’t know why you don’t.  Oryn shamed himself by his taletelling, and losing his hand to a woman, even a woman of such regard.  You are worse off though.

“By letting that Ni’Mata break Oryn’s hand, you did a few things.  You created a lifelong enemy in Oryn, you allowed someone else to fight your battles, and you submitted to both Oryn, and Ni’Mata,” Aashum scratched his nostril, his hand slipped, and his finger fell downward into his eye.  He squinted, and said, “Panaan, come forward.”

Panaan walked forward, head still down, his feet shuffling in place, “Yes, Paan?”

“If Oryn broke your fingers, what would you have done?” Aashum looked down at his two boys, each seemingly shrinking more, and more by the second.

Panaan eyes darted to and fro, “Paan, I am unsure of the question.  I have never been a similar situation, so I can’t know.”

Aashum rolled his eyes back, “Panaan, do not jump around my question.  Give me your answer, I will not ask again.”

Panaan stiffened, “I wouldn’t have let him break my fingers.  I would have put out his eyes, before he could even touch me.”

Aashum nodded, “Let’s say somehow he did, though; what would you have done?”

Panaan said, “I would have kicked his knee out, then I would proceed to break each of his fingers,” He paused a moment, eyes reaching towards the left corner of their sockets, “I would have also ripped the webbing from his fingers.”

Aashum smirked, “Thank you, Panaan.  See, Darium?  Panaan would have dished out a proper punishment.  Not too harsh, but enough to teach the boy a lesson.  Oryn may have had to deal with a bit of a limp for the rest of his life, but nothing too serious that it would hurt his chances in Almal Kama.”

Darium nodded, glancing his brothers way.  Panaan avoided his twins stare; Aashum noticed, and cursed himself again.  He pit them against each other far too often.  Darium’s only chance of thriving in the battlegrounds was to learn from Panaan.  Aashum made a note to nurture their relationship, not to sear it raw.

“Darium, you are my eldest son, I love you, and I’m proud of you.  I know hunting is belittled, but I respect your dedication.  I just want to see that you live into your twenties, and beyond.  At the rate your going, the likelihood of that…” Aashum trailed off, eyes glazed.

Kúman’s fingers caressed Aashum’s neck, snapping him back to reality.  He turned his gaze towards his boys, they looked at him, eyes wide.  Aashum cleared his throat, and said, “Darium, double sword practice for three months, and I want fish for dinner.”

Darium looked up, and both Aashum and him smiled in unison.  Darium nodded his head, his eyes opened so wide they exposed the corner of his translucent third eyelid.  Aashum dismissed the boys with a wave of his hand, and they joined the rest of the din surrounding their children.

Aashum looked over to Kúman, and they grasped each other’s hands tight.  Kúman pulled himself close to Aashum, and whispered in Aashum’s ear, “I love you.  What just happened? That is why I love you.”

Aashum rested his head atop of Kúman’s, and sighed, “I love you too, my husband.  I don’t want my son to die.”

“I know.”

Darium scurried back towards the rest of his siblings, forgetting his troubles for a moment.  His thoughts all gathered around one thing: his father wanted to taste the fruits of his hunt.  Aashum had never shown an interest in hunting, even disciplining Darium for it a few times.He itched to run through the door, and keep running until he hit water, but Almal Kama was near, and aquatic predators thrived at night.

Instead he surveyed his family’s large hut.  A hut no longer really, only called such because of habit, and not by design.  His father’s line made many improvements to the domicile over the generations.  Wood replaced straw, then stone followed after.  Aashum, Darium’s Nyma’Paan built the large dining hall himself to house all of the new mouths.  Aashum, and Kúman proved to be extremely fertile, always keeping at least two women with child at all times.  That, and the fact that they were the first Dallu marriage in the Attúm line in generations, made a large dining hall essential.

Their’s was the biggest hut in the village, save for the Par’Almal, the leader of their clan. The Par’Almal had been suspected to be sterile; in all his years, he had yet to produce an heir.  His end was near, and everyone knew it.  Soon, his prowess in fighting would falter, and the Attúm line would be there to profit.  Darium hoped the old man lasted many more years, he knew bloodshed on a large scale would be unavoidable.

The dinner gong rang, and they all filed into the large hall, racing to get a favorable seat.  Panaan reached the seat nearest their fathers, and no one challenged his status along the way.  Darium raced for the second seat, and his other brother, Lashir, also took up the race.

Each reached the seat at the same time; they grappled with each other.  Darium knew he was weak, and he knew he would lose, but he would not fail without reason.  As they struggled, Darium caught the eye of his Paan walking in.  He smiled, and felt a fist collide with his eye socket.  Darium stumbled back, biting back shrill yells of anger.  He charged Lashir, screaming a forced baritone, his arms flailing.  Lashir dodged each punch, as if he were avoiding flies, and jabbed his fingers at Darium’s exposed neck.  Darium felt his body go limp, and he fell into Lashir.

Lashir stumbled back, landing on his buttocks.  Darium’s limbs tingled, feeling returning.  He embraced it, and stood in unison with his brother.  They eyed each other once more, and Darium growled.  He didn’t realize he was emitting the sound, until they were at it again.  Each blow, Darium accepted, trying to listen to Ni’Mata’s advice.  He found himself struggling to embrace the pain, as Lashir delivered a blow to Darium’s stomach.

Darium felt the air escape from his lungs, and he struggled for breath.  Lashir back-stepped, and cocked his foot back for a final blow.  He lashed his leg out, and Darium dropped to the floor.  He grabbed Lashir’s grounded leg, and pulled it from underneath him.  Lashir collapsed, his mouth, and eyes were wide as Darium surmounted him, and laced his fingers together, bringing down a double fisted strike to Lashir’s face.  Darium struck again, and again,  praying that it would be enough.  It was.

Lashir’s nose cracked under the final blow, blood falling into his eye from the nostril.  Darium stood from the fight, and looked at the rest of the room.  Many of his brother’s still fought, battling each other for a higher ranking at the table.  Darium let each labored breathe filter in through a smile.  He won, against all expectations.

He quickly grabbed his brother’s hand, and pulled him onto the open chair next to his.  Darium knew he could not face another challenge so soon, so he padded himself with his brother.  If another brother wanted to challenge him, he’d have to go through Lashir first.  Darium knew that his triumph against his younger brother was a fluke.  Most nights he ended up near the end of the long table, but not this night.  Darium looked to his fathers, and both smiled at him, Kúman’s much more pronounced.

Then he sat in his own seat, and joined his twin in the feast.  Panaan shoved dishes at Darium, daring him to eat more than himself, and Darium obliged.  They all ate in silence, focusing on the sustenance.  Once their plates had been finished, Darium’s sisters came in, and cleared the table.

Darium, and all of his brothers, looked to Aashum, waiting for his after dinner words.  Aashum took his time, smoking his pipe, as he scanned the filled seats.  At last, he smiled, and said, “Tonight, we will welcome three of our family into adulthood.  Panaan, Darium, and Lashir will become equals to your father, and I.  They will receive their first braid, and will be known as Yún’Almal. From there, they will all be given the chance to ascend to the status of Don’Almal, in the battlefield.

“I have awaited this day for a long time, the anticipation becoming heightened after your eldest brother’s death,” Kúman winced at Aashum’s words, “His death has been a great loss to this family, a great warrior killed before his prime.  Now, though, we have the chance to reassert ourselves as a great, and numerous line.”

Darium’s high from earlier events wore off, and anxiety resumed its death hold.  He knew he wasn’t ready, he wouldn’t be able to handle the pain of getting a braid.  Already, his palms began to sweat, and his tongue dried out in his mouth.

Aashum continued, “Now, I will speak of each of you.  Panaan, my little warrior, you have become a point of hubris in my life, and in your Nyma’Daan’s.   You have proven yourself time, and time again, that you are fit to not only fight, but to lead.  I await to see your accomplishments as a full fledged Don’Almal.”

Aashum turned his sights to Lashir, “Lashir, you may be of Kúman’s seed, but I love you as if you were mine.  I am your Daan, and I know in other families, boys look at their Daans as secondary fathers, even if they are the leader of the line.  I hope you don’t feel that way,” He looked to the entire table now, “I love all of you, whether I am your Paan, or Daan. From my seed, or not, it does not matter.  We are a family, and you are all of the Attúm line.  Each person you see in this room, no matter what you have between you, will kill, and die for you.”

They all knew that, Darium could see it in their faces, and could feel it in his heart.  He may have just fought Lashir, but he would do anything for his brother.  Darium wanted to feel the warmth his father was emitting, but he wondered why his father left his speech to him for last.

“Darium,” Aashum said, face slipping into a blank expression, “you are a boy of… varied ambitions.  You scarce away from fighting when possible, you keep your head down, and you dance around in the woods, killing small animals at a whim.

“But, you are the one I’m waiting for.  You have everything it takes to be great, buried inside of you.  You may not be the most skilled fighter, but your cunning outmatches even me at times.  You are attacked for your hobbies, yet you still pursue them fervently.  You point yourself at a goal, and fire off towards it like one of your arrows.  I give you a new goal, one that outmatches all others.  Become the Attúm’Almal.”

Gasps erupted, each whisper joining the roar that filled the hall.  Darium felt light headed, and he steadied himself against the table.  He breathed through his nose, feeling his moist breath dampening his forehead.  Each set of eyes gazed upon him now, and it was all he could do to keep from vomiting on the spot.  Attúm’Almal?! His father expected him, of all people, to succeed him as the leader of their bloodline?  Darium’s head lulled back, and forth.

With that, his fathers rose from the table.  All the children filed out as well, getting ready for the night’s events.  Darium could hardly breathe.  Someone patted his shoulder, and he looked over, and saw Panaan giving him a small smile.  Darium returned it, but didn’t say a word as he resumed his walk.

“Darium, I know you can’t believe it, but I want you to know, I can,” his brother whispered in his ear.

Darium felt numb, as he joined his family on their walk to the village square.

The fifteen torches defining the border of the village square flared to life as the people gathered.  The fifteen bloodlines all gathered around their respective torches.  Darium looked to his family’s and saw the brightly burning green flame of the Attúm line.  His heart threatened to burst from his chest, Darium couldn’t handle all of the day’s events.

The Ni’Mata stood in the middle of the square, along with the Par’Almal.  There was a sixteenth torch, but it had not been lit in years.  It was for the Par’Almal’s bloodline, and it had been a dark area for as long as Darium could remember.

“All those receiving their first braid tonight, step forward,” The Ni’Mata said, cupping her hands around her mouth so all could hear.  Everyone silenced their voices as she spoke.  Darium felt faint, barely able to walk as they all moved to the front.  Seventeen boys stood at the edge of their groups, seventeen boys, ready to be made men.  Darium decided to remove himself from the number, sixteen boys ready to become men, and one boy just dealing with tradition.

“You woke as boys this day, but you will sleep the night away as men! Rejoice, this is a celebration,” The Par’Almal shouted, “I see you are all eager to become men, but take these final moments, and look back at your childhood.  It will be the last time you are allowed to look back, as men have to always think ahead.  Enjoy it.”

All the boys bowed their heads, and closed their eyes to allow themselves focus as they thought of their childhood.  Darium thought back, and felt tears forming in his eyes.  He willed them back into their tear ducts, begging them not to fall.  All he saw when he thought back, was ridicule, and pain.  He didn’t want to think back anymore, he wanted to be an adult.  He just didn’t know why he needed a stupid braid to be one.

He lifted his head, and tapped his foot as the rest finished their nostalgia.  He wanted to get the damn thing over with.  They finally lifted their heads, and the Par’Almal continued to speak.

“I hope you all had fond memories of childhood.  Now we look to the future, and to manhood.  The bowls of mashed pyn’dhi are being brought around by Ni’Mata’s apprentices.  Each of you will pull a pinch from it, and chew it for the rest of the evening.  It will heighten your senses, and keep you awake.  Men must embrace life’s pains, and they must not let it best them.  The pyn’dhi will increase the pain you feel tonight ten-fold, and keep you from passing out during your braiding.”

A older girl walked up to Darium, and his brothers, holding out a bowl of fibrous tan mash.  Darium dipped his hand in, and grabbed the smallest amount he could.  As he brought his hand to his mouth, the woman whistled loudly, hurting Darium’s ears.

All eyes snapped to Darium, and the woman before him.  He saw the Ni’Mata sigh as she locked her gaze onto him. The Par’Almal walked over to him, and the woman moved to the side of Darium.

“What is the discrepancy, Mata?” The old-man asked.

The woman bowed low before the Par-Almal, and said, “This one takes as little as he can.”

Darium’s cheeks burned, and shame washed over him.  The Par’Almal regarded him for a moment, before he let out a breath, “Boy, why do you take so little of the root?  Do you wish to pass out during your braiding?”

Darium shook his head, “No, my many braided lord, it was by accident that I grabbed so little.”

The old man glared at him, and said, “No matter, my child.  An accident is just that, a mistake, but we must learn that there are consequences to all mistakes.  You will take twice the normal amount, and you will chew it vigorously.”

Darium’s heart dropped at the man’s words.  He didn’t believe he could handle getting his braid, even with just a small pinch of pyn’dhi, but he had no doubt he would scream when they pierced him now.  Screaming was the last thing a boy wanted to do during his braiding, for they would tie each boy to a post, and whip him with a branch.  How many lashes one got, was relative to how loud they screamed.  Darium could scream louder than anyone he knew.

Darium grabbed two pinches of the mashed root, and placed it in his mouth.  The bitter flavor was immediate, and he almost retched on the spot.  He forced himself to chew quickly, the tough plant squirting juices down his throat.  He smiled, and the Par’Almal walked back to the inner circle of the village square, and resumed his speech.

“Soon, you will all have a chance to prove yourself in Dún Kama.  The battlegrounds are bloody, but necessary.  All of us are descendants of the final tribe, the Parúts.  They saw all other villages in our vast swamp, burned to the ground by invaders from the high desert.  The last of our proud species, they fought hard against the invaders, and pushed them back, killing more men than any of us have ever seen.  The desert invaders died out themselves, falling to plague, but here we still stand, not as a final village, but as many.

“In my life, I have been to thirty villages, and each of their leaders had been to thirty different ones.  We are numerous once more, a proud people.  But we must not forget, we were once even more populous.  Invaders can still come, in the form of the humans to the west.  We train for that day, we kill for that day.  Because, after centuries of only allowing the strongest in battle to breed, we have become stronger than all other beings on this planet.

Dún Kama is the place where you will win glory, but also, a place where you will honor the sacrifice of all those who have come before you.  They died, so that we may never be a final village again.  Keep that in your heart, and pray you see the day where once more, we need to band together to defeat anyone who dares take our swamps.  Pray for that day, because on that day, we will strike them down, and we will find where they live, and make sure there is not even a last village for them to run to.”

The crowd roared, and Darium heard their yells much more clearly than usual.  The pyn’dhi had taken effect, the small breeze wafting over them sent shivers through him.  Darium found that he also felt fear much more acutely, because it threatened to put him on his knees any second.  Darium looked around, and saw a few boys shivering.

“We will begin.  Each bloodline will be called in order, starting with most braids to least.”  Darium did the calculations in his head, even though his family only had two adults to contribute, they would still be tenth in line.  “So with that, will the Lurym’s come forward?” The Par’Almal announced.

A lone boy walked forward, his father trailing behind him.  The boy sat on a small stool, and faced his family.  Darium could see no fear from his body movements, and wished he could even manage not to shake in the cool night’s air.  His father, took his place behind the boy.  Ni’Mata walked towards the man, holding a large black box.  She presented it to him with her head down, and the man selected a braid.  The boy could not see the thickness of the braid, but from what Darium could tell, it was a thin one.  His father expected many more braids to adorn his boy’s head.  He had a right to, considering every adult in his bloodline had dozens of small braids dug into their skulls.

The man touched the front of the boy’s skull gently with the braid, indicating his father’s expectations of him at time of birth.  The man moved the braid back slightly, and over to the left.  The farther back, the less a parent expected of their child at time of braiding.  The right side of the head was move favorable than the left.  Darium knew exactly what this father thought of his child just by touching his head twice.

The Par’Almal walked over to the man now, handing him a small mallet, and a thin knife.  The father nodded, and cut the last place the braid touch.  Darium strained his eyes to see more, but the firelight obscured his night vision.  The man moved in front of the boy, and all Darium heard was the pounding of the mallet against the metal tip of the braid, burrowing it into the boy’s skull.

Darium watched the boy tense up, but not a sound was emitted from his mouth.  The sound of the mallet seemed to last forever, but eventually it subsided, and the man moved from his boy.  Darium’s knees shook, as he looked at the immense amount of blood pouring from the newly christened man’s skull.  He seemed not to notice, though, as he stood, smiling, with his father.  All the tribe screamed, stomping their feet against the ground, hooting calls of joy at the two men.

Ni’Mata walked up again, and poured steaming water onto the man’s head.  She gave him a gauze to press against it, and he went back with his father to their post.

Then it would go, again and again, boy’s coming up to the podium, receiving their braid, and walking down as triumphant men.  It wasn’t until the sixth bloodline that someone cried out.  The boy received a moderately thick braid near the front of his skull.  He barely let out a sound, Darium wasn’t even sure he heard anything, but his fathers had.  His Nyma’Paan roared, ripping the braid from his skull.  The boy cried out even louder, and his Daan smacked his face, and held his skull in position as his Paan selected a new spot, near the back of his skull to pierce.  The boy held his screams in the second time around, and Darium cringed as they pushed him over to a large post sticking from the ground.  They tied his hands around it, and he shook from holding back sobs.

The Par’Almal handed his Paan a large stick, that splintered out at the end.  Darium thanked The Teacher that the wood was lacquered, or else the boy would be picking splinters from his back for a month.  Darium watched the boy’s Paan beat him with the stick.  It seemed to go on for hours, though it could’ve only been seconds.  By the time he was done, the boy bled from every part of his back.  They untied him from the pole, and his fathers kicked him back to his bloodline’s torch.

Not another person cried out, all instantly learning that it wasn’t just being beaten on a pole, it was losing a preferred spot on their skull.  Braid placement meant everything in their families, and that fact held true with Darium’s own.

Each boy received their braid, and it continued down the line.  Finally, it reached Darium’s bloodline.  Panaan went first, walking proudly between their fathers.  He sat on the pedestal, facing Darium, and smiled.  Aashum, and Kúman spent minutes looking for a proper braid.  Darium couldn’t tell what they were looking for, but they were very particular in the hunt, throwing braid after braid into a discard pile.  Finally, they found one to smile at.  Darium thought it might have been only one strand of hair, it was so thin.  They touched the front of his head, and unlike the other times when most fathers touched the front of their child’s skull, they didn’t move the braid.  Panaan met all their expectations from his birth, and they knew he was going to be a great warrior.  As they pounded the braid in with a mallet, Panaan barely squinted his eyes.  He smiled at Darium, and it was all Darium could do not to fall over, and weep on the spot.

They finished his braid, and Panaan walked back over to his brothers, a man.  As all of their brothers ogled at him, Panaan whispered at Darium, “It’s not as bad as they make it seem, don’t worry.”  Darium loved his brother, but at that moment it took every ounce of his willpower not to punch him square in the nose.  He had gotten the smallest braid possible, and he was accustomed to pain.  Darium clenched his fists, and his parents beckoned him over.

Darium sat on the stool, and stared at the pool of blood covering the ground around him.  His heart quickened its pace, and he dug his fingers into the wooden stool to stop him from running.  He barely had time to take a breath before his parents touched him with his braid.  Even from just touching it to the front of his head, he knew the braid was much bigger than Panaan’s.  The cold metal reminding him just what his parents thought he could’ve been at birth.  He waited for the second touch, what they expected of him now, with eyes clenched shut.

He felt the metal prick the back of his skull, almost where his neck met his head.  Sweat doused him, he found his head spinning.  The worst spot any person could get.  He would still appear to be a child to any who saw him from the front.  They cut a cross mark into the back of his skull, to make it easier for the metal to pierce his skull.  Even at that he cringed, shaking on his stool.  He couldn’t understand it all, didn’t his Paan just tell him he expected Darium to succeed him as the leader of the bloodline?

All the thoughts Darium had running around in his brain exploded into nothing, as the pounded the braid into the back of his head.  Pain became the only thing he knew, and he couldn’t embrace it.  He screamed, louder than he ever had before.  The pounding came much faster now, as tears flowed freely from his eyes.  His broken fingers snapped from their confines, digging into the wood, and causing Darium to scream even louder.

Then, the pounding was done all at once.  He could feel the braid throbbing in skull, and that alone made him whimper.  He felt arms grasp around him, pulling him from the stool.  He opened his eyes, and saw everyone’s mouth opened, Panaan most of all.  Darium thought he could see tears spouting from Panaan’s eyes, but he was too dazed to be sure.

He felt them hoist him up against a pole, and tie his hands in place so he could not fall from it.  He managed to open his eyes again, and he saw the most horrid thing he’d ever seen.  A thick black braid fell over his shoulder.  The thickest he had ever seen, by far.  It was almost the thickness of his arm, and it weighed more than Darium thought hair could way.  He threw up, and they beat him.

They dragged him back to their bloodline, and threw him against Panaan.  Panaan held Darium easily, and kept him up for the rest of the ceremony.  Darium didn’t have the energy to see where they placed Lashir’s braid, but he knew no one would receive the slap in the face that he just had.  The rest of the ceremony was a blur, and it was only at the end that Darium slipped from his haze.  All of his family scowled at him, and they pushed him to the back of the group as the walked home.  Not even Panaan could do anything for it.  Darium didn’t care, because as they walked the path towards their hut, he slipped away from the group.

He ran as fast as he could, his back felt aflame as the stumbled through the forest.  He slowed down to a jog when he neared a clearing.  He climbed a small hill, and sat down at its top.  Darium grabbed his braid gingerly, and draped it over his shoulder to inspect it.  It was long, and thick, and it ended in the largest white bead Darium had ever seen.  Father’s were supposed to replace the bead at a later date, in private.  Darium never wanted to go back to that hut, his face still hot, and wet.

He pulled the small package he stole from Ni’Mata from his secret pocket.  He ripped the string off, and opened the leaves slowly, revealing a brown paste sitting in the middle.  He generously scooped globs of it up with his unbroken fingers, and started rubbing it all over his wounds.  The searing pain dulled down almost immediately, and finally Darium could think.

Darium stayed on that hill the rest of the night, crying, for he had just shamed himself more than the all of today’s events combined.  But still, he kept rubbing the ointment on his wounds.

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