Taye Squinted pale green eyes against the bright sunlight and scanned the parched desert beyond the water hole. Sweat coursed freely down the back of his neck, only to be recaptured by twin blond tails of hair hanging from the back of his head. Those tails of hair were the icon of a Pyean warrior, so he kept them clean and tightly bound with rawhide strips. Even though the cold season had barely left the mountains, he wore nothing more than a wetzel fur on his lower torso and straw sandals on his feet. The nights were still cold, but the scant clothing was another test of endurance. So far he had fared well.
His right leg was falling asleep, but he dared not move from his crouched position. The slightest sound - even the roll of a small pebble - would send the matiki galloping into the desert.
Again he visually checked the rawhide cords that held the capture net. Everything must be exact. He couldn't afford to miss again. This was his third and last chance to graduate from Junior to Senior Warrior. At fifteen summers, there were already senior warriors younger than he was. They laughed secretly at his unsuccessful attempts to catch a matiki; secretly because they knew he was the strongest, fastest and most accomplished with a lance.
He tensed as the matiki lifted its soft muzzle to explore a slight breeze. Did the animal catch the scent of his foe? Anxiety squeezed the breath from Taye's chest. No, the wind was in the opposite direction. The matiki's pointed ears were erect and held forward, listening for the slightest sound. Taye held his breath and tried to still his pounding heart.
Finally the matiki dropped his head and chomped at a clump of dry grass. The muscles on his flank twitched at a persistent nie, and he stomped a foot. A sling of the head succeeded only in tossing his flaxen mane into the sunlight. It was time for more serious action. The long flowing white tail whipped around, brushing the nie from his flank.
Taye breathed carefully through his mouth. He'd like to watch the magnificent animal all day, but right now he couldn't spare the time. He had seven sleeps left of his ten sleep quest, and if that matiki would hurry up, he'd make it back to the village in time.
As if responding to his wish, the matiki lifted his head elegantly and pranced toward the water hole. As always, Taye was impressed by the grace and coordination of such a massive animal. Its coat was a golden brown and his long neck hair sparkling white. As he moved, his muscles rippled smoothly and his coat glistened in the sunlight. Taye's chest swelled with premature pride. What a prize!
The matiki stopped again and lifted his muzzle. The large nostrils flared as he tested the air. He gave his head a nervous toss.
Taye waited, poised for the catch. His palms were as sweaty as his mouth was dry. Only when the matiki moved down the path toward the water hole did Taye permit himself a quiet breath. A few more steps and…. Now!
Taye yanked on the cord. Nothing happened. He frowned, his troubled gaze frantically searching the path of the cord. There. It was caught on a piece of bark. He shifted slightly and put his weight against the cord. His foot slipped, sending an avalanche of tiny pebbles down the embankment.
It was only a small disturbance, but it was enough to alert the Matiki of a presence. The matiki whirled and scrambled back away from the water hole. With a twist of his rump, he kicked his heels into the air and galloped off into the desert.
Taye lunged to his feet and kicked a rock viciously. It would take time to track down another matiki; time he didn't have. Even now the grass was beginning to green on the great plain. The matiki sought the desert only during the cold season, and then it grazed across the plains to spend the hot season in the mountains.
Taye hung his head, shamed by his carelessness. He was the son of Eyat, greatest hunter of the Pyea. Why couldn't he be more like his father? No one understood why he was so different - least of all the village elders. How many times had they scolded him for taking too much time considering all the possibilities before he acted? No one doubted his courage, and it wasn't as if he was void of any skill. He could find game, and he could throw the spear with accuracy. Yet each time he stood before his quarry, he froze, unwilling to throw his weapon at anything but a lifeless target.
He lifted his head and stared wistfully after the matiki. Only a thin wisp of dust marked its trail. It was headed for the plains, so it wasn't going to be trapped at another water hole in Pyean territory. Its tracks were clear on the ground, but what good did it do? Only a large hunting party would dare to follow the matiki into the dreaded plains. Even with a large hunting party it would be dangerous.
Of course, one warrior on foot might move through the tall grass without being noticed by the Zackets. His heart skipped a beat at the thought. Only the Senior Warriors ventured onto the plains, and there were plenty of stories about the Zackets. They were a ruthless bunch of renegades who knew no honor. Each lived by his individual whim, stealing from innocent travelers and even killing anyone who dared to venture into the territory they claimed.
Then there were the Makai, a tribe that lived in the mountains beyond the plains. Not that they would be a problem right now. They rarely came into the plains except during the cold months. No one knew much about them except that they were fierce warriors. That much Pyean warriors had discovered on the few occasions when they had met them on the plains.
He stared after the matiki, another unconventional thought forming in his mind. If he tracked the matiki into the plains and caught it, he would have twice the honor. Seven sleeps. He could do it - if he didn't get lost. No, he was spending too much time thinking about it again. Now was the time to act.
Giving himself no time to reconsider, he dismantled the net and packed it into his skin pouch. Grabbing his tri-pointed spear, he ran back to his camp at the cave and gathered his things. Using a blackened stick from the campfire, he scribbled a picture message on the wall of the cave. If anyone came looking for him, they would know what happened to him. But nothing was going to happen. If he didn't capture the matiki in two sleeps, he would come back to the cave.
As Taye neared the plains, the grass became more plentiful. The trail of the matiki lay before him, wandering as the animal tried a mouthful of grass here and a taste there. The matiki was feeling safe now, and he had slowed down. Taye wasn't far behind right now, but it would soon be dark, and he would have to stop for the night or risk losing the trail. The sun bathed the skyline with orange and a crisp breeze swept in from the plains.
Taye didn't have much luck in his search for twigs, but he finally managed to find enough for a pitiful little pile. He twisted some of the grass into bunches, throwing them on the small stack of twigs. Pulling two gray stones from a small pouch that hung from his neck, he struck them together until sparks leaped out and consumed the grass with flames. As the twigs caught fire, he leaned forward, holding his hands out to the growing flames.
A tike howled in the distance and was answered by another closer to the camp. A sefrin slithered through the grass outside the firelight, reminding Taye of its poisonous relatives lurking in the tall grass of the plains. But the grass would make tracking easy - as long as the matiki didn't get too far ahead. That presented another problem. If the trail made it easy for him to track the matiki, it also left a clear sign for the Zackets that someone had entered their territory. He would have to be careful not to stray from the trail of the matiki.
Taye dug a skin from his pouch and threw it over his shoulders. Using the pouch as a pillow, he leaned back, gazing at the sky. A bright patch of stars wove a pattern behind the moon. He smiled. Sometimes he imagined himself floating around from star to star, discovering new people and places; places where people spoke different languages and lived in different homes - and still got along with their neighbors.
He shook his head. Was it any wonder the village elders worried about him? Here he was at the edge of the plains, dreaming nonsense instead of preparing for the task ahead.
Forcing his mind to the present, he considered all the information he had heard about the plains. The plains were a flat sea of tall grass where trees were so scarce that they could be used as landmarks. It would be easy to get lost in such a place. According to Pyean warriors who had traveled them, the plains could be crossed in three sleeps. Beyond that was the black forest. No one knew much about that area. Behind the black forest the mountains loomed against the sky - the home of the Makai people.
If no one knew much about the black forest, they knew even less about the Makai. The only thing they knew was that when Pyean and Makai warriors met, there was always a fierce battle. Although some Pyean warriors had been captured, none had returned. Such was the case of Jaka, one of Taye's uncles. The village elders thought that the Makai probably kept slaves, like the Zackets. No one could say for sure, though. Warriors who had fought both Makai and Zackets didn't have much hope for the survival of anyone captured by them.
Talk around Pyean campfires claimed the Makai were aggressive and territorial. Taye wondered if the Makai spoke the same about the Pyea. The plains contained game through the drought and cold, which lured hungry Pyean and Makai warriors. Yet in spite of all the food, the Makai and Zackets refused to share. A chance meeting always resulted in a fierce battle.
Surely there must be a better way to settle their differences. The elders had laughed at his idea. They advised him to wait until he was a Senior Warrior and had met the Makai in the plains. Then he wouldn't question their judgment.
What if he met the Makai this time - while he was alone? The Zackets would make short work of him, but what would the Makai do? Somewhere in his musings, he fell asleep.