Hijeneva ground her teeth while waiting in the humidity. Signs of the early morning duel could not be ignored. The trees and vegetation bore singed ends and deep cuts from unfamiliar weapons. She watched the young man–brave and bold–begin his attempt forward.
Imko’s first few steps boasted courage, produced by confidence none of the young warriors in the thicket lacked. Why would they not? The bodies of their dead brothers, sisters and friends who had tried to approach the corpse at all different angles did not find death until they crossed an invisible threshold some few feet away from the looting opportunity.
Nine had died so far. Imko would be the tenth though none would warn him to avoid the fatal fate. To do so was against the ways of the Ajjuun. Bravery was never questioned aloud but in her head, Hijeneva begged him to stop.
Perhaps it was bravery that made Imko refuse to stop at the line and consider another option. Perhaps it was his desire to impress them all and secure a wife for his next name day. Perhaps, it was the will of the fallen god.
Imko stopped in mid-step and his body jerked violently until he spasmed so hard an audible snap of bones drowned out his scream. Far before he fell to the ground, the tenth of them died.
Hijeneva’s heart tweaked in pain, the loss of another–a friend–was never as simple as the death itself. Her aversion to look upon the fresh corpse of Imko drew her gaze upwards where she could see the overhanging branches of the hosta tree. Strong and able to hold a grown man’s weight, they extended all the way to where the god lay. A wall could not be pushed through but it could be cleared.
The fathers and mothers who waited back in the tent grounds did so in anticipation. Did they know or fear their children died within the crucible? Would there be crying? Or would the way of stone be practiced even then? She could hear the names of their own gods being cursed for their cruelty, unafraid of being stricken with sickness or drought. The Ajjuun may be considered primal by many in the world of the civilized Holds but they were not denied the capacity to challenge the highest of powers that governed their loyalty and worship.
Hijeneva spoke a prayer in the waning silence. Someone would announce their intent to follow Imko and she knew it had to be her. To save the lives of those remaining, to scavenge what could be potentially invaluable to their survival in the days to come and–least important to her–to attract the eyes of a suitable husband.
“I’ll go,” she declared, plan barely formed but knowing her attempt might be what was needed to collect the god’s bones.