The Broken God Machine

By Christopher Buecheler

The Broken God Machine

Chapter 1

Pehr was sixteen and as impetuous, and stupid, and brave as any teenager, yet even he feared the Test.

Why not? The Test had taken his older brother, crippled his uncle, and been so terrible to his own father that the man had refused to speak of it to his children, saying always, "When you are older. When you are closer," until time and fate had taken the opportunity from him forever.

Without the Test, there were no hunters, and without those there could be no law, no order, and no hunt. Without hunters, there were only merchants and farmers and women, and of those three Pehr thought that the women were best. They could tend homes, raise children, mill grain into flour and make it into dough. Women were creators – their hands made bread, and their bodies made children – but they were not hunters.

The Test was only weeks away, and like the other boys of age in his village, Pehr had thought of little else for many months. There were chores and lessons, all those things which made up his life, but principle of all there was the Test. The fear and joy of it occupied his waking and dreaming mind alike. Soon he would be a man, allowed to call himself by his true and full name, the name his father had given him when first he had emerged from his mother's womb. Khada'Pehr, the son of a hunter, soon to be a hunter himself.

They were talking of it now, him and Jace, who was also the son of a hunter. Pehr's cousin, two years younger, Jace was many things and most of them good. He was quicker of mind than Pehr, and better with the bow, but he was neither tall nor strong, and Pehr did not know if he would ever be a hunter.

"Sili says you will finish. She's sure of it," Jace was saying, and Pehr glanced over at him, grunted, and resumed gnawing at the rib of roast kampri he had stolen from one of the merchantmen in the village center. Pehr was always ravenous; his uncle worked him, it seemed, as if strengthening Pehr's body could make up for the man's own crippled leg.

"Yes, act like you don't care," Jace said, grinning. "I've seen how you get when she comes around. You would take her to bed right now if you were allowed."

He paused, but no reaction from Pehr was forthcoming, so he continued, laughing and adding, "And if you knew how."

"I know how," Pehr said through a mouthful kampri, not indignant. To sound indignant would simply tell Jace his words were true, a satisfaction which Pehr did not intend to give the younger boy. In truth, Jace was not entirely wrong; Pehr did not know how to bed Sili – not exactly – but he had some idea of how the process must work.

What he did know was that when he passed the Test, he would make a jade necklace and give it to her, and if she accepted it, he would marry her and take her to bed. That he would go there inexperienced was not something that worried Pehr terribly; he had asked his uncle once if he should seek instruction, and the man had thrown Pehr a sideways grin, assuring the boy that such things would take care of themselves.

"If you know, then tell me," Jace challenged, and Pehr laughed.

"Learn for yourself, wet-head."

"You don't know anything!"

"Which of us has seen her, then? Was it you that she showed herself to, that time?"

"It could have been me," Jace said. "It might have been, if I had been the one who stole the wine and got her drunk. It could have been."

"But it wasn't you, because you would never have stolen the wine."

Jace had no reply to this; it was true.

Pehr grinned at the towheaded boy, finished his kampri rib, and threw the bone aside. "We have until sundown. Will we sit here and talk of things that I will have and you will never, ever have … or will we go, and swim, and maybe catch some dinner? I doubt I can stomach Nani's gruel alone, again, tonight."

"You say that every night," Jace said, standing nonetheless. "Then you eat a double portion and ask for more."

"Liar," Pehr said, though it was true, and the two took to their feet, laughing. The sun lay low on the ocean, but there was still an hour yet or more before it sank below the waves. Here by the lagoon they were protected from the tremendous rip-currents that lurked below the surface of the water outside. The semicircle of rock – the peaks of some long-drowned, long-dead mountain – kept the shallow waters calm and clear, and the boys fished at its edge often. It was the only hunting they were allowed, before the test.

Pehr stood outlined by the setting sun, a boy of sixteen with brown skin and shaggy, dark hair, on the cusp of manhood but not yet there, his bare torso still unmarked with the scars of the Test and of the hunt. The cool breeze that blew unceasingly from the ocean had teased his hair into crazed loops and whorls, and he ran his fingers through it.

He glanced over toward the towering cliffs of Nethalanhal, which ran in a nearly straight line, from the ocean to the eastern jungle, and made up one edge of his world. There were symbols there on the rock, high above where any man could reach. Ten of them, said to have been carved into the limestone by the very gods themselves, their meanings lost to a time when men had been more than they were now. They read: VEGA CALIZA.

Pehr wondered, not for the first time, what was beyond those massive grey cliffs. Then his mind returned as it most often did to thoughts of the Test, and of Sili, and of food.

"Let's catch some fish," he said to Jace, picking up his spear, and without another word he turned and ran toward the bay. Jace followed, trailing behind, his shorter legs not quite able to keep up. He was nimble, though, and gained back the ground as the two negotiated the rocky drop-off that separated the dunes from the farmland. Pehr dropped the last eight feet, landing in the soft, dry sand and sinking to mid-shin.

"Watch out for crabs," he admonished, turning back to look up at Jace. "They bite."

"They pinch," Jace corrected absently, making the same drop down and landing beside him. The two set off together toward the water.

"Look at the Everstorm," Jace said, pointing.

In the far, far distance to the southwest, the edge of it was visible, reflecting the setting sun. The swirling, angry clouds of the great tempest never left the horizon. Lightning flashes illuminated their cores from time to time, and occasionally a bolt would flicker down to strike the water's surface. Purple and red and grey, it squatted angry over the ocean like a beast in waiting. No intrepid sailor that had ventured out past the lagoon and into the raging ocean had ever returned; it was said that the Everstorm swallowed them,

"What of it?" Pehr asked, and Jace shrugged.

"I just like to watch it. The colors change as the sun sets, and sometimes I see things in it. Faces, like our ancestors, or … or the Gods."

"You're insane," Pehr said, but he came to a stop at the peak of the last dune, staring out at the swirling maelstrom that lay on the far edge of the earth.

"Am not," Jace said. "Haven't you ever looked at something and seen … more? A dragon in the clouds, or a monster's claw in the branches, or—"

"That's for babies," Pehr said, giving a dismissive shake of his head. "It's like the stories of the great old grandfathers, with their towers of metal and bows that shot beams of sunlight, or the Lagos hordes that the Gods unleash upon those who have sinned."

"It's not the same. Those are stories, but this … being afraid, maybe, but the seeing is—"

"I don't see anything except the Everstorm. It's the same as it's ever been."

"Which means it's different all the time," Jace muttered, but Pehr ignored him.

They descended the dune, reaching the bed of kelp and other detritus discarded by the sea that marked the high-tide line. Beyond it the sand grew damp and hard-packed. The boys barely left footprints as they walked along it, moving toward the rocks that poked like rotten teeth from the water near Nethalanhal's towering grey face. From the shoreward-side, these were easily accessible through chest-deep water, but they dropped off precipitously on the other side to depths that made the water dark and inscrutable.

For ages, these rocks had supported a thriving tidal ecosystem, and countless boys and men had come here to hunt the large, red-scaled fish that served as the system's alpha predators. The trick, Pehr's uncle had told them when first he began instructing them in the process, was not in killing them. The trick was in luring them near enough to the surface to be killed in the first place. It was best accomplished by two; Pehr and Jace had spent many long hours practicing the technique, and had once succeeded in bringing up a fish so large, it had torn the spear from Pehr's hands and carried it away.

"I'll bring them up. You spear," Jace said, and Pehr laughed at the tone of easy command in the boy's voice. Of course Jace would bring the fish up; Pehr had easily twice the arm-strength.

"Yes, sir," he said, and clambered out onto the nearest rock, skirting out and around its edge, finding the well-worn platform upon which he had stood countless times before. Jace scurried up and over the other side, nimbly leaping a crevasse and then skidding on his feet down a slick, algae-covered length of rock. Pehr watched, impressed, reflecting on the fickle twist of fate that had given the boy such innate and uncanny agility, and an aim with the bow that was truly Gods-sent, yet denied him the strength of body he would need to survive the Test.

Well, Pehr thought, he has another two years yet to fill out, at least.

"Are you going to stare at me, or spear fish?" Jace asked him. Pehr rolled his eyes and made a gesture recognized among his people as one of contemptuous dismissal, but he took his position with the spear.

Jace squatted down at the water's edge, pulled half a dozen sea snails from the rock, and put them in a pile. Without ceremony, he grabbed a nearby loose stone and brought it slamming down. Shells were shattered, snail lives were extinguished, bait was made. Jace scooped up the remains in two cupped hands and dumped them into the sea, then dipped his hands as if to rinse them, but instead began to thrash them in sharp, erratic movements.

If they were lucky, a red fish would scent the snail's blood and feel the vibrations of Jace's hands, putting the two together as a fish in distress. It would come up from the depths to investigate, and Pehr would stab it with his spear, long and slender and flexible.

They knew that from this point it was mostly a matter of chance; sometimes a red fish came within minutes, and sometimes they would spend an hour without success, killing many snails – it seemed that no matter how many gave their lives for this cause, there was never a shortage. The men of the village believed that the larger elder fish had made it to such a distinguished state by learning to discern the difference between a true meal and a fake. Only a master of the thrashing motion, it was said, could hope to fool them.

Jace was no master, but he was skilled, and luck was on their side this night. After but a few minutes, a red fish of perhaps eighteen inches in length swam up from the depths. It would provide plenty enough for the five people who would be sharing it for dinner, with some left over to be stored in the cool depths of the root cellar and eaten with breakfast. Jace grinned, his eyes never leaving the water, as Pehr pulled back his arm and drove the spear forward. His aim was true, and the limber wooden spike pierced first the water and then the red fish. The fish thrashed, the water going dark with its blood, trying to escape, but the spear had driven straight through it. Pehr lifted the fish from the water with ease, leaning against the rock for balance against the fish's frenzied death throes.

"Well done!" Jace said, standing up from his crouched position and stretching. Pehr held the fish up in the air until its motions had become little more than twitches. Then he moved again to the shore side of the rock, and into the water. Jace followed him.

"Let's get it home," Pehr said. "I'm starving."


Chapter 2

"The swinging stones did this to me," Pehr's uncle Khana'Truff told them, and not for the first time. He pointed to his mangled left leg, the shin and thigh both obviously broken and not set right. "Had I not such strength in my arms, I would not have been able to drag myself to safety. I would have been ground to paste."

"You were lucky father," Jace said in a tone that seemed to lack the breathless awe and attention Truff had been expecting. The man whirled to face his son, giving that familiar glare that Jace and Pehr so often imitated behind his back.

"Lucky?! I trained for that test, boy! I trained every day. I was the only one of my year to make it through the test at all, and that's why they softened it up."

"Stefan says that's a rumor," commented Pehr through a mouthful of gruel and chunks of sweet, red fish, not looking up from his plate.

Truff grunted, belched, and drank from his stone mug of ale. "Stefan is the witless son of a witless merchant and knows less about the world even than his coward father. Rumor? My arse."

"It's just what he says, Uncle."

"My arse, I said! What nonsense. If they hadn't softened it up, there wouldn't be five, sometimes six boys from most years to make it through."

Nani, Jace's elder sister by one year, entered the room carrying a basket holding two loaves of bread and a crock of kampri butter. She was wearing her most prized possession, a necklace of polished jade chipped with painstaking care from the edge of Nethalanhal by the hunter Khada'Josep, two years Pehr's senior, who had passed the Test first among his peers. The necklace's creation was as much a rite of passage as the Test itself, and to gift it to a woman meant nothing short of the most sincere intent to marry.

"You shouldn't curse at the dinner table, father," Nani said, setting the bread down and looking at her father with an expression of playful reproach. "Especially not in front of the children!"

"We're not children," Jace said. Nani ignored him.

"I didn't curse," Truff protested, grabbing a loaf of bread and breaking it. He handed the first piece to his wife, Anna, who bowed her head in thanks. Anna had taken a vow of silence upon the news of Nani's betrothal. She would not speak again until the eve of the wedding, as was custom.

"You said 'arse,'" Nani informed her father. "I heard it from the kitchen."

She took a seat between Pehr and Jace, reaching for the dish of salad in the center of the table. Using her eating sticks, she brought some to her plate, and then selected a leaf from the pile and brought it to her mouth, still smirking.

"Arse isn't a curse," Truff grumbled. "But if it offends your delicate ears, my sweet, you've my permission to take your dinner in the pasture with the kampri."

Nani stuck her tongue out at him, giggled, scooped fish-gruel from its wooden bowl with a palm leaf and deposited it on her plate next to the salad. Pehr glanced over at her and smiled. Nani was a beautiful girl, her brown skin tanned dark by the sun, her hair plated and partly bleached with lye-stone, dyed oranges and reds to layer in with its natural browns. Since her engagement, she had been in a near-constant good mood, and her grey-green eyes seemed to sparkle. They crinkled at the corners, when she smiled, in a way that had always made the back of Pehr's neck feel warm and prickly. She was smiling now and he found he had to look away.

"We're not children, Nani," Jace said again, elbowing her.

"You're not men," Nani said, not looking at him.

"So?"

"So until you're tested, you're children. That's how it works."

"You've never been tested."

Jace was needling his sister, being intentionally obtuse. In the past, this tactic might have caused her to grow frustrated and lash out at him, which seemed to amuse Jace to no end. Now, though, she remained unfazed.

"I am a woman. As you know perfectly well, we don't take the test."

"Don't see how being betrothed to some hunter who's made a stupid necklace makes you a woman …"

"Don't call my necklace stupid. I don't have to explain to you how it makes me a woman. You wouldn't understand anyway."

"What about Luce, then?" Jace asked, grinning.

Pehr snickered, and Nani rolled her eyes. Luce was nearing her sixtieth year, ancient for their people. She was twenty years older even than Truff, who was one of the few living hunters that had lived past his thirty-fifth year. Luce had been young during some of the very leanest years for available hunters in recent history, and had never wed. She made a living working for the merchantmen, cleaning their homes and sewing their blankets.

"I think they grant an honorary title anyway, once you've seen forty winters," Truff said dryly, and the others around the table laughed.

"Perhaps Pehr can take Luce to bed," Nani said, giggling. "His test is nearly here … soon he'll be a man!"

"If he passes," Truff said, turning an eye on Pehr, who was still shoveling gruel into his mouth as if it was his last meal on earth.

"I'll pass," Pehr said between bites. "You've taught me."

Truff smiled, nodded, leaned back in his chair. "I have. You've not the arm-strength I had … I'll say it will take you a bit longer to open the sow's brain with your club … but you're faster and wield a bow better than I did. You will pass."

"You said Paul would pass, too," Jace said, and before he had even finished the sentence Nani reached out to swat him on the arm. Jace's face went pink and assumed an expression of regret with which they were all familiar; his mouth had gone off before his brain had caught up to it.

Truff made an expression that was almost a grimace, as if remembering that other boy had filled his mouth with some foul taste. Pehr understood the look; whenever he thought of Paul, and what the test had done to him, he was filled with a vast sense of anger and futility and helplessness. Paul had been a young phenom, and Pehr had worshipped the ground that his older brother walked on. Still, the Test had taken him.

"I'm sorry, father," Jace said. Truff shook his head.

"Don't apologize for speaking the truth," he said. "Men make proclamations. We predict the future. In the end, though, the Test sees the truth in us all."

Truff seemed on the verge of saying something further, and then shrugged. What more was there to say? Paul had been the son of a hunter. As such, he had been tested. It was the only judge of hunters' sons their people had ever known, and though it was a harsh one, it had served them well for many years.

The Test killed, but it did not kill indiscriminately. Paul, dead two years now, had been a force of destruction with the club, but his strength had come at the cost of foot-speed, and the caves had judged him. It was not enough to be strong; only those who were strongest, fastest, smartest and best with the bow could survive. All others perished, and in some years this left only a very small few. In some years, there were none at all. This was Uru, their world, and this was the only life they knew.

There was silence around the table for a moment, and then Pehr spoke. "What's passed is passed. I am not Paul. I will live."

Truff nodded. Nani favored Pehr with a smile that was all hope and belief and excitement, and it sent a warm flush swelling across his skin.

"Then you'll be a hunter," she said. "You'll find some nice girl, and give her your necklace, and then there will be many little Pehrs running about."

Jace made a gagging noise. Nani reached out and smacked him again, not even bothering to turn in his direction. Pehr shrugged.

"After the Test there is not but the will of the Gods," Pehr said. It was a saying taught to all hunters' children, and it was the truth. Pehr had only vague ideas about life as a man. He would give his necklace to Sili, if she would have it. He would hunt, she would make bread. They would make children. What else was there?

"Worry about what comes after the test some other time," Truff said. "Tonight, I need you to help me re-thatch the roof of the chicken pen."

"Yes, uncle."

"Good. Jace, you will repair the hole in the kampri fence."

"But father—" Jace began, and Truff held his hand up.

"I'll not hear it, boy. Your foolish games spooked the beasts and put the hole there. It's been two weeks, and a pile of rocks is not a fit solution. The kampri will shove them aside eventually, and then we'll be chasing them from here to the jungle's edge. You will fix it. Tonight."

Jace rolled his eyes, sighed, slumped in his chair. "Yes, father."

"You would think he had nothing to do with it," Nani commented, and Jace glared at her. The boy maintained that he was not at fault, that he had been performing an experiment when he impersonated the call of a jungle cat, and could not possibly have expected to trigger a minor stampede. Stupid beasts to begin with, kampri seemed to lose even their limited brainpower when spooked. They had hammered a hole in the fence with their horns, and six had escaped before Jace had built his pile of rocks. He and Pehr had spent an entire afternoon hunting the fugitives down and returning them to their pen. Truff had been unimpressed.

"I don't care who is at fault," Truff said. "Even if the Gods themselves hammered that hole in the fence, Jace is the one who is going to mend it."

"Fine. I'm done anyway," Jace said. "May I be excused, father, that I might carry out this important task you've given me?"

Jace's mother, restricted by her vow of silence, shot her son an angry glance. Truff noticed this, and the left corner of his mouth curled upward in a smirk before breaking out into a full grin.

"A little spirit is never a bad thing in a hunter, Anna. Not so long as he knows when to silence his foolish mouth and do as he's told. You've learned that lesson well, have you not, my son?"

"All too well, father. I sometimes wonder if I've yet woken up from a few of your more … zealous teachings," Jace replied, standing up and collecting his dishes. He left the room, to deposit them in the washtub, where they would shortly be attended to by Nani and her mother.

"Is there any bread left?" Pehr asked, glancing around, and Nani laughed at him.

"Go do your work. If you get it done in time to go out for a swim with me, I will bring you some bread."

Pehr turned a questioning look to his uncle, who only laughed. "Don't ask me for permission to go, boy. You heard the girl. Get to it."

Pehr nodded, stood, and followed Jace into the kitchen.


* * *


"How long have we been friends?" Nani asked him, and Pehr glanced over at her in surprise, eyebrows raised.

"I've known you all my life."

"That's not what I asked you."

They had gone to the sea after dinner and their chores were done, swimming slowly out to the very string of rocks that Pehr and Jace so often visited. The younger boy had not joined them, preferring instead to stay home and work with his father on techniques with the club.

Nani was lying on her back on the smooth rocks, looking up at the stars above them. She yawned, and said, "When I had five years and you had six, you used to pull my hair and call me ugly, and I hated you. I hated you!"

Pehr, who had not thought of those days in so long that they seemed now to have happened in some other life, laughed a little. "Yes. Do you want me to apologize, Nani?"

"No. I want you to tell me how long we've been friends."

Pehr thought about it for a moment, looking back through those years, trying to recall when his relationship with Nani had changed from antagonism to something else.

"Tenth year," he said at last.

"Yours or mine?"

"Yours. It was just five years ago. It seems longer. Do you remember it?"

"I … no. Remember what?"

"When you told Stefan he was no better than kampri shit. You said that because he was insulting Jace, and he shoved you, and you skinned your knees."

Nani's eyes lit up and she grinned. "That's right! I didn't want to cry, but I couldn't help it, and you hit him so hard his nose burst."

"And then he ran home," Pehr said, nodding.

"You helped me up, and the two of you climbed up in the palms and picked berries for me. You pretended you were monkeys and made me laugh."

Pehr shrugged. "Jace made you laugh. When I tried to be a monkey, I nearly fell from the tree."

Nani was smiling, her eyes far away. "I remember."

"That … that is when we became friends, I think."

"Yes, that was it. I don't think we ever fought again … not like we did before."

Pehr sat in silence. He did not have the words to explain how, in her tenth year, Nani had made some fundamental step in the transition from the awkward, obnoxious child she had been, to the woman that she would become. It was not simply her appearance; it was something far deeper than that. When Stefan had shoved her, Pehr had understood in that moment that Nani was right. Stefan was kampri shit, and she was better than him, and he had no right to put his hands upon her.

Though equal in years, Pehr had always been bigger and stronger than Stefan, and he had settled matters in the way that hunters most often did. Stefan had fled crying to his merchant father, who had in turn made clear a simple fact of life: in their village, as in all the world, it was best to avoid incurring the wrath of hunters. Stefan had never been more than a minor annoyance to Pehr or his cousins again.

Nani sighed. "I am afraid for you, Pehr, and for Jace. Will you speak to me as a friend tonight? Not as a woman or a girl, not someone to be protected from the truth, but only as a friend?"

Pehr nodded and, when Nani did not elaborate, said, "I will."

Nani was silent for a time, so long in fact that Pehr wondered if she had reconsidered her decision to share this thing that was troubling her. He kept his peace, and at last she spoke.

"Will you pass this Test?"

Her voice was tight, strained with concern, and for a time Pehr contemplated her question without answering. At last he said, "I do not fear it."

"That's not what I'm asking you!" Nani cried, sitting up and turning to stare at him with an expression that was equal parts anger and love. "Damn it, Pehr … answer the questions I ask you. Don't give me answers you think I want to hear, to questions I never asked."

"I'm sorry."

"I didn't ask you for a Gods-damned apology. Answer the question. Answer it! In three weeks, will I be cousin to a hunter or just another dead man? Will I have to send my husband out on the hunt with only the village idiots by his side, or will I know that when he goes, he goes with friend and family, someone who will think of his safety? When Jace's time comes, should he pass the test, will you be there to guide him on the hunt?"

"Nani … what is it that you fear? The other hunters are good men."

"Oh, yes. Yes, good men. Is that what your father would say of them, then?"

Pehr was taken aback; no one had spoken openly of his father's death in years. The man had met his end when Pehr was only two years old, the victim of an errant spear thrown not by an enemy, but by a fellow hunter. The spear had been intended for a boar but had instead hit Pehr's father in the chest. Twelve days later, the wound went bad and the fever took him. Pehr's mother, still in mourning, had died not nine months later, killed by a sea snake in shallows that seemed no danger even to her sons, who were following along behind her.

This was Uru. This was their world. Truff and Anna had taken the boys in as their own, and had done so gladly. The couple had proven nearly infertile, capable of bearing only two children in nearly a decade of attempts, and were in need of sons.

"My father's death was an accident," Pehr said.

"Of course it was," Nani replied. "But would my father have thrown that spear? They were brothers. They were family, like you and I are family. I know that Josep is not, but after we are wed … you will think of him that way. I know you will. You would never throw a spear that might hit him, or my brother."

Pehr nodded at this. "No, I wouldn't. I would hold the spear."

"One of our lives is worth more than some stupid boar. I know you understand that. Oh, Pehr, I am so afraid for you, and for Jace, and for Josep. I hate the hunt. I … I hate this Test! I hate it!"

There it was at last, or so it seemed to Pehr. This was what Nani had wanted to say; she hated the Test, but feared saying so to a boy that had spent his entire life preparing for it. Now it was out, and Pehr was glad to realize that he was not upset by her hate. The Test was cruel; it had taken family from them both already, and might yet take more.

His heart ached for her, this girl who could only sit and wait and see, who could only hope that her cousin and her brother would survive these dangers forced upon them. He wished, not for the first time, that she might be someone else, so he could take her in his arms and comfort her. This was impossible, and so he merely stared out at the Everstorm, black clouds against a black sky, turned purple-red now and again by flashes of lightning.

"The Test sees the truth in us all," he said at last, and the words tasted to him no better than they had to Truff earlier in the evening.

"Don't quote empty sayings at me," Nani snarled. "Don't you feed me that kampri shit. I'll take it from my father – I know it hurts him to say it as much as it does me to hear it – but I won't take it from you. I won't take it from Paul's brother!"

"I was never much with words," Pehr told her.

It hurt to think too much about Paul, but he understood Nani's anger. He understood it very well. How many nights had he lain awake after Paul's death in the caves, hating the Test, hating his people, hating his existence as the son of a hunter? How could he spout such empty platitudes, now that it was his turn to be tested, his turn to die?

"I want one word, Pehr," Nani said. "I asked you a simple question, and I want your answer, and I want the truth. Will you pass the test? Will you be a hunter?"

Pehr paused, breathed, looked deep within himself and evaluated the boy he knew against those hunters before him who had passed. There was Josep, Nani's betrothed, a strong man and good shot with the bow, but no better than Pehr was now, when he had passed the test. There was Clay, and Torvus, and Sirtram. All were good men, and good hunters, but none had been more prepared or skilled or even lucky than Pehr. They had simply passed the test, as they had trained all their lives to do, as had Pehr.

"I will pass," he said, and nodded. "Yes, Nani. That is the one word you wanted, is it not? Yes. I will be there to hunt with Josep, and with Jace."

"Speak for yourself. You will pass, you believe it and because of that, I believe it … but Jace? He is not … you cannot know his fate."

"He has two years, Nani. That is still much time to learn, and … perhaps I can help. After I pass, I will know the Test. I can help him to prepare."

"My father knows the test as well."

"Yes, but it's been years. It may have changed. It may have—"

"You know your help will be welcome, Pehr. You are like a brother to Jace and me. But you cannot guarantee his success. We all know that Jace is not … he is not a typical hunter. He is not strong."

"No, but he is fast and smart and he can shoot. Who is to say?"

Nani sighed. "It's not fair."

"Nothing is fair. Nani … when is life fair? My father passed his test, made his necklace, gave it to my mother and took her to his bed. They made children, hunted, made bread … they did everything right, and what did it get them?"

"Death," Nani said.

"All roads lead to death," Pehr replied.

"More sayings. Think for yourself, Pehr."

"I believe that saying. We all must die, Nani."

"Will you promise me something?"

"Ask."

"Will you promise to help him? Will you promise to do everything that you can to help him, with the Test and the hunt, and … everything? Will you promise to always be there for him?"

Pehr smiled. "Nani, of course I will."

"Swear it!"

"I promise. I swear to you that I will keep him safe. If by my power I can stop harm from coming to Jace, or to you, or to any of those that I know and love, I will do so. That is all I can do, and all I can give you."

Nani nodded and sat up, glancing backward toward their village. Soon they would need to wade back; the sun rose early, and it was nearly time to sleep.

"That is all you can give me," she said. "And that is all I need. I believe you, Pehr. I trust you. If harm comes looking for any of us, and you can prevent it … I know you will."

With these words, Nani stood and made her way into the shallow lagoon, heading toward home, confident that Pehr would follow her. She did not look back, and didn't need to. He was there, ready to protect her, as he was ready to protect all those that he loved.

In ten days' time, his strength would be tested, and any question of Pehr's survival as a hunter would be rendered moot.


End Chapter 1


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