After you pack your gear and eat your breakfast, you join me by the river. As you wait for everyone else to gather around, you study the houses of Jakita, wondering if anyone else will come to see us before we leave. They don’t.
We climb into several long canoes I had prepared and hidden in the trees before your arrival. Then we begin our long journey down river. It takes many days, especially when we have to portage around the dangerous rapids. By the time we reach the river delta, you are tired of being wet from the river’s spray.
As we travelled down the river, we passed through new environments. We left the temperate forest and entered a vast savannah where you saw many strange and fantastical creatures. The savannah is dangerous, full of predators who hunt anything that moves. We had to set up a night watch. We built fires around our sleeping area, and the people on watch kept them burning. Animals fear fire and won’t disturb anything near it. As a precaution, those on watch were also armed with bows and arrows, though a burning branch would also suffice as a weapon against the creatures of the night.
The night watch continued when we reached the tropical rainforest in the south. Many unusual and harmful things dwell in the jungle. Assume everything there is actively trying to kill you, and you might survive. Don’t touch anything unless I tell you it’s safe. Don’t eat anything unless I gathered it for you. And don’t, under any circumstances, wander off or fall behind.
At last we left the rainforest and reached the ocean. Many of you are glad, for you found the jungle too thick with too many places for predators to hide. Those of you who are afraid of snakes and spiders are equally glad. But those of you who either hate the water or fear the creatures of the deep wish the river journey could have lasted longer, for now we board a large wooden ship like the Viking ships of Earth and sail west to a different continent.
Though we stop at several islands along the way, we spend most of our time at sea. Some of you get sick and spend most of your time in your cabin with a foul-smelling bucket by your side. Those of you who have your sea legs join me on deck where I entertain you with stories of the ancient people’s migrations across the continents and seas.
Finally, we reach the continent Mistaza. We traverse a vast grassland that borders a cold desert. We follow the borderlands between the two. If we journey too far north, we risk encountering Sireva. I make you take turns keeping watch at night just to be safe. When at last we cross the Mistaza River, we enter the Nalik Woods. Under the shelter of the trees and beside the warm fire, I sit cross-legged and place my palms on the ground, feeling the dirt, the twigs, the dead leaves. I inhale the smoke and the earthiness of our surroundings. Then visions of the past fill my mind. I tell you the story of people who lived in this very spot over twenty thousand years ago.
* * * * *
Dawn came after a night of restless sleep. Bayne lay staring up at the wooden beams of the lodge’s roof, his family members sleeping all around him. Today was the day he’d been waiting for since late summer. It was the second day of the Festival of the Volai. Today he would be participating in the Taerim Dance for the second time.
Last year he had chosen Mina as his taerim for the year. She had accepted him, and they had courted one another through the winter and spring seasons. When summer came, they determined they weren’t a good match. They both opted to participate in the Taerim Dance again.
Such things were not uncommon. Most of the villagers took part in the dance multiple times before they found their taer, their life partner. Since he and Mina had ended their courtship, Bayne had to choose a new taerim.
This was the cause of his sleepless night. He knew who he wanted to court, but he was worried one of the older participants would claim her before he had a chance. Even if they didn’t, she might reject him.
Slipping on his leather boots and fur coat, Bayne quietly exited the lodge. His breath plumed in front of his face. Kwinur, the Goddess of Winter, hadn’t come to visit yet. Mosa, God of Fiery Leaves, was still watching over them, but he would soon be leaving.
The Festival of the Volai was a ritual celebrating the departure of Mosa and welcoming the arrival of Kwinur. It also honored the volai, a strong, four-legged predator whom his people knew were wise. Volai worked together in their pack, and every member knew their place. His people were the same way.
The land around his family’s lodge was quiet, but not silent. The songbirds had gone on the Great Migration and wouldn’t return until Kwinur bade them farewell and Lueka, Goddess of the Blossoms, came to visit.
A couple wopai, tamed volai, wandered the camp. Their role was to protect his people. They had had many conflicts with tribes from the Homar Grassland to the south. One of them followed him as he settled beneath a great pine tree. He untied a pouch at his waist and removed his knapping tools. Setting to work on a preform he had shaped yesterday, he attempted to take his mind off the upcoming dance.
* * * * *
Within an hour, the rest of the village was awake and full of activity. Both men and women were preparing for the Great Feast that’s held after the Taerim Dance. Children and wopai ran between the lodges and cooking fires, laughing gleefully. Bayne wished he felt as happy as they did. Instead, he chewed the inside of his cheek as he ground various plants for a bread-like food called dunal. His older brothers and cousins surrounded him, their conversations focused on the dance. Two of his cousins were also participating, one for the third time, and the other for the first.
“Who do you want to be your taerim?” Krowi asked. The young men liked to make a game out of guessing who the others would pick.
“You know we’re not supposed to tell anyone that,” Bayne said. He didn’t care about the rule as much as the embarrassment he would feel if he failed.
“I bet it’s one of the older girls,” Tlisin said. “He’s probably scared she’ll reject him.”
Bayne agreed older girls were intimidating, but he wasn’t interested in any of them. His girl had just come of age and would be participating in the dance for the first time. He could see her across the village, kneading dunal dough with her relatives. The other girls were talking and laughing, but she was quiet. Maybe she was nervous, too. Most people were their first year.
When his cousins failed to get an answer out of him, they turned to pestering each other. Krowi wanted an older girl named Shara to be his taerim, which was ambitious for a first-timer. Tlisin was older, and he had had his eyes on the same young woman for many years, but she had always been claimed before it was his turn to choose. This year he would have an advantage since most of his previous competition had found their taer.
Tlisin’s bad luck is what had Bayne so worried. He didn’t want to wait several years for his girl and risk losing her to someone else. He just had to hope none of the older boys would pick her. Then he would have his chance. Perhaps it would turn out like his relationship with Mina, and they would end their courtship before the next Festival of the Volai. This time he hoped he had found a more suitable match.
* * * * *
That afternoon, the villagers came together for the Taerim Dance. All the eligible young men and women gathered in the center of the main plaza, surrounded by everyone else.
Bayne was wearing his finest buckskin shirt and pants and his softest leather shoes. He had a necklace of bird talons around his neck, taken from one of his few kills. Bayne was a poor hunter, which hurt his chances of being accepted by a woman.
Across from him stood the line of young women, garbed in their best buckskin dresses. Their hair was braided, and they had necklaces of shell. He spotted his girl toward the end of the line. She was fidgeting with the string around her neck.
A drum beat interrupted his thoughts. Then came another. And another. His feet moved with the beat, muscle memory taking over. He had practiced the dance often, both last year and this year. He knew he wouldn’t embarrass himself with his dancing.
A flute and other instruments joined the drum, and the two lines of dancers merged.
Bayne spent a few minutes dancing with each of the young women, gradually making his way down the line. He didn’t pay much attention to the first few girls. Then she was in front of him, his Jaysa.
She danced gracefully, the result of much practice he was sure. He savored the minutes they shared together, hoping she would have a good impression of him.
The music reached its climax for the final few dancers, then came to an end. The two lines split again, men facing women.
The drum sounded, and the first young man—also the oldest—stepped forward and stood directly in front of one of the older girls. The drum beat again, and the next man in line chose his partner. This continued all the way down the line.
Bayne held his breath, hoping none of them would stand in front of Jaysa.
Tlisin was three people ahead of Bayne. He stood in front of the older girl he had waited for the past few years. Bayne was happy his cousin finally had the opportunity to court the young woman he fancied.
The next few boys chose their partners, and then it was Bayne’s turn. Jaysa stood alone. No one had chosen her. Bayne was relieved, but the suspense wasn’t over yet. She had to accept him. He stepped in front of her and smiled shyly.
She smiled back.
Poor Krowi was the last male in the line, and he had no choice but to choose one of the younger women. Perhaps he would have a better chance next year.
After all the young men had chosen, the drum sounded a new beat, and the women either accepted or declined their partners. To accept, she took a step forward. To decline, she took a step back. All the older girls stepped forward. When it was Jaysa’s turn, she, too, accepted her match. No one was declined that day.
Bayne let out his held breath in relief. The hard part was over. He had chosen his girl, and she had accepted him.
When the music began again, the partners danced together. The world blurred around Bayne as he focused his attention on the dancing and Jaysa. His worries for the past couple months had been unnecessary. He had found a suitable taerim for at least the next year.
Bayne was sad when the music stopped. They had been dancing for hours, but he felt as though he could go on for days. The audience chanted their approval and made their way to the fires for their feast.
Bayne held out his hand, and Jaysa took it. They walked together as the last rays of daylight shone through the trees. Bayne and Jaysa’s families sat together as was customary for new taerim matches. Both of their parents gave their approval, and they sat between the two families. Their fathers and brothers left to bring back meat from yesterday’s hunt, and their mothers and sisters brought back the rest of the meal.
Bayne and Jaysa shared a mat of woven reeds where they placed their food. There was much laughing, talking, and merriment around them, but Bayne and Jaysa were silent. Bayne wondered if Jaysa was nervous, this being her first time courting.
He reached into a pouch strapped to his waist and pulled out a cold stone object. He kept it clasped in his hand. “I made this for you,” he said softly and held out his hand.
Jaysa held out hers, and he dropped the stone onto her palm. She opened her hand, revealing a stone pendant made of a polished gray rock that came from the mountains. It was carved into the likeness of a volai.
“It’s beautiful,” Jaysa said as she examined it. “Thank you.”
Bayne smiled. “You’re such a skilled weaver, I thought you could make the cord for it.”
Jaysa blushed. Then she removed the plant fibers holding her braids in place and deftly wound them together to make a cord. She slid the pendant onto the cord and tied it around her neck.
“How long have you known you would choose me?” Jaysa asked.
“Since late summer. Many of the eligible women are good craftsmen, but none show the same passion as you. I thought your love of weaving would allow you to appreciate my love of knapping.” Bayne paused. “Were you hoping for someone else?”
“I didn’t want to be with anyone in particular,” Jaysa said. “But I’m honored you chose me.”
Bayne nodded. It wasn’t unusual for someone to not know who to choose as their taerim. That’s why they had the dance. If nothing else, they could make their decision based on their dancing abilities. “You’re happy, then, with this partnership? I know declining a taerim can be hard.”
They finished eating their meal in silence, listening to the cheerful conversations around them. Once everyone had finished eating, they turned their heads toward the sky. The moon shone bright and full.
Then they howled.
They poured out their emotions as they paid tribute to the volai. They honored their teamwork, pack dynamics, and wisdom.
The wopai joined in, and far off in the distance called volai.
The village was silent after the howling stopped.
Bayne offered Jaysa his hand and escorted her to her lodge. He stopped a few steps from the door. “You’ll come see me tomorrow?” he asked.
He smiled, and he felt happier than he had ever felt before.