A/N: Other half of this chapter was posted before this.
(continuing from Part 1)
The boys who collected at the last home before the forest were quite an assortment, between them carrying almost all the physical variations to be seen their village. The eldest, the one who would marry that night, had a head of red hair and curls, and while the former was not uncommon the latter was noticeably rare. The next eldest, who would likely marry the following Spring Harvest, also sprouted red hair, several shades lighter and straight and limp in the dull wind. Col was the only male child currently with hair of blonde; there were several females, one with a long mane that was almost white in colour, but the remaining three had heads of brown, each a different shade. There were black-haired children too, but they were not old enough to venture into the forest, even with supervision.
Especially with the reduced level that went with the Spring Harvest, as most men were occupied elsewhere. That day, it was only their teacher accompanying them, and the wood-cutter who, at that point in time, lacked wood to cut. When produce was not good the farmer would also come, but the Gus that year were healthy and he was preparing the best in the field for slaughter.
Col hoped he would not be stuck with the wood-cutter. Warm and friendly though the beefy man was, it was far less interesting learning about different types of wood and how well they burnt than it was being on a hunt. Especially three years in a row, as the last two Spring Harvest preparation days had seen him following the wood-cutter as well. To his misfortune he had not gone on a Spring Harvest hunt at all.
But luck was on Col's side that day, and he was going with their teacher and the two red-heads for some birds to roast. So a few minutes of lecturing later, he was happily trekking into the forest with arrows in the quiver slung over his shoulder and bow in hand.
'As you know,' the teacher began quietly, once they were past the village and amidst the tall grasses. 'Most birds that feed of snakes are immune to their venom, unlike us humans who have to take care to neutralise the poison before ingesting it. In most cases, snake venom spreads in the blood and we can't eat the meat of what they poison. Snakes can only be eaten because the poison is located in special glands located on each side of the head.'
The three nodded; they had learnt that over their past few excursions, witnessing the large beaked birds devouring their prey with no side-effects while other, far smaller, birds bucked and twitched before stilling as they succumbed to the poison's effects.
'There are even some snakes that can succumb to the poison of other snakes, and others who are resistant.'
They knew this as well, although it had taken almost a year after the knowledge was given to them to witness a practical example. Those reasons were why they usually used plant-derived poisons for their arrows; they had not learnt to distinguish which snake venoms were effective against which birds.
The teacher stopped walking, black hair with flecks of grey catching the sun rays as he bent down. 'Ah,' he said quietly. 'Here's what we need.'
He whistled softly, tongue forking out at times to stopper the sound. The three children crowded around, silent as they watched the small black snake jerk up, before slowly slithering towards the sound. All of them wondered why the teacher was interested in a baby snake.
The teacher proffered a hand. The snake hesitated before curling around the strong glove. It was one the traders had taken their snake skin to fashion and then traded back for more of the raw material. Strong and sturdy, it was durable against most poison fangs, but were rare enough in their village to only belong to the ones who dealt most closely with live snakes and their venom.
The boys were careful to stay away from striking distance; they did not own such gloves and no amount of clothing could protect one's face. The snake flicked its tongue, black and coiled around the teacher's wrist.
'See this?' Carefully, the man pried the snake's jaws open. The forked tongue licked his thumb as he showed his students the two sacks just visible. 'All of you know the glands of baby poisonous sacks are not so well developed.' He let the jaw go thereafter, the snake snapping its mouth shut.
'That's an adult?' the younger of the two red-haired boys said in awe, watching the yellow eyes turn to him in a shy manner. Once they met orbs of brown the snake quickly squirmed. The teacher shifted his hold so as not to surrender his prize.
'I still have need of you,' he said softly, whistling again. Once the snake quietened, he answered his students' question. 'Yes, this is an adult snake. Their poison is effective after immediate administration, but not lethal, and therefore all the birds around here have no immunity to it. The venom is only to allow these little snakes to escape when danger comes; they are known for being rather shy.'
Col blinked, leaning carefully closer. The snake withdrew its head, trying to curl around the teacher's finger. 'What does it eat then? Somehow I can't see it hunting if it's shy.'
'No,' the teacher replied. 'Sometimes they happen across opportune meat, but usually feed off eggs and unattended young. Cuckoo eggs are the most common, as you know the first hatching pushes the remaining eggs out of the next to have more feed and attention for itself.'
The three boys nodded. It was one of the sad truths of the animal world.
'Now, this poison is useful to us because it breaks down quite quickly and is ineffective if not administered directly into the bloodstream. So eating meat apprehended with this venom won't do us any harm.'
The snake shied away as the teacher's free hand reached for its jaw once more but the man was quick, restraining the jerking head with a thumb while forcing his index and middle fingers between the upper and lower jaw. With a quiet hum to calm the animal, he pushed the jaws wide enough.
'Kieran,' the teacher said, addressing the eldest of the three students. 'Would you like to extract the poison?'
Col was somewhat relieved he was not called on for the task; extracting snake venom was a very fickle task and required extreme care, and while he was confident he would succeed when his chance finally came (for it was only given to those about to blossom into adulthood) his fingers were worn from the reed-cleaning he had already done that day.
Kieran stepped forward, withdrawing the tools he required and carefully prodded at the gland. Each time his hand shook he withdrew it; it would not do to burst the sack as they would either have to attempt the other or abandon the snake for a new one. Snakes with one gland were no less advantaged then snakes with two, but having none was a problem as they didn't instantaneously grow back.
After a few moments meticulous work, the red-haired boy managed to pierce the skin covering without bursting the gland inside. The rest of the process was far easier, simply sucking the venom through hollowed bamboo and shaking the droplets into a small clay dish. The only danger was accidently swallowing it, but the sucking breaths had to be small for ease of transport and were carefully practiced with the bamboo straws on plain water before being applied to the more dangerous work.
The teacher nodded in approval and set the snake back upon the grass. Thankful, it slithered away out of sight. 'You could have gotten a little more,' he said, 'but that's still enough.'
Relieved, Kieran stepped back, returning the tools to the Gus-skin bag he brought them in.
The teacher looked at the bag. 'Remember to wash them thoroughly.'
Kieran nodded. No good hunter ever forgot to clean their tools.
They returned to the village with a meat-bird apiece, all of them pleased with their catches even though the younger red-haired boy lamented over the two arrows he had lost in misaim. Col was pleased to find his strike land true; he was good at shooting but he had not the experience of the others in his company. The teacher predictably also shot true. His aim as always hit just under the base of the wing where the activity of the bird was greatest, allowing paralysis to quickly spread through the blood. The teacher's blade then pierced each temple to permanently still their prey. Kieran's arrow had shot through the belly – a little more painful for the hunted but no less effective for their catch.
They stopped at the river before returning to the hut, cleaning the retrieved arrows for reuse and Kieran cleaning his tools as well. The teacher too stripped the snake hide gloves he wore and washed them carefully before laying them out to dry upon the roof of his hut.
Then he looked at the three boys standing around and quickly snapped orders.
'Farmer Ole requires help with the Gus he has slaughtered,' he said, looking at the two younger boys. 'You two go to him. Kieran, take these birds to the women.'
Col and his companion quickly left for the field. The hut, where they stored their weapons and materials that were not frequented about any individual household, was not a place that prompted any to dawdle and their teacher's brisk tone was even more deterring. Their trek quickly passed other dwellings: the teaching room, the dwellings and the city hall, and finally the food storage closest to the mouth of the riverbank.
The field where the Gus grazed were a little behind the food storage, within the rickety wooden fence that groaned in the fiercer winter winds. The large field led into a far smaller one, separated by a fence impenetrable to the large animals. Sometimes in their restlessness they broke the fences lower down, but the one that separated the two fields and the line that faced the dwellings of the villagers were built with far more sturdiness. The villagers held the firm belief that the breaking of fences and the few chaotic moments they had to deal with in chasing them back were important in soothing the wilder aspects of their personality. Docile most of the time, there were moments wherein the Gus became a little restless and temperamental in their slightly restrained environment.
The main field however was big enough for this to rarely be a problem however. And when Col and his companion arrived, slightly out of breath, they found the Gus merrily grazing with only one noted absence. Quietly, they followed the fence and came across the smaller field, lifting the hatch of the small door on the outside and letting themselves in.
Farmer Ole was there, straightening his back with a pained expression on his face. At first appearance his shagged grey hair and heavily wrinkled skin suggested he was too old for the job, and perhaps he was a few years older than someone of his occupation should be, but the fact was he had no son to carry on his legacy. To his good fortune though he had sired two daughters with his late wife, the elder of which who would be marrying during the following Spring Harvest and the younger two years later.
He looked up when Col replaced the latch, the outermost cloth he wore sagging with blood. 'Ah, good,' he said in relief. 'My back can't keep up with dragging meat around. Nor my hands with that cold water.' He showed the pustules that assaulted his skin behind one stripped glove. The cloth wasn't snake hide like their teacher's, but rather the normal Gus skin.
Col and his companion exchanged glances. The cleaning was definitely the less preferential of the jobs and neither of them was going to volunteer for it. Nor was the farmer about to interfere in the decision making.
The red-haired boy broke the staring contest and pulled the string-tie from his outermost tunic and loosely knotted the end before offering it. Col slipped his index and pinkie fingers into each of the four corners, and thus the game began.
When he managed to return the loop to its original state eleven rounds later he was surrendered to lugging buckets to and from the riverbank to hose down the slaughter field while the other took the beheaded carcass on his back.
'Come join us!' he called merrily. 'Someone will need to clean the preparation table too!'
Col grumbled silently as he left to pick up two empty buckets from the food storage. They were wooden like much else in their village and the sides were indented to allow for easy carrying. Still, carrying two full buckets would be rather straining; however carrying one at a time would take almost twice as long.
And so he filled each three quarters of the way up, allowing the rims to be tilted slightly as he struggled back up the shallow slope. His wrists complained to the work and he quietened them; it was only once a year after all that they had to work so hard and the festival that followed was well worth the effort.
In any case, he was still euphoric after his lesson in the forest so drawing the short end of the stick on this occasion was no big deal.
The first trip simply spread the pool of blood. The second was more productive and he fetched the broom and spread the mess for the sun and the soil to cleanse before using a final bucket of water to splash upon the grass.
And then he washed the bucket and the broom, left them to dry out in the sun, and headed over to the preparation table where Farmer Ole was hacking at the meat.
'You, Col,' he called upon seeing the boy. 'Fetch a sharp knife and start cleaning this lot.' He pointed at the pile of fist-sized meat pieces.
Col grimaced at that. It appeared as though he had gotten the short end of the stick again; the other pile, which the red-haired boy of seventeen started on as soon as he returned from sharpening his own blade (it was easy to tell as the metal gleamed in the sunlight) had the larger pieces for roast. And they, while being less healthy, were by far easier to clean.
Knowing his wrists and fingers would be painfully stiff when he awoke the following morning, he fetched a slightly smaller knife – one that suited his hand size better – and began peeling the fat away.
The skin had been carefully removed and thoroughly washed – it possessed the touch of a woman's finesse – and was now spread over a picket fence and drying under the last breath of Spring. Those proficient with the art of making clothes would use the material and fashion new garments for themselves or others and the smaller pieces that remained would be used for bags of various assortment.
Col worked on carefully removing the fat, placing it in the bucket that sat between him and the slightly older boy. The fat too was useful; some of it was melted and used for cooking, but the majority of it went towards formulating healing balms of various natures. Farmer Ole's knuckles were glistening in the light too as he swung his far larger and rectangular-shaped blade up and down, pausing every so often to removed neatly cut blocks before tossing them into one pile or the other for the boys to skin of fat.
Meanwhile, the bucket of fat slowly grew, speeding up a little when one of the women passed by their work and yelled at them to hurry up, threatening to withhold some of the juicer aspects of the feast if they dawdled.
Nobody wished to miss fresh Gus roast.
The sun dipped over the slopes a few hours later, and despite the ragged appearance individuals that crowded around a stack of bonfire they were all pleased with their efforts. Over the years their numbers had sadly dwindled due to numerous factors, and the result was that each that remained had to work just a little bit harder to maintain their society.
But it was their way of life and they were proud to uphold it.
The Elder stood at their head, a figure of white amidst the sea of earth-brown and the occasional stains of green and red. His staff was of willow, sturdy and supporting a large percentage of his weight; indeed, he leaned on it more heavily than he should, even at his age. His eyes too were dim as they watched the flames, listening to the flutes and drums the young girls played as the one of sixteen years danced her final solo dance.
She was a pretty one, owning a fair head like Col's own save long enough to fall to the middle of her back when left loose – that night it was looped above her head and held by a tenderly twisted stem, the flower gleaming a pale orange in the light of the setting sun. Her dress was crimson dyed, a garment that came from across the river-bank. All married women owned one, that they adorned once on their wedding day and again when the knowledge of a child's conception within her belly was announced to the world.
Kieran waited silently on the other side of the fire and the Elder stood one step behind him and to the left; the remaining villagers crowded behind, silently watching. Some were dry eyed. Others were sprouting tears.
The music stopped. The girl froze as the last of the sun's rays sleeked over the slops of their village and vanished from sight. The Elder stepped forward; someone handed a pre-lit flame to him – for who could expect a man of his age to bend down with a hatchet and reed shavings and coax a stubborn spark to light – and he took another step before throwing the flame to the top of the tower of wood. It caught the reed shavings scattered there and spread inward; within a few minutes the bonfire was gloriously lit.
Once Kieran took his new wife in hand, the men and woman spread about the bonfire, splitting into pairs and dancing under its light. The younger generation hovered back; Col for one had three years to go before his turn to marry would come and he had no intention of starting an early relationship with several girls who were close enough to be compatible with age, including the younger of Farmer Ole's two daughters.
So he waited, and after the initial dancing came the paying of respects. He took the boat he had carefully whittled the night before on the riverbanks and carried it to the edge. The smooth water by the edge flowed gently downstream, but beyond he could see the wilder rapids carrying the reflection of the bonfire with speed.
He set his boat on the shallow water, mindful of those around him who did as well. Further along he saw his grandparents each laying down a boat of their own; traditionally it was for their parents who had long since passed, but in their hearts their mourning for their daughter and her bond-mate were no less.
Col turned back downstream to watch the boat vanish from sight, his face for once blanked from expression, before standing and returning to the livelier portion of the crowd as they continued to dance.
When Farmer Ole's younger daughter wound up in his arms he did not object; the third dance was far less important than the first and it was simply two villagers dancing under the three-quarter moon. The Elder took one short dance with his niece before leaving with a quick whisper to the village Healer who followed soonafter. But by then the sombre atmosphere had lifted and the food had been brought out by those girls not occupied in a dance.
Then the real festive began. Celebrating the newly married couple, eating, drinking, dancing and talking the night away. Some of the older generation found their eyes sagging with sleep and tiredness, but it wasn't until the world above was at is blackest that things broke up and the families headed to bed, leaving the cleanup to the first day of Summer.
What they hadn't expected was the sound of the gong in the village square to wake them at sunrise. And when Col arrived with his grandparents he heard only the same muted whisper, repeated over and over again.
'The Elder is dead.'