His mother often said his father was York. But she was kept so drugged by the high priestesses that she rarely knew who her callers were, and other times, she said his father was a blind fisherman. With bad breath, which had apparently stuck in her mind.
So Rone didn't take much heed of her words, except to eat sweet-smelling herbs when he could.
Still, there were others who thought he had more than a touch of the Saint of Thieves in him. Even as a young child, he was constantly scheming to get things that didn't belong to him. He could sweet talk the temple cooks into giving him extra scraps, or little treats usually saved for the high priestesses and their special guests. The other boys and girls would often find they'd come off worse on little deals or bets he'd set up, not sure why they'd taken them in the first place.
Once, he'd been caught lightening the pocket of a High Guard while he was enjoying the company of his mother. Priestess Gylia forcefully made the point that men expected their belongings to be safe inside the temple, and paid well for that privilege. However, he noticed how she emphasized the word "inside," and simply moved his operations elsewhere.
Most of what he got, he earned through begging. "Are you my father?" he'd ask each man who came in. He'd do his best to ape them, to screw up his features to look a little more like they did, puffing his cheeks out if they were fat, or sucking them in if they were skinny. Sometimes he got a cuff behind the ear, but sometimes he'd get a pat on the head and a few coins. Temple children were almost never claimed, but the men who visited could be kind enough, in their way.
However, he was growing older now. The cuffs were more frequent, the coins fewer. He would have to leave soon. Temple girls were expected to become priestesses themselves, but the boys could only stay as eunuchs. Rone was starting to think that this was less of a great deal than he'd thought when he was younger.
So he was considering his career prospects when the old man passed by the front of the temple. Rone was not yet a very good pickpocket, still mostly confining himself to rolling the occasional drunk. But he could see a full, heavy purse hanging from the man's side, and what son of York would he be if he could resist that?
He pulled out a little knife he'd stolen from the kitchens, and hid it against his wrist as he approached, trying to look as though he were traveling somewhere in quite a hurry, before colliding in the old man.
His knife flashed out as he bumped into the old man, intending to cut open the purse and take the man's money. However, the old man's hand shot out and grabbed his bony wrist, twisting until the knife fell from his hand.
Rone immediately began struggling to get away, but he couldn't escape the man's grasp. And even as he tried, he saw large, muscular men whom he hadn't noticed following at a discreet distance.
"Do you know who I am, boy?" the old man said. His hair was white, his eyes yellow, and his teeth nearly as dark as his skin.
"No, no, please. Just let me go, I'll never do it again," Rone promised.
"I am Lord Totch, the Tyrant's secretary, you little thief!" he said. He slapped the side of Rone's head, and pushed him into the arms of the waiting men. "Teach him not to steal from his betters," he said.
Rone ducked his head as the first blows came.
It was weeks before Rone was recovered. He didn't even remember crawling back into the temple. Priestess Heth tended to him when she wasn't busy with other duties. Luckily, the men hadn't done any real damage. No broken bones. His wits didn't seem to have been addled. Once the swelling went down, his face looked the same as it ever had. All in all, he'd gotten quite lucky, and he promised himself he'd never be so clumsy again.
When the last of the marks faded, he sat on the temple steps and once again considered his prospects. Thieving was still a viable option, he supposed. But perhaps not pick pocketing. Not until he learned to be more clever at it. Perhaps he could find an older thief in need of an apprentice?
"Boy, move!" said a familiar face. Rone looked up and froze.
"Well?" the Tyrant's secretary said. "Out of my way. I'm a busy man."
Rone scuttled over to the side, and the man passed, oblivious to whom he'd spoken.
"He didn't even recognize me…" Rone whispered. He stared incredulously at Totch's back. "He didn't even recognize me!" Suddenly, he was filled with anger. After all that had happened, the man didn't even know him! Suddenly, he felt the need to be on his feet. He ran down the steps, taking them two at a time, right past the man's guards, who didn't give him any more of a look than their master.
"Who does he think he is?" Rone fumed. How dare they ignore him, like he was nothing? He felt like grabbing the nearest person and shouting his name in their faces, but that still wouldn't teach the secretary a lesson. No, he had to think bigger than that.
He began to plot, and to think, and then smiled grimly to himself. It would take a few days to get the supplies, but he'd manage it. Yes, they'd know who he was next time. Yes, he'd make sure of that. They'd shout his name from their towers, oh yes.
Several days later, Rone was prepared. Second story work, he'd decided, was much more his style than pick pocketing. So many people failed to lock a window if it was high enough. The hardest part was getting the clothes, but finding one of Lord Vere's servant boys at the bathhouse had given him all the opportunity he'd needed.
Now, it was time to put his plan into motion.
Rone walked into the mansion with a determined expression and a piece of paper in his hand. He caught a glance from one of the servants, but was otherwise ignored. He quickly made his way up the steps of the tower towards the Lord’s office.
On his way up, a door opened, and a bearded man glared at him. “Boy! Where are you going?” he asked.
“U-up to Lord Totch’s office, sir,” Rone replied, beginning the speech he’d prepared. “I’ve a missive fr-”
“Take this,” the man said, stuffing a small satchel into his hand. “Well? Get going.”
“Yes sir!” Rone said, turning quickly away. He continued up the stairs.
The office was empty when he carefully opened the door. He breathed a quick sigh of relief. That should make the rest of it easy.
He paused to open the satchel, and found it full of papers. He couldn't read, so he ignored them, though he’d likely be able to sell them later. He only needed to be able to write one thing today.
He opened the window. He saw the Tyrant’s balcony across the way. The entire balcony was lined with bars, keeping thieves out, but letting the Tyrant look out across his city.
It was about twenty feet from Totchs’s tower to the Tyrant’s. Too far for Rone to jump. However, not too far for him to throw.
He tossed the hook he’d stolen from the fishing boats. It was made for hunting the levyatan eels in the deeper waters. It was nearly too heavy for him to throw so far, but he managed it on the second try. He set his foot in the loop he’d made, and swung out into space.
He nearly let go when he slammed into the wall, but he managed to keep his grip. Then he began wriggling up the rope until he reached the bars.
He slipped through. An adult could never have made it. Even a boy with a slightly heftier build would have had trouble. But Rone was just skinny enough to make it.
The room was ornately decorated. There was filigree artwork, statues of marble and jade, and tapestries. He was looking for something impressive to steal when he heard a splashing.
Several women in various states of undress were swimming in a shallow pool. He froze, but none of them seemed to see him. They were all clinging to a floating green tube. They seemed frightened, and their eyes seemed to focus far beyond the walls. He decided they must be drugged with something, and made his way around, until he came to the Tyrant’s bed. There he found what he was looking for. It was an artifact of the old world, one of the strange, jeweled rectangles they sometimes found in pleys containers, with the gold lines running along its green surface. It was the largest he’d ever seen, nearly as wide across as the length of his forearm. It must have cost even the Tyrant dearly to buy. He placed it delicately into his bag.
Then he took out the jar of paint. He cracked the seal, and then used a bit of the Tyrant’s own bed sheet on the wall behind the bed. He'd had to pay a scribe to know what to do, and he copied the scratches on the paper slavishly. He had to get it just right.
When he was satisfied with his work, he went back to the balcony. He slipped through the bars, and threw the hook over to Totsch’s office. He swung back across, and then clambered up to the window. He glanced inside to make sure no one was inside, and then made his way back down. This time no one challenged him.
He walked through the street with his narrow back straight and his chin high as any lordling’s son. By the next evening, everyone in the city would know his name.
He woke the next morning when he was shaken by Priestess Gylia. "Wake up! Wake up, you little idiot!"
"Huh? Whuz?" he murmured.
"There are men all around the city looking for you. You have to get dressed immediately!" The silver-haired priestess hauled him to his feet, and shoved him in the direction of the hamper where he kept his belongings. "No, not that, something with a hood. You can't be that daft, and be in all this trouble."
As he blearily got dressed, her words sank in. Looking for him! The deeds of the previous day began to come back to him. He'd stolen from the Tyrant himself.
"Not that I think you did it," Gylia said. "Not even you would be stupid enough to paint 'My name is Rone' after stealing the Tyrant's favorite treasure. But they'll… Oh. Oh no, Rone. Please, please tell me you didn't."
"Um." Rone began to consider whether or not it had been quite so clever as it had seemed when he'd come up with the plan.
"Oh, good lord. We have to get you out of the city right now." She bundled him up, pulling the hood down over his face. "I know a caravaneer. He's not leaving until two days from now, but if you get out now, you can meet him on the road. But now, we have to get you out of the city before someone mentions you to the guard. Now, move."
Rone let himself be guided out of the room and out of the temple, pausing only to pick up his bag. Gylia led him down narrow alleyways and through busy markets, eyes watchful for the Guard. Once, a Guardsman had walked right up to them, but he was just asking if Gylia was going to be at the temple later. Money changed hands, and she promised she would be, for him.
When they reached the gate, Gylia put a hand on his shoulder. "Now, you must listen to me. Walk alongside the road for the rest of the day. That should put you far enough from the city. Hide there, and wait for a caravan to pass. Ask for Tenzin, and tell him that Gylia sent you. He will help you."
Rone nodded. "Thank you, Priestess," he said, then considered the guards. There were four, two watching the inside, two watching the outside.
Gylia followed his gaze. "You'll need to get past them. I can't help you. Priestesses are not allowed out of the city, and they'll be suspicious if I approach. Just tell them a different name, and pretend you're out to see your uncle or something. You have a clever tongue, boy. Use it."
"Th-thank you, Priestess," he said. He realized suddenly that he wasn't going to be able to come back to the city. Not for a long time. Maybe not ever. "I…" He didn't know what to say.
"Oh, Rone," she said softly, and she gathered him to her in a hug. "Be brave, be clever, and never stop running while you have breath to give." Then she released him, and she turned away, walking back to the temple.
Rone squared his shoulders, and walked up to the guards.
"Whaddya want, boy?" one asked. He looked suspiciously at the boy, his piggy blue eyes vivid against his dark skin.
"Sir," he began, about to tell him what Gylia suggested, then deciding to try something even better. "I know where Rone is!"
"Where?" the guard asked, standing straighter. The other three guards also looked on attentively.
"Want part of the reward," Rone said. "Otherwise, ain't telling."
"You'll tell, or I'm gonna black your eyes. Now talk," the guard said, leaning in close to Rone. The other three, including the two who were supposed to be watching the outside, gathered close.
"Awright, awright," Rone said, squeezing his eyes until a tear ran down his cheek. "I'll talk, just don't hit me. He's planning on escaping the city. He's coming here."
"What's he look like?" the guard asked. "No lies, now."
"He's short, and has brown hair, and that's him over there!" Rone said, pointing to a small figure hurrying through the open square.
The guards shouted an oath. The two from the inner gate ran toward the man Rone had pointed out, while the other two looked on. While their attention was focused inward, he slipped past them, and ran out the gate. He heard a startled oath behind him, but he knew it would take them a minute to run after him, if they even decided to. He kept to the road for a moment, then cut off, falling into a ditch then scrambling out again. Fields and trees stretched out as far as he could see. Which seemed an awfully far way. Was it normal to be able to see that far away?
There was a noticeable lack of alleys to duck into, or thick crowds to lose himself in. There were people on the road, and people working the fields, but nowhere he could simply vanish. That could be a problem very shortly.
He glanced behind him. There seemed to still be some commotion at the gate, but no one running yet.
"What are you doing in my field?" someone yelled. Rone froze, and saw a man in a straw hat running at him. It hadn't occurred to him that people owned fields, the way they owned buildings. He figured it all belonged to the Tyrant, until you were too far away to care about him.
He decided to take the halfwit approach. "S-sorry. I got c-confused," he said.
The man drew up, and looked Rone up and down. "Who are you?" he asked. "Why are you all alone here?"
"M'name's Hever," he said. "Gon' see m'uncle." He decided this was as good a time as any to break out Gylia's lie. It had been a good one, all things considered, and it was a shame to waste it completely.
The man's face broke into sympathy. "Your uncle? Whose farm does your uncle work at? I know every landowner around here. I'll help you find him."
Rone's face froze. How could the man know everyone? He hadn't counted on this. "At, uh, at, uh, Larn's farm," he said, giving the most common name he could think of.
"Hmm. Lots of Larns around here. Where did your parents tell you to go?" asked the farmer.
"East, sir," Rone said, giving the general area area the road followed.
"That doesn't narrow it down much. Can't you think of anything else?" the man asked.
"Not s'good at thinkin', sir." Rone was beginning to wonder if he should just make another run for it.
"Hmm. Well, I can't take you around to every Larn east of here." The man seemed to struggle with a decision for a moment, and then put a kindly hand on Rone's shoulder. "All right, you need to listen to me carefully, Hever," he said, speaking slowly. "You need to go down the road. Walk until you get to the big, wooden bridge. There is a farm after it. Go there, and talk to Caswin. He'll help you. Do you understand?"
"Down the road to the big wooden bridge," Rone repeated. "Talk to Caswin."
"Good lad." The farmer gave him a gentle shove toward the road, and Rone was off.
No one coming from the gate. They must have decided he wasn't important. He hoped it would be a good, long while before they found out how wrong they were. But now, the road was open, the sun warm, and the world was his. He hefted his bag over his shoulder and whistled as he walked.
The rain poured down, and Rone shivered in the tree. He'd walked about a day's travel when he was chased from the road by a pack of wild dogs. After he'd gotten away from them by swimming in a river, he'd wandered lost a couple of days before being chased by a giant lizard, which was now waiting below, and he had no idea where the road was anymore. He was wet, he was miserable, and he was pretty sure he was going to die.
That was when the shouting began. At first, he thought it was another pack of wild dogs, with the howls and yipping, but there were words mixed in. Hard to understand, but he picked up "left," "right," and "closer."
Kangaroos jumped through the bushes, followed closely by dogs, and then men with white-painted faces and dark red hair. They threw spears as they ran, and a kangaroo leapt into the lizard, before being caught in its massive jaws. It turned to the hunters.
They scrambled to a stop, but didn't run. Instead, they formed up, those still holding spears taking point. The lizard hissed menacingly, but turned again, picked up the kangaroo, and waddled off, not willing to risk injury from the hunters.
"Hey, we got a boy in the tree!" said one of the white-faces. He wore leather breeches and a simple shirt, both in mottled grey and black. Others, dressed similarly, looked up.
"Strange fruit for a yook tree," another said, laughing.
"Is it ripe?" asked one.
"Go and smell for yourself," said another. "Oy, you in the tree, you coming down? Fangface is gone."
Rone gently lowered himself to the ground, and nearly fell as his much-abused muscles protested. "Th-thanks," he said.
"You're from the city," the white-face said. "You running away?"
Rone nodded cautiously. The nomads sometimes traded with the city, but it was said they had little to do with the guards when possible.
"Well, you'll come with us now. We saved you, you're ours now," said the white-face.
"What?" Rone was caught by surprise as two of them grabbed his arm.
"You have rules in the city? We have rules here. That's one. Now come. We have a long way to walk tonight."
They pushed and pulled him along until they met up with other hunters. His bag with its treasures was taken from him, and freshly-cut pieces of meat, wrapped in leather, were thrust into his arms. Hunters chatted amiably around him, occasionally giving him a shove or steadying him as he tripped. He wasn't so much dragged as he was caught up in a friendly, talkative stampede.
By the time they reached the camp, the rain had stopped, and the moon peeked out from above the clouds.
There were conical leather tents set up all around several big fires. Orange and blue pictures decorated each tent, and bells were strung from their tops to jangle in the breeze. Older men, children, and women stared at them. Their clothing was more varied than the hunters', with reds and yellows predominant. The older men had painted faces like the hunters.
The meat was taken from Rone's arms, and he collapsed to the ground. He'd never walked so much in his life.
He was hauled back to his feet by the first white-face. "I am Last Man. It's been decided that you belong to me."
"My name is—" Rone began, but was given a sharp rap on the head.
"Your name? Your name is you, or boy, or city brat. Don't talk to me about names. You're a boy, not a man." He gestured to one of the fires. "Now, sit down, get something to eat, and then go to my family's tent. The one with the man standing alone."
Rone did as he was told. The food was meat, vegetables, and roots roasted on sticks over the fire, and spiced lightly. It was delicious after a day of running. When he entered the tent, he found it already somewhat crowded with children, dogs, two hunters, and several women, including one who introduced herself as Straytaker. She fussed over him a moment in a way that reminded him of the priestesses, and then sent him to sleep on the blankets with the dogs and the other children. Rone gathered she was Last Man's wife.
As he laid himself to the blankets, shoving a puppy aside, he was already thinking about how he would escape. They'd caught him when he was weak and lost. But Rone had made a fool of the Tyrant. There was no way they could stop someone as clever as him. Not for long.
The next day, Rone was woken up by Straytaker shaking his shoulder. She thrust a bucket into his hands and told him she needed him to get water. She spoke slowly, as though he were slow or simple.
He hurried outside, and others stared at him. "Hey, city boy!" called out a girl about his age. "Where are you going?"
"Getting water," he said, a trifle defensively, not liking to be called city boy.
"I'll help," she said. "It's this way."
"I know," he said, though he didn't.
"Of course," she said, and her smile told him she wasn't fooled. Rone decided immediately that he didn't like her.
"What's your name?" he asked.
She stared at him for a moment, and burst out laughing. He definitely didn't like her. "I don't have a name! How old do you think I am?"
"Everyone has a name," Rone said, then paused. "Don't they?"
"No one gets a name until they're ready to be a man or a woman, silly. My mother's name is Third Arrow, because she shot a bandit with three arrows, and the third one killed him." She spoke as lightly as she might have talked about wearing a pretty dress, or making a nice pie.
"I… see," and Last Man's earlier words made more sense to him.
From her, he learned that most of the children in Last Man and Straytaker's tent weren't their own. Straytaker had only had a single son, who died soon after, and wasn't able to have anymore. So, they took in any children who had no tent to go to anymore. Ones whose parents had died, or, more frequently, had been taken from other tribes.
He asked about that, and it seemed that the nomad tribes often raided each other, taking children for their own to swell their numbers. Sometimes, a tribe could be eradicated that way. Though, when that happened, it generally transpired that another tribe would split up to take over the new territory.
"My father was from another tribe," she said. "He won't tell me which one, though. We're Ghost Hunters now."
Rone spent a lot of time with the girl over the next few days as he learned more about the Ghost Hunters. Not that he liked her, certainly, but she was willing to talk, and he needed all the information he could get. For her part, she seemed amused by his ignorance, which annoyed him to no end.
When they broke camp after the first week, she showed him how to pack up the tent leather carefully, folding it so it could be carried to the new location. Poles that were still in good shape were carried, while bad ones were discarded, to be replaced when they reached a new campsite.
Not many other people were willing to spare more than a glance at Rone, and when someone did speak to him, it was usually the way Straytaker did. Kindly, but as though he were an idiot. Last Man would occasionally look him over to see if he was still in one piece.
He waited until they were in the new place before he made his escape. He waited until the bustle of setting up was begun, picked up a bucket (in which he'd hidden his bag, taken from the back of Last Man's tent) as though to fetch some water, and began to walk away. He ducked behind some bushes, and was soon out of sight.
He ran after that, knowing that once they discovered he was missing, they'd follow his tracks. But not too far, he was sure. One boy captive wasn't worth too much effort. Once he got far enough away, they'd give up.
For a full day he ran, and it was night when he finally stopped, coming to rest in a copse of trees. He was lost, of course, but at least he was free. Then he heard someone shifting nearby.
It was Last Man. He was standing not ten feet away, leaning on a walking stick, a dog beside him. He didn't look angry, or upset, or even disappointed. Simply attentive.
Then he raised his stick, and the beating began.
When he was done, he threw Rone over his broad shoulders and carried him back to the camp.
Rone tried to escape several more times, but the result was always the same. Last Man would catch him, knock him around some, and then bring him back. He was never punished further, nor did anyone say anything about it, except the girl.
He became more adept at life in the camp, carrying things for the women and older men. He learned to help clean the tents, what the cooks needed, and how to take care of the bows the women were armed with in case of raids by other tribes, bandits, or monsters.
His old clothes wore away, and were replaced by leather breeches and simple cloth shirts. After that, he was more easily accepted among the Ghost Hunters. He was no longer called "city boy" by anyone except the annoying girl. She still nattered away at him, though he needed her to explain things less and less as months went on. Still, he spent time with her, as much out of habit as anything else.
He started playing with blunted spears with the other boys, learning to mock-fight with them, and to throw the shorter spears at targets painted on the ground or in trees. He grew taller, and broader in his chest. Soon, he was catching rabbits and lizards around the camp with the older boys.
One of the older boys, whom he mentally thought of as Sharpnose, was generally regarded as the leader. Rone got along well with him, and they started making plans for mischief. They would play pranks on other boys or on the younger hunters, go places they weren't supposed to, and generally find ways to entertain themselves.
Rone didn't think so much about escaping, or the city, or even how he had cheated the Tyrant. Mostly he thought about what they'd get up to the next day, or if the hunters would bring back new stories of monsters or other tribes.
One day, when he had been with the tribe for several years, Rone and the annoying girl snuck out to a nearby water hole where a bunyip had made its home. They climbed a tree and watched as the hairy, scaly monster attacked anything that came too close to its pond.
Suddenly, Rone glanced up, and spotted dust in the distance. He squinted, and made out men in the distance.
"Hey, look over there," he said, pointing.
The annoying girl shaded her eyes, and frowned. "They aren't our hunters."
"Let's go," Rone said, slipping down from the tree.
They ran back to the camp. Rone immediately walked up to Straytaker. "There are men coming. Not ours," he said.
"You saw this?" she asked, frowning.
"This isn't a joke, I swear," Rone answered. "Ask the girl."
The annoying girl nodded. "They didn't have white faces, and they didn't have any dogs with them."
Straytaker nodded, and then yelled for the other women. Bows were strung, arrows packed into quivers.
Rone and the annoying girl were ordered to stay with the tents and protect the other children. Rone knew they were being told to stay behind so they wouldn't get in the way, but he couldn't figure out a way to get away from all the others without being seen, so he waited while the women did their work.
Two hours later, the women returned, laughing and singing songs about war and rains of arrows and stones.
One of the women took Rone by the hands and swung him around when he asked what happened, and then kissed him on the cheek. The annoying girl seemed strangely upset by this, though Rone wasn't sure why. She wasn't the one who was kissed on the cheek like a baby. "Clever boy! We'll have a feast tonight."
It emerged that the women had hidden themselves well before the men got near, and then shot a flight of arrows into the ground in front of them. They were from the Black Swords tribe, who were usually friendly, so they hadn't been killed outright. But they'd had to give up their weapons and their finer clothes before they'd been allowed to leave. "And if any are still here when the hunters get back, they'll be mighty sorry!" the woman said, laughing.
But when the hunters returned, there wasn't a sign of any of the raiders. A few of the younger warriors were sad that they wouldn't have a chance to try their spears against swords, but it was generally agreed that the women had done very well, and that Rone and the annoying girl had saved the tribe from some mischief. Even if, Last Man pointed out, they shouldn't have been at the water hole in the first place.
That night, while Rone was dozing with a full belly, he was roughly pulled to his feet and hustled out of the tent before he could figure out what was happening. He stumbled forward in the dark, trying to figure out what was happening when water was thrown into his face.
His bleary eyes made out the faces of the hunters. Some held sticks, some held lengths of rope, and one held a glittering knife. A gag was shoved in between his jaws, and he was forced to walk away from the campsite.
When they had gone some distance, the gag was removed, and he was taken by the arms. The hunter with the knife (belatedly, he recognized him as Last Man) advanced.
"Hey!" he said, and tried to back away. But the others held him, and pushed him down on the ground. The knife flashed down, and cut away at his shirt. Then at his pants, and he was left naked to the stars. The hunters permitted him to stand.
Last Man whistled, and the other hunters formed two lines. "Ten times," Last Man said. "On your own two feet, to make a man. Start!"
Rone was pushed into the line. As he passed each man, he was struck with a stick lashed with a length of rope. He stumbled, but made it to the end.
"Nine times!" Last Man demanded.
Rone stumbled back through. And again. Twice, he fell to his knees, and made to return to the start of the gauntlet. But he finally made it through the tenth and final time.
Again, his arms were grabbed. But this time, it was merely to help him stand.
Last Man approached, and pulled a jar from a pouch at his belt. "Ten times. To make a man. Well." He dipped two fingers into the jar and came out with something white on them, which he spread on Rone's face. When he was done, he showed Rone his face in a piece of metal. White face. Ghost Hunter.
The others began to shout and clap. They gave him his grey-and-black clothes and a spear. He was slapped on the back, punched in the arms, and his bruised body complained again. But he wouldn't have traded any of those aches away.
He began to go out with the hunters. He was shown how to take care of his spear, and how to make a new one. His job now, though, was to run with the dogs and flush out prey for the older hunters, who would take the kill. He longed to test his spear out, but he was still much too new to be given that chance. He didn't even have a name yet. But that would come in time.
Sharpnose became a hunter not long after. The two remained friends, but there was now an edge to their friendship, a competition to see who could be the better hunter, who would earn his name first.
"You're just a city boy," Sharpnose said mockingly. "You'll be years before you get a name. If ever."
"You're too thick in the head," Rone replied. "Unless you earn it headbutting boulders, you'll be years before you do anything clever enough for a name."
They got into a shoving match, and ended up laughing in the mud until Last Man broke up their play fighting and told them to find something useful to do.
The annoying girl had less time to spend with him. Straytaker had taken her aside and now she was learning to use a bow, among other womanly duties. Rone felt a certain sadness with that. He'd grown used to her. She wasn't nearly as annoying as she used to be.
Still, they stole moments when they could. A few minutes at the campfire, an hour under the moon. He bragged about feats of daring during the hunt, one or two of which actually happened, while she told him who was fighting in the camp, who stole whose dinner, and other little inconsequentialities he couldn't have cared less about, except that he loved to hear about them from her.
One day, he returned from the hunt, and she rushed up and put her arms around him, grinning like a maniac. "You'll never guess what's happened!"
"I might," he said, pretending to be offended. "I can guess fairly well."
"I have a name!" she said.
"That's not how the game's played," he protested. Then it sank in. "What, already?"
"Oh, and I almost died," she added.
"What?" he said, his head spinning.
"Oh, you don't care about that," she said. "Anyway, my name—"
"I care!" he said.
"It's Breaking Stone," she said, ignoring him. "Straytaker herself gave it to me. Isn't that nice?"
"But how? I mean—" he started, but she was off.
"Oh, it was a nice little ceremony. She and the other older women painted my belly and my breasts in ochre. I'd show you, but, well, I don't think you're quite ready for that."
"How did you almost die?" he demanded.
She sobered slightly. "There's a monster. It came near the campsite, to a tree where the children were playing with the older dogs. No one could see it, though."
"It was hiding?" he asked.
"No. It was out in the open, but unseen. Not even a shadow. But it killed one of the dogs, and would have gone after the children if the dogs hadn't set upon it. They couldn't see it, but they snapped at it, and we could tell where it was. I threw a stone pestle at it, and it broke against it. I don't think I hurt it seriously, but it left anyway."
"We'll have to find it, kill it," Rone said, shaking. She'd been there! The monster could have taken her.
"Idiot," she said fondly. "What do you imagine Straytaker is talking to Last Man about right now? Her sewing?"
"If she's anything like you…" he grumbled, but took her point.
The next day, Last Man took all of the hunters aside. He repeated the story annoying gi-Breaking Stone had told. "We must find it, kill it."
"How did the dogs know where it was?" asked one of the hunters.
"By their noses, I imagine," Last Man said. "But they weren't able to do more than annoy it."
"What do we do, then? Fight blindly?" asked another.
"If we must," the old man answered. "But we'll try a smarter approach first. When the dogs corner it, we'll throw mud at it. With luck, that will reveal it and we'll be able to kill it more easily. Any questions?"
There were none. The hunters split into their usual groups and were off.
Rone kept with his dogs while the other hunters in his group spread out. They beat their chests and stamped their feet, hoping to draw the monster towards them. Rone felt like a coward, but was secretly glad he wasn't one of the ones making the noise.
Despite their efforts, though, the sun rose and fell without the slightest hint of danger. Rone began to wonder if perhaps the monster had left after all, perhaps going back where it came from to seek easier prey.
They eventually packed it in, deciding that night was no time to be hunting something that was already too difficult to see.
When they returned to the camp, though, they found they weren't the first group to return. There was a somber tone among the women, and the hunters looked frustrated and angry. There was a body by the main campfire.
Rone gasped. It was Sharpnose, his friend.
"We couldn't get it with our spears," a hunter was telling Last Man. "It moved around, and the mud was invisible as soon as it touched its body. The boy, he jumped at it, and I swear he held it for a moment before it struck him down. The dogs and our shouting drove it off before it could do more than worry the body, but it was too late."
Last Man stared at the young hunter's body for a moment, and then closed the eyes. "His name is Iron Hands. We burn a true man and a true hunter tonight."
Rone stood to the side as they built up a pyre, dressed Sharpnose in finer clothes, and sent him on to the next life. It didn't seem quite real. But there it was. Sharpnose would never boss anyone around again. He'd never get into mischief with Rone, or wrestle with him over a joke. It wasn't fair.
In a moment, the fire was in him again. The same fire that made him steal the Tyrant's treasure. It wasn't right that Sharpnose was killed. It was time to make things right.
His mind worked feverishly, and soon he came across a plan.
While the others told stories of Sharpnose, Rone went from one tent to another, and began to assemble the items he needed. He realized, in a detached way, that their owners would probably be cross with him if this didn't work. Possibly even if it did. But that didn't matter, because his plan would work. He would make sure of it.
He waited until almost dawn, and then set out to where Sharpnose and the others had gone. He didn't know it would be there, but he had to start somewhere.
He took out Sharpnose's bloody shirt, and tied it to the dog that had come out with him. He climbed into a tree, and threw a stick, which the dog chased, and brought back. Rone threw another stick. And another.
They kept this up for the better part of an hour. The dog rested on occasion, but after a suitable sit-down, it was ready to fetch sticks again. It didn't know why Rone wanted it to do this, but it would add to the pile under the tree for as long as he threw them.
Suddenly, the dog dropped the latest stick and growled. Rone tensed in his perch, and he heard the heavy breathing of something very large.
He also heard someone else approaching from back the way of camp. The hunters! Of course they'd be coming. He had to act quickly.
"Hey, ugly! Too ugly to show your face, hey? You want some meat, there's plenty in this tree. Try picking this fruit!" he yelled, shaking the branches.
There was a growling as something charged the tree. The dog held hits ground until it was kicked aside, casually. It fell, but was on its feet again in a minute, snapping at something, but not quite finding it.
The tree shook as something hit it. It was big! Far bigger than Rone had realized. The branches were bending aside as whatever it was reached for him. He almost dropped to the other side to run, but remembered Sharpnose's face on the pyre, and steeled his heart. He pulled a bundle from his bag and dropped it.
It had taken him the better part of the night to make this net. It wasn't a very good net, at that. It was irregular, with holes of varying sizes and a loose weave. But all that mattered was that it would catch on the creature… and that it would keep the bells from the tents on it.
The net vanished as it landed, but he could hear the bells shaking. Now he jumped to the other side and began running towards the hunters. He saw them emerge into the clearing as a crashing sound indicated the monster had left the tree. "The bells!" he shouted. "Throw at the bells!"
They stared at him like he was mad, and he thought for a moment that all was lost. Then Last Man stepped forward.
He cocked his head, listened as the jangling crashing came closer, and then threw his spear. It landed, vanished, and there was a roar to tell it hit its mark.
The other hunters belatedly released their own throwing spears, and then readied their long spears, advancing on the creature. It tried to escape again, but now it was slowed down by the injuries it was already taken, and they could hear exactly where it was. They thrust into it again and again, and it fell to the ground. Still they kept stabbing, until they were sure it was dead. Then they built a fire around it and burned the body to invisible ashes.
"So, hunter," Last Man said later. "You are certainly a man now. You've paid us back for your life. What will you do now?"
Rone thought for a moment, and said, "I am a Ghost Hunter. But… I would also like to see more of the world before I settle down."
"More of the world? What more is there to see?" Last Man asked.
"More monsters," he said. "More people. I have been in the city, I have been with the tribe. But what about other cities? Other tribes? I would like to see if there are other Wonders I might find. And maybe more things I might bring back."
Last Man whistled. "Those are mighty big ambitions. Don't you think you overreach yourself?"
"I have always overreached," Rone said, grinning. "It's how I got such long arms."
"Are you sure you'll be coming back?" Last Man asked.
Rone looked to the fire, where Breaking Stone sat laughing with the other women. "I'm sure. As often as my feet will bring me."
Last Man smiled. "Come back with treasures. Come back with honor. But mostly, come back with stories. She will appreciate those most of all."
"I will. Thank you, Last Man," Rone said.
"Oh, and city boy?" Last Man said.
"Y-yes?" Rone asked hesitantly. No one but Sharpnose and the annoying girl had called him that in years.
"Your name," the old hunter intoned slowly, "is Beller."