I woke up early that morning, long before the sun broke through the trees. The fire in the middle of the room had burned down to glowing embers, still warm enough to keep out the morning chill. Marik, my older brother, was still fast asleep, but he would wake soon. He was the clan's greatest warrior, but it was my day.
I was trained for years in the art of The Hunt, and this was the day that I was to go out on my own hunt. Before the sunrise, when all was quiet, and the forest animals were out. Daytime hunts were harder to accomplish, and it made it harder for us to keep our location hidden from the Humans if we were out hunting when they were travelling. They would see us as a threat, invaders of their forests, and we would have to move on. So, we had to be vigilant in our travels and our hunts. However, we had been in this place for years. Our location was more permanent, because the plants of the forest had quickly overgrown our homes. Our site looked simply like rocks and fallen trees, taken over by weeds and vines. When the humans would seek us out, all we had to do was smother our fires, mask the smell of smoke, and wait. They would search for a while, but they never found us out, and eventually we'd be forgotten. That was the life of the Elves.
I packed a small sack with some bread and cheese and fruit, enough to stop and rest, but not enough to attract any of the forest creatures. My father, who was also the clan leader, titled Keeper, had sent word to our craftsman, Laiman, to craft a set of armor and a new bow and arrow to suit me. They were waiting for me on the window. It was good armor, strong but light, covering all vulnerable parts of the body, but flexible enough to run through the woods in. There was a beautiful bow and strong, freshly sharpened arrows. Laiman had also made me two bone daggers, sharp enough to cut through any hide.
"Are you ready for your big day, Moki?"
I jumped at the sound of my brother's voice.
"Marik! You startled me, Brother."
"My apologies, Sister. But I am curious. Where were you planning to go for your hunt?"
"Well," I thought for a moment, "Perhaps south, where the river flows. Where the freshwater runs, there will always be a hunt."
"Do be careful. You're so young."
"You don't need to baby me anymore, Marik. Besides, I'm only young in the Elven years. In the years of the humans, I'd be older than the oldest man in the cities."
"Well, we are not Humans. I don't know why you concern yourself with such things," Marik sighed.
"Just try not to get eaten," he said with a smirk. "You'll always be the baby of the family."
When he said that, I tackled Marik, and we wrestled for a bit. It had always been that way between us. Growing up with an older brother, I didn't have anyone to do the feminine things that most of the women of the clan did. I had my mother, but she was usually busy. I didn't mind though. We were interrupted by a powerful voice.
"How do you intend to succeed in your first hunt on your own with broken bones?"
Marik and I stopped fighting and got up off the floor. The Keeper, Okimo, was standing in the doorway, looking as flawless and young and regal as he always had. The elves don't age as the humans do. My father, in human years, was a very old man. But in our elven years, even though he was the oldest in the clan, he still had many many years left to live. Everyone looked up to him for guidance, he knew all of the old magic and the history that would be forgotten if he did not teach it to others, or pass down his knowledge to his apprentice, Kiri. She was older than I was, but I never thought she was quite right for apprentice keeper. Perhaps my father saw something in her that I didn't. Still, I did not enjoy her company.
"Forgive us, Keeper. It won't happen again," I said as Marik and I bowed respectfully.
"Straighten your backs, children. I may be the Keeper, but I am also your father. There is no need for formalities inside our own home. Now come, Marik. Leave your sister to prepare for her hunt."
"Yes, Father," Marik said as he went out to greet the clan as they gathered for their morning rituals.
"Well," my father sighed, "It seems just yesterday that you were just a little girl, digging in the mud with your brother. Now he is a strong and proud warrior, and here you are, just as strong and agile as any of our best hunters, about to go out on your first hunt. Are you nervous?"
"I am a bit unnerved, Father. I have heard the many tales of what evils lurk among the woodland creatures."
I had heard tales of the Vampires who lurk in the dark, people who had given their souls to the Darkness, in exchange for dark powers. Also, of the Vampyren, who were vampires who did not maintain what they needed, and their souls were consumed, turning them into terrible dark creatures, hunting for blood, driven by dark intentions. There were plenty of other things to worry about, dragons and dwarves protecting their mines and treasures, humans who fear the elves, mages, users of magic, who had abandoned their lives in the Mage's Guilds, rogues who had not been taught to control their powers correctly, and the demons they attracted to themselves. There were many things to fear in the shadows of the forest, and I was about to enter alone.
"Do not worry, Daughter. The warriors of this clan have long been trained to sense the dangers of the forest. Any signs of trouble will be met with their swords and arrows. Any sense that you may be in danger, the warriors and hunters will rush to your aid. They know this forest like a mother knows her own child. We have been here long enough to learn the ins and outs of this place. And any dangers that you are faced with, the clan will always be at your back to keep you from harm."
"Thank you, Father. That is reassuring."
My father nodded, and then left me to prepare. When I was ready, I went out to meet the clan. They were all waiting to see me off, after a large celebration. Whenever a new hunter returned, the clan would have a celebration, and the clan member would receive their tattoos that marked them as a man or woman, no longer a child of the clan. Aside from all of the new babies and small children, I was the only one in the clan who did not have my mark yet. That was why Marik always called me the baby of the family. My parents had another large celebration planned for my return, so I knew I needed to have a good hunt. The hunters usually wouldn't return unless they are successful or needed supplies, no matter how long it may take, otherwise they stay marked as a child. I might have returned that day, a week, or even a month later. Some hunters never return. There had been times in the past when the hunters had been found, killed by something in the forest. There were also other times when just bows or armor had been found, and some when nothing had ever been found.
My brother was standing with his best friend, Sari, who was also a hunter, and my closest friend, Shemli, who was a warrior. Shemli was a strong woman, one of the only female hunters. And Sari was tall and thin, but muscular. He was known as one of the clan's best hunters. He had brought back a huge bear from his first hunt, and his tattoos told the story of his battle.
My father turned to the clan and addressed them all.
"Our youngest is about to leave us, and when she returns, she will be embraced as a woman, and join the ranks of our hunters," he announced and the clan cheered. "Master Laiman has given her new armor and weapons, bearing the mark of our clan, and she will wear it with pride."
I bowed to Master Laiman, "Thank you, Master. I am honored to wear items of your own crafting."
"Wear it with pride, child," Master Laiman bowed back to me. "You're a hunter now. You represent us all."
The celebration that lasted all day, with good food and drinks and music and dancing, and I was embraced by many of the clan members, wishing me luck on my hunt. I ate a little bit, but I didn't drink any of the wines that were saved for our celebrations. I needed to be aware of everything when I left, not stumbling drunk through the forest. A few elves did that before, and they hadn't come back alive.
I spent most of my time with my friend Shemli, along with my brother and his friend Sari. I had always had a bit of a liking for Sari, but of course I never acted on those feelings. Especially since I was so busy training to be a hunter, and he was busy with his duties as a warrior.
"Why not just talk to him about how you feel?" Shemli whispered and nudged me with her elbow.
"You know I can't do that, Shemli," I sighed, "What if I don't come back, or what if I'm gone too long for anything to happen, and he finds a wife before my return? Besides, who knows if he even feels the same as I do? It's just harmless liking."
"Have it your way," Shemli shrugged.
Sari and Marik came and sat with us by the fire. Sari had always been good looking. We had grown up together, the four of us. Wrestling and chasing rabbits and all the fun things that kids do. But he was a man now, and his muscles were defined by the light from the fire. He was strong and muscular and good looking. And the tattoos on his face made his grey-blue eyes pop and his cheekbones more prominent.
"Are you ready, Moki? You seem.. distant."
It took me a moment to realize that Sari was speaking to me, and that I had been staring blankly at him the entire time. I shook myself a bit.
"Oh. Yes, I'm fine. Just a bit nervous, I guess."
"Come take a walk with me?"
"Uh," I didn't have time to say no, when Shemli had shoved me to my feet.
"She'd love to," Shemli said with a smirk.
Sari and I walked quietly for a while, we were outside of the perimeter of the camp, and I could hear the sounds of them celebrating late into the night. I knew I would have to leave soon, in the cover of darkness, guided by what little moonlight shone through the trees.
We came across the small brook that ran through the camp, where we gathered our water and washed animal hides and our clothing, and where the children would swim and catch fish and frogs. Sari and I sat down on some large rocks that were bathed in moonlight.
"You don't have to go, you know," Sari spoke finally, after what seemed like hours of silence.
"Yes, I do. I'll never be taken seriously unless I do. I can't be thought of as a 'child of the clan' for the rest of my life. Maybe Marik will finally stop calling me a baby."
"Well, just be careful."
"I know that. I'm as prepared as I could possibly be."
"I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you," Sari said quietly.
"What are you saying, Sari?"
"I'm saying that after all the years we've spent together; I've come to care for you. A lot."
"I know," Sari sighed. "I think constantly about what might happen if you don't return, or if you're gone too long, but you will return. As one of the warriors who has been given the task of protecting you if you need protecting," Sari spoke softly as he took my hand, "I promise I won't let anything happen to you. I'll be by your side at the sign of any trouble, no matter how far away you may roam, just call for me."
"I don't know what to say."
"Don't say anything," Sari said as he leaned in and kissed me.
We stayed out there for a while, but when the moon was at the top of the trees, we had to return to the camp. It was time for me to leave.
The Keeper used the ash of the fire that had long gone out, and marked my face and arms with it. It was traditional to mark the clan members with symbols that were to bring luck, and also to help become one with the shadows of the forest.
And then I left, into the dark silence of the forest, leaving my family and Sari behind, ready for my first hunt alone.