Song of the Ancestors
The night air was thick with smoke as the old bull burned. The rest of the tribe had returned to their tents once the ceremony had ended, but Tohaku stayed. His father was gone, and, despite his preparations, the loss had yet to sink in.
He heaved a sigh as his eyes turned toward the horn in his hand. He had removed it himself before the cremation, and was now charged with upholding his father’s legacy as Hornkeeper of the Proudhorn Tribe. He knew his task, and had trained with his father since he was but a calf, yet he found himself paralysed, unable to return to his tent to begin the ritual carving of the horn as the tribe’s traditions demanded. He wiped away his tears, yet more came – he was lost.
He did not know how long he sat there, by his father’s side. The old Hornkeeper’s corpse had long since turned to ash, and the fire at the camp’s centre had died out some time ago. It was not until the emergence of the aged and grizzle hunter, Baku, that he awakened from his trance.
“You have lingered here some time, young Hornkeeper,” the bull stated as he approached. He was known for his warm heart, and his eyes glistened with understanding. “You mourn your father, as does the tribe. He was a good man, and performed his duties as well as any I have ever known. The ancestors, it seems, chose wisely.” He removed the stopper from the gourd fastened to his belt and took a drink before offering it to Tohaku. When the young one hesitated, he insisted further.
“Thank you,” Tohaku said at last as he took the gourd. The firewater went down smoothly, but did little to brighten his mood. He passed it back to Baku. “And yet I am to succeed him. It is not customary for the role of Hornkeeper to be inherited by one’s next of kin; I fear we have misread the signs.”
“You fear you are not up to the task?”
The old hunter let out a low, amused chuckle. Tohaku wondered if he was being mocked, but the old bull laid a hand on his shoulder. “I have lived a long time, young one. And never have I known the ancestors to be mistaken – though your father has, on occasion, mentioned that they can be quite demanding. I recall him telling me that old Ahaya – you remember her – was most displeased with her son’s choice of mate. The chimes outside their tent shook furiously that night, though there was no wind…” He trailed off for a moment as the memory returned to him.
“You have had too much to drink, hunter,” Tohaku sighed. “Perhaps you should return to your tent-“
“Then perhaps you have forgotten, young one. The Seer had taken ill that night, and so your father could not call upon his aid to calm Ahaya’s spirit. Who did he call upon in his stead?”
Tohaku knew the answer. “Me.”
“Indeed. And by the end of the night, your father told me, the ancestors danced and sang with the rest of us – though none but he could see them.” He smiled. “Your father often spoke fondly of that night. It was a festive occasion, to be sure, but there was great pride in his voice when he spoke of it. I believe it was then that he – and the ancestors – knew your destiny.” The old hunter yawned. “But you are correct. I have drank much this night, in memory of your father, and must rest before tomorrow’s hunt. I hope, at least, that I have given you something to ponder, young Tohaku. May Mu’sha smile upon you this night, and may the winds carry your father’s ashes to the most blessed lands.” Baku patted his arm before rising to his hooves and slowly making his way back to his tent, slightly off balance.
Tohaku sat with his thoughts, eyes fixed upon the horn of his father. As if in a dream, patterns and symbols flooded his vision, an elaborate depiction of the old bull’s life. He was astonished when he discovered his engraving tools in hand, and even more so when he looked upon the horn once again. It had been engraved with an intricate series of designs, honouring the memory of the late Hornkeeper.
As he rose to his hooves, he looked around the campsite. All of a sudden, it was alive and filled with song. But as he drew closer, and as their eyes turned toward him, he saw that they were not his remaining tribesmen. Figures from the past stood before him, their faces marked with approval. It was then that he held a firm hand on his shoulder.
“You honour me… Hornkeeper.”