Hafwen paced on the deck in the midday sun, absently playing with the braid in her dark hair. She had been hunting in the forest when the messenger from Celestaon summoned her. She had never actually spoken to the eldest of the village—few did—but fewer still were summoned personally.
Now anxiety was setting in after spending all morning waiting for the elder on her porch. Hafwen was trained to function without sleep, but four days was pushing it. She watched others breaking for a meal and heading towards the communal house. The smell of seasoned meat filled the air and had taunted her for the past couple of hours.
A couple of builders passed close to the deck and glanced up at Hafwen with broad smiles and flexing arms. She smiled back as best her weary mind would allow. They continued, leaving Hafwen to fall on the railing of the porch and repeatedly tap it with her forehead in frustration.
“You will injure that pretty face, child,” a gentle voice cooed, sending her into an attack pose that she almost landed.
The full chested laugh of a woman over a hundred years old was a wheezy chirping sound. It was almost as embarrassing to Hafwen as the barely stable footing she found.
“Elder Celestaon!” Hafwen said hurriedly once her mind was at ease again.
“Come in, child. I am sure you could use some rest.” The old woman waved a hand as she opened the door to her home.
The threshold of the Celestaon’s home was like a portal to some other world. The smells of a thousand herbs and the cool air that caressed her skin was in sharp contrast to the world outside. Misten was marsh-drenched nearly all year. Everything the senses perceived came with an overtone of wet. The Elder sat in a chair covered with the furs of half a dozen beasts and stared at Hafwen.
“My child, I will come to the point.” The old woman’s eyes had a fierceness to them that stunned Hafwen. “I have asked your Constelari all about you in the days since you were sent hunting. They tell me you are solitary, you spend your days training and have honed yourself into one of our finest hunters. You are also a devout woman, wise beyond your elders.”
“Thank you,” Hafwen’s words came out meek as she thought, “Why was Celestaon praising her?”
Celestaon wasn’t smiling, though. “What I am about to ask you will be more difficult than any beast you’ve faced. You have been given a Starlen, starting today.”
Hafwen was speechless. A Starlen, the tribe’s term for a young member. They were never given like this. She had thought to take on a Starlen in a few years—everyone did eventually—to raise them, watch them, and finally welcome them into one’s own Constelari.
The soft footfalls of the Celestaon’s handmaiden pulled Hafwen from her thoughts. The small girl carried a squirming blanket over to Hafwen. She reached for the child with trembling hands. Picking it up to her chest, the blanket fell slightly, exposing the baby to the humid air of the cabin.
Hafwen stared at the markings on the child’s chest in disbelief, casting a glance to Celestaon, the highest authority in the Aquar Eques tribe. Celestaon laced her fingers, resting her wrinkled chin on them, and said, “Her name is Aliene, and she is going to have a very trying life. We must do what we can while she is with us.”