"Nahuel, you are falling behind!" a peal of jubilant laughter trilled through the dormant valley, climbing the forested mountain faces until it erupted from the swirling blanket of mist into cerulean sky with a final proclamation of euphoria. "And you are the chieftain's son, not I!"
The two boys tore through the dense underbrush, their feet scattering the shallow mud of a recent rainfall, calves slicked with dew and dirt. They cleared paths with flailing arms and groping fingers, running blindly but for the scarcely-trodden deer path beneath them, their journey illuminated by only the barest whispers of dawn which managed to trickle through the thick canopy. The boys wore only thin hide breechcloths and skillfully woven leggings, which they had tugged up over their knees in order to keep dry. Their deeply tanned skin was unmarred save for the pale remains of the previous day's paint along the languid lines of their shoulders, dark hair wound back in loose braids.
Nahuel was barely out of breath, his throat not yet dry from the cool mountain air. He was mere feet behind the younger boy Kuruk, lagging simply for the sake of not having to brand his arms with thorns nor scratch them with branches; instead he loped easily. He laughed along with Kuruk, the sunburn across his nose peeling as it wrinkled, breathing in sharp hisses through his bared teeth. "And you are the chieftain's nephew. Surely that must count for something?"
Kuruk began to turn, a smile curling his lips, pert contradiction on his tongue, but before Nahuel knew what was happening his cousin had fallen, foot caught in a web of stringy roots. Nahuel leapt over him, cackling madly, and continued fleet-footedly, as if no incident had taken place. He heard Kuruk clambering after him in what seemed less than a moment, slightest hope of stealth abandoned for speed, and as Nahuel began the ascent up the mountain slope the younger boy reached his side.
Soon they were both breathing heavily, chests heaving under their knotted rope necklaces while beads of sweat pricked their foreheads, each straining to parch all remains of strength from their muscles in a playful attempt to be faster than the other. The misty rainforest flew past them in a blur of vibrant color and groggy sound, and the two boys caught only glimpses of their surroundings in their peripheral vision, focused wholeheartedly on the path ahead.
The grueling slope leveled out just as Nahuel feared Kuruk truly was beginning to gain on him, and both boys were flung forward a few feet by pure momentum, neither one ready for the sudden change in steepness. The trees began to thin, underbrush flattening until it was a lush green grass that tickled Nahuel's ankles, splaying flat and wet beneath his feet. The boys found themselves on the edge a natural clearing, in which the mist was beginning to disperse, chased away by the thick black smoke that wafted from the large communal bonfire that stood regally before them.
The boys crouched in the shadow of a cluster of trees, shoving their dark, damp hair out of their faces eagerly and inching forward on the balls of their feet, knees almost brushing the ground. They took great handfuls of the emerald vines that coiled like grotesque snakes around the narrow tree trunks and tilted their heads until they could see the bonfire properly through the intricate web of twigs and leaves, not noticing when their faces were attacked savagely by the vegetation.
Men stood around the bonfire, men of the same dark-skinned race as Nahuel and Kuruk, their arms stretched towards to sky as if to embrace it, heads thrown back to bare weathered chins and solid jaws. The men wore elaborate headdresses, cloaks of woven feathers that trailed on the ground behind them for many inches before ending, and artfully laced mukluk boots that hugged their legs to their knees, where jerkin leggings took over until their skillfully painted breechcloths. They were painted with clay colored paint, faces inked with swirling designs that snaked down their necks, disappearing underneath their ceremonial cloaks. Their mouths moved in a song-like chant, their words twining together until they were an unintelligible mess of melodious tongues that seemed to rise, thrust towards the sky on the smoke.
Nahuel watched in awe, his eyes widening in anticipation with the passing of each second. He caught a glimpse of his father through the vines, standing nearly on the other side of the bonfire from their hiding place, standing the same as the other men, chest puffed out until it was mere inches from the hungry flames. His severe eyes were closed, long hair whipping about his head in the slight breeze, free now from its braid. As Nahuel saw him his father's mouth fell open in a last, wordless call and his eyes flew open with manic speed, headdress shifting as he tilted his head down before joining the other men in a dance around the bonfire.
Their bodies moved fluidly, legs propelling them forward, bent at the knees until they were mere inches from the ground, almost sitting on their heels. The men's arms were held out from their sides for balance as they moved forward, drawn in as they began to spin for momentum.
Nahuel inched forward involuntarily to get a better look at them, but in a moment he reeled back abruptly, shock sitting him forcefully down in the damp grass.
Flickering forms danced among the men, transparent and inhumanly graceful, leaping with pointed toes, twirling about the men with what seemed to Nahuel no need to touch the ground. They were silent, mouths making no sound, feet causing no disturbance, and though they seemed to be solid their images bled slightly into the surrounding air when kissed by the gentle wind. They wore jerkins and breechcloths that seemed too soft and malleable to be real, moccasins and mukluks too clean to have ever been worn, and their hair moved in ways the breeze did not prompt, hanging about their heads like ungodly halos.
As Nahuel gazed, utterly dumbstruck, his eyes snatched for a moment on a beautiful spirit and hung, transfixed on her face. She faltered in her canter, and her lips curled in a sly, eerie smile as she began to turn, her slender neck bending indolently. Nahuel watched, enthralled by her deific fluidity, his eyes falling to her vivacious lips as they soundlessly formed his name, then came gently open in a soft, cold smile.
It was then, Nahuel supposed in hindsight, that it began.