The first cut stung. Timberthighs had expected the sensation and stood still. Fires burned in the clearing. Flames licked the darkness and heated his bare flesh. His warriors danced in a circle around him. Their chants echoed through the forest and dust rose from the ground beneath the rhythmic pounding of their bare feet.
The leadership ceremony had been performed with scarcely any changes for thousands of years. Tonight the Shand warriors brushed aside modern technology and embraced the traditions of their ancestors.
Tonight they celebrated Timberthighs' ascension to leader of the Mistwood Sector.
Timberthighs, nicknamed Timber, had trained all his life for this moment. He had endured the leadership trials and defeated the other hopefuls. Though he felt a sense of accomplishment, he realized many new and more difficult challenges awaited him.
Timber looked forward to facing them all.
The second cut bit into his flesh and his fists clenched, though he gave no other indication of pain. During the ceremony, the new leader received three marks on his back from a ritual knife. The marks, unique to his sector, would remain with him for the rest of his life.
Three was a sacred number to the Shand people, used in marriage and other religious ceremonies. Like battle scars, Timber bore these marks with pride.
"The last cut," said the old warrior who stood behind him, carving the symbols into Timber's flesh. With the task finally completed, he sprayed the raw wounds with antiseptic.
Most medical sprays had a pain killer as well, but not this one. Pain was a key part of the ritual. While the Shand people utilized modern technology, they kept the leadership ceremony as close to the ancient version as possible.
Timber joined his second-in-command, Boldeye, at the long wooden table where his guests -- mostly generals and advisors -- sat. Only two members of the press had been allowed to observe and record the ceremony. With the scarring over and broadcast to the sector, guards escorted the reporters out of the ritual area. The celebration continued.
This would probably be the last private ceremony for a long time to come. Leaders' lives were almost always on public display, but Timber didn't mind. He enjoyed people and had a talent for bending them to his will, either through talk or combat.
Only two men in the sector seemed immune to his aggression. One was his older brother, Red-Rain, and the other Boldeye.
Only men participated in the leadership ceremony. They feasted, drank, wrestled, danced and sang. When it ended, they would return to their homes. No doubt those married or betrothed would fuck their women before tumbling to sleep.
Timber had yet to choose spouses. On Shandra, where men greatly outnumbered women, females traditionally had two husbands. It wasn't uncommon for men to have sexual relations with their husbands as well as their wives. Timber had no desire to fuck men. When he married, his husband would be a friend and confidant. Nothing more.
He considered several men good potential mates, but finding an adequate woman proved more difficult.
At the moment he couldn't worry about mating. His new leadership duties took all his time.
Mistwood Sector required a lot of work and many reforms. Always a small sector, it had been badly neglected by the aging former leader. Timber had high hopes and great faith in his people. Together they would regain their pride and show the world that Mistwood Sector should be respected.
A young warrior in training approached Timber and offered him a ceremonial horn filled with strong spiced wine.
He took the horn and everyone fell silent. Then all the men raised their mugs.
"Leader Timber, power and a long reign," everyone said in unison. They waited for their new leader to drain his horn, which he did with enthusiasm.
When he finished, the men cheered and sipped from their mugs. Another young warrior brought Timber a mug and took the horn.
Timber glanced at Boldeye. Smiling, they lifted their mugs to each other.
Boldeye was the finest tactician Timber had ever known. The tall, rather bony warrior had fierce, dark eyes, a hawkish nose and a thin scar across his left cheek. A respectable Shand warrior in every way, he made an ideal second-in-command. Timber had also considered taking him as a husband, except Boldeye made no pretense about his preference for men. He would expect more from marriage than companionship and a shared wife.
Timber reached for a slice of freshly baked bread, eager to satisfy his hunger. Before he took a bite, a guard burst into the clearing and shouted, "The thieves are back. They're heading into the Gray Woods."
Timber gritted his teeth and stood quickly, touching a hand to the lasar pistol holstered at his hip.
"To the shuttles," he ordered.
Boldeye glanced at two of the warriors in training and said, "Stay here and guard the grounds."
Timber led the way to their overland shuttles parked a short distance from the ceremonial grounds.
A group of thieves had struck Mistwood Sector about a month ago and stolen large amounts of the two natural resources that brought profit to the small sector. Graywood, used for making furniture and traditional weapons, only grew in the southwest part of their sector. Helkite, a semiprecious stone, was a bit more common but still quite marketable.
The thieves had stolen from Mistwood Sector once, but not again and especially not on Timber's first official night as leader. This time they would be caught and punished.