On the way back, the houses lined up along the narrow road caught his eye. They were exquisite houses with tightly woven roofs and well-crafted walls of dark red clay. The occasional flicker of light from the windows eased his heavy heart.
He passed along the road in a somber mood.
Eventually, his modest hut, located slightly away from the village, came into view. At the sight of the shabby hut, his chest unknowingly tightened.
It was the abandoned hut provided by the elders when he left the empty fields and began to live in the village. He had made some repairs, but the hut was still dilapidated and unfit for use, appearing wretched even at a casual glance in the dead of night.
He nervously clenched and unclenched his fist, approaching the house. It felt as though his chest was being crushed, and his heart seemed to leap on its own.
Having passed countless other houses in the relatively prosperous village earlier, this feeling intensified. As the image of the woman waiting for him in this unsightly house came to mind, he couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of sorrow.
Tarhan fumbled instinctively inside the white pouch he had put in his embrace in an effort to suppress these emotions. His fingers touched the gemstone extracted from the Gempas ivory.
Still, even that didn’t help. Offering her something akin to an unpolished, shiny rock wouldn’t suffice.
Suddenly, an inexplicable anxiety and helplessness overwhelmed him.
‘Some flowers, maybe…’
Suddenly, the words of advice that Piache had given him came to mind.
Despite feeling uneasy, Tarhan scoured the surroundings once more to find even a small flower. Even though it was already dark, he managed to find a field where the white flowers she liked were blooming beautifully.
He broke off the stems and blew off the dirt from them multiple times. Recalling what his deceased younger sister had taught him, he quickly wove them into a small bouquet.
After several failed attempts, he managed to create something resembling a wreath.
‘D*mn. It’s worse than not bringing anything…’
The gift he prepared looked too shabby even to his own eyes.
Since he had made it based on his memories from Cartantina, he knew it couldn’t have been well-crafted.
Struggling to trim the stem ends that were sticking out here and there, he ended up throwing the wreath to the ground in frustration. He agonized over whether to discard such a thing countless times, pulling at his hair in distress.
Suddenly, he remembered the expensive buffalo skin hanging in the tent of Servia, Kahanti’s woman. The furniture was decorated with fabrics with gold-embossed patterns, furs, feathers, and dried flowers.
He also recalled the embarrassing memory when his gaze was drawn to the woman’s necklace. The dazzling bracelets and necklaces were crafted with embossed gold and coral, the earrings with large, elaborate shapes hanging on her ears.
As he looked at the expensive jewelry adorning the body of that witch-like woman who pierced him with a cold stare, he remembered Enya’s bare chest and limbs, which had nothing on them.
‘If I don’t bring even this, I truly am an unforgivable man…’
Staring at the shabby wreath he had thrown on the ground, Tarhan ruffled his bangs as if to soothe the bitterness in his heart.
He let out a deep sigh.
He knew how important the coming-of-age ceremony was for women. It was a day that would determine a woman’s entire life. He recalled the memory of his young sister’s ceremony and his mother’s efforts to gather all sorts of goods.
Even though it was years ago, her bustling activities to prepare even the slightest better things came to mind, making him feel ashamed of his current situation.
‘…Not going empty-handed is important.’
He recalled Piache’s words.
He looked down at the shabby wreath in his scratched and worn palm. He could feel the heat rising to his ears from the embarrassment.
This was all he had at the moment. There was nothing else he could do.
Swallowing his shame, Tarhan resolved to hand over the wreath, putting on a brave face and turned his steps toward the house. With each step he took toward the house, he felt even more nervous than when he first encountered the Gerpan herd on the plain.
He slowly approached the hut as if the ground beneath his feet was crumbling.
His hand, which uncovered the solid piece of cloth used as a door, trembled naturally. Cold sweat formed on his palm. He wanted to slap himself to regain his composure.
Suddenly, he wondered if she would be surprised if he went in.
Should he call her name?
Why did Piache only give such advice as to pick such a tacky flower without sharing such a method? Tarhan slowly opened his lips with a resentful feeling towards the old woman.
Light seeped through the slightly lifted tent.
Tarhan, with a quivering heart, hesitantly peered into the room, which emitted a strong scent of incense.
On a wooden tripod prepared in the room where the coming-of-age ceremony was taking place, a bronze pot was placed, and amidst the flickering firelight flowing from within, the shadowy figure of a woman’s face could be seen.
He, with one hand pressing down the hand holding the wreath, opened his mouth again to call her name. And the moment the woman turned her head, he felt his heart plummet to the ground.
The wreath in his hand fell to the floor with a thud. A few petals fluttered and rolled on the ground.
…It wasn’t her.
The woman who raised her head in fear and trembling in the red light was someone he didn’t know at all.
It was a face he had never seen before.
The moment Tarhan discovered that woman, his heart turned as cold as the bark of a tree in winter. He was left speechless with bewilderment.
The woman, who greeted him warmly by calling his name, had a mature and voluptuous figure half-exposed. The golden chains entwined in her long brown hair looked precious. It was jewelry that one could never even dream of seeing in their lifetime if they were not the daughter or niece of an elder.
The fragrance of various incense, such as sandalwood and wild jasmine, along with the scent of unnamable lewdness and obscenity, permeated the air around her, accompanied by the incense.
“What on earth is this…!”
He quickly covered his nose and staggered backward. His heart felt like it was being hammered, and an indescribable anger surged to the tip of his head in an instant.
Haraibo had clearly stated that Enya would be waiting for him in his hut.
And yet, leaving her alone like that…
The woman quickly got up from her seat and crawled towards him.
“I thought you’d be surprised. I asked Uncle first. I saw you on the day you returned with the Gempas’ ivory. In fact, I’ve heard rumors about you for a long time. I tried to give up several times, but I couldn’t forget the intense feeling I had when I first saw you. So, before the upcoming Day of Repose, I wanted to spend the night with you…”
Tarhan, grabbing the woman by the shoulders, pushed her away in horror. He barked sharply at her as she kept clinging to him like a cornered animal.
“Let go…! What the hell is this…! Where is she, Enya…?!”
His face seemed to be engulfed in flames as if someone had thrown him into a blazing fire. It was a feeling of irrational rage blocking his vision.
As he frantically knocked over the incense burner and small jars, shouting, the woman’s face turned deathly pale as if she had not expected such a reaction. With eyes widened in terror, she reached out her arms toward him as though she had not anticipated his response at all.
“Tar, Tarhan…! Do you not recognize me?”
“Why do I care about someone like you?! Why should I even know you?! More importantly, where is Enya…!”
Tarhan growled and shouted with a voice filled with disdain at the nonsensical words spilling from the woman.
“Who are you to be sitting here?! This is absurd! Say it! Where is she—!”
“I, I am Ruhan, the niece of Elder Haron. You, you must have heard my name before. Please try to remember.”
“Whether you’re the niece of the Elder or the niece of a demon, it doesn’t matter! I clearly came here because I heard that she was waiting for me. I never expected such an absurd situation!”
Upon hearing this, an unmistakable sense of humiliation rose in the woman’s eyes. Flushed with embarrassment, she bit her lip and murmured in a low, somewhat arrogant voice.
“I, I just sent that kind of girl away. She was so shameless, coming out to the entrance and waiting for you. My younger brothers scared her off and sent her back to where she came from.”
Then, with a confident voice, she opened her eyes wide and leaned into him.
“Tarhan, you are now a proper man of Aquilea. You don’t have to worry about anything. As you can see, there are already plenty of men who have helped me find a home. If you have a child with me, that child will undoubtedly be the next Elder without any difficulty…”
Sparks flew in Tarhan’s eyes.
The woman opened her mouth but instead let out a scream filled with agony. Her arm was almost twisted as he dragged her forcefully. As a result, the wreath that was left near the door was crushed beyond recognition under Ruhan’s feet.
Finally, Tarhan threw Ruhan to the ground like a rag doll as they reached the outside, and she collapsed under the force. Her eyes, which widened in shock and fear, wer fixed on him, still processing the treatment she had never experienced before in her life.
“If you try to chase that woman away and come into my house again, be prepared to die. I won’t tolerate it a second time.”
Ruhan’s eyes looked in fear at those of the man, who was as imposing as a demon under the night sky. Tarhan, filled with cold fury as he gazed down at the woman whose face had turned a sickly pale color, immediately turned his back and left.
The woman was unable to even shout at him, and ignoring the pale, trembling woman, he began to run in one direction.