He grunted in annoyance. Maybe he should have shot after all. If he did have meat tonight, who would know? He hadn't wanted to come on this namequest in the first place, let alone follow the rules.
He turned away. The sun was sinking in the sky behind him, spreading a red light over everything. Off to the left, the Bones cast long shadows onto the trees behind them. He hadn't wanted to come, but here he was, and he might as well go through with it without cheating.
He trotted through the grass to his camp, well within sight of the Bones but farther along the forest edge. His fire was still banked on the tall mound of earth and stones, built by other centaurs who had come to the Bones to find their name. He set his useless bow and arrows down nearby, and grimaced.
"Too old," he muttered to himself. "Ridiculous. I'm not old at all. Why should centaurs find names when they're hardly more than foals? I don't see the sense in it."
Noezi Tracks-the-Sun, leader of the herd, had not agreed. "Ashiekh, Ashiekh, Ashiekh," she had said, shaking her head. "What a name. It isn't even a name, it is only something to call you. All the other young ones have found their names long ago. Some have even outgrown their first one, and found another. And you?" She snorted. "You stay here, hunting and talking and passing the days, with what seems to be no urge to find your name so that you can start living."
Ashiekh flushed. "I am living," he protested. "Hunting, talking, grazing – those count as much as anything. Why do I need a name for any of that? Something to call me – that's all people need. And they have that. It works just fine."
"You are too old to be satisfied with that." Tracks-the-Sun put her hands on her hips. "Have you no sense of curiosity? You've never even seen the Bones."
He shifted his feet, avoiding her gaze. "Almost every day, the herd moves somewhere else, and I see new places and things. Rivers, and forests, and living creatures, much more interesting than old dead bones that we don't even know who or what they're from."
She sighed. "It isn't the same," she told him. "The Bones have a magic of their own. If you'd ever been there, you'd know that." She looked him up and down. "But you haven't, and it doesn't look like you're going to without a bit of a push. There's no good talking any more about it. You, my boy, are going on a namequest. Consider it the will of the herd." She wheeled and cantered away, leaving Ashiekh to stamp the ground in frustration.
And now he was here, whether he liked it or not. Almost at the Bones.
When it was full dark, Ashiekh stood staring into his fire, chewing on a handful of grass. It was the only food eaten by questers when they were this close to the Bones. Anything else was said to dull the senses and make the mind less open to the Bones' magic. He wasn't sure he wanted to be open to the Bones' magic, but he had come this far, after all. The journey here had taken only a day, which he supposed was lucky. Sometimes the herd was grazing many days distant from the Bones when a centaur traveled to them for a namequest. Still, it was longer than he had ever spent alone before. Even at night, he was used to hearing the quiet stamps and whispers of the herd around him.
Despite that, when he knocked the fire down and closed his eyes, he fell asleep quickly.
He was woken by the dawn. This day was mostly something to wait through, for the night to come. The Bones, he knew, worked their strongest magic in dreams and in dark. "You have weird dreams, and you just know," one of the other centaurs had said after returning from the Bones. Ashiekh had no memory of what he dreamed last night, but that night didn't count. He hoped he would remember his dreams among the Bones.
Although it was the nighttime that mattered most, part of a namequest was spending the day by the Bones, and so in the early morning he walked over to them and settled to wait. Smooth pale mounds lay scattered around the remnants of the ribcage, sharp rods curving out at angles, twice as tall as his head. They almost seemed to poke the clouds drifting across the sky.
Throughout the day, as he grazed and paced around the Bones, he thought about his name. He was finding it more peaceful to be alone than he had expected, with just the clouds and the wind in the grass and the ripple of the water in the forest stream when he refilled his water skins. Maybe his name would be something like that. Likes-Peace? He shook his head at himself. That was ridiculous. Watches-Clouds? Sits-by-Water?
Some young centaurs, when they went on a namequest, already had their name in mind and only needed it confirmed. Some had vague ideas, or formed them during the journey or the day of waiting. Others, like him, didn't know until they dreamed.
After the sun went down that evening, he walked nervously into the center of the ribcage. Four of the moons were up. Giza Lights-the-Night cast a cold, pale violet glow over everything, a stark light in which Ashiekh could see the Bones looming around him, with the forest a dark mass behind. He shivered, although it was warm. Half the ribs were lit up sharp and bright, the rest black spikes of shadow.
He shifted his weight restlessly. He didn't think he was likely to fall asleep, but he bowed his head and let his mind drift, and after a time, his thoughts slipped into dreams.
He dreamed of moons chasing him across the sky, of grass taller than he was. A rabbit bounded out of it to cock its head and look at him. "What's your name?" it asked him, its ears twitching.
"I don't know," said Ashiekh, struggling to push through the grass.
He heard mocking laughter, and a wood sprite sprang into view. "He has no name yet, fool," it said to the rabbit. "That's why he's here." It turned to stare at Ashiekh. "This is your name." He waved his hand. The surroundings changed, and changed again. The wind chased shimmers of light across the plains, dusk spread through the trees of a forest, the herd traveled steadily to new grazing grounds. Fish flickered through a gurgling stream, and foals chanted as they learned the stamp-song. A dragonfly flew by, lazily turning circles.
"Do you see your name?" it whispered.
Ashiekh found himself standing at the top of a cliff, staring down at the dream images. The sun, the moons, himself aiming his bow to shoot, growling thunder and lightning that flashed through a downpour of rain. "No," he said.
"Ah. How strange." The dragonfly twirled in midair and landed on his ear, tickling him. "It's right there in front of you."
Then, all at once, he was awake. A pale light shone in strips before him. He blinked, and it became the rising sun behind the tall pillars of the ribs.
He rubbed his eyes in disbelief. It was morning. But he still didn't know his name.
His dreams tumbled through his mind, each image more confusing than the last. The dragonfly, the rabbit, the wood sprite... none of them had actually said what his name was. It was as much a puzzle as when he first came.
What had gone wrong? A centaur always came back from the Bones with a new name. Had he missed something in his dreams?
He paced to one of the ribs and rested his forehead against it, thinking.
Then he realized. Of course a centaur always came back with a name – they were thinking about it even before they left the herd. "This is your name," their dream told them, and eager to agree, they decided that they saw their truest self in one of the images. That was all there was to it.
The only reason he still didn't know his name was because he didn't want to.
Ashiekh grinned. Then he chuckled, the sound rolling louder and louder through the Bones until he threw back his head and roared with laughter. He spun and broke into a gallop, back towards the herd.
When he reached them late that afternoon, he told Noezi Tracks-the-Sun what had happened. After staring at him for a few moments, she snorted and shook her head.
"Since you seem to need no name," she said, "we might as well call you that."
And Ashiekh Needs-No-Name did not choose to return to the Bones for a long, long time.