[Story] A Story a Week 2

[[ Prompt: Rising to a challenge

This story uses the characters I’d planned to use for NaNo this year but ended up not having time. They are from my fantasy world, Ka’arthadia. It’s only the first part of what I originally planned to be a full length NaNo story. So maybe I’ll continue it later on! ]]

The Huntress’s eye rose strong and bright over the plains, and it filled Tamazi with dread. Tonight, She would be watching, as would all of her clan. Earlier, in the golden light of the afternoon, she had already been painted. That task would normally fall to her mother, but Tamazi had none, at least that she knew of, a fact that the others never let her forget. In their eyes she was nothing, an outcast, and she would be as clanless as her mother had been if not for the kindness that Kamara had shown her as a cub. Though she had daughters of her own, Kamara still looked after Tamazi, and today that meant applying the red clay paint in the hunting pattern. It itched at first, but Tamazi got used to it. If she succeeded tonight — when she succeeded tonight — she would earn the right to wear them on every sacred hunt, when Aiwaliko’s eye rose strong and full. She would also gain the clan’s mark, a scar across her shoulders. It would never wash off, and she would forever belong to the clan. But Tamazi wasn’t so naive as to believe that was really true. Not much would change, the daughter of a clanless wanderer, she would always earn looks of disdain. But as Kamara explained, she could choose a mate and have her own daughters, and they — at least — would enjoy a better life. That was a long time off. Tamazi had difficulty imagining something so far in the distance.

Nadira roared, summoning the huntresses to her side. It was time. Tamazi looked down at her paws, stained red with the clay paint. They would need to be stained with blood, real blood, by the time the Huntress’s eye closed tonight. Tamazi trotted slowly, not really wanting her test to begin. Couldn’t she just stay a cub forever? Cubs had nothing expected of them but to eat and play. That was much easier. She passed the rock where Nadira’s males gathered, though the sun had gone down, it still retained heat for some time and they preferred to rest there. Some were painted for the occasion, in bright whites and expensive blue paints. They wore feathers and beads tied into their manes, that clicked softly whenever they moved. They regarded her with lazy interest for a moment, and went back to their conversation. Tamazi pressed on, past the waiting huntresses and Kamara, who watched her with ears pressed intently forward.

The head of the clan and the most skilled huntress, Nadira was intimidating to Tamazi even on an ordinary day. Tonight, she bore black and red hunting-paint, making her even more fearsome. And, of course, she would decide whether Tamazi’s hunt succeeded or not. Her eyes seemed to burn with fire as she regarded Tamazi. She told Tamazi the rules, the ones Kamara had already told her weeks ago: she must kill worthy prey before the Huntress’s eye closed again, she must have no help from the clan or any other, and she had first rights to the kill – the rest belonged to the clan. Tamazi tried to make herself seem bigger, stretching her neck and setting her paws wide apart. She did not think that it worked. She wished that her eyes were as fierce as Nadira’s, and she tried to make them so. Tamazi did not think that worked either. The chief huntress lowered her chin briefly, a signal for the others to move. They began to fan out into the grass, heading in the opposite direction for their own hunt. The others all had to eat as well. She knew some would linger back to watch her, either to ensure that she did not have help, or of simple curiosity. Kamara glanced back at her over her shoulder, and Tamazi thought she could hear her Kamara wishing her luck. But maybe it was only her imagination.

Tamazi turned south, parting the long grasses with a paw before each step. It caused the grass to ripple less than your head, Kamara had told her. They had practiced many afternoons here, but that had only been for pretend, and Kamara was never harsh when Tamazi made mistakes. Nadira would certainly be harsh, if Tamazi failed tonight. She wondered if she would be made to leave. She’d never seen anyone fail at their Blood Hunt before, but she could be the first. Maybe that was what happened to her own mother. Tamazi frowned, pausing to sniff at the parched earth under her toes. She could not smell any hint of prey, only the warm, green smell of the grasses. Later in the year, the stalks would die and become more rustly and dry. Tamazi supposed that it was lucky she wasn’t having her hunt then; it was more difficult to be quiet when the grass was dry. She made her way down to one of the ponds, where animals often gathered to drink. Only birds were there now, splashing and peeping in the shallow parts. Birds were not worthy prey. Tamazi wondered if all of the animals had somehow heard Nadira’s roars and knew not to be about tonight, huddled in a thicket somewhere until the night had passed. If she were an animal, Tamazi supposed that would be a wise idea.

She leapt onto a fallen log, stretching and testing her claws. From here, she caught the cross-breezes and sniffed them carefully, as Karama had taught her. She smelled the grasses and the water, some ripening fruit in the trees around the pond. But then — faintly, but certainly — the scent of grass-deer to the east. Tamazi had long dreamed about her Hunt, and imagined returning with a wildahlo, to the entire clan’s amazement and surprise. But that was probably not going to happen. A grass-deer was worthy, though not nearly as impressive. Her pace quickened as she moved east, keeping her nose to the breeze as to not lose the scent. Tamazi did not think there were many, perhaps only a small family herd, but it was enough. When the scent became stronger, she reminded herself to be more cautious: she crouched down with her belly touching the earth, still as a stone. Watch first, Kamara had said, then act. Because once your prey knows you are there, you have already lost the hunt. Tamazi could not afford to lose tonight. Inching forward, Tamazi got her first look at the grass-deer. They were a buck and four does, and one baby for each. The adults all looked healthy and strong, and the buck’s horns were very sharp. The mothers paused only briefly to tug up a mouthful of grass, then watched for danger as they chewed. Their ears turned to and fro, alert for any sounds. This would not be easy. Tamazi watched the babies. It would be a much less impressive kill, but still a kill. They were not as alert as their mothers, innocent to the dangers of the plains. They mostly ate, their noses wedged up under their mothers’ bellies. Sometimes they picked their way through the grass, their tiny legs lifting up very high. Tamazi pictured the attack as Kamara had instructed her, weighing every possible option. The worst was that the buck would charge and stab her with his horns, and then Tamazi would bleed to death as the Huntress and all of the clan watched. That did not encourage her. Only attack if you are likely to succeed, Kamara had said. Do not rush, for that way you will surely lose your prey. And maybe be stabbed by a grass-deer buck. Tamazi frowned and settled down onto her belly. This herd wasn’t looking very likely, but what other prey had she found tonight? She looked up at the sky. Aiwaliko had scarcely moved in the sky. Tamazi found her presence soothing, and found herself imagining what the Great Huntress would do in her place. She certainly wouldn’t waste her time with grass-deer. Aiwaliko probably killed a wildahlo on her Blood Hunt. She probably killed a whole herd of them. Tamazi reminded herself to ask Kamara about that when she returned.

A sudden and strange odor caused Tamazi to forget her caution, lifting her head to scent the breeze. The grass-deer bleated in alarm and bounded away before she had time to realize her mistake. No matter. At the moment, she was intrigued by this new thing she had found. It didn’t smell like anything she had ever come across on the plains; it smelled musky, like dark places, yet sharp at the same time. Resuming her hunting stance, Tamazi crouched in the grass, her whiskers trembling with excitement. What if she had found an entirely new kind of prey! They would surely be impressed by that. The source of the scent had made no attempt to hide itself, and Tamazi soon located it, at the edge of another of the small ponds. This one came and went with the rains, so it was less reliable, but today had enough water to attract this — whatever it was. Tamazi couldn’t be certain, because it seemed to be wrapped in a cloth. She flattened her ears and glanced around, nervously. Had someone left it here for her to find? That would be cheating. She did not smell any of her clan nearby, nor any track of them. Tamazi shifted forward, her haunches taut. She could kill it and determine what it was — and where it had come from — later.

Tamazi leapt on the strange creature with her full strength, it uttered a sharp bark and bowled off its feet, tumbling in the dust. At the same moment, however, Tamazi felt a crackle all over her, as when lightning strikes nearby. She skidded to a stop, every hair on end, frozen in confusion. Her prey scrambled to its feet, and Tamazi now got a better look at it. She still didn’t know what it was, but its fur was a vivid red in color, very nearly the same as her hunting-paint. It had a sharp, pointed muzzle and very long ears. Its tail looked as if it had been struck by lightning too. Maybe it had. Oddly, it did not run from the young huntress, rather it squinted and looked at her more closely. Sad, Tamazi thought, that it did not even have the sense to run. She leapt again, this time mindful of the crackle to come, trapping the animal beneath her forepaw. It was so small that its chest fit neatly underneath her spread toes. The creature began to chatter rapidly, and somehow Tamazi was able to arrange the chatter into words. She wasn’t sure how, and she almost let the thing up right then. Was it magic? She’d heard stories about magic from some of the males in the clan. The clan had a Diviner, and she was only a little scary, mostly when Tamazi had been young. But the males told stories about calling lightning from the sky, making fire appear from nothing, things like that. Tamazi eyed this small creature warily. Had he caused the lightning?

“Please don’t eat me!” the thing chattered. “If you’re hungry I’ve food in my pack, there.” One of its tiny arms waved over toward a rock, where Tamazi could see a little bundle. It wasn’t food that she wanted, not really. But a creature so small could hardly be worthy prey, could it? She looked down at it again, considering. It was smaller than a grass-deer. “Listen,” the thing went on. It seemed nervous, but small creatures were like that. Always twitching. “You’re a–” it paused, searching for the right word. “Aiwaliko, yes?”

Tamazi blinked hard, lifting her paw from the creature’s chest. How did it know the name of the Huntress? As soon as it was free, the small red animal hopped over to the pack and began busily digging inside it. It was wrapped in cloth, which seemed to change color depending on how it moved. Tamazi imagined that it was difficult to move in all of that cloth. That’s probably why it had been so easy to catch — but then, she hadn’t really caught it, had she? One of the creature’s small black paws tugged out a piece of rolled bark with markings on it. Tamazi had seen those before, usually with the Diviner. Carefully, the creature unrolled the bark and dusted it off. He pointed to a spot. “I need to go here. Can you take me?”

The markings on the bark didn’t make any sense to Tamazi. Besides, she had a Hunt to complete. She turned to leave. “Wait!” the creature said, its bark shrill. “If you help me, I can make you strong. Powerful.” Tamazi’s ears turned forward, curiously. “Stronger than anyone else in your clan.” She knew it was breaking the rules, accepting help from this — whatever he was. But she was intrigued all the same. She thought of the others, and she thought of Kamara. If she took this creature’s help, she would have to leave all of them behind. But if what he said was true…

“How?” asked Tamazi.



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