There was a wild cat searching for her.
It had most likely smelled her blood down on the river and then followed her trail for as long as it was still discernible. She saw it run past her at least five times through the tiny spaces of vision the leaves gave her as they danced with the wind.
She was not breathing loudly at all, but she completely held it every time the Hunter sensed he beast.
Eventually, one of those abrupt and rampant jungle rains kicked, falling heavily and washing away what little scent she had left behind. The wild cat gave up soon after.
The trees protected Zaniyah from the rain somewhat but the drops still hurt, she had to shift position so it would stop pounding her on the back, that to a sitting position more near the vertical main branch.
Waiting in the heavy rain like that always reminded her of the death of her sister. It wasn’t a pleasant thought but few were when they didn’t directly relate to Mother Superior and her Wild Felids.
I can hardly recall her face, she admitted to herself, but for some reason, I can still smell her in the rain. But only if she was waiting in it, like she had had to do that day.
“This really hurts,” her sister had confessed, “my head hurts.”
“It’s hurting me, too.” They had been tied to a tree that only had its trunk. All the branches were cut off so the rain could hit them without anything to cushion it. “But we’ll make it.”
“I don’t know if I want to…” They were tied in an angle, Zaniyah had only been able to see her a little out of the corner of the eye, but her sense of smell still gave clear signals.
“I understand, believe me.”
“I know you do.”
“But we won’t.”
Silence hit, almost as hard as the rain. Her sister broke the silence to ask Zaniyah to tell her about the elephant. It was a story they had heard from an elder of the tribe. The story of the elephant who’d lost his memory.
Zaniyah wasn’t certain how much of it her sister had heard, she was dead by the time she finished telling it. They had been tied to that tree for five days.
Janihn, she sighed, spurning her body to move, I miss you, sister.
And she would miss her forever. The upside of it all was that, at least, Janihn had not been around to be captured alongside her by the rival tribe. Things only got worse then, up until the Wild Felids accidentally rescued her by hiring her as a guide to go to a temple the tribe was sure would kill any who entered, and thus sent her.
Having no interest in further recollections, the Hunter decided to get moving. She sat up and warmed up her muscles. The beast could no longer be heard and the rain was still going, hard. The day had not dusked but it was one or two hours off.
She used the dagger to climb down the tree trunk, aiding her weak side on its grip. Then she ran off at a quick march.
There was no way to speed through a jungle, not if you wanted to be sure you didn’t alert a million different things that you were encroaching on their territory, or about to. That said, she could move faster than most. She ought to, that was her moniker: The Hunter.
She kept clear of spider webs and large concentrations of bushes, they were ideal for venomous creatures to wait prey out in. Zaniyah was also delayed by having to stay out of particular portions of the jungle that she identified as territories, usually by smell, a couple of times by sighting the animal equivalent of sentries.
Despite the danger of the wild cats, if she were to upset any monkeys or apes, she would most likely be killed. One could fight one wild cat, but there was no fighting off a pack of those things. Fortunately, they didn’t get that upset when you encroached on their territory, only when you kept going deeper after they showed up to intimidate you.
And they did, she had to stare them down and nod, leaning away as to indicate she would leave.
The path through the jungle was dirty and fraught with danger, and although it was all very familiar to her, she was still mildly nervous all-throughout. After all, she had never been alone in the jungle carrying something as important as what she was carrying right then. At any moment, a bite of something, a wrong step, and the beast that invaded the temple might as well have succeeded in its purpose.
It was ironic that within the most dangerous territory nature could provide, men still proved the greater concern.
The Hunter spotted them first but that wasn’t that much of an advantage, she didn’t have enough skill to keep herself hidden from people who lived in the jungle, not when they came into proximity with her.
And they did. And they spotted her in her attempted hiding spot, atop a tree branch. It had worked with the wild cat but she supposed it had been almost a full day since the last tragedy, it was high time her luck took its periodical plummet.
Three scouts wielding spears and bows and arrows, wearing simple cloths tied around their loins, looked up at her and grunted. Zaniyah hissed back down in a hostile manner.
They looked at each other, and when they did, she recognized their markings: they belonged to the tribe that had destroyed her own. There was a natural animosity towards them inside her heart she had never outgrown.
They wielded the spears, bringing up and ready to throw, and yelled at her to get down. In their native language
“Get down, woman.”
“You have strayed. You are ours.”
She tried to decide which was best, to pretend she didn’t understand them and threaten a fight, or to communicate. Much was hinging on what she decided. Zaniyah probably could not win a fight, not with the injuries she wished to keep closed and healing.
She edged out her hand with the dagger and communicated. Dangerously.
It might be better for them to think she was part of another tribe.
“This is our land and you are trespassing.”
“You are ours.”
That was always the conclusion with these people. A led to B led to “the woman is ours”.
The Hunter got angry, maybe she could fight them. Sure, she’d open a wound, maybe gain a new one, but she could probably do it. Zaniyah could also run and bet her life in a rush through the jungle, it might help her take care of them.
But first, she needed to know where the rest of the tribe was.
“This is our land and you are trespassing. Leave.”
They looked around, a bit confused, taking in the surroundings. One of them shook his head.
“You are mistaken. We are set not a thousand paces over there,” he pointed in the direction, “you are trespassing. Come down and be ours. Or we feed our beasts with your argumentative blood.” That was roughly what he said. The word and tone of voice used indicated a much more insulting form of the word argumentative, but it was roughly what the man meant.
It upset her most of all, for some reason. Zaniyah wasn’t one to talk at all so to be told she spoke too much was kind of the last straw.
“Leave or die,” she spat down at them.
They traded looks. Then they shrugged and stabbed the ground with the spears. They casually pulled out their bows from their backs but Zaniyah didn’t wait for them to finish that motion.
The Hunter dropped down on them.
She landed into a roll, something cut at her leg but it was much shallower than the slash she cut across one of the archer’s thighs. She stood up with a back-step and a back-stab. She punctured two wounds into the man’s torso, and on the second one, she span around him while violently slashing her dagger free of his flesh.
The man yelled but she, having span to use him as cover for another arrow, shoved and pushed him onto the other two.
She leapt after the body that encumbered the second archer too much. He wielded the arrow in a hand to try to stab but the Hunter frantically grabbed the arrow out of the way and swung down on the thrusting arm.
Blood was drawn as the man screamed.
Zaniyah shoved the arrow in the first one’s neck in a motion that also pushed him aside and out of her way, and then, dagger flipped so it’d be held properly, stabbed at the other’s chest. A spear point came from his side to hit her, she pulled on the dagger manipulating the body of that second man to move into the spear’s path.
The one who had dropped the bow and arrow and gotten the spear out yelled in frustration.
He used very insulting slurs, blaming her for killing his friend. She’d gladly take the blame. She thrust at the second man’s eyes, leaning out of the spear’s reach. She let go, he had winced and staggered long enough that she could slash at his throat.
The spear pulled back and so did she and the man, writhing in painful death, fell down to the ground.
The Hunter leaped back from a spear thrust, crouched and span around to avoid the spear throw. The third man cursed a few more times while he grabbed the spear from his friend and pierced his head, granting him relief. He did the same to the second one. All the while, Zaniyah remained crouched, moving and keeping herself facing the third and last surviving tribesman.
“You will pay for this.” The insults and slurs were hard to translate, one would be well served in picturing every statement was followed by very mean-spirited and sexist inflections. “Or my name isn’t Thunuk.”
“What were their names?” She asked, a faint growl to her voice. She was not only fighting on what motivation her hatred for the tribe gave her, but also very much aware what they would have done to her had they had their way.
“Yes,” he agreed with a lesser number of insults, “you should know their names. Prirk and Lork.”
“Prirk, Lork and Thunuk,” she enunciated, “defeated as a group by a woman.”
He winced, looking at her in absolute shock. That had been, she assumed, the very first time anyone had spoken to him so offensively, let alone someone like her.
“And a wounded one at that,” she added, gesturing to her bandages.
He frowned. He postured, puffing his chest like a gorilla. He pounded on it twice too and then grabbed his spear. He whispered slurs followed by speaking them in a normal voice. It grew in loudness as they became more and more offensive and crude, followed by threats.
Apparently, not even death would grant her peace from what he was going to do with her and even that would come very slowly.
The Hunter was kinder. She would kill him outright right there in that fight. She had been nervous all day but right then, in the small enclosure of space already reeking of death, with such an aura of hate no animal would come to interrupt, she was fine with taking that risk.
Also, basics of combat dictated the one with the shorter range should get as close as possible as fast as possible so she didn’t really allow him to finish with his boasting. When he was switching grips on the spear in the middle of his theatrics, she suddenly dashed off at him.
He cursed in interruption, making an amateurish thrust to intercept her. She leaned and swiped to parry the thrust successfully but he jumped back and so she couldn’t get to him before another thrust came.
She jumped to the side, making him turn and thrust a third time, this time hitting a tree.
He cursed again and pulled the spear out in a sudden motion that sent him back with an uneven step. He gave a wild half-swing with his spear, which hit her side but didn’t even cut properly. She reached to stab him but the arm wasn’t long enough to follow his back-stepping although that turned out to be fine as he tripped over something on the ground.
Her kill drive was interrupted, however, by a sudden roar. Her instincts went into high alert as a wild cat, bearing its natural dark green camouflage, surged from the bushes to catch her. She yelped and backed off, allowing it to lunge across without touching her.
The tribesman stood up rather frantically, properly startled. They both faced the wildcat, turning their sides to each other. They glanced sideways, mean-spirited, they were both unhappy with the alliance they had to form right then.
He yelled and thrust at the big cat but, in response, it growled menacingly and swiped across with his paw, almost breaking the spear.
“Surround it,” she told him.
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“It’ll go for you first, you’re the real threat.”
The sound logic seemed to have work, as Thunuk slightly stepped aside.
He noticed the big cat was indeed eyeing him more, its muscle-filled body subtly turning towards him. He cursed again and walked further around. Neither of them thought about running, it would be a moot attempt. She followed his lead and walked around the opposite side, the beast started waving his head and stepping back, not liking being surrounded.
It would jump for him once it felt the inevitability of their attack. She had to kill it first because if it even wounded him, bad enough to incapacitate, she would be dead soon after. There was no way she could beat a cat like that with a dagger.
Her foot hit something loose.
She looked down and recognized one of the dead bodies. She reached down to grab the bow and then something she hadn’t expected happened, the big cat rushed at her.
“Ahh!” Zaniyah yelled in challenge as the big cat thundered towards her. She jumped aside to avoid a lunge but it was far more agile than she was, it turned and lunged again. She desperately dropped back to avoid it but her roll hit some kind of protruding root, stopping her movement.
NO! The big cat jumped at her but she reacted, kicking up at its chin, its chest colliding with her leg. NOT HERE! NO!
It was too heavy, however, her feet slid off the chest and she found herself straddling the beast’s neck with her legs. The teeth came for her but she stabbed down with her dagger. She hit hard bone, clearly damaging the beast and making it all the angrier. Her body coiled up due to the beast trying to get at her neck. The Hunter growled and pushed on her legs with everything she had, that effort somehow meeting with a convenient direction of force from the beast to successfully push it to the side.
Her back wound throbbed mercilessly.
The beast whimpered in pain and she noticed there were three arrows sticking out of it. It gave a thrashing, one of the claws cutting past her leg, leaving a considerably deep cut. Zaniyah didn’t notice because she was, at the time, stabbing at its neck with every inch of survival left in her body. Repeatedly.
Another arrow hit it and, with a final sighing groan, the beast was dead.
The moment the Hunter felt the cease of muscle strength in the best, she tumbled away to cover behind a tree. She lifted her wounded leg in reaction to the pain of having it on the ground and looked back to realize then she had avoided no arrows. None had been shot at her.
“You fight like a beast!” The voice yelled out from beyond her cover. She was examining her leg wound with a painful grimace across her face, but even in that situation, she knew that was a compliment.
She threw a look back at the tree that could’ve set it on fire.
Zaniyah wasn’t one for words in the first place, less even those in profane or crude nature, but right there and then, she sharply used some to tell him no.