Sleep eluded me. Or so it felt as the chattering of a rock-rodent woke me from my dazed stupor. I fisted a hand full of gravel and threw it in the wretched creature’s direction. I suppose I’d dreamed of the sea for I convulsed and heaved my stomach into the ashes of my now dead fire. “Damn Tak and his seal meat.”
My goal persistent though, I packed up my belongings and slipped up hill through the rocks, headed toward the top of this valley’s watershed. My back ached from the poor bedding, but I recalled suffering worse in the trek down the coast. At least the insects had abated. The others, west, moving south along the great-water, would be reeling from the constant whir of nagging, biting crawlers.
“Diza, guide me. Lift me from this grumble that infects my mind.” I shook my head and stepped higher.
I thought of the dark youth and how he had peered into me. And I know, I into him. “Who are you? You feed and nurture the Fire, I am sure.” But those two, they are not of our kind. I pictured he and his partner and felt their difference to my core. If they are here now, are there others like them? Such thoughts drifted through me as I mindlessly worked my way from copse to outcropping. All the time headed up.
A hawk screamed his outrage as I busted through his private aviary. “Patience, brother. I’ll leave this valley to you. But for now, allow me passage.”
To the east I could see the valley’s root, a pinching of ridges that pressed into the spine of the world. It was here, still ten shout-fars from the valley’s top, where I stopped to rest. My lookout gave me a fine view across and down the gorge. The vista calmed me. Take me to the top and I could breathe and feel the sky.
As I scooped and sucked at melted snow, I spotted the dark others break out of the lower treeline. They showed as mere specks, yet I knew them. More so, I knew the tan-brown shape above that tracked their progress. Every valley, or so Tak had recounted, held a demon, a monstrous cat that claimed the territory as far as you could see. Just such a beast stalked the two dark ones below.
I watched as the pair made their mistake. The easy path up the bowl of the canyon might seem the obvious trail. But such a line left one a target from above. I huffed acceptance of one of Tak’s rare truths — go high and take command. Yet I cursed him at the implications of the dark ones’ plight, “Diza take your other eye, you old fool.”
The inescapable events unfolded below me. I was unsure that I wished them on the others, or that I mourned what was about to befall the dark youth and his partner.
A merry ground-thief crept up to me, there on my perch. I had nothing to feed it, yet it came to investigate my outstretched fingers. “Here, you striped, furtive thing. Skitter away while you can. My hunger may return and you, though slight, would be welcome, roasted.”
A thunderous roar echoed up from below. Still mid-day, I watched, wide-eyed, as the cave lion tumbled down upon the pair of dark men. I imagined the impact and crunch of teeth over top of their skulls. Such an onslaught could not be stopped. I witnessed the sight, enraptured, my palms held cupped before me, peering through them to focus the light.
The first man stood waiting, I thought, with an anchored spear. The lion hit him first and knocked him back and down. The beast then embraced and engulfed the second man who disappeared beneath the tawny expanse of the huge cat. The initial roar continued to echo. And the screams of the men followed, faint and depleted.
Ten heart beats and the valley returned to silence. “No more others to nag my travels, now.”
My bluster lasted all of a single breath. I remained perched, scanning the area of attack. Nothing moved. The wind had ceased and the murmur of the trees gasped, holding their breath, waiting for my response. Even the striped tailed thieves sat, the three of them, tiny hands knit as if nervous, waiting for my reaction.
I looked up to the distant valley spires. Just over them I could descend and make my way to what I knew would be a land of bounteous food and leisure. Yet the haunting deep-set eyes of the youth tugged at my spirit. “Diza, you wench! Judge me not. I will take your sign and when I come to my own end, I will welcome the feel of your throat within my fist. No mercy will I show. But,” I hefted my pack, the three ground thieves vanished into the rocks, “until then, I will go see what the valley’s demon has left me for salvage.”