A lone leaf twirled in the breeze, dancing like a marionette held up by invisible strings, jouncing up and down but never touching the ground; until it began to slowly descend to where a young woman lay prone, on her belly.
The leaf swayed lazily side to side, coming ever closer to the figure on the ground, finally touching down gently on her shoulder. Ithira startled like someone had yelled in her ear. So deep had her concentration been, that the slight rustle of the leaf on her shoulder had sounded like the crashing of a tree branch on the forest ground.
“Arghh…” she got to her knees and threw her bow and arrow she was clutching down in disgust, as she watched an impala she’d been stalking all morning gracefully bound away, “Stupid leaf!” as she pounded it to dust with her fist, venting her frustration.
A bird sang sweetly in the tree above her, answered by another in an adjacent tree and Ithira rolled back onto her heels and slowly stretched as she stood up. It was midday, she could tell by the sounds of the forest, and her hunt day was gone, now replaced by a sour mood. Picking her bow and discarded arrow up, she turned back and broke into a run, headed back to her village. Maybe she’d try again tomorrow.
The village was abuzz when a panting Ithira ran into the main square. Villagers were outside their homes and places of business, craning their necks and murmuring furiously. Slowing to a stop outside the blacksmith’s, Ithira stood on tiptoes and strained her ears.
The chief and his wife, who was keening and moaning softly, were outside their hut and at their feet lay their son. What had happened?
Ithira looked for someone to press for news and caught the whispered conversation of a few warriors picking arrowheads from the blacksmith’s.
“… just killed him and bounded off into the forest… now that the beast has tasted blood, won’t it be back?”
“Hush, you don’t want to frighten them anymore,” one said jerking his head to the crowd and catching Ithira’s eye, “Well, well… if it isn’t our little hunter,” he and his friends smirked, “What did you catch this time?”
“Clearly nothing,” another replied and they chortled.
Ithira was used to it, she’d been the butt of jokes since she decided to pick up a bow instead of cultivating farms with the other women. Walking calmly away, seething inside, she returned to her hut, stoked the fire in the hearth, brewed some tea and sat quietly, thinking.
The warriors had all planned on hunting down the killer lion the following day, but when it dawned with dark, heavy clouds and a drizzle steadily increasing in tempo, only Ithira set out.
“What do you think you’ll be able to see in this storm?”
“How’re are you going to track anything in the wet earth?”
They jeered as she disappeared into the forest and went back to their warm fires and thought nothing more of her.
The forest was darker than she had imagined, and the raindrops splashing against the leaves, which rustled in the wind, created a soothing but constant roar that dimmed even the sound of her feet squelching in the sodden ground.
Ithira knew she wouldn’t be able to see or hear very well in these conditions, but then again, she was banking on the lion being at a disadvantage too… Was it strange that in this din, her focus seemed to have sharpened? Silence was unnerving and every sound amplified.
But with the storm raging overhead and the forest awash with movement and sound, Ithira felt invisible and a little glad her scent would mostly be masked. She was heading in the opposite direction from where she’d been thwarted by the leaf yesterday. The impala she’d been stalking had been too calm on that side of the forest; so the predator must be to the east.
Water streamed down tree trunks mottled dark brown by the rain lashing down between the tree canopy and mingling with fat drops collected and pooled on leaves up high, so that it literally poured down on her.
Slipping on a tree root, she felt rather than heard the snap of the leather thong on her right sandal. Stopping to kick off her shoes, Ithira caught a momentary flash of liquid gold streaking between the trees to her right. She barely made for it had been so fast. Was she imagining things?
Tensing up, she slowly pulled an arrow from her quiver slung snug on her back, and loaded it.
The male warriors would have gone on the hunt, to chase down this king of the jungle. But she was not like the others. She understood her place in the forest, knew her advantage lay in her mind.
Ithira flexed her fingers, her palms clammy, and not from the rain or cold. Her arms shook slightly from tensed muscles, strained almost to breaking point like her senses.
The storm seemed to quieten. She could hear the dull thud of the lion’s paws in the mud, the heavy huff of its breathing behind her, speeding up… Ithira turned while simultaneously ducking onto her knee, let loose her arrow before she had fully aimed at the large shadow leaping toward her.
The village was sending out a search party. A few of the warriors who’d jeered Ithira as she’d left the day before had volunteered, remorse biting at them. Dawn was just breaking, the sun rising in a cloudless sky, sending piercing shafts of bright sunlight like spotlights through the trees to the east.
Suddenly, the quiet, sombre morning was shattered with screams and shouts as all eyes focused on a bulky figure backlit by the shards of sunlight, pushing its way out of the forest.
It was an exhausted Ithira, muddy and triumphant. A large, maned lion was draped over her back.