A Violent Encounter
CRESSIDA FOUND THAT it would be easier to stop breathing entirely than to run from an infected jaguar. Her leather moccasin boots crunched into the dead leaves on the bottom of the forest as she ran. Heavy gasps weighed her down and her heart raced. It was gaining on her. Cressida crashed through the undergrowth clutching her spear. She sensed movement to her right. She bounded into the opposing direction. The jaguar screamed at her. Cressida glanced back, catching sight of the giant cat as it leapt from the large trees behind her. With one last burst of energy she surged forward. She’d led the jaguar far enough from the village and now it was time. She spun around to face the jaguar, her spear in the defensive stance.
The jaguar stopped moving, instantly aware that the chase was over. Its black ears flattened against its flower spotted body. The world seemed to slow and then stop as the jaguar froze, poised and watching. The creature slowly crept forward. Cressida raised her spear. The jaguar settled into a crouched position, tensing its muscles. Cressida lowered herself as well.
The jaguar lunged.
Cressida let out a mighty cry and stabbed at the jaguar. The jaguar howled. It stumbled back. It leapt again! Cressida twisted the spear around and knocked it aside its face. She lifted her boot and kicked it to the chest. She jumped back, sliding into her defensive stance once more. “Here, kitty kitty,” She said softly through her clenched teeth.
Blood decorated the fire-orange coat of the jaguar and its eyes were wild. It let out a low growl. Changing tactics, it began swiping at her with its claws. A swipe from those claws could prove fatal. The jaguar swiped again. Her animal skin skirt tore up to her thigh. She screamed. The spear was torn from her hands! She backed up against the tree, feeling for her knife. The creature tossed the spear aside and tensed its body for an attack. Her hands moved frantically. The creature pounced!!! She found it! The knife came out in a flash. She moved her head just in time. The Jaguar bit into the tree as Cressida’s knife sliced into the Jaguar’s neck. It’s claws ripped into her arm. She cried out once more, tearing away as she dove to the right.
The jaguar fell to the side writhing in agony; a gurgling shriek escaped its frothy mouth, mixing the foam with blood. The Jaguar struggled to its feet and tumbled. Its eyes landed no her and with a last ditch effort to kill its prey the jaguar let out a shriek and ran at her. Cressida saw the spear lying next to her on the ground. She grabbed it and spun it around, stabbing it in the chest as it heaved toward her. The jaguar stopped and then it fell. It convulsed, and acted as if it might rise again, but then it was still.
Cressida watched the jaguar, her whole body frozen and stiff. She waited a moment after it stopped moving before she released her breath. Her body became limp. She fell onto her back and closed her eyes. Her heart pounded as she closed her hands into fists. That was a close one, she thought, looking over at the unmoving corpse.
Cressida ran a hand through her long, braided black hair and wiped sweat from her tan forehead. After a few steadying breathes, she stood and cautiously made her way toward the jaguar. She lifted her blowgun, placed a dart inside and put it to her lips. She crept toward it, careful not to snap a twig or alert it…incase it was alive. She leaned over the creature and tensed. She could have sworn it moved. Her eyes surveyed the creature once, then a second time before she blew into the gun. The dart sailed into the creature and she let herself relax.
The creature was dead.
Cressida leaned over it once more and took hold of the knife. It had lodged itself in the monster’s voice box, this animal wasn’t fit to be eaten, but with such a beautiful coat, it could have been skinned. She would use its coat to make herself a new skirt. She surveyed the forest in all of its glory. Sunlight streamed through the patches of missing canopy and lit up the surrounding area, magnanimous butterflies lit on the lush green foliage. It seemed so peaceful now as her adrenaline leaked away, her body returning to its natural state of complacency. Her eyes moved back to the knife and she pulled it out with a sickening “ssslk”. She wiped the blood off on her skirt and took hold of the dead creature. It wasn’t uncommon for a warrior of the Reyachh to carry such a creature and thankfully she was just such a warrior. Cressida pulled the corpse onto her shoulders and held onto its legs. She carried it back, bending down to grab the spear with her left hand. After everything was situated, she carried it home.
“Cressida!” the light, airy tone of the beautiful Adrienna filled the air and she lifted her head to see her comrade. Adrienna was not a woman from the Reyachh, and her features were rare and exotic. This set her apart from the rest of the Reyachh with her pale skin and light—almost frosted—blue eyes. She had thin, small lips and rosy cheeks and a very wiry frame. Her long hair was just as long as any Reyachh woman but it was a golden color, instead of charcoal black like Cressida’s. “Cressida! You’re all right!” Adrienna fell to her knees beside Cressida and embraced her. “When you went after that jaguar I thought for sure you’d come back and be stark, raving mad! How could you do such a thing to us!? Uri and Aeol were worried sick! Not to mention Skrenthos! He was furious with you,”
“Skrenthos?” Cressida interrupted, her eyes tentative. “He returned—? When?” she discarded the animal near one of the eight centered huts. “Is he in the village?”
“Well sure, he got back just after you left and he took off after you!” She stated obviously, “I don’t think he found you though. All will be well however, you’ll see him at the sacrifice tonight. Oh my…you’re hurt!” Adrienna reached into her pouch and pulled out a strip of cloth and some herbal plants, “I told them you shouldn’t go alone…but no one else could figure out where you went. After you crossed the border, it was near impossible to find you, what with all the animals going crazy. It was only a jaguar, I don’t see why they were so ruffled,” Adrienna pulled Cressida back to her knees, “Just hold still a moment,”
“But Skrenthos,” she replied softly.
“Oh hush. You have the rest of your lives to deal with one another, let me take care of you first,” Adrienna applied the plant to Cressida’s wound. Cressida winced and bit back a cry.
“Ugh! What is this stuff!?” She moaned, pulling her arm away.
“Nothing serious…you’re just being a wimp,” She held Cressida still as she applied pressure and then tied the bandage onto her arm. “See? All set. It’ll stop stinging after a moment,” Adrienna said. She stood and helped Cressida to her feet. “Just leave it here. I’ll send Taga to get it later,” Adrienna pulled Cressida along, “In any case, I’m glad you’re all right, I wouldn’t know what to do if you left me in charge of the legion,” Adrienna laughed nervously.
“Adrienna,” Cressida said as she shook her head, “Where is Amia?”
Adrienna quieted, “Amia…is in the Shembe’s hut,”
Cressida nodded, “I understand,” She pulled away from her friend. “If you see Skrenthos before I do, tell him I am back,”
Adrienna nodded, “Will do. Welcome back, Cressa!”
“Thank you,” Cressida made her way through the center of the village. She entered the circle of the eight huts and passed the stone circle, full of charred wood, ashes and animal remains. She looked at the incantation circlet. The ashes were cold. It was almost that time again. She walked into the Shembe’s hut, careful to drop the animal skin door behind her. “Shembe?” she called softly into the cool, humid darkness.
“Hush,” Came the voice of the old sage. “The child is sleeping,” Cressida could see her silhouette near something in the darkness that emitted a small amount of light.
“Shembe, Will she live?” She asked, softer this time.
“The child is weak. The infection has spread through her, I fear it would be inhumane to allow her to live,”
Cressida closed her eyes. The chase hadn’t done Amia any good. Her only joy in killing the jaguar was that she might have saved the future victims from a horrible fate. “When will she…pass away?”
“Within the hour Cressa,” The Shembe replied without hesitation.
Cressida sighed, “Thank you Shembe,”
“Cressida?” Shembe said.
“It was not your fault,” She said softly.
Cressida nodded, “I know,” She stepped toward the shembe’s silhouette in the darkness, feeling a tug of disappointment in her stomach, “Shembe? What is causing this outbreak?”
Shembe let out a sigh, “I fear we’ve upset someone,”
“Upset someone?” Cressida was careful to avoid something fowl smelling near her feet and looked up once more, her eyes adjusting now. “Who?
“Yziba. The mountain witch,” The Shembe moaned, wiping the child’s brow of sweat. “She cursed the animals with a scourge and I fear until something is done the animals will continue to ravage the village children.”
“On what grounds is she charging the village?” Cressida asked.
“Thievery, disrespect to her gods and cruelty to her animals,” The Shembe stated. She looked over her shoulder at Cressida, but her face was shrouded in the mysterious shadow cast from the candles behind her. “We’ll speak on this later, Cressa. I think someone is looking for you.”
Cressida looked back at the tent opening. “Yes, Shembe,” She exited the tent quickly, taking a breath of the much-needed fresh air. Shembe’s hut always smelled rank and horrible because of the dead animals she used for her incantations. She walked toward the incantation circlet, lost in her thoughts.
One jaguar…and the infection is still spreading. If this keeps up, we’ll be childless in a week. She put her foot on one of the large stones around the fire pit, her eyes directed at the center, though unfocused. Yziba. When I get my hands on that woman and her pernicious counterpart Prince Mervin—that despicable coward of Labron—I’ll wring their thick necks and feed them to their own little furry friends! Ugh…why wouldn’t they have chosen monkeys or boars? Jaguars are…difficult to track and kill. They’re much to quick to make off with the children and the disease makes them unafraid of even fire. What a freakish duo. I mean…we do everything we’re supposed to. We keep our end of trade up, we don’t harm the sacred animals. It’s all a rouse. It has to be.
Cressida ran a hand through her hair. She turned and walked about the village, surveying the goings on around her. As head of the first legion she oversaw most of the activity in the village. People looked up to Cressida and she did her best to protect her loved ones. She turned to glance over at a small stall where a few people were standing, talking in hushed tones. It was not unusual to see such sights but the strange combination of people caught her attention. It was Aleo—her second in command; Skrenthos—her fiancé; and her little sister Tagalin. Skrenthos seemed to be harassing Taga for something.
“Skrenthos!” Cressida called, walking in his direction, “For love of Shembe; leave the poor girl alone,”
Skrenthos turned on his heel and bounded toward her in an instant, he scooped her up in his arms and spun her around, “Cressa!”
Cressida laughed. Skrenthos always was one for a lot of energy. He put her down and embraced her, which she returned full heartedly “Skrenthos, you fool. I thought you got back tomorrow.”
He smiled and kissed her forehead, “I finished early,”
Cressida ran her hand through his short, thick black hair. “Finished early?” She murmured, burying her head in his shoulder.
“You look exhausted,” He said quietly, “Oh, your Arm,” His tone swung from happy to worry and possibly anger. “Cressida, did that jaguar do this to you?” he took her arm in his hand and examined it.
“It’s nothing,” She said, pulling it away. She hugged herself to protect her arm from further exposure. “What happened at the gathering?”
Skrenthos shrugged, “Generally the same thing that happens every year, the second legion had to wait a while off,”
“What? A while off? What does that mean?” She asked, looking up at Skrenthos with a mild look of confusion, “Are they trying to set themselves up?”
“They’re setting a perimeter so there’s no temptation to start a fight on the peace lands. Apparently the other smaller tribes within the Reyachh boundaries are growing restless.”
“Restless? But the other tribes have always been civil and peaceful…why would they want to start a war?”
Skrenthos pulled away, walking toward the hut designated for cooking of dead animals. Cressida followed closely behind, sliding her hand into his as they went. “Well,” Skrenthos began, “I don’t know much, but Yziba, Asreal, Felicia and one or two of the lesser village captains seem uneasy about the treaty. At one point in the gathering, It seemed that we had several fingers pointing at us, a lot of treachery is supposed from the village of the Shembe.”
“Surely they can’t believe we’d break the treaty?”
“We created it, we know the loop holes. Obviously someone is trying to muck up the name of our Shembe. The fact that she didn’t attend the meeting didn’t help a whole lot either,” Skrenthos said as he ran a hand through his hair in frustration, “This whole thing is really getting kind of weird.”
“What next? Someone makes a treaty with Labron?”
Cressida stopped herself this time, the knowledge about Yziba and Labron was not something that should be spread through the mountains. She closed her mouth and shrugged. Though she had to wonder who else had made a pact with Labron.