“AMIA!!!” THE BLOOD-CURDLING scream bit the silence and caused a ripple effect of turning heads. Cressida looked up from her work to see a fellow warrior running toward her, full force, screaming at the top of her lungs “IT HAS AMIA!!” Cressida tossed the rabbit carcass onto the workbench and wiped her hands on the small cloth nearby. She grabbed up her spear and knife, running toward the distraught woman. “CRESSIDA!! THE YAGUARA!!!” she screamed, pointing behind her, gasping for breath, shaking with panic. “It…attacked us…on the road!!”
“Go warn the others,” She muttered as she ran off down the trail with a few other warriors in tow. “Spread out!” she barked in a commanding voice. “When we find her, I want the three of you to take her back!” She ducked underneath a low hanging branch and stepped out of the protective barrier around the village with a bright flash. Three other pings of light lit up the thick jungle around her and they set off. It wasn’t long before they heard someone screaming. “Uri!” she barked again.
He nodded solemnly and took off down a path to the right. His voice could be heard, calling out for the lost girl. Eryx and Nicia followed his lead, breaking off into different pathways, calling her name while Cressida ran through the middle.
Cressida glanced to her right, noticing a long, broken log, leaning against a neighboring tree. She stepped to the side and climbed it quickly, using the branches to get higher into the area. Cressida paused to catch her breath and heard a strange sound. Eryx was shouting, yelling for help. His yells reverberated off the trees and up into the lower canopy where she stood. She leaned over the side of the tree and gasped, covering her mouth, green, jeweled eyes, wide. “ERYX!!” she shouted. “CLIMB! CLIMB THE TREE!!” Eryx was surrounded by four yaguara, all of which were a bright, flame colored orange with black flowerets painted onto their lithe figures. Cressida looked around, caught sight of a long, thick vine and jumped.
Cressida narrowly caught the vine and wrapped her legs around it, sliding down toward the ground at an unnatural speed. She leaped off the vine and landed a few yards behind the yaguara, crouching low into an offensive stance. She was too late. Eryx’s fingernails had clawed the tree as he’d tried to climb, but the first yaguara had caught his waist with its paw, knocking him to the ground and a second one had pounced on his torso, undoubtedly to crush his skull. “YAAAAAAAAH!!” Cressida called, spinning her spear as she stabbed at the yaguara.
The animals reacted quickly, all jumping aside but the one that was on top of Eryx. Her spear was imbedded deep in its neck and it was pinned to the tree. “Eryx! Can you hear me?!” she shouted, looking at the yaguara. Blood was quickly covering the dying creature as it tried to pull away, furiously fighting in vain. The creature would die a painful death, that she was sure of.
“Cressida!” Uri shouted from behind her. She whipped around, hair flying with her sudden movement. Her eyes met the yaguara that were left. The three were advancing on her. Their movements were foreign and jerky. One of the yaguara attacked the others and they began to fight one another. Cressida grabbed onto the spear and yanked it out of the tree, releasing the dying yaguara from its prison; the bleeding animal clumsily ran away from the scene, but she was sure it wouldn’t get far. Uri was at her side now, holding Amia in his arms. She didn’t look good. “Cressida, something’s not right,” he said, holding the small girl to his chest, “The yaguara are—”
“Get Amia back to down,” Cressida said in a low voice, turning toward the yaguara. “Tell Nicia to come back for Eryx.”
“GO!” she shouted at him, running toward the other yaguara. The animals scattered, making strange sounds like the Hynea of the deserts. She spotted one, making a move like he would head back toward Eryx and she faked a run at him. The animal turned and ran into the jungle, yowling with frustration. Her eyes moved slowly back to the two remaining, no, make that one, remaining yaguara. It’s eyes were wide and frenzied, saliva dripped from its mouth. Her grip tightened on her spear for a moment. They stood at a standstill for a moment, then without warning the creature ran at her. She jabbed at the creature—and missed! It continued running at her, not bothering to be afraid or run and that’s when she turned and darted behind the tree.
The jaguar yowled and followed after her. She leaped into the deeper foliage and ran through the tall grass, ducking low as she ran in a very crooked line. She could hear the animal gaining on her and took a sharp turn to her left, lunging over the exposed roots and she ran behind another tree to her right with similar exposed roots.
Her leather moccasin boots crunched into the dead leaves and broken twigs on the jungle floor as she ran. Cressida crashed through the undergrowth clutching her spear. She sensed movement to her right and bounded into the opposing direction. The yaguara screamed at her and a thrill of dread ran up her spine. 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 yaguara far enough from the village and now it was time. She spun around to face the yaguara, her spear in the defensive stance.
The yaguara stopped moving, instantly aware that the chase was over. Its black ears flattened against its black and orange flower spotted body. The world seemed to slow and then stop as the yaguara froze, poised and watching. Cressida analyzed its stance, raising her spear into a defensive position. The creature slowly crept forward. Her lungs became constricted, the yaguara settled into a crouched position, tensing its muscles. Then the Jaguar lunged.
Cressida let out a mighty cry and stabbed at the yaguara. The yaguara howled, stumbled and 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 yaguara; it let out a low growl. Changing tactics, it began swiping at her with its claws while yowling and spitting. A swipe from those claws could prove fatal. The yaguara swiped again. This time the yaguara had gotten past her spear, her animal skin skirt tore up to her thigh. She screamed. In this moment of distraction, she felt the spear stripped from her hands. The yaguara’s paw had knocked her spear aside. Cressida backed up against the tree, feeling for her knife frantically. The yaguara pounced. Her eyes opened wide.
What happened next was all a blur. The knife came out in a flash, flying out as she pulled her head to the right.
The yaguara bit into the tree and Cressida’s knife sliced into the yaguara’s neck. It’s claws ripped into her arm. She cried out once more, tearing away as she dove to the right.
The yaguara fell to the side writhing in agony; a gurgling shriek escaped its frothy mouth, mixing foam with blood. The Yaguara struggled to its feet and tumbled. Its eyes landed on her and with a last ditch effort to kill its prey the yaguara let out a haunting wretch and ran at her. Cressida saw the spear lying next to her on the ground and reached out for it. She spun it around and watched in horror as the jaguar ran straight into it, stabbing itself in the chest. The yaguara stopped and then it fell. It convulsed, trying to rise again, after a moment: it was still.
Cressida watched the yaguara, her whole body frozen and stiff. She stood cautiously and made her way toward the yaguara. 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 yaguara once, then a second time before she blew into the gun. The dart sailed into the yaguara and she let herself relax.
The yaguara was dead.
Cressida released the breath that she’d been holding. Her body became limp. She fell to her knees, breathing heavily. Her heart pounded as she closed her hands into fists. That was a close one, she thought, looking down at the dead corpse. Cressida ran a hand through her long; obsidian colored hair and wiped sweat from her tan forehead. After a few steadying breathes, 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 jungle 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, but she knew it was lurking with darker things than even these yaguara. 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 (spear and all) onto her shoulders and held onto its legs. She then carried it back to the village, wary for the last remaining yaguara that she’d met…they were still out there.
Cressida approached the protective barrier and held her hand out, with the triangle mark showing. She passed through the barrier with a bright flash of light and let out a relieved sigh. Cressida shrugged the corpse off of her shoulders and onto a pile of dead animal corpses and she entered the circle of the eight huts. Cressida 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. The shembe’s hut was dark and rank smelling, but it seemed to be unoccupied. She dropped the animal skin flap behind her as she entered and called into the cool, darkness, “Shembe?”
“Hush,” Came the crumbling 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.
“Will she live, Shembe?” She asked, a knot forming in her stomach.
“The child is weak. The infection has spread through her, I fear it would be inhumane to allow her to live much longer,”
Cressida closed her eyes trying to ignore the rancorous pit that was becoming deeper and deeper inside of her chest. Like a giant hole, swallowing her from the inside out. She’d saved Amia, only to lose her again and another comrade…had she just gone by herself, she might have accomplished more. She clenched her hands into a fist, closing her eyes against the news. “And…Eryx?” She braced herself for this news, clenching her teeth; the pit was still growing.
“We…were not able to save him,” The Shembe replied in a distant tone, though, Cressida was sure she would have wept for her own son.
Cressida looked at her hands in the darkness and wrung them, unsure what to say. “I…I tried to save them, Shembe,” Cressida whispered.
The Shembe did not reply for a long time, and when she did, it was a soft, weak, tone. “I know.”
Cressida approached the small cot where Amia lay. Her long curly brown locks were plastered to her face with sweat and she breathed with difficulty, shifting constantly under the strain of infection. Cressida lifted a hand and brushed hair from Amia’s hot cheeks. “Shembe…” she said softly, “The yaguara…they were acting strangely. Could it really be a mere infection?”
Shembe let out a sigh, “No, Cressida. I fear it’s much worse than a simple infection,”
“Upset someone?” She lifted her gaze to the silhouette standing near to her. “But we always follow the code.”
“Yziba. The mountain witch,” The Shembe said spitefully, reaching a wrinkled hand out two dab at Amia’s forehead tenderly with a wet cloth. “Yziba has had enough, Cressida. She wants out.” The Shembe wrung out the cloth into the bowl and dipped it in again.
“Out? Out of what? The treaty?” Cressida asked, puzzled.
“Out of under our thumb, Cressa. Yziba finds our village to be a disrespecting, thieving lot and believes we want to run her out of the Reyachh Mountains. Somehow we have insulted her gods, too.” The Shembe stated. “Don’t trouble yourself with this for now, we’ll deal with it later,” Amia was beginning to wretch, as if she were going to vomit. The Shembe helped her sit up and held Amia’s head toward the side of the cot, “Go rest, Cressa.”
Cressida looked back at the tent opening and answered, “Yes, Shembe,” She exited the tent slowly, but once she was outside, she breathed in the much-needed fresh air. She’d escaped the rank smell of the Shembe’s hut, but the claws of death were still nagging at her. Feeling disheartened and put out, she walked toward the incantation circlet, lost in her thoughts.
One yaguara…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. Why couldn’t she have chosen monkeys or boars? Yaguaras are…difficult to track and kill. They’re much too quick to make off with the children and the disease makes them unafraid of even fire. We’ve kept 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.
“Cressida!” the light, airy tone of the beautiful Adrienna reached her and she lifted her head wearily. 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 the usual shade of dark brown or—in Cressida’s case—black. “Cressida! You’re all right!” Adrienna embraced her. “When you went after that yaguara I thought for sure you’d come back and be stark, raving mad! Uri and Nicia are worried sick! Not to mention Skrenthos! He—”
“Skrenthos is back?” Cressida interrupted, her eyes hopeful. “He returned—? Is he in the village?”
“Cressida! You’re injured!” Adrienna reached into her pouch and pulled out a strip of cloth and some herbal plants, lowering her voice, “What? Oh…yeah, uh, Skrenthos is back…but I heard from Uri that there were several yaguara in the jungle, is that correct?” Adrienna pulled Cressida down ward and they sat on a stump near the incantation circlet. “Just hold still a moment,”
“Yes,” she replied softly, she should have expected Adrienna to take an interest in this sort of thing. “Four of them, we had four warriors…but it didn’t matter, they still…” she trailed off, shaking her head.
“Oh,” Adrienna said, mirroring her expression as she 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.
“Stop being a wimp,” She held Cressida still as she applied pressure and then tied the bandage onto her arm. “That makes seven attacks in the last three days,” Adrienna said quietly, her eyes downcast. She stood and helped Cressida to her feet. “Mervin’s sword.” She said, disappointed. “So then…Amia?” she asked, looking up at Cressida.
“She’s…” Cressida shook her head, “Not going to make it, Adrienna.”
Adrienna nodded solemnly, her eyes watering a bit. “I…I see.” She smiled warmly, though Cressida knew it was forced, “That’s…all right. I’m sure she’ll be happier where she’s going to…” 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 weakly.
“Adrienna,” Cressida said, “I’m sorry.”
Adrienna quieted, “No matter…”
Cressida nodded, “The infection—Shembe says that it will be better for her.”
Adrienna nodded, “y…yeah. It’s okay…Don’t worry about it. I’ll talk to you later, Cressa…Oh look! Skrenthos!” she said cheerfully, waving at someone behind Cressida.
Cressida turned to look over her shoulder, and saw Skrenthos, deep in conversation with Aeol and Uri. She nodded and looked back, but Adrienna was already gone, running off toward the ramp that curled upward through the trees and her tree hut. Cressida thought about how Adrienna had always been weak when it came to death. While the others clicked their tongues and spoke words of comfort, Adrienna would often cry. When they burned the bodies, Adrienna could not stand to watch, because it was her belief that people should be buried in the earth. The idea repulsed Cressida, but after living elsewhere for most of her life, she could see how Adrienna had learned her strange ways of thinking.
Cressida turned around and saw Skrenthos bounding toward her. A smile met her lips and she said, “Skrenthos, there you are.” Skrenthos lifted her and spun her around, which caused her to laugh. Skrenthos always was one for a lot of energy. He put her down and they embraced. “You horrible man, 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 face 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 yaguara do this to you?” he took her arm in his hand and examined it.
“It’s nothing I can’t handle.” 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, only, the second legion had to wait a while off,”
“A while off?” She asked, looking up at Skrenthos with a mild look of confusion, “Are they trying to set themselves up?”
“They set a perimeter so there wouldn’t be any temptation to start a fight on the peace lands. Apparently the other smaller tribes within the Reyachh boundaries are becoming more and more bloodthirsty. The elders fear for the safety of the Reyachh altogether.”
“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?” he asked.
“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, “Shembe wants to return with us some time and straighten it out, but I’m not sure when....”
“What next? Someone makes a treaty with Labron?”
Cressida laughed, “Yziba working with Labron? She isn’t even bargaining with them!”
“No, but we are…that’s probably what started all the commotion…” he seemed to stew over this and then he wrapped his arms around Cressida and hugged her, “Today’s been a long day, hasn’t it?”
She nodded and closed her eyes, not wanting to discuss Amia or Eryx and she definitely did not want to see Nicia right now.
“A long day,” He repeated.