Rudd's wedding plans are interrupted by a dangerous encounter.
A GOOD DAY TO DIE
Rudd stalked through the moss-cluttered forest, his senses alert.
Sunlight trickled through the canopy and splashed in golden cascades onto the multi-hued blossoms of shasha vines. The sky, glimpsed through gaps in the vast forest dome, was polished blue-lace agate.
He had completed his vigil; he was purified.; he was no longer a child. It is a good day to be a man!
As a man, he could now marry. His heart beat faster at the thought of his beautiful Sarai waiting at the village for his return. It is a good day for a wedding feast, he thought. It is a good day to be wed.
A swarm of palm-sized butterflies--living jewels, flashing rainbow colors--played tag among the stately boles, then scattered for the safety of clustered shasha flowers when a darting bird attacked. The successful hunter carried its prey off to its nest. Rudd nodded in approval; his alertness was that of one who walks in beauty but knows that death might lurk over the next hill.
The remaining butterflies resumed their glittering, aimless play. They swirled briefly around Rudd, curious, then fluttered off into the tree-dim distance.
A gentle breeze as clean and fresh as a baby's dreams curled past Rudd and stroked his face with a lover's touch, made the shasha blooms bob and dance. The breeze whispered to Rudd that all was well. For now.
The forest was never silent. From the crunch of leaves and the susurration of moss beneath his feet to the chirps and shrills and whistles of the canopy dwellers, his ears were cornucopias heaped with a rich harvest of sound. That bounty reassured Rudd; the sounds were normal, expected, safe.
He caught the sleepy scent of ripe berries off to his left, clear against the sweeter aroma of the shasha flowers. Blaeberries! He paused in silent debate: should he leave the path to pick some? They would be welcome at the feast, and their sapphire-blue juice was like the sparkle in Sarai's eyes. Besides, she loved them. Debate turned to decision: he turned off the path.
He had taken only a few steps when the breeze warned him with another scent. An acrid, bitter stench, with overtones of stagnant bog and rotting flesh. At the same instant, the chorus of birdsong ceased. He slipped his bow off his shoulder and nocked an arrow. Cautiously, his feet seeking the silent cushions of moss, he returned to the trail and resumed his journey.
The forest that had seemed so bright and sun-dappled now seemed gloomy, with shadows huddled behind every trunk. Within one of those shadows, Rudd was sure, prowled the ferreal whose stench he had smelled. Half the size of a man, low to the ground but solid and strong, the forest cat was armed with razor fangs and dagger claws backed by lightning speed. No man in his tribe had faced one and lived. So far as Rudd knew, no man in any tribe had.
It is a good day for a battle, he thought with a hint of regret. It is a good day to die. He began silently singing his death song.
Two verses in, he paused. He was downwind, so perhaps the cat was unaware of his presence. Rudd resumed his cautious progress along the path, his feet seeking the softest tufts of moss, his eyes casting constantly left, right, front. The trail turned left ahead, just past a particularly dense stand of brush. The stink of ferreal was strong on the breeze.
Rudd drew the arrow full back, took two careful steps... and came face to face with the cat. Both froze, startled. The beast screamed. Rudd fired.
Rudd's arrow pierced the cat's open maw just as the beast sprang. Driven by the heavy weight, Rudd rolled backwards, felt claws rake his chest, heard the cat thud heavily onto the trail. Dizzy, bleeding, in pain, he staggered up and snatched his knife. The ferreal writhed and gurgled, the arrow buried in its gullet. Rudd flung himself onto its haunches and stabbed into its chest, stabbed and stabbed. When the cat was still he sat on its carcass gulping air in frenzied gasps.
The forest had begun to waken to sound, gradually, just as Rudd's breath was slowing. He gazed in wonder and dismay at the dead cat, at his torn flesh, at the blood oozing into his breechclout. Although the scratches were deep and painful, he decided he was not going to die from them. He pushed the wounds together, pressed some leaves against them, held them until clotting kept them in place.
He skinned the fereal, keeping its head and claws with the pelt - no one would believe, otherwise - tied the skin around his waist, gathered his weapons, and set off again for his wedding. He would have a most interesting wedding gift!
The forest sounds were driven again to silence by his jubilant shout of victory and joy. It is a good day to be a man! It is a good day to be alive! It is a good, good day!
- END -
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