Copyright 2012, Lazette Gifford
Aga had wanted that pigwart, scrawny thing though it had been. It annoyed her that Cat had charged in and made the kill while she still held her spear in hand.
Cat had looked at her, the pigwart dangling dead in her mouth, her huge teeth dripping with blood. Her eyes had shown, luminous and green in the late moon light.
Aga had lifted her arm for the kill, but Cat turned and darted back into the brush and away, pale fur lost in the shadows. Aga wouldn't waste her throw and risk damaging the fine sharp edge of her carefully chiseled stone. She wanted the kill.
She followed, even into the night. Even away from the camp and up the valley so newly green with spring, and by dawn she came to the land of always winter, where the river of ice ran down to the stream.
Clack, click, clack click -- the sound of Cat moving relentlessly above her. Aga dropped down on her knees, listening. Sit still, very still in the shadows before the sun comes fully over the mountains of snow. Silent, barely breathing. Mark the path Cat took.
Up, up. And then not up. A soft rustle of sound, pads on snow.
Aga marked the spot in her mind; Up the ice stream, across the snowfield for a heartbeat, another. Down into some hidey-hole where Cat carried her long dead prey.
Only Ipip had ever killed Cat. They made him leader of the tribe, and he wrapped himself Cat's skin every day, dragging the tail behind him and growling at anyone who argued with his decisions.
If she killed Cat this time, she could rule the tribe. They would bring her food from the hunt, and she would give her blessing to those who went out. The men would come to her at her will, and the women would give her the choice berries. And as long as she wore Cat's skin and brought the spirit of the creature to them, then the tribe would be safe. So it had been with Ipip until he drowned in the big rain, and Cat's skin slipped away.
But Cat was back now, grown again and hunting food in their territory, where the tribe found little enough to eat. Cat would drag them off when winter came down from the mountains again.
Aga knew where Cat hid now. Aga would kill Cat and rule her people. And she would not be stupid enough to drown.
The sun glistened, on the edge of the ice river. She glanced up, and saw nothing moving. Crawling up, hands and knees -- low profile, don't let cat know a human came her way. Cat knew humans would kill her.
The ice made Aga's hands ache. She stopped and blew on them, wishing she had winter furs to protect her fingers.
Not much farther. Up, and up, swish of her long spear sliding against the ice, a whisper she hoped Cat didn't hear, or ignored not thinking it human.
Up, staring to the right . . . and there, finally, the mark of Cat's long-clawed feet in the gray, dust-covered snow. Aga lifted her head and marked the path. It didn't go far, disappearing into a low walled depression and into the black heart of the world.
She would not go in there. Mother World swallowed the unwary, and even sometimes the holy ones, blessed by Sun, did not come back from the dark where they made magic to protect the tribe.
No, Aga would not follow Cat into the world of the Dark Ones. But she would go close enough to look in, and if she had the chance -- oh yes, she would lure Cat out.
Her arms grew numb, elbow deep in the snow. She feared that the spear would catch on something and she'd have to retie the stone tip, or else fight only with her duller knife while Cat tore at her with claws. Her heart pounded as she neared the opening. Cat could be watching her. Cat could be waiting to drag her down to the Dark Ones and she would never stand in the sun again.
Being ruler of the tribe didn't seem so important now.
She stopped. Then slid forward an arm's length and another so she could see down into the forbidden darkness.
Cat stared back at her, ears drawn back, her teeth bright in the glint of snow-cast light. Cat, not alone. Two small things tore at the pigwart she had dragged in for them! Children of Cat!
She lifted her spear.
Cat moved, oh so quickly -- her head lowered and growling -- but not to the attack. She put herself between Aga and her children.
Aga raised her spear. . . .
And then she remembered Ipip, standing knee deep in the big water as it rushed down from Always Winter. She remembered how he had grabbed the two children from the collapsing tent and threw them to safety just before the water rushed up over him and dragged him away, and how Cat's skin had stayed a moment, eyeless head looking back from Big Water, watching her.
Watching her still.
Aga lowered the spear and backed away. She had long walk back to the camp, and she made three kills on the way. Gifts of Cat, she knew. And maybe of Ipip as well, who lived on in the spirit he had taken, and protected the tribe still.
Even the Holy Ones agreed, and after that they did not take Cat's skin again, except when she left it for them, bereft of spirit. The hunters took gifts to her cave where Cat lived on in her children.
And in those years, when Aga ruled with Cat's wisdom and bravery, the tribe grew strong.
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