by Renee Carter Hall
Leya gripped the spear tighter and edged forward another step, careful not to rise out of her crouch, staying as low as she could. A breeze swayed the tall grasses before her, but the lioness' pale gold coat kept her hidden. She wore only a hide loincloth, and even that she had cut the beads from so she could move more quietly. Her prey was in sight now, locked in her gaze. It was cropping grass calmly just a few lengths ahead, facing away from her, unaware of the mortal danger it was in...
"Um, Leya?" Bahati's voice drifted back to her. "The wind's blowing this way. I can smell you. Should I run?"
Leya swore under her breath, stood up, and flung the spear as hard as she could, not bothering to see where it landed. It wasn't a real weapon anyway, just a straight stick smoothed to a rounded point, the right length and weight for practice.
A pretend spear for a pretend huntress, she thought, disgusted at herself for forgetting something as simple as the wind.
Bahati, her "prey," stood up, brushed dust and bits of grass from his fur and loincloth, and searched through the long grass to bring the spear back to her. "Easy on that; it's the last one we've got. And I'm not making you any more if you're just going to keep breaking them, you know."
He said it teasingly, but Leya stalked off. "Some karanja I'll make," she muttered. "I'd never even get close."
Bahati followed her as she picked up the trail leading back to Lwazi, their village. "It'll get easier. Remember the stories? Even Kamara couldn't catch anything at first."
"Only because of the moonlight," Leya retorted, "before she prayed to Yaa to cover the moon with his mane."
"Oh. Yeah, I... forgot about that part."
Leya shook her head. She knew the stories well enough. Kamara the Huntress had killed a zebra foal when she was a flat-chested cub. No karanja would ever expect any mortal to be that good, but she'd still have to prove herself worthy of training.
Bahati walked beside her in silence. He had been her best friend almost as long as she could remember, but there were some things she knew she couldn't expect him to understand. Nothing ever worried him for long; he was steady as sunrise, always ready with a smile or a joke, and moved through life as if it were nothing more than a game or a dance. The simplest things pleased him: a beautiful sunset, fresh honeycomb, watching a line of ants. He didn't seem to have much ambition himself, though he was training now for a place in the aumah's guard, as all the young males did if they chose not to leave the village after ascension. He seemed to live looking no farther ahead than the next morning, but for Leya, each day was merely another mark of time before her real life would begin, far from the village, among the red ochre tents of the karanja.
The first time she'd seen them, she had been very young, but she hadn't been afraid. The other cubs, male and female alike, had hidden behind their mothers, frightened by the huntresses' fierce eyes and sharp weapons. Where the villagers wore beads or stones, the karanja sported necklaces of bone and hoof and claw, and their loincloths were made of zebra hide in deference to Kamara's first kill, a material only they were permitted to wear.
They were all mesmerizing, exotic and dangerous and beautiful, their eyeshine flashing like lightning-strikes as they took their places around the fire. But there was one Leya could not look away from.
Masika, the karanjala, first among the karanja. Her headdress of fish-eagle feathers stood out from her noble face like a mane, and her loincloth was of giraffe hide, just as their first male wore. Her eyes were sharp and watchful, her every muscle toned and tensed, and like all the karanja, she proudly bore the twin scars on her chest where her breasts had been cut away. Leya sat silently, drinking in Masika's presence, watching everything the huntress did, every movement, every manner.
A cricket landed within the circle, almost at Masika's feet, very near the fire.
Leya leapt without thinking, throwing the whole force of her small body toward her prey. The cricket arced away neatly, and Leya's finger-pads touched the red-hot embers.
Leya jerked away with a cry of pain and surprise, tears welling in her eyes. Her mother was already rushing to her, but it was Masika who picked her up and held her in that beautiful, terrible gaze.
The huntress smiled. "Take heart, little one. It may live today, but you live as well, and you will be stronger when you meet it next."
Leya forgot the pain in her fingers, forgot everything but that gaze, that smile, those words that lit the heat of hope in her chest. She blinked back her tears and tried to smile back.
"This one has the heart of the karanja," Masika said. "She would follow her prey into the fire itself."
Masika turned and handed Leya to her mother. "She has fierce eyes for one so young. Keep her close, or she may follow our path."
Leya looked to her mother. She thought her mother would be happy to hear such praise, but instead Naimah's ears went back and she looked at the ground when she spoke. "If she so chooses."
Now, of course, Leya understood. The karanja lived apart, did not take mates, did not bear cubs. They were meant for something more, something greater.
And so was she.
Leya left the spear at the back of the hut, away from the stack of firewood but where she hoped her mother wouldn't see it. Naimah was out front at the grinding-stone, turning handfuls of millet into coarse flour. She didn't look up when Leya approached, instead keeping her attention on the long stone she was rolling back and forth in a steady rhythm.
"Where have you been?" Naimah asked.
"Out. With Bahati." She knew her mother wouldn't question that any further, would fill in the spaces with her own hopes.
Ever since Leya had reached adulthood at the last rains, her mother had been pestering her about Bahati. He was handsome. He was strong. He was kind. His cubs would be strong, and he would be a good father. The village rainspeaker--who knew many things of this world and the next--had said once that Bahati was the second birth of an ancient aumah's spirit. He might even be aumah himself one day, who knew? Her mother sent these compliments out like a swarm of black flies, buzzing around Leya constantly.
"I don't want to be an aumah's wife," Leya had said one day. Underneath that were the words she didn't say, the words her mother still heard. I don't want to be anyone's wife.
The worst of it was, sometimes those black flies still buzzed around when she was with Bahati. And she could see all of it. He was handsome, of course, with his golden mane almost full now, his body lean and strong. Anyone could see that. Even the white-muzzled lionesses, sway-breasted and half-blind, murmured among themselves when Bahati walked by. And he was patient. He carved whistles and roarers and spears for the boy-cubs, when most males his age paid no attention to anyone younger. He even carried water for old Sisi, who spent all day lying on her mat in her hut and was too old and tired to walk to the river anymore. Of course Leya liked him; everyone liked him.
But she could not be his mate.
Naimah swept the flour into a basket, added another handful of grain to the flat stone, and started the rhythm again. "Ayanna was asking for you."
Leya felt a thorn-prick of guilt. "Why?"
"They're making her necklaces today. Did you forget?"
Leya swallowed the curse just in time. "Are they done?"
"Not for a long while yet. They're slow, those girls. More talking than working." Naimah paused, then smiled slightly, her eyes distant. "But I remember how it was." She glanced back at Leya. "Go on. Better not make them angry with you, or there'll be no one to make yours later."
Leya ignored that and set off at a trot to the fire-circle in the center of the village. The others were already there, a half-dozen girl-cubs born in Ayanna's and Leya's season. Ayanna sat in the middle of them, as if she were going to be an aumah's wife herself, instead of marrying a male with a half-grown mane that Leya had never seen anything special about. But Ayanna had talked of nothing and no one else since the two of them had started walking together, so Leya figured there had to be something about him worth loving, even if she couldn't see it. Even now, there was a light in the young lioness' eyes that Leya didn't entirely understand but somehow still envied. It wasn't just being happy; it was being satisfied and content and excited all at once. She was glad for Ayanna, even though they'd never been that close.
It was custom for the other females Ayanna's age to string beads for her bridal necklaces. The more she wore that day, the longer and happier her life with her husband would be. There were beads of clay and stone and wood and ostrich eggshell, all neatly grouped in bowls, and Leya grabbed the closest bowl and a thorn needle and started in, trying to work quickly to make up for being late.
One of the lionesses giggled suddenly, and then others joined in. Leya glanced up, not sure of the joke, looking from one to the next for clues.
Even Ayanna was trying not to laugh, looking at Leya's strand of beads. "Jasiri's blood is hot enough, I know," she said, "but I'm not sure I'd want that many."
Leya looked down at the beads, trying to piece things together, and then remembered that each one had a meaning. The ones she'd used represented how many cubs a wife would bear, and were meant to be scattered through a pattern of other beads. The way she'd strung so many one after the other, Ayanna would be bearing cubs three at a time for the rest of her life.
Leya's ears burned as she tried to think of something to say, to be in on the joke instead of the one they were laughing at. "Well, I've seen how he looks at you. You'll be carrying by the time the rains come again."
Ayanna's ears flushed, too, with a mixture of pride and modesty. One of the others dropped her voice to a whisper and told a joke she'd heard from an aunt, about a young groom who didn't want to wait for his wedding, and a trick his bride played on him.
Leya laughed with the others, though she found the joke silly. When they were younger, she'd spent most of her time playing with the boy-cubs, pretending to be heroes and enemies, seeing who could throw a melon the farthest before they'd all gotten caught and whipped for wasting food. Now, ever since her body had changed and made her a woman--and a potential wife--she was thrown back into the other females' company, to find them speaking a language she'd never learned.
She started a new string of beads, slipped and jabbed a finger-pad with her needle, then quietly set aside three beads she'd bled on. She didn't know what that would symbolize in a bridal necklace, but it probably wouldn't be good. As they worked, the others chattered and whooped like baboons, telling jokes, sharing stories of when they'd all been cubs together. Leya was never mentioned, of course; she hadn't been there most of the time, or at least not with them. When they'd played a prank once using a basket of ants, Leya and two of the boys had been the ones gathering the ants. She thought about telling them how many times she'd been bitten that day, and how one of the boys had cried from the pain, but instead she kept silent, stringing beads the way her mother ground the flour, a slow and steady rhythm, letting the conversation buzz around her, all the time feeling like an elephant in a herd of gazelle.
By the time they were done, it was almost sunset. Each lioness slipped her finished necklace over Ayanna's head and embraced her. Leya came last, hesitating with her mismatched strand, deciding what to say. Ayanna looked strangely grown up suddenly, like a stranger from some other village, beautiful in her honey-colored coat and layers of bright necklaces. She looked like she already knew the answers to questions Leya hadn't even thought of yet.
Leya swallowed. "I don't know anything about... any of this. But I hope you'll be happy. As happy as you are now, always." She started to put the necklace on Ayanna, then stopped. The others looked so perfect, and somehow hers didn't match any of them, even though they'd all used the same beads.
Ayanna smiled, took Leya's wrists gently, and slipped the necklace over her head with the others. "I'm glad you came."
Afterward, restless and craving solitude, Leya went out to check her snares. She had three, set just beyond the boundaries of the village. It was, to her mind, a lesser way to hunt, but then she was limited to lesser prey anyway. Only karanja and a village's aumah could kill the heavy meat. Everyone else could take only light meat--birds or fish, scrub hare, or at most, the red pigs that sometimes rooted through the village crops. She'd hoped to kill one of the pigs before the karanja arrived again, but so far they'd been too fast and too smart for her, especially since her only real weapon was the short ivory-handled knife her mother had given her when she'd become an adult. All women carried them, for foraging or preparing food, but Leya had secretly honed her blade until it was sharp enough to shave fur from her skin.
It was already dark by the time she reached the last snare and found a grouse hen floundering, flapping its wings uselessly. She snapped its neck, enjoying the feel of its limp weight as she followed the trail back toward the village. One day, she would come back to the clan with the other karanja, after a great hunt, bearing a full zebra, the hide still on--
No. Too common.
A young elephant, then, a suckling calf, the meat tender and nut-sweet, with its rich shining liver to present to the aumah. They would come carrying it to the fireside, singing one of their chants, the villagers clapping and keeping time, cubs dancing in the ruddy light, and all would eat until they could eat no more. She smiled, picturing it.
But, as her mother was fond of saying, dreams tasted good on the tongue but left your belly empty. She had to become a karanja first.
This excerpt and all characters (c) 2013 Renee Carter Hall ("Poetigress"), from "Huntress," published in Five Fortunes (FurPlanet, 2014). May not be reposted, reprinted, or redistributed without written permission.
All Leya has wanted since childhood is to become one of the karanja, the huntresses of her people, but the path to that destination will be more difficult than she expects. How much is she willing to sacrifice to find a place among the sisterhood?
The full novella, along with those of four other furry authors, appears in Five Fortunes, published by FurPlanet and now available here.