The big cat carefully and silently backed up into the cleft and then, using its extraordinary strength and sinuously maneuverable body, eased up out of the rocks and moved slowly toward where the humans from further up the valley had descended down into his territory. He didn’t have to look back to know he was unobserved. The interest of the boy and the warrior were taken with staring at the retreating figures further up the river bank.
The cat lay, its paws deliberately and carefully set out before him, giving the appearance that he was at rest. But he was anything but resting. His eyes remained intently focused on the one figure, the same figure that had preceded the other humans in traveling down the valley. That human stood with a spear balanced in each hand at his side, the shafts of the spears parallel to the ground. The cat waited, instinctively knowing that the human had moved far enough upriver so that he would not be visible to those below near where the fire burned, where the cat hoped to enjoy another meal of cooked fish. The cat did not lick its lips at the thought, although the urge was there. He was in full hunting alert mode, with his attention frozen on the still figure. It took less than a slow languid eye blink on the part of the cat for the figure to be joined by two more, carrying two spears apiece, like the first human. The cat would not have blinked at all if he’d been truly on the hunt, but the humans posed little threat to him, were too large to be easy prey, and were too strangely dangerous to be encountered as territorial violating predators.
The three humans bent down together and went into hunting crouches. They moved slightly into the forest, as they eased back toward where the cat’s small pride was still gathered. The cat watched intently, again disturbed by the fact that his brain had applied pride status to creatures that were nothing close to being cats. The three human warriors were hunting the remaining members of the cat’s pride.
That thought was difficult but the cat found it to be true.
The cat went into an automatic response, abandoning his place of hiding to jump into the air, before turning and accelerating to top speed. He rushed toward where the fire still burned with a low ferocity. The cat did not slow from its blindingly fast top speed when it centered its flight on the space between the two standing humans. There was no time for the boy or the warrior to react before the cat was by, the very tip of the cat’s thick tail striking the boy on the side his head as he went by.
“What the hell was that?” Cetan said, finally reacting.
He turned to see where the cat had gone but there was nothing to be seen, not even the waving of fern fronds or low hanging branches.
“That was something,” the boy complained, rubbing the side of his face with his left hand, as surreptitiously as he could.
The cat ended his tremendous burst of speed deeper in the brush, using the semi-solid packed bracken of the forest floor, and his thick wide and well-padded paws, to halt himself. He turned, worked his way back until he was in the open and exposed again near the campfire. He stood, as before, staring upriver at what he knew to be there and coming. He also knew the boy and the warrior were oblivious to the other human’s approach.
Slowly, the beaver raised up on its hind legs for the first time ever, standing with its paws bent and perched slightly out in front of him. He didn’t direct his gaze toward the cat, a seemingly very obvious threat. Instead, he stared up the river, like the cat, located only a few feet away.
“There’ve changed their minds,” Cetan said, “get down,” he followed, his voice going to a hiss, as he dropped to the ground, clutching his spear close along his torso.
The boy dropped at almost the same instant.
A shout came from out of the forest, although nothing was to be seen.
“I am Athesis,” a deep voice boomed. “You will not remain in our territory and live. The sub-chief needs to consult no one. If you stay you will die upon our return. I Athesis, warring chief, make this promise no matter what the tribe’s decision.”
A spear impacted the earth not more than a body-length from where Cetan lay. He jerked his head toward the boy and then shook it slowly, understanding fully that the boy wanted nothing more than to get up and run from the area.
The boy waited, knowing that the warrior was experienced in such things. Two more spears came down, to remain stuck into the ground a bit further from the other.
“Take these spears as a gift for your travel,” Athesis yelled. “If we’d have intended to kill you then you would be dead.”
Cetan did not move, only his head up and watching while the rest of his body, including his hands, lay flat on the ground. The boy watched him closely and followed his lead. There was nothing to be seen, however.
The boy waited some more, buoyed up by the knowledge that the cat and the beaver stood or lay with them, enduring the attack as they had. He glanced back over one shoulder to see them sitting there. But they weren’t there. The beaver was swimming off into the current of the river and heading down with that current. The cat was nowhere to be seen. The boy’s disappointment was palpable.
“They are animals,” Cetan said, turning his head to smile at the boy.
“I know,” the boy replied, keeping his voice as low as possible, “but I thought they’d stay with us.”
“Not them,” Cetan said, gently laughing out loud. “I meant our spear-throwing friends. No warrior can throw spears that far and miss on purpose. They were trying to hit us, but when they didn’t they declared their mission to be something that would not cause Athesis embarrassment.”
“But we have their spears,” the boy responded, staring at the three shafts sticking out of the earth in front of them.
“The spoils of war,” Cetan said, “but stay where you are for a bit. They may have used this attack to mask a more covert approach. They still have three spears but this time won’t throw them.”
“How do you know that?” the boy asked, still looking around behind him for the cat.
“Because no warrior can afford to travel all the way back through the forest unarmed. Throwing spears at prey is easy because, hit or miss, because he can recover the spear. Throwing a spear at other warriors, he can only recover the spear if that warrior is alone and been struck a mortal blow. Besides, most warriors will never throw a spear at another warrior in anger or war, much less hit one.”
“Can we go after them and throw the extra spears?” the boy asked.
“They’re the sub-chief’s problem, for the time being,” Cetan replied. “He didn’t order their return or the attack. When they show up without the extra spears they’ll face their own difficulties. I left the tribe over such rivalries among the young men. There has been peace among the tribes for a long time and many long-standing agreements. The youthful warriors have grown restive and will not listen to the elders’ talk of war and how warriors might win but in war, most of them will die.”
Cetan rose to his feet and moved forward to recover the spears. The boy followed.
“These are well made, the chipped flint of the tips well bound and freshly sharp,” Cetan said, fingering the sharp edges of one tip. “These were made by Singken, the tribes greatest flint-napping master. It is an honor to own them. We must revere and use them wisely.”
The boy pulled the remaining spears from the earth and carried them to lay next to the lean-to. He then took a seat at the fire, crossing his legs.
“What do we do now?” he asked Cetan. “Will they return?”
“Oh, they’ll be back one day, but not soon,” the warrior replied. “They were not the advance party. That would have been much larger, and they would have left a vanguard to prepare for the coming of the rest of the tribe. No, they came to hunt me down, but the animals changed everything. The tribe reveres all animals, particularly those that treat warriors with disdain. There is a magic to the behavior of the cat and the beaver that we must reflect upon, as well as they. Something has changed in this part of the forest and I have no idea what it is.”
The cat appeared out of the edge of forest detritus as if it was coming out of the ground itself. It shook bits of twigs and leaves from its rich luxurious fur, but it didn’t lay down to lick the offending dirt away. Instead, it sat and observed them from a good four body-lengths away. The effect was unsettling for both the boy and the warrior.
“What does it want?” the boy asked.
“Well, probably some more of that fish, although fresh fish might be better,” Cetan said. “And possibly a name. Do you yourself have an adult name yet?
The boy thought fast. His father had called him Tate, which meant ‘talks too much,’ but that had been in humor since the boy wasn’t old enough to have a real name.
He knew Cetan had to know that. The warrior was asking him to name himself, which had to be some sort of honor or at least a convenience.”
“Tama,” the boy replied, looking closely into Cetan’s eyes to see if he picked up on the lie.
“Thunder,” that’s a good strong name,” Cetan said. “Not quite as powerful as hawk, but close enough.”
The cat laid down, extending its paws forward, as he had done when he was in hunting mode facing the warriors. He blinked his eyes slowly, and then carefully licked his lips.
“Look at him looking at you,” Cetan said, smiling. “He’s talking to you. Where is the fish? It’s written all over him.”
“Hasti,” the boy said to the cat.
The cat looked back at him but gave nothing more except a few slow blinks.
“That’s good, Tama,” Cetan said. “’Fast danger,’ is perfect. He almost knocked you out with the tip of his tail alone.”
The boy was embarrassed. He’d hoped the warrior might have missed the small detail of the cat’s deliberate assault on the side of his head.
“He was warning us,” if you’re wondering about that. “He didn’t have to come back. Humans are no threat to something like he is. He’s way to fast to be speared, too deadly to be grappled with and most warriors will never even see one in the forest if the cat doesn’t want to be seen. That it sits there now, looking to you for a chunk of cooked fish. That fact is beyond my understanding.”
The boy caught a hesitation in the warrior’s delivery. “Why does he make you uncomfortable,” he asked.
The warrior waited almost a full minute before answering.
“It’s not discomfort,” Cetan replied. “It’s just that we are subject to whatever whim might come through his mind. We are powerless to stop him from hurting or killing us if he chooses to do that. I am not used to an animal of any kind having that kind of power over me, even if he chooses not to exercise it.”
“You mean other than the animals that threw the spears at us,” the boy said.
“Yes, there is that,” Cetan answered sheepishly. “I trust your cat more than I trust them, which is why I’m here with you, and the cat, and not them.”
“And the beaver, too?” Tama asked.
“Yes, the beaver too,” Cetan said. “I’m not sure the cat would have been enough for the sub-chief. The beaver was too much for him to ignore. Even now, the story of you and I and the animals is growing in size and shape. By the time the Warriors get back to the tribe to pow-wow there, our numbers, size, and magical powers will have reached giant proportions, if for no other reason than to cover the missing spears. Spears like these are highly valued.”
“What will we name the beaver?” the boy asked.
“Beavers are probably too dumb to name, but you can if you want.”
“The beaver was smart enough to help save us from a war party that might have killed us for no good reason at all,” the boy replied.
“Well, or maybe for what I did back at the tribe,” Cetan said.
Tama waited but the warrior did not go on. He thought about asking but then decided that the question could wait. The cat had to be fed, and that meant walking a good way upriver to where the rocks were position in the rapids to allow clear enough water around them to use his short spear.
The boy got up, took his spear and walked toward the river bank. He wondered if Cetan would follow him in case the warriors from the tribe might lay in wait. He walked for a few minutes before looking back. Cetan stood near their camp, a huge smile visible, even at the distance, on his face. Cetan had not followed, but the cat was right behind the boy. A warm feeling began to pervade his belly and mind. He smiled back at Cetan, before continuing his short journey to the rocks. Nothing was going to get between the cat and his fish dinner, and that knowledge made the boy feel safer than he’d felt since his dad had not come home from the hunt.
He’d think on the beaver’s name for a bit before assigning one. The beaver was part of the tribe. He needed a name.
“Tama,” he whispered to himself, happy that the warrior had not questioned his choice.