Light flashed out into the surrounding darkness of the plains as Balduga struck his flints together. Two more strikes rained sparks down on the dry tinder. An ember started to glow in the center of the dry grasses on the third strike.
Dropping his flints, the Cheetah-furre raised the tinder in front of his muzzle and began blowing the ember into flame. It took only a moment and soon the warm yellow glow of the flames chased away the darkness around him. He carefully moved the tinder beneath the neatly piled ostrix dung prepared as fuel for the fire.
Sitting on the ground a few feet away, Balduga's young daughter Granatha watched him patiently. She held a dead kiwi against her naked chest as if cradling a doll. It was her first kill and she was treasuring the time before its body would be cooked over the fire and seen no more.
Pulling his bone knife from its sheath around his waist, Balduga motioned for Granatha to move closer. He handed the knife to the reluctant furling after she took her place beside the fire.
Looking at the knife, Granatha saw how fine the sharpened blade was. It had been engraved with symbols that were all alien to her, but she knew that they held power. Surely her father had paid the village shaman a great amount for their magic. Its handle too was beautifully wrapped in leather strips.
"Remove the liver and eat it, my huntress daughter," said Balduga with a proud looking grin. "Become one with your prey. For just as we hunt and eat the kiwi, we too may be hunted and eaten by other creatures at any time."
Granatha felt a shudder run up her spine. She felt almost as nervous as she had been when she had spotted the bird. Slowly she worked the blade into the flesh of the kiwi and removed its liver. She sniffed at it in her paw while her father watched from his place across the fire.
Biting into the liver, Granatha let her mind return to the hunt. She saw herself poised with the throwing dart ready above her shoulder. She heard the kiwi scratching at the soil beneath the thorny bahdawa bush. She felt her muscles flex as she threw the dart. The scent of blood filled her nostrils and she knew that she had hit the mark.
The warm coppery taste of the liver was pleasing to Granatha and she savored every bite. She barely noticed when her father took the kiwi from her and prepared it for the spit over the fire. It was only when she had swallowed the last of the liver that she smelled the bird flesh cooking on the flames.
"Am I really a huntress now, Papa?" Granatha asked wiping blood from her lips with a handful of grasses. "It was only a young kiwi. It was not as big as Graduda's first. He fed his whole family with his first kill."
Balduga smiled at his daughter and turned the kiwi over the fire. "It is not the size of the game that makes one a hunter, my cubling. You have provided us with supper this night. If you had failed, we would be going hungry. That is what makes you a huntress. You did not fail. Besides that, your brother lied to you. His mother had another kiwi already prepared when we brought his kill home. We ate two birds at his home that night."
Reclining in the glow of the fire, Granatha looked at the cooking bird. "What if I had failed, Papa? Would you have been ashamed of me?"
Balduga checked the meat of the kiwi before turning it once more. He then saw the serious expression on Granatha's face and winked at her. "You did not fail, Granatha. You caused me no shame."
"But, what if I…?"
Moving over to sit next to Granatha, Balduga wrapped his arms around her and embraced her. "If you had failed in the hunt this day, I would have taken you home empty handed. No hunter succeeds in every hunt, but you cannot be a hunter until you succeed in your first."
Pulling the kiwi away from the fire, Balduga offered Granatha her choice of its flesh before taking his own share. They ate in silence, enjoying the flavor of the bird and the noise of the night insects around them. Balduga seemed especially quiet as if listening to the very stars above.
When they were finished eating, Balduga once again pulled out his knife. He wrapped it carefully in the skin of the kiwi and presented it to Granatha with a smile. "You have earned my blade this day. Take it and use it with pride, my huntress daughter. It will both protect and provide for you and your family all the days of your life… but there is one secret that you should know."
Granatha took the blade carefully and embraced it to her naked chest in awe. She had almost not heard her father's words over the thumping of her own excited heart.
"What is the secret, Papa?"
Balduga stood and began walking backwards away from the fire. His eyes were focused on Granatha, but they seemed to be wet with tears. He stopped just inside the last of the firelight and smiled at Granatha.
Untying his loincloth, Balduga smiled. "The knife's magic will not work for you any longer when you decide that you do not need it. You are the huntress now, my daughter. You can hunt your own prey. I no longer have need of the knife or its magic." Turning his head toward the darkness to his right, Balduga dropped his loincloth and sprinted toward a large shadow moving in his direction outside the reach of the firelight.
It was only then that Granatha heard the cry of a raukor. Her father's growl rose up to join the predator bird's call and then there was silence. Only the noise of the crackling fire and Granatha's own frightened sobs filled the air.
Tears ran down Granatha's face and fell freely on the soil. Her father had made his choice and passed onto her the only weapon among them capable of piercing the raukor's flesh. He had watched his daughter become a huntress, only to willingly become the hunted.
Panic swept over Granatha. She was alone on the plains for the very first time. Her father had just sacrificed himself for her, but what if there were other raukors around? What if the one to kill her father found itself still hungry?
Forgetting her tears, Granatha moved quickly. She gathered long dried clumps of grasses and bundled them tightly together. These she placed near the fire where she could grab them and use them as torches if attacked. She then ran out and took her father's loincloth. It held his flints in a small pouch tied near the sheath he had carried his knife.
Granatha removed the flints and dropped the loincloth into the flames of the fire. The smell of its burning leather filled the air around her and she hoped it might ward off any other predators in the area.
Grabbing up the long throwing dart she had used to kill the kiwi, Granatha took a seat very near the fire. She placed her back to its flames and watched the surrounding darkness for any signs of movement.
Hours passed and Granatha jumped at every sound. She almost jumped into the flames of the fire when a large dragonfly buzzed past her head. She thought she heard something prowling the shadows just outside the ring of light, but she could not see anything. She was convinced that there were raukors watching her and so she tried to look brave though her insides quivered.
Finally, as Granatha placed the last of the dung on her dying fire, she saw a sliver of sunlight on the eastern horizon. Never had she welcomed the sun more. Its faint glow creeping over the horizon and across the plain seemed to warm her heart and mind more than any dung fire ever could.
When the sun had risen enough that Granatha could see around her where the shadows had just been, she found no sign of any raukor. She saw only her father's tracks leading off in the direction of his doom.
Throwing soil over the fire, Granatha picked up her things and started the long trek home. She felt strange not having her father beside her. It was odd how she could feel both sorrow and pride at the same time. She would no longer walk with her father, but she would now walk as a huntress of the Swift Paw Clan.
She thought of her brothers and sisters. They were all older than she was and most had been hunting for several rainy seasons. Would they now accept her as a fellow huntress or simply blame her for their father's death?
What of her mother and her father's other wives? How would they take the news of his passing? Granatha did not want to find out, but as the only witness she was obligated to bring them the news personally.
Somehow, Granatha started to get the idea that her father had been planning this all out for a very long time. It was as if he was forcing Granatha to grow up and take on the responsibilities of an adult. After all, hunting was only a part of life on the plains. Had he known even before asking her to go on this hunting trip that he would die?
Holding the knife he had left behind up to her nose, Granatha walked on in deep meditation and thought. It was only when she passed a rather familiar dead tree that she realized she was nearing her tribe's village.
She was moving down a gentle slope toward a narrow river. Small grass huts and tents dotted the area along the nearest bank. The familiar smell of burning ostrix dung rose to her on some unseen air current.
One of the younger children spotted her and pointed. Soon other youngsters raced out to meet her. She recognized most as cousins and playmates who were only a season or two behind her.
Then, a familiar form stepped forward out of one small hut. Her mother's sleek figure suddenly seemed old and weak. Granatha wondered at this before deciding that her mind was playing tricks on her.
Ignoring her young cousins' questions, Granatha made her way toward her mother. She could see the tears in the woman's eyes before she had passed the first hut of the village.
As Granatha neared the cheetah woman, she saw her mother's bare breasts heave in giant sobs. It was all she could do to look her mother in the eye.
"He gave me his knife," said Granatha holding out the blade wrapped in the kiwi skin.
Other members of the village began pushing in close and murmuring. One of her uncles nodded to her before ushering the others away.
"I am sorry, Mama. A raukor…" Granatha could not finish and her mother simply waved her paw as if she understood.
Taking Granatha's paw in her own, her mother pulled her toward the door of the hut and asked quietly, "Did Balduga die a warrior?"
Smiling through her tears, Granatha answered boldly, "A swift and roaring one, Mama."