Soundless footsteps animated the scene. A pair of dust covered, calloused feet stopped short of a clearing, remaining hidden in the dense undergrowth the mountainous region provided. It was beginning to grow cold; the temperature had dropped five degrees since the day before with the harsh grip of winter looming mercilessly on the horizon. The supple leather of a well-used sling twisted in the hands of the skilled hunter, her gray-blue eyes peering out from between the multitude of leaves that gave her cover. Each sound was distinct to her trained ears. A small scuffle meant a rabbit was edging, paranoid, through the grass. The ginger, nearly undetectable footfalls by the creek indicated a deer had paused to get a drink. Swift, loping motions followed by an eerie cackle that made her skin crawl told her that hyenas were somewhere in the distance. Ayla tensed, slipping a smooth stone into the pocket of the primitive weapon, and shuffled forward until her camouflage scarcely covered her.
Focus...Focus...You're still alive...You need to eat...
For the woman, it was necessary to assure herself that she was still human, and not just the remains of a wandering spirit, bound to earth because she had not had a proper burial. Pangs in her stomach reminded her that it required some sort of nutrition to maintain the energy needed for travel. Not able to go back to the cave she had lived in for so long, the only other choice was to find her own people—the Others.
A shaking hand was shot up and it clutched the bulky pouch that hung limply around her neck before dropping again. Was her totem still with her, even though this was the second, and final time, she had been given the curse of Death? The Cave Lion had protected her from as early as she could remember. The four parallel scars across her thigh proved this. And yet...she had been forced away from the only family she had ever known. "What else do I have to live for?" Ayla gesticulated in the one-handed abbreviated gestures the Mog-ur used, her grip on the sling traded for this silent question. "Cave Lion, am I really dead? Why am I wandering the earth and not with Iza and Creb in the spirit world, if I'm dead?" A tear slid down her face and instinctively wiped the salty droplet away before grabbing the leather weapon, the weight solid in her tight fist. "I'm all alone...If this is other test, this is the hardest one yet. I wonder how much Durc has grown..."
The small animal bounded out in front of Ayla, paused for a moment, then sped off. The woman didn't so much as lift to finger to hurl the rock at it, though her aim was impeccable, and it would have been an easy shot. The muscles needed to engage the swinging motion were frozen in time, the woman merely a statue in the shaded grove of the forest. A long moment passed before she finally dropped to her knees. A clumsy action to combat the sinewy grace she previously moved with. The rabbit had long bounded off, and a heavy heart prevented her from tracking it through the brush. Food was vital, but the depression that had been hanging idly in question was finally sinking its icy fangs into her flesh, injecting a lethal venom into her bloodstream.
Bubbling up from the depths of her mind were the sorrows too fresh to shed tears over. It was all Broud's fault; he caused the earthquake after he had asked Goov to set the bones in place to curse her. No one had even expected it, it all happened too fast, and it took longer than usual for the eyes of the Clan to glaze over and 'see' through her. Brun gave her the slightest glimmer of hope. Though giving her recognition after she was dead might have brought evil spirits to spread the cloud of bad luck over him, the retired leader had promised to care for her son after she had gone. Protect him from the son of his mate, who took his revenge on Ayla by taking away the only things she knew and loved – her family, her home.
I can't die. I told Broud he could make me leave, but he couldn't make me die!
The fierce determination of survival instinct kicked in and the young woman stood stiffly and tucked her sling and stones into a fold of her leather wrap. Looking out across the small, forested refuge, she meaningfully walked through the bushes, feeling the change of texture from grass to the fine grain of wet sand that lined the creek bed. Pausing a moment to regain her bearings and swallow down some of the glacial melt, Ayla plodded back upstream, already thinking of what she could eat after her breakdown resulted in an empty-handed hunt. I still have some of the dried meat I took with me when I was cursed. Could eat that. There's also some cattail bulbs and wild carrots not far from here I could dig up. I wish I'd got that rabbit, some meat would have been nice, but at least I won't have to go through the trouble of starting a fire. Already she was working out a strategy to stay alive, though she wasn't aware of it in her conscious mind, and it gave her the much needed resolve to press onward. She would find the Others, people, a place to belong; maybe even a mate. She would find it, or die trying.