Silence is a very unusual thing in the jungle. Even when the air is still, the leaves will still inexplicably rustle with the life exuded by the trees. There will be the hiss of steam evaporating off foliage. There will be the scuttling of insects and the diverse whoops and calls of birds and monkeys. Most of the time, the jungle is deafening. Silence is a sign that all those birds and monkeys have their attention fixed on the same one thing. If you don't know what they are watching, then there is a good chance that whatever it is is watching you.
Tora pressed herself hard against the twisting tree trunk. She hoped that if she kept absolutely still that her heart would all but stop as well, or at the very least cease its noisome yammering. She could hear it so loud in her ears, and she could feel it throbbing along the scar on her face. In this silence it must sound like a drum beat to anyone or anything that might be listening. She curled her fingers tight into fists, until the nails dug into her palms.
The knowledge that she had willingly brought herself to this place made it all the more unbearable.
Unable to reconcile her guilt about Nuru and what Tora had taken from her, she had found herself wondering almost unconsciously closer and closer to the edge of the leopards' territory. She knew that her parents sensed her internal torment, but had bit-back any appeal they might have for her to stay home and keep out of danger.
But what had she even planned to do? Talk to the leopardess? Beg her forgiveness? Perhaps, but had she really thought it was anything but a stupid idea? Hadn't she seen the rage in Nuru's eyes when Lakadema released Tora with little more than a monition?
Not long after she'd slipped naively over the ridge of the valley and began her descent – unarmed and unprotected – into the leafy abyss, she had felt the hairs on her body stand on end as the noise level gradually dropped. Unseen eyes were upon her. There was a smell…which she couldn't place…but she knew that she didn't like, drifting delicately in the air.
Then, a small sound. It was quiet, yet sharp. A snapped twig? A footfall? A deliberate, careful footfall, if it was. That was when she froze.
Was it a step? Maybe just a falling branch?
She heard the sound again.
It's a step. It's a step. Someone's here.
That was when she shrank back behind the tree, her blood pumping coldly.
She knew she couldn't escape. Leopards could climb trees faster than she could ever hope to. She couldn't out-run it. Her only hope was that it hadn't seen her.
But it's stalking me. It knows I'm here.
She was sure she could hear breathing. No, she could smell it. She could feel it. Hot and stinking. The tickling feeling of it was as vivid as the rough tree bark scratching into her back.
What did she expect? She'd gone there to find Nuru. Instead, Nuru had found her.
Tora squeezed her eyes tight shut. Insanely, she thought that perhaps if she stepped out and revealed herself to the leopardess – if that was who it was – that she'd be able to talk reason into her. Did Nuru even speak the gorilla language? She wasn't sure.
I might as well do it.
She tensed her muscles, but she couldn't move.
Another snap. Then a strange, unexpected sound. Something whipping through the air. A heavy metallic clonk. A snarling, spitting sound.
Tora kept quite still. There was the distinct sound of a heavy body thrashing about. More snarling and spitting.
Then there was a new sound. Footfalls again, but no longer careful. They were loud and tramping. Human? There was that odd smell again.
Tora turned slowly to face the tree. She could climb it easily enough. It was rough and there were small branches she could grasp. She clambered up a little way, and then peered out carefully through two large forking limbs.
It was Nuru. Nuru black and shining, thrashing about in the undergrowth, hissing and spitting and shuddering. Then Tora saw it – the metal trap that had snapped tight around her paw. The leopardess roared and rolled about and pulled, but she could not get free. That smell was getting stronger now. The crashing footfalls had stopped.
Then Alistair Brodie emerged from the undergrowth. He had the same straw hat and the same overly-large clothes hanging off his thin frame. In one hand he had a rope, and in the other flashed a short knife. And then Tora realised that it was his smell – the one that had irked her when she'd met him at the trading post – that was pervading the air. He stood before Nuru, now crouched back low and growling, and rubbed the point of his knife with his index finger.
Tora was very still in her tree. She wondered what would happen next. She understood the basics of it. Brodie had laid a trap and Nuru had stepped in it, and now he was going to kill her for her fur.
Part of her felt relief. She had been spared the vengeful fury of Nuru's teeth and claws, and now Brodie would make sure she never had to worry about being ambushed in her bed by the leopardess. But – as she crouched there quietly, looking down on this scene with Nuru cowering and hissing, and Brodie fingering his glinting knife – she felt an acute sense of dread, too. This wasn't just. This wasn't fair. But what was she going to do about it? He was a tall, fully grown man with a knife and she was a skinny unarmed little girl. She couldn't imagine how she could stop him. She couldn't imagine how she'd dare try.
There was a rustle in the undergrowth to Nuru's left. Both man and beast turned instinctively to look. Two small forms emerged from the leaves. One yellow and spotted, one black. Leopard cubs. Very young. They seemed uncertain, their little round heads bobbing slightly as they looked back and forth between Alistair and Nuru, two pairs of wide bright green eyes looking scared. One gave a little mewling call. The trapped leopardess raised her own voice in a warning growl, but it was not the same angry sound that she had been making a moment before. It was more sorrowful.
They're her cubs.
The two little leopards padded over to their mother and tried to cower beneath her, but she had begun to thrash back and forth once more. Alistair Brodie had taken a step towards her. His arms were spread wide, fingers bending and unbending slowly, like he was trying to close them in. Tora could see his mouth stretched wide and teeth clenched together in a half grin, half grimace. He took the rope in both hands, which had been knotted into a noose at one end. He waited for the right moment, and as Nuru reared up at him with claws outstretched he threw the loop and tried to get both her head and paw through it. She twisted and he missed, but repositioned to try again, still grinning, face glistening with perspiration.
Tora felt a her piercing fear becoming crowded out by an intensifying fury. How dare he? How DARE he!? She felt a sudden surge of strength through her body, every muscle coiling in anger. Before she'd realised what she was doing, she had climbed out onto one of the forked tree limbs.
Brodie was just below her, but he was looking downwards, leering at the trapped leopardess, waiting for the right moment to pounce again. Tora gripped the branch she was on with both hands, then, jumping backwards with as much force as she could muster she used her arms to swing herself forwards, striking Brodie in the back.
The impact caused her to lose her grip on the branch and she fell, but the force of the blow had knocked the surprised Brodie forwards. He suddenly found himself within reach of Nuru's claws, and she swiped at him with her free paw, but he managed to roll out of the way. Stumbling to his feet, Brodie whipped around, searching for his attacker.
Tora was just a few feet away, only just having got back on her feet herself. She saw Brodie's eyebrows shoot upwards in surprise when he saw her, recognised her.
But then he bared his teeth and ran towards her, arms reaching out forwards, grasping. She was right in his path but the adrenaline surging through her body made her quick and nimble, and she leapt and caught the tree branch, pulling herself up over his head as his snatching hands reached for her. The tips of his fingers brushed past her, but she was out of his reach. She crouched there on the tips of her fingers and the balls of her feet, like a monkey, ready to react again.
"Yoo're deid!" Brodie hissed through clenched teeth, glaring up at her. He fed the noose some more rope and then with a sideways sweep of his arm made to throw it over her head. She ducked it with a jerk to the side. She could tell from the beastly glint in his eyes that he'd meant what he'd said. He tried again, and this time Tora caught the rope with both hands and with strength and balance previously unknown to her, deftly tugged the whole thing from his grip. He stumbled forwards and she quickly coiled the rope up so that she could hold it in one hand. Her heart was pounding, but her fear was gone. She was not afraid of pain or injury or death. She didn't think about them. The only thing in her mind was Brodie.
Snarling with fury, he made for the trunk of the tree, where he began to climb. He would soon have her cornered with no-place to run. But instead of backing away, Tora scurried towards him along the branch. She took the noose in one hand and dropped it neatly over his head, then pulled the loop closed.
Brodie gave a choked shout of surprise, and reaching instinctively for the rope around his throat he lost his grip on the tree and fell to the ground. Tora, who had been holding tight onto the other end of it was pulled from her branch. She fell head-first, but without even thinking she put her arms out in front of her and translated the ground-impact into a forward roll. The momentum of it brought her back to her feet. She immediately snatched up the rope she had dropped and pulled on it, digging her feet into the earth, astonished at finding herself unhurt.
Brodie was lying on the ground, face a deepening purple, guttural sounds issuing from his mouth as he scrabbled at his neck. Even as he choked, his eyes searched around for Tora, and when they found her the look of apoplectic rage in them almost made her take a step backwards from him. Instead she pulled, trying to figure out how she could incapacitate him.
I can't kill him, but he'll kill me if he gets the chance!
Tora tried to drag Brodie by the neck back towards the tree. Brodie rolled over and stumbled to his knees. He took a hold of the rope attached to his neck and heaved on it. Surprised, Tora strained against it but he was far stronger than she was, and she took a stumbling step towards him. The noose loosened a little, and a terrifying look of triumph spread across Brodie's purple face. He passed one hand over the other along the rope and heaved again, dragging Tora closer to him, to her dismay. He pulled himself to his feet. Closer and closer. She could see the yellow of his teeth, smell his repulsive stink. She was close enough that he grabbed her left arm and gripped it hard, pulling her towards him, leering victoriously into her face.
With one swift, curved motion of her arm, she grabbed the handle of the knife in his belt and brought it up to slash across his face. Brodie let go of her arm immediately and fell back. Tora stumbled backwards too, still clutching the knife.
"GNAAAAGH!" Brodie was pawing at his face and making animal-like sounds in his throat. He smeared the blood from his eyes, but as the cut had slashed diagonally from his right cheek to his left brow, the blood trickled straight back into the left eye. He bellowed with frustration, rubbing the eye with his wrist.
Tora stood and watched him, panting, waiting to see if he would try to attack her again. The short sharp knife was still gripped stoutly in her right hand.
Breathing raggedly, and in an effort to stop the maddening sensation of being blinded by blood, Brodie pressed one hand over his eye and pushed himself to his feet with the other arm. His right eye found Tora, and he bared his teeth, breathing hard and heavy, but he did not step towards her. She saw his free hand clenching and unclenching, betraying his desire to close it around her arm or her neck, but he did not move.
Now what? Now what?
Brandishing the knife, Tora took three abrupt steps towards him. He immediately took a step back. She grimaced, feeling a rush of savage triumph. Planting her feet wide, she raised herself to her full height and squared her shoulders.
"I'd get out of my jungle if I were you, before the smell of your blood brings you some unwanted attention."
Her voice had been quiet, almost a growl, but she knew he'd heard her as he narrowed his eye and clenched his jaw, though he stayed where he was. Then his pupil flickered a little from side to side, warily, then back to her. Her words had not been a simple empty threat. She took another step towards him, raising the knife and pointing it at him.
"And I'll know if you try to come back here. Anywhere you try to hunt I'll track you down and stop you. You won't find what you're looking for in my jungle. If I were you, I'd get out." She spoke the last two words slowly and deliberately. The knife still hovered in the air.
A few heartbeats passed between them, glaring hard at each other, their breathing gradually slowing. Then without a word, Brodie stepped backwards one step, then another, then another, then, casting one final filthy scowl at her, he turned and was swallowed up by the undergrowth.
She listened to his heavy footfalls crashing quickly away into the distance.
Tora stared at the spot where he had vanished, breathing deeply, muscles still tense as she marvelled at what had just come to pass. Her body did not feel the same. Her limbs felt stronger and lither, and she was acutely aware of her surroundings – the rough, damp feel of soil between her toes as she flexed them, and the smell of everything, from the fading tang of blood to the must of decaying flora – she could even taste them. The sensation was electrifying.
She turned, and there was Nuru, paw still held tightly in the mouth of the trap. She was sitting very still and watching Tora, ears flat against her head while her two cubs squeezed themselves up close to her, mewing quietly. Every few moments she gave a little flash of her bright white teeth, warning Tora off.
Tora approached her slowly. She was not keen to get too close to those teeth and claws. As she drew closer the leopardess snarled and lunged forwards. Tora recoiled, then remembered the knife in her hand and dropped it. She lifted her hands, palms facing forwards un-threateningly. She took another step closer. Nuru was clearly somewhere between fury and fear – a less than inviting combination.
Tora felt an uncomfortable surge of dread as she thought about the possible things that could happen if she set Nuru free. It seemed extremely likely that Nuru would waste no time in ripping her apart. On the other hand, if she just left her there then the leopardess or the cubs would likely fall prey to opportunistic baboons. She might even chew off her own paw to get free. Tora could not stomach either of these prospects.
"I'm not going to hurt you. I'm going to let you out. I need to get closer to your paw." She lifted her palms a little higher, and remembered that she wasn't even sure if Nuru understood the gorilla language. Nuru's ears were still pressed flat and her eyes were blazing, but she did not lunge at Tora again. Instead, a soft, rising hum issued from her throat.
Tora knelt slowly, still watching the leopardess closely for signs of attack. When none came, she dropped her gaze to the jaw-like trap that was closed around her paw. She didn't see blood. The trap was square and metal, but the jaws were covered with rubber – probably to reduce the damage inflicted on the fur. Tora saw how the release of two spring-loaded arms had forced the trap to snap shut. She would have to compress them in order to open the jaws.
She tried to do it with her hands, but it was impossible to operate them both simultaneously. The sudden surge of strength she had experienced a few moments before had faded.
Remembering Brodie's rope, she retrieved it and tied it around one of the arms, dragging it closed by pushing down with her foot and then tying it fast. She paused before dealing with the second one. Her heart was beginning to race. In a moment Nuru would be free. After that, anything could happen.
I've got to finish this.
Tora balled up her terror, and, teeth clenched tightly together, she compressed the second spring-arm. It was extremely stiff, but the jaws slipped open just enough for the struggling leopardess to wrench out her paw, leaping free of the trap just as it snapped closed again as Tora's efforts gave way. She too leapt backwards, scurrying crab-wise to put some distance between her and Nuru, who was now hissing and spitting and shaking her crushed limb in vexation.
Tora, heart pounding painfully, did not take her eyes off the leopardess. She had a strong urge to run away, but thought that would only induce a chase – one which she would definitely lose.
Nuru put her paw on the ground experimentally, lifting it and then pressing down on it. She licked it delicately. Then she turned her attention to her two small cubs who were pawing at her hind legs. She licked each of them as well. Then, she turned fully around and faced Tora, blazing eyes staring straight into hers. Tora swallowed hard.
She slowly, carefully, pushed herself to her feet. Her throat felt dry. Brodie's knife was well out of reach. She had no way to defend herself. She tried to breathe deeply, steadily. The leopardess just stood there, staring at her. Like she was waiting for something. What?
Unable to bare the sudden choking thickness of the air, Tora felt compelled to act first. If she was about to die, then she would at least say the words that she had come there to say – what had, after all, brought her to this point. She took a deep breath, but her throat was so dry she only squeaked. She swallowed, and tried again.
Her voice shook a little, she could not keep the fear out of it. Nuru did not move, but just continued to stare at her. Tora stood a little straighter and clenched her fists to disguise the trembling. She swallowed again.
"I'm sorry for what I did. I just want the feud between our families to end. What I did was unforgivable, what I stole from you…but I can't change what's already happened."
The leopardess still just stood there, regarding her steadily. Tora wondered wildly whether she even understood what she had said.
"Please…what will it take to make this all stop? Just tell me!" Tora looked down at her hands. The same hands that had pulled a rope tight around a leopard's neck, and plunged a knife into its heart. She thought about her mother, and saw a horrifying image of her lying on the ground with her throat ripped out – and then another the same of her father. She thought of any of her gorilla family ambushed in the night and dragged away, leaving no sign behind but their own shed blood. She couldn't bear it.
She felt hot tears falling on her cheeks, but she lifted her voice up clear and strong. "If the price is my life…then you can take it. If it means you won't harm my family, then I won't fight you. I know that you are forbidden to kill me, but I believe that my parents will know why I came here. That I made this choice myself."
Her vision swam as a cold mist of panic clouded her mind. She felt as if she would fall down. She stumbled a little and steadied herself, trying to keep her eyes upon Nuru. The leopardess just watched her, very still, but there was something in the way that her tail twitched that told Tora that she was considering her words.
Then suddenly like a streaking shadow, Nuru rushed at Tora. Her scream caught in her throat as she saw the flashing of claws, the red-gaping maw, but she was frozen to the spot and could only shut her eyes and shield her face. The air was crushed from her lungs as the strong body collided with her own, knocking her flat on the floor. Gasping and numb with shock, she scrambled to her feet, just in time to see Nuru and her cubs disappear into the jungle. Their swift bodies were swallowed up in green, and then…silence.
Tora fell again to her knees. Her whole body shook. What happened? Where did she go? Tora glanced around fearfully, expecting the leopardess to spring out of the undergrowth and pounce on her. But as her hammering heartbeat counted out the long still silence, she slowly realised that that was it. It was over. It was finished.
Tora doubled over forwards and wretched onto the ground. As the saliva slid from her lips, she closed her eyes and just waited…waited…waited for the painful surge of adrenaline to subside.
She had done it…she had made it right…she had kept her family safe. Her penance had been served by repaying her debt to Lakadema after all. She had driven the hunter out of the jungle. She had saved Nuru and her cubs.
As the grip of fear about her limbs gradually loosened, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and – steadying herself with her hands on her knees – pushed herself to her feet.
As she reached her full height a shiver ran through her body. She felt her guts contract, and looking down she saw thick, dark blood slipping down the insides of her thighs for the very first time.
The sight of it made her sway alarmingly, but she understood what it meant; she had learned her place in the jungle. It was time to leave childhood behind.
"Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter."
- African proverb