Pel coughed again, wincing with each dry hack. Lara held her head, stroking her light, matted hair. She didn't dare wash Pel with this chill in the air. The fever was strong, and it needed no help! When Pel finished, Lara wiped away the crismon spatter with a rabbit fur, and looked to the horizon.
Down below in the valley, Aurm ran. Left, right, left, right, breath.
Kreeta watched the horizon, too. The mountains were bathed in a cold orange light. Firewood parties returned, and the gatherers sifted through the autumn berries. The cold wind blew softly, numbing his cheeks. In the long shadows, each far off, swaying tree was Aurm. Poor boy! He looked back at Tor, but Tor just looked away, ashamed.
Through the trees, Aurm ran. Left, right, left, dodge the root!, right, breath.
Kreeta heard fair Kila striking flint to start the evening bonfire. Her dear husband Faji felled a deer just after midday, and Kila had gathered some earth-fruit and plants. He smiled just thinking of her savory cooking. He just hoped the feast would become a celebration.
In the dusk, Aurm ran. Left, right, trip, thud.
Strange; it had been day just a moment ago. The starshine was dim, and he barely made out the treeline maybe an hour's walk ahead. The north wind gnawed at his scalp, and his leg throbbed. He wiped the sweat clear, and came away with caked blood. He applied some grama and then ate some dried meat, washed down with a little water from the creek far behind him. He still had enough to save his mentor, along with the other plants she asked him to get.
He shivered in his day clothes. He had travelled lightly, hoping to be back before dark. Kreeta would be worried, doubly since Tor had to return after twisting his ankle. He began checking dead tree trunks, looking for dry wood.
He sensed something in the woods ahead, though he caught a whisper of a breath. Aurm forgot about firewood. Now, he needed a strong sapling!
* * *
Lara took the bowl from Kreeta. The deer meat was good, served on a bed of greens. The blood tasted healthy, speaking to Lara of warm air and good living. Pel had downed a few sips of her spirit animal's blood, but soon fell asleep. Pel's breath was deep now. Her spirit was readying itself for the greatest journey.
Kreeta placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She had watched him snap a cougar's neck with those hands, but today they were warm and sensual. Their son Greem wrestled while she braided her auburn hair. He struggled with Aurm's brother Balta.
"They are like brothers," she said, cuddling up to Kreeta.
"Yes," he said.
"Pel needs Aurm to return soon, if she is to remain with us."
Balta flipped Greem from underneath and pinned him. The boys cheered.
"Like Balta, Aurm will come through," Kreeta replied.
* * *
The cougar skirted the clearing. Aurm watched the cougar warily. He had been unable to find a sapling thin enough or strong enough to help him here, and Aurm had given his spear to Tor to lighten his load. The cougar's tail swished back and forth slowly. He had to make a stand.
The cougar slowly approached, one paw in front of the other. It seemed as big as Kreeta, though Aurm knew it was really about his size. He straightened up, doing his best not to sway so much. He must appear strong. He hefted his ax, checking the stone blade with his thumb. He winced and lost his footing when he stood full upright; the leg he fell on was still very sore. The cougar's back legs began to pump.
He regained his feet before the cougar pounced. He rolled out of the way, swinging his ax behind him. If it hit, it was a glancing blow at best. The cougar had whirled around to face him. He screamed at the cougar and swung at its nose with the ax. The cougar stepped aside, and lept onto him.
Aurm elbowed its throat as he fell, holding it at bay while he gouged the eyes. He pummeled it as tiny knives raked his skin. He finally got his good leg under the beast and kicked it off. The cougar back away, blood tricking from its eye. Aurm heaved a rock at the killer, struck it in the head, and it trotted off, growling.
He stared up at the stars, struggling to catch his breath.
* * *
Kreeta slept with Yara tonight. Lana was keeping vigil over Pel this evening, and it seemed like a good time. Alas, the young girl-child was trembling, so he soothed her with his gentle crooning. Yara had been initiated, but she was not ready. He felt bad for her, with his thoughts wandering to Aurm instead of focusing on this most important day. He should have waited. He had planned to favor Tor with her, but with Tor's disgrace yesterday, Tor would have to wait until Veli was initiated next season.
Not that he blamed Tor. Aurm was a capable hunter, light of foot and heart, dark hair like his late father. I'm sure the boy talked Tor into leaving him, and really, Aurm was right. Pel needed that medicine, fast.
He let Yara return to her family. He would lead the search party at first light. Tor's ankle still needed a day or two to heel, but Nomo was able and ready. And Faji, of course. Faji was shaping up to be a good tribal leader. He drifted to sleep, hoping Aurm would survive to become his healer.
* * *
He felt the cougar return before he could even hear it. The light of the stars shown bright now, and he could easily see it pacing in the woods. This time, it beckoned with its paw. He arose, grabbing the medicine pouch, trotting off after it. It lept from rock to rock, skipping over branches and roots as it ran. Aurm kept pace, watching it glide from stone to stone between the trees. He too, streaked through the wilderness to the edge of the forest.
He saw his camp ahead. Nomo rose the alarm, and he held the pouch high over his head. He roared in victory, then dashed through the tundra between, urged on by tribal drums and cheers. Kila ran to start some water boiling on the dying coals.
Surrounded by onlookers, Aurm quickly prepared the special tea with Kila's water. He gave it to Pel, then collapsed.
* * *
When he next awoke, it was Pel tending to him. He had cloth wound around his sides and a poultice on his head. The color had returned to her face.
"You did well, Aurm. I'm proud."
Aurm quickly recovered. He told no one of his wound until his grandchildren begged him one day for a story...