Kira gripped her hand tighter under the behki’s forelock and whispered into her mount’s ear. “Are you ready, Qee?” The animal tensed in response and they leaned forward as one. Kira’s eyes searched the horizon, watching for the first gleam of the sun.
She dared glance away for a second, meeting Sylan’s gaze. She flashed a smile at her friend. “You’ll pass this time, I know you will.”
The older girl shifted on her own behki. “I hope so. But it’s you who will be the top champion this year, I can feel it. Besides,” she tipped her head knowingly toward a young man in the crowd behind them, “it’s you who has someone waiting for your return.”
Kira couldn’t help but throw a glance behind her.
Steady brown eyes met hers and her stomach flip-flopped. She spun back to the front, her cheeks warming. Please, Creator, give me Your strength. Kira must pass. If she did not—another stolen glance moved her head, unbidden—would he wait a whole year for her to try again? Or would he find someone else, someone stronger and able to take on the task of marriage and family?
Mikot's eyes shone and his back straightened. His unspoken message filled her heart. He believed in her. Loved her. Waited for her.
It was that which gave her courage when the sun finally did send it’s first ray over the field. She didn’t even have to kick Qee. He felt her energy release and they bolted forward. Kira threw back her head and yelled, so full of sudden joy and confidence that she could not contain it.
Sylan laughed and screamed beside her, the excitement contagious, and Kira heard other cries from the other challengers as they sped off, each headed for a different direction of the compass.
The behki’s long legs lengthened out to full stride and Kira lay over his neck, wind slipping by with little resistance. Time seemed suspended as they streaked over the prairie, becoming one with the fluid motion of the air.
All too soon they reached the forest, and Qee was forced to slow as his paws picked a silent way through the brush. Kira leaned forward and whispered in his ear. “Caspyu, Qee.”
He lifted his head and sniffed, ears pricking forward as though they could help guide him toward the smell of water. He adjusted his course and by the time the sun was peaking through the leaves directly overhead he’d found a creek.
She made camp there, beside the gentle waters. Then, with a pat on Qee’s neck, she slipped back into the trees to search for berries and game. She’d nearly filled a pouch with rich tingna berries when a noise made her pause.
No, it wasn’t a noise. It was lack of noise. She held her breath, eyes darting among the trees for the silent birds, then down to the trails, watching for any tell-tale movement among the brush.
She saw nothing.
Her breath had returned to normal and she was reaching again toward the bush when a harsh caw from a japo rent the air. It was a single note, urgent, warning. Kira’s chest tightened.
The she heard it. Kshhhhh, kshhhhh, ksha.
The air itself froze, refusing to enter her lungs. Her blood pooled and ears rushed. It was only the memory of Mikot’s eyes that gave her strength enough to reach to her waist. Her fingers trembled, but untied her slingshot by rote. A stone already nestled in its pouch.
She waited. Listened. Dared not move.
The feline erupted from the bushes. Time slowed as it dove toward Kira in a perfect arch, “Kshhhhh” gurgling from its throat, seeping out through its white fangs.
Kira released the sling by instinct. The stone whisked through the air and hit squarely between its yellow eyes. The cat tumbled to the ground, mid-pounce.
It was far from dead.
The black beast shook its massive head. Yellow eyes narrowed, fastened on Kira, looking at her, through her. It hissed again, the sound wrapping around Kira’s throat, tightening, pulling. No! She sucked in a breath and yanked out her small sword, the blade glinting. She and the cat circled, watching each other’s every move.
The cat reacted first. A paw darted out, blood-red claws flashing.
Kira met it with her blade. The cat’s yowl filled the forest. The girl used the animal’s pain, used the pause to slash out herself. The blade hit flesh, biting deep into its shoulder. This scream was louder, angry. Defeated.
With a rustle of brush, the animal was gone, leaving only a smear of blood on steal to prove it was more than a dream. Kira knelt in the grass, feeling the comforting firmness of the earth below her.
“Thank You, Creator.” She raised her head toward the heavens, breathing great droughts of air.
Her first challenge was won.
Kira's Challenge © Amy Michelle Wiley 2011
Photos from www.sxc.hu
I whipped this up just for fun, but always appreciate any feedback on my writing you might have. Look for the second part next week for my "L" post. As usual, check http://www.pattywysong.com/ for more bloggers posting in the "From U 2 Z 4 U & Me" meme, and feel free to join us if you're a blogger.