Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Hunter


            I smell the human before I see him. The familiar scent brushes by my nostrils on a breath of wind, causing me to tense for a moment. I cannot forget it, nor do I wish to. I turn and take off through the forest undergrowth, following the scent to its source. I am supposed to be hunting for food for my village, but this prey is far more important.
            I remember the words of my friend, Jaylen, as I was leaving this morning.

            “Be careful, Kuri. They say there’s a human on the loose.”
            I stopped short, turning to stare at him. Within my heart, the first fierce sparks of angry anticipation were beginning to light. “A human?”
            Jaylen nodded, his face solemn. “Yes. The hunters yesterday think they smelled one. They couldn’t tell it if it was the murderer or not. Be on your guard.”
            A growl rumbled through my body. “Don’t worry. I will. And if it’s the murderer, he’d better stay on his guard as well.” Then I bounded off into the forest.

            I know now that it is the murderer I chase. I am close enough to hear his footsteps as he runs through the forest. I know he is trying to escape me, but he will not. No mere human can outrun a Tiger Clan shifter on a hunt for justice, no matter how hard they try. And I will see that this murderer gets what he deserves, just as I vowed one long year ago.

            Metal scraped over wood as I drew my knife. With barely a glance, I slid the edge of the blade across my palm, opening a shallow cut. I pressed my hand against the Justice Tree, leaving a fresh handprint among the many bloody ones. “I will avenge her. I swear it. It is my right. I was her guardian, and so her murder will not go unpaid.”
            The old man who’d been my teacher for much of my life shook his head. “You are better than this, Kuri. Do not let anger rule. The man did not mean to do it. He said as much, and I believe him. I know he has caused you immeasurable pain, but if you seek revenge, you prepare death not only for him but also for yourself.”
            I lifted my chin defiantly. “I seek justice, no more. You know the laws, not only of the Shifters but of the humans as well. Blood for blood, a life for a life. Death is the just punishment for murder.”
            My teacher shook his head, sadness reflecting in his gaze. “No, Kuri. You say that vengeance is your right, and that death is justice, but there is room for forgiveness as well. That, too, is in your rights, even now. Let go of your anger. It will only lead you down a dark path to destruction.”
            “You are wrong,” I snarled. My body tingled as my anger threatened to trigger the change from young woman to tigress. “You are wrong. I seek justice and I will see it done.”
           
            I am close now, so close! Soon, I will be within springing distance of the murderer. I put on one last burst of speed and then launch myself towards him. He falls beneath my weight, and I pin him to the ground. “You cannot escape any longer, murderer.”
            He struggles to squirm away. “I am no murderer. It was an accident. I would not have even considered the shot if I had known. I have told you as much before.”
            I snarl again. “You lie. I was there. I know what happened.” I doubt I’ll ever forget.

            “Please, Kuri? Please?”
            I stretched, shifting to a more comfortable position on my tree branch. “I told you already, Kali, no. I hunted yesterday; there’s no need to go again today. Why don’t you ask Jaylen?”
            My little sister, Kali, paced around the base of my tree. “I did, and he said no. Please, Kuri? You know I’m not allowed to go by myself.”
            “Yes, I am quite aware of that.” My eyelids drifted to a half-shut position. “And it makes no difference. If you want to come with me, be ready to go on my hunting days and stop bothering me.” I shut my eyes completely, signaling that the conversation was over. Kali let out a long sigh and continued pacing.
            A breeze brushed past me, ruffling my fur and tickling my nose with a hundred scents. I my eyes opened again as I recognized the smell of a human. I sat up and scanned the forest. I spotted the young hunter just as he released the arrow. Seconds later, I heard Kali fall. I let out a wordless cry and leapt down to the ground. I landed beside her, now in my human form, and pulled her into my lap. She had turned to human form as well, so small and so vulnerable. “Kali, no. Don’t go. Don’t die. Just hold on.” I knew that my pleading would do no good. The arrow had been expertly shot; she would be dead within minutes. Tears gathered in my eyes, and I blinked them back. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry, Kali. I love you.”
            I don’t know if she heard me or not. Seconds later, I knew she was gone. I raised my head and for a moment, I saw the horrified expression on the hunter’s face as he saw what he’d done. Then he turned and fled, leaving me to bear my sister’s body back to the village.

            “I’m not lying, I swear.”
            I stare down at the hunter with fire in my gaze. He’s stopped struggling now, but he’s turned his head so he can see me out of one eye. He speaks again. “I told you what happened. I told you that it was an accident. I asked for forgiveness. You know that.”
            It’s true, he has. On the night of the funeral, he’d approached the village under a white flag of truce. Only that and the laws against killing on a funeral night had kept me from killing him then and there. He’d made his case on his knees, the picture of repentance. And much as I tried to forget, his final words were burned in my memory.

            “I know I have wronged you. I know I cannot begin to make it up to you. But please, can you forgive me?”

            I remember, too, what I snarled at him in reply. I repeat it now. “You do not deserve forgiveness.”
            “I know,” he replies, his voice almost a whisper. “I know. But who does?”
            My only answer is a snarl. I lift a paw for the killing blow, then pause, noticing something. “Your bow is gone.”
            “I burned it. I will not hunt again. Not after the mistake I have made.”
            I hesitate. A voice that sounds like my teacher seems to whisper to me, “What good will killing him do? Will this man’s death satisfy you?” I try to push it away. I have to do this. I have to see justice done.
            But is it truly justice? Or is it revenge? Why do I want to see this man die? Is it because he has broken the law? Or because I want him to suffer for my suffering? I know the laws of my village. There is no honor in killing someone simply out of a desire for revenge. And I can tell this man is no longer a threat to us. It is I who am the danger.

“If you seek revenge, you prepare death not only for him but also for yourself.”

My teacher was right. Another death will not fill the ache in my heart. It will only lead to more sorrow, more pain. And there is enough trouble in this world without me adding to it.
The hunter is silent beneath me, perhaps resigned to his fate. I shift to my human form and rise to my feet. “Go.”
He scrambles to stand, his eyes wide as if he can’t quite believe I didn’t kill him. I gesture in the direction he’d been running. “Go. Your death will not satisfy anything or anyone. You asked me to forgive you. And so I will.” With those words, I turn and walk away, feeling lighter than I have in a long, long time.

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