Ottílde woke with the taste of blood in her mouth. For a moment, she thought she was dead, so dark and warm was the air around her. But, when she turned her head, pain raced up and down her body. She clenched her teeth and tried not to scream.
Rocking side to side, she slid from beneath the sand cat and struggled to her feet. She still gripped the knife that was buried in the beast’s side. Gouts of blood bathed the blade and her hand. I’ve killed a wedowyn , Ottílde thought numbly as stared at her gory fingers.
In shock, she looked down on the cat’s glossy, still corpse. A pool of blood was forming beneath its mouth. “I’ve killed a wedowyn,” she repeated aloud. “I should be dead, but…” She began to tremble with the enormity of what she had done. No one had killed a wedowyn for almost a hundred years. Parties of hunters had come back mauled and defeated whenever they had attempted to track one of the creatures, leading some Bettirans to believe the animals were protected by demons – or that they themselves were demons. Haad La had always dismissed that belief as nonsense. “Wedowyns are simply smarter than us,” was his grim joke.
Ottílde took hold of her knife and pulled it from the black fur. She knelt beside the great body and, with a glance at the cat’s blood-soaked face, sliced through its hide and into the chest muscle. She continued to work until she had cut clear to the heart. The knife slipped from her hand and with a grimace, she took hold of the warm, bloody organ and pulled it free of its cavity.
Holding the heart toward the sky, Ottílde began the hunting ritual, “I take the heart of my brother in battle and ask to be blessed with his strength, speed, and intelligence. I do this in the name of my tribe and family.” Closing her eyes, she sank her teeth into the wedowyn’s heart. Blood spurted into her mouth and ran down her chin. The meat tasted salty and was smooth on her tongue, almost like a paste. She slowly chewed the tender morsel and swallowed it, then took another bite and another.
“By eating the heart of your kill,” Chasín had said on their first hunt together, “You not only take on that animal’s strength, but ensure that it lives on — to fight with you later. In death, all become allies.” At the time, Ottílde had found the ritual, and the sentiment behind it, hideous and barbaric. Now, with her own kill at her feet, she understood.
She consumed the entire organ and as it settled in her stomach, Ottílde felt a tingling sensation rise in her blood. It grew until her veins seemed on fire. Opening her mouth, Ottílde let out a wild, wordless cry. She punched her left arm into the air and yelled until her voice cracked and her throat ached. It was not triumph that she felt. The sight of the wedowyn humbled her and extinguished any ideas of pride. Rather, it felt something like relief.
The echoes of her cry flew into the desert and were soon swallowed by the vast expanse. Ottílde sank to the ground, weak now that the adrenaline began to dissipate and her body realized its own battered state. With a small sigh, she fainted.
She did not know how long she floated in darkness, but an unpleasant throbbing soon dredged her from sleep. With a goan of misery, Ottílde struggled to push herself into a sitting position.
Her tongue was dry and thick with dust and blood. She looked at the cool water from the spring and her mouth watered at the memory of its sweet taste. Stumbling, she lay flat on the ground and plunged her face into the water.
When sated, Ottílde sat back, pushing wet hair from her face and glanced at the fading sky, whose blue-black face was quickly turning light blue and white around the horizon. Dawn was less than hour away. She shifted her eyes to the body of the cat and silently mourned the loss of so much meat, but there was no way she could assemble a smoking fire with the three giants approaching and her body so ragged and weak.
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