The tigerlizard was young, inexperienced. Mayana knew this because she was still alive. Probably, the lizard had never hunted a fully grown human. It knows we are good eating, reflected Mayana, it has probably feasted on the flesh of my cousins. But she did not think it had killed a human itself. It hesitated, perhaps unsure of its attack. Mayana knew much about tigerlizard attacks. As village scribe, she recorded each witness’s account as a matter of course. In the long house, after one of the villagers had been lost, the Council would hold a review with any survivors. Others would learn from it.
She was determined be one of the survivors. Alone among the village girls, Mayana had learned how to fight like the warriors. She had even appealed to the great hunter, Farhad, for guidance.
She had arrived at his hut late one day, fingers stained with ink, dusty and trail-weary from traveling to a nearby village. It was her sixteenth birthday, and the mukhtar, Abu-John, had presented her that morning with a small trophy: her father’s spearhead. One of the rare metal spearheads, it had been held in trust — and killing lizards — until the day of her majority. Immediately upon her return, Mayana set out directly to find the old hunter.
“You want to learn to kill the tigerlizard?” asked Farhad, looking askance at the tall, rangy girl in front of him. “Why? That’s what the warriors are for. Surely you had a guardian with you on your journey today?”
“I did Uncle. There were two.” All the older men in the village were ‘Uncle’ to her, just as the older women were ‘Aunt.’
“Well, two, and here we are short of men as always, but you were protected. Leave lizards to me and the Council.” Farhad shook his head and bent back to his work, binding an arrowhead to its shaft. “We are doing all we can to keep everyone safe.”
“Like my parents?” Her voice crackled with anger. She had been ten when tigerlizards slew her parents.
“Mayana, we try. Yes, we also fail, too often. Sometimes it’s a pack which overwhelms the guard, people forget themselves in their gathering, disregard instructions, and sometimes a wily old beast is too clever, and another of us falls.” He sighed. “Rarely do two of us fall together, as with your parents. But that’s no reason to set our women on the hunt.” He stood, looking down at her, only barely. She was tall, and his back was not so straight any more. “You should be getting married soon, joining the Council like the other women. That’s your duty.”
Mayana fought the red mist and forced herself to speak calmly. “I do not imagine myself so desirable as to win a husband, Uncle,” she growled.
Farhad scratched his beard. She knew her appearance decried her poverty. Her shift was stained around the neck and arms with sweat, spattered with ink from her work as scribe. The hem was in tatters. Her belt, a keepsake from her mother, was well-made but stained black with sweat and grime. At least her belt-pouch, made of the shimmering scales of the rainbow lizard, gave her a hint of color. She wore a maiden’s knot in the leather thong around her neck.
“Surely there is a boy–” he began.
“The boys throw rocks at me.”
“Forget the little ones. A boy your age…”
“Are there not daughters enough, with land, for the older ones to find a wife?” Mayana knew that, without the matriala, her mother’s land, marriage as firstwife was out of the question.
“An older couple? It is no shame to be second wife. Your children would be a gift to a family as well as to the village.”
“And live every waking hour as servant to a jealous firstwife, begrudged the attentions to bring forth my children? I’d rather face the lizards, Uncle.”
“Mayana, it’s your duty – ”
“There are no other duties to perform?”
“Yes, many — ”
“Then why can’t I choose my own path? I’m not afraid of work, or of danger.”
The old hunter studied her, frowning, holding her eyes, waiting for her to bend. When she did not, he sighed.
“Sit,” he said and sat on the floor of his hut. He waited while she settled herself, then began, “We begin with lessons. And your commitment. We can’t finish your instruction in one evening, nor even ten weeks of evenings. You will have to work hard, body and mind, and I will test you, push you beyond your experience, beyond what you think you can do. The training is not gentle, like my brother’s, it’s hard and unyielding, like the trials you’ll face outside the village wall. Are you prepared to dedicate yourself to the way of the hunter?”
“You will listen, and accept everything I say, and bring it into your heart as truth?”
“Very well, the first lesson is this: you will win with your mind. So the mind must be strong. First rule to memorize: Do not panic! Remain calm, and take stock of everything you have. It may be a rock, a stick, a tree you can use for cover…”
Mayana remained calm. She used her ears, turning her head slowly, to make sure there was no telltale huff of another beast behind her. She recalled the position of the bush around which she had just walked, and where in the bush ran the strong branches. Those she would position on her left as she fell back. Her left hand slowly settled her sack of mangoes to the ground. Still the beast had not struck, and she began to think she might live. Finally, Mayana took the fighting stance: right foot back, right hand low on the shaft, left grasping her spear further up.
When Farhad had told her to take stock and defend herself with what was at hand, she had brought out the spearhead. “I have this Uncle, will you show me how to make the spear?”
“Let me see it,” he replied. “This is your fathers? Rickard’s?” She nodded. It was a good weapon, one of the rare bits of steel that had been salvaged from the Arkship. It had been handed down from grandfather to son since the Timoran colony’s calamitous beginnings. The metal was still sound — rust pits but none too deep, the fluting for the shaft was well-defined, the flange uninjured. It needed work, but it was serviceable. “Yes, this will do,” he replied. “But you have to make the shaft.”
“I want to.”
“Very well, you’ll need to borrow one of the saws, and cut a sapling of ash. It must be twice a man in height, and straight, and so thick…”
The task of preparing the shaft turned out to be much longer than she had expected. The sapling had to be trimmed and debarked, then carefully wrapped in banana leaves. The steam from the leaves protected the wood from scorching and the shaft baked for a whole day. While the shaft baked, Mayana boiled a leather thong made from the sinews of a big lizard. After cooling, the surface of the shaft had been scraped and then rubbed smooth with a floating rock they traded from the hill villages. Finally, Farhad showed her how to set the spearhead and wrap the thong around it, so that when heated and dried, the leather shrank and held the spearhead fast.
That shaft was now in her hands, and she felt reassured by its heft. As she took her first step backwards, Mayana recalled stories of tigerlizard survivors. How did they describe the rush of the lizard? Did it always leap? How close were they when they attacked? Hers was a strange position, privileged — as scribe, she had heard many combat reviews — yet disenfranchised, without land. Well, thought Mayana grimly, it was time to disenfranchise a tigerlizard. She knew they preferred the rush to be over clear ground, thus she stepped back around the bush, seeking cover.
Her movement spurred the lizard brain. From above its hiding place, she could see a puff of breath. Witnesses attacked on cold winter mornings mentioned that puff: it was the beast transitioning from stalk to rush, taking the deep breath to power its attack.
Not until the tenth lesson did Farhad get to handling the rush. “This is where even warriors fail,” he said, and flicked at his famous necklace, the teeth clinking a musical scale. “You may be stealthy on the hunt, clever in your positioning, your spear may be long and straight. But in the end, the beast attacks the mind. It will use your fear against you. It will scream –” and here Mayana nearly wet herself as her uncle leapt into her face, mad-eyed, hands curved like claws, letting forth such an insane scream she wondered if, gone mad, he would strike her.
Farhad got so close she could smell spices from lunch in his breath. “Some see the claws, and they think of their guts being ripped!” he shouted. He was possessed now, pacing around her, coming at her from each side. “They will try to block the foreclaws, they are as long as a man’s hand and the creature will reach towards the shoulders — you will see them! They glisten, you know, for the creature keeps them sheathed, sharp, clean. Or they will try to block the head; mouth open, the lizard will come at your face, to tear the flesh of your cheeks…the teeth are long. Look at them!” he cried, shaking his necklace in her face. “And thus their fear will betray.” Suddenly he was quiet, whispering, in her face. “And while the fearful hunter blocks with his spear, hoping to avoid the foreclaw or bite, the hind claws open him up, as easily as you slice a mango.” He drew his crooked finger down her shift from neck to belly. The man took a step back, and snapped, “What is the fifth rule of the hunt?”
“If rushed, you must attack with the spear,” she gasped, her breath finally released.
The rush. The creature was screaming. Mayana was screaming, but not in fear. She channeled her anger. This was the killer of her little cousins six months ago, of her parents, seven years previous. The creature who had savaged her people and impoverished her. The teeth were nothing to her. The razor-sharp claws extending from their sheaths, she ignored; the implacable eyes wide in the attack did not draw her gaze…she saw nothing but the breast of the beast and guided the point of the spear to its center, knowing there lay the heart, beyond the breastbone which she must pierce, or die.
To die. She had wanted to die, in those weeks of training. Farhad had come to her great-aunt’s hut the very next morning before dawn. Shaken awake, her eyes were wide as he clamped his hand over her mouth that first morning. “Silence,” he warned, letting go. “Out of your bed, eat nothing, come.”
Outside were four boys, many years her junior. “We run,” he said. The boys looked at her in wonder. They were small enough to be intimidated by her height, not so cocky of their position as to throw rocks or jeer, and they would dare not anyway with Farhad there. And so they ran that day, and every day thereafter.
That was not so bad, Mayana was a good runner. But after running, they always stopped and did exercises. That was hard. Pushing away the ground, picking up rocks, wrestling, she always paired with the wiry and strong old man. How sore she became. And he had no sympathy, it seemed. She would be struggling, pushing at the ground still damp from morning dew or wriggling on a branch to pull herself up, and he would be there, asking, “Do you want to stop now? Go back to your hut and scribble?”
In those early days, it was through tears that she would answer, “No, Uncle.”
“And why not? Does this not hurt?”
“Do you enjoy this pain?” She would shake her head no, and he would always ask, “Then why go on?” Indeed, why? She knew Farhad was catching hell for taking a girl along on the training. Other parents were furious, and the mukhtar was forced to face the council with his brother. She had crept to the longhouse to listen, and heard when Farhad told them off, closing his argument with the challenge, “Who will marry their boy to this girl?” When nobody answered, he stated, “Then I shall teach her to defend herself, as she is alone in the jungle.” She loved him for that.
That pain — she never knew she had so many muscles. All sorts of places hurt that never did before. When she came to the council room to take her notes, they chuckled at how she met the chair so gingerly. And still Farhad pushed her on, every day, relentlessly, strengthening her.
Now every one of those muscles was tensed, supple, strong — all focused on that one spot: the breastbone. It had to be the heart. A lung shot would kill, but not before the beast had flayed her to strips. The heart. Her weight was forward, all of her weight driving forward the spear. She had committed. A miss would bring her into the deadly embrace of the four claws, and the teeth would rip her flesh. Forward, following the spear, at one with the tip, screaming. And then came the shock of impact.
It was worse than practice.
For training with spears they wore padded vests, crudely drawn with the markings of the lizard, with a smudge for the breastbone. With blunted spear, they would set, and the other attack, playing the lizard, screaming. When the blunt spear hit, the opponent would be knocked out of breath, or the spear would be deflected, twisting from the hands, a moment of failure, of defeat, and then the one playing the lizard would laugh, “I’m eating you!” and Farhad would assign punishment for failures. Pushups, pullups, a run around the village. Making them stronger, faster, harder.
The beast moved with unbelievable speed — far faster than anyone had moved in practice, and that speed gave the beast a huge advantage. Weighing nearly as much as Mayana, its initial impact nearly tore the spear from her grasp. But she held, holding for her parents, holding for her cousins, and once the impact started her backwards, she remembered to set the butt, grounding the spear. That was the impact to break the breastbone, and she saw the shaft sink in. A claw stretched at her face; she felt a tug above her eye. Then the beast’s momentum flipped it up and over her, one claw snicking across her forearm, a spray of its saliva hitting her eye. She fell backwards, clutching the spear still, and then breath burst from her lungs in the second impact as she, the beast, and the spear met the earth as one.
Sucking air and dust, one eye blinded, she lurched to her feet. Mayana tried grasping the spear but failed, as her right arm was numb. Slammed to the ground and pinned for a moment under the spear, it would not answer. The left bled from a clean rip on the inside of her forearm. She was still yelling, tears mixing with blood, her knife in her left hand. She did not remember drawing it.
The beast was quiet. The tail lashed once, but then was still. Mayana turned, ready but fearful of death. She cast about, wondering what to do with the knife, it did not occur to her to sheath it, so she dropped it in the dust to free her left hand. The right was still numb. She wiped her eye clear; the blood was from a cut slicing down her forehead, across the brow. She felt long the bones of her right arm and it seemed sound, though very tender on the inside of the bicep, numb in the shoulder. That would hurt tomorrow. With the left she tugged at the spear and called out in pain at her wound. The beast’s eyes were open, but the challenge was gone.
That night, she sat on her stoop, arm throbbing under its wrap, left eye blind behind another bandage, a crazy smile tugging at half her face. She laughed out loud with the giddiness of living, the joy of cheating death. Her aunt, sitting nearby, looked up from her dinner pot, but would not meet her eye.
Mayana remembered the run back to the village, crying for the guard, their shock at the bloody apparition running across the fields. Then their disbelief, the wonder of the dead lizard and the girl’s spear testament to her feat. They carried the tigerlizard to the village hung on her spear and ripped out one of its wickedly curved teeth as her trophy.
The next day, Mayana walked through the village square on the way to the mukhtar’s hut to perform her duties, best as she could. Her right arm was in a sling and woefully sore. Her left throbbed terribly. Passing by the temple, the priests and acolytes stared. Boys who once taunted her saw the tooth hanging from her maiden’s necklace and looked away.