Kharlyn had been awake since before sun-up.
She now rested on a branch so high up that if she stood up her head would be in the canopy of the redwoods. She was crouched, poised, ready to leap forward like a coiled spring released from its tension... That is, if there was anything to pounce on.
She scanned below her with hawk-like acuity, staring into brush and foliage, hoping to catch just the slightest hint of movement. Yet again, her eyes failed her, as had her nose. Despite the scent of rain thickening the air, her sense of smell as a Canid was still many times greater than that of a human. Even though the trails were much vaguer due to the storm the previous night, she could still smell all sorts of passersby—deer, boars, birds, a bear...
Yet all had eluded her this morning.
“Daaaaarnitttt...! So hungryyyyy...” she whined to herself. She figured pausing her vigil for a moment was okay, and paused to stretch. Sitting up in a tree all day was murder on the back.
And, even worse—things constantly got stuck in her tail. She’d not realized it so much until this latest hunting binge, but keeping the fur of her tail long like she’d grown used to attracted all sorts of things: twigs, leaves, bits of bark, even bugs sometimes. Since she was sitting up here with nothing to do, she reached back behind her and caught her tail and stretched it over into her lap, only to find a few sticks tangled in the auburn fur.
She grumbled even more as she sat there, aimlessly running her fingers through her tail, trying somewhat in vain to comb out the knots the twigs had caused.
As she shifted positions, the branch groaned under her weight, fixing to break. She grumbled even more, and extended her claws on one hand. They sprouted from the middle of her fingertips—four inches long, dyed jet-black, the end hooked and sharpened to a razor-sharp point. And without a second thought, she drove her claws into the tree bark; they slipped into the wood as easily as they would into an animal’s back.
She grimaced. It was a bit uncomfortable to put so much weight on her claws, but at this rate it was preferable to straight up falling out of the tree while waiting for something to happen...
“Augh! I can’t stand thissss!” she screamed out into the redwoods. “Come out here, you stupid boars! Lemme hunt you already!”
Despite her plea, only the mid-morning song of the birds answered her.
She could already feel the hunger setting in. There was that aching emptiness in her stomach; her muscles themselves felt hollow to parallel. Her stomach growled every few moments at her, to the point where she herself had started tunelessly humming to distract herself from the fact that she hadn’t had breakfast yet.
She’d expected a boar by now.
She then found herself wondering the efficacy of this strategy of sitting in the canopy, waiting for some unsuspecting animal to wander by. Usually, she had even less luck in tracking things, even despite her sense of smell. But on the other hand, she didn’t have any bait to put down for the canopy strategy to work either...
At which point, she heard a rustle of brush from far down below her.
Every muscle in her body froze, except for her ears—the large, pointed, lupine ears atop her head—they flicked a few times, and turned outwards...and slowly, carefully, she turned her head down...
Her eyes finally noticed movement. Her gaze flicked to a bush far below; it rustled only slightly. But there was no wind, so the little noise she’d heard...
Something was down there. A solitary animal, so a perfect target...but she couldn’t tell what yet. It was smaller than the boars she was after, much smaller since it could hide beneath the cover of a shrub, but besides that...
And then, she saw it.
Below her, in a small clearing, sat a rabbit cautiously hop from under cover of its bush, and start nibbling on a fern.
She looked upon this rabbit as if it were a three-course meal spread in front of her. Or perhaps moreso as the ever-fickle god of the forest throwing a bone her way. A little voice in the back of her head spoke to her, taking on the soothing, kindly voice of her grandmother...
“Now, sweetie, do remember to never hunt rabbits...even the great hunters of the wilds, even they never chased rabbits...” it said; that voice was soon silenced by her stomach. She extended the claws on her right hand again.
And she looked down at the rabbit that was still sitting there in the little clearing, cleaning its ears; her hunger overtook her sense, and she drew her claw-anchor from the tree...
She managed to push off from the branch to accelerate to the speed of a falcon’s dive in an instant, sighting the ground right in front of the rabbit to give it no recourse of a bush.
The rabbit seemed to freeze in slow-motion, mid-comb of its ears, when she shut her eyes—then there was the jolt of her palms slamming against the ground, then her legs, then her limbs buckling to cushion the impact, and then the violent ripple of the impact spreading through her whole body, the spray of dirt kicked up from the dive against her face—all happened within an instant.
As she opened her eyes, regaining her sight—the rabbit had already about-faced and its back legs were slipping as it tried to find purchase in the dew-slick dirt.
She had the advantage of claws, however, and she sunk her claws into the dirt, and poised her legs, as the rabbit’s flailing was finally turning to momentum, and she leapt forward...
Only for her to slip and fall flat on her face in the mud, as the rabbit bounded away. She tried to scramble up to her feet and give chase, but by the time she did so, the rabbit had disappeared into a burrow in a hollow beneath a redwood tree.
As she saw that, all remaining strength to pursue drained from her body, and she slumped down into a heap on the forest floor. That little voice in the back of her head, that’d taken the form of her grandmother, was already beginning its smug told-you-so’s.
“...this suuuuucks...” she groaned, finally finding the will to hoist herself into a sitting position. “This whole forest...and there’s only a single, stupid rabbit! What the hell?!” she yelled up at the trees.
The birds went silent for a but a moment, before they continued their bickering above. She wondered for a moment if she could catch a bird—she knew of some warriors that were fast enough to do it, but then again, there was a reason it was considered a feat of once-in-a-generation rarity... If she could catch a bird, she’d have a lot more pressing things to do than cook and eat it.
Her stomach growled at her again. She growled back.
...she really didn’t want to, but she decided to cut her losses and head home, back to the warm reprieve of Gran’s firepit...
A little while later, she sat in front of that very firepit in Gran’s longhouse, nursing her wounded pride. She’d sworn up and down that today would definitely be the day she’d come back with a whole boar. A boar so big that it wouldn’t fit through the main gates and would have to be hoisted up and over the village wall using ropes flung over branches. A boar so big that the whole village would come out of their houses and cheer and praise her, since everyone would not only be able to eat meat for a couple nights in a row, but everyone would get pounds upon pounds of jerky from it...
This was the fifth day in a row she’d said something akin to that, and the fifth day in a row that she’d failed. So she now just sat by the firepit, an expression halfway between a pout and a grimace on her face, watching the flames dance, their smoke wafting up and out through the vent in the ceiling...
Gran herself sat crosslegged next to her. She was kneading acorn dough in her single cast-iron pan, a pan that already looked ancient even in Kharlyn’s earliest memories. She was slapping the dough a bit harder than usual today.
Kharlyn stole glances at Gran’s face as she worked the dough, peering at the little mass of wrinkles and bone peeking out from under a plain, white shawl—Gran did look a little more annoyed than usual too, but surely it was the lighting...
Until Gran’s eyes flicked up, and Kharlyn jumped so much her tail stood straight up in the air for a second.
“What exactly would you like me to say to you, Kharlyn?” Gran said. “‘Oh, yes, sure, it’s alright—go ahead and go out hunting, alone, at four in the morning?’ To my granddaughter, no less?”
The floodgates had opened. Kharlyn made a full-on grimace now and pulled her knees up and hugged them to her chest. “Gran, it`ll...it’ll be fine. The boars were just in hiding again today. One more day, and I promise I’ll—"
“One more day? You’ve been saying ‘one more day’ for the last four! Please, Kharlyn, I went along with this in the beginning, but now this is getting unreasonable! How long to you expect me to hold my tongue?”
“...I wanna...I wanna eat some meat, though...”
“...if you’d really wanted to eat meat, you’d have gone to the council and chopped firewood in exchange for some jerky.”
“Darnit.” Foiled again. As usual.
“...listen, Kharlyn,” Gran said, dropping the mass of dough in her hand into the pan with an exaggerated splat, “I know you. And I know this isn’t as simple as you just wanting to eat some boar. ...you don’t have to tell me about it, but I can’t continue covering for you forever—your father will find out about this, and there’ll truly be hell to pay then.”
The only indication Kharlyn gave that she was even listening was a slight flick of her ear as soon as Gran stopped talking. She just continued staring into the mesmerizing flames...
“Kharlyn! Are you even listening to me?”
“...it’s the same thing. As it’s always been, Gran.”
Gran stared at Kharlyn for a few seconds, before her face fell, and another sigh escaped her as she finally got around to spreading the acorn dough in the pan, before taking a plank of firewood and rolling a couple of hot coals from the fire to rest the pan on. “Have you still not made your decision?”
Kharlyn didn’t answer.
“Oh, sweetie, your twentieth birthday is only a few weeks away...! How long are you going to put this off?”
“As long as it takes.”
“Oh, but your suitors really are all nice young men, though! You have so many wonderful choices... Khazar’s quite good-looking, isn’t he? And very popular too—”
“Don’t like him.”
“W-well, what’s wrong with Creyote, then? He’s training to be a carpenter, you know, so he’ll be very strong and supportive—”
“...but what about Cheyran...? You two have been friends for ages, wouldn’t he be quite ideal for you then? Do you not like him?”
Kharlyn tensed up a bit at Cheyran’s name, and she felt her tail flick a bit—she swore at it under her breath, and brought it back around and sandwiched it between her knees. “Not in that way.”
At this final answer, Gran finally let out a great sigh
“ I understand where you’re coming from, I really do. When I was a girl, I also had a difficult time with the whole thing, and—”
“You keep saying that, but you still let them do it.”
“Kharlyn, I had to...”
“No, you didn’t,” Kharlyn said, suddenly turning her head to glare at Gran straight in the eyes. In a moment though, that glare softened as Kharlyn saw how much Gran deflated. She quickly averted her eyes back to the floor, mumbling out an apology that Gran didn’t acknowledge.
“Is the cake ready yet?” Kharlyn said.
Gran poked the now yellow pancake in the pan. After a moment’s thought, she nodded and took the pan off the coals, and with a wooden spoon she rolled up the entire pancake and took it out, handing it over. Even despite its heat, considering it’d just come out of the pan, Kharlyn was so hungry that she started wolfing it down anyway.
Kharlyn mumbled out a ‘thank you’ in between bites that signaled the end of the conversation from her side, and got up. As she reached the door of the longhouse, already feeling the gross difference in humidity through the door, she paused.
“Yeah?” she said, looking back with the roll of pancake hanging out of her mouth.
“If you feel hungry again later...come back. I’m always here. Just...take care of yourself. Please,” Gran said. There was a wistful, almost sad look to her eyes, one that Kharlyn could no longer see once Gran moved to take the pan from the fire, and started wiping it down. And so she stood by the door for a few more moments, before nodding her thanks, and quietly leaving.