Z'Nia risked a single peek over the edge of her boulder as the child started down the path. She still hoped he might return.
But, no, the boy's mother had fallen, and the rest of the family was running to help. To Z'Nia, this represented too many humans, all of them much too close to her. No longer feeling brave, she backed away from her rock and retreated to the shelter of a birch grove a stone's throw away.
From there, she could still hear the voices, enough to know the adults were leaving and those called “Josh” and “Lindsey” would follow with their belongings. And the boy, of course. He was to go with his sister.
Disappointed, Z'Nia realized her encounter with the human cub had ended.
Her mother's voice rang inside her head. It is for the best. What you did was incredibly foolhardy.
The need to defy her mother had subsided. Z'Nia closed her eyes to beg forgiveness. She imagined Mother's knowing smile.
Go home, Mother would say.
Z'Nia bowed her head. She would go.
She raised her eyes for one last look, and what she saw left her breathless with horror. The child had slipped away from his family and was now walking directly toward her birch grove, his footsteps unsteady on the hillside.
A distant clap of thunder drew the boy's gaze to the cloud-ridden sky. Distracted, he stumbled and fell headlong. She heard a crack as his head struck the ground. His body rolled down a rocky slope and came to rest in a low spot.
I must help him, she thought, and she hurried to his side.
Though she’d never examined a human before, Z'Nia knew the nature of living things. She saw the bloody head wound that had left him unconscious. Still, she'd known creatures to recover from injuries far worse than this one appeared to be.
He will live, she concluded.
But not unless someone found him. Already it was raining. Small streams of water drained down the hillside and pooled in the area where the child lay. In a real downpour, like those on the previous days, an unconscious person might even drown.
As this image filled her mind, the storm sent a second warning. More thunder. Closer and louder.
Z'Nia listened for human activity in the hollow. Hearing none, she believed the rest of the family had left. But she also knew how humans behaved when one of their kind went missing. Time and again, she had watched from a distance as searchers scoured the woods for a lost hiker.
They will return for him, she thought. But if I leave him here, will they find him in time?
She feared they would not.
Z'Nia gathered the child into her arms, intending to leave him in a safe place. But where? She pictured the family sharing their meal.
The hollow. They will look for him there.
Knowing she must hurry to avoid being seen, she headed up the incline. She paused momentarily to muster her courage before stepping into the open. That's when she heard them coming.
“James, where are you?” the father called, his voice echoed by the children's cries. “Jamesy, come out!”
Z’Nia ducked. If anyone saw her holding the boy, they would think she had attacked him. And just as her mother had warned, they would hunt her down.
And kill you, Mother's voice repeated. Daughter, they will feel compelled to kill you!
Terrified, Z'Nia ran back toward the birch grove. Once there, she went on running until the grove became a woods and the woods became a forest. She ran without thinking, knowing only that she must escape. Not until she reached the heart of the forest did she finally regain control of herself. Gradually, her breathing slowed, and her pace grew rhythmic. At last she stopped, panic ebbing away, and then she realized she still held the child.
In an instant, her fear returned.
Leave him! Mother's voice ordered.
Z’Nia wished she could do that. She wished she could just go on her way. But this cub was too young to fend for himself, and besides, he’d been hurt.
She thought, I am responsible. I must care for him.
But first she had to find shelter from the storm.
She doubled back through the forest until she reached a deep gorge cut by the river. She headed north along the top of the ravine, the river on her left. Usually, she would cross here, for she had a shelter on the other side. Though men had built no bridges in this out-of-the-way spot, she could easily ford the river on most days. Not today, though. Swollen by recent rainfall, the water gushed by at an alarming rate.
Could I swim it? she wondered. No, she decided, not with the child in her arms.
So on she went, slower now, careful of the wet earth that threatened to crumble beneath her feet. Another shelter waited at the end of the gorge. If she could get to it, she could rest and decide what to do about the human cub.
Just ahead, the ravine angled right. Z’Nia rounded the curve and stopped. She hadn’t been here for over a week. The gentle waterfall she'd expected to see had become a thundering flood. Scaling the rocks near the falls would be tricky, but she felt sure she could do it once she had freed her hands.
After easing the boy to the ground, she emptied her pouch. She folded her bag around him, making sure he could breathe, and then slung it back across her shoulder. At the last minute, she retrieved the pinecone she'd offered him earlier and placed it in his hands.
Z’Nia slid one foot over the edge of the canyon and found the rough steps her mother had cut into the bank years before. She gripped the slippery rock with her strong toes and dug her sturdy fingers into whatever cracks she could find. Slowly, she made her way to a narrow ledge. Just below, the river raged against its banks.
Normally, she could easily walk along this ledge. But today, the child’s weight forced her to lean into the canyon wall. She inched sideways. A little more … and a little more. Soon, she would reach the shelter.
As the spray from the falls poured over her, she raised one arm to cradle the boy against her body. The sudden movement upset her balance. She struggled to steady herself, but her feet could find little traction on the slick rocks. Desperate, she summoned her remaining energy for just one leap.
Mother, help me, she prayed.
Z’Nia threw herself forward with all her might. One moment, she was flying through the air, and the next, she had plunged into icy water. But her foot touched rock. Safety. She’d taken the child to the shelter she once shared with her mother. She had taken him behind the waterfall.
Exhausted, Z’Nia stood inside her cave, facing the entrance. Only a pearly, late-day light penetrated that thunderous curtain of water. Its roar covered all sound from the outside world.
I am safe, she thought. No one knows about this place.
Then she looked down. A glance at the child in her arms left her chilled, as if a shadow had fallen over her. She was not safe after all.
For a moment, her panic returned. She took a deep breath.
I am a Tazsmin, she reminded herself. I may be the last of my species. My task is to care for the earth and its creatures. All of its creatures, even this small human.
Gradually, she grew calm. She had work to do.