Z’Nia’s mother had taught her to value work above everything else. And work filled Z’Nia’s days just as it always had. But it didn’t fill her heart, not any more. Though she still loved the life of the Tazsmin, her work was no longer enough. She missed James. She missed answering his questions and teaching him the ways of living things. She missed having someone to talk to.
She wondered what Mother would say about that.
Most likely, Mother would say, Do the work, Daughter. Your work is far more important than any human.
Z’Nia sighed and did her work.
She lived in the cave behind the waterfall most of the time now. She liked waking up in the morning and seeing James’s picture there on the wall. It smiled down at her while she ate her morning meal. It focused her thoughts as she completed her daily meditation. And every time she went out to do her work, she carried that image in her mind.
Whenever she placed her hands on an injured animal or a damaged plant, she imagined smaller hands resting next to hers. When she sang her wind-soft words of healing, she pretended to hear James’s voice singing along.
This is nonsense, Mother's voice would scold her.
And Z'Nia would reply, You taught me to find joy in my work. For that, I will always be grateful, Mother. But James gave me something more. He helped me find joy in living.
That was why, several times each month, Z’Nia journeyed to the little hollow in the hills. It had become one of her favorite spots. She never really expected to see James there, but she always hoped that she might.
Today, she’d risen early. Something had told her she must visit the hollow before midday. She’d felt a sort of mental pull. Her connection to James had tightened like someone tugging gently on a rope. When the sun touched her waterfall and left a rainbow in each crystal drop, she had set off.
She had walked through the forest, noting the scent of wild strawberries, hearing the wind whisper its secrets while the birds called out greetings. Caw. Caw.
Z’Nia had heard the human voices long before she got to the hollow.
It might be hunters, she’d reminded herself as her pulse quickened. It could be hikers or campers or forest rangers. It might be anyone.
This time, she had decided, she would be cautious. She had stayed well back among the trees and parted the branches just enough to allow her a view that made her gasp. After all these years, James had returned. She’d been disappointed so many times that the sight of him left her astonished.
When a black bird drifted over to settle comfortably upon her shoulder, she'd felt glad of its company. She had news to share.
He is here, she had whispered.
And then, though the bird had made no reply, she'd added, He has grown.
In fact, James had changed a great deal. His hair had darkened to a chestnut shade, and his rounded baby features had morphed into a firm chin and high cheekbones. The top of his head nearly reached his father’s shoulder. She’d seen the two of them coming in her direction and knew she’d have to move if they got too close.
But James and his father had climbed only to the boulders at the top of the lower hill. Even from a distance, she’d been able to hear parts of their conversation.
“Do you remember this place?” the father had asked.
“Those trees … I wish Grandpa would grow some birches.”
He still talks about his grandpa’s trees, she’d thought, feeling pleased.
Knowing it would not be safe to move closer, Z’Nia had resisted the temptation. James had started back toward his mother anyway.
So she’d sent him a mental message, just a simple, Hello. I missed you.
He’d paused there on the hillside, and at first, she’d thought he might have heard. But he never raised his head or looked around. Sadly, she’d wondered if James could no longer receive and understand her mind-link.
All the same, she had been delighted to see him. She'd studied him carefully, noting his straight posture and the firmness of his steps. She’d watched as he helped gather the family’s belongings and obediently followed his parents. Before he left the hollow, he had turned once more for a single long look.
Good-bye, she had said as she watched him leave, though she doubted he heard it.
The bird flew off after him. When it returned a few minutes later, she knew James was truly gone.
Now she felt a stab of sadness.
Mother, on the other hand, seemed glad that he had left.
Haven't you seen enough? she asked. How foolish you are, chasing out here to watch that human.
Not just 'that human.' James.
Still a human. Still our enemy, Mother said. Go home, daughter.
Soon. When I am ready.
Despite her mother's objections, Z’Nia stayed there for a long time, watching the spot where James had stood. Seeing him had eased her loneliness, but the feeling seemed bittersweet. She would still miss his company.
Caw. The crow's drawn-out cry recalled her to the present.
I must return to my waterfall, she told herself.
She decided to make a new cave painting of this older James. She would need more pigment, especially yellow, but she knew just where to find it. And she had some twigs she could burn and grind to make the black charcoal she’d need. She visualized the picture she would begin that evening.
In the midst of her thoughts, she heard a sharp crack behind her. The sound of a twig breaking. Her eyes widened.
Z’Nia spun around, ready to run for her life. Only a few paces from her stood four adult human males. Each man carried a gun.
“Now!” one of them shouted, gesturing for the others to move so they could surround her.
“Don’t kill it!” somebody yelled.
One man raised his gun to his shoulder and swung it like a club. Z’Nia batted it away. But the others closed in, and all four men began showering her with blows. She dodged. She twisted. She tried to escape. Nothing worked.
I cannot fight so many, she thought.
Z’Nia’s heartbeat slammed inside her chest. Her throat ached from gasping.
Mother, help me!
But her mother offered no suggestions. Z'Nia felt as if she had been abandoned.
From a nearby tree, the crow shrieked a war cry. It seemed to carry all the old warnings: Be cautious. Never trust. They will kill you.
Z'Nia wanted to bite and kick and tear at her attackers. She tried to summon up the hot anger that would help her fight. But the years of meditation had buried those instincts so deeply she could not find them.
Despairing, Z’Nia screamed.
The men fell back at the sound but only for a moment. Before she could take even one step, the largest of the men swung his gun directly at her head. She tried to duck, but her body felt heavy and slow.
The weapon connected with a smack.
Z’Nia felt a splitting pain in her temple. It throbbed and grew until she feared her head might burst. She staggered sideways and made a feeble grab at a tree, but her hand slipped away. She fell to the ground, dazed.
The bird flew above her, calling out some message she could not understand. Tiny lights danced before her eyes. She raised one hand as if to catch them.
Has the sun gone down? she wondered. I can see the stars.
Then the night sky must have swallowed them up. Or perhaps the crow had done so. The stars disappeared, and Z’Nia saw nothing more except the blackness.