“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” her mother said, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking down and stroking her black hair. “Things will be better in the morning, you’ll see.” Then she stood, the long red robe billowing slightly behind her legs as she walked down the hall into the darkness.
Xalba knew she was dreaming and fought to stay with it, straining for a glimpse of the faces she now hunted, the faces of the men on the other side of their door who pulled her mother into the night, but she slipped back to consciousness and awoke damp with sweat. She sat up and paused, listening for what had stirred her from sleep. Then she heard it again, the soft growl of the clouded leopard, a warning. Xalba leaned back down, concealing herself behind the large green leaves of an elephant creeper and shifted to draw the rifle against her body.
Soft white light from the moon filtered down through the canopy of the forest. The cat had been within ten meters and alerting her to motion from the east. A sharp snap ricocheted through the still night air, drawing her attention to the northeast. Something stepped on the twig she had concealed with a balab leaf. Xalba backed up against the trunk of the tree that was covered by the creeper and scanned the area. She sat, motionless, breaths shallow and quiet for ten…twenty…thirty minutes. Nothing.
When the clouded leopard growled again, Xalba knew the sound meant he was hunting. She scanned the north and east again, but it was not until she saw the cat lean down from its perch on a branch to snag a hat that she saw the men. There was a slight sound as the hat was lifted by claws, then swiftly dragged into the shadows above. Another man appeared quickly and silenced the one whose hat was stolen, which had prompted him to stand and aim his gun up into the tree. Then they both turned in her direction and hunched, but not before the moonlight passed over their faces.
Her hands tightened around the wood stock of the rifle. The faces from her dream, from her past, were well within range. But she could only hit one before the other would disappear into the depths of the forest. Better to wait. Things will be better in the morning.