The Mooshkah watched, fascinated, from the shadows of an ancient tree.
The small Hairless One was making the strangest noises with its mouth as it skipped down the trail.
He had seen Hairless Ones before. Hunters and woodcutters often roamed his woods but they were dangerous so he avoided them. The females and young mostly kept to the safety of their villages. Yet here was one in the forest, young and defenceless in its innocence.
The basket it swung put off aromas of the most delectable kind, dizzying the Mooshkah with the intoxicating aroma of both the contents of the basket and the small Hairless One that carried it.
Adding to the dizzying sensation was the bright red skin it wore around its neck. The thing waved and flapped in the air, each skipping step fanning the tasty scents into the surrounding woods.
The Mooshkah’s stomach grumbled its hunger. He had not eaten in two passings of the moon.
As usual at this time of year the nearby village of Hairless Ones had hunted or driven away all the game in the valley. His growing hunger eventually tempted him to risk injury by taking a hunter. Or even a woodcutter, though their heavy axes were scarier even than the bows and spears of the hunters.
But to take either a Hunter or a Woodcutter meant losing the advantage of his ability to see in the dark for both avoided the woods after the sun had fallen.
He was a creature of the night not the day but his belly needed filling. Winter was coming and he needed to fatten up if he was to survive its hardships. So he had been forced to venture out into the bright glare of the sun.
... Where just now he had heard the singing that lifted and flowed through the trees in a strangely pleasing fashion. Following the sound he had soon come upon its source...
A Hairless One, alone and defenceless.
Its heart would be young and its blood sweet.
He should take it now!
But the dazzling colours of its movement added to the strange beauty of its voice, entrancing him with wonder. Never had he heard such a thing, and what was it doing our here, by itself?
He was not the only predator around. Though rare these days bears were still here and there, and even some of his ancient brethren, the wolves, though Hairless Ones had killed most of them off.
Instead of taking the Small One, he followed it, curiosity holding his hunger at bay for a little longer.
The trail it was on snaked through the forest of the valley floor, then over a long arm of the mountain into the next valley where there was another Hairless village.
On the way it passed two dwellings of the Hairless Ones. He knew them well for he had often spent long hours staring at the flickering candle light in the windows of both.
The nearest was a cottage of an Old Female, who grew strange smelling plants of many types. She cut them and hung them and Hairless Ones from the village would often visit to exchange the stuff they carried for the concoctions she made from the dried plants.
Maybe that was where this small one was heading?
Further on was only a Woodcutter’s cottage.
She must be heading to the Old Female’s dwelling. But why?
The Mooshkah got an idea… he could run ahead, get into a good position in the woods to observe and satisfy his curiosity... then when the Small One left he could take it in the woods and satisfy his hunger as well.
There was nothing to fear from the Old One. The only reason he had not eaten of her heart long ago was because it would be dry and bitter and barely worth the effort.
So even though he was not in the dark safety of night, the Mooshkah ran fast on all fours through the shadows of the forest and in no time was at the first cottage.
In his eagerness he overshot the edge of the tree line and came full into the bright light before skidding to a halt.
The sudden intense day blinded his night eyes which had struggled to cope even in the dark shadows of the forest path. Reflexively he squeezed them shut and turned to leap back to the tree line but before he could move he heard a sharp intake of breath.
He reduced his eyes to slits, which helped a little and he swung his head towards the sound.
There, amongst her plants was the Old Female, a shimmering silhouette in the glare.
She dropped a basket she was carrying and ran for the cottage door.
The movement was too much, triggering the Mooshkah’s chase instincts. He bounded after her, quickly gaining on her as she fled.
But just as he was about to bring her down the old one stepped sideways and slashed out with a small curved blade she had been cutting the plants with as he leapt past .
He felt its sting as he passed by, his jaws clamping down on thin air where her head had been moments before.
His claws scrabbled on the stone path as he landed and the sudden painful sting in his side made him wince, causing him to stagger and slide awkwardly onto his haunches. He held one paw to his side and it came away with blood on it. He bent his head to look directly at the wound and as he did so the Old Female took her opportunity to run inside and slam the door.
The cut was not deep, but it stung and the pain enraged him.
He was hungry, tired and now bleeding!
He stood upright and marched towards the door. With one pull it was easily ripped it from its hinges and effortlessly flung aside.
The space inside was cramped and he suddenly felt extremely confined, but he was furious at how easily the Old Female had hurt him. At least the comparative darkness inside the cottage was a relief to his eyes and he could clearly see the Old Female staring at him wide eyed and open mouthed against the far wall.
He snarled and she immediately started throwing things at him… cutlery, pots, vegetables, anything close to her hand came hurtling in his direction, most of it bouncing off his raised arms. Hanging from the ceiling were tied clumps of various plants that showered him with bits as he advanced through them. They got in his nose, making him sneeze violently. Then a small clay pot got past his arms and crashed on his skull, showering him with some kind of powder which floated in the air.
It burnt his sensitive nose and an uncontrollable fit of sneezing racked his body. A large shiny pot made a loud bonging noise as it bounced off his head, making him yelp with pain and shock. Still sneezing and trying to shield himself with his massive, clawed arms, he suddenly realised the shower of thrown implements had ceased.
The Mooshkah looked up, somehow stifling a sneeze and saw through blurry eyes that the Old Female had run out of ammunition and was running for another door. Roaring, he leapt to block her escape but she just beat him to it, diving through and into a smaller room.
He followed her inside before she could close the door and found himself in what he recognised must be a den. There was some kind of nest taking up most of the space and tall boxes made of wood, one of which came crashing down towards him as a result of the Old Female pulling it over. He could not get out of the way in time and it hit him hard, the weight knocking him to the floor. It broke apart as it hit, covering him with the clothes it bore.
Roaring in frustration and pain he stood up and shook his body, trying to dislodge the garments that were tangling in his arms and claws.
One fell over his head and covered his eyes, which suddenly scared him. Whining and roaring all at once he tore it off but it got caught in his claws and teeth.
There was a horrible crash on his skull and his vision went momentarily black. He fell to his knees, one hand holding his cracked skull.
One eye was clear of material and though his vision was swirling he saw the Old Female standing on her raised nest raising a heavy wooden chair high over her head. It was all he could do avoid the worst of its impact as it came crashing down again on his skull.
He felt himself falling and the world went black...
... until the moment his face slammed onto the floor, jolting him back to a semblance of consciousness.
Lying prone the Mooshkah heard the Old Female's boots rapidly thumping across the floor to the other room, then out the door in a rush. He tried to rise but his head swirled in pain and once again the merciful blackness came...
...‘Hello?’ The voice brought him back to the waking world, and its associated pain and misery.
His head throbbed so badly he could barely move his claws, let alone rise from his position sprawled across the floor.
‘Granny?’ It was the young Hairless One’s voice.... the voice he had heard making those beautiful sounds in the forest.
‘Granny, you there?’ It was coming closer, towards the open door of the nest, ‘What on earth happened here?’
Then suddenly it was standing in the door, looking at him, ‘Granny? Is that you under there?’
The Mooshkah realised he was covered in clothes and bits of wooden box. He lifted his shoulders to shrug it all off but his head instantly swam, threatening to black him out again.
The Small One came closer and involuntarily, at its smell, his stomach rumbled. He was so hungry, but his skull hurt too much to move.
Gently, and very very slowly he lifted his head. It throbbed madly but thankfully the blackness did not come.
‘Granny, what a big head you have with those clothes all over you,’ the voice laughed, 'It makes you look like you've got big ears.'
Carefully, he turned his head to peer at her with his one uncovered eye.
She gasped, ‘And what big eyes you have?’
He lifted his muzzle, the material falling away and exposing his teeth as he snarled. The small Hairless One gasped again and she shouted, ‘And what big teeth you have!’
He rose to his hind feet, angrily pushing aside the swirling blackness in his pounding head.
The small one screamed then, her voice high pitched and piercing in his poor cracked skull. Furious at the pain and how this day was turning out, he growled and tore the remaining shreds of clothing from his back, flinging them off his claws as the small one fled the cottage.
Perhaps it was his pounding head, or perhaps it was carelessness caused by his burning rage at what his world had become, but he never heard nor smelled the woodcutter come running to wait just outside the door as he marched towards it.
He also never felt the axe blow on his skull that would finish his hunting forever.