The bottle was nearly empty. Ella’s heart started to race when she saw it lying there, glimmering in the firelight. Why had no one else noticed? A quick look around the fire answered her question. The others were all sleeping, blissfully unaware of how close they were to the beast. Fools! Ella snatched the bottle from the ground and started to run.
Dirt and rocks flew up as she went, creating a trail of dust behind her. She moved as fast as she could through the caverns, but all the twists and turns meant her pace was slower than she wished. Ella was a natural runner, her small frame moving with the grace of a gazelle and the speed of a cheetah. Her breath came evenly, even while her heart thundered in her ears. The walls of the cave sped by, its colourful scenes blurring into a mashed line of red and ochre.
Though she understood why they had moved into the caverns – the winters had become colder than anyone in the clan could remember – in this moment she wished they were still out on the Steppes, where the land stretched out as far as you could see. That was where runners should be, not trapped underground in this endless loop of caves.
Ella tightened her grip on the bottle in her hands. She didn’t want to imagine what might happen to her if she dropped it. The bottle was very special, handed down from one chief to the next during the Change ceremony. Legend said that it came from a place very far away, fashioned by people who were not like her people. Just one look at the intricate carving work lent credence to those stories. This was a leader’s bottle. And if the bottle ran dry, the chief would turn into a beast. Ella did not want that on her conscience.
Besides, when the winter finally passed, Ella was hoping she would be chosen as a hunter. Girls were not often chosen, but she was one of the fastest runners in the clan, and she was accurate with a spear. Clan members that allowed the beast to escape were lucky if they managed to keep their lives; they certainly wouldn’t be among the chosen ones in the spring.
Her pace slowed when she heard the music. Rhythmic drumming coupled with the plucking of strings and chanting voices meant she had reached her destination. Ella burst into the shaman’s cave, disrupting the healing ritual. She paused to catch her breath before speaking.
“Apologies, but his bottle is almost empty.” Ella held it up as proof.
The shaman nodded and took the bottle from Ella’s outstretched hand. Without a word, he walked across the cave and carefully filled the bottle with spirit nectar from one of the sacred vessels, then handed it back to her.
“Thank you,” Ella said, dipping her head slightly in respect. Then she turned to run back the way she had come. The scent of the spirit nectar wafted up into her nostrils, making her cough and wrinkle her nose. Ella wasn’t sure what exactly the spirits did to make this nectar, but she was glad not to be the chief because she didn’t think she would be able to keep it down.
She pushed herself, increasing her pace until she was sure her muscles would snap like the strings on the instrument the shaman’s assistant had been playing. Finally, she rounded the corner and stepped into the chief’s cave. A couple of his attendees had awakened and were looking desperately for the missing bottle. When they saw it in Ella’s hands, their relief was almost palpable.
Quietly, she moved across the room until she stood before her sleeping leader. She sat down on her haunches and leaned forward to place the bottle back where she had found it. As she did, the chief’s eyes snapped open. Ella froze, caught like a gazelle in his stare, praying that the beast would not emerge and devour her. Instead, he looked for the bottle. Quickly, Ella placed it in his hands. He removed the stopper and took a long drink, then wiped his mouth and looked at Ella again.
The corners of his mouth tipped up slightly before he spoke, “You’re Ella, the runner.”
Ella nodded silently.
The chief grinned and took another drink, “Have you ever thought about becoming a hunter?”
This is my submission for this week’s Speakeasy challenge #97. Submissions must be under 1000 words and must begin with the following line: The bottle was nearly empty.
In addition, submissions must reference the photo prompt, which is the following image: