The girl's heart raced as she approached the clearing. She had been working towards this very moment for weeks and now, finally at hand, she was struggling to contain the excitement and fear that were building up since she had woken that day. Taking a moment to collect her thoughts and peace herself for the task at hand, she hastily fixed the loose hair that fell from her forehead into a simple braid across the side. She sighed. It was the single most important day in her life and she was not to ruin it. Much less because of a distraction as silly as her hair.
She slowed her pace, wary of her every move, of every sound she made, to avoid alerting the huge animal that she could barely glimpse through the dense foliage. She stopped next to a large tree, and as she rested her trainee spear against its massive trunk, she recalled the instructions given to her by the elders and, somewhat against the rules, by her sister. She was to come clean, bearing no smell except her own, so she was forced to sleep on her own, outside the village and she was to fast for the entirety of a day before, to avoid the scent of food that might entice the animal. Now, in the middle of the day, the mix of emotions and hunger tugged her stomach fiercely, but she took a moment to compose herself and moved forward.
Moving aside a large leaf, she now had full view of the clearing, the small stream that crossed it, and her target. The animal, enormous as it was, was still a juvenile, a full five years younger than herself. And yet, it was almost thrice as tall as she was, and five times longer than she was tall. It was drinking peacefully, and before she moved on, she hoped it had already eaten. She only had a small flint knife with her, and she doubted it would do her much good against something that big. The young huntress doubted it would even pierce its thick skin.
Taking a deep breath, she walked towards it. Though it had not detected her at first, she hadn't taken her third step before it suddenly stood up and faced her. It acted a little surprised, clicking its long and thin jaws twice before settling down. Good. At least she hadn't taken it entirely by surprise and so far, things seemed to be going well.
"Don't let your guard down-she heard her sister's voice in her head-, just because things haven't turned bad yet, it doesn't mean it won't kill you at a moment's notice if you make a wrong move."
Birds chirped in the background, breaking the silence, and only then she dared to continue towards the animal, carefully but trying to radiate confidence. She looked at it. With its strange proportions, long tail and neck, a spiked hump on its back and large clawed arms, it wasn't conventionally pretty, but its colors were beautiful. It was a shiny dark green, with a pale underbelly and thick black stripes running down from its very long face to its muscular shoulders, and its mottled throat had a pale red tone that would become much more intense with age. It hissed, and she took the stance the elders taught her, with her arms held high, palms towards the animal, and her face looking down. She knew well what was at stake, the animal was intelligent and it knew humans, a non-aggressive, even submissive stance like that in front of a hungry animal would mean the end of her short life there and then.
The creature gave a deep, booming growl and then the girl felt the putrid stench of a carnivore's breath, mixed with a slight smell of fresh fish. It should have had a meal a few hours before. In her mind, she was a little relieved, at least whether it was hungry or not, it was no longer an issue. She recalled the previous weeks, as she had worked day after day to earn the animal's tolerance, if not its trust, at first with offerings of food and then moving on to showing it a few of the fishing spots she hoped it didn't know of, and finally being able to share the same space with it, without food as a mediating tool. It helped that their kind didn't particularly care for humans and as long as they were left alone, they didn't mind the presence of humans nearby, "nearby" being a relative term.
Then, after receiving no answer, the animal gave a vibrating, reptilian bellow. She was being evaluated, and she knew it. She tried to look at it from the creature's perspective: was she coming as an intruder, a threat, maybe food? This little fragile thing was walking directly towards it and its strange gesture only confused the beast. Now it was the time to state her intentions. She grasped her throat the way she was taught and tried her best to replicate its call, though to her it sounded more like and awkward and protracted burp. In any case, it had produced a reaction; the animal reared its head in apparent surprise, blinked rapidly and then lowered its head, repeating its previous call much lower, both in tone and volume.
For a moment, as she tried to match the sound, she wished she had a boy's naturally lower voice, as it would have made things easier. "At least it's something they are good for", her sister disdainfully observed in her head. She forced herself not to giggle, as she thought of this, and she waited to see the response of her mismatched call.
Now, the large snout was directly in front of her, the stench of fish and putrefaction almost in her face. She heard it puffing loudly, catching as much as it could of her scent. "Yes, this is me, my pure scent, please let the fast and the days without bathing be worth it". It moved its head even closer and, recognizing it as a sign, she acted. Carefully, but firmly, she put her left hand on top of its snout, feeling it strangely similar to a bird's beak, and with great care to avid the small pits on the tip, as she knew that touching these spots gave the animal the instinctive reaction to bite. It reacted almost with pleasure to the touch, humming rhythmically and slightly nuzzling against her hand.
Another sign, she thought, and she pressed her other hand against its snout, and after a pause she began moving it up its large head, avoiding a small horn between the eyes as she worked its way towards the top of its skull and finally resting it against what would be the forehead, between those yellow-red eyes that seemed calm but wouldn't lift their gaze off her. She took a moment to look to the stripes that decorated its face and reassured herself that she knew this one, she had been there when it hatched ten years ago in the depths of the jungle. Her sister and she had risked a lot, and, with luck and disposition on the giant's part, it would have been worth it in a few moments. The animal's skin was slightly bumpy and very dry, but it was warm to the touch. She guessed that below her hand, below the skin and bone, was housed this amazing creature's brain, and she smiled, careful of not showing her teeth.
Then, as if confirming her suspicions, the animal made the next move. It pressed its head against hers, forehead to forehead. Its length was such that it ran from her forehead to her groin, and she suddenly thanked that she wasn't passing through the bleeding days, the scent of blood would surely have changed everything, making the animal more excitable, and even aggressive. She recognized this gesture and as she moved her hands to hold its head close to hers, she recited the words that, time and again, had made the unbreakable bond between partners, between human and animal, the wild and the world of man joined in one.
-I am now a part of you, as you are part of me. Now and forever, we are one.
The giant relaxed a bit, and it gave a much lower growl in response.
Then, it lowered its head again, but now parallel to the ground, the neck, normally arched, was now straightened, and the whole of its huge body was now resting on its knuckles as well as its muscular legs. She took a moment to notice that it was now sitting, but in a slightly forced position, and then she realized what it was: an acceptance sign. She had been accepted!
As she sat astride the great creature's shoulders, she leaned forward to whisper:
-I am Itaii, you are the Black Hook, and right now, we have to prove ourselves.
In response, the young King Croc bellowed, and, almost by instinct, she did the same, surprised as she grabbed her throat to imitate the creature's reptilian tone.
The first hunt of bonded partners was the defining moment of their relationship, but little did they know, hearts racing as one as they ventured into the depths of the jungle, how easy it would be compared to the surprises life had in store for them.