The Heart of a Leopard
In the quiet peace of the pre-dawn jungle, the shadowed shape of the huntress glided silently through the underbrush. Under a canopy of rich, green foliage, high up, monkeys were just starting a hesitant chatter. Irritated by the noise, the black leopard raised her head, and gazed up at the jittery horde, a low growl rumbling deep in her chest.
She was huge, well over two hundred pounds of bone and muscle, larger even than most males and several times as powerful. Her soft velvety coat was the color of a moonless night sky, highlighted by flashes of steel blue where the first rays of light played along her sleek flank. Pale blue eyes burned like chips of ice in her nobly chiseled head. The gaze of this panther was death.
For a moment, she considered launching herself up that tree, just for the satisfaction of seeing the monkeys scatter in terror, the silly bunch. But instead, she inhaled deeply, and cocked her head into the wind. Yes, she could still scent her prey. A deer, long past her prime, going for a drink by the river. The big cat licked her chops. She would feast today.
Without so much as a whisper, she slowly, carefully made her way closer to the bank, where her victim stood unaware, muzzle dipped into the clear, sparkling water. The deer's neck rippled delicately with each swallow, and every now and then an ear flicked in irritation at the buzzing flies. Old she might be, but she still had that gentle, graceful beauty of her kind. She would be one of Mahogany's herd. The formidable King Stag was certainly not a creature to anger, but he knew as well as any the law of the jungle, and humbly acknowledged the Circle of Life the great cat was about to close once again.
The panther's movements slowed down until barely perceptible as she gathered her powerful hindquarters underneath her, and bunched her muscles for the pounce. This was the critical part - she had to make that first leap count, for if she missed, or alerted her target prematurely, her chances of making the kill would be slim, indeed. She wriggled her body into position, got her bearings one last time, and...
"Xandra! There you be hiding," a voice cawed above her head. The deer, startled, whipped up her head, and after a moment of standing like a statue, nostrils flaring, bolted into the woods in a crackle of snapping vegetation, and was gone.
The panther closed her eyes in disgust as she gave up her crouching stance. "Cocksure! Of all the times..." she snarled, ears laid flat against her head in frustration. A large black shape flapped lazily into view, and she lashed an angry, clawed paw out at it, even though she knew darn well it was hovering high out of reach.
"I've been looking for you," the raven announced blithely. "I be having some news that might be interesting you." He was almost as black as she was, his well-preened feathers gleaming in the dappling light from the treetops, pale gray eyes bright in his dark head.
"Yeah, don't you always," Xandra rumbled, tail lashing. Irritation made her eyes blaze and the fur along her arched back bristle, but Cocksure the raven chattered on, unconcerned, as long as he was sure there was no way she could come close enough to touch him.
"Oh, but trust me, you will be interested. You will be thanking me for telling you."
"And what is this piece of news that you think will save your little feathered hide?" the panther purred dangerously. She raised one paw, and looked at it thoughtfully while flexing long, razor-sharp claws.
"There be mans in the jungle," the black bird proclaimed with bright eyes.
"Mans," the panther hissed fiercely, suddenly very much alert, "where? And how many?" That was a foolish question, she realized. The stupid bird could not count beyond the claws on his talon, and that with doubtful accuracy at best.
Sure now that he had her full attention, and that she wouldn't kill him before he gave her more information, the raven settled down on a branch above Xandra's head, at what he estimated a safe distance. Still, his talons clenched and unclenched around his perch a little nervously.
"Down river," Cocksure supplied. "Be looking like a hunting party. There be talonful and more."
A low, menacing growl erupted from deep within the big cat's throat, startling the bird into a squawk and making him take a few awkward hops away from her.
"And," he continued importantly from his now somewhat safer place, "They be having a leopard with them, a little female." The raven cocked his head, a wicked sparkle in his cold gray eyes. "And by the way the males be prowling around the site, I'd be saying she was in heat." He cackled at Xandra's disdainful hiss, "I suppose they be using her as bait."
The cat shook her head. "Males," she spat, "stupid enough to fall for that, I'll wager." She locked her blue eyes with Cocksure's gray. "Anyway, thanks for the tip." A grudging growl. "But you still owe me big time for scaring off that deer! And don't think I'll forget that anytime soon. Just you come within reach...," she crouched in preparation for a pounce.
"Fat chance," the raven cawed, and launched himself into the sky with a gleeful screech.
Blue eyes followed the black bird until he was out of sight, then the panther padded to the river for a drink. She delicately lapped the sparkling water and let the cool liquid run down her throat with a little sigh. Whiskers dripping with beads of moisture, she mumbled softly to herself, "And now, for a closer look at those mans." And she leaped easily up the rocky bank, and made her way down the river in a silent, ground-eating lope.
Xandra crouched not two leaps away from the group of mans by the river's bank, hidden in a patch of high fern. Sunlight shining through the canopy of leaves above made dappled highlights across the forest floor, effectively obscuring her outline and making her all but invisible.
There were six of them, one a she-man, and they did indeed have one of Xandra's kind with them, a petite though somewhat flabby young female. The spotted leopard was kept on a flimsy looking leash attached to a leather collar fastened around the animal's neck. She did not look unduly distressed, just vaguely nervous. The way her pupils were dilated suggested that she had been lightly drugged to keep her docile. A distinct odor of sexual readiness emanated from her.
The panther chuckled mirthlessly deep in her chest. The Great Cat curse them, but they do know what they're doing, she thought reluctantly. Two of the mans were in the process of assembling a cage they had brought, and setting it up to be used as a trap.
The big black cat had escaped more traps in her life than any single man could devise, but she knew this might just be enough to snare a male in the stupor of sexual arousal. They were cunning brutes, these mans. The panther felt her hatred rise all over again, and spent a few minutes fighting for control. It would never do for her to go haring into their midst and have them take her down with the thundersticks they were carrying. She had to bide her time, and strike at them when they were distracted.
They had a name for her, the mans. She was not called the Princess of Terror for being rash and foolish. Whenever she could, she would descend on them like a deadly black shadow, killing and maiming adults or cubs alike. Mans were evil, and must be destroyed to the last one.
For the two-legged beasts had long ago given her a reason to hate them with a passion kindled by pain, and loss.
Oh, how they feared her now! They tried to kill her, they sent hunting parties after her, or tried to play their little tricks on her. But she was so much smarter than they gave her credit for! She was a survivor.
About the poison, she had learned the hard way. Only her great mass, too much for the proffered dose, had pulled her through that time. But even so, she had lain half-paralyzed, panting and utterly helpless in the brush, the mans passing only inches from the panther's nose in their search for her. Now she never touched a carcass without having first watched others feed off it, and live.
The spiked pits were ridiculous. But the snares she could only avoid thanks to a sense of smell that was exceptional even among her kind. The faint, sick man odor clung to everything they touched, and it only served to kindle her hatred. She had been known to deliberately spring the wicked nooses, and then lie in wait for the man to come check on them.
They had learned that particular lesson quickly enough, and now only came out in threes or fours, armed to the teeth.
Xandra returned her attention to the cage, and the spotted panther being led towards it. She was pretty enough in her silky, yellow coat and the clearly defined dark rosette marks that were typical of their kind. The pelt on her chin and belly was creamy, a lighter shade of yellow, the fur there finer, softer. But her clear green eyes were lacking that feral light the big panther had come to expect in her brethren, and she looked soft. The black cat's breath caught. This must be one of the domesticated leopards, the ones they captured as cubs to train them to the hunt, or, as in this case, to lure others of their kind into traps.
The panther's anger flared, at the mans, for doing this to one of her kind, and at the pathetic panther, for so willingly betraying her heritage. She decided then that she would kill the little slip right along with the two-legged monsters.
But then the small leopard seemed to realize what the mans were trying to do, and started to pull back on the leash, shaking her head a little and snarling. There was a buzz of excitement among the mans at that, and then the she-man cautiously approached her, holding something small in her extended hand and speaking softly to the cat. The leopard held still, and made no move to attack, but there was now in her green eyes that wild, inner glow that distinguished the creatures of the wild from their domesticated cousins. She regarded the man female suspiciously and sniffed delicately at the proffered tidbit, tail lashing nervously.
That's more like it, girl, Xandra rooted silently for her, maybe you'll be worth sparing after all.
The young leopard felt she had been betrayed by those she had come to trust, and it hurt. She was a smart animal, and it had not taken her long, given her present condition and the cages, to figure out that she was to be used as bait to snare some of her wild brethren. And she could sense them, too, two males at least, prowling around the little clearing, their attention focused on her. As soon as the mans went out of sight, the panthers would come for her, and that would be their downfall.
She was a gentle animal, not given to violence, but she could not allow the mans to make her do this. So, for the first time in her life, she disobeyed those who had raised her.
"Come on, Ginelle, be a nice kitty. We won't hurt you. Come on I've got your favorite here, you like that, don't you?" The she-man was talking to her, trying to goad her into submission by offering her her favorite treat. This was the man who had taken over her care after she had grown up, and she knew her and respected her. But she just sniffed at the offering, and made no move to accept it. Instead, she hissed and growled softly deep in her throat, and retreated as far as the leash would allow.
It would be easy, Ginelle knew, to hurt or even kill the she-man, who was standing close to her, pale neck within easy reach. But the cat had no desire to do so, and it had nothing to do with the thundersticks that were now pointed her way. All the panther wanted was for them to stop what they were doing, and leave her be.
She herself had grown up among the mans. The only memory she had of her cubhood in the wild was of her mother and sister, playing in a sheltered grove when they were but a few days old. Thus for her, it was no particular hardship to be around the two-legs, but Ginelle had seen wild panthers go insane and die a terrible death after being captured. She did not want to be the instrument of such suffering!
She suddenly became aware of another feline presence, very close - a female, and she was practically bursting with menace. Ginelle's breath caught as she surreptitiously turned her gaze toward the patch of fern to her right and found herself gazing straight into the bluest, most striking pair of eyes she had ever seen, set in a noble, coal black head that was framed by the vibrant green of the plants' thick leaves. Later she remembered thinking that this was a creature who must have come straight out of the Netherworld, she was so very beautiful.
She had no time to react, for at this instant the huge cat rose with a shrill, whining roar, like a streak of black light out of her concealment and was among the mans, raking and slashing like a clawed and fanged whirlwind, dealing death and terror with every swipe of her paws.
The spotted panther heard one of the mans cry, "It's the Princess! Get her! Come on, you morons, shoot!" It was the last thing he said, for just then the big black panther pulled him into her deadly embrace, fore legs circling him, and both hind legs raking his gut. With a gurgled scream, he went silent.
Not waiting for him to breathe his last, the Princess whirled and launched herself at another unarmed man, and with negligent ease buried her teeth in his scrawny throat. A quick, violent shake of the head, and she released her hold and sprang away, without looking back to check if her victim was truly dead. There was no need.
One man raised his thunderstick then, and aimed it at the black cat's head.
The young leopard, utterly forgotten for the moment, acted without thinking and flung herself at him, putting him off balance. The stick spoke, and she saw the large panther wince silently, glare at her tormentor, and attack in a fluid flash of speed. It was all the spotted cat could do to scramble out of the path of that deadly avalanche.
The remaining mans had lost their nerve by now, and were beating a hasty retreat to the boats they had moored on the river's banks. The Princess pelted after the man who hat shot her, and lashed out a paw, tripping him. Ginelle saw a tiny pause in her movement, a little shake of the head and a flutter of eyelids, before the black cat clamped her teeth down on his neck. A sickening crackle, and the man went limp, fingers still twitching.
Licking her chops, the huge panther looked about to pursue the fleeing two-legs, but she suddenly swayed and staggered a few steps. Her breath was coming in ragged gasps.
Now Ginelle saw a short, feathered shaft protruding form the cat's neck just behind the ear. She approached cautiously.
"You've been hit," the leopard said softly, "There at your neck, a little dart."
"Tranquilizer," the larger panther's speech was slurry, but she still managed a snarl. "Must... get it... off! Need to..." She sat on her haunches and worried at the dart with a hind paw. The poison was beginning to kick in and made the dark female's movements clumsy.
"Hold still," Ginelle told her gently, after the black cat almost lost her balance. She brought her muzzle close, and gingerly took the shaft between her teeth. A firm pull, and she had it in her mouth. A tiny trickle of blood poured from the wound.
The leopard spat out the dart and ran her tongue once over the puncture, only to be rebutted roughly by her black companion.
"Don't touch me," the Princess hissed, dazed eyes clearing for a moment with sudden intensity. "Never, ever touch me!"
The little leopard drew back startled, and watched the panther drag herself into the ferns where she had originally lain in hiding, and collapse on her side, panting.
Poor Ginelle felt suddenly completely lost. She looked around her, and realized that she was... free. She was in the wild, out here for the first time without the protection of the mans. The leash, still attached to the collar around her neck, dangled uselessly at her front paws.
Not two paces away from her lay the creature she had grown up to know as one of her protectors' deadliest and most feared enemies - Xandra, Princess of Terror - very ill, perhaps dying. Somehow, she could find no fear in her heart of the beautiful, majestic creature, even though the evidence of her doing was still scattered in a bloody mess by the river bank - three of the male mans lay dead, and scavengers were already slinking around the site, waiting for the panthers to retreat. The smell of blood, a coppery, heady aroma, hung heavily over the place.
She ran over to the bodies, sniffed them, then back to the panting black shape in the ferns, and spent some time worrying her collar with one hind paw. At a snap of twig in the brush, she started, back arched, tail bristling, and relaxed with a sheepish sigh when a big muskrat broke cover and waddled importantly towards the river, where it disappeared into a water with a muffled splash.
There was no question about it - Ginelle was very much afraid.
Things got worse. Ginelle watched with trepidation as the big panther descended into the depths of a poison-induced stupor. Most of the time, she lay so still that the little leopard feared Xandra had died, only to jerk violently every now and then, eyes wide and unseeing as she relived long-past events. From what the smaller cat could make out of the mumbled fragments, those memories were far from pleasant. A few names stood out in the cat's insane ramblings, 'Cecyl' and 'Salin' being the most frequent.
Xandra never made it to her feet, but her whole body twitched and arched uncontrollably whenever these spells came upon her, and Ginelle could never afterwards tell which frightened her worse - the terrible seizures or the phases of utter stillness the black leopard went through.
But never once did it occur to her to leave the big female to her fate, and try to find her own way in this newly discovered and exciting realm of the wild. Quite apart from the fact that this creature had fought on her behalf, she had felt an inexplicable attraction towards the Princess from the moment she had first looked into those expressive blue eyes. Xandra was quite possibly the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. Ginelle was determined to guard her with her life, for what that was worth. She wasn't much of a wild animal, after all.
And besides, she admitted to herself with some chagrin, she had no idea what to do with her new-found freedom.
Those two males were still around, she could sense them circling her and her companion, and uttering the occasional alluring growl. Apparently they did not dare approach the black cat any closer, even given her present condition. The Princess of Terror had built herself quite a reputation even among her own kind, that much Ginelle had been able to learn from previously captured brethren.
She could well feel the juices stirring in her womb, and was tempted to answer the males' calls, but a sense of duty and anxiety kept her by the delirious panther's side.
"Sss, my, my, what have we here? If it isssn't the Princsssesss Xssandra herssself. And who isss her little friend?"
Ginelle whirled towards the voice, but at first, she could not see anything. Then a long, sinuous form flowed gracefully out of the tree above her head and dropped into a well-muscled coil before her. The big python raised his head and stared, tongue flicking, at the motionless shape on the ground.
The huge serpent chuckled, the gesture rippling along his whole length, and turned his attention on the spotted cat.
"Great Pythussss' headsss, but ssshe looksss sssick, wouldn't you sssay?" Another rippling laugh.
Ginelle growled, a low rumble deep in her throat, and raised a threatening paw, although she did not feel particularly imposing just now. The serpent looked like he weighed easily twice as much as she, one long, powerful undulating piece of muscle, his center more than half as thick as her own midsection.
The big reptile did not seem to notice the leopard's gesture. "Could it be that the mighty Princssesss of Terror iss at lasst meeting her doom?"
"Who are you? Go away!"
The snake's head drooped theatrically, and a hurt expression crossed his reptilian features. "Oh, but I'm ssso much better company than her. Why don't you ssstick with me for a little bit, hmm?" His head came up, hovering half a whisker from Ginelle's nose and starting to dance in a mesmerizing pattern. With a little blink he caught the spotted female's eyes.
"Baalh will ssshow you what it meansss to have a friend." The voice was lilting and smooth as silk. Ginelle found herself perversely fascinated. Seemingly without her doing, her head began moving in rhythm with Baalh's as the python began humming a low, seductive melody. His tail slowly disentangled from his coiled form to creep inconspicuously closer to the half-entranced leopard, while deep within his eyes the most amazing colors swirled, captivating his victim utterly.
"Now, my little pretty thing," the serpent soothed, "Why don't you lie down? You are ssso very tired, my precssiouss. Sssleep. I ssshall guard you."
It felt very nice. Ginelle was both enthralled and pleasantly lulled, and she was more than happy to follow Baalh's bidding. Her eyelids drooped as she flopped onto the ground, a contented sigh escaping her.
She almost jumped out of her hide when a loud and vicious snarl erupted next to her ear. Xandra was almost upright, staring her straight into the eye. Shaking her head to clear the confusion, the smaller leopard got to her feet.
"You killed him, you bastard," Xandra growled, "and now, you die!" The rest of her speech slurred and fuzzed as she went into yet another seizure, this one the most violent so far. Ginelle tried to put a calming paw to the black panther's face, but the cat was twitching so violently that she could only succeed in hurting her, so she desisted. Instead, she shot the frustrated python a suspicious glance.
"Oh, ssspider droppings! Foiled again," the python cursed. "Well, the leassst I can do is rid thisss jungle oncsse and for all of itsss biggessst nuisssance." His gaze locked onto Xandra's still thrashing form.
"No no no, you don't!" The tip of Ginelle's tail twitched, betraying her nervousness. She positioned herself between Baalh and the black cat and fixed the huge serpent with a cold stare. "She's my friend." Enough time later to find out if that's true, the leopard told herself.
Mustering what courage she could find in her heart, Ginelle drew herself up into a menacing position, back arched, and said in her best threatening snarl, "so if you want her dead, you'll have to go through me to do it."
There was a moment of tense silence, then the serpent chuckled softly. "Sss, no need! Ssshe'sss gone. Look for yourssself!"
And so it seemed. The mighty panther lay rigid, one paw stretched grotesquely into the air, glazed eyes staring sightlessly ahead. Her mouth was open in a frozen snarl, pink tongue lolling uselessly. She was not breathing.
"Oh rapturousss joy, the mighty Princssesss liess dead," Baalh cried in his high, sibilant voice. His head danced before Ginelle's eyes in a seductive pattern, almost catching her off-guard again.
"For thisss piece of good newsss, I'll even let you live. For now," where the snake's words, before he glided silently up the tree, and was gone, his high-pitched laughter echoing after him.
Stricken, Ginelle stared at the body. "No..." she whispered, "I didn't even get to know you. You can't leave me." I need you, she finished silently.
Although she had only met her, something inside her simply would not accept this strange panther's death.
"Maybe all you need is some warmth," she told the unmoving form at her paws. So she lay down, and nestled against the cooling body, draping herself partly across it. She bent over to gently lick the black cat's face, until she had closed the blue eyes, before she settled down. Even in death, the Princess' unmistakable scent was evident, a clean, straight smell of well-aired fur and a faint aroma of crushed herbs and bark that was as pleasant as it was somehow very reassuring.
Soon enough, Ginelle fell into a troubled sleep.
She was a she-man! Xandra did not realize it immediately, but the way she carried herself on her hind legs, and the changed sense of balance in her body, left little doubt about it. She felt naked without her fur, even though her rump was wrapped in leather and bronze, which settled about her shoulders with heavy familiarity.
Not 'she-man', but 'woman', came a stray thought, it's called a 'woman'
She turned to face her companion, a considerably shorter female with red-gold hair and misty green eyes in an open and friendly face. In her hands the other 'woman' carried a sturdy wooden staff.
"I had a strange dream last night," she heard herself say in the mans' guttural language, "I dreamed I was a panther." She smiled. "Wouldn't that be something to make into a story? Xandra: Warrior Panther?"
The red blonde female laughed. "A panther? Well, I've seen you move like one, so I suppose it's not that far a stretch. Let's see... huge, black cat and those incredible baby blues of yours... Oh, yes, I'm sure you'd make rather a formidable kitty!" And the woman gave her a companionable backhand slap in the rump. "Though all that leather and stuff would have to go." Her smile turned suddenly wicked.
"Don't you wish," Xandra replied with a wink. If that was still her name - she wasn't sure. She flashed a grin that matched the other woman's, and slipped a casual arm around her companion's slender but well-muscled shoulders.
A faint sound from the bushes made her stiffen. Her body knowing exactly what to do, she tensed, extended her senses backward, and motioned for her partner to be still. Focus. The little blonde by her side caught her urgency, and moved inconspicuously a few paces back to give her space, suddenly very much alert.
There it was, the creak and twang of a fired crossbow. Xandra felt herself drop to one knee and whip up her hand. Her fingers closed on a feathered shaft, suspended now in mid-air in the exact place where her heart would have been.
Breaking the quarrel in two with casual strength and tossing it aside, she leaped high into the air with a shrill, ululating cry and launched herself towards its source. Still airborne, she pulled something from behind her back, a long, bladed weapon, like a big dagger. A 'sword', some part of her mind supplied.
Within the blink of an eye, she was facing a pawful of burly, glowering men, death and mutilation on their minds. Her face relaxed into a feral grin as her body anticipated the coming fight.
With a snarl on her lips Xandra jerked awake, to find herself gazing into a pair of gentle mist green eyes two whiskers away from her face. The little female's flank was touching hers, soft and warm.
The black panther shook her head to clear it of the last residues of the tranquilizer, then rose and laboriously stretched her aching limbs, all the while studiously ignoring the other cat.
"I'm glad you made it," the smaller leopard said quietly, "for a while, it looked like you were a goner."
"What's it to you," Xandra hissed irritably. "Just keep away from me." The Princess dropped onto her haunches, and started licking her chest with brisk, curt flicks of her tongue, the task demanding her undivided attention.
Dejected, the other cat looked to the ground, the tip of her tail twitching with indecision. The black panther could smell the scent of the other female's season wafting to her, which reminded her that her own heat was also coming on. Already she could feel the faint stirrings in her center and a growing irritation towards males that happened to cross her path. And males had learned the hard way that the more the Princess' body signaled readiness, the further away you kept from her.
"There are males out there," the black panther growled finally. "Go and humor them, or something."
"But I... I'm new here. I don't know anything about the jungle. Please let me come with you."
"Forget it! I hunt alone," came the snarled reply, before the big
cat turned and bounded away into the undergrowth.
The Man Place
"Hey, you can't... Wait," Ginelle cried, one paw raised, and then, quietly to herself, "I'm lost here without you." Green eyes scanned the brush with trepidation, but there was no sign of the black panther. Her scent still hung in the air, though, and had the leopard listened to her primeval instincts, she might have thought about picking up the black panther's trail. But she was too agitated and intimidated by this frightening new situation, and it simply did not occur to her.
So, she was on her own. The young female flopped down onto her belly and curled into a ball, and allowed herself to feel utterly alone and dejected for a little bit.
The sound of large wings flapping above her caught her attention. Ginelle looked up listlessly to see a big raven alighting on a branch half a leap above her. The bird cocked his head and fixed her with a bright gray eye.
"You be new in the jungle?"
Ginelle rested her head on an extended front paw and looked away.
"Go away. Leave me alone."
She felt a breath of air as the black bird landed beside her, and with a few hops came around to meet her eyes.
"Why you be so sad, young one?" he croaked softly, his voice full of sympathy.
Ginelle turned her head the other way, and said nothing. Her eyes stung.
"That was a brave thing you did, with Baalh," the raven persisted, "He be the most feared creature in the jungle - apart from Xandra, of course."
"Yeah," the leopard rumbled crossly, "and a fat lot of thanks it got me, too."
"Don't be worrying. It be Xandra's way. The Princess be a great loner. None may come close. I, on the other talon..."
"You seem to know her very well," the cat said, without turning her head. There was no need, because, wings flapping awkwardly and claws scraping in the dust, the big bird hopped back into view.
He fluffed his feathers importantly, and made a little flourish with his wings. "Cocksure the Valiant, at your service. I certainly do be knowing her. This raven be the most knowledgeable bird in the whole jungle! You be lucky to have met me, if I do be saying so myself."
Ginelle turned her eyes on him without moving her head. "And do you know where she went?"
"'Do I know where she went?' she be asking," the raven cawed, "of course I be knowing. I be the Princess of Terror's personal advisor, is what I be. She would never have been meeting you without me."
Ginelle raised her head a fraction, and fixed Cocksure with a flat stare. "You mean, if it hadn't been for you, she wouldn't have come out there and attacked the mans, she wouldn't have been almost killed by the poison, the serpent wouldn't almost have got me, and I wouldn't be in this terrible mess now? Do you expect me to thank you, or what?"
The bird was taken aback. The big cat didn't sound particularly angry, just resigned and bitter. He did a few hops back anyway, just in case. These big felines were so unpredictable!
"Well," he croaked uncertainly, "if that's how you want to put it... But," and he drew himself up a little and eyed her warily, "if it be not for me, you would now be sitting in that there cage, and be a pretty little bait for lovesick leopards." He paused a little, watching the leopard's slightly chagrined expression from a bright gray eye. When the cat did not speak, Cocksure continued, putting on a slightly hurt look. "So. If you be like this, you'll not want me to show you Xandra's place. Fine."
"Oh, do show it to me, please," Ginelle said. "I did not mean... Well, perhaps I did. But still, I would very much like you to take me to her."
"Well, well," the black bird said, mollified, "that be sounding lots better. But..." he hesitated.
Cocksure fidgeted. "She might be getting mad when we be showing up. She do be liking her solitude."
The cat considered for a moment. When she spoke, it was more to herself than to the raven. "It doesn't matter. I can't explain it... I just have a feeling I need to be... there... for her."
"Well, you be either very brave, or very foolish, but this raven be liking your spirit. Well, young one, follow me!"
He launched himself into the air with a few awkward flaps - he did so hate taking off from ground level. Tree branches were much more adequate.
Ginelle followed the raven through dense undergrowth down a steep slope that led into a well-hidden dead-end ravine. There were very few tracks here - apparently most animals shunned this area. An occasional monkey peeked down at her from way up in the trees, but monkeys were well-known for the fact that nothing ever scared them away for long.
The leopard could sense something forbidding hanging over the place even before she stepped out into a large clearing at the center of the gully, and saw the huge structure looming ominously before her.
"Why, this is a man place," Ginelle exclaimed, surprised, when Cocksure alighted on a branch on the very edge of the clearing .
Cocksure nodded. "Mans don't be coming here no more," he explained, "but Xandra be seeming to like the place. No idea why. It be very, very old. And scary."
With that, Ginelle had to agree.
Only a few of what must have been several pawfuls of columns remained upright, while others leaned crazily and looked about to collapse, at the same time creating the impression that they had been standing exactly like this for an eternity. Weather-beaten, moss-covered stairs cascaded down towards the columns from a broad dais at least six leaps wide and half that deep, upon which stood a building made of huge stone blocks that must once have been crafted into a smooth surface. Now vines and bushes grew from cracks in the partly crumbled stone walls, covering the ancient building in a tangled green blanket. Here and there the remains of a marble statue peeked through, effigies of mans as well as animals. There was even a representation of the Great Cat, Agulaar Himself, and one of Pythus, the three-headed snake of the Netherworld. It was uncanny how detailed a vision the ignorant mans of so long ago had had of these divine beings. Ginelle had to suppress a shudder when her gaze wandered over the serpentine form of the Snake God. The three heads stared back from faded eyes, adder and cobra from one end of the sinuous body, python from the other.
All others were there, too; Amarok, the Wolf, in a rather idiotic posture,
sitting up raising his forepaws, Torran, the Red Bull, and many male and female
mans she assumed to be man deities.
The cawing of some jungle bird close by made Ginelle jump, tail bristling, a snarl on her lips. Startled, Cocksure screeched and fluttered nervously before settling back down with a sheepish sigh.
"I'm sorry, raven," Ginelle said, mustering the shreds of her feline dignity. "This place seems to make me a little nervous. Now. Where's the Princess?"
The bird fixed her with one gray eye, before eyeing the ruins nervously, fluffing his feathers. "This raven will not be going any nearer that place, young one. You be on your own from here. Xandra may be inside that big thing up there, and she may not. I be showing you, now I be going. Cocksure the Valiant, at your service."
With that, Cocksure the Valiant beat a rather undignified retreat, fluttering hastily back the way they had come.
"Valiant my tail," Ginelle muttered, not unkindly, watching him fly. The bird had a good heart, at least, if not the most brave one.
Taking a breath, she dropped into a crouch and made her way towards the ruins, keeping close to the edge of the clear area, belly close to the ground, scanning the terrain nervously. All sounds ceased as soon as she broke cover, even the far-off chatter of the irrepressible monkeys. The jungle seemed to hold its breath.
Evening was now falling, and the ruins were bathed in a magnificent red-golden light streaming into the ravine from the west. The bushes around her were in shadow, and quiet, but, she realized after scenting the air, not devoid of life. In fact, she was sure she could see pairs of luminous eyes flicker into existence at the corner of her vision, only to disappear as soon as she tried to focus on them.
The leopard swished her tail and tried to pick up her pace without seeming to, and swerved a little towards the center of the clearing, for all the world as if that was where she had planned on going all along. She reached the base of the stairs just before she was actually running and slowed, realizing that the eyes had not been following her over the last few leaps.
Silently, she padded up the steps and stood facing the ruin, staring in wonder. The statues had seemed about life-sized from afar, but in truth they were much larger. The effigy of the Great Cat was big enough to make her appear to be no more than a kitten.
Picking a gap in the wall right between the imposing Cat God and looming Amarok, Ginelle climbed daintily on top of a mound of rubble and hoped she had done nothing to anger any of these gods in the past.
She had been inside of buildings before, of course, but never in any this spacious. It seemed the slightest movement she made would echo incessantly from the walls. The light was failing, and most of the inside of the building lay in deep shadow. There was, however, enough light for her feline eyes to make out a black shape crouched by a heap of rubble that seemed to be the remains of a collapsed arch. The sound of Xandra's low, melodic voice drifted to her ears.
"You always did have trouble keeping your face clean. Since you've been gone I kind of lost my way. Once I thought I could start over, but no, they don't trust me. No-one does. I can't blame them, they can't see into my heart." She chuckled bitterly. "Well, the fool raven seems to have taken a liking to me, not that I understand why... I've got no defense but to keep on the way I'm going. But I've got to believe that you know the truth. And I wish you were here. It's hard to be alone."
"You're not alone," Ginelle whispered softly
By some trick of acoustics, her voice carried clearly through the whole room. Xandra turned slowly, training that chilling blue gaze on her. For a moment, the young leopard saw pain and loss written there, but it was gone so quickly that she thought she might have dreamed it. Ginelle took an involuntary step backwards, dislodging a piece of rubble and sending it rolling and tumbling down to the ground. Managing somehow not to jump, Ginelle broke eye contact, gazing pointedly at the wall off to Xandra's side, after giving the fur on her chest a brief lick. When her gaze flicked back briefly to the panther, the black cat was still staring at her, face unreadable.
The young leopard decided then it was time to go. She turned slowly, head and tail drooping, and climbed back out through the gap. It took an effort not to look back. The leash that was still dangling from the collar at her neck snagged momentarily, drawing a low snarl from the frustrated cat. Swiping an irritated paw at the offending piece, Ginelle very slowly made her way down the steps and started heading back towards the jungle, not caring this time that those hidden eyes in the bushes were still following her every move.
When the shrill, eerie laughing bark of the lead hyena echoed through the falling night, Ginelle barely raised her head.
As soon as the little leopard had left her presence, Xandra, slipped out by a much smaller and well-hidden crack in the back of the great chamber and silently hopped up the steep and rocky slope that framed the temple.
Topping the ridge above the ruins, she stood motionless, letting her gaze wander eastward, over a green ocean of vines and treetops, interspersed with rocky ridges similar to this one, to that faraway, darkened and treeless spot sparkling with little starlike lights. The Man Dwellings. She rarely came up here, and the creatures of the jungle knew better than to bother her when she did.
Most did, anyway.
It wasn't long before she heard the familiar flap of large wings above and behind her. A low growl rumbled deep in her chest as the big cat squeezed her eyes shut in frustration.
"What do you want, Cocksure?" she snarled without turning.
The raven alighted in the grass, close enough to the ledge to be able to launch himself into the air quickly should the need arise. He might be stupid, but he was not that big a fool.
"It be Ginelle. The female you saved?"
"What's another leopard to me?" Xandra growled. "And I didn't save her. I killed mans. I couldn't care less about one more leopard in this jungle.
"Xandra. Princess. You should not be slighting her so. You be owing your life to her."
The black cat snorted derisively. "To her? No way."
"Oh, but it be true. On my honor."
Xandra gave him a look. "On your honor. Right. Do you expect me to be impressed by that?"
Cocksure bristled at that, but thought better of it and wisely ignored the insult. "Well, this raven be thinking you should be hearing him out."
When Xandra just continued fixing him with that blue-eyed stare, the raven hastily recounted Ginelle's encounter with the great Python, watching the panther's eyes widen slightly in amazement before narrowing again and looking at him suspiciously.
"She did that? That little slip? You're pulling my claw, raven!"
"It be the truth, Xandra, Amarok strike me down if not." He pulled himself up theatrically and made a flourish with his right wing. "Cocksure the Valiant be no liar!"
"Well, I'll give you that much," the black cat murmured under her breath. She stood up to Baalh? For me? Why? She does not know me... and if she does, why doesn't she fear and hate me like all the others? How dare she...? She is a man-creature. What does she know anyway? Only when Cocksure started flapping his wings and taking an awkward hop away from her did she realize that she was snarling viciously at nobody in particular.
The panther briefly cocked her ears at the sound of hyena laughter in the distance. Voracia and her pack of filthy scoundrels, if she was not mistaken. The Great Cat infest their tails with a treeful of fleas! But they were far enough away to be a minor annoyance for now.
She gave the raven a dark look for good measure, watching in satisfaction as he took a backward hop and tumbled off the ledge with a startled squawk. Served him right, the impertinent fool!
When the big bird, having regained his equilibrium, reappeared above the rim, Xandra swiped a clawed paw at him and hissed. "Out of my sight, raven!"
Cocksure gave her a flat stare from where he hovered in midair at a safe distance, clacked his beak a few times without speaking, and dove out of sight quickly when two hundred fifty pounds of irate panther launched themselves in his direction.
"Silly bird," Xandra muttered, as she resumed her contemplation of the distant man dwellings. Occasional yips and giggles from the hyenas drifted up from the canyon. Another poor critter meeting a cruel and painful death at the vile pack's fangs. None of her concern. A fleeting vision of the young female crossed her mind. She must still be down there somewhere. None of her concern. Xandra shook her head angrily to clear it of the thought.
"That's my girl, Xandra," a rich, male voice purred seductively, inches from her neck.
Xandra whirled snarling, drawing a chuckle from the huge black male standing at her side. "So excitable," my dear. It becomes you."
"Agulaar. Should I be honored?" Xandra sneered.
The Cat God circled her once, sniffing. "My, you are delicious... Is that your season I smell?"
"Don't go there," the black female warned with a low growl. "I'm sure you didn't come here to discuss mating with me, troublemaker."
"And why not? Pythus swallow me, but you're scrumptious enough." That earned him a pawswipe across his nose. "Especially when you're angry," he snickered, running his tongue over the spot where the panther's attack would have drawn blood in a mortal.
Xandra drew a deep breath, and forced herself to calm. The Great Cat just loved to throw her off balance. She had given him more than enough satisfaction already. "Get to the point, Agulaar!"
"I just wanted to compliment you on your judgement, my chosen. It seems there is quite a sharp mind behind those warm and beautiful blue eyes of yours." Her grinned at the stare he received for that. Those blue eyes might well have frozen lava at this moment.
"I'm sure that little brat isn't worth your trouble," the god continued. "Even without her, Baalh would never have dared to touch you. You are mine, after all." He realized he had made a mistake when he found Xandra looking at him with a lazy grin etched onto her feline features.
"So that means Voracia and her gang really have picked on my little savior for their evil games, does it? And by your efforts just now, I'd say you would not be very pleased if I went down there to get her out of their grasp, isn't that right?" She flashed him a sweet smile. "I'll be seeing you, Cat God!" Without so much as a backward glance, the black cat quickly and silently climbed down the steep slope towards the commotion in the canyon.
"Drat," Agulaar muttered, "I should have known she'd do that." He looked down into the canyon thoughtfully, running his tongue slowly across his front paw. "But maybe I can make this work in my advantage. Hmmm..." With a not altogether displeased rumble deep in his chest, the Cat God faded out.
Only when she found herself surrounded by a dozen drooling, slavering and grinning hyenas did Ginelle realize that she had gotten herself into big trouble. She cursed herself for the bout of self-pity that had made her let her guard down. Being raised in captivity, the idea of fighting in earnest was foreign to her. She'd had make-belief fights with her family's off-wolf, Bonkers, but they had been such friends, and not one of their attacks had ever drawn blood. This was the wild. And those weren't off-wolves.
Ginelle bravely drew herself up and tried a vicious growl, tail bristling.
The apparent leader, a wiry female with cold eyes, approached her in that awkward, rolling gait hyenas have, and spoke in a harsh mocking voice. "Well, well, well. Look what we got here, fellas. It's a fluffy, oversized kitten. It wants to play."
This was answered by a round of yips and hysterical giggles from her followers. One set of sharp teeth closed about Ginelle's tail, biting down hard, so that she yelped and snarled in pain, whirling to face her attacker.
The shaggy male was savagely attacked by his leader, who proved to be a lot more than she seemed. With lightning speed she hurled herself at the larger male and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, shaking him violently. Within seconds, the big hyena was reduced to groveling before his mistress, the most ridiculous ingratiating grin on his face, pink tongue protruding stupidly.
"I decide when the fun starts, Sleaze, not you or anybody else. Understand?"
"Of course, mistress," he managed to wheeze without breaking his grin. The leader glared at him for a while longer, then she turned to Ginelle, who was still fighting to regain her composure.
"You'll have to excuse them, Fluffy, they have no manners," she said conversationally.
"My name is..." Ginelle began.
"Shut up, Fluffy," the hyena snapped, teeth bared. She stepped close to the big cat, her hot, putrid breath wafting into Ginelle's face. No wonder they fed mainly on carrion. This kind of breath could make a critter drop dead instantly, and be glad for it! Ginelle wrinkled her nose and drew back a little.
"What's the matter, Fluffy?" the hyena taunted. "Can't take my aura? It seems I have that effect on fluffy little kittens." She giggled madly. "Say," she gasped, "does your momma even allow you out at this time?"
It was too much. Ginelle lashed out at the leader with her paw, snarling furiously. She hated to be treated like a kitten! Her claws tore a bloody gash across the hyena's chest, who just glared at her, fur bristling, and hissed a curt command.
"Get her! Don't kill her!" For Ginelle's ears alone, she added, "I will do that myself."
After that, things became a blur. Claws and fangs were everywhere, and it was all Ginelle could do to protect her vulnerable underside. She was off her feet in no time, biting, slashing and raking where she could. Blood ran freely, most of it her own. One of the hyenas had fastened his teeth onto the leash, and the pull threatened to cut off her breathing.
Well, Ginelle, face it. This is where it ends. And all because of your foolish infatuation for a bad-tempered she-leopard who does not want to be loved. Her heart cried out at the thought. She had so wanted to reach out to the stoic panther, and take away some of the pain she had witnessed in the temple. It seemed it was not to be.
A set of teeth clamped down on her nose and held on, foul breath and the sheer power of those jaws suffocating her.
"I said don't kill her, you idi-" The lead hyena's voice cut off suddenly, and the battle went still as a huge black shape strolled leisurely into the midst of the raging pack. The silence was palpable. Every animal froze in the position they happened to be in at the moment, staring at the dark feline.
"Voracia, Voracia," Xandra said lazily, clicking her tongue and shaking her head, "still up to your usual games are you?"
"Xandra! But... they say you died. How...?" the hyena stammered.
The big panther purred. "Well, Voracia, as you can see, the rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated." The purr turned into a growl. "And I can't say I appreciate the way you treat one of my kind." The growl turned into a shrill, whining roar of attack.
Before the hyenas had time to regroup, Xandra was among them, spreading terror and death. She had them reduced to a battered and torn bunch in mere seconds. Three animals lay dead, the rest cowered at a polite distance from the big cat.
Voracia, who for some reason only wore the one scratch that Ginelle had given her, quickly flicked her tongue across her chops and spoke as if nothing had happened. "Oh you mean Fluffy here? Oh the little kitten is hardly in your league, Princess. Anyway, we were just getting tired of... playing. Isn't that so, fellas?"
"But mistress, I thought we were going to..." one of the hyenas started to protest, but the others quickly silenced him, before nearly falling over themselves trying to assure Xandra that they were indeed just now thinking about moving along.
"Well, see that you do," Xandra sneered. "And take that..." she took in the three dead hyenas with a disdainful grimace, "trash with you, too!"
When the pack had picked itself up and made its way out of earshot, most of the animals limping profusely and one female leader continuously muttering under her breath, Xandra dropped onto her haunches and started licking herself clean with lazy flicks of her tongue. The tip of her tail twitched faintly when the spotted female finally stirred and staggered to her feet.
The hyenas had made quite a mess of her. Blood ran freely from countless cuts, smearing her beautiful coat and coloring it a dark red. She limped slightly, but it seemed her wounds were mostly superficial, and looked a lot worse than they actually were.
"Thank you," the young female said quietly, and when she received no answer, she mirrored the larger cat and proceeded to lick herself clean. Blood from a cut on her brow stuck to her eyelid and effectively glued her right eye shut. She worried at it with her paw, snarling softly in frustration, but could not remove the sticky substance.
She froze in her movements, one paw half-raised to her face, when she saw the big panther approach her.
The Princess gazed at her as if daring her to comment, and ran her tongue a few times over Ginelle's eye, cleaning the blood away from it. She contemplated the dangling leash for a while before nimbly taking the collar's catch between her teeth. Moments later, Ginelle felt the collar give and slide to the ground.
"Thank you," Ginelle said again.
Xandra went back to her cleaning before she spoke in a clear, commanding voice. "You saved my life. I saved yours. We're even. Now go." She turned her head to stare at the smaller cat. Ginelle met her eyes bravely for a few moments, but found herself unable to hold that powerful gaze, and looked down.
"But I don't know where to go. This place is so big, and frightening."
"You're a leopard. Listen to your heritage. You'll be fine. Now
leave!" She growled menacingly at the smaller cat, and when Ginelle didn't
move she attacked her with a savage roar. However, Ginelle noticed that the big
panther left her claws retracted, and made no effort to injure her in earnest.
Finally, Ginelle succumbed and limped slowly out of the clearing. If she had
looked back, she would have seen a big fierce black cat shed one lonely tear
before swiping at her face angrily with her paw and stalking back to the temple,
A night out alone in the jungle can be a very frightening thing, especially when you've never heard its myriad noises and voices up close before. There was very little sleep for poor Ginelle, even though she was thoroughly exhausted. The only comfort she had was the memory of a set of pale blue eyes, and of a raspy pink tongue flicking across her eye with surprising gentleness. She still could not reconcile the image of the beautiful black panther with the horrible monster from the stories that she had grown up hearing.
She had no idea where to go or what to do, but she knew in her heart that she would not stray far from the Princess' haunts. For now, though, she had been effectively dismissed from the dark feline's presence, and while she jumped at every unfamiliar sound, she worked diligently on her resolve to try things on her own from now on rather than face Xandra's rejection again. The gods knew it was hard.
Luckily, none of the wounds she had received from the hyenas were serious, and the slight sprain in her paw only left a little stiffness that eased with continued walking.
What worried her more was her season. The pulsing inside her womb was as strong as ever, now that she had nothing to take her mind off it. She had never mated, and had no idea what it was about. She only knew that the wild male brethren prowling around the place frightened her no less than the rest of this entirely too big and too open and too loud night forest.
When the time came for the creatures of the daylight to rise, Ginelle was ready to drop. She had alternated between curling up on the ground trying to catnap, and stalking mechanically through the undergrowth with no real sense of where she was headed.
Mid-morning found her in a section of the jungle where the trees were less dense. The river was far off, but she could still hear the faint sounds of its rushing water. The ground was rockier here, and stalks of tall grass grew where the treetops were far enough apart to let the sunlight through. This was a mountainous region, and caves and gorges were numerous. One high ridge stood prominent, snaking its way though the tall trees and towards where the river was. Ginelle suspected that it was connected to the canyon that held the oppressing man ruins.
Upon entering a clearing overgrown by tall grass, she paused and looked at a fallen tree. It was of medium size, and seemed to have been torn down recently. The leaves were still green, and sticky sap oozed out from under the bark. She wondered what could have happened to it, since there had been no storm these last few days. Looking around her, the leopard noticed several more that had been similarly felled, lying between others that were perfectly intact. Her natural curiosity getting the better of her, she decided to investigate, her dreary mood forgotten for the time being.
There was no pattern to the destruction, but a swath of trampled vegetation led from each fallen tree to the next. Then she heard it, a mighty crackle and snap of vegetation, accompanied by a deafening trumpet call that smote the leopard's ears.
Several small forest creatures, mice, lizards, squirrels, even one small deer, broke cover and fled before the noise. Birds rose out of the trees in flight, monkeys chattered excitedly. Ginelle gathered her hindquarters under her and tensed, suddenly very much alert. Moments later a huge gray shape broke though the thicket and entered the clearing.
Suddenly left with no large plants in his path to destroy, the big elephant paused, ears flapping uncertainly. He threw his head from side to side, trunk swinging, and stepped from one foot to the other. Then he paused, as if suddenly becoming aware that he had company. He lifted his trunk and sniffed the air, then he turned his head to one side and gave Ginelle a bleary-eyed glare from one small, bloodshot orb.
Dead silence fell, except for the labored panting of the new arrival.
"You're not black," he rasped presently. The one eye never left the spotted feline.
Ginelle's ears shot forward at the unexpected question. "No," she agreed carefully. She slowly backed off half a leap, sensing that this animal was half crazy and probably quite unpredictable. She could feel the fur along her spine start to bristle.
He was a large elephant, and looked quite formidable despite the fact that his long, yellowed tusks were chipped in places, and the wiry hairs on his head were grizzled with age. There was something odd about the way he carried his head.
"But you're a cat," he accused.
"I hate cats."
He charged her without warning, head lowered. Ginelle's claws scrabbled frantically, and she barely dodged the long tusks as he thundered towards her. With a startled meow, she streaked off into the direction of the rocky ridge, the lumbering gray form hot on her heels.
The hunt was on, but the huntress had become the hunted. Try as she might, she could not shake the maddened old animal. He was surprisingly fast, and while she had to dodge those bushes and trees that were too high to leap, he simply ran straight through them. More trees fell, and undergrowth was flattened against the ground by his bulk.
Once, one of the tusks hooked under her hind leg, and with a negligent toss of his head the elephant sent her somersaulting through the air. Twisting desperately, she managed to wiggle herself around in midair, cat style, and hit the ground running. She took the opportunity to go off at a right angle, forcing her pursuer to change direction as well. His greater momentum forced him into a wider arc, which gained her a precious leap or two of distance.
Ginelle soon realized that she could not keep this up for long. While the elephant was filled with that amazing strength that seems to come with madness, she was exhausted and weakened from her recent fight and from lack of sleep. And, she thought bitterly, her pampered life up to this point had not left her in the best shape to begin with. Her sides were beginning to hurt from the exertion, and her breath was coming in ragged, painful gasps.
The high ridge now loomed before her, and she found herself being herded into a small gully, with walls starting to rise to the sides. Oh, wonderful, she thought wryly, so I'm going to be squashed flat against a rock. Agulaar's whiskers, but that's three times I've looked the Red Bull of Death in the eye... in less than two days! I hope this isn't typical of life in the wild. If it is, I'm going back home!
To her absolute dismay, the gully dead-ended a few dozen leaps further. She skidded to a halt when there was nowhere left to go, preparing to turn and face her demise. Then she saw a narrow, high crack half a leap above her in the wall. A quick jump carried her upward just as the elephant bull stampeded in. Before he could react, she squeezed in, leaving him tossing his trunk and uttering a frustrated bellow.
The crack wasn't much wider inside, but it went about one leap in and offered enough space for her to wriggle around and crouch facing the entrance. Very soon an angry, bloodshot eye appeared there, peering in.
"Gotcha," he exclaimed.
Left with no other options, Ginelle resorted to what had always come naturally to her back with the mans - talk.
"Immortal father Amarok in Heaven, curse this brute if he kills me! Send all the fleas alive to infest his tail and may the crows' droppings-"
"Shut up! I hate chatty furballs." He pulled back a little, and when he turned his head, Ginelle caught a glimpse of a tightly shut eyelid, before the other eye came back into view against the crack.
"Well, you better let me out of here. I know Xandra."
He sneered. "I hate Xandra. Hah! The Princess of Terror. She did this to me" He turned his head again to show her the closed eyelid. It fluttered open, revealing an empty eyesocket. Ginelle gasped. "It'll give me great pleasure to rip one of her friends apart with my tusks and trample her into the ground."
He drew back, and with full force slammed his head against the rock, dislodging rocks and stirring up dust. Ginelle sneezed and tried to wriggle herself deeper into the crack, away from the set of huge tusks that was now probing at the entrance. The angle was wrong, however, and the old elephant only succeeded in working himself into a full-fleshed rage, unable to get at the annoying feline.
"Friend? Who said anything about friend? I've been-"
Her words were lost as the cave trembled again with the force of the elephant's charge. More rubble was dislodged. If he did a few more of those head-butts, Ginelle knew she would be buried under tons of rock very soon. He knew it too, she could tell by the glint in his good eye.
"I've got ya, and I'm gonna kill ya. Friends with that black terror or not, you're a cat."
He scraped one tusk slowly against the stone wall, drawing a screeching protest from the rock that set Ginelle's teeth on edge. Seeing her fur bristle, he chuckled low in his throat.
"You're not only gonna die, no, I'm gonna make you suffer the way she made me suffer."
"Maybe it was an accident," the now nervous leopard offered with an ingratiating grin.
The groan and creak of the mountain as the huge head once again hit home answered that question.
"Maybe not," Ginelle murmured to herself.
She watched as the elephant struggled once more to poke his tusks into the crack, without success but with more spine-jarring noises. "Come on, come outta there," he cooed. "I don't wanna pull the mountain down on ya." He paused and drew his face into an evil leer. "I wanna feel you under my feet as I squash ya into the ground."
"Oh yeah, right, now there's a REALLY tempting prospect." She huddled back on her haunches, pupils dancing from the display of light and shadow as the huge shape moved around in front of the opening.
Eventually he settled down, muttering under his breath. He just stood there staring blankly at the hole, with the trapped leopard staring back at him. The rage slowly faded from his bearing, and all of a sudden he just looked old, and lonely.
Ginelle was a gentle, caring creature, and in spite of her predicament, her heart went out to the old elephant. True, he was out there plotting her demise, but on the other paw, who knew what the poor fellow had gone through, being blinded on one eye and all. Some part of her mind wished fervently that Xandra had had a good reason for doing that to him, other than just being the terror she was reputed to be.
Gathering her courage, she crept silently forward until she perched at the opening, and spoke softly, "I'm not your enemy."
He appeared not to have heard, he just continued mumbling to himself and swaying his body from side to side in time with some obscure, internal cadence.
She tried again. "What's your name, old fellow?"
The elephant raised his head, a flicker of his former rage causing Ginelle to scoot back from the opening just slightly. He raised his trunk proudly. "They call me Cyclone in these parts. 'Cause I'm so very fierce."
"You certainly are," she agreed. "Very fierce indeed. I'll bet there are stories galore to praise your valor."
"You mean you haven't heard of Old Cyclone and his great battles? Greak Amarok, cat, were ya raised by the mans or somethin'?"
"Uh... of course not, don't be ridiculous," the leopard replied.
"Good. Because if there's one thing I hate worse than cats, it's them there mans and their animal slaves."
"Oh absolutely. I couldn't agree more," said Ginelle and felt suddenly weak in the legs.
"They tried to enslave me, once. Lemme tell ya, they sent mans on elephant slaves after me. But oh, you shoulda seen the mess I made outta them. They came at me from behind, four o' them. I was a strapping young bull then, mind ya. They wanted me for haulin' their wood, doin' their bloody work for'em. But I wasn't having none of it, that's fer sure..."
Ginelle could tell he was talking himself into another frenzy. She had to find a way to make good her escape before he decided to pull the mountain down around her ears after all.
Her attempts to draw his attention by speaking softly to him failed utterly, so she took a stance on the edge of the crack overlooking the gully, and raised her voice in song.
She sang wordlessly, her crystal-clear voice lifting above the breeze rushing through the ravine, and the ranting of the old elephant, the haunting tune it carried conveying more emotion than words ever could. A hush fell over the jungle as the first notes rang out, so complete that it seemed even the wind must be holding its breath to listen.
As she sang, memories of her youth came back to her, of times when she had sung with Bonkers, her truest friend back then, his high, canine whine harmonizing wonderfully with her rich alto. Truth be told, the mans never seemed to appreciate their singing much, but then everybody knew that the mans had very poor hearing and where quite incapable of telling a true harmony when they heard it. What passed for music with these strange creatures was only a sad, empty echo of what even one as influenced by them as Bonkers could do with his voice. Tears stood in her eyes as she remembered her dear off-wolf friend. She had not seen him since she had been taken from the gentle and loving young she-man who raised her from a cub. Launching into another verse, she wondered what had become of them.
Old Cyclone's words trailed away as he became gradually aware of the sweet melody so close by his ears, and he stood very still, afraid that the slightest movement would make it stop. His old cold heart clenched painfully. Never in his long life had he heard anything more beautiful. He stood, a slight tremor shaking his left foreleg, enraptured. A lonely tear snaked its way down his cheek from his good eye.
The old elephant was not the only one moved by the song of the leopard. All around, the creatures of the jungle paused in what they were doing. Mother squirrel hushed her offspring, a pair of parrots stopped their squabbling and moved closer together, and even the irrepressible monkeys were silent for a few heartbeats. Their attention span was exhausted after a short time, though, and they resumed their rampage through the treetops. Let's not ask too much of them. They did try to keep their chatter down while the song rang through the woods.
One other stood entranced by the sound. Blacker than night, blue eyes shining bright, one Princess of Terror listened intently from her cover of dense bushes, far enough away for the leopard's voice to be little more than a faint whisper above the wind. To Xandra, the song told the story of a dark and lonely soul forever in search of redemption, life after life after life, failing in some lives but succeeding in others, sometimes alone, though more often with a much loved companion at her side, always brave till the end and accepting whatever punishment the gods decreed with quiet pride. It was pain like none she had known before. It was sorrow. It was pure joy. And she knew with calm certainty who that soul must be.
Quite unaware of the impact her song had had on those around her, Ginelle only saw that she seemed to have succeeded in lulling Old Cyclone into some sort of trance. Silently she slipped out of the crack and made her way out of the ravine, looking back frequently to the huge gray form still standing like a statue, except for one leg twitching faintly. When he was out of sight, she fell into an easy lope, heading for where she knew the river must be.
The excitement of Old Cyclone safely behind her, Ginelle allowed herself to admit that she was ravenous. She hadn't eaten anything since the mans fed her before bringing her here. She made her way back to the river, in search of meat. Surely there must be some lying around here that hadn't been eaten yet. There had always been food for her with the mans, who had never required her to hunt. After getting a drink from the river and taking the time for a quick catwash, she strode off confidently, expecting to have a good meal soon.
Now no-one would have thought of comparing the mighty Princess of Terror to other cats, at least not where she could hear. But to tell the truth, even that surly, tough-as-old-roots warrior panther had gotten her fair share of the proverbial feline curiosity. Thus she found herself irresistibly drawn towards the song that the wind had carried to her, and that had moved her more than she cared to admit even to herself.
And so, while Ginelle was trekking back to the river through the deep jungle, Xandra made her way along the high ridge leading to the gully that she had identified as the source of the song.
Only one delicate arc spanning a ravine separated her from her destination, and she easily balanced across to another ridge overlooking the mouth of the gully. From there, she made her descent by hopping down over protruding rocks.
Her paws had hardly touched the bottom when she heard the stomping. Old Cyclone plowed around the bend, and skidded to a halt as he sensed her presence. He had not seen her right away because she was on the side where his eye was missing. His trunk snaked in the air, sniffing.
"Smell trouble?" Xandra drawled.
"It's you! Aaaah," the elephant bellowed. He charged into her general direction, head lowered. The nimble panther easily sidestepped his clumsy attack.
"You've put on some weight since I saw you last," Xandra remarked. He had her focused now after turning his head to bring his good eye to bear. He tried to skewer her with a tusk, but again she dodged his swing lazily.
"I guess that job I did on your eye must have cut down on your wild romps and goring of hapless critters, huh?"
"A day hasn't gone by since then when I haven't dreamt of feelin' your bones crunch under my feet."
They circled each other, the elephant bull trying to score a hit, the Princess of Terror ducking and sidestepping as she kept throwing taunts his way.
"I don't suppose that was you I heard singing," Xandra said after listening to his hoarse, frustrated grunts for some time, "I would recognize your sweet, melodious voice at any distance." She chuckled wryly.
She was prepared for another furious onslaught, but the gray behemoth stopped dead in his tracks.
"Great Amarok," he mumbled. "She's gone. She tricked me."
"I'm sure that required some intelligence," the panther put in dryly. Old Cyclone didn't seem to hear her.
"Of course she would," he continued, "she's a cat. I hate cats. But oh, so beautiful." He seemed to become aware of Xandra once more, but the fight had gone out of him. "One more reason to hate cats."
Xandra eyed him warily, ready for another outburst, which didn't come. Hmm.. a 'she', and a cat... interesting. Don't know of any Singers around here, but that was one or I'm an old monkey.
"You know, you should find a different pastime," she told him.
"Like what? I'm an old and crippled elephant."
Xandra started back up the mountain. "You could mosey on down to the river. There's a herd there. I hear they've lost a bull to the mans recently.
"I ain't takin' no charity from the likes o'ye!"
Suit yourself." With that, she turned and climbed back the way she had come.