The Heart of a Leopard
Circle of Life
Lost in thought, the big black panther made her way back into the depths of the jungle. A Singer was something to take note of. The only one she knew of had died when Xandra was not yet old enough to hunt alone, though she had been forced to leave the safety of home long before her time.
The fact that that particular Singer had probably been the single positive influence in her entire life made the memory all the more poignant. Mayla had taught her many things that were later to save her life on countless occasions. Though only about two thirds of Xandra's mass, the lithe little leopard had sent Xandra sprawling at the flick of a claw, again and again, with a smile on her face.
She had met the mysterious feline far from here, during one of her many travels. Mayla had been of a different kind, her fur being all but white except for the black marks, and very thick to protect against the cold climate where she made her home. Humid heat of the kind that the creatures in this jungle knew had been completely foreign to Mayla.
Pushing memories of Mayla and her snow-covered homeland firmly out of her mind, Xandra padded silently towards the Man Temple. She needed time to think. Whoever this would-be Singer was, she certainly was not her one-time mentor. She herself had witnessed Mayla's death, after all. Again, that man-raised female pushed her annoying little nose into Xandra's thoughts. A low growl came unbidden to her throat.
Absently she scented the air for trouble before breaking cover to cross a large space where a few trees lay toppled. Then she paused, and sniffed again. She had not seen this clearing before. A strong smell of man hung in the air, but it was a few days old. And also several sharp, biting odors that stung her nostrils. Had it been any stronger or fresher, she was sure she would have gagged.
Satisfied that no man was now in evidence, and overcome once more by that confounded curiosity, she broke cover to investigate. She soon tracked one smell to a bright red blotch of something on one of the fallen trees. All the others had similar marks on their trunks. The other smell seemed to come from a set of deep ruts in the soft ground. Oh, she knew those tracks, and now she remembered whence she knew that stench as well! Fighting back the memories of her encounter with the huge, noisy man monsters, she made her way to the far end of the cleared area, feeling slightly uneasy. The mans were getting entirely too bold. A way would have to be found to stop them, and soon.
Suddenly her predatory instincts became aware of a presence close by, shadowing her movements. She stopped, narrowing her gaze, and scanned the surroundings with renewed interest.
A rustle at her side made her whirl and face a small bush. Its leaves were stirring gently, though there was no wind. Curious, Xandra approached it, sniffing the air. The unnatural, man-made stink overpowered any scent that might have been lingering here, and so the panther had to rely on hearing and eyesight.
The tip of a bushy tail protruded from under the bush, trembling uncontrollably and making the whole plant shudder in sympathy.
With an evil chuckle, Xandra sank her claws into the traitorous tail and pulled a scrawny little jackal out from under the bush. The small canine quickly rolled onto his back, quaking with fear.
"Ow! Ow," he yelped.
"Well, well, what've we got here," the panther drawled as she transferred her paw to his throat, letting her claws puncture the tender skin there. "Tell me what you're doing snooping after me!"
The jackal bared his fangs in an ingratiating grin. "No, no! I'm just a nobody. Please don't kill me! I beg you," he whined.
"Give me one good reason."
"It would be very unpleasant for me! We haven't even been introduced? My mother will cry?!" The last came out as a squeak.
"Not good enough." The paw-pressure on the little animal's neck increased. A small trickle of blood appeared near his jugular.
"Wait! Wait a moment," the jackal croaked. "I'm not even supposed to be here! I'm a... a traveling storyteller! I can tell you a few great stories. I can amuse you. I-"
Xandra cut him off with a snarl. "You talk a lot." She made as if to crush his windpipe.
"Hold it," squeaked the jackal. "You're very quick with that killing thing. Wait... please! I know animals in high places! Uh, I... I... I know Herac!"
Xandra's eyes grew intent. "What do you know about Herac?"
"I... we... um, oh, we... We're best buddies, he and I! Really. I know him like no other, actually. In fact, I'm sure he must be looking for me this very moment."
"Is that so?"
The jackal gulped, and nodded. Smiling coldly, Xandra eased her hold on him a little, and scratched him under the chin with one claw. "What's your name, jackal?"
The jackal swallowed again. "Erm... Shakhi," he croaked.
"Well, erm, Shakhi. You amuse me."
"Amusing? You like amusing? I can do that. A leopard and a porcupine walk along the river. A crow passes and asks..." he trailed off, catching Xandra's icy cold stare. His tail thumped weakly as he attempted another grin.
Faintly bored, the panther pushed him away. "Well, I guess you may live, for now. Go and tell your friend," she said it with a sneer, "that my little... discussion with him isn't finished yet. I'll be back. You tell him that."
He scrambled to his feet and wagged his tail, shooting her nervous glances.
"Am I speaking the man language? I said go," Xandra roared and charged him.
Tucking in his tail, the jackal fled, yelping.
By mid-afternoon Ginelle was beginning to doubt if there would be any meat lying around for her to eat at all. She had come across an old badger worrying over the carcass of a monkey that must surely be too big for him to eat all by himself. So she had inquired politely if he would mind sharing some with her, only to be attacked savagely by a whirling mass of claws and very sharp teeth, and told in no uncertain terms that her presence was not appreciated.
Daunted by the ferocity of the much smaller jungle denizen, Ginelle had retreated rather hastily while trying not to appear to actually run away. She continued her quest for food, muttering to herself about how rude the creatures of the wild were, as a rule.
Thus she came upon an offshoot of the main river running through a part of the forest that was overgrown with ferns and brush, while the bright sunlight filtered warm and green through the broad leaves of the trees above. There was a strip of rocks and shorter vegetation about a leap wide along the little streamlet, bathed in the full blast of the hot afternoon sun.
A brown slim shape lay there in the sun, breathing raggedly. She was a tawny deer, not very old by the look of her. She seemed healthy enough, except for her strained breathing.
Slowly and silently, Ginelle approached her in that gliding, fluid way cats have. As she came closer, she saw the doe spasm, and spittle ran from her mouth and dripped in viscous strands down onto the grass beneath her. Then she lay still again, except for her heaving chest. She was quite unaware of the feline presence barely a pawful of whiskers away.
At first, Ginelle was reminded of Xandra's ordeal after the tranquilizer dart, but this was different. The deer's eyes where open, and she did not seem delirious, just unable to control her body.
Ginelle sat back on her haunches and watched her intently for a few moments. "Are you all right?" she asked finally, when the doe gave no further signs of distress.
A delicate head whipped up and around, large brown eyes wide, startled. She gave a strangled gasp at the sight of the predator so close by, and staggered frantically to her feet, apparently recovered. But instead of making a dash for it, she just stood there, trembling, the way deer will when peril comes this close.
Though her stomach growled madly with hunger, either the young leopard did not make the obvious connection, or she was still hoping that food would be found lying around somewhere. It never occurred to her that there was a good meal standing right there before her eyes, one pounce and a well-placed bite away.
So prey and predator just stood there looking at each other, one paralyzed with fear, the other fidgeting a little, aware that she was the cause of that fear and uncertain what to do. Until a voice from within the woods interrupted the moment.
"You have to kill her, you know." Ginelle whirled at the sound of the rich, deep male voice behind her. She had been so engrossed with the doe that she had not heard the mighty stag approach, who was now walking out into the open from between the tall trees. He was magnificent. Broad antlers almost as wide as his body was long, the animal had easily twice her mass. His coat was a rich, reddish brown color which shone with golden reflexes in the sunlight that filtered through the trees.
"Who... who are you?"
"I am Mahogany, King of the Deer. She is one of my own, and I ask you to take her."
Regaining her composure, Ginelle asked incredulously, "you want me to kill one of your herd?"
The stag nodded. "The seizures she is having are making her an unfit member of my herd. Any offspring she may have might have the same problem, and my herd will get weaker with every calf she bears. It is the law of the Circle that she must be taken. Had she been healthy and strong, I would have tried to protect her. But then, if she was that, you would hardly have had a chance to get this close to her." As if in answer, the doe gave a wheezing cough, and staggered a few steps, gasping for air. She remained standing, however, and no new seizure came.
"How can you be so cold and cruel? And aren't leopards and deer supposed to be enemies?" asked Ginelle, her green eyes flicking to the motionless doe, and back to the great stag. "But now you're not on her side, but on mine."
"No, my dear, I'm on the herd's side."
Mahogany moved to a tree, and proceeded to rub his antlers against it. Ginelle watched in fascination as strands of tissue came off the broad expanse of horn, while the big stag groaned pleasurably as he continued his scratching. "I hate this time of year," he said conversationally. "You would not believe how this beastly thing itches sometimes." While giving the impression of being completely caught up in what he was doing, his eyes never once left the young leopard, who in turn was very much spellbound by the spectacle before her. When he straightened, he took a deep breath, shook his head to clear it of the remaining strands of bast, and spoke.
"We never were enemies. I take it you are not familiar with the Law of the Circle." When she nodded her agreement, he continued. "Let me tell you a story, perhaps all will be clear to you then. A long time ago, there was the Stag, and the Wolf. And they were brothers, and great friends.
"Now, remember, this is a story of long ago, from a time when all creatures lived in peace, and no man had yet walked the face of the earth. The Wolf and the Stag had offspring, the Pack and the Herd, and their offspring were all brothers and sisters and also played together and were happy and content.
"But very soon things began to change. Whether some god had played a cruel trick upon them, or it had been ordained from the beginning, no-one knows. The pack began to suffer from malnutrition, and the Herd was weakening as sickness and birth defects spread among them, passed >from dam or sire to calf. The Stag and the Wolf saw this, and were saddened. Both the herd and the pack declined rapidly, until only a pawful of starving wolves and a sizable herd of sickly deer remained. Both the Pack and the Herd were miserable, and started fighting among each other.
"Until, one night, a deer was found dead, with a huge strange wolf sinking his teeth into it. The Pack, furious, started to attack the murderer, but lo! it was Great Amarok himself who looked up at them >from the carcass of the deer. He just stared at them until he was sure he had the full attention of both the Herd and the Pack before he spoke, and it was as if his voice was in their very minds. 'Life is a Circle. I have shown you the way. You must live by it, or perish. If the Circle is broken, we all suffer.' And he disappeared.
"The Wolf and the Stag thought about that, and realized that the deer Amarok had killed was one of the very weakest in the herd, and old, too. 'If,' the Stag said, 'the weak were to be taken from the Herd, the remaining animals would reproduce, and the Herd would get strong again with time.'
"'And if," continued the Wolf, 'the Pack took it upon themselves to catch and to... eat the weak from the Herd, they would be fed, and be stronger as well. We could help you grow strong, as you could help us grow strong.'
"'We could help you grow strong, as you could help us grow strong,' the Stag agreed. They wept for a long time after that, and it is said that many rivers were filled by their tears. However, gathering their courage, they went to tell their offspring what they had discovered, and what must be done.
"Shouts went up cursing the cruelty of the gods to impose the Circle of Life upon them, much raging and weeping went on, but in the end both the Pack and the Herd saw that it was the only way. They parted ways, and have met only as hunter and hunted ever since. But no true follower of the Circle will ever forget in their heart that all are brothers and sisters, and all is for the greater good. Thus was the Circle of Life born."
Ginelle was silent, mulling over what she had just heard. There was a certain cruel logic to it all. But she did not have to like it.
Hesitantly, she approached the doe, who looked at her out of big, liquid eyes.
The leopard crouched, preparing for the pounce. With a determined frown, she got her bearings, and wriggled her posterior into position. She was a predator after all, and she would fit into this circle thing if that was what it meant to be a creature of the wild. She would! A little more to the right... there. She would go straight for the doe's throat. Make it quick, she hoped. Yet she hesitated. What if she missed, and made the poor thing hurt?
"I forgive you, cat," the deer said quietly.
With a frustrated growl, Ginelle relaxed her pose. "I can't do this," she cried.
"Then you have a problem," a new voice said contemptuously. It was none other than Xandra, sauntering out from among the bushes. "What it all boils down to is, either she dies, or you do. She knows it, and so do all the creatures who have learned to live inside of the Great Circle."
The great stag turned his head slowly and gave the new arrival a hard stare. "This from one who would put herself outside the Circle by slaying her own, and who is the Chosen of Agulaar the Troublemaker."
"I do what I must," Xandra said tersely, locking eyes with the King Stag, who just snorted for a reply.
"But, that's the way it is", Mahogany told Ginelle. "We feed you, and you keep us strong. When you die, your remains grow into the plants that in turn feed us so we can thrive. If you put yourself outside of this Circle, as the mans do, or a few others I could name," this with a withering glance at the big black cat facing him, "you are an abomination, and a shame to your brethren."
Now poor Ginelle had tears in her eyes. "But I can't kill her! I've never taken a life before."
The King Stag smiled. "You have a good and brave heart. I can tell you would rather die than cause hurt, and I can't find it in me to hold that against you. But you will have to find a way to deal with this. Or you die. It's the law of the Circle. Farewell, sister." He turned and walked slowly into the jungle.
Xandra looked longingly after the doe, who, breaking from her trance, had cleared the little stream and was fast disappearing into the dense brush. "There goes another nice meal. That's twice in as many days," she muttered.
"What did he mean when he said you were putting yourself outside of the Circle?" Ginelle asked the panther.
"Just what he said," Xandra growled. "And it's none of your business."
"Okay, okay," Ginelle replied. "I was just curious."
"That's your problem," Xandra said glibly. "Curiosity could kill you one day, you know. It killed many a cat." She sat on her haunches and started cleaning herself.
Something in the big panther's voice made Ginelle's fur bristle, and she calmed herself with an effort. Whatever Xandra was trying to do, Ginelle would not let herself get angry at the black cat.
"My, you must be the cleanest cat in the jungle," she told Xandra a touch sourly, "all you ever do when I try to talk to you is wash yourself."
Xandra shrugged, a ripple that ran shimmering along her glossy black coat, and scrubbed behind her ears with her paw.
"I take good care of myself. If you want to survive, you had better keep yourself in the best shape you can." This with an appraising look along the length Ginelle's body.
Ginelle fidgeted under the scrutiny and took in the black cat's sleek, muscular form. There wasn't a shred of flesh out of place on the large panther, whose coat reflected the light like silk over steel. Having been raised in captivity, Ginelle's own physique left much to be desired - her belly sagged a little from ample food, while her chest and hindquarters sadly lacked muscle. She truly was in a sorry state.
"You couldn't hunt down a clubfooted monkey if you tried," Xandra continued with a sneer, "You really should have taken that doe while you had the chance." She chuckled low in her throat, arrogantly. "Not that it would have done you much good, though. I would have taken it from you by now."
"You would have...?" Ginelle began, and paused to consider the black leopard. "Yes, of course you would have," she said with a feeling of utter defeat that she couldn't quite explain to herself.
"Of course. It's survival of the fittest, kitten. Nobody around here gets pampered the way you domesticated animals do!" She drove the words home with a long, hard stare. It was all Ginelle could do not to take a step backwards and cower. She met those blue eyes bravely, and if her hindquarters were shaking a bit, she did her best not to let it show.
One more lick at a coat that really didn't need it, and Xandra rose gracefully. Flicking her tail once, she hopped lightly across the streamlet and slipped silently away into the jungle beyond.
Ginelle took a breath, and considered. Then, gathering what was left of her dignity, she crept stealthily but resolutely after the elusive black cat. It took more than a little humiliation to daunt her.
Hazy green eyes followed the big panther from the safety of the dense undergrowth as she made her way across the streamlet into the forest. Pupils briefly contracted to slits as the unseen watcher's gaze swept across the sun-kissed stream and widened again as Xandra disappeared into the darkness of the thicket. The younger, spotted leopard, after hesitating for a few moments, followed her at a generous distance, making slightly less noise than a warthog on the run.
"Now that is interesting," a silky-smooth voice murmured quietly.
"The old Terror has a soft spot for this sorry excuse for a cat? Who would
have thought..." And with a quiet chuckle, the watcher blended back into
the jungle, without so much as stirring a leaf.
Leader Of The Pack
In some other part of the jungle, a band of fierce, brave and cunning wolf pups was in the process of subduing a foe four times larger than they were. With grim determination, one had clamped his little sharp teeth on an ear, while another was engaged in battle with a large, bushy tail. Three more were strategically spread around their quarry, yipping and growling. The sixth, the smallest of the litter, lay spread-eagled across a broad, shaggy back, panting happily as she sank her teeth into a muscular neck.
Their victim, a large, tawny wolf, accepted it all with the kind of stoic acceptance a parent has got to have, lest he go insane. He lay there, head raised high to protect his tender nose from sharp little teeth after foolishly having brought his ear within their range, front paws extended and his hind legs gathered underneath him.
From time to time, his eyes would flick to the slightly-built gray female two leaps off, who was dozing peacefully in the late afternoon sun that made broad, bright patches where it touched the ground. This was Breeze, the mother of four of these little monsters, and his chosen. He would sigh, and decide once again to leave her be. The mother of the remaining two, a young bitch named Moss, was out with a scouting party.
He flinched and gave a little growl when the gnawing on his ear became too intense. The little muzzle relented, but only slightly. "Sorry, daddy," young Riverfog said around a mouthful of fur and tender skin, before renewing his attack.
While the big wolf went into the fiercest battle without turning a hair, he found being a father to be sorely trying. His eyes were desperately casting around for some honorable escape from the little darlings. Quite defenseless against the charms of clumsy paws and floppy ears, he never even considered just sending them off. But, no matter how he tried to inconspicuously nudge their attention elsewhere, mighty Herac, lead wolf of the largest pack for miles around, was for the moment the undisputed number one plaything for his offspring.
With another heartfelt sigh, he playfully nipped young Fleece in the heels and watched as the little furball tumbled to the ground with a delighted giggle. How he envied them their careless little lives! His own mind was troubled these days, and he hoped Isegrim would be back soon with news.
It was little Moonshadow's excited yell that finally alerted him to the return of the search party.
"It's Uncle Isegrim!" he howled happily, and within moments the mass of yipping puppies threw itself as one at the newcomer, who greeted them with a huge smile and a flick of the tongue for each of them in turn.
"Hiya, gang? Been daddy-hunting again?" he said with a knowing grin in Herac's direction, who had a look of profound relief on his face as he got to his feet and approached his friend.
"Anything?" he asked quietly.
A minute shake of Isegrim's head answered him. "We lost her tracks less than a quarter of a day from here, near where the mans have been tearing down the trees. There's no telling what may have happened to her. Bunches of tracks out there - man, cat, water buffalo, you name it."
They had been on the lookout for one of his daughters, who had been discovered missing a few days ago. It hit all the harder because this was the last cub grizzled Wind was likely to bear. Knowing little Cannabis, the pup had probably wandered off on her own and gotten lost. The pack had done everything in their power to find her, but Herac had little hope left for Breeze's half-sister. The jungle was no place for a lone wolf cub.
Strangely, though, Wind seemed to be relieved rather than saddened at the loss of her cub. When asked about it, her eyes would cloud over and she'd murmur ominously that it was "for the best", and that her youngest daughter "bode ill for the pack". Herac shook his head sadly. It was quite obvious that the ancient she-wolf was getting senile.
"But there's more," the stocky male told his leader. "Look what we brought." He directed his gaze to the back of the party, where a jackal was crouching, trembling all over. Isegrim chuckled mirthlessly. "All he was able to say past his chattering teeth was 'Xandra'. He insisted on coming along."
"Oh, it's Shakhi." Herac looked back at his friend, his brow creased. "Do you think Xandra...?"
Isegrim shrugged. "With that old terror, anything is possible," he said wryly. "Maybe you should hear what the jackal has to say. If he manages to say anything at all."
Unhurriedly, Xandra padded through the dense brush, heading for the man ruins, and her brother's resting place. She needed to be close to him now, the only soul who had ever been able to understand what drove her. She had felt angry before, even frightened, but never this confused. It was an emotion she felt unequipped to deal with, and that enraged her no end. She wanted nothing more at the moment to lash out at something, and longed for the peace of mind that only the spirit of her dead brother could help her find.
There was no outward sign of her inner struggle, however, as she glided gracefully through the thick vegetation. The panther's face was a mask of arrogant calm, her movements smooth and controlled to the very tip of her gently swaying tail.
Nor did she need her exceptional senses to tell her that the pesky little female was still trailing her. That cat made enough noise to startle a deaf ape! Xandra shook her head in wry amusement. It was a wonder the pitiful thing had survived out here this long. But then again, if Xandra's suspicions about her were correct.... She shook her head angrily and brushed the thought away. It was unthinkable. Yet, something made her take care not to let the distance between herself and the leopard grow too great. Not that she would have admitted it, had anyone had the nerve to point it out to her.
However, she also sensed something else following her, a tingle along her spine that made the fur on her neck bristle. The air carried little scent beyond a faint aroma of burned wood and crushed plants. A predator, by that token. Xandra herself had used that little trick of rolling in ashes, plants and other, less appealing things to cover up her own scent and confuse her prey. She had seen wolves do it, and quickly adopted the procedure for herself.
The black leopard had no idea if others of the feline persuasion made use of this, but she did not really care either. Whatever creature it was that was stalking her was in for a nasty surprise once it got too close. There weren't many jungle denizens who could best the Princess of Terror in one-to-one combat.
Ginelle, on the other paw, was not so cool. Her senses were hardly sharp enough to detect the presence that seemed to be following her, but once or twice the smell of burned wood and crushed plants wafted to her, accompanied by that eerie feeling of being watched. Once she even thought she saw a set of luminous eyes from the corner of her vision, not two leaps away. But when she whirled nervously, they were gone.
She also found herself hard pressed to keep up with the black panther, who, though quite clearly in no hurry, moved with great efficiency and easily navigated the thickest brush, while Ginelle had to extricate herself repeatedly from tangles of vines and burrs.
Thus, with Xandra maintaining her leisurely pace and Ginelle scrambling through the woods for all she was worth, the distance between them remained roughly the same, about two pawfuls of leaps.
However, while the big black cat showed no signs of tiring, Ginelle was close to her physical limit. This dashing to catch up to the Princess, then ending up entangled in the undergrowth and scrabbling madly to free herself only to sprint after Xandra once again was a severe strain on her reserves.
All this combined to make for one very edgy young leopard who whirled and snarled at every stir of a leaf. The bristling fur along her neck and tail made her seem more menacing than she really was. One might almost have thought her dangerous, even.
In truth, she was quite ready to tear something to shreds, if only to get rid of the nervous tension that was fast building up inside her. She told herself that, if a tree so much as bent the wrong way now, she'd give it a claw-lashing it wouldn't soon forget. Strangely, that thought made her feel a little braver.
Xandra chided herself for letting her troubled thoughts distract her, when suddenly a large, shaggy wolf blocked her path. His long legs made him somewhat taller than herself, but though he was stocky for his kind, his mass was slightly less than Xandra's. And yet he held himself with a calm confidence that suggested he might very well be a match for the panther in a fight.
Behind him, more of the pack now came into view, wiry, strong-looking animals to the last one. Herac's pack was the biggest in the area, and by far the most disciplined. This stemmed from a deep respect among the members as well as a love for their leader that was unsurpassed by any other pack. It was even rumored that no mortal wolf had fathered the great lead wolf, but that his sire was none other than Great Amarok himself.
Xandra didn't think much of those rumors, but it remained a fact that Herac was not one to be trifled with. "Hey there, Herac," she drawled and gave him a lazy grin.
"Xandra," the wolf said in a deep rich voice. His amber eyes never left the night black feline. A stir ran through the other wolves as they caught the underlying aggressive tension, but none of them moved. The lead wolf's hackles rose even as he spoke calmly. "Would it be terribly impolite to say I'm not overly glad to see you?"
"Oh, not in the least," the panther said pleasantly. "In fact, I second that sentiment." She stood perfectly motionless, except for the tip of her tail which twitched madly. She had frozen the moment she had caught sight of the wolf, so that one paw remained poised above the ground. Fierce blue eyes locked with Herac's, daring him to make a false move.
The big wolf shrugged. "Well, at least we're agreed on that. There is, however, one thing I've been meaning to ask you."
Now this was new! Masking her sudden curiosity with a quick lick of her chest fur, Xandra spoke. "And what would that be, wolf?"
Herac hesitated for an instant, exchanging glances with his second-in-command, Isegrim, who stood a leap back with the rest of the wolves. "You don't happen to know of the whereabouts of one of our pack?" He gave the cat a probing look. "A puppy? Not yet two moons old, and answers to the name of Cannabis."
"That is, if she bothers to answer at all," Isegrim muttered wryly, which got him a withering glare from his friend.
Xandra, however, found enough humor in the smaller wolf's comment to snort a quick laugh. "Got a runaway brat on your paws, do you? And what makes you think I should have anything to do with it?"
Isegrim eyed her suspiciously. "You mean you don't? I don't believe you, you conniving little..."
"Why, Isegrim, darling, such harsh words, after all you and I have been through," Xandra sneered.
With a howl, Isegrim started forward, only to be stopped in his tracks by several wolves at a sharp command from Herac. He subsided, dividing sullen glowers equally between the suddenly smug looking cat and the lead wolf.
"Now, now, let's not start talking dirty with the lady, Isegrim." Herac said calmly as he positioned himself between his friend and the panther.
"Watch who you're calling a lady," Xandra snarled.
"So? What about Cannabis? Your trouble is with me, not with my pack, so leave them out of it!"
"Well aren't you the noble one," the black cat drawled, letting her gaze wander over the big canine's body looking faintly bored by what she saw. "You know, I've heard a few rumors about me, but that I should be fond of wolf brats certainly wasn't part of them."
"The cunning wench still hasn't answered you, Herac." Isegrim growled. "I'll bet she's behind it all."
Herac considered the panther. "You know, the way you've been dodging my question does make me wonder.... Just how much do you know about this, Xandra?"
"At this point, it won't matter what I say, will it? You'll only believe what you want to believe."
And she was right. Ordinarily, Herac was ever one to remain calm and objective, and consider several viewpoints before coming to a decision, even if one as evil-minded as the Princess of Terror was involved. He did tend to believe that there was good in every creature the Great Wolf made.
But today his mind was set, in part because of Xandra's refusal to give him a straight answer, in part because her arrogant demeanor irritated him, but also because the grief for his lost little daughter had clouded his judgment, and he just wanted to blame someone. It did not help that Isegrim, who had saved him from just this kind of folly on countless occasions, was blinded by his own rage.
As for Xandra, she was more than ready to engage the wolf once more in a fight. The strife between these two went deep, as well as the grudging respect for each other's prowess. To do battle seemed to be the way between canine and feline, just as Amarok and Agulaar were forever at odds with each other.
There was no need for further words - a confrontation was inevitable.
Xandra took in the scene around her. She was outmatched, but she estimated she could take half of the pack with her if she went at it cleverly and tried to avoid confronting the lead wolf right away. With easy grace she took a fighting stance, a feral glow lighting up her blue eyes as she watched Herac start to circle her. The heat of the impending battle put a grin on her face even as a low growl erupted >from her throat.
To her surprise, however, no-one except the lead wolf made any move to attack. "What's this, big guy," she teased, "think you're gonna do me by yourself?"
He barked a laugh. "What? You think I need help for this? Don't be ridiculous."
The panther arched her back and advanced on the wolf, presenting her side to make herself seem even larger. Blue eyes blazed as she watched her opponent.
Herac's lips curled back to display an impressive set of glinting white fangs, while a growl erupted from deep in his chest.
With a shrill, whining snarl that had become a sound of death and terror in the jungle, and Herac's fierce deep growl, the two opponents finally threw themselves at each other in a flurry of claws and fangs. The fight was on.
It was more than a fight, though. It was a dance, both beautiful and terrifying all at once. Feline and canine circled each other in deadly harmony, each testing the other, seeming as one although their fighting styles were as different from one another as they could be.
Thinking to catch the panther off guard, Herac made a feint to one side and deftly ducked under Xandra's paw, dodging a blow that would have sent him sprawling to slip inside her defenses and clamp his teeth into the loose fur at her neck. The huge cat howled in outrage, for while he had only caught a fold of skin and hardly done much damage, she was furious at herself for not seeing through this basic maneuver.
She let her legs buckle and rolled over onto her back, so that the wolf was now on top of her. Before she could pull him into her deadly, feline embrace, however, Herac wriggled around and jumped clear, coming to rest half a leap away facing her, panting a little.
"I get first blood," he said with a smirk.
Gracefully, Xandra flowed to her feet, fierce blue eyes locked with her opponent's. "I got news for you," she snarled, "the one who draws last blood wins!" And with that, she gave a mighty roar and raised herself on her hind feet, front paws wide.
Hoping to use her momentum against her, Herac quickly scrambled out of her path. This time, however, the panther had been ready for the move, and with blinding speed, she snatched the wolf's hind feet out >from under him with the swipe of a paw. Unbalanced, Herac's own movement sent him into a roll.
Before he could regain his footing, Xandra followed up with her other paw, tearing four deep, long gashes into the wolf's side. Her lunge for his throat just barely missed its mark as he rolled, legs flailing, out of range of those deadly fangs. With a loud clack, the leopard's teeth closed on empty air, and she howled in frustration.
"I'm not as easy to get at as a wolf cub, am I," Herac growled.
"But you talk enough for a pawful of them," came the panther's hissed reply, before she advanced on him again with a series of lightning-fast left and right blows, which the wolf blocked with his forelegs as he strove to position himself for his next attack.
Soon it became obvious that what seemed to be a one-sided affair hugely in favor of the bigger cat was in fact close to even. Although the cat had the advantage of four sets of claws on top of her sharp teeth and that supple spine cats call their own, the tall wolf more than made up for it with well-practiced moves and sheer strength.
From the bushes across from where Herac's pack was watching, a fretting and quite exhausted Ginelle followed the fight with anxious eyes. She did not know the strange wolf, but she had liked him on sight. That he should be engaged in a fight with the one creature she cared about out here in this frightening wilderness, a fight that could only end in the death of one opponent, agitated her beyond bearing.
"Is that the best you can do?" Xandra was saying. "I've seen off-wolves who had more fight in them." Her chest was heaving and her breath was coming in rugged gasps, but she struggled to keep her voice calm. Herac was no better off. Both their coats were sticky and glistening with blood from numerous cuts and bites.
"That's because they have real opponents," the wolf barked. "Those little man-cats can be quite a pawful, or so I'm told."
And that's how it was for quite some time. They would tear and bite at each other until Ginelle thought they must drop dead from sheer exhaustion, then pause to throw taunts and catch their breaths, only to resume their frenzied fighting with renewed vigor. Neither of them seemed to be able to gain the upper paw.
And then, suddenly, Herac stumbled and staggered sideways, off balance, giving the black leopard the opening she needed, his throat bare and defenseless. The panther never hesitated. She shot forward, jaws gaping, for the kill.
Incredibly, the wolf somehow regained his footing and scrabbled out of the way. He even managed to score a bite on Xandra's sensitive nose as she rushed by harmlessly.
The Princess' charge had left her vulnerable, for her throat was now once more within range of Herac's teeth. Due to her greater mass, she was unable to recover her balance as quickly as the wolf. With blinding speed, Herac swung about and buried his teeth once again in Xandra's throat, bowling her over in the process. Only this time, he had hold of more than just a fold of skin. His teeth were clamped firmly on the cat's throat. If the pressure of those mighty jaws failed to crush Xandra's windpipe, surely the long canines must puncture and tear the jugular.
Poor Ginelle, rooted to the spot by the sheer horror of the scene before her, gave a pitiful little meow when she saw the beautiful black leopard so obviously doomed.
However, the fight had not yet gone out of the mighty panther. Her forelegs pulled the wolf into a tight hug as she brought up her hind claws to kick and rake powerfully, tearing away at his tender gut. Herac squirmed in her hold, but did not give up his own. Now it seemed that neither of them could hope to survive this deadly embrace. And still Ginelle found herself unable to act. She just stood there under cover of the dense undergrowth, with no choice but to watch one or both of these magnificent creatures die.
It took her a moment to realize that the voice she heard singing was her own. By the time she became aware that she had lifted her voice in the same kind of eerie, haunting melody that had so entranced that old elephant, something deep inside her prevented her from stopping.
But, had she been aware of the effect her song was having on the two fighters and the jungle around her, surely nothing short of death could have made her stop. For suddenly, all movement ceased. Xandra's hind legs were the last thing to stop moving, twitching weakly once, twice, as the panther cocked her ears to listen, blue eyes taking on a distant look. Barely aware of the wolf's weight still on top of her, she started to get to her feet.
Herac's jaw went slack, but he hardly noticed the shift under his teeth as the windpipe he had almost succeeded in crushing snapped back into shape. Both animals extricated themselves from their Gordian knot and rose slowly, careful not to make a sound, entranced by the power of that ancient Song that each and every wild-born animal had carried in their hearts from the dawn of time.
Few creatures had the power to give voice to the Song, however, and a rare and wondrous thing it was to witness.
Faintly aware of the sudden quiet all around her, Ginelle broke out of her own half-trance and fell silent, abashed.
She watched as Xandra and Herac shook their heads, puzzled, before eyeing each other suspiciously.
"I don't know what you just did and how, cat," Herac said, spitting out bits of black fur, "but that was some trick. I had you."
Xandra gave him a cold stare and started licking her blood-matted coat. "Not me, wolf," she rumbled. "And as for 'having me', I hardly think the way you were struggling to escape from my hold testifies to your control of the situation."
There was a pause as the two locked gazes, amber staring into blue, fire and ice, the hostility that was passed back and forth almost tangible.
"So, what's with the pup?" Herac asked flatly.
"Agulaar's arse, don't you get it? I don't have her!" Xandra snarled.
Fearing that, exhausted as they were, wolf and panther would be at each other's throat again in a few moments, Ginelle took heart and leaped out of hiding. Though, what she would do if they did attack each other - or her, for that matter - she had no clue.
The black feline's pupils narrowed briefly when she saw the smaller leopard, but she showed no sign of surprise. "You again," she said without much enthusiasm. "What do you want?"
"I... uh... I just..." Ginelle stammered, taken aback by the hostile mood around her.
Seeing a second leopard thrown into the fray, Herac's pack advanced, their hackles rising. Isegrim strode forward to his leader's side, giving him a questioning look. At a slight shake of Herac's head, he signaled the other wolves to stay put, and positioned himself close by to interfere if need be.
"Relax, Isegrim," Xandra said with a crooked grin, "I know this one. She's not going to attack."
Ginelle wasn't sure whether to be pleased or insulted.
"Yeah, right," Isegrim growled. "A peaceful leopard. And I suppose next you'll be trying to tell my she was raised by the mans."
"Well, she was," Xandra smirked.
Ginelle fidgeted, half wishing she was somewhere else when she found herself under the stocky wolf's intense scrutiny. A narrow crack in a rock guarded by a crazed elephant sounded like a good place to be just now! Finally, Isegrim sniffed angrily and glowered at the panther. "I don't..." he began.
During the whole exchange, Herac had remained silent, his amber gaze never leaving the new arrival. When he spoke, it was in the measured tones that meant he was in control again, the blind rage of battle gone and his good judgment returned.
"Just tell me one thing, leopard," he said slowly, addressing Ginelle. "Was that you we heard Singing?"
A murmur ran through the assembled wolves at their leader's question.
Xandra snorted. "Impossible! I'm telling you, she's a man creature. Tame! How could she even know of the Song? She can't be a..."
Ginelle, however, nodded shyly in answer to Herac's question. "I... I didn't realize I was doing it. I..."
"... Singer," Xandra finished belatedly.
"Easy to find out," Isegrim threw in, intrigued now by the spotted cat. "Let her do it again."
"I don't think..." Ginelle began.
"Yes... um... Danelle, was it?" Xandra said, "why don't you sing for us some more?"
"That's 'Ginelle'," the young leopard said a touch sullenly. "And I'm not sure if..."
"Do it!" Xandra snapped.
"Please, leopard," Herac added, directing an icy glare at the black cat. Xandra met him stare for stare. It seemed that once again they were about to forget their surroundings in their passionate dislike for each other.
Before they could do more than glower at one another, Ginelle gave a small sigh, harrumphed twice, sat back on her haunches, and began singing one of her favorite tunes from back home.
It was a merry little tune, one she had sung often in harmony with Bonkers, and it almost transported her back to those happy times. If not for the stern faces watching her expectantly as she spun the melody.
Ginelle wasn't really sure what it was these creatures expected of her, but it was clear from the look on their faces, a mixture of disappointment and impatience, that this particular tune wasn't it. She fell silent, at a loss. Uncertainly, she looked from one to the other.
"Well, I used to sing it with an off-wolf... maybe it needs a canine counterpoint?" she offered in a small voice, but no-one seemed to be listening.
"I guess that takes care of that," Xandra stated. There was an air of finality to her voice that made Ginelle's heart sink, although she could not quite say why.
"I don't know," Herac said thoughtfully, "the voice sounded about right, wouldn't you say?"
"Does it matter?" Xandra objected, "That wasn't the Song, or I'm a furless monkey."
"Excuse me," Ginelle said, slightly miffed because they were talking about her as if she wasn't there.
"But who else could it have been?" Isegrim put in right on top of the leopard. "One of the wolves? Longfeathers maybe, he of the sweet voice?" That drew a chuckle from the pack. Longfeathers couldn't carry a tune if his life depended on it.
Xandra surreptitiously scanned the surroundings for any signs of the presence that had been following her earlier. She found nothing. And she had to admit that the wolves were right. The voice did sound right, and there was no other likely creature close by. And yet.... "I still don't think she could..."
Meanwhile, Ginelle had just about had it. She cleared her throat loudly and spoke up again. "Excuse me, but would somebody please tell me what the fuss is about? I'm new here, in case you hadn't noticed."
Three faces turned towards her as if seeing her for the first time. Herac was about to reply when a commotion up in the trees caught their attention.
"Xandra! Xandra, there you be! This bird be looking up and down the jungle for you!"
The black leopard groaned softly and closed her eyes when Cocksure the Valiant dove down from the treetops and just barely avoided crashing into her. Dodging the panther, his wing grazed Ginelle's flank, the sudden jerk sending him into a sideways spin that was finally broken when he careened into Herac's forelegs, where he screeched to a stop in a cloud of dust.
Sneezing twice, he ruffled his feathers to shake some of the dust out of them, trying vainly to muster some dignity before he took a few awkward hops towards Xandra. It was a measure of his preoccupation that he approached her without even a hint of his usual, well-justified caution.
"You found me," the black feline said dangerously, flexing her claws and contemplating his mostly defenseless form within easy reach. She seemed taken aback when the bird didn't turn a feather under her scrutiny. "So, what's it this time, raven? More mans?"
"Worse," Cocksure blurted. He started to say more, but his beak was chattering so heavily that no words came out. "T-t-t-t-t-t....t-t-tr t-t-trouble!" he finally managed.
"Is that so?" the panther said pleasantly. "Could there possibly be any worse trouble for you than what you got yourself into when last we met?" She growled softly and brought her glacier blue eyes closer to his face.
That got a terrified squawk for a response as the distraught bird scrambled backward out of her immediate reach, bumping once again into the lead wolf. "Ah, hi, Herc," he said, seeming to notice the others for the first time. "Hi, there, Ginny."
"You know, Xandra," Ginelle said reasonably "it might help if you tried not scaring him any further."
The panther's head swiveled slowly to loose the full power of that glacier stare upon the leopard. She did, however, assume a slightly less menacing stance and allowed the bird to regain his composure before asking mildly, "well, what about the trouble you mentioned?"
Cocksure shook himself again and scanned the treeline nervously before speaking. "She be coming at me from behind. I swear she be every bit as sneaky as you, Xandra." He gulped, and clacked his beak a few times in agitation. "No offense, of course," he added quickly. "She be scaring the living daylights out of me." He fell silent, looking apprehensive.
"Go on, Cocksure," Herac prompted gently.
"She..." he had to stop again to clear his throat," she be saying she be coming back to get revenge. She be looking for you, Xandra. She be saying to tell you that."
"Who?" asked Xandra.
"She say her name be Callicia, and..."
He cut off when Xandra suddenly hissed, "Callicia...", her eyes taking on a new, feral light. Some of the wolves gasped. "Are you sure that's her name?" Herac asked quietly. The raven nodded. "That's trouble, indeed, Cocksure. Thank you for telling us."
"This raven not be given much choice," Cocksure said woefully. "She be saying I'm dinner or I go find Xandra on the double." He sniffed. "And she be doing this to me." He twisted his backside a little, so they could see his tail. Or what was left of it. Two lonely feathers, one of them broken with the tip dangling, still stuck to an otherwise bare, pink stump. "See?" He waggled it a little for emphasis.
Herac clearly did his best not to laugh in the face of the poor bird's plight. Isegrim did not show this kind of tact. He guffawed. The whole thing, though surely painful, was just too comical.
Ginelle, however, was shocked. How cruel and heartless must a creature be to purposely do such a thing? No wonder the bird had had trouble landing. "They'll grow back, don't worry," Ginelle told Cocksure softly, which got her a grateful look from the raven.
"If that monster is around again," Herac said, "I suppose I had better go warn the pack. I want no lone wolves out there with Callicia on the prowl."
"And that takes care of any doubts as to my status as a villain to strike fear into your hearts," Xandra said wryly.
"Ah, but you're our villain," the tall wolf answered with a half-grin and an almost-wink. "We know you. She, however, is not of the jungle, and therefore to be treated with extra caution."
Xandra half returned his half-grin but did not comment. "I think I'm going to go see what that infernal cat is up to," she growled, and turned to leave.
"Take me with you this time? Please?" Ginelle said.
Xandra glared at her. "Well, it seems no matter how hard I try to get rid of you, you always find your way back into my presence." She gave a defeated sigh. "Oh very well. You may come with me. But this could get dangerous."
Ginelle was by the panther's side instantly. "Oh thank you, Xandra. I swear you won't regret it. I can be of use to you. You see, I've studied the skies, and I know all about-"
"First Rule of traveling together," Xandra interrupted harshly, "absolutely no talking unless it can't be helped. Got that?"
"Yes, yes of course. No talking unless it can't be helped. No problem. I can be quiet as a mouse. I'll only talk when you need to know something from now on, okay? Just so you know I-"
"I said quiet!" the black feline roared, and the small leopard clamped her mouth shut.
"Second Rule," Xandra continued. "When I say stay, you stay, when I say run, you run. Got that?"
The young feline nodded mutely.
"Now if you'll excuse me, it seems that there is business that requires my attention," the panther said after a while. She took a few steps towards the deep forbidding darkness beyond the little clearing, then stopped, without looking back. "Well? Are you coming?"
Ginelle gave a start, and hurried after her.
Before she disappeared in the shadows, the black cat turned her dark head towards the waiting wolves. "We meet again, wolf," she said. "This isn't over."
Ginelle turned as well, to smile at Herac. "If we see any sign of your lost pup, we'll let you know. Won't we Xandra?"
Xandra closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. She couldn't believe she had actually agreed to this.
"I'm sure that's a yes," the spotted cat said cheerily, glancing at the panther.
They slipped into the bushes, leaving behind one raven with a badly hurt
pride, and a handful of wolves with their jaws hanging open.
New Friends And Old Enemies
Although bleeding from numerous cuts and bites, the black feline set a harrowing pace through the brush, so that Ginelle once more found herself hard pressed to keep up. After tagging along behind the Princess of Terror for a while, the leopard stopped walking.
"Stop," she said resolutely.
Xandra screeched to a halt, more from surprise that the little tagalong had spoken up in this way than from any real sense of obedience.
"What?" she rumbled, not turning around but flattening her ears against her neck and squeezing her eyes shut.
"You're bleeding," Ginelle accused, and approached to gently run her tongue over a deep gash in the black panther's shoulder. "I bet this hurts".
"It's just a scratch," the big cat growled irately, but made no protest against the treatment.
"So," the smaller leopard said, "did you plan to go after some creature those wolves seem to fear more than they fear you, in this condition? Who is this Callicia anyway?"
For a while, it looked like the dark feline was not going to reply. Several times, Xandra drew breath as if to speak, only to exhale again with an air of mild frustration. Finally, she dropped onto her haunches and started idly pawing a fallen leaf as she spoke haltingly.
"Callicia... is a creature that shouldn't exist. I should have killed her back when I had the chance, but how could I have known... She's become a monster." She fell silent, contemplating the leaf under her paw.
Although pawfuls of questions came to Ginelle's mind, she held her peace, suspecting that she would be told only what Xandra chose to tell, and questions would only irritate the black cat. Yet, keeping quiet was a struggle for the talkative leopard!
When the silence lasted so long that Ginelle almost burst with the need to prompt her companion further, Xandra shifted her weight and began speaking again. Ginelle wasn't sure the black leopard even remembered that she had company, from the distant expression in her bright blue eyes.
"It was just another of my raids into man territory... nothing out of the ordinary... a man enclosure where they kept their creatures... I was fighting off a pawful of off-wolves to get through to the mans I knew must be there... I had a large band of followers then, and they were into the meat storage. Fire broke out... And I don't know if it was one of the band, or me, but somehow one of us dislodged a firestick from one of the walls. There was a strong wind... those flames just swept through that place like a wave of death. Most animals were huddled in their cages, unable to escape... I can't know how many caged wild brethren died that day. There was just a handful of survivors... a few mans and man creatures, one leopard." Xandra flinched when she mentioned the leopard, for some reason Ginelle could not fathom. "And..." She broke off.
"And Callicia," Ginelle finished gently.
Xandra nodded. "She was only a cub then. A little odd-looking, but definitely feline. I let her be. If I had known..." She shook her head slowly and fell silent.
"So now she'll do anything for revenge."
"I don't blame her."
"I do. The fire was an accident." Ginelle shuddered at the thought of the flickering orange nightmare sweeping through all those cages. She could almost hear the screams of the trapped creatures dying a horrible death.
"It killed her mother and siblings. The hatred she's been carrying all that time has made her even more of a monster than her birth."
"I don't understand..."
"Never mind. It's not important. I'm glad not all man creatures are alike," she said with the hint of a smile, as she finally raised her head to look at Ginelle out of eyes clouded with pain.
Ginelle smiled back. "How come Herac knows of her? Did she get away from the mans, then?"
"For a while. She spread death and destruction for a moon or so, before the mans recaptured her. She was only half grown then. She should be a regular terror by now." Xandra sighed. The leaf under her paw crinkled and tore. "And somehow, I have to stop her."
"We," Ginelle said firmly. "We have to stop her."
Xandra looked at her as if to reply, then shook her head and sighed.
"But I don't think we'll get very far with you bleeding all over and ready to drop from exhaustion," Ginelle continued, unruffled.
The black panther just looked at her, one whisker twitching.
"What?" the smaller leopard huffed. Then Ginelle looked around at her own, bedraggled appearance and heaving sides, and had the grace to look embarrassed. "Okay, so I'm not in the best of shapes myself," she amended, "but... but that's different!"
"Riiight," the dark feline agreed wryly. Shaking her head again in silent amusement, she motioned for the smaller leopard to follow her, and slipped through a growth of fern, towards the sound of the distant river off to their side. Ginelle scrambled after her.
Presently, they neared the river. Before they reached its bank, Xandra veered off and made her way along it under cover of the denser vegetation, until she stopped by the base of a large tree. With a little sigh, she raised herself onto her hind feet and raked her foreclaws along the already bedraggled bark, stretching luxuriously.
She looked over her shoulder at Ginelle with a half-grin. "Well, we're here. Will this do for a little nap?"
Ginelle tore her gaze away from the splinters that went flying from under the night black paws. "You mean... up there? You want me to go up that tree?"
"Well, yes. We're leopards. Leopards like to sleep up in trees, you know."
Ginelle's eyes wandered slowly up the massive trunk. Up, and up, and up! It was easily the largest tree for pawfuls of leaps around, starting to branch at a height of two or three leaps and fanning out to cover a wide area around them. It even reached halfway across the river! The light it let through was just enough to allow a few smaller trees at a polite distance from this tree's base, and a thick, elephant-high tangle of undergrowth that teemed with small creatures bustling and burrowing.
A family of cream-colored, long-tailed monkeys stared down at them out of coal black faces, from where they perched among the upper branches. One locked eyes with Ginelle for a few heartbeats, then it raised a deafening, high-pitched chatter that the others took up with a vengeance. Even from where she was, far below, the leopard could see the tiny pointed teeth and the pink tongue as it screamed its defiance at her. She flattened her ears against the noise.
"Idiotic bunch," Xandra grumbled. "Not enough that they just love to foil me by spooking my prey, no, they have to infest my favorite tree as well! If I find their droppings up there again, I swear I'll eat monkey for the rest of the season!" Her voice picked up volume as she spoke, so that the last words were clearly audible even above the din.
Dead silence fell. The monkeys froze in whatever they were doing, passing worried glances back and forth.
"You heard me!" Xandra roared, and made as if to run up the side of the trunk.
As one, the band turned tail and fled the tree, screeching and chattering. One, apparently their leader, stopped and turned to shake his little fist at the cats, before he, too, disappeared among the treetops.
Ginelle watched until they were out of sight. She laughed nervously. "Xandra, this thing is huge... just how high up in trees are we talking about?"
"See that three-way fork up on the second level of branches?"
Ginelle followed Xandra's gaze and gulped. "I don't know if I can make that," she murmured, thoroughly embarrassed. Her head dropped.
"You sound like you've never climbed a tree before!"
"Well, in my enclosure, there was this big ol' branch that my mans had put there for me..."
The panther snorted. "Ginelle, you are a leopard, for Agulaar's sake! How much longer are you going to deny your heritage? Leopards climb trees all the time. We even drag chunks of food up there that can weigh as much as we do, to keep it away from the scavengers."
The smaller leopard perked a little. "Food?"
Xandra smirked at her. "I seem to remember hauling half a deer up there this morning. You hungry?"
"I, uh... no, I'm okay." Just then, a huge rumble came from Ginelle's bowels, giving her the lie.
The black cat chuckled. "After you, then."
Ginelle eyed the tree skeptically.
"Go on," Xandra coaxed, "I'll be right behind you. You're not going to fall."
Before long, the Princess of Terror began to doubt the wisdom of her decision to get her new companion up that tree. Ginelle was an even worse climber than she had feared! More than once, Xandra caught a tail or a hind foot in the face as the smaller cat slipped and scrabbled desperately to regain her hold. Once the grappling claws tore a set of shallow gashes from just below her eye all the way to her nose. She ground her teeth to keep from swearing. After all, with all the cuts an bruises she sported after her fight with Herac, what difference did one more make? Sighing quietly, she gave the struggling leopard another shove in the rear.
At last, Ginelle was able to heave herself up onto the fork, where she promptly collapsed, panting, to straddle a branch that was easily as big around as her chest.
Xandra jumped lightly onto an adjacent branch and watched the exhausted animal with a touch of amusement. To be perfectly honest, the panther was touched and impressed the way this pampered little thing struggled to keep up with the wilderness. True, she had a long way to go before she would be a true jungle denizen, but if she made it through the first few weeks, she had a fair chance of survival. And of course, with someone like Xandra to keep her from doing something foolish, her chances would be that much better....
If not for Callicia. And all those others out there intent on hurting the Princess of Terror.... Xandra shook herself to dismiss the thought.
"You ready for that deer?" she asked quietly when she noticed that Ginelle's breathing had slowed.
She received no answer. Ginelle was fast asleep.
Xandra's mouth twitched. "Guess not."
She took some time to carefully clean her wounds, and get the dried blood out of her coat. Then she settled down for a quick nap herself.
"We're agreed, then?" the voice said out of the dark.
"Agreed," Voracia said.
Even with her night vision, the hyena could not make out anything there in the shadows beyond a set of intense green eyes and an occasional flash of fangs or a pink tongue when the unseen creature spoke. The eyes, however, where more than enough to make Voracia uneasy. She had the distinct feeling that she would have been torn to shreds then and there had she done anything less than agree to the mysterious feline's plans.
But then, those plans were very much to her own liking, too. She'd had a grudge against the Princess of Terror for a long time now. Ever since that confounded cat had shown her snout in this jungle, Voracia and her pack had had a hard time. Gone were the days when creatures roamed the forests carelessly! Prey stepped lightly, afraid of that black terror, and predators hid their catches well enough of late to make finding and stealing them a chore. That made it so much harder for her lazy band of scoundrels to feed themselves.
Stealing from the Princess herself was out of the question, of course. Hyenas were very much capable of taking prey from a leopard under normal circumstances, but Xandra was far from normal. After the fourth death in her ranks in as many days she had grudgingly declared Xandra's food off-limits except in the most desperate need.
Truly, things had gone downhill for her and her pack since the black leopard had appeared.
And lately, Xandra had taken to defending the weak as well, as the incident with "Fluffy" had shown. It was just disgusting.
Now this mysterious stranger had come to the jungle, never showing herself but apparently well in control of matters. From what Voracia had been able to glean from this little talk, the unseen feline - those eyes could not be anything but a cat's - had gathered quite a little force around herself. She had even enlisted the help of Theodorus the orangutan, an implacable opponent, as Voracia knew from past encounters. The hyenas were on less than friendly terms with him and his band of rogue apes.
It was also quite clear that this cat was obsessed with the Princess of Terror. Whenever the name left her mouth, her eyes lit up with a fierce hatred that made Voracia's own dislike of Xandra seem like pup's play. There was little doubt in the hyena's mind - this animal was quite insane.
But she was also a clever tactician - a dangerous combination, and an interesting trait in a cat. Solitary felines weren't known for leadership qualities, as a general rule.
This morning, Voracia had been met by a completely distraught Cocksure, telling her she was to report to this place at sundown. Voracia had not become one of the first female pack leaders for being stupid. Something in the raven's voice had told her it would probably be a good idea to comply, as much as it galled her.
And so here she was, talking to this mad cat, with mixed feelings. She liked the idea of putting an end to the Princess of Terror's reign once and for all, but she did not like the fact that she was being all but forced to do it. So far, there had been no open threats, but considering what the cat had done to Cocksure's tailfeathers, Voracia had no doubt that she had ways to enforce her orders that were less than pleasant.
"Good," the silky voice said. "Have your hyenas and those of Burly ready at the appointed spot two sundowns from now. The bird will keep you informed."
She made it sound as if "the bird" would either do that or be cat food, no matter where he tried to hide. Voracia suppressed a shudder.
"We will be there."
"You will handle Burly?" It was less a question than an order.
"See that you do. And one more thing: I want them both taken alive. Xandra is mine. I will give you the little one after I'm through with her." She chuckled softly. "If there's enough of her left."
With that, the eyes winked out, and the presence among the bushes vanished as silently as a shadow. Voracia realized she did not even know her name.
Callicia hummed softly to herself as she made her way back to her lair. Things had gone extremely well. Voracia was a fool. The hyena never realized that her pack was to be mere fodder in this battle. Theodorus the orangutan, however, had not been so easily fooled. He would prove a valuable ally.
Xandra was as good as dead.
She wasn't aware that all sound ceased wherever she passed. The very leaves of the plants seemed to shrink away out of fear of being touched by her. Even the monkeys cowered and froze, hoping she would pass without noticing them.
She wasn't aware, because this was how it had always been. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Still humming, she climbed up the gnarled, hollow tree she had picked for her base of operations. She paused to tear a few bites out of the wild hog she had slaughtered earlier that day, before proceeding to the large but well-concealed hole in the trunk where she slept.
The tiny ball of fur that had been curled up at the bottom of the hole stirred when she poked her head in. It unfolded into a wolf cub, perhaps two months old.
"Please, can I go now?" the pup asked. There was no fear in her voice, only a mild impatience and sullen defiance. "I hate this place. It's boring."
That was what had aroused the cat's curiosity in the first place - the little thing's complete lack of fear, when every last thing alive seemed to cower before her.
So she had simply grabbed the little animal by the scruff of its neck and unceremoniously dumped it in this hole, confident that it could never get out by itself, being too small to jump and lacking claws suitable for climbing. Canines were so poorly equipped!
Callicia had come across the cub upon returning from her meeting with the ape. Since she had no time to spare because the hyena would be on her way to meet her, she had decided to put the little creature away for later examination.
"Well, I'm here now," the cat purred as she slunk inside the hole. "So it won't be boring anymore." The hollow spanned the entire inside of the tree trunk, and the two animals fit in comfortably with some room to spare. Callicia settled herself and started licking her fur, proceeding to ignore the pup, who was edging towards her cautiously, though still more curious than afraid.
"Who are you?" the wolf cub asked finally. She cocked her head in that way canines had, that many humans seemed to find so adorable.
Callicia snorted. "Didn't your mother teach you that youngsters don't talk unless they're spoken to?" she said sternly.
"My mother is afraid of me. She never teaches me anything," the wolf said in a serious tone that completely got Callicia's attention, though she hid it behind a thorough examination of the fur on her striped and spotted tail.
"And why is that, little one?"
"She thinks I'm evil."
"What would make her think that?" Oh, the cub definitely had her attention now!
The wolf shrugged. "She's old. Maybe it was because of my brother."
"He's dead. She never told anyone about him. But I know"
"Because I killed him."
"An accident," the feline surmised.
Large puppy eyes looked at her full of innocence. "I broke his neck when we were born. He would have stolen momma from me."
Callicia could barely contain her excitement. This little thing was a cold-blooded killer? What a rare and fortunate find.
"And your momma never told anyone?"
"She got rid of him, and has told everyone in the pack that I was the only one. I don't know why. Maybe she thinks he was evil, and mentioning his name is bad luck. You know, like you're not supposed to say Torran's name because he might hear."
The moment she spoke the name, a slight tremor shook the earth, and leaves stirred outside where there was no breeze.
"See what I mean?" the pup whispered excitedly.
"Yes," Callicia agreed. "But let's not rouse the Red Bull's attention any more than we need to, shall we, little one?" She waited for the wolf to nod. "And do you think your brother was evil?"
"I don't know. But momma, I think she's crazy. She never feeds me, I had to suckle with other mothers from the first day. She does not even let me come near her if she can help it. She hates me. I think she's sorry she didn't kill me the first day."
Callicia's mind was working feverishly, trying to figure out how to use this little gem to her advantage. She had already decided to keep the wolf cub. Maybe she could convince her to stay of her own free will. Callicia could not have cubs of her own because of her parentage, but she had always wanted a daughter.
"Well, little one, I'm not afraid, and I don't hate you. How would you like me to be your mother from now on? I can teach you many, many things your mother will never know." The cat bared her fangs in a grin.
The pup looked at her, considering. The wisdom in those puppy-blue eyes was disconcerting. A pleasant shiver of anticipation ran along Callicia's spine.
Then the wolf cub grinned, too. "Sure. But only if you give me meat to eat. I hate suckling."
Callicia chuckled softly. "So, now that's settled, what's your name, little one?"
"Cannabis," said the wolf cub.