by Dawn Elliot
Running…. She was running for her life, sides heaving, body aching. Behind her she could hear the voices of hounds and feel the drag and agony of her wounded side. She wore no skirts, but ran on silver hooves and knew the twists and turns of the ancient, cursed marsh like she knew her sad fate had arrived.
Weary, she finally turned to see the shadow-touched who hunted her. She ignored the hounds circling her, baying but not daring to attack, and she glared proudly at the twisted face of the fool who’d led his people into this tragedy. Only one, terribly young, remained free of the taint consuming the travelers who’d trespassed the marsh. One fragile hope. Then the hunter’s bolt sought her heart….
Zhira woke with a choked scream, hands pressed to her chest to staunch the life blood flowing from her. Her hands clutched at wool and cotton, not white fur. Not her blood but that of the strange creature her uncle had killed. Not her life lost but a wise and precious life, one more worthy than she, Zhira was sure.
She panted in the close dark of the wagon and realized, remembering the coldness in her mother’s voice and the subtle changes in her uncle’s face, that they would never let her out. Not until she ate. Ate, filled her belly, and let the shadows into her heart. Shadow had already fallen over the spirits of her kinsmen, a darkness she’d been too fearful to recognize. Now, with the fragments of the terrible dream in her thoughts, her eyes were opened and Zhira could not pretend any longer.
She had a choice now: the darkness or the light. The darkness would be easier, comfortable, warm with the welcome of her mother’s arms. Her kin to shelter her, cousins to tease her — truly things would go on much as they always had. They’d travel the endless roads, dance and gamble for coin. Zhira could see it in her mind’s eye, as she’d seen the dream. There’d be little difference, and if sometimes her kin stole from honest men, or sold poisonous herbs instead of folk cures, well, that was something many did. It would be a lifetime of small sins, dragging down her spirit until darkness finally claimed her.
The light … here Zhira’s vision failed her. The light would have its price, a hard road and a strange one. All she was sure of was she would not travel it alone.
And those two roads were before her now, in this moment. She had to choose.
Still trembling from the dream, Zhira pulled herself to her feet. She shook out her skirts and fumbled for the tiny lantern hanging from the curved and painted ceiling. She ignored the cold bowl of stew and searched in the cabinets and chests holding everything her family owned. She changed her skirts and colorful vest for her brother’s hunting clothes. They were big, except at the hips and breasts, but not uncomfortable. She packed a travel bag and braided her hair to keep it from her face, moving without thought because she was afraid, if she paused, her courage would fail her. Her hands were already shaking as she finished binding her hair.
Finally, she pulled aside the rugs on the floor. She had one of the wagon-wheel tools in hand and struggled to wedge it into the floorboards. Her father made this wagon when he’d married her mother, and Zhira’s eyes watered with grief as she fought now to tear a hole in it.
Sweating and praying to Goia for artifice, Zhira finally pried up one of the narrow boards. Soon there was a hole large enough for her to crawl through. She sat for a time, staring at the mud beneath the wagon. She’d never left the safety of her clan, the circle of familiar faces. Zhira could hardly believe she was planning on leaving the only home she’d ever known. It seemed strange, unnatural, to abandon her life all for the sake of a marsh deer. Above her, the lantern light flickered, dimming as the shadows crept close.
An unearthly, agonized wail rose above the quiet sounds of the swamp. Zhira jumped, shuddering at the pain in it. Outside one of the dogs barked, and the others joined in, baying a challenge to whatever had made terrible sound.
“Shaduup!” someone yelled, voice muffled from inside a wagon, and the dogs quieted with uneasy whines. Zhira remained where she was, heart pounding in her chest, waiting for her mother to walk in and discover her. But the camp grew silent again, and the soft chirps and clucks from the swamp were the only sounds in the night. Frightened to go but more frightened to remain, Zhira slipped through the hole, forced to creep on her belly like a newt as she crawled under her mother’s wagon. The dogs outside only wagged their tails at her from under their masters’ wagons, familiar with her scent.
Zhira slung the travel bag over her shoulder and slipped out of the camp. As the faint firelight was lost behind her, she knew there was no going back. If they had been willing to lock her in a wagon until she starved, surely the punishment for running away would be worse. It wasn’t long before Zhira also realized that even if she wanted to go back she couldn’t. She was lost.
If the so-called track they had been following through the marsh had been treacherous, the lands around it were more than treacherous; they were deadly. Zhira had a small hand lamp, but it did little good, revealing nothing but rotting tree stumps, the gleam of murky water, and the everpresent, cloying mists. Roots seemed to reach up for her booted feet — she’d measured her length in the mud more than once — and branches snared her hair and clawed at her face. The eerie wail, full of pain and despair, rose several more times from the darkness, so close Zhira was sure she would soon stumble on the poor creature making it. Once, face down in a foul puddle, she’d lifted her face to see a swamp serpent hissing and rattling sarcely an inch from her outstretched hand. Zhira did the only thing she could think of, lying frozen in the stinking mud until the agitated snake slithered off into the dark. When the cold dark gave way to a gray and chill morning, Zhira was slumped on a damp hillock under a dead tree, too exhausted to go on.
Zhira knew she’d not traveled far enough and needed to go on. But she was so tired, too tired to lift her hand, let alone stand and crawl through more endless muck and filth. She stared dully at her clotted boots as the light grew, though she could not actually see the sun. The daylight did not seem to quiet the creature, whatever it was, that had been crying in the night, for Zhira heard it again as she rested, even louder now.
She blinked. Beside her left boot, filled with water, was an enormous footprint. In shape it was the same as the small, dainty tracks of the cats the townsmen kept as pets. Zhira could even pick out the prick of claw tips. Dainty perhaps, but not small — the footprint was larger than her own hand. Zhira’s head filled with the child’s tales, of ghost cats, the spirits of lost travelers that returned to haunt the living. Wide eyed, she stared into the growing morning. The beast that made that track had to be as large as she was.
That wail came again and the pain in it was clear. Swallowing hard, Zhira scrambled to her feet. She couldn’t go back, she knew. She might as well go forward. Looking around her in the dim morning, Zhira stopped running away.
She had not stopped her brother or Eharan when they’d slaughtered the beautiful white deer, but perhaps she could ease the suffering she was hearing now and try to somehow balance the scales.
The Veran Marsh was not appreciative of her newfound determination. Zhira stumbled, tripped, and crawled toward the cries. Fighting her way through a bramble, the ground suddenly gave way beneath her, and she slid down a muddy slope, clutching at wet grasses and thorny vines. Ending in a heap in a mud puddle, she pushed her filthy hair back, raised her head, and met wide, wild eyes like sapphires.
Gasping, she froze. Those eyes were set in a furred face, full of frustration and pain. She was barely arm’s length away from an enormous ivory-furred cat with paws as large as her hands and fangs as long as her fingers. Its cinnamon-colored tail lashed angrily in the mud. Even as Zhira sat there stunned, the cat’s fanged mouth opened wide and that eerie wail rose again.
The cat was beautiful, but covered in muck and filth. As it thrashed, Zhira scrambled away from it with a yelp of fear. The cat lay there, writhing in the mud at the bottom of the gully, but even filthy and trapped, it lost none of its nobility, its great pride, the hint of glory surrounding it. The shadows could not touch its luminous blue eyes, and tendrils of fog seemed to draw away from it. Even the endless chill of the swamp somehow seemed less persistent near it, and Zhira found herself drawn closer, despite the danger of the wicked claws and gleaming fangs the cat revealed as it panted in frustration.
Zhira peered at it, searching for what trapped the cat. It was easy to pick out the snared front paw, and Zhira pressed a muddy hand to her mouth in shock. She recognized the clever snare — two sturdy roots anchored in the ground and pinched hard around the cat’s paw — as her brother’s work.
Truly, she had not gone far. Here was more of her responsibility: the snares and traps set by her family to fill again the pot she spilled the night before.
“I’m sorry,” Zhira whispered, while the cat let out another wail of frustration and then began to wrench and drag at its trapped paw. She flinched at the noise, pushing herself back from the trapped animal’s struggles but somehow unable to simply turn and flee. Zhira knew, if she left, the beautiful creature would be killed. The memory of the slaughtered deer came to her, as well as the dream of the previous night. Her own brother might murder this creature, staining his hands with more blood. Her eyes flicked up to where the mists were turning pale silver as the sun rose higher. There wasn’t much time before the camp woke. Soon they would find her gone and the hunters would check their snares and traps. If Eharan found this cat, all he’d see was the glorious pelt and the gold it would bring. The thought of another bloody skin — this one all cream and cinnamon — tacked to the side of a Roamer wagon turned Zhira’s stomach. She had to do something.
Zhira slid a closer to the wild cat, squishing through the rank mud of the marsh. The cat turned its great head toward her, and she froze, staring at those long white fangs. Terror hammered at her, and her heart leapt into her throat. She could hardly breathe. All she wanted to do was run — run and run until she was home and safe and the marsh was nothing but a dream. But she didn’t run, and the cold, damp, and fear making her hands shake were no dream. She pushed herself another arm’s length closer.
“Don’t eat me,” she breathed, trying to soothe the cat as she did the friendly Roamer ponies. Her voice shook. The cat could kill her with a single blow from those huge paws or rip her in two with those teeth. She was close enough now that she could feel the cat’s hot breath stirring the muddy curls of her hair. “Please … I’m sorry … don’t eat me. I’ll … I’ll help you, I swear it. Just do not eat me.”
Zhira crouched in the mud beside the cat. Perhaps, she hoped, her soft voice was soothing, for the beast didn’t move. It simply stared at her, panting. She kept on talking, whispering promises of freedom, as she reached out with shaking hands for the snare pinning the cat’s front paw. Wrapping muddy fingers around it, Zhira pulled. It would not budge. Whimpering in fear and frustration, she pulled harder, yanking and twisting at the strong roots and rawhide straps.
With a sob, Zhira slumped down, tears making clean trails on her mud-smeared face. The cat lay quietly, only the restless flick of its tail revealing its impatience. She could not free it. She bit her lip, holding back a curse of frustration — of course she couldn’t simply pull the snare off! If she could have, the cat would have long ago broken free on its own and wouldn’t need her at all.
The cat shifted, and its wide cinnamon-tipped ears pricked up. Zhira lifted her head, shuddering as she heard the distant baying of dogs. The camp was awake.
She glanced around frantically. She’d done her best. If her clan caught her now, she knew her punishment would be worse than being locked up in her mother’s wagon. She needed to run, now, if she wanted to live. She scrambled frantically up the slope, hearing the cat shift and snarl behind her. Her hand closed on a short, thick branch, and she slid back down to where the cat lay. She could hear the hounds. They had triumph in their voices. They had her scent, or the cat’s, she didn’t know which.
“Easy, easy,” she panted, glancing nervously to the cat. She wedged one end of the branch in next to the cat’s bloody and swollen paw, prayed breathlessly to Felisar, god of travelers, patron of the Roamers, and to any of his brethren who’d care to help, then leaned her weight on the free end of the branch. She could feel it creaking in her hands. The roots were creaking and twisting, too. She scrabbled in the mud for more leverage, splinters biting into her skin, and the calls of the hounds growing louder with every breath. The branch snapped, one end stabbing her hand, and she cried — triumph and pain both, as the rawhide broke.
The great cat growled, pulled free, and rose to its feet, while Zhira crouched in the mud, clutching her bloodied hand. She stared at it, shaking. Now that the cat was free, surely its instincts would return and the odd moment of truce they’d had would pass. It was free, wild, and powerful, as it was meant to be, and Zhira knew her clan would not have this creature’s blood on their hearts, at least. She lifted her eyes to the cat’s face, seeing again how beautiful it was. If she had to die, at least it would be by an animal’s simple instincts and not the hands of her own tainted people.
The cat stood over her, tail lashing, and stared down at her, proud as any king on his throne. Blue as a summer sky, those eyes met her dark Roamer ones, and like a clean wind through the stifling Veran mists, her heart and mind opened to the rhy-cat.
Love poured into her, like cool, clean water, cleansing her of the creeping shadow of the tainted marsh. Purpose filled her, flowing from the pure heart of the great cat, strengthening her limbs, and setting her heart beating proudly in her chest. Zhira felt the touch of wisdom and knowledge, great power tempered by a noble spirit, and knew this creature was no mere animal, no matter the shape it wore. Though it — though he — walked on four legs and she on two, the spirit behind those sapphire eyes was, as intelligent her own.
“I am here. I will not leave you.” The voice, purring velvet over steel, filled Zhira’s mind and heart.
“Yanar,” she whispered. “Your name is Yanar…” and she knew it was true, as if she’d heard it every night of her life. She pulled herself to her feet and put her arm around Yanar’s neck, feeling the warmth of his soft, silky coat under her sore hands. Suddenly, she was crying, sore and hungry, covered in mud, and so tired. But not alone. Hearing the hounds drawing close, she caught a glimpse of that road, the hard road she’d chosen when she’d fled her mother’s wagon. She was on that road now, but not alone.
“I’m here. I will not leave you,” she whispered into the pointed ears tipped back to catch her words.
Whatever happened, they were not alone. They were bonded and would never be alone again.