The heavy, earthen smell of freshly fallen rain still hung in the forest. Large raindrops fell from the autumn-coloured leaves above to the forest ground. The water glistered on the white hats of the mushrooms that dotted the floor and the base of the giant tree trunks. Birds shook the water from their feathers and began to welcome the dry spell in the weather in melodious bursts. Small animals darted around tree trunks, leaving no time to waste in collecting the last of the autumn’s riches to store for the coming winter. They scurried hurriedly away when a large, streamlined shape glided between the branches of the forest’s undergrowth. With feline grace it stepped lightly over the wet ground; no sound of breaking twigs, no rustling of the leaves betrayed its passage. The animals of the forest had no need to fear this feline hunter, as it was not hunting prey. Its nose sniffed the air, looking for a human smell. Its golden eyes narrowed as its nose caught the scent. Its steps turned cautious, the muscles tensing slightly. There, in the clearing! Its eyes locked onto the figure of man, who was squatting on his heels in the middle of a small grass patch. His hands went through the wet grass as if searching for something. Then his hand froze in mid-motion, his head whipped up and his nostrils flared. His eyes riveted towards the approaching cat, not seeing, but feeling as it drew near.
The man stood up and turned, his eyes locked on the edge of the clearing. His muscles tensed, his golden eyes narrowed as he saw a glimpse of the animal through the wall of leaves and branches. He did not go for his sword, nor drew a dagger from his belt. Neither did he reach for the longbow that hung at his back. Silent and still, he waited for the cat to break the cover of the trees. He did not have to wait long. Step by cautious step, muscles tense and its belly nearly touching the forest ground, the cat moved towards the open, ready to attack if needed. It was a large cat, easily as big as the man if it had stood on its hind legs. Its shoulder reached easily above the man’s knees, crouched as it was in the long wet grass. Its eyes were locked on the man’s face, its teeth bared in warning. The man moved, slowly lowering himself on his knees. The cat had stopped, muscles ready to spring.
Welcome brother, I mean you no harm.
Its head turned a little sideways when the man sent his tentative greeting thoughts, and its muscles relaxed slightly. It resumed its careful approach until it was within arms reach of the man. Well met, brother, I find your appearance deceptive.
The cat’s slightly disdainful retort produced a shadow of a smile across the man’s face as he watched the animal cautiously sitting down in front of him. Their eyes, all four of them shiny gold, were level and watched each other warily but with respect. Suppressing a needless shake of his head, the man gathered his thoughts with some difficulty, hindered by lack of practise.
My appearance is not deceptive, merely unusual. You can see my true nature, brother. There is no deceit.
The cat seemed to contemplate this, eyes blinking to show its friendly intent. It seemed in no particular hurry to make up its mind whether it considered the man to be right but after a while it admitted: I must grant you that, brother. You speak truth. What brings you here? This is not your hunting territory. I rule here. If anything, the cat sat up a little straighter at that but it was no threatening gesture, just simple pride.
Controlling the flow of thoughts with careful deliberation, the man acknowledged the cat’s hunting rights without further comment but launched into his next question with some apprehension, knowing that it would not appeal to the animal’s sense of decorum. I have not come to hunt. I have come for your aid.
The cat blinked again, this time in surprise at the unconventional request. With marked distaste it held its head stiffly erect and answered: We are solitary creatures, brother. We do not come to each other’s aid.
The man shifted slightly, his face set in tight concentration. A bead of sweat rolled from his brow as he took an extra moment to formulate his next thought, uncomfortably aware that the cat was loosing interest in the discussion. I am aware of the novelty of my request. I do respect your solitary nature. But I am in need for one such as you: a master of the forest, and a hunter with tracking skills that far outshine my own. The flattery seemed to amuse the cat and its whiskers trembled appreciatively.
You have a way with words, brother. If you only had the same skill in the hunt, you would have no need of any help. The man bowed his head slightly, smiling briefly at the cat’s parry. With unaccustomed quickness, the animal continued: Tell me what it is you need, brother. And I will decide if it interests me to contemplate your aid.
The man led out a small breath, relieved that the cat was still listening. Trying no to appear too eager, he formulated the real purpose of his request. I am looking for a human girl, barely past a cub’s age. She is lost in the forest and I fear for her safety. The sudden intent stare of the cat and its initial silence nearly convinced the man that he had made a fatal mistake by phrasing his request too directly. But just as he tried to accept defeat in barely masked disappointment, the cat’s thought reached him disdainfully.Why should I care for humans, they do not hold my interest.
Torn between the necessity for haste and his last fading hope that the cat might still agree to aid him, the man made one last effort to control his impatience and explained: The girl is like me, brother; a sister to yourself, even though she does not know it. At that, the cat yawned, displaying its sharp white teeth; it’s attention obviously waning. Whether it continued because it had nothing else to do, or because the subject vaguely interested the animal, it replied rather pedantically: You should not bother with the females so, brother. Unless of course, you seek to mate. The man smiled wryly, launching the last arrow of his argument. She is too young to be my mate but there are few of us left. She is important to the survival of our species.
This made the cat pause, one paw lifted halfway in the air, it’s head tilted in appreciation. With sudden interest, its next thoughts flashed quickly into the man’s mind. There you have a point, brother. We must all do what we can to ensure our survival. Perhaps she is a future mate?
Feeling the balance shift into his favour, the man was careful not to show his elation as he replied. Perhaps she is. Will you not aid me now? Although he knew he sounded impatient, he could no longer prolong this conversation since the day was already growing old. But the cat did not seem to care, its mind was made up and it graciously got back to its four legs. There was a determined edge to its thoughts as it blinked once more, clearing its vision before departure. If she has your form, than me mating with her would be …erm … impractical. I will not contest your rights. Tell me of her smell and I will trace your mate.
Relief washed over the man’s face, quickly replaced with eagerness. To describe her smell was only a simple trick and soon the cat turned towards the forest once more, its nose in the air and its ears twitching. With obvious pleasure it sent its last thoughts at its grateful two-legged brother. I have not hunted with another since the days of my youth. It will be a diversion for a while. Hunt with me now, brother!