When Sabreela said we were going to be leaving early in the morning, she wasn’t kidding. I was awake well before sunrise to dress and get my backpack ready to go. Living on a ranch, I was used to waking up early, but this hour was well before even what I was used to waking up at. There wasn’t even a tinge of color on the horizon it was so early.
The moon hung low and the stars still twinkled up in that dark sky as we all ventured out of Wi-Issa’s home together. We each paused to look up at the sky, but I suppose I was the only one truly admiring what I saw instead of gathering information for direction and weather. One by one, each of my companions shifted their forms while I admired the stars, not even noticing until Sabreela spoke to me and Shadow Wing touched my shoulder with her muzzle.
“Secure your pack to her back then shift, Princess. We have a lot of distance to cover before this day is done.” Her voice was gentle and soft, much like a grandmother’s at that moment while Sabreela directed me to prepare. “We’ll hunt for our breakfast along the way after the sun has risen.”
“Hunt?” That caught my attention rather quickly and had me pause as I was tying my backpack to Shadow Wing’s back. “You mean… we actually hunt other animals to eat?” I was very amazed by this, even though it was explained that the cah’at kept many of their feral instincts from long ago.
“Yes, we do. But, don’t you worry. One of us will teach you hunt, and until you can, we’ll hunt for you.” said the old cat with a smile. Somehow, I think she took some joy in that little fact. As if having someone to teach and care for made her happy.
The thought of actually hunting made my stomach churn. Killing an innocent animal for food, yeah, it’s done every day, and I help raise the cattle for slaughter, but I never did the actual killing. The ones who buy them at auction take care of that. I’m in a whole different reality from what I grew up in, so I have to get accustomed to following these new rules, even if I don’t like them.
Since I couldn’t argue, I finished securing my backpack then shifted. Even as a full panthress, I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb in this group of normal looking felines. They had normal coloring; browns, blacks, orange and stripes, while I was solid white. This very fact could be why I was put into the middle of the group, and not because I was the Princess.
It was also at this moment that I realized, no one but Kirrin has seen me in this shape. All but him sniffed me over then licked at an ear or my neck before we were all set to leave. Odd sort of thing to happen, but I guess it works.
After some unseen signal from Sabreela, we all took off into the early morning, loping along to cover ground quickly until we came to the forest, then we sort broke up. Some, like Sabreela and Spollatta, took to the trees, leaping from branch to branch, and the rest of us into the brush where our tracks could be hidden. That is what was explained to me by Kirrin and thankfully, he stayed close by my side.
Surprisingly, it was about the time the sun started to rise that I began to tire. My poor legs weren’t used to this kind of running, not even in gym class. At least, I was ready for this with the lifestyle I had as a human. Seeing as it was dawn, Sabreela had everyone stop and rest before dispersing to hunt in the thick forest. Only Kattlia stayed with me while the rest searched for breakfast and she didn’t utter a sound or thought.
With nothing else to do, I decided to curl up and nap while I waited for food to arrive. Either I fell asleep quick, or they didn’t take long, for it seemed I just closed my eyes when Gahsan and Sabreela returned with a deer and soon after Bain with what looked like a cross between a bird and a fox. Kirin didn’t come back for a bit longer, and all he had were a couple of rabbits dangling from his jaws.
You don’t know how funny it was to see a big lion with two little rabbits hanging from those massive jaws. Even Kattlia, the silent tigress, had to snicker in thought at that. As funny as it looked, it did bring a smile to his eyes and he placed them beside me to eat. At the time, it was a confusing gesture, but I accepted it none the less.
Only much, much, later did I learn that he was showing his affection towards me as only a big cat could. The fact that I didn’t nuzzle at him or purr didn’t change that, for he knew I was unfamiliar with the action.
As hungry as I was, I had no idea how to tear into these rabbits. The others didn’t seem to notice this fact, so I watched them rip into the prey they had brought in before finally doing the same. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was in a feral animal shape, the taste of raw meat would have made me gag. Instead, the form allowed me to just eat and get it over with, but in the back of my mind, I was being very, very, sick. It was so gross to even consider.
Sensing the feelings being kept in the back of my mind, Sabreela gave me what assurance she could that they would soon pass, and that she understood why they were there. They all knew and understood I wasn’t raised as one of them, and many things would be strange, and new, if not completely unappetizing to me. How right she was. Eating uncooked meat was very unappetizing, and topped my list of things to not do often. Strange how things like that change over time.
We left the carcasses for the forest scavengers to finish off once we all had our fill and took off once more towards the caravan road Spollatta pointed out on the maps at Wi-Issa’s house. With food in my belly, I felt sluggish, and I’m sure the others did too, but we pressed on. There was a long way to go, and our time was growing short. With the exception of a few stops to allow me to rest, we kept going and didn’t stop to eat again until after night fall when we finally made it to the cross roads. There, the caravan road crossed the smaller forest road, and at that junction, a large inn stood with many wagons, and carts gathered around it.
Beings of all kinds were tending to the different kinds of beasts they used to pull those heavy loads. I saw everything from dragons and elves, to bipedal equines and other cat morphs. Not too far from the inn, a gypsy family was dancing around a fire to the beat of very lively music. All of them looked like they were a type of weasel with the rat like faces, round ears, and slender, long bodies and they moved with a grace few could match.
During this whole trek, Shadow Wing had made herself invisible, if only to protect herself instinctively from all the large cats. I couldn’t blame her with that thought. At least she appeared after we all shifted back to our normal states. We were all tired, even my guardian friend, after all that running and leaping.
The thought of a warm bed to curl up in and a hot bath sounded good to me, but that wasn’t what Sabreela had in mind. She led us inside, spoke to the host on duty, and then picked a table close to the windows so she could keep watch while we enjoyed a hearty dinner of stew and bread. Strange how I wasn’t hungry until we sat down inside the inn.
Outside, Shadow Wing grazed and kept watch as well, not too far from the window we were sitting by. While we ate, a group of wolf morphs arrived, all of them dressed in some kind of military uniform complete with swords at their sides. Black, gray, brown, they were colored like a normal wolf, only these guys looked very rough and mean in their clothes. These guys, once they were spotted by my companions, set us all on edge.
Hissing softly, Sabreela motioned to Kirrin, “Hide her, quickly. We’ve got trouble coming.”
My lion friend didn’t hesitate for a moment in grasping my paw and taking me to a back room to wait until the wolves left. That was my first glimpse of the enemies I was to go up against once I got to Castle Clawe. Too bad it wouldn’t be my last.
Through a crack in the door, I watched as the wolves entered and dispersed throughout the room. They didn’t speak to anyone, they simply wandered by each table and looked at those sitting and eating. Many of the patrons didn’t like that bit, and voiced it in their own languages. At least, it sounded like their own languages to me through the din of clanking mugs, utensils and conversations throughout the room.
Probably the meanest of the group stopped by Sabreela’s table where she, Bain, and Gahsan still eating their stew or sipping and frothy mugs of ale. Spollatta, while I was being taken to the back room, slipped off to secure a good spot to ambush the first to get curious about the room was hiding in. If only he had come in there with us, things might have been different.
While I was watching, Kirin stood behind me, trying to urge me to go with him to a more protected spot. I wouldn’t go. Instead, I watched as the wolves stalked about the dining room, obscuring my view of Sabreela’s table with their movements. Though I couldn’t hear anything over the din of patrons complaining, mugs rattling, and stoneware clacking, I could make out the general idea of what was going on.
I watched her expression go from neutral to glowering while the wolf questioned her. What ever was being said, she didn’t like it. She must have forced herself to keep her voice calm, for all I saw was her lips moving and a few gestures. With each passing moment, she got madder, and madder. The seething look in her eyes grew more intense with her every reply yet nothing could be heard.
At some point, she shifted her gaze toward me and must have seen me peering through the small crack for she raised a brow in a very odd fashion and turned her attention back to her interrogator. Next thing I knew, the wolf was pounding his paws down on the table and trying to intimidate her. Not even the growl I heard over the packed room fazed her.
From behind me, I heard Kirin whisper, “Come Princess. We must leave, now.” Next, I felt his paws on my shoulders, trying to pull me away just as I spotted a wolf coming toward the door I was peeking through.
Before I knew it, I was yanked away from the door and pulled over to a long low bench by the back wall of the room and Kirin’s hoarse whisper, “Follow my lead and don’t say a word.” just before I felt him pressing his lips to mine to smother any protests. All I could do was squirm beneath him to try to catch my breath for more reasons than one.
While he had me subdued with a kiss, I heard the door creak open then someone mutter something before closing it again. Who ever it was must not have wanted to see a pair making out in a large lonely room filled with dry stock since we were left alone. My only guess was that it was the wolf heading toward the door when I was pulled away and buried under a large lion. The kiss alone at least made it worth while, for I was breathless upon release.
For several long moments, I was torn between staying there by his side and kissing him again and going back to the door to see what was happening. Back and forth I looked from Kirin to the door then finally decided to throw myself into his lap and gave him another long kiss like he had given me. For all I knew, the danger had passed and we could enjoy the little time alone.
Distracted by the kiss, neither of us knew that another wolf had entered and motioned to others to follow him in after seeing me in the lion’s lap. We were both too distracted to hear the mental warnings, or the commotion created by Spollatta ambushing the last of the wolves to enter the room. All we were aware of was each other and the feelings being stirred up by that one kiss. Nothing else existed to him, or me, except each other.
Just as fireworks were going off in my head, stars appeared then everything went black. Only a sharp crack of pain splintered my head before I lost consciousness.
When I awoke several hours later, I felt as though someone had stuffed a six month old gym sock in my mouth and used it to scrub my tongue. The headache from being hit in the back of the head only magnified the nasty taste in my mouth, which didn’t help matters any. The pain only increased when I tried to open my eyes. Though I was only hit in the head, I felt as though I had been beaten by the entire football team from school during practice.
The moans I made as I came to gathered some attention, but mostly from those to either side of me. Only one voice seemed to come from right beside me and it wasn’t familiar in the slightest. “Easy there, gurllie. Dun be openin’ yer eyes jus’ yit. Jus’ r’lax ’til th’ pain is gone.”
Following that advice was probably the best thing I could have done; not that I could have done anything to protest at the time. While I tried to deal with the pain in my head and behind my shoulders, someone came along with what I assumed to be water, but it tasted so foul, I thought it was stagnant. Soon after that drink, I was sleeping again, this time without pain to encourage the black void my mind fell into.