The Jungle Book to Rudyard Kipling. This is for Karrenia Rune.
A/N - Playing with parallels. This time around: physical deformity versus being human, ha.
The Swifter Prey
Bagheera paces the dark paths, tracking the scent of prey, unthreading the tangled knot of footfalls and lifelines that twist serpentine through the undergrowth. He crosses streams and rocky outcrops, pitching forward, doubling back. His velvet steps gentle the earth soundlessly, and his eyes glow like the veil of twilight. Bright slats of sunlight trace out the high muscle of his shoulder and flank briefly, but then he is sprinting again, an errant shadow lost in silver mist and the echoing hollows that lie between the jungle's ancient trees.
By day, he is hunting. Alone, but not unaccompanied.
Skyborne branches rush with wind and the sudden skim of feathers. He glances upward, calls an avian word of greeting.
"Bagheera, O Bagheera!" Painted birds cry down to him, flashing their luminous wingtips in the gloom of the canopy. "The man-child, the little one struggles, he falls behind. O Bagheera; he with his two-foot stride cannot match your swift four!"
Spanning a deep ravine in a single leap, Bagheera coughs quiet amusement. Few creatures of the land would even dream of trying.
"But," he says to them, "you masters of the air; you are able to watch him. Wonderous friends! Guard him well, bring news to me if he is discovered by enemies. For now, let him be. He will find his way."
The fluttering birds keen their agreement and swirl away, up to meet the bright sky and the clouds. They wheel on gusts of warm air, watching in astonishment as their charge scrambles over rocks and fallen branches, down one steep slope and up the other, rarely hesitating, always checking for subtle signs on the ground, though the birds themselves see no guiding marks or obvious paths. He is tracking, as Bagheera has taught him to track, and now he goes to witness the other rituals, the mysterious juncture between finding prey and feeding on it, the thing Bagheera calls idly: the chase, and catch, and kill.
Once, not so very long ago:
In the fierce, snarling shadow of a dying tree, in the centre of the midnight-silent meadow, Tabaqui the jackal stumbled across two things of great interest that were hidden from the watery touch of the moon. One was a dry, decayed corpse still haunted by vaguely appetizing aromas; the other, which he nearly spotted too late, was the young tiger crouching on the opposite side of it, who swatted fearsomely and spat fiery wrath into his face while favouring a forepaw so casually that Tabaqui knew it had always been mangled.
"Now then, young master, no disrespect meant." It occured to him instantly, the value of winning a tiger's favour; even one with a strangely turned paw. Wistfully eyeing the carcass between them, Tabaqui capered back into the moonlight where the great cat could better see him skip about and then dip his narrow muzzle obsequiously. "If this is your desire, I regret only that I have but a meager, withered meal of bone and sinew to surrender. A fine hunter such as yourself would certainly run more to the taste of toothsome flesh from the very haunch of a swift buck; that I know!"
The tiger sat, heavy muscles uncoiling like snakes in the sun. His eyes glittered saffron. "Perhaps."
"Yes, my prince, indeed! And it so happens," he added, skittering close, keeping low, "that this unworthy creature might have cause and occasion to do you a finer service after all."
"Indeed," the tiger replied, reflectively.
"I happen to know the trails and behaviors of a lovely herd that frequents this quarter of the jungle. Plump, supple deer, my prince. They come here to escape the wolf packs, but I - a lone, lean scavenger - dare not snap my jaws at them, for fear of being kicked and thrown. Though fleet of foot and able to drive them at will, I have no strength to grapple with such limber beasts."
In the deep heart of the old tree's reaching shadow, the tiger lowered thoughtful lids over his terrible yellow eyes and beat his tail once against the dry earth, raising a whisper of dust.
"Come," he said at last, and leaned over the scraps of meat strung across pale, broken ribs; "we will share what remains to be had here, and then we will see if your pretty words ring true, O friend jackal. Tell me your name."
"Tabaqui, sire," he answered, lowering his jaw to the grass and dirt between his paws. He stood, tongue lolling, his wide grin slashing though the night's velvet dark. "You will be glad for my humble services; of that I have utter confidence."
"Very good, Tabaqui. I am Shere Khan," the tiger said, his weak paw draped neatly over the other; "and I am sure that you do."
Mowgli presses through a weave of leaves and vines and spider webs, and he finds himself suddenly looking out over a sea of clouds that shifts and rolls languidly within the fingers of the tallest trees. This, he thinks, might be the end of the world.
"Do you see them, little cub?" Bagheera murmurs.
The boy shakes himself off; he creeps hand over hand to the panther's side, rests his cheek on coarse black fur. After a moment, he is able to make sense of what he sees: a deep valley cleaving through the jungle, a crown of mist to dampen its slopes. He and Bagheera are perched on one side, gazing with hunter's eyes through a feathery veil of ferns; and on the other, far away and ghostly, as though pacing the length of a supernatural shore, he sees a group of slim, gray shapes moving smoothly, slowly, grazing where the grass is lush and the trees are thinner.
"From the meadows they come," Bagheera explains softly, watching with cold interest. "Most often when the rains veer and follow the mountain peaks. They know that the wolf pack will rarely travel so far into the territory of jackals and vultures, and that the mist will hide them from those lowly things."
"It does," Mowgli replies. "How are we to follow them through such strange, white caves?"
"Midday fire will do its work in good time. First however I will show you that any blessing may be a curse as well, for they are just as blind as we, wandering in their deep haze." Bagheera lifts his nose, sniffs; his ears and whiskers twitch deliberately. "Stay within this cove and watch as I go. I will step, and step ever closer, and yet I will go unseen until I reveal myself. Then watch as my quarry dashes for the low shadows, where the footing is unsure." He turns and looks with some amusement into Mowgli's wide eyes. "Watch."
And Mowgli dips his head quickly, a respectful acknowledgement. When he looks up again, the panther has vanished from his side, moving in silence through the saplings and leaflets to merge with the sea of clouds. Pulling thick, dark hair from his eyes, Mowgli settles down beneath a waxy leaf that spreads over his head like a giant wing, and he watches as Bagheera has bid him to watch: the shadowy herd, the smears of sunlight gliding the treetops, and the mist as it grows pale and thin, unveiling the world in all its beauty.
The jackal was swift on his paws: first creeping through the deep lines of darkness that fringed the divide between jungle and meadow, turning a slow circle around the wary herd; then sprinting from his black retreat on the heels of a tall, powerful doe, leaping and snapping to avoid her sharp hooves. Twice, she sprang tightly, trying to make for the safety of the trees. Twice, Tabaqui cut across her path, chasing her wild-eyed into the dry ditch where Shere Khan lay waiting.
In truth, the jackal had surprised him. Despite his flighty nature and sly, sideways glances, he had proved himself a capable hunter, if not a particularly brawny one. It made him unexpectedly valuable; a clever ally who lacked the strength to carry out his own designs - or, if it came to the worst, defend himself from a tiger's crushing bite.
Dust swirled. In a flurry of steps, the doe was upon him and Shere Khan struck, rising from the dead grass like a maddened spirit. His claws swept the night, caught healthy flesh. The doe squealed in astonishment, missed her next step, fell. Shere Khan lunged for her throat with a roar boiling from his jaws, and the sound was an inspiration. A kill; this was it, a kill.
Blood rushed over his tongue, thick with flavour. Tabaqui slid to a stop nearby, gave a sharp cry of delight; and the meadow drew in his voice, and the rumble of Shere Khan's roar and the rhythmic pounding of distant hooves as well, drinking in all the noise of a brief, deadly struggle, releasing only a strange, lasting silence.
And when the fawn descends, slicing down the lush green slope of the vale nimbly, Mowgli leans from his dappled shadows, scenting and tasting and knowing its terrible mistake. The low land is soft and slick with wetness, earth turned open around pools of rainwater like little greedy mouths. Sure enough, muck spikes up from the creature's narrow hooves as it bolts for the safety of tall reeds and bulrushes clustered on the valley floor, and its swift gait begins to falter; and then it is falling. Long, long legs splay outward, glossy in the sun. The high grass parts as the fawn slides on its flank, unable to stop or regain its footing. Pounding easily across the marshy earth on his wide paws, Bagheera flashes fang triumphantly, only a dozen strides away, bearing down like a dark wraith on the little animal tumbling through the green moss and flowers blanketing the bed of the valley.
It comes to a stop, the fawn; it untangles itself quickly, probably not quickly enough to stand and escape - but it is, Mowgli notes, directly below him.
He leaps without thinking. Somewhere high above, birds raise a shrieking chorus; and the fawn never sees him, he moves as Bagheera taught him to move, always keeping to the blind spot. He remembers watching the panther squeeze captured prey in his powerful jaws; so, with clever hands, Mowgli catches the fawn's throat and mimics that motion, holds on as tightly as he can, says the words of gratitude and apology in as many jungle tongues as he can recall.
Bagheera skids close, circles deliberately, then drops onto his side in the grass with his fearsome eyes half-lidded and thoughtful. Mowgli is only dimly aware of him; he feels hot, predator-breath spreading down his back, a rough tongue washing his shoulder. He wonders, suddenly, if he will be scolded.
"Well, well," Bagheera says. "Into the claws of the tiger."
Mowgli lets go; of what, he can't quite recall. "I only," he replies, "I was going to - "
"Yes, I know. I would give you a swat, perhaps, for disobedience, but now is not the time. This is all rightly done."
"Now what?" the boy asks, and puts a hand on Bagheera's strong neck, where it trembles faintly.
"Now. Look you at that. Lift it. Carry it back to the shade and let no beast take this, your property, without your permission. And then I suppose," the panther adds, gazing at the high crest of the forest on the hill above them, "that I have nothing more to teach on this particular day, little cub."
"Well done, sire," Tabaqui said eagerly. His mouth was open around the shape of laughter, but he only panted quietly, catching his breath. "Very well done, though it goes without saying."
"Done, at least." Austere, Shere Khan settled himself at the fallen doe's belly, pulled at the flesh rich with white fat and began to feast greedily. But he was pleased, both with his accomplishment and his companion. Before all the best meat was gone, he lifted his head and looked regally at the jackal, crouching silent and docile nearby. Said to him: "Eat."
Tabaqui ate, and expressed his gratitude vehemently.
"You have proven yourself able and clever," the tiger said, when he felt that all the tribute had gone on quite long enough. "And, moreover, Shere Khan does not forget a favour."
"Certainly as you say." Raising his crimson muzzle skyward, the jackal pretended to study the faint glow of dawn and added idly: "I look forward to future collaborations, if it would please you, my prince, to allow them."
Shere Khan licked his paws. He thought again about the sudden strike of his claws against his quarry's hide, the thrill of watching it plummet, the heat of its blood leaking out between his great teeth. He had never killed such a creature before; when it went still and cool, he suddenly knew himself a tiger, a ghostly king among hunters. And he knew that he would gladly kill many more, again and again, as a king of hunters should do.
The sun rose. Its light struck deep, scarlet lines up from the horizon, like the tracks of a celestial wound.
"Yes," he said at last, eyes limpid as jewels of sap. "We will certainly see about that, friend Tabaqui."
They licked the bones clean, left nothing for vultures. At midday, when the sun unfurled its fiery robes across meadow and forest, they stood and headed slowly for the deep green shadows of the jungle, passing into the mouth of a lush glen with slopes that banked steeply upward through clouds of mist. They climbed, and walked among the trees. They skirted the tumbled ruins, listening to painted birds chatter in high branches. And Shere Khan's paw ached, and he paid it no mind, turning with confidence toward the whisper of wolves crouching close against the sides of the distant mountains and the scent of men huddled around their cattle and croplands, ready at last to make prey of them all.