I crashed into the clearing and what I saw both surprised me and worried me- I was surprised to see Ren and Kelsey talking to each other, however heated, after how upset she was, and worried for two reasons: One, Kelsey looked ready to zap Ren with enough lighting to kill him and, two because even though I could tell Kelsey and Ren were furious at each other I could tell there was an undercurrent to their conversation. I knew that Kelsey wasn't over Ren- I get it. But I thought that I'd finally have my chance with her. I thought that maybe with Ren out of the picture, Kelsey would get over Ren eventually and she and I could be together. I knew that I was just a backup; a rebound. I didn't care. For too long I have lived as an animal. It was easy really- there was no hurt or regret. There was no pain- there was only instinct. It wasn't even lonely- I was a tiger after all, and we aren't exactly social animals. I was completely out of touch with my humanity and I preferred it that way. That is, until I saw Kelsey for the first time.
Kelsey brought me back from wherever it was I had been for all those years. She's witty and intelligent and beautiful beyond belief. When I first saw her, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Mostly I couldn't imagine what she was doing in the jungle by herself. Then I saw Ren- or, well, collided with him. Details. Anyway, that is what reminded me why I had been a tiger all of those years- I was still ashamed and hurt over Yesubai. I didn't want my, Ren's and Kelsey's story to end as badly as it had with Yesubai, and I still don't. I don't think anybody understands how guilty I felt over what happened. Except for maybe Kadam.
"What's all the yelling about?" I asked.
"Would you please tell your sorry-", Kelsey was cut off by a piercing scream coming from somewhere in the jungle, followed by the scream of a panther. Ren, Kelsey and I froze for all of three seconds and then looked at each other. I had decided to see what was going on.
"Ren, you stay here with Kelsey. I'm going to see what is making those screams." I started toward the jungle and a few painful seconds later, I had become a tiger. No matter how many times I change my form, I can never quite get used to the painful feeling of my bones rearranging themselves. The pungent smell of blood was a giveaway of the location of the panther and what could only be a person. I was hoping that I would find a fight between two panthers, but the sinking feeling of dread told me that was unlikely.
I arrived within the general area where the screaming came from and heard growls, snarls and soft whimpering as I drew closer- then I heard nothing. As I came closer, I worked to make myself as un-noticeable as I could. I looked through a couple of tall bushes that were on the edge of the clearing. When I saw the panther on its side with a stick protruding through it's back, I carefully made my way through the bushes. A few feet from the panther's carcass was a girl slumped against a tree.
Her hair looked like it could have been a golden blonde color if it weren't for the mud and dirt that stained it and her clothes. I moved closer and though I was sure she was passed out, I butted my head against her leg just to make sure. When she gave no response, I morphed back in to a human. I moved closer and checked for a pulse on her neck. It was there, but was very faint. It was then that I noticed the four claw marks running down her side, two of them bleeding profusely. Blood had seeped across her green ripped shirt like a giant mud stain, which wouldn't have been a farfetched guess. Whoever this mystery girl was, she had been out here for quite some time. Her elfin face was pale, narrow and marked with mud, just like the rest of her body. Though her shirt was now bloody and tattered, her cargo pants (that had probably been a khaki color at a previous time), appeared to be in good shape with only a few small holes on the legs and hem although they were dirty. Curiously though, she was barefoot. Her ribs protruded from her body and she appeared to be very fragile.
I was sure that if I left her, she would die. Her slight frame indicated that she couldn't afford to lose any more blood. I knew that it was a bad idea, but I picked her up and started back towards our camp. However imprudent it was, I couldn't just leave her there to die. And I have to say, even though she weighed next than nothing, I was impressed with how she had dealt with that panther. I know all too well how much effort it takes to take down a panther, and frankly it makes no sense that she was able to drive a stick through it's back when she didn't have an ounce of muscle in her body.
Her faint breaths had me speeding up my pace, reminding me that her time was numbered. I brought her back to our camp where Kelsey and Ren were glaring at each other across the fire. They turned toward me and did a double take at the sight of me with the girl.
"You set out to kill a panther, and bring back a girl?" Ren was looking at her curiously with his brows furrowed.
"It looked like she had already taken care of the panther by the time I got there. But she was passed out against a tree and is losing blood fast. I couldn't just leave her there to die." I replied defensively.
"Of course you couldn't," Kelsey soothed, while stepping closer.
I laid her down next to the fire. Kelsey ran into the tent to grab her back pack where Kadam had put together a first aid kit. I had no idea how to fix her wounds, but luckily nurse Kelsey was here.
She went over to the girl and had the divine scarf make a thick blanket to prop the girl's head up. She then cut the tattered portion of the girl's shirt off, and began rubbing the wound with an antiseptic.
"I think the wounds need stitches, but we only have butterfly bandages," she explained as she pinched edges of the bad gashes together and placed butterfly bandages over them to hold them together. It didn't look like we had many, but luckily we didn't end up needing them all. I had assumed the worst when I first saw her- in reality the scratches weren't that long. They started near the top of her ribs and ended in a slant halfway down her short torso. The panther had to have only swiped at her otherwise I'm sure it would have been worse.
As Kelsey finished placing the butterfly bandages over the girl's wounds and started wrapping a bandage around her torso, I studied the girl's face.
She had a heart shaped face with a pert nose that had a very light dusting of freckles across the bridge. Her eyelashes were thick, a dark gold color and weren't very long. They were set atop impossibly large, elfin eyes with lavender eyelids probably due to fatigue. Her chin was pointed and her mouth was small with a full bottom lip and slightly less full top lip. I could tell that she was beautiful even through the thick layer of dirt that Kelsey was now wiping off of her face. I was pleased to see that a soft pink color adorned her cheeks. She seems to be getting better already.
"So what now?" Ren posed his question to nobody in particular. What a change from the old, bossy Ren.
"We take her back with us, obviously. It's not like you don't have the room." Kells's curt response revealed that her current feelings toward Ren were lukewarm at best.
Ren spluttered for a moment before stringing together a protest. "Why can't we take her back to Phet? She can't follow us where we are going. You both know that!"
"We can't just dump her on Phet, Ren. Besides, she needs to get better and may need to go to the hospital. Look at her! She needs to see a doctor. When she feels better, she'll go to wherever it was she was headed before ending up stranded in the jungle."
"Kishan is right, Ren. We need to bring her with us."
Ren just stared at the three of us before giving an exasperated huff and started packing up. Kelsey and I joined him and soon we had everything stored in our backpacks. On the way back to the jeep, I carried the girl. When we got to the jeep, Ren took the wheel while Kelsey clambered into the back seat with me and the mystery girl. Ren rolled down his windows and we did the same. His face was showing the physical toll Kelsey's presence was taking. As for Kelsey, her face was set in to a sour expression as she stared out of her window. A few minutes in to the trip, Kells asked about how I found the invalid sharing the back seat with us and soon we arrived back at the house. Kelsey was the first one inside, followed closely by Ren. I carried the girl into the house and went to find Kadam.
I found him in the library pouring over the prophecy. He looked up and did a double take.
"Who is this young woman?" He rose from his seat and walked over to us. I explained to him what had happened.
"I couldn't just leave her there."
"No, no, of course you couldn't, Kishan. You made the right choice. Go find her a room and perhaps she will awaken soon. Her face doesn't look quite as pale as you described. It seems that she is getting better."
I grunted in agreement as I wasn't quite sure what to say. I hoped that she was getting better, but I couldn't really tell either way. I met Kelsey coming down the stairs.
"Where are you headed off to?"
"I'm going to go and find her a room to rest in." Kelsey paused on her way down and looked at her speculatively.
"I'll go with you. We should at least try to get the dirt out of her hair." I agreed and we set off in the direction of one of the guest rooms.
We walked in to what I like to call the yellow room. The wall opposite to the door had glass french doors that opened out onto the veranda. The walls were a light yellow with a large bed with a canopy of mosquito netting against the left wall. The sheets were a cream color and the nightstands on either side of the bed were antique white with lamps on them. The large armoire was set against the wall with the door. On the right wall was an entrance to a master bedroom with a vanity and stool next to the bathroom door.
Kelsey pulled the stool over to the sink of the bathroom and I followed her in with the girl. We sat her against the counter running against the wall and Kelsey switched on to the sink tap and began rinsing her hair.
It must have taken 30 minutes to get all of the dirt and grime out of this girl's hair. It was long and thick. And we still had yet to brush it. I was right however- it was a pale gold color with darker hues running throughout it. Kelsey left to get her brush and when she returned, we spent another ten minutes working out all of the tangles in it. Once that was finally finished, we cleaned her feet off and placed her on top of the sheets. We threw a white quilt that had pale blue designs on it over her body, and let her rest.
"I'm going to find Kadam." Kells smiled at me and squeezed my arm before she left. Sometimes I hate it when she does that, because it reminds me all too clearly of her feelings for my idiot brother.
"Alright, I'll see you soon then." I managed to smile back at her and she paused outside of the doorway.
"Just for a while, in case she wakes up. Thanks for your help, Kells."
She just smiled at me again and walked out in search of Kadam. I pulled the stool up to the bed and sat for about ten minutes. It occurred to me that she may want water when she wakes up and so I left to get her a glass. I returned with the water and set it on the nightstand. I had just sat down and looked into her delicate face when large, bright green eyes blinked open.
Just like that my world seemed to stop. Her eyes held me captivated, entranced while she looked into mine.
She cleared her throat, blinked and then asked in the sweetest, tinkling voice I had ever heard, "Where am I?"