Aen crouched in the brush, surveying the path that curved between massive redwood trunks and lesser conifers. The young hunter, no longer a child but still absent a beard, concealed himself beside a rotten and shattered pine. Having been there since dawn, dusk now deepened the shadows that filtered down from the towering forest canopy above.
Green eyes still focused on the path, Aen’s finger touched the knapped flint head of his best throwing spear. He left the weapon on the ground beside his knee to glance at the ash wood shaft of his second javelin. It leaned upright against the stump, beside a stout fighting spear.
Aen heard a shift in the birdsongs around him, and turned a keen ear to listen as the calls fell silent one-by-one. His gaze returning to path and forest, the growing hush was interrupted by a chittering treetop squirrel. He saw it drop a pinecone to the ground before skittering branch to branch.
His tanned limbs and back moved with a controlled, lean strength. Shifting his squat in a buckskin loincloth, Aen licked a finger and tested the air. Confirming he was still downwind of the path, he crouched deeper in the leaves and took hold of the spear on the forest floor beside him.
Slow, padded footfalls barely disturbed the carpet of orange pine needles upon the animal path. Yet Aen heard their approach, and eyed the bend that disappeared around a great redwood trunk.
She rounded past the tree, and Aen drew a breath of awe and fear at the entrance of the great cat.
Tartara strode fully into view, the broken neck of a deer carcass clamped in her teeth. The buck would have taken two men to carry, and she held it aloft like a toy. As massive as a bear, the thick shouldered tigress stalked up the path with a smooth grace no ursid could match.
She was as grand and terrible as in any fireside story ever told of her. All the tribe could recount the tale of Tartara —of how the old chief and his five best hunters had dared to rescue an infant at the mercy the demon tigress. And how all but the one hunter escaping with the baby had paid with their lives.
Coming from such bloodshed, the child was named Aen, ‘ill omen’. Never fully accepted, he now scrutinized the approaching saber-toothed fangs that had haunted and shaped his life.
Even safely hidden, the young hunter fought back a tremble and the urge to run. Adjusting his grip on the spear, he watched Tartara’s sinew and muscle slide beneath a tawny hide. Her every step bringing her closer, Aen studied the dark spots and lines of the tigress’s fur. Catching a partial glimpse of the bone collar that adorned her, he even dared a glance at her jade green eyes.
With a flick of her short tail, Tartara surveyed the brush while Aen’s heartbeat raced in his ears. Her bestial glare narrowed, training to where he crouched beneath the leaves. Eyes shining through veiled shadow, a long, low growl rolled forth from her throat while snarled fangs remained clamped on the dead buck’s neck.
Aen sprang to his feet, spear in hand. Pulling back his arm with a furious cry, he hurled the weapon at her.
It sailed through the air. With a lightning twist of her neck, Tartara swung the carcass in her teeth and the javelin pierced the buck halfway through.
There was a second bone-snapping thrash, and the great cat flung the skewered whitetail into the brush paces away from Aen. He reached over to the old trunk beside him as Tartara’s roar echoed like thunder through the trees. Snatching his second throwing spear, Aen threw it in a blur of motion.
She bounded towards him, rearing up on her haunches. Swatting the javelin mid-air, Tartara struck its shaft with a forepaw. The weapon careened into the forest behind her, and the great cat resumed her charge.
“Nay gheer!” she shouted thick-voiced before leaping at him.
He dodged a swipe from her splayed claws, and Tartara rended a chunk the size his narrowly missed head out of the rotten pine beside him. The impact of her blow knocked the last spear over, but Aen grabbed it, jumping backwards. Tartara dashed after him, and the young hunter avoided an eviscerating lunge of her paired fangs by bounding to the side.
Aen tucked and rolled through the undergrowth, bursting onto the path and springing to his feet with spear at the ready. The tigress pounced in, then paused as he leveled the weapon’s glossy tip of black obsidian at her.
He held her at bay with the stout fighting spear’s broad point. “She-demon!”
Tartara growled, the hairs of her massive shoulders and back bristling. She watched him brace his footing and weapon. In return, Aen eyed the loose collar of sun-bleached ribs and vertebrae swaying on her neck.
The great beast began to circle him, tactically outside the reach of his spear. “Nay gheer!”
Aen pivoted where he stood, his gaze never leaving the pacing tigress. “Do you speak proper words, demon?”
“Nay gheer…” she snarled.
His hard face scowled. “Why did you curse me? They cast me out!”
Tartara continued to pace, eyes narrowing. “Kursa…”
“Why, you monster? Did you devour my parents and think a salvation from that fate was too kind for me?”
Aen’s stance lowered. “They said I can only return holding your head.”
Tartara’s whiskers bristled, rising to his challenge. “Nay gheer!”
“I hate you! You made me the ill omen! And then your curse took what little else I had fought to earn!”
Aen lunged forward with his spear, Tartara dodging with a leap to avoid a double-handed thrust. The black spearhead grazed her furred brow and cheek with a stinging slash.
Tartara roared, blood from the superficial wound stinging her eye. Seeing an opening as she reeled, Aen charged again. The tigress barely evaded a thrust that would have pierced her throat.
Aen advanced, swinging the obsidian blade horizontally as she ducked and backed away with hissing growls. Both looking for openings to a kill, Tartara struck first after a third swipe of the weapon whizzed past her muzzle. Pouncing at Aen, she slipped past the spearhead to crash a forepaw into the wooden shaft just below it.
Her blow wrenched the spear from his grip, smacking it against the towering trunk of a redwood beside them. The sturdy shaft of ash snapped under the brutal impact, flinging its spearhead onto the path behind them. Claws and fangs bared, Tartara flew at Aen.
With a yell that was equal parts terror and bravado, Aen bounded up from where he stood. Leaping above a swipe from the roaring tigress, he crashed onto her back and gained a handhold on her bone collar.
Tartara thrashed and bucked as he flipped himself around. Holding on tenaciously, he threw a punch into the back of her skull before she dropped and rolled to knock him loose.
Aen emerged from snapping undergrowth scratched and bloody, but with his grip intact on the rein of her collar. He pulled and twisted it like a garrote, straining and grunting as Tartara reared and slammed him painfully into a tree. Jolted, he continued his attempt to strangle her.
Then his body betrayed him.
With an agonized scream, his fingers collapsed and receded. Bone and flesh flowing like water, Aen’s hands became thick, furred paws.
The collar fell slack. Ears perked and bristling at the sound of the distorting cries above her, Tartara reared to smash him against the tree again. Aen’s weight increased three-fold before she could, and pulled off-balance they both hit the ground.
Claws gripping the spots and stripes of the tigress’s back, she let out a pained roar that was joined by another as she twisted free of the grapple. Bucking off her attacker, Tartara spun to face him in a spray of dirt and pine needles.
Aen’s great fangs finished their descent as she beheld the end of his transformation. The juvenile tiger he had become snarled, enraged.
“Cursed!” he bellowed.
Tartara’s ears pinned back at the sight of him, and she shouted back wide-eyed. “Ounta!”
He rose, muscled and formidable on all fours. With a shake he fought off the lingering pain of his change, and the remains of his snapped loincloth fell away. Tartara crouched and circled him as she had before, now bloodied and panting.
With a growl, Aen began to circle her as well. “Your curse makes me a demon!”
Her nose flared, breathing in his altered scent. “Nay kursa! Ne ni Ounta!”
Aen leapt, crashing into Tartara. Maw to maw, he sank claws into her with savage blows. They grappled and snarled, roars echoing through the forest. Bashing heads, Tartara blocked several fang swipes from Aen as they wheeled on the ground.
Tartara’s hind-paws threw a raking kick into his underbelly, drawing blood and tufts of hair. Provoked, Aen lunged to drop his saber-toothed fangs into her like daggers. Instead he was sent flying… Tartara having curled back and used his own strength and momentum against him.
Aen rolled into the brush. Regaining his footing, he rose disoriented for a mere moment. It was all the time Tartara needed to launch herself forward. Her shoulder slammed him into the rotten old pine and it splintered into shards. Knocked through and uprooting the tall stump, Aen hit the forest floor in a cloud of wood dust and termites.
“Ounta!” Tartara shouted.
He pulled himself up on unsteady legs, panting and winded. Aen eyed Tartara as she too breathed heavily, then surged forward with his last reserves of stamina.
She reared up and swung a paw that crashed into the side of his head.
Staggered by the blow, his charge stumbled past her and onto the path. Aen’s run faltered, and numb and reeling he collapsed into a sprawled heap. Tartara pounced as he fell, the grip of her claws flipping him onto his back in an instant.
Her young opponent spent, the tigress roared pinning him down with her forepaws. Jaws and fangs rushed to his exposed throat, and Aen looked to the darkening green canopy above him.
Yet, pain and death did not come.
Feeling only panted hot breaths on his thick neck, Aen’s eyes gave an exhausted loll to find Tartara’s teeth hovering just above his throat. She saw his bewildered glance, then lifted her head to his face. Their bristled whiskers brushed as her nose hovered just beyond his.
She released her claws, still pinning him under paws. Then Aen witnessed Tartara shift and change, her features redrawing. The weight of her body pressing down upon him reduced, matching the woman’s form she gained in passing moments.
Still panting, Aen felt his own flesh flowing like water. He looked to Tartara’s hands, now tan and human on his chest that would soon be likewise. Her touch held a guiding warmth, and unlike any other time his curse had changed him, it now did so without a torturous agony.
The transformations ended, and he found a fit woman of early middle age holding him down. Her human face still bore the gash his spear had given the tigress, and she was as bare as Aen save for the large bone necklace hanging from her neck.
Tartara slid her knees off of Aen and knelt beside him. Still huffing and exhausted, he weakly tried to wave away her shaking fingers that touched his bloodied face. Tartara’s hands found their way under his arms next, pulling him up to limply sit.
Her chin slipped over his shoulder, and her hold became an embrace. “Ounta…”
Stunned, Aen felt Tartara press against him. His eyes narrowed in the long silence that followed, staring at the ground just beyond her backside. There, lying flat in the dirt, was the obsidian spearhead.
His hand grabbed the short wooden remnant of the weapon’s shaft. Lifting it stone-faced, he turned its deadly point towards her back.
Tartara spoke unaware of his actions. “Ounta… Son…”
The blade’s thrust was stayed by Aen’s hand, a finger width from her walnut colored skin.
She struggled voicing a tongue she had long abandoned. “My son, the cub stolen from my breast… Is returned to me!”
The knapped spearhead fell back into the dirt.
She held him with a strength and warmth none had ever given Aen before. Pulling back, his green eyes widened with dawning revelation as they met Tartara’s irises of the same shade.
He touched her tearful, bloodied cheeks. His lips tried to speak the stories that had been told him all his life. Of the babe at the mercy of the demon tigress. Of his horror, despair and shame when he changed into a monster like the one vilified by a generation of tribal retellings. Of how they stoned and cast him out.
His lips quivered mute.
He tried to voice a new story as Tartara smiled at him in silence: A story of a shapeshifting mother and child separated by the misguided actions of men.
Instead, his tongue asked only what was important. “Forgive me.”
Aen offered his arms, and Tartara pulled him into a renewed embrace without hesitation. “Yee, ni ounta.”
Copyright © 2017 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.
First published January 30, 2016