It was at the very crack of dawn when Leah set out from her forest mountain home and began her day long trek down to her birth village that she had left many years ago. The path leading down was dangerous and in certain areas treacherous and slippery, and although Leah had trod the path often on several previous occasions, and knew it well, it would still take her the best part of a day to traverse it safely; she would make home village by sunset. As Leah looked out admiring her scenic surroundings, the early morning sun could be seen as a silver shimmering disc through the rising morning mists as it slowly rose up on the horizon. The day, already, was growing steadily hotter and the humidity levels were such that the air was extremely sticky and uncomfortable. Leah stopped momentarily then mopped her brow with a wrist band then allowed herself her first drink of the day, water. The ground was full of early dampness and dew, this made her home-spun hide shoes wringing wet and squishy underfoot as she trudged upon and through the dense, jungle-like undergrowth, but she was well accustomed to it by now (as she was living life at high altitude) and as always, she simply chose to ignore it considering it a normal state of affairs for the environment she chose to live in.
She was not alone on this journey either. Her ever faithful companion Shayla followed in her wake, covering her back, acting as rear guard and maintaining his customary twenty paces behind her as he constantly moved his head left then right, scanning in all directions in his instinctive alertness, keeping watch for anything unexpected. Only someone with an acute sense of hearing or keen eyesight would ever be able to discern him and detect his soundless presence; he was a veritable, natural born master of stealth. Shayla enjoyed accompanying Leah on these outward bound adventures, he had never said as much before but he didn’t have to, Leah knew him well, too well at times, and due to the fact that they had both dwelt together for the past twelve years it was no surprise that they would come to know all about each other, and indeed they did. And like any other relationship, the two of them were far from perfect but each knew and understood that tolerance, loyalty, give and take, and more importantly trust, was vital if their well established friendship was going to withstand the test and ravages of time. Apart from early teething troubles they both experienced when first living together, they soon discovered that disharmony was no sure way forward in life, and their petty squabbling and fights (which Leah always bore the brunt of) were thrown aside allowing their bonding process to blossom, ever growing over the years to what had now become an inseparable pairing, they had achieved a state of perfect union.
Shayla stood quite still keeping low in the undergrowth, then rising his head he sniffed at the air and waited patiently while Leah had stopped to take a drink. After taking a swig from her water pouch, and though she couldn’t see him, Leah turned round and looked over at the exact spot where she knew Shayla crouched in hiding; a soft smile broke out on her weather hardened face. Leah replaced the bung in her water pouch, stowed it, then after shaking her long black locks retied her hair into a ponytail. She fiddled at the bow and quiver strapped to her back adjusting it to optimum position again. After checking her sword and sheath, she tightened her belt making certain everything was secure and in place – her handy dagger for one – then with a subtle gesture aimed solely at Shayla she continued on down the rugged mountain path.
By mid morning they had travelled a third of the distance to the village and all the early mist and dampness had evaporated through the intense heat of the day, and everything under foot was now dry and crunchy when trodden on. Leah tried her best not to make too much noise with her foot steps, but try as she may, she would never be able to match the ghost-like, silent passage of her companion in his sublimely effortless expertise.
The ever increasing heat of the day was beginning to take its toll on Leah’s stamina making her feel weak and exhausted, so she decided to rest for a while and partake in some food she had prepared specially for the trip. She found a reasonably shady spot next to a dense patch of gorse, sat down and removed her bow and quiver then placed her sword lengthways along the ground next to her bare leg. She unhooked a small packet wrapped in cloth from her belt then unfolded it on her lap and began eating. Shayla, she knew, being an expert hunter, considered the whole mountain as a viable food and water source and if he needed to he would fend for himself, but she had brought enough provisions for them both just incase he decided to forgo his overzealous proud independence and join her. Shayla hung back and did not approach the spot where Leah had settled to rest, this told her that he simply wasn’t interested in eating right now. Leah shrugged her shoulders allowing herself a little giggle at Shayla’s seemingly aloof behaviour but at the same time respecting it. He was his own master as such and he was merely doing what he had always done since the time that they first came to know one another, and basically, that was what he wanted to do, nothing more!
When Leah had finished eating she wrapped up the remaining ration for Shayla and replaced it on her belt clasp. She drank more of her water and poured some over the back of her neck then massaged it enjoying the revitalising sensations that it gave her. Water shortage was never a problem living on the mountain, there were natural springs occurring in many places and one such spring ran across the very path that they were heading down to; she would replenish her diminishing supply there. Leah then gathered herself together and stood up, she held out her water pouch and waited, nothing, silence! She raised an eyebrow while looking over to where Shayla was, he never stirred but remained hidden from view.
“You really should take a drink Shayla, it is very hot today!” Offered Leah to the air.
Leah laughed softly while shaking her head over Shayla’s dedicated elusiveness.
“You are a silly thing at times, do you know that?” Said Leah still laughing.
Shayla said nothing but held his position being ever watchful.
Leah knelt down and picked her weapons up fitting them back where they belonged then set off down the path again. Some two hours later they had reached the spring where Leah took the opportunity to refill her water pouch; she took a brief rest there before moving on again. By late afternoon they had made good progress in their descent, they were now on the last stage of their journey down to the village. No sound or the slightest of murmurs had come from Shayla’s mouth during the entire day, and it would seem to any casual onlooker that Leah was unaccompanied and utterly alone. But this was no shock to Leah given the reasons of their coming; Shayla’s instincts were on high alert and he was ready to serve swift but deadly vengeance upon anyone who dared to threaten or hurt Leah’s family – his family!
Because of the long distance to her village family home and the rather lengthy walk needed to travel to or from it, Leah had set up a very reliable communication system by way of homing carrier pigeons. Her parents, or more precisely, her foster parents, (she never knew her true parents) were getting old and frail and there was no way whatsoever that they would ever be able to make the physically demanding uphill hike to Leah’s remote mountain abode, they would never make it to the first third of the distance let alone the entire journey. So Leah gave them the pigeons to use whenever they needed to send her messages, either in greeting just to keep in touch, or for more pressing matters that required an urgency in her response. Leah had recieved such a message late yesterday evening. After she had removed the rolled up parchment from the pigeon’s leg and unrolled it, she found that the message was short, simple, and going by the thin scrawling hand writing, she judged it to have been written by her mother. Leah then read the message with a growing sense of nervous trepidation . . .
Bad men coming to village. We need you and Shayla. Please come quickly.
Love, mama and papa.
By the time Leah had got this message it was dark and there was very little point in her setting out at night, the way down the mountain without the aid of natural sunlight would be perilous for both her and Shayla despite his keen eyesight. The crescent moon was no help either giving little or no light, so therefore it was an unthinkable thing to attempt until the dawning of the next day. There was however no reason why the pigeon couldn’t find its way back in the dark, they had done it before without any problems. So Leah wrote her reply telling her parents that she would set out by first light on the morrow, and after attaching it to the birds leg sent it back down the mountain. Leah told Shayla of the message and of her intentions when he had returned from a hunt, Shayla understood enough to know that there was some trouble brewing down below, and as always he was ready to come to Leah’s aid and help to protect her and her parents come what may.
The early evening weather took a turn for the better as they both came upon leveller ground; they had now safely traversed the mountain path. A fairly strong breeze now blew steadily coming from the north bringing with it a much welcomed refreshing relief from the oppresive airless heat that had so dominated the land over the past week. Leah relished the cooler air sweeping over the bare parts of her semi clad body, her naked legs felt reinvigorated with energy giving a new bounce to her strides. Shayla would also appreciate it too, but as ever, he remained silent and would never voice or show it in any way, he was far too busy keeping his attention firmly focussed on the affairs of the day.
They now had but a small forest to pass through then open country would be the only terrain that spanned the distance between them and home village. Leah made her way through the forest weaving in and out of the trees occasionally glancing behind her for any sign that Shayla might be finally making an overt appearance, but as yet he still chose to keep himself hidden under his self imposed cloak of stealth. A short way further on they had reached the halfway point in the forest when, by way of a low throaty gravely grunt that only Leah would understand, she heard Shayla make his very first sound of the day. Leah stopped in her tracks then casually reached down for her water pouch and took a quick swig from it while innocently gazing around at the forest floor. She had been well aware for some time now, perhaps not as soon as Shayla had been, that when they arrived at the foot of the forest someone had been tracking them, or more accurately, tracking Leah. Whoever it was would be in a state of blissful ignorance of the presence of Shayla, and Shayla himself would have made quite sure that he was not able to be seen by this unknown stalker just as soon as he caught wind of the scent. But now the unknown person was encroaching within what Shayla considered a safe distance and had given Leah fair warning.
Leah put her water pouch back on her belt while casting a furtive glance to where Shayla hid behind some trees. He momentarily showed his head and pointed with it in the direction her stalker was approaching from. Leah nodded back at Shayla in a subtle fashion then knelt down and fussed over one of her shoes, as she did this she spoke to Shayla in nothing more than a whisper that Shayla was more than capable of hearing with his acutely receptive ears.
“Shayla! Time to bring this stranger out into the open. You know what to do.”
Leah rose back up and carried on walking again. Shayla was no longer behind her but now held a flanking position to her right keeping his usual unseen discrete distance. This was his favourite mode of attack and Leah allowed herself a smirk when she thought about what was soon to happen. A little way up ahead Leah came to a clearing that she knew well, here the trees thinned out and several patches of lush, overgrown grass had taken full advantage of the treeless area and had thrived. Leah stopped, sat down on one of the grass patches and unhooked the food ration from her belt, this she unwrapped again while resting it on her lap. Her senses began to tingle with anticipation when she felt her stalker clumsily approach her position from behind. She was nervous but felt no fear, her trust in Shayla’s instinctive skill at recognising anybody’s true intention was unwavering and well tested. Shayla would bring an instant quick death to anybody he felt unsure about in such a situation as the one they now both found themselves in.
Leah now braced herself for whatever was to come. Shayla crouched poised and ready to pounce at a moments notice. Suddenly a strong hand reached around and grabbing hold of her chin forced her head up while a dagger was held to her exposed throat; she then felt a jolt in her back as a knee slammed up against it. Leah let out an involuntary gasp, and just as soon as this assault begun, it suddenly stopped dead! Leah’s attacker froze solid and let out a sudden gasp when he sensed a ferocious lethal presence directly behind him, so close behind him in fact that he could feel warm breath on the back of his ears and neck. This was accompanied by a deep growl which suggested that whoever was making it had enormous physical strength and power. The stranger became terrified and unable to turn around and face his would be assailant, his eyes darted sideways trying to see what was behind him but without actually turning his head it was a hopeless exercise. And as if suddenly conscious of his own mortality he started to tremble in fear, beads of sweat then began forming on his forehead and ran down his frightened looking face.
Leah, by now, had regained her self composure and calmly but firmly spoke to whoever still held the dagger to her throat.
“Do exactly as I tell you to do and make no sudden or false movements, if you do, you are a dead man. Now remove the dagger from my throat and hold it out at arms length and carefully drop it to the ground. Keep you arm outstretched.”
The stranger instantly obeyed her command, his breathing had become hard and erractic as his nerves crumbled to pieces.
“Now remove your foul disgusting hand from my chin and hold it out like your other one.”
This he did without any hesitation.
“Remove your knee from my back then stay exactly where you are, kneeling with your arms outstretched.”
This he also did making him look quite ridiculous like he was trying to imitate a bird in flight, his arms being the wings.
Leah now stood up and turned round to regard her attacker. He was a young man going by his face, not that much older than Leah who was now twentyfour. He wore the garments of a commoner, a loose pair of brown trousers, a cream coloured shirt over which he sported a well worn, old brown leather jacket. His boots were black but appeared brown through caked on mud stains. Hanging from his neck was a silver chain, and attached to that was a pendant of sorts. He had no other item of jewelery that Leah could see. Apart from the dagger which now lay at her feet, Leah could see no other form of weapon on his person. This Leah thought of as a strange thing out here in the wilderness, most people carried with them a sword at the very least! As she studied him more closely she noticed that he was quite muscular and sturdily built, and looked to be quite useful in a tight spot despite his now cowering penitent posture. His face was smooth with slight stubble on his chin but bore no signs of scars or scratches. His eyes were doeful and sad but possessed an honesty in them that again, Leah thought of as strange.
Leah straightened her sparse top out and smoothed down her loin cloth constantly watching the stranger as she did so; his gaze was averted downward. Her eyes then glanced up at Shayla who, just like her attacker was frozen in place, waiting, waiting.
Leah took a step toward the young man and with a back swing of her arm brought it violently forward and struck him around the face with the back of her hand, he was hard put to maintain his balance through the force of the impact. Shayla let out an approving growling rumble.
“Who are you? What is your name” Demanded Leah with a scowl.
The young man’s lips began to quiver as he attempted to speak, his eyes darted sideways again then came back to rest on Leah’s.
“Ma, m..,my name is Gan.” He finally managed to say.
“Well, Gan! I have to tell you that you are lucky to still be alive, for now at least. My friend behind you must sense some good in you otherwise he would have killed you long ago. So tell me, do you always sneak up on women who are strange to you and attack them? Or are you just a plain down right robber, a chancer?”
Gan’s lips quivered again as he thought about and prepared his answer.
“No…no to them all.” He replied.
Leah stood with her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow over his less than adequate answer.
“You’ll have to do better than that!” Leah spat out, putting an emphasis on her last word.
“Please,” said Gan, still trying to bring his nerves under control. “Give me a moment.”
Leah folded her arms and glared at Gan impatiently. Then she decided to give him a break.
“Right, Gan! You may lower your arms, but do it very slowly.”
Gan complied and slowly lowered his arms. A look of relief spread across his face as his arms came down at his side.
“Now stand up slowly, make sure you don’t stumble or make any quick movement.” Instructed Leah.
Gan looked up at Leah, and keeping his eyes fixed on her he slowly but carefully rose to a standing position.
“Right! Good!” Said Leah, with a tight smile on her face. “Now I want you to turn around very very slowly so my friend can get a better look at you. And again, make no sudden or unexpected movements.”
Gan’s eyes shot sideways again in his nervousness, he was about to meet and greet his unknown nemesis. Gan gingerly started to turn round making sure his feet obeyed his commands. He was now facing the other way, and the sight that his eyes met with was something he would more than likely never ever forget. He was staring into the eyes of a fully grown adult tiger. Gan’s mouth fell open when he took in the majestic magnificence of this beautiful creature. Gan tried to avert his eyes from Shayla’s but something inside him suggested that he should not attempt to do so. He stood transfixed and felt exposed and naked under the gaze of Shayla’s intense and probing stare. Leah, by now, had walked around Gan and stood at Shayla’s side gently stroking the top of his head with her hand. Despite the fact that Gan’s eyes were unmoving and glued on Shayla’s, he couldn’t help but notice its body, the tiger was unbelievably massive. Its head was way bigger than his own and the front legs had paws that were more than twice the size of both his hands put together. Standing as it was, tall and proud, its back was just below the height of Leah’s waistline. But it was the eyes of this magnificent creature that Gan found both fascinating and frightening. They shone with a radiant glow of deep golden amber and a great intelligence lay behind them suggesting that nothing passed unnoticed under their laser-like scrutiny. Gan felt very small and puny as Shayla continued unwaveringly to hold his gaze.
Suddenly Shayla opened his mouth, snarling and exposing his razor sharp teeth at Gan.
“Look away from him! Do it now!” Leah cut in quickly.
Gan dropped his gaze to the floor, his heart began hammering within his chest.
Shayla then relaxed and the tension that had been primed and ready in his muscles fell away, he looked up at Leah and rubbed his head on her upper body in a show of affection. Leah ruffled his facial fur and smiled at him.
“Right Gan!” Said Leah in an authorative manner as she looked up again. “You have one more chance to explain yourself properly to both me, and my friend. And I strongly suggest that you do not place any lie within your story, if you do, my friend will know it and become very angry with you. Do you understand what I am telling you Gan?”
Gan nodded then swallowed hard, his eyes fixed on the ground at his feet.
“I have made a terrible mistake,” said Gan apologetically. “I have mistaken you for someone else and I am truly sorry.”
Leah studied him then looked at Shayla, he seemed uninterested for the time being but his eyes were still probing deep into Gan’s.
“You’re right about the mistake part!” Leah put in sarcastically. “So who did you think I was then?”
“There has been a band of marauders seen in this land over the past few days. They are skilled in sword play and battle hard. They have left many people starving and penniless in their wake, and some of their victims who tried to resist have been murdered. They take anything of their choosing before moving on to the next village which will suffer the same fate. Village folk are powerless to stop them. they have many hands, fourteen in all, twelve men, and two women. Two days past I followed them in their travels west of here, and to me you looked like one of the women in their party. And again, I apologise in mistaking you for one of them.”
Shayla looked up at Leah and growled, his eyes squinted. Leah understood his gesture and ruffled the fur on his neck as he rubbed his head on her hip.
“And how came you by this party? And how do you seem to know as much as you do? What is your part in all this?” Leah asked. Shayla fixed his eyes back on Gan again.
Gan now found enough courage and resolve to finally look up and meet Leah’s eyes. He made sure he never let his gaze wander down to Shayla. He was no fool and had no idea how the tiger would react going by what had happened a few moments ago.
“The village where I come from was hit first.” He pointed at some distant hills to his right indicating the direction. “They came upon us with no warning two days past now in the early morn. My village is small and many people there are elderly, I am the youngest member in my community. We are mainly merchants and traders who supply other villages with our wares. We are not a fighting folk and over the years we have had no need for weaponry and do not possess the skill in the use of them if asked to do so. We were unprepared and helpless when they came, so we yielded to them as they stole our very livelihoods leaving us with little, but at least we still had our lives and our homes. After they had left I became angry and frustrated over my own inability to stop them. I decided to follow them in the hope that I might discover where they would go next, I thought I could forewarn the next village of their coming and organise enough people to offer some resistance and put an end to their marauding ways. At night I came upon their camp and spied on them hoping to glean some information.”
“That night I learned nothing to my advantage and the next morning they set out again and raided yet another village a few miles from my own, I could do nothing to prevent it, I am but one man. Again that day, I ventured to followed their trail. When night fell I stalked their camp like I had done the previous night and I finally got lucky. I overheard them as they spoke and debated where they would go next. They had decided to stay in their camp during the next day to take stock of and share out their plunders, but come the next day they all agreed to set off again and find more victims for their cause. I learned that they intended to head west, and I knew of a village in that direction, we have done trade with the people there on many occasions in the past. So it was obvious to me that that village would become a viable target once stumbled upon by them. Once I got this information I decided to leave their camp and head to this village to warn them, I set off into the night on foot and ran whenever my legs would allow; I reached the village just before sunset last night. In my haste I spoke with the first people I saw, an elderly couple named Rhona and Christoph. After they had heard my tale they then spread the word through the entire village.”
“They took me in their home and offered food and water, this I gratefully accepted for I was starving by then. The old woman then wrote a message and sent it out by carrier pigeon. I asked her what she was doing, she said that she was sending a message to someone who would help. In their kindness they offered to put me up for the night. And so today I spent mostly helping the village folk to prepare their defenses and hide their valuables and food stocks. The village has a few good men who are willing to put up a fight when it comes to it, but alas, they are in need of weapons that they simply don’t have. When the afternoon came I told the village folk that I would scout out the area to espy the raiders approach. I wandered about in the general direction which I knew they would come from but as yet I haven’t seen them. Eventually I found myself here where we are now and that is when I spotted you coming through the forest. And because the raiders are known to be coming this way, I mistook you for one of their women. It did seem strange to me why she was separated from the main group, I didn’t really have any plan, and didn’t really know what I was going to do when I came up behind you either, I guess it was a rash, foolish act on my part, but thinking what I did I couldn’t let such an opportunity pass by without doing something. And if I knew that a tiger was with you I would never have even considered it. And here we are now. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. Trust is earned and not casually given in my book, but what I have just told you I swear to be the absolute truth.”
Leah had listened without interruption to Gan’s tale. She now regarded him in a new light and found herself sympathetic toward him. She reached into a small purse tied to her belt and produced a small piece of rolled up parchment, this she handed to him.
“This is the message that Rhona wrote to me, she is my care parent as is Christoph.” Explained Leah as Gan read the message. “Your story rings as true. I was on my way there before you decided to stalk then attack me. And by the way, we both knew that you were behind us too.” She looked down at Shayla who was quietly looking around the area seemingly not too bothered about Gan anymore. She stroked his head while giving him a smile.
“I am Leah, and this is Shayla my companion and friend.” Said Leah by way of introduction. “And I thank you for giving my home village the warning that you did, that was a very decent thing to do.”
Gan now smiled and no longer felt threatened by the feral presence of Shayla. He dared a look at him and all Shayla did was to hold his head high in a regally proud posture and squinted his eyes back at him.
“I will do all in my power to help stop them,” he repied. “By my reckoning they will be here sometime tomorrow, the hour I cannot say with any certainty, but we do have some time to get ready for their arrival. I would like to join you if I may and help.”
“come then, lets us go without any further delay.” Leah said. “My parents are expecting us both and are probably beginning to wonder where we have got to!”
Leah picked up the food she had let drop when Gan had grabbed at her from behind and offered it to Shayla who did nothing more than swallow it all in one great gulp. Leah laughed as she watched him eat greedily. The three of them then set off to walk the short distance that remained between them and the village.
“I have to say,” said Gan soberly. “Shayla is truly a magnificient tiger!”
Leah said nothing but just offered him a soft smile.
Shayla let out a loud growl.