Monday, April 30, 2012
The Mountain Lion King
Nilambari ran as if her life depended on it, because it definitely did. Her escorts had released her arms to get the bags out of the car. She’d seen her chance and sprinted for the forest, shedding her jewelry as she ran. The second she hit the trees she’d shifted. Her expensive sari unfurled and fluttered to the ground behind her like a discarded bridal train, like the life she’d rejected with her dash to freedom. This bright new country had better fulfill its promise of plenty, because now she had nothing.
Other than the two tiger shifters currently on her trail.
One she might have fought or eluded. Not two. So she ran, weaving between trees and employing every scrap of woodcraft she knew to throw them off the scent. The crashing through the brush behind her foretold futility. These were Yakuza. They answered to Shere Khan. He would have their heads if they didn’t bring him hers.
To her advantage, she was young and quick. Tigers weren’t built for speed or stamina. Perhaps she could outrun them.
She vaulted a jumble of rocks and landed on top of something furred, firm and squiggly. Her own momentum rolled her off it before it could buck her away. She landed in a crouch, to the sight of a paw and a set of wicked claws aimed at her face.
The claws slammed to a stop a hair from her eyes. The cat had scented her sheness. He lowered his paw and stared at her with his head cocked to one side.
Nilambari had known only a few Indian lions. They were weak creatures, unlike the full-fed kings who ruled the African plains, and no match for the tigers who held sway in India. This tawny male was smaller even than they. And maneless. If not for his decidedly masculine scent, she would have taken him for a lioness.
No lions had been among her escorts. This cat must be a native.
The crash of heavy bodies announced the arrival of the Yakuza. Nilambari slunk into the bushes.
The two Yakuza tigers appeared at the top of the rocks. They lashed their tails and snarled and bristled themselves even larger to intimidate the native cat.
He regarded them with more calm than he had Nilambari’s sudden arrival. He rose up abruptly and shifted. In human form he was tall but less bulky than a tiger, with the same tawny hair now falling over bright golden eyes. Those eyes narrowed to suspicious bars. He flexed his fingers as one would claws.
Nilambari hissed. That fine human body was about to get itself clawed to pieces. Why had he not stayed a cat?
“You’re trespassing,” he informed the tigers. “Get off my mountain and I’ll let you keep your stripes.”
For a moment the tigers gaped at him. No one defied the will of Shere Khan, certainly not this scrawny mangy native lion. Then one of the Yakuza shifted. “Out of our way, house cat,” he spat.
The lion-shifter shrugged. “Can’t say I didn’t warn you.” He backed a stride to the small campfire behind him and picked up a rifle. He shot at the tiger’s feet. The man fell over backwards with a yell of surprise. The other, still in tiger form, continued to crouch atop the rock until a bullet pinged beside his paw and convinced him to crouch elsewhere. The lion fired again, creasing the tiger’s spine fur. Both plunged down the mountainside back the way they had come.
“Stinking Yakuza,” he muttered. He relaxed, but kept hold of the rifle. “You going to come out,” he said toward Nalimbari’s hiding place, “or do I have to come in after you?”
# # #
Rick Donnelly watched the slender tigress creep out of the brush. His look of frank appraisal turned to one of shock when she shifted. Human, she was slim as a cat-tail, with dusky skin and raven-wing hair tumbling down to her waist. She had practically no hips or boobs. Or, he judged, many years to her credit.
He inclined his head toward the sound of the fleeing tigers. “Do I even want to know?”
“It’s best if you do,” she said, in a low, husky voice. “They’ll hunt you now, for shielding me. Shere Khan won’t rest until he has me back, and takes your head.”
Rick looked her up and down. “And what did a little thing like you do to piss off Shere Khan?”
She looked at the ground. “My father owes him a debt. He demanded me as payment. I was to become his concubine. I did not wish to be the concubine of Shere Khan, so when I saw my chance, I ran.”
Rick hissed in a breath. “Are you even legal?”
“In my country, girls younger than I are already married and mothers.” She continued to look at the ground. “I’d hoped my advanced age would spare me, but Lord Khan seems not to mind.”
That filthy old perv, Rick thought. He had, what, a dozen wives already? And still thought nothing of tossing yet another one into the cage. “Just how ‘advanced’ are you?”
Her voice dropped to a shamed whisper. “Nearly twenty.”
He just barely stifled his chuckle. “Yep. Over the hill for sure. Well, you’re on my mountain now, and I don’t put up with tigers. Male tigers,” he amended at her stricken look. “I’m sure I can keep an old lady like you safe. What’s your name?”
“Nilambari.” Finally, she lifted her head. Her green eyes seemed to take up half her thin face. “Are you a lion?”
This time he did chuckle. “Mountain lion. I used to prefer cougar, until the humans got hold of it and changed the meaning. I’m Rick. Welcome to Montana.”
He held out his hand. She stared at it for a long time before she finally took it. His big paw swallowed hers. Funny, he thought. In her tiger form she was probably bigger than he was. Tigers. What the hell had brought a pack of tigers all the way to Montana, and why couldn’t they learn to stay the hell off his mountain?
Though he didn’t mind this one’s presence so much.
She had transferred her stare from his hand to his rifle. “You carry a gun?”
“Not to hunt. This is my range. Some folks, like grizzlies and the Yakuza, haven’t caught on yet.” He grinned down at her. “I know my limits, and I’m not stupid.”
Nilambari withdrew her hand. “I should go. So should you. They’ll be back, in greater numbers.” She looked from him to the gun again. “They will also come armed.”
“Whoa!” He caught her arm when she tried to slip away, and growled mentally when she openly flinched. A cougar she would have clawed his face off. What did those stinking stripies do to their cubs? “You can’t go into town the way you are, not even in Talbot’s Peak. C’mere, have a seat.”
He guided her over to the fire, where a groundhog roasted on a spit. He didn’t miss the covetous way she eyed it. Did tigers drink coffee? Did he have any tea? Whenever Rick went on patrol he tried to prepare for anything his mountains might throw at him, but they’d never thrown a frightened tigress at him before. Rummaging through his pile of clothing, he found a sheepskin jacket and offered it to her. She slid it gratefully over her shoulders.
“Help yourself to dinner,” he offered. She seated herself crosslegged before his fire. Rick sat opposite. “Slow down,” he advised when she ripped, tiger-like, into the meat. “Sounds like we’ve got a ton to talk about. This could take a while.”