The old lioness was gaunt and weak from hunger, but she was also cunning. She waited for the warthog to step into the thick mud by the waterhole, then pounced. There followed a brief, desperate struggle... which the warthog won. Panting, beaten, the lioness lay in the mud for several long minutes. Finally, she roused, drank some, then dragged herself to the shade of a nearby tree. There she dropped to the ground, too weak and tired groom off the mud or even to lay herself down properly.
This was the end. She had no more energy for hunting. Nothing was left now but to wait for starvation to take her. Considering her condition, that would not be long in coming. She lapsed into a deep sleep.
Something roused her; she wasn't sure what. Immediately she noticed that she felt better. Not less hungry. But her injuries were gone, and the persistent sore on her left flank healed. And she smelled...
A juicy young gazelle greeted her opened eyes. Dead, neck broken in a very non-lion attack. A cell-deep hunger drove her to her feet, but even that could not completely drown out her wariness. She glanced around. Nearby, downwind, was another lioness, laying in the shade of a different tree. Young, healthy, but oddly small. The old one snarled, but the stranger presented no obvious threat. She moved weakly to the gazelle and tore desperately into it.
Her teeth were too blunted with wear to open even the soft skin of the belly, but she'd learned to use her claws for that. Soon, she was gorging on organ meat. She couldn't eat much at one time; her system wasn't used to more than the few bites an occasional small animal could provide. But she ate from the carcass for the rest of the day, sleeping between meals with one forepaw on the gazelle, as if to keep it from disappearing when she wasn't looking. By dusk all the good parts were gone, and much of the rest. She curled up under the tree to sleep, and digest.
Next morning only a few bones were left from the carcass, but nearby was another fresh gazelle. The stranger was also still there, in the same spot as before. The old lioness was still hungry - one gazelle could only partly assuage the desperate need which had consumed her for so long - but the edge was gone. She stared for long moments at the stranger, able to detect now that she wasn't actually a lion, but something else. Something foreign. And there was a scent on the gazelle - something which she had noticed with the first one, but ignored due to hunger - which matched the strange odor she occasionally caught from the stranger, carried on the fitful breeze. Still, the meal was obviously a gift, and the odd creature was keeping her distance. The lioness ate as before, though not quite so frantically.
After taking some organ meats and some of the tenderer muscles, the lioness moved to the tree and lay where she could watch both her meal and the other cat. The stranger lay where she had the day before, waiting patiently. After some time, with most of the recent meal digested, the old lioness sighed... and shifted form.
Not all the way to human. That would leave her too vulnerable. Instead she changed to the midform, something she had lacked the energy to do for months. Bipedal, combining the best features of lion and human, it was both the form best for fighting and capable of speech.
"Those who bring gifts usually wish something in return," the lioness snarled, in the spirit tongue most shapechangers shared.
The stranger considered for a moment, then shifted form, all the way to human. She appeared to be about 30, but for shapechangers that could mean anything from 20 to 70. Chestnut-skinned, with high cheekbones, she was no type of human the lioness had met before, but she had seen photographs of people this woman resembled. American Indians. Fellow victims of white imperialism. Though that didn't necessarily make them allies.
Casually naked, leaning her back against the tree trunk, the stranger appeared young and vital. Far more than a match for the old lioness; at least, physically. After several moments of unhurried contemplation, the stranger answered.
"It is said you are the oldest living shapechanger."
"A dubious honor," said the lioness. "My pride dispersed years ago, my cubs, their cubs, and their cubs are all dead..."
"But their cubs, and their cubs, live on," the stranger observed.
"As do I," said the lioness, in a neutral tone.
"It is said that you may not die until you have passed some great secret on."
"It is also said that I must pass some secret on before I die," the lioness countered, "which is an entirely different thing."
"Then are you ready to die?"
The newcomer considered for a moment, then shook her head.
"No. There are still things I need to do." She stretched, rose, and moved over to the tree where the old lioness sat, dropping lithely down at the base, a quarter of the way around from the larger cat. "I am Lisa. I have been told you know the Secret of Calling Cats."
The lioness laughed, then coughed. The newcomer watched her but made no move to help. She didn't need to. The lioness recovered quickly.
"That is one of the least of my secrets, youngster," she said. She stared appraisingly at the stranger for a long moment. "You are a healer."
"You brought food to me, then healed me, so that I could eat."
"I was afraid you would die before I could talk to you." Lisa shrugged. "It is easier to talk to the living than the dead."
"You seem to already have secrets much greater than that of Calling Cats," the lioness said, almost accusingly.
"But those would not bring help to me if I needed it and could not otherwise find it," said Lisa, casually. "And, while the Secret of Calling Cats is a little secret, as things go, it is also one which few know. Perhaps only one knows it."
The lioness' eyes narrowed.
"You seem a proud creature, and one who hunts alone. Yet you seek help, and the means to call help…"
"Some prey is too big for any lone hunter," said Lisa.
"I sense a hard-learned humility behind those words," said the lioness, with a wry chuckle. "Perhaps you are worthy of learning that little secret."
"I have learned many lessons besides humility," said Lisa. "My kind are loners by nature, yet I have learned the importance of friends and allies. I am a healer who knows how to kill, and a killer who knows how to heal. I am a very private person who has learned how to spread knowledge – and perhaps a little wisdom - to many. And I have learned that there is still much for me to learn."
"A bit flowery, but well spoken," said the lioness. She straightened, her manner sterner, more formal. "You will bring me two more gazelles. First, though, you will tell what sort of creature you are."
"I am the cat of many names," said Lisa, smiling. "My animal kin are known as pumas, catamounts, mountain lions, and several other labels, but the one I prefer is cougar. On my human side I am half Navajo - some of the fiercest warriors who have ever lived - and half Acoma Pueblo - crafters and planners who are also skilled at war."
"Hmph," said the lioness, apparently unimpressed. "Well, you seem prepared for fighting. But are you prepared for learning? Don't answer; I'll find out later, for myself. Now, you go get those gazelles."
Lisa shifted to her full cat form and walked off. She returned with the first gazelle in a matter of minutes, and the old lioness had to work to hide her surprise. The second took a little longer, but was still laying beside the first in less time than the older shapeshifter had thought possible. She was, in fact, still chewing on the kill from that morning when Lisa finished.
"I can't eat muscle too fast with these old, worn teeth of mine," she announced, moving to one of the new carcasses. "Why don't you finish that one?"
"I am fasting," said Lisa.
"Oh?" asked the lioness. "Until I teach you?"
"Until I am ready to eat."
The old lioness smiled at that. Strange in breed she might be, but this Lisa was still a cat.
"Eat. You'll need your strength. I am not an easy teacher."
She spoke truly. Hours later, with the sun touching the western horizon, she finally relented. Lisa collapsed, exhausted but satisfied. She eyed the old lioness in an evaluating manner. The elder had worked nearly as hard as Lisa, but seemed much less tired. Indeed, she looked in better shape now than when they had started. Still old and thin, but no longer on the edge of death.
"A little secret, indeed," said Lisa, tiredly. She gave a rueful laugh. "I learned to call lightning from the heavens more easily!"
"Now you will sleep," said the lioness, "and I will eat. For only fortune knows when I will have food again."
* * *
When Lisa awoke the next morning the old lioness was alone. The freshest gazelle was also gone. Neither of those facts was surprising. What did surprise - and puzzle - her was that there were no tracks leading away from this tree, besides those she herself had previously left. Lisa stood in thought for long moments.
"A test..." she murmured, finally, nearly sure. "A test, and a lesson. I know I might need help, but do I believe it? I think I do. Now."
She shifted to full cat, and began loping across the plain.
This document is Copyright 2010 Rodford Edmiston Smith. For permission to reproduce it contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org