Ret'eena was numb, beyond fear. Her companions had already preceded her, one by one, to the blood-stained stone slab in the center of the clearing. Around her the strange worshipers of the strange god who had claimed the other members of the trading party performed the rites that would culminate in her death. She prayed to the Lady, not quite beyond hope but nearly so. The head priest came to the cage, watched her for a moment, and nodded. He made a sweeping gesture. The dancers stopped, and the musicians fell silent. All of those in the clearing - a mixture of the odd inhabitants of this part of the Pelagiris - waited in anticipation.
"Yes, child, pray," the priest told her. "We saved you for last, so that your terror and the anguish you felt for your companions will make your sacrifice all the sweeter for our god. So pray all you want, it will do you no good. We do this in direct service to our master. Gods don't fight gods, and they rarely interfere with each other's business. Your Star-Eyed Lady will not act directly to save you, and can not send any of her avatars. And any of her worshipers among the Plains dwellers would arrive too late to help you."
In the silence that followed this pronouncement, a calm voice spoke from beyond the circle of bonfires.
"That's why I'm here."
Ret'eena turned her head, and saw a strange, glowing figure in the darkness, like a great, striped cat, standing upright. But when it came into the light of the fires it was only a man, alone and unarmed. All those in the clearing stood unmoving, partly from sheer surprise, and partly because the stranger had an odd, commanding presence. Obviously angry, but controlling it, he moved without haste or fear, walking directly to the crude wooden cage. He freed the girl, breaking the cord that held the door shut with a single jerk.
"Go to that tree on the edge of the clearing and stay there," said the stranger, in a quiet - almost gentle - voice, pointing.
Ret'eena did as he told her, none of the worshipers moving to interfere. Once she was safely out of the way, he turned to the priest. That seemed to break whatever spell had been holding the worshipers back. The priest screamed in rage and swung at the stranger with his staff. The stranger dodged, then killed the priest with a single, sweeping blow, tearing his throat out. Before any of the others could react, he stepped quickly to the grooved slab that served as their altar. He raised his fists over his head and brought them down on the stone, smashing it. Then he met the charge of the worshipers.
Ker'ickan led his group of searchers across the Plains, toward the northwest section of the cliff. The missing party had last been seen heading in another direction, but others were searching there. Ker'ickan, on a hunch, had decided to try a different area. Besides, his people were camped nearby, so it would not take long to check. They were nearly to the base of the cliff when the lead rider called out. Two figures walked toward them across the plain. One was a young woman, wearing tattered Shin'a'in clothing; the other was a strangely dressed man. Ker'ickan had his riders move to encircle the duo.
"He's the one who saved me!" exclaimed the girl, apparently worried that the warriors might have the wrong idea. "I'm Ret'eena, of the Grasscat Clan, and this man has rescued me from those who captured me and my companions."
"Where are the others who were taken?"
"Dead," replied the stranger, turning glazed eyes toward Ker'ickan. "If it's any consolation, so are those who killed them. They're in a clearing, near the top of the cliff."
Ker'ickan realized that the man was in shock. He dismounted and moved toward the two.
"If you are indeed Ret'eena's rescuer, we owe you much, stranger."
"Good," the stranger replied, turning to reveal the broken-off spearhead embedded in his back. "Maybe you can pull this out for me, then. I can't seem to reach it."
A brief inspection was enough to show Ker'ickan that the stranger needed more care than could be provided here. Indeed, the clan chief didn't understand how the man could still be alive with such an injury, much less how he could have walked this far.
Ker'ickan ordered half his group to go up the cliff and search for the other members of the lost trading party, and recover their bodies. He decided to ride Ret'eena double with himself, and told another of his men to do the same with the stranger. As he was led toward the warsteed, the stranger's eyes lit up, his face showing some expression for the first time.
"One of the stallions!" he exclaimed mildly. "I've only seen the mares before."
He stepped forward, staggered, and before anyone could stop him, fell, catching himself with both hands against the animal's shoulder. To Ker'ickan's astonishment, instead of taking his hand off, the warsteed turned and nuzzled the man's sleeve. The clan leader wanted to know the how of this, but the situation demanded that any answers wait. Ker'ickan helped Ret'eena into the saddle, and swung up behind her.
Once they were under way, Ret'eena began talking. Her voice was heavy with fatigue and numbed from what she had been through, but she seemed compelled to relate her experiences. Her tale was a bit rambling, and omitted many details, but, as with the stranger's way with the warsteed, anything more would have to wait for later.
"They attacked him after seeing what he could do?" asked Ker'ickan, interrupting after the girl reached the part where the stranger shattered the alter. Ret'eena nodded.
"I suppose they were desperate. A few fled, but most came at him with weapons. He killed them. All of them. He wasn't unhurt - you saw the spear wound, and there were others - but they had no chance against him."
Ker'ickan turned to look at the stranger, and was alarmed to see him slumped unconscious in the saddle. He spurred his warsteed to a faster pace.
As they reigned to a halt in the encampment, Ker'ickan heard a cry of alarm, and looked back just in time to see the stranger tumble headfirst from the saddle. The sensation of falling must have revived him; he came awake in midair and turned his fall into a neat roll, coming smoothly to his feet. The stranger then made a sweeping turn to face the mounted Shin-a-in, stepping into a defensive stance. Ker'ickan saw that his eyes were still glazed, and guessed correctly that he was only semi-conscious, operating on pure reflex. He called out to the two men approaching the stranger to stay back, but was too late.
Each man reached for an arm, obviously intending to hold the stranger until Ker'ickan told them what to do with him. He turned his arms in their grasps, placed his hands on their chests and shoved. The men flew outward a surprising distance, landing hard. Ker'ickan was off his mount by then, and helping Ret'eena down. He drew his sword and moved closer to the man. He didn't like contemplating such an action, but if the stranger was delirious from his injury, he might have to injure or kill him to protect the camp. It was obvious that he had fearsome strength, and the skill to apply it.
The stranger noticed him, and turned, bringing his hands up. There was an odd shimmering in the air around him, and suddenly Ker'ickan was facing a great striped cat, standing on its hind legs. Ker'ickan was caught and held motionless by its unflinching golden gaze. It stared at him, massive paws flexing slightly to reveal gleaming claws. There was a collective intake of breath from those present. Ker'ickan knew then that if the cat saw him as a threat, he was a dead man. This was not a physical transformation; Ker'ickan had seen similar feats elsewhere, performed by shamans who were manifesting some aspect of the spirits or gods they served. Within the image Ker'ickan could still see the stranger. But he was barely conscious, wavering as he stood there, hands raised, fingers drawn back.
Ret'eena forced her way between Ker'ickan and the stranger, disrupting the tableau.
"No, Tiger, he's a friend!" she cried, her hands held out in a warding gesture. "We brought you here to heal you. Please, let us help you!"
The image faded. The stranger stood for a moment, staring blankly at the girl. Then he collapsed.
"Quickly!" snapped Ker'ickan. "Get him into Met'ellen's tent! Both of them!"
Later, after the scouts sent to the cliff top had reported back, Ker'ickan returned to the shaman's tent.
"How are they?" he asked Met'ellen, as the she met him outside.
"The girl is fine, physically," said the old woman. "She will need time and help to recover mentally, but that is only to be expected. The stranger is dying."
"Dying!" exclaimed Ker'ickan. "The man - if man he is - must have the vitality of a warsteed. How can he be dying?"
She motioned him over to a mat, and unfolded a cloth to reveal the spearhead she had removed from the stranger.
"See that dark stain?" she asked, pointing but not touching. "To you or me that is a mild poison. To a creature of magic, like many of those in the Pelagiris, it is something much worse. It was developed by inhabitants of that land to deal with animals whose nature is all or part magical. It turns the magic against itself, eventually killing the creature."
"So he is a Changechild," said Ker'ickan.
"No, he is quite normal, physically," countered Met'ellen. She sighed and shook her head. "But inside, he is something else, indeed. I tried Healing him, but in his delirium he fought me. I'm not sure how, but he resisted my efforts."
"As I approached your tent," said Ker'ickan, slowly, "I noticed that the largest hawk I have ever seen is perched on your ridgepole."
"That doesn't surprise me," she replied. "From the girl's story, he must have been sent here by some divine power, perhaps even the Goddess herself. If he is, indeed, some sort of shaman for a cat spirit, it would certainly be appropriate, since the girl is of the Grasscat Clan."
Met'ellen took Ker'ickan into the tent to see the visitor. To their surprise, Ret'eena was kneeling beside him, holding his face cupped in her hands.
"You are supposed to be resting!" snapped Met'ellen.
"He didn't know you are a Healer," said the girl, turning anxious eyes toward them. "He's used to Healers wearing green."
"And how do you know that, child?" asked the shaman, gently, kneeling beside the girl.
"I saw it, in my mind," said Retina.
"She's delirious," said Ker'ickan.
"No, I've heard of this," murmured Met'ellen. "She may have the Gift of Mindspeech. It would explain why someone so young was taken on an important trading mission."
She thought for a moment, then abruptly rose and left. When she returned a few minutes later she was wearing all-green clothing.
"Let's try it now."
Ret'eena nodded, and again cupped the man's head in her hands, as he lay face-down on the pallet.
"Tiger, the Healer is here. Do you understand me? The Healer is here!"
His eyes opened, and turned from the girl to Met'ellen. He sighed as he saw her, and relaxed, closing his eyes again. The shaman quickly moved in and lay her hands on him. She was astounded to note that not only had he stopped fighting her, but had surrendered completely to her ministrations. Met'ellen was left wondering who these Healers in green were, to have earned such trust.
Later, the exhausted shaman joined Ker'ickan sitting in the cool evening breeze.
"He's going to be fine, now," she told him, as she settled herself with a sigh. "Once he stopped resisting I was not only able to use my Healing, but guide his own abilities in fighting the poison. He should be completely recovered by morning."
"That's good," said Ker'ickan.
"I'm not so sure," said Met'ellen, giving a tired laugh. "He's already asked for food three times, and eaten everything I've given him."
Tiger, sneaking out the back, smiled at these words. He wanted to stay, but that would violate the terms of the agreement which had let him come here. Instead, he ghosted past the sentries and walked out onto the Dhorisha Plains. It had actually taken him less than an hour to heal after Met'ellen had countered the effects of the poison; he had simply been waiting for dark. Now, he must leave.
He intended to retrace his steps, crossing the Plains, climbing the cliff and moving back into the Pelagiris, and walking all the way to the ancient, permanent Gate through which he had entered this world. He was barely out of sight of the encampment, though, when he sensed something. Turning, he saw the Star-Eyed, in her aspect of the nurturing Mother. Tiger dropped to one knee and bowed his head respectfully.
"Rise, little Tiger," she said. "You have done well."
"Not really," he sighed, standing. "If I hadn't had so much trouble convincing that Hawkbrother border guard of my good intentions, I could have saved them all."
"That was not to be. If I had helped you in any way, that would have violated an agreement nearly as old as the world."
Tiger looked thoughtful for a long moment.
"When you appeared to me in that dream," he said slowly, "and asked me if I wanted to return here for a while, I thought there was something more at work. When you happened to mention that someone was in trouble and that I could help, I had a pretty good idea of what it was. When I heard the shaman tell Ret'eena the bit about gods not fighting gods, I understood."
"Poor little Tiger," said the Goddess. "You do feel so deeply, don't you? Well, you have done me a great service. Though you did it without thought of reward, you may have a boon, if you so desire."
"There is one thing," said Tiger. "Next time, can I bring my wife? I think Ret'eena was developing a crush on me."
She laughed, reaching out to stroke his hair, somehow managing to tame even that one stubborn strand that never wanted to lay flat.
"Perhaps," was the reply. "For now, you need to go home."
"Yes, that much I am allowed, since you are such a disturbing influence." She gestured, and a Gate opened, though without the usual accompanying disturbance to the weather. "What will you do if the one whose plans you thwarted decides to take vengeance on you, little Tiger?"
"Let 'im try," said Tiger, grinning fiercely. "It will be on my home turf, and I won't be alone."
With that, he walked through the Gate and was gone.
The world of Velgarth and all its inhabitants © Mercedes Lackey; Tiger © 1999 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: email@example.com. I filled out and submitted the appropriate release form.