The Lady and the Tiger
by A.C. Wise
or the tiger - the choice is always the same. It’s always one
or the other; never and, always or - as though there’s no
possibility that the thing that you love and the thing that can
kill you could be one and the same.
We were sitting in the dreaming
dark beneath the scattered stars. We were up on the hill and
below us flame sketched itself onto the night in the hands of
the trainers and the tigers, if only for a moment, bent
themselves to the tamers’ will. The graceful arcs they
transcribed as they sailed through the air said that, always,
the creatures performed at their whim and the whips and
commands and even the rewards meant nothing. Beneath their
stripes – flame colored and black as midnight – they were caged
fury and they could strike at any time.
We were transfixed, both of us,
but Mara more so. She strained forward, breathing their
breath. When their muscles ran, liquid beneath their skin, hers
coiled tense and ready to spring. Starlight etched her features
and frosted her in-caught breath. She watched the tigers and I
After the show was over, she
drifted down among the cages. The tigers were restless shadows
pacing behind the bars and keeping well back from the squealing,
jabbering crowds. Only their eyes were visible, glinting
moon-fire, watching warily with something like hate and
something like pride and something like fear.
Mara was rapt and wrapped her
fingers around the bars. The tamers were elsewhere, flirting
their way across the dreaming sands, cats forgotten and so we
were alone in the night with the held-back rage. Mara’s eyes
were satellites, orbiting the cat-moons. She was trying to
guess their dreams, reading omens from beneath their living
skin. Her knuckles were white, gripping the bars and she
whispered something, straining forward, that I could not quite
“I’m to be married.” The words
dropped casually from her lips, and my head snapped up over the
strong morning coffee we always shared. My cup was halfway to
my pursed lips, steam clouding my glasses and hiding my eyes.
“When?” I lowered the delicate
cup slowly to the low table between us, where we sat on rich
silken pillows spread across the tent floor. Her purple eyes
were veiled; her lashes cast low as she pretended not to watch
for my reaction.
“Soon.” She waved a hand
vaguely, while the other clenched tightly where she thought I
could not see.
“My father’s idea.” Airily -
but her lips were pressed into a thin line.
“He never got a son and so the
next best thing he can do is wed his daughter to a wealthy man,
make a good match, increase his own lands and secure a lasting
and more importantly, prosperous, peace for years to come.”
“Is that why we’re traveling?
You never told me.” She remained silent.
“Have you met him?” I tried to
keep my tone casual.
“We are to meet in a fortnight,
the day before we are wed.”
Resting on the table, my coffee
cup made a tambourine sound, trembling in my hand. There was a
long silence and then she spoke again.
“Do you remember when we were
Even without asking, I knew the
night she was thinking of; I could read it in her eyes. As
easily as always, I picked up the thread of her thought and
spoke it aloud.
“The night of the storm.”
“Yes.” Her voice was
dreamy. “The sky was the color of a bruise.”
The color of her eyes, I
thought and finished her description aloud.
“The sky was drenched with
lightning and trembled with thunder, but there was no rain.”
She smiled and I knew what was
“Do you remember? You thought
you saw something in the dark.”
“A tiger.” I tried to swallow,
but suddenly my throat had gone as dry as the sands whispering
beyond our silken walls.
“You got scared and tried to
run away, but you tripped and fell and cut your chin. Do you
remember what happened then?”
Her eyes were shining, a smile
playing over her lips and never quite settling there. I had to
fight with my voice, swallowing hard.
“Yes.” The words when they
came were the merest whisper of sound, nearly lost in the desert
“You licked the blood from my
chin and said . . . ." My voice failed, lost in the cavern suddenly
yawning between my ribs and I cast my eyes down, my cheeks
burning in the tent shadows as Mara echoed her words of long
ago. Her eyes were terribly bright and storm-colored and
lightning-shot as they rested upon me.
“You’re a part of me now. Now
you belong to me.”
That night I dreamt the child
Mara, but with her woman’s voice. Her eyes were gold fire, like
the molten gazes of the tigers, pacing restlessly behind their
bars. Her lips were red, the color of my fresh blood and I knew
there were claws, as black as night, secreted beneath her skin.
I awoke, shadowed by a cold fear I could not name and the wind
seemed to speak it for me. Mara.
She had never needed words to
spell me to her; she had never needed my blood. I had been hers
from the moment our eyes had first touched, perhaps that, when
we were both still dreaming in the womb.
Mara had no brothers, but she
had cousins aplenty and they came from every corner for the
celebration. I watched them arrive, strung out along the
horizon, wavering like dark mirages against the fire-painted
sky. Their camels bowed their legs beneath their varied
possessions, gifts for the bride to be and bribes for the groom,
that they might find favor in the new and strengthened kingdom.
Like an insect growing fat and bloated upon blood, our modest
There was drinking and
carousing and many who had been virgins when they lay down to
bed were not so when they rose the next morning. The sound of
strung-out laughter left the tigers pacing restlessly in their
cages. The Bedouin trainers had not moved on as they normally
would, but stayed instead with our caravan at the promise of
more coin and a captive audience at the wedding feast to come.
I could hear the cats at
night. The pad of their paws beat tremors into my dreams until
my mind was a flattened grassland where long shadow-scored
bodies lay. Tigers do not purr, but I have no doubt now that
The sound of the pre-wedding
feast echoed back from the stars, leaving the night hot and full
of sound. Fire ringed our tents and stained their flapping
silken walls the color of flame. The two camps together were
sprawled across the desert sand as if together they meant to own
the desert as a whole. For once the winds were still and only
the faintest breeze came to stir the torchlight, making banners
of the flames.
The air was heavy with the
scent of roasted meat and savory spice. There was wine too, as
dark as fresh blood and I watched Mara’s father and her groom to
be, pour out a portion together upon the desert sands; an
offering to the djinni-gods and I shivered to think of them
then, angel and demon both, bound together in one ethereal
Across the way, I watched Mara
as the offering was poured. Her eyes were veiled in shadow, her
expression inscrutable, though I thought I saw the corners of
her mouth turned down. As she had tried to guess omens from
beneath the tigers’ skin, I tried to read them now in the
smoke-shade of her eyes. What I saw in the offering poured was
an invitation, a doorway opened to things best left outside. In
the soft stir of the wind, I almost imagined I could hear them,
hungry mouths and hungry eyes – and they had just been asked to
Despite the sumptuous feast of
gleaming food, I had no appetite. I hung back instead and
watched instead. I watched Mara’s intended groom. I watched
him devour greasy portions of meat, his fingers and chin shining
with the drippings, even as he consumed a second feast with his
eyes. They roved freely, not touching Mara alone, but his
hungry gaze seeking to devour nearly every woman in the room and
not a few of the young men as well.
If Mara felt the hunger of his
gaze however, she let it slide from her as water beading upon
her skin. But something seemed to burn in her as well – a
different kind of hunger. Where the shadows and the light of
the fire touched her skin they seemed to writhe, like living
things. She touched little of the food, but drank liberally of
the spiced wine and I saw its effect shining through her eyes
and her luminous skin.
When the feast had been
cleared, some of the Bedouin tiger trainers brought forth drums
of stretched skin and began to play. The beat of their hands on
once-living flesh put me in mind of blood, pulsing just beneath
the surface of feline skin. I could almost hear the
counter-point of heavy padded feet echoing the cry of the drums.
As if she had heard it too, I
saw Mara rise. Light and shadow clung to her as a second skin.
Her body arched and turned in liquid grace and her eyes burned
molten fire. Her lips – too-red it seemed in the firelight –
were parted and I could see her teeth, hot and fierce; not a
smile, but almost a grimace of pain.
She danced and her dark hair
swung out from her, like the lashing of a tiger’s tail. There
was a strange ecstasy in her form and a pain as well, masked
from all but my eyes. Her whole being ached with it, nearly too
much to bear; her body cracking and riven with deep fissures the
color of blood. She was yearning for freedom, but like the
tigers, her father would see her caged.
I was on my feet, my eyes wild
with a fevered gaze. I picked out two faces among the crowd,
their eyes fixed to Mara. The first was her father and his eyes
burned with barely concealed rage. The second and worse by far,
was her intended bridegroom. In his gaze I saw Mara flayed
whole and devoured alive.
I nearly cried out, but
something stopped my voice in my throat. Something in her body,
in the wild heat of her dance made me fall silent. Like the
tigers, Mara bent to no will but her own – any other seeming was
only an illusion.
She did not dance for her
father, or her bridegroom, nor even for me. It was for those
smoke-mouths and eyes that I had felt pressed to the silk of our
tents. When the firelight flickered and the shadows danced
in-between, I could almost see them; their forms cleaving to
hers. Her father and her bridegroom had made their offering
before the feast - this, now, was hers.
The feast ended and the dancing
done, I slipped away from the tents, pursuing the shadow that
Mara had become against the star-gilded night. All were so
heady-drunk that no one but I noticed her go. I went with a
warning in my mind, but it died on my lips as I saw her once
more pressed close against a tiger cage.
Her hands were wrapped about
the bars, but now her face was leaned against them as well.
Over the night-purpled sands, the breeze was cool, lifting her
hair away from her smooth cheek to let the traitor moon show me
the tracks of her tears.
For a moment I could not
reconcile the image before me now with the woman who had danced,
but the ache that had been in that dance was in these tears too
– and the power as well. From the rise above the hollow where
the tiger cages rested I watched her. Behind the bars, the
beasts paced and as though stirred by their motion, shadow-laden
winds picked up as well, sweeping stinging sands to bite my
cheeks and gather in the corners of my eyes, like sun-dried
Her weeping was silent and her
body was utterly still. Head bowed, her ever-shifting eyes,
silver now, plead with the gold fire in the cages. It was the
only weakness I had ever seen her betray and it was a strength
all of its own. Back behind the bars, the restless shadows
stirred, rising. An understanding had been made.
I thought for an instant I saw
a flash of flame; the oiled muscles beneath the skin catching
light. Liquid movement poured the tiger close to the bars where
Mara wept and it raised its head and plied a gentle tongue to
her tears – the tiger comforting her where I could not.
Mara’s scream woke me. It
shocked me up from tiger-stalked dreams, dragging me from hot
sands of black glass and a merciless sun, to a spice-heavy
breeze lit with cool stars. The moon was still high - a
scimitar-slash in the darkness. I staggered out to see it grin
down at me – a tiger smile.
Tent flaps whipped like the
trainer’s cracks to make the great cats jump. Shouting filled
there air. A whirl of chaos swept by me, knocking me back and I
saw a sword raised, curved blade mirroring the moon. I heard
someone scream. Thick smoke rolled from a tent set afire and
the air was filled with stinging and choking black.
I heard Mara scream again and
through my streaming eyes I just caught sight of her, a rough
hand twined in her long oil-black hair, trying to drag her
away. I was swimming up, trying to reach her when I saw her
turn, thrashing, to sink her teeth into the hand that held her
and then twist away, sleek as silk, when the hand reached for
her again, dripping blood onto the sand.
I lost her in the chaos, but
she must have reached her father’s tent, for those that remained
of the cousins and her father’s men, rallied. The flames were
doused with an ifrit’s hiss and djinni-smoke swirled away to
obscure the stars. It was not enough. Somewhere in the night,
I heard a tiger scream.
We buried the dead at dawn.
Sand and sun both were streaked red with blood. It had been
less a battle and more a massacre, for they had slipped upon us
in the night; even when we had rallied, the advantage had still
been theirs. Only the cats had known and perhaps Mara as well.
“They tried to take me!”
I was outside the tent,
listening where I should not, to Mara stamp her foot and cry
aloud, her lithe body trembling with barely concealed rage.
“Why take by force what is
freely given?” Her father’s voice was weary.
“Because it is not given for
free! Or for the love of blood and sport, how should I know?
Will you not even lift a hand?”
“How should I lift my hand when
they have struck off my entire arm?” Mara’s father demanded.
“I have no army. What would
you have me do? Storm their walls with widows and weaklings,
women and babes? Who will lead them, I, who am in my twilight
years, or some fresh whelp, not yet out of swaddling clothes?”
“I will lead them.”
Mara stood tall and her eyes
burned. I knew without having to see. But serpent-quick,
Mara’s father struck her across the face, his hand answering her
defiant rage in a shadow play witnessed by my eyes alone.
“You will do no such thing!”
Her father’s eyes burned - his trick, which he had unwittingly
taught to her.
Mara staggered back and I saw
her raise a hand to her bleeding lip. She spoke then, very
quietly, so that I had to strain towards the tent’s silk to
catch her words.
“You would lie down like a
whipped dog at our enemy’s feet? You would show your belly when
he strikes you, lick his feet and beg him to strike you again?
My cousins are dead – all of them and I have been treated like a
mere possession to be snatched by thieves and you will do
“I will do what I must to avoid
a greater shame!” His voice was cold.
“Then you would lay down your
life for some false ideal?”
For a moment it seemed he would
strike her again, but he let his hand drop, his body weary and
bowed, his voice heavy with defeat.
“I will do what I must. Death
is preferable to the shame of letting my daughter go to war.
Vengeance is not given to your sex to wield. It is sanctified
by the Gods. It is the sacred right of men alone.”
“What would you do?” I asked
her softly, catching Mara’s arm as she came out of the
sand-scoured tent and into the merciless sun. Though the dead
had been buried, the blood-heavy stench of them still lingered
in the air.
Mara’s eyes were red, the
perfect mask of her face shattered to show, through the cracks,
her wounded pride and the cold depths of her rage. She started,
turning her face to gaze at me, wide-eyed. Her cheeks were dry
now, but I could see where the tears had been – salt scouring
her skin like the desert sands. I could see too the blood
drying at the corner of her mouth.
I wanted to comfort her, but
she had always been like smoke, too hard to hold.
“What I must.” Her body was
stiff, though her voice was raw.
I stared at her, seeing a
distance suddenly grown between us that I could not breech.
Mara’s voice, still wounded and raw, was also hard and behind
the red, her eyes glittered like set stones. I thought back to
the girl-child who had licked my wounds and taken my fear away.
If only I could heal her hurts so easily, take her inside me
thus and shelter her. But I would be poor shelter in any storm
– of the two of us; she had always been the strong one. And it
was her strength I feared now.
“I would give everything, all
that I have, to see him bloody and broken, to hold his heart in
my hand, to taste his life as it fades upon my tongue.”
A stranger stood before me.
Shadows moved just beneath the surface of her skin, omens I
could not read. My lips were frozen, my voice locked in my
throat so I could not speak to call her back to me; though I
knew already there were no words she would hear.
“How is vengeance given to men
alone when even the Gods are two beings in one skin? How are
vengeance and mercy other than one?”
She turned and walked away from
me and I watched her pace over the blood soaked sand through the
broken camp. Her shadow was long and four feet touched the
sand, trailing from her two.
I watched Mara pace, twinned by
the tigers in their cages. I could feel two hearts beat as one,
blood as hot as fire carried in two sets of veins – one human
and one feline. I longed to go to her, but I was afraid. I
feared the fire flashing from her eyes. I feared the wild whips
of her black hair, lashing out to crack like lightning as she
turned her head faster and faster, spinning on her heel. She
beat down the sand as she walked and I feared the heat of her
passage would melt it to glass again, leave it molten and
running to burn me where I stood.
I listened, mute witness, as
Mara raged at the sky. Tears, unabashed now, slid down her face
like that liquid glass I had imagined and she raised her arms in
imprecation to the blank clouds covering the stars. What boon,
what blessing she asked of them, I will never know, but I could
guess, even then, for I saw – and it might have been a trick of
the light – her shadow lengthen and grow to pace on four legs, a
tail lashing behind her as she moved.
Mara’s scream woke me, not of
terror, but of rage. I sat up, cold in the black-glass night.
I heard a tiger echo Mara’s scream and then all was still, save
the flapping of tent silks around me, though I swear I had not
left mine open or untied.
Rising I slipped out to taste
the stars and shadow paws paced the length of my spine, leaving
me colder even than before. I shivered, gooseflesh rising on my
arms as I listened. I could no longer be sure I had woken at
all. The night was full of restless shadows. All the doors of
the tigers’ cages had been flung wide and heavy paws tramped in
my mind, beating all sense of reality down, like so many
quivering stalks of grass, lying close-pressed to the earth in
The wind whipped by me, raising
stinging grains of sand, bringing a new scent to thread the
air. It was the scent of blood.
Afraid, I slunk back into my
tent and tied the flaps tight, sitting shivering in its center,
but unable to sleep again.
“Wake up! We’re moving on.”
Mara shook me and still
groggy-eyed, I rose. She handed me my glasses as I blinked,
trying to resolve the image of her crouching over me. There was
something subtly wrong in her form, something indefinable,
slipping like a mirage before it was gone.
Glasses set on my nose, her
image became coherent and whole. She crackled. Her hair lifted
– electric – away from her skin. She made me dizzy, just being
near and the heat from her was like the heat of the midday sun.
“Get up.” She called again and
rose, moving out of the door, leaving me to stare after her.
As I rose and began my morning
ablutions, I was sharply aware of the lingering odor of animal
musk hanging in the air.
The sun nearly blinded me as I
stepped out into the morning heat. The distant horizon
shimmered, as if the world itself were melting – a molten
dream. All was brilliant whiteness, an unbroken glare from the
sun, save three black shadows that circled ominously overhead.
I squinted, shading my eyes and I saw three carrion birds
wheeling in slow lazy turns through the air. From where I
stood, buried in their ruined-looking flesh, their eyes appeared
blood-red in the sun.
“Where are we going?” I asked
Mara, who was holding herself and also watching the sky.
The light washed her, leaving
her haggard and pale.
“We are moving on. There is
nothing more for us here.”
“What of your father?” I asked
looking at her sidelong, studying her profile cut sharply
against the burning day.
“My father?” She blinked,
turning eyes on me that were as smooth and empty as beads of
“My father is dead.”
She let the words drop from her
lips, as simply as stones and then she was gone, turning on her
heel and striding away.
We broke camp as Mara
commanded. Our diminished numbers crowded close, flickering
watchful eyes over every inch of the empty sand. Only Mara had
an unshadowed gaze, her eyes bright, her stride free and almost
jubilant. Something in that frightened me more than her dark
mood of the night before. She swung her arms as we trekked and
flashed smiles at me. I caught the tips of her teeth, just
visible over the edge of her lip. They seemed sharper than they
We came across the first bodies
not two miles from where we had broken camp. Sand, stirred by
the morning breeze, had already begun to pile in low drifts
against them and flies had fallen to the feast, racing each
other to pick their bones clean. Black blood stank and
collected in the corners of mouths and eyes; clogging noses,
stopping breath and turning throats into rotten, wide-mouthed
grins. The flies beat their wings incessantly and winked like
jewels, adorning the dead. Mara smiled.
They had been a scouting party
and there was no doubt that they were among the men who had
attacked us, the men of her intended bridegroom. I looked down
at the still face of one - barely more than a child. His
sun-brown cheeks were still smooth, with scarcely the shadow of
a beard yet upon them. Something made me kneel to touch his
flesh, which was cold, despite the beating sun.
His throat had been slashed.
More than that, it had been torn as though by some savage
beast. The blood had run to his chest, covering delicate
markings just visible beneath the gore. They were tribal
symbols – a heritage, a proud history written onto his flesh and
cut short to end here under the beating sun.
Mara’s shadow spilled across
me, but brought no relief from the burning sun. Her eyes were
black crystal fire and they flashed at me.
“Leave the dead to the dead;
they are no concern of ours. Life is for the living and I
She raised her head and the
wind stirred her hair to lift it in burning strands away from
her skull. She seemed to scent the air and her lips were parted
ever so slightly, as though tasting it as well.
Only when we made camp again
for the night did I notice the Bedouin wanderers followed us
still; their restless tigers once more pacing me uneasily into
Mara was nuzzling me. Her
breath was hot on my throat and the back of my neck. It smelled
For a moment I was still caught
in dreams and this too seemed part of them. Her arms were
around me, seeking under the blankets that bound me where I
was. Coming fully awake, I nearly cried out in surprise. Never
had she come to me like this before, never had I seen even the
slightest flicker in her eyes to give me hope, but now the full
length of her body, hot as flame, was pressed against mine. I
could smell her sweat, the stench of her; it was nearly a taste
in the air. I fought to extricate myself, to catch her flying
hands and hold them still.
Her breath was ragged in my
ear, not words exactly, not a human sound at all. Her need beat
in the air between us. I could almost hear an answer in my own
blood, a dangerous thing and I tried to push it down.
“No, Mara.” I murmured, not
quite pulling away. “I can’t. This is wrong.”
“You deny your desire for me?
I have seen it in your eyes. I can feel it even now in your
flesh. You burn as I burn.”
It was Mara’s voice, Mara’s
flesh, but not her words, not her heart.
“Not like this.”
She continued to murmur her
not-words into my ear – a growl, a purr. I felt her teeth graze
my neck, stopping just short of drawing blood. I squeezed my
eyes closed, feeling hot tears, pounding with lust behind my
“Mara, stop. No.”
It was scarcely a whisper. For
a moment longer, she tried to pin me. A moment beyond that and
I would have been drowning in her animal musk, too dizzy not to
I sat up and the tent flap was
drifting shut behind her, trailing a cool breeze to dry the
sweat on my skin. I was shivering in her wake as though I would
I cannot deny that I loved her,
that I love her still, or that I always will. I have never
denied it and yet I have never spoken it aloud. She never once
She did not come to my tent
again, not for several days and when she came again, I cannot be
certain that it was not a dream. I watched her across the camps
that we broke and made again every night and I felt her tense
and wary and aware under my gaze. Her eyes burned and her
muscles rippled beneath the heat of her flesh. There was
purpose in her flame-lit eyes –something like hate, something
like pride, something like fear.
Mara no longer walked, but she
stalked now, conquering the desert with every stride. Her hair
flew out around her, living shadow, whip-cracking the air. Her
skin burned. Her teeth caught the sunlight and flashed it back,
defiant of the world. At night, bars of shadow fell across her
and mottled her skin.
Strewn bodies and broken forms
littered the way, gruesome precursors to herald our coming, but
the worst sight we came upon lay right outside the enemy walls.
When our camp had been attacked, the night Mara had nearly been
taken, women and children had been spared. Here they were not.
Old and young, whole and broken alike had been slain, scattered
like spoiled meat - a feast fit only for carrion birds and
flies. Blood stank in the air and it reverberated with the
demon drone of a thousand nightmare wings.
Looking at that carnage, spread
redly over the desert sands, I fell to my knees, gagging and
retching; empty heat upon the ground. Mara was watching me as I
trembled on my hands and knees and her eyes were heavy with
We camped that night outside
the enemy’s walls among the stench of the dead. Mara made no
attempt to hide herself, as though daring her enemy to strike
first, daring him to deny her the right of vengeance. All
night, upon the walls, the men paced restlessly, like caged
beasts. We were close enough that the torchlight that lit their
watches showed us their haunted faces and hollow eyes. Their
lips moved and in silence, I read their words – one word, passed
over and over again from mouth to mouth – demon.
Somewhere along our journey, we
had lost the Bedouin trainers, but the tigers remained. When
all else slept, they roamed; silent shadows stalking the night.
And at their head, her long hair streaming behind her like
liquid darkness, another shadow, not feline, but scarcely human
“Mara!” The sand was blue and
cold beneath me; the color of the sky bled into the ground.
I was crouched upon a rise,
such as that from which we had watched the tigers, seemingly
ages ago. Below me was a bowl of earth, wind-hollowed and
glittering with the borrowed light of the stars. There shadows
paced; none of them human.
“Mara!” I called her name
again, feeling my heart pounding in my throat.
At last she turned, whipping
her head around and once more the traitor moon showed a face she
had not meant me to see. Just the echo of salt lingered in
crystalline tracks, like the finest of sands, whispered forth
from her eyes. Beneath them, her face was etched in strained
lines, wild and strange. The glint of the moon caught something
else; her teeth between her dark lips and they were bared.
When her eyes locked on mine,
they grew once more hard and a sharp bark, almost like laughter,
escaped from her mouth. It was echoed by a tiger’s growl.
“Have you come to stop me? To
beg for mercy? To offer prayers to the Gods for my immortal
soul?” Her eyes burned hate and I was helpless before them.
There was something inside her,
all shadows and claws and open fangs and it was eating her
alive. I feared to look too close, to read the omens beneath
her skin and see her grown hollow inside.
“Please.” I whispered. “Stop.”
They were the only words I
could find and they were not enough. For a moment she seemed to
wait for something more as though knowing the words I could not
say, waiting to see if I would have the courage to say them.
She was always the strong one.
That cruel bark of laughter
rang again, cold and humorless, shattering the moon into flesh
cutting shards. I shivered and drew back; retreating down the
slope of the hill from whence I had come; a coward’s retreat.
Her burning eyes followed me all the way. As I walked,
stumbling tear-blind on the cold sand, her voice drifted after
me. A cold hand gripped my bowels and twisted in my gut.
“The Gods are dead and broken.
There is no mercy here, there is only me.”
She came to me again that night
- for the last time. Even now though, I cannot be sure that it
was not a dream. My tent flap stirred and the scream of a tiger
dragged me up from tiger-haunted dreams. Before I could rise
fully, tiger paws were on me, heavy and holding me down. Breath
that stank of blood breathed hot into my face and whiskers
brushed against my skin. There was another heat too, not of
breath, but of need. Golden eyes fixed mine and pinned me down
in the dark as a tail switched against my legs and curved
sinuously over my thighs.
Beneath the crushing weight of
the paws upon me, I felt the shifting and liable-to-crack
existence of my bones. I was aware of my flesh and its frailty,
aware of the claws, barely sheathed and the weight holding me
Could I have saved her then,
pulled her back from the edge of the abyss upon which I saw her
so precariously standing? Was she asking me to? Though my
courage had failed me once before, was she, in her strength, the
one to offer me one more chance? Or like all other choice, was
her offer only illusion?
I gazed up at the tiger and it
gazed down at me and neither of us moved. Gold eyes burned into
black and behind the dancing flame I saw something else – almost
human – something afraid and frail. The thinnest veil of
restraint shielded the glare of those eyes and I knew it was the
only thing keeping me alive.
Tiger weight pressed upon me.
Gentle teeth grazed my skin – almost a question. A paw turned
my head, muffling my face in the darkness and the shadow weight
upon me waited and breathed. Coiled strength, oiled muscles -
all waiting on my will, my answer to the unspoken question. I
ached with love and whispered a response born of fear and dry as
the desert sands and almost as silent.
She would not ask again.
The weight lifted and the
pressure was gone. The blood-heat stench remained, lingering in
the air, but it was not for that I kept my face pressed to the
blankets beneath me, but to hide my moon-silvered tears.
That was the last I saw of
Mara. I have on occasion seen shadows slipping against the
night – sometimes one, sometimes dozens of them. Or perhaps
they are only echoes, night-figments haunting my dreams; my own
memories and regrets taken shadowed feline form.
When I woke in the morning
outside the enemy walls, I was alone. The camp around me was
empty, half-broken. All who had remained until then were either
broken themselves, or had fled.
Within the city walls, it was
the same. I met no resistance walking into the heart of the
enemy’s kingdom. Smoke lingered in the air, the burnt scent of
flesh, the echo of animal heat that had seared even the
immovable stone. Once I thought I heard the high, thin wail of
a child lost among the ruins, but as soon as I had turned to
listen again, it was gone.
I found Mara’s
intended-turned-enemy slumped upon his throne. He held a
pomegranate in one hand, still dripping juice. His cold
fingers, wrapped around it, were sticky and red. Like the
fruit, he too had been torn open to drip redly upon the mosaic
tiled floor. His eyes – frosted night – were frozen open,
echoed by the ‘o’ of his mouth, both showing surprise.
A sound made me turn and high
above me on one of the broken walls I thought I saw a shadow
slink – cat-like in form. I threw up my hand to shade my eyes
against the glare of the sun and its rays pierced me, leaving me
momentarily blind. When my sight cleared again, there was
nothing there but the strewn corpses and the dark birds, already
falling to their feast.
I walked alone through the
broken city, among the broken men and then I turned away and
made my way from that place alone. I walked through air heavy
with ghosts, but when I close my eyes at night to dream, it is
not the faces of the dead that haunt me.
I carry a gun now, a rifle
slung lightly over my shoulder. It is my constant companion. I
carry a sword as well, should the rifle fail. It is a last line
of defense. Its curve mocks a tiger’s teeth, echoing its claws
and in turn, it is mocked by them. I hope I never have occasion
to test the imitation against the real thing.
Restless motion haunts my
dreams – patterns of shadow and flame that are never still. I
dream tigers of wasted by rage, mere shadows cased in scabbed
and rotten skin. They are driven by a hate I know as I know my
own heart and they are empty inside. Sometimes my dreams stalk
me – sometimes they come to comfort me in my despair.
Paws bearing a weight that
could crush me with a single turn of will tamp down the grasses
as I sleep. I go armed through my nights and my days.
Sometimes I wonder if I could
have saved her. If I had spoken, could I have done something to
stem the darkness inside? Or did flame and shadow always dwell
beneath her surface? Like all Gods, was she always angel and
devil, bound in one skin?
I know if we meet again, Mara
and I, that the veil of restraint will no longer be in her eyes
– that her last thread of will is not bound to me, but is wholly
her own. There can be no more illusions between us – for my
comfort or hers.
And I wonder, should that time
ever come, which will I chose? The lady or the tiger? Or was
there ever any choice at all?
About the Author:
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal,
Canada and currently lives outside of Philadelphia. Wise's work
has appeared in or is forthcoming in magazines such as Realms
of Fantasy, Insidious Reflections, Fantasy
Magazine and Cabinet des Fees, as well as the
anthologies, Time for Bedlam, Shadow Regions,
Into the Dreamlands, Jabberwocky 3, The Undead 2
and Revenant 2.
Story © 2006 A.C. Wise.