The Lady and the Tiger
by A.C. Wise


The lady 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 watched her.

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 hear.

*     *     *

“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 young?”

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 coming next.

“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 wind. 

“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 camp grew.

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 they dream.

*     *     *

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 skin. 

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 come in.

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 tears.

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 nothing?”

“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 their fear.

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 glass.

“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 had before.

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.

“Get up!”

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 am alive.”

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 my dreams.

*     *     *

“Wake up.”

Mara was nuzzling me.  Her breath was hot on my throat and the back of my neck.  It smelled of meat. 

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 lids.

“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 give in.

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 never stop.

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 asked.

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 disdain. 

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 either.

“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 down.

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.