Drawings on the Wall
If Kris had been alone, he would have spent the day as a panther or a wolf; he still hadn’t decided which of his forms to adopt. This journey was about spending as much time as he could in the animal form that would be his. About discovering who he was. However, it seemed more important now to discover who the strange woman he had pulled out of the river could be.
By the time night fell, he still wasn’t sure of much more than her name, but he knew what she wasn’t: an angel. In the stories from his childhood, angels were capable of great feats: they could read minds, they were stronger that the strongest men and more beautiful than the most beautiful women. The last part, in Kris’ eyes, was true, but the rest certainly wasn’t.
He had to stop several times during the day when Zaren started falling behind to let her catch her breath. He also had to show her what fruits were edible, and how to get water from the long-stemmed leaves that hung from certain trees. It was quite strange that she didn’t know how to find food or water. What did she usually eat?
With twilight falling over the forest and Zaren showing signs of fatigue, Kris pushed a little further. He wouldn’t have minded spending the night out in the forest, but he doubted she would be up to it.
“Kris,” she called, her voice weak and out of breath. “Rest?”
She had learned this word fast.
“Not much further,” he said, gesturing ahead. “Then you can rest.”
She must have caught the gist of what he was saying because she sighed softly before nodding. She had braided her hair as they walked, using a long, flexible stem to tie off the end, but it had come undone and strands framed her face, giving her a wild, untamed look. Swallowing hard, Kris forced himself to look away. After a moment, his racing heartbeat calmed down again.
A few more minutes led them to a cave in a rocky hill on the riverbank that Shifters sometimes used during their journey. The cave was about two hundred paces in length and about half that in width, with a narrower opening. A shelf had been carved inside the wall of the cave to receive some supplies, and dry firewood was piled up near the entrance. It took Kris only moments to start a fire. When he looked up, Zaren had found the blankets and wrapped one around her shoulders.
“I’ll get food,” he told her. Food was another word she had learned. “Stay here.” He patted the rock ground next to the fire. “Rest.”
She nodded her understanding and even gave him a hesitant smile. The flames cast their light over her face, making fire dance in her hair. Kris had to stop himself from reaching out and touching it. Troubled, he left the cave and shifted into his panther form as soon as he was out of sight.
He stilled for a second, allowing himself to take in the information his sharper senses were giving him. So close to the river, the ground felt damp beneath his paws. The sounds of nocturnal animals filled the night, competing with the rush of water. By the light of the twin moons, everything around him seemed clear as day.
These sensations, Kris had expected. What took him by surprise was the strength of Zaren’s scent around him. It was unmistakably human, but also undoubtedly foreign. He’d never smelled anything quite like it, though he couldn’t pinpoint what made it different.
Only half-aware of what he was doing, he started following her trail away from the cave, the image of her still swirling in his mind. Such a strange woman. He had a thousand questions for her—and no way of asking any of them. After a few minutes, he lashed out behind him with his tail; following her fading scent was getting him nowhere, only drawing him away from her. Irritated, he climbed the nearest tree and went in search of food.
When he returned to the cave, he found Zaren examining one of the tools that had been in the cache along with the blankets. He sat down next to her by the fire, and she glanced at him before running a light finger over the edge of the short knife she held. She said something that sounded like a question as she looked up at Kris again, pointing at the blade.
Kris shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re asking,” he said, a little frustrated.
She seemed just as annoyed. She looked around her, finally pointing at the pile of dry branches near the wall of the cave. She said a word, repeating it twice slowly. She then pointed at the burning wood in the fire, and said the word again. At last, she pointed at the wooden handle of the knife, and repeated the same word before looking at Kris as though urging him to understand.
He looked at what she had pointed at again, and got it. “Wood! It’s wood!”
He repeated her word for wood, stumbling a little other the pronunciation, then said his own word for it. Smiling, she repeated the word after him. Pointing at the knife again, she showed him the blade, and said “Wood” while shaking her head before raising a questioning eyebrow. Kris wanted to kick himself for not getting it sooner.
“Tooth,” he said slowly. “It’s made out of a tooth.”
He bared his teeth and taped them with a finger, saying the word again. Zaren frowned. She pointed at her own teeth, said the word, then brought her thumb and index finger close together, saying a new word. Pointing at the blade again, she spread the same fingers as far as they could go and said a different word. She repeated the whole thing a second time before Kris got it.
“Small,” he said, copying her first gesture, then the second. “Big.”
She repeated the two words before pointing at the blade yet again. “Tooth small.”
He nodded. “Yes, our teeth are too small for that. But come see.”
Getting to his feet, he encouraged her with a gesture to do the same and picked up a lit branch to serve as a torch. Zaren in tow, he moved deeper into the cave and found the painting of the mountain tiger that someone from his village, long ago, had carved then painted onto the rock. He pointed at the wide, open mouth of the drawing, and the large teeth visible there.
“Tooth,” he said again. “Big enough for a knife.”
He watched her as she leaned closer to get a better look at the painting. Her eyes widened, and in the wavering light of his improvised torch, they seemed to shine with excitement. Her hand rested on his arm, squeezing lightly. Kris froze at the unexpected contact. It sent a wave of goose bumps through his entire body. Zaren looked at him, then at her hand, and snatched it back with a murmur that might have been an apology. He could even have sworn she was blushing.
“I don’t mind,” Kris assured her, hoping his forced smile would let her guess what she didn’t understand. “I was just surprised. You’ve been very careful not to get too close to me until now.”
Zaren, of course, did not reply. Instead, she gestured for him to hand her the torch, and when he did she stepped over to the next painting. Kris watched her for a moment. The intensity with which she scrutinized the drawing surprised him; it was well done, certainly, but he didn’t see what was so extraordinary about it. Maybe she liked animals a lot, he thought as he returned to the fire and started preparing dinner.
His theory also explained why, when he called her name to offer her food, she refused again to touch meat, feasting instead on the fruits he had brought back. He would try fishing the next day, he thought as he watched her eat the sweet and juicy flesh of what had quickly become her favorite fruit. Fruits were fine, but she’d need more that that if she wanted to keep up her strength.
She remained very quiet as she ate, her eyes returning every so often to the carved and painted wall of the cave. Had she never seen such representations, Kris wondered? Maybe her people didn’t know how to draw. He wasn’t very good at it himself, but Elea was. Maybe she would be able to teach Zaren.
He stopped with food halfway to his mouth and lowered it again. Up to that moment, he had had no plan beyond helping Zaren find her shuttle, whatever a shuttle may be. But already, part of him hoped she would accompany him to his village after that.
He didn’t want to part ways with her, at least not so soon. There was too much he needed to discover about her. He could feel that need on a visceral level, demanding that he stay close to this strange, attractive girl and that he continue to try to communicate with her, however hard it may be.
He must have stared at her as he thought, because she was looking back at him, an eyebrow cocked questioningly, a troubled expression marring her features. Kris pushed a smile to his lips. He hadn’t meant to worry her.
“It’s all right,” he said as he stood. “You stay here. Rest. I’ll just…” He gestured to the opening of the cave. She’d probably sleep better if he wasn’t there to stare at her and make her uncomfortable. “I’ll be out for a bit and try to clear my mind.”
The need to shift was making it hard to focus. This time, he chose his wolf form without thinking as soon as he was far enough from the cave. Zaren’s scent had started to fade; yet before he knew it, he was following its faint trail again, prowling through the forest as though tracking prey. She was no such thing, of course, yet surges of energy shot through his body every time he let himself think of her a little too long. It was the same instinct that made him turn around and retrace his steps until he was back to the cave.
As quietly as if he were hunting, he approached the opening of the cave and the fire he had built there earlier. He had expected to find Zaren asleep. Instead, she was sitting by the fire, her arms around her legs and her cheek resting on her knee, the blanket wrapped over her shoulders again.
Her eyes widened when she noticed him, and very slowly, she lifted her head to see him better. Did she recognize him? She had been very scared when he had pulled her out of the river, and she had quickly passed out, but he thought she might remember the wolf.
Very slowly, her eyes never leaving Kris, she reached for something on the ground. He sat back on his haunches, curious as to what she would do. Her scent wafted toward him even as she grasped the knife. The predator in him recognized the spicy smell easily; she was afraid. Taking care to remain very still, he waited.
He’d never known anyone who was afraid of him when he shifted. He’d never known anyone who didn’t know he was a Shifter. It was…strange to watch her react to him when she didn’t know it was him. Maybe he should have remained out of sight; too late, now.
He wished he could have told her, shown her he was the wolf and that she had nothing to fear, but he wasn’t allowed to share his village’s secret. Unwilling to scare her even more, he remained still. Would she get used to his presence, and understand he had no intention of harming her?
It wasn’t likely, he realized after a few minutes had passed. The only thing that had changed was that the scent of fear coming off Zaren was stronger, although she didn’t show it. He had better leave or she wouldn’t sleep, and she’d be too exhausted to walk much the next day.
He stood and, after a last glance at Zaren, turned on his heel, trotting away and out of sight. Under the cover of bushes, he shifted back, then returned to the cave. Zaren almost jumped in fright when he appeared at the cave’s opening. Immediately, she ran to him and clutched his arm, babbling incomprehensibly and gesturing as though miming a cat.
He shook his head and gently took the knife from her.
“You’re safe,” he said, knowing she didn’t understand but hoping his reassuring smile and the tone of his voice would convey his meaning. “Safe. I wouldn’t hurt you.”
Her eyes darted to the entrance of the cave, and she said something—asked a question, he thought.
He shook his head again. “The wolf is not coming back tonight,” he said on the same calm tone. “The wolf is right next to you, but you don’t know that, do you?”
Zaren’s lips curved into a tentative smile. Kris wished he’d had as keen a nose as a human as he did as a wolf. Was she still scared? He hoped she wasn’t.
With a gentle hand on her shoulder, he guided her back to her makeshift bed by the fire. She lay down with a question plain on her face. Kris answered it by sitting next to the fire. Let her believe that he’d keep the animals at bay if it helped her sleep better. The truth was, he was one of the most dangerous things in the forest. He only hoped he could bring her to safety before his body settled on his final form and he forgot he was human.
* * * *
The Elders were murmuring amongst themselves. Kris glanced at the door again, wondering if Zaren was all right. She had tried to hide it, but he knew her enough by now to realize that the guards had frightened her. He had done his best to reassure her, but he didn’t think it had worked. He wished he could have asked Elea to accompany them so that she could stay with Zaren.
“Whether she’s from the stars or not,” Elder Sarly said at last, a trace of scorn in his voice, “she’s a stranger. How much of our secrets did you reveal to her?”
Kris braced himself. He had known this question would be asked. There was only one acceptable answer. “None.”
Elder Sarly’s dark eyes weighed on him, as though a simple look might draw the truth out of Kris. It might have worked when he had been a child, but he wasn’t about to let himself be intimidated now.
“Are you sure?” Elder Sarly asked, the words slow and quiet.
Kris sat up rigidly on his chair, summoning every bit of pride and honor he possessed and wrapping them around him like a coat. Members of the First Family had been known to ask for a duel when their honor was challenged, and the circle couldn’t afford to let that happen.
“Are you calling me a liar?” he asked in a dark voice, his eyes traveling over the circle of Elders before stopping on Elder Sarly again.
“He’s not,” Elder Aliana intervened. As always, her appeasing tone sought to calm heated spirits. “None of us are. We’re just trying to understand. You said you entered the Ushias territory.”
She made the statement sound like a question and raised an eyebrow at him. Kris focused on her as he answered.
“I did. Her shuttle was five hundred paces past their border.”
Another murmur passed over the circle.
“You were reckless,” Elder Pala said sharply. “If they declare war it will be your fault.”
Kris’ eyes lowered to the table in front of him. He pressed his palms against wood that hundreds of hands had rendered as smooth as the finest silk from the Western shores.
“I know. But there was nothing else I could do. She needed to contact her people, and the Ushias were standing in the way.”
“So you confronted them while in your human form?” Elder Pala asked, sounding appalled.
Kris briefly wondered what to answer. He had lied already, but the less lies he professed, the easier to keep things straight. “No.”
Elder Sarly slapped his hand over the table, startling some of the Elders. “You just said she didn’t know about the shifting! How can it be if you—”
“She thinks I am able to control animals,” Kris cut in calmly. It was only half a lie; after all, she had believed as much for a little while.
A snort showed what Elder Sarly thought of that. “Hiding behind lies? You’re playing with fire.”
Kris didn’t reply. He knew he was playing a dangerous game. By lying to them so that they wouldn’t order Zaren’s death, by placing his faith in a girl he barely knew, by trusting feelings he barely understood, he was putting his entire village in danger. Still, Zaren had made a promise to him, and it felt right to believe her. Necessary.
He had gone on his journey looking for a sign, and he had found it. It just wasn’t the sign he, or anyone else, had ever expected to find.