"Sharra, wake up!"
The snow leopard-like girl slowly blinked open lapis blue eyes, raising her head to give an icy glare at the feline head poking in through her yurt's flap, whose ears folded back a bit in annoyance that mirrored her own. "The hunters are beginning to gather, and we need to get a move-on if we want enough meat stored before the snows arrive."
As the cloth fell back into place over the opening, Sharra laid her head back against the feather pillow she'd received as a gift after her coming of age ceremony this past season. Though she had been physically a woman at fourteen winters, tradition dictated fifteen, and so the leopardess was only now allowed to join the other hunters in their hunts.
She couldn't help but smile as among the sounds of the camp stirring, she heard a loud clang and mild cursing outside. If there was one thing she could always count on in the morning, it was old Mershas knocking over the cooking equipment trying to get the morning meal prepared for the hunters.
Climbing out of the bedroll, she grabbed her brush and took a few moments to brush loose fur from her silvery-grey pelt. She'd always been proud of the way it set off her rosette markings, and since she'd filled out she'd noticed a couple of the single males eyeing her when they thought she wasn't looking. Years of running around in the brush makes one a lot more observant, she thought with a smile to herself. While this was her first real hunt, her age hadn't stopped her from scouting for the hunting parties beforehand.
It'd kept her nice and trim as well, she thought as she slipped into her hunting leathers. She might not have the raw strength, but she was fairly fit and was among the more graceful of the tribe. It was said that old Master Densharr had been the same in his prime, and he had been among the most successful huntmasters before he grew too old to actively lead the hunt. The elders say that the starmetal swords he carries were gifted to him by elves in gratitude for helping them hunt down some extremely dangerous beast that had escaped their wizard and was ravaging the countryside.
After making sure it was all snug against her, she took a few steps and a twirl, feeling the armor move with her. Satisfied, she grabbed her bow and iron scimitar and finally left her yurt. A quick glance at the suns position though had her dashing through camp, ducking and weaving around other surprised catfolk. She wasn't going to be late today, of all days!
Standing outside a nearby tent, Densharr tried to hide his amusement as he watched the grey-silver blur streaking through the camp towards the hunting party making its final preparations. As he re-entered his tent, he thought back again to what the medicine woman had told him last night, her bones foretelling a coming storm. Age had treated him kindly, but he was still slower than he once was, and he might not survive what was coming. Childless, his mate having been lost to a strange sickness years before, his legacy would be the hunters he had trained. With some sadness, he wondered how many of those he had helped raise would fall to that storm as well.
The celebration that night was large, as the hunters had more than exceeded the tribe's expectations with their hunt that day. Sharra and another more experienced huntress named Tessina alone had brought down several of their prey, tag-teaming it with bow and sword, though Tessina tried to take most of the credit. The placement of the arrows and the sword cuts told the real story to the party, leaving a pleased Sharra and a disgruntled Tessina to help to carry the kills back.
With the plentiful meat, even with most of it already being prepared for storage, there was plenty to go around for the night's feast. In honor for their kills Sharra and Tessina were granted seats to the left and right of huntmaster Densharr. When they weren't being asked by the males of the tribe for a dance of course, as the music and chanting went on long throughout the night. It seemed to be only the huntmaster who noticed the daggered looks Tessina would throw every now and then in Sharra's direction, usually when the latter was dancing with one of the more handsome males.
One by one and two by two the tribe members eventually retired to their tents, some to sleep, some for more than sleep. As the fire and feast died down, Densharr finally found a chance to catch Tessina alone, as she leaned against a pavilion pole and stared into the glowing coals.
"Something happen today?"
Startled out of her thoughts, she looked up at Densharr, ears folding back a bit before she quickly forced them upright again. "Ah, huntmaster. No, nothing's wrong. What makes you ask?"
The grizzled feline's eyes narrowed a little. "I saw the looks you've been giving that new huntress. It's not the catfolk way to not confront someone, if we feel we've been wronged. Yet you-"
He paused as Tessina held up a hand. "I know huntmaster, but if I did anything it'd just make things worse. I'm going to get some rest. May the stars watch over you, huntmaster."
Densharr opened his mouth to say something, then closed it a moment later, unsure what to say as she turned and walked off. He watched the dark grey huntress walk off into the darkness, casually brushing aside an offer from a drunken warrior headed to his own tent, then turned and looked into the fading coals himself. It was not their way to bury problems, but to face them head-on and let the strikes land where they may. Maybe, just maybe the storm he was afraid of coming wasn't going to be from the outside, he thought for a moment, before dismissing it. It couldn't be... and yet, even still, deep down he felt a twinge of doubt.
That winter was an easy winter for the tribe all-around, with both Tessina and Sharra showing surprising prowess in hunting small game to supplement their stores, the two huntresses quickly becoming recognized as among the top. With mild concern, Densharr watched the one-sided rivalry grow each time, but each time he tried to step in, Tessina would just brush him off. It wasn't interfering with her performance, but still it bugged him.
Finally, spring came, rain washing away the melted snow, leaving the world fresh and new as it awoke. Or at least most of it.
It was during typical drizzly spring morning, when Sharra stumbled onto the strange tracks while stalking a wily old buck. It looked like those of catfolk, but smudged, as if they were shuffling. Catfolk don't shuffle, she had thought to herself, a moment before a glimpse of her prey pulled her from her confusion. Readying her bow, she crept closer, taking aim.
Then a distant, but loud, yowling scream sent the deer into flight and made the huntress snap around in surprise, looking for the source... and seeing smoke in the distance where their camp currently was.
"By the winds!"
Hunt forgotten, she dashed through the foliage towards camp, sounds of battle mixed with a low moaning she had never heard before reaching her ears. Running past the trees she skidded to a halt, fur standing on end at the scene before her.
Corpses littering the ground, a battle was raging in the middle of camp. In the midst of the battle were the tribes' warriors, led by Tessina, trying to protect the children and non-warriors huddled on the far side of the clearing. With growing horror, she got a good look at their opponents: the rotting corpses of a nearby tribe they had traded with last fall.
A shouted command pulled her stunned gaze to what seemed a well-tanned young human male stepped out of the trees. His red eyes burned with something she couldn't place as he pointed at her, and one of the undead turned to stumble towards her, an eye hanging out of it's socket and half the flesh missing off one arm, leaving the bone bare.
Steeling herself against her revulsion to the thing, she quickly drew and fired an arrow, moving to her right. The arrow embedded itself into the rotting flesh with a sickening squelch, but seemed to do little real damage. The maniac human just grinned as she cursed. As she moved to stay away from it, out of the corner of her eye she noticed that those fighting on the other side of the mob were already using swords to good effect. Shouldering her bow, she drew her scimitar from its back sheath and moved to engage the disgusting thing.
Running past, she sidestepped the uncoordinated swipe of the zombie and sliced a large chunk of flesh from it's side. Moving in and out, she carved it to gibbering bits, her revulsion slowly being replaced by disgust. Moving towards the mob, she started weaving around the edge of the mob, slicing at the mass of undead here and there.
"You only delay the inevitable!" Glancing over her shoulder, she actually stopped dead still in shock as she saw the strange, purple-black glow leave the necromancer's fingers and engulf three of the dead bodies if her kin, the corpses rising and moving to join the rest of the mob of zombies. A scream of pain shocked her back into action, head swinging around to see that the other warriors had reacted the same as she, and while one hunter moved back, hand over the wound in her arm, the others raised their weapons and began attacking with renewed fervor.
With growing desperation, Sharra moved back and forth, slicing at the rear of the surging mass of undead flesh while the others carved at the front, but with each one they killed, the necromancer would raise one of their own dead to join his ranks. Anger growing, she turned and ran towards the human mage, teeth bared and ears flat against her head. "You... you...!"
With a smirk, he waved his hand in a half circle before him, undead rising from where he gestured to surround their master as she drew close. Letting out a roar of anger, she started hacking at his "guards," keeping enough control to still avoid their blow and keep moving, but only just.
So intent was she on her goal that she didn't notice that she had help until the catfolk zombie before her fell to a blow not her own. As the half-trance she had fallen into fell away, she let out a half-gasp of surprise. Densharr himself had joined the battle!
As she weaved in and out, attacking the zombie guards, she couldn't help but admire his fighting style. The elder catfolk moved with grace and surety, and almost seemed to her to be dancing among the enemy, if not for the starmetal scimitars he wielded slicing into undead flesh withe every strike. This finally seemed to draw a reaction other than arrogance from the dark-haired human, who began gesturing frantically, shouting out commands to the mindless undead, more and more of them leaving the mob to replace their fellows being cut down by the two.
Seeing the turning of the tide, the necromancer slowly began to back towards the trees. "Don't let him get away!" Densharr cried hoarsely, his voice showing the fatigue he was feeling, though his movements didn't show it in the least. Heeding his words as she stepped back again, Sharra braced herself and dove between the two zombies in front of her, somehow avoiding their halfhearted swipes as she went into a roll and popped back onto her feet, directly between their enemy and his escape route. Baring her fangs in a predatory grin, she swiped at him, drawing a cry of pain and blood as her blade sliced across his arm.
Quickly his hands wove through a complicated pattern, and suddenly there were 3 of him all moving among each other. The leopardess paused, unsure of which one to attack, but Densharr twirled between the last two zombie guards still standing, blades rising and falling as he pirouetted past the mage, slicing through all three. Two of the images disappeared as the metal sliced through them, leaving the real mage only enough time to stare in horror before the blade rose again and his head left his shoulders.
As his battledance ended, the energy that had been keeping the old huntmaster going seemed to leave, the old catfolk dropping to a knee as he panted. Sheathing her sword, Sharra went to help him up, but he just shook his head and pointed back towards the rest of the tribe. Without a mind to direct them though, the remaining undead had become easy pickings for the hunters, and so Sharra concentrated her attentions on tending to the protesting Densharr while the others cleaned up the last remnants of the milling undead mob.
After the battle, they gathered and burned the remains of both sides, the tribe's medicine woman chanting and praying to purify their souls and guide them to the proper afterlife they deserved. Due to her leading the defense against the creatures to protect the rest, Tessina finally got the recognition she wanted from the others as well. As it was, they had lost about a third of the tribe to the creatures, including those who would be lost to infections over the next couple weeks.
Sharra was honored as well for her part in taking down the leader, but most of the credit went to Densharr. She didn't mind, just glad that she had survived, though the whole thing left a bitter taste in her mouth and a disgust for those who would bend the natural order of things so far from the norm. The most important honor to her however, one that left Tessina fuming, came to her a few days after the battle.
"Do you have a moment?"
Ears perking at the voice, Sharra looked up from the sharpening of her scimitar's edge and tilted her head in curiosity. "Of course, huntmaster, what do you need?"
As she slid the sword home, Densharr offered a hand to help her up form her sitting position. "Can you come with me? Oh, and call me Densharr."
"Of course hunt- er, Densharr." She smiled, taking the proffered hand and rising to her feet. "Where are we going?"
Without answering, the elder feline turned and headed towards the trees, leaving her to follow, wondering what he had in mind. "Something going on?" she asked questioningly, but he didn't answer until they passed between a couple large oaks and found themselves in a small clearing, light shining down through the break in the tree cover.
Drawing his starmetal scimitars, he turned back around towards her. "You fought well, that day, and I think you may be worthy, but first I must test you, as I was tested."
"Worthy of what?" The snow leopardess shook her head. "I'm by no means qualified to be huntmaster... that would be better given to someone like-"
"Like Tessina?" Densharr finished the sentence for her. "She would make a good leader, if she can overcome herself, but that's not why I brought you back here. You see, I'm getting old-"
"It's true." Reading the dismay in her expression and body language, he chuckled. "Don't worry, I'm not ready to move on to join the Great Hunt yet, but you saw how I was after the battle with that necromancer." He waited for her to nod, then continued. "My family has always carried on a tradition of teaching our fighting style from parent to child. I am childless myself, and the last of my line. The way you moved when you fought those zombies, I think you may be able to learn the art."
As he had spoken, her emotions had changed from dismay at the thought of Densharr being near death, to confusion, to surprise. "You mean... you want ME to learn..." She trailed off, speechless as she remembered the grace she had seen him fight with, blades like poetry in motion, and he just nodded.
"But first, a test. Draw your sword." Reaching back, she did as he was told, still unsure of what was going to happen. "Good, now catch." The old leopard rotated his grip on the offhand blade and tossed it towards her quickly. As it tumbled through the air towards her, without thinking, she opened her hand and caught it by the hilt, then blinked in surprise as she realized how that could have gone very wrong.
Densharr just smiled, spreading his legs and entering a ready stance. "Now come at me."
"DO IT." The steel behind his words threw her into action, dashing forward towards the grizzled hunter. This was the first time she had ever tried to wield two swords at once, but instincts she didn't even know she had took over, and the blades struck in a one-two pattern as she flashed past, With a clang, his single sword deflected first one blow, then the next as she fell into a pattern of moving in and out, the swords seeking any openings but finding none. The ringing of the swordfight echoed around the clearing as the two moved, testing each other, single scimitar moving just enough to keep the leopardess's blades at bay, feet shifting back and forth as the veteran hunter avoided the wilder offhand attacks from the unfamiliar weight.
The mock battle ended as quickly as it began. A rushed parry sent Sharra's offhand blade flying, nicking her hand in the process and drawing an involuntary gasp of pain. Lowering his blade as she drew back a moment, Densharr held up a hand. "That's enough."
At the sign it was over, the young hunter dropped her other blade and raised her hand to examine the wound, blood beginning to well up through the fur. Padding over, Densharr smiled apologetically, pulling some cloth out of his belt pouch to use as a bandage. "Sorry about that, I had to rush my counter a bit to stop that last blow. I'd say you've proved yourself ready to learn." She looked up at him, her lapis eyes wide as he bound her hand. "The question is, will you be my student? The way won't be easy, but-"
He oofed as she impulsively tore her hand out of his grasp and hugged him. "Of course! This is such an honor!" She gushed while he just stood there, trying not to laugh at his new student's exuberance.
Neither of them noticed the shadow which had appeared among the trees during the mock-fight, and now moved away again. Slinking across the ground back towards camp, deer carcass tied across her back, Tessina found herself fuming over what she had just seen. She was the one who was supposed to become mistress of the hunt, not that hussy barely old enough to lay with a male! She should be the one that the tribe looked up to. It was she who had protected the tribe during the attack, not the one who had been off doing who-knows-what. If Densharr was going to choose that- that- kitten as his successor-
Forcing down the dark thoughts that came to mind, she took a moment to compose herself. The others already are starting to look towards me, she thought as she took a few deep breaths and let them out. I'll just have to make sure that continues.
Plastering a victorious smile on her face, despite her internal feelings, she headed on into camp. She'd just have to prove to everyone else that she was the better hunter.
With the weakened state of the tribe, as the highest proportion of losses was among the hunters, they were forced to trade more over the next few months with passing caravans than they had in years to supplement their hunting.
That summer was ironically a lean time, with everyone contributing what they could. Tessina organized many hunting parties herself to take down larger prey, and slowly started to become the first choice for leading any hunting parties. No matter how well she was doing in the eyes of the other warriors, it still wasn't good enough to her, not until Densharr would acknowledge her like he had Sharra.
As for said leopardess, she found her hunting cut back unintentionally, as more and more time was taken up training with Densharr. To be fair though, he had waited until thing shad started to settle back to normal before he began teaching in earnest. It was grueling work at first, as he would ask her to perform strange tasks, and a missed step while practicing her footwork would earn her a slap from the flat of a blade.
As the training continued through Sharra's 16th winter and into spring, however, it had begun to transform from work into.. well.. fun. Rather than an exact copy of his own style, she was starting to combine her own natural movements with the flow of the blades, becoming more and more aware of her body and how it moved. Densharr even seemed to approve more of her finding her own style than directly learning his. As he told her later when she asked, "It's about finding the art within oneself, not from without. If I had ever felt you didn't have it within you, we wouldn't be here now."
When summer came around again, he started sending her off to hunt more often again, asking her to practice what she had learned during her hunts. Rejoining the hunting parties, she performed admirably, her grace drawing the eyes of several of the males and even a few females, to Tessina's dismay. Even using just a bow, when Sharra fought every movement down to the merest twitch of an ear seemed deliberate and guided. She quickly earned back any respect she had lost due to her time off from hunting, and to Tessina's mind she gradually turned from rival to enemy plotting to take her position. The older leopardess hid it, knowing it was un-catfolk-like, but it didn't stop her from believing it regardless.
The fall brought with it great amounts of rain. With many lowlands marshy or flooded, the tribe's camp ended up moving closer to the hills, taking advantage of the high ground to try and stay dry. Densharr trained Sharra openly now as he started to guide her through more advanced techniques, but he joined her less and less in the actual practice, claiming he could better tell by watching. The occasional cough he'd give made her a bit suspicious, but he blamed it on the weather and said it would go away once things dried a bit.
As fall gave way to a wet winter, the rain turned to snow and slush. While the cubs loved the way it packed so easily, engaging in snowball fights against each other and sometimes at surprised adults, the elderly huntmaster's health only got worse.
It was a dreary winter day when Sharra found herself called into Densharr's tent. The elderly catfolk had been stuck in bed for the past week, as his strength had faltered, but Sharra had not set one foot inside, wanting the hunter to keep his pride. When the medicine woman asks you to do something however, you do it, and so she found herself pushing aside the flap and entering a place she had never been.
With some mild disappointment she saw it was like every other tent. She had known that, but somehow, because it was the private sanctuary of someone she had come to look on as a second father, it had grown in her mind. A quiet cough from her left quickly reminded her of why she was here in the first place, and she turned, kneeling down to bring her even with the bed.
Densharr didn't look much the worse for wear at first glance, but to anyone who had known him any length of time he seemed to be missing something. Something hard to quantify... but it was as if he was becoming a ghost before their very eyes.
With a sad smile he reached up, stroking her hair a moment. "The Wild Hunt calls for me, and soon I shall go to join them. I know I didn't teach you everything-"
"You've taught me enough! If anything, I was the-"
"Stop right there." For a moment, his voice held the same steel she had heard from it over a year ago, then he continued in the same soft, raspy voice of moments ago. "You've been an excellent student, better than I could have hoped. I only wish I'd seen the potential in you sooner." Reaching down on the other side of the bed, he lifted up a bundle wrapped in hide, placing it on the blanket. "I want you to have this, and no arguments. It's not going to do me much good where I'm going ,and it is almost winter solstice, so you can consider it in honor of that."
Tentatively, the young leopardess reached out, pulling the flaps aside, and starting in shock as it fell away to reveal the two starmetal scimitars, sheathed in leather. "She opened her mouth, then closed it, at a loss for words, while Densharr smiled softly at her. "Happy Solstice, my student."
A cough brought her back to her senses, and she quickly folded the hide back over them, lifting them into her arms. "Thank you... I don't know-"
She cut herself off as he let out a hacking cough. "Just find an elder, and send them to me... I have a few more things still to pass on before I join the Great Hunt."
Densharr passed away in his sleep that night. A few speculated that it was the last few obligations he had been taking care of that had kept him on this plane, while others thought that he had known he was going to die and had been trying to take care of things first. The next week was spent in mourning, culminating with a wake in celebration of his life on the seventh day. There were a few hushed whispers when Sharra showed up at the celebration wearing Densharr's former scimitars on her back, but no one objected. Openly at least.
For Tessina, it was one more in the long line of hurts she mentally attributed to the snow leopardess. While a part of her knew that she didn't need them, preferring the shortblade when she fought, she just didn't care, because it was a symbol of the former huntmaster. A symbol that SHE deserved, not that two-bit jumped-up scout.
At the final feast that night, the elders revealed the second part of what Densharr had passed on before he died. Tessina was to become the new huntmaster, while Sharra would be freed from hunting duties to do as she saw fit. Both the felines showed surprise and pleasure at the announcement; Sharra because being a freelancer was so seldom allowed by the traditions, and Tessina because they had chosen her, when she'd been half-expecting them to give it to the kitten instead.
Still, Tessina couldn't help pondering over and over why Sharra was cut loose, even as she smiled and thanked the others as they congratulated her on her new post. She must be up to something, the new huntmistress thought. She probably convinced him with her body. Hell, she was probably sleeping with him the whole time! Why would she choose freelancing over being huntmaster? Maybe she knows the others wouldn't stand for it right now, and is using this to buy her time... time to get the others behind her instead of me... well I won't stand for it. She's a threat to the tribe's stability, and it's my job now to help keep the tribe stable, whether they like it or not. They wouldn't understand... I'll have to come up with something myself.
Spring brought a welcome reprieve to the catfolk. Where the previous fall and winter had been constantly sending rain and snow their way, the weather had turned unusually calm for the season, with just enough light showers to encourage the flowers and trees to wake from their winter slumber.
Though her teacher was gone, Sharra tried to continue her daily practice. Rather than practicing out in the woods however, the young leopardess would find a level spot somewhere in camp where she wouldn't risk cutting anything, and just begin to dance with her blades. It wasn't long before she started to draw an audience of those who had a little time to spare, and her practices started to become equal part practice and performance, dancing to her tribemates as well as for herself.
Despite being freed from any actual obligation to hunt, with winter leaving the land renewed she found herself out on the hunt more and more often, though seldom after any specific prey. She would just head out into the wilds and wander, occasionally bringing back a kill if she happened to run across something worthwhile.
Tessina was busy as well, though not just with her responsibilities. Secretly convinced that Sharra was plotting something, she would slip away from the camp and hunting parties, claiming that she was going scouting. Her real goal however was trying to track the snow leopardess and find out what she was really up to.
Trying turned out to be the operative word, as day after day Tessina could find no sign that Sharra had passed any direction, even during the few times she had personally seen the girl go that way. Her attempts bore some unexpected fruit however, when she stumbled across a camp of orc bandits, likely there to raid the passing caravans. Sensing a chance, she had crept into the leader's tent, right under their noses, then announced herself to the surprised orc at swordpoint. "I am Tessina of the Snowwalkers, and I have a... proposition for you."
In short, in exchange for watching for any groups looking for them, the orcs would warn the catfolk of any threats heading their direction. In addition, they would trade supplies: food for goods taken from the caravans. After a moment of thinking, despite the sword against his throat, the orc leader felt it was worth trying. After all, it wasn't like they had anything else to lose.
There was one other point as well that the orc's leader was more than willing to grant as well: eliminating the snow leopard huntress Sharra any way they deemed fit. After all, they could have a little fun before they killed her, to make up for this humiliation of Tessina making it to him in the first place.
The days continued to get warmer as spring drew on, and as they did Sharra found herself growing more restless, ranging farther from the camp. This day she found herself traveling along a wagon-rutted path, mildly curious to see where it went. As she had traveled though, something was making her feel more and more uneasy, but she couldn't quite pin it down.
Pausing, low to the ground, she looked around for the fifth... or was it the sixth time that day? All the huntress knew was something was making her fur stand on end. There was no seeming reason for it either. The sky was clear apart from a few puffy white clouds, the sun was shining, the birds were-
"Wait, why am I not hearing any birds?" she said, half to herself and half in surprise as she finally made the connection to her uneasiness... then stood stark still for a moment, eyes open wide as she realized she hadn't heard her own words that she had just said.
Whirling around to dash back the way she came, she found her way blocked by three large orcs, all bearing smirking grins and large sharpened weapons. One of them opened his mouth to say something, but no sound made it to her.
Drawing her swords, she stepped backwards, head snapping left, then right as she looked for an escape route. Each way she looked though, orcs stepped out of the undergrowth, most of them armed, apart from one in strange robes. There, that one...
Baring her teeth in a snarl, she dashed towards the robed orc, catching them all off-guard momentarily. His arms began to move in an arcane pattern, but as she flashed past she spun a moment, her swords rising high and low, severing his knees with one while the other removed his head.
The orcs just stood there a moment, dumbfounded as the silver-grey catfolk took down their wizard in two blows, then took off across the tall grass. "After her!" came the shout from one of them, and moments later the orcs were all dashing pell-mell across the field behind the leopardess.
Sheathing her swords as she ran, Sharra took a quick glance over her shoulder and cursed softly. The orcs who had ambushed her had apparently been prepared, as half of them had pulled out crossbows and were trying to load them on the run, a few bolts already nipping at her heels figuratively and literally. As one bolt whistled between her ears, should couldn't help thinking with a wry tone that at least she was out of that unnatural silence.
Unslinging her bow, she started returning fire, beginning to gain some distance. A few of her pursuers fell back as arrows embedded themselves in thick orc hide, but that seemed to make the rest redouble their efforts and start to close the gap again. Still, just a little longer and-
Letting out a loud yelp, she felt a bolt slam into her calf and bury itself halfway into her leg as her luck came to an end. She stumbled a moment before continuing, gritting her teeth as she pushed against the pain, forcing herself to keep moving. Another pair of orcs went down before another lucky hit embedded itself into her shoulder, and another into her thigh. Stumbling, she kept moving, feeling blood drip from her wounds as she hobbled along, the orcs gaining.
Her vision starting to blur, shots began to go further and further astray, and she could hear their cries of victory begin to fill her ears. Feeling nothing but pain, she stumbled again, falling onto hands and knees. I'm doomed, she thought. Some hunter I turned... huh? Her mind, though hazed by pain, still managed to notice the change in tone of the orcish cries to ones of fear. Raising her head, she was able to make out a dust cloud that seemed to be heading towards them between blinks... then unable to keep her eyes open anymore she collapsed to the ground.
A moment later, half a dozen elves thundered past on horses, spells and arrows flashing towards the now retreating orcs, cutting them down like so much wheat. With the opposition felled, the leader pointed the other 5 back in the direction the orcs had come from. "Check for more!" Hopping out of his saddle as the other five headed westward, the elf kneeled down to examine the badly wounded catfolk.
"I don't know what you did to piss them off, but any enemy of orcs is a friend of ours," he said, more to himself than to the unconscious feline as he pulled a few of the bolts out and bandaged the worst of the wounds. "Better have a cleric look at some of these."
When the other five returned, with word of all the orc corpses they had found with her arrows in them, the elven captain could only shake his head in wonder. "Now, help me with this, will you? I don't like the look of those clouds." With help from one of the other riders, he got the unconscious Sharra secured across the back of his mount, and led the others back towards the city, thunder rumbling softly in the distance as the stormclouds he had spotted began to move in.
Slowly, Sharra awakened to the sounds of water pinging off metal. Opening her eyes, she stared blankly at the ceiling a moment while her mind sorted itself, then sat up suddenly as she registered the fact that it was a stone ceiling above her, not cloth or canvas.
Looking around, she took quick stock of her surroundings. She was in some sort of small stone room, a wooden door set in the far wall. The only other furniture in the room was a small wooden table holding a burnt-down candle, and a small wooden chair, where her hunting leathers sat all folded up. She noted with some relief that her scimitars were resting safely on top of her clothes. If whomever brought her here had left her weapons, then they obviously didn't consider her a prisoner.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she looked herself over, pressing experimentally at several places she knew bolts had hit her. To her surprise every spot had healed completely, leaving not even a mark in her fur.
Moving her swords to the table(and noting with mild disappointment that her bow seemed to be missing) she unfolded her leathers, starting to put them on... and froze as the door creaked open.
The young human boy, carrying a tray of something, paused halfway in in shock as he saw the partially dressed, and very female leopardess. "M-m-m-my ap-p-pologies. I d-didn't know you were a-a-awake," he stammered out, blushing BRIGHT red and quickly closing the door.
She paused a moment, nonplussed, feeling a bit numb with everything that had happened so far... yet she couldn't help but feel a few giggles bubbling up at the poor boy's reaction. When he called hesitantly through the door, "I ha-have some food for you m-milady, as soon as you're d-d-d-d-dressed," she couldn't help it and broke up in a fit of giggles at the absurdity of it all. "Just, heheheh, a, haha, moment," she managed to get out, shaking her head and trying to force down the giggles as she finished lacing her top.
Finally, having reduced her mirth to just perked ears and a grin, she opened the door, finding the servant standing against the wall with tray still in hand. "Come on in," she said, and had to stifle another chuckle as he looked up, then immediately looked down, blushing again. Shuffling in, he brought the tray over to the table, then paused, not seeing anywhere to put it with the swords sitting there already.
"Here, allow me."
Taking the two sheathed weapons off the table, she slipped the harness on, shrugging it into place. With the space cleared, the page set down the tray quickly like it was on fire, making the milk in the mug slosh a little. "MasterVeranneedstoseemeIneedtogoenjoyyourbreakfastmi'lady," the page rattled off in one quick breath, then dashed out the door, not even closing it behind him as he took off down the hall.
Raising a hand to hide her smile again, she turned to look at the tray. Some fried boar and egg of some kind sat on a wooden plate, and next to it was a wooden mug of milk. Taking a good sniff, she felt her stomach rumble. Ignoring the utensils on the tray she tore off a chunk of the boar with her hand, munching on it and closing her eyes as she savored the flavor.
"Enjoying your meal?"
Spinning around in surprise, she saw an elf in chainmail leaning against the doorjam. He waved a hand nonchalantly towards the food. "By all means, keep eating. You must be starved after almost dieing." She slowly finished chewing and swallowed as he stepped in, kicking the door shut behind him. "You did quite a number on those orcs by the way. My group found at least ten or twelve dead from your shooting."
Sitting down on the bed, Sharra moved the tray to her lap and dug into the food and drink, watching the elf warily. He just smiled and waited until she had eaten most of it before continuing. "Kernathal Longleaf, Captain of the Green Watch mercenary company, at your service," he said with a little mock bow. "We were the ones who brought you in last night. A good thing, too. Any longer and you might have bled out."
"Well you have my thanks, then," she responded, glancing past him at the door, then to him. "If you can show me to where you found me as well, it would be much appreciated."
Shaking his head a little, Kern thumbed up at the ceiling. "You hear that storm out there? Well the area we found you in happens to be a natural flood plain, and we got a right storm going on out there. Between scavengers and that storm, I doubt you're going to find much."
At his words, Sharra's ears drooped slightly. "I have to at least try..."
The elf held out his hands in a 'what can you do' kind of gesture. "Well, once the weather clears we'll give you an escort to there and you can take a look if you want, but I wouldn't hold much hope." As her gaze and ears dropped farther, he smiled wanly at her. "Don't worry, if you don't find anything... you can stay here as long as you need, and the Spring Festival should be starting soon. That's always fun to see." With those words, he stepped out the door, closing it behind him and leaving the feline girl to come to terms with her new situation.
The next day, when the group made it's way to about where they had stumbled onto her, they found to Sharra's dismay that Kern had been right. Large puddles covered the field, ducks splashing in a couple of them, and there was no sign of any tracks or corpses left behind. Thus with nowhere else to go, and admittedly a bit curious about this "Spring Festival" the elf merc had mentioned, she accepted their offer of hospitality and traveled back to town with them. The next couple days found her still feeling down about not being able to let the tribe know she was safe, but as she came to terms with being on her own, she began to grow curious about the new world outside the inn.
While she was a bit familiar with human and elven customs from her tribe's trading with the occasional passing merchant caravan, the city was still an unfamiliar place. The first day she tried going out on her own ended with her being brought back to the inn the Green Watch was staying at by the town guard, to an incredulous response from Kern of "You did WHAT?!" All she could do was smile apologetically and shrug a bit, as much as she could with guardsmen holding on to either arm.
Needless to say, when she went out the next day, one of the company went with her to keep her out of trouble. As she dashed about here and there, exploring the new environment, she really ran her "guide" ragged. On the upside for the elf, Haeras Greentree by name, her naivety was refreshing and amusing in some situations.
For example, when she was polishing off a steak at one of the inns for lunch, some fancy aristocrat who was obviously slumming had come to their table. Joining them and buying them a drink, he chatted amicably for a short bit, though most of his attention was on the strange feline girl. As she got ready to leave though, her meal finished, the noble-to-be had taken her hand, and said, "If cats are good to pet, and ladies more so, then petting a feline lady like yourself must be extraordinary. Perhaps we should find out together?" Haeras had needed to cover his mouth after that to hide the smile at the blank look she gave him in return, and her response of "Um, some other time perhaps. Winds go with you."
By the end of the week she was beginning to adjust a bit, and luckily just in time for the beginning of the Festival. It was exciting for the young snow leopardess at first, with all the music, booths, and general merriment among a larger variety of people than she ever knew existed, let alone expected to see in one place. Haeras was kept busier than before just trying to keep up with her as she darted here and there.
Luckily for the elf's sanity, Sharra eventually came to a halt at one of the marketplace entrances, ears perked at some fast paced music, accompanied by a rhythmic ringing, coming from the center of a large crowd. As he caught up again, taking a moment to catch his breath, she peered through the crowd, an odd expression on her face as she absentmindedly finished off the meat pie she had picked up at an earlier booth. "Interesting..." was all she said, before making her way into the audience, leaving Haeras to follow a moment later.
When she finally got to a position where she could see what everyone was watching, her eyes opened wide at what she saw. While the bard playing the lively tune wasn't too different from the other buskers she had seen in other parts of the marketplace, this one had a partner, who was the source of the ringing she had heard. A young, well-tanned human woman, who couldn't be much older than Sharra herself, was swaying and moving to the music, her whole body moving like a reed blowing in the wind. Her clothing was far different from anything the leopardess had seen before: chest wrapped in some gauzy red cloth that hinted without revealing, bracelets on her wrists that mixed their ringing with that of the bells hanging off the belt around her waist, and a long scarlet skirt that swished with every graceful step she took.
To Sharra though, all of that was secondary to the movements themselves. The pattern... the dance... it was all familiar, yet different. The dance itself wasn't one she knew, but it had the same feeling, the same emotion, the same essence. As the tune began to wind to a close, the dancer following the cues, Sharra also realized one more thing. The dancer wasn't leading the dance, as she had always thought, but the dance was leading the dancer.
The crowd dispersed as the two performers took their bows, leaving some gold in the bag they'd put out for tips. Soon, the only ones left were the buskers, Haeras, and his feline charge. While the bard tended to his instrument and the dancer stretched, Sharra approached the two, looking a little uncertain. "Hail! That was... quite the show."
The bard nodded a bit, concentrating more on his instrument at the moment as he slowly adjusted a string, but the dancer turned with a warm smile to the two. "Why, thank you," she said, hardly seeming phased by the nature of her complimenter. "We do this for a living, so any tips would be wonderful."
The leopardess nodded absentmindedly at the last part. "I don't suppose... you could let me try?"
"Try?" came the puzzled response. "Try what, exactly?"
"This." Sharra waved her hand at the whole setup. "I'd like to try dancing like you did."
Ignoring the sputtering from Haeras, who had been caught in mid-drink at that moment, the dancer raised a dainty hand in thought. The bard looked up at that as well, a slight frown on his face. "Maria's talented, but she can't teach everyone who wants to learn-"
"Hush, Paul." Maria cut him off, looking at the feline with a critical eye as she stood, waiting for her answer. "Can you move around a little?"
Both of the males raised an eyebrow almost in unison, but Sharra took a few steps without any hesitation, adding in a twirl, while Maria watched approvingly. "Hm. You have the aptitude, but it's missing something..." Sharra paused, tilting her head curiously, as Maria snapped her fingers in inspiration. "I think I've got it. Come with me?"
Sharra earperked, and nodded with a smile. "Sure!"
Taking her hand, Maria started to lead the silver-grey leopardess towards the inn, while Paul just shook his head and went back to tuning his sitar. Haeras started to follow as well, but Maria paused, turning back and stopping him with her hand. "Sorry, girls only."
"Tch." He looked between the two of them, then shrugged and leaned against the wall as the dancer led Sharra into the inn. "Don't take too long."
It was maybe a half hour later when the two returned. Paul had finished his tuning and was playing a short folk tune, while the red-haired elf was simply watching people pass by. Maria stepped out first, in the same outfit she had been, but when Sharra emerged, both of the guys blinked in surprise at the transformation.
Rather than the same old hunting leathers she was draped in a light blue color, contrasting her silvery, spotted fur and complimenting her eyes. The material seemed similar to Maria's outfit, but instead of a simple wrap, this one started as a cloth strip around her neck, crossing over itself over her collar, then down over her chest, wrapping around to her back and finally meeting in back. Rather than a skirt, the cloth around her waist was more of a loincloth, though it still covered her well enough. Giving a spin, she smiled tentatively, though if one looked carefully they could see a slight red tint on her cheeks under the fur. "Well? How do I look?"
Haeras gave a low whistle. "If it wasn't for your... unique looks, I wouldn't have believed you were the same person," he said with a grin, earning a playful swat from the snowcat, while the bard just gave a simple thumbs-up.
"Now come on over here," the tanned dancer led Sharra to where she had been, and stepped back, nodding to the bard. "Start with something not too fast, let her get a feel for it."
Nodding, Paul checked his tuning one more time, then opened up with a chord, leading into a tune that Haeras recognized as an elven ballad he hadn't heard in years. Sharra closed her eyes and cocked her head, listening to the first couple phrases, starting to move as she began to feel the music rather than just hear it. Leaning against the wall again, the elf crossed his arms, watching the performers as a new audience began to gather.
Sharra danced the first couple by herself, but Maria joined as well for several of them afterwards. Whether it was her dancing, or her exoticness, or just the combination of her with the other two, the trio pulled more in gold that evening than Paul and Maria had all morning and afternoon. Pleasantly surprised at the take, they invited her to come back the next day, which she was more than willing to do. When she tried to give back the outfit though, Maria just shook her head and gave it back to the leopardess. "Consider it a gift.
She ended up dancing with the duo for the rest of the festival, though Haeras still came along every time. On the final night of the festival, Paul took a count of the gold they had earned, and declared they should celebrate and enjoy themselves. Maria of course invited Sharra, and where Sharra went, the elf came. When the two showed up at the inn wearing their leather though, Maria took one look at them and dragged them to their room upstairs for new outfits.
There was a bit of protesting, but in the end the dancer had her way; Haeras borrowing one of Paul's doublets and Sharra using one of Maria's few conservative dresses. It wasn't totally a one-sided decision however. Haeras carried his own sword on his belt, while Sharra managed to work her harness for her scimitars into the outfit, somehow keeping it form looking out of place. So prepared, the group headed out to hit the various inns and see what was still running.
The moon was well up before the four started to make their way back to the inn. The streets had cleared a lot, with the same thought on many of the reveler's minds. Unfortunately, not everyone on the streets that night were revelers, and neither Sharra nor any of her companions spotted the two shadows following them.
"Well, looky 'ere."
The four came to a stop as two rough-looking types stepped around either corner ahead of them, the speaker twirling a pair of daggers. Looking behind them, they saw the other two leave the shadows, leaving them caught in the middle, and no help in sight.
"What do you want?" Haeras asked, hand resting on his sword hilt, eyes narrowed.
Smirking, the leader stepped forward, dagger held loosely in either hand. "Well, I've seen your little kitten there earning you quite the bit of money." Haeras started to open his mouth but the rogue kept on talking right over top of whatever he was going to say. "Don't bother denying it. Your little kitten's rather different, wouldn't you say?"
A dark look on his face, the elf drew his longsword, drawing a raised eyebrow from the rogue's leader, and a couple chuckles from the other three thieves. "Oh, so you think you can fight us off by yourself?"
"Who said anything about by himself?" Sharra stepped forward behind him, drawing her scimitars, followed shortly by Maria producing a pair of daggers from somewhere, and Paul a rapier.
"A little more even now, wouldn't you say?" the bard asked with a smirk and a flourish from the blade, causing the rogues to glance between each other again, the two behind stepping back involuntarily.
The rogue frowned, gesturing with his daggers to the others. "Hold your ground lads, they can't stand up to all of us. Get 'em!"
"Wanna bet?" The bard quipped as the four charged in, his rapier moving like a snake to deflect a dagger strike. As the two groups engaged, to everyone's surprise except maybe Maria, Paul began to sing.
As the music rose, Sharra found her spirits bolstered as she charged in at the leader. Blades crashed, sword vs dagger, and without even thinking about it she began to dance, just as she had so many times that week. The rogue began to back away, beginning to realize he was over his head as his daggers started to not even met steel, reaching nothing but air while scimitars slipped past his guard again and again, leaving bloody slices as he turned to try and keep his guard up against the leopardess's strikes.
"Run for it, boys!" He finally called, diving under another double strike and taking off at a full run. Spinning around, Sharra took quick stock of the others' battles, but the other three thieves were taking off too, in varying degrees of bloodiness.
Breathing heavily after the adrenaline rush of the battledance, she rejoined the other three as they cleaned and sheathed their blades. "That was... amazing," Haeras said, looking towards the leopardess. "I've seen many fighting styles, but you're the first one I've seen that actually dances while fighting."
Maria nodded as well, her daggers completely out of sight again as she brushed dust off her skirt. "My grandfather used to tell stories of those who could perform great things while dancing, but I never thought I'd encounter anyone like that." She smiled as the group started to head down the street, a little more alert now. "Those stories were why I began to dance in the first place."
Grateful for the darkness that hid the pinkness that was undoubtedly coloring her ears, Sharra shook her head a little. "It was only swordfighting... my old huntmaster showed me how, but I hadn't realized there was more to it until I encountered your dancing."
Maria rested a hand on Sharra's shoulder, shaking her head. "No, you have something special. A talent I wish I had. Whatever you do, don't neglect it."
The next day found Sharra moping around the inn, staring into a mug of wine. She didn't even realize she had someone sitting with her until Kern cleared his throat.
Starting a moment as the cough pulled her out of her thoughts, she glanced over at the blonde elf and forced a smile. "Ah, hail. Doing well?"
"You don't seem to be," he responded, a slightly concerned look on his face. "I heard about last night."
She sighed, looking into the wine again. "If I hadn't been there they wouldn't have gotten attacked."
Kern shook his head. "And they wouldn't have made near as much either. Like it or not, there's not many of your kind out and about. You'll attract attention wherever you go, so why not make it work for you?" He waited for her to look up, tilting her head with a questioning look, before continuing. "Well, with your skills, you'd make a valuable addition to any adventuring company. We can always use an extra hand ourselves. It pays well, if you can survive, and from what I've heard that shouldn't be a problem for you."
"So... you want me to fight for you?"
"Not necessarily," Kern said, shaking his head. "If you happen to be good with stealth, our last scout left to pursue some family heirloom that had he had received word of." She nodded a little, a thoughtful look on her face.
He sat there a few moments more, but when she didn't say anything, he rose and slid the chair back. "Trust me, being unique can be a real advantage to those who find themselves among adventurers. Anyways, you don't have to decide tonight, tomorrow, or even next week. We're going to be moving on soon, though, so don't take too long deciding."
"I think..." The elf paused as the leopardess spoke up finally. "I think, I'll give it a try. It seems that I have more to learn than I thought, and I don't want to put anyone else in danger like I did last night. You've got yourself a scout."
Smiling, Kern offered the blue-eyed, silver-furred leopardess his hand. "Then welcome to the Green Watch."
Originally written as a background for a D&D catfolk character with snow leopard markings, this is the story of how Sharra Snowwalker became much more than a simple huntress...