The panther snarled, its breath heavy behind her.
She could make no sound; she could only run and delay the inevitable. Soon the great cat would grow weary of its hunt and pounce. Then all would be over. Perhaps death in itself would not be so painful. Panthers were quick in the kill; she had seen it before. But what happened after? What happened after the dark veil fell over her eyes? What would she see beyond it?
A glance over her shoulder revealed that cat had picked up its pace, its eyes beginning to gleam with impatience.
It was a powerful beast with glossy black fur that stretched over its muscles. Over the course of its life, it had fought many battles and severed many lives short. Scars raked its body, and shoulders knived up and down as it moved with the fluid grace common to its kind. Only yesterday it had eaten its fill of a plump deer, but instead of growing lax, the cat had become bored, seeking amusement. The maid it had discovered alone in the forest was perfect sport.
The girl had seen it since it had made no effort to disguise itself. Slowly, she had begun to back away. As she had retreated, it had followed. In fear and desperation, she had begun to run. It trailed her, moving along fallen boughs or in the tree tops.
She knew she would never make it back to her village. She was tiring, and sweat beaded her skin, slicking back her thick, black hair.
The branches of the jungle caught at her clothes, tripping her. With a ragged gasp, she climbed a steep ridge, but as she crested it, her foot caught on an exposed root.
No cry escaped her lips as she tumbled down the slope. Her head cracked against a rock, and stars exploded in front of her vision.
The panther’s head rose above the ridge, and with calm finality, she knew the end had come.
But the stars continued to dance in front of her eyes, and instead of fading, the light grew in potency, filling up all of her sight and mind, till even the growling of the wildcat faded away.
And it was then that she first heard the Songs.
At the time, she could discern no words or even understand the music. But the beauty of it and the peace it brought to her heart filled her to overflowing. The light began to pull back; it was still there, but no longer directly in her eyes. As other images began to appear, she suddenly realized she no longer lay at the bottom of the ditch.
The air was crisp and cold, so she knew she stood on a mountaintop, yet somehow she did not feel the chill. Below her stretched the Land, the valley lush and green, the forests dark and thick, the river in the gorges. It was beautiful, and for a moment, she wished she did not know it. Then she might admire all she wished without the knowledge of the inhabitants—the warring men, the women treated as slaves. She wished she did not know that the Beast ruled the Land.
With an inward groan, she turned away—and saw the Hound.
He stood upon a rise and the light shone from him. He was a creature beyond bearing, his silky white fur gleaming with gold, his slender body powerful, his limbs gracille, and his noble head erect. Majesty dwelled in him.
Trembling, she dropped to her knees. All her life she had known the Beast, the fear, the hatred, and the despair. She knew it so well, she could not help but recognize its complete opposite.
The Hound was love, grace, mercy, but also justice and total power.
Now that she had seen him, she wished never to look away. But how could she look upon one so pure, so perfect? She—a mortal, decaying in her own sin, a woman, enslaved and hopeless. She trembled and began to turn away, knowing that the love she saw could not possibly be meant for her.
The Hound spoke. “My child.”
She froze, hope rushing through her like living water. No…no…could it be? There was no one else on the mountaintop was there? She turned and saw those liquid black eyes gazing deep into her own.
"My Lord?” she asked, her fingers forming her silent language.
“Walk with me,” he said. To her surprise, she realized he also spoke without words, yet she heard him clearly. She came alongside him, her head not even reaching to his shoulders. He looked upon the Land. “Is this your home?” he asked.
“Do you love it?”
Here she hesitated. How could she love it when it contained such evil? So she did not answer.
“Do you wish to love it and all the lives therein?”
The question amazed her. Did he not know the selfish, cruel way people lived? How could she love all that darkness?
“I do not ask you to love their darkness. Far from it,” said the Hound, firm but gentle. “I ask do you wish to love them?”
Regardless of their deeds? She saw in his eyes that he loved them. How could he? Yet he loved her, and she was no more deserving. “I do not know,” she replied, forming the words with her mind. “I don’t think I could have so much power.”
“By yourself, no. But you have the beginnings of my love. I have seen it in the way you treat your family, when you care for the animals. You’re filled with my love, and if you follow me, it shall be opened to you.”
“I do not know if I dare.”
“It is not to be taken lightly. There are those who will despise you for it and call you weak. But in your weakness, I will make you strong.”
She gazed up into his face and saw then not a Hound, but someone of even greater power and magnificence.
“Why me, my Lord?”
“Because you have always longed to hear my voice. And I see no one better to raise the one whom I shall lead to deliver this land from the Beast.”
“I have no husband.”
“One day soon, you will have one, and the child you bear shall follow me and save these people.”
“This child shall be mine?” she said in wonderment. “I shall raise such a son?”
“Not a son. A daughter.”
She gasped, not believing. How could a woman-child rise to such greatness? It was impossible.
“With me, nothing is impossible. She shall speak the names she has learned aloud, and in that day she shall be stronger than Death or Life-Death.”
“True names. Ones I will begin to teach you, and you must teach her.”
“When will you teach me?”
“I will begin with yours.”
He spoke her true name.
The lights dazzled her, but as they danced out of sight, she focused on the panther coming down the ridge, its fangs flashing. She gasped, her head aching. Had it all been a dream? Did her Lord not exist? Was there nothing but this impending doom?
A shout rang in her ears, and at that moment, she heard the twang of a bowstring. An arrow cut through the air and burned itself in the muscular shoulder of the panther.
Vision still blurred by the pain in her head, the girl watched as a young man of her own village came charging forward from her left.
The wounded wildcat, mad with rage, sprang for her.
The young man slammed into it mid-air, and they tumbled to the ground.
The girl gasped, struggling to her feet, not sure how she could help. Snarling, the panther rose above the youth, but he clutched a stone dagger in his hand, and with a savage yell, he drove it forward. The panther growled a gurgling curdle, before slumping forward. Chest heaving, the young man pushed the beast off him and sat up.
She recognized him.
It was Panther, the son of the Eldest of her village. For the past few years, he’d seemed to take an interest in her. She guessed he was the one responsible for the clumps of starflowers left where she would find them. She did not mind his attention. He was kinder than most of the young men, and he seemed to focus on her, instead of bouncing his gaze from woman to woman.
But she never guessed he would risk his life for her.
The panther’s claws had scored across his shoulder and chest, and blood oozed out from the cuts. She hurried over to him, and to her surprise, he grinned, not at all like he’d just been wounded. “What are you doing so far from the village?” he asked, not expecting an answer. He stood and surprising her again, he said, “You aren’t hurt are you?”
She shook her head.
Satisfied, he bent down to inspect his kill. “I did this,” he said, awed by his own valor. “I slew this monster.”
She did not mind his pride; he deserved it, she had never imagined one to tackle a wildcat. But he’d suffered for his bravery, and he did not seem to know it. Hesitating, she tugged his arm.
Impatient, she tugged again, and this time he came along with her. She could just hear the bubble of a brook, and she led him there, sitting him down on a rock, dangling their feet in the water. There she washed his cuts and dressed it with herbs.
When she was done, she dared look into his face, and she saw a warm glow in his eyes. He smiled gently, and she smiled in return.
“Come,” he said. “I must bring back this beast to the village.”
He hefted the panther onto his broad shoulders, and they trekked back together.
As Panther had no doubt hoped, the men of the village were greatly impressed by his dead. “So Panther,” his father boomed. “I suppose you will want to be called Panther Master now, hmm?”
But the maiden had no part in such revelry. She slipped away, but as she left, she saw Panther’s eyes searching for her. She smiled at him, and he flashed a grin back in return.
She continued on quietly, reflecting on what she had seen and heard. Had the Hound been a vision? How then, could she explain the peace she felt, the call that tugged her heart? To love those such as Panther would be no hard task—would she have the courage to love those who would show her no kindness?
She looked up into the sky. And again, she heard the Sphere Songs. Her heart lifted as she understood the songs they sang. Again, she saw the Hound before her eyes.
And she heard him whisper her true name.