Just a little background on this chapter. When I first came up with the idea of writing Shadow Cat, I only had a brief concept in mind–a story about weretigers. Then Berani came to life. Originally this was chapter one, then chapter two, chapter three, chapter one again. I had a hard time placing it. In the end, I realized it just wouldn’t make the cut; it didn’t drive the story forward. Still, I love it. Keep in mind, it could use a bit of editing, so please be gentle.
Berani raced through the trees, her hair whipping behind her snagging the low-hanging branches. She didn’t stop even as the strands ripped free sending searing pain through her scalp. She couldn’t, not if she wanted to get away. Already she could hear the tiger crashing through the bushes…closing in. She forced herself not to look back, it would only delay her, or worse. She couldn’t chance losing her footing.
There…a flicker of light? Yes, she was close. Just ahead the sun broke through the thick coverage of the rainforest. She would be safe if she could reach the clearing.
A roar thundered so loud and ferocious, birds took flight, and she felt her chest resonating from the sound of it. Her heart skipped a beat before it resumed its rapid pace threatening to explode. How could the tiger be so near already? She put forth an extra burst of speed. Her lungs burned with the effort. She could do this…Only a couple more feet. If only…
Too late. A low, warning growl, so close it whispered in her ear. She turned to fend off the tiger. Her eyes bulged at the massive orange body flying toward her. Great Spirit! She squeezed her eyes shut, her body tense as she braced herself. The tiger hit, its shoulders slamming into her midsection and jerking her from her feet. She grunted and all the air whooshed from her lungs. The wind chilled her skin as the collision forced her into a freefall. She held tight to the tiger pressed against her body, now more concerned about the imminent ground fast approaching in her vulnerable position, than being caught by the tiger. She opened her mouth to release a scream, but it caught in her throat, and she fell in silence.
The tiger twisted, rotating, and putting her on top. Her eyes flew open and flinched as she put out her hands as they rushed toward the ground. The soft underside of the cat’s belly lessened the blow; still she scraped her hands on the rocks and dirt as they slid a yard. Berani drew in a huge wheezing breath, filling her lungs like a baby inhaling its first gasp of air.
She jerked in surprise as the huge cat chuffed beneath her shaking her with each sneeze-like sound. Laughter slowly replaced the chuffing as the fur faded and the immense bulk of the tiger diminished. In the place of the massive feline lay a young man.
Young man, she scoffed to herself, more akin to a boy barely entering adolescence. She pushed herself off him to lie on her back, her deep breaths slowing to a steady rhythm. She turned her head letting it fall to the side, facing him.
His body shook with laughter as his beautiful tanned skinned, virtually perfect save for the ragged scar running down his belly glistened with a light sheen of sweat. His yellow catlike eyes stared back at her in utter amusement. “I got you good that time, Berani.”
She narrowed her eyes. “If you were anyone but my brother, I would have killed you by now.”
He might be approaching adulthood, but he had a long way to go in maturity level, and his decision-making abilities left much to offer. Attacking with such force proved his lack of judgment.
She slapped his bare chest. “You didn’t have to hit me so hard!” She stifled a moan, the sudden movement causing a sharp pain in her side.
Not only did he continue to laugh, but his laughter erupted into a full-bellied rumble.
“Sometimes, I really hate you, Pejuang,” Berani struggled to a sitting position, her arm pressed tightly around her middle. She could not stop the hiss that escaped her lips as pain shot up her side. “I think you cracked my rib.”
Pejuang ceased laughing and stared at her, his eyes wide as he scrambled to his feet. He reached to help her, his face suddenly masked with concern. “I’m sorry, Berani. You know I was just playing. I would never intentionally hurt you.”
She pulled away. “Well you did.”
Berani closed her eyes as she hunched over, clenching her teeth against the pain. “You’re always so careless. You never think before you act. Anyone would know how dangerous it is to hit someone at a full run.”
Berani lifted her eyes to him. “What if you had broken my neck or…”
The words caught in her throat as her gaze finally reached Pejuang’s face, the regret flowing from his eyes clearly visible. She softened her voice. “You’re not a cub anymore, you should know better.”
She removed her hand from her side and took a peek. “Oh! This is horrible. Even with healing, I’ll have a mark.”
She glared at him. “Look at this.”
Pejuang dropped his eyes to the reddened patch of flesh, already darkening to bluish-black. All remaining liveliness on his face fell, and his shoulders slumped as if he had the weight of a thousand elephants upon him, giving him a haggard appearance, and aging him years.
“I am so angry with you right now. If mother finds out you injured me again through you carelessness, you know it’s over,” she scolded him. “Your time with us is already limited. Even without this incident, it won’t be long before you’re forced out of the clan.”
“You are right.” His voice was barely a whisper as reached for her.
“Don’t be so impatient. Just wait.” Closing her eyes, she covered her injured ribs with her hands, channeling her energy, a gift from the Great Spirit, and whispered a sacred incantation under her breath. Warmth seeped through her fingertips to her body, sealing the broken blood vessels, knitting the rib and repairing the bruised muscles. Taking a deep pain-free breath, she opened her eyes, inspecting the results. She could do nothing about the blood already dispersed and trapped under the skin—her biggest concern and evident of her brother’s harsh treatment. Nothing but time would make the discoloration fade.
She held out her hand, allowing his help as he wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her gently to her feet. His mouth held a deep frown, as he plucked twigs and leaves from her hair.
Berani slapped his hand away. “Being regretful early is advantageous; being regretful later is of no use.”
His hands fell to his sides as he stared at her and opened his mouth. She raised a single eyebrow, daring him to say a word, and he snapped his lips shut. He looked off into the distance before dropping his gaze to his feet, his long copper hair, with just a hint of red, like his tiger pelt, fell in his face and covered eyes.
“Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with you. If I ever lost you…” She could not continue.
He lifted his narrowed eyes to meet hers, his guilty look, replaced with one of defiance. “I can take care of myself.”
“So you say.” Despite his confidence, she still had doubts. She considered his youthful appearance which gave him a feminine attractiveness. Tall and sturdy, he lacked the lankiness of most gangly boys his age; he was already several inches taller than she was, as tall as some of the full-grown males. He did not exhibit the muscular physique of a mature wehr-tiger, but he was close. That alone might merit him an early exit from their clan. Adult, unmated males were never allowed to stay with their birth people.
Soon, he would be forced to leave and tackle the world on his own. Rash and prone to reckless decisions, she feared he would not survive long with his maturity level. Alone, he would have no one to save him from his own stupidity. She only wished she could find a way to keep him nearby.
She shook her head at his head bowed in submission, so common for a cub being reprimanded. “Don’t think you’re fooling me. You’re just like the monkeys; tomorrow, you’ll be up to your old tricks.”
Pejuang snapped up his head, his eyes bold and challenging.
She smiled knowingly. “See? You get harder to control every day. How long do you think the clan will let you stay within its safety?”
She waved her hand, dismissing him. “Go home, Pejuang. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
“I can’t go back without you, Berani. I can’t leave you alone out here. What will I tell the others?” His tone turned into a plea. “Please, Berani. Don’t make me leave you. Let me stay and make sure you’re okay. I’ll hunt for—“
“Pejuang,” Berani’s voice sharpened with annoyance, his begging putting her on edge like nothing else. “I don’t need you to hunt for me. I need you to grow up.”
He widened his eyes before they narrowed to slits. He took a step toward her, glaring. “I’m not the cub you used to push around, sister.”
Berani held his gaze, refusing to back down. She knew she played a dangerous game, but she was not about to let this overgrown cub intimidate her. “Really? You could have fooled me.”
Pejuang growled low in his throat, his fangs lengthened slightly as he clenched his teeth.
She looked at him, disbelieving her eyes. “You’re going to attack me?”
He jerked back as if she had slapped him. “No, of course not.” His voice was rough, his tiger barely contained. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
This was exactly why he could not stay in the clan. A well-placed nip could bring a cub into submission. Pejuang, on the other hand, did not back down as easily; he met strength with strength. Already, he was beyond her physical control.
Berani waited for him to calm before she spoke again. “I’ll be back soon.”
Pejuang opened his eyes; his brow knit together, his voice quiet. “You think you can protect everyone, but you can’t. You can’t be everywhere all the time…and that’s what you would have to do to save us all.”
His words weighed on her, draining her. He was right, and she lashed out at him because it was true. Her anger arose from her lack of ability to protect him from the many dangers in the world, but she’d never admit that to him. “Just go home, Pejuang. There’s nothing you can do here.”
Berani jumped at a loud crash echoing in the distance and looked at Pejuang’s wide eyes, which surely matched her own. She listened intently and heard a host of voices. “The Great River maybe?”
Pejuang took a step toward the waterway, but Berani grabbed his arm. “Already you leap into trouble, so soon after your last folly.”
He looked at her, his eyes narrowed. “Do you expect the noise to investigate itself?”
She searched his face. “We’ll go together.”
His mouth drew into a sneer. “Come on.”
He stomped in the direction of the noise, leaving her to follow, his back hunched, his gait stiff; she never should have pushed him so far.
She trailed after him. By the time she reached him, he was at the tree line, lying down, concealed by the tall grass. She dropped to her belly and crept to him.
On the other side of the river about twenty men and possibly a woman, all laden with packs meandered. At least half of them were Malays from the city, darker in hair, but with facial features like her people, setting them apart. The others in the party had foreign features—pale-pinkish skin, and hair varying in shades, from fair to dark identified them as strangers from distant lands. Though outsiders, she recognized many of the faces from an earlier group which damaged a small area of her forest. What were they doing back?
She held out her hand, palm face up and blew over its surface. A breeze picked up, growing stronger as it reached the strangers, lifting a hat from one head. She smiled as she inhaled deep, enough to create a gush of wind.
Pejuang’s hand clamped over her mouth as he grabbed her wrist. “What are you doing?” he whispered.
She bit his finger and scowled as he jerked his hand away. “Regretful early,” she hissed.
She inched back the way they came until she was well out of sight of the intruders and sat on her heels, waiting for her brother.
He knelt before her, glowering.
“How dare you interfere?” she demanded.
“You cannot do this.” He examined his reddened finger, the tooth mark clearly visible.
She scoffed. “If you could, you wouldn’t?”
“No, that is not the way.”
“They’re here to destroy our land. How easily you forget the destruction they left behind last time they were here. If I ruled the water, I would bring a wave to drown them. If I controlled the earth, I would open the ground beneath their feet to swallow them. If I dominated fire, it would burn around them.” She sighed, losing momentum. “Or even if I had the power of spirit, like Opah, I could put doubts in their mind…compelling them to leave our lands. But I only have command of the air and can cause little more than mischief…a minor annoyance to them.” She fixed her gaze on him. “Still, I will never allow them to stay.”
“We waste time. We need to tell Opah.” Pejuang stood, looking down on her. Her brother was right; their grandmother did need to know.
Berani glanced back toward the river hidden by the trees. “You go…I want to watch more. Maybe I’ll find out something.”
“No, it’s too dangerous.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll only scout and won’t cause any more trouble.” She got on her stomach to crawl back, but Pejuang reached down to catch her leg, impeding her progress. She sat up, glaring at him.
His brows drew together, creasing in the center. “I can’t let you stay. If something happened to you, I’d never be able to explain it to the others.”
“Let go, I don’t need your protection.” She kicked out her foot, knocking him away, her voice low and threatening. “I said I’ll be fine.”
“What if you get caught?”
“I won’t. They can’t see me through the brush.”
Pejuang never gave up easily. “What if—“
“I…said…I’m…staying,” Berani’s voice was a deep rumble, bordering on a growl, leaving no room for debate.
“You think your bravery will save you. I hope that it does, but you know everyone has to depend on someone sometime.” He did not wait for her response, as he shifted. His tanned skin mottled to orange just before thick fur sprouted in waves over his body with black and white stripes adding contrast. Pejuang’s body fell forward, and his shape took on the form of a large cat. He’d gained an extraordinary amount of volume on his feline frame. Although he went through a massive transformation, the entire process only took seconds, with majority of the shift spent filling in his bulk.
Once fully changed, Pejuang shook out his fur. Looking at Berani one last time, he ran in the direction of their clan.
For a long while, Berani watched the tree line where her brother had disappeared. The bitter truth of his words stung. When had the tables turned? She had always protected him, not the other way around. To change that was to admit that Pejuang was ready to leave the clan, and she was not prepared to accept that.
Even worse, she knew her injury was mostly her fault. After all, she had started their game play. If the clan forced Pejuang out because of it, she could only blame herself.
She blinked back the tears which threatened to spill over. Hating the weakness, she wiped angrily at her eyes. Her own fault…she chuckled, thinking about the handful of fur she ripped out of Pejuang’s side earlier, before she took off through the forest.
She lived to torment Pejuang, and she should have known he would retaliate with excessive force. He was a fighter, never one to let things go. She was proud of that side of his personality. He definitely was not an easy target. Berani knew when the time came, and if he survived the recklessness of his youth, he would have no problem establishing his own territory. Reassured, Berani crawled back to watch the strangers.