Queen Madriaz bore one single cub following her encounter with the king of lions. When he was born, he was already well-grown, though as blind and helpless as any other cub. His pelt was tiger-textured, though the base color was a dark golden red, with black broad stripes down his back and flanks, and no white to be seen anywhere on him. The tips of his ears bore long straight tufts of black hair, as did the end of his tail, and his moist, sensitive nose was also all-black. In addition, his eyes were an even shinier golden color than those of his father's.
As the young tiger prince grew, he was schooled in the art of hunting by his experienced mother. They encountered no others of their kind over the course of their extensive wanderings, for there was little room in the world anymore for such big cats. Game was also scarce, and many times they had to prey on livestock or else starve, thus putting their lives at risk when angered humans came hunting for them in return. They always eluded them however, sometimes by killing their dogs to avoid being tracked, and then sneaking away through the underbrush. A few times, bullets zinged over their heads and smacked into treetrunks, but none ever hit their mark.
By the time Madriaz' cub had finished growing, he had become the greatest of tigers that had ever lived. He weighed nearly 425 kilos, and was around 3.5 meters long, not counting his bushy tail. His neck and heavy-muscled shoulders were covered by thick fur, though not as long as the mane of his father's, it was regardless almost twice as long as the rest of his soft pelt, and made him look even larger and more frightening, especially when he puffed it up in anger. He had a deep ribcage, but rather slender hips, connecting to two extremely powerful hind legs. Those allowed him to jump at least two meters straight up, and along with his strong forelegs and large, sharp and curved claws gave him the ability to climb trees with no difficulty, though only the sturdiest of specimens could handle his considerable weight! His eyesight was keen, his ears sharp, and he could sniff out the traces of prey literally days after they had passed.
It was obvious prince Maruch was born to rule.
It was probably the sharp senses Mother Nature had gifted him with that caused him to stop one day and listen closely, for suddenly he heard a sound he'd never heard before.
A human child, crying; a boy-child in fact, though the tiger didn't know that at the moment he heard the young one's cries. At that moment, it was simply the shrill and wailing whimperings of some animal, probably one that was wounded.
Quickly bounding off deeper into the forest, he felt drawn to the curious noise. Intrigued by it. His approach was swift, yet stealthy despite his large and heavy body. The pads on his broad feet dampened the sound of his steps effectively, and he skilfully ducked out of the way of low-hanging branches and reeds that would have given him away.
The sound he'd heard came from what he assumed was a curiously hairless animal with a dark brown skin, quickly correcting himself upon seeing the crying thing change position; a thick dark and tangled mop grew on top of its head. It wasn't a very large animal either. A lamb of just a few months of age would have been bigger, and dumb as they were, it would have had the wits to stay quiet too when injured, unlike this strange little thing. Strangely, it seemed to cry in order to call for attention on purpose, not realizing it was likely to draw predators towards it. The tiger prince saw several deep scratches across the curious creature's back, and contusions on other parts of its body, perhaps that was the reason for its cries.
The only item of clothing the child wore was a loincloth made of wool, though Maruch had no name for such a thing. He became so fascinated by the strange being, he didn't see it at all as prey. Instead, he raised up his head and slowly stepped out into the clearing where the child sat clutching a woman's skirt - another unknown thing in the tiger's world.
Their eyes met across the distance, and locked. Both gazing at one another, both with forward-facing eyes giving stereoscopic vision, like most land-living predators. It seemed they had some things in common after all...
Maruch knew that whatever kind of animal the one lying down belonged to, it was the mother of the smaller one. They both shared the same basic scent that was common for all animals of a particular species, and the finer differences were similar too, those that signified blood relations. He also knew the larger one was dead, and it had happened quite recently as well. Maybe only hours.
As he entered the clearing fully, the hairless one stopped weeping. It looked at the enormous tiger with wide-open eyes, though it didn't seem to exhibit much in the way of fear, just wariness and uncertainty. The tiger prince walked closer, slowly, as not to startle what he had determined to be the female's cub.
It followed him with its eyes, they were dark, and the boy's skin had a hue much like treebark, a rich brown, while the hair on the top of his head was black, though heavily matted with filth and even bits of leaves and such. The cub seemed to have been living in or near the forest for some time because it didn't act out-of-place in those surroundings, though it was clear to Maruch a forest was not its natural habitat; without fur it couldn't survive the winter.
Coming closer, the great tiger sniffed the little cub intently, tasting him through the air with both nostrils and the scent-tasting organs tigers have at the roof of their mouth. The little one was getting an infection from the scratches, and he was malnourished; his mother hadn't been able to feed him properly. He was weaned off her teats, but she was no hunter, that much was clear. No wild animal had felled her, instead she'd slipped and fallen over the edge of a small ridge just to the side of where she was laying; it had probably happened in the dark, and perhaps the cub landed on top of her. Maybe that explained why he had not suffered as much damage.
The cub sat still and let Maruch lick the wounds, the tiger saliva acting as a desinfectant, and general cleanser. He winched of pain a few times, but not as loudly as when he'd been crying, as the closeness of the big tiger seemed to have a soothing effect on the cub. When this was finished, Maruch led the boy away from his dead mother, she was already attracting insects, and soon other creatures would arrive too. It was not a healthy place to stay. The boy shed more tears, but still followed the tiger on short, wobbly legs. They walked only a short distance down to the river where they rested. There Maruch signed to the boy to wait, while he went hunting. The boy's scent told of his diet, so the tiger brought back fruits, nuts, and catched a small fish in the river for the boy and gutted and cleaned it with his sharp claws. The boy ate with good appetite, and appeared to be in fairly good shape despite everything. He'd fight off the infection easily enough with Maruch's help. After eating, they continued onwards along the water. It was much easier walking there than in the forest, and if the riverbank became impassable, they simply went around the blockage by swimming in the river, Maruch letting the cub hitch a ride on his broad back as the tiger easily tackled the lazily flowing water.
Finally they arrived to their destination; a bend in the river almost at the center of his territory where there was a hollow under a large tree. The bottom of the hollow was filled with dry sand, and it was sheltered from wind and rain. After having inspected the site, Maruch making sure there were no snakes or other animals inhabiting the hollow, they bathed in the river together, splashing around in the warm water to get clean and just for fun. The cub made delighted noises while again riding on Maruch's back again as he swam with swift, powerful strokes, the cub holding on with his little hands in the tiger's thick fur. As they got out, the boy took off his loincloth, wrung it out as best he could, and then hung it to dry over a branch outside the hollow as if it was something he'd been taught to do by his mother. He smiled proudly when Maruch gave a nod of approval.
Over the next few days, the two furnished the sides and floor of the hollow with grass and large leaves and fern fronds to create a soft bed for the boy-cub, and at night Maruch would curl up right outside so that the cub could fall asleep at the tiger's side, sharing of his body heat. The scratches were healing nicely, and he was eating well too. The cub grew stronger and healthier from their forages together through nature and their swims in the river, and time simply passed, days uncounted, like they do when two animals live together in harmony. Sometimes they merely lazed in the sun at the riverbank, on a smooth, warm rock outcropping. The cub sometimes laid with his head resting on one of Maruch's huge front paws, or sitting leaning up with his body against the tiger's massive chest. At the end of the day, Maruch would get a hug from the cub, his arms stretching to try to reach around the tiger's neck, and he would start getting licked in return. The raspy feel of that wet, warm tongue always made the cub giggly, and he squirmed and laughed delightfully from the treatment. After Maruch had finished, leaving virtually no spot untouched, the cub was so exhausted he barely managed to drag himself to bed where he snuggled in on his ferns and leaves and went to sleep immediately.
Then one day a new threat came upon them. Scents drifted through the forest that spoke of unknown strangers, people like the cub but different ones, unrelated ones. Sweaty strangers carrying equipment, things not of nature. Strangers carrying objects with harsh and dangerous scents; volatile powders and oiled metal that reeked of death. There were five of them, four men and one female, they were penetrating deeper into his domain than any of their kind had ever done before. Usually he had been able to walk around them in a huge semi-circle, but these were cutting straight through his habitat, heading in a near-straight line for the river.
'Come little one, we must go!', Maruch signalled, indicating it was both important and imminent they left.
'Noo, I don't wanna, I'm sleepy', the little one replied, curling up and burrowing deeper into his warm bed; for it was still early morning and the air outside was heavy with dew and a little nippy.
A huge paw prodded the boy's butt gently. 'There's no time for sleep'
The cub slowly looked up and yawned. 'Do we HAVE to?'
'Yes. Now.' Maruch watched the little one shake the sleep out of his head and crawl out of his hollow.
'But now I wanna play!' The cub quickly darted off to the side and ran around the tree and into the forest.
'No, little one, it's dangerous! Come back here at once!' Maruch cringed on the inside because he knew the intruders would have heard his growl. He gritted his teeth and started chasing the little cub through the underbrush. Unfortunately, the boy was running right towards the group of humans!
'Catch me if you can, Maruch!', the boy squealed and hurried along as quickly as he could on his short legs, not knowing the danger he was running into.
The tiger prince bounded quickly and agilely after the boy, gaining ground on him at a terrific rate. Yet now the humans were very close, worryingly close in fact. Their scent indicated waryness now that they knew a tiger was nearby. He could hear their voices as they heard his and the boy's approach as they both crashed throgh the underbrush, for there was no time for stealth now. Maruch felt their tension increasing the closer they all got to each other.
The boy-cub tumbled out into a small clearing just as Maruch reached him, having tripped over a dead branch lying on the ground. The tiger's great maws closed around the child's midsection and he was yelling from disappointment he'd been caught. He never even saw the strangers, he'd been too busy trying to be naughty and run away. The scent of sweaty tired human was almost overpowering as Maruch tried to turn and carry off the cub as quickly as possible.
"FUCK! Shoot it!", a man's voice rang out in near-panic. They were right there, across the little glade. Two rifles went off with tremendous bangs. There was an almost equally loud roar that might have been of pain, and in the blink of an eye Maruch had dropped the child, rolled aside and disappeared into the foliage at the edge of the clearing. A third rifle went off, and then the first two again, bullets whirring through the air and slamming with loud thunks into tree-trunks without seeming to hit anything; the sharp cracks of the rifles echoing through the vast, deep forest being the only sounds that could be heard. Perhaps the only sounds heard anywhere in the universe...
Suddenly it was all still and quiet except for the quiet, wailing cries of the boy who laid on the ground, frightened and alone.
"Did you hit it?", the fourth man asked his guides. "I think you hit it. If you did, you better make sure you kill it, because that was the biggest fucking tiger I've ever seen!"
"Yeah, we don't want that bastard wounded and stalking us, that's for sure", one of the guides added, looking around warily without trying to appear scared - which he was.
"Is the boy hurt?", the woman asked urgently, sounding really worried. "The tiger bit him. I saw it bite him!"
"Geez, I sure hope you hit that monster. Look at these paw prints, they're twice the size of my hand. More!" The man and his guides continued to banter as the group inspected the boy. He was wary of them, displaying signs of fear and shying away from them, but seemed to relax a little once he was picked up and cuddled by the woman. He also stopped crying.
"There's some scratches here on his body, but they're old and healed out. Apart from that, there's nothing wrong with him", the unarmed man said. He was a zoologist. "What do you think, Katarina?"
The woman had also looked over the boy. She was a doctor. "He seems in remarkably good shape, if he has lived alone like this..." She seemed lost in thought for a while. "Are you sure there aren't any villages or such around here where he might have come from?"
The guide leader shook his head firmly. "No, it's all wilderness for many hundreds of kilometers in any direction. The boy couldn't have come from there on his own, he'd have been eaten by bears or wolves within days at most, or else starved to death."
The woman nodded and looked at her male travel companion as she spoke. "As you say, these scratches are old, and I don't think they're caused by an animal anyway, they're not like claw or bite marks."
"How old do you think he is?", the zoologist asked in return.
"I'm not sure, Mark. I'd say around two and a half or so, it's hard to tell when we don't know anything about him." She cooed and cuddled him to make the boy relax, and slowly he did.
"Well, whatever the kid's age, we better not stay here", the leader travel guide said gruffly in order to hide the worry and uneasiness he felt. "I can't find any traces of blood, but that doesn't mean we missed. We could still have a huge angry, wounded, and most certainly hungry tiger lurking in the vicinity, waiting for a moment to pounce on us. Strange though, I didn't think there was any left in the wild..."
"Yeah", added one of the other guides. "And did you see his colors? It almost didn't look like a tiger at all! Except, somehow it did...!"
The group retreated the way they'd come and kept walking for as long as there was light to see. They had flashlights, but they needed the rest anyway. When darkness had almost crept over them entirely they used the last few rays of dying sunlight to erect their tent, and then crawled inside. While Katarina and the boy slept, the men took turns in pairs to keep watch, but nothing happened. Once, one of the guides thought he saw the enormous shadow of a tiger walking by against the star and moonlight-lit outside of the tent, but that had to be his imagination he decided.
Katarina laid in the tent with the little boy nestled up to her in the night, looking up at the canvas roof of the tent. She too saw the shadow, but unlike the guide, she didn't feel threatened by it. She knew, if the tiger wanted to harm them he could have, and there was little any of them could do to stop him. Rather, it felt like it wanted to make sure the boy was safe and being cared for... She berated herself for being silly, but she still couldn't shake that feeling...
In the morning they broke camp after having had a quick breakfast and heeding the calls of nature, then hurried along back towards civilization. In the afternoon they reached their two large and very sturdy four-wheel-drive Land Rovers parked at the end of a bumpy and almost overgrown gravel road. They got in, and then spent the next three days slowly making their way back to the nearest large city with an airport. From there, it was a relatively short hop to Moscow where they went to try and find out the identity of the strange boy they'd found in the middle of the deep woods of the east.
"Geez, I'm glad to be back in a civilized part of the world again", Mark said to her as they debarked from the plane. "I thought that tiger was going to have us all for lunch!"
"I don't know", she mused, mostly to herself. "I don't think he was out to eat us. Or the boy..."
Mark just gave her a 'are you nuts' kind of look. "Crazy woman", he muttered, and she smiled wryly. Katarina sure was peculiar! Sometimes he wished she would be his wife, but she was determined not to become attached to any man. Besides, she'd never move from that far-flung Northern country where she lived, down to southern France with him. And he himself couldn't ever envision living in such a place like hers either. Like so many times in the past, he sighed ruefully to himself, shook his head and followed the woman he secretly loved on whatever quest she'd decided to set out on...
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