tagSci-Fi & FantasyPanther Tales Ch. 06

Panther Tales Ch. 06

bySnowkemper©

They removed Blainey's body from the camp as dawn was breaking. They wrapped her in an old fur, and two of the girls carried her for several hours, until their arms were aching. Then they left her on the ground.

Panthers aren't sentimental about dead bodies. Blainey would return to the forest.

Back at the camp, they divided up the dead girl's few possessions. As her conqueror, Snow got first choice, but she wisely refused to be greedy. She only took a blanket, and a single gold bracelet.

Well, for Blainey it had been a bracelet. The much smaller Earth girl had to wear it around her ankle.

"To remember her," Snow said as she clicked the band of gold into place, and there were nods of approval.

She rose painfully to her feet. They had put some healing salve around the burn on her thigh, but it was still stiff and aching after a night's sleep.

"What's this?" she asked the group, bending to pick up a long, black object.

"That's Blainey's war hammer," one of the Panthers replied.

Snow gave it an experimental spin. It was different from the fighting pole she had lost when she was brought to the Panther camp. One end was much thicker than the other, and had rows of small, sharp spikes jutting out. The club was almost as long as Snow was tall, but surprisingly light.

"I think I could make use of this," she said simply. Then she limped away, letting the rest of the Clan argue over who wanted and deserved the rest of Blainey's weapons, clothing and baubles.

Ally joined her, a bowl in her hands.

"Eat," she said, and Snow chuckled softly.

"Yes Mother," she smiled, and began spooning the porridge into her mouth with her fingers. Usually this kind of food was pretty tasteless, but after a couple bites, she looked at Ally and grimaced.

The Panther made a face. "Yeah, I know it's a little bitter. There's a root ground up into it. It will help with the pain, but it doesn't taste very good."

Snow sighed, but finished her meal. She took a few big gulps of water, then Ally insisted she lay down.

"We'll put you to work tomorrow, if you're up to it," she said when Snow tried to protest. "For now, you need to rest and let that leg heal. You're worse than useless to us if you're crippled."

Snow started to say something more, but was interrupted by a gigantic yawn. Ally smiled gently and stroked her forehead.

"Anyway, that root will make you sleepy. Rest, little barbarian."

Ally was right. Snow spent the day either sleeping or in a drugged haze. Whenever she did wake up, Ally would flex and bend her leg, gently keeping it from stiffening. In the afternoon, she had another bowl of the bitter porridge, and slept some more.

By the time she was fully conscious again, it was near dusk. She yawned and stretched, then gently pressed her hand against the bandage wrapped around her thigh.

"How's it feel?" Ally asked.

"A little stiff, but not too bad."

"I changed the wrap while you were asleep. It seems to be healing ok."

"Let's find out," Snow said, and struggled to her feet. Her leg was sore, certainly, and she limped noticeably until the muscles loosened up, but it wasn't anywhere near as bad as she'd feared.

While the two walked around the camp, most of the other girls gathered in a semi-circle around Shan and her bodyguard. They were serving the evening meal, and the smell of cooking meat made Snow's mouth water.

Ally noticed the longing in the Earth girl's eyes and laughed softly. "Come on," she said, taking Snow by the arm. "Let's eat."

Shan looked up as they joined the group, and waved them over. "Come sit by me, Earth girl," she said with a little smile. "We would learn more about you."

A couple of the girls passed out bowls of a kind of stew, along with hunks of coarse bread and crude spoons carved from animal bones. The stew was thick with meat and vegetables, and Snow ate with gusto.

There was quiet conversation as they ate, and many glances her way. The general attitude of the rest of the Panther clan towards her seemed to be skeptical, but not overly hostile. The girl Snow had killed the day before hadn't been very popular--Bailey had been loud, cruel, and often a bully. None of the other girls had considered her a close friend, but she had been a valuable asset in a fight.

Few thought the clan was better off with a tiny barbarian girl taking her place.

Goreans invariably look down on Earth natives. They consider them soft, spoiled and mostly good only as slaves. Snow may have gotten lucky in one fight, but it remained to be seen if she could handle the hardship and deprivations of daily life in the forest.

As the meal continued, Shan began asking Snow questions, encouraging her to talk, drawing out her story. The other Panthers quieted and listened as she told them about her childhood on Earth, her marriage to Maxwell, and how she was brought to Gor.

There was a great deal of speculation about exactly what city her kennel had been in, and she answered a lot of questions and wracked her brain, trying to remember every detail. Eventually they narrowed it down to a three likely cities.

There were fierce nods and grim smiles as she told of her escape from the first male that had tried to hold her prisoner outside the City walls, but she got a lot of uncertain looks when she told the story of killing the Tarn rider.

"Wait a minute," one of the girls interrupted. She was a slim girl with black hair and olive skin who called herself Darkness. "You expect us to believe you brought down a tarn by throwing rocks at it?"

There were a few chuckles, but Snow held the other Panther's gaze.

"No, I didn't bring it down. At worst I just stung it. And I didn't throw rocks--I used a sling."

That brought forth a torrent of questions, and Snow did her best to explain how a sling worked. As she spoke, Shan called a girl over and whispered in her ear, and the girl slipped out of the camp.

Snow looked up at the Clan leader, her expression curious.

"Tomorrow, you'll have to demonstrate this sling you're talking about. As for the other, I've sent Rendill to the nearest village to find out if a Tarnsman was recently killed by a runaway slave."

Shan's expression was serious as she continued.

"No offense, but I need to confirm that story before I believe it."

Snow considered this for a moment, then nodded.

"So, Earth girl. We've heard your story. The next question is, what do YOU want?"

Snow looked around at the gathered Panthers, then turned back to the leader.

"If you'll have me, I'd just as soon stay here. It's safer than being alone, and I'll do my best to be useful."

She frowned and tapped the ring of steel around her throat.

"And I really want to get this fucking thing off."

That got some laughs, and Shan gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze. "I don't blame you for that! In a few days we'll be moving to a different camp. There are villages along the way that aren't too hostile to our Clan. We should be able to find a blacksmith who will cut that off for a small price."

Snow suddenly remembered her pack. "Speaking of price, I have some coins."

They had given her back her pack, and she had been surprised to find nothing was missing. She had no real idea how much money she had, but when she retrieved her pack and showed it to Shan, the Panther leader whistled.

"One of those coins will be more than enough. Even a blacksmith that despises Panthers would do it for gold. Of course, he'd probably try to betray you once the money was in his hand."

"Can we really trust anyone to help us?" Snow asked.

Ally spoke up. "Most of the villages along the forest edge are used to seeing Panthers. We trade with them fairly, and help them out when times are tough. Their not exactly friends, but gold and a couple of armed escorts should be enough to keep you safe."

Snow laughed sadly. "Money and muscle," she mused. "Just like Earth."

Shan nodded. "Indeed," she said quietly. Then she rose and stretched, yawning.

"It's gotten very late and I'm going to sleep. Those of you who have second patrol should head out now."

With that, the group dispersed. Some left the camp to relieve the girls patrolling the forest, watching for danger. Others wrapped up in furs and got comfortable, Snow among them. Even though she had slept most of the day, she was still tired, and dozed off almost as soon as she lay her head on her pack.

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The camp woke at first light. There were groans and grumbles as the Panthers began their day in the gloom of very early morning. It seemed to Snow that each girl had a morning task. No one had given her any directions, so she wandered around the camp, offering to help wherever she found girls working.

She helped prepare and serve breakfast--thick porridge mixed with chopped-up chunks of melon, and more bread--and after joined the girls collecting and washing bowls and spoons. She went with Ally to a small pond, the two of them sharing the weight of a bucket that must have held ten gallons of water for the girls to use for drinking and washing.

Snow remembered something a teacher had said to her years ago--"If you want people to like you, shut up and get to work." She helped a scowling, intense girl stretch out and scrape a couple of animal skins, preparing them to be made into clothes, then spent some time helping another girl trim feathers to use on arrows. Each time, she watched carefully, only asked a question when she needed to, and tried very hard to do the job well.

She lifted her head when she heard someone call her name. It was Darkness, a longbow in her hands and a smile on her face.

"Come to the targets Snow. I'm eager to see that sling of yours in action."

Several of the girls were practicing with their bows and arrows, firing at human size outlines drawn onto tree trunks. Snow grabbed her sling and followed the tall girl, and the others stepped back so she could take a few shots.

She was a little nervous as she loaded a stone in her sling. It seemed like this was an important test, and a good chance to impress the veteran Panthers.

She took a deep breath and tried to block out everything, focusing her attention on the target as she spun her arm. To her relief, the stone flew true, hitting the tree with an audible thump almost directly in the center of what would have been the target's chest.

Snow reached down and picked up two more rocks to show how quickly the sling could fling multiple missiles. Her second shot was even better, smacking into the outline's head, and even though the third barely grazed the tree, she felt pretty good about her efforts as she stepped back.

Most of the Panthers, including Shan, looked impressed, but one of the girls scoffed. It was Denera, who had been the leader of the group that had captured her in the first place.

"It's not much of a weapon, especially compared to a bow."

Snow looked at her and nodded, picking her words carefully. "You're right. It's not as deadly or as powerfull as a bow and arrow. But--it's very simple to make, easier to use and much lighter and easier to carry."

She laughed softly. "Besides, I'm worthless with a bow."

A lot of the girls laughed at that, and even Denera smiled. Snow then spent some time instructing the Panthers in the basics of using a sling. In return, they got her to take a few shots with a bow, but she hadn't been kidding. She could barely use the huge Panther bows, and her few shots didn't even make it to the target.

"It's because our bows are too big for you," Shan told her. "We'll make you one that's a better fit."

There was a daily routine in the camp--perfecting the skills they needed to survive and thrive in the forest. Along with target practice, the girls climbed up into the trees and worked on moving from place to place travelling through the upper branches. There were also games of hide-and-seek that helped the girls learn how to move silently through the forest, and to be aware of their surroundings.

Snow still couldn't move any faster than a walk, so she skipped most of those activities. She did wrap her arms around a low branch and do three pull-ups, trying to build up the strength in her thin arms.

They ate some dried meat that reminded Snow of jerky, and Shan made sure everyone had some melon. The girls broke up into pairs to spar and wrestle, and the clan leader led Darkness over to where Snow was standing, gently stretching her injured leg.

"Darkness here is very good with a sword, " Shan told her. "Let's see what you can do with your new weapon."

Snow held her war hammer, and Darkness pointed with her sword.

"Don't worry about dodging or attacking today," the black haired Panther told her. "Just work on blocking, and getting used to the weight and feel of that club."

Snow nodded, then spent the next hour trying to parry the taller girl's thrusts and swings. The hammer wasn't as easy to use as her old pole, and if they had been fighting for real she would have been killed many times over. But as they worked, she learned how to use the hammer--how to adjust her grip and let the weight of the larger end do the work for her.

Finally, when both girls were panting and soaked with sweat, Darkness stepeed back and nodded her approval.

"We're getting somewhere," she said. "You have good instincts. With some experience, you'll be a formidable opponent."

"Thank you for helping me," Snow told her, and Darkness smiled, her teeth very white against her olive skin.

"Glad to do it. I'll rig you up a harness so you can carry that on your back. Much easier to move fast and quiet when your hands are free."

The next day brought more positives. Rendill returned to the camp in the afternoon and reported that there was a story going around the villages at the forest edge of a Tarn rider who had been found with his head smashed in.

"They say it was an vicious barbarian girl, with blond hair like a boy and insane eyes."

There was cheering, and Snow was smacked on the back hard enough to make her stagger. She let fly with a playful growl, to general laughter. For the first time, the skeptical look in most of the girl's eyes was replaced by a grudging respect.

The thing that most worked in her favor was that she was willing to work her ass off. After only a couple days, the other Panthers learned that if they needed help, all they had to do was ask Snow. She learned quickly, never complained, and always tossed out a compliment or two.

Her leg healed nicely. The scar was ugly, but there was only pain if she really pushed herself. Her daily sparring sessions with Darkess and the other girls became much more interesting now that she could move, dodge and dance.

She asked questions and listened, and learned some of the girl's stories. Ally had been born into the Builder caste. Her father had been a metallurgist and a weapons maker, and unlike most Goreans, the family had had some contact with people from Earth. He learned new ideas, and it gave him and edge and helped him be very successful.

His competitors had been jealous and superstitiously believed he was using forbidden technology to make his exellent weapons. They had gone to the City authorities with their accusations, and her father had vanished.

Young, terrified, and alone, Ally had gone to the Thieve's Guild and begged for help. She spent several years, first as an apprentice and then on her own. It was there she had been given the odd, trident-shaped brand below her right eye. She was clever and brave and did very well. Sadly for her, even thieves have politics, and in a power struggle she backed the wrong candidate for Leader.

The Guild's new head began a purge, and Ally fled for the forests before they could come for her. Her knowledge of weapons and the skills she had learned as a Thief made her a valuable member of any Clan.

Darkness had been a leather worker. Her Free Companion had tried to betray her and sell her into slavery. Shan, the Clan Leader, was the daughter of a Warrior. A few of the girls were second or even third generation Panthers. All they really had in common was a burning desire to live free in a society that that made the most repressive cultures on Earth seem brazenly liberal.

The days flowed past. Snow did chores, cooked, fetched water, practiced with her club and her new bow and arrows, climbed trees, and when her leg healed went on patrol with other Panthers to practice her woodcraft. She wasn't exactly happy, but life was tolerable.

She spent a lot of time in the evenings with Ally, learning as much as she could about Gorean life and customs. At first, her questions focused on ways to get back to Earth, but it soon became apparent that was impossible. No one travelled between the planets except slavers and maybe the Priest-Kings. The slavers would never return her home--they'd either put her back in a kennel for training, or kill her outright for her 'crimes.' And none of the Clan had any idea how to contact the Priest-Kings.

So for now she was stuck. Ally was sympathetic, answering her questions and listening when she growled and snarled about how unfair it all was.

"I feel like I'm being punished for crimes I didn't commit," Snow often complained.

One night, they were talking about the lives of women on Gor. Gorean males and philosophers often claim women are important, treasured and empowered on Gor, but in reality even a Free Woman is bound by a seemingly endless list of rules and customs, forced to act and dress even more modestly than women in the most hardcore fundamentalist sects on Earth, and always aware of the threat of a collar.

"Still," Ally said with a shy smile, "there are things here more difficult than following the Free Woman's code of behavior; more difficult than being kajira; even more difficult than being an outlaw in the woods."

Snow looked at her. "Such as?"

Ally looked around furtively. They were alone in their corner of the camp, shrouded in darkness. Even so, she leaned in close to whisper.

"Such as--well the Gorean language doesn't even have a word for it. It's not only unacceptable, it's not even recognized."

"What?" Snow asked a bit impatiently.

"Being a girl who likes girls better than men," Ally finally whispered, and surprised the Earth girl with a soft, sweet kiss, the kind lovers share.

"Ummm, Ally I don't...I'm not..." Snow stammered when it ended. The Panther touched a finger to her just-kissed lips.

"Think about it my angel. I'm going to sleep."

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Ally's kiss woke so many dormant feelings in Snow. She really hadn't been interested in, or even thought about, sex since Max had died, and her experiences in the kennels had left her so turned off there had been times she figured she could never be aroused again.

Plus, she'd never been interested in women. Her only brushes with lesbianism were the times she let her old boss give her a quick 'accidental' grope. But Ally was different. She really did like the Gorean girl, and there was no denying her beauty.

She lay awake in her furs a long time, her mind spinning helplessly. Finally, she quit thinking and let her body decide. In the coal blackness of the Forest night, she crept silently to where Ally slept and slipped into her furs.

The Panther girl stretched langurously, waking to find the girl she wanted gently pressed against her. She smiled and kissed Snow's head tenderly.

"I'm so glad you came to me," Ally whispered, and took the smaller girl into her arms.

"Do we need to sneak away? Will you get in trouble?"

Ally laughed silently. "This is one of the few places on Gor where no one cares. Besides, I guarantee you were not the only ones sharing furs tonight."

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