One poked her with a spear, slicing her arm. He laughed. Another peeled the rags off his body; she watched him warily. Her nostrils flared; something in the air smelled wrong. Fear ran like ice down her spine. She glanced about, searching for a way to escape. Hissing again, she tried to scoot away, but the heavy metal attached to her foot held her down. She yowled, and the creatures jeered.
A sound behind her and then a shadow jumped out of the trees. The creatures, one by one, fell as the shadow spun around them. Then the shapeless shadow crouched before her, a face in hers. Dark brown eyes that reminded her of the flame that had flickered in her mother’s eyes stared at her, and a soft voice mewed gently, a murmur that reminded her of Mother’s voice singing her to sleep. She didn’t know what he meant, but she trusted his tone.
The teeth opened and he slipped her leg out. He picked her up, and she saw Mother Tiger lying on the ground, blood pooling around her. Whimpering, she pressed her face into his chest. His hand stroked her hair, and she could feel the rumble in his chest when he spoke, the words foreign to her ears.
She breathed him in, the smells reminding her of home—fresh pine, animal hides, the musky odor of the earth. And something else too. Something pleasant. This must be the smell of Man, the dangerous creature Mother Tiger always warned her to stay away from.
Through the woods, he carried her to a den built above the ground, made from fallen trees. Inside, it was warm. He set her on something soft and wrapped in warm hides. Hides without fur. It felt strangely smooth to her fingers.
He tugged at the rags around her foot, pushing, jabbing at the painful sores. Hissing, scratching at him, she pulled away. But his low voice rumbled at her, quiet, soothing, and he gently wiped the blood away. At first, it stung, then it soothed, and his voiced made her feel sleepy. He gave her warm milk to drink, and her eyes drifted shut.
She woke to the thud of the door banging shut. With a cry, she sat up, and he stood before her, two black tiger kittens in his hands. He dumped them in her lap, her sister and brother.
She cried and smiled as they tumbled over each other, trying to lick her face. Hands on his hips, he stood beside them, grinning. “Looks like you were the runt of the litter.”
She frowned. “Grrr. Rrrnnn. Rrrrrnnnnnt. Ruuuuunnnt.” She poked her chest with her thumb. “Runt.”