The Weasel and the Panther by Skippy

 

I heard a story once, of a boy who fell in love with a panther. But it is terrible to love a panther, for panthers are reserved creatures who rarely allow another animal to see inside their hearts, and it was terrible for the boy they called Weasel. But for some reason that Weasel never truly discovered, the panther sought him out, on dark moonless nights when the cicadas had fallen silent and only the owls were watching-only then would the panther pad silently to the hut where Weasel slept and scratch softly on Weasel's window so that he would wake and follow the panther deep into the woods, where they would spend the night, curled inside a cave made of obsidian.

Now, you might very well be wondering how this all came about. A panther, you say, does not fall in love with a boy, nor could a boy fall in love with a panther. I would reply, then, that you would normally be quite right. But this boy, he is different from other boys. Perhaps he always has been.

He was born in a place far away, farther away than you could ever imagine. Some say angels brought him and his mother to this world; others say it was demons. However he and his mother were come to this place, though, they seemed normal enough, for a lone woman with a child. Their past remained a mystery to all who asked, except that they had come from far away and that her husband and the child's father had been called to God's side prematurely, though who was to say when God should and shouldn't call his followers to His side? Thus they were taken in by the local parish. Now, it happened that the pastor had recently been widowed, his previous wife having taken ill some years since, and had not yet remarried. The mother, penniless though she was, bore herself proudly, almost like the Ladies who passed through in their carriages of shining satin with gleaming metal wheels and spoke with a sophistication that implied aristocracy. Her face was, naturally, also pleasant to look at and the pastor was so impressed by the mother's bearing that he married her, taking in her child as his own son and turning down several other offers from eligible girls in town in the process.

And so the mother became the wife of a pastor, and her young son was named James, after Christ's apostle, though everyone called him Jamie. The pastor also had two other sons from a previous marriage. They were several years older than Jamie, and their names were Andrew and Alexander. Drew and Sandy were clever, mean-minded boys who may have missed their mother on some level, but by and large were simply jealous of the new people who had come into their house to usurp their father's favour. When their mother had died, and the two had learned that they had become the most important things in the pastor's life. The focus of their father's eye shifted when he remarried, and his true sons were not unaware of the fact.

The time came for young Jamie to go to school. It was an intimidating experience for him; he had never seen so many children in the same place, save the bands of street rats roaming the streets of the City, and those he had always ignored. These were orderly children, all sitting in desks, two to a desk. There were three desks to a row with seven rows. The back row only had one desk in the corner of the room, because the wood-stove stood in the corner to be lit when winter struck, and next to that was the entryway, where the children would leave their coats and hats. It was to this desk that Jamie was assigned, for there were no other vacant seats.

He walked down the aisle through a forest of peering eyes, resolutely staring forward. As Jamie walked past a boy with large guileless eyes and long blond hair, a foot shot out from under the desk. Thinking back on it later, he wouldn't recall how he knew the foot was there; he certainly didn't see it, staring the way he was at the back wall of the schoolroom. It may have been instinct or perhaps a miracle, but somehow he sidestepped the treacherous leg in the narrow aisle and continued walking with barely a break in his stride. The boy he'd thwarted glared, but his smooth evasion of the situation earned some admiring glances from some of the other students.

Jamie sat down at his new desk. He found that from this position he could see the entire classroom, though he didn't feel very much a part of the class. He didn't mind, for he had spent much of his childhood by himself. The teacher tended to ignore him, too, which suited Jamie. He spend most of his time in his secluded seat drawing meaningless pictures with the pencil his mother had bought for him and kept surreptitious watch over his classmates.

Recess brought Jamie to a rude awakening. The tidy group of well-behaved children Jamie had met in the classroom suddenly turned into a scrambled mob of energy. Jamie sat against the huge wild ash that grew a small distance from the schoolhouse. He could not imagine running about like that, especially with so many other people around.

Some of the boys approached Jamie.

"H'llo," said one, a sandy-haired boy with a wiry body that looked like it could slip through the smallest cracks.

Jamie looked up. "Hello," he replied warily.

"Wanna go play a game wit' us?" the boy asked.

"...What game?" Jamie said.

The boy said, "T'others are playing tag."

"I don't know that game."

"Y' don't? But ever'one knows how t'play tag!" said the boy.

"Well, I don't," said Jamie. He picked up a stick and began drawing patterns in the dirt.

Another boy, with wide eyes and a wide, thin mouth that looked like someone had taken a fountain pen and drawn a line across his face, whispered something in the first boy's ear, clearly not caring whether or not Jamie heard. "Jayce, d'you really wanna play with a bastard chil'? My ma says-"

Jayce glared at the wide-faced boy. "You hush up. Your ma's just mad that her Jessie's not in the pastor's bed b'now." He turned back to Jamie. "So, what games d'you know?"

"I don't know any games."

His eyes widened. "None 'tall? But, what would'ye do all day then?"

Jamie shrugged.

The wiry boy seemed like he wanted to say something, but the wide-faced boy grabbed at his arm and said, "Come on, Jayce. I wanna go play. This... kid's weird."

And so Jamie was left alone once more.

One day during recess, Jamie was sitting in his usual place under the rowan, drawing in the dirt with his finger or a stick, and watching the other children play in the yard. A young man, the town doctor's apprentice, approached the schoolyard and, glancing nervously toward the children playing in the yard, entered the building. Jamie watched the boy close the door behind him. The apprentice was sixteen years old, old enough that he didn't have to go to school any more if he didn't want to. Plus, he'd gotten apprenticed to the doctor two years earlier, and that had been enough to excuse him from his schooling.

Jamie shrugged; he didn't know the boy well enough to pay any attention to him, nor did he particularly care what message the doctor's apprentice brought the schoolmaster, so he returned to his drawing.

A shadow fell over the dirt and a foot planted itself right in the middle of Jamie's dirt design. He scowled and looked up: it was the schoolmaster, with the apprentice peering from just behind him, as though hiding.

"Jamie, son," said the schoolmaster, ignorant of the artwork he'd just destroyed, "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you, child."

Jamie said nothing; he just stared up at the man with his piercing green eyes, daring him to give him bad news. The schoolmaster faltered a moment, then managed to tell the child in front of him, "I'm sorry to tell you, well, your mother has taken ill. It was this morning. We think perhaps it might have been something she ate, spoiled or the like. She-it doesn't look good."

"Is she going to die?" asked Jamie. He didn't know what he would do if his mother were not there. She was the only one he'd ever been able to talk to.

The schoolmaster glanced back at the apprentice behind him, the only sign Jamie needed to know his answer. "Well, son-"

"I'm not your son!" shouted Jamie suddenly, and ran off to the stream that ran behind the school to hide among the trees, ignoring the shocked look on the schoolmaster's face and the sudden stares from the children. He knew the master would not dare pursue him, so he threw himself down under an oak that was just beginning to drop its leaves and cried until he slept.

When he awoke, it was dark and the moon peered ominously through cracks in the leaves. He had fallen leaves stuck to his arms and face, which left imprints in his skin when he peeled them off. Rubbing at the wrinkles from the leaves, Jamie felt oddly at home in the dark patch of woods, though he could hardly see and tripped over roots that seemed invisible until his toe snagged them. Still, the copse wasn't terribly big, and soon Jamie found himself at the edge. But instead of having come out on the side of the schoolyard, he had somehow gone downstream and come out looking out over the fields to the south of the village, and past those to the Ravinheld Forest. During the autumn, some of the villagers logged at the edges of Ravinheld to provide wood for the village as needed, but the rest of the year, and especially at night, most never even glanced in its direction for fear something was watching.
And it seemed that this night there was something watching, for Jamie could see a dark shape, barely visible against the blackness of the Ravinheld, prowling along the edge and stopping now and again to stare out toward the village. Jamie watched the shape, fascinated. He felt no fear despite all the warnings piled upon the youngsters' heads by the women of the village. The shape looked like an animal of some sort, but from this distance and in this light it was impossible to distinguish size or nature. Then, as if it noticed Jamie standing on the edge of his own "woods," the shape turned suddenly and disappeared into the trees.

A strange sense of exhilaration filled young Jamie's heart. He had seen the mysterious monster of Ravinheld, and it wasn't very frightening at all. Why, he hadn't even shivered! He must go home and tell his-

Mother.

Jamie suddenly remembered the apprentice's message from the day before. "Mother!" he whispered, the word sounding loud in the night, and immediately ran home.

When he reached the pastor's home, all was quiet. And the curtains had changed colours: black. The pastor's home was in mourning once again.

Feeling numb, Jamie opened the door and went inside. He knew his mother would be in the small lounge off of the main room, where the pastor often spoke with parishioners who came to see him. He crossed the living room, but before he could turn the knob, he spotted movement near the doorway leading to the rest of the house.

"Whisssht. You'll be in trouble now, y'little weasel! Today's not the day to anger Father," hissed Drew, the elder of Jamie's two step-brothers. "Best not go in there; he'll be really put out then."

"He'd forbid me from seeing my own mother?" Jamie asked in a low voice.

"He'd do more than that, James," came the pastor's voice from the doorway. "Come into my chambers."

"You'll getcherself a whippin' now, an' a sermon too," whispered Drew.

"Go back to bed, Andrew. You've no need to be up at this hour."

Jamie glanced back at Drew as he walked slowly towards the doorway to the pastor's room; his stepbrother watched him dispassionately for a moment, then disappeared into his own room. Jamie entered the pastor's study, hearing the man enter behind him. He turned around to see the pastor closing the door and turning to face him.

"Well, James," the pastor said. "What have you to say for yourself? Do you know what time it is?"

"No, sir."

"Well, then, where the devil did you run off to? Off playing while we were getting worried sick over you? While your mother was so ill?" His voice rose to a shout and he began removing his belt. "Don't you think

she'd enough worries without you disappearing like that? And look where it's gotten her now!"

"But, I-" Jamie tried to say, "I didn't mean to-"

Crack! The belt whipped across Jamie's face, shocking him speechless. His cheek burned where the belt had hit him.

"Bend over, boy, and touch your toes. I'll teach you to disregard your elders like that," ordered the pastor. He glared as Jamie slowly bent over and touched his toes. He hoped that he'd be able to stay upright when the belt hit him.

Crack!

He staggered but managed to keep from falling.

"The Holy Book teaches us Crack! that we must honour our father and our mother. Crack! It teaches us that we must do what's best for the community. Crack! And what you did today, James, /Crack!/ was nothing short of disrespect and disobedience Crack! toward the community leaders."
Jamie was having an increasingly difficult time staying on his feet in the proper position, and at the last snap of the belt, he almost toppled. The pain, too, was getting more and more intense, and Jamie wasn't sure he would be able to stand it. But he braced his shoulder on the chest of drawers near the door and began thinking of his mother and the time before they had come to the village, the times when maybe it was harder to find shelter or food, but at least they were together, and he found that if he concentrated enough on his thoughts, he could go into a kind of a trance and wouldn't even feel the pain.

Eventually the whipping stopped; Jamie's buttocks were numb and he had trouble standing up straight. He made it up the narrow stairs to his room in the loft; it was drafty, but he and his mother had made it fairly cozy by hanging old blankets over the cracks and nailing them to the wall so the wind couldn't get in. By the time he fell into his bed, he barely had time to remember that he hadn't had a chance to see his mother before his eyes closed and he fell into a deep sleep.

After that, Jamie didn't go to school much, but for the times that he absolutely was not needed at home. He did much of the housework; the workload increased as he grew older and stronger. He often helped the pastor sweep out and otherwise care for the church, and painful few thanks he got for anything he did, too. His stepbrothers alternated between indifference and outright dislike, though neither seemed to hate him as much as they had when his mother was alive and he was still in the pastor's favour. Eventually the pastor remarried for the second time; his new bride was Jessie, the elder sister of one of Jamie's former schoolmates. Jamie himself moved out to the shed in the back; it seemed to have been where a gardener or handyman had lived when the family had had enough money to keep a servant.

Jamie was pleased with the new arrangements; even though he had to walk back to the main house for meals or make his own, he had privacy and freedom from the family that hated him. It was at this time, too, that the villagers began calling him "Weasel," for now he had a place to call his own, and he began protecting it as fiercely and obsessively as a mother weasel defending her kits. At first, he allowed almost no one inside save those he invited, which one could count on both hands. The pastor entered as was his right as owner of the building, as did his sons, who professed more power than they knew how to manage.

The baker's son, Jayce, became Weasel's only friend, or at least the only one in town who was more than merely civil to Weasel. Weasel, for his part, did nothing to encourage the townspeople towards friendliness. Even Jayce he often treated coldly, perhaps because that was how he had always been treated himself.

But then as he grew older, Weasel began learning the ways of the world, the ways of men and women, and from Jayce, the ways of men and men. It came as a surprise to him, that people did such things for pleasure as often as for necessity. Jayce, who travelled often into the city to run errands for his father, took Weasel with him and showed him the districts where women and men sold their bodies for money, where people sold powders and incenses that could change a man's temperament in the space of a few minutes, making a hot tempered man sweet as a love-sick shepherd and a shy man bolder than a hungry cur. He even bought Weasel one of the women as Weasel's first from his own pocket money. Weasel, for his part, began to see possibilities in the city, means of escaping the restrictive and demeaning life in the village. His only problem was...

"I have no money to pay for the city."

Jayce looked thoughtful. "Well, n'yet, anyhows. But I reckon we c'n think on't for a spell, and come up with somethin'. After all, you've sure got a head fulla more brains than yer whole family combined, eh?"

He elbowed Weasel playfully and laughed.

Weasel barely cracked a smile. "I suppose."

Unperturbed by Weasel's lack of response, Jayce went on. "So what'd you be able to do t'earn yerself some pocket money?"

"I don't want pocket money, Jayce," said Weasel. "I want wages, so that I can afford to go live in the city."

"You want to live in the city?" Jayce had clearly not come across that possibility in his mind before. "Well, now. That changes things a bit. Y'sure you couldn't manage in the village with a trip'r two down into the city now an' again? Like we're doin' now?"

"I don't think so. Not forever,anyway. But I'll manage until I figure out what I'll do in the city."

Weasel left his friend at the door of the baker's shop and continued on to his own hut, his mind awhirl with the promises offered by the anonymity and alternative life of the city.

The next day left little room for daydreaming, as did the next, and the next, for the village was building a new addition to their small church, a chapel on the west side of the building, and the pastor recruited Weasel to help. Well, perhaps ordered was a better word; Weasel rarely had a choice in accepting any of his assignments. As the men worked, they laughed and chatted with each other, rarely even bothering to notice the boy bringing planks and nails to those who needed them or cutting boards to their proper lengths with an unwieldy, too-big handsaw. Weasel barely noticed, trying to think as he was of a way to escape the drudgery of life in this village. But it was hard, his thoughts going in circles that all spiralled toward one thing: money. He'd need some money before he even could think of travelling to the city alone and with all this work for the pastor he was doing, he'd never even find time for a paying job. He didn't even think there was really a paying job to be had in the village, and his stepfather would surely refuse him one copper penny. The last time he'd asked for pocket money, he'd gotten whipped-not as bad as the first time, but he'd never asked again. Sighing, Weasel picked up another board and the measure-string. He would think of something.

That night, Weasel dreamed of the night his mother died. He found himself back in the copse of trees behind the schoolhouse, only his dream self was not the boy of seven or eight had grown to his present age of fifteen. He gazed out across the fields and saw the prowling shape again, saw it turn and look across at him, but this time, it seemed to be beckoning him. Weasel stared at the shadow, stared at the forest, a darker shadow behind it. Dare he go to meet the beast in the forest, which was rumoured to have devoured bands of twenty men? The beast that had preyed upon the village and its neighbours for hundreds of years?

Without really thinking about it, Weasel began moving towards the forest. He crawled belly-down across the old log spanning the stream that ran through the trees, noticing in that vague, dream-like way that he wasn't getting dirty from the rotting log or even seeming to put weight on the weakening wood. He waded through the grasses that bordered the fields and began crossing the rows of half-grown oats, beans, potatoes, all the while staring at the edge of the forest, mesmerized.

Finally he arrived at the far end of the fields and stopped; he could now see the huge black cat that the shadow had solidified into. It had stopped its pacing and was watching him approach, seeming to form its black lips into a smile over menacing white fangs.

So, you come to see me, little one, it said in its dream-voice. You are very brave.

"What have I to be afraid of?" asked Weasel. "I've already suffered at the hands of those I call family."

True enough, said the cat. True enough. And it looked at him expectantly.

"Besides," said Weasel, "this is a dream. You can't hurt me in a dream."

The cat's grin grew even wider, though its eyes glittered like a goblet of poisoned wine. Can't I? it asked. Do not be too arrogant, boy. It tends to lead to unpleasant endings. Well, for you, anyway. And stop thinking of me as a mere cat. I am a panther. It lifted its head proudly at these words.

Weasel was fascinated. He had never seen such a magnificent creature as this... panther. None of the men in the village held themselves as the panther did, proudly, as though it owned the world. Well, it certainly owned the forest; there wasn't a man around who would try to pit his strength against this glorious, beautiful beast. Weasel wondered what the black fur covering his body was as silky as it looked.

As if his thoughts were a cue, the panther languidly got to its feet and began walking towards Weasel, holding his gaze with two burning yellow eyes. By the time it reached him, Weasel couldn't have moved if he had been carried, and his eyes were fixed on the panther's. The panther lifted one massive paw to Weasel's shoulder and began pushing him backwards. Weasel found himself unable to move his feet to regain his balance and futilely reached out behind him with his arms. The dreamscape shifted to a glitteringly black empty room with only a bed dressed in blood-red sheets. Weasel was still falling, but this time he felt as though he was watching himself and the panther from above, like he was floating about the ceiling. Weasel landed on the bed on his back. The panther climbed up, towering above him, eyes gleaming, and slowly lowered his head.

Weasel awoke the next morning with the dream in his eyes and the panther's tongue on his skin. He had had dreams like that before, where he'd woken up with his bedclothes damp and strange feelings lingering between his legs, but those dreams had always involved faceless bodies. This time, though his partner had not been human, it had had an identity. The dream left Weasel feeling weak and disoriented. He almost thought he wouldn't be able to get out of bed, but he found that with a little concentration, he was able to sit up and push the covers off. Then he stood and turned to get the sheet off his bed. He was glad the pastor's wife did her washing herself, because it meant they had a washtub back behind their house. It also meant that today Weasel could do his washing himself. The laundress did not, he decided, need to know the state of his sheets after nights like this.

Not that he'd really had a night quite like this before. His head was still reeling from the force of... well, he didn't rightly know. All he knew was that something had happened last night that was more than a simple dream.

Before Weasel had much of a chance to think through recent events, though, the now daily pounding at the door started up. It was the pastor. "Boy! Are ye up yet? It's seven o'clock. C'mon, the men'll be waiting."

Sighing, Weasel began dressing. Perhaps it would be best if he just forgot the whole thing. After all, it was only a dream...


Two weeks later, Weasel was most sure that it was not "only a dream." He had dreamed that same dream for every night, and it haunted him during the day. He grew pale and listless, and lost so much weight that his once edged features turned positively razor-sharp. Even the pastor noticed and, thinking the boy had gotten sick, had put him on "light duties" that allowed him to return home earlier in the afternoon. This, however, just made it worse, for now Weasel had much more free time on his hands. He began dreaming of the panther even when awake, so prominent it was in his thoughts.

Once, to try to distract himself, he went into the pastor's study and took out some of the money that the pastor had been saving, not feeling guilty because of all the work he'd done for free in the past years, and hitched a ride into the city with a delivery wagon full of late summer vegetables. Thanking the farmer for the ride, Weasel headed on foot toward the red light district, the place where he knew he would find men and women to lose himself in.

When he got there, he wandered for a few minutes, gazing at the "merchandise." When the anticipation grew unbearable, Weasel picked one, and then another after that, his criteria only that they were disease-free and relatively attractive. For looks he cared nothing, or so he thought, until after his fifth or sixth partner, when he realized that all of them-the males and the females-had dark, thick hair and glittering eyes, powerful bodies and strong hands. Just like his panther. At the realization, he pointedly tried a light-haired, slender thing, but somehow it wasn't the same. There was no satisfaction for Weasel in it, no matter how skilled the girl was.

By the end of the night, he was running out of money and growing hungry in addition, so he found an inn that served food along with its other services. After his meal, he inquired to the owner if he knew of anyone going out to his town who might give him a lift. The owner told Weasel that his nephew was going to that very town to visit a cousin, but not until the weekend. Could the young man wait so long? It was only a few days.

Weasel knew that if he stayed out for more than a day, the pastor would become suspicious, perhaps would even stop believing that he was ill. Or worse, might think his mind had started turning to madness and admit him to an asylum. Weasel had heard stories about those asylums-hospitals for those with sicknesses of the mind, they called themselves-but the stories painted gruesome pictures of shrieking madmen chained to the walls, victims of lobotomies mumbling to themselves in cells without doors and strange "therapies" that were more experiments than anything truly helpful to the "patients."

Weasel had no wish to end up in a place like that.

With no other option in sight, Weasel began walking home. It took him until the sky began lightening to get to the city gates, but it had been late when he'd left the brothel-inn. At this point, Weasel felt ready to collapse; he'd been walking for over an hour and the rest of his night hadn't been what you could call restful. Finally, he stopped by the side of the road and sat against a tree. Hit with sudden nostalgia, he was reminded of how he would sit under the rowan tree by the schoolyard and draw pictures in the dirt.

He picked up a stick that had broken off of one of the tree's branches and began dragging the end through the dust of the road. An outline began to take shape... a head, body, tail... feline ears, whiskers.

No! Weasel viciously raked the stick across the picture he'd drawn of a panther, crouching, ready to pounce. How could he get that monster out of his head? Was he cursed? He must be. How then, does one break a curse set upon one by a centuries-old creature of the forest? There was only one way to find out, thought Weasel.

Weasel rose from his seat by the road and walked, all the way to the forest. His exhaustion seemed forgotten with this new purpose, and the hours that must have passed were as minutes. Once he reached the edges of the forest, he stopped. Was this where the beast that had cursed him spent his days? Perhaps he lived in another part of the forest, and the night he saw Weasel was only one night and one location out of many. But there-tracks on the ground. No other cat could possibly leave paw prints that large. Weasel followed the prints through the forest, wondering only briefly how the prints came to be so clear and precise, dismissing the thought as unimportant. Finally, the tracks stopped and

Weasel found himself before the mouth of a cave, a gleaming black cave made from a stone Weasel had heard of but never seen: the mirror-like obsidian. Weasel wondered where the mountain had come from and why he had never heard of it before. Surely such an imposing product of nature would reap fame, or at least infamy.

Weasel entered the cave, refusing to let fear get the better of him. He must face this monster so he could have some peace. The initial cavern was large enough to fit a half dozen men. A main throughway continued from its rear, with two other smaller passageways branching off on either side. Weasel ignored the smaller paths, striding purposefully down the middle pathway. The tunnel, lit by some unseen glow reflecting off the walls, went for about fifty meters and then turned; and then Weasel found himself in the room from his dreams. Here were the polished black walls, there was the bed with its sheets of scarlet... and there on the bed, curled up, waiting for him, watching, was the panther.

It raised its head when he entered the room but said nothing. Weasel stared back, anger and adrenaline lending him strength and courage.

"Have you cursed me?" he burst out.

The panther blinked. No. Why would I do that?

Suddenly bereft of his purpose, Weasel felt lost. "Because... because... I don't know! What do you call these past weeks then? Why have you given me those dreams?"

The panther cocked its head. It seemed like it was going to answer, and then-

"Hey, boy! Wake up! Be ye all right?"

Weasel jerked upright; he had slumped over the stick, partially obscuring the drawing he had sketched in the dirt and now a passing wagon driver with Good Samaritan tendencies had stopped to make sure he wasn't ill. He shook his head, disoriented. "Thank you kindly, sir. I'm fine."

"D'ye need a ride some'eres? I'm heading out towards the western field-towns for the harvest."

"Are you going to my town?" asked Weasel, naming the town.

"Well, it'd not been on my original route, that's fer sure, but it's not too terribly out'o the way, now. I think I c'n manage to get ye back where's proper for ye t'be," said the driver, who clearly felt sorry for the boy.

Weasel nodded his thanks and climbed up after the driver onto his wagon seat. He tried not to get in the way, not having much experience with wagons. Still, his mind was reeling from the dream he had had; how could he have fallen asleep? It had been too real to comprehend. Surely he had actually met the panther and challenged it inside its own cave-right? These thoughts, whirling around and about his mind, made his replies to the man's questions short and sometimes not terribly coherent. Soon he stopped asking questions, for which Weasel was profoundly grateful. Between his exhaustion and his confusion, Weasel was not in the mood for conversation.

Both too soon and too late, the wagon reached Weasel's village. He asked the driver to let him off outside of the village, which the man gladly did and drove off. He did not doubt that the man had had better travel company than Weasel before, and would many times again. Now he entered the town on foot and tried to pretend that nothing was amiss and he hadn't been gone for almost an entire day.

Thankfully, so did the other villagers. All he got were some strange looks and a few whispers, which were not all that uncommon in the first place, so he ignored them and (avoiding the church) went straight to his hut and fell asleep. And this time, strangely enough, the sleep was dreamless.

Fortunately for Weasel, the pastor was not an excessively cruel man, just a greedy one. As a result of his exhaustion, the pastor believed that Weasel was truly ill and that this was his punishment for staying away so long. So Weasel was allowed to stay home all day until he was well enough to work again. This time, the time off of work was a blessing instead of a curse, and he knew what he must do.

The next morning, Weasel awoke. He made sure he was awake by pinching himself; there had been too many dreams that seemed more real than life. Then he dressed, put on his shoes, and began walking towards the schoolhouse, taking care not to be seen by anyone, though that was not a difficult task midmorning. He reached the schoolhouse and passed it, pausing a moment at the rowan beside it. Then he continued to the small copse of trees and walked through it to the stream. He looked about for a shallow place where he could ford it, or perhaps even a plank or log to throw across a narrow part of the stream.... His eyes landed on the rotting log that had been there since his childhood days. Would it hold his weight?

Though he didn't relish the thought of getting splinters in his hands and legs and rotting woodchips down his shirt only to land in the stream, he cautiously put out a hand and tested the log's strength. It creaked ominously. Weasel put more weight on the log, farther in, and then he heard a loud cracking noise. The log crumbled and Weasel jumped back, barely regaining his balance. Well, that answered that question.

Finally Weasel discovered a shallow ford a ways downstream, so he took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pant legs to the knee, and waded across. He kept his shoes off once across so that his feet could dry before he put them back on. Wet socks were not an inconvenience he'd suffer if he'd any choice in the matter. Even if this was a matter of intense importance. Perhaps even of life and death.
Soon Weasel had reached the edge of the fields; it seemed so like his dreams that his heart began pounding and his body tensed in anticipation. He walked through the rows of oats, now as high as his waist, the rows of potatoes, leaves and vines covering the ground, the rows of bean plants twining 'round their stakes. And then he was at the edge of the field; no more than ten meters away from him were the first sparse trees of the Ravinheld Forest.

Weasel kept going. He entered the forest, brushing against one of the rowan trees growing thick at the edge. He felt a tingle run through his body, as if he had passed through a magical gate, but when he looked behind him, all Weasel saw was the fields, the stream, the schoolhouse in the distance. It seemed normal enough, so he turned again and continued on. The forest grew darker as Weasel walked deeper within; the trees thickened and bushes stealthily crept up on Weasel's sides. Soon he was walking through a path lined by bushes. It seemed, in fact, that someone had /made/ this path. Could it have been...? Weasel's mind became dark and full with images of the panther tearing up bushes and destroying seedlings to make this path. It was powerful, beautiful, dangerous. He wanted to turn back, but the power and the beauty beckoned him. He knew that he must go and challenge that power and beauty. And yes, he must challenge the danger.

Weasel stood in front of the cave. It stood almost as it had been in his dream: black, shining, and infinitely imposing. The difference was in the outer cavern, which was larger than he remembered. The ceiling was not so high, but it was deep and the darkness at the back would be absolute. Weasel felt his fear creeping into his hands and they shook, but his feet were steady and they carried him into the cave. The light followed him into the cave, growing increasingly dim. Soon he could barely see his hands, so he found a wall. As his hand touched the sleek stone, it was like someone had flipped a switch and any light seeping in from the mouth of the cave disappeared. When he turned back, he could still see the sunlit cave entrance, but it was like he had reached the end of the light's domain. So, he turned and kept walking, following the wall. Then he came to a place where the wall turned. It wasn't a sharp turn, but it was a turn nonetheless, and Weasel remembered from his dreams that there had been passageways to the left and to the right of the main throughway. So, reaching blindly in front of him, he started away from his wall and was rewarded: here was the other side of the passageway. He followed this wall back to the main throughway and, through touch again, discovered the other passageway on the other side of the tunnel. Satisfied that he was in the middle passageway, which was indeed wider than the other two as it had been in his dreams, he continued into the cave.

Now the tunnel was growing light again. Weasel could find no source for the light, but was grateful that he could once more see where he was going. After another minute of walking, the light had grown bright as day and Weasel could see a bend in the path up ahead. He came to the bend, rounded it, and was in the room. It was the very same room, only the panther's presence dominated the room more than it ever could have in Weasel's dreams. It radiated out from the magnificent beast lying on the scarlet bed and shocked the words out of Weasel.

 

Finally the panther said, Welcome, beautiful one. I am glad you found your way.

The words broke the silence and Weasel's fear. "Why have you been plaguing my dreams?!" Weasel demanded. "What are you doing to me?"

If the panther had had eyebrows, it would have raised one of them. Instead, it gazed at the human in its cave. Why? Didn't you like it?

Weasel flushed. "Yes-No! I can't! How could I love a panther? You're so... different."

At this the panther seemed to make a decision, for it got up from the bed so gracefully that it seemed like his paws barely touched the ground. The it was at Weasel's side, curving its body around Weasel's and caressing him with its tail.

How could you love a panther, indeed? said the panther. A panther might be different, child, but so are you. This is something you've known for a long time, haven't you?

Weasel gasped at the words as much as the physical contact. He knew that the panther was right. He knew that he didn't belong among humans, that most would never understand him and therefore could never accept him, even if they didn't know why they couldn't. "How?" said Weasel.

You are a ShapeChanger, like me. However, there are rules, by which you must live if you are to survive. They are not like rules made by men; they are the rules of our nature and cannot be broken, said the panther as it moved to face Weasel. Then it stretched its neck forward to lick at Weasel's hand. Weasel's shock was fading and he began stroking the panther's ears; its fur was undeniably as silky as it had seemed in his dream. The panther licked and nuzzled at Weasel's arm and neck, but Weasel, whose passion was certainly rising, had more questions he needed answered before he could recreate his dream.
"Just a moment," he gasped. "Panther, why haven't I changed into anything yet? How can I be a ShapeChanger if I can't change into an animal? And-what animal could I be?"

The panther paused and looked at Weasel's face. I would say that the initial Change is already beginning. Look in a mirror, my sweet. You are becoming your namesake.

"My namesake..."

The panther, growing impatient, nuzzled at Weasel and began pushing him toward the bed. Yes. Do not be ashamed, dearheart. The weasel is one of the most respected animals in the forest. And as for why you've not changed yet... The panther paused and looked at Weasel, absentmindedly stroking Weasel's chest and hips with its tail. How old are you, Weasel?

"It's been almost two months since my fifteenth birthday," said Weasel as he grasped the wandering tail and caressed as much of its length as he could reach. The panther began purring. Don't stop.

When Weasel stopped, the purring was replaced with a soft growl. Weasel... darling, the panther warned.

"Why is my age important?" Weasel turned and put his arms around the panther's head, placating it.

"What is my initial Change going to be like?"

The panther sat, resigned to playing teacher for the moment. You will not be able to Change at will until your sixteenth birthday, and then only after dusk has fallen and before the dawn has begun rising. During the day, you will remain in your animal Shape. It is the Way. Starting about a month before you turn sixteen, you will begin your initial Change, where you will slowly morph into your animal Shape and, once fully Changed, remain so for about a week, during which time you will not be able to assume your human Shape.

It is a shame you are so far from your sixteenth birthday, for I have no way of feeding you before you are Changed. After tonight, you must go back to your village and live there until the Change begins.

Weasel tightened his arms around the panther's neck. "I don't want to," he said softly. "The village holds nothing for me."

I will visit you. Listen for me, and we will share the night. Weasel climbed on the panther's back, and it padded over to the bed, where it sat. Weasel climbed off and moved to the bed. The panther turned to face the boy. As we share the night tonight. It is time.

The panther's eyes smoldered with his glance and Weasel's gaze caught fire from it. Then the panther's outline began shimmering and when it solidified again, the panther was no longer a panther. A beautiful young man about Weasel's age stood up; he had thick, black, curly hair and the panther's dark seductive eyes. And he wore not a stitch of clothing.

As he approached the bed, he murmured, "You may call me Angelo."

Finis.