The wind shifted, and brought a new scent with it. It was a half-forgotten, yet familiar scent that had no business in Adler.
The lioness stiffened, ears flicking and eyes searching in an attempt to find the intruder; the deer she had been tracking for the last few miles lay forgotten somewhere up ahead.
The cat growled a warning low in her throat. The surrounding trees shone a dangerous black in the face of brilliant white snow. Clouds covered the moon in a hazy shroud.
A second lioness stepped out of the shadows, a snarl ripping its way throughout the cold winter's night. Her coat appeared a light grey in the monochrome light. It is dangerous to be out so late at night Moira, she said silently.
What do you want Tarja? Moira asked, although she already knew the answer. A Labhi did not run out on her Labhi-Sister. A Labhi did not run out on her Pride.
Tarja laughed scornfully in her head. The contact between the two of them had been a result of their connection as Labhi-Sisters. Moira had been Tarja's sister for as long as she could remember. At times she had ached from the loneliness, but she had known Tarja would chase after her, find her, and kill her. Tarja had always been the better hunter. Moira just didn't have the heart for the kind of hunting the Labhi normally did.
When you left, Tarja said, I lost my position among the Pride. I am not a true hunter again until Rècüra is complete.
Moira didn't move as Tarja took a graceful step closer. She did not want the other lioness to sense her fear. Rècüra was one of the Laws among the Labhi, the lion people. If one of the Labhi betrayed their people like she had by leaving, it was up to their Labhi-Sister or Brother to track them down, and destroy the traitorous bloodline.
Moira feared for the small bundle she had left at home with her husband. She leaped forward.
Just as suddenly as she had leaped, Tarja had jumped as well. They met in midair, claws outstretched. Moira went flying through tangles of branches and thorns with a small gash on her shoulder.
Before she could think, Tarja was already on top of her, clawing at her, trying to reach her tender underbelly in an attempt for disembowelment. Moira pushed her off and jumped back, bleeding from more cuts than before.
Tarja stood untouched, albeit breathing slightly harder. You're going to have to do better than that she mocked.
Moira knew what Tarja was trying to do; she wanted to make Moira angry enough to let her guard down. Although Moira had been away from home for the better part of five years, she had not forgotten her training.
She flattened herself to the ground, moving stealthily in a wide circle around Tarja. Closer to the ground, she would not be as hard to knock off balance.
Tarja moved to meet her, standing just out of reach. Moira roared angrily and feinted.
Tarja leaped back, then turned to a tree, and using it as a jump-off, launched herself at Moira.
They tumbled over and over in the snow, snarls of pain and anger intermingling until Moira could not tell where one ended and another began.
Tarja had always been the better hunter though, and proved it now. Using her advanced skills, Tarja had managed to reach past Moira's claws and get a firm grip on the lioness's throat. She bit down hard enough for Moira to have trouble breathing.
Moira stiffened. Why are you waiting? She asked defiantly. Kill me!
For being in lion form, Moira could have sworn Tarja grinned.
I know about your cub, Tarja said, grip still firm around Moira's windpipe. A cold shiver ran up her body. She knew Tarja felt her shake.
I could finish Rècüra tonight, with you and your daughter…
Moira waited patiently for Tarja to continue.
I could kill you all, but you took a human for a husband.
Even though Tarja tried to mask it, Moira could feel the rage and disgust in her voice.
Labhi do not join with humans! Tarja cried. We are the only pure Siero'tai; the only TRUE Siero'tai. I would be disgraced and sent into exile if it were discovered that my Labhi-Sister had married a human! I have been hunting you for many years, and had never thought anything like this could ever happen. Tarja's grip grew heavier on Moira's throat. It was all she could do to breathe.
How can I be sure your offspring is even Labhi? I cannot, not for many years. So I will wait Moira. The Pride Council will hear nothing of your scandalous ways, and I will wait to see if your child is Labhi or not.
Moira felt relief; with a lion's teeth locked around her throat, she felt relief. Her daughter would have some years respite from Rècüra. If she was not Labhi, as Moira hoped dearly, she would be safe her entire life. If not… Moira eyed Tarja. What will you do if she is Labhi? Will you kill her right away, before she realizes what happens? Will you dishonor the Laws and kill her when she has not chance for defense?
Tarja nearly tore Moira's throat out. I do not break the Laws! She said vehemently. I am not like you, Labhi-Sister. If she is Labhi, I will not kill her while she does not know the ways. I may not even kill her at all.
Moira's eyes flashed in curiosity. Tarja was not one for mercy. If I do not kill her, it will be to make her miserable. Killing you both would do nothing for my vengeance. Your daughter will know misery, and pain, and hate. I will teach her to hate those half-breed Siero'tai for killing her mother. Moira's eyes widened in disbelief. Surely Tarja would not…
I will teach her to hate them, and I will teach her to kill. She's going to be the hunter that you never could be Moira, and that is my revenge, because I know it will kill you to know that your daughter will become a hunter, that she will destroy those half-breeds you like so much that you left us for them.
I will have my revenge, and only then will I consider Rècüra complete. She will not be of your blood after I'm done with her.
Moira closed her eyes and listened to the light breeze, felt the moonlight shining on her golden-brown coat. She was wracked with the horror and disbelief of what Tarja planned to do while she could do nothing to stop it.
She thought two words. Her last two words.