This is not made overly obvious but the characters are shapeshifters.
I perched on the fallen tree, the rough bark rubbed against my pads; some fell off in leaden brown snowflakes as I walked over it, my claws sinking into familiar wood, entering old claw holes. I reached the place where the fallen tree rested in fork of a second one. The second tree had split in two like the letter y and grown around my tree. Someday I figured my fallen tree would rot away and then only this Y shaped tree would be there to remind anyone that a tree had stood and fallen here.
I draped myself there, like a golden cloak, fallen from the shoulders of a nobleman. My dusky golden pelt gleamed in the dappled moonlight, and I raised my head to the sky. Through the leaf canopy I could see glimpses of navy blue night sky.
My molten gold mane brushed against my shoulders as I raised my head further. The freedom of this form was exhilarating.
My ears snapped up, and my head forward. Something was coming. It was another cat, not bothering to hide their tread. A confident powerful tread, this time hurried. But it had a soft beat to it, a pattern. Arthmael, my heir, padded out from between the trees, the moon lighting his pelt as well, his amber eyes reflecting her blue glow. Arthmael sprang with ease to my tree, a blaze that crossed the sky, a comet's tail. The tiger stood on the fallen tree, jaws parted to drink in scents and breathe. I met his eyes, and he shrank a little in respect. His white tipped ears flicked, so different from the rest of our pride.
"Draven." He addressed me, and I could see the bristles over his fur, the tongues of fire, and the edge of shadow. Arthmael was contradiction to everything, fire among shadows, tiger among lions.
Sometimes I would swear William Blake was staring at Arthmael when he wrote The Tyger.
My ears pricked, "What?" for now I could smell his fear, a faint smell, for Arthmael didn't scare easily, yet the sharp tang of it tickled my nose. Looking closer I could see more signs of fear. Arthmael's eyes were wider than usual, his tail swinging back and forth while bushy enough to rival any fox's. His claws absently skidding over the bark like cars on black ice. Deep groves formed beneath his paws. His lip was curled enough to constantly show his fangs, assassins' daggers.
Something had bothered my heir.
Slowly my muzzle curled upwards in a lionish smirk, whiskers twitching. "You've heard that Rigel intends to challenge me for leadership of the pride?"
Arthmael's head dipped and I could see the white spots on the back of his rounded ears.
I chuffed softly, "Arthmael, you can relax. He and Ari combined are weaker than either of us."
"True." He admitted softly. "But Draven, I don't like it." His pelt prickled further, making him look larger which was impressive, as at six hundred pounds, Arthmael was bigger than even me in our animal forms. I shook my head, causing my whole mane, the mane Arthmael lacked, to move.
"I don't like it either, but I'll deal with him. You'd think he'd settle for having his pride."
Arthmael scoffed at that, a soft hiss. "We have better territory."
I glanced at him. "True." Our massive forest with room for all my lions to roam, plenty of trees and a deep lake had been a great territory claim.
Arthmael's head turned, and I looked up. Rigel had arrived. A lion scrawnier than me, his mane was filled with black, compared to my dark gold one. Rigel's narrow muzzle was odd among lions, even our kind, as was his narrow frame. His fur wasn't as sleek as mine or Arthmael's, and his eyes failed to reflect as much moonlight. Rigel was not a fine example of our kind.
Arthmael snarled, producing a deep feral sound. Arthmael was fearsome in any form and despite his species difference, supported me completely.
Rigel's gaze passed over my heir. "Draven. Still letting the want-to-be hang around, I see."
Arthmael remained still, but like his fiery stripes, I knew he was burning. I knew he longed to sink his claws into the bark, or Rigel, he longed to lash his tail, to give his comeback, to defend his right to be heir and member of my pride. He held because this was my fight.
"Only because you never leave for long Rigel." I retorted, with a yawn to show off my fangs, and that he bored me. Arthmael's approving nod and whisker twitch told me he appreciated my defense of his position. Then he resumed his statue impression.
Rigel let out a roar, and lashed his tail. "I challenge you leader to leader, for this land and pride!"
I stood up, walking slowly towards Arthmael. I was bigger than Rigel, and more experienced. Briefly I wondered why he was challenging me, one of the most respected leaders of a pride.
Arthmael shifted his weight slightly, and I watched him pan his gaze around. His amber eyes narrowed, I followed his line of sight to a bush where a pair of yellow eyes gleamed at us.
"I see your heir is here." I commented dryly. "Impersonating a bush."
Arthmael raised his head, standing proud beside me, like an heir should. Rigel glanced over and snarled. Ari slunk forward, he was broader than Rigel, but more compact, like a rectangle. Arthmael had fought him before, and reported that Ari was tough, but not terribly so. His strength was in the ability to bowl over his opponents, and Arthmael weighed more than he did. His mane was pale brown, the color of dead wheat, his eyes a dusty yellow. They may have been lions but Arthmael cut a far more intimidating figure.
I jumped down, and the circling began. Rigel walked faster than I did, to match my strides. Arthmael stood ready, as second if I fell he was to enter the battle. Rigel had to beat both of us in combat to seize the pride. He could never beat Arthmael, even if he did somehow beat me. I paused for a step. I glanced up at him, Arthmael tilted his head, and I focused on Rigel once more. The lion snarled, his teeth were smaller than mine. He should know that, he'd fought me before. With a loud roar, one that shook the ground, and likely the trees, a true roar, louder and fuller than Rigel's, I crossed the circle. Rigel was knocked backwards, the two of us rolled, I was easily pinning him down. My weight added to my blows as well, Rigel's new rust colored stripes over his now dusty black mane were nowhere near as pure as Arthmael's.
Suddenly a heavy weight slammed into me. I found myself pinned beneath Ari, and two other lions, all reeking of Rigel's pride.
"You'd dare break the rules?" I snarled, catching Ari across the chest with one blow. His mane sheared off in my claws like sheep's wool.
The weight vanished, and I saw an impressive sight replace it. Arthmael was free to enter the fight now, and had. He'd grabbed one of the lions, pulling her back, and sent the other sprawling with a powerful blow. He dropped the lioness, still standing on his hind paws. Arthmael brought his paws down on Ari, and the two heirs rolled off me.
I stumbled to my paws, in time for Rigel to knock me back down. On the ground I knocked his paws out from under him and shoved upward. A crack like a whip sound over the clearing as Rigel reared up. He twisted away from me, going back to all fours, his jaw twisted. I'd broken it.
A roar of thunder echoed over the clearing, Arthmael kicked back to send a different lion rolling back with the grace of an amateur gymnast. Did Rigel bring his pride to this fight?
I whirled on Rigel and hissed. Rigel's claws scored down my cheek, missing my eye by a whisker's length. I backed up slightly, feeling the liquid spill down my muzzle.
I curled my muzzle, baring my teeth, the blood pooling in the crevices formed. Rigel looked terrified briefly.
I stuck out with my paw, catching his broken jaw. He went down with a cry of pain. I lunged, pinning him down, my blood dripping on to him in a slow rain, as I hissed. "Surrender."
I could hear Arthmael's fight behind me, a symphony. The tuba's roar, the strings' rustling of leaves, the flutes' panting, the bassoon's growl, the clarinet's snarl, and the drums as blows landed and paws fell.
Rigel struggled under me, trying to get loose. I sank my claws into his shoulders. "I win."
Rigel hissed at me, flinching as he did so. He kicked at my stomach, which hurt. Only about as much as an overeager massager. A firm stomp on his stomach discouraged that quickly.
I turned from him, to see Arthmael go down, under four lions. The lioness that had attacked me was out for the count, and one lion staggered around either with a concussion or in need of a breathalyzer test.
Arthmael shoved upwards like he was doing a push up, loosening one of the lions. But he was getting overwhelmed, even at his larger size and strength.
"Call them off." I ordered Rigel. "Call them off now."
Rigel's eyes blazed, and his shook his head. "He's no lion, my pride can kill him."
I sneered, fury mounting. If I let him up to help Arthmael he'd rejoin the fight.
I placed my paw on his throat, resting it there with my claws out. "He's my heir, kill him, Ari dies. And every lion that gets between me and him. I will slaughter your entire pride to get to Ari. But I will leave you; let everyone know how far you'd go."
Rigel struggled, and I pressed down with my paw, cutting off his air. "Arthmael is no lion but he's of a pride. Call them off."
Rigel wheezed and I eased slightly before slamming down incredibly hard. "I said call them off."
Rigel nodded quickly, bobble heads have moved slower. I removed my paw and Rigel sucked in air like a vacuum cleaner. "Enough!"
I turned, to make sure Arthmael's opponents got off him. I took in the fighters, Ari had more stripes than Arthmael, one of the lions lay on his back, mouth parted, the other two had multiple slashes on their chests, a lioness wheezed with every breath. I'd been kicked by Arthmael before, even in training I'd come away with bruises. Her ribs were likely cracked at least.
Arthmael's pelt was no longer that of a flame, it was covered in liquid rust. He staggered but remained standing. I stepped off Rigel, careful to step on his inner organs like a cat on the piano. Rigel slowly got to his paws, stiff legged. I gave him a solid blow to the flank that made him stagger, and he went down, into a yoga pose.
I stepped on Rigel's tail to keep him for a moment longer. "Next time I will drag you to the border." I muttered. "Because you will not be able to walk."
Rigel hurried off, leaving blood and tufts of fur behind. Arthmael gave him a swipe as he passed, stumbling again.
Ari was rounding up the other pride members; his mane had been cut by a five year old playing barber shop. I stepped forward, my fur rose, I could feel the clumps that clung to my skin, or to each other. Ari backed up quickly, the other lions scampered off faster than the extras in a Monty Python skit.
Ari retreated, and I hurried to Arthmael. His legs were on vibrate, sides heaving. I sucked in a breath, without a mane his neck and chest were exposed to opponents' claws. He bore the wounds to prove it.
Blood flowed down Arthmael's face like Gator-aid over the victorious football team. His amber eyes flicked over me, and I sighed.
"Maybe we should've been worried." I admitted.
Arthmael stumbled against me, I helped support his weight. He shook his head, splattering blood. "We couldn't have known that Rigel would cheat."
"By we you mean me." I muttered, as I propped my shoulder under his.
Arthmael chuckled softly, seeming to regain his strength. "Obviously."
Arthmael: 'warrior prince'
I have no idea what to do with this piece of work, so I'll just show it to the world, and maybe make a full story out of it later.