Panther

The woman climbed out of the river, dragging her never-cut hair out of her face. She walked to the bird she had situated over an open flame, checking to see if it was done. The woman determined that it would need a few more minutes after rotating it. She would use that time to finish her morning hygiene routine. She trotted back to her camp, grabbing a mint leaf and her shaving metal. Having reached the river again, she began to brush her teeth with the leaf. She then took the metal and shaved her legs. She wasn’t sure why she preferred her legs smooth but didn’t mind the hair under her arms.  She shrugged and went about her day.

After she returned her personal toiletries, she grabbed the bird roasting over the flame and prepared it to eat. As she took her first bite, the woman thought about her agenda for the day. She’d have to change the water cleanser and wash her one outfit; it was getting dirty. She never really wore it but she figured someday she might need it. Whenever she was out hunting, she always noticed the people in the village wore clothes. She supposed if she ever needed to go there, she’d need a clean outfit; being naked there wasn’t acceptable for some reason. Once again, she shrugged. She couldn’t think of a reason she would ever need to show her face in the settlement.

She hopped up from her breakfast, securing the leftovers in a pouch fastened to her cloth belt. Whenever she didn’t finish food, she enjoyed visiting the wildlife to share them. Before taking off for her errands, the woman made sure to cover up her camp in the underbrush. Then she jumped out into the clearing, changing into her black panther form. Panther sprinted through the trees, savoring the feeling of her muscles warming up as she picked up speed. She didn’t prefer this form per say, but it was always enjoyable to move this fast.

Panther made it to the site of her cleanser, changing back to her human form. She noticed a few monkeys watching her from the trees so she plucked some of her leftover bird from her belt and threw it to them in the tree. They hooted in appreciation and swung out of sight. Her water cleanser was set up at a slight bend in the river, where she had dug a little trench to divert water into her makeshift device. The water flowed through into the trench, any sediment being caught on the fabric she had placed there; the same fabric as her belt. The discovery of this fabric had made her day-to-day activities much easier.

As she collected the clean water in the jug she had hidden for safe keeping, she thought back to when she had first discovered the fabric. Technically, she had actually always had the fabric – it was from her tunic and trousers she had when she was initially lost in the forest as a child. Her parents had been one of the settlers chosen to emigrate from the capital to create South Settlement. She was only a few years old, so her memory of the event was fuzzy, but she had somehow survived being incidentally abandoned. At first, she always wore the clothes she was lost in until her civilized habits lost their hold. For years, she wore nothing until she had discovered the fabric had somehow become extremely durable and conformed to her body as she changed, and grew. She had chosen to combine the freeness of her nudity with the utility of the fabric as a belt.

Once she was finished collecting the water, she turned to head back to her camp. This time she didn’t change. She enjoyed walking back, basking in the weather. Panther walked through the forest, feeling the grass under her toes, plucking flowers with her free hand. She would twirl them between her fingers, taking the time to smell them and place them in her hair that flowed down her back. She even found herself skipping for a few minutes.

That is, until she reached the halfway point and smelled something strange. She closed her eyes, further focusing her sense of smell, and immediately recognized it as smoke. It was coming from the direction of her camp. Had she forgotten to put out the fire from earlier? She placed the water jug she was carrying down, shoving some leaves over it. She changed into her form and Panther began to quickly make her way back home. She soon arrived to a small cliff that overlooked her camp. There were two men rummaging there, one searching through her things while the other burned items they must have already deemed useless. As she watched from the cliff, she saw them continue to joke and burn through her belongings. She couldn’t decide what to do – should she let them tire themselves out? Or, should she attack?

Panther eventually settled on letting them exhaust their opportunities for fun, hoping they’d leave soon. The two men finally seemed to stop laughing as they rooted through the final few items of her camp. The one man burned her remaining mint leaves in the fire and reached for what was left of her stash of fabric. He lowered it to the fire and Panther felt a growing regret – that fabric was incredibly useful.

Lost in the sadness of losing most of her fabric, she didn’t notice footsteps behind her.

“I’m guessing you’re not just an animal.”

Startled, Panther jumped nearly falling off the edge of the cliff. She began changing instinctively back into her human form as she often did when frightened.

The man that stood there chuckled and crossed his arms. He held a knife in both hands and had at least a dozen more secured in a belt across his chest. The woman, now back in human form and kneeling in front of the knife-wielding man, straightened up, taking a brief glance back at the two men in her camp.

“Nothing to say?” Knives said.

The woman said nothing.

“Maybe you can’t talk?” He half-asked her, half-asked himself. Her look, which lacked comprehension of his questioning, confirmed his thoughts. The man pointed both knives at her and then pointed down to where the other two men stood.

“Go.”

She jumped down from the cliff. Knives, choosing to take the more scenic route down and around, arrived at the bottom shortly after. He had the two men throw a blanket over her before binding her hands. Panther knew she probably could have taken the two men alone, but with whom was presumably their boss, her chances of overpowering them were much lower. So she obeyed.

The man who had been playing in the fire spoke up, “Boss, look at this – It doesn’t burn!” He stomped out the flames and picked up the fabric.

Knives took it in his hands and compared it to Panther’s belt. “Looks like we’ve got something mighty nice here.” He placed the fabric in his pack. “Bring her with us.”

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