The Mind of Parthanyx
Ghostly fingers of mist swirled around the forest glade, seeping into every hidden corner. A profound silence reigned over these early morning hours, and the sun barely penetrated through the thick overgrowth. Towering trees, encircled by choking vines, cast ominous shadows over the encampment of panthers resting below. Although several days had passed since the defeat of the bears and their allies, Ethmot, the Valley of Death, still reeked of spilled blood and rotting flesh.
Few cats were stirring at this hour. Having filled their stomachs the evening before, most were snoring, happily dreaming of past kills and future triumphs. Even the sentries were barely awake, catnapping in spite of themselves. The battle was over, the enemy long gone, the Legion’s well-deserved rest undisturbed. Peace reigned in Ethmot.
That is, except for one frustrated general and his key aide. The panther leader, Parthanyx, was not abed, nor was he feeling at peace with the world. And if the General was not content, his immediate underlings knew better than to take advantage of the rare moment of tranquility. Their lucky comrades might be sleeping, but they certainly were not.
The General’s modest shelter was affixed precariously to one of the valley’s cliff walls. Parthanyx had been pacing back and forth inside for several hours now. The cat, his face grim, his normally graceful stride manic and disjointed, was brooding over recent events. Every now and then he would stop abruptly, his eyes darkening, and a vicious snarl would rise from deep within his soul.
The ever-patient Samirxun, his number two, desperately wanted to be anywhere else but there as he kept watch from one corner. He offered up a silent prayer that he’d soon be excused or given some kind of errand to run, however meaningless. But, knowing better than to interrupt his leader’s thought process, the panther said nothing. From time to time Parthanyx would glare at him, open his mouth as if to say something, think better of it and then return to his relentless pacing.
To Samirxun it was all rather alarming. After the panthers’ triumph over the bears and the lions only three days before, he had expected his bellicose chief to be delighted by the result. On the contrary, the General had exhibited not one expression of satisfaction. More than once Samirxun had been tempted to mention their great victory, but Parthanyx’s fuming warned him to keep his peace. And so he merely waited, watched and wondered.
Sounds outside heralded a visitor. Because no one was expected, Samirxun immediately crouched down, ready to attack the intruder. Parthanyx ignored the interruption and continued his furious pacing.
It turned out to be Heimdell, one of the Black Legion’s most senior officers. As the panther’s head poked through the doorway, Samirxun immediately relaxed. He nodded to his colleague, indicating that her unexpected arrival would be acceptable to the General.
Heimdell rushed in, eager to share her news. “What a morning!” the small, sturdily built cat declared. “I’ve just come from the Empress. More honors for you, General!”
Parthanyx halted in his tracks, but if the news of honors pleased him, he failed to show it. On the contrary, his response was confined to one disdainful word. “Really?”
“Yes, sir,” Heimdell carried on, failing to pick up on the General’s tone. “Dona Morana has appointed you a prince of the realm and accorded you vast landholdings in the eastern part of Vigmar. In fact, everything, every honor the Emperor bestowed on the white bear has been stripped away, and — ”
She stopped short. Something in Parthanyx’s eyes and Samirxun’s frantic head-shaking had finally alerted the enthusiastic commander to the danger signals. Clearly her exultant report of accolades and new prizes would have to wait for another day.
From a large leather bag she was carrying, Heimdell pulled out an elaborate gold chain. The piece was encrusted with dazzling jewels; Samirxun had never seen anything like it. “Er, the Empress asked me to bring you this gift,” the Commander said in a more subdued tone. “She told me it represents a mere fraction of her thanks and esteem. Her Majesty would have delivered it to you personally, but … ”
The General ignored both Heimdell’s words and the magnificent object. “And what of the armies’ marching orders?” he snarled. “How long does the Empress intend to keep us sitting here? How long, Heimdell? Days? Weeks, even?”
“What?” the startled commander said. “I’m not sure — ”
“Idiot! Can I be any clearer? While we’re camped here, scratching our backsides, the enemy is laughing at us. The Legion should already be advancing to our next goal — there.” The furious panther gestured toward the southwest.
“Er, well, I don’t know, sir,” Heimdell stammered. “Dona Morana said nothing about our next moves.” She hesitated briefly. “But don’t you want this gift, General?” She moved closer to his leader, holding out the magnificent chain.
In one lightning move, Parthanyx leaned forward and swatted the chain out of Heimdell’s grasp. It flew into a far corner of the shelter, clanking unceremoniously as it hit the rock wall and fell to the ground in a heap.
The disconsolate Heimdell looked at Samirxun, perhaps hoping her comrade would intercede or at least offer some clue as to what was going on. But Samirxun’s sphinxlike expression betrayed nothing. None the wiser about why Parthanyx was so displeased, he responded with just the slightest twitch of his whiskers. As far as he was concerned, Heimdell was on her own.
“I don’t understand, sir,” the perplexed commander continued. “No matter what, these honors are well merited. Have we not — under your great leadership, I might add — won a magnificent victory? The enemy has been broken. Heimborn’s remaining troops run for their lives. We have but to — ”
“You fool, Heimdell! This is not a victory, but a defeat!”
“What?” the other cat said. “Now I really don’t understand. Have I missed something, Samirxun?” she pleaded to her colleague. “Were we not fighting on the same battlefield? Did we not break the back of the enemy’s assault? Did we not chase off the lions and bears? The last time I looked, the enemy was retreating back up to the valley heights. If those cursed wolves had not stood their ground, Heimborn’s rebellion would be all but over.”
The exuberant officer was on a roll now. “We’ll be marching on Manaris again within days,” she declared. “And this time we’ll be there for good; no one will dare push the Legion out. Samirxun, is it not so?”
Samirxun was torn. His gaze moved desperately between the other two cats. Although he could not but agree with Heimdell’s analysis, clearly Parthanyx had reached other conclusions about the results of the battle. And since he was not foolish enough to contradict the General, the cat’s blank look betrayed nothing.
Looking over at his chief lieutenant, Parthanyx suddenly raised his eyebrows and smiled sweetly, as if inviting the other cat to commit himself one way or the other. Samirxun, however, managed to withstand the temptation and held back on any assessment. “A wise cat knows when to speak up,” he said finally, “and when to keep on purring.”
The General laughed, finally breaking the tension, much to the others’ relief.
“There’s a reason why you lead, Parthanyx, and the rest of us are mere followers,” Samirxun continued, feeling more comfortable. “You see what we do not. I freely admit to sharing Heimdell’s confusion. Did we not hold our own against the enemy attack? Even better, did we not prevail and drive them away? Surely there’s no shame in that — no defeat, no honor lost.”
“You’re right about one thing, Samirxun: I lead and you follow. You two have much to learn; that’s more than evident. And if both of you — the best of my commanders — are unable to grasp the essence of the matter, what does that say about the rest of the Legion?” He sighed deeply. “My only consolation is that our so-called allies from Vigmar are just as clueless as you are.”
Parthanyx glared at his two embarrassed commanders and then continued. “War is not about honors and tributes, you fools,” he said, his voice rising along with the vehemence of his words. “War is about crushing your opponents. And we failed to do that.”
The General had stopped pacing when he batted away the chain. Now he started up again, his movements matching the rhythm of his words. “We let the enemy slip through our claws. When we hunt our prey, we either kill or we don’t eat. We eat or we die. Second chances are few and far between. And the enemy that does not die lives on, emboldened to fight another day.”
“Still, as a much weakened prey,” Samirxun argued. “Are we not the stronger for our victory?”
“Yes,” Heimdell added. “We’ve wounded the enemy badly, and all we have to do is catch him again. One more attack and we — ”
“No,” interrupted Parthanyx. “We’ve not wounded him, we’ve strengthened him!”
His two commanders, confounded, could only stare blankly at their leader. Parthanyx was forced to explain.
“An enemy that is not totally crushed is given a gift. And that gift is a thirst for vengeance. It’s a thirst that eventually becomes a craving, a craving that soon becomes a need, a need that lives and breathes and grows within his heart. It will drive him on, each and every day, to strike back. He is emboldened because he survived, and one day he will come back to hit us harder and even more boldly.”
Samirxun began to object, but Parthanyx would have none of it. “Vengeance is like an injured snake that still holds the power to bite,” the General declared. “Or the fire that continues to simmer within its embers, waiting for a gust of air to bring it back to life. Both retain the power to kill. Mark my words, brothers, our enemies will come after us again, and when they strike, they will be neither hesitant nor weak-willed.”
Parthanyx stopped pacing. He approached his two commanders and gazed into the eyes of each in turn. “Do you remember my words when the battle began?” he said. “No prisoners; slaughter every last one of them. Never forget, until every creature that opposes us is eliminated, we will never be able to sleep in peace.”
He began to pace again. “We had an opportunity to destroy the bears and their friends. We lost it. And now the Empress and Aravat choose to hesitate again. We did not pursue our enemy up the valley walls, and now look at us — still waiting.” His scowl was ferocious. “And now it’s too late.”
“I imagine the Empress believed we couldn’t prevail,” replied Heimdell. “After all, the wolves — ”
“The wolves!” the panther leader snarled. “That’s another thing. Why are the wolves fighting with the bears? And why were we not warned about their presence? What kind of game is Dona Morana playing?”
“Perhaps the Empress did not know,” Samirxun suggested.
“Don’t make me laugh. She has spies and informants everywhere. No, no. We were meant to be surprised.”
“Hold on,” Heimdell said. “We’re allied with Vigmar, aren’t we?”
Parthanyx looked at the other panther as if she were a simpleton. “It’s merely an alliance of convenience,” he declared. “Dona Morana’s convenience, not ours. Bah! I wouldn’t trust that creature with a single one of my whiskers.”
“I still don’t understand,” Heimdell went on bravely. “It’s not as if we were set upon by the wolves or forced to face them on our own. The elephants handled that, and they dispatched them expeditiously.”
“That’s because that fool Aravat saved us the trouble. I’m sure the elephant was supposed to leave the wolves to us, but the idiot couldn’t hold himself back. Probably wanted to settle old scores.” The panther stopped pacing. “I’ll bet you that right now the Empress is showing Aravat no mercy. She won’t be as gentle with him as I’m being with you lot.” Parthanyx laughed out loud at the thought of Dona Morana and Aravat mixing it up.
“So we’re now caught between two sworn enemies,” Heimdell concluded, still puzzled. “In sum, Vigmar is no friend of the Legion, while the bears and lions — and now the wolves as well — wish to do away with us. Are you saying all is lost, General?”
“Far from it!” Parthanyx cried, his mood changing abruptly. “Not while I live and breathe! Not while the Legion lives and breathes! The Empress has made her first mistake, and I shall not let it pass. I have long suspected her of double-dealing, and now I am forewarned.”
The panther advanced toward his two commanders and embraced them both. “So, cousins, don’t misunderstand me — either of you,” he said. “We shall prevail in Aeronbed, with or without Dona Morana and her pathetic army. And when we’ve accomplished that, we’ll turn our attention to Vigmar. We will finish the job Albiorix was incapable of completing.
“Just remember my words: never mistake defeat for a victory. This was not a victory, no matter how many so-called honors I receive. A few days ago we faced a cockroach, but from now on, we’ll be taking on a scorpion.”
Parthanyx looked at his two commanders to make sure they had grasped the implications. “I’m sure I don’t need to explain about those cursed creatures — they can sting as well as crush,” the panther said. “Neither experience is pleasant, and now we must worry about both ends of our foe.”