Day after day the winds howled, colder and more ferocious than anyone could recall. They swept down from Heimborn’s mountain heights, increasing in intensity as they funneled through the narrow passes leading into Aeronbed before finally hurling themselves without mercy at the forlorn creatures below.
Those unfortunate individuals — foot soldiers, lookouts, guards, sentinels watching over the divide between two mighty armies — had given up on their duties ages before. Keeping watch was forgotten, patrolling ignored. To defend themselves from the onslaught, some had resorted to huddling together in modest shelters, maximizing what little warmth and consolation they could share. It had been like that for most of the miserable winter. The soldiers cursed the long, harsh days, and the long nights even more.
The past night had been the worst of all, putting all the preceding ones to shame. The temperature had dropped steadily throughout the evening as snow began to fall. The animals sleeping outside became so many indistinct drifts, mere bumps in the landscape, only to be revealed as alive when they stirred from their slumber — that is, if they woke up at all. Some had found in eternal rest an alternative to their miserable existence on the northern edge of Heimborn in the winter to end all winters.
By dawn the snowstorm had run its course. The fierce squalls gave way to a deathly silence and a powder-blue sky replaced the gray clouds. At the base of one particular mountain, a narrow pass opened up dramatically into a generous plain protected on both sides by stands of evergreens. There a small troop of panthers was coming to terms with yet another winter morning.
When the pale sun deigned to appear, the squad, whether out of duty, hunger or force of habit, managed to rouse itself. The cats stretched their limbs and shook the snow from stiffened backs, weary heads, frozen tails and whiskers. They sniffed the frigid air, checking for the presence of interlopers, but the air kept its counsel, revealing nothing. Swirls of vapor rose from their silky black fur and disappeared quickly in the thin light.
As free of snow as they could be, the three big cats leapt gracefully through the drifts, decamping from where they’d fallen asleep. They found better shelter underneath the generous branches of a tall spruce tree, and even a rare patch of bare earth, where the trio immediately lay down again.
“I tell you, Estrog — ” one of the panthers began.
“Don’t, Vlad. I can’t stand it,” his comrade answered.
“Can’t stand what?”
“Can’t stand to hear any more of your grousing.”
“Me? Grousing? You should talk, mate!”
The other shivered and yawned but didn’t bother responding.
“Anyway, I wasn’t going to complain,” Vlad continued.
“I was just going to ask why we were told to camp out in the open, smack dab in the middle of a blasted slope, without benefit of cover, and not over here.”
“That’s not complaining?”
“No, Estrog, me old mate, that’s just a simple observation.”
Estrog sighed, contemplating the empty pit of his stomach. They hadn’t had a good meal in several days.
The two privates glanced at their companion. “You’re awfully quiet this morning, Sarge,” Vlad said. “Cat got your tongue?” He laughed at his own joke, lame though it was. Estrog stretched out a paw and gave his companion a shove.
Todog, eyes narrowed, contented himself with glaring at the other two. Vlad’s laughter died away quickly, leaving only the sound of their panting — and, of course, the wind whistling through the treetops, that maddening, seemingly never-ending wind, which had begun to pick up again.
Estrog got up and scraped at the ground near the base of the tree. It was as hard as rock. “You won’t find anything there, mate,” Vlad observed.
“You never know,” replied Estrog. He continued to scratch away.
Vlad rolled his eyes. Todog tried his best to ignore both of them.
“What are we waiting for?” asked Vlad. “Or who?”
“Nothing,” Todog replied. “Nobody.”
“We’re always waiting for something,” Vlad said. “Or someone.”
“Or watching,” Estrog added, giving up on his scratching. “Or patrolling, or guarding.”
“Yes, that too,” Vlad agreed.
“So we’re not always waiting then,” Estrog said.
“You two will be the death of me,” Todog growled.
“I’m hungry,” said Estrog.
“You’re always hungry,” said Vlad.
“At least I don’t complain all the time.”
Todog growled again. “Will you two quit your griping? We’ll eat soon enough. They promised us rations today.” He glanced toward the open plain and half rose. “Someone’s coming,” he warned.
“Maybe it’s our food,” Estrog suggested, his hopes rising. He lifted his head, hoping for a better view.
“I said keep quiet!”
A lone panther was venturing up the steep slope from behind the lines. The cat leapt from one deep snowdrift to another until it reached the spot where the three had been sleeping. While they watched in silence, the newcomer stopped to sniff around the area, glanced at their tracks, followed them with his eyes, and finally locked his gaze on the base of the tree, where they were now sitting bolt upright, staring back.
“Do you see who it is?” Estrog hissed. The sun’s rays, reflecting off the snow, had obscured his vision at first, forcing him to squint. But he was certain now. “Well, can you beat that!”
“I can hardly believe my eyes,” Todog said. “General Parthanyx!”
“Haven’t seen the General in an age and a half,” Vlad observed. “Not this close, anyways. Not since he welcomed back Samirxun and Hildric from the wilds of Heimborn.”
“What’s he doing out here?” Estrog wondered, turning to Todog.
“How should I know?” growled the Sergeant. “No one tells me anything.”
“Do you think he sees us?” Estrog asked.
“Of course he does,” Vlad declared.
“Do you think we’re in trouble?” asked Estrog.
“Perhaps the General wants us to accompany him,” Vlad said. “You know, like past the enemy lines. What do you think, Sergeant, should we join him?”
“I wouldn’t want you two within a hundred miles of Parthanyx,” Todog growled. “I’d be demoted faster than a jackrabbit making for home. Wait here. Keep your mouths shut and your heads down. I’ll go and talk to him.”
Todog made his way over to Parthanyx while the other two kept watch.
“General,” Todog called out when he was within earshot.
“Sergeant,” Parthanyx answered. “Glorious morning, is it not?”
“Bit cold for my liking, sir,” Todog said, shivering more than a little. With one last leap, he landed next to the General.
“The cold does no harm to a fearless cat, Sergeant. Only makes him hungrier, toughens him up. He’ll be a better fighter, in my opinion.”
“Yes, sir,” Todog said, rather doubtfully.
Parthanyx glanced toward the enemy lines in the distance. “How are things today?”
“Very quiet, sir. In fact, no sign of activity for weeks now.” Todog pawed at a nearby mound of fresh snow. “Of course, not even a crazed muskrat would show his head in this weather.”
The General laughed. “As it should be, Sergeant.” He glanced again toward the enemy position. “I trust you’re keeping a sharp lookout?”
“We won’t fail you, sir.”
“Well said, Sergeant. You’re a credit to the Legion. Only the best can endure life out here.”
Todog grew several inches taller. “Thank you, sir.”
For several moments Parthanyx studies the surrounding heights, dense forests and rocky peaks beyond as if expecting to see hostile heads poking out. The other panther followed his gaze.
“I know this is a boring time,” the General said unexpectedly. “I thank you — and your comrades — for your vigilance. Unfortunately, such caution remains essential, even now, during this break from hostilities.”
The Sergeant, surprised, said nothing.
“Don’t worry,” Parthanyx added, sounding quite cheerful. “By spring we’ll have those cursed bears on the run or locked up in cages.”
Todog nodded carefully, even more surprised by the genial tone.
“I’ll have some extra rations sent out for you and your mates.”
Yet another surprise. “They’ll much appreciate that, sir.”
With the briefest of salutes, Parthanyx departed. He leapt through the deep snow, breaking a trail parallel to the enemy outposts. Todog concluded that the General was conducting an inspection of all the forward positions. He watched in silence, listening to the crunching of a mighty panther making his way through freshly fallen snow.
But before Parthanyx could disappear from view, one further surprise was in store for the Sergeant. The General abruptly stopped in his tracks, turned around and retraced his steps until he was standing in front of Todog once more.
“Sergeant,” Parthanyx asked quietly, “was it you and your two privates who escorted those birds the leopards captured last fall? The duck and the two ravens?”
Todog’s eyes opened wide in alarm. What were they in for now? “Er, well, er, yes, it was, General,” he admitted. “Of course, it wasn’t just us. There were plenty more in the escort party,” he added quickly, hoping to spread out the fault and reduce his share of any punishment.
Was he about to receive a withering tirade or would those extra rations somehow fail to arrive? Possibly both, he suspected. Should he apologize or try to cast more blame elsewhere? Deciding he’d best stop digging his hole any deeper, the Sergeant opted for silence. He stared back at the Legion’s commander, expecting the worst.
At first Parthanyx’s expression was unreadable. And then, very slowly, the big black cat began to smile. The grin got bigger and bigger until he finally burst into uproarious laughter. The sounds of his mirth echoed off and were magnified by the surrounding mountains.
“The next time you’re on the battlefield,” the General said, when he was finally able to contain himself, “make sure you keep the leopards in front of you and always in plain sight.” He laughed again. “They’re none too happy right now, Sergeant, let me tell you.”
Parthanyx, still highly amused by his little joke, departed for good this time, as swiftly as when he’d first arrived, leaving the astonished Todog in his wake.