The Runt of the Litter

A great many strange stories exist across the various lands of this world, of unrelenting courage, brash valor, and the type of burning love that can inspire the hearts of the tamest of mamono or humans alike. Sometimes however, it’s the quiet act of courage that matters the most. Being bold when you are strong is as it should be, but the weak acting when they are scared is something important too. A soft touch can be just as useful as a strong blow.

This lesson is forgotten in many places, as it was in my homeland, and amongst my clan. We left the land of mists, a whole clan of our kind, to seek our fortunes elsewhere in the wide world. The women of the Jinko are warriors, fierce stripes marking the danger of coming against sharp claws and fierce hearts. I had a different fate, I was not to be as my sisters were.

Jinko have the paws and limbs of our forebears… I did not. Jinko are large, and built for war. I was not. I was in all ways, the runt of my litter, and… a disappointment. Where my sisters were loud and hard, I was soft and quiet. Learning quickly to keep to myself and stay out of the way of my family. While my father showed me kindness, and my mother was never cruel, my many sisters, and the rest of our clan felt otherwise. I could barely fight with a sword as the humans did, never mind my non-existent claws. My parents even had a passing healer examine me, my mother openly wondering if I was somehow human. I was mamono, as my ears indicated, sound in mind and body. She could find no fault in me. No explanation for the circumstances of my birth.

Left out from the majority of village life, I quickly wrapped myself in stories, and focused diligently on my studies, the one area in which I excelled. Each rare visitor or new husband brought something to the village that I could learn, I drilled with my sword, a saber my eldest sister had taken as a war trophy, but most important of these treasures was a gift. A book on herbology, and the information required to use those herbs effectively. I took to herbs and cures naturally, and sucked up every ounce of information I could find. It was my escape, and later my insurance.

Originally as I had neared adulthood, there was talk of exile amongst the matriarchs. I would not contribute they said. My blood would not go on, or help our tribe flourish. They meant I could not go and claim a man in the manner of my kind. Be it by duel or war prize. They discarded me, condemned me… but the blow I was expecting did not fall. I was to be shunned, but at the very least I was not cast out of my home to what was likely a certain death. My skills with herbs, my knowledge useful at least to instruct the cubs in things beyond the use of weapons and the ways of war.

I was to be tolerated, but otherwise I was ignored. It is freeing in a sense, to be discarded in this way… I was secure. I would not want for food or shelter. I would be safe if threats truly came. Even as I wept the night I was shunned, I was glad. They had given me time. They might appreciate what I could do, but there was a world beyond the village, where all of who and what I am might be appreciated. I began to work on a plan to strike out into the wider world, and leave my chains behind me.

I began to walk further from the village, in search of herbs of course, as we were not supposed to leave without reason. Remaining concealed is just as much of a defense as strong walls, and my sisters and clanmates rarely left the village except for a war party or to hunt.

While I did gather many herbs and fungus that might break a fever or ease pain and swelling the real purpose of my trips was to scout. I followed the tracks of war parties, the tracks of animals like the hunters did, and found vantages from which to see. The nearest settlement was many days away even if I maintained good pace, and I slowly began to acquire the tools of survival, both to ensure I arrived and to have something to offer a community that might see something besides raw strength.

It was on one of these scouting missions that my situation dramatically shifted, immediately after a war party had left to go to the call of the Demon Lord. Though we did not owe her fealty her calls to arms always resulted in many of the single women of the clan departing, the Demon Army was a excellent way to seek out worthy men it was said. It was to my great fortune then, that while my sisters were so distracted, I found him.

He was passed out in his armor, covered in blood. The large rents in his chest plate revealing wounds that would either be lethal or worthy scars one day with my successful intervention, the slain creature near him. I hesitate to call it a monster, so twisted was the hate in it’s eyes even in death. I nearly drew my sword just seeing the face of the specter of violent death before me.

I could not understand from looking, why the man had been attacked. Certainly not as ferociously as he had been. I slowly cut the ruined armor from him with a knife I used for cutting herbs, carefully working to remove the pieces from his torso without hurting him further. My heart was pounding like a war drum. I was scared. What if he woke up? Would he be angry? Was the slain beast across from me justified in it’s rage?

He did not wake however, as my trembling hands slowly became more sure and I began to dress his wounds. Seeing to the immediate needs, in an attempt to keep him alive, until I could do more. I had little in the way of equipment on me, but a fire I could make, and with all the metal around me I could improvise something of a pot. A greave, the edges turned up with a rock served well enough, as I began to brew poultice and potion one after the other.

My labor took all night, and still the man did not stir, but his heart still beat, and he still drew breath. Finally, a battle I could fight. I may not have my sister’s claws, but this I could do. I took the time to go through his things, packing up what seemed valuable as well as cleaning his sword of blood. Still nothing to explain the creature’s rage. Just the simple keepings of a man traveling the road. A bow for hunting, odds and ends, a few strangely colored potions, some odd coins I didn’t recognize the markings of.

A few branches were all I needed to improvise a litter to drag the man home. He was heavy, but I managed. It was spring, so there was no fear of snow, but exposure of all kinds can make a wound worse. Even a child should know that, never mind someone who’s supposed to be something of a healer. The return to my mountain home was uneventful, but I was already dreading setting foot in the village.

I was not disappointed by the matriarchs as I dragged the man into into the central square. They took him inside one of the family homes, looked him over and entrusted his care to me. Talking all the while of setting up a tournament for any of the war party who came home still unmarried for him. Any other girl, any other tribeswoman and he would have been considered mine already. A small knot of anger hardened in my stomach as they spoke. While I felt nothing but concern for him yet, I was not going to let them take anything else from me.

I worked diligently to preserve the man’s life, even when I was sleeping I was dreaming of him and his care. He became my act of revenge. My act of defiance. I had brought an outsider back to the village, by my hand he would live, and in return I would have him guide me far away from this prison far up the mountain passes. With so much time in his presence, close to him, as a week came and went with only slight improvements in his condition, with so many emotions invested in him, I do not find it odd that even the most passionless of monster girls would generate some sort of affection, and Jinko are far from passionless. Perhaps it was just the crush of a kitten. Dreams of marriage and children of my own had been driven from me ruthlessly long ago after all… but the flower of passion blossomed and clever creature that I thought myself I added to my plan.

It turns out that the man was fighting off a terrible venom. Testing some of his blood with herbs confirmed it. Venom of the old world too, before the Demon Lord brought forth the age of Monster Girls. This was no Manticore venom designed to arouse and stimulate, this venom was solely made to kill. Thankfully my teacher and my books had been comprehensive in their instruction, and many of the old remedies for such venom and poisons were still valid in use against Monster Girl venoms.

It was another week of slowly helping him drink mushed gruel and water, barely enough to keep him alive and his body fighting as I brewed the potion that would save his life… it required me to climb to the highest peaks and explore the lowest valleys for some of the rare herbs I would need, but my books told me it was his, and perhaps my, only hope.

I was now on the clock, and a messenger spirit from the warriors informing the village of the end of the campaign in the Demon Lord’s favor slid yet another noose around my neck as I worked feverishly, tending the potion in the few moments I could spare from his care. I slept only rarely, and my exertions left me physically and mentally exhausted, but for the sake of my patient, the sake of my freedom, and the sake of this burgeoning sensation you might call love.

Even as I worked, a cold fear had settled in the middle of my belly, chilling me from the core outward as the day where he would hopefully awaken. Who was he? What was he like? And would he reject me like the rest of my little world had since the day of my unfortunate birth. Who would he see me as? Who should I see myself as going forward no matter what he saw?

The potion was a powerfully scented concoction, so vile that it stained the taste buds as well as the nostrils without drinking a drop of it. Exactly as my books described. One of the first real antidotes brewed since the rise of the Demon Lord and the beginning of her war against the Chief God to bring about her ideal of peace. A war of conquest by love.

My own war began to flare up as the ghoulish green liquid slid down his throat, fingers soft against his strong chin, high cheekbones and lack of serious nourishment giving his tanned and weathered face a drawn, almost gaunt look. That same skin starting to flush red as I finished feeding him the antidote. A still kittenish part of my brain wondering what he would request for his first meal as I settled into what I thought would be a long wait, but for the second time he surprised me, grabbing my wrist as his eyes snap open. Blue. A blue like the deepest skies. It was the first time I’d seem them, as he stares deep into my eyes before trying to speak, voice raspy with lack of use “How… How long?”

I don’t get to answer him. I should have known better than to expect the matriarchs weren’t spying and prying. That they would allow me even a second longer in his presence once he regained consciousness. My naive nature strikes against me once again. Or so I thought it at the time, as I was thrown from the building he was kept in. My purpose served, only mud softening my blow. My fingers tighten into the earth, for a moment resembling the fierce claws of my sisters… if they thought me finished they were sorely mistaken. I was leaving, and either as a companion or if needed a lover, I was taking him with me.

My plan commenced two days hence. I kept to myself, kept up my act of subservience, of being a broken tool for use by the village and nought else. I watched in the shadows as he was fed, and regained his feet, allowing him to wander the village a bit, his blue eyes darting around, always looking for something. An escape plan of his own forming perhaps? Still, I avoided his eyes. Avoided contact.

My opportunity was already coming.

The baths in our village were considered sacred, and medicinal, the natural hot springs boiling in several cisterns. Village law was very serious about the division of these cisterns, and was one of the few places gender segregation was enforced. The men bathed separately from the women, and the third bath was reserved for married couples hoping to conceive. Tonight the husbands of the village were busy, their wives and sisters in law would be coming home, and there was much to do. The man, now known to be a knight errant by the name of Kalinar was sent to wash and prepare. Within the next day he himself would be married after all. A few requests here, the occasional gift or misdirection later, and Kalinar was entering the baths alone. Alone except for me.

I had selected the nicest clothes I’d been given, a plain black robe of fabric that was at least soft enough not to rasp my skin. Stolen a skin of wine, and cups to serve it with, and arranged myself in a manner I hoped he would find pleasing. My slender shoulders and back facing the door, my robe sliding off my shoulders, hair cascading down like a raiment of black silk.

I didn’t give him a chance when he came through the door, peering over my shoulder at him. I tried to speak, faltered and tried again. “Sir… I am not sure if you remember me, but it is I who attended you in your frail state… I… I am a discard. A runt. Valued little and worth less… but sir if you would but give me a chance I am sure I could make a good wife… or if I do not please you, you could simply take your pleasure from me… in return for being taken away from here… I… I…” I lost myself in a torrent of words, my nerves and confidence betraying me as his blue eyes fell upon what he surely must see as a frail, weak form.

It was then I felt his touch for the first time. Cupping my cheek, raising my head to look deeply into my eyes once more. “How can the woman who saved my life think so poorly of herself?” His smile is kind, gentle in a way I have only had directed at me by wandering herbalists after successful lessons… but this is… Warmer. Like he’s trying to melt the icy knot of fear in my stomach away. “I’m not sure about getting married… though if that was the boon you wished of me for saving my life, I would marry you without hesitation, and claim you with pride…” His thumb caresses my cheek again gently. “I think I’d prefer getting to know you first though… an old world sensibility perhaps but I…” I can’t stop it. I weep. I lose all composure. Tenderness. I missed it. Cruel though the fate of my birth was, my mother was still a mother, and until my formal shunning, gave me all the love and affection any child could ask for, as did my father… but they were bound by the old ways, and my father’s sad eyes at being forced to no longer acknowledge​ me still hurt.

It takes many minutes. Maybe longer. As I cry out my harbored pain, eventually ending up with my head laid in his lap as he comforts me. This kindness… his warmth. Once I finally calm he speaks again, still stroking raven black hair. “So, my savior, how can I repay you? You saved my life after all. Ask me anything… but for my marriage vows… I would prefer to earn your heart if that is what you wish. Courtship by right of combat or… other methods… never appealed to me.” I breath slowly, trying to process what he just said. Did that mean he liked me? Think well of me? What courtship was there besides combat or war prize? I let my eyes shut, my breathing calm. “Take me away from this place. Far away. If only you can see me as valuable than should not my place be with you?” A blush colors my cheeks as I compose myself, shifting to sit formally with my legs folded beneath me, hair hiding my face as I whisper out “Then perhaps you can teach me about your courtship rituals of the world that was.”

So our pact to escape was sealed. We passed the night hidden away in the baths, as he told me stories of his home city, of the places he’s been, the sights he’d seen. He told me a story of monster girls and humans living well together, living by their will instead of archaic law. He told me about what to me seemed to be the ultimate freedom and that night as I stole back to the straw that served as my bed, I dreamt well for the first time since I was a child.

The plan was a simple one, but it relied on a fair bit of timing. Weapons. What was left of Kal’s possessions, provisions and all manner of things would need to be stolen to make the trip of several weeks to my new home. Even with if everything went perfectly we’d never have enough to go straight on. He could do it. Had done it, but could I? I wasn’t as worried as he was… It wasn’t if I could do it or not. I had to. The war band would return in a day. We had to leave tonight, and obscure our tracks in such a way that some of the finest huntresses the world has seen could not follow us.

It was easier than I expected to gather supplies and weapons. I was still shunned, and he could draw attention away from me just by his presence. An unmarried man was a boon for the village after all. The various matriarchs all plotting and vying to see him married off to any of their daughters that might come back without a war prize. Only my mother abstained. I thought at the time that she simply had more faith in my of age sisters than to think that they might come home empty handed.

It was a tense day as the small pile of supplies grew in the shed that served as my quarters and place to dry herbs. Our swords, bows and and full quivers had been hidden with cloaks stashed by the village entrance, but our ploy had not gone unnoticed. As night falls and he slips from his quarters after feigning exhaustion at the evening meal, and we make our way to our cache finally we are stopped.

“Kitten… I suppose your mother was right.” My father’s eyes are sad still as he looks upon me, but this emotion is different to the pained glances he sneaked at the daughter that was torn from him. He holds up his hand to stop us speaking. “Your mother could sense your demonic energy on him. No mate mark… but more than a simple caregiver… those old cats are too busy trying to arrange a marriage than to notice subtleties. Besides… she is your mother. No matter what the old law forced on us. If anyone will know you it would be her… and me.” He passes me a bundle and our last cache. “Go. Quickly before they find you. I’ll misdirect them for a time, but it’s all up to you now. Remember Kitten we’ve always been proud of you, even if your way must be your own.” I wanted to cry. To sob. To embrace my father. I know there’s no time. No time to make up for years of loss. Perhaps one day in the future… but for now I simply nod, trying to keep my emotion off my face, and my father gives Kal a stern look, as if given him unspoken orders… and he’s gone, and so are we. Shadows vanishing into the twilight.

The silver haired cat woman looks up from telling her story to the small circle of children arranged around her chair. “Ah… but perhaps a story for another time. The sun begins to set, and I’m sure your mothers will be looking for you.” Human. Arachne. A pure Jinko, Lizardman, a mix of children from around the village scurry off, playing on their way home, the order of the day being mock dueling with sticks, as a young woman with hair like black silk emerges from the home the older feline is resting on the porch of. “Telling your favorite story again mother?” “Of course Kitten.” The older woman smiles, a twinkle in her eye and blush on her cheeks “It brought me here, and resulted in me receiving a great many gifts… but what I learned… that finding your own path can be as true a test of courage as any battle… I hope it sinks in for those little ones.” The younger of the women nods solemnly “It is a valuable lesson mother… but perhaps your way can lead you inside for supper? Father just finished cooking, and there’s always my children to tell stories to.” The silver haired cat girl leverages herself to her feet from her well worn rocking chair. “Ah, wee babes don’t need to hear old women witter on just yet… but yes, I think some family time is in order.”

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