Despite all their differences, the white men still screamed at the sight of her, and their blood tasted the same. This one would be no different.
But she was not hungry, and she hated getting her fur wet. She trotted deeper into her cave, curled up, and slept through the storm.
Jake's hair dripped into his eyes, his feet squished in his boots, and his right ankle throbbed every time he put weight on it. His boot slipped again, and pain spiked up his leg.
He longed for a fire--for a nice, solid cabin and a hot bowl of stew. He longed to see Maggie's face.
He kept walking.
Avasa stretched. She would go on two feet today. She arranged dry wood in a circle of blackened stones near the mouth of her cave. She had been among the best fire-builders in her tribe, before her curse. It was good to practice. Good to remind herself that she had been human.
Sometimes, she hunted with teeth and claws and spent unmarked days thinking wordless, animal thoughts, and that frightened her. She clung to her fraying sense of herself, to her skills and distant memories.
She roasted rabbits that she had caught with carefully laid traps. She baked sweet corn cakes and boiled bean mush and sang her mother's favorite song.
The morning breeze held a hint of wood smoke, and the even more alluring scent of roasted meat. Hope stirred in Jake's chest. He'd heard tales of hunters in these mountainous woods--stories of heroes braving the elements and the monsters and coming home with packs full of furs and smoked meat.
Surely, such a man wouldn't begrudge a starving stranger some breakfast?
He caught sight of a cheerful fire, blazing away halfway up a cliff, and his hope faded. How could he get up there with his ankle?
"Hello!" he shouted. "Can you hear me up there?"
The man had found her cave, and he was standing below it, shouting in his strange tongue. Avasa flipped her corn cake and stirred her beans.
He was a scrawny thing. Easy prey, but not a promising meal.
It was nice to hear a human voice raised in something other than terror. Perhaps she would keep him for a bit, before she killed him. She'd never had a pet. Maybe having a companion would help against the forgetting.
She ate while the man below her shouted. His cries grew more and more desperate. The hope leached out of his voice.
She dropped to four paws and slunk out of the cave, careful to stay away from the open ledges, keeping her body tucked in the morning shadows.
She dropped noiselessly behind the man, lifted him over her shoulder, and climbed back to her cave.
The monster dumped Jake onto the sandy cave floor, next to a ring of blackened stones. The fire still glowed, and he leaned into its warmth.
The monster pushed a rough-hewn wooden plate toward him.
What was its game? Why hadn't it killed him?
The food smelled wonderful, and the small portions didn't seem designed to fatten him up. He took the food and ate.
The monster watched him.
Its eyes were dark brown with round pupils. Human eyes. Its form was a horrifying mix of cat and woman.
Maybe it had brought him here to be its mate. He shuddered, and shifted himself so the fire formed a barrier between them.
The warm air dried his clothes, and sleepiness tugged at him. He strained to keep his eyes open.
The monster said something in a language he didn't understand and waved toward the back of the cave.
He stared at it. "You can talk?"
The monster pointed at the back of the cave again. She mimed sleeping with her head on her hands, then pointed again.
"I'm Jake," he said, tapping his chest. "Jake."
The monster stared at him for long moment, then tapped her chest and said, "Avasa."
"Thank you, Avasa." Jake dragged himself to a warm nest of soft furs deep in the cave. He was asleep within moments.
Avasa stared down at the sleeping man. She'd sworn revenge against all men, and here she was, keeping one. She'd even told him her name. She'd be teaching him to speak, next.
He was pretty to look at, and soft. Harmless. She'd been lonely a long time. She could always kill him later.
Jake woke alone in the cave. Avasa had built the fire back up, and it crackled merrily. She'd also left him a corn cake on one of the rocks by the fire.
It was hot and sweet, and Jake ate it slowly.
What was he going to do? All he had in the world were the clothes on his back. Without her help, he'd die.
He didn't want to die. He didn't want to be her mate, either. He'd promised Maggie that he'd come back for her.
Avasa sprung up into the cave from below with two good-sized rabbits held in her jaws. She dropped them on the sandy floor and stood up on her hind legs. She picked up a rabbit and said a word in her language.
He stared at her. Her lips were smeared with blood, and there was rabbit fur lodged in her long, sharp teeth.
She shook the rabbit and repeated the word, slower.
He repeated it after her, and she rewarded him with a gruesome smile. She pointed to the fire and said another word. He repeated that, too.
If she was teaching him her language, she must want to communicate with him. He could tell her about Maggie and her brothers--maybe she'd even offer to help. He imagined facing them with a monster at his side.
He listened, tried to perfect his pronunciation, and learned.
"Can I ask you something?" Jake asked.
Avasa nodded. She enjoyed the sound of her own language. It had died long ago, with her people. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed it.
"Have you always been a--a monster?"
Avasa picked up a handful of sand and watched the grains slip through her fingers. "I stepped beyond my bounds. I learned the men's ways--to hunt and track--and I wanted to learn their most sacred rituals. I spied on them, and they caught me. They demanded that the tribe turn their eyes from me, and they cast me out and cursed me."
Jake's brow furrowed. "That's not fair. Didn't anyone stand up for you?"
"My mother was the last to turn her eyes from me."
"What happened to them? To your people?"
It was all so long ago, and her anger was gone. She did not like the hollow regret that it left in its place. But even the regret was better than the forgetting. "I killed them. I started with my mother, so she would not live in fear of me--so that she wouldn't see what I had become. I made it quick for her." Avasa wiped her hand on her fur-covered calf. "I did not make it quick for the rest of them."
Jake set a trap, and Avasa nodded her approval. He was a good student.
"Avasa, why didn't you kill me? Why did you take me in and teach me?"
Avasa shrugged. "I was lonely. I have lived here alone for a long time, and you stirred my pity."
Jake looked away and crossed his arms over his chest. "I guess being pathetic finally paid off for me, then."
She frowned. Her words had hurt him. Talking was harder than she remembered. "I did not pity you because you were pathetic. I pitied you because--because you were alone, too."
"Oh," Jake said. He stared down at his hands. "But I'm not. There's a girl waiting for me, back home. Her brothers drove me out of town, but I promised her I'd come back."
Avasa imagined crushing the girl's throat between her teeth. "If she loved you, why did she not come after you?"
"That wouldn't be proper," Jake said.
"I have never given much care to what is proper." She wondered what shape her life would have had if she did.
"Maggie does love me. But she's--she's too refined to run off into the woods."
"If she is too refined for the woods, where will you live after you go back for her?"
"Well, in town, I suppose."
Avasa fought to keep the disappointment off her face. She'd hoped he would stay--she hadn't forgotten herself once since she'd decided to keep him.
She could stop him from leaving, but she had hoped he'd want to stay. And if she killed him to stop him from leaving, she'd still be alone. "And what will keep her brothers from running you out again?"
Jake shrugged. "I'll have to fight them. Prove that they can't keep me away from her."
Avasa laid a hand on his shoulder. He did not flinch away from her touch.
She would miss him, when he was gone. "I will help you."
He took her hand, and a strange shiver ran up her arm. "It can wait till spring."
Jake hated the cold. The first winter days were miserable, even in the cave, until Avasa replaced his worn clothes with warm furs. He pulled the new clothes on and felt the heat settle back into his bones.
On fair days, they'd venture out to hunt, but when the weather was foul, they would stay in the cave. Avasa told him tales from her childhood and the legends of her people. Jake told her about growing up on the frontier, and about Maggie.
But even as he told Avasa about her beauty and grace, he found it hard to remember small things, like the shape of her mouth or the shade of her eyes. He worried at his image of her until he wasn't sure how much was memory and how much was imagination.
He was sure her eyes hadn't been brown, but he couldn't remember if they had been blue or gray.
The songbirds returned, first flowers pushed their way up through the thinning snow, and it was time to go back.
Jake tucked his sling into his belt and slipped a handful of smooth stones into his pockets. He could defend himself now. Maybe he should ask Avasa to stay behind. She'd already done so much for him. It wasn't fair to ask that she risk herself over this.
She padded over to him on all fours. "I am ready," she said. "Let's go." She loped off into the woods, and he ran to follow.
Avasa had spent the winter walking on two feet. Running on four feet again was freeing. She focused on moving, on breathing, on the spring scents that filled the forest. She did not think about returning home alone.
Jake huffed as he ran, but he did not fall behind.
She told herself that the ache in her chest was from running.
The closer they got to town, the less Jake liked their plan. What if Avasa was shot? She was immune to the passage of time, but not to bullets. He'd never be able to forgive himself if anything happened to her.
She paused, and looked back over her shoulder at him. "What's wrong?"
"They have guns."
She grinned at him, and her sharp teeth gleamed. "Don't worry. I'll protect you."
"I'm not worried about me. I'm worried about you."
Avasa's grin faded. "You needn't. Killing is what I do."
The town was quiet--most men were out planting their fields. Maggie's brothers would be in the bar, throwing their father's weight around for free drinks.
Avasa knelt in the slim shadows. She looked out of place, tucked up against a wooden building. "Draw them out, and if they threaten you, I will end them."
Jake nodded. His hands shook as he fitted a stone into his sling. He strode into the street. "Tom! Larry! I've come back for Maggie!" The words felt strange on his tongue.
The two men emerged from the bar. Maggie stood behind them, her hands over her mouth and her eyes wide.
She was still beautiful, but she didn't look much like his memory.
"Well, lookee who survived the winter," Tom said.
"He seems to have grown himself a spine, too," Larry said, and his hand went for his pistol.
Jake's stone hit him square in the hand, and the gun went flying. Jake dove behind a horse trough and scrambled for another stone, but they were too deep in his pockets.
Another stone sailed out of the shadows and hit Larry's temple. He went down in a heap, and Maggie ran to his side. She touched his throat and screamed. "Tom, he's dead!"
"You bastard," Tom said, and dove for his gun.
A stone hit him square in the nose, and Jake heard bones crunch. Tom fell, and blood spread from his face-down body.
Jake glanced back, but Avasa was gone.
He walked toward Maggie. She cowered behind Larry's corpse.
"Please, don't hurt me," she said. Her eyes were pale green, and full of tears.
He wondered if she'd ever loved him. Or if he'd ever loved her.
Avasa ran back toward her cave. Tears blurred her vision.
She was alone.
She climbed into her cave and curled up on what had been Jake's bed. She wondered if she would forget him, or her people, or her own name first.
He clambered up the cliff.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I don't belong there," Jake said. "Maggie was terrified of me."
"I'm sorry," Avasa said.
"I'm not." Jake took her hand. "I belong somewhere better, now. Here, with you."
Something in Avasa's chest shifted, and Jake gasped.
"What is it?" she asked.
"You--you're human. Your curse--"
Avasa held her hands up and looked at the fragile nails where her claws had been for so long.
"What does this mean?" Jake asked.
It meant always going on two feet, of forgetting the sharp scent of a man's fear and the taste of his blood. "It means that I'll never lose myself in the monster."
Jake touched her cheek, and she kissed him.
© March, 2015 Jamie Lackey
Jamie Lackey's work has appeared previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine, and in many other places including Daily Science Fiction, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Weird Tales.