It wasn't possible that the she-lion's eyes looked so familiar. Elizabeth had been lost eleven years ago, yet somehow this animal's gaze reminded him of her. It padded silently ahead, urging him forward with its unspeaking eyes. The glare of hundreds of torches lit the valley below and reflected like gleaming gold through the retinas of this large and soundless creature. The rock ledge was easy enough for a cat's paws to negotiate, but his clumsy human stride knocked rocks and sticks down at every turn. She had long since quit giving him reproachful glances, knowing that he couldn't help it.
The ledge turned a sharp corner and abruptly ended. Here, it seemed, was their destination. A large cave stood five feet above. She leapt in, then peered over the edge.
"I can't jump that far," he quivered.
The lioness sighed. He heard rustling up above him, and with a thud a large stick landed at his feet. It was quite thick, and at first he didn't see the use of it, but presently he leaned it against the rock, carefully balanced one foot upon its end, and hauled himself upward while grasping into the cave for something to grab onto.
Soft breath and a wet tongue took hold gently of his wrist. He felt his weight move forward as easily as if he were a rag doll. Kyska couldn't believe the terrible size of her teeth, which did but barely touch him.
Just as though his entry into safety had signaled it, it started to rain. Thunder split the sky into shards as the torrential hot water drops flashed in the oft lit night. The lioness lay undisturbed among a heap of rabbit skins, breathing gently as her great sides fell and rose.
Cautiously he crept nearer as the urge to sleep overcame his sense of fear at the sudden loss of his freedom and his pride. He didn't think that sleep would come to him in such strange surroundings, but come it did. In the morning he'd be able to tell them all he'd spent the night with his back to a lion.
When the evening rains had passed, the blazing tangerine dawn echoed with the raucous calls of many brilliantly colored birds. Kyska rubbed his eyes sleepily and was surprised to find a large red parrot, dead, before his nose. He arose with a start. The lioness was busily consuming what was left of a green parrot. Her translucent fiery eyes stared at him. He picked up the bird.
She purred softly and began to wash the finished meal from her paws.
The lioness paused in mid lick, her eyes once again fixed on him.
"I can't--that is--I need to cook this," he said, holding up the bird, beautiful but stiff, by the tail.
As if to shrug she went back to her washing, leaving him to figure out his quandary. He piled dry twigs and strips of old moss together and struck two white stones upon each other again and again until the numerous sparks lit them. After pulling out the quills and down as best he could, Kyska held the bird by one long tail feather over the flames.
Breakfast done, the lioness seemed to think that he also needed a bath, which he did not enjoy, especially the time or two he squirmed uncomfortably and received a scratch for doing so. He began to wonder if this was really Elizabeth, or if he had wandered into the custody of a truly wild beast that would eventually consume him. He kept his thoughts to himself, however, and clambered clumsily out the entrance where she'd signaled him to follow.
The trail led into the mountains. They were warm, weepy, full of trees. No where was there a hint of any snow, and the trail went only upward. Finally they stopped to rest in a treehouse that had been made by some villagers ages ago. Kyska shuddered at the runic carvings on the tree supports, for he knew what they meant, and what they meant was ugly. He tried not to think about it.
There was scarcely room in the treehouse for both him and his companion, but somehow they arranged to sit and rest a while. Kyska dozed with his chin buried in fur.
Suddenly he sat up. The lion's fur bristled. Green eyes glowed from the shadows below. A hundred black wolves appeared and encircled the tree. They made no sound except for the scratching of their paws against the dirt and rocks below.
Kyska stood sadly and readied to venture down to them. He could not ask one lone lioness to fight a hundred wolves. He knew they'd come on his account, for it had been this way in the past, whether they be villagers with spears or elephant tusks.
Sharp claws grabbed him between his shoulder blades and threw him flat on the floor of the structure. He tried to protest but was soundly slapped by her weighty fur paw.
Her growls seemed to imitate the tone and spacing of human speech, and the tallest wolf looked up at her and barked out a reply. She leaned again and assured him with an earnest huff that she hadn't seen any other humans that day other than the one she intended to eat (that's what it seemed like she was saying when Kyska listened hard). The wolf leader thanked her cheerfully and bounded out into the surrounding bushes, followed by his avid frisky pack.
The journey resumed. Slowly their ascent seemed to reach some sort of plateau near the top, in the middle of which stood a structure made of brass in the shape of a giant box. When they drew near he ascertained it had a door, and the lioness disappeared inside it. A moment later she reappeared and signed for him to follow. The inside was dimly lit, with a terrible reeking haze that stung his nose and limited his view. He kept his eyes on her steadily rising and falling shoulders and tried not to succumb to the smell all around him.
The ground inside seemed to rise, and he soon found himself stumbling wearily up a golden staircase. Occasionally his foot slipped because the strange haze made everything moist, but he persisted with the determination of a hundred heroes. And now, it seemed, they were at the top.
A single tree made of glass glimmered in the misty cavernous dusk. At its base rested a serpent coiled as if at rest. The lioness stepped over it and went up the trunk in a single bound. Her gaze rested on him as if she expected him to follow.
"Same problem as before," he said. "I can't climb or leap like you can."
She growled at him insistently, and to his surprise the glass was not slick. He ascended with ease as though magnetized by the tree, and followed her into a little glass canyon inside the trunk.
A little old man with a wrinkled face and a very long beard sat in the midst of it, and he seemed to be deep in thought.
"What you say is true," he said to the lioness. "They do exist."
"What do?" said Kyska.
"Good humans," he replied. "I was afraid there were none."
"How do you know if I'm good?"
The old man smiled.
"There is little, if anything, that I don't know about humans. Your soul windows tell me everything."
"Are you a human?" he ventured.
"Alas, I am. It was a terrible burden to be the only living virtuous human."
Kyska was quiet for a moment. Then he began anew.
"The snake sleeping outside..."
"...is old and toothless," the wise man finished for him. "He will only harm those who lend him an ear."
"And now?" said Kyska.
"And now I will return Elizabeth to human form. You and she will be permitted to go back to wherever you came from, provided you stay there."
"You changed her into a lioness? But why?"
"So she could defend herself against the villagers. It worked, didn't it? And now she's brought you to me to prove there is someone I can trust to send her home with. But as I said you must stay where I am about to send you, and never come back."
"Stay there? How can I stay there if I don't even know how I got here?"
"Stay out of those books," the old man glowered. "They were not supposed to be read by human eyes."
"Books, books..." he muttered to himself. "I can't remember any books."
"Go!" the old man thundered. "And remember what I said."
Everything faded. Soft sun poured through the tree limbs onto a large green hammock where Kyska dozed lazily.
"Tea time," Elizabeth called cheerily, waving her hand towards the house.
"Books," he moaned, half asleep.
"Oh, yes!" she replied. "Those first edition magic and conjuring lesson books arrived today in a big box. Shall I open it?"
"No!" he said, then more calmly, "No, thank you."
Elizabeth tilted her head back and laughed. She slapped him through the hammock and grinned.
"Up, you lazy thing, and come drink your tea."
As they walked hand in hand towards the waiting refreshments, Kyska thought he heard the faintest hint of a lion's purr. He looked all around him. There was no one but Elizabeth, and she was smiling warmly. He would definitely destroy those books, and soon.