Jaws and teeth, anger and ripping—my leg, what happened to my leg? Roaring, screaming, fur—
I regained consciousness in the midst of blackness and the stench of death. I blinked as the dark materialized into a blunt muzzle as big as my head, and full of sharp teeth as long as my fingers. The muzzle moved closer, blasting me with the foul breath, and I tried to turn away, which produced an electric shock of pain in my left leg. I could not escape the gaping mouth hovering over me. The giant panther bent over my face—and licked me soundly from my collarbone to my hairline. I couldn't breathe for the slime and the stink. The panther backed away with a gentle growl, very pleased with itself.
"Carnossus say she like you."
Once again, I heard the voice before I saw the speaker. Looking up, I could barely see the whites of two dark eyes. The speaker smiled then, and I could see two rows of sharp white teeth. Carnossus the panther sat below the woman, haunches folded, paws outstretched like a sphinx. The moon shone through a hole in the center of the roof above me, illuminating a circle as wide as my arms' reach, but deepening the shadows in which my companion sat.
"Wwwwhaaa—" my mouth wobbled as I fought to get the word out. "W-w—what... What—"
The face loomed over me. "You feel now?" she asked. Reaching down, she cradled my shoulders in her hand and propped me slightly up, cupping a smooth clay bowl against my mouth as she did so. I choked as a thick, dark liquid splashed against my face.
"Drink," the giantess commanded. I had no choice.
The liquid tasted awful. It burned in my mouth and left a horrible essence in its wake, but she pressed the bowl to my face till it was empty. She continued to hold me up for a bit afterwards. I raised my hand and felt her arm, sinewy and rock-hard. I could sense the warmth radiating off her impossibly-smooth skin, as if her body were made of obsidian.
The hut I was in had a fire pit at one end, over which stood a spit with a small kettle hanging from it. I glanced down at my leg. Two thick branches braced it, tied on with vines. She had torn the ripped pieces of my trousers off from around it. I wondered if I was going to have to wear pelts like my caretaker. The medicine I had drunk took effect, and abruptly my body became very heavy. My head lolled, so she lowered me back down to laying on the pelt.
"Sleep now," she murmured, "heal."
Sounds faded from my ears as I closed my eyes again.
The sun shone brightly through the skylight when I regained consciousness again. The woman was not in the hut, but Carnossus snuggled next to me like a big, stinky cat, with one forepaw draped over my chest and her muzzle so close to my face that her whiskers rested on my cheeks. I turned away from the rotten-meat breath and saw, through the doorway of the hut, the tallest person in the world heading straight for us. She wore pelts fastened to her body with thongs, and her hair was braided and strung with beads, vines, and shells.
"Shetara!" she thundered.
My caretaker stepped from her position beside the door to in front of it.
"What have you done?" the newcomer demanded, and I recognized the voice from when I had first arrived in the jaws of Carnossus.
"She is no harm, Deloma," Shetara affirmed.
Deloma shoved Shetara out of the way and stepped inside the hut. Immediately, I inhaled fur as Carnossus wrapped her body over me. Her flank rested on my broken leg, and I couldn't restrain a small moan of pain. Deloma tried to reach me, but Carnossus blocked her hand with her teeth, growling threateningly.
"Begone, panther!" Deloma demanded. "The human cannot stay here. She must be brought back to where she came from!"
Carnossus wouldn't budge. If anything, she laid heavier on me, pressing into my leg and raising the pain level from unbearable to excruciating. I couldn't move even if I wanted to.
There was a hint of smugness in Shetara's vice as she observed, "Carnossus save the life, Carnossus decide the fate. We send her away, she die fast."
"If she remains here, more of her kind will come!" Deloma tried again, but Carnossus snarled at her. "That is a risk we cannot take. She must leave now!"
One last attempt from Deloma, and Carnossus bared her teeth. The giantess could not lay a finger on me.
Shetara chortled. "Carnossus say no."
I could feel the sustained growl vibrating against my belly.
Deloma hissed. "The human may stay until she is well enough to survive—and then she must leave."
"We shall see."
Deloma left, and finally, Carnossus slipped off. She began rubbing her face on my chest and humming loudly, leaving the stench of rotting foliage from her fur on my clothes. Shetara reached out and rubbed Carnossus' shoulders. The panther sank to the floor, her head still resting on my midriff.
Shetara smiled at me. "Carnossus never see like you before, never defy Deloma before. She like you very much. I like you, too. You different." Shetara reached over and lifted a lock of my red hair. "Like flame," she muttered, watching it glint in the sunlight as it fell. "I call you Little Candle; is good?"
I was feeling considerably safer in the company of Shetara and Carnossus in light of the way they defended me. I nodded. Shetara busied herself around my splint, spreading a poultice that stung and then cooled quickly. She ladled a liquid into a coconut shell dwarfed by the size of her hand. Using a woven cloth, she smoothed the liquid onto my forehead. It smelled nice, and I began to feel very drowsy. Shetara started humming a strange, haunting melody.
"You sleep now, Little Candle," she murmured, and I discovered that there was nothing else I wanted to do. I closed my eyes and drifted off to the sound of her voice.
And so it went for many days. Sometimes I would awaken in the middle of the day, sometimes at night, but each time, Carnossus was there to greet me, and Shetara managed to enter shortly thereafter to tend to my leg and give me medicines to make me sleep. As I got stronger, I would sit up more, and as my leg healed, I could stand up for stretches (supported by Carnossus) and slowly hobble my way around the hut. Shetara remained adamant that I never left the vicinity of the hut.
"You stay, Little Candle," she would remind me. "No go out. Not safe."
I always assumed she was referring to Deloma and others who felt the same as she did. The other woman did come frequently, still trying to get Shetara to send me away. Though we spoke the same language (something I didn't expect here in the Amazon jungle), Deloma and some of the others constantly treated me like a new kind of rodent, speaking at me and around me, and constantly fearing an infestation of my kind. They referred to me as "the human"—as if they were not. Were the Amazons more than just another race, but another species?
Shetara was the only one who would talk to me, and her vocabulary seemed far more limited than Deloma's. I asked her how long I had been there, and she informed me it had been "many days." I wondered from time to time what the others at the compound I had left behind what felt like a lifetime ago were doing about the fact that I wasn't returning. I knew fractures like mine took several weeks to heal, maybe even a month or so—but the medicines Shetara used seemed to have some special super-healing properties, or perhaps I spent several days asleep at a time.
I made it about five paces before I had to stop and rest. I smelled stench and heard a low growl by my ear. Carnossus stood behind me, watching. I tried to diffuse the tension by scratching the enormous panther under the chin. It worked. Carnossus hummed happily and threw her paws forward in a stretch. She looked up at me and deliberately bent down to nudge my legs. She was offering to carry me. Willingly, I gripped the fur at the scruff of her neck and did my best to clamber aboard the cat as big as a Clydesdale. She bent down to make it easier for me, and soon we two were making even better progress through the jungle.
Carnossus seemed to know where I wanted to go. We followed the path Shetara had taken not long ago, her large footprints visible in the mud. It led to a large pool fed by the Amazon River. There was no one in sight.
Carnossus bent down and I slipped off her back, landing gingerly on my injured leg. The bone had healed pretty nearly, but it was still sensitive and stiff from disuse. Crouching by the water's edge, I listened carefully. In the muted silence of the jungle, all I could hear was the quiet lapping of the pool.
In retrospect, had I looked down, I would have seen the creature lunging for me from the clear depths of the pool, but as matters stood, I knew nothing of the ambush till long, wet arms wrapped around my neck and hauled me into the water. I had only a brief gasp of air before the creature that grabbed me pinned me tight against a wiry, scaly body. It swam deep into the pool and out toward the River—and yet the appendages holding me were very much like arms. Human? No; the skin felt like that of a shark. The braided hair bearing shells and seaweed seemed familiar. Did the Amazons who served as my hostesses take fashion cues from these beings? The water skimmed over my bare feet. We pulled up with a jerk, and the creature kept me pinned with one arm, gripping my face with a slimy, webbed hand. I could see long, narrow shapes circling overhead. I tried to break its grip, but the arm had a smooth membrane hanging from it that resisted my attempts to wriggle.
The next thing I knew, globs of slime attached to first one ear then the other. I remembered feeling the same sensation one of the first times I woke up after Carnossus brought me to Shetara. I felt the blade of a bone knife press against my throat as a female voice hissed through the slime, "You should not have come, human! No one shall discover our secret, and now you shall pay!"
It took a few moments for me to realize that the creature holding me prisoner and the one speaking were the same. The way she pulled my head back to see the caimans overhead in an obvious threat to slit my throat and let them feast on me gave her away. But how did she know I had deliberately arrived at the pool, and was not some passerby who stopped for a drink at that pool? The way she called me human reminded me of Deloma. My lungs burned for breath, but this creature—was I becoming acquainted with my first mermaid?—would sooner let me drown than offer me any kind of breathing apparatus.
A dark shape hurtled through the water toward us, striking my captor in the arm and breaking her hold on me. The sudden release caused me to involuntarily gasp—forgetting that I was still submerged. The water filled my lungs and I blacked out as the dark shape filled my vision.
I regained consciousness to the feeling of something wide and heavy pumping rhythmically on my chest. I coughed up the water in my lungs as I sat up to get the heavy thing off my ribs. My eyes focused on the thing in my hands just as it extended a long pink tongue and licked my face. Carnossus had saved me once again—even though, being a cat, I never expected her to follow me into the water and dive so deep. I rubbed her head to let her know I was okay, and she hummed softly and turned back toward the bonfire blazing against the side of the cave. Her rump was still wet, and for some reason she dragged it along the ground instead of walking, which I didn't understand till I saw that her body ended in two wide flippers instead of two legs and a tail. Was this sea creature not the panther I knew?
The sea-panther crawled toward the flame and curled up next to it. I looked around the vicinity. Near my feet was a small pool not unlike the one I had entered. Perhaps this was where I had been brought out of the water. The cave extended twenty feet upward, and the perimeter was clearly visible in the light of the bonfire—but who had made it? Certainly the sea-panther would not be capable of such a thing.
I heard a splash from the pool, and another shape emerged, this one much longer than the sea-panther. It had long hair braided with shells and seaweed, large, blinking fish eyes, flapping gills in the middle of the face, webbed hands, fins under the arms and along the spine, and long legs that ended in wide flippers. A mermaid! It had to be one—though it was very different than the conventional concept of a mermaid. The sea-panther arose and shook itself—and as I watched, its flippers extended into legs and a long tail, which it stretched, cat-like. It was Carnossus; she could change her shape to become an aquatic creature! Did that mean she was in league with the mermaids who grabbed me?
The mermaid turned to look at me, but I closed my eyes quickly and pretended to be unconscious still. I heard her turn away and snuck a glance. She dragged her long body over to the fire. The water evaporated from her shark-grey skin and left strange brown marks. As I watched, the brown expanded, and the fins and flippers shrank and disappeared. When she was dry and fully human, she reached next to the pile of wood against the wall and picked up some pelts with thongs. Once she fastened them on, I immediately recognized her as the one who had nursed me back to health after I had been attacked by the caiman.
Shetara turned to me, her smile white against the blackness of her face. The gills had been replaced by a nose, and the eyes were not so bulgy.
"Little Candle!" she cried, reaching toward me.
I shrank away. She was one of them, one of the ones who wanted to kill me! "H—h-h-how... Y-y-you—" I spluttered.
Carnossus stalked over on four legs and licked my face again, as if to confirm that they were still the ones I could trust. I wiped the saliva from my eyes. Carnossus laid down next to me and put her head in my lap. Her jaw covered half my leg. Shetara sat cross-legged in front of me. Her knees were practically as high as my head.
"My sisters and I—people of the water," Shetara explained. "It is secret from others. We hide from outsiders, they never find us. Little Candle is first one to come so far." Shetara grinned at me.
The pieces began clicking together in my mind. "In the water," I mused, "the mermaid who attacked me—"
"Deloma." Shetara frowned, "She no like you. She scared bad of humans. Humans take her one time, she escape very hard. She say all humans evil, all humans is kill, kill all time. We believe, because we never see others. Then Carnossus bring us Little Candle, and you hear us, and speak our tongue, so Shetara say Carnossus keep Little Candle safe, Deloma no can harm."
Carnossus, sensing that she was the topic of our conversation, growled happily and shoved her head against my middle. I had to brace myself to keep from falling over. I couldn't help noticing that she still smelled; only, this time, it wasn't rotted vegetation—Carnossus smelled like the Amazon at low tide.
"But why me?" I asked aloud.
Shetara shrugged. Her wide hand cane down and ruffled the giant panther's ears. "Who knows? Carnossus no say why, she say only, So!"
I shook my head. "Wait a minute, you say I'm the one speaking your language—Shetara, where I am from, everyone speaks my language, this language I am speaking now."
Shetara looked at me and shook her head. "No one speak our language except people of the water. You only human who speak our tongue."
My head was spinning. I stood, pushing Carnossus away as I tried to make the gargantuan woman understand. "Shetara, we are speaking my tongue right now."
She shook her head. "We speak tongue of the water. Remember?" she raised her hand to my head and pressed a finger on my ear. Something squished between her finger and my earlobe. Then I remembered the lumps of goo.
"Uandino," Shetara explained. "Shetara find uandino in there when Carnossus bring. Not know who put it. You hear with the uandino. You only one."
I reached to my own ears, but felt only the lobes and the ear canal opening. I could not feel the uandino on my ears. I gasped, "What does it mean?"
Shetara shrugged her wide shoulders. "Little Candle save the water-people," she answered simply.