Rhodry and Aidan in the Green
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THESE SCENES WERE DELETED FROM THE FINAL MANUSCRIPT AND WERE NEVER PUBLISHED.
RHODRY and AIDAN in the GREEN
The big cat wound through the dense forest, his powerful body twisting gracefully as he slid beneath low-hanging branches and maneuvered through thick foliage. Mammoth trees towered overhead, soaring more than five-hundred feet toward the heavens, while their lesser cousins crowded beneath the high canopy, yearning for a ray of sunshine, a hint of moisture. Every imaginable size and shape could be found, a riot of growth that spread across the land in a dense green swath.
It had rained two days ago and the soil beneath the cat’s feet was damp and thick with centuries of deadfall. With every step of his enormous paws, the ground released a rich, pungent scent that filled his nostrils and told him which creatures had come this way, and when. Low-hanging branches drifted over his sleek, muscled back, streaking his black pelt with rainwater, as the dappled sunlight transformed nearly 300 pounds of hunting cat into a shadow among shadows in the dense growth. A wave of panicked prey scattered ahead of him, while a pool of cautious silence followed in his wake. But he had no interest in food this morning. This race was of a different sort.
With a thrust of powerful hind legs, the great beast pushed off from the forest floor. Long, sharp claws dug into the bark of a giant conifer and he propelled himself up and around the tree trunk as easily as he’d moved across the deep-packed loam of the forest floor. In moments, he was more than sixty feet above the ground, racing along thick intertwining branches, leaping from tree to tree with unparalleled grace.
He slowed long enough to glance over his shoulder and examine his back trail. Enormous jaws cracked open to display fearsome fangs before he whipped about and raced onward.
A second cat appeared far below, his bright, tawny fur catching shafts of sunlight as though a hidden river of gold flowed along the cluttered forest floor. The tawny cat slowed, head shifting from side to side, nostrils flaring before he looked up. A serrated yowl drifted back to him from far above, and he replied with a disgruntled roar that rumbled up from within his deep chest. Rear legs bunched and the race was on once again, the black cat’s howl goading him forward.
The black beast reached a clearing of sorts, a brief break in the dense canopy where one of the old giants had crashed to the floor in a storm this past winter. He halted there and stretched out on a far-reaching branch, paws crossed before him, wide, pink tongue lazily grooming thick-muscled forelegs.
On the ground, the golden cat approached the open space slowly. Sunlight beamed brightly through the hole in the canopy, gleaming off chaotic undergrowth which had already covered the downed tree, taking advantage of this rare opportunity to bask in the sun’s warmth. He studied the dense foliage intently, ears perked and nostrils flaring. He was a mature beast and long experience warned him to proceed cautiously. He caught the black cat’s scent at last and groaned, a harsh, grating sound low in his throat as he looked up … and froze, his head tilted as if listening, his attention riveted far beyond the treetops.
High above him, the black cat too abandoned all semblance of ease. He sat up, fully alert, head cocked to one side in a pose identical to his tawny cousin, both ears pricked high and wide open. The two cats moved in unison, their great heads swinging to stare at the far horizon, golden eyes unblinking.
A booming crack, as of lightning striking during a storm, echoed across the cloud-specked blue sky and a ball of fire appeared, a long white contrail hanging in its wake like the blade of a sword.
The black cat wound around the tree trunk and dropped effortlessly to the ground, shifting form in mid-air with a mind-numbing blur of bone and fur. It was a man whose feet touched the ground, whose powerful legs absorbed the shock of the drop, and who stood with broad shoulders and long, black hair trailing down his naked back. He watched the unknown object as it streaked to its death, burning up long before it touched the tops of the distant trees. The breeze brought him a familiar scent, and he turned to see his cousin striding toward him, his tawny blond hair a wiry tangle over his shoulders.
“I won,” the black-haired man said absently.
His cousin gave a dismissive snort. “Hardly. The game was interrupted.” He gestured at the rapidly diminishing fireball. “Should we send word to the city?”
He shook his head. “Cristobal knows all about it by now. Maybe more than we do if there’s been contact.”
“If?” his golden-haired cousin scoffed. “What the hell was that, if not contact?”
He shrugged. “A probe most likely. Unmanned, I hope. But either way, they know we’re here now, and they’ll be back.”
“Correction. They know about the city, not the clans. We’ve nothing to do with the Ardrigh and his court.”
The black-haired man frowned, his handsome face dark with unhappiness. “You’re a fool if you think this will not affect us, cousin. Change has come to Harp, and it will touch every one of us before it’s through.”