Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
It turned out that he was not, in fact, fine.
Not that he went in and was immediately slaughtered. I watched with Malia from the safety of our Veil as he trudged into the mine, and we kept mental tabs on his location across our map of the mines, since we couldn’t enter the mines directly without risking our presence being labeled “direct interference.” But the first day he spent walking up and down the shafts, especially the ones the miners had recently reopened in the hopes that the tiger would be drawn to them, and their shaman could kill it quickly. But the tiger was wary, smart, or just not hungry, and refused to show itself.
By the second day, Hasda still hadn’t found the tiger, and the miners were starting to get antsy because it had attacked them at least once every day. Since Hasda had entered the mines, it hadn’t shown up once. Kydonian tigers liked to eat, and unless there were some unknown cave dwellers it was subsisting off to avoid the humans’ new defender, it was beginning to starve itself.
The third day rolled around, over, and through to evening, and still no sign of the tiger. Hasda did, however, find a fragment of a claw outside a tunnel the tiger had collapsed scratching the support beams. The miners seemed accustomed to these collapses and had a healthy chunk of the debris cleared away by nightfall.
And then the fourth day happened.
We had the map projected in the air before us, the glowing yellow dot that represented Hasda the only and in the ant farm. Jade had decided to join us today, since Hasda was by now comfortable with the villagers and familiar enough with the mines not to need her guidance. Suddenly, a brick red dot appeared on the map and collided with Hasda’s marker. The dots orbited around each other in a chaotic pattern, bouncing off the tunnel boundaries at insane speeds. Jade gasped, Malia hissed, and I ground my knuckles.
Hasda would be fine. He didn’t need our help, he was perfectly capable of handling himself. I’d raised him, I’d given him my blessing, and I’d armed him. He’d be fine. He would. Of course telling myself all that over and over only carried me so far, and I sorely wanted to go tearing in after him to slay the beast myself. But this was his trial. He would be fine. He would.
After what felt like far too long a moment, the red dot winked out and Hasda’s yellow dot slowly wobbled its way out of the mines. Malia snarled something under her breath and sank her hands into the ether, swirling around in the dimensions beyond to extricate rolls of dark leather. Jade hurried forward to greet Hasda as he exited, Malia and I forced to wait behind the Veil until he was a safe distance away from the entrance.
To say the lad needed a bath would be an understatement. He looked like he’d been dragged through the mud, repeatedly, by his ankles and, based on the behavior of the dots, that might not have been far from the truth. His tunic was in tattered shambles, the leather padding on the outsides of his bracers and greaves shredded like fronds of seaweed. His hair curled off in a dozen different directions, crushed pebbles peppering the clumps of mud stuck to his scalp. He sagged like he’d just run a marathon up and down the mountain, but his eyes were vibrant.
Jade led him into one of the larger huts, which the villagers had lent him for the duration of his Trial. Malia and I followed and, once inside, shrugged off the Veil. Malia handed him the bolts of leather and said, “These are replacements for the ones you damaged today.”
“Thanks.” Hasda smiled and set the leather on his cot. Leaning forward, he extricated his legs from the shredded padding and set to work undoing the straps of the greaves.
“How’d it go?” I asked, folding my arms and trying not to glare at Malia.
“He seemed nice.” Hasda kicked off the right greave and started on the left. “Mostly hungry.”
“It’s a good thing you had those pads to protect you,” I said. Next to me, Malia puffed herself up with pride.
“Yeah. If I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t have had anything to feed him.” He laughed. “But he wouldn’t just let me give him the leather, he wanted to work for it. He’s a lot better at wrestling than I thought he’d be.”
I blinked. “He what?” As I looked closer at the mutilated leather Hasda was removing, I could see that the tears looked more like bite marks than claw gouges. That would explain why the armor was slightly dimpled instead of scored or shredded itself.
“And how, exactly, did you figure out the tiger’s intentions?” Malia said, her snakes shivering and flicking their tongues as she folded her arms. “Did it just roll over to expose its belly and ask to play?” Though her tone was sharp, she sounded just as worried as I felt. While it was a relief that Hasda had escaped his first encounter unharmed, it was doubly concerning how odd this animal was behaving. First it isolated itself in the mines, then it fasted, and then it went after the leather padding instead of the fresh meat beneath the armor and decided to play to pay for its meal.
“I spoke to it.” Hasda gave us a look of pure innocence as we stared at him, open-mouthed. “What?”
“You spoke to it?” Malia echoed.
“Yes.” His brow furrowed. “Is that so strange?”
“Well, normally animals don’t talk,” Jade said, fingers fluttering nervously. “But some do. Magical beasts, anyways. Usually it’s just telepathic, although some go to the effort of using their magic to speak out loud. But not Kydonian tigers, and not to humans. Getting them to mindspeak with gods would be challenging enough, if they weren’t so reclusive. Of course, that’s just what others have told me, this is my first time seeing one in real life, and I was too scared to try talking to it myself. Especially after it started eating my villagers and hid in the mines.”
“You just...talked to it,” Malia said, shaking her head. Stiffening, her gaze snapped to my face. “How long have you known he could do this?”
In all honesty, I hadn’t. But if he could talk to animals, he’d had ample time to practice during his hunting trips in the forest. And how would he have known being a nature whisperer was unusual? He’d grown up by himself, with a cranky old god for a father who talked to birds because he felt like it. Trips to the closest village were rare, playtime with other children even rarer. I scoured my memory, searching for any signs of Hasda showing hints of this ability, but my fractured mind showed nothing more than Hasda imitating me, speaking to the birds or rabbits or deer as if they were friends. It all looked like normal kid behavior, inventing companions when there weren’t any.
But if he could talk to any animal, which seemed likely if he actually talked to the Kydonian tiger, then that was a far, far bigger deal than just being a gifted human. No one ever became a Beast Whisperer by accident. Usually, but not always, a Beast Whisperer started with some innate ability to talk to animals, and then a god would imbue them with divine power, like through a Blessi—
“What?” Her eyes narrowed. “I saw those gears turning. Spit it out.”
“Hasda,” I said.
“Yes?” Metal clanked as he dropped a bracer on top of the greaves.
“When you were little, you used to talk to the fish, and the birds, and the squirrels.” I winced at how childish that sounded. “Did they ever, er, talk back?”
“Of course.” He frowned, both at me and the leather entangling the final bracer on his right arm. “You did, too.”
“Well, yes, but I’m a god, and you’re just human.” I sighed. “Or rather, ‘were’ just human.”
Malia’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh.”
“I’m sorry,” Jade said, leaning around me to look between us. “I’m a little confused. What’s going on?”
Malia pinched the bridge of her nose and gestured towards Hasda with her free hand. “He was born a nature whisperer, and he—” she flicked her hand at me “—blessed him.”
“Oh.” Jade blinked. “So...what does that mean?”
“It means that Hasda can talk to any animal.” I rolled the words around my mouth. They felt weird and out of place.
“Oh, that’s good!” Jade smiled and clapped her hands. “So he can just ask the tiger to leave.”
“I don’t think he wants to leave,” Hasda said. Grunting, he strained at the mess of shredded leather and finally tore it free. The last bracer came off a moment later. “I can ask him, but I doubt he’ll go. He likes the mines.”
“Something is seriously wrong with that tiger,” Malia said, frowning. “What color was its fur?”
“Yellow as piss, and its stripes were bright green and all crooked.” Hasda shook his head. “I think it’s sick.”
“It might be.” I rolled my shoulders to get the stiffness out. “Well, tomorrow, ask the tiger if it will leave, and if not, feed it the leathers if it still wants them and then get out. Pay attention to its coat. Look for any spots, flaking fur, or dried blood, and we’ll see if we can figure out what’s wrong with it.”