At first she didn’t think anything of the rustling in the trees, the excited squawk of the birds, or the silence that followed. She looked up too late and froze, face to face with a huge cat-like animal. Its mouth was hanging open, revealing two huge canine teeth protruding downwards, drool slowly dripping from its mouth. She did not dare move, and the large orange and black striped creature stood and stared at her, its great pink tongue flicking back and forth across its hungry mouth. It came to a complete stop not four paces from a mortified Maria and squatted down onto its haunches. Maria swallowed loudly, and a small drip of berry juice escaped from the corner of her mouth. She didn’t dare lick her lips and the drip slowly made its way down her face, finally coming to a stop on her chin. She swallowed again and stared at the great beast, easily as big as her, and probably weighing two or three times her own weight. She had never seen a B’Wot before, but had heard all about them. They were said to live in the great forests and mountains, solitary creatures that could kill a fully-grown man as easily as a boy snapping a twig. B’Wots had often been blamed for mysterious deaths in the small foothills of the forests and mountains, and no one had lived to tell the tale of capturing or killing one.
The B’Wot gracefully got back up and sauntered over to Maria, finally resting with its face inches away from hers. She tried to stay completely motionless and the foul stench that came from the creature’s mouth washed over her. She tried not to even breathe. Its large green eyes stared into hers, not blinking or moving, but trying to make out exactly what or who she was. Finally, its tongue flicked at her face and licked the blue drip of berry juice from her chin. Then the B’Wot sat at her feet and started to purr. An enormous purr that almost vibrated the very ground on which she stood.
Maria breathed out again and looked down at the B’Wot. It still did not move, except to rub its head against her legs, purring loudly. She ventured a hand and touched the top of the creature’s head, gently stroking the soft fur that covered it. Its eyes searched her out, but still it made no move. Finally Maria started to relax and absently-mindedly stroked the creature some more. She continued to do this for a further few minutes until she felt confident that the beast was not going to attack her.
“You had me worried for a few moments there,” she said without thinking. The B’Wot raised its head and looked up at her. It opened its mouth and made a kind of guttural sound at her. Looking confused, the creature tried again.
“Maria,” it seemed to say. She couldn’t believe what she thought she heard and laughed to herself.
“Animals don’t talk,” she said out loud. “I must be going crazy too!”
“Maria,” the creature said again, much clearer this time. Maria abruptly stopped stroking the creature and looked down.
“Did you just say my name?” she asked, chuckling because she felt stupid about talking to an animal.
“Maria Pengollen.” It was very clear this time, as if the creature was finding a voice that had not been used for many years. Maria looked astounded at the creature, hardly believing what she was hearing. “I am called Amber Fleetfoot,” it continued. Maria scrunched up her face in confusion. This time she had seen. The B’Wot hadn’t actually said those things. It had spoken, in its way, but Maria had understood what was said. It was as if her mind translated for her.
“Amber Fleetfoot,” she replied, without thinking. Again the B’Wot purred loudly and rubbed up against her. “Well, Amber Fleetfoot,” she continued, “what are we to do?” It was a rhetorical question, for she didn’t really expect an answer from an animal.
“I am here to guide and protect you,” the B’Wot answered. “The creatures of the forest sent word you needed help. I have come to give you that help. I cannot stay long, but it will be time enough for what we have to do.”
Maria sat in silence, reflecting on what was happening about her. No one had ever warned her about this. Of course she had been able to talk to the Prassos, but to understand a B’Wot was another matter completely. She had so many questions, so many things to ask. She didn’t know where to start.
“We will have time along the way,” Amber Fleetfoot said, as if reading her mind. “Come, let us depart.” The B’Wot got to its feet and nudged at Maria. She reached out and took her branch and pulled herself up.