The sun was a haloed orb of warmth and light floating above the treetops. The grass and leaves giggled with each tickling tease of puffy breeze that caressed them. Flowers bowed their colorful heads with flirtatious winks of pinks, blues, yellows, and purples. The occasional sultry red made a daring appearance as well, just to lend the floral palette a little upscale classiness. Nearby, the lazy burbling water of the small tributary separating the Jade Forest from the Valley of the Four Winds could be heard adding its commentary to the local conversation. Here, the earth swelled with breath and sang and danced and drank and feasted and grew. It was drunk upon raindrops and golden rays and sharing its mirth with all who would listen. The valley was alive and thriving and both flora and fauna were taking advantage of the perfect weather to stretch their limbs or petals or trunks and carouse with their neighbors.
Runeclaw was also stretched out, upon her back with all four paws splayed out like a toppled drunkard. Her tail was motionless and buried in the thick blades of spongy turf and only her blunt muzzle jutted out from the tall rushes. The nose wiggled occasionally as she caught a whiff of something spicy-sweet carried on the current and once when a large bumblebee landed upon it and feathered its furry fat body across the leathery pad. This had been the sum total of her existence for many moons now. She lazed, she swam, she hunted, she lazed some more, perhaps she chased a butterfly or one of the annoying vermin that frequented these parts, and she finished her full days with more lazing. It was a good life. It was a calm life. It was an uncomplicated life. If sometimes an unpleasant recollection of another life, a life of Shu'Halo, a life of Druid, a life of Horde, managed to needle its way into her gladsome daydreams, it was merely cast upon the four winds to be carried anyway in any direction but here. Runeclaw was content.
Unfortunately, Runeclaw was still in a serious state of disarray despite having plenty of time to rebuild her former stamina and weight. What she considered to be contentment might have actually bordered on depression if felines were prone to such things. She was not a very good hunter and often found herself bumbling about trying to catch her dinner. The vermin were fast movers with extremely sharp teeth, and they tended rush at her in small groups. She was sporting more than a few nicks and scrapes crosshatching her fur from those endeavors. These days, she mostly just terrorized them by roaring and chasing them around to get even. She enjoyed their high-pitched shrieks as they scattered and watching their oddly shaped bodies tripping and go rolling downhill. If sometimes she herded them into a wolf den, well, the nasty little vegetarians probably deserved it anyway.
She continued to ponder her options for supper. She didn't dare try to attack the large avian filchers or the predatory wolves themselves. In fact, she gave both of them a very wide berth because they traveled in packs, large packs, strong packs. Eventually, she always seemed to end up with a slow-moving turtle for dinner or a couple of fish that swam too close to shore. The fish were harder to catch but the turtles were a lot of work for very little meat. Either way, she was hardly putting weight back on with such slim pickings. As she rose to her feet to stroll down toward the water's edge, her ribs were showing and her tawny red fur was dull. Her deep auburn mane, still decorated with the teal ends she had dyed into it months ago, was tangled and matted. Her once stubby horns had grown considerably and were much longer these days, but they were brittle and were more for impressive show than anything functionally defensive or offensive. In short, she looked like a mangy mutt of a lion.
The Hunter that had been stalking the sunny plains in the heart of Pandaria was a black hill among a vast expanse of green. He was large, typical of the Shu'Halo, but he managed to move with stealth and control. Braids twined with verdant trim of leaves and vines were clasped with knotted leather strips, and a well-crafted silver ring was set around the midsection of his left horn. The horns themselves swept forward at a curved angle and were ashen grey. Deliberate movements and great care were taken as he wandered for he was very far from his native wilds and in a very strange land. Pandaria had been unlike anything he had seen before. Eventually, his innate wanderlust had become so great that he had left his assigned duties to explore the land in hopes of finding something worthy to hunt.
Indeed, he had found something exotic. He had found Runeclaw. Never had he seen such a magnificent cat! So impressed was he with the decidedly odd creature that he chose to watch her rather than hunt her. For weeks, the hunter watched her live an almost enviable life filled with sunbathing and meandering about without fear. However, as the hunter tracked the great cat through the days, a problem soon revealed itself. To his eye, she seemed to be in a weakened state. A sympathetic pang had tugged at the hunter, and he had decided set into motion a plan that would hopefully lend itself to befriending the beast.
For two days, he had gathered enough food for the lion before returning to her usual haunts. He cut up a flank into small pieces as she rolled and hid within the tall grass and soaked up the afternoon sun. He waited with schooled patience for her to finally seek her usual late day meal and then surreptitiously deposited a tasty chunk in her vacated sunning spot. He left a trail of meaty "breadcrumbs" leading towards a secluded cave. A pair of ancient trees was conveniently braced on either side of the entrance to shield the interior. He then sat back to await the creature's inevitable arrival.
Runeclaw was used the comings and goings of the odd assortment of humanoid creatures that wandered these lands. Like most of the other wildlife, she tended to ignore them, hide from them, or stalk them depending on the threat level she perceived. It wasn't uncommon for them to stick around for a few days, doing baffling two-legged things that seemed to involve a lot of needless scurrying around, and then move on again. So when she returned from the riverbank as a dripping mess after an unsuccessful fishing attempt and found a chunk of meat lying upon the dented grass where she normally pillowed her head, she considered it her dumb luck that one of those beings had dropped its own supper. It did happen from time to time that they would lose food or items when running pell-mell from something, flapping their arms about wildly, shouting and throwing things at whatever was chasing them (occasionally, that would be her). Her sleek whiskers curled forward as her nose moved about the item with soft chuffles and whiffs. Her eyes narrowed shrewdly as her head lifted and she scented the four winds in turn.
She remembered all the smells on the winds from the tiny blades of grass to the large lumbering beasts. In her mind, the bipedal that had left the meat was a shadowy outline of vague familiarity. He had watched her for a time and then departed a few days ago. She puzzled over his return only briefly. Free meat is free meat, after all. After a cautious lick across the marbled flank, she scarfed it up with an answering grumble of her empty belly. There was more of it a few paces away and she followed along, sniffing, licking, and snacking her way through the grass. When she came within calling distance of the furry male losing his food all across the landscape, she sat down on her haunches and peered into the depths of the cave. Somewhere inside herself, she felt animosity for whatever it was or whatever it stood for, but advanced thinking wasn't something she indulged in these days. The feeling fluttered around restlessly and then settled as an ever-present caution within her chest. Perhaps the giant bore watching as well.
Sensing he was being watched, the hunter froze in place from where he was setting up his bedroll. He peeked over his shoulder and spotted the cat, sitting, staring, waiting, and he knew he was going to have to be very careful with this one. He had food he was willing to share but she was undomesticated and had claws…big claws. And those horns! They jutted from the animal's skull like twin lances. Runeclaw had undergone more than a druidic transformation over the past months. She looked every part of the feline predator she had become as she continued to sit there. Her senses were keener, more feral, but her thinking was simpler. She was a wild, savage thing, and despite her apparent calm demeanor, she would not be trifled with. Carefully, he tossed another flank, a whole piece this time, out of the cave so that it landed in the clearing between the sheltering trees. He leaned back to watch the feline's reaction to the peace offering.
Runeclaw's nose wiggled back and forth making her appear more like the plus-sized rodents that swarmed the valley than a lion. Her upper lip curled back in a warning snarl as the meat sailed through the air and landed halfway between the two of them. She might not do a lot of productive thinking but she was hardly stupid. Something about this scenario left a nagging sense of déjà vu. A lifetime ago she might have witnessed this exact same tactic among a similar people, but now that memory was just another ghostly sensation that settled next to the caution. After a few long, tense moments, she got to her feet and boldly stalked forward as if he was the one in her cave and eating her food. She was satisfied to see the hunter look mildly surprised as she waltzed towards him. Her amber eyes never left his face as she gripped the meat in her jaws perhaps a bit more viciously than was strictly required to actually masticate her food. She marched right into the cave after that, swatting insolently at his pack resting near the entrance and sending his things scattering across the stone floor.
"Hey!" he cried indignantly as she trashed his belongings.
A flash of something shiny caught her eye as it skittered under his bedroll. In an instant, her eyes brightened with kittenish glee as she leapt forward right at the hunter, knocking him to the ground and eliciting a grunt, scrambling across his back, and then attacking the blanket with gusto as she tried to locate the small "toy." Somehow, he managed to keep his calm as the beast charged towards him like a fuzzy bolt of lightning and bowled him over. As he stared up at the roof of the cave, he realized it was going to be one of those weeks. He tried to dodge the lion's claws as bedding flew about like confetti. With alacrity born of not wanting to die, his left hand fished around aimlessly for the object that had caught the beast's attention.
"Aha!" He cried as his fist snatched it up quickly. The hunter held the item up and made a clicking noise with his tongue. It was a small brass medallion inlaid with a hypnotic pattern of anfractuous, luminous silver. It was merely an insignificant trinket he had received from a local as a reward.
"Is this what you want?" he queried in a soothing, tenor tone.
Runeclaw jerked her attention toward the hunter's voice. A shred of woolen coverlet was snagged on her teeth and dangled from her jaws. Another torn piece of blanket hung limply from one horn and hooded her left eye. She gave her head a shake to clear her vision as her ears slanted backward and her whiskers flicked forward. Was it speaking or growling at her? She couldn't really tell the difference. For the moment though, all was still as her little mind worried itself on how to capture her "prize." She had amassed quite the collection of pretty items gathered around the valley, and she kept them all stashed in a shallow hole under a rather big boulder.
The hunter watched the feline just as carefully in return. His golden irises flicked side to side as he watched for any movement, any errant twitch. It was obvious that the small bauble was the source of the animal's bedlam. He dared not take his eyes off her for fear she'd do something worse than just knock him to the ground this time. Her mane looked nappy and dry, but he thought that with time it might become lush and soft again. He was puzzled by the unusual coloration. It looked as if the ends had been purposely dyed teal. Had she once been another hunter's pet? Perhaps her former master had met his or her end in the unforgiving wilds of the valley? Was that why she appeared to be such an inadequate hunter herself? Maybe she had grown too domesticated while in someone else's care? All these questions tumbled about his mind as neither of them moved nor barely breathed.
Runeclaw did not at all care for what she perceived as him teasing her with her newly found treasure and said so, only it came out sounding more like a guttural growl of vengeance than "Stop that!"
The dominating gnarr caught him off guard. He blinked once and then made eye contact with the beast as he slowly placed the object on the ground. He then just as deliberately took two steps backward. A smile tugged at his lips, however, because if he was right about the would-be magpie he had a trinket that was much more exciting than this. Runeclaw assumed her message had translated just fine as he relinquished the object, and so it was with smug satisfaction that she clamped the object quite carefully between her jaws. She had once accidentally put her canines right through a soft gold talisman, and now it looked a bit more like Alterac Swiss.
"You can get out of my cave now," she mumbled around the orb while pushing it into one cheek. This gave her the puffy appearance of a mutated squirrel. The only "words" the hunter heard were a series sounds consisting of rrrrs and mrrrows when she "spoke." All attempts to stifle a laugh failed as her cheek bulged, and he almost broke his gaze as he snorted a guffaw at her.
"Quite the character," he mused.
Not breaking his gaze from hers, he retrieved his battered pack and fished around until as he found what he sought. His body tensed in case the creature decided to charge him again, and with great care he shook the curio – a bell, handmade back upon the Bluffs. The tinkling sound echoed off the stone walls of the cave. Runeclaw's left ear zinged forward while the right winged back. Her head canted just slightly to the side while she rolled the medallion around her mouth like a sour suckerpop. She was captivated by the musical melody emanating from the tiny instrument. Her tail swished through the pebbly debris of the cave floor in time with the sweet chiming. An echoing warbling purr came from her throat. Distantly, she remembered this sound, a sound of happiness and laughter and bright gaiety. A feeling of comfort and satisfaction swelled up inside of her.
While he was sure he looked absolutely ridiculous trying to barter with a horned lion in a cave in the middle of a lost continent, he didn't really care. She obviously needed food and medicine, and if he was honest with himself, he needed the company. He had to win this creature over; he just had to.