Chapter 2 As Good a Place as Any
The lion bounded through the bracken and underbrush of Tanglewood with Temple clinging to his mane. They left poisoned heart vines limp and aching in their wake. The golden fringe trees murmured, stirring a breeze that teased Temple’s naked skin, and the lion’s muscular torso tensed and contracted between her thighs as he leapt down from a moss-covered log and then over a stream that glistened in the morning light.
Electricity ran between the tips of Temple’s fingers and the glossy silk of the cat’s mane. She felt larger, more complex. She was no longer just herself. She was something more, even if she couldn’t say what. It wasn’t just a surge of confidence she felt. It was a carnal ardor for her own warm skin, a keen admiration for her own intellect, a sudden pride in the strength of her own body, a buzz of mysterious potential, and an indisputable conviction that she had a natural right to her own unadulterated pleasure. She felt there could be no body more luxurious than her own, down to the fine hairs on her arms and the thick curls that covered her cunt. She could feel herself glowing, emitting an energy that caused the forest to bow to her in appreciation. She was invincible astride the lion. Powerful.
It sent a shiver over her skin that dissolved into a warm flush. She leaned forward, pressing her breasts into the beast’s thick fur. The forest sped past her, and she experienced it the way he did, as a blur of emerald energy flecked with rose gold and coral. When he focused his attention, Temple saw the fine details of the landscape through his cat’s eyes: the curve and shadows of a swollen, amethyst fruit dangling from a crooked limb, the frenetic flash of a small mammal ducking into a knot in a gnarled tree, and something up ahead, still too distant even for the cat to see clearly. Whatever it was, it excited her because it excited the beast.
The forest-bound horizon began to leak light from a far side that drew nearer by the second. At last, the lion leapt over a hedge of thistles and thorns and landed squarely at the center of a crossroads. He lay down and shrugged dismissively, huffing to clarify that Temple’s free ride was over. She slid off his back and noticed straight away her sight was diminished when she was standing on her own two feet. She couldn’t make out the intricate details that had been so distinct a fraction of a second earlier. Fortunately, she only required ordinary powers of observation to get her bearings.
The narrow intersection of the crossroads was fringed by forest on all sides. Standing at its axis, Temple saw that each path led to more of the same. However, the hub wasn’t mere desert wilderness. Civilization, of sorts, had sprung up here.
Seven shacks roosted in the lower branches of the trees ringing the crossroads. The word roosted wasn’t poetic fancy on Temple’s part either. It was an empirical observation. The upper portion of each structure looked exactly like the sort of thing you might expect to find in an enchanted forest—built from logs and litter with a pitched roof cloaked in moss and fallen leaves and bird’s nests. A small goat cavorted atop one of the shacks, gamboling with two adolescent crows.
So far so good.
It was what was beneath the cabins that called to mind the image of hens roosting among pine trees. Each chantey was perfectly poised upon two leathery, black legs. Their gleaming talons were wrapped around sturdy tree branches, keeping the structures level and secure, but now, the shacks had all begun to lean forward inquisitively. Temple could feel the dark windows peering down at her, and she suddenly felt vulnerable and exposed. Public nudity felt both more nude and more public when you were thrust to the center of an animate hamlet.
She nudged at the lion, who had fallen asleep within seconds of his acrobatic landing. He rose in response, stretched, and bounded off down one of the paths, leaving Temple alone at the crossroads.
“Well, fuck,” she said under her breath. She was beginning to have second thoughts about accepting lifts from lions.
The brooding lean-tos were hissing, now, squawking and sounding an alarm. The largest leapt from its perch to a space no more than a meter from her. It kicked up a cloud of dust and scratched at the path, crowing and clucking. The chantey circled Temple, studying her with its dark casements.
Temple held her breath and attempted to strike a non-confrontational pose. She didn’t stand a chance of outrunning a bewitched cottage. Even without a rigorous ecological study to support her hypothesis, she was certain it was scientific fact. The best she could hope for was not to antagonize it.
The shack leaned in to get a good look at her face. Temple could see her reflection in a wavy windowpane. She fixed her expression into an amicable half-smile, careful not to show her teeth lest it be interpreted as a threat.
While the shack assessed her, Temple made her own observations. The last of the day’s golden light spilled into the crossroads, gilding the lilies and rosebuds that had been carved into the chantey’s trim. Now that the initial shock of walking houses had subsided, the roosting village didn’t seem threatening at all—only a little put off by her sudden, unannounced intrusion, which was fair enough.
“You know, you’d be charming if you’d just settle down,” Temple said.
Whether satisfied with her mien or naturally inclined to heed unsolicited advice from strangers, the shack squatted low on the path, and it really was quite charming. Its chicken legs disappeared beneath the porch, and the front doors were flung wide open, like an old friend’s embrace. Boisterous laughter and the thundering of an upright piano poured out into the still silence of the forest, stirring up an instantaneous atmosphere of celebration in the darkening twilight.
Temple hesitated, but not long. A red carpet rolled out of the shack and down the stairs, ending neatly at her feet. She was certain if she wasn’t in the right place at the right time, it was as good a place as any for now.