A Panther's Tale
Joseph strode down the bustling hallways of the palace towards the throne room, eager to meet with his father, the king. As he approached the gilded double doors, the guardsmen straightened at his approach, one of them throwing wide the metal doors. As he stepped inside, there was a small fanfare of trumpets, accompanied by the royal courier announcing his presence.
“His Majesty, Prince Joseph!”
Ah, but that was good to hear after six long months. Already the young man could see his father chattering away with one of his attendants, although at the announcement, he looked up towards the entrance, his aging brown eyes widening in amusement.
“Joseph, my boy!” The elderly monarch rose and closed the distance between himself and his son as fast as his aging body could, throwing his arms open wide and embracing the taller man. “My, but you are a sore sight for this old man's eyes! Come, come, you must tell me of your days on the coast. Has the weather been good there?”
Joseph chuckled and wrapped a strong arm about his father's shoulders, leading him back to the throne. “Yes, yes, father, the weather was fine there. It would seem that the war is well in hand. Our men should be able to take the last enemy stronghold within the month.”
The king nodded at this several times, sinking back into the plush cushions of his throne and stroking at his gray beard some. “Good, good. I wouldn't want you to be caught out in the rain.”
Joseph smiled good-naturedly and shook his head. “No, of course not. Now, what of yourself? Have you been well all this time?”
The king nodded slowly. “Oh yes, fine, fine…” He seemed to perk up in an instant, though, his eyes shining. “Oh, but you must come see my new pet, Joseph!” Rising once again, he took his son by the arm and began dragging him off into one of the myriad hallways. “He's simply incredible! Some traders from…”
After hearing the word pet, Joseph couldn't help but smile, soon drowning out his father's rambling tale with his own thoughts. The king had always been a lover of exotic animals and birds, ever since Joseph was a young child. It seemed whenever he turned about there was a new type of bird or beast kept in its own special room. Obediently, he followed his father, nodding along to the story.
“…And he is simply the most incredible creature I've ever seen! Remarkable, simply remarkable!” The king seemed overjoyed to tell his son the tale, and soon they both stopped before a smooth wooden door. From within, Joseph could hear movement, along with a deep, steady rumbling. To him, it sounded like another feline, although a very large one. Perhaps a tiger or lion…
“Oh yes, here he is! You'll see, he's simply incredible!” The king quickly opened the door and stepped in, with Joseph following just behind. However, upon catching sight of the room's occupant, the young man fell back against the wall with a gasp.
Lying amidst a sea of multi-colored pillows and surrounded by attendants was the largest panther Joseph had ever seen! Its sleek, muscled body was nearly twice in length that as a man was tall! It's sleek, midnight fur was being stroked by brushes held by female attendants, while more were tending to its oversized paws and trimming its sharp claws.
When the two men entered the room, the panther lifted its huge head and stared straight at Joseph, seeming to size him up. The prince was unsettled by that gaze, as if it held something more than raw animal instinct in it. Even more unsettling was that the feline's head seemed larger than the body would allow it to have, and Joseph could not help but think there was a reason behind that.
However, before man or beast could do anything, the king was kneeling next to the panther's head and stroking along the cup-shaped ears, and the panther seemed to calm at this, its chest letting out a rumbling purr that seemed to vibrate the pillows it rested upon.
“Father! Get away from that beast! It could hurt you!” He rushed to the king's side and pulled the elderly man's arms away from the huge feline, which immediately turned hostile and let out a low growl, great eyes narrowing to slits.
The king, seeming more flabbergasted than worried, turned and looked from Joseph to cat, cat to Joseph before bursting into good-natured laughter, trying to speak in gasps around his mirth. “Bartholomew? Hurt me? Nonsense. He's the biggest pussycat I've ever seen! He's simply delightful!”
Joseph looked in disbelief at his father before looking to the huge cat laying next to them, Bartholomew apparently having calmed down yet again and acting just as any housecat would, rolling about on his side and pawing lightly at the women who trimmed his claws.
“But…but…he's so big! Surely this isn't a normal panther! I've let you keep some of your larger pets before, but this is going too far, father!”
The king frowned and huffed, stroking over the feline's head, which prompted a rather large, but gentle-sounding mew from the cat. “You're just being silly, Joseph. Bartholomew is very happy here, and wouldn't do a thing to hurt me.”
Joseph sighed, still eyeing the feline warily, but more concerned for his father now. “Sire, you must reconsider…”
“No! I am king here, and will do as I please, and that includes keeping Bartholomew here! He is to receive the best of care, and…oh! Oh!” The king clapped his hands together and beamed joyously. “That reminds me! It's his feeding time!” The elderly monarch turned to the attendants and clapped his hands again to get their attention. “Ladies, ladies! That's enough for now. It's time to get him down to the arena! You know what to do!”
Joseph raised an eyebrow, looking to the women, who were putting away their brushes and files and helping the panther up. “Father…feeding time?”
The king nodded vigorously and took his hand, leading him out of the room. “Yes, yes! You simply must see this my boy! Remarkable! Amazing! Come now, come! We have to get there in time!”
Joseph tried to stammer out a reply, but his father kept going on and on, and he was being dragged along through the hallways toward a pair of double doors that he recalled led to the royalty seat for his father's private arena. The guards standing on each side of the doorway pushed open the great doors and Joseph was pulled in, light from braziers flickering over the walls and into the large, circular sand-covered floor below.
“Come, come my boy! Have a seat and enjoy the show! You'll simply love it!” His father was already moving to the plush chair that rested against the wall overhanging the arena, and Joseph slowly slid into the seat next to it, looking out over the floor in confusion.
A few moments later, an iron door clanked open on the far right side, and a barely clothed man was shoved in, pleading for whomever was out of sight to take him back, to not send him here. But the iron door simply slammed shut again. Joseph looked to his father in confusion.
“Don't worry my boy. He was a rapist whom the guards caught only a few days ago. This is better than simply keeping him in jail.”
Joseph opened his mouth to ask what was going to happen when an iron gate on the other side of the arena opened up and Bartholomew padded out, his rumbling purrs carrying up to their seats. As soon as the man caught sight of the panther, he began backing away on his rear, whimpering and looking around, finally coming to look up at Joseph and his father.
“Please, your majesty! I beg you, do not do this to me! I will spend my life in prison, if you so wish! Save me, please!”
Joseph looked to his father with worry, but the much older man appeared to have not listened to the prisoner's cries at all, instead smiling gleefully and pointing at Bartholomew as the huge panther padded around his side of the arena, occasionally looking over to the man with casual interest.
Joseph leaned over to his father's side, speaking lowly. “Surely you do not intend-“ But suddenly the old king's eyes lit up and he pointed excitedly into the arena. “See, Joseph, see! He's moving in!”
Mouth still hanging open with his question unasked, Joseph leaned forward to get a better view as Bartholomew finally stretched himself out to his full length before beginning to stalk over toward the man, almost seeming to draw it out deliberately by measuring each step and waiting to see his intended prey react.
The doomed prisoner leapt to his feet and began scrabbling at the smooth stone walls, obviously trying to climb out of the circular pit, and when he could not find any handhold to use, he turned to face the panther, back flat upon the stone. With each step the panther took, the prisoner slid along the wall, trying to get away from the huge feline.
As much as he inwardly detested such a show of cruelty, Joseph found he could not look away from the scene before him. The panther held his body low to the ground, belly scraping along the sand and dust as he crawled forward, long tail whipping to and fro in growing excitement.
Finally, it appeared that the prisoner could take no more of this drawn-out encounter, and made a run for it with a yell. He broke from his flattened stance along the wall and scrambled toward the side of the arena Bartholomew had entered from, yet the massive panther allowed him no more than three or four steps before launching his great, sleek body and tackling the man from behind.
Man and beast sank into the sand with a gust of dust, the panther's massive paws firmly holding his struggling prey upon the ground. Joseph inched to the edge of his seat and set his hands upon the wall in front of him as he watched Bartholomew lean his huge head down to sniff over the man's hair.
Joseph could hear the prisoner's ragged gasps for breath as the man tried to hold still while the wet nose pressed against his head and down his neck, the nostrils flaring as they took in what was undoubtedly the stench of sweat and filth. Every time the man tried to crawl away, the panther's paw pressed down harder, and he could see great, gleaming claws slide out and tear at the shirt.
Finally, just when Joseph thought he could take no more of this tension, the panther stopped sniffing, seeming to have decided that this man was good enough. A long, thick tongue slid out and washed across Bartholomew's black lips, a rumble carrying across the arena. The huge feline lowered his head once again, but this time his jaws gaped open, wider and wider yet, as if the prince was watching not a feline but a snake.
The prisoner, looking back up over his shoulder, screamed at this and tried to scramble out from under the huge cat, but the paw that pinned him pressed down again, and with a horribly wet sound, the panther engulfed the man's head in his jaws.
Joseph felt his mouth go dry, and daring to look away, he glanced over to his father, who still appeared to be smiling gleefully, clapping his hands together quickly and squirming in excitement. Feeling his heart pounding in his chest, the young prince looked back to the spectacle in time to see Bartholomew adjusting his body posture above his meal and force his jaws down further, the black-furred cheeks bulging outward with the man's head in them, before a loud gulp pulled it into the muscular neck.
Now the man's struggling shoulders stretched out the panther's thick lips, drool spattering the sand as Bartholomew started to back off of his prey, freeing his paw from its place on the prisoner's back. The man, now undoubtedly scared beyond belief, began pushing at the jaws and muscular body of the feline to no avail, the panther being too huge to move.
With an almost casual take on the whole thing, Bartholomew sat down on his haunches, his forepaws reaching out to grasp at the man clumsily, though effective in holding onto his prey. Joseph imagined he could hear the jaws creak as they opened wider still, the feline almost shoving the man's chest into his jaws, the bulge within the feline's neck growing larger as more meat sank down into it.
Joseph watched in awed silence as the panther continued to feed, his lips soon sliding down over the man's belly, pinning the prisoner's arms uselessly to his sides. Now the man could barely struggle against the far stronger predator, Bartholomew drawing his meal out by sucking at the fabric of the shirt before pulling more of the man in with a strong swallow.
Soon half of the man lay within the panther, whose chest and neck were now swollen thickly with his meal. Bartholomew opened his jaws once again and straightened his neck out so that the passage of his prey was straight and easy, his powerful head and neck holding up the lower body of the prisoner with ease as the man's hips slid down into the sleek-furred neck.
From next to him, Joseph could hear his father giggling in delight as they both watched the huge cat feed, the muscular abdomen of the feline soon swelling as the man slid further down into Bartholomew's gut. Within moments, all that was left of the male prisoner were a pair of kicking feet, and as Joseph watched, Bartholomew looked up toward the two of them, tilting his head, before tilting it back and gulping loudly. His meal finally vanished within him, a last bulge going down his neck before ending up swelling out his middle grossly.
Still staring in awe at the huge, and now bloated, cat, Joseph heard his father get to his feet with a few claps, and then he turned to see the king hurrying out of the door. Quickly getting to his feet, he followed the old man down to the entrance from which Bartholomew entered the arena, the young prince trying to hold his father back as he devised what the elderly monarch wanted to do.
“Father, that thing is a monster! Did you not see what it just did? That should be impossible! It's…it's not normal! I can't let you keep him!”
The king looked flabbergasted at this, as if the notion of giving up his precious pet were unthinkable. “Monster? My boy, my boy…Bartholomew is the sweetest thing ever! He'd never harm me. He just needs a lot of food…growing body you know. But wasn't it just wonderful?”
Joseph was so shocked at this that he didn't notice as Bartholomew's great head came into view, the panther rumbling deeply as he pressed his head to the king's hands, the elderly man gladly stroking over the smooth fur. “Yes, you're such a good boy, aren't you?”
The young prince stepped back, looking from man to cat in worry, but whereas Bartholomew had been eagerly devouring his meal minutes earlier, he appeared as placid and friendly as a kitten now. The feline's struggling stomach hung low to the ground, swaying with every movement as the huge panther licked his lips and meowed softly.
“You see, Joseph?” said the king while petting his newest pet. “Bartholomew is harmless. I'd never give him away.”
The panther, seeming to know what Joseph was thinking of him, turned his great head to the prince and smiled, sitting back on his haunches. Then, a great belch sounded from the cat's lips, and out flew the prisoner's clothes, landing on the younger man in a wet heap. Joseph collapsed, disgusted, and stared in shock and fury at the feline, who seemed to be smirking back at him, before going back to nuzzling the king.
“Now come, come! We must get the poor dear back to his room. All this must have tired him out, and I don't want him to get hurt!” The king continued to dote upon his pet while leading him out of the arena, leaving Joseph to pick himself up and dust himself off, unable to shake a sense of uncertainty whenever he looked at the cat's departing tail and the way it's belly hung so low to the ground…