Other Jungles

Fandom: Fables (comic)
Written for: Wildcard in the Yuletide 2007 Challenge
by Grey Bard
Many thanks to my world class beta readers Kadorienne and Juliette Torres, three cheers to my canon consultants Seanan McGuire and Curtana, and special thanks to Elyn Ross for all of her patience and help.
This story is set before and as Prince Charming sends Mowgli on the hunt to find Bigby.


On a plane skimming over the Indian Ocean, best beloveds, there was a man whose passport called him Jagatbehari. This was not his name. If you were to ask, he would tell you that he is traveling for pleasure, that he is an eternal tourist. Both of these statements would be true, of course, if only you knew what he meant.

***

As everyone knows, trouble came forth into the homelands, once upon a time. The Adversary fell upon the magical countries of our youth with vast armies and terrible wrath. So it was in the lands of your parents and so it was in the lands of the desert - and even so it was in the far lands of jungle and rain and rebirth.

First, Chil the kite and Ferao the woodpecker and Ko of the crows fell the arrow. A storm of arrows, more than that of any hunter ere seen, for the servants of the Adversary cared not for hunting next season. To them, the people of the air were but spies, and were slain quickly and without mercy. It is then that the true slaying began.

Black Bagheera, the panther, the night hunter, slipped forth from the forest into the clearing of Mowgli's den. Gray Brother lay wary by the entrance, and Mowgli awoke from his light sleep. To see Bagheera, at such a time, and such a place... "Why comest thou here, Elder Brother?"

"The enemy comes, Little Brother, and with him, the red flower." And by this, of course, he meant fire. "Far to the east, the first flickers are catching - thou must flee, and quickly, for the sake of thy mate and thy cub."

Eyes wide and dark, the man-thing was no longer sleeping. "How can this be? How come you to know this, Elder Brother?"

The great stalker of the jungle paced and twitched the very tip of his tail. "I have heard it from Darzee the tailorbird, too small and too much a creature of the garden to feel their notice. They have turned their eyes from the dwellings of man, and out upon us. He says Chuchundra the musk-rat and Mor the peacock and numberless hordes of the Bandar-log have burned and of the flying people, he alone had escaped to tell."

"And you, Bagheera? What will you do?" Mowgli asked.

"I? I will run further and spread the word to Council Rock. Then I shall make this victory hard, for I know man of old, and *I* do not die so easily."

These were the very thoughts of his own heart, and Mowgli turned to his newly woken mate and his sleeping child.

The panther's eyes were implacable, yes, but hers were equally so. "I have felt worse at the hands of my father, curses be upon his name, and seen worse in the villages of man. At least these adversaries do not claim to love us."

Only the moment he was cast out of the Seeonee pack hurt him more. "I would cover the world gate and harry their flank. I would lie in wait and strike from darkness, that all their battles might be at great cost."

She nodded."Do not worry for me, my own - as I will not for thee. No one looks at a mother and her dogs. There will always be another jungle - I will keep our daughter and the pack safe."

"Go then, and move quickly."

And that is how, best beloveds, it took the Adversary seven months longer than planned to take the land of Mowgli's birth, and how a forest in Bengal came suddenly to gain a ghost woman and her spirit wolves.

***

Once, in a jungle in the far homelands, there was a pack, best beloveds. Very much like you. And a man cub was ransomed into their care with the gift of a fat bullock. Mowgli, little frog. And while he remained a man cub, of course, and grew into a man-thing, he ranged the jungle with the pack and learned the Law. And as you yourselves have said, a wolf knows how to get things done.

Is it any wonder, then, that your father called upon him to range the world in his service?

There are many kinds of hunters and many kinds of jungles. Only some of them are green.

***

Oh, best beloveds, the time comes when even the brave must flee. The Adversary's forces laid about them with torch and sword and undying might and none could stand before them. Great Hathi, lord of the elephants, was slain in valiant battle, and his people mourned his fall and trumpeted their defiance. In turn they were slain too, or enslaved to the lash, for it is not in the elephant to escape by stealth. Panthers and wolves, however - and man-things raised in their company - are a different thing entirely.

Thus it came that after leaving a parting present of burning huts, by way of poetry and justice, and a lingering gift of weevils in the store rooms, the panther and the son of the jungle came to escape through the world gate and enter this land.

Ah, but it was a different land, then. A panther is not so easily brushed aside as large dogs with a pretty master. A man could not simply say that he worked for a zoological garden and enter a plane. Even the few hours spent in the company of men, feigning tame on the end of a leash, were nigh past endurance for proud Bagheera. A sea journey was beyond unthinkable. Thus it was that when they finally found The Farm, the panther was more than willing to submit to its rule of law - even a law made by men and men alone. Even that indignity was made more than worthwhile by the chance to roam a forest guarded safe from the outside world.

Mowgli, for his part, was not made to relax in the shade of the jungle while his deepest enemy lived and prospered. His patient anger was stronger than stone and slower than the growth of vines. When the sheriff of Fabletown sought out his services for the cause, slaying secrets and walking unseen, he accepted - for to serve was to serve his own long war. And rest assured, he did not forget Bagheera's time as a brother in arms, or his part in seeing that Mowgli lived to fight another day.

***

Who can marvel, then, that when great black Bagheera, he who slew the bullock and ransomed the man cub, came to grief, that Mowgli should know of it? How else could it be, than that he should answer his need, though it be beneath a panther's nature to ask?

A hut, a house, a place with four walls, these things were like a trap to Mowgli. A snare, and nearly unbearable. How much worse a true cage with iron bars in scent of the forest and freedom? And how much worse for Bagheera, who had been born into a king's menagerie, escaping only through blood and claw?

When Prince Charming held that cage's key in one hand and your father's file in the other, what else could Mowgli do but accept?

 

Grey Bard