He reached into his saddlebag and handed Estella his spare wool kilt. She laid it out on the floor as he did his own kilt. He lay back against his saddle and stretched his legs out the length of the blanket, noticing how the rest reduced the pain. He also noticed how at ease he felt with her.
Earlier in the day, she had found some greens from a pond and now pulled them out of her shoulder bag along with three short sticks and a small sack made from deer intestines. She tied the three sticks together to create a tripod and stretched the sack over them to create a flexible bowl. She filled with it with water. She found a few small palm size stones on the cave floor and placed them in the coals. When they heated, she took two sticks and lifted each stone into the bowl of water, which steamed upon contact. When the water was hot, she placed the greens into steaming water to create tea. He smelled the pleasant aroma of mint. She put dried bits of ginger root into the water. She smiled and said that the tea would aid in his mental clarity and also help his body heal faster. She pulled a small wooden cup from her bag and dipped it into water. She handed the steaming liquid to him and said, "Drink."
The flavor surprised him. Ginger and mint. It was delicious. She smiled. He handed the cup back, and she dipped it into the hot water again. He gave her a piece of bread that he packed, and together they had their first dining experience. When the tea was drained, and the bread was eaten, she lifted the tripod and folded it up for use in the morning. She handed Bran a slice of her ginger and explained that it was a powerful healing agent. It increased blood flow and made the mind find focus. It also cleaned the mouth from infection. Her forest tribe had white teeth primarily because they always were chewing on this spicy root. It was in everything. They even used it as a poultice for cuts and scrapes.
She placed her utensils back in her bag, stretched out her legs, laying across the length of the fire and closed her eyes as the firelight dimmed to small coals. He watcher her. She had the body of an athlete, with powerful muscles and smooth skin. Every line of her legs, abdomen and arms were pulled tight with muscles that she used all day. She was so soothing to his eyes. That was the last thing that he remembered as he drifted off.
He opened his eyes from sleep. The fire had been fueled with new logs. The flame was bright. He stood. His horse and Estella were nowhere to be seen. How strange. Did she leave without letting him know? He looked around the cave and for the first time, noticed images painted on the walls. He walked over and examined them more closely. They were of humans. Stick figures with long flowing hair dancing in a circle around a large tree. Around the circle of people was a circle of large cats. Then there was a third circle of birds. Little ones.
He heard the sound of someone breathing behind him. He sensed it was coming from outside the cave door. The door was open. He looked but saw nothing. Only darkness. Then he turned his attention back to the cave wall and saw that all the figures were dancing in synchronization. The drawings had come to life.
He heard the noise again. Deep breathing. Of a cat. Like the deep purring of a bass drum. Outlined against the dark night in the dim light of a sliver of moon, he saw them. Two large panthers. They sat and watched him. He felt no panic. They felt like friends. He watched as they each turned and walked into the forest beyond. The younger cat looked back at him as though to say, "Follow us."
He walked to the door and noticed that he didn't need the crutch. He looked down at his leg, and the caste was gone. His body was uninjured.
He realized then that he was in a dream. A very real dream. To his delight, in this hallucination, he could run. He ran alongside the younger cat. He heard cascading water. She had led him to the forest where three rivers converged. He walked now as she slowed to a pause under the largest tree he had ever seen.
"Come," the voice of the cat said. Then the cat leaped up into the immensely large tree, climbing up the wall of bark as tall as the verticle rock wall of a mountain. Like the cat, he jumped with what seemed magical strength climbing into the lowest limb where he found a nest. The panther was there watching him. He stared into those deep-set blue eyes, and with surprise, the form around the eyes faded and she became human. Estella. She sat quietly, just watching him.
He sat down across from her, her dark flowing hair framing the sides of her face and looked into the eyes that now were reflecting thousands of stars.
'Do you remember this place, this tree, Bran?" Bran nodded. "I had to bring you here so that you could understand who I am."
"Who am I, Bran?"
"You are my lovely cat woman? Dang girl, this dream is strange."
"Yes, and it will get stranger. But for now, you should know me as the tree's guardian. Estella. This tree named me. His name is Harry. He is a grandfather to me. My protector. My guide. And my name means Star Navigator. I am the one who will guide your people back to the forest."
He reached out with his hand to touch her face. It was real. Her hair fell through his fingers and the wind blew the strands of hair across her brow. The air was warm. Then with significant slowness, he leaned forward as her lips touched his. This was no dream, and yet this was not his ordinary world. Oh no.
He wondered who she really was. Names filled his thoughts. Star Navigator, Cat Woman, Guardian... As though she heard what was not spoken her thoughts entered his. He saw her as a woman and also a panther.
How? His mind asked.
She released him from her kiss and looked up into the branches that went up into the stars. "This tree is my link to every living thing. When I dream of cats, I am one. Here, when they dream of me, the cat you saw minutes ago, she becomes me. At night I can travel into their world through the cat's body. In daylight, this cat, she enters me and fills my eyes and my thoughts with her strength. Bran, I navigate through two worlds."
"I met you because your people wish to destroy this tree. That is how it all started. Your lumbermen came to this valley and marked Harry for the mill. It became my mission to save Harry. If he dies that would be bad, because this tree is my connection to you. And to your village. Likewise, this tree carries within his life the solution to saving the children. Thus, bringing happiness back into the parents of those children. Those children who are sick. The reason they are ill is because they have been cut off from nature. The forest is their Mother. We must bring them here to sit in this tree to have that balance restored."
She did say it was going to get stranger, Bran reminded himself.
"But how?" he asked. "How can we bring them to a tree I know only in my dreams?"
"This is no dream, Bran. This is as real as your waking moments. But now you have more freedom."
She smiled and gently pressed her forehead against his.
Somehow his thoughts became calm. "The pool," she whispered through her lips. "We will bring them to the magic waters and like me, they will find their own cats. Every person is born connected to an animal from the forest. These animals, like the cat I was a minute ago, will assist the children to see the natural world through feline eyes."
She pulled her head away from his and with those blue eyes looked up into the tree's branches again. "The dream world controls the physical world. Your village children are dying because their connection to their Mother is fading." Her eyes continued to look into his. "Harry will restore each of the children's hearts to their Mother."
"But how?" His eyebrows rose in questions. "How is any of this possible? You were a woman, then a cat, now a woman."
She smiled. "I remember when I began my quest to save Harry. I asked that question many times. 'But how?!' I can only repeat to you what I have experienced since. We each have an animal friend who stays by our side, helping us find the power to accomplish what gives us life. My animal friend is the cat."
"Why cats?" He was inquisitive.
"Because cats are friends with the trees. Trees give cats a home because trees find the cats playful and kind. Trees trust cats."
"How do we convince the children from my town to follow us into the forest. Their parents won't permit it." Bran's thoughts were filled with worry.
"For now know this." and she leaned very close to Bran. So close, that all Bran could see was blue circles filled with sparks and in the center of that blue, deep back tunnels which pulled his thoughts, "My awareness is entering yours. There is magic in the touch of someone you love. Allow my vision to enter you, and trust that my love for you will be your guide."
"Tomorrow when you wake in our cave we will go to your village. There you will learn how we can bring peace back into your people. Trust the process." She touched her forehead against his. All doubts disappeared.