Owongus, kneeling on the hull of the boat with his eyes level with the rowlocks, gazed at the tiger with his eyes wide open.
“What in the name of the gods is that?” he whispered.
He and Mirumtia were huddled against the hull of a scruffy old rowing boat in the pouring rain, and not so far away a magnificent tiger, the sort that strolls unchallenged across the plains of Asia, was gazing greedily at the three pirates who had combined rescuing from certain death and kidnapping into one dubious activity, and at the moment were laughing crudely as they sheltered underneath the straggly but protective canopy of a few trees growing at the top of the beach.
“I've never seen anything like it,” hissed Mirumtia in reply.
They were both feeling more like living and less like dying than they had. The water given them (in tiny quantities) by the pirates had helped their revival, and the rain, teeming down and soaking them, forming puddles in the boat they could drink from, had almost completed their recovery.
“They say there are beasts in Rome,” murmured Owongus.
“I know,” nodded Mirumtia.
“I have heard they make the Christians fight them,” whispered Owongus. “The Christians never win,” he added.
“What are Christians?” asked Mirumtia.
“Oh, they're from the East,” breathed Owongus. “They worship a weird god, and they believe he came to Earth about a hundred years ago and preached peace and love.”
“There's not much wrong with that!”
“Maybe not, but the Romans hate them.”
“Is that why they make them fight wild beasts?”
Owongus nodded. “Ssshh!” he hissed.
And hissing is the one thing he shouldn't have done.
The pirates were still laughing and joking, the rain was still hammering down so they were unlikely to return to their boat just yet, the tiger was still licking its lips.
And Owongus's whispered hiss cut across the short distance between the boat and the tiger, and the tiger heard it.
He looked first at the three pirates, and noted that there were three of them. He was a hungry tiger, truly very hungry, but would have preferred a less ambitious target than three of these bipeds. And that hiss might mean just that.
He turned and moved slowly with that furtive yet powerfully muscled rippling motion tigers can have, towards the boat. Both Owongus and Mirumtia were kneeling on the wooden hull and staring towards it, and if they could see the beast it crossed both of their minds at exactly the same moment that it could see them.
There's something of a prison about a boat when it is being approached by an undoubtedly hungry and greedy beast, and Owongus felt like a prisoner.
When he saw the tiger's eyes, balefully fixed on him as the beast ambled towards him, his one instinct was to flee. And flee is what he tried to do.
He vaulted out of the boat whilst Mirumtia sunk out of sight, and stood for a moment, trying to out-stare the tiger, trying to command it using the silence of his human mind, but if he was transmitting any dire message using mind-force alone the tiger clearly didn't understand it.
The tiger got ready to pounce. It's rippling muscles tightened, it pulled its weight back so that the back legs could propel it in one magnificent leap onto its prey.
And that prey saw, in horror, and turned, and ran.
It was a good hundred metres to the nearest tree, the one furthest from where the pirates still joked together, completely oblivious of the drama unfolding not so far away from them, and Owongus, his body taught, every muscle tightened to the breaking point, started running towards it.
The tiger pounced towards him, and missed, didn't waste any energy by growling or roaring uselessly, and bounded after him.
Mirumtia lifted her head so that she could see the world and its dangers again, and stared in horror as the scene unfolded before her eyes.
Owongus raced faster, possibly, than any man has raced before or since, spurred on by adrenaline flooding his system. He became an unbeatable athlete, a master of the hundred metre dash, and he reached that tree and pulled himself up to its lower branches with the warm breath of the tiger washing over his legs.
He half expected to feel its teeth sinking into his flesh, but it didn't. Gasping, his chest feeling as if it might explode, he forced himself to survey the scene he had just escaped from.
And he saw Mirumtia still cowering in the boat, he saw the pirates who, amazingly, were still unaware of the drama that had unfolded so close to them, and he saw the tiger, and it had clearly decided that three pirates after all might be simpler than one athlete, and it was ambling menacingly towards them, silent, deadly, hungry.
The moral, my friends, is if anyone tries to tell you that twenty-first century athletes like Usain Bolt are the fastest men who ever ran, you can put him right. My wonderful ancestor Owongus wears that crown! You see, racing from certain death might just have the edge over running towards a medal, however golden it might be!
© Peter Rogerson 06.08.12