Snow leopards cannot roar. We cannot scream our frustrations to the roiling clouds, or the snow-strewn peaks. If we could, would our cries be lost on the wind, a blistering flurry of needle-sharp snow that paints the mountainside and sweeps aside any weaknesses? For only the strongest can survive the Peaks.
We were once strong, but our numbers have dwindled. Food is scarce. Man invades our territories, as they have for centuries. This time they hunt in packs. It is a sport for them, to come after us. Sometimes they wear us, a mockery far worse than killing. If we kill, we do it only for our own survival. We are not proud of it.
I have killed five humans. I still remember each man's distinct scent. Sometimes I can even taste their hot blood spurting into my mouth. It is a worse feeling than any imagining, but regret is a luxury I do not have. I am fighting to live.
And I am about to kill a sixth.
There are four men staggering up the pass. The wind batters their progress and makes them slow, but I am patient. I press into the ice-hard rock, half-buried in snow, ready to spring. It's a 15-foot drop to the pass. If I'm lucky, I can take down two and escape unharmed.
One of the men exclaims and they all stop. Steep cliff has cut away the pass and they will be forced to edge directly below my rocky lookout. The men know our attacking habits. They point up at my perfect hiding place, sensing me. They do not want to continue.
I should be relieved. They're turning back and I have avoided another kill. But this is not a victory. The men will simply find another way to climb deeper into the Peaks, and the higher they reach, the less advantageous the terrain will be for us. There are caves nearby where a mother has just given birth to three cubs. If I cannot stop the humans' advances, they will not survive the winter. And already our numbers are so low.
Ice batters my fur coat; I need to move. I've been lying still for too long. But the humans keep pausing to stare at my hiding place. The wind hurls me snippets of dialogue that I do not understand, and while they debate, the cold seeps deeper into my body. Perhaps I could follow the rocks and pounce them further down the pass. The terrain will not give me much cover, but I should attack while I can. I know this as a fact of survival.
But I'm frozen not with cold, but fear. Even as a soggy mist blows in, I cannot take my eyes off those black rods that the humans clutch, those which have killed so many of my companions. Without a hiding place, I cannot summon the nerve to face them.
Shame stings more fiercely than any biting cold.
Finally I cannot remain stationary for any longer. The men are still there, though as faint shadows in the ebbing mist. I creep back from the ledge and shake myself free of snow. It would be a lucky shot to hit me in the mist from that distance anyway. I just want to run away from my shame.
"There you are," croons a voice behind me.
I spin and leap but it's too late. The bullet pierces my shoulder before I even hear the tremendous crack of the gun. Its echo shatters through the Peaks, and I fall in a useless heap. My mind reels, spinning from shock and pulling at my consciousness, but I force my eyes to focus on my attacker.
The men on the pass below are cheering.
As the mist shifts aside I see my assailant crunch his way through the snow, his gun still trained on me. Behind him, up the slope, a rocky outcrop a perfect hiding place. I have been beaten at my own game.
As the man strides closer, even through my hazy vision there's no mistaking what he wears: a spotted fur coat. Much like my own.
Snow leopards cannot roar. We cannot scream our frustrations to the roiling clouds, or the snow-strewn peaks.
If we could, would our cries be lost on the wind?
For only the strongest can survive the Peaks.