Shardul was worried. He had a home territory of nearly a hundred square kilometers, which was rather large considering the density of tigers in the state. Other tigers in the state, by comparison, had just around sixty square kilometers of territory and were always on the verge or losing some of it to another younger and stronger male. He regularly undertook systematic tours in the form of a rough oval of sorts to inspect his part of the forest. and intended to guard every inch of his kingdom. He was worried; for he had come across something that is most alarming to a male tiger – the scent of another male!
He nosed around the forest till he identified the direction in which the spoor was stronger and started out on a quick run. His strong muscles rippled under his skin as he ran. The scent was a couple of days old and he would have to travel some distance before he caught up. He periodically paused to confirm that he was moving in the right direction and also to estimate the freshness of the smell. He also made out that the intruder was not alone and was accompanied by a female. Now that's interesting, thought Shardul. It was time he started a family himself, he mused.
As the scent grew stronger, he paused and set off at a slower pace. He stopped at every vantage point and looked around if he could spot the couple visually. A couple of stops later, he could see them resting at the side of a small pool of water. The male was slightly older than him and well built. And the female was quite comely, he observed. He saw that there were a couple of cubs too gamboling among the grass on the side of the pool. They got into the shallow water sometimes under the watchful eyes of their mother, who ensured that they did not venture deeper. Tigers are good swimmers but these cubs were too young to have built a good technique.
Shardul sat downwind from the family he was observing. The infiltrating male would have to be finished off. There was no way two adult tigers could share territory. He examined the female carefully. He thought that she seemed to be ideal to be his mate. The fate of the cubs could be examined later, he decided.
He chalked out his plan of action. He decided to slink through the grass which would camouflage his orange and black fur. Where the grass ended a few feet from the water, he would break into a run and go for the male's jugular. Hopefully, the element of surprise would be on his side.
He got up and started to slowly walk towards the pond. Careful placement of his foot pads ensured that no sound betrayed his movement. As he neared them, his pace was even more slower. He lifted one tentative foot at a time and cautiously put it down, softly and gently. As he was about twenty feet from the edge of the grass, the wind changed direction. He could see the male smell his presence. The male perked up his ears and turned round to face his, rising up and emitting a growl to meet his challenge. Shardul had lost the advantage of surprise.
Stealth was no longer Shardul's strategy of choice. It was too late to back out. Turning around would mean exposing his back to the intruder. That could end up badly for him if the intruder chose to give chase and attack. He decided to press on and broke into a run. At the right speed and distance he launched himself at the intruder, who too took a leap towards Shardul.
Their strengths were well matched and they grappled each other for several minutes. Each inflicted fang and nail injuries on the other, but without any decisive result. As they rolled together towards the water, the intruder dropped his guard for a moment as he looked towards his family. Shardul mercilessly bit the intruder's neck as it was turned away, and got a firm hold on it. His fangs punctured the intruder's windpipe. The intruder collapsed. Shardul was on the alert till he confirmed that the intruder was not a threat anymore.
He then got off the carcass and walked into the pool for a quick wash before he sat at the banks and licked his wounds. He found that the intruder had got close to cutting his flank open. It was time for rest and recuperation. He would have to be very careful for the next few days, and keep his wounds clean and infection-free. He would probably have to settle down at the pond for some time, he thought.
He looked over at the tigress. He had no eyes for the cubs. Now that he could see her at close quarters, he realised that she was a magnificent looking specimen. Quite majestic and a queen in her own right, he told himself. He would call her 'Sundari' – the beautiful lady. And now the spoils of war was his, he reasoned. But such a statement would be politically and factually incorrect. She was no chattel to be claimed by him, if she was unwilling. And, then she certainly was not a part of the winner's swag - she was the strategic objective of the whole fight. She had not intervened in the fight, which gave him some consolation that there was scope for friendship.
He looked at his own reflection in the water and admired his looks. A handsome and strong tiger looked back at him, even if he said it himself, he thought. But that did not seem to have impressed Sundari. He looked at where she was pacing around her cubs protectively. Couldn't she see that he would make a great step-father to those cubs and look after them as his own? But, in the first place, he needed to take steps to become a step-father, She did not seem interested in approaching him, the victor in the latest fight to death.
Shardul too did not approach her, because that's when he discovered that, in reality, he was not a tiger or a big cat. He was not even a small cat, he felt, but a mouse when it came to dealing with the other gender. He simply did not have the guts to approach her.
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