Ric stretched lazily and savored the sun soaking into his silky fur. His spotted coat of green and black hues shone silver in the bright light. The amber pool around him sparkled. The healthy stream that fed the pond frothed noisily over fallen branches and ancient rocks. This was one of his favorite locales. The starks fashioned rafts from limbs and vines to cross the dangerous rivers. This one had been dumped here by a terrible storm long ago and his mother had shown him how to toss fish from the water to the shore from the bobbing end of the craft. Now, it was held fast to the forested bank by years of reeds growing through its logs. Ric lay on his back staring at the green sky. The water cooled the breeze and the sun baked his fur.
This time of year, before the winds and sky became unbearable, was magnificent. The lean anxiety of winter was fading and the fierce summer hadn’t yet begun. This was a time of plenty and a reprieve from the constant toil of survival. He rolled over and idly surveyed the hills that ringed the verdant depression of the vale. In the distance, he heard mating rituals. Beasts, even starks, celebrated the renewal of life before the barren drought of summer arrived.
Ric’s stomach growled. He flexed his lethal claws and yawned wide, exposing his upper and lower sets of pale purple fangs. It would be marvelous to have some lust-sot critter for his meal, but alas, his lethargy convinced his body to ignore the rumblings in his gut. Another yawn accompanied him sliding back into warm dreams as the raft bobbed. Dinner could wait.
Overhead, in a tall spirit tree, whose limbs stretched over raft and pond, Teaka watched the lazy cat and harrumphed to herself. “That feline wouldn’t move if the rings of Taros splashed around him and threatened to whisk him to the deep nether.” She really needed him to move. Her treasure hoard lay concealed in the base of the tree and she dared not access it while the predator lounged nearby. She hopped lightly back and forth on the limb, letting micro thrusts of her wings keep her movement silent. Her flustered thoughts raged, “This is my tree, stupid cat. Mine. I chose it long ago, long before your lungs drew air. Long before your kin stalked the underbrush. My tree, old before even I cracked shell. It is mine. You are an intruder here.” Teaka ruffled her feathers and finally settled onto her branch to wait out the slothful creature below.
From her vantage point, she could just make out a small herd of green mottled starks foraging with nimble fingered paws in the tangled vines of inkberries along the stream. She spotted their watchful sentries who stood to fight while the herd escaped. “Perhaps the listless cat would be game for a chase.” Her sleek white tail feathers twitched, as they were prone to do when she was conjuring devious plans. She often joined in the clicks and breathy trills used by the stark herds. The sentries would futilely chase her phantom calls through hazardous paths. Then she would swoop in and nip their bags of tiny carved marbles from their camps. No mind their angry accusations of peer against peers. No mind the carnage, she would be long away before death came.
As she worked out the trickery needed, Teaka fished a delicate comb from her loot bag and preened her blue-grey flight feathers as she consoled herself, “I know more than most creatures. Certainly more than that ignorant feline.” She had encountered many species, acquiring voice and song, (and shiny trinkets!) from each, as was her hobby. In her long life, she traveled across vast lands and waters. She spent years abroad, returning only when her precious cargo demanded assignment to her stash. Calming herself, she preened and whispered into her feathers, “My tricks fatten my hoard. It’s easy to lure them to leave their precious unguarded. My voice sends them searching, far and away, for the source of familiar noises. My skill is unmatched!” She preened and plotted, “None use the languages of the world as I and none have as glorious a reserve!” She returned her thoughts to attracting a stark toward the sleeping cat in order to rid herself of his unwanted company.
Motion from below seized her attention.
Ric rolled onto his side and scratched behind his ears. His hollow gut finally roused him. Once alert though, he had detected Teaka muttering to herself in the tree. He had listened to her grumblings briefly before his nature coaxed him into action. He rose and strode to the edge of the amber water and lapped softly. He paused, sat back on his haunches, inspecting his paws. It was a ruse that allowed his gaze to slither up the vibrant pink bark of the spirit tree in search of the elusive Teaka. His vision snapped into infrared when his senses honed in on the winged one.
Teaka froze in mid-preen. She sensed the caress of the big cat’s gaze. Her swift defenses turned her coloring to pink and grey splotches to mirror the light and shadow around her. Every feather lifted, allowing air to help mask her heat signature. Below, the cat grinned as he calculated the distance to her perch.
“Teaka, you are getting old and slow, pretty flier, old and slow.” Rick chuckled, letting humor soften the words against his acquaintance.
Teaka shook herself and hopped indignantly to the base of the branch, “You are a cad and heel, Ric! This is my tree. Mine! You should be ashamed of yourself, prying into my delicate musings. It’s indecent!” Teaka puffed herself up and scratched at the bark with her talons to emphasize her agitation. She pointedly tucked her comb away in her bag and leveled a stern gaze at the errant feline.
He casually flexed his clawed digits and shifted his stance to address her directly. “Teaka, darling, I wasn’t prying. Really. Your exquisiteness attracted my attention.” Ric kept his bored countenance, but beneath his fur his muscles coiled. “You look marvelous.” He purred the words and gave a throaty sigh, “Would you favor me with a song, lovely minstrel?”
Teaka blinked then fluttered her wings. She let them settle gracefully down her back, clasp her hands demurely at her waist and smiled shyly. “You scoundrel.” She had frequently watched from her tree as he’d grown from bumbling kit to striking cat. He was almost a friend. Almost. She fluttered again, discomposed by his words, “Do you really think I’m beautiful?”
Ric inclined his head and purred softly, “There is none in the world such as you. You have traveled the lands and appropriated glorious music. You, dearest singer, are the herald of life and joy! I’ve wasted here for many days awaiting your return. I beg of you a song; to ease my sorrowful decline.” The cat grimaced as he cleaned a limp paw.
Teaka looked saddened and she softened, “You poor creature. I often forget that your kind are short lived. Are you truly withering my dear Ric? Your coat is sleek and your eyes are bright. No one would know you are failing. ‘Tis a shame you will die.” The songster brushed away a tear.
Ric smiled salaciously at her, “You notice much about me. Perhaps it is you who has been prying.”
Teaka felt a hot blush warm her cheeks. “I would do no such thing! But I pity you, you once great cat, so I will sing.” She edged further along the branch and positioned herself to begin her aria. “This is from the far side of the red mountains, from a clan of felines whose speed matches flight. Their chorus rose as the night descended. It is fitting for your sunset, Ric.” Teaka spread her wings and opened her voice to the song.
Ric held fast, tension screamed in his trembling muscles, every sense on trigger point. He listened as Teaka sang, a haunting yowl, foreign yet familiar, infinitely feline. The melody carved through the air and floated over the raft. A masterwork of music.
Teaka let the magic of the notes wrap around her. The crescendo transported her back to the night she first heard the music. Warm and full of emotion she sang. Enraptured, she gave her energy, her being, her all to the song for his waning.
Ric sprang and the raft splashed the amber water. He effortlessly covered the distance. His leap was buoyed by her music. His entire being was alive with ecstasy as his fangs punctuated her final note. The echo of her melody vibrated through him as he swallowed. He lay along the branch and felt her essence. He watched as his coat gained blue-grey mottling and his tail fur faded to white. As the sun dipped below the far hills, he began to sing.