Time. Meaningless word for me some years ago, but now means much. We all grow, and change, as it passes. There is nothing static in this world. Time begets change, and change happens to all. It is a part of life…a necessity. Without change you are not alive, you are an automaton, a cog in a larger machine, unable to do anything as things happen to you. Not alive…dead…something that happens to us all. The final change, one we are all destined to go through…the only question being how it comes about. By choice, or having it thrust upon us…or giving it up in battle. Is it right? No. Do good people die? Yes. But these were not good people…taking life, as necessary as change, sometimes. People fight. Die. Right, wrong, conflict…battle.
The dawn rose over the forest, heralded by the chirping of birds as the light filtered through the green leaves and down the brown trunks of the trees, reaching down to the ground as it went. A quiet, peaceful day started to begin. Down on the brown leaves, red mixed in. Gunmetal grey. A face twisted in final agony, unable to scream for the wound across the throat.
What is right? How is that decided? Is it by power? Is there a higher power above us? Is there some codex of laws that we must discover, or is it all irrelevant, and there is no right at all?
Red in the water. Another body, human, lies on the edge of the stream. His hunting rifle sitting at the bottom of the stream. Shell casings lie nearby, glistening as the sun touches them. The sun greets them all, staring down, slowly illuminating another three bodies as the dawn finished, the smell of copper thick in the air.
Regret. What did I do? What I had to. But it was not right…according to them. But part of me says it was…why do I regret it? They would have done the same to me. Why should I weep for them when they would not for me?
One final figure was touched by the sun but the sun warmed this one, illuminating his reddened, matted fur. Left ear ripped half-off, eyes bloodshot, he blinked slowly as the sun rose, blinding him. His black and grey striped tail twisted back behind him. Blood dripped down from his right arm, falling on the once-white bandages striping his shoulder and abdomen. Another river of red in this bloody morning. His toes crunched through the earth as he walked, or hobbled, his bruised thigh failing him as he moved slowly. Tears in his pants opened, letting sun flow through to his grey legs. The anthropomorphic raccoon continued, blood dripping off his knife slowly, his fingerless gloves providing good purchase against the hilt. He dared not look back at the bodies, panting a bit as he walked on, a filthy mess. A breeze blew, ruffling his fur, and he shivered as it touched his skin on scarlines on his neck.
The tree house had always seemed as alive as its occupants. It rocked to and fro of course, for it clung to the uppermost branches of an ancient oak, but there was more to its arboreal activity than that. It offered two ways for a fur to get inside: a selection of ropes that swung languidly in the wind, and a spiral staircase climbing up and around the trunk for those in poorer physical condition, or for other times when the ropes just weren't fit for purpose.
The tree house's parts, so carefully crafted to fit together, also creaked continually against each other to make a dry, squeaky and comforting background noise that perched at the edge of the attention of any fur nestled inside. This movement was imperceptible to the eye to its occupants but present all the same. In all of its years the tree house had never settled or stilled, and never would.
Lotus stood among the furniture and artworks and cushions of the communal tree house, painting. He'd always been a keen painter but the subjects he'd found for his current project were really rather lovely: an arrangement of coloured glass vases filled with flowers of complimentary colours, picked with his own plush hands. The snow leopard had planned this still-life piece meticulously, gathered potent colours with which to paint and completed his chores early especially to set aside time to create his artwork.
The image was coming together on the canvas beautifully - the dark tones of the bookshelf behind the vases showed through the coloured glass, their straight spines thrown into curves so that nofur would guess what the darkness was. His delicate brush strokes were now bringing an extra depth to the cornflower petals and if he could only have a few more moments before the sun went down he would complete-
//Haiyaa!\\ An immature boy's voice cried at the same time as Lotus' world exploded. Stripey grey fur collided with him and his easel, knocking him painfully to the wooden floor. When he looked up to see who had done this and why, he saw Jai, laughing so hard he had to grip his belly and bend double.
Shock turned to an unpleasant cross between anger and deflation. //Jai.\\ he said before his rage truly surfaced. He looked from the laughing raccoon adolescent to his canvas which now sat face-up on the floor. Around three quarters of it was smudged beyond repair, and Jai's rump and shoulder were smeared with orange and green and brownish yellow.
//Jai, why... Why did you do this?\\
//Surprise!\\ the raccoon answered, smiling much wider than he was going to in a moment, if Lotus had his way.
//My art... My art is ruined.\\ Lotus said, still unable to believe Jai had done such an inconsiderate thing. His shock failed to get a reaction - indeed, Jai gave him a bright-eyed look as if all was well in the world - and that was when Lotus saw red.
//Why must you always destroy?\\ he said, struggling and not quite succeeding in not raising his voice.
//Oh come Lotus, I have done no harm. You have too many artworks anyway. It would only end up stacked with the others.\\
Lotus shook his head. He made more finished paintings than he could store in this one tree house, it was true, but that was not the point. //I do not destroy your possessions Jai. All I ask is that you do not destroy mine. Please.\\ Without saying any more to the raccoon he bent to set the easel on its legs again and to allow the painting to dry. He could see that he wouldn't be able to salvage it but at least it would not make a mess when he threw it away. The smudge, making his artwork ugly and redundant. It made his heart sink to look at it.
Meanwhile Jai picked up one of the vases, pulled out the flowers and looked down the neck to spy Lotus through the base. //Why are you painting see-through things anyway? It seems pointless.\\
Lotus gave him one of what Vyvi called his 'tranquil glares', took the vase out of Jai's grip with a twist to avoid the tug-of-war that would most likely result, and began the process of tidying away his art supplies with quiet dignity.
Mitsy took a taper from the batch before any of the others thought to. After the day she'd had she wanted to be the member of their group to usher in the evening. She lit it and went out onto the balcony to light the candles that hung from the hanging jars Lotus had crafted. She watched each one flare into life and throw flickering shadows against the woodwork of the tree house balcony and trunks and branches beyond. Six there were, and when she lit the sixth she blew it out and savoured the smell of smoke that vaguely triggered her danger-sense. It felt satisfying.
//Which game would you like to play tonight?\\ Vyvi asked as she crouched by the cupboard they kept their games in. She had already spotted Mitsy's suppressed anger and looked to the weasel for an answer, her ears unfurled, her dark eyes wide.
Mitsy smiled despite the tension in her chest. It felt good to be nurtured and the mouse had a knack for making her feel better. //I would like Four Walls.\\
Lotus gave an assenting purr, Jai didn't seem to care and Digby looked like he was looking forward to it already. But then, Mitsy thought, Digby looked forward to any activity with his friends at all - such was his manner as a naturally enthusiastic Jack Russell terrier.
She followed Vyvi onto the balcony so they could set the Four Walls tiles out on the table. The moon had begun to rise and it added straight beams of silver light to the curling gold of the candles. Mitsy smiled: all she needed was a game or two and the chance to tell the others what had happened.
//Would you like popcorn?\\ Digby asked the group at large. He got a chorus of yesses in reply and set to the task of making it.
//Lotus, did you make your picture?\\ Vyvi looked at the snow leopard for an answer as she set out the tiles.
Lotus held his breath for a moment before he answered, and glanced at Jai. //I was unhappy with it in the end. They don't always work out.\\
//Oh, but you looked everywhere for the vases,\\ she answered, clearly surprised and even a little saddened by Lotus' news.
//I did. Perhaps I will try another time.// Again that glance at the raccoon. Something silent passed between them and the mouse seemed to gain some understanding.
Mitsy suspected Jai had played some kind of prank on Lotus. She hoped he'd had his fill of pranks - she didn't want his games tonight.
The group sat down, chatting in twos and threes or stopping to listen to each other.
Digby began the game by breaking the wall and dealing to the others. Mitsy examined her tiles before turning her attention to Vyvi. //Father took us hunting today,\\ she said.
//How did it go?\\
//It was as I thought,\\ she answered grimly. //He has no trust in me. He insisted I hunt only insects. He says that runts like me are not to try hunting anything too big because we will make fools of ourselves. Ah, it makes my blood boil!\\
Lotus took a tile from the live wall and formed a pair.
Jai to his right took a tile also. He'd hidden his tiles behind his arm and was looking disinterestedly at his selection.
//But I don't understand,\\ said Digby, his brown eyes bright in the mixed light of the moon and fire. //Weasels are smaller than their prey anyway. Size isn't the issue, surely?\\
Vyvi and Mitsy looked at each other before answering. Digby was wonderfully interested in everything around him, sometimes to the point of not thinking about context. It made him a good companion but occasionally a frustrating one. //That is true enough and I believe he is wrong, but he insists.\\ She took a tile and returned one of her own. Her hand was not good. //I feel as if he wants me to fail!\\
The turn had returned to Jai who took another tile. He still looked disinterested - in both the game and the conversation.
//I find it hard to believe he wants that for you,\\ rumbled Lotus. //But I wonder if he is thinking ahead, about the problems he may be causing you.\\
Mitsy huffed and shook her head. //He told me I will become an excellent hunter of crickets and grasshoppers. They are good to eat I suppose, but I want to hunt properly. He will not accept my requests.\\
//Maybe you can find a friend who can teach you,\\ Digby suggested. //A weasel friend.\\
//Will any of your brothers or sisters teach you?\\ asked Vyvi.
Mitsy was just about to answer when Jai called out //Four Walls!\\ He retracted his arm with a flourish to show a set of four and a pair. //I am the winner! Woo!\\
Lotus made a throaty sound between a purr and a growl. //Yes, well done Jai.\\
Mitsy, however, felt herself growing hot with anger. What had been the point in the game when she was destined to lose to soon? //Did you cheat, Jai?\\ she demanded.
//Oh please, spare me. It doesn't suit you,\\ he said, feigning the same disinterest in her words as he had in the game.
//No Jai, I want to know! Did you cheat?\\ She found herself gripping the edge of the table and glaring at him.
//No, I didn't. But I wish I had - perhaps I will next time just to watch you fail,\\ he answered with a smug grin. Then he took a handful of popcorn and chewed it smugly. //So you were saying you're a bad hunter. Keep talking.\\
Mitsy found herself speechless.
Jai laughed again. //I need a drink, this popcorn's too salty.\\ He went indoors to get a cup of water.
Mitsy sunk a little, her skinny elbows on the tabletop and head on her black hands. Her day with Father and his attitudes about runts hunting, her siblings blindly agreeing with his - blatantly incorrect - attitudes, and now Jai's usual tricks and acid tongue. //I didn't need his attitude tonight. Lotus, must you continue to bring him over?\\
Lotus looked surprised even in the meagre light, but gathered himself swiftly. //I am sorry. He used to be nicer to talk to than this, quite innocent. He has become worse.\\
//He has a funny way of showing his friendship,\\ agreed Digby before throwing a little of the popcorn into his mouth.
Mitsy had good peripheral vision and could see the familiar movement of Jai's bushy tail out of the corner of her eye. He was close - half-hidden in the shadows just inside the doorway. Listening, evidently; she couldn't say she wasn't pleased he could hear what they thought of him. Perhaps it was wrong for her to feel that way, perhaps it was just misaimed, delayed retribution for what she felt towards her family. But Jai was unpleasant to be around. His insensitivity came through at the worst possible times.
//You asked me about my painting Vyvi,\\ Lotus continued. //The truth is that Jai destroyed it in a prank. I liked how it was coming along, but now...\\
//So what are we going to do, then?\\ asked Mitsy.
//I will stop inviting him. If he comes over by himself I won't let him in.\\ Lotus looked around at the others for agreement, which he got with nods.
Mitsy took a better look at Jai. His shoulders were slumped and his tail lay on the floor. By the look in his eyes he'd heard and understood, and Mitsy? The weasel felt cruel but vindicated. He visibly took a deep breath and joined the group again, water glass in hand.
Vyvi and Lotus shifted uncomfortably and Digby rather doggedly set up a new game. When he dealt to the others Jai put a hand up to refuse a set. The game could manage with four.
TO BE CONTINUED...