She touched the younger Otokononeko’s arm lightly. The young female turned her eyes to the older feline and gave her an open mouth feline grin. The older one gestured with her free paw toward the deer they had tracked to this point. She spoke to the younger one through her wetwire that grew in their brains with the onset of adolescence. “Kaniko. The one to the left. That is the best choice, for we can use the trees to get above her.”

Kaniko’s eyes followed the older huntress’ paw toward the doe that had found some ivy at the base of a large fern. Behind her was a small open area where the light of the early morning sun shined through, offering a dusky illumination into the shadows. The kill would have to be swift. The nearest trees to the doe offered little cover. Kaniko considered informing huntress Nonna that she thought this doe a poor choice. But it wasn’t her place to second guess the clan huntress. She was after all the best hunter, even rivaling the clan chief.

With the chief huntress still touching her, she asked back, “Nonna? You want me to circle around to the other side of the clearing?”  In response to her silent question, the huntress gave her a light squeeze on the shoulder and a gentle push in the direction she would take to get to the other side of the clearing. Nonna released her and silently moved in the opposite direction through the tree limbs.

Kaniko moved silently along a heavy horizontal branch that entangled itself into the adjacent tree. She reached the area where both trees leaves intermingled. She looked for the branches in the next tree that could receive her weight. Her examination revealed that there were no cones ready to fall or any dried twigs that might snap with the weight of her passage. She crossed over and moved to the other side of the tree. A shadow of a movement caught her eyes. She froze and checked the doe. Still unaware of the danger, she continued to munch on the ivy under the fern. Kaniko looked in the direction that she was sure the shadow had moved. She stood perfectly still. She breathed slowly to focus her hearing and eyesight. The deeper parts of the shadows revealed distant trees and other forest floor vegetation. To her left on a nearby tree, she heard the rapid, rat-ta-tap-tap-tap of a pileated woodpecker. Kaniko glanced down at the doe and noticed the creature only turned one ear toward the sound. The drumming of the woodpecker continued at a marked quintuple beat. Kaniko used the noise to hide her movement.

She had worked her way around the perimeter of the small clearing and made it to a lower branch of a Great Sequoia tree. One of the trees behind her rustled, the Pileated woodpecker went silent, and the doe lifted her head up abruptly. The doe pivoted its head and ears in all directions, trying to discern the unnatural noise. The woodpecker remained silent.

The young Otokononeko female turned slowly around and looked deep into the shadows of her surroundings. She half expected to see Jamel or Domic crouching on a limb of the tree. But as her eyes focused on the darker parts of the forest, she saw no one. The Pileated woodpecker started his drumming again, rat-ta-tap-tap-tap then a brief pause and rat-ta-tap-tap-tap. She relaxed and turned back to the doe. She watched as the doe lowered her head and went back to pulling the ivy loose from under the fern.

Kaniko scanned the trees immediately opposite her and spied those lively green eyes watching her. Her short solid black fur hid the rest of her in the shadows of the trees. Nonna gave a slow blink at her, offering Kaniko her trust to make the next move. The young lioness pulled from her shoulder sheaths the two long bone knives, one in each paw. She slipped her paws through the leather wrist loops and slid the decorative wood beads to tighten them. She took a long breath in, held it and let it out silently. She crouched down on the limb and looked at her prey. She waited for the woodpecker, to drum his song.

Rat-ta-tap-tap-tap. She leaped from the branch toward the doe. She watched the doe suddenly become alert, and she pointed her ears to the right and dashed off into the woods. Kaniko hit the ground where the doe had been and rolled to a crouched position facing the direction the doe had looked. There in the dusky light between the trees, a creature crouched. She didn’t know what it was. Its musky scent touched her senses. She opened her mouth a small amount to get a better smell.

Its yellow eyes looked at her, and she could see the outline of large pointed ears. Its fur was longer than hers, mostly dark brown with lighter streaks of gold brushed in here and there. She slowly stood to speak when it turned without a word and dashed off into the woods. She took a step to pursue the creature when Nonna dropped down to the ground beside her and put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her.

She asked Nonna without speaking aloud, “What was that?”

Nonna answered, in the same way, “I don’t know.” She sniffed the air hard and commented, “It could use a bath. I’m surprised the doe didn’t smell it sooner.”

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