Eagle's Feather

The golden light of noon washed over Saffire's face as he lay basking on the jutting ledge of rock. Far off into the distance, infinite layers of looming mountains were spewing rolling waves of mist into the air and made Saffire feel like the most minuscule speck of a star in the infinite autumn sky. The ever-present, chilly wind was moaning ever so softly now- pausing and then picking up again in a jagged rhythm.

A vision of Mother in her last throes of her life suddenly pierced his mind. Last summer, Mother's haggard form lay still on the moss, her clear blue eyes fogged over and her life force flooded out uncontrollably from the gaping tear in her side, staining her black fur with blood. A big black monster towered over her, its claws dripping with gore. Saffire the kit had been petrified with wild eyes, shuddering limbs and bristling fur. He had forced his locked muscles to bend and sprint for his life, his boiling blood electric with adrenaline. Eventually, his wobbly legs just could not hold him up anymore and he had squirmed under a rabbit hole. A faint, heartbroken, keening split the silence and Saffire realized dully that the sound was coming from himself. I'll always love you. Join the Clan. They will offer you prey and protection, Saffire. The last words of Mother echoed in his mind…

Saffire's whiskers were trembling now. It had been at least twelve moons ago. He had debated back and forth whether he should join the majestic warriors of the Clan. Fearing they would never accept a cat with dull black fur, tired blue eyes, and a starved, weak body of skin and bones, he never did. However, Saffire knew he had to get in the Clan if he wanted to survive. He had barely made it last snowfall, with the Clan hogging most of the valley's precious prey.

Leaping down onto the rocky ground, Saffire cautiously headed down into the forested valley, sniffing the air for signs of Clan cats on patrol. Finding none, he clawed his way up a tree and managed to pounce on an unsuspecting squirrel. He was just about to dig in when he smelled cat. Conveniently concealed in the thickly interlaced branches and mess of leaves, he watched a pair of muscular, sleek cats emerge from the shadows with fresh prey swinging from their jaws. Saffire stiffened.

"Lets head back and join the hunting party," said the ginger, her voice tinted with impatience.

"Wait, Tyv. Remember the eagle? It carried off Antha's kit just this morning!" exclaimed the tortoiseshell.

"What, again? Ulfa, why didn't you tell me this before, no wonder there was a crowd of cats flocking around her today! Let's quickly eat this, catch something else and go back," Tyv said brusquely, leading Ulfa deeper into valley.

Saffire made his way down gingerly with his prey clamped tightly in his salivating jaws, the musky flavour swirling in his mouth as the hollow pangs of his belly intensified. He was ravenous. He had to catch an eagle; it was his ticket into the Clan. Saf, never, ever attempt to go up that treacherous path. It is not only slippery but is also the home of big, scary birds that will try to catch you. The memory of Mother telling him not to go up the little winding path near the mountain's peak emerged in his mind.

Saffire broke into a steady run and headed further from the valley until he had nearly reached the mountaintop. His breath grew ragged and his eyes were dry as whipping, merciless wind groaned over the bare rocky ground. Through the scathing wind, Saffire spotted the entrance.

A deep split in the steep rock wall loomed into sight and seemed to beckon him. Saffire's steps faltered- it was not too late to turn back. He glanced back at the orange setting sun and sprang up into the crevice. He had made his decision.

He padded up the narrow slope, his claws making a faint clicking sound and his fur brushing the sides of the rock walls. Apprehension made his whiskers tingle and he could taste the damp air and smell musty earth straight ahead. Suddenly, the left wall disappeared and he came out onto an open ledge. Saffire's breath caught in his throat.

Vast emptiness lay below, leading into a small lake of crashing foam and swirling mist. Damp boulders lay scattered randomly on the path and glistened in the dim sunlight. A gigantic mass of water thundered down over a lip in the rock wall 1000 paces ahead. He stared with wonder and horror then instinctively dug his paws in the ground.

Shards of rock pricked like tiny daggers. Saffire hissed and carried on, conscious of the smudges of red he was imprinting every torturous step he took. Crunch crunch crunch went his paws. The ground became an ice- cold, shallow stream and Saffire struggled dizzily onwards, sinking his numb paws among pebbles to prevent being swept away. Time seemed to drag on forever and he was conscious of nothing except moving forwards.

The sky was dusky grey when Saffire smelled a faint whiff of carrion drifting down from a frozen explosion of granite, which burst into flight before him. How in the badgers was he going to reach up there? A surge of heat swept through his drained body and it reverberated with fury. Thin, cutting slices of mountain air whipped around him with exhilarating joy as he let loose a cry as piercing as a perfect knife.

A burst of determination unclouded his mind and he focused his whole being on that concealed, three paw- sized dent. Saffire crouched, squeezed his muscles and vaulted himself upwards. His nose smacked violently on gritty rock, he felt his front paws touch solid and immediately flung himself up one last time. His body struck the edge and his claws scrabbled frantically for a grip among what felt like sticks. He heaved his quivering body over and flopped onto a pile of pre- flattened twigs and wizened grass, his inner beat thumping as fast as hummingbird's wings. Crawling under a pile of reeking carcasses to disguise his scent, Saffire waited and tried not to squirm as the uncomfortable sensation of the unknown swathed him…

Clouds cast eerie shadows on the moon and the air turned crisp. All of a sudden, Saffire heard a soft flapping of wings and glimpsed an ominous shadow gliding towards the nest- towards him. His tail fluffed up in terror while he shifted into the hunter's crouch and peeked through the gaps of carcasses.

He felt the draft sweeping from its beating wings and smelled the reek of bird as the eagle swooped down with a mountain hare clutched in its powerful talons. Saffire narrowed his eyes in concentration and sprang onto the eagles back. It let out an ear- splitting screech and tried to shake him off but he sunk his claws deep into the back of its throat and bit down hard.

Saffire's eyes widened in alarm when he felt himself being lifted high into the air by the eagle's furiously beating wings. He yowled in terror as the eagle veered right and bashed Saffire and itself onto rock. Bubbles of red burst through his mind as he got slammed over and over, his body ridden with agonizing pain inside and out. But he held on. Just when Saffire thought the overpowering pain was going to fade into welcoming darkness, he vaguely felt himself bashing off the rock one last time and beginning to spiral downwards, completely out of control. They hurtled faster and faster and the black lake loomed closer and closer. The shrieking wind mirrored his thoughts and he waited until the last moment to squeeze his eyes shut.

SPLASH!

The impact of hard, ice- cold lake water struck Saffire like a blow and jolted him back to his senses. Water choked down his throat and for some terrifying seconds, the world was of the deafening roar of rushing water and churning white foam. When he felt the limp eagle bob through the surface of the water, Saffire gasped, filling his starved lungs with air and glanced around wildly. He was tossed towards the riverbank where tall clumps of river reeds dwelled and Saffire clamped his jaws over multiple stalks, slowing his vessel that was his eagle. His eagle's feathers snagged amidst the tiny forest and Saffire summoned all his energy to leap to the riverbank, fiery pains shooting through his bruised bones. Squelching, spitting, slapping water threatened to pull his eagle free so he sank his teeth into feathers and hauled the eagle under a spindly tree with his remaining strength. Saffire dropped like a stone, finally letting fatigue overcome him…

A niggling scent kept intruding into his sleep. Saffire groaned inwardly then suddenly recognized the smell. He opened his eyes with a gasp, his back arched and he hissed.

The stench of Clan cats overwhelmed his senses. His gaze rested on Tvy, her ginger pelt flaming red in the inky night as she was dragging his eagle away. Suddenly, a stunning crash to his head knocked him backwards and he flipped around and dodged the swipes Ulfa was raining down on him. With a screech, he leapt over Ulfa and raced towards Tyv, his lips drawn back in a snarl.

She looked back at Saffire and sneered, "We'll be taking this now, and won't this comfort dear, dear Antha."

Saffire clamped onto his eagle, tugged and was just about mutter something back when Ulfa hurtled onto him, pinning his small body down with his weight.

"And won't our Leader be pleased," he whispered raspily.

Saffire yowled in protest, his whole being squashed and muffled under the big cat. He was suffocating! Saffire twisted around with a burst of strength, felt his claws slip free from feathers and raked soft belly with his claws. Ulfa shrieked and sprang away into the night.

Tyv and his eagle were nowhere to be seen.

Saffire stared in bewilderment for a second then licked his wounds half-heartedly. He wondered should I approach the leader today? With my empty, bloodied paws, ragged, scrawny body and damp, plastered fur?

A spark in the horizon made him pad his way over onto a jutting rock. The wind was soft now and seemed to caress his wounds. The warm glow of dawn gradually seeped into the world, laying a blanket of warmth and clarity over the mountains. To the left, a glittering rainbow arced over the spray of sparkling water and Saffire relaxed his body, inhaling deep breaths of fresh, clean air, which hummed through his body like a balm.

As he was beginning to groom his paw, he noticed a long, sweeping eagle feather stuck on his claw. Saffire raised it up and it shone gold in the dawn light. Saffire purred and rose up, his muscles screaming with protest and headed down into the valley. Saffire's steps were light, his eyes were bright and his messy, damp black fur shone like ebony.

Why not?