With the stealth of a wraith, the figure crept through the vines towards the dozing tiger. The leaves of the ivy whispered to one another in anxious tones as they watched the stalker’s process.
The tiger was a beast of colossal size, and his black stripes slashed across his coat like scars. His side rose and fell heavily.
The hunter was getting closer.
Disturbed by a distant dream, the flaming orange tiger shifted.
The figure froze.
But the tiger slept on.
Inching forward, the figure coiled itself for a spring. It leapt—!
"GROAAWWLLL!” the tiger roared out in shock as a small body pounced on his stomach. With mind-blowing quickness, he doubled his body up, grabbling with his claws for his attacker.
But his paws touched nothing but air.
A peal of childish laughter filled the morning, chiming in with the purr of the vines and the soft chuckles of the waterfalls. The great tiger heaved himself to his feet, no longer afraid, but decidingly put out and irritated. “Dragons eat you, Spring Sprig!” he roared, saliva flicking off his razor-edged fangs. “Dragons devour you a thousand times!”
“Make it a thousand and a half, Lord Bright as Fire! Oh do!” a child’s voice giggled.
To this response, the tiger could do nothing but growl.
“Where are you?” he snarled. “Where did you go?”
“I’m up here, silly kitty.” A small figure dropped from the top of a nearby wall onto the ground and waved.
It was a girl.
She was very small, and looked only about ten. She wore short pants that flared out just below the knees, and her shirt sleeves shaped like flower petals over her shoulders. The material of her attire was silk green. A tangle of dark brown curls sprouted from her head, generally falling behind her back, though a few rebellious ringlets sprung out over her forehead and around her cheeks. Many flowers were woven in her cork-screw hair. Her pink lips were curved up in a joyful smile that bespoke of her childish innocence. She giggled again, not in the least intimidated by the towering tiger who glared at her so darkly. “I scared you,” she said in the self-satisfied way that comes so naturally to children. “I scared you really bad.”
“You did,” the tiger admitted. “Don’t ever do it again.”
She stuck her lower lip out in a pout. “That’s no fun. Really it’s not.”
He just growled.
Ignoring his deep rumble, she half walked, half danced, over to a long stone table that stretched the entire length of the roofless hall that was draped in green vines. Her bare feet made smudge prints on the golden tile beneath the leaves. As soon as she reached the table, she jumped up on top of it and began to trot along its length, having no eyes for the hundred stone princes who sat in chairs on the table’s either side.
“Where is your frog, child?” the tiger snapped.
"The giant one that I ride?”
“Do you have any others?”
“Indeedy. I lo-ve all froggie woggies.” She smiled at him, scrunching her eyes up tight.
“Where is it?”
“Ferdinand is outside the borders of your realm. He wouldn’t come in for the life of me. He’s scared of you, he is. Scared stiff.”
The gigantic cat licked his whiskers. “As you should be.”
“Fiddlesticks,” she laughed.
With deft agility, Sprig skipped along the table, going over and around tall platters of glistening fruit. She kicked one apple off the top and bounced it from ankle to ankle, as she continued the stretch of the stone table. Whether she noticed that one side of the table was torn apart and crumbling, she did not say. “You missed me, didn’t you?” She kicked the apple high into the air, leaned forward, and caught it between her teeth. One hand popped up to remove it from her mouth, part of it tearing away with a delectable crunch. “Say you did, Ragniprava!”
With a ferocious roar, the tiger leapt forward, put his front paws on the table, and reared up to eye level with her. “Do not call me by my name! I forbid it!”
Even though the strength of his roar blew her hair back, Sprig didn’t bat an eye. “By the Flowing Gold, are you missing an eye?”
Deflated, the tiger sank back on his haunches. “Yes,” he grumbled. “I had two guests recently. One was a prince.”
Sprig’s eyes widened, and in a moment she was dashing back along the table, examining the face of each stone prince, while exclaiming, “I didn’t see a new one. What happened?”
“Sit still for a moment, and I’ll tell you,” the Lord Bright as Fire ordered.
She clapped a hand over her mouth and giggled. “I can’t be still. You know that.” To prove it, she suddenly kart-wheeled across the table—not once, but down the entire length!
Ragniprava gasped and covered his eye with a paw.
Another spiel of laughter sounded right in front of him, and he looked up to see Sprig before him, hands on her hips. Hesitantly, afraid of what he might see, he peeked behind her.
But all the towers of fruit remained untouched.
She sat down at the edge of the table, her hands touching the stone in between her upright knees, like a frog. “If I bounce just a little, I might be able to hear your story.”
Glaring at her, the tiger lord stalked away. He began. “I was patrolling my demesne for I had felt a sudden presence. You know my skill in stealth, and I approached the trespasser without alerting him. It was some dark-skinned fellow; one who, I thought, was out looking for my skin. I surprised him—ha! He scrambled up a tree, and I in my dignity…”
“In all your dignity,” Sprig repeated.
“…did not go up after him. We exchanged a few terse words, but then I felt the presence of another. One of much greater power than the terrified mortal I’d trapped. Along came a cat. A blind cat of all things. He spoke to me; he DARED address me as Ragniprava!”
“I like him already,” the girl giggled, even though she received a fiery scowl.
“So I chased him up a tree, and then low and behold—
“POOF!” Sprig shouted, flinging her arms wide. “He turned into a big fat hippo, and he broke the branch, and he fell on top of your head, and you landed on a stick, and gouged out your eye! End of story.”
The look Ragniprava gave her could have withered a full-grown tree. “Do you want me to continue or not?”
“Am I stopping you?” she grinned.
The tiger groaned, a long-suffering groan, before continuing. “He turned into a man.”
“SHHH! He turned into a man clad in scarlet with patches over his eyes. And there they were: two men in two different trees. Well, after some dialogue, we came to an agreement. They would amuse me, and I would allow them to come attend my feast.”
“SHHH! The scarlet one assured me he could entertain me for he was Sir Eanrin, Chief Poet of Rudiobus.”
“Ah-HA!” Sprig cried. “I know him! I’ve seen him before. He’s the greatest poet of all time.”
“Greatest poet of all time or not, he bored me to death. Ugh. What an awful lovey-wuvy song he composed. I had just made up my mind to eat them both, when the mortal stole the original tune and put comical words to it! Oh! It was beautiful!” The tiger laughed, and threw back his shaggy head. The laugh would have scared anyone but Spring Sprig. She laughed right along with him.
When the tiger stopped laughing, he resumed. “The look on the Chief Poet’s face was priceless. Losing my eye and the rest of the following ordeal was almost worth it for that insulted, and disgusted, and shocked look on his face. Anyway, I switched to my man form, just like this.” As he spoke, the tiger was no longer there, but instead Sprig looked at a huge man with glossy ebony skin, but the next moment he was back to being a tiger. “So I led them to my home.” He paused proudly. “And invited them to dine. Sometime through the meal, I realized that the mortal man was keeping a secret from me, and I used my heart-probing skills to discover the truth. He was a PRINCE!”
Sprig knew what this meant. She glanced back at the hundred stone princes. They were the tiger’s collection. Every prince who came to Ragniprava’s realm was turned into stone by the tiger to sit at the long table. Not a practice Sprig approved of, but she said nothing.
“I went to attack him in tiger form, and then that cocky cat, that miserable man, that petty poet, hit me like one of the Fallen, and we rolled off the table onto the ground! The audacity! The boldness! The—
“Persnickityness!” Sprig finished.
The tiger stopped in his pacing (for he had begun to pace) and frowned at her, but his rising anger cooled. “Clearly, there was only one thing to be done. I split myself.”
Sprig’s eyes widened. Even she had no smart remark to this.
Faerie lords and ladies had three lives. They could save them…or they could use them all at once. By splitting himself, Ragniprava had used two of his lives.
Her eyes darted around. Here was one. Where was the other? She stopped bouncing and leaned in to listen.
“My first me leapt forward to get the prince, while my other me gave pursuit to the crimson-clad poet. The prince had hidden underneath the table, and switching back into man form, I began to hack through the stone with my mighty sword. Eventually he came out, and he tried to stop me with a flimsy little beanpole. My sword crashed down on it and…” He halted and growled furiously, his tail lashing at a hundred miles per hour.
Sprig fidgeted. “Yes?”
“My sword broke. Broke! I morphed to tiger form, and attacked him. But then that me was suddenly killed.”
“Oh!” Sprig squeaked, at this unexpected conclusion. Then after a long pause she asked, “By whom?”
“How should I know? I wasn’t there to see. Meanwhile, the other me, this me, chased the cat-man down the dark corridors of my realm. He dared to face me with a knife, and I sprang for the kill. But he ducked and rolled under me, and the next thing I knew, as I pivoted around in surprise, he plunged the knife right into my eye!” The Lord Bright as Fire threw back his head and released an earth-shattering roar of rage.
He looked down to see Sprig staring at him big eyed.
“The poet got away. I was too angry to chase him. Now what do you think?”
For a moment, Sprig froze, aware of her precarious position.
Ragniprava glowered at her. She’d been rooting for the little cat. The thought irked him. If she should say so out loud, he knew he would not be able to contain his wrath.
“I think…” she hesitated. Then she threw back her own head, flowers flying, and laughed. “I think you look like a big ugly pirate! Yo ho matey, and ninety-eight bottles of ale!”
The waterfalls’ and vines’ laughter stopped abruptly, and the forest’s humming stopped, leaving only the bell-like laughter of the child in green, as they waited in suspense to see the tiger’s reaction.
Ragniprava stared at her for a moment, his golden eyes narrowing. But as she continued to giggle, the ferocious expression on his face slowly melted away, and for a moment there was even a hint of a smile on his sharp fangs. He shook his head. “Oh…You are impossible,” he huffed. “You can’t take anything serious.”
“I can’t. I tried, and it was incredibly boring!” Sprig gasped, her smile stretching from button ear to button ear, dimples in her cheeks. Without a sign of warning, she leapt to her feet, and swooped down in an exaggerated bow. “I fear now, Lord Bright as Fire, that I must leave your exulted demesne and hop on my way. Ferdinand gets awful lonely if I leave him too long.”
“Yes, yes, be off, I wish you’d never come,” he growled.
Grinning, Spring Sprig bobbed down and kissed the tiger right on his nose.
A shocked look swept over his face, followed by something almost like bashful pleasure. “Oh, go away,” he commanded gruffly.
Laughing gaily, she somersaulted over him, tumbling down in the lush carpet of vines. “Good-bye, good-bye!” she called starting to run backwards down the hall, and blowing the Faerie lord kisses. “I’m off to see the Mher King! There I’ll build a sandcastle! And then I shall drop by and visit the Lord Who Walks Before the Night! And then I’ll go treasure hunting! And frog-catching!” She had vanished now, and her voice became far and distant. Somewhere, a long ways off, there was a joyful ribbet of a frog.
Ragniprava perked his ears, straining to catch one last sound.
Her cheery voice came far away, caught on the paths of the wind. “And if I see Eanrin of Rudiobus, I’ll tell him you said hi!”
“Oh, go away, and good riddance,” he grumbled to himself.
Another laugh, and then all was quiet.
She had passed from his demesne to another.
The tiger sat alone in his roofless hall. The stone princes were poor company, and the vines and waterfalls made boring chatter.
His sides inflated out as he heaved a great sigh.
Already he missed Spring Sprig, the little girl in green who rode on a frog, bringing joy and laughter wherever she danced.