“What is that?”
The grey-furred Nila looked up, no expression crossing his flattened face. Yellow eyes sought the origin of the inquisitive voice, but the forest greenery was thick and concealing. He drew his brows low to express disapproval. “It is a drum,” he answered flatly, four-fingered hands stilled on the wooden carving. He had been binding the head of the drum, made of Leasheas hide, to the mouth.
“What’s a … drum?” the voice asked, carefully pronouncing the new word. “What’s it do?”
The Nila identified the general direction of the speaker and shifted his position to face it, black claws carefully resuming the tedious stitch-and-wrap. “A drum is this,” he answered impassively. “It makes noise.”
“Wood and skin and–” There was a pause, then the faint sound of sniffing, “–gut-rope? How does that make noise?”
The Nila sighed. He really had no need to humor his invisible watcher, so he stayed silent and completed the very last bindings. Tufts of silver and violet fur still ringed the edge of the drumhead, and the wood had been carefully carved to preserve the grain-patterns. Even the gut-rope had been skillfully braided. He allowed himself the smallest of smiles as he drew a dyed leather strip from the pouch at his hip and wound it about the waist of the small drum.
“What’s that for?” the voice pestered.
“Do you not have anything better to do?” the Nila countered peevishly, removing a few strings of braided cords from the same pouch. These were decorated with teeth, claws, and feathers, and twined in the weave were long hairs from the same Leasheas that gave its skin for the drum’s head. The wood’s rich red-brown color was well-complimented by the silver, violet, and deep blue of the decorations.
“Not really,” the voice responded. It sounded cheerful, and a few leaves whispered a warning of movement. The Nila looked up as the speaker poked its dark face through the canopy, a fanged grin stretching open a long, sleek muzzle. “I noticed the reek of Leasheas blood. Tell me, did you actually eat it?”
“It was a sacrifice,” the Nila replied, frowning up at the black Korat. “We do not eat sacrifices. Its flesh was burned.”
“Food is scarce on the best of days, and you don’t eat what you kill?” The Korat snorted, nostrils flaring wide. It descended to a lower bough, the sturdy branch five feet thick, then sprawled languorously. “Even if Leasheas are sentient, no sense in wasting meat. You could have at least left it for the Chitters or something.”
The Nila huffed, then lifted the drum reverently to study it from all angles. It was a good work of craftsmanship, and he was proud of it. Far better than his first two.
“Why do you even need a noise-maker like that?” the Korat asked conversationally. Its blue eyes remained trained on the Nila below.
The Nila didn’t reply, shifting his weight on the log that had served as his workbench. He had to lean forward, his ankles pressed against the rotting bark and his knees jutting out, and his tail got in the way and bent awkwardly upwards–but he managed to settle the drum between his knees and hold it there with his legs alone. It was a good fit, a good solid feeling – not too heavy, not light enough to be fragile.
“That looks uncomfortable,” the Korat commented from thirty feet above. “I didn’t know your tail could twist like that. Your tail is short and fat – I don’t think you’re supposed to–”
The Nila slapped the head of the drum with one flattened hand, and the resulting bark of noise silenced the Korat. The forest was too dense to allow an echo, but the sound was satisfyingly loud nonetheless. The Nila allowed himself one more tiny smile, then lifted his yellow gaze to the lounging Korat.
The Korat blinked down at him. “Uh,” it mumbled, looking uncertain.
The Nila flattened his other hand in the same way, careful to keep his claws from piercing the head, and slapped the drum three times. Left-right-left. The last note was the deepest, and it rang a shade longer than the other two. He curled one hand and extended his long thumb, then slapped the drum with the side of his thumb. It produced a deeper, shorter note when he struck the center of the head, and a lighter one when he struck near the rim.
“Hey,” the Korat said, drawing its limbs beneath its body into a crouch, “do that again.”
Feeling pleased enough with his work to oblige, the Nila repeated the notes. Short-short-long, deep-light. He kept his right hand flat and alternated the slap with the thumb-strike from his left hand. Short-deep-short-light-long.
The black Korat stood on its branch and swayed, as though it were going to topple. The Nila eyed it, then repeated the rhythm. The Korat seemed to be moving in time to the beat. “That’s catchy,” the Korat said, its muzzle creasing in a grin. “Keep it up.”
The Nila continued to drum as the Korat began to dance.