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Challenge - Chapter One


Ratha's Challenge by Clare Bell

Chapter 1

Stones flew over Thakur’s head and rattled against the bark of a tree behind him. The steep-sided gully in which he and his companions were trying to capture a shaggy young mammoth had become a trap for them instead of for the mammoth. Thakur crouched, flattening his fur and ears. The beast before him raised its trunk in a trumpeting blast.

Thakur drove his claws into the ground and bared his fangs in a feline hiss before he could stop himself. As herding teacher to his people, the Named, Thakur knew and taught the young ones all the skills that had been developed to manage dapplebacked horses and three-horn deer. He told his cub-students never to show fear to a herdbeast. Now he had broken his own rule, although this woolly tusker wasn’t one of the clan’s herdbeasts. Not yet.

The ground vibrated beneath Thakur’s paws as the mammoth stamped its massive front feet and bellowed. The gully resounded with the brassy roar. His head ringing from the noise, Thakur glanced at his young fellow-stalkers, Khushi and Bira.

Khushi, a herder and Bira, a Firekeeper, had come with him on this scouting expedition far from the clan’s seacoast settlement. Khushi was a seasoned herder and not easily intimidated. This creature had him bristling all over. The usually calm Bira had a line of raised red-gold fur down her back.

This was their second attempt to catch a mammoth. And this one wasn’t even fully grown—that was why they had chosen it.

Thakur and Khushi made another sharp rush at the beast, trying to back it into a narrow corner of the gully. Bira joined in. The quarry tossed its head, flailing its trunk and spearing the air with its tusks. Thakur’s nose was filled with its heavy smell and the faint but sharp odor that told him that his two companions were fighting fear of their own. The beast’s red-rimmed eyes glared from behind a thicket of orange hair. Its trunk swung down and coiled like a snake in the loose gravel. When the trunk whisked up again, another barrage of rocks hurtled at Bira.

She dodged, but several struck her ribs and back. Thakur heard her grunt in surprise and pain. Herdbeasts weren’t supposed to throw rocks.

"You said this would be easier than herding three-horns!" Bira yowled at Khushi.

"I…thought…it would be, since…these face-tail things…don’t have horns!" Khushi puffed.

"They don’t need them!"

Thakur glanced at Khushi. Every hair of the young herder’s dun-colored fut was standing on end. Still, Khushi advanced on the quarry, trying to trap its gaze with his own. The stare-down worked on deer and dapplebacks, but this mountain of hide and flesh was having non of it.

With an enraged roar, the beast charged Khushi. Thakur and Bira both leaped at the same instant, snarling, to turn it back before it trampled him. They broke the face-tail’s attack, but it would not be deprived of its quarry. Again the trunk swept down, but instead of gathering and flinging stones, it curled around Khushi’s middle.

In an instant the squalling herder was lifted high over Thakur’s head. Then he was shooting through the air. With a loud crash, he landed in a thicket.

"Enough!" Thakur yowled at Bira, who was vainly trying to force the beast back to its corner with short rushes and feints. "Let the thing go!"

Bira dived to one side while Thakur galloped to the bush where Khushi had landed. He whirled, fearing for an instant that the beast would charge into the thicket and tear it apart trying to find Khushi. Even in his short experience with these animals, Thakur had found them to be very single-minded, especially when they wanted to trample an enemy.

With a ground-shaking trot, the orange-haired young mammoth headed for the thicket, then swerved aside. It lumbered down the gully, ears flapping, short tail stuck stiffly upright.

Bira’s ribs lifted in a sigh of combined exhaustion and relief. The red-gold fur on her back flattened, but worry remained in her green eyes. Thakur shared it. The face-tail had thrown Khushi hard.

"He’s young and tough," Thakur said before Bira could speak, but he could not keep anxiety out of his own voice as he pawed at the thicket, calling to Khushi.

At last he heard the herder’s low moan. "Oooh, why did we try to catch that creature? I wish we had never seen it!"

Thakur’s ears and whiskers lifted. Khushi couldn’t be badly hurt if he chose to complain about the face-tail instead of about his own injuries.

Thakur and Bira turned to the task of extricating the herder. Only one of his feet was visible, hanging forlornly from a tangle of thorn scrub. Using claws and teeth, Thakur and Bira attacked the bush.

"Let me get Biaree," Bira offered as Thakur grimaced at the sharp twigs and thorns that lodged painfully between his teeth. He agreed. Bira ran off to fetch her treeling companion. Treelings were much better than the Named at untangling or clearing away things. Their clever fingers could do what paws and teeth could not.

Thakur thought longingly of his own treeling, Aree. His neck still felt bare without her small arms about it and her fingers twining in his fur. He’d left her behind in the clan’s care, for she was bulging with babies. A mammoth-capturing expedition was no place for a pregnant treeling.

Soon Bira galloped back with her male treeling, Biaree, perched on the nape of her neck. The treeling’s slender ringed tail stuck up and a pointed light brown muzzle with a black mask showed between Bira’s ears. A few purrs of encouragement and a nudge from Bira’s nose soon had the treeling pulling apart branches and breaking off dead twigs. With his aid, they soon cleared a way in to Khushi and gently pulled him out.

Khushi was more shaken than hurt. While Bira and Biaree groomed thorns and twigs from the young herder’s hide and tail, Thakur used his paws and his sensitive nose to check Khushi for injuries.

"Why did I ever tell the clan leader about these animals that wear their tails on their faces?" Khushi asked him plaintively. "And why did I ever think we could add them to our herds?"

"I think we will be able to, when we find ways to manage them," Thakur answered.

"If we ever do," Khushi groaned.

Thakur didn’t contradict him. Despite his words, he wasn’t sure that these beasts the Named called face-tails would work out as herd animals. There was certainly a lot of meat on one, but Khushi’s unexpected trip through the air had shown that there were certain hazards involved in taming them.

"Well," said Bira, "if they aren’t suitable, it won’t be the first time we’ve chosen the wrong kind of animal. Thistle’s seamares didn’t work out either."

As he watched Bira and Biaree finish grooming Khushi, Thakur lick his of dark-copper fur and thought of their previous attempt to bring a new kind of animal into the herd. Last season’s drought and its effects on the three-horn deer and dapplebacked horses had made Ratha, the clan leader, start the search. If the clan herds had animals that could survive under different kinds of conditions, the Named would have a more stable supply of meat.

Ratha’s idea was a good one, but putting it into practice also yielded one very unexpected re4sult. While scouring the seacoast for possible herdbeasts, Thakur had found a crippled young female of his own kind. She had turned out to be Thistle-chaser, Ratha’s lost daughter.

Thakur had also found the seamares, chunky water creatures with horse-like heads and webbed feet—and tusks that they used to dig up and tear apart heavy-shelled clams on the shore. Thistle had formed a strange but real friendship with them. When the clan tried to capture and keep seamares, she angrily interfered. Then she turned her wrath against her mother.

Thakur still remembered finding the two on the wave-washed rocks, both bleeding from their fight and nearly dead from exposure. Since then, Ratha and her daughter had become partially reconciled, but Thistle had not accepted Ratha’s offer to join the clan. She remained apart, living among the seamares.

With a twitch of his whiskers, Thakur turned back to Khushi, who had recovered enough to shake the last leaves and twigs out of his coat.

"Maybe you should have used a lighted torch, " he heard Khushi say to Bira. "I haven’t seen a beast yet who didn’t fear the Red Tongue.

Except us and our treelings, Thakur thought. And I have seen that we do fear it, although in a different way than the herdbeasts.

"Thakur doesn’t like using the Red Tongue to frighten herdbeasts," Bira said, looking to him. "I agree. It’s cruel and often useless. Once a herdbeast is maddened by fear, you can’t do anything except kill it. That is a waste."

"And imagine what would have happened if the face-tail had grabbed the torch and flung it, " Thakur said, entering the conversation. "If it didn’t hit one of us, it would have spread the Red Tongue all over the grass."

"That wretched beast deserved to get burned up," Khushi growled.

"Yes, and we’d have burned up with it," Thakur reproved. "You know how fast the Red Tongue can run."

Khushi admitted that they were right, but he wouldn’t have minded if Bira had singed the obnoxious mammoth in a tender spot.

"I need to see that the embers in the fire-den haven’t gone out," Bira announced, lifting her plumed tail. "Are we going back to the knoll? Good, I’ll meet you there."

As she loped off down the gully, Thakur climbed up the side, followed by Khushi. He found the hill that they had used as a vantage point to locate the face-tails. It had a single oak that gave shade from the sun. The prevailing breeze carried their own scent away from the face-tail herd.

It brought him the odors of many other kinds of animals. Among these were feline scents that might belong to Un-Named outsiders who outwardly resembled his own people, but had only the minds and ways of beasts. Everything was so overlaid with the pungent smell of mammoth that Thakur could not be sure. He was not going to worry. The Red Tongue that Bira carried would protect him and his party.

He sat down in the litter of last season’s leaves and acorns, letting his gaze travel over the rolling plain below. It was still filled with the face-tailed beasts, some wallowing in a marshy sink between two hills, some drifting back and forth in a large group as they tore up grass with their trunks and stuffed it into their mouths.

The young ones showed up as blotches of orange against the more somber black and brown wool of their elders.

One of those orange splotches was probably the animal that had just escaped them. Despite their bulk, the face-tails could move fast. Thakur eyed the beasts, trying to pick one that was young enough to be vulnerable and old enough not to need the protection of its mother. It wasn’t easy. Yesterday he had chosen a young calf and had ended up fleeing from the enraged mother. Today’s quarry had proved to be old enough to defend itself.

His ears pricked forward as a line of smaller shapes emerged from a copse of trees near the wallow. They were not face-tails, nor any other kind of herdbeast. Beside him he felt Khushi stiffen as the wind brought a stronger version of a familiar scent to their noses.

"UnNamed ones, Thakur!" Khushi hissed.

The herding teacher hesitated in his reply. Yes, the forms were the cat shapes that resembled those of his own kind, but never had he seen the Un-Named do what these newcomers were doing.

The line broke up as its members dispersed and melted into the high grass around the wallow. Thakur narrowed his eyes. At one end of the marshy area stood a face-tail whose patchy orange-and-blak coat showed that it was older than the one the Named had tried to capture.

"They are hunting it," Bira said. She had arrived so quietly that Thakur had hardly noticed.

Yes, they were. He caught a glimpse of a circle of hidden stalkers creeping toward the face-tail. There were more hunters than he had thought, and they seemed to move with a deadly purpose. Unconsciously he eased himself down, peering through the high grass.

Bira and Khushi followed his example.

The face-tail, unconcerned, was sloshing in the wallow, squirting water over itself with its trunk. The circle of hunters paused, as if making the final decision to attack. The scent wafting to Thakur’s nose carried more than a sense of hunger or the usual blind ferocity of the UnNamed. He sensed a certain unified purpose in their behavior that surprised him.

If these ones are truly Un-Named, they are different than any I know, he thought.

He did not see which individual triggered the attack. At one instant they were all crouched together in the grass; the next they were swarming onto the startled face-tail. Muddy water turned pink as the attackers clawed their way up the beast’s flanks and laid open its flesh with deep slashes.

The rest of the face-tails, alarmed, lumbered away with raised trunks, abandoning the victim.

The struggle did not last long. Despite the face-tail’s trumpeting and plunging, it soon toppled under the savagery of the assault. For a while it flailed in the shallow water as the hunters gathered atop it and began to feed. Then it grew still.

Beside him, Thakur felt Bira shivering. "I have never seen Un-Named ones like these before," she hissed. "And I don’t like them!"

Khushi was struck silent. "They made it look…easy!" he blurted at last.

"Sh. We don’t want to attract their attention," Thakur cautioned.

Bira began to creep backward, deeper into the shade cast by the oak. Khushi followed. Thakur, torn between curiosity and fear, was the last to come away.

"Let’s go," said Bira as Biaree huddled nervously on her shoulders.

Thakur agreed, but he would only let his companions retreat as far as the small fire-den Bira had dug to store the coals of the Red Tongue.

He was thinking hard. The speed and efficiency of the unknown hunters told him that they were not a ragtag group of Un-Named ones such as those that had raided the clan’s herds in previous seasons. Even the organized attacks that had nearly decimated the Named had not been as complex or as smoothly carried out as this hunt.. His sense of danger told him to leave these hunters far behind, but there was another sense that told him to stay.

Who were they? Where had they come from? How had they learned to hunt such formidable prey as the face-tails? The questions whirled through Thakur’s mind.

"You saw the hunt, " he argued, when his two companions protested against the idea of remaining. "Something like that takes more than strength and fierceness. They were working together."

Bira gave him a questioning look. "The Un-Named can work together. They did when they attacked us several seasons ago."

"Yes, but those attacks were not as well planned as the hunt we just saw. I was in those fights. I remember. Thakur turned to Khushi. "This kill looked easy because everything was arranged in advance. Each hunter knew exactly what he or she was supposed to do and did it." He continued, growing more excited. "Don’t you see? Not only must they be able to think and speak, they must be able to make detailed plans and describe them to each other. They must be like us!"

The other two stared at him, their jaws hanging open. As long as the Named had existed they had thought their clan was the only one of its kind and that they alone had the gifts of awareness, forethought and speech. A few individuals with such gifts existed among the Un-Named, but they had come from fringe matings with the clan.

Perhaps the Named were not unique after all.

(End of chapter 1 )




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Imaginator Press Trade Edition of Clan Ground 2010

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