A shiver of excitement went through Ratha. She began her stalk, belly fur brushing the ground. Grass whispered past her legs as she felt the slow, controlled power of each muscle. Her tailtip tingled with the urge to twitch, but she held it still.
The horse the Named called a striper tossed its head and flapped its tail, eyes widening. Ratha slowed her downwind stalk so that she seemed nearly frozen, yet was still moving. The striper swung its neck around, jerking its head and ears back.
Ratha stilled until the herdbeast settled, then quickened her stalk, easing her weight from one foot to the next, placing each directly ahead of the one behind and moving so smoothly she felt as though she were flowing across and through the grass, a green-eyed river of tawny gold.
Nearing the striper's dancing rear hooves, inhaling its sweat-sharpened scent, Ratha trembled with the impulse to dash, spring, and wrestle her prey to the ground. She took a long slow breath--as the herding teacher, Thakur, had taught her--mastered her urge, and crept around the striper, circling in front of it.
Stripers were new to the Named herds. This horse was dun, with dark brown mane and tail. Ratha turned her head to bring her gaze down along its banded forelegs to the three-toed feet. These feet differed from those of the smaller dappleback horses that the clan had long tended. The striper's center toe, sheathed in a single hoof, was larger, the side toes farther off the ground. That hoof had far more power than the dappleback's feet. Ratha had dodged it many times, and other herders had been sent sprawling.
The striper grunted and whinnied, its nostrils flaring with her smell. From her crouch, Ratha lifted her chin and stared up at the horse, trying to catch and hold its gaze. As if sensing her purpose, the striper reared, its forefeet cutting the air, its tail whisking its flanks. She froze again, waited.
When the striper dropped down, she pounced on its stare with her own. Again it evaded her, closing its eyes and ducking its head, showing her only its bristling mane.
She knew the stripers were smarter than the dapplebacks; by now her stare would have a dappleback helplessly imprisoned.
Thakur had warned her that the stripers were clever, that the larger head held a more alert and cunning mind. Suppressing her frustrated growl, Ratha made several rasping snarls that were almost barks.
The sounds had the effect she wanted. The striper's ears swiveled, the head came up, the eyes opened. Again her eyes sought the striper's gaze, and this time she captured it. The animal stiffened, as if about to fight, but snort and stamp as it would, the striper couldn't break Ratha's stare. It stilled to near immobility, only its hide shivering.
Ratha felt triumph strengthen her heartbeat and deepen her breathing. She was so close; she could reach out and tap one of the horse's forelegs with a front paw.
Again came the rush of desire that threatened to propel her up onto the horse's shoulders, driving her teeth into its neck. In her imagination, she was already atop the striper, feeling the stiff upright mane bristle into the corners of her mouth. Part of her already felt the velvet-furred skin resist, stretch, and then tear through beneath the points of her fangs, her neck muscles pulling and twisting in just the right way so that her fangs would slip between the neck bones and skillfully separate them while the prey's blood flowed in pulses over her tongue....
Outwardly Ratha shuddered, yet kept her eyes fixed on those of the horse while inwardly she swiped the feelings aside. No, such a fevered attack was not the way of the Named. She had fought this internal battle many times before, when she trained as a cub under Thakur, and later when she began her duties as a herder. Even when she culled herdbeasts, she would not let instinct run wild.
Ratha used her frustration and desire, pouring them out savagely through her eyes. The horse was now as still as if it were already in her killing embrace. The muscles and tendons atop her forelegs quivered with the need to drive her claws out and deep into flesh.
She lifted out of her crouch, rearing up on her hind paws to lay one foreleg almost gently over the horse's shoulders and up along the back of its neck. In spite of her care, the beast started, but before it could begin its escape flurry, Ratha slapped the other forepaw around the underside of its neck.
Now Ratha used her claws, but only enough to maintain her hold as she pushed backward with her hind feet to unbalance the striper and pull it over. She was so close to the horse now that she couldn't hold its gaze, but she no longer needed to. It was falling into the daze that doomed prey often assumed.
Instead of digging into the striper's nape with claws and teeth, Ratha used the pressure and friction of her pads combined with her weight and her experience in knowing exactly how and where to push in order to topple the beast.
As if in a trance, the striper sank to its knees. Ratha climbed farther onto it, using her weight to press the horse down onto its belly. She draped herself across the animal, one forepaw keeping the horse's forelegs, with their dangerous hooves, at a distance. She wrapped the other forepaw around the top of the horse's head, twisting it up so that the throat lay exposed.
Feeling the striper's heartbeat thudding through its ribs and into her own body, Ratha bent her head, jaws starting to open. The heart's beat was strong in the creature's neck, visibly jolting the skin over the great vessels and releasing a deep temptation in Ratha to bite deeply and hard.
Instead she opened her mouth to its full gape and set her teeth in position for the instinctive throat bite. With the horse's sweat-smell hot in her nose, she squeezed her eyes shut with the effort not to bite, feeling the jaw-closing muscles beneath her eyes and on the sides of her forehead tremble with the strain.
The onlookers, Thakur and the young cubs learning herding from him, had grown quiet, as if they sensed the conflict within her.
Slowly, deliberately, she pulled her head up, feeling the skin of her muzzle slide back over her teeth as her mouth closed. She swallowed the saliva that had flooded her mouth, staying atop the striper while the youngsters shrilled their praise and Thakur added his deeper note. Their cries sounded strangely muted to her, as if they were distant or her ears muffled.
She wanted to speak to them, saying, this is how you take down a striper, but a feeling stronger than just her heartbeat thudding in her chest held back her voice.
Something Ratha didn't understand made her give the horse's neck a gentle lick before she slipped her paws out from under its neck, lifted herself off its body, and quickly backed away. The striper lifted its head, then lurched to its feet. Before the horse took a step, Thakur and some older cubs surrounded it.
As Ratha watched them return the striper to its herd, she shook her pelt hard, as if she needed to shed it in preparation for resuming the mantle of Named clan leader. Today, she reminded herself, her role was more humble: guest herding instructor.
She struggled to rid herself of the confusion between ancient hunter and Named herder. Perhaps the feeling was stronger today because her leadership duties had taken her away from herding. Intense practice had brought back her skills, but not complete control of her instincts.
The cubs and their teacher were returning. Ratha lifted her head, now hearing individual voices instead of a general clamor.
"The males may be able to take down stripers, but I'll never be able to do that," said a discouraged little female voice.
"That is why I asked Ratha to show you the technique," Ratha heard Thakur say. He trotted toward her, his step springy, his whiskers fanning with pride. Scent and sight told Ratha that he had groomed himself especially well this morning. The metallic copper highlights in his fur shimmered in the sun. He had lost the leg feathering of his winter coat, and his slender limbs were clean, his body taut and spare.
His scent had a musky undertone, reminding Ratha that the Named mating season was not far away. She wanted to rub herself luxuriously alongside him and flop her tail across his back. Instead, she contented herself with an affectionate head-rub and turned to the discouraged youngster, finding her voice at last.
"Little one," she said to the cub, "it is true that the culling takedown is harder for female herders, especially with the stripers. We don't have as much weight or muscle as the males."
"Then how will I do it?"
Gently, Ratha explained how she depended on precision and balance instead of sheer force to bring a beast down.
"But you are special, clan leader," said the cub. "You aren't just a female, you're--"
"As a herder, I am no different than any of you," Ratha said, looking the cub in the eyes. "I had to struggle with takedowns when I was your age, even with the dapplebacks. And a three-horn stag chased me up a tree once."
"No, really?" the cub asked, wide-eyed, and others joined with her, wrinkling their noses in disbelief that a mere herdbeast could terrorize the Tamer of the Red Tongue, the Giver of the New Law, their clan leader.
"Yes, really. Ask Thakur."
The cubs clustered around their teacher, who answered, then shooed them all away, telling them to go practice stare-downs with three-horn fawns until he called them.
Ratha watched them bumble and scramble away, wondering if they knew she got dung between her pads and muck on her coat, just like everyone else.
"Let them worship you a bit," Thakur said softly. "It helps them, especially the little females."
"They are doing well this season," Ratha mused. "It is hard to believe that it hasn't been that long since Meoran forbade any female cubs to train as herders."
"Except a certain one," Thakur answered.
Because you fought for me. You defied him to train me. You stood by me when I overthrew his tyranny.
"I can answer the rest of the cubs' questions. Go take a nap on the sunning rock, yearling," he said, using his old name for her.
She had a new name for him, but one that she dared not use. Beloved.
Or, perhaps it wasn't so new.
"May you eat of the haunch and sleep in the driest den, clan leader," he said formally, and returned to the cubs.
She looked after him, letting her whiskers droop slightly in a silent sigh, then decided to take his advice.
* * * *
Ratha awoke from her nap, stretched out on the sunning rock in the middle of the meadow. She felt the late spring breeze ruffle her tawny-gold fur backward from tail tip to nape. Warmth grew on her fur, and the scent of drying sandstone mingled with the freshness of new grass.
Yawning until her tongue quivered, Ratha extended her front legs over the edge. The breeze tickled the spur whiskers at the back of her front paws, teased the hairs inside her ears and the silky velvet at their edges. It played with the longer fur on her ear tips, tugging at her nose and eyebrow whiskers.
Swiveling her head to turn her gaze, she saw that morning was still chasing dew-sparks from the grass.
She sat up, licked a forepaw with a raspy tongue, and rubbed her face. She scrubbed her nose and behind her ears in circles, and tongued down her short ruff and creamy chest fur.
In the distance Ratha heard the muffled sound of hoof beats on grass, mixed with cub squeals. She turned her head into the wind, cocking her ears. She raised her nose whiskers, opening her mouth slightly to capture scents. Odor turned to taste in a sensitive place at the roof of her mouth when she touched it with her tongue.
Smell and flavor combined with sound, telling Ratha that Thakur was still in the meadow with his group of half-grown cubs. Now they were working with three-horn deer instead of stripers.
Ratha knew that long ago her kind had been hunters, but they had learned to tame and herd the three-horn deer, dappleback horses, and other beasts they once stalked. Because they had to know one another well in order to cooperate, they needed and valued names. They also grew to value the light in a cub's eyes that meant that the young one would be able to think clearly and speak well.
Lifting her head, Ratha narrowed green eyes against the sunlight. Looking down, she saw paw prints on the damp soil below.
She knew that the sunning rock stood not only at the center of the surrounding meadow, but also at the center of clan life. The Named used it as a meeting ground and a seat of honor for their leader.
In the midst of all the prints lay a clear area where stones encircled a still-smoldering pile of ash. It was a nest of the Red Tongue, the fire-creature she had brought to her people.
She grimaced as she remembered how the clan had kept her up late last night with their arguing and yowling in the firelight. She had let all have their say. Though still young, she knew by experience that a good clan leader should listen rather than speak.
Gathering her hindquarters beneath her, Ratha raised herself on her forepaws. A front claw snagged on the sandstone. Her tail tip flicked with annoyance. With her tongue, she explored her paw and found a not-quite-shed outer layer of the claw. Using the small sharp incisor teeth between her fangs, she nibbled it off.
Sandstone grit scraped beneath her pads as she pushed her front paws out, bowed her back, and indulged in a good long stretch. She enjoyed the feel of her body: her long powerful hind legs that launched her into a swift charge at a herdbeast; her slim but muscular forelegs that could wrap around the animal's neck and pull it down. Her neck and shoulders drove the force of her bite, but her forequarters were flexible enough so that she could lick most of her back.
Her longer hind legs raised her hindquarters slightly above her forequarters so that her back sloped gently down from hips to shoulders. When Ratha galloped, she could feel the arch and bow of her spine, giving her strides additional length.
She thought about the herding teacher, and his place in the clan. Shifting from hunters to herders helped the Named, but others had taken advantage of the change. Raiders of Ratha's own kind, but lacking the self-aware gift of the Named, attacked the herds. The Un-Named ones far outnumbered the clan and could devastate the herd, driving the Named to starvation. Clan cubs had to be well trained in the ways the Named used to defend and protect their animals.
While thinking about Thakur again, she caught the distant flash of morning sun on his copper coat.
Ratha watched the shapes moving against the sky and trees at the meadow's edge. She saw spotted cub-students cut in and out of the small teaching herd of three-horn deer as Thakur dashed alongside, yowling instructions. Other cubs practiced stare-downs with the young deer.
One youngster instantly became a ball of fluff as an aggressive half-grown buck broke the cub's stare and charged. A whiff and taste of cub fear-scent made Ratha tense, but Thakur had already plunged in and headed the buck off. She watched, tail flicking, as he confronted it with bared claws and teeth. For an instant it challenged him with its forked nose-horn and pronged antlers, then backed off.
At least he didn't have to kill the animal, Ratha thought, again remembering the day when a three-horn stag had nearly gotten the best of her. Thakur had not let that deer live with its dangerous knowledge that it could defy its Named keepers. It had swiftly become clan meat.
From a closer part of the meadow screened off by brush came another ruckus, accompanied by strange smells and puffs of dust. Ratha couldn't see the source, but brassy bellows and yearling cub-cries told her that the older herding students were practicing their skills on a leathery-skinned baby beast with legs like young trees.
She remembered when she had first seen one of these creatures. At first she had the odd thought that they were built backward, for the tail on their rumps was far less impressive than the one that curled down from their faces and waved about in front of their tusks.
This "face-tail" trunk was as impressive as it looked, as several of the Named had learned by being suddenly plucked from the ground and hurled into a thornbush. It had earned the beasts their name.
The Named decided to start slowly with baby face-tails but even so, the huge, boisterous infants kept the herders busy. The young face-tails used their domed heads as well as their trunks and many a Named herder had been butted from behind and sent rolling across the meadow.
Ratha listened to the assorted screeches, bellows, and yowled commands and thought, Thakur sounds like he is losing patience with them, but he never does.
The wind shifted, bringing Ratha another scent, acrid and ashy.
Cubs, herdbeasts, and skirmishes with Un-Named raiders; these were all we knew. Until...
She gazed upwind, to the source of the smell. From the open forest bordering the meadow, smoke twisted into the sky. Ratha could almost imagine that she saw the flicker of fire through the leaves. She looked down at the remains of the campfire from the previous evening.
Training cubs, caring for herdbeasts, and fighting off marauders had been the life of the Named until a young she-cub dared to bring something new to the clan.
Ratha's skin prickled as if flakes of hot ash and embers were falling into her fur. She remembered the eerie, almost-alive thing she had tamed and called "her creature." Even though the clan did not see the fiery color as well as they did other hues, the flame shone intensely enough for them to call it the Red Tongue. It now burned on torches carried by Named Firekeepers and in guard-fires that frightened Un-Named ones back. It held a strange power that warmed and sheltered, yet had terrified, tempted, and corrupted. The old way of claws and fangs gave way to the new power of fire. Remembering, Ratha felt her whiskers rise and pull back as her lips drew back in a half-snarl and her ears flattened. Though she had not wished for it, the death of the old clan tyrant Meoran and her own ascension to leadership began the change.
Guard-fires, campfires, the Firekeeper's den dug in the meadow, wood gathering, and tending the Red Tongue had become the Named way.
The rustle of leaves nearby and a rising chirr reminded Ratha of other, gentler changes. Her ears and whiskers relaxed when she caught sight of a small agile climber scrambling down from a sapling. The creature clung to branches with fingers and toes that had flat nails instead of claws. Lifting its head and balancing with its long ringed tail, it pointed its sharp muzzle at her. Gently mischievous, yellow eyes blinked at her from the black-and-gray mask over the face. Tufted black ears pricked. She answered the chirr with one of her own and called, "Come to me, little treeling."
The lemurlike creature bounced down from the sapling and into the high meadow grass. Ringed tail held high, it bounded to the sunning rock, jumped up, and perched on the edge. It cocked its head, widened its large eyes at Ratha, and said, "Aree?"
"Good Ratharee," she praised, lowering her head so that the treeling could climb onto her nape. It wound its fingers in her fur. They felt slightly sticky.
Ratha often found herself talking to her treeling, even though she knew Ratharee could not speak, at least not in the clan language. The treeling did respond to the various sounds of Ratha's voice, as well as Named paw-and tail-waves.
"At least you can't dribble fruit juice on me," Ratha said, nuzzling her little companion. "That tree doesn't have any ripe fruit."
Her whiskers lifted with amusement as she remembered how Thakur's treeling often gorged on overripe autumn fruit, making a sticky mess of his fur.
As Ratha had brought a new creature to the clan, so had Thakur, in the form of a ring-tailed sharp-nosed fuzzball he called "Aree" after the noise it made.
Aree turned out to be female and was now the mother and grandmother of all the treelings who were companions of clan members. Ratha's treeling, Ratharee, was also female, but had no young.
Not all the Named kept treelings, but Ratha and others who did felt that their little friends brought an additional richness to their lives. Treeling companionship had a soothing effect on the often-restless nature of the Named.
Treelings can offer more than just companionship, Ratha thought, as Ratharee scurried up the slope of her back to groom the troublesome area at the root of her tail. The treeling chittered as her fingers combed Ratha's pelt. She found several ticks and gleefully ate them.
When Ratharee finished, she groomed herself with a flurry of quick, short strokes, and then crouched expectantly on Ratha's nape. Yes, you're right. It's time to rejoin the others.
Ratha pivoted, lifted a forepaw to take a step down. As she lowered it, she felt the spur whisker behind her paw pad stroking the rough rock. She touched the stone with the outside edge of her forefoot, rolling the foot inward and using the whiskerlike hairs between her pads to judge the surface underfoot before putting her weight on it. She did the elegant yet important move without thinking, as did the rest of her kind. Thakur, who often thought about such things, said this manner of walking prevented the Named from stepping hard on anything that might give way beneath them.
The swish of grass past legs drew Ratha's attention. She saw a line of clan females carrying tiny cubs and smelled milky scents. Some spotted youngsters hung by their scruffs from their mother's or a helper's jaws, others stumbled or romped behind, and several even sat atop feline shoulders and backs. In front walked a rangy sand-colored female with a light foreleg limp, flame-shortened whiskers, a long tapered tail, and green eyes. Like Ratha herself, the newcomer had white fur around her whiskers and a black patch behind them. Dark tear-lines ran from the corners of her eyes along her nose, snaking back to the corners of her mouth to join the black patches on either side of her muzzle. Her underside was also white, from her tail to her throat and her lower jaw.
It was Fessran, chief of the Firekeepers who tended the Red Tongue. She was also Ratha's friend and, this season, a mother. She had two fuzzy, blue-eyed cubs: one riding on her shoulders and one dangling from her mouth.
Ratha felt her treeling scurry up to her hindquarters as she leaned down from the sunning rock to greet Fessran and the cub-carriers.
"Are you raising little treelings to perch on you?" Ratha teased.
Fessran, impatient as always, didn't want to set the cub down and instead tried to speak through a mouthful of spotted fur.
"Mmmph. Bira," Fessran sputtered to the young female behind her, "take this little son of a dappleback."
Lifting her long plume of a tail, red-gold Bira took Fessran's burden. She had muzzle-patches, tear-lines, and a lighter color underneath. She also had a treeling riding on her nape.
The Firekeeper leader sneezed twice and scrubbed her nose with a charcoal-stained forepaw. Her facemarkings emphasized her grimace. "I can't believe he's already shedding," Ratha heard her friend complain. "Rrrraatchooo!"
"Ho, singe-whiskers," Ratha greeted. "Is it already time to move the litterlings?"
"Ho yourself, clan leader. Yes, the new nursery is finished." With an upward jerk of her tail and a slight sharpening of her scent that told Ratha the Firekeeper was mildly annoyed, Fessran added, "I don't suppose you remembered you were going to help us this morning."
"I said that before all of you kept me awake last night," Ratha retorted. "And I still want to talk to Thistle-chaser."
Fessran gave a snort, and Ratha knew it wasn't just cub fur up her nose. "The decision is made, and we're going to carry it out. I don't see why we have to keep pawing at it over and over."
"Yes, but I still wanted to speak to her."
"Well, even if she is your daughter, she isn't going to change things," Fessran said, licking her sand-colored coat.
Especially things that you want, singe-whiskers, Ratha thought, half-fondly and half-sourly.
"For once we're following the right trail," the Firekeeper argued. "Letting True-of-voice and his hunter tribe use the Red Tongue is good for them and us. You were right when you made us rescue him. This is one more step along a better path."
Ratha made her reply mild. "I know, Fessran, but we've already made some mistakes. I don't want any more."
Fessran stopped to swat a pair of cubs playing tag around her forelegs.
"I'm glad you are doing this, Ratha," the Firekeeper said, her voice becoming softer. Her face relaxed and her tear-lines straightened. "I imagine how their litterlings' eyes will glow when they curl up near the Red Tongue, safe and warm."
Even if the light in their eyes differs from the light in ours, Ratha thought. "Just be careful. As for moving our cubs to the new nursery, you don't need me--you're doing fine."
"We've picked a good site. It's sheltered, but open enough so that cubs can run and pounce. We can also bring in some three-horn fawns and dappleback foals for the cubs to play with. So they get used to the herdbeasts." She paused. "It was Thakur's idea."
Cub scuffling around Fessran's legs made her jump. "Yow, you little daughter of a dappleback! Clan leader, be glad you didn't have a litter this year. Bira, let's get this bunch to the nursery before they make me climb a tree."
"I'll come to visit," Ratha offered.
"Just you, though. Not Thakur or any of the other males, or someone may get their ears shredded."
"Fess, no clan male would hurt a cub."
"You know that, and the sensible part of me knows that, but the mother part of me just goes wild. Bira's does, too. We're all like that."
Ratha let her gaze travel down the line of Named females as she sampled their scents. There was a milky overlay, but she caught and enjoyed their individual smells. Fessran: spicy, sharp with an acrid touch of soot and ash. Bira: sun-warm earth and cinnamon bark. Drani: grass awns, sycamore, horse dung. Chika, Fessran's older daughter: flowery with a slight fruitiness of pride in her first litter. The first-litter mothers and helpers had the clean freshness of youth, the older ones, steeped and aged in their own odors, had deeper, darker, richer scents.
Closing her eyes briefly, Ratha bathed in the aromas of her friends. When she opened them, she saw whiskers lifted and nostrils widened as the other females sampled hers in return. She knew her scent didn't have the milk-odor of motherhood and felt a little sad.
Fessran grabbed her spotted culprit gently but firmly around the neck and hoisted the cub. Ratha noticed the short, soft, silvery mantle of fur that formed a crest just behind his ears and swept down his back. She had seen this before in Named litterlings, and some kept it even after weaning. The ones who had it often had longer legs and could sprint faster.
As Fessran lifted him, the youngster mewed, paddled oversize paws, and then settled into a submissive curl. Ratha sniffed him, catching the beginning odor of maleness in his baby-scent.
Fessran moved off with the other Named females, each with one or more squalling or wide-eyed burdens. Soon they were gone.
Ratha settled back on the sunning rock while Ratharee groomed her. Along with ticks and fleas, the treeling could somehow pick out and get rid of Ratha's troubling thoughts. One, however, remained.
Yes, I would be like Fessran if I had another litter. I wonder if I ever will.