Hunters Unlucky, the novel I've been working on for the last two years, is finished! Here's the description:
Chapter 1. Hunter’s Moon
On the worst night of his life, Charder Ela-ferry stood on the blood-red rock of a steep cliff trail and argued with an insane child. “There are ghosts up ahead,” she whimpered, tucking her tail and crouching against the path. “I can smell them. Please, Charder, don’t make me go! Please!”
“Lirsy, stop it!” Charder planted all four hooves and used his teeth to drag her up by the back of the neck. They were both ferryshaft, but Charder was an adult, and Lirsy was not yet a year old. He tried to be gentle, but he was shaking, and her skin felt as fragile as a bird’s. He saw the outline of her ribs through thin fur as he released her, and he felt ashamed. When did she stop eating? Two days ago? Four? Why didn’t I notice?
Charder himself had not eaten in three days, but he’d thought the foals were getting something. Between all the fighting, it was hard to remember to check. But I should have remembered. Coden had asked only two things when he’d left Charder in charge of the ferryshaft herd. “Hold these caves and protect my daughter.”
I’m not doing so well on either count.
Lirsy was rocking back and forth, staring upward. “There’s a jellyfish in the sky,” she breathed.
“That’s the moon,” said Charder wearily. A bright, full hunter’s moon, and this night belongs to hunters.
“Lirsy, please get up.” He decided to risk the truth—a little of it, at least. “One of your father’s friends came back to the caves this evening.” He was dying. “He told us that your father…”
Lirsy was staring at him so intently now with her sea-gray eyes—Coden’s eyes—that Charder had to look away. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” she whispered.
Probably. “No,” said Charder. “I mean, he may have hidden somewhere. He’s good at hiding—your father. But I don’t know how much longer we can hold the caves, and I think the creasia will hurt you if they overrun us.” I think Arcove wants a surrender, not an extinction. But you’re the last of Coden’s foals, and he’ll see you as a focal point for future rebellion. He’ll kill you.
Lirsy’s eyes searched his face.
“So I am taking you to Keesha,” continued Charder. “You remember Keesha, don’t you?”
Lirsy cocked her head. “The big white snake that sings?”
“Yes.” Charder felt a measure of relief. She was making more sense than she had at any previous point in the evening. “And the closest entrance to Syriot is on the beach on the other side of the cliffs. We just have to get there. You can do that, can’t you?”
Lirsy considered. “Will Mother be there?”
Charder could have howled in frustration. Will she never stop asking that? “No.” You saw her die; don’t you remember? “Your mother cannot be there. Now come on.”
He was immensely relieved when she trotted after him again, though her moment of lucidity seemed to have evaporated. “The jellyfish is singing,” she told him.
“Of course,” mumbled Charder as he tried to make her move faster.
“It’s singing to the ghosts,” said Lirsy.
“Whose ghosts?” asked Charder. Not your mother’s, obviously; I can’t get you to remember that she’s dead.
Lirsy made a show of squinting at the top of the cliff. “They look like us,” she said at last, and Charder felt a chill. “I think they’re our ghosts, Charder.”
The hunter’s moon was sinking down the western sky, throwing the trail into shadow, by the time Charder and Lirsy reached the cliff top. Lirsy was crowding closely against him, wide-eyed. Charder did not dare ask what she thought she saw.
He hesitated for a moment, blinking in the brilliant moonlight. The cliff’s edge stretched to their right and left as far as Charder could see. Beyond the bare rock, the trees began. Charder strained his nose and ears, but caught only the usual scent of pine and the distant salt tang of the sea. I have done the right thing, he thought, and I have done it in time.
Charder moved forward, into the wood, and Lirsy followed, ducking and weaving, as though to avoid an invisible crowd. It seemed very dark under the trees. Charder reminded himself that the wood, though dense, was not wide. The creasia are far away, he told himself, chasing Coden…or killing him…or celebrating his death. This is the only thing I can do for him.
Then Charder heard a soft rustle in the quiet of the wood, like wind among leaves. Except there was no wind. Without stopping to look around, Charder bolted forward with a cry of, “Run, Lirsy!” The shout startled her, and she leapt after him. For a few moments, Lirsy and Charder raced side by side.
He heard a muffled thump behind them, nothing else. Creasia run so softly... Charder resisted the temptation to look back. He galloped with Lirsy through light and shadow, over logs and under branches, always with a silent terror at their heels. Charder’s heart gave a bound as a brighter patch appeared through the trees ahead: moonlight glistening on water.
Then a shadow appeared before the trees in front of them—a shade blacker than all the rest. Charder knew that shape. He’d seen it in battle…and in his nightmares.
Stung with fear, Charder veered away, and for one moment he forgot about Lirsy. Before he could turn back for her, three enormous cats flashed out of the darkness ahead. Charder reared and spun, lashing out with powerful back hooves, snapping with his teeth. He felt one blow connect with a creasia’s ribs and the unmistakable give as something broke. He danced out of the path of a charging cat, caught a mouthful of the animal’s shoulder and flipped it with its own momentum. He tore at its belly with his teeth and would have had its guts out on the ground if its companions had not already been on top of him.
At his peak, Charder might have handled the lot of them, but hunger and exhaustion made him slow. A cat caught him across the shoulders as he ducked away, and the pain reverberated through his body like the echo of a scream.
Lirsy galloped past him, running unevenly now, and Charder guessed that she had been injured. The three creasia abandoned Charder to race after her along the cliff. Charder tried to follow, but the muscles of his wounded shoulders pulled painfully.
To his right, the Sea Cliffs made a dizzy drop to the beach. He did not think he would ever reach it now. Lirsy was still slightly ahead of her pursuers when she turned inland, back towards the wood. Charder decided that she must have encountered a fissure in the cliff. Although she appeared to have gone into the trees, she must really be behind them.
Just before the first cat disappeared behind the blind, Charder heard a shriek and the rattle of loose stones. Charder’s heart sank as he put on one final burst of speed, reaching the edge of the fissure a short distance behind the last of the creasia.
The cliff looked just as he had imagined—a long, jagged arm of the sea, cutting sharply inland and leaving a narrower space between the edge of the forest and the lip of the crag. The edge looked crumbly at one particular spot. The creasia were nosing about without much interest, for it was obvious what had become of their victim. Charder remained rigid, staring at the cliff. He was still standing there when a shadow fell across his head and obscured the moonlight.
Charder spun to face his enemy. Arcove. You were supposed to be chasing Coden. Arcove Ela-creasia was the undisputed champion of his violent and aggressive race. He was the largest creasia that Charder had ever met—a massive, night-black cat in his prime, who outweighed Charder by at least four to one. Charder’s head did not come much past Arcove’s shoulder, and even without these obvious advantages, Arcove had a reputation for skill and ferocity in battle that made Charder dizzy with fear.
Arcove stood close enough to pounce, but he didn’t.
Charder felt numb with his injuries and the loss of the foal he had sworn to protect. It’s over. He stood his ground and steeled himself for death.
Arcove sat down. He was so close that Charder could see the individual black whiskers.
“Charder Ela-ferry. I had hoped to have a word with you this evening.”
Charder glared. He’s playing. Begin the fight yourself. But he could not move. He was afraid to die, and hated himself for it.
“The ferryshaft herd is crumbling,” said Arcove, his deep voice so quiet it was almost a whisper. “Soon they will need a new leader.”
Charder should have seen it coming, but he hadn’t. “No,” he said weakly.
“No, I wouldn’t—” He couldn’t say it. “They haven’t chosen me.” Attack him! Just attack him!
“They will. You know they will. You’re the only officer left.”
“The only one you haven’t killed?”
Arcove’s voice dropped to a growl. “The only one I haven’t chosen to kill.”
“Would you like to start by improving their lives or by torturing them?” asked Arcove. “You would like to feed them, yes? You would like to tell them that their foals will see adulthood, knowing that they can wake up in the morning and find water to drink?”
I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. “I can’t surrender the ferryshaft.” Charder almost choked. “They’re not mine to give! Go to Coden with your vile proposals. You won’t wait long for an answer!”
“That’s true,” said Arcove, “but it won’t be true by tomorrow. The ferryshaft will need a new leader, soon, and they will choose you...if you are there to be chosen.”
Charder despised the trembling in his hooves, yet he could not still them.
“Your choices,” said Arcove, “are few. I have the power at this moment to exterminate every ferryshaft on Lidian. However, digging you out of those caves will be difficult and bloody. It will cost many creasia lives. I prefer peace. If you seize the opportunity I am offering, you and yours will live. If not, I am sure others will pounce on the chance.”
Charder said nothing. His thoughts raced like rabbits pursued by a hawk.
Arcove flicked his tail. “The choice is yours. The effects upon your herd will be the same. If you do not surrender, someone else will.” He leaned forward until his whiskers tickled Charder’s ear. “If you refuse me, you will die here and now.” Charder could feel the cat’s hot breath on his neck. He could smell his own fear. He was aware of the other three cats, standing a respectful distance away, but watching closely. “Lirsy came to a swift end. You will not be so fortunate. We have all night. Need I go further?”
He certainly need not. Charder tucked his tail against his belly and crouched down to get away from Arcove’s mouth. He felt sick. “Alright,” he heard himself whisper. “As long as you stop killing the ferryshaft, you can have your surrender.”
“You are in no position to make conditions,” rejoined the cat. He took a step back. “We’ll call this war over for the moment and discuss your terms of surrender in the morning.”
Charder raised his head, eyes burning. “Your methods,” he hissed, “are not those of a warrior, but of a vulture!”
Arcove watched him without emotion. “If the methods of vultures win battles, then I will study them. I could hardly expect you to praise me. Nevertheless, you will submit. If you betray me, I promise that you will regret it every bit as much as you hate me.”
“I keep my promises,” snarled Charder.
Arcove sniffed. “A debatable contention. You’d best keep those you make to me, at least.”
The words stung like saltwater in a bleeding wound. Charder’s gaze dropped. He’s won. In every way.
Charder remained on the cliff for some time after Arcove had gone. He could have returned to the ferryshaft herd, but the thought of trying to look them in the eyes repulsed him. He was trying to work out how he would give them the news when he heard the first sounds of commotion from the north—snarls and hisses of cats, and their voices shouting orders.
Not so far away, Turis Rock jutted against the yellow moon. It was the highest part of the cliff, and it hung, not over the beach, but over the sea itself. Charder watched as two animals shot out of the wood into the open ground at the base of the rock. At first, he could not tell who or even what they were. Not until three more creasia came out of the woods and forced them apart did Charder realize that one was a ferryshaft.
Charder’s breath caught. Then he was running. I have to help him! I can’t…can’t… He stopped. His wounds were already beginning to pain him, and Turis Rock was farther away than it looked under the brilliant hunter’s moon. But I could reach it. Coden will hold them that long. Better to die fighting beside my king than to…
He could almost hear Arcove’s voice. You’d save no one and kill yourself.
So… I will leave a friend to die alone?
Charder paced, but he could already see the terrible shape of his choice. You’ve sold your honor. It’s done. You’re afraid of Arcove, and he knows it. He’s kept you alive for this.
Nevertheless, Charder kept walking. He did not run, but he continued towards Turis, sometimes stumbling, never taking his eyes off the fight. The four creasia were holding Coden at bay, but he was making them pay for it. Charder thought he saw a creasia body on the edge of the trees. Two of those on their feet were limping badly.
As Charder watched, Coden whipped around an attacker and chomped off most of his tail. The creasia roared in pain and fury. Charder squinted. Halvery? He was Arcove’s third in command and probably the one in charge of this clutter. He’ll be seeing red after that. Loss of a tail was a particularly insulting injury, thought to signify cowardice and retreat, and Halvery was an arrogant creature.
Is Coden trying to make them kill him?
Charder was just close enough now to hear some of the shouted insults. “What’s the matter, Halvery?” Coden snarled. “Are the rocks too sharp for your tender paws? Are your claws trapped inside your feet?” The ferryshaft slashed at a cat with his teeth, while deftly sending a small stone in Halvery’s direction with a back hoof. “Or are you infested with ticks? Are they sucking all the courage out of you, Halvery?”
They’re not supposed to kill him, thought Charder. They’re supposed to wait for Arcove. Charder felt a moment of sick vertigo as his surrender replayed in his head. Arcove knew this was about to happen. He was warning me not to interfere.
Halvery roared. Soon he was slashing as savagely as his subordinates, but they made little progress. Coden was too quick, and they were getting in each other’s way. Gradually, they all slowed and then paused to pant and glare.
Coden was lean and ragged. It was obvious that he’d been running from the creasia for days. But he was not badly injured. Not yet. His pale gray fur, so unusual in a ferryshaft, looked almost luminous in the moonlight. He still carried his bushy tail high, and his chin had that defiant tilt that Charder remembered.
You were always an excellent fighter, thought Charder, but you’re a trickster at heart. Run away, Coden. Please. Look up and see me and run.
Lirsy is dead, Charder remembered. Will I have to tell you that? Charder could not decide, for an instant, whether he wanted Coden to see him.
It did not matter, as Coden’s attention was wholly focused on the cats. Halvery was saying something, but Charder was too far away to hear their quieter voices. Coden sneered a reply.
Charder’s thoughts stumbled on. Would Arcove really have killed Lirsy if I hadn’t tried to run with her? Would she have survived a surrender if I had just waited? What if Coden survives this fight? His mate is dead, most of his friends, and now the last of his foals. He was already half-mad with grief and now…
Halvery and Coden looked like they were escalating to another engagement. Charder could tell from Halvery’s posture that Coden was baiting him, and it was working. Do you want to die, Coden? And then, in a moment of brutal honesty, Charder asked himself, Do I want you to die?
Charder caught a ripple of movement on the edge of the trees beyond the combatants. He blinked. The moonlight caught the glint of eyes, and he could see a roiling of twitching, pacing movement in the shadows. The rest of the creasia had arrived. Too late to run.
But not too late for me to redeem myself. Coden shouldn’t have to die alone. Charder started walking again, more slowly this time. He felt as though he were struggling through deep mud. He could not quite catch his breath.
Arcove emerged from the trees. He looked like a piece of the midnight sky against the red rock. He said something to Halvery, who hung his head and stepped back. Coden stood his ground, bristling. They spoke to each other. Charder heard the bass rumble of Arcove’s implacable growl and the crackle of Coden’s contempt, but he could not catch the words. He didn’t really need to.
Arcove is going to fight him one-on-one, thought Charder, with a degree of admiration. He’d never heard of a creasia hunt ending this way. Single combat was a courtesy cats reserved for each other, not for ferryshaft. And with all the other creasia watching… This is how they choose kings. It was probably the greatest compliment Arcove could pay to a rival, but it only felt like torture to Charder.
Why am I still standing here? I should be there. I should be beside Coden. I should.
Arcove and Coden leapt at each other. The fight was not long, but it was impressive. Charder had known that Coden was quick and that he could be clever when tackling larger enemies. But, exhausted as he must be, Charder would never have expected Coden to hold his own in a fight against Arcove. There was a moment when they came together in the air, and Coden landed such a solid blow to Arcove’s chest that Charder thought it might stun the cat long enough for Coden to open a vital vein.
Arcove did stagger when he hit the ground, and Coden did kick him in the face hard enough to bloody his nose. But then that enormous mouth opened, Arcove’s white teeth flashed, and the cat was up again. This fight could have only one outcome.
A time came when Coden did not leap away quickly enough. Arcove’s claws caught him under the belly and flipped him. Crimson stains began to soak through his pale fur. A moment later, Coden slipped in his own blood. Arcove’s teeth locked in the elbow of his left foreleg, ripped the tendon, and crippled the leg. Coden fought on. He limped, but he never whimpered.
Charder was close enough now that he could easily have called to Coden. He both wanted and feared that Coden would see him. You are my king. Tell me what to do. Please, please.
My king, but also, my friend, thought Charder. My king, but also…
He remembered the day Coden had been born to one of his brightest councilors. He remembered watching Coden grown up, always a step ahead of the other foals, always with grander ideas. Coden had made friends with telshees and curbs and ely-ary. He’d wanted to explore the island to its heights and depths. He’d wanted to wander the seas and learn the secrets of the humans. He’d wanted… So much more than ruling the ferryshaft.
But I talked him into it, thought Charder, because I thought he could win this war—so young and so full of ideas. And he almost did win. Almost. But instead, the war just broke his heart, and now Arcove is going to break the rest of him.
Charder realized that he must have made a noise, because Halvery turned suddenly and looked directly at him. Charder froze and waited. He felt terror and immense relief. This is the right place for me to die.
But then Halvery turned away and looked back towards the fight. Charder felt as though someone had kicked him in the belly. They’ve got orders not to kill me. Arcove is that certain of my cooperation.
For just a moment, fury overcame Charder’s terror and inertia, and he picked up his pace. He did not, however, walk closer to the crowd of creasia. Instead, he angled along the edge of the cliff, into the long shadow cast by Turis Rock. He could not see as much of the fight from this angle, but he was physically closer to the combatants. He could hear them better, and he had an insane idea of calling to Coden, begging him to run. He might still get away. If he really wanted to. I could help him reach Syriot…save him instead of Lirsy.
The pair was coming closer as, step by step, Arcove pushed Coden up Turis Rock. Charder could hear them panting and their grunts and growls as they struck at each other. Coden’s fur had looked more red than gray last Charder had gotten a good look at it, but he caught only glimpses of their legs now.
There was a pause. Charder was surprised to hear Arcove’s voice, pitched so low that Charder doubted the watching cats could hear. “Coden,” Arcove panted. “I’ll end this cleanly if you’ll stand still a moment. There are those watching who do not wish to see you die in pieces, and this is the only gift I can give.”
“You’d like that,” spat Coden. “My tail to wave under the noses of the other ferryshaft? A trophy for your den?”
“You know that’s not true. It doesn’t have to end this way.”
Charder drew in his breath to shout, but hesitated. Arcove’s words surprised him, but more than that, the timbre of Arcove’s voice had completely changed. Even Coden sounded different—less defiant, more tired and more bitter.
“I will never surrender the ferryshaft,” said Coden. “They will fight again, and they will do it quicker if they do not see me roll over for you.” He was talking so quietly that Charder had to strain to hear. He wished he could see their faces.
“I don’t want this,” said Arcove.
Charder could hear the smile in Coden’s voice when he answered. “Arcove…for just this moment…it’s not about what you want.” Then, to Charder’s horror, Coden turned and jumped. He sailed from the pinnacle of Turis Rock in a smooth arc, still graceful, and then dropped into the coral sea far below.
Charder’s heart dropped with him. He stared at the water, then back up at Turis. Arcove had come to the edge and was looking down. Charder had no idea whether Arcove noticed him in the shadow of the rock on the cliff below. Charder didn’t think so. Arcove was staring down at the white-capped waves and the reflection of the yellow moon farther out to sea. His face had an expression that Charder had not expected and could not interpret. Arcove shut his eyes, and the expression vanished. He seemed to compose himself and then turned back to the waiting creasia. As he descended the pinnacle of rock, Charder heard him say, “The war is over. We have won.”
Something inside Charder broke. He threw back his head and howled his grief and self-reproach to the cold stars. No one came to join him or to stop him. No one paid any attention to him at all.
This is how the creasia remembered the final fight between Coden Ela-ferry and Arcove Ela-creasia. They said that Arcove and Coden were quicker than thought and lighter than shadows, that they circled and struck and ducked and leapt too fast for the eye to follow. They said that Arcove was as black as midnight with a blow like lightning, and that Coden was as gray as the sea and agile as water. They said that their fighting was like a dance of ash and moonbeams. No one who watched the fight ever forgot it, and they told the story to their cubs and grand-cubs. That is how the creasia remembered it.
That is not how Charder remembered the fight. Charder remembered it as the night he watched a hero die…and did nothing.
Chapter 2. Twelve Years Later
So-fet’s mate was not quite dead when she arrived, though the vultures were already picking at his entrails. She laid her head beside him as his eyes glazed.
Voices and faces whirled around her.
“Her first mate—”
“—the last raid of the season—”
“The spring grass is already showing! They hardly ever come so late.”
“—and they only killed three.”
“Poor luck for her…to lose him now, so close to the end of the raiding season.”
“So-fet, come away. There’s a storm blowing in.”
So-fet stood and slipped in her mate’s blood. Something stirred inside her, as though in sympathy with her pain. She vomited and gagged. Blood and water coursed down her thighs.
Her friends sniffed in alarm. “She’s foaling! Get her into a cave!”
They pushed her, nipped at her flanks, and pulled at her shoulders. Somehow they got her up a path into a cave at the foot of the cliffs. Just as the first fury of the storm broke over Lidian, So-fet heaved her firstborn onto the rock floor, his birth-blood mingling with the blood of his dead father. He was tiny, born too soon.
He lay shivering there amid the strobe lightning, and tried to suck milk from a dry udder. His mother did not stop him. She did not seem to see him. In desperation, he licked up the blood in her fur.
Finally, towards morning, So-fet stirred. She looked at her foal and noticed that he was not only tiny, but dark—much darker than the light brown coats of most foals. She looked at the driving rain and at her infant son—forced from her body too early and orphaned in a single stroke—and she named him Storm.
* * * *
Her milk came two days later. Everyone said he would die.
He didn’t, but he was too weak to stand when she nursed him for the first time. The storm had blown itself out by then, and the numbness of So-fet’s grief had passed. She did not think about the sodden, half-eaten body on the edge of the plain. She gave all her thoughts and all her love to the wobbly, undersized foal who had no father.
Half-orphan, full orphan—it was nearly the same thing in the ferryshaft herd. Little Storm would have to fight to survive. He would need to be strong, and, for this, he must have good milk. His mother ate for his sake. She had lost her status as a mated female, but she fought the higher ranking females for the good grass.
Storm did not starve, though he did not thrive. By the end of spring, he was still the smallest foal in the herd. When the scarcity of water drove the ferryshaft on their annual migration across the plain to Chelby Lake, he could not keep up with the rest, and So-fet had to spend a night on the plain alone with him.
This frightened her. Sometimes the creasia ranged far afield, and there were other hunters who would scruple even less to take a runty foal and his mother caught away from the herd by night. Dawn, however, found them still alive, huddled together in the dewy grass. By the next evening, they had rejoined the herd near Chelby Lake.
The abundance of the season made life easier for them. The ferryshaft settled into a comfortable routine—feeding on the plain in the morning and drinking by the lake in the evening.
So-fet hoped that Storm would forget that fearful spring. She wanted his first memories to be happy ones. As he grew and became more self-aware, he did seem happy, though his isolation puzzled him. He did not understand why the other foals snickered when he approached, why they melted away when he wandered towards their games.
So-fet pretended not to understand when he questioned her. The reason was simple: he was still too small. Even the females out-measured him. So-fet played with Storm alone, fretting to herself.
During their first summer, most foals joined small social groups. They played, practicing skills they would need in the coming winter. Hierarchies arose first within these groups, often based on the status of parents. A foal with two parents might get help from them finding food during the winter, but a half-orphan without a clique would never see his second spring. Storm met nothing but rejection when attempting to join even orphan cliques. The prominent did not want him because he was insignificant, and the insignificant did not want him because he was not strong.
Yet So-fet remained hopeful. She said little, loved much, and waited.
One day in early fall, Storm was resting beneath a scrub tree, admiring the new colors in the leaves, when he caught sight of an animal on the distant plain. It looked brownish and large, and it was moving in a straight line at a steady pace. He could tell that it was not a ferryshaft, but that was all. Storm was instantly curious. He was about to go ask his mother to identify the new animal, when it vanished.
Storm forgot completely about what the animal had been in his wonder at where it had gone. On an impulse, he got up and started running. The sun was sinking down the western sky by the time Storm reached the spot where he thought he had seen the animal disappear. He snuffled about in the tall grass, but found nothing to explain what he’d seen.
Storm knew he should return to the herd. His mother had forbidden him to wander at night. He turned back towards the lake…and froze. He was alone upon the plain! The entire ferryshaft herd had vanished. In a panic, Storm galloped in the direction of the lake. What if I’m lost? What if I can’t get back by nightfall? What if I am alone on the plain after dark? What if...?
The herd reappeared. Storm stared. Suddenly he understood. The plain isn’t flat. Now he knew how the animal had disappeared. Just a few steps in the right direction could put me out of sight of the herd…of the lake…of another animal. Beaming with his discovery, Storm galloped back to tell his mother.
However, So-fet did not share his enthusiasm. “What were you thinking, Storm? Leaving the herd at dusk?” She snuffled all over him to make sure he wasn’t hurt, then nipped hard at his ear. “Never do that again! Do you understand? Never!”
Storm understood only that he’d made his mother angry and somehow frightened, but he said nothing else until the next day, when he thought to ask about the strange animal.
So-fet stared at him. “You went looking for a strange animal on the plain?”
“Well, not exactly,” began Storm. “It disappeared, and—”
“Storm, you must never go chasing after strange animals again.”
“Why? What are they?”
“I don’t know what you saw,” said So-fet, “but—” Her mouth snapped shut. “Just do as I say, Storm. I love you, and I want you to live a long life.”
Storm snuggled against her, although he was not satisfied. If he’d had anyone else to ask about the animal, he would have asked, but Storm had no one. He spent more time than ever on the plains after his discovery. He found troughs that ran for great distances. They could hide an animal from view. He learned to lie still in a dip amid the tall grass. He learned, in his loneliness, how to spy.
“Storm,” he overheard one female snort. “Raindrop would have been a better name. I’ve seen foals like him come and go.”
“Perhaps,” whispered another, “but not with his color—”
“Oh, the fur, yes. It will probably attract attention from predators, but not before he kills his foolish mother.”
Several listeners gasped.
“So-fet is stubborn. When winter comes, she will try to feed that runt and eventually starve herself. I’ve seen it happen before. One ferryshaft cannot provide for herself and a growing foal in winter.”
“I heard she foaled early when she saw his father dead,” whispered one. “That’s why he’s so small and ugly. She should have named him Vearil—bad luck.”
They kept talking, but Storm stopped listening. He didn’t eavesdrop anymore after that. He didn’t listen to the other ferryshaft much at all.
Chapter 4. Pathar
Near evening of each day, the herd traveled to Chelby Lake to drink. The ferryshaft were in their best spirits, then. They told stories, gossiped, and played. Storm watched the other foals, hoping someone would invite him to join in. One day, he started to practice the game sholo, in which one tried to balance a stick on one’s nose for as long as possible. Normally, other foals tried to distract the player without actually touching him. Storm didn’t have anyone to distract him, so he walked along the muddy bank of the lake, balancing his stick. He hoped the others would see and be impressed, but they ignored him.
A few days later, he slipped while engaged in his solitary pastime, and toppled into the water. It was deeper than he’d expected, and for one panicked moment, he didn’t know which way was up. Then something grasped him by the back of the neck and hauled him to the bank. Storm looked up, dripping and trembling. He saw a male named Pathar—the most ancient ferryshaft in the herd, with fur more white than brown. Storm had often sat where he thought no one noticed him, listening to Pathar’s stories.
“Your instincts are fine, but your stroke is all wrong,” said Pathar. “Keep your head up. Move your legs like you’re walking. Don’t panic. Go on, let’s see you do it.”
“B-but,” Storm stammered, “I—I’ve never—swum—”
“And you never will unless you get back in the water. Go on.”
He did. By the end of the afternoon, he was swimming to Pathar’s satisfaction. That evening, he sat and listened to Pathar talk about edible roots to an attentive group of foals. None of them looked at Storm, but Pathar acknowledged him and even quizzed him afterwards.
Storm had no idea why a prominent elder had taken an interest in him, but he was determined not to lose Pathar’s attention. So-fet seemed just as confused, but pleased. “Be polite to him, Storm. Do everything he says. He can teach you things that I can’t.”
Storm was delighted to have someone else to talk to, even if Pathar did snap at him and occasionally ignored him for days. Storm learned about weather patterns, poisonous plants, and the habits of other animals. He learned about parts of the island he’d never visited—dense forests to the south, cliffs and ocean to the west. Pathar answered all of Storm’s questions until one day when Storm asked about Kuwee Island.
Kuwee was a hump of wooded land in Chelby Lake. Most of the tiny islands scattered near shore had no actual soil, just trees, but Kuwee Island had a narrow beach. What was more, it rose up to a hill that would have given a good view of the lakeshore for quite a distance. The island lay just far enough away to discourage a swim, but close enough to make a curious foal think about trying. As soon as So-fet heard that Storm had learned to swim, she told him that he must not go near Kuwee. She said it was forbidden, although she did not know why.
Pathar snorted when Storm mentioned the island. “There’s nothing over there,” he said. “Nothing but trees and dirt and a few caves.”
“Then why is it forbidden?” asked Storm. “What is everyone afraid of?”
Pathar hesitated. “They’re afraid of the past.”
The next day, Pathar approached Storm and So-fet shortly after they woke. Storm greeted him happily, but Pathar brushed him aside. “I have come to talk with your mother.” So-fet seemed startled, but she followed Pathar some distance away, where the two spoke in low voices. Storm felt he would die of curiosity before they returned.
“Your mother is willing for you to spend the day with me away from the herd,” Pathar told him. “Come.” Storm followed Pathar, glancing over his shoulder at his mother. She smiled, but he thought she looked unhappy.
“Pathar, where are we going?”
“What is Groth?”
Pathar didn’t answer.
Storm felt pleased to be on an adventure, even a mysterious one. Morning sunlight streamed over the plain as the two ferryshaft moved north along the edge of Chelby Wood. The breeze smelled of dew-soaked earth and grass. They saw groups of ferryshaft at first, some still sleeping, but soon they left the herd behind. Twice, they startled deer as large as themselves. They bounded away through the long grasses, putting birds and insects to flight.
The day was clear, and Storm could see far away cross the plain. He even saw the outline of the Red Cliffs off to their left. So-fet had told him that the herd would move there for winter. In the misty distance ahead, a mountain stood up against the sky. Between themselves and the mountain, Storm saw a dark border that might have been woodland.
They stopped often to rest. Storm had never traveled all day, and he grew tired. Pathar grumbled under his breath, “A fine pair we make—too old and too young—but maybe not too stupid.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Storm.
“Do you smell anything?” asked Pathar in his abrupt way.
“No—” Storm stopped. “Yes.” He did smell something. Sweet…alluring, yet a deep, instinctive fear stirred in his gut. “What is it?” he whispered.
“It is Groth,” said Pathar in a low voice.
The two ferryshaft had drifted into the wood beside the lake as they walked, and they emerged suddenly from the trees, blinking in the brighter light of an unexpected clearing. Storm looked into the strangest forest he’d ever seen. The plants looked like enormous, deep-throated flowers. Some were as tall as trees, hollow and heavy with collected rainwater. Others grew nearer the ground, forming bowls full of clear liquid. Their glossy stalks were dark green at the base, morphing to vivid pink around their speckled, lacy rims. Some looked very old, with thick, woody bases, while others were delicate and young with more vivid colors. Storm could see no other types of plants in the strange woodland. The ground was thick with the decaying remains of their bowls.
Pathar strolled, unperturbed, along the edge of the forest. “Groth eats things.”
Storm trotted beside him. “Things?”
“Mostly birds and small animals. They crawl into the bowls, drown, decay, and are absorbed.”
Storm shuddered. “Why don’t the birds and animals climb out before they drown?”
“Because,” said Pathar, “the water in their bowls is sweet with sap. Some say the sap is poison, that it causes insanity or sleep.” Pathar examined one of the bowls critically. “It is also said that those who drink will dream the future.” Pathar bent and drank.
Chapter 5. Dream the Future
Storm spent a sleepless night beside Pathar in Chelby Wood. “If I die,” Pathar whispered, “you must follow the edge of the lake back to the herd.”
“Why did you do it?” whispered Storm. “Why?”
Pathar didn’t answer. He trembled so violently that his worn teeth knocked together. Sometimes his breathing grew so shallow that Storm feared it would stop. He twitched and whimpered. Once he got up and wandered with sightless, staring eyes through the trees. Storm had to keep him from walking into the lake or back towards Groth.
“Coden?” whispered Pathar. “Is that you?”
Storm had never felt so wretched or so frightened. Towards dawn, Pathar lay down and grew still. Storm lay down beside him and slept.
“Well, get up.”
Storm opened his eyes. Pathar was looking down at him. It was near noon. “Pathar!” Storm wobbled to his feet. “I thought— Why did you—?”
“We’ll need to hurry if we want to get back to the herd before dark.” He was already starting away, and Storm had to trot to keep up. He didn’t know what to say.
“Pathar, why did you do that?”
“Do what?” Pathar didn’t look at him, but he had an odd little smile on his face.
“I thought you were going to die,” said Storm.
Storm stopped moving. “I don’t understand why you did that. I don’t understand anything about you. Why do you talk to me? Why do you teach me things? Everyone else thinks I’m bad luck, that I’m going to die this winter, that I’m going to get my mother killed.” He stopped. He hadn’t meant to say those things.
Pathar turned. “But you don’t believe them.”
“No,” hissed Storm between clenched teeth. He could feel the unfamiliar sensation of his fur bristling and his ears settling against his head.
“You’re young to be so angry,” said Pathar.
“I’m not angry!” shouted Storm. I’m lonely, and you’re not my friend. I don’t know what you are.
“You’re not going to die this winter.”
Storm stared him. “Did you really see the future?”
Storm brought his ears up and his tail down. He came forward meekly, curious, the tightness gone from his chest and head.
“I dreamed many things,” said Pathar, “the past, perhaps the future. My own death, I think. I don’t understand most of what I saw, but I understand enough.”
“Enough for what?”“Enough for hope.” Pathar nipped at him like a foal, surprising him so much that Storm nearly fell over. In the end, they played tag through the woods and raced each other through the grass until dusk, when they rejoined the ferryshaft herd.