Chapter 19. Ambition
[need quote for this one]
Collaris’s new ru was called Valla—a dainty, cream-colored foal, small for her age, and timid. By the time the river froze, the clique had added another new clique member—a big yearling male named Tarsis—orphaned in the first creasia raid. The clique actually turned away another, smaller male, who tried to join about the same time. Mylo thinks he can afford to be picky, thought Storm.
Maybe he did, or maybe he just didn’t think they could support another light-weight mouth. Two rues were a lot for an orphan clique to defend, and Valla did not bring down her share of prey.
Storm thought that Tarisis might be scheming to take over the clique after Mylo left. He was smart enough, and he could fight. However, he wasn’t too ambitious to be patient. Mylo would be four years old in spring. Some ferryshaft took a mate at four, but Mylo did not have the looks to attract an independent mate, and Tollee was not old enough. More likely, Mylo would stay with the clique until he was five and better able to defend a ru on his own. At that point, Tarsis might be big enough to consider fighting Callaris for control of the clique.
At least, that was what Storm, Tracer, and Leep thought would happen. “And then there’s us,” said Leep with a thump of tail, “the rank and file. Big enough to matter, not big enough to rule. Or probably to mate, either.”
Tracer snorted. “You could have a mate this spring if you wanted.”
Leep had been spending excessive amounts of time flirting with various female cliques. He was getting less embarrassed about it. “You think so? At three? I couldn’t father a foal…could I?”
“I think there are a few who’d let you try,” snickered Tracer.
“Oh, well, you’re one to talk—you and that butterfly-eyed…what’s her name?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Tracer sweetly. He had, indeed, been making eyes at a young female who’d lost her mate last year. She was not high ranking or particularly pretty, but she laughed whenever Tracer tried to be funny, and she just happened to be on the edges of her clique whenever he came around.
“Well, alright, her name is Mia,” said Tracer. He glanced at Storm. “And if I can find an interested female, anyone can.”
Storm did not rise to the bait. He was looking up at the cliff from where they lay in the lea of a boulder.
Tracer nudged him. “Oh, come on, you don’t even try.”
Storm smiled. “I’m only a yearling.”
“You’ll be two this spring. Foals like us have to start early—”
“I’m not like you,” said Storm. “I’m a runt.” He still stood a head shorter than any ferryshaft his own age.
Tracer squirmed. “That doesn’t mean—”
“They talk about your fur,” put in Leep. “They notice you, believe me.”
Storm smiled. “They notice me. That doesn’t mean they want to mate with me.”
“They’re curious,” persisted Leep. “Rumors still go around about how Kellsy couldn’t catch you. All you’d have to do—”
“I’m not going to flirt with the female cliques until someone deigns to notice me,” said Storm. “I’m going to fight Mylo for Tollee.”
A moment of perfect silence greeted this announcement. Then Tracer and Leep both spoke at once.
“Oh, Storm, no!”
“What did you just say about being a runt?”
“If you win a ru in a fight, she has to choose you afterward,” said Tracer. “You don’t have the right to claim her the way a rogan does who has supported her all winter. Even if you manage to beat Mylo…she could just walk away!”
“Then she’ll walk away,” said Storm, still staring at the cliff.
“You won’t beat Mylo,” said Leep. “Storm, tell me you’re not about to do this tomorrow.”
Storm finally looked at him and smiled. “No, of course not. Next year, maybe.”
“Good. Then there’s time to talk you out of it.”
“Yes,” said Storm, “but you won’t. Instead, maybe you should help me learn to fight.” He’d been working on his plan since the start of winter. Storm could tell he was filling out, putting on muscle, gaining better coordination. When he skated this year, he rivaled the three and four-year-olds for agility. He took long runs in the winter twilight, pushing himself for speed, building muscle that would put power behind his kicks.
He’d found the sheep trails again, too. Slowly and methodically, he’d begun to learn some of the ones near the winter feeding grounds. He chose his favorites and memorized every leaf-thin ledge, every drop and gap. Out on the windy cliff face, Storm’s small size and light weight were an asset. He was becoming bolder. He searched for the trails that led to caves. Sometimes he left prey there. He would return for it days later and find it frozen, still fresh and undisturbed. I can help feed a foal, and I can protect a mate. I might do it differently than others, but I am capable.
Except the mate he wanted was Tollee, and to win her, he would have to fight—and probably kill—his clique leader. Storm did not dislike Mylo. He didn’t think Tollee disliked him, either. But she doesn’t want to be his mate. She feels trapped. He saw it in her eyes every time someone mentioned the coming spring—one season closer to fulfilling the bargain she’d made for protection.
“Just wait for her,” Leep told him reasonably. “She’s only obligated to stay with Mylo for the number of years he was her rogan. That would be…”
“Four,” said Storm flatly. Ordinarily, mating relationships were renegotiated on a yearly basis. Most mates remained together for several years, especially if they successfully produced young, but this was by no means universal. However, the rules for rogans and rues were different.
“So four,” said Leep as though that were not longer than any of them had been alive. “And probably less. Sometimes the rogans break up those long partnerships after a couple of years. If Mylo sires big, healthy foals or fights his way up the hierarchy, the other females will take an interest. Anything could happen in four years!”
Storm shook his head. “You don’t understand.” Tollee saved my life from those curbs. Now I’m going to save hers. I’m going to give her back her freedom. She can do whatever she wants with it. He was by no means certain that she would want him, although he tried not to think about that. To Leep and Tracer, he said, “Why don’t you just show me how to fight?”
They tried. To their credit, they tried hard, but Storm soon realized that neither of them were very good at it. There was a reason that Tracer and Leep were not contending for the top positions in their clique.
In desperation, Storm finally went to Tollee and explained, awkwardly, that he’d like to learn to fight. She gave him a strange look, but she didn’t ask why. Storm was extremely grateful. As the winter wound down, he spent long afternoons with her, ducking and dodging, and trying to flip her over.
“You’re quick,” Tollee told him. “So very quick, Storm, but you’ll lose in the real thing unless you fight dirty. You don’t have any weight behind your attacks.”
“What do you mean by dirty?” Storm asked.
Tollee shrugged. “Hamstring your opponent. Open an artery and just keep dancing away until he bleeds out. Slash at the forehead so that he has blood in his eyes and can’t see what he’s doing. Or…you know…back him off a cliff…or over weak ice.”
Storm frowned. Ferryshaft didn’t usually fight like that. Consciously or unconsciously, they did not fight to kill their own kind. There was always the chance that an opponent would simply surrender. “Did you do that to any of the males who harassed you?” He’d wanted to ask before, but never dared. She would have been less than a year old. Could she have managed to kill another ferryshaft?
Tollee looked away.
“You don’t have to answer,” said Storm quickly, but she interrupted him.
“One. I thought about a lot of ways to do it, but I only killed one.”
Storm wanted to go to her and nuzzle her cheek, but he didn’t think she’d like that.
Tollee kicked at a rock. “I went to Mylo right afterward. I didn’t think I could do it again.”
Her eyes met Storm’s and he started back wordlessly. He wondered whether she’d guessed what he was practicing for. He wondered whether she would tell him not to do it. She could fight Mylo better than I could, thought Storm. But she won’t. Because…
The herd might punish a ru who attacked her rogan, but Storm wasn’t sure that was why Tollee wouldn’t do it.
Maybe Mylo will yield. Maybe he doesn’t really want Tollee. Maybe I won’t have to kill him.
“Storm,” said Tollee, “don’t do anything stupid.”
Chapter 20. Riddle of an Island
It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
So-fet foaled that spring. Dover would not let Storm enter the cave at first—behavior that Storm found infuriating. He believed that Dover still harbored a secret suspicion that Storm took food from So-fet when he was not looking.
So-fet called, “Storm, is that you?” and he brushed past Dover into the cave. She was standing at the back, and from around her legs peered a tiny head. So-fet smiled, a little tired. “Meet your sister, Storm.”
Storm lowered his head to sniff the tiny creature. She looked up with big, inquiring eyes and chirped at him. Storm loved her at once. “She’s so small…” he whispered.
So-fet laughed. “You were smaller.”
Storm gave the baby a playful lick on the nose. “What’s her name?”
“It’s a good name.” The foal was mouse-brown—not an unusual color. But as Storm gazed into her bright eyes, he noticed that they were as gray as his own.
* * * *
Sauny grew quickly. Soon she was sniffing among the rocks, never venturing more than a few lengths from her mother. Storm visited them often. He renewed his habit of bringing small gifts of rare food, which seemed to appease Dover. Sauny adored her brother. One of her first half-pronounced words was “Sorm.”
Storm’s summer coat came in even paler than last year’s. He was the color of smudged snow, almost white in places. What must you think of my fur now, Pathar? Storm had not spoken to his old teacher since the scene in the cave. He knew he might have sought him out at night among the rocks, but he didn’t. He was tempted, as he tried to learn to fight, but something held him back—a bitterness that lodged in his throat and made it hard to talk. If Pathar is ashamed to be seen speaking to me, perhaps it’s better that we not speak.
When they crossed the fields to Chelby Lake, Storm slowed his pace to match Sauny’s. He helped So-fet and Dover carry her when she grew exhausted, so that they would not have to spend a dangerous night alone upon the open plain. By the next morning, she was bright and alert, investigating her new surroundings. “Look, Storm, look at the big trees!”
Dover groaned, and So-fet yawned. Storm got up. “Can I take her for a walk in Chelby Wood? We won’t go far.”
“Please,” muttered Dover.
When the foal entered the trees, she was speechless with wonder. Seeing her here for the first time reminded Storm of his own first visit to Chelby Wood. The scent of loamy earth, the play of dappled shadows, the sounds of birds, and the noises of squirrels among the leaves—it was all new again.
Finally, they reached the lake—cool and still in the late morning sunlight. Sauny let out a gasp of pleasure. “Storm..! What is it?”
“That’s Chelby Lake, Sauny. Soon I’ll teach you to swim in it.”
The baby gave an unintelligible reply and sauntered down to the water, where she amused herself by wading on the edges and watching the minnows dart away. “What are they?! What are they?!” She squealed in excitement as she chased the flitting forms, trying to catch them in her mouth.
Storm laughed. “They’re fish. Sometimes, if you sit very still, you can catch one of the big ones.”
Sauny vowed to try, but she couldn’t achieve more than a moment of stillness before leaping after the minnows again, squealing and splashing. At last, she grew tired and came over to sit with Storm on the bank. Her eyes, however, continued to roam the shore, seeking new adventures. Then something caught her attention. “What’s that?”
Storm followed her gaze over the water. “Oh. That’s Kuwee Island.”
Sauny rose, fascinated. “Let’s go there!”
“No, little one,” smiled Storm. “No one goes there. You wouldn’t like it—just a lot of vines and trees...”
He stopped. What am I saying? I have no idea what’s on Kuwee. I’m just repeating the sort of thing Pathar said. Storm felt disgusted with himself. “Sauny, someday I’ll take you to the island…when you’re big enough to swim that far.” Sauny cocked her head at Storm’s serious tone. Then a dragonfly caught her attention, and she dashed, snapping, after it.
* * * *
Summer melted away, but Storm could not forget that conversation by the lake. Sauny’s speech improved, and she began to play with other foals. Storm doubted that she even remembered what he had said about Kuwee Island, but his own words gnawed at him. Was he starting to think like an adult, keeping secrets that he didn’t even understand?
Storm realized that he knew less about Kuwee Island than about groth—surely a much more dangerous place. Even Pathar said the island wasn’t dangerous. What did he say…that we are afraid of the past?
Storm had explored most of the plain and wood in the vicinity of Chelby Lake, and Kuwee Island became more enticing by the day. He could not have said for sure when he decide to swim over, but he knew when he woke that morning that he was going. It was early fall, and if he waited any longer, the water would be too cold. He debated on whether he should take anyone with him. Certainly he would not take Sauny—not until he knew what was over there. She wasn’t a strong enough swimmer yet in any case. He thought about asking Leep or Tracer to accompany him. He wanted to ask Tollee. But he was afraid that one of them might try to stop him. In the end, he asked none of them and told no one.
Storm arrived at the edge of Chelby Lake just after sunup. A light mist hung over the water, stirred by a faint breeze. He measured the distance with his eyes. It would be a long swim, but he had been swimming a lot lately—trying to strengthen his legs for the fight with Mylo.
Storm’s fur had already started to thicken for winter, and the water cold water took several moments to penetrate to his skin as he waded out. Soon he was paddling. The mist swirled around his head, making him uneasy. On land, he could see above the haze, but at eye level with the water, the mist blocked his view of the island and all but obscured the shore.
Storm swam steadily on, the fog growing ever worse. He began to imagine shapes in the gray streamers—a shore that never materialized, phantom trees that retreated from him. He glanced back and found that he could no longer see the shore of the lake. Storm, you fool, couldn’t you have waited until the fog burned off? You had all summer to do this! Why chose today? For a few sickening moments, Storm thought that he might have passed the island, swimming beyond Kuwee into the vastness of Chelby Lake. He wondered if he should try to go back. He wondered if he would just swim in circles until he drowned.
The sight of trees rising out the mist ahead came as a great relief. Moments later, Storm struggled out of the water onto a strip of sand and rock. The beach was not wide—three lengths at the most—and beyond rose a dense forest. Storm grinned and shook himself. He was standing on forbidden ground.
After a few moments’ rest, he began to investigate the forest’s edge. He found little in the way of trails—none of the usual beaten tracks that ferryshaft had wound through Chelby Wood. At last, he found what he took to be a deer trail—faint and rarely used—but it gave him a starting point to penetrate the underbrush.
Dim light filtered through the canopy as he started up the trail, and the fog was as bad as it had been over the water. Storm noticed that many of the trees were blackened and gave off a strange odor. He recalled that Pathar had once pointed out a tree struck by lightning with a similar smell and appearance. Storm struggled to remember the word for what had happened to the tree. Fire. Fire is extremely not and bright. It spreads and kills things, and often comes from lightening.
Is that why the adults don’t come here? But the fire had clearly not been recent, as underbrush had grown since.
Storm wandered on along the faint line of the deer track, angling slightly uphill. He was beginning to feel vaguely disappointed. What am I looking for? What did I expect to find? A creasia den? A nest of curbs? A whole cave full of strange symbols? A monster?
He began to wonder if there was anything at all on the little island. The air was stuffy beneath the trees and quiet. At last, he stumbled over something lying beneath ferns. Curious, Storm reached down and, after a little digging, pulled the object free.
He felt a chill. It was a skull. A brief examination assured him that it had not belonged to a deer. It was a ferryshaft skull. However, it was obviously many years old. Storm considered it thoughtfully. How had it come to be in this forbidden place?
As he continued, he found more bones. In fact, he soon realized that the island was covered with them. Some were ferryshaft, and some were another creature that Storm could not identify. Once he found a massive creasia jaw bone. What killed them?
Storm left the deer track and began to struggle directly uphill. He wanted to see what was at the island’s crest. He was soon above the mist and walking through streamers of sunlight as the trees thinned. He saw bones everywhere now that he was looking for them. Many were half-buried, and all seemed to be about the same age.
At last, he came out of the trees into a clearing, where sunlight shone on warm grass. Here, the island’s hilltop rose sharply to a crest of bare, blackened rock. Lightning, thought Storm. This place is has been struck by lightning, probably many times. It explained the clearing and the signs of fire on the trees.
More bones poked through the grass around the hill. Storm identified two more ferryshaft skulls, along with parts of many skeletons. He found more of the strange creature’s bones, too. They looked like huge, scattered vertebra, but most had been pulled apart, and Storm could not decipher what the original animals had looked like. Again, all of the bones seemed to be of about the same age.
He crossed the clearing and circled the rocky outcrop at its center. He had a mind to climb to the top and see whether he could get a view of the mainland over the trees. As he searched for the best way up, he rounded the hill and found a wide-mouthed cave angling down into it. The cave was not as large as the Volontaro cave, but it was still one of the largest he’d ever seen.
Storm ventured inside hesitantly. Some irrational part of his mind kept insisting that this was a monster’s lair, but he fought it down. Any kind of predator must feed regularly, and all of the bones were old. Whatever had killed them was long gone.
The black stone of Kuwee Island looked very different from the red rock of the cliff-side caves, and Storm found translucent blue crystals growing on the walls. He grew bolder as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. He took a drink from a hollow in the rock and promptly spat it out because of the unpleasant mineral taste. Near the back of the cave, he found an enormous skull. The jaw was missing, but he still had a clear sense of the size of the beast. At first, he thought it was a creasia, but surely it was too large, even for that. This animal could have swallowed Storm’s head without chewing.
A drop of water pattered on his shoulders, and Storm looked up. There was something wrong with the ceiling of the cave. The colors did not make sense—lines of white, a splash of pink. Storm backed in a slow circle, trying to understand. He kept feeling as though he’d almost grasped something important, only to lose the thread.
The enormous skull, the huge vertebrae, the lines on the ceiling… “It’s a telshee,” he breathed. He knew it an instant before he made sense of what he was looking at.
An image had been created on the ceiling. Storm could not guess how it had been done. A thick, white line delineated the long, coiling body of a telshee. The creature’s face looked down on the center of the cave. It had one huge eye, made of a polished lump of blue crystal. Where the other eye should have been, Storm saw only a rounded indention in the stone, as though someone had scooped it out. The telshee’s mouth was open, and Storm could see its pink tongue and long, white teeth. However, it looked more as though it were trying to say something than as though it were about to attack.
Storm stared at it for a long time. “What happened here?” he whispered. “Did ferryshaft and telshees fight? Or did something else kill both of us? What about the creasia jawbone I found? Who made this image? How? Why?”
Only the wind replied.
Chapter 19 was written from scratch—not just re-written from scratch (the whole book is that), but the idea of Storm fighting Mylo for Tollee is new to this version. It provides badly needed motive and direction. This part of the rewrite had been giving me fits for weeks when I finally came up with this scenario. In the original, the only tension or conflict in this section involves Storm’s distress and frustration that his friends are growing up, becoming interested in girls, and are increasingly unwilling to talk about the creasia raids. He spends lots of time moping about how he is misunderstood. He’s the only one who desires justice or sees the big picture, blah, blah, blah.
While this is certainly a very teenage/YA thing to do, it’s pretty boring to read about. It also makes Storm seem strangely immature. Why on earth should he not be planning a life for himself? He wants a mate like everyone else; he just doesn’t think it’s going to come easily for him. I also like the set-up wherein he attempts to rescue Tollee without her having to look like a weakling.
The Kuwee Island chapter is more of a re-working of the original material. I did change how the…er…mechanism on Kuwee works. I brainstormed with Hughes a while back and came up with something more plausible than the original. Can’t explain beyond that without spoilers, but old fans may remember that the original Kuwee mechanism was a bit of a Rubgoldburg. It’s not quite that silly this time.