I am Boon. I lead my pack.
I have chosen them, the clever, the swift, the strong. I have taught them to read the moons, to know the warming pools, to know the prey. I have taught them what no other pack has known: to hunt together. They are my pack.
Two full moons at dawn gave us light to run. We leapt from the bubbling pool where we had stayed the night to keep our muscles warm. We filled our lungs to bursting as we ran, swift and silent to the hunt. Our webbed fingers and toes left no mark behind to show which way we’d gone under the moons’ light. We ran to beat the sun. We ran to catch big meat.
We reached the clearing where a rumbalof lay near its hatching tunnel. I had watched it land here at dusk the night before, warm and strong. It had scraped leaf-litter and moss from the forest floor with its two-clawed toes, front then back, throwing the debris onto its wings until they drooped with the burden. Then it chuffed, cast the debris into the air with both wings, and dropped to the ground to lie still under the fall. The cover that settled onto that shaggy coat was so thorough that when the air cleared, I could no longer say for certain how the rumbalof lay, or precisely where. I knew this though; the beast would cool while it slept. At dawn, it would be slow. If we were quick and brave, we had a chance to win fresh meat.
Now, sly and silent, we surrounded the clearing. We climbed the nearest trees and clung to branches overhanging the clearing. This rumbalof was too big to take by blind strike. We must wait for it to stand, then attack before it flew. At the sun’s touch, it would stir, night-cold and slow. We waited for the dawn.
I glanced around the clearing. Each pack-mate watched the center. In the stillness, a mist arose from the clearing like none I’d seen before: clear, close, crystal drops with secret colors and a message. Then the sun touched the forest floor and there was no more time for wondering. The rumbalof opened its eyes. In a shower of debris, it stood and opened its wings to fly.
In that moment I leapt, struck its side beneath the rising wing, grabbed handfuls of brown fur. Shouts from my pack-mates echoed in the clearing as they, too, attacked. I bit hard through fur and hide and into muscle, tore a gash, clung with fingers and toes as the wing thrashed my side. Clear fluid, thick and cold, pumped from the tear when the wing beat and we rose above the ground.
Louder than the rumbalof’s wings came a cry from below, a thump and yell of pain. The wings beat a second stroke, stronger, louder. I wondered as I gnawed muscle if any of my pack still held on and if we could conquer this prey. There was a shout and a jolt that shook my hold as a pack-mate dropped onto the rumbalof from a high branch. Our flight began to stutter. Another jolt, and the rumbalof dropped.
We slammed the ground. I lost my hold and bounced against a tree, both fists still full of fur. Gasping for a thread of air, dazed, blinking dirt from my eyes, I heard Prowl bellow for help. The rumbalof struggled to rise again and only Prowl still clung to its back. We scrambled to throw ourselves onto it once more and smash its wings. It heaved and fell, then heaved again as we bit and tore into it. There were shouts and cries and everywhere thick, clotting ooze turned black with dirt. Finally, the rumbalof stopped.
Broken leaf and dust drifted down. Someone coughed. Dare sneezed and spat. The dirt settled and we blinked, so coated in filth we hardly recognized each other. This rumbalof we had killed, it was huge. My heart swelled with pride for what we had done. I leapt to my feet and roared, and the others joined me. We praised our strength, fierce and great. We praised this rumbalof, biggest one yet, and praised our victory over it.
I am Boon. I lead my pack.
I tore into the flesh and they joined me. I swallowed a ragged chunk, my throat stretched around it, and swallowed again. My brothers, too, tore off chunks of meat, tilting their chins to the sky to swallow.
A young one, gill marks still visible, squatted at the clearing’s edge, waiting for his turn to feed. He had hatched only this year. I had watched him wend his way upstream from some hatching puddle only weeks ago. He had no strength yet, but I admired the way he investigated as he came. He was a clever wog. “Join us,” I’d said, and he’d agreed. He had run with us today all the way from the warming pools and kept up. Now he waited.
“Come, feed,” I said, but he stayed where he was.
Dare, on my left, watched him, too. His fist was curled in warning. Dare was well-named to curl a fist against my pack with me beside him. He had come to us from a puddle just last year when he was as small and weak as this one. His defiance could not be ignored.
I leapt on Dare and had him by the throat before he knew what happened. He raked me with a back claw and I shook him and snarled. We both bled, but he could not breathe. He glared until his eyes began to bulge from lack of air, then he turned up his belly. Growling, I released his throat. He sucked a great breath then laughed to show he was only teasing.
“Come, feed,” I called to the small one again.
“Over here,” said Prowl who fed on the opposite side of the rumbalof. “I’ll pinch Dare if he bothers you again.” The youngster eased around to join Prowl, who pushed against a sibling’s speckled hide. “Shove over,” he said, and urged the youngster to feed beside him. Dare had already gone back to his meat and ignored them.
I lifted my muzzle and sniffed. The wood was different today. Fine dust still hung in the air and sparkled in sunlit shafts. Such a thing this sparkling was. I gazed at it in wonder. Had the light ever been just so before? Was this a new thing?
Prowl was staring at me from across the carcass.
I met his stare and he didn’t turn away. Did he challenge me, too? He and Dare over the same kill? I growled.
He didn’t move, but the others stopped eating and backed away. I growled again and it seemed he heard me for the first time.
“Pardon.” Though he said it quickly and dropped to his belly, I still didn’t understand what had provoked Prowl, nor why he submitted. He was my puddle-mate, from the same hatching.
I grabbed the carcass and shook it, pretending to feed so the others would return. My belly had enough though. As soon as they returned, I backed away and climbed the nearest tree to wait. They’d be done soon, leaving nothing but scraps, a damp spot, and broken leaves to tell what had happened.
Then I saw another pack.
They were chasing a female, this season’s first. She ran ahead of them, prancing, teasing them on. They staggered with exhaustion, trying to catch her. She spotted us and ran closer. My pack caught her scent. Their muzzles were still dripping when they joined the chase, forest litter sticking to their unclean fingers and toes.
My breath quickened, but I stayed on the tree and watched them go. I had run the race in other years and twice caught the female. The memory made me gasp: exquisite danger, exquisite joy.
Winning the race meant nothing without the female’s consent. Each time I caught her, held her, her breath hot on my face, there was a moment of danger while she decided if she would have me or not. She would gut me with her amber spurs if she decided ‘no.’ Life or death, it did not matter to me in those moments which fate she chose. Only she must decide. I could not live with such hunger, and if I died, so I died. Twice she let me live; or two females did, once each. I never was certain.
This time I had no desire to run, but I roared encouragement as my pack raced from sight. They are fine pack-mates, my brothers, bigger and stronger than any others. Even tired from the hunt, I knew one of mine would win.
While they ran, I washed in a splashing stream, then dozed on a rock shelf above a deep pool. In late afternoon, Prowl joined me. He dripped water from a swim and panted from the steep climb. Bruises covered his hide from both hunt and chase. There would be tales told in the pool tonight.
“Who won?” I asked.
“Dare,” he said, and sank to the sun-warmed stone.
“That toad-face? She didn’t gut him?”
“She seemed pleased with him, last I saw.”
“Poor ugly wogs,” I said. Prowl laughed. “What of you? Slowing down?”
“Fine talk,” he said, “from one who didn’t even run.”
“If I had, Dare wouldn’t have her. He’ll be busy tonight.” We both laughed. I considered the female then. “Poor creature.”
Prowl watched me. “Are you well?”
“Some bruises, nothing more.”
“Not that,” he said. His hesitation made me uneasy. “You seem different.”
“Yes. Your face.”
It was changing season, the time when a weak male might suddenly become female. We’d seen one already. I expected more courtesy from Prowl. I stood. “That was insult.”
Prowl’s throat moved as he swallowed. Otherwise, he was motionless.
Suddenly I suspected why he had submitted so quickly at the kill. “Do you accuse me of being female?”
“Your ridge is, ah, softer.” He dropped a quick glance to see if I was growing spurs, and fury flew into me.
“You filthy—” I lunged at him, meaning to draw blood.
He ducked my blow, but didn’t strike back. That angered me even more. My pack always fought well. Not one backed down easily, even against me. They would never strike a female, though. This proved it; Prowl believed I was changing.
He broke past me and ran from the ledge down the trail he’d just climbed. I let him go, more shaken than I wanted him to see. He would return once he gathered his wits. I dove off the ledge into the pool, deep and deeper to the bottom, and I clung there, hiding from Prowl and his suspicion and mine.
When my blood demanded air more than revenge, I released and drifted to the surface. There, I kicked to escape the current, and climbed, dripping, into a hollow under the bank. In the cool air, I crouched, shifted. Prowl was right. Spurs were growing from my ankles. My face was changing, too. In a day or so, I would be fully female. I must leave my pack and live alone.
My pack was my life. I had grown with them, shared hunt and pool with them. We learned together, became strong together. They were all I knew. I grieved at the thought of leaving them.
Prowl found me at dawn. He started to pull himself up under the bank where I was hiding, and I growled. He eased back into the water, only holding to the edge. Heat came off him. He’d been in the warming pool while I slept cold, under the bank.
“Are you all right?” he asked, peering toward where I crouched in the dark.
“Boon, we’re brothers. Can we not speak of this?”
“I’m warning you, Prowl. Go away.”
“The pack is searching for you.”
“I’ll bet they are. Slimy wogs.”
“What did you tell them?”
“Don’t pretend, Prowl. I am changing. I’d rather be dead.”
“Boon, it can’t be so bad as that.”
“Remember the dead female we found?” It was near the end of the changing season last year. The marks showed she had killed herself with her own spurs. “Now I understand her.”
“Don’t say that. You’re no coward.”
“You’ll understand her too, if it happens to you.” He pushed back, then grabbed for the bank as the stream began to sweep him away. “Female.” I spat the word. “Can you even imagine it, Prowl? Hiding by the flood pools day after day, waiting for eggs to hatch. Then watching wogs grow. Hiding, watching, waiting. Never hunt again. Never run again.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” He snickered.
Hard cold anger choked me. “That’s all you think about with your wog brain, isn’t it? Chase, chase, chase, fill up your belly and chase. Nothing else matters.”
“No, Boon, that’s not true. I think about other things.” He spoke as if I had gone simple. I ground my jaw in frustration. Then he filled his throat and chirped:
“Sing praise to Life-giver, endure through her race,
We live by her running, we live by her grace.”
A puddle song, by the gods. I hissed in rage.
“Peace, peace,” he said, as if to comfort a whimpering wog. “Look, what is the real problem here?” He was so reasonable.
I knew the problem. Prowl is my brother; we could not mate. Oh, he would try, if he saw me. Try in a lust-driven state that stripped him of reason. I had already changed enough that he would not recognize me; he would only see a female. Yes, he would try and, if he caught me, I must gut him. I had brought him up, trained him. For his sake, I needed to escape.
He peered into the darkness, shifted, tried to spot me. I waited a beat and rushed him, hit him hard and knocked him into the water. He went under and I scrambled up the bank and raced for the trees. Faster than he could see, I scaled bark and disappeared against the trunk, just a lichen-spotted knot on the shady side of a taubaugh tree.
Prowl searched. The others found him and joined in. I hugged the trunk and watched them, my pack, in frenzied search below, and I longed for them. They were more than meat to me, they were my companions, and I missed them. Worse still was knowing they would not welcome me, not as brother. They were no longer my pack.
Prowl and Dare fought twice—quick, vicious tussles that decided nothing. They gave up the search during mid-day’s heat and wandered upstream. I wondered if they would remember the hunt and stay together, or drift apart to live their lives separate from one another, as our kind did.
The air hung hot and still through the afternoon. My toes stuck together when I tried to spread them. I needed water, but dared not go where others might see me until dark.
At last, the sun set. I eased down the tree, throat too dry to swallow. My spurs were long enough now to be useful. I hated this sneaking female weakness, waiting ‘til dark to move. I longed to roar from the branches again, to throw litter from the forest floor and bellow challenge to any who heard me.
Hiding instead, first motionless, then moving slowly, I reached the water’s edge and sank into a pool with only my nostrils clear. Water plumped my skin. I caught a dragonfly, sifted out small meat from silver wings, and wished for big meat with my pack feasting in victory. Never, never more.
I thought of empty silent sitting by some puddle full of eggs every evening, waiting. Small meat. Defending wogs while their legs grew strong, and their gills shriveled, and they walked away. Small meat. The sometimes praise, the sometimes race, the sometimes reverence given, all small meat.
Night voices rose. I lifted up and threw mine into the chorus, and I didn’t know my own sound, so thin and weak. I tried again, full belly and cheek. The song came out a wail. How pitiful I’d become. I let the stream carry me down the rough.
The next morning dawned bright, warm, and hopeless. Fearing to stay in one spot too long, yet not daring to leave the water’s sound, I crept from cover to cover.
Then, beneath a tangled shade, camouflaged by her moss-and-lichen hide, I discovered a female too weak to stand. She had pierced her thigh with her spur and lay gasping with pain from her own poison. This could not be an accidental wound, and I grieved the despair that led her to this action. Nothing would ease her pain, but I whispered comfort. Could she not find hope? Could I?
There was a cough above us, and I shied into deep shadow. A rusty voice chuckled. “Careful now. You’ll catch your own spur and be as bad off as she.” A putrid odor trickled down. “She is beyond hearing,” the voice said, “and she would not welcome your pity. Come out. I can’t hurt you.”
Suspicious, I searched above until I spotted a large female stretched along a tree limb. She had one hind foot gone. The leg oozed. Indeed, she could harm no one.
Her name was Moor. She’d held a hunting lurker’s attention while her wogs escaped. Their freedom had cost her the foot, and she counted it a small price. Proud in her telling, she, too, would not welcome pity, though she might die from her wound.
There was a sigh from the one on the ground. She died.
“Do you honor her choice?” said Moor.
Living or dying, she would have been alone. I shrugged. “Is death worse than empty life?”
Moor laughed. “Come, and see purpose.”
First, I packed her wound with lichen and bound it with fern in scant hope that it might heal, then scraped a hole to bury the dead one so she would not draw carrion feeders. Then I went up again to see what Moor would show me.
We climbed, and I marveled at her strength. We leapt from a high branch to the next tree, caught a low branch on that tree, climbed, and leapt again. Gods, she wore me out with fear she would fall. Each leap, with only one hind foot, was a twisted affair, but she kept on and on. Leap and desperate grab, then patient climb and leap again, by leaf and limb, tree to tree.
She stopped finally and purled a quiet sound, a puddle croon. I barely heard it, though I rested just above her. There was a wog on the ground below, this year’s hatching, one of hers. He nosed in the leaf litter, rose up to listen and look about, then searched the ground again. She told me what progress he had made, but didn’t show herself to him.
We moved on and again she stopped to point out another, clinging to the side of a tree, and another farther on who also searched the ground. They never knew we watched.
“Don’t you teach them?” I asked.
“Did your mother?”
She had not.
“No one does. We bear them and defend them at the puddle. That is our purpose.”
“Nothing more?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Beyond that, each must make his own way.”
I felt great pity for her children. Moor was wrong, though I couldn’t say how I knew it.
At the next tree, she searched, then climbed lower and found none of her children. At the next tree again, she saw none, but continued tree to tree, searching, not stopping until there came the sound of water. She paused then to listen.
Her eyes were red with pain. She shifted her weight to her hands gripping the limb and rocked from side to side. Most of the wrapping had fallen from her wound. She dripped a fetid trail that could draw the attention of even a belly-full hunter.
Suddenly, the thin shrieks of crying wogs shivered up my arms. She roared.
I would have said Moor had no strength remaining, but she set a desperate pace, limb to branch, then a crashing leap to the ground. I cast a hasty glance for leaves or moss to soften my landing before I leapt. Though close behind her, by the time I’d plowed into a bed of green and spit out a broken fern, she was away.
I could have wept, watching her hobbled race. On both her hands and one good leg, she flew to her children. Badly crippled, her courage despised pity. First shamed, then heartened, I pelted after her.
Heedless to the danger of our reckless passage, we topped a steep bank, intent only on the cries of dying wogs. A shallow pond lay before us, its edges a meld of grasses and water. A stream trickled along one side. A lurker stood in the slow water near the bank, its knees just below the surface. It was the color of twilight. It turned its head from side to side, looking for wogs at the water’s edge. They had returned to their puddle, though Moor had driven them away. The lurker also had returned.
It turned toward us, somber eyes so near. I chilled. With a lightening stroke, it pierced a wog hiding in the grass just below us.
The wog screamed and Moor leapt from the bank onto the back of the lurker. She began to climb its neck. “Go for its eyes,” she had told me, “if you ever fight a lurker.”
Crippled, she was not quick enough.
The lurker let go of the bleeding wog and plucked Moor from its hide. I leapt to the lurker’s back as it shook her with a hard snap that broke her spine. The lurker tried to cast Moor away to get at me, but she clung to its beak with her two strong hands, and gave me time. I scrambled to its crest, grabbed two hands full of slick, dark feathers, and drove a spur into the base of its skull. The lurker dropped.
I pried Moor’s fingers loose from the murderous beak and held her in the slow water. It bore her weight as she died. I hoped it eased her pain. The last of her wogs gathered at the bank and sang an evening song.
♦ ♦ ♦
Seasons passed, and morning came. I waited in a taubaugh tree, higher than ever before, to watch first light. It pierced the dark. I threw out my tongue to catch a dancing gossamer, melting, small meat. My new pack ran below, little ones so eager behind big ones so serious, chasing fresh meat. I smiled, and watched the spangled dawn.
I eased down the taubaugh to a lower limb, waiting. They would come back this way. I knew them better than they knew themselves.
After a time they returned, their faces smudged with success. Careless, they did not see me until I spoke. “Children.”
They stopped, every mouth opened with surprise. These were my first sons, and Moor’s sons who had crooned her death, and a few others. They gathered their wits, then greeted me.
“Mother, mother, mother…”
“Mother, mother…” The oldest nudged the smallest with his elbow.
“Mother,” he said with a voice that was as light as he. Graceful, more long-limbed than the others, a stranger, he would become a quick climber. It was a worthy talent.
The older ones, sons of Moor, rose to sniff the air, pretending innocence. The largest eyed my speckled side, then met my gaze. Too late. I am egg heavy already. I growled a lazy warning. He lowered himself and turned toward the forest as if he didn’t care. I knew their thoughts before they did.
They were fine fellows, every one. They told me of their hunt until I stretched and turned away. They padded off, toward the water, to wash their sticky faces. As they left, I heard the small one say, “Next hunt, can I help?”
“Yes,” said the tall one beside him. “Stay by me. I’ll show you how.”
I am Boon. I teach my pack.