Ratha’s Creature by Clare Bell
Ratha leaped over a fern thicket and dug her paws into the spongy ground as she dodged
sharp horns. One prong sifted through her fur and she skittered away from the
beast. She turned and stood her ground with hunched shoulders and twitching tail. Her quarry advanced. A two-pronged horn on the stag’s nose joined the crown
of points on the head and it lowered the entire array, charging at Ratha. She
launched herself at the deer, both front paws spread. She landed on her rear
paws and bounced sideways as the multi-horn pivoted heavily, trying to catch her on its spikes and pin her to the ground.
Each time the horns came near her, Ratha jumped sideways, forcing the stag to turn in a
tight circle, unable to build up any speed or momentum. After several such circles,
the beast’s knees were trembling and Ratha smelled the sweat that was darkening the coarse, grey-tipped coat. At last the animal stopped and lifted its head. Wary brown
eyes studied Ratha from behind the forked nose horn as she planted all four feet, still but tensed, ready to spring if the
deer lunged again.
The beast danced uneasily
on its slender legs, sweating and snorting, turning one eye and then the other on Ratha.
She knew it had no experience with those of the clan. Most meat-eaters
the three-horn encountered would tuck their tails between their legs when that fierce spiked crown turned their way. The fanged ones would run, not bounce around in circles. The stag’s eyes were
angry and beast lowered its crown and pawed the soil, but the rage in its eyes was dulled by fear.
Ratha fixed her eyes on those
of the deer. Slowly, deliberately, she walked toward it. Still tossing its head, the stag backed away from her. Ratha felt the intensity of her stare as she watched
the beast retreat, and a feeling of triumph began to grow as she placed one paw after another on the multi-horn’s reversed
tracks and smelled the creature’s bewilderment. She moved from one side
to the other, blocking any attempts it might make to get past her. At last, she told herself, she had mastered the skill.
At last the weeks of practice would yield results. Thakur’s whiskers would
bristle with pride.
A dragonfly buzzed across
Ratha’s nose, its iridescence stealing her attention from her quarry. The
stag bellowed. Ratha jerked her head around, but she had barely time to realize
she had lost control before the beast was on top of her, striking out with sharp horns and goring the dirt with its horns.
Ratha fled, tucking her tail
and squalling. The stag chased her and they ran a frantic race through the trees. Ratha glanced back as her paws slipped and skidded on pine needles and saw the points
behind her tail.
“Up a tree, yearling!”
a voice yowled on her left, and with one bound, Ratha was halfway up a young pine, beyond the reach of the tossing horns.
She climbed higher, showering her opponent with bark and stinging wood ants. “Thakur!” she wailed.
A copper-brown head appeared
through a clump of curled ferns. Thakur looked up at Ratha and down at the stag. He gathered himself and sprang onto the animal’s back. He flung his powerful forelegs around the three-horn’s neck and dug his rear claws into its back
as it plunged and screamed. As Ratha watched from above, he twisted his head sideways and drove his fangs into the stag’s
nape behind the head. Ratha saw his jaw muscles bunch in his cheeks as blood streamed down the stag’s neck and she heard
the sound of teeth grating on bone. His jaws strained and closed. The stag toppled over, its neck broken.
Thakur paced around his prey
as it kicked and twitched. Then he stopped, his sides still heaving, and looked up at Ratha.
“Are you any better
at climbing down from trees than you are at stalking three-horns?”
Ratha felt her hackles rising. “Yarrr! That buzz-fly flew in front of my nose! Didn’t you see?”
She turned herself around and started to back down the tree.
“The last time you were
startled by a mud-croaker. If you can’t keep your mind on what you are doing, yearling, go back to Fessran and her dapplebacks.
The cub dropped the rest of
the way and landed beside him. She turned her head and nosed her back. That prong had come close to her skin.
“Never mind a few tufts
of fur,” Thakur said crossly.
“I don’t mind
losing cub fur.” Ratha smoothed her coat, now turning fawn, but still faintly
spotted. She lifted her head and stared defiantly at Thakur. “I was close, wasn’t I? If I hadn’t looked
away, he would have been on his way to the herd.”
“Yes, you were close,”
Thakur admitted. “Your stare is good; I see you have worked on it. Now you must learn to let nothing distract you.
Once you have the animal’s eye, don’t lose it. Make they fear you and make that fear paralyze them until
they cannot disobey you.” He looked at the fallen stag, lying still in a patch on sunlight. His whiskers twitched with
what Ratha knew was annoyance.
“I didn’t want
to kill this one. He would have given the does many strong young.”
“Why did you kill him?
The clan has meat.”
“It wasn’t for
meat.” Thakur stared at Ratha and she noticed a slight acrid tang in his
smell, telling her he was irritated. “Nor was it to spare you. I could have chased him to the herd. He broke your stare.
He learned that he did not need to fear you and that you feared him. Beasts that
know that kill herders.”
“Why must we have three-horns
in the herd?” Ratha grumbled. “They’re hard to manage. They
fight among themselves and bully the other animals.”
“They are larger and
yield more meat. They have more young. And,” Thakur added, “they
are harder for the raiders to kill and drag away.”
Ratha trotted over and sniffed
the stag, filling her nose with its musky aroma. Her belly growled. She felt a firm paw pushing her away. “No, yearling. Meoran will be displeased enough that I killed the beast. He will be further angered if any fangs touch it before his.”
Ratha helped Thakur drag the
carcass out of the sun and brushed away the flies. Her belly rumbled again. Thakur heard it and grinned at her. “Patience, yearling. You’ll eat tonight.”
“If Meoran and the others
leave anything but hide and bones. There is never enough meat at the clan kill,
and I have to wait until those even younger than I have filled their bellies.”
“How do you know they
are younger?” Thakur said as Ratha took one last hungry look at the kill. “Cherfan’s spots are no darker
“Arr. Cherfan ate before
I did last night and I know his litter came after mine, Thakur Torn-claw. I am older, yet he eats first.”
Thakur soothed her. “Your spots are just taking a long time to fade. You
are too impatient, yearling. Two seasons ago, I ate last and often went hungry. It was hard for me then and I know it is hard for you now, but it will change.”
Ratha twitched one ear. “Shall I try the three-horn again? Maybe a doe would be easier than a stag.”
Thakur squinted up through
the trees. “The sun is starting to fall. By the time we find one, Yaran will be looking for you.”
Her whiskers went back. “Arr,
the old roarer. Hasn’t he enough cubs to look after that he must worry
about me?” She snorted, thinking about her lair-father. Yaran had a harsh gravelly voice and no inhibitions about speaking his mind. If his brother Meoran had not been the firstborn, Yaran would have been clan leader, and she admitted,
perhaps a better one than Meoran. He was kind to her in his rough way, but he would stand no nonsense from cubs.
“We have time left for
some practice, Ratha,” Thakur said, regaining her attention. “I noticed
that your spring was too high and that midair twist needs improving.”
He started her practicing
dodges, turns and springs. After watching and commenting on her technique, he
assumed the part of a wayward herdbeast while Ratha used her training to capture him and force him to the herd.
As Thakur watched the lithe
muscled form darting and turning in front of him, he remembered how hard he had argued with her lair-father about training
her in the art of herding.
“She is quick, she is
strong, she can outsmart most of the cubs born before her,” he’d told Yaran as the two stood together in almost
the same place he was now, watching Yaran’s small daughter chase a young dappleback.
“Look how she runs that little animal and has no fear of it. Not to train her, Yaran, would be a waste and the
clan can’t waste ability like hers.”
Yaran rumbled, swishing his grey tail. “She is strong and she is strong of mind. It is already difficult to make her
obey, and I fear that training her as you suggest would make her less tractable than she is now. And less easy for me to find
her a mate.”
Thakur remembered arguing
until his tongue was tired and going to old Baire, who was then leader, taking Ratha along.
Baire saw the cub’s talent and overruled Yaran. Thakur was allowed
to teach her his skill. He and Yaran exchanged few words these days, but that
loss was small in comparison to Ratha’s gain.
The cub sprinted back and
forth in the grass, the afternoon sun turning her fawn coat to gold. Soon her spots would be gone and she would no longer
be a cub. Her spirit challenged him and sometimes frustrated him, but he never
tried to break it as he knew Yaran had. And, although he would scarcely admit
it to himself, was the hope that when she grew old enough for a mate, she might take him, even though his family and age placed
him low in comparison to the clan status of other males Yaran might choose for her.
Thakur raised his chin and
scratched at a flea behind his ear. “Despite what I say sometimes, yearling,
I have no regrets about choosing you to train. You are good, Ratha, in spite
of your mistakes. When I have finished training you, you will be the best herder
in the clan.” He paused. “I
don’t often praise you, yearling. Perhaps I should.” He routed the flea and lay down again. “Here is something that will please you more than words. I
want you to stand guard with me and the other herders tonight.”
Ratha sat up, her whiskers
quivering. “Can I? Will Meoran
let me? He needs the best herders of the clan.”
“I told him that you
are good enough. Meoran may think little of me in other ways, but when I speak about herding, he listens. Do you want to come?”
Ratha swallowed. “Will
there be fighting?”
“If there is, you will
keep out of it. Do you want to come with me tonight?”
“Good.” Thakur got up and stretched, spreading his pads against the ground.
“Help me drag this kill to the dens and I will see that you get enough to eat this evening. The clan cannot let those who guard the herds against the Un-Named grow weak from hunger.”
“Will the raid come
tonight?” Ratha asked, pacing alongside her teacher.
“Meoran thinks it will. He has scouts watching the Un-Named.”
“I’ve seen them
a few times. They hide behind trees or crouch in the shadows.” Ratha trotted to match Thakur’s longer stride. “I’ve often wondered who they are and
why they are without names.”
“Perhaps you will learn
tonight, yearling,’ he answered.
They reached the stag’s
carcass. Thakur pushed one stiff foreleg aside and seized the neck while Ratha
grabbed the rear leg by the hock. Together they lifted the kill and carried it
away through the trees.