Chapter 1

Trailing the Thunder-Sedge

The Pleistocene Ice Age had ended. What seemed an undying winter was finally tamed, and though it was more than two millenniums that it had come to pass, the lands could not dawdle on celebration for too long as they awoke from their slumber beneath the ice. The cruel snow and frozen waters that had once blanketed the earth in white had indeed completed their reign, yet what remained of them now were the several scattered lakes, rivers and wetlands. Even the distant seas had risen to swallow the coasts for miles inward. For the earth, in all its beauty, was caught in an endless feud; a battle of wrath that continued to alter the lands and ocean forever.

This everlasting course of changes could be seen from the verdant timberlands that sprawled for miles like green carpets over hill and dale, to the sandy scorching deserts that made their blazing homes over the continents. Open precipices towered into the sky like orange still candles silhouetted in the gentle sunset that painted itself over the horizon in an array of reds and pinks.

Even species were molded in some way or another to meet the earth’s climates: mastodons that once roamed the world had vanished, leaving only fossils and bones; fierce creatures that even the humans once feared, like the saber-toothed cats that prowled the plains, and the short-faced bears on the steppe-tundra, had met their fates; as did the giant beavers of the marshlands and the dire wolves that once howled music to the icy nights. Giant peccaries and stag-moose alike were tossed away into oblivion. Animals small and big were torn from the very living, their bodies buried deep in the earth where they would be confined forevermore.

Still, it wasn’t as if their existence was empty. Now that the Pleistocene had gone, along with its dreaded entirety of cold, a new time had come to warm the lands; the Holocene epoch was slowly being born as it found its place in life, and new species of fauna were flourishing. Some, like the star-nosed mole and the porcupine still thrived. Others, like the mammoths, rapidly evolved into new types of creatures that were better suited for the conditions of the earth. The sacred tigers had done this as well, and so had the ancient bison occidentalis, which had formed into a series of much smaller animals.

It was a new time, but the old eras were not forgotten so easily among the denizens of the lands and waters. An ancient glacier that had once nestled itself in the northern central lands of the Americas could spin a tale of times long gone, had it still existed. Unfortunately for it, after the region began to heat up once more, the ice had melted under the merciless rays of the sun and had formed a steady river, pouring forth from the mountains and into a sea of plains southward.

Within that ocean of golden grass was a valley, which seemed virtually untouched by the deadly fingers of the unforgiving, centuries-lasting winter as it drank the water gratefully. It had been the second millennium after the Ice Age had ceased, and the river still fed that glen.

This yellow vale plummeted thousands of feet below. Its grassy sides were a mixture of green and yellow, and they were so crisp at times, that it seemed like nothing more than an ancient piece of sun-dried land that sat basking in the heat of summer. Here and there gray rocks shattered the valley’s inner walls, breaking the repetitive scene of quivering grass blades in the wind. Blotches of ponderosa pine were scattered over the bowl’s innards, their needles so dark that at times they grantedthe valley the mistakable appearance of black. Near the northwestern part of the giant glen, the small river that bore from the long gone glacier snaked its way to the edge, only to cascade luminously down several more boulders that were licked smooth in the passing millennia. Past the glades at the soft valley floor, the water flowed through a wide plain, and disappeared into an open woodland in the east, then snuck back out, miles away in the southeastern end through a chasm at the base of the cliffs.

The soft cry of a golden eagle murmured from the blue sky above, and a couple of mountain goats climbed the valley’s mutinous walls. Downward near the timberline, shrubs and wild berry bushes grew in an abundance near a brook, where a young grizzly was satisfying his hunger by snapping anxiously at the plants. Somewhat westward from there, in an empty plot of land, several wallows decorated the dry earth’s ground. They had been made by the local plains bison in an attempt to bathe their bodies in the soil and help rid themselves of heat and insects. Many had been etched out years ago, and those aged indentations were covered in dark sedges due to the water they had gulped up over time. Others, much newer–some had been made just that day–were barren. The more recent dust bowls were created only about a quarter of a mile away from the ancient wallows.

Only a single bison still wallowed at that time. He threw his body on the ground, kicking this way and that, snorting and grunting in a frenzy, churning up dust and digging out the ground like his ancestors had done so many times before. Since the hump upon his back was too great to allow him to roll over, the giant creature had to push himself from the ground, and start all over again on the other side. Only when his charcoal coat was covered in dust, did he finally end his charade in the dirt.

Satisfied, he stood, his shoulders coming up to practically seven feet, while his whole frame was about thirteen feet long. Well over a ton of muscle and intense body mass were constructed and shrouded beneath a pelt of raven black that, by then, was falling away in awkward clumps as a bison’s hide will do in the spring when shedding a coarse winter coat. An even darker hood of rather scraggly hair was wrapped up around his ears and between a pair of wicked horns that measured practically three feet from tip to tip; the two dagger-like pieces of protein bore from the bonnet, each with a natural jet-black sheen. Part of the hide rose up to his head and hump and fell back down the sides of his body, differing only slightly from the smoother flanks. A thin mane at the throat hung near his chin and, altogether, he was monster sized.

It was pointless to say that he had seen many years come and go. But what the bull lacked in youth he made up for in experience. He was at least eighteen, though still had the advantage of girth and intimidation, to both predators and other bison.

For a moment, his piercing, dark eyes longingly searched the woodland’s borders where walls of white spruce and quaking aspen rose at the edge of the grasslands. The bison’s nostrils flared and he gave an abrupt snort before trotting to the timberline. Once under the covert of vegetation, he stopped once more. A red squirrel chattered from a tree limb above.

Blackmor.” a strong but youthful voice grunted.

Ignoring the noisy rodent, Blackmor turned his giant head to watch as a younger, smaller bull came trotting over. But more than just his size gave away his youth; the bison's fur was but one, almost fluffy throw with no visible chaps, while his little horns stuck out straight instead of curving, these were the signs of a yearling. The caramel colored bison called Sunpelt stopped a couple of yards away, abruptly losing interest in the other bison. He pushed himself against a drooping sapling and began to rub the uncomfortable clumps of winter hair from his body. Blackmor tolerated the youngster’s actions for only so long before he gave a fierce grunt.

Get on with it, Sunpelt.” he snapped impatiently.

Immediately, the young bison pulled away from the tiny, victimized tree, leaving a few tufts of hair clinging to its skimpy trunk. He replied hastily, turning to Blackmor again, “Bellneth’s herd is leaving. They’re moving north, toward the Main Pass.”

Blackmor was momentarily silent, as flashes of memories flowed through his mind of the main entry and exit of the Sun Bowl, their valley and home.

The bulls are waiting near the meadow.” stated Sunpelt firmly.

Finally, Blackmor nodded in appreciation, exclaiming, “Thank you, young Sunpelt. Come, we shall also lead the Slit-Hoof northward.”

The young bull grunted in excitement, and instantly the duo took off to a near incline in the trees that heaved its way upward, easily overseeing the rest of the copse. It was there that they stopped for a few more moments, watching as about a half a mile away, a herd of plains bison that consisted of cows, calves, and young males, began their journey. They observed as, in a line, the matriarch led her family, a single buckskin calf by her side. Like ants pushing onward, the herd was no more than dark dots in the distance, trekking across a long and exposed gradient that as well, rose above the ancient forest.

Well, Sunpelt. Come on,” said Blackmor heavily, beginning to walk steadily downward to the forest floor once more.

Sunpelt just stood and glanced from his birth-herd, down to the dominant male, and back again. Curiously, the elder bull stopped, looking expectantly over his shoulder at the adolescent. He snorted, waited a few seconds, then turned and began on his own again, his chin slightly raised in a dignified air of importance.

For several silent moments Blackmor continued on by himself, giving the bull time to think on his own. After all, Sunpelt had been brought into the world by the matriarch’s herd, only just last spring. He had known nothing outside their world except for Blackmor himself, a few rogues, a couple of bachelor-groups including the Slit-Hoof herd, and a distant grassland by the name of Calvagore that he had only been to once before. Though he was still very young, it was finally time for the bison to choose his path.

With but one more glance toward the herd from which he had grown up in–that held the lives of his mother, sisters, cousins and aunts–young Sunpelt gave a snort, and followed Blackmor instinctively. He would no longer see his dam–though he had become independent from her a month or so ago–and would probably rarely see few or none of his calfhood friends.

Blackmor led them into the sea of more sparsely organized trees, this time separating from the cows’ herd. They would reunite once more in about a month or two, for summer meant the beginning of the next rut.

As they moved onward through the valley’s timberland, they came upon a group of about fifty or so males. Some accused the Slit-Hoof herd of being “oversized” as bachelor-groups are naturally smaller than most maternal herds, but its population was said to make them almost invincible, when it came to safety in numbers.

The group greeted Blackmor with a heavy amount of snorting, grunting, and they even began scratching at the ground with their hooves whilst swinging their heads to and fro and lowering them slightly to show submission. Sunpelt approached uneasily beside the patriarch’s side, though he was given no immediate attention. Though the herd was made of mostly bulls over the age of three, a couple of other males only a year older than him occupied the group. It took a brave bull to move away from his birth-herd at such a young age, but it also took a foolish one, for though he was near full maturity, Sunpelt was the youngest, and therefore smallest and weakest out of the whole group. Even his fur was only slightly darker than that of a calf’s, and so his name matched him well.

One of the youngest bachelors stood a few yards away, watching the others curiously. Another, whom Sunpelt knew almost all of his short life, was greeting Blackmor in the same fashion as the adults, easily blending in.

Without much more to say or do, the herd began northward as well, easily journeying through the open woodland. Sunpelt moved apprehensively near the back, the other unknown bull behind him, and the outgoing youngster ahead.

Sunpelt!” snorted the one he had known for quite some time.

Yes, Nightshine,” he said with a cheeky grin. As he padded over, he blushed at how much larger even these youngsters were compared to him.

Nightshine slowed to walk at Sunpelt’s side.

I didn’t think I’d see you,” he exclaimed in relief. “Not till next fall, at least.”

He nodded strongly, and replied, “I decided to find my own path in life.”

There aren’t very many bulls at your age who would venture out from his birth-herd.” Nightshine credited Sunpelt, whose pride grew even more from there. “But then again, not so many near the rut, either.”

What young Nightshine spoke of was true, since it was more traditional for a three year old rather than a yearling to separate from the cows’ herd to a bachelor’s or on his own shortly after the mating season, for it was then that ranks were reestablished, and bull herds melted away from the females once more.

But it’s ol’ Blackmor, of course.” chuckled Nightshine, more to himself.

Sunpelt stiffened, and quickly asked, “What do you mean?”

Well, you know what I mean. After all, we’ve been after Bellneth and her cows for a while now. It’s only after the calving that we’ve finally separated. And even now, we’re still following them to the Pass.”

“‘S the only way out of the Sun Bowl, though.” pointed out the bull from behind them. He added sheepishly, “I think.”

Sunpelt jumped at the sudden voice. He and Nightshine continued to pace side by side, but listened to what their peer had to say.

We’re only following them so we can get to Calvagore, aren’t we?” the other bull went on.

After all, Calvagore sat just outside the Sun Bowl, where a sea of plains–or the Great Plains as humans will later call them–swept out from all sides. The ancient grassland was a place that the cows and calves migrated to every year for summer range, as well as a few bachelors, heading northward through the Pass. Even the Slit-Hoof herd moved there for some time during the hotter seasons of the year. The valley itself lie a few hundred miles southwest of what the Lakota would later call Pahá Sápa, meaning “the hills that are black”; its title was thanks to the monstrous number of ponderosa pine which gave a distinct dark shade from afar. Even further in the future the early European settlers would name them simply, the Black Hills.

After the long process of the modern bison’s evolution, Sunpelt’s and all of the close herds’ ancestors had recently been driven to a rather scarce number solely in the surrounding areas compared to further reaches of the continent where the Free-Roamers stampeded in thundering populations. And yet far later in a time to come, their descendants even in these ranges would flourish in greater numbers once more, so that they were nothing less than seas of herds that ran like wild beasts over the prairies before the white men would practically drive them to utter extinction. But for now, Sunpelt and his fellow bison had been birthed from a bloodline that had migrated instinctively due to the dangers of the climate changes and the ancient humans who had the power to literally drive the bison over cliffs.

Still, in these particular herds, none at the time had even heard of humans before. Sunpelt’s ancestors had done the work, finding refuge and security in the dark trees of the Black Hills. Eventually, no more than a century ago, a small group of cows and bachelors had wandered southward, away from the hills, across the plains, and found a similar valley, thus creating that very line of bison that thrived in the Sun Bowl.

Why they had picked that particular glen was a mystery. Perhaps it was because of its uncanny resemblance to their old home, Pahá Sápa. But the Sun Bowl’s sides were mostly strewn with golden sweet grass instead of the pine, which grew abundantly only in the valley’s timberlands.

Enough with that, Gulltorth.” snorted Nightshine, rolling his eyes. “You know as well as I that we’ve been following them for some time now.”

It was yet another true statement, for Blackmor had led his bachelor-group surprisingly close to the cows, even after the rut had taken place. The calving had recently died down, and the females were ready to reunite with the outside world, as so many of the rogues and other bachelor-groups had done months before them. It was only Balckmor and the Slit-Hoof that had stayed behind in the Sun Bowl with the cows.

But then again, Blackmor’s always been different.” Nightshine then pointed out.

Again, Sunpelt grew rigid. A potential flame was buried deep in his stomach, for he had always looked up to Blackmor without question–many of the land’s bison had. And if this bull whom Sunpelt had known since calfhood was to go against Blackmor, it meant going against Sunpelt as well. Still, it wasn’t as if he could take on Nightshine, or any bull for that matter; his size still gave him a steep disadvantage with the bachelors.

Sensing the tension, Nightshine quickly added, “Not anything bad about him, of course. Everyone knows he’s the strongest bull out there. But still …” The bison’s words trailed off as he pondered silently to himself.

But he is different.” stated Gulltorth thoughtfully.

The bull, who was no older than Nightshine, was much larger than both of them; he felt no apprehension toward the youngest of the bunch.

And what of that?” scoffed Sunpelt abruptly.

Well, he’s different is all.” Gulltorth went on, flicking his tail. “I mean, have you seen a bison darker than him?”

Nightshine.” muttered Sunpelt irritably. “That’s why they call him so.”

OK then, how ‘bout as big?” challenged the bachelor.

You.” he snorted back.

That is a good thing.” grunted Gulltorth, taking the comment as a compliment, although Blackmor did indeed tower over this second-year.

But Gulltorth’s right.” Nighsthine agreed, knowing very well how Sunpelt felt about the patriarch. “Were his parents so large themselves that they could produce such a beast?” he went on.

I’ve heard he’s not from here.” snorted Gulltorth.

Nightshine profusely slowed his pace so that he was next to the other bull by then, leaving the frustrated Sunpelt between them and the adults.

I’ve heard the stories, too.” Gulltorth continued.

Suddenly, before he could help it, Sunpelt slowed to be in step with others. Glaring viciously at his friend and the other bull, he snapped, “He’s been here as long as I can remember.”

And much longer than that.” laughed Nightshine cheerfully, despite the situation. “Blackmor was definitely not born in the Thunder-Sedge.” he pointed out, using the name of Bellneth’s herd.

For the third time, young Nightshine’s words proved true: Blackmor was a large bison–bigger than most, as well as darker than many that the Thunder-Sedge or the Slit-Hoof had seen. Perhaps his size had given him the power of controlling a herd of his own like the Slit-Hoof, but either way, Blackmor was an alien bull. Even simple features of his species were different: the hump from his back was much more forward than that of a normal plains bison’s, and his chaps blended stronger into his pelt than others. Even the fur that hung beneath his chin was too thin compared to other bison, whose lower necks consisted of practically small manes.

Still, though he was different, Blackmor was something: he was black as night, as sturdy and thick as a boulder, he had larger and straighter horns than the others, crashed and thundered through the lands like a monster, conceived wallows big enough to bear small ponds, and any bull or cow that had been created from his genes was guaranteed a life of success themselves. Blackmor had lived through many years–had no doubt seen life and death, love and hate, happiness and pain. All bison throughout the land knew of Blackmor, and more than less had heard stories of the mysterious creature. He lived wild and true while others created mere tales of him, passing from one herd to another, and from one generation to the next. Some were true, some were not. All in all, Blackmor was the perfect “living god” of the bison. No bull was known to beat him during the rut, ever.

Yet the fact still existed: Blackmor was distinct. Since Sunpelt had looked up to him like a father–or the thing closest to a father, as male bison never really play a part in the rearing of calves–he respected him as much as the gods he had heard of in the stories and legends told to him as a young calf. Sunpelt believed in Blackmor more than anything or anyone, and therefore, a deep loyalty had formed within him. That is why even the slightest word against Blackmor drove him crazy.

But even though Blackmor was looked to with such envy from many, the fact that he had been following cows and calves–the habit had started only during the calving before this–was enough to grant himself special criticism and objections among his inferiors.

For minutes, the Slit-Hoof herd traveled onward through the open woodland toward the Pass in the north. They easily trailed the Thunder-Sedge, following their scents like they had all year and the year before that. Blackmor’s bulls had questioned his actions the first time they arose, but by now, all male bison had fallen quiet about the leader’s ways. Their last demand that came from these actions had been, “Why?” When Blackmor answered with both intelligence and truth, the bachelors rarely interrogated him from there. After all, his reply had been: “To ensure the survival of our species.” And that is how the Slit-Hoof had grown so large in number, and therefore, in several ways, was unbeatable.

No.” agreed Gulltorth. “I’ve heard he’s a North-Runner.”

Sunpelt gazed forward, still listening intently. He knew little of the North-Runners, other than what he had heard of in tales. The North-Runner was a name given to the sturdier herds of bison found in the more northern regions: the wood bison. Still, if Blackmor’s genes were truly that of a wood bison, then he would have had to have traveled from the colder highlands.

North-Runner or not,” Sunpelt finally snorted. “He’s still one of the greatest bulls out there.” And he took off in a trot to catch up with the adults.

The herd continued on, one by one, trekking through the timberland. Sunpelt padded on ahead of Nightshine and Gulltorth, lingering just behind the huge line of older bachelors. Ahead, Blackmor led the whole group eventually into a meadow, dense with vanilla grass and scattered purple cocksfoot. It would take them another two or three days to reach the Main Pass, and the cows and calves were already halfway there.

As Blackmor did so proudly, the lead cow of the birth-herd–or the Thunder-Sedge as they called themselves–guided her own group of wild bison onward. The Thunder-Sedge was a maternal herd that consisted of almost a hundred female plains bison and their very young offspring. As they trailed in a single-file formation over the long gradient, they could be seen as magnificent beasts colored in intense cordovan and beige, while their tan-orange calves lumbered next to them, some timid and wary, others playfully grunting and eagerly taking in the lands around them with their hungry, innocent dark eyes that, when struck by light at the right angle, showed with a tinge of baby blue.

Bellneth–part of Blackmor’s harem for the last five mating seasons that she had actually engaged herself in, for a cow will usually breed only every other year–was a beautiful bison with dagger-like horns that curved majestically from her skull in slender S-shapes. At the time her tawny pelt was tousled by the wind, highlighted in the rays of the sun, though she was still darker than the female calf that trotted beside her. Her practically black eyes gazed heavily forward as she strode onward in a steady pace over the lush incline. A snipe fly buzzed noisily beside her, but Bellneth just flicked an ear and continued on her long journey.

But Mama,” exclaimed the calf at her side. “It won’t go away. I dream of it every Dark.”

The mother bison heaved a frustrated sigh, ignoring her daughter’s constant badgering about the dream she frequently talked about, for though Bellneth was normally a gentle giant with a kind heart, recently she had become deeply troubled. It was only after the last rut that she had become unnerved. The others of the herd associated it with her pregnancy, despite that fact that all the other times she had been with calf she had never been so anxious before. After the calving, however, her anxiety stuck with her like pitch, and several of the cows spoke amongst themselves about her strange behavior. But Bellneth was not dumb, and knew her herd was talking behind her back. Still, it did not end her restless feud with something unseen and unknown, even to herself.

Giving her calf a brief glance, she licked the little one.

It is nothing. Dreams are dreams and that is it, Prairie.” Bellneth cooed gently, but it did nothing to calm either of them.

Prairie, who was born only two months ago and was still very young, was not convinced. The little calf, like her mother, was sharp, even at her age. A fulvous hide blanketed her small body. Two tiny bumps had just started growing at the top of her thick skull; these were the starts of her horns, though she took no notice.

She trotted rather hastily to stay at her dam’s side, glancing up every few seconds or so, recognizing the faraway gaze that Bellneth so often held these days. For a moment, the young one felt as if she were stung by a prick of annoyance, as she knew her mother had probably not really listened to a word she had said.

Indeed the matriarch continued to glance fearfully this way and that as she made her way onward. She flicked her tail and froze momentarily to stomp the ground out of anger, causing Prairie to give a shrill cry of surprise. Bellneth ignored the calf’s irritation and shock, and continued walking until the sun was high and her daughter panted in exhaustion. A few times Prairie had already nuzzled at her mother’s underbelly in an attempt to suckle, but Bellneth gave no attention to the poor, hungry calf. It wasn’t until Lightrain, the second cow in lead, had suggested for them to stop that they did so.

No, we must keep moving.” snorted Bellneth in frustration, glazed eyes searching forward, and for a moment, the bison began to move faster, losing her calf in the bunch of adults behind them.

Bellneth!” snapped the beige colored cow disdainfully. Lightrain ran ahead of the leader and, stopping sideways, immediately halted the whole Thunder-Sedge herd. “Look at yourself!” she snarled in anger, glaring viciously at the bison, who returned the same expression and again dealt the earth a stomp with her forehoof.

Lightrain had made a bold move, as it was not time to test their strengths, for the cows had long ago established their hierarchy. And even so, it was in the wrong season to start fights, especially among the female bison. Still, Lightrain had to try something. Bracing herself, she exclaimed, “We have been moving all Light! We are exhausted and haven’t even been able to graze. Even look at what you’re doing to the claves. Your own calf as well!”

The leader had stopped, her own fur glistening in sweat. She continued to narrow her eyes at Lightrain, but something else caught her attention; Bellneth had practically jumped from the young bison that now buried her muzzle under her belly to nurse. Lightrain watched for another moment as the matriarch finally calmed down, and looked away. The tension between the two adults eased away within seconds, and balance returned to the Thunder-Sedge.

Quickly, so as not to disturb Bellneth and her calf–nor wait long enough for the matriarch to change her mind–Lightrain trotted behind them to find her own little one. The line of bison upon the gradient was grateful to stop, and several of the younger calves were suckling while the females and adolescent bulls began to graze on the slope’s crest where the grass and the sedges were the freshest.

For a half of an hour the herd ate their share, before Bellneth began to sneak away, her giant snout still buried in the carpet of green blades. The others followed, lifting their heads only to trail behind their matriarch, until again, one after the other they would drop their muzzles to continue feeding. This peaceful behavior appeared almost like a giant wave slowly moving across the horizon.

During this whole time Lightrain could not help glancing every so often at her leader and friend. Bellneth continued to look warily ahead into the north. The cow sometimes even swayed with the light breeze, and there were times that Lightrain was sure Bellneth was to start the herd running once more.

After a couple of hours they came to a sudden pause in their wave-grazing. Lightrain laid down to loaf, her ears twitching on occasion. Eventually she turned her head to lick her son, Thicken, upon his small skull where two tiny nubs popped out for horns. The young bull gave a little grunt, and plopped down next to his mother, setting his head on her flank as he rested from the long journey.

She’s gone crazy.” a voice said.

Hello, Sedgla.” Lightrain replied calmly, not bothering to look up to the standing bison beside her. “And not crazy,” she added rather thoughtfully. “Though getting there, I’m sure.”

Sedgla–who was a disdainful, fairly stuck-up cow–nosed young Thicken. She was not innocent when it came to spreading rumors about Bellneth and enhancing the hearsay about their matriarch. While the nursling lifted his head and eyed her in tired silence, Lightrain continued to lie quietly as well, chewing the cud while studying her matriarch’s confusing actions.

Look at the way she is,” Sedgla pointed out scornfully to Lightrain. “It’s like she’s debating on running, as if from a predator. And look at her poor calf, the way she always ignores her. If only you had taken her place, Lightrain. You’d have made a better leader than her. I mean, I’m not saying she’s bad at it or anything.” Sedgla quickly added, clearly aware of the close bond Lightrain and Bellneth shared. “But the Dam knows she’s had her time. And if she’s going to act like that …”

Lightrain’s mind trailed off as she pondered Bellneth some more, and watched Prairie trotting over in a light mood. The little calf swung her tail and began to gallop closer with an enthusiastic snort.

Oh dear, the little one’s coming over.” Sedgla hissed quickly. “Young Prairie!” she then called in a doting way, and she licked at the youngling’s face. Prairie allowed it, but only just before Thicken arose, and the two calves began to play and run free.

You don’t think she heard …?” began Sedgla, almost fearfully as she watched the calf.

No.” answered Lightrain coldly, and she stood.

With the calves playing, it gave her the opportunity to speak to Bellneth. She departed from Sedgla and approached the matriarch apprehensively at first, so as not to startle her. But, as Bellneth swung her giant head around, Lightrain was momentarily stunned at the aggressive snort and dark expression. It was obvious her friend was still disturbed by Lightrain’s intrusion in traveling.

I had to, Bellneth,” she exclaimed, guiltily, yet defensively at the same time. “It was unjust what you were doing to the calves.”

Of course you’d say so,” grunted the leader. “They all say so. And you’re on their side as well, aren’t you?”

Lightrain new exactly who “they” were, as Bellneth glanced with rage to her herd. She turned fully around, scored the ground and finally, asked, “What do you want?”

The other cow lowered her head in submission as she came nearer, slightly swinging her neck. Eventually, she halted in her tracks and looked up to the enraged bison. She was surprised at the burning fury in her eyes, but in due course, Bellneth turned her back on the other female, and looked north once more. A silent minute went by as the breeze ruffled their thick pelts, and then Lightrain stood beside her matriarch, following her gaze to the faraway mountains and cliffs that rose like monsters in the reddening sky, over the canopies of the forests. Perhaps Sedgla speaks the truth about Bellneth’s time, thought Lightrain, somewhat bitterly, for she did not want to believe her friend’s time had come and gone so fast.

Of course, Bellneth wasn’t exactly young. After all, the cow had seen thirteen years, calved for five of them, and led the Thunder-Sedge for seven. And though her age was still not too old that she was not physically capable of holding her place in the hierarchy, her mind seemed to drift and wander more often than not, and she was fierce even when it was not the time to quarrel.

The two stood silently for another couple of minutes, watching the sweeping landscape around them. Ahead, several peaks rose and jutted out into the sunset sky, and the waterfall at the rocks glimmered in the distance, while the forest covered another few miles or so in all directions from them. Though the Sun Bowl was a place of safety–for the most part–and it was buried deep in their memories, the herd was anxious to be on their way. This excitement could be traced to a bitter longing that would not leave their hearts until they were back in Calvagore, where the grasslands were open and the prairie stretched majestically in every direction. The valley was beautiful, but the desire to be free in the open range was as strong as thirst, and as powerful as the love felt between a mother and her calf.

After another moment of quiet thinking, Lightrain was about to apologize for her actions, when Bellneth spoke first.

They’re out there,” she murmured, now gazing fondly at the trees.

Who? Blackmor?” Lightrain asked in curiosity.

Nodding, the matriarch went on, “And his herd. They’re further to the south, but they’ve been on our trail for some time.”

I know. Just like last year. It’s quite unusual.” Lightrain then replied, carefully. “Some of the cows wonder …”

She quickly regretted what she had said for fear of angering Bellneth even more, but the matriarch just replied, “As do I. Still, it does not seem wrong, does it? It almost makes me feel … comforted, in a way.”

Lightrain eyed her, and asked, “What do you mean?”

It’s silly, really. But this way it feels like he’s still part of the herd, and that the Thunder-Sedge is protected even more.”

The delegate of the herd felt her stomach tighten in guilt from the earlier explosion, and from so many times when she had shared conversations about Bellneth’s emotional weakening in her relationship with the other cows. She had defended her friend often, but there were other occasions when she had allowed the talk to flow through the herd, and even she agreed–though she would never admit quite yet that she had–with some of the harsh statements and cruel gossip. Nonetheless, whatever was happening to Bellneth, she was still her friend, and the leader in her still rose at certain times, like now.

But tell me,” Lightrain then said. “Tell me what it is that makes you so nervous these Lights.”

At first, a low gurgling sound rumbled from Bellneth, but she quickly calmed herself, and looked once more to the north, where her eyes seemed to look through even the massive crags themselves. A dark yet timid look swept over her grave face again.

I don’t know.” she finally admitted. “But something’s been happening to me, Lightrain. I feel like I don’t know anything anymore, and that something will happen.”


Yes. Something dark.”

What do you mean?”

Bellneth steadily looked on, before frowning and tearing her gaze from the direction in which they were headed. She snorted and gurgled and shook her head, and for a moment Lightrain backed up, afraid she had angered her even more. But, as Bellneth looked up again, Lightrain was both frightened and touched to see that the matriarch had risen from her anxious state, appearing once more, like herself.

Listen to me, Lightrain,” she said, forcing a weak laugh. “I am acting like a frightened calf. And a crazy one at that.” Lightrain shifted uncomfortably, but Bellneth continued: “I can’t let something like a feeling come over me and stop me from leading the herd. Yes, and I thank you for stopping me earlier. I am not mad. In fact, let us stay here for the Dark. Then we’ll graze when the sun is up and we shall move on again, to the Pass.”

With that, Bellneth laid down in the buffalo grass, making herself comfortable. Lightrain frowned at the sudden change, but was glad to see the old cow back–the strong, loving matriarch.

I’ll watch Prairie and let you have some time to yourself for a while.” Lightrain then offered.

Bellneth nodded and replied, “Thank you.”

Before Lightrain turned away, she grimaced at her friend’s outlying stare that once again, overtook her while she watched the cliffs in the distance.


But it’s real, Thicken,” huffed Prairie angrily.

Mama says they aren’t,” Thicken replied, head-butting his friend playfully with an exceptionally thick skull.

What’d I say?” asked Lightrain halfheartedly, though she felt warmed by the presence of the calves and the rest of the herd that sprawled out nearby.

That dreams aren’t real. Tell her, Mama! Tell Prairie dreams aren’t real!” Thicken demanded as he ran over and circled his mother, then charged back to Prairie and butted her again.

What is this talk of dreams?” Lightrain asked with a chuckle, finding her place in the grass to lie down once more, and chew the cud as she flicked her tail.

The young bull turned for a moment to nip at a spot on his side where a reddish scuff came over the front of his rust colored body. After he was done, he settled in beside his mother, replying, “She thinks they’re real, Mama, but I told her. I told her the truth.”

Prairie glared at the tiny bull, then snorted and turned to Lightrain. “Please, Lightrain, are dreams real?”

Why do you want to know? Did you have a bad one?” the cow asked gently.

Yes. Well, no. I mean …” Prairie groaned in frustration. “I keep having a dream. Every Dark when I go to sleep.”

Well of course, you field mouse. When else would you dream?” commented Thicken, in obvious boredom now.

Quiet.” hushed his mother sharply. When she looked to her leader’s calf, she smiled and said, “Why don’t you lie down, Prairie? Your mother will be back shortly.”

Ears and tail low, Prairie sighed and folded her scrawny legs beneath a tiny body, flicking an ear as a mosquito buzzed beside it. She made a quick game of snapping at it a couple of times.

So what is the dream about?” the cow asked curiously.

It’s weird. I can’t really remember when I wake up, but I know I have it every Dark. And I know it always feels real.” she explained, half listening as she snapped at the bothersome insect again.

Always have and it feels real? But you don’t remember what it is? Hmm …” Lightrain thought aloud. “Well, as it goes, we bison are Free-Roamers, so the Great Dam gave us dreams for the Dark so that we could still roam free in our minds, even when we are asleep.”

So … are they real?” asked Prairie in a hushed voice, deeply interested.

I told you they’re not!” exclaimed Thicken, somewhat loudly as a pair of cows nearby snorted in irritation, as the night–or the Dark as they called it–was upon them and the herd was exhausted from their long trek.

Hush, Thicken.” snapped Lightrain, nipping at his ear lightly. He immediately pulled away but said nothing after that. She turned to Prairie again and grinned gently, licking at her head. When she was done, the cow said, “No, Prairie. They are not real.”

The little calf only frowned and bowed her head. Her distraught expression softened Lightrain even more.

But, it could still mean something,” she added, without really meaning to.

It could?” squealed Thicken in amazement, and Prairie lifted her head again.

Well, I’m sorry, little ones, but this is not my place to say. This is definitely a question for Yucca.” she hastily said.

The two calves were stunned for a moment, both glancing at one another, then up at the adult.

But Yucca’s scary!” Thicken pointed out, and Prairie nodded in agreement.

She is not,” Lightrain objected warningly. “Yucca knows much, and she might be able to help you out, little Prairie.”

The cow called Yucca, was indeed an old bison–older even than Bellneth and Blackmor, and older than all of the bison that the Great Plains had seen, or so it seemed. She was ancient, and had traveled far and wide. Her birth had happened around this time many years ago, though how many even Yucca herself had lost track of. With all the experiences that elder cow had had, she created her own reputation as healer, story teller, and even shaman of the birth-herd. Still, with her title came a deep chilling sensation when others thought or spoke of her. She was looked up to, and at the same time she was feared, for some had heard stories of her strange powers and ways, even if they were not all true. And even when arthritis overtook her ancient bones like ivy infested a tree, so that she moved so slowly and it took her several hours to catch up to the herd, Yucca stayed in the Thunder-Sedge, well over the age that many cows would have left their herd or died. She even attended the herd’s meetings, and they listened very carefully to her opinions and advice.

Alright.” exclaimed Prairie enthusiastically, scrambling up. “Let’s go!”

Before Lightrain could say anything else, a series of sharp grunts could be heard. Nearby cows and calves lifted their heads, though only slightly as they quickly recognized their leader’s calls. Bellneth had finally trotted over, and hastily took her place beside the little one, nuzzling her daughter lovingly, which was the first real attention she had given her all day.

Mama, I want to see Yucca!” squealed Prairie, as she laid back down at her mother’s side.

The shaman? Why?” asked Bellneth inquisitively, while Lightrain frowned at the two.

I want to ask her about my dreams.”

The lead cow just shook her head. “I’ve told you more than once, they are not real, Prairie. Now, let us sleep.”

I told you!” yipped Thicken in a bragging sort of way.

Prairie frowned, but did not protest as she lowered her head to the ground and glared off into the distance. Lightrain sighed, watching the little calf longingly. Then she looked back to her own as Thicken closed his eyes and quickly drifted into a deep, much needed sleep.

Suddenly, a draft rustled Lightrain’s hair from atop the gradient to the north where she looked out to with a sense of wonder, her eyes straying to the distant cliffs that zigzagged like giant teeth jutting out into the dying evening, rising over the tops of the trees.

As the sun had finally vanished, along with its blood-red paint, the sky was filled with bright stars that twinkled in the hours of darkness like splattered snow across a canvas of shadowy blue. The birth-herd flanked the slope, decorating its upper body here and there as dark lumps. But, what the sleeping cows and the innocent dreaming calves did not know, was that they were being watched.

Miles away, upon the dark and cracking precipices that climbed into the chilly night, stood the unusual sight of two male bison. Though the wind was abnormally strong for the valley, the cows and calves were still only gently brushed by it, while above where the duo stood–and where usually the only animals that reached those heights were mountain goats and bald eagles–the wind howled like wolves. The bulls stood mighty and strong in the middle of it, their hair rustling and their eyes squinting into the face of the icy gale.

One was large–almost as much as large Blackmor himself. The other smaller one stood abreast him, his tail swinging anxiously as he snorted.

Calm, Thornbuck.” ordered the bigger of the two beasts, who was called Redhoof.

Both were bachelors in their prime who had calves of their own in the Thunder-Sedge. They stood on the bluff, admiring the scene below. But in truth, it was Redhoof who had led them there, following a trail birthed long ago by a herd of mountain goats. And though it was not so steep, it was still dangerous for bison, who were meant only to roam the flatlands. It was Redhoof, who felt power as he stood on the cliff, with everything else falling around him.

Redhoof’s bloodline ran almost as thick as Blackmor’s through the herds. Like his father before him, he acquired the genes to grow up into a monster, and defeat many during the rut, whilst overpowering others and leading bachelor-groups here and there over the passing years; however, his biggest success was the position of patriarch in the Slit-Hoof herd, for it was he who was defeated, years ago by Blackmor. A wicked scar ran from his left eye, down across his side to his flank proving the existence of the brawl. Blackmor’s own horn had torn its way through Redhoof’s flesh.

There on the still bluff the giant bull stood in the fresh night, listening and watching the world around him. Redhoof was a few years younger than his successor, and so it deepened the rage that had been filled in his heart after the fight which had taken place so long ago. And yet, he was still the closest ever to defeat Blackmor. Redhoof, too, stood as pure might, his wooly coat shimmering dark with a hint of russet. The muscles gleamed beneath his hide, and his hooves, battered from the years, held his massive frame. He would have been a rather handsome bull, had it not been for half of his left horn missing, a condition not unusual among older bulls.

As it was, Redhoof had put up such a strong fight, that by the end, he had paid dearly for a bison of his stats. And it was because of that very incident, that made the fight so strong and it birthed hatred within his heart. This loathing was something wild and almost alien that stirred in him, and it was that fiery rage that drove him on, winning him cows during the past ruts, even after losing his herd. It was also this anger that made him an outcast from the others.

The bachelor beside him called Thornbuck, would not have known exactly what had happened as he was young and only a calf at the time of the brawl. But he, like all the others, had heard the story of their quarrel, which had flowed though the whole Sun Bowl and Calvagore as well, leaping from bison to bison like a virus; in this dazzling tale, Blackmor was the hero and the god, and Redhoof only a lame bull and enemy.

Thornbuck, only about five, was a bull with a pelt of burnt umber, and he was pretty small for such a beast. In being so, he had won himself no females at all, and the only reason why he’d been able to mate with two cows was solely because they had been what was left after the rest of the harems had been tended and wooed during the rut. And, if that weren’t enough, the news of his offspring was forlorn: one of the calves had been a stillborn, while the other had been taken by wolves shortly after its birth.

From Redhoof’s and Thornbuck’s failures, the two had been drawn to each other, like a small group of new bachelors will when they first venture from their mother’s herd, striving for companionship.

They watched heavily, the dark dots of bison in the distance.

There they lie.” uttered Redhoof gruffly, more to himself. “Upon the same slope every year.”

And the bachelors.” Thorbuck then pointed out, careful not to use the name of the older bull’s former herd. “They’ve been following them since the rut.”

Just like last year.” snorted the larger of the two in disgust. “But a time is coming.”

Thornbuck blinked abruptly and looked to his leader keenly. “Redhoof …?”

The elder male could not help but grin, though he did not even glance to the bull beside him. Instead, he gazed through the shadows of the night to the place where he was sure Blackmor and the others rested.

Thornbuck. Have you ever heard the Ancient Vow, passed on to us from our ancestors?” asked Redhoof in a weary voice, hungry eyes still piercing into the midst of the woodlands.

The younger of the two looked over, studying Redhoof carefully, and snorted, “Which one?”

The one that Skyroamer made to win Canterheart before they crossed from the Ancient Land.”

Thornbuck raised an invisible brow to his companion at the mentioning of characters from several well known myths. “You don’t believe those calves’ stories, do you?”

Redhoof tore his gaze from the obscured scene of both timberland and open range. He turned to Thornbuck only to clomp the ground.

I believe them more than I believe a lot of things, Thornbuck.” he growled threateningly.

Almost immediately, Thornbuck took a step back, cautiously watching his leader.

And you should look upon them well, too.” Redhoof warned, then straightened up and chanted:

We fight for our time

Through bloodshed we climb

And brawl we will

But not to kill

For it is the strongest

Who will live the longest

Very intriguing.” grunted Thornbuck sarcastically. “I still remember those words when my mother sang them to me as I suckled.”

It was the wrong thing to say, and Thornbuck was sent cantering midway across the bluff, Redhoof on his tail. As their shadows darted along the cliff, silhouetted in the immense moonlight, their hooves clicked loudly against the hard surface of rock, but eventually a quick scuffling was heard as the younger of the two turned round.

Thornbuck faced Redhoof, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. His gaze was enough to halt the leader, and Redhoof eyed Thornbuck warningly. There was a long moment of silence when the sensation of hostility floated as eerily as murky fog on a chilled spring’s night. They glared, but eventually Thornbuck craned his neck and turned to bite the side of his pelt, his back leg lifted at an awkward angle.

You’re right,” snorted Redhoof heavily, a puff of his breath lingering in the cold. “It is not yet the time to fight.”

Thornbuck continued to nip at his hide, pretending to only half hear, acting as if the whole situation meant nothing to him, though his muscles were still strained and his hair was on end. Redhoof tolerated the bull’s actions, and he turned away, gazing intently over the valley once more.

But what rut is it, if it does not come out with the strongest?” he whispered to himself in a longing stare.

Thornbuck grunted, but held his tongue this time. Finally, Redhoof swung his head and snarled angrily, “Is it not I who climbed my way to the top and led one of the largest, strongest herds in the lands? Is it not I who made the many calves that run through the bloodlines of the most powerful cows?”

Stop that.” Thornbuck said quietly, now nervously tossing his cranium from side to side in a show of submission, yet he stood his ground. “You’re going crazy.”

Blackmor has nothing on me. Nothing on a bull–younger even than him–who has led and led again, who has fought and won over and over!”

Thornbuck made sure to keep his gaze away from the burning eyes of the dominant bull that was approaching him ever so slowly, for the alien sensation was slowly dripping back into Redhoof–the urge to fight when it was not time.

But it won’t matter.” breathed Thornbuck desperately. “Your plan …?”

Suddenly, Redhoof’s eyes seemed to become gentle, in a way, and sympathetic as he stopped. “The plan … yes, the plan. It shall happen soon–ever so soon, Thornbuck. And when it does, every bison, whether in a herd or alone, shall be grateful for the plan … the Revolution …”

Redhoof!” a voice cried in the wind. “Leader Redhoof!”

The large bull perked and came back to life as he looked up to an area behind Thornbuck. Another bison was running toward them.

Ah, if it isn’t Twisthorn,” snorted Redhoof gruffly, and added mordantly, “Happy to see you before the sun’s risen.”

By the time Twisthorn had arrived, he was panting, his pelt gleaming in beads of sweat.

Well it wasn’t like it was easy.” he replied defensively.

Thornbuck turned to listen, relieved that his leader’s attention was turned elsewhere.

Climbing a damned trail meant for goats. What is with you and this bluff anyway? Not to mention, moving at Dark–” spat Twisthorn bluntly, but he was cut off; Redhoof immediately charged, taking the third bison by surprise.

Twisthorn was not the youngest of bulls, nor the wisest. In fact he was an elder, for his muzzle was frayed in gray and his right horn wound unusually upward–hence his name.

He was painfully buffeted and pushed back, and by the time Redhoof had backed off from a single blow, the bachelor was both bewildered and shaken.

Come now, what’s gotten into you?” heaved the quivering Twisthorn, disdainfully, trying to catch his wits

What is it, Twisthorn?” demanded Redhoof impatiently.

His voice had been so forceful and his expression so fiery, that Twisthorn did not object to the actions, and he answered eagerly, “They’ve found it, my leader. They’ve found it!”

Almost as if rammed by horns himself, Redhoof froze, stunned. But only momentarily. Hastily, he shook off his shock and ordered, “Show me.”

By the time Twisthorn had guided his leader and Thornbuck back down the trail of steep, winding stone, the moon was already high. He had led them to an area in the middle of the trail that broke away from the mountain’s base and instead, formed into a small plot of flatland, lush and scattered with fir trees.

As an owl hooted softly nearby, the trio slowly made their way to a wide crevasse nestled in the walls of the cliff. It was there where two large bulls stood, both identical in every way except that one had a pelt with the shade of dark caramel, and the other of chocolate. The pair stood on either side of the cave, sticking out as much as a twig in a pile of leaves, for they were monsters–even larger than the legendary Blackmor himself.

Only a few feet away from them were three other average bulls, all standing in a line, snorting and flicking their tails. Though Redhoof had lost the Slit-Hoof, he had not lost every subject altogether, for these were loyal bison he had gained during the past few years.

You’re awake?” Thornbuck grunted curiously to the trio as they neared.

Couldn’t sleep.” one of them snorted back.

Yeah, that thing kept us awake all Dark.” growled a rather frustrated bull on the left, swinging his tail to and fro.

Thornbuck’s eyes widened inquisitively and he looked at the cave. Redhoof, who had been listening, grinned and seemed even more enticed by the short exchange of words. He turned away from the others, only to eye the twins.

Bullmork.” Redhoof exclaimed, looking to the lighter of the two, before glaring at the dark one and spitting, “Torlore. What has happened?”

The twins straightened themselves and, without looking at each other nor their leader, they replied together, in almost automatic voices, “We found it.”

Where?” snapped Redhoof impatiently.

Torlore answered with, “By the mists in the further reaches of Calvagore, shortly after those northern brutes joined. We had to blind it, though, to keep it under control.”

Ah,” Redhoof then replied, glaring into the lonely darkness of the crevasse behind the twins. A new and rather bemused look came upon his face, as he uttered, “Strange, how some things work out. She told me the creature wouldn’t arise until the three Brothers’ Descendants united, yet only one Descendants is here.”

That damned tale again?” snorted Thornbuck, edgily. “That cow was old and crazy, how can you believe anything that comes from her mouth?”


Obviously she was lying, or we wouldn’t have it here right now. When are you to use it–?” But he cut off shortly, noticing his superior’s tail was now raised.

Redhoof took a step forward, the twins moved aside with no protest. A deep grumbling could be heard from the depths of the cave. It was more so, a low breathing; raspy, but still there.

The large one-horned male began to inch closer, when Torlore timidly shot out, “We … didn’t want to interrupt you. But it’s kind of … strong … Leader Redhoof.”

It was obvious that the twins had fought, and hard. They had been standing at the cave, appearing both strong but ultimately exhausted. And had Redhoof looked closer, he would have discovered the many gashes and bruises that decorated both bulls’ heads and bodies. Yet he had not been listening as he inched even closer into the shadows that had fallen within the cliff’s side which held the ravaged breathing of the beast.

Sir!” Twisthorn abruptly and frantically snapped as his leader’s head ducked inside the cave. “Stop!”

Fortunately, Redhoof had paused, and then backed out, flicking his tail with a snort. Thornbuck grunted from where he stood, watching with a spark of amusement in his eye. Twisthorn’s warning had not been said for no reason, but Redhoof was not one to take orders, especially from his inferiors. Still, there was no mistaking the urgency in Twisthorn’s voice, and it was because of his dire tone that the monster-sized bison had retreated.

Redhoof’s expression was still excited as before, but a new wave of apprehension and anger had rushed over it. His stunning eyes brushed over the few loyal bulls he had left, studying them. For a moment, the amusement in Thornbuck had vanished as he watched his leader considering him carefully. He quickly relaxed when Redhoof looked back to someone else: the smallest of all the bunch.

You there,” Redhoof snorted gruffly. “North-Runner.”

The wood bison could not help as a quiver wracked his whole body, and he peered up at his patriarch with uneasiness.

Redhoof went on with, “We’ve never really had a proper introduction; what was your name again?”

G–Goldspar.” he stammered, not able to mask his fear. When he noticed how shaky his own voice was, the one called Goldspar quickly lifted his chin in defiance, as if trying to cover up his anxiety with strength and pride.

And how old are you?” Redhoof went on, not the least bit impressed.

Before the young bull could answer, the one who had been complaining about not sleeping stepped forward, and exclaimed, “Please, Sir. He became a bachelor just after the last rut.”

Redhoof glared menacingly at the bachelor, and spat, “And what does his existence have to do with you?”

He flinched, knowing he should not have interfered. Quickly, he answered, “We share the same mother.”

Suddenly, a flash of entertainment flared up in Redhoof’s face, and he could not help a grin. “Kin? Oh, touching. What a coincidence; old Torlore and Bullmork here are brothers as well, did you know? Twins, in fact.” Redhoof pointed out, nodding at the two brutes, who both gazed intently ahead of them, into the darkness of the night.

Yes. We know.” Goldspar’s elder brother answered for the both of them, though his voice trailed off in question.

The patriarch looked back and went on, “Yes, I see a bit of North-Runner in you as well; half I suppose? Well, it’s not your blood I’m interested, that is if you share only his dam. It is your brother’s North-Runner father I’m interested in. But he’s dead of course, so now I’m left with you.” Hastily, Redhoof straightened up again and his eyes fell once more on young Goldspar. “Two years then, I take it?” he demanded.

Redhoof, where is this going?” Thornbuck suddenly asked from behind, though his voice was cautious from the outburst earlier atop the bluff.

The leader of the bachelors ignored the other male, his focus still on the youngest of the small group.

No. One year. But I’m strong as any other bull!” Goldspar replied eagerly, bolder than before, and still attempting to seem strong.

Ah, I knew you looked young. Well then, Goldspar, you’ve finally left your birth-herd and entered reality. As such, you must take orders from your commander …” He paused, allowing the bull’s curiosity to linger for a moment longer, before ending it with, “Seeing as we’ve already got what I wanted without you, and I don’t exactly need you anymore–”

Please, Sir,” grunted the adolescent, suddenly desperate. “Let me stay!”

Something gleamed behind the elder’s eye, and he grinned. “You’ll have to prove your worth then.”


Good. I want you to enter the cave.”

The order had done it. The only eyes wider than Goldspar’s, was his brother’s, who cried out, “Please, Sir!”

What then is it?” snapped Redhoof with growing impatience. “Do you think you are his keeper? Or perhaps you see yourself a cow? Or that your brother is not old enough to face the world by himself?”

Thornbuck continued to listen and watch, entertained by the whole thing. If anything, he felt a tinge of exhilaration at the rise of tension. He even snickered at his leader’s fierce emotional blows to the young bulls.

It’s not that!” he exclaimed anxiously to Redhoof. “It’s just, only one year separates us, so my brother and I left our birth-herd together!”

If you’re so keen on protecting him, then I’ll make a deal with you.” Redhoof propositioned.

Goldspar shifted uncomfortably, and muttered to his brother, embarrassed, “Stop.”

For a moment, the bull looked stung at his brother’s humiliation. But he turned to Redhoof again and fixed him with a hard stare as he said, “If it’s entering the cave myself, fine.”

Oh now, why would I want you to do that?” Redhoof replied with a smirk. “No. I’d rather put my herd members to better use.”

Then why make him enter the cave?” challenged the bison.

But Redhoof’s grin widened. “Goldspar does not have to enter the cave … if you and he fight … and he wins.”

There was a small space of time in which everyone was quiet, and the only sounds heard were the songs of the nightly insects and the steady, raspy breath of the monster within in the cliff’s gap. It was as if reality had been torn from their grasp, and there was not one bachelor there who did not feel a shred of question and shock.

But … but it’s not yet the rut.” he gasped. “Why would we fight?”

It is close enough to test our strengths.”

Thornbuck couldn’t help but notice that Redhoof failed to mention the threat of their little quarrel earlier, and Redhoof’s own lack of respect to the certain time of year when it was alright to brawl.

It wasn’t as if the two young bulls couldn’t refuse; on the contrary, the brothers could have left easily. But the real fear came out of both being so young, and traveling together without a bachelor-group.

Redhoof did not take his eyes from Goldspar’s elder brother, and in the end, the sibling ended up breaking the gaze, and he lowered his head slowly. It was obvious that even if the two bulls did engage in full out combat, the older of the brothers would win, as Goldspar was still growing, and therefore the brawl would be fatal for the yearling, but if there was any doubt in him, he did a good job of hiding it with his determination. He stood, muscles flexing as he snorted challengingly at Redhoof and the other bachelors, wanting more than anything to prove his worth.

Alright, then. Goldspar …?” Redhoof gestured expectantly to the youngster.

I’ll go!” he huffed anxiously.

Flicking his tail, Goldspar stepped forward, past his brother and the others, slowly edging to the cavern. It was only when he came close enough to the point where he stood squarely between the twins, did his old fear seep through his willpower and show once more. All but Thornbuck and Redhoof himself seemed wary about the situation. Even Torlore and Bullmork appeared unnerved as they glared ahead, muscles stiff beneath their pelts.

Thornbuck stood beside Twisthorn, and glanced at Goldspar’s brother, who watched intently. Pure terror was etched on his face while he watched his sibling melt into the darkness of the crevasse. It took a good twenty seconds of anxious silence. Then–

Goldspar?” called his brother tentatively, stepping next to Redhoof.

Redhoof ignored the bull’s call, his eyes searching hungrily in the dark cave for any sign of life. The others moved uneasily in their spots, glancing guardedly from one to another, and back to the grotto. At first, the breathing from within the cavern remained fixed, and hoarse as ever, but as Goldspar sank away from the outside world, it immediately vanished. As if reading the herd’s mind, the breathing gave way to an eerie silence, seemingly mocking their anxiety.

Goldspar!” his brother hissed, now even more shaken by fury and stress.

Almost instantly, a shuffling could be heard, and the bison’s ears perked. Redhoof did not tear his penetrating gaze from the darkness. As this happened, a cloud overhead appeared out of nowhere, slinking out from the abyss and blanketing the moon, cutting away its precious light.

What’s going on?” asked someone.

What’s happening?” spat Twisthorn.


The shuffling had morphed to the sound of hooves scraping against rock, and then a deep bellow cracked the atmosphere, echoing from the cave’s walls and into the night. Within seconds, before anyone knew what had happened, another howl sounded, and a large lump of a body was thrust back out onto the bluff at Redhoof’s feet. The twins bellowed together and scrambled clumsily away from the cave and the body.

What happened?” Twisthorn snarled.

What is it?”

Get out of my way!”

The last voice had belonged to Bullmork as he crashed through the gathered bulls, his brother right behind him.

Fools!” barked Redhoof in blinding rage, rearing up slightly from his spot in response to the actions. “Hush! Stop!”

By the time the herd settled down, neither the crickets nor the bison made a sound. Only the heavy rasping from the cave started up again, and a light breeze ruffled their pelts together. They stood with one another, huddled, except Redhoof. Twisthorn snorted and Thornbuck grunted, taking a step forward to get a better look. As the lonely cloud above them drifted away to reveal the moon, a pool of pale light splashed onto the dark lump that lay lifeless and serene, between the cave and Redhoof.

At the gasp of their leader, Goldspar’s brother thrust himself past Twisthorn and knocked Thornbuck roughly to the side, who reacted with a gruff yowl. When the bison halted beside Redhoof, he could only gawk at the bloody, unmoving Goldspar. Redhoof tensed and turned his head slowly to watch the younger bison’s expression of horror, his own fear hinted with a certain satisfaction.

When the bull did not say anything or even twitch, Redhoof swiveled to gaze into the cave again, murmuring with pride and determination, “It truly is a monster …”