Chapter 3


  Blackmor stood, his tail swishing to and fro for a couple of moments. He looked on with a sense of wary calmness. The Slit-Hoof gathered swiftly around him at the base of the knoll, patiently waiting while having themselves a peaceful graze. A couple of the males glanced up at their leader in curiosity as he called out every minute or so in his deep strong bellow. It wasn’t until two other bulls came trotting over from the corner of the rising mesa that little Prairie and Thicken had been on not more than a half an hour ago, did the black bison fall still.

When Sunpelt and the other bull came within yards of Blackmor, Sunpelt called, “Nothing.”

Nothing?” echoed Blackmor, his brow furrowed in a serious expression.

Nothing that threatens us.” agreed the bachelor beside Sunpelt.

At all, Hornthrow? What of the racket in the west?” Blackmor queried, not taking much notice to the yearling.

Sunpelt waited patiently beside the dark, chocolate colored bull called Hornthrow, who was much older and therefore, noticeably larger and more experienced. His leader’s constant attention for the older brute irritated the adolescent, but Sunpelt held his tongue.

Just a mule deer.” snorted Hornthrow, importantly. “As for the rogue, we followed him but he disappeared round the river’s bend. He’s of no threat, of course.”

Good, good. Then our travels are going to be smooth?”

Aye. Little Sunpelt here found an old buck trail that leads straight to the nearest meadow. It should be even smoother than we thought.”

Good job, Sunpelt.” snorted Blackmor, glancing down at the yearling.

The title “little” was not the least bit gratifying, but the leader had handed him a compliment. He could only nod in forced silence.

And what of the other patrollers?” Blackmor went on.

Slinghoof and Titan are resting near the large oak in the southwest, and Blackdiamond is out at the brook near the swamp.” answered Hornthrow, sounding just as vital as his patriarch.

Good. Then what of the cows?”

The cows,” a booming voice abruptly shot up from behind Sunpelt and Hornthrow, who both looked over their shoulders. Blackmor’s expression softened in a gentle surprise as his gaze lingered on the approaching female bison. “are upset.” finished Bellneth.

The group near the hill also spotted the cow and exclamations began. Sunpelt blinked curiously at Blackmor’s weak look. Without instruction, he galloped down the knoll to meet Nightshine and Gulltorth. Neither said anything as their friend came over. Instead, he joined them in gawking silently at the strange sight of a cow with the patriarch of a bachelor-group.

Suddenly, a buff male came trotting hastily behind her, snorting and gurgling in both frustration and dread.

I told her to stop!” he cried out, glaring at the cow and glancing timidly to Blackmor. “She came from the mesa and–”

It’s alright, Blackdiamond.” Blackmor assured his subordinate, still gazing at only Bellneth. When he noticed all eyes and ears were on him, he quickly straightened up and ordered, “Er, Hornthrow, escort Blackdiamond back to his post and check to make sure the territory is secure for the Dark.”

Before anything else happened, Hornthrow jerked his head back and exclaimed in shock, “Sir? We’re stopping already? It’s but midlight!”

I didn’t ask for questions. Besides, the herd is tired and this seems like an ideal spot. Now go.” Blackmor demanded, his voice rising finally, as he looked away from the cow and narrowed his eyes on the bull.

Without saying another word, Hornthrow and Blackdiamond charged away. Blackmor grinned inwardly, clearly amused by his herd’s shock. Snorting, he turned from them, and he and Bellneth slowly walked away together.

Oiy, what was that all about?” Nightshine blurted to his friend.

Dunno.” answered Sunpelt truthfully.

A cow? Here?” grunted Gulltorth, bewildered.


Nightshine snorted and grinned at his friend, only to sneer, “So, what did you do this Light, little Sunpelt?”

The youngest bull gurgled and playfully butted into his friend, yet there was no doubt he was touched with annoyance by the name.

It took Bellneth and Blackmor a distance of a few hundred yards, silently ambling beside each other into the open woodlands before either spoke.

What–” began Blackmor, but he was immediately cut off by the cow: “Blackmor, you fool!” snorted the matriarch disdainfully. “My herd is distressed by your presence.”

Calm them.” he snorted. “We’re both migrating anyway–trying to find summer range, are we not? And as so we’re allowed to come together during the migration. In fact, I’ve been thinking that the Slit-Hoof should set up Reunion and travel with the Thunder-Sedge.” he then suggested, hopefully. “That way I’ll be introduced to my calves–”

That might be a little too early for Reunion.” Bellneth gravely pointed out. Then she quickly thought aloud, “But … perhaps …” After a moment’s pause, she shook her head and said with a dire tone, “But they’ll soon overthrow me before I get a word out.”

Overthrow you? No.” Blackmor jokingly replied, as if shocked.

This isn’t funny, Blackmor. They’re upset, and I know my hierarchy is soon to be tested.” Bellneth exclaimed, visibly disturbed.

The bull halted and frowned at the cow. Bellneth stopped as well, returning the patriarch’s grave expression. Bellneth had only been tested once since she had become matriarch, and she had sent that young bison scrambling away. But that was years ago, and now Bellneth was much older, and therefore her status was vulnerable, even for a cow.

Is that what you’ve come to tell me?” Blackmor asked.

Yes. I’m just warning you … for the good of both of us.”

He nodded, then forced himself to ask, “Do they really want to overthrow you?”

There’s been talk … But I know at least one of them will try during the rut.”

Fighting amongst bulls and cows.” commented Blackmor, broodingly, more so to himself as he shook his head in a kind of grave amusement.

Yes, but ours is much more rare, and therefore more meaningful.” Bellneth heaved a long sigh. “I suppose it’s not surprising. I’m getting old, and these bones can’t carry me around for too many more Lights. I shall soon take the place of my mother and her mother before her as a rogue.”

The two were silent for a long while, before Blackmor replied, somewhat anxiously, “No, Bellneth. You might not be young, but you’re not old. Stay matriarch, at least for a little longer … for me?”

Almost immediately, the cow snorted, entertained but touched by the comment. “No. That’s wrong; I stay leader for myself, my calf, and for the herd itself.” she replied strongly, lifting her chin in pride. “And I’d rather die than see that waste of a pelt Sedgla, as leader of the Thunder-Sedge and my birth-herd.”

Blackmor nodded, and could not help but nuzzle the cow’s head. It was for this very willpower of hers that he had felt unusually close to her, more so than any other mate he had ever won.

And for the Dam’s sake, Blackmor, what was with all the commotion? I heard you bellowing from the ravine.” she suddenly pointed out.

If it had been for the rut, you’d have heard it from miles away.” he replied, smirking. “I was merely using lung power to call my herd.”

By the time the sun began to dip back down to the horizon, Bellneth had already returned to her herd and moved them well north, at a comfortable distance to the point that they were out of reach of the bulls.

When night stole dusk, the Thunder-Sedge settled in a nest of vanilla grass. They had made good timing, despite the fact that they had grazed longer than planned; it turned out that Prairie and Thicken’s little adventure had caused the delay.

At the base of a lone bur oak that jutted out from the middle of a plain, Prairie was lying apprehensively next to Thicken and his mother. The whole herd was nestled together, nothing more than brown lumps of cows and calves decorating the golden field gleaming with silver moonlight. It was unusual that Lightrain was in such a perky mood, and odder yet that Bellneth had said nothing of Prairie’s trek, but the little calf was careful not to bring it up. Instead, Prairie was focused on how grateful she was, huddled up next to her friend and safely within the inner bounds of the herd, away from danger.

As she half-way closed her eyes, Prairie let herself lean over upon Thicken’s side, flicking her tail at the gossip of the cows standing around them, and the chitchat of the playful calves. All about her the lullaby of the birth-herd sang into the evening; their gentle chatter, their murmuring grunts and snorts.

I don’t think it’s as dangerous as they say.” Thicken was saying to a little bull around their age, named Hollyhorn. “I mean, me an’ Prairie went out earlier–ow! Prairie! Why’d you do that?”

The female nursling had bumped her skull against his, giving a vicious snort. She had suddenly come alive at his words, and was well aware of the cows–including her mother and Thicken’s–surrounding them.

Don’t bring that up.” she hissed warningly.

What? Why does it matter?” Thicken ignorantly went on.

Yeah, yeah I wanna hear!” Hollyhorn replied eagerly, his eyes sparkling in thrill at the story. “Go on, Thicken. Go on!”

Thicken smirked at Prairie, before continuing, “Well, you know Cudleaf?”

That little calf? What ‘bout ‘im?”

Me an’ Prairie–Prairie, stop that!” huffed the bull.

You stop that.” she growled back, then flicked an ear and turned to Hollyhorn, saying, “It was nothing.”

Thicken immediately spat, “Why are you being so boring, Prairie? We–”

What are you guys talking about?” a high-pitched voice questioned, and Prairie groaned in frustration as another little calf made her way over to the circle of young bison.

Nothing, Mistcoat.” she quickly snapped.

Mistcoat, being just as demanding as Prairie herself, lay down next to the males and huffed, saying, “But I’m bored. I wanna hear what you and Thicken did.”

A desperate feeling lurched in Prairie’s stomach as she glanced over to her mother, but Bellneth was resting a few yards off. Several cows were separating them from the matriarch. Perhaps bringing up the story was not such a bad idea. After all, Sedgla and Cudleaf were nowhere to be seen and–

And that’s when we pushed ‘im in!” cried Thicken, clomping the ground with his forehooves. He had already blurted out the scene, and was driven with such enthusiasm, that the little bull had leapt up, kicking the air in excitement.

Prairie cringed at her friend’s words, suddenly noticing that the cows around them had become silent, and staring. One of them–the closest to Thicken–had even grunted and nipped at his pelt to settle him.

What now?” someone asked, their voice heavy with strain and irritation. Sedgla had approached, seemingly out of nowhere, glaring at Thicken. Then she glanced to the rest of the group, her eyes stopping once on Prairie, who flinched at her gaze. “What is so important that you calves have to disturb the herd at this hour? Little nurslings should be sleeping–”

They’re just playing before they drift off to sleep, Sedgla.” Lightrain cut in, and her very words filled Prairie with deep relief. Even Thicken–who had turned somewhat pale at Sedgla’s presence–was calmed by his mother. He quickly folded his legs beneath him, laying once more between Prairie and Mistcoat.

There was an awkward moment, where the calves watched the two cows in apprehensive silence, and the other adults could not help but perk an ear to eavesdrop as well. Sedgla’s expression had fallen from irritated to distraught while she looked to Lightrain in disdain.

I just want some peace and quiet for the Dark. The Free-Roamers only know how hard that is these Darks, what with destructive calves wandering away from the herd.”

Hey, Cudleaf went with them on his own.” Hollyhorn replied defensively, though his ears quickly drooped when Sedgla glowered at the little one.

You–” she started, but Lightrain hastily cut in, “Alright, Sedgla. I’ll make sure they’re quiet. You can leave now.”

Another few uncomfortable seconds went by before Sedgla finally gave one last threatening grunt and turned around, departing from the group. When Lightrain looked to see that the other adults were listening, she scowled; immediately two older adolescents went back to gossiping about attractive bulls they spotted during the last rut; three adults chitchatted about family and herd politics; a pair of elders was speaking about the abundance of scrubs near Calvagore’s entrance.

Prairie shrugged away the random conversations, gazing fondly up at Lightrain, who had come to their rescue once more.

OK then, why don’t we just forget about what you calves were talking about.” Lightrain suggested lightheartedly, giving her son a nudge with her snout, and then turning to lick Mistcoat lovingly.

Ah, do we really have to go to sleep right now?” Thicken moaned.

I didn’t say that.” Lightrain replied. “But we should respect Sedgla and her requests, as well as the rest of the herd.”

Why? Sedgla’s just an old …” Thicken started, but fell silent under his mother’s sharp gaze.

When she looked to the rest of the calves, she forced a weak grin and suggested, “What about a story?”

We were telling a story.” murmured Thicken, somewhat disappointedly.

Ignoring her son’s comment, Lightrain said, “What about Clicktrot and the puma Clawfang?”

Oo, I like that one!” chimed in Mistcoat.

That story’s for babies.” Hollyhorn commented, Thicken agreeing with a nod.

It teaches young calves to stay in their herd.” Lightrain pointed out briskly; immediately the little ones hushed, and Prairie grew rigid. “What about Hoofwinkle–”

Baby story.” Thicken blurted.

Lightrain scowled. “And what about–”

Tell us about the Ancient Land.” Hollyhorn suddenly said.

For a second or two, the calves watched in curiosity, and even Prairie perked an ear to listen. Lightrain blinked in surprise at the tiny bull.

What do you know about the Ancient Land, little one?” the cow carefully asked.

Er, not much.” he answered truthfully. “I’ve just heard some of the grownups talk about it sometimes, so I asked Mama what it was and she told me that we came from it a long time ago.”

Well, that’s right.” explained Lightrain, though a tone of undeniable cautiousness weaved in and out of her words. “Long long ago, before even all the stars were born, during the time of our sacred ancestors, there was a brave Free-Roamer.”

Who were the very first Free-Roamers?” asked Mistcoat cheerfully, though it was most likely that she already knew the answer, as every bison did.

That, little one, is another story to be told.” Lightrain answered, then added, “But I shall name them anyway: Cloudhoof and her mate Hornthunder.”

Prairie said, “I thought Free-Roamers didn’t have the same mates.”

Again, Lightrain frowned inwardly as she tried to soothe her patience, and she replied, “Yet another story. Now, sit tight and listen, little ones.” She waited a moment as if challenging one to speak, but none did, so the cow went on: “His name was Stormlore. He lived during a time much different than now. A time when our kind was much larger and fiercer; when our horns stuck out to the sides of our heads almost straight, as long as trees, and our bodies were as big as mountains.”

Cool!” Prairie, Thicken and Hollyhorn all cried at once.

Shh!” hissed Lightrain, but she quickly fell back into her story. “Now, Stormlore was a natural born leader. He felt compassion toward every bison. He did not like to see his kind die, but a time came when the lands were filled with icy cold, and food became scarce. Here and there bison died, and more than just the calves, the weak, and the old.”

The youngsters all listened, eyes wide. Not even Thicken made a sound. It was only Prairie who blurted, “What did they do?”

Well, Stormlore knew he had to find a place for his herd, including his own birth-herd, for he did not want to see calves and cows die either. He decided to try and lead the herds to a better place. He decided to cross the Land Bridge.”

The Land Bridge,” echoed Mistcoat in awe.

Yes. You see, when our kind was still young, the Dam knew that the Time of Ice and Cold would come, so She created a bridge that connected from the Ancient Land to the New Land. At the time, no one knew exactly what was over there. The Dam had made it for animals that would be in need during the fierce era that was to come. She allowed certain creatures that wouldn’t have been able to survive in the Ancient Land during the Time of Ice and Cold, to cross the Land Bridge.”

Prairie shifted, listening in deep concentration, all her attention on Lightrain as she spoke unknowingly of Beringia, or the Bering Straight.

Hollyhorn asked, “Why didn’t the Free-Roamers pass over in the first place?”

Our kind didn’t need to pass over until the middle of the Time of Ice and Cold. But even when the Free-Roamers were so desperate, there were some bison in the sacred herds that did not want to risk migrating to a new place. Their elders wanted to find a new solution, but there was none. Because some Free-Roamers did not want to take that chance, they refused to cross the Land Bridge. But the ones who were going to leave were warned by the Dam Herself.”

What did She say?” questioned Prairie eagerly.

I’ll tell you, if you can learn to hold your tongue for once, little one.” replied Lightrain, not unkindly. When the calves were silent, she explained, “The Dam spoke to the herds, and said, ‘I made this land rise from the Great Sea, and I allow the crossing of different fauna. But it was meant for all your kind. Either you all go or you all stay.’ But Stormlore did not want to see anymore death, so he pleaded with Her. Finally, the Dam gave in and said, ‘Let it be. But if only some of you stray from the lands from which I bore you, you shall never come back. And you will never be the same. You will shed your muscles, until you are no bigger than a deer.’

But that wasn’t all,” Lightrain continued. “She told them, ‘You will lose the very horns that protect your kind, and you will be left with horns no bigger than small sticks, and they shall curl upward instead of straight out.’”

What’d ‘e do?” asked Thicken in clear thrill.

Stormlore led his bachelors with his birth-herd, and the herds melted together like they do during Reunion. And even though the Free-Roamers were dying and weak, there were still so many bison that came together with those herds, that they made the biggest migration any Free-Roamer had ever or would ever make. They walked in lines and groups across the Land Bridge into the Great Sea, never to return to the lands from which they came, leaving many of the refusing Free-Roamers behind.

When it came to be, the herds had crossed, only to find yet more lands of ice and snow. But they did not fret, for even though it was still the Time of Ice and Cold, there was still a good amount more of food than there was in the Ancient Land. So Stormlore led his bachelors away, and the herds as well as many others, separated again. It was in the New Land–this very land we live on right now–that they grew healthy, and they gave birth to many.”

Hollyhorn quickly huffed in disappointment, “But I thought the Dam said they were never gonna be the same.”

Ah, well, you are right; they did not change. Not until many years and generations had come to pass did the Free-Roamers start to look as we do now.”

Another few moments of quiet enthusiasm past, where the calves lie silently together, each flicking a tail or an ear, their eyes wide. Even Mistcoat’s muzzle was slightly agape.

But Lightrain, what about the Ancient Land now?” Prairie then asked, desperate to find out more. “And what about the Free-Roamers that stayed? What happened to them?”

Thicken quickly grunted in excitement, “Yes, yes, did they change? Or did they even live past the Time of Ice and Cold, Mama?”

Well,” Lightrain pensively replied, “The ones too fearful to leave stayed, but as to what happened to them and the Ancient Land is still a mystery. You see, the Dam fulfilled her promise in changing the Free-Roamers that crossed, as well as taking away any chance in returning to the Ancient Land, for the Great Sea swallowed the Land Bridge up after the bison crossed many, many years ago.”

More silence filled the group. Lightrain blushed at all the attention, as if noticing it for the first time, for even cows and other calves around them had fallen quiet to listen to the story. It was as if an invisible wave of anticipation and awe had washed over the bison, for though the legend was only a myth, it reflected the actual events of their sacred ancestors; bison priscus, and their great migration across Beringia from Eurasia to Alaska, millions of years ago. In the old tale, truth lie buried deep beneath the words.


When the sun broke into a misty sky the next day, the Thunder-Sedge was once more on its way to Calvagore, and to the Pass in the mountains, within the broad range of precipices. The Slit-Hoof herd was on their tail, but did not yet approach for Reunion–the time in which a herd of bachelors is allowed to once more, regroup with the cows, usually before and during the rut, and during long migrations. But Reunion was catching up. Even the cows began to calm down at the presence of the males, and by the time that two days had come to pass, Blackmor’s herd was only a couple of miles behind.

Busy talk about the approaching males ran through the birth-herd, and a combination of excitement and apprehension molded over the cows, as well as their offspring. The calves reacted mostly to their mothers’ words and feelings, and felt their tense enthusiasm, too. For the young bulls, it was like taking a glimpse into their own near futures. And for nurslings altogether, it was a chance to be able to perhaps meet their sires.

On the night of the third day, Bellneth’s herd took cover beneath an array of scattered pines at the rim of a moor, where the beginning of the foothills began to steadily rise, and the cliffs that bordered the valley’s northernmost reaches produced what seemed a constant shadow over the nearing flatlands during most of the day. Up some ways from the base of the gray–almost golden colored–inclines stood a trio of bulls. From a bluff laden in silver moonlight, Redhoof stood in front, hungrily eyeing the dots of cows and calves. He turned his massive head at the sound of approaching, thundering hooves.

Blackmor and the bachelors travel from the southwest, Redhoof.” Twisthorn snorted with scorn on his tongue as he moved closer to the three bison. “And they’re not far behind the cows.”

Redhoof remained calm as he oversaw the bull, but Thornbuck impatiently shifted. “Reunion!” he spat frantically, looking to his leader. “How are we supposed to carry out the plan?”

Yes, dear leader,” grunted Twisthorn in a sarcastic way, spit spraying from his old mouth. “What of Reunion?”

It was a bold thing to act as the old bull did just then, but Redhoof showed nothing more than a look of amusement pass over his face at Twisthorn’s disdain. Even Thornbuck was somewhat unnerved by the situation.

We’ll just have to take charge.” Redhoof exclaimed, a glint in his eyes. “Literally.” He paused, looking thoughtful, before continuing: “The plan will begin to take effect before Reunion.”

A faint pang of relief touched Thornbuck, but Twisthorn frowned and replied, “Do you think that’s possible? In time, sure. But not before Reunion.”

Oh? And why is that?”

Twisthorn blinked in surprise, taken aback slightly. But the trick in the question was clear. It was as if Redhoof was daring him to answer.

Finally, the elder bull snorted and said, “Forgive me, Sir, but I must say you’ve lost your wits if you think we have enough bulls to participate. Especially against Blackmor and his herd.”

Thornbuck was the first to react; he took a step back, eyes wide in both fear and delight. Just as Redhoof was about to charge, his expression nothing but fiery rage, a realization came over him. He halted in his own action, and gave Twisthorn a wicked sneer.

We’ll see,” Redhoof replied through a forced grin, which seemed to grow at Twisthorn’s own horrifying comprehension. “After all, Twisthorn, is it not you whom I put in charge of the others, just beneath Thornbuck? And is it not they who are meant to find more loyal Free-Roamers? Forgive me, my friend, for ever doubting you. I know you’ll have a good amount of subjects before Reunion … After all, none of us would want to see what happens if you don’t, right?”

An eerie silence settled over the group, and the tension was at its climax. In the end, Twisthorn forced a quick dip of the head and left, galloping over the ravine into the night. What made the situation so terrifying was the threat which was masked by the short exchange of words from bull to bull; if Twisthorn and the others did not succeed in finding more loyal followers for the plan, then Twisthorn was to be blamed, and what might occur as a result of it was not known yet, even to Redhoof himself, but it was sure to be petrifying and full of agony.

Thornbuck, who stood in full regards to the situation, felt nothing but exhilaration at the idea. The bull standing behind him and Redhoof, however, was wincing as an almost dreamy sensation was sweeping over him. For he, Goldspar’s brother, was left as nothing but an empty puppet, following, listening, watching, waiting. By then, Redhoof’s own alien-like powers had begun to take their affects on those around him. And the plan was arising, like an angry storm sneaking closer.


When noon of the next day came, the atmosphere was once more warming beneath the sun’s vicious, golden fire. Bellneth was walking steadily ahead of the Thunder-Sedge, leading them ever closer to the Pass. By then, they were at the point that even when dawn had broken from the dark bitterness of night, the calves with their velvet, fragile pelts were still shivering in the shadows of the mountains and cliffs that acted like a temporary veil from the sun.

Even now the dark precipices jutted upward, dangerously jagged, as if nature herself had carved out giant daggers over the years, golden only in the right light. But for the most part, they remained gray and lifeless with scattered firs and pines decorating their faces and sides, like strangely colored, unmoving flames sprouting from a tor here and there. White mountain heather grew briskly from flat rock formations where soil gently blanketed the ground, allowing the plants to pop out as green blades, the tips of their thin stalks slanted from the weight of their bell-shaped flowers. Further up, where the wild salmonberries grew in a sweet, wealthy array upon the cliff’s brow, a pair of mountain goats made their way down the steep slopes, leaping gracefully from one rock to another. One of the billy-goats stopped to gaze curiously down at the group of bison, his nostrils flared and his cloud-colored pelt ruffling in the icy wind. Still, the Thunder-Sedge was at least a couple of miles from the wide gorge that penetrated the thick crags.

When are we gonna be there, Mama?” groaned Prairie as she trotted to keep up with her dam, her hair tousled from the breeze. She trembled while she pranced along, keeping a constant and desperate eye on the crags ahead of them. It seemed that no matter how much they walked, they would never get close enough to pass through the gorge.

By the time the sun is high during the next Light, you will see Calvagore for the first time.” assured her mother, gently nuzzling the calf’s neck as they traveled.

At first Prairie jerked her tail in excitement at the reassuring answer, but when she looked up, she saw that Bellneth was once more distracted by the cliffs ahead. Her agitation was not in the same air as little Prairie, or the other eager calves whose hearts were all set upon their first summer range, and for the first time being able to see what lie outside of the Sun Bowl. Nor was the matriarch thrilled the same way as the other adults, who wished more than anything to once more roam free, not within the walls of the dale, but upon seas of endless buffalo grass.

Prairie frowned heavily at her mother, and heaved a sigh, instantly recognizing her faraway gaze and apprehension. There weren’t too many memories in which Prairie was able to recall times of joy from a doting mother. The calf began to slow her step, allowing herself to melt in with the rest of the herd, Bellneth unnoticing. Often when traveling, the bison would stay in a straight line, but this time they were rather cluttered as they moved, perhaps due to their mounting excitement.

Hi, guys,” Prairie exclaimed hopefully as she found a group of calves, well protected by a thick group of surrounding nursery cows.

Hi, Prairie!” Mistcoat loudly replied. The unusually grayish calf caught up alongside Prairie, giving her a friendly nudge. “What’ch ya doin’?”

Nothing.” she answered, still walking. “Have you seen Thicken?”

Oh, he’s at the back with the yearlings.” Mistcoat answered, somewhat disappointed at the question.

Prairie, not noticing her friend’s dismay, perked her ears in thick interest. “He is? What’s he doin’ with them?”

It was not surprising for their older friend, Hoofkick, to join the youngsters in a quick bound around the paddock, or a nice visit within the playgroup of nurslings, but for Thicken to have joined the adolescents was unusual.

Dunno.” Mistcoat admitted with a shrug.

I heard he’s been challenged.” a female calf no older than Prairie herself chimed in from behind.

Er, Mosshide, I didn’t think he could be.” Prairie replied, flicking her tail. “I don’t think–”

Fine, don’t believe me.” the calf called Mosshide huffed, lifting her buttercup chin up as she spoke. “But it’s true. It’s that Hoofkick and Charolide–he’s my brother. They got in a fight ‘bout who’s gonna be the first one in the Slit-Hoof herd.”

Don’t they join around the same time?” Prairie replied thoughtfully, though she could not help but frown at the thought of Thicken leaving, even if it was not for another couple of years.

Who cares?” shrugged Mosshide. “It’s just dumb bull stuff.”

But what’s Thicken got to do with it?”

Dunno. But my brother’s challenging him.” the youngster replied, looking bored now.

Yet Prairie was both bewildered and worried, because even though a challenge was merely an invitation to a play-fight among young adolescents, it was still a brawl that took place within the group of yearlings, who were much bigger and buffer than a calf Thicken’s age, who still suckled his mother.

Oh, why do they fight anyway?” complained Mistcoat, trotting beside the two. “Why don’t they act more … proper, like us? Why can’t they just have fun?”

Mosshide replied, “My brother says challenges are fun.”

Prairie ignored the conversation building up between the two as she glanced to a few other calves, then to the adults surrounding them, before sinking into another part of the herd. She slowed to a steady pace, allowing cows and calves to pass. A couple of times she found herself leaping to the side so as not to be trampled over. It took several minutes until Prairie found herself near the end of the Thunder-Sedge herd. Grunting, she moved out of the way of one last giant bison, and watched over her shoulder, the sluggish moving group of adolescent bulls coming up from behind. Most were yearlings, she assumed, and as she slowed to walk between them and the rest of her birth-herd, she felt ridiculous–no more than a sore thumb sticking out. After all she was a calf, and a female one at that!

Yearling bulls were rebellious youngsters who have recently become independent from their mothers. And with their independence came arrogance. They had evolved from nursing calves of Prairie’s age, to brawling adolescents looking for any excuse to practice their fighting skills. For the most part, they fancied staying near the back, even if they still had some growing to do to reach the size of an adult bull. Prairie shivered at the thought of what Thicken was doing with them, and how big they were compared to him.

Behind the yearlings were more bulls yet, only those were male second-years, and they were much more impressive in appearance. Had someone spotted them, they would have easily assumed that the second-years were full adults. Of course, they practically were, despite the fact that they still traveled on the outskirts of their birth-herd; this was their last year with their mothers’ herd before they moved off to be rogues or travel with bachelor-groups. They seemed to travel with the Thunder-Sedge, but in their own group, yards behind the actual herd and behind even the yearlings. Once in a while there was a brave–or ignorant–little yearling who dared slack his pace in order to walk with the second-years; this usually ended up with the older bulls grunting and chasing him away.

Prairie trotted in a place within the yearlings–several gawked and snorted in surprise at seeing her in their group–keeping at an area near the second-years as well, glancing this way and that for her friend. Fortunately she was not the only cloud in a blue sky, and she quickly spotted little Thicken prancing excitedly next to none other than Hoofkick.

Thicken!” she cried enthusiastically. “Hoofkick! What are you guys doing?”

Prairie?” Hoofkick exclaimed, though he could not hide the frown on his face.

Thicken was a bit more thrilled when he replied, “Prairie! What are you doin’ here?” Without leaving her time to answer, he continued, “Guess what! Hoofkick’s got me in the yearlings’ challenges! I’m gonna brawl Charolide this Dark!”

Mosshide and Mistcoat told me. But why? I didn’t think you were allowed to anyway.” It was unusual for young calves and yearlings to mingle, and had a cow known about it–especially the calf’s mother–then she would have put a stop to it in a heartbeat. Even Hoofkick had to be wary when around the nurslings and the watchful adults.

Thicken’s ears immediately drooped at her words, and his tail practically fell between his hind legs. “Well, I dunno what Mama–I mean Mom would say, but please don’t tell her?”

Ah, the little calf is gonna get in trouble with his mama?” a yearling whom Prairie did not know–but could well guess was Charolide–called from a few yards off; obviously he had been eavesdropping. He snorted something to his friends and they picked up their pace, laughing. Thicken glared after them, but Hoofkick merely watched, his face full of gloom.

I’ll show ‘em!” Thicken snarled, picking up his tail and chin and stopping to throttle the ground with his forehooves. “They’ll never–”

So Lightrain doesn’t even know you’re here?” Prairie asked, thoughtfully.

Er, no.” he answered truthfully as he caught up with her. “I think she thinks I’m with the nursery cows.”

Prairie continued to pace quickly beside the pair of little bulls, glancing from one to the other, curiously. “So, why are you challenged?” she asked.

Hoofkick opened his mouth to speak, but before any words could escape his mouth, Thicken barked, “Hoofkick’s got this friend–or sorta friend–Charolide, who’s being as smart as deer dung! The stupid moose head said he’s gonna be in the Slit-Hoof herd before Hoofkick is. Which is stupid, ‘cause he’s just a moose head–”

You already said that.”

“–and anyways, I’d come over earlier, and that’s when they were arguing ‘bout it. But Charolide’s got these stupid yearling friends, see, ‘cause he is one, and Hoofkick challenged all of them!” Thicken exclaimed, rearing up slightly in uncontrollable delight. “But Charolide said he’s not gonna fight him ‘cause he just knows he’s gonna win. So I said, ‘You stupid moose brain, I’ll brawl ya!’ And that’s what happened.”

Clearly satisfied with his explanation, Thicken grinned at Prairie and flicked his tail.

But you and Charolide are friends.” Prairie pointed out to Hoofkick.

I already said that, weren’t you listening?” Thicken snapped.

Shh!” she hushed.

Hoofkick watched the two from where he treaded upon the valley’s hard soil and through the overgrown grass, within the fingers of outstretching forest that bordered the plain they were traveling over. “Er, yeah.” he finally answered, rather awkwardly. “I mean, we were, until we started talkin’ about what was gonna happen when we’re second-years.”

Ya gonna stay, right?” Thicken blurted, for young bulls, including second-years and even yearlings have the choice to leave their birth-herds early, though it was somewhat rare.

Um …” But Hoofkick’s voice trailed off in pensive silence. “Maybe.” the bull then said. “But there’s Reunion coming up. Can’t you feel it?”

The two younger calves looked at each other, puzzled. “Reunion?” Prairie echoed.

Yeah, remember? When the bachelor-groups and rogues come to rejoin the birth-herd?”

Oh yeah!” Thicken cried. “Reunion!”

Hoofkick observed them carefully, then said, “Oh yeah, this is gonna be your first Reunion, isn’t it?”

The pair nodded, even though it had been a rhetorical question.

Well, when they come, you’ll know. They should be here any Light now.” he explained. “This’ll be my second. My first was when I was your age, I suppose. But it’s very … strange, seeing all those bulls.”

The three walked peacefully together, within the large group of yearlings, ahead of the second-years and behind most of the Thunder-Sedge. It was during that silent moment between the trio, that Prairie had an idea.

Hey!” she then said. “If the bulls are coming, why not just ask Blackmor yourself?”

That’s a wonderful–” Thicken was starting to agree, when Hoofkick grunted in laughter, replying, “You don’t just go ask them.”

Why not?”

You have to fight your way in.” Hoofkick answered, shaking his head with an all-knowing grin. Though he and his peers didn’t know for sure what went on during the process of switching herds, the yearlings had all come up with dazzling stories of vicious battles that were meant to prove themselves worthy of acceptance in bachelor-groups, especially to the Slit-Hoof. Whether or not it was true, it seemed like a satisfying explanation.

But then why is Thicken fighting?” Prairie questioned, but quickly regretted the words at Hoofkick’s returned frown.

“‘Cause he challenged Charolide.” the yearling then said, his voice suddenly weak.

And I’ll win! Won’t I, Hoofkick?” Thicken grunted, scratching the ground again. Then he turned to Prairie and added proudly, “Hoofkick was practicing with me earlier this Light. He said I was really good at charging and fighting. That’s when I decided t’ challenge Charolide.”

Thicken lowered his head and ran off to charge and head-butt nothing, as if demonstrating an attack.

I said you were good–not that good.” Hoofkick replied, a twinge of irritation and fear in his voice now.

You don’t think he can beat Charolide?” Prairie asked, quietly.

Hoofkick solemnly shook his head. “And if they brawl and he gets hurt, then I’m gonna be blamed for it.”

No you won’t; Lightrain will just be mad at Thicken.”

But the other cows?”

They’ll get mad at Charolide for brawling him.”

But that Sedgla will get me in trouble somehow. She’s always doing that and she doesn’t like me or any of the yearlings. She’ll say something was my fault.”

The reason behind Hoofkick’s gloom was finally exposed, and Prairie glanced fearfully up at the excited yet ignorant Thicken, who was bounding around the other nearby adolescents by then.

Well, if Charolide’s your friend–” she began to suggest, but Hoofkick quickly cut in, “It wouldn’t matter–he’ll not let Thicken live another Light without brawling with him. I mean, if Charolide had challenged Thicken, it would’ve been a different story. But since it’s the other way around …”

Hoofkick watched Thicken, continuing to frown, and Prairie followed his gaze with the same expression, growling in anger, “Thicken, you moose head.”

Wha–” Thicken started in surprise at his name, a few yards ahead. He was interrupted when a larger yearling in front of him stopped in his tracks. Thicken ran into his hindquarters, his dance of joy abruptly coming to an end. The rest of the yearlings, as well as Prairie and the second-years behind them ceased their trek.

The herd’s stopping.” Prairie thought aloud, for the cows were now grazing as one.

She blinked at Hoofkick’s anxious behavior; the yearling was glancing from one bull to another, shifting awkwardly where he stood.

Hey! Hoofkick! Let’s go brawl!” an adolescent called out, laughing.

Yeah, Hoofkick. Think ya can take ‘em? Chicory and I’ve got a bet on you!” another yearling shouted from a few yards off. “Hey, I heard you’ve got a little calf friend–he’s challenged Charolide?”

A third bull said, “‘Course Charolide’s gonna win. But if it were Hoofkick and the calf, that might be a different story.” he exclaimed, allowing the rest of the group to heave in laughter.

Hoofkick’s ears drooped and he looked away, lowering his head as he blushed. “C’mon.” he hissed. “If we can get Thicken back to the nursery before–”

So where’s your cow? I mean calf?” a thick voice asked.

Prairie watched as the dark, brawly bull she had guessed was Charolide came trotting over. She easily noticed the small, non-curving horns at the top of his bonnet covered cranium; they were much more impressive than the tiny nubs she and Thicken had.

Hey, Charolide,” Hoofkick replied, though he could not hide the dismay in his voice.

What’s the matter, Hoofkick? Ya sound a little sad. Hey, who’s this? You’ve gone and got yourself a cow already?” Charolide sneered, glancing down at Prairie, who returned a fierce stare.

This is Prairie, Bellneth’s calf.” Hoofkick hastily introduced her.

That’s the matriarch’s calf? I’d be careful then,” joked the other bull.

The thought of her mother caused an apprehensive quiver to snake down her spine. She glanced warily into the herd of cows and calves, wondering whether or not Bellneth was worried about her. The other thought that itched its way into her mind was that of Lightrain; what would she think if she knew her son was bucking around with the yearlings?

Well, I’m getting bored.” Charolide said through an exaggerated yawn. “Where’s the little scamp anyway?’

Who’re you callin’ ‘little scamp’?” Thicken asked, coming up from behind.

Charolide rounded sharply, but then snorted in amusement as Thicken ran forward, forcing his way between the group, the top of his small head with the two tiny buds for horns pointed at them. When he rushed through, he bucked once and reared somewhat.

Thicken!” Prairie hissed from where she stood. “You really want to mess with a yearling?”

Yeah, Thicken,” agreed Charolide in a bored tone. “Do ya?”

I’m just gonna show ya that both me and Hoofkick are gonna join Blackmor’s herd before you do.” Thicken huffed.

Rolling his eyes, Hoofkick replied, “It’s OK, Thicken. It doesn’t matter what he thinks.”

Oh, c’mon, Hoofkick,” Charolide laughed. “I’m just havin’ a little fun with the calf. I mean, it’s not like he can really do anything. He’s just a baby. I’ll rattle him up a bit, then let him and the little cow go back to their mommies for some milk.”

Prairie listened, feeling both humiliated and angered at Charolide’s words. She herself stomped the ground with a forehoof, not really meaning to.

Hoofkick watched desperately, Charolide exclaiming, “Oh, the leader’s calf is gonna take me on, too? Well, let’s have at it then.” he offered, while a couple of other yearlings circled around in interest, muttering to each other and eyeing the situation with entertained expressions. “She’s a cow from a cow, and a crazy one at that. I mean, she came from Bellneth, didn’t she? Now that’s saying something. Bellneth’s so crazy, I bet she was inbred. I’m surprised she doesn’t have five legs or three eyes–”

Charolide grunted in pain, stepping to the side as Thicken rammed his head into the bull’s ribcage. One of the other bulls snorted in amusement, and a few other yearlings joined the small audience.

Thicken, wait!” Hoofkick hurriedly cried, but Thicken had already charged once more. Prairie took a step back, watching in frustration as her friend went bolting into the other bull, yet Charolide had met him head-on this time. The adolescent gave a low gurgling sound, easily pushing Thicken back as if he were nothing. Thicken replied in a sort of yelp, but he dug his hooves stubbornly into the hard earth, keeping his chin tucked into his chest. With one rough shove, Charolide head-butted the little calf away, causing him to stumble backwards.

In a surge of mingling panic and resentment, opposing against all instinct, Prairie leapt forward, blocking the path between Charolide and Thicken. She scratched the ground and faced Charolide, who had moved to the side to show his massive structure like an adult bison does during the rut. All eyes were on the three of them, and she could feel blood rushing to her face, the heaving of Thicken’s frantic breath sounding from behind her. The yearling gurgled again and bounded around Prairie, while she called, “Thicken, run!”

It was an obvious outmatch, and the littlest bull watched in pure dread as Charolide ran toward him. Thicken turned and stampeded off, pushing past the other adolescents, and he made his way into the distance, back into the herd. Unfortunately, Charolide was not intimidated by the protection of the cows, and he followed after, hooves pounding against the hard earth, kicking up dirt this way and that.

Prairie helplessly watched her friend and the yearling vanish into the Thunder-Sedge. Swinging her head around to face Hoofkick, she cried, “What do we do?”

Hoofkick’s eyes were fixed on the spot where the two youngsters had been, but he said nothing.

Looks like your little friend’s gonna get it.” commented one of the near yearlings, though if he had pointed that out in amusement or fear, Prairie would never know as she finally took off.

Thicken hurried through the herd, dodging grazing cows here and there. He leapt awkwardly sideways–as much as a bison calf could without falling over–and he even found himself rushing beneath a few of the standing adults. Once or twice he was sure he had pushed another calf out of the way, and received an angry grunt from the mother as he ran by.

Just as his breath seemed to fail to fill his lungs, the calf slowed to a steady pace, but quickly bolted off again after glancing over his shoulder, only to find Charolide just a few strides behind him. As he sprinted once more, struggling to breathe, the little calf could hear the stomps of thundering hooves behind him.

Within another minute that felt like an hour, Thicken flung himself under a cow, and saw an opening to the left of the herd. He hastily charged into the gap, and once more, attempted to slow and catch his breath, when he heard Charolide’s crude voice shout something about running away from a challenge. Shaking a few drops of sweat from his rusty-colored pelt, Thicken continued onward, but this time was forced to push himself up a steep knoll through the sweet grass that leaned over as if to mock him, tickling his snout and causing him to sneeze as he ran. He forced one hoof after the other into the ground, and though he had much smaller legs than his challenger, Thicken was able to gather the energy needed to climb the hill, his own small amount of weight making up for his lack of muscle.

By the time he reached the brow of the incline, Thicken was stopped abruptly in his spot, his mouth agape by what lie ahead of him. He froze, even as Charolide halted behind him, snorting and cursing under his breath in surprise. But when Charolide himself witnessed the sea of bulls sweeping over the hill below them, the yearling sucked in a sharp intake of breath, eyes widening.

The pair stood in silent awe, watching the Slit-Hoof approach, a monster-sized bull in the lead, his black hide shimmering in the dull afternoon light. Thicken instantly recognized Blackmor making his way toward them. The bull’s eyes fell momentarily on the calves, but his expression was unreadable.

Just as Blackmor stepped up but a few feet in front of the duo, he stopped and observed them, but remained silent, then looked over the little ones to the cows that flanked the other face of the hill and dotted the plain. An air of fondness swept over the bull as he looked to the Thunder-Sedge. Without words, Charolide and Thicken broke apart, allowing Blackmor to move between them, the rest of his herd following in step.

The atmosphere was transformed from a fresh crisp-like air, to a warm and musky odor. Thicken flared his nose at the eccentric aroma, for it was unlike the gentle, milky smell of the cows and calves that he was so used to in his short life. Before he knew it, he was separated from the yearling, and though he’d have been grateful, Thicken was fighting not to be trampled by the passing bulls.

Thicken was not the only one caught in wonder, for the cows had stopped their grazing, lifting their heads from grass and sedges to watch their mates and sons, brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers moving toward them. Though the calves were intrigued, their mothers could not help but step over their offspring protectively, following their maternal instincts. Prairie herself was bound within a tight-knit circle of nursery cows, who kept her and several of the other nurslings away from the rest of the herd.

When the Slit-Hoof had finally merged with the Thunder-Sedge, numerous conversations of gossip and chattering began. Cows and bulls snorted and sniffed, and rubbed muzzles with each other. Little calves flicked their tails excitedly, and some were eventually allowed to be greeted by the adult males with licks and intruding snouts.

Reunion had come.