In The Bush, The Beasts

A short story

In the Bush, The Beasts

By Joshua Calkins-Treworgy

Part 1

Northhorn grazed peacefully, his occasional snorts and expulsions of breath eased as he went about the business of feeding, content in his status as one of the most afeared residents of the Outers.  Few could or would dare to test him, and those that had usually found themselves swiftly delivered to the doorstep of the Reaper, either impaled by the enormous horn that was his pride and joy, or trampled to death under his rampaging forelegs. Friend or foe, all denizens of the Inners and Outers proceeded in any interaction with him with the utmost caution. 

Thus it gave him pause when, looking up with a heavy load of grass in his maw, he caught sight of a pair of the lean, spotted leopards who usually made the nearby Inners their primary territory streaking right toward him.  Fools, he thought, squaring his massive frame toward them.  Do they not know the rhino fear none out here? Yet just behind the leopards, Northhorn could see other natives of the Inners in flight, all rushing in his direction.  Most curious were the dozen or so tan, white-spotted deer stampeding along almost right on the leopards’ tails, as if giving chase to their natural predators with their angled antlers tilted low.  They did not appear to be pursuing their enemies, however.

They’re all running away, Northhorn realized with a start as the first leopard blazed past him.  The second, only a few yards behind, managed to turn its head for just a moment as it went by and shout, “Run, fool!” Above the rumbling and ululations of dread and terror tearing free from the animals of the Inners racing by him, he could hear short, sharp thuds filling the air, sounds he had heard a few times in his long years.  He did not immediately recognize exactly what these sounds were, but he had an immediate mental correlation to them flood his mind; death. Heeding the warning of the leopard and the flow of the herd now putting distance between themselves and the nearby Inners only a quarter of a mile away, he turned about and started running from the unseen threat.  

Now at the rear of the rush, Northhorn heard a great ‘whoosh’ behind him, and angled his head back to look back at the Inners left behind. There, he saw great plumes of fire raging across dozens of yards of trees, and heard the terrified screams of agony and distress from another variety of animal altogether, a breed he and all the denizens of both the Outers and the Inners had come to dread eternal and absolute.

He heard the screams of Men.

***

“What happened back there,” Northhorn asked Belix, one of the fawns who had gathered with the others from the retreat of the Inners north of the terrain they had traveled to for safety before halting their progress.  She was laying on her side, panting from exhaustion as the leopards conversed a few dozen yards away with a pair of black bears who claimed this patch of this particular Inners as their own sovereign terrain. 

“Men came through, making war with other Men,” Belix replied between breaths, shaking her narrow head in disbelief, the reek of sweat and fear, of piss and grasses heavy about her. “They brought fangs to bear against one another, fangs spat from mouths they carry in their hands, mouths of metal that spit death!”

“And others,” said Meeker on his back, a snub-nosed monkey who had hopped on Northhorn’s broad back when they were about halfway to these Inners. “Mouths of metal that sang flaming destruction! They burnt my whole village down in minutes, savages that they are!” Northhorn would not have believed the monkey, had he not seen the fires for himself. 

“How many Men were there,” the rhino asked calmly, trying to be another voice of reason amid the herd. They had only arrived a run ago, not even a tilt of shadow, but already he had heard and seen enough to know that Pola and Sensa were capable of leadership, as was Timog, the Patriarch of the deer clutch. 

“Dozens,” said Timog himself, sauntering up from the younglings gathered with his lesser fathers. “From sunwake and sunsleep they came at each other, two tribes set on slaughter. They do not speak the same tongue, but Men are they all.” The noble Patriarch tilted his head back and to one side, nostrils flaring, his sharp rack passing near Northhorn’s forehead. He narrowed his eyes and sniffed, and Northhorn saw the twitch of the deer’s tail, read the nervousness of it. 

“What do you see,” he asked softly, slowly turning himself back toward the Outers they had all passed through. Something was out there, moving their way swiftly, low to the ground. As old as he was, though, Northhorn could not make it out clearly.

“I think it’s a croc,” Timog replied. “It is not moving as normal, though. I believe it may be hurt.” Northhorn now nodded, eyes fixed on the mid-range movement. 

“Remain here with the others,” he said as authoritatively as he could, stomping cautiously out of the Inners. The Men called them Jungles or forests, but these words meant little to the inhabitants of the regions. Just so, they referred to the Outers as grasslands, flatlands or plains. But the Men did not own all, much as they would like to think. Male or female, the Men all tried to claim as much land as they could. 

But this one would frighten even them, he thought, now twenty paces from the outermost trees and their relative protection. The croc moved awkwardly, not at all in the way Northhorn had seen them do in the past. A sharp, metallic tang tainted the air coming from the croc’s direction, the stink of blood. He is wounded, thought the rhino. When the croc was within two lunges, Northhorn stomped one massive foot down forward in challenge. 

“Hold, croc,” he thundered, glaring down at the enormous reptile. Prehistoric, eldritch scales covered its body, a long face angling up at him. The normally merciless orbs of darkness that were its eyes shone up at him, and in them he saw terror and agony. Its left hindleg and tail appeared to have been torn by some unknown kind of claws and burned, its foot a charred red ruin leaking behind it. “By Urd, what happened to you?”

“Groundclaws,” the croc snarled, the muscles on the underside of his throat strained taut as a tree near snapping in the monsoon season. “D’jar knows not what else to call them. The Men use them, metal things that shriek and tear and burn when you touch them.”

“If you know that, why did you touch it,” Northhorn asked. The croc shook its massive head and hissed at him, pained and frustrated.

“It had been hidden, meat,” the reptile retorted. “Men use the groundclaws to hurt and kill other Men! They hide them, one clan from the other, in hopes the rival clan will stumble on them and die! Now please, let me pass, meat. D’jar has no intention of remaining in eyesight of the Men.”

Northhorn gnashed his teeth, weighing his options. A queer sort of truce seemed to have fallen over the people of the realm in the face of this clan war between the Menkinds, and the croc should be no exception. Yet he calls me meat, he thought. I must protect the others.

“Go you sixty breaths sunwake,” he finally replied. “Then you may enter these Inners.”

“Why not here,” the croc fumed, wounded tail swishing languidly. 

“You would not be welcome among the herd here. You will frighten them, and they hardly need that now.” The croc narrowed his eyes and growled, but when Northhorn stomped his foot again, the reptile headed away quickly. The rhino watched him for a full sixty breaths, pleased that the croc went further still before heading into the Inners. Northhorn returned to the herd, all of whom stared at him as he rejoined them among the trees. Stoic by his usual nature in any event, the rhino felt uncomfortable under their collective gaze, but he remained silent as the tension of awe waned away. 

Sensa, the male of the leopard pairing, loosened his shoulders and cleared his throat, gathering the focus of the herd.  “We’re all alive, but a couple of the younglings amongst us are wounded. Father Parek, Patriarch of the hog badgers of Kofa Inners, is near death. His brothers carried him with us, but one of the metal fangs pierced his side.”

“And half of my litter was taken by a thing from the ground,” squeaked a ricefield rat as it stood as tall as it could near Sensa’s paw, darting looks back and forth among the small herd.  The rat’s whiskers twitched like madness itself, eyes blinking rapidly as it turned round and round. “I had six sons and five daughters before the Men clans clashed back there; now I have two of each.”  Mutterings began among the members of the herd, an amalgamation of denizens the likes of which Northhorn had never thought to ever see. “And we have never been to these Inners!  The Man clans could be here too for all we know!”

“I assure you, they are not,” rumbled an unknown voice, deep with wisdom and power.  Northhorn raised his head a few inches and spotted the two lumbering forms of the native black bears ambling over toward the herd. The female was large even by the standards of the few of her kind that he had met in his life; the fact that her voice echoed with more power than even his own instilled in Northhorn a measure of confidence he found, to his surprise, comforting.  “At least, not yet,” she added, casting her dour glance about the herd of newcomers. The smell Northhorn caught off of her was all musk and sweat, and a hint of something sweet, as of fruit. 

“Are you from this Inner,” Northhorn asked. 

“No,” the bear confessed. “My cub and I are from a place far to the shim, in what the Men clans call a dry wood patch, near one of their cities. It came under assaults like this perhaps ten moons past, and many of them came from the sky, spraying strange filth into the air and onto the plants. The filth made the plants wither and die, and made many folk of many kinds ill beyond measure.”

Sensa cleared his throat then, and began padding sunwake, deeper into the Inners.  “Pola recommends we travel further in while we speak, lest the Men clan packs back there should come this way with their metal mouths and fangs,” he said, striding confidently along, the longer, more muscular female following right behind, casting a raised eyebrow at all of her strange new herdmates as she passed. “I concur with her wisdom as a huntress.”  

“Seconded,” said Northhorn, and sure enough, the others all fell into step, traveling in a loose cluster through the wet, humid thicket of the jungle. Another roaring noise erupted behind them a minute later, but Northhorn did not look back; those lands would not be safe for them now.

Part 2

It had taken about two tilts of shadow through the treetops before the herd decided it was safe to set up a makeshift plot for themselves. In a ring of trees bearing furry, orangish fruit, the rats and deer, led by the rodent mother Diro and Patriarch Timog, respectively, cleared out the grasses and vines swiftly, eating most of the vegetation to sate their appetites as well as contribute. Pola and Sensa ranged out from the group to look for immediate threats, and to keep their own particular dietary needs out of view of the traditionally prey folk of the herd. 

Northhorn settled himself down to catch some much-needed rest after rubbing himself briskly against a jagged rock outcropping, taking care of an aching itch that had taken hold of him half a tilt of shadow earlier. He wouldn’t have dubbed it rest, per se, but for the moment, it would make do. 

Meeker looked down at the noble rhino from above, still impressed with his courage earlier in the day. There’s not many as would face a croc like that, the monkey thought. Not even a wounded one. They’re just more desperate that way, less likely to think before they feast.  Well, snack, in my case, he mused with a wry smirk. Through the branches he swung and leapt, knocking down a couple dozen of the fruits for his comrades below before slouching back against the trunk of one of the trees. Situated with his body stretched out along a thicker branch, lounging as if at total ease, it was only Meeker’s recent brush with death and his perspective that every moment now was a gift from Urd herself that kept him from panicking at the sight of the dark white-and-red striped serpent slowly lowering itself toward him from a higher branch.

“My, my, odd little bunch, this,” the serpent commented, slipping itself around the branch once with its upper body before letting the rest of itself slip down to match Meeker’s level. “Are you all, er, together?”

“For the time being, yes,” Meeker said, peeling the skin of the orange fruit and tossing the slivers aside. When he had freed half of the innards, he pulled it apart revealing a segmented portion, four slices held together by thin, white fibrous tendrils. The aroma of the fruit’s innards was heavenly to the nose. He tore a slice off in one hand, reaching it out toward the arrow-shaped head of the serpent. It blinked at him a few times, the thin film of its secondary lids flickering minutely. 

“What trickery is this,” the serpent inquired, raising its head up and squirming to one side of the offered item before carefully snagging it and pulling it a full reach away from the monkey, who was at that moment popping another slice into his own mouth. Meeker shook his head, chewing swiftly. Such sweetness he had not known in some time, relishing it for a moment before swallowing. 

“No trick. It seems better to be helpful and sharing right now,” said the simian. The serpent flickered his tongue in the air briefly, an action that put a small flutter in Meeker’s heart, but it didn’t seem to proceed anything else.  The snake stretched forward and snatched the fruit with his fangs, immediately sliding his mouth over the food. The area of his body just past his head was now slightly misshapen, giving the otherwise deadly predator an amusing aspect that pushed the grin wider on Meeker’s face. 

“Is something amusing, monkey?,” the serpent inquired.

“Don’t worry about it.  My name is Meeker,” said the monkey, popping another fragment in his own mouth and chewing slowly, captivated by the wash of sweet juices bursting over his tongue. He twirled his hand forward at the wrist, nodding at the serpent, who blinked rapidly at him again and shook its head slightly.

“Oh, yes, yes,” the serpent finally said after a moment.  “I am Servantes.  What brought your, er, group, to these territories,” Servantes asked, slithering up closer, coiling himself beside the monkey. 

“Men clans making war to the wem, in the Inners we all called home. Well, except for the rhino. He’s from the Outers between there and here.”  Meeker tore more of the peel off, then split the remaining slices between his agile fingers, offering another one to Servantes, who took it gently and let it slide down his gullet, joining the other lump further down his length.  “You don’t actually taste these things, do you?”

“I do, though it’s only brief,” Servantes replied, flicking his forked tongue back and forth.  “I actually taste the air itself, so I taste a lot of things at once.  Still, this is nice.  My thanks,” he said. “So, hunkering down here for a bit, then?”

“For now. The Men clans, have you seen them?” Servantes’ eyes drooped partly closed, his expression suddenly peevish.

“Yes, I have, unfortunately. Sunwake from here, perhaps five sun passes ago. They came from the sky in great machines that flew, their wings strange to see. Mah-reens, they called themselves. They sounded quite concerned with finding members of another clan they called Charlies and putting paid to them.”  Meeker nodded, popping another slice in his mouth and stretching his legs.

“Any idea what they’re warring about?”

“None, though I suspect they may well have a cause similar to when the French clan of Men was here. I think these Charlies are the native Men clan of these territories. Flychild seems to think so, at least.” Meeker, chewing, just raised an eyebrow at the snake.  “A bird I have occasion to know. We have an agreement; I don’t stalk him, he brings me information from his flights. It’s not ideal, but it works for us.”

“And may I assume my herd and you can have a similar agreement,” Meeker asked, cutting now to the heart of the situation. Servantes nodded, saying nothing more, lounging beside the snub-nosed monkey as the rumbling snores of Northhorn floated up to them from below. 

***

Sensa swiped a paw out, batting his mate on her tail, and she wheeled on him in a blink, her every nerve standing on end.  “What is it, my mate,” she asked quietly. He used the same paw to point off through the thicket, indicating a patch of soil along a Man-path that appeared to have been recently disturbed.  “I see,” she said. “What do you suppose it is?”

“Probably one of the groundclaws Diro spoke of, that claimed her children,” he replied. “If so, then Men have been here. Perhaps we should go back, tell the others we need to leave this area.”

“No,” she snapped. “We cannot allow these feckless savages to terrify us forever. Besides,” she added, ears torqueing close against her head, “I believe I can smell them, not far from here.” Sensa instinctively crouched down lower to the ground, sniffing the air intently. Turning his head sunwake, he paused, taking several longer draws of the air from that direction. “You smell them too, don’t you,” she asked.

“I do,” he confessed.  “But I can’t tell how many. Your nose is better than mine. Do you know?”

“Not yet.  Closer, my mate,” Pola said, leading the way in a low prowl, silently navigating the shrub and foliage, moving toward the scent of Man.  Ten many-breaths later, she paused at the apex of a hillock, looking down through the trees and vines. “Three of them, down near a stream. One of them is wounded, bleeding. He smells sick.”

“I smell none of the fire fang stuff on them,” Sensa added. “Pinch?”

“Pinch,” she agreed, slinking off shim as he mirrored her wem.  The mosquitos here had become ferocious, swarming about in dense clouds, their humming drone irritating to her ears, but useful considering their benefit of masking the sound of her own subtle movements. A many-breath later, she approached the stream on a mild downslope, perhaps sixty paces away from the Men. She halted her progress for just a moment, taking in the sight of the Men. Their garb was dark, drab green, one of them standing tall with a strange hat on his head, a thick, smouldering stub of some sort jutting out of his mouth. Plumes of smoke came out of his face, and a pace or two away, sitting with a leg extended into the stream, was another Man, the wounded one. He was washing the wound in the slow moving waters, while the third of their number crouched beside him, pulling things out of a pouch similar to the one the standing Man had on his back. 

Pouches that they wear separate from their bodies, she thought with a shake of her head. Dangerous as they are, the Men clans can be clever, that’s for sure. Pulling away from these observations, she slipped closer to the water’s edge, nimbly leaped over the stream into the brush opposite, and slunk out of eyeshot of the Men. Here the ground was looser, and carried a smell of death. As she continued along, angling herself to approach the Men from upslope once more, she nearly stumbled upon what she now realized was likely the main cause of her having scented blood earlier.

A pair of dead Men lay in the thicket, Men of the clan warring with those down by the stream. Their clothes were reminiscent of those worn by the native clans of these territories, and nearby lay a pair of the metal mouths that they had carried to fling their tiny, deadly fangs at others to wound and kill. They looked different than those carried by the Men on the stream, older somehow, less efficient. Wounds had opened their chests and stomachs, spilling their lives and insides on the jungle floor. The stench of their death was not fresh, however, no; these had been dead at least four tilts of shadow. 

Pola wondered if Sensa was in position now, unhampered by the sort of distraction she’d come upon here. He would wait for her to make the first move, as ever. Among their kind, it was always the female who led the hunt, and he would take no action without having her there to improve their chances of success. 

There he is, she thought, catching his scent just past the Men on the stream, who were jabbering amongst themselves, using a language she did not know. She had come to understand some of the words and phrases of the native Men clan, and these sounded nothing like the same. The one standing tall made some kind of joke, because the other two laughed boisterously, making responses of their own, getting a chuckle out of the one who had made the first joke. Pola got into strike position then, refusing to give these creatures a chance to make her feel any sort of sympathy for them.

After all, they hadn’t exactly shown any sympathy before laying waste to her and Sensa’s territory. 

The assault did not last long, a song of screams and howls, cloth and flesh tearing, the glory of blood and meat sliding down her throat, the fiery lance of pain in her paw as a knife slashed feebly at her in desperation. This had been the Man already wounded, the last of them alive since she and Sensa had struck at the one standing with his metal mouth in hand, ready to spread death, first. He was the clearest threat, and did not live even long enough to cast a single metal fang at them. The second one, who had been rummaging in his pouch, managed to grab a smaller metal mouth from inside the bag and send a single attack with it, missing both Pola and Sensa in his panic before Sensa landed on him with the force of a lightning strike, claws punching into the Man’s chest as the male leopard’s teeth sank through the soft throat.

The wounded Man had managed to slash Pola’s paw as she was turning toward him, missing her backside only by the grace of timing as she pivoted from the big Man. Though the strike hurt, it did not save him; she and Sensa ravaged him in moments. 

When the threat was passed, the leopards sat on their haunches, surveying the damage they had wrought. “This could have gone badly for us,” Sensa finally said after a long many-breath. 

“It could have, yes. Had they not had one wounded and been distracted, they might have killed us,” Pola replied. “Thankfully, I do not smell any others nearby. The herd will be safe for now.” She licked her paw and winced at the sting from the knife slash, then switched to the other and used it to start washing the blood off of her face and shoulders. Sensa was doing the same, trying to resist the urge to take more bites of the Men. “Take one more bite, Sensa, that we may sate our appetites for now,” Pola said. Each took a chunk out of the large one, enjoying the taste of it before cleaning themselves up and heading back toward the herd, their task of checking for threats complete. 

Half a shadow tilt later, the unseen observer to the slaughter rose up out of the stream a short distance away, dragging his battered tail behind him. The rhino had been a threat out in the open, but here, in the Inners, these leopards would likely be either his greatest boon or deadliest bane. “Of course, if they keep leaving feasts like this for D’jar, he’s not going to complain,” said the croc to itself as it set to devouring the remains of the leopards’ hunt. 

Part 3

Thick as he was, even Northhorn could not forever ignore the repeated pokes from tiny fingers jabbing into the side of his broad snout near his horn. With a snort and eyes barely opening, he squinted at Meeker, behind whom stood one of the most gorgeous examples of avian grace the rhino had ever witnessed. “Big guy, we have a bit of a problem,” Meeker whispered, stepping back from the rhino’s face. 

“What is it,” Northhorn asked, mindful to keep his voice and movements to a minimum. It was dark out, the moonlight filtering through the green canopy over and around the herd in narrow streams of faint luminescence. 

“This is Flychild,” Meeker said, stepping back and indicating the bird, a falcated duck with ideal coloring for blending into the wetlands of the jungle Inners. “He brings news. Tell him,” he said to the bird, who timidly approached Northhorn’s massive countenance. 

“Er, hullo,” the fowl said awkwardly. “Well, as I was flying sunsleep about an hour ago, heading back for my usual haunts, I, erm, spotted some of the local Man clan heading sunwake. So, I turned around, headed back that way, and about a shadow tilt later, I spotted some other Men, the Mah-reen clan, heading sunsleep.” Northhorn rumbled up to his feet as quickly as his mass would allow, grunting with the effort. 

“Get the others up, we have to leave,” he barked, turning toward where Pola and Sensa had curled up together earlier, when they returned from their patrol declaring the area safe.  As he approached them, Meeker landed on his neck and interrupted him before he could rouse the cats.

“We need to bring another with us, too. He’s the whole reason Flychild even stopped to speak to us,” the monkey said. “I’m just a bit worried how some of the others will react to him.”

“Why? What is his kind,” the rhino asked.

“He’s a snake,” Meeker answered. Northhorn let out a deep sigh, shaking his broad head. “I know, I know, not exactly a great choice for membership to this herd, but if we can have leopards and deer together, I don’t see why we can’t bring a snake into the fold.” Rather than reply to Meeker directly, the rhino snorted explosively near Pola and Sensa, who both twitched as they came awake, stretching long and low before licking their lips and blinking up at him.

“This is Flychild,” Northhorn said, introducing the duck briefly and then relating what the fowl had told him. “So you see, if we don’t move quickly, we’ll be pinched. Meeker would also like us to bring a snake along,” he added, almost as an afterthought. It didn’t escape the great cats’ notice, however, and they cocked their heads to one side at him. 

“Servantes would bring you no harm,” said Flychild abruptly, scuttling forward, addressing the leopards and rhino directly. “Yes, he’s a snake, but if you get his word not to bring harm to your group, he will honor it. He has honored this word with me for quite some time now,” the duck said with a smile. Pola, her countenance flat, devoid of any sign of emotional consideration, shook her head faintly.

“His word has clearly not been tested in times of hunger with you, Flychild,” she said. “Snakes and crocs are kith and kin, neither to be trusted, especially if the hunger is upon them.”

“And Timog and his clutch would be safer in such times with you and your mate,” Northhorn retorted, realizing to his own shame that he should have thought of this before. When faced with the dangers of the Man clans, other risks had to be acknowledged as less imminent, old rivalries pushed aside for the time being. The Man clans had their towns and cities, and other places created with their own designs, neither true Inners or Outers, but when they came into the territories proper beyond their self-made structures, they carried with them doom. Pola, seemingly shamed by his harsh inquiry, had looked away from Flychild. Northhorn looked to Meeker and said, “Tell this Servantes to get down here now.  He may wrap himself about my horn to ride in safety, but he must be quick. We leave as soon as everybody can be made ready to move.”

Meeker nodded and whisked away, up into the nearby trees, Sensa and Pola skimming past Northhorn to rouse the others. It took very little time for Timog’s clutch to be at the ready, with Belix bearing Diro and her offspring on her back. As Northhorn surveyed them, something landed on his back from one of the tree canopies overhead, and with a monstrous effort he maintained his composure, realizing as the something squirmed along his spine toward his neck and head that it was likely Servantes.  Sure enough, a crimson-and-white banded snake slithered down his forehead, along the trunk of his face, and coiled itself about his horn, leaving enough room for its head to wend this way and that, a coy look of satisfaction on its reptilian face. 

“We are prepared to leave,” Patriarch Timog said at the front of the deer clutch. He cast a look around, and asked, “Where are Mora and Inock?”

“Here,” replied the mother black bear, leading her son, who stood nearly half a foot taller than her, into the group from the thicket. “Sorry. We were burying some of our gathered foods.  I cannot imagine we will be gone from here for more than a few days. The Men clans don’t tend to stick around in one area long if there are none of their Men-made structures nearby to claim. We will come with you shim for a few days, but we will come back wem before too long.  No offense, but I cannot see us staying with your herd long, Northhorn,” she said, directly addressing the rhino. He had noticed this earlier, when the herd first showed up in these Inners; had he not been one of the last to arrive, it would have been to him the bear mother spoke instead of to the leopards. Size and strength are her kind’s domain, so it makes sense she would relate to me, he thought. Pola and Sensa are secondary to her.

“No offense is taken,” he assured her. “You are from shim of here to begin with, Mora.  Are there threats we should be aware of besides Men?”

“Red dogs,” she replied, and instantly Pola and Sensa loosed brief snarls, as the deer clutch members winced and trembled.  Mora  rolled her arms toward the leopards and followed with, “I assume you are familiar with their kind, then?”

“Too familiar,” snapped Sensa.  “We often compete for the same prey. But while there are only the two of us, the red dogs often come in packs of twelve, fifteen, even twenty to a group. They are strange to us, choosing no alpha, no Patriarch or Matriarch.” He shook his head, rolled his shoulders, clearly uncomfortable with some thought he was about to express.  “If no one is in charge, how are decisions made? It makes no sense to me.”

“Are they usually active during moon times,” Northhorn asked. 

“Not as a whole, no,” she answered.  “But they keep a couple of their number awake throughout the night, taking turns so that all can sleep at least most of the night. There’s always someone awake to watch for danger.”

“They will attack my people if they see us,” Timog added, pushing forward from his clutch. “I would recommend Mora, Inock, Pola and Sensa lead the way, with Northhorn in drogue.”  The rhino loosed a quick snort.

“Patriarch Timog, I do not know this word, ‘drogue’,” the rhino confessed.  “Can you explain?”

“Yes, of course. It means you should bring up the rear, hanging back a few lunges from the rearmost member of the herd to protect us from behind. Many of the hunter kind in the Inners and Outers both target the slow, the sick, and the infirm, those at the back of a clutch,” Timog said.  “Have you not seen this yourself in the fields?” Northhorn thought back, and to his dismay, realized that he had rarely noticed much of anything that did not directly and personally affect himself. Survival had ever been the primary function in all things he did. Patriarch Timog, whether recognizing this revelation or not, continued on without response. “Being as formidable as you are, it makes sense that you should be drogue if the bears and leopards are taking vanguard for the herd.”

“And even if it should come to that, those guards you have seen are only there to warn the clan to stay hidden,” Mora added. “The red dogs’ homes are mostly underground, in tunnels. They keep guard for low swarms, like the death ants and scorpions that occasionally sweep through. If they see us, they will likely hide.”  As the herd began moving off shim, Servantes wavered a portion of his body back along the left side of Northhorn’s head, whispering to him when the formation solidified.

“Of course she would assume they’ll hide,” the serpent said casually. “What do you suppose the odds are that she’s ever stuck around long enough to find out if that’s true?”

“You should not talk such rot, slithering one,” the massive gray brute snorted in reply. “What know you of these red dogs of which they speak?”

“Hmm, only that even a mid-sized young one can sate my appetite for nearly three or four months,” Servantes answered. “At least, I would assume so. I’ve only ever had one in my time, and that was many, many moons ago. But I have observed the ones she speaks of from the trees near to the clearing they reside in. It’s almost large enough to be considered an Outer, though truly only barely. The territory can be crossed in less than a shadow tilt.”

“Truly?”

“Yes.” Northhorn set this observation aside for later comparison, though he hoped for all of their sakes that the bear was right, and they would not have more worries than the Man clans.  They hardly needed another threat to face just now.

***

The herd stood clustered a few many-breaths away, watching as in the distance Mora and Inock stalked the area. Northhorn did not like the smell of the place; the unusual smells of Man clans hung heavy, and their bizarre tracks could be seen everywhere.  The tracks were old now, at least several shadow tilts, but he didn’t like their presence all the same.  Men had a habit of being unpredictable in their movements in the best of times, and when clans of their kind were warring with one another, it seemed to become exponentially worse. 

Soon the black bears came ambling back, and Mora shook her head as she drew near.  “There is no sign of the red dogs.  We can smell their trace in the entries, but they are themselves gone from here.  Men came through here. We cannot tell how long ago, but I do not think they are close.”

Satisfied that they were safe to pass through the Outer, the herd made their way shim once more, stretching out their formation. They collectively came to a halt near the edge of the next stretch of Inners by a deep pond, everyone pausing to take water and prepare for another period of marching. As they were readying to take off once more, strange staccato notes filled the air, far off sunsleep direction.  Northhorn’s entire body went rigid, recognizing the sound; metal mouths. 

“Men,” Pola exclaimed. “Everyone, hurry!” Now that the threat of Men came awake in them all, the formation nearly vanished, with Pola and Sensa darting out in front, heedless of the previously agreed-upon arrangement. Even Timog’s people forgot themselves in their panic, leaving only Northhorn in his original post of drogue by virtue of his being slower than the others. Into the Inners they crashed, and that was when things turned strange.

That was when they came directly upon Men.

Part 4

What happened then would haunt Northhorn in the coming times. It would be remembered only in bits and pieces, flashes of recall that came unbidden, unwelcomed, but to deny the hard truths of these events would be akin to madness. Only the insane could claim to have never experienced them.

The first thing he saw was Pola leap upon one of the Men with a predatory howl that sent tremors down the length of the rhino. Huge and tough as he was, the sheer bloodlust of that sound spoke to a part of him that rarely let itself be known, the part that now and again whispered to remind him that some day, he would die. The Man she fell upon used his metal mouth even as he fell dying under the savagery of her teeth, biting and tearing into his throat. 

To the side of this assault, Timog had impaled another Man with his huge rack, pushing his victim back into a tree with such force that the antlers broke off where they had pierced the Man. Timog fell to the ground, loosing a noise of hurt, legs thrashing. Another Man wheeled on the herd and sent fangs of metal death into their midst, felling several of the deer. Diro and one of her sons leaped from one of their backs, only to to be kicked away screeching by a fourth Man they landed near. 

Meeker launched himself from Northhorn’s back, landing on the kicking Man’s chest and tearing at its eyes with his little paws. The metal mouth fell from the Man’s hands as he swirled around, crying for help. Another Man swatted at the monkey, stepping from hiding behind another tree.  Spotting him, Northhorn stampeded toward him, ploughing into him with a wrench of his massive head. He heard the crunch of the Man’s bones as he struck, watched him fly away limp and broken as Meeker jumped back from his target to clutch for dear life on the rhino’s thick flank. As his victim squared up his metal mouth to fire on Northhorn, Inock came roaring into the Man’s side, falling on him, bearing him to the ground. The young bear smashed his fists into the Man’s head, over and over again until only thick, wet squelching sounds came from his blows. 

Turning to check on Timog, Northhorn caught sight of him just in time to see yet another Man come upon the deer Patriarch as he regained his feet.  The Man stuck the end of his metal mouth, different from the others, up under Timog’s chin, and with a roar and a brief flash of light, Timog’s head vanished in a spray of blood, bone and brains, his already damaged rack shredding through the air in all directions. Too late to save the Patriarch, Servantes coiled around the Man’s leg and struck, his fangs digging deep into the meat there. The Man yelped and swung his metal mouth down at the serpent, but Servantes was already gone, slithering along toward another Man. Another bite, and by the time this Man had fallen down, the first one bitten was on the ground, writhing and foaming at the mouth in death throes. 

One, perhaps two many-breaths later, the whole affair was over, the Men all dead or fleeing through the Inners.  

***

D’jar tore another chunk of the Man off, chewing slowly, enjoying the taste of his flesh. Yes, it had already been hurt, but meat was meat. He was impressed with the strange herd that had rejected him; they had managed to kill or frighten an entire clutch of Mah-reens, though he could taste the death that had fallen among them. He did not doubt the rhino still lived, nor the leopards, no. Theirs was a breed difficult to kill, even for his kind. Fast and fierce, the great cats could tangle with pretty much anything in the jungles they called home. 

The croc thought of a song he’d heard on one of the Man-things that played incessantly in their camps, a song by a group called The Animals.  The song was called ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’.  It seemed to really connect with the Mah-reens clan, and he could think of no more appropriate song for the herd out there.  Did they not know just how many of the Men had come to this region?  Did they not realize that there was no place to hide from them?  Moreover, did they not realize that the Men would leave them alone, if they just went about their normal business? Certainly they left D’jar alone most times, giving him and his kin a wide berth whenever their paths crossed.  The native clan seemed to know better how to do so; the Mah-reens learned quickly. 

The Mah-reens did have one thing that made D’jar afeared, though, great long shoots of metal that spat fiery destruction. They had used such things to lay waste to his kin and run them out of their lake terrain to the shim many moons before.  If he had the claws of their sort, he might try to take one and use it against the Men clans, just to teach them a lesson. “But perhaps D’jar does not need their shoots and fire,” he muttered to himself between bites.  “No, perhaps all D’jar needs is the herd.” He snickered to himself and took another bite, a plan forming in his dark, reptilian mind.

***

Northhorn awoke with a start, grunting as the image of Timog’s death played out once again across his dreameyes.  The sunlight streamed down through a break in the canopy overhead, shearing into his eyes painfully.  His head hurt from the noise of the battle the night before, and he could not shake the pain away as he got to his feet.  The pain quickly became anger as he looked over at Timog’s body, and found large swaths of his body eaten.  Without hesitation he tromped over to the tree Pola and Sensa laid in, still asleep. He could smell Timog’s blood on them, even several dozen feet above him.  

With a loud snort he bashed his horn against the trunk of the tree, nearly spilling Sensa from his perch. The cats scrambled to keep their position, glaring down at him with anger to match his own.  “What is the meaning of this, Northhorn,” Pola snapped. 

“Have you no honor for the dead,” he barked back. “You have been eating the Patriarch!”

“He is dead, fool,” Pola replied. “He can at least provide for us in the After. And we are not alone,” she added. “Mora and Inock also fed from him. Where is your fury against them?” Northhorn turned away, looking for the black bears. “They are by a stream sunsleep from here, bathing,” Pola added, and Northhorn trundled away to find the black bears.  He soon found himself in an Outers again, and spied the black bears not far from the tree line. They appeared to be talking to one another, and as he got nearer, Northhorn caught a voice he’d heard the day before, a voice that filled him with both terror and even more anger than he already felt; the croc

“-for your herd,” the croc was saying as Northhorn came up behind the bears. He came up to the mother’s flank, and now the croc turned its armored head toward him, eyes fluttering in surprise. “Ah, and here is the rhino once more, who turned D’jar aside. D’jar gives you greetings, large one,” he said, lowering his head in deference. 

“What do you want, croc,” the rhino blurted, ignoring any kind of etiquette. 

“He was telling us of a safe place for us not far from here,” Inock said. “A small lake the Men clans have not located, nestled in an Inners.” Northhorn kept his gaze locked on the reptile, knowing its kind could turn deadly at a moment’s notice. 

“Do you believe him? His kind are not exactly known for honesty,” the rhino said evenly. The croc shook its head and grumbled.

“You wound D’jar with such words of distrust,” the croc said, tail swishing in the water of the stream he was half-submerged in.  “D’jar does not have any reason to lie to you, rhino. D’jar is as frightened of the Men-clans as you are.”

“If this place is so safe, why aren’t you there right now,” Northhorn asked. “Why would you leave such a place?”

“It was once home to another croc clan, not of my own people,” D’jar replied. “When you turned him away, D’jar thought to go there and ask for shelter from the Men-clans, for the ones called Mah-reens have been lousy through these terrains. But when D’jar arrived, the lake was empty. D’jar thinks perhaps the Men-clans had been through there and chased those crocs away. D’jar could see their leavings, as if they had stayed for a time and then moved on to seek the native Men-clan, the one they call Charlies. If you do not believe D’jar, he could maybe go ahead of your herd, see for himself and come back to tell you it is safe.”

Northhorn’s instincts hollered at him to just stomp the croc to death then and there, to put paid to any threat he might pose to the herd. Too soon from their great hurt they were still, too soon to risk more of their lives on what could be a trap laid by one of the cleverest of the breeds in these lands. Yet if there existed even a glimmer of hope for peace, did he not owe it to the herd to bring such hope to them?  

“Wait here,” he grunted.  “Mora, Inock, a word if I could,” he said, stalking a few dozen lunges away with the black bears coming along behind him.  When he turned to face them, both ursine faces shone with curiosity.  “Well, what say you two? Do we bring this news to the others?”

“I do not see why not,” Mora said.  “We could ask them all to choose, give voice to how they feel. I believe the Men-clans have a word for this.”

“A vote,” said Inock helpfully. “They call it a vote, one voice from many.  It is how the red dogs make decisions. They take a problem and come up with two or three solutions, and whichever solution has more voices speak in its favor with a vote, that is the solution used.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Northhorn said, relieved that there was such a thing.  “Very good then. We shall take one of these votes. We either accept D’jar’s suggestion, or we make our own way.” He guided the bears back to the croc, and tried to shed some of his aggression along the way back.  “D’jar, we have come to a decision.  Have you ever heard of a vote?”

“D’jar knows of these things,” the croc said.

“We are going to go back to the others and vote on your idea.  If you remain here, I will come back and inform you of the result of that vote. Are we agreed?”  The croc’s mouth curled up in a vicious smile, one that did not reach its eyes.  

“Yes, this is good,” the croc said.  “A vote.  D’jar likes this idea. If you vote not to follow D’jar, he will not be upset, honorable rhino.”  Northhorn didn’t care one whit whether or not the croc would be upset; he only wanted to make sure the herd was safe.

Part 5

“Bear in mind that everyone’s voice is equal here,” Mora said a short while later, passing her gaze over all of the remaining members of the herd, including a couple of newcomers from the Inner they had battled in.  Three hog badgers, another snub-nosed monkey, and four red dogs whose clan had lived in the Outer they had passed through had come upon them, and found their welcome both curious and comforting, considering their recent flight from the Men-clans.  “So we must think about this before making our decision. Will a shadow tilt be long enough to consider?”  Many heads nodded in ascent, and the herd broke into smaller groups, conversing among themselves.  

With Timog slain, his eldest son, Feltog, had stepped into the role of Patriarch. His uncles had not argued the point, though they were older and wiser in many respects.  But among their particular clutch, the bloodline ruled the clan, and they honored the old ways.  Feltog, Pola, Mora, Servantes and Northhorn seemed to have taken the mantle of leadership as a group, along with the newcomer Keern, one of the red dogs.  He sat opposite Pola, the two glowering at one another in silence as the groups formed up.

“Let us discuss this,” Northhorn rumbled, looking to each of them in turn.  “I do not personally trust the croc. His kind are tricksy in the best of times. There has rarely been any reason for them to fear the Man-clans, seeing as they can easily swim away from them.  The notion that a whole clan of crocs could be scared off sits untrue to my ears.” 

“Perhaps so, but the Mah-reens carry tongues of flame with them,” said Keern, his rounded ears twitching nervously.  His voice carried high and fearful, eyes darting back and forth constantly. “They can burn everything, everything.  I think we should go where it’s safe from the Men.”

“And I think Northhorn has the right of this,” said Pola, much to the rhino’s surprise. As angry as she had been at him earlier, he did not expect any support from this quarter.  “You are a fool as well as a coward if you think this D’jar can be trusted farther than a cat can spit.  I recommend we ignore the croc.” 

“You have not seen him as I have,” Mora chimed in, rubbing her stomach.  “He has been wounded by the Men-clans.  I cannot think he would want to be anywhere near their kind again. I think he speaks truth.” 

“Perhaps he does, but only in part,” Servantes offered, slithering into the center of the group and bringing himself upright, slowly turning in a circle to eyeball each of them.  “His kind and mine are cousins, and there is more to words than truths and lies, my friends.  There are part-truths, half-truths, which are sometimes more troublesome than outright lies. If Skychild had remained with us, we could have asked him to check out the area ahead of us, but as with most winged ones, he departed when we were threatened in the night.”  Keern whined loudly, pawing the ground.

“We do not need more doubt right now, snake,” the canine sniped.  “Do we trust D’jar or no?”

“If it must be as simple as that, then I say no,” Servantes replied, slithering back to Northhorn and streaking up his leg and flank to return to his perch wrapped around the jutting horn.  

“What of you, Feltog,” Northhorn asked.  “Your clutch holds the most voices here, and they will likely fall in line with you.  How will you vote?”

“There are many of us, and only one croc,” said the proud deer, his voice as timorous as his father’s, as measured.  “Even if it turns out to be a trap for this D’jar to try to prey upon us, we can quickly kill him with overwhelming numbers.  I say we follow him.”  Northhorn could not argue with the new Patriarch’s logic.  When the groups broke apart a short time later and the vote was held, it was this line of thought that led the way, with the majority taking heart in Feltog’s words.  

And so Northhorn returned to the croc, who lay bathing in the sun, eyes closed until he drew within reach to crush the reptile’s head.  Yet as D’jar opened his eyes, Northhorn, teeth pressed tightly together, spake thus; “We will follow, D’jar, but know that if this is some trap you lay, I will personally smash your head into mud.”

***

The sweet aroma of the soft green fruit Meeker and his new friend Topal fed upon, taking their ease upon his back, helped Northhorn to partly ignore the other, less pleasant odors of the dense Inners they passed through behind the croc. Pola had sent Sensa ahead to check in with the reptile several times over the course of the morning, and they seemed to be taking a careful track through areas the Mah-reens had occupied not too long ago now.  The sky-fallen filth Mora and Inock had spoken of had been heavy along their path, huge metal drums painted yellow and orange pocking the landscape here and there, much of the plant life rotted away to clear paths the Men-clans could trod upon openly.  The herd strafed these walkways, their progress marked now and then with long-dead Men, their corpses bloated and swollen, littered with the tiny creatures that lived on the edge of the After, feasting upon the dead. Swarms of the white bugs could be seen crawling in and out of the bodies, and the way they moved caused the rhino’s stomach to roll when he passed too near them. 

Movement ahead came to a halt, and Northhorn came up short just behind the red dogs. “What’s wrong,” he asked them softly.

“Sensa brings word D’jar has spotted Men,” Keern said. “Living ones, a large pack of them.”

“Which clan?”

“The natives, the Charlies as the Mah-reens call them,” said Keern. “D’jar is looking for a safe way around them.”  Northhorn nodded, plodding over so some of the more edible brush and grazing for a few many-breaths.  He had not been eating well since the flight from his Outers, and the fruit Meeker offered him, while certainly delicious, did little to sate his appetite.  He was able to get in a decent feeding before the herd was on the move once more, heading sunwake for a short while before turning shim once more. 

Father called it ‘north’, he thought as the passed through a small clearing, his ears picking up the shouts of Men too close for comfort.  He said I was named for the way Men referred to shim, my brother for how they named wem.  Southhorn, where are you now, brother? Have the Men-clans fouled your territory as well? He could not say why he should suddenly be thinking of his father and brother, until he recalled what had happened to his mother.  The image of the Man he had rammed the night before played in his mind again, layered over a memory of his mother, bucking and thrashing as Men used metal mouths to fell her, his father bellowing at Southhorn and him to flee, to get away from the Men.  That is all these Men-clans bring, he mused.  Death and destruction, dischord and rampage.

Yet he had killed too, had he not? Yes, he had killed, but only to defend himself and his herd. He did not kill to eat, as so many of the jungles did.  There was no need, with so many delectable grasses and fruits to be had.  What, then, did the Man-clans fight and kill each other for?  This mystery seemed beyond him, and so he left the idea go, easier done the moment they passed out of the clearing and he could no longer hear the shouts of the Men. 

Around midday, when the rains began coming down, he marveled at how good the cool waters felt upon his hide, though Meeker and Topal groaned and complained heavily.  The dogs happily splashed in puddles as they strode along ahead of him, tackling each other playfully into the deeper pools.  Despite the horrors of the last day, Northhorn found himself grinning at their antics. Their impulsive happiness seemed to spread quickly to the rest of the herd, and he even spotted Pola and Sensa roughhousing among the waters once before resuming their posts near the front of the formation.  

Feltog fell back beside him at one point as the sky darkened toward sunsleep, head held upright, eyes half-lidded.  “It has been good thus far,” the deer said. 

“Yes, thus far,” Northhorn said.  

“You still do not trust D’jar.”

“Not a bit.”

“That is wise,” said Feltog.  “I wanted to inform you that my uncle Dren and his mate are leaving us. They took the detour as a bad sign.”  Feltog hitched a sigh, his head lowering slightly.  “I do not blame them, but I must follow the will of the herd. What say you, Northhorn?”

“I will go where the herd wills,” he replied.  “I agreed to stay and help protect you all, be it from Men-clans or D’jar’s treachery.” 

“It is good,” the Patriarch declared, and pranced nimbly ahead to rejoin his clutch.  Northhorn listened intently as movement sounded sunwake from them, catching sight of a pair of deer traipsing off through the thicket, away from the herd.  In his heart, he longed to join them.

***

Soon, thought D’jar, carefully prowling around another groundclaw and spotting the Men as they folded up another of the green cloth-things they had used as sleeping places.  He had not precisely lied to the bears, no, for Men-clans had indeed caused a croc clan to leave the nearby lake.  He had not told the bears or rhino that it had been his own clan that had been forced to flee; neither did he tell them how many of his brethren had been slaughtered by the Mah-reens to clear space for their own kind to set up a domain here.  D’jar will be revenged of you filth, and he will have meat to feast upon when you are gone.  

There were far fewer of the Mah-reens now than there had been when first he’d fled them, one of their flying machines taking a group of them away into the sky. Another machine was filled with other Man-things, cloth dens rolled up with boxes of wood and metal.  They were leaving, it appeared, and with patience, D’jar could safely be rid of them if he just waited.  But if he did, the revenge he so badly desired would leave with them. And then, the meat will also be safe, and a threat to D’jar of their own.  D’jar cannot have this.

As fast as he could, he doubled back on himself, skirting a ways from the exact path he had taken to get to the edge of the Mah-reens’ domain.  It was almost a full tilt of shadow when he came upon Sensa, the leopard too cautious to let himself get within jaws’ reach of the croc. “What news, D’jar,” the great cat asked, sniffing the air.  

“Traces of Men-clans to the shim,” D’jar said.  “D’jar spotted several of the groundclaws along the way.  We will have to take a winding course to avoid them.  D’jar believes it would be best if he and the herd traveled more closely together from here on, and more slowly, to avoid them.”  Sensa looked back over his shoulder in the direction of the herd, and for a moment, D’jar worried that he would balk. 

“Will you wait here,” Sensa asked, looking back down at the croc.  “I would like to tell them what you’ve said and find out what they want to do.”

“Of course, of course, D’jar will wait here for you,” the croc said, relieved.  “But you should be quick as the wind! D’jar wishes to get to the lake, so that he can swim again as free as the day is long.” The leopard took off, bounding away with alarming speed.  Hoping the great cat would not peek back, D’jar darted into some of the heavier nearby underbrush, and began digging as fast as he could at a patch of loose, rain-soaked soil, tearing up a shallow trench in short order.  It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. “D’jar can take no chances with one so quick,” he muttered to himself.  “No, no chances.”

***

“I may not trust him, but his caution is wise, and hard-won,” Northhorn said, agreeing with Pola and Mora’s assessment of the news Sensa brought back to them.  “The Men-clans have wounded him and terrified his kin as much as they have our own. Go back and tell him to await us. If the Men-clans have left trace, they may be nearby themselves, and we would all do well to face them together if we must do so again.” Sensa thanked them for their reply, and sped off once again to the shim to relay the decision to the croc. 

“Let us all take a rest while we can,” Feltog suggested.  “It will not take Sensa long to return to D’jar with our decision and come back to us, swift as he is.” None argued the choice to rest, not even the rats, who had all, like the monkeys and Servantes, ridden in relative ease as it was.  One of the red dogs had earned their collective scorn by pointing this out a short while ago, but Keern had rebuked him for his attitude quickly.

“They could never keep up otherwise,” the lead canine said after nipping his brother on the foreleg. “The herd has been kind enough to bring us with them, to keep us safe.  We should not be rude in return.” Now those same two red dogs were laying together with their third brother and sister clan-mates, nestled together in a sliver of sunlight streaming down through the trees overhead. Northhorn watched them lazing together, but could see the images in his mind playing out once more, images from the battle between Men and herd, seen like a film layered over them as they took their ease. 

“You are not here, brother,” Inock said as he approached from his flank. Northhorn blinked away the vision rapidly and looked over at the young black bear. 

“What?”

“You were not here, just now,” Inock said, settling down heavily on his rear end. “Your body was here, but your thoughts were elsewhere, yes?”  Northhorn nodded.  “Were your thoughts ahead, or behind?”

“Behind,” the rhino confessed.  “How did you know?”

“A look in the eyes,” Inock said, rubbing his own face.  “I see it sometimes in mother, though not as much as eight or nine moons ago. Those were hard days, then.”

“What was she seeing then,” the rhino asked, genuinely curious. “If I may ask.”

“It’s no trouble,” said Inock.  “She was thinking of my brother. He died when he was still a cub. There was much warring between the Men-clans where we lived, and we could not go out to hunt. He did not get enough to eat, and starved. She was haunted by his passing, and blamed herself for it.”

“Sounds to me like she should blame the Men-clans,” Northhorn said.  “They have sewn only misery here with their warring.”  Inock said no more on the subject, instead ambling away to scrounge for food with his mother. Northhorn looked off to the shim, watching for Sensa’s return.

***

D’jar dragged the limp cat as fast as he could toward the trench, cursing himself for making such a mess of the ambush. He had wanted to snap the leopard’s neck in one clean jerk, but his bite had managed to tear one of the places that bled heavily, spraying thick, coppery warmth all over the rain-drenched ground.  At least the rain comes again, he thought as a downpour kicked up again. D’jar would not be able to explain this in dry grass.  He dropped the dead cat in the trench and dragged mounds of the mud he’d moved out down on top of Sensa’s corpse, blotting him out of view and dragging underbrush over the patch to further mask the grave. One less threat to D’jar, yes?

Satisfied with his work, the croc returned to the path, and made sure to leave broad, obvious tracks for the others in the herd to follow.

Part 6

Pola paced back and forth nervously in the thickening mud, her hackles raised.  “He has been gone too long.  We need to go, now.  He may have been hurt,” she said. 

“Possibly by our would-be guide,” said Servantes, coiled once more around the rhino’s horn.  “We need to get going one way or another. Feltog? Mora?”

“I concur,” said the black bear mother.  “Let’s get moving.”  And so the herd started off once more, following the path Sensa and D’jar had set ahead of them.  None yet knew what had befallen them, or the fate the croc had in mind for them all.

***

“It will be worth it,” D’jar said, steeling himself for what he must do. “D’jar swears it will be worth it.”  With a will that defied belief, he scraped his tail against the rock outcropping, tearing open the wound that had finally started healing. He snarled at the agony of it, unlike what he’d felt when the groundclaw had hurt him, lesser in degree, but perhaps all the more disturbing for having been forced to do it to himself.  The chunk of leopard flesh he’d kept himself from eating went down his gullet next, carried this far to keep the scent carrying along.  The rain would wash away the freshest of it, but when the cat’s mate scented him, she would at least be fooled this far. By then, the trap would be all but guaranteed to work anyhow; already some of the Mah-reens had been heard nearby, calling out to see if the noises they were hearing were their kin making patrols of the Inner near their camp. 

He started back toward the herd’s direction, spotting them coming his way perhaps twenty many-breaths later.  Just in time, he thought with glee. Now we shall see what happens when D’jar is wronged!

***

“Where is he,” Pola demanded, barring her teeth at the croc, who appeared to have torn open his wounds somehow. 

“D’jar tried to tell him to wait, that the lake was just through those trees and all could arrive together, but he took off shim,” the croc said, sounding winded.  “I tried to keep up with him, but as you can see, D’jar is in no shape to race a leopard, as can be plainly seen.” 

“Impetuous fool,” Pola sighed.  She turned a sour look back at the others.  “I am sorry for my mate’s lack of respect for us.  This is, unfortunately, not entirely unexpected of him. I can smell him that way, though, despite all this wet. Where did you lose him, D’jar?”

“On the edge of the Inners there, which are thin. The lake is just beyond, this D’jar swears upon his life,” the croc replied. “D’jar did not follow, as he said, because your mate is too swift, and your herd might have not gone straight this way if D’jar did not meet you here.” Pola started away at a jog, with the rest of the herd following close behind. They kept closer now, the promise of safety just ahead. Slow as he was compared to the others, Northhorn did not mind bringing up the rear once again, the croc managing to stay just ahead of him despite his obvious hurts. 

The herd entered the thicket again, and now Northhorn’s senses jangled at him. Moreover, Meeker, perched up on his neck, said faintly, “Do you hear that?” Sounds were filtering through the brush, sounds Northhorn had heard at a great distance before. They were Man-sounds, and he thought he vaguely recognized them. 

‘Don’t you understand what I’m, tryin’ to say’, came the sounds, words spoken in the Man-tongue with other, more wonderful noises layered just underneath. ‘Can’t you feel the fears I’m, feelin’ today?’ The sounds were beautiful, greater than anything Northhorn had ever heard. If the Men-clans can make such joyful sounds, why would they ever fight each other, he wondered, looking down at the croc just ahead of him.

Whether it had been because of how close she had been, or because she had been so focused on catching up to her mate, Pola had not seen the furs that almost blended perfectly amid the scales along D’jar’s snout.  “No,” Northhorn whispered, just before he world exploded.

Screams ahead, the screams of Men. Metal fangs and howls of alarm tore the air, and before he could even fully process this, the rhino saw D’jar lunge forward, his vicious jaws closing on one of the red dogs, snapping him clean in half. A war cry echoed back from Pola, matched by a twin roar of ursine fury from Mora and Inock. Half a dozen deer came rushing back at Northhorn, sheer terror painting their faces a queer tableau as, in their numbers and combined weight, they knocked the turning rhino to the ground, one of them scrambling to climb up over his fallen mass and escape the oncoming Mah-reens and their machines of death. 

Winded and stunned, Northhorn managed to let out a shout of rage as he realized that he’d fallen right atop Meeker, crushing the snub-nosed monkey to death under his massive girth.  “Traitor,” the rhino screamed, clumsily getting to his feet and knocking aside a pair of Men between him and the croc, whose scaley back was to him. All else was forgotten, his rage fully upon him as he reared up over the croc on his hind legs. 

D’jar had just enough time to bend his head back and up to see Northhorn’s front legs coming down at him.  “Oh,” the reptile managed just before his head was crushed with an air-rending ‘crunch’.  Northhorn tried to look around to survey the damage being sustained, but moments later, new kinds of pain lanced through him, pain of a sort he had never known, and coming from his right side, his chest, and his legs.  The metal fangs were ripping him apart, even as he continued to press his hoof down into the ruins of D’jar’s head. 

And moments later, through the pain, came a cool bliss, accompanied by a weightlessness. He heard the Man-sounds as the world tilted sideways before him, the pretty ones. ‘And marches alone won’t bring integration,’ the sounds proclaimed, and to his amazement, Northhorn understood the sounds. 

They sure didn’t here, did they, he thought, confused but peaceful. I should not know these sounds.  How do I know them? What is this feeling?

***

The gunny stood panting over the dead rhino, mouth agape, wheezing as he tried to recover from the shock of this bizarre incident.  “Is this fucking thing smiling at us,” he asked, his bladder emptying down his leg.  What good was jungle warfare, after all, if a man couldn’t relieve himself in his drawers, seeing as he was already soaked from the rain?

“Almost looks like it, sarge,” said a private nearby, holding his chest where a goddamned leopard, of all things great and mighty, had slashed him before his bunk mate had blown it to Hell and breakfast.  “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, looks like Noah could’ve been leading this bunch. You ever seen anything like this, sir?” The gunny gave him a firm scowl, but shook his head. 

“Naw, can’t say as I ever did,” the gunny replied, twirling one hand around in the air to signal his men to finish their preparations to depart.  “That’s the thing about the ‘Nam though, boys,” he said, walking away slowly from the dying rhino.  “You’re not gonna see much makes any sort of sense out here.”

And ya, tell meeee, over and over and over and over again, my friend,

How ya don’t believe, we’re on the Eve of Destruction.

-Fin