Apex

Image by Rodrigo de la torre from Pixabay

The herd had moved across the savanna into the inviting green and a new danger lay ready in wait. The sun was high and bore down on the grazers as they foraged for food and moisture. They had stopped short of the long grass, which was tall and dry, and had followed the pasture to the edge of a gorge.

Tensions were high, hemmed up against cover for predators and a death trap of razor sharp rock. But they had to eat. All that was behind them was the shrivelling savanna and a thicket of trees wavering on the horizon.

Broadhoof ignored this all as he nuzzled his way through the tuft of grass. There was a cluster of rocks nestled within it and they tasted damp. He tongued the moisture and lapped up the critters with a crunch. Not as satisfying as the tuft of grass itself, but it was a relief under the unbearable sun.

The herd had made their way towards these plains for some days. Gnarlhorn suggested that there would be more green here, as other herds had warned of a new pack of predators. Less grazers more grass, he had bleated. Broadhoof was skittish, more grass, more places for those predators.

Gnarlhorn said their herd was faster than the others, and trotted on. Broadhoof did not protest much, after all, Gnarlhorn was herd leader at the time. He wasn’t herd leader anymore though. And there wasn’t any nonsense about alphas struggling against one another. All that had happened was that Longtail wandered off in another direction yesterday and they all followed him.

Gnarlhorn nudged Broadhoof off the tuft and he trotted off with a grunt to the pasture closer to the long grass. He perked up as he noticed more of the herd moving and realised they were now following him. He guessed he was herd leader now.

He settled down to graze, the long grass was rustling and Twitchear suddenly perked up. The rest of the herd stopped grazing and scanned the area, listening, smelling. She had the best ears in the herd, once bolted a split second before the sabre cat got poor Strongleg. They craned their necks.

Waiting

Broadhoof smelled nothing.

After a moment they all returned to their grazing.

Then, a whistle of several strange sounding birds in the long grass, a grunt and a sharp stick flew from the grass and grazed Broadhoof’s leg.

They emerged from the grass in a line, strange creatures running on two legs with most of their fur on their heads. Like lions, but, nothing like lions. They yelled and chanted and the herd scattered, stampeding around the gorge. Broadhoof was at the rear of the herd, but not for long, the small cut on his leg was painful but nothing.

Then there was a crack, and one of the boulders on the edge of the gorge was toppled by other predators and the herd had to leap over it. With the pain in his leg Broadhoof barely made it. He clipped his hooves on it and tumbled over. Two of the predators rushed in with strange claws fashioned from wood and stone, jabbing at him. He bucked up and brayed, menacing them with his own horns until they backed off.

They made a gap for the savanna, Broadhoof shot out of there like the time the sabre cat got Strongleg. He left the predators in his wake. They trotted after him but on their stumpy two legs they fell behind quickly.

After a time, the heat was building up in him faster than he could exhale and the pain in his leg was growing. He trotted to a stop to find himself alone. The desolation of the shrinking savanna engulfed him. The rest of the herd was moving further away into the green on the other side of the gorge. No matter, he would wait for these predators to regroup and then would rejoin the herd… but as he gazed back towards the gorge he could see them still running towards him.

Broadhoof snorted derisively. They would never catch him.

But their steady progress had him on edge. He started ambling towards the outcropping of trees on the horizon – there would be water there, and cover form those things. Not that he was worried about them, nothing could sustain that pace for longer than a few minutes.

As Broadhoof journeyed his wound grew more burdensome, but he put his mind off it, trying to figure out how they did not smell these predators approaching. They were smeared in mud and other scents of the land – that was the only explanation.

It had been some hours, Broadhoof was suffering in the heat and with exhaustion and looked over his shoulder to see that the predators had been steadily gaining on him. In renewed panic he high tailed the remainder of the distance to the trees. He collapsed once he reached the thicket, the shade was cool and the predators were now far, far behind. He closed his eyes and rested, he could find water when he woke. He could even hear it close by, bubbling gently. But for now, rest.

The smell woke him.

Whatever those things had smeared on their bodies, it had worn off somehow. Broadhoof shifted up with aching limbs and a dry mouth. He was still overheating even though the afternoon sun was low.

He needed water.

But he rose and peered out over the savanna to see the pack of them approaching. The mud and scent masks ran off their bodies as they glistened. Where were they getting that water from? How could they still be running? All of them, some held the young in their arms and even the old kept up, the ones out in front had those strange claws and horns in their hands.

Broadhoof needed a new plan, exhaustion be dammed. He had tried going in a straight line, maybe if he zigzagged through the thicket of trees they wouldn’t be able to tell what direction he went. He upped and bolted deeper into the trees. Every collision of hoof with dirt sent shock waves of pain through his leg, throbbed through his head and muscles as they cried out with dehydration. By the time he had stopped his mad dash through the trees the sun was setting and he was on the brink of collapse.

The edge of the trees were nearby, he crawled towards the edge and lay down, dead to the world.

He was awoken again by heat and pain. The sun was peering through the tree canopy and the cicadas were singing a deafening chorus. Broadhoof bit back a groan as he rose. He could hear water nearby, taste it on his tongue. He decided to follow it and froze when he scented something else, the predators.

They were close.

But how? He had run a maze through these trees, they couldn’t have picked the direction he travelled… unless… Broadhoof peered down at the deep gouges he had made in the earth with his passing. His tracks.

What the hell were these things?

A twig snap, a bird whistle, Broadhoof’s heart spiked and he bolted from the trees again.

He broke the clearing and made it two whole gallops before his leg gave up on him, before his body refused the constant effort. He collapsed onto the ground, braying and crying in pain.

As he thrashed he saw the predators emerge from the trees, slowly now, knowing he was spent. The old sat by on the tree roots and rocks and took the young as the mature looking ones approached cautiously. It looked like they were settling down to graze, but graze what? There was nothing to eat here… oh. Broadhoof sunk his head onto the ground defeated.

They grunted things to each other.

“Put it out of its misery quickly, do it cleanly.” The pack leader said to a younger one.

The sounds had no meaning to Broadhoof as the younger one stepped forward with a claw of wood and stone in its hand.

“We appreciate your death, great beast.” The young one said, caressing Broadhoof’s neck.

He was terrified, but something about the creature’s voice, about its touch, was soothing.

“We will honour your body. Nothing shall be wasted as it sustains the tribe.”

He raised his strange claw to strike and Broadhoof closed his eyes.

 

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