The wind howled in chorus to Night-hoof’s war bray, as his battle soul ignited in scorching rage. The venom of the Clawed Queen seemed to infect the very sky itself, as it clouded over in storm-green haze and began to weep hot, bitter tears. The summer storm hung heavy around them, stinking of hatred, despair, and bloodlust, and the Cleaved Lands pulsated with the beat of two enraged hearts.
Night-hoof lowered his head as he charged, intending to butt the Clawed Queen and disorient her, but she was faster than the old horse. Black scythe-claws raked across Night-hoof’s face, uprooting streams of ruby-red blood from his skin. The Shire whinnied, rearing back and landing a solid kick with his front hoof on the tigress’ nose. Crimson spurted from her nostrils as she screamed, as it was the first time in her life, having always been under Night-hoof’s protection, that she had been wounded so.
Her scream sent races of anguish through Night-hoof’s veins; how could he be hurting the one he cared for more than anything else? But he had to; she was no longer the cub that had come under his wing. She was of claw and fang, a predator, and she had killed. She was dangerous.
The Clawed Queen pounced at him again, this time wrapping her front paws around his thick neck and biting down on his throat. Night-hoof gasped, breaking into a run, and her grasp on him slipped just enough that she could not keep a good hold with her claws. He flung himself into a roll on the ground, and the unexpected move caused the tigress to let go. The Shire struggled to stand up again, but instantly she was on his back, claws digging into his flesh and teeth latched on to the back of his neck. Night-hoof bucked and reared, and readied to do another roll, but then the queen’s words were in his ears.
“Do not fight me,” she hissed. “You are old and slow; this can only end in your death. I do not want that. If you would only agree to be my king, and come with me right now, promise to be loyal to me for the rest of our lives, I will stop and never hurt you again.”
Night-hoof ceased his bucking, coming to stand still. His face and neck still burned from her attacks, but he spoke steadily. “You ask me to be your king, but why? Have you not shown me your strength, your ferocity? What need of you for a king when you need no one to tend to you?”
The tigress gritted her teeth. “Because my heart belongs to you, Night-hoof! It is only fair that you should give yours to me, and not your herd! They will never care for you as I do.”
“Love is not possessive, young one. You cannot demand that I give you my heart. It was your decision to give me yours. I did not ask for it.”
“Then I’ll take your heart from you, even if I have to rip it out of your chest!”
Before she could, however, Night-hoof flung his head back, smacking the tigress in the face. It momentarily dazed her, causing her to black out, which gave Night-hoof the chance to shake her off and send her sprawling on the ground. She looked up just as his great black hooves flailed over her and came plummeting down towards her skull.
The earth split as tremors racked the stone and soil, lightning ripples of cracks shooting out in all directions as the Shire’s hooves drove down like a moon colliding into the planet. The boom from his heavy strike made the thunder above no more than a weak grumble, and for a moment all creatures who witnessed the duel thought that the land would crumble and fall away into nothingness below. The world trembled for another long, resounding moment, until all became still and silent.
An inch from his hooves, the Clawed Queen lay unharmed, aside from a ringing in her ears. She was petrified, realizing the horse’s true strength, how quickly and completely he could have killed her. Her brawn in no way could match his; for as many scratches and bites she could deal him, he could withstand a thousand of her strikes and she would have been destroyed by just one from him.
She stared up into his shining black eyes as he glared down at her. With a snort, he spoke. “Go home.”
The Clawed Queen warily rolled up to her feet, a thousand seething thoughts aching to escape her tongue. This isn’t over! You are old, Night-hoof, you will only grow older and weaker. I am still young; I will only get stronger. When I am at my peak, I will come back and make you sorry! I will make your herd sorry! If you can’t love me, then I will have you hate me! I would rather be hated than forgotten. And you will never forget me. You won’t forget, and I won’t forgive!
But as she turned to him to say these things, the words disperse like mist on a lake after sunrise. She saw pain in his eyes, not hatred. She saw sorrow, not triumph. She saw all the things he felt for her, that she felt for him, and at that moment found she could not hate him. Even if she tried, she couldn’t.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
The tigress paused, as the fire inside her withered away. She turned away, her head low, her eyes downcast towards the cracked earth. Somewhere, to the north, her homeland awaited her, and she would have to go the distance alone.
As the Clawed Queen walked away, past the grove, past the river, through the forest, and up the Mountain that Pierced the Moon, a wind caressed her fur, carrying the scent of the great Shire from many, many miles away. And she found a little comfort, knowing that in this small way, he would be with her on her journey. As long as she could smell him on the wind, he was still alive, which always meant things could change…perhaps time would change his mind, or his heart…
And she wondered if, when the wind blew towards Night-hoof’s home, would he catch her scent someday…and would it make him happy too…