Night-hoof brayed at the top of his voice, kicking and slamming his hooves into the wall of the ravine. Rocks rained down the wall, clattering about him, but otherwise nothing responded to his cries, nothing was coming to help him.
The Shire raced back and forth along the ravine, desperately seeking a spot that would allow him to pull himself up and out, but any spot that looked promising proved to be deceitful. He placed one hoof on a low ledge, but the rocks were slippery, so his hoof could not catch on it. He skidded off and thudded back to the ravine floor.
The longer Night-hoof remained in the ravine, the more his panic swelled. It would take the Clawed Queen no time to return to the herd and do whatever it was she was planning to do, whether it was to drive them all off, or…
He closed his eyes, blocking out the sight of Spirit’s severed head and body not far from him. How could she have done such a thing? How could she have betrayed him, betrayed the herd?
How could he have betrayed her trust?
He rested his head against the cool rock of the ravine wall. Even if he could find his way out, it would be too late by now. He would never see his herd again. His family, his purpose, would be gone. It would be better to just stay down here, to waste away and never face his failure…
“Why do you give up, Night-hoof?” came a small, gentle voice.
Night-hoof opened his eyes and lifted his head. He could see no one at first, aside from the dead wolf, but he knew the voice did not belong to that of Spirit, even if it should be the wolf’s ghost. The Shire thought, perhaps, he had imagined it, until the voice spoke again.
“Do not despair. There is still time. There is always time to do the right thing.”
This time, Night-hoof focused on where the voice was coming from, and on the ravine wall he could see a tiny form dangling from a shimmering thread. It was a red and yellow spider with spiny black ridges, and she descended until she was in line with Night-hoof’s eyes.
“I am Micrathena,” the spider said, “and I have lived in this ravine for a very long time. The walls of this ravine are steep and hard to climb for one as large as you. But my spinning thread is strong, and I have many sisters. Together we can weave something to help you get out of here.”
Night-hoof thought on this. “Your spinning thread is sticky for catching prey. There is a spot along this wall that I could’ve climbed out, but the rocks are too slippery. If you and your sisters could weave a long web to lie over those rocks, then I would not slip and I believe I could climb out.”
The spiders immediately went to work, spinning and weaving along the rocks until there was a thick layering of webbing on the spot where Night-hoof intended to climb. This time, when he placed his hoof on the ledge, the webbing held his foot in place while he trudged upwards to the next foothold. Struggling with all his strength to hoist himself up, the Shire finally managed to climb, the stickiness of the webbing preventing him from sliding back down. With a final grunt, he leapt up over the edge of the ravine, back into the fresh air and sunlight of the forest.
He didn’t bother to rest; with a quick thank you to Micrathena and her sisters, Night-hoof sped away, his hooves pounding with thunderous determination on the ground, to save his herd from the Clawed Queen.
The peace-shattering roar ripped through the air like a banshee wail of impending doom.
The herd was jarred awake by the roar, as fear seized them with hands of cold dread. They looked around; where was Night-hoof? All they could see was the white tigress—not so white now, as blood stains soaked her face and chest pink—barreling towards them, eyes afire with bloodlust, teeth bared with ravenous hunger.
Immediately, the herd members took flight, all except Nelumbo the fishing cat and Shiba the dhole. They were hunters of tooth and claw; they stood their ground, ready to confront the Clawed Queen, despite her being much larger than either of them. It took no time for the queen to advance on them, claws raised, ready to slice them both.
A barrage of thick green walnuts smacked the Clawed Queen from above. Shaka the Monkey and Ursu the Koala were high up in a tree above, tearing the walnuts off the branches and pelting the tigress, chortling as she shook them off and hissed in anger. With her distracted, Argus the pheasant and Rayo Azul the peacock rushed up on her, pecking at her paws and face, darting out of the path of her lashing paws before she could catch them. Meanwhile Nelumbo and Shiba got behind the Clawed Queen and grabbed her long tail in their teeth, yanking backwards and throwing the queen off her feet.
Despite Night-hoof protecting them all these years, the herd had learned to defend themselves when necessary, and all of them against the tigress proved effective. However, the Clawed Queen would not be taken down so easily. She spun around, smacking Shiba and Nelumbo with her massive paws, sending the two tumbling. She pounced at the pheasant and the peacock, catching chucks of their tail feathers as the two scurried away. She threw her whole weight against the tree that Shaka and Ursu were in, uprooting the tree and sending it crashing over to the ground. The monkey and the koala leapt from the falling tree and landed heavily on the ground, but instantly the tigress’ claws were on them, piercing their skins.
“All of you must leave this place!” the Clawed Queen ordered. “You are no longer welcomed to be in this herd. Night-hoof must be freed from you parasites. Go now, or I will shred every last one of you!”
A raging rush of wind swept over them, accentuated by a deep, bellowing bray. A twinge of unease fell over the Clawed Queen as she turned to look. Night-hoof glared at her, the red of his scars blazing like fire against his black hide, and his storm-gray mane whipping like hurricane fury.
“No, you will not,” Night-hoof said. “You will have to kill me before I let you harm them.”
The Clawed Queen stepped off of Ursu and Shaka, but the hate in her eyes was as radiant as ever. “I am trying to free you from this burden. But you are too foolish and stubborn to accept the better choice. If I must prove to you that I am the stronger one, in order for you to submit to my wishes, then so be it.”
“It grieves me that you would fight me, my dearest friend, but I cannot let you hurt my family. Your family.”
The tigress scoffed. “This is no family of mine. I am a queen! What need I for a bunch of pathetic outcasts? I want my king, and I will have him, even if I must force him to bow to me first!”
Night-hoof could see that her broken heart seeped toxic blood, that she was no longer the young tigress he had come to care for. While it pained him deeply, more so than any physical wound he had ever received, he charged her with his bone-crushing hooves prepared to battle, while she returned his charge with claws and fangs eager for the fight.
To be concluded…