A burning sting ripped through Night-hoof’s veins, both hot as fire and cold as frost, at the sight of the once pure-as-snow tigress, now death-tainted and feral, staring at him with hatred-filled eyes.
“Spirit did not come here to kill you,” Night-hoof said, venturing a tentative step towards the Clawed Queen.
She stood up, her lips curling back to bare her prey-shredding teeth. “You always told us, the half-faced wolf was death. You promised to protect us all from him. But you brought him here! I awoke in the night, seeing you weren’t with the herd, so I went out and looked for you. I spotted you by the river, talking to him. You knew I always go to the river before the others every morning. You had him lying in wait for me.”
“You know I would have gone with you to the river—“
“To lower my guard, having me believe I was safe as long as you were there. But then you’d have galloped away while the wolf attacked me from behind!” The Clawed Queen slunk down from the rock, her claws flexed out in sharp black scythes.
Night-hoof stood his ground, his breath growing heavy. “How can you believe I would do such a thing? I brought Spirit here because you wanted a king to bring with you to your homeland. Spirit was going to offer to be that king for you, since you both are of claw and fang.”
The Clawed Queen paused, her lips closing over her teeth as she narrowed her eyes at the horse. “I have never known you to lie, Night-hoof, but there is no way that I can believe such a claim.”
“Yet you believe I would ask Spirit to kill you? You are my dearest friend. You know me better than that.”
She tilted her head at him, and then her eyes welled up with tears. “So you were planning to pass me off to the wolf? After I offered you everything you could want, you would force another king on me? Without my consent?”
Night-hoof was quickly realizing how foolish he had been, even if his intentions had been good. How could he have thought her heart would turn so quickly to accept Spirit and forget him? Now he could see this was more than the Clawed Queen needing to return home with a king. She had just wanted to return home with him, whether he would be king or not.
“I did not understand,” Night-hoof insisted. “It made more sense for you to take a king of claw and fang then one of the hoof—”
The tigress roared, her pupils thinning to splinters. “No, you just want to stay with your precious herd! They are the only reasons you will not come with me. Then I will make you agree to be my king, because I will get rid of all your reasons to refuse!”
She lunged at him, claws extended, jaws open and ready to snap on his throat. Night-hoof instinctively reared back, front hooves kicking, but he reeled backwards too far on his hind legs. The ledge of the ravine behind him broke away, and he tumbled and slid down the side of the ravine, down to the bottom where the headless corpse of Spirit lay. Night-hoof's body was bruised and aching, but no bones were broken. He struggled to his feet, looking back up the side of the ravine. It was too steep for him to climb up and out.
The Clawed Queen peered down at him from above. “I know you will find your way out of there. By then, it will be just us two. There will be nothing left for you here. You will be my king, and you will come to my homeland with me.”
Then she was gone.