They had welcomed death into their herd the day their guardian had brought home the queen. But back then, how could any of them have known what danger she carried? After all, Night-hoof had protected them all ever since the beginning, and no one had loved him more fiercely than the Clawed Queen.
Night-hoof the Shire was the iron-footed colossus whose shadow alone sent the evil wild things of the forest scattering. He was an old stallion, his black hide crisscrossed with battle scars that were still as vibrant red as if freshly gouged. His storm-gray mane whipped carefree in the wind, although it was rumored that it was his flowing mane that stirred the winds themselves. His hooves, each as big around as lion skulls, cause the earth to tremble with each step, and the ground to crack open in violent quakes when he pounded his feet in fury.
But even a fearsome giant gets lonely when out in the dreary cold world, and perhaps some ingrained sense of duty—for he may have been a war horse, trained to protect—spurned him to gather the outcasts of the world into the guardianship of his herd, out in the vacant broken hills of the Cleaved Lands.
Then one day, he came upon the Clawed Queen. Although, at the time, she was not queen yet. She had been small, unassuming, a scraggly ball of dirtied ivory and silver-striped fur that was shivering in the rain by the riverside. Night-hoof had been suspicious, of course—tiger, he thought with skin-prickling tension—but she was little more than a cub. One of his hooves could have crushed her out of existence in one stomp. But the little striped princess was not afraid of him; she nuzzled up to his leg, letting Night-hoof’s imposing form shield her from the rain. Pity overtook Night-hoof’s heart, and so he brought her back to the herd, and little did he know that quickly the tiny tiger would become his favorite companion.
It became clear over the years, however, that the Clawed Queen bonded with Night-hoof in a way even he was not aware of. For the day came when she led him a ways off from the rest of the herd and told him of her greatest wish.
“When I was young, I was sent out into the world to grow strong and brave,” she told him. “But now I have come of age, and I must return home to claim my place as queen. Come with me, Night-hoof, and be my king. My home is a land of trees that grow the reddest, sweetest apples, and has the lushest of grasses. The streams are clean and clear as diamond, and the valleys go on forever, free for running to your heart’s content. You will be king of my realm, and I would spend all my days to make you happy.”
The thought was enticing, and Night-hoof was sure his herd would love such a place as well—
“No, only you,” the Clawed Queen said. “The rest of the herd is too weak and fragile to live in my homeland. You must come with me, and leave the others.”
Now that, he could not think of doing. He had to protect his herd, but when Night-hoof tried to explain this to her, she playfully pawed his nose or rubbed her head against his legs, and Night-hoof could feel his resolve wither. For, in his heart, he loved the Clawed Queen most and wanted to make her happy—but how could he choose?
After some thinking, Night-hoof realized that if he could make the queen love his herd as much as he did, then she would be willing to bring them as well. Maybe he could convince her through someone like herself, a feline. So he went to one of the herd, the fishing cat Nelumbo, and asked her to take the Clawed Queen fishing and befriend her. Nelumbo was a cheerful cat, and more than happy to oblige, but the Clawed Queen was not as enthusiastic. She had no desire to fish, and merely swatted the smaller cat into the river. Being a fishing cat, Nelumbo could swim back perfectly well, but no longer wanted to venture near the Clawed Queen.
Perhaps, Night-hoof thought, the queen needed someone to make her laugh—someone to open her up a bit more. So he asked Shaka the monkey to try and play with the tigress. Shaka liked to make the members of the herd laugh and play, so he plucked a feather from Rayo Azul the Peacock and started to tickle the Clawed Queen—since such a long feather also gave him plenty of space between him and her. The Clawed Queen indeed smiled and chuckled, but then grew irritated. She pounced and grasped Shaka’s tail in her teeth and flung him into the brush.
Night-hoof decided to make one more attempt, this time with Shiba the Dhole. Shiba was smart, energetic, and she was on good terms with the Clawed Queen despite being of canine persuasion. Shiba was also a good hunter; surely the queen would enjoy going on a hunt with her. But when the Clawed Queen returned some time later without Shiba, Night-hoof ordered her to tell him where the dhole was. Shiba was stranded high up in a tree, for the Clawed Queen had dragged her up the tree and left her there before going back to Night-hoof. As usual, the Clawed Queen chuffed an apology, nuzzling her head against Night-hoof’s shoulder and neck, but this time he would not be appeased.
This was too much. It was clear that the Clawed Queen would never accept his herd. It also worried Night-hoof that the tigress was becoming so hostile to the others; she wouldn’t honestly consider driving them all away so that she could have Night-hoof all to herself, would she? Now more than ever, Night-hoof needed to protect his herd, but it saddened him that he needed to protect them from the Clawed Queen. After a long time of painful debate with himself, he decided that he must let the Clawed Queen go home, without him.
However, he still cared for her, and knew she had a gentle loving side; the fact was, he did not want to lose her entirely. But her love for him had to be dowsed; once the stars were out of her eyes, then they could be friends and she would not endanger the others. She needed a king that could keep an eye on her and give her company, and one that would allow Night-hoof to visit her every now and then to check on her. There were few others in the Cleaved Lands that he knew about, but he knew of one who might be willing.
After making sure his herd was safe for the night, nestled away in the quiet grove of trees where they always slept, Night-hoof began a long trek through the Cleaved Lands, past the river, past the forest, up towards the Mountain that Pierced the Moon. This was the home of the half-faced lone wolf, Spirit…