The dawn crept up upon them with disturbing silence, without the pomp of early birds singing or the whistling of a morning wind. The noise of the waking world has been slain, which could only mean that death had proclaimed its presence.
Night-hoof had barely slept, but what little sleep he did get had been plagued by worry and anxiety. So when dawn’s first rays opened his eyes, and he heard the lifeless silence, fear rattled throughout him as he knew something was wrong.
Immediately he turned to count his herd, all still sleeping in unaware contentment. Shiba, Shaka, Nelumbo, Rayo Azul, the pheasant Argus, Ursu the koala…they were all there, safe and sound. But where was the Clawed Queen? It was common for her to awaken before the others, but she never went anywhere until Night-hoof woke up and went with her to the river for a morning drink.
Had she gone by herself to the river already? With Spirit waiting there? The tigress wouldn’t understand why the wolf was there, and Spirit could be tempted to ambush the unsuspecting queen, just to hurt one of Night-hoof’s herd. Or would she attack him first? While Night-hoof would have preferred the latter to the former, neither option was good. He galloped as fast as his hooves would carry him towards the river.
The riverside was quiet as Night-hoof approached, and he could see neither Spirit or of the Clawed Queen. There seemed to be no evidence of a skirmish, no torn-up ground or blood-stained earth. But Night-hoof could smell the two scents, the one of the wolf and the one of the tigress. They had been here…perhaps they had become acquainted on their own and gone off; perhaps Spirit had already offered himself to be her king and she accepted, and the two of them were on their way back to her homeland right now.
Even though this was exactly the tapestry that Night-hoof had woven, the very thought made him bray in anger, and the wind hissed through his mane with the fury of feral cats. He had thought convincing the Clawed Queen to accept Spirit would have been a challenge, one that Night-hoof would have had to coax and coerce her to oblige. For her to be so readily willing to leave, to leave Night-hoof behind without even a goodbye, burned him with the hell-hot iron of betrayal.
There were paw prints in the soft mud near the river’s edge, so he followed them, his pace quickening as the prints led away from the river and up into the forest. Soon he was charging along without thought, other than to find the Clawed Queen—or if he spotted Spirit first, he would make certain that the wolf never left the mountain again.
The ground became petrified, as rock replaced earth and grass. This was where the abandoned ravine was, a dried-up crevice where a vein of the main river once flowed that was thrice as deep as Night-hoof was tall. This was an odd place for them to have wandered; no animals ever came here, since there was no water or vegetation, and it was not even a decent hunting ground. But their scents were even stronger here.
Night-hoof brayed, announcing his presence, but no one revealed themselves. Then he smelled something else, as well, a smell he was all too familiar with from his days of war…
He stepped up to the edge of the ravine—with caution, since some of the slate cracked beneath his hooves—and peered down into it. It was frightfully dark down there, as no sunlight reached the bottom of the ravine. The smell was stronger than ever, and as Night-hoof strained to see down below, he could make out two shapes in the shadows. One was much larger than the other, but they both appeared mossy, or hairy… and then Night-hoof caught the yellow reflection glancing off of the smaller shape, and he knew it was Spirit’s eye.
His eye, in his decapitated head, about two feet from his blood-matted body.
A chill rippled throughout Night-hoof’s body. Even though the dead wolf below had been no friend to him, such a grisly demise could only have been dealt by one member of his herd, and to know she had been capable of such brutality made the Shire’s heart shatter. But…maybe it hadn’t been her…a small glint of hope made him believe some other animal he did not know of had done this…
The Shire’s hope was stamped out, as dandelion fluff is crushed underfoot, as he turned as saw the Clawed Queen sitting nearby on a rock, her white fur stained pink all around her muzzle and down her front.
“Do you hate me so much, Night-hoof?” she growled, her claws clacking on the rock. “Do you hate me so much as to have sent that assassin to kill me?”