Ratha's Island - read it here! (complete) Submitted by Hani | 15 / Mar / 2009 Forums: Series: Authors (Last, First):
Ratha's Island, a Twitter novelette by Clare Bell, author of the Ratha or Named series.
Prepared for Twitter by Sheila Ruth and Clare Bell. Inspiration by Sheila Ruth. Copyright 2009
The Twitter search tag or hashtag for the story posts is #rathafic
Story archive pages are #1 The Scratching Log http://www.rathascourage.com/scratchlog.html
And #2 The Ratha Series Forum http://forum.rathascourage.com/index.php?showtopic=156
Archive pages will have text links to photos and blog posts about creatures in the story. You can also leave comments.
* * *
Ratha, female leader of the Named cat clan, paused on the meadow trail, one forefoot raised.
To one side, the small three-toed horses that the Named called dapplebacks, huddled nervously.
On the other, the three-horned deer stamped and shook their heads.
The deer stabbed up with their forked nose-horns, as if at an invisible enemy only they could see.
Even the sky, choked with low clouds, seemed a threat. Ratha lifted her head, narrowing her eyes.
Just below the clouds two shapes circled.
Yes, they were birds, probably eagles, but she had never seen eagles this large.
Ratha knew the hawks and eagles that often sailed over clan ground, but she hadn't seen these birds before.
They seemed to fly much faster, making her even more uneasy.
Her ears flattened, their tips lifted, showing anger rather than fear.
Often her ears showed her emotions before they really surfaced in her thoughts. At that idea, they twitched.
At a safe distance from the three-horns, Ratha saw Thakur, the clan's herding teacher.
He was showing the younger cubs how to circle and drive a three-horn fawn.
His head lifted; she knew he had seen the white spots on the backs of her ears.
He raised a paw toward the young herder Ashon, who was helping him with the cubs.
The clouds gave a gray cast to Thakur's usually bright copper coat and the wind blew the feathering around his legs.
He hadn't yet lost all of his winter fur. Neither had Ratha; Fessran had teased her about being shaggy.
He bounded to her through the grass and nose-touched with her. He too, looked up at the sky, where the birds circled.
"They look big enough to carry off a dappleback or a young three-horn," he said. He lifted his muzzle, following her gaze.
Thakur wrinkled his nose, worry crumpling the black tear-lines that ran down his cheek.
"I've never seen birds like those before," Ratha said, only allowing herself to only briefly enjoy...
... the feel and scent of him standing against her. She had chosen him as her mate, and more.
"What are those birds?" Ratha asked Thakur.
"Condor-eagles. Bring the herdbeasts under the trees, so the birds can't swoop and grab one."
"Alert the herders," she said, feeling her voice sharpen with command.
"I see Fessran over there," she added. "Get her to summon the torch-bearers."
"Do birds fear fire as ground creatures do?" Thakur asked.
"Feathers burn as well as fur." Ratha said harshly, knowing the backs of her ears were showing again.
She glanced up. The circling forms were lower. She could now see they had feathered eagle-heads.
The birds had eagle-beaks as well, heavy and hooked. They were hunters rather than scavengers.
The realization lifted more fur along Ratha's back. "Hurry!" she growled, but Thakur had already sprung away.
Herders and Firekeepers assembled, then divided into groups as Ratha told them what to do.
The first group went out to bring in the stripers, larger, heavier horses than the dapplebacks.
They were faster and more dangerous, so Ratha wanted to get them out of the meadow and into the surrounding forest.
There the trees would keep the stripers together and prevent them from stampeding.
Next came the dapplebacks. They were easy to move, since they tended to follow the stripers.
Ratha watched while the herders moved the little horses under the sheltering branches.
Now all the herders had to do was get the three-horns into the trees, Ratha thought.
And those huge circling condor-eagles wouldn't be able to snatch away any of the herdbeasts.
The Firekeepers scrambled to light more guard-fires to help discourage the birds from attacking.
Fire was Ratha's creature. She had brought it to the clan and named it The Red Tongue.
Ratha scrambled up onto the sunning rock to get a better overview. She saw something she had missed from below.
Beyond the main mass of three-horn deer that the herders were driving to cover, she spied a group of cubs.
They were near a low bluff that rose out of the meadow.
Ashon, the silvery gray young male, ran back and forth, screeching at the cubs to get under cover.
The wind increased, blowing Ratha's tail around her hindquarters.
One dodged around Ashon and ran uphill after the the three-horn fawn they had been using as a practice animal.
From a distance Ratha recognized the little female. She was one of the best of Thakur's cub students.
Her boldness and dedication reminded Ratha of herself, when she had trained under Thakur.
Boldness, however, wasn't the best idea right now. "Leave the creature!" Ratha yowled. "Follow Ashon!"
The cub, however, was too focused on the three-horn fawn. Ratha knew that instinct had locked the youngster on her quarry.
Nothing would make the cub break away unless someone knocked her down. The really good Named herders had that one vulnerability.
Then Ratha heard a chilling cry and the rush of wings above.
Even before her mind realized that the huge condor-eagle was swooping down toward the cub...
...Ratha's rear legs shot out straight, hurtling her off the sunning rock.
Ratha flew straight toward the cub, but the condor-eagle dived faster.
The cub had reached the top of the bluff, where she was even more vulnerable.
The enemy struck the cub with its talons, bowling the youngster over, but the bird was flying too fast and missed the catch.
The cub tumbled, shedding a spray of red. Ratha landed, coiled, launched again, tail flared.
The enemy wheeled and dropped to where its prey had just stopped rolling.
Rage added to Ratha's speed as she flashed across the grass. Now she too, was locked in on her prey.
She had seen other, smaller, soaring birds before.
Sometimes they had trouble launching from the ground, and she could attack it while it was trying to lift.
The marauding bird hopped onto the cub, who squalled and began struggling.
The condor-eagle's talons tightened around the cub's body. The huge wings opened and lifted.
Holding the cub in one taloned foot, the huge condor-eagle hopped to the edge of the bluff, facing into the strengthening wind.
One jump off the bluff, one strong downward flap, and the attacker would be away into the sky with its victim.
Ratha snapped her teeth together, swung her rear legs as far forward as they would go, then kicked off as hard as she could.
The bird snaked its eagle-head, crest-feathers rising. The head of a swift and deadly hunter, the large eyes cold and intent.
She aimed for the bird's chest with both forelegs rigid, claws out.
The beak opened, showing the narrow tongue and a maw large enough to swallow a clan cub whole.
Now Ratha realized how big her opponent really was.
The huge wings opened to a spread that seemed many times her own length, but the icy sting of fear didn't stop her.
She punched the condor-eagle backwards in an explosion of breast feathers and a tearing shriek.
Then, from the corner of her eye, she saw a silver gray streak as Ashon dived in and grabbed the youngster's scruff.
She saw an an instant of hesitation in his stride and cried out, "Save the cub first!”
She heard the grass crashing behind him and knew he had obeyed. Jerking her head around, she sought her enemy, but didn't find it.
The surge of triumph she felt at driving off the attacker ended when something struck her off her feet.
Ratha felt talons stab through her fur into her skin. The condor-eagle had recovered and used the wind to lift itself again.
The talons drove deeper. The wings spread above her head, catching the strong wind.
The bird hadn't given up. It had seized new prey. And she was already off the ground...
She went into a wild flurry with teeth and claws, but the bird's beak clamped down on her neck.
Choking and flailing, she felt and heard the wing-beats quicken.
Her pulse pounded in her head and jaws. She could barely force breath in and out of her clenched throat.
Now Ratha heard yowls and cries below her. "No!", she heard Thakur howl, then she and her captor jerked in the air.
Thakur had leaped and struck, but not hard enough to bring the condor-eagle down.
With dimming vision, Ratha saw him fall back into the crowd of herders that had gathered beneath.
His tear-lines were distorted with desperation. Agony filled his eyes. Beside him, her friend Fessran screeched in rage.
The bird wheeled into a turn, spiraling higher as it passed over the Named below.
Other clan members jumped, lashing up at the bird, but Ratha knew it rose too far above the Named for any to reach it.
With a triumphant scream, her captor yanked her up close to its underside and flapped higher.
She felt her head loll as the condor-eagle released her neck, but she was already slipping into blackness.
She only dimly heard the cries of her stricken clan below, mixed into the rush of wind past the great wings.
Ratha had thought that she would never wake again, but the moment came when her eyes cracked open.
Below her everything was blue-green, with curling white wave-tops.
Ratha's stomach jumped. Her eyes shut. Had her captor already carried her over the coast and out to sea?
She felt the burn of the condor-eagle's talons digging into her skin, and wished she hadn't woken.
Each heavy wing-stroke bounced Ratha slowly up and down. She rocked from side to side as the bird balanced itself in the air.
Ratha found that if she stayed limp, the burning subsided into numbness, though...
...she could still feel the trickle of blood through her fur.
The seepage of blood wasn't enough to weaken Ratha. Not yet. But it it went on...
If Ratha fought back at her captor, she would have to attack soon.
Although if she did wound the bird enough to force it down, they would both land in the ocean.
Why was the condor-eagle bearing her so far from the coast, she wondered.
The Named knew little about the sea, but even those who had climbed the highest peaks said they could see no indication of land.
But this was a land-bird. Why would it fly to its death in the sea? Unless birds could catch the maddening foaming sickness.
Or because Ratha's captor knew something that she and the Named didn't. Maybe an island lay ahead in the expanse.
Rocky, cold, wave-beaten. A place for sea-birds, not condor-eagles.
Ratha knew about islands. She had fought with Thistle-chaser on an island and nearly died there.
As she would die out here, warned the slow but unrelenting trickle of blood from beneath the skin pierced by the raptor's claws.
Either she would become a piece of carrion in the bird's talons, or she would force it to cast her free, only to plunge and drown.
Her whiskers twitched at the thought. Not a suitable end for the proud leader of the Named.
Be still, she told herself. Let it think I'm dead.
She closed her eyes to think, but something made her want to open them again. None of the Named had ever been out here.
She couldn't turn her head without alerting her captor, and she couldn't shift her gaze without doing so.
Such was the cat-nature of her kind, and she had never thought much about it.
Instead, she let the slow swing and bounce of her body in the bird's grip move her gaze so that she could see more.
The view of sky and sea was at first disorienting, for Ratha had never before been so far aloft.
Previously she had only caught a ragged glimpse of the ocean before retreating away inside herself.
The wind rushing into her face woke a strange mixture of terror and excitement.
A wild beauty lay in the sky around her, with sun, sky, clouds and incredible distances.
No one of her kind had ever experienced this before. She opened her eyes wider, risked moving her head.
She might feel the clamp and smother of that terrible beak again, but she had to feed a new hunger that was rising inside her.
Ratha suddenly not only envied her captor its wings, but felt strangely grateful to it for sweeping her up in flight.
She told herself that she was crazy; that the thrill she felt was horror in disguise, or the dementia of approaching death.
Yet, somehow she was alive in a way that she had never been. To chase down the wind, to prowl the open sky... what a dream!
She could live as none of her species had ever done, if only for a short time.
Many wing-beats later, the waves looked tiny below. The condor-eagle rose higher through streams of cloud, still holding Ratha.
With each wing-beat she felt a growing determination born of mixed fear and wonder.
The wind dashing in her face and the soaring feeling of being so far aloft rekindled her will to fight for life.
Like the Red Tongue, Ratha's creature of fire, her renewed will seared through the frozen immobility of fear and horror.
She knew that there was land ahead and that she could reach it. Why else had the bird flown this way?
It was flying home, and home was on land.
First, she would have to plan carefully. Ratha knew she needed to strike the condor-eagle hard enough to twist out of its grip.
At the same time, she couldn't kill or severely disable the bird or it might throw her down or crash into the sea.
..and if it got her by the neck again...
She became aware that she was not only swaying from side to side, but front to back as well.
Sometimes the condor-eagle's grip shifted, moving her from one foot to the other, or turning her so that she faced backward.
She waited, wondering how deep her claws would hook into the feathers and the skin beneath.
Ratha felt the wind strengthen, lifting the bird and tipping it backwards. She swung toward the tail.
At the same time, the bird started to transfer her from one foot to the other.
Using the momentum of the swing to help, she whipped a paw up to strike and tear into the bird's side behind and below the wing.
The sharp dewclaw on the inside of her forepaw hooked and held. The condor-eagle jolted in the air, in a heart-sinking drop.
Ratha's second forepaw found a hold in the flesh of the bird's upper thigh beneath the feathers.
She felt the muscle quiver as her dewclaw sank deep. The bird shrieked in rage, but loosened its grasp.
Ratha twisted her hips free of the talons and kicked at the scaly shaft of the leg to give herself an additional boost.
She jumped her hindquarters up to fasten her rear claws in the bird's belly behind the legs.
Ratha felt the condor-eagle tumble to one side and she clung tightly. The beating of the huge wings slapped at her ears.
The bird's belly muscles contracted beneath her claws.
It curled downward in the air, the huge eagle-head and fierce eyes seeking her.
She whipped her tail away from the snapping beak. Ratha lunged upward, choosing her move when the wings were extending.
Another paw-whip and claw-sink, again with the long and sharp dewclaw.
The feathers here were coarser and stiffer beneath her pads. She had managed a hold on the raptor's back above the tail.
She felt the condor-eagle flap madly, tipping backward under her weight, and used the bird's confusion to pull herself up onto it.
With her rear legs straddling the bird's rump, feet turned inward for a claw-hold, Ratha sank her fore-claws into the back.
Now she had all her claws into her enemy. She wished she had more.
The condor-eagle bucked and twisted in the air, making beak-stabs backwards over its wing-shoulders, trying to slash Ratha's face
It rolled and tipped, trying to get her off, but she clung fiercely through the crazy swooping and dipping.
A hot exhilaration surged up in her. She had done it! She was free of the talons, and beyond reach of the beak.
Nearly beyond, she amended, turtling her head back between her shoulders. That last snap had nearly caught her whiskers.
She realized how large the bird really was and that its size had helped her.
A smaller flier might have stalled and fallen out of the sky when she made her lunge, or gone over on its back, dumping her off.
Yet for all its size, it was fairly light and her weight unbalanced it, giving her a badly needed advantage.
Beneath her belly, the feathered ribs rose and fell and she could hear the bird's hissing pant.
It only seemed to be using one of its legs. The other dangled below.
She felt fierce joy when she realized she had probably broken that leg with her hind-paw kick.
As huge as this enemy might be, it wasn't invulnerable. If it were like the little birds she caught, it might be fairly fragile.
In a last angry spasm, the bird tried to dislodge Ratha by clapping its wings together above its back.
The wing-bones bruised and squeezed her, but she ripped out enough wing-feathers to discourage the condor-eagle from trying again.
She couldn't rip out too many wing-feathers, however, or the creature wouldn't be able to stay aloft.
“Stop struggling and fly,” Ratha snarled, as if the bird could understand her. “Just fly.”
It took many jarring moments before the condor-eagle apparently decided that it couldn't be rid of her.
She heard a hiss that sounded a bit like a sigh as it straightened its head, spread its wings and once more flew straight ahead.
Ratha's face fur flattened and her whiskers blew back in the strong headwind.
It stung her eyes and pulled at her jowls, chilling her teeth.
The condor-eagle flew much faster than she thought a bird could. She could hear the roar of wind through the flight feathers.
Some of those feathers looked as long as she was, even including part of her tail.
Though weary and wounded from the struggle, Ratha forced herself to stay alert, keeping her claws fixed in the bird's flesh.
Even though the condor-eagle appeared resigned to carrying her, she didn't trust it.
One moment of inattention or slackened grip, and it could roll or loop, knocking her off.
To ease the cramps in her limbs, she shifted her weight slightly...
...and discovered that doing so gave her some control over the condor-eagle's flight.
She decided to experiment, but first noted the sun's position in the sky ahead so that she could regain her course if she lost it.
When Ratha shifted to one side, she made made the condor-eagle dip one wing, and put the bird into a shallow banking turn.
She decided that she could risk loosening one paw to experiment, and pushed down on the wing.
This increased the bird's bank and sharpened the turn.
Annoyed, the condor-eagle tried to resist, but the struggle had weakened the bird, and it soon gave in.
She tried this on the other wing, making sure she maintained her grip with her three other paws.
By shifting her weight forward or backward, she could tip the bird down or up, forcing it to climb or descend.
It protested with squawks and skreels, but didn't try to fight.
Elation rushed over Ratha when she understood that she could actually steer the creature.
Ratha looked up from her crouch on the condor-eagle's back. The blue sky overhead seemed to beckon.
She shifted her rear feet backwards toward the bird's tail and crouched again, making the creature climb.
Intoxicated by the experience, she kept the condor-eagle rising towards the high clouds. They looked like little dappleback tails.
Ratha no longer knew how long they had been climbing. They passed rags of cloud that sparkled with ice crystals.
The air grew chilly, then biting.
The intense, penetrating cold and thinning air made Ratha gasp and shiver, yet she kept climbing higher.
Suddenly she became aware that rime ice was forming on the bird's feathers and her own fur.
A wave of dizziness swept over her and she began panting hard.
Her mount's labored breathing expanded and contracted the rib cage under her paws. The great wings slowed their beat.
Above Ratha saw a blinding brilliance that gave everything a new clarity.
The icy edge of this incredible experience made life on the ground seem dull.
She snarled up at the sky, at the cold, the air that made her pant; everything that kept her from what she wanted.
It seemed so unfair to be tempted like this and then held away. Everything in her begged to go higher.
The condor-eagle's breath hissed in its throat and her own stabbed her chest. She felt the bird begin to falter.
Quickly, though reluctantly, she shifted her weight forward, sending the condor-eagle into a dive that steepened alarmingly.
Ratha moved back and the dive leveled out. She kept the condor-eagle in a slow, downward spiral.
She could feel the bird recovering strength and breath as they descended into thicker, warmer air.
The stabbing in her own chest eased and the dizziness faded. She looked up, still tempted and terrified.
She knew that she would risk death again in an attempt to climb the sky. The thought frightened her deeply.
Ratha swatted the fear away, concentrating on steering the bird back to its original path, and hoping that land lay ahead.
However, she knew that she would never forget the experience, nor be free of its temptation.
Again the condor-eagle increased speed until it was soaring faster than before. The wind-roar through its wings deafened Ratha.
The hunger for food that had been eclipsed and overwhelmed by excitement began to burn in her throat and ache in her belly.
Weakness brought paroxysms of shaking. Her mind threatened to drift and her claw-hold to loosen.
Her head fell and her nose brushed the bird's feathers near one forepaw. Blood welling from beneath her claws stained them.
Hunger seized Ratha with a talon-grip. She licked frantically at the feathers and the skin beneath.
Her rough tongue began to tear away fragments of skin.
Her mouth flooded, her belly cramped and she bared her teeth to sink into the bird's back...
...but a wave of repugnance stopped Ratha. Despite her hunger, she couldn't eat a creature that was still alive.
Bristlemanes and night-howlers might tear into the the belly of their prey while it was still standing.
The Named struck to kill and waited until death stilled struggle and suffering.
Only then would they eat, and would do so with respect for the life that had fled.
Hunger also warred with Ratha's sense of survival.
Trying to eat the bird while it was still flying might bring it down before they reached land.
The pain could send the creature into a convulsive struggle that could break her weakening hold.
With difficulty, she limited herself to licking the blood on the feathers only. She grimaced at the strong taste of feather-oil.
She would take only what the creature was losing anyway, barely enough to keep her alive and awake enough to cling on.
She forged the experience into her memory, not only so that she could tell her clan, but so that she could hold and treasure it.
Ratha started to lose herself in the thought, her grip relaxing.
With a start, she awoke from a near-doze and immediately tightened her claws.
She looked ahead into a sunset and felt her ears and whiskers droop.
The condor-eagle tilted its wings into shallow turn that she hadn't commanded. As it wheeled, she sighted a cloud mass below.
Forcing her bleary eyes to focus, she made out masses of black and green thrusting up though the cloud-bank. Her hopes leaped up.
For an instant she thought it was an illusion. She had now flown over many such clouds.
As Ratha's hope sagged again, she felt the condor-eagle fall into a downward glide. It too, had sensed land.
A wind blowing from the landmass ahead brought her strange scents of lush plants, rich soils, and tantalizing, exotic animals.
The wind slowed and hindered the bird's approach. Again the condor-eagle labored, breath hissing.
The great wings could scarcely rise for each flap and the flesh beneath Ratha's claws shuddered.
Silently, desperately, the bird beat on against the wind.
When Ratha could muster enough strength, she caught glimpses of a high mountain chain.
At the foot of the range lay high plains, visible through the clouds below.
This was no dot of island in a vast sea, but a whole new land, stretching north and south along the horizon.
Despite the wind that cut into her eyes, making them water, Ratha peered down.
The highlands did not slope down to beaches, but ended abruptly in cliffs, beaten by the sea.
he highest and blackest peaks belched plumes the color of the Red Tongue.
Craters spewed glowing globs that arched through smoke as they plunged down the mountainsides.
The sun fell behind the mountain range, turning it to silhouette, then sank abruptly with a flash of green...
...leaving behind a glow and the brilliance of the erupting plumes.
Ratha knew that she and the condor-eagle were exhausting their last reserves. The bird had sunk below the level of the cliff-tops.
It flew so low now that sea-spray wet its underside, and Ratha's rear feet. “So close, “ she whispered.
Ratha felt her weight driving the bird down into the crashing sea. So long a struggle, and it would end here.
She thought about jumping off, but with no beaches and the rocky cliff base below, she had no chance.
Was she becoming delirious? From the darkness above, in the wind rushing overhead, she heard high-pitched whistles and chirps.
The trilling wavered up and down, running so high that it went beyond her hearing. She seemed to hear only the ghost of it.
Her claw-hold slackened and she couldn't regain it. Everything slipped in and out of focus.
The darkness outside was joined by an inner dark that crept up and attacked her awareness, as she would take down a herdbeast.
Other sounds came from above.
Now chirps and whistles mixed with wing-beats that were faster than her condor-eagle's heavy flaps.
To Ratha's ears,the wing-beats had a different quality than the whoosh of feathers.
he sounds were hard and flat, reminding her of a dappleback-hide flapping in a high wind.
No, she had to be hearing things. That often happened...at the end.
Ratha felt herself sliding from the condor-eagle's back, her eyes closing, her awareness draining.
Dimly she felt a touch on one side, then the other, which strengthened into a hold and then a clasp.
The unknown wings beat hard with a cracking sound that deafened her, yet she could still hear the piercing calls.
There were two sets of whistling trills; one very close, one distant.
Had another bird caught her, she wondered, her exhaustion-fogged mind barely able to think.
No. She felt the clutch of long bony forelegs, not scaled feet with talons. Did the legs have....fur?
Ratha's unknown helper tightened its grip, drawing her off the faltering condor-eagle and lifting her away.
She hung limply, accepting the unexpected rescue, too spent to wonder who, what, or why.
For a groggy instant she thought it had plunged into the sea...
...but she caught a last glimpse of the bird stroking upward, freed from her weight.
She felt a strange empathy with her former captor and silently wished that it, too, would find refuge.
The condor-eagle had suffered in the struggle, yet the bird had battled its way to the island.
Her consciousness fled in the hard flap of her unknown savior's wings, bearing her up and away from the sea.
Ratha woke with the trickle of water in her ears, the lush green of foliage in her nose and the softness of moss under her paws.
She lay and listened to the queer noises around her. There was no trace of her rescuer.
Ratha felt grateful for the warm sun and still air. She'd had enough of wind.
Catching the scent of water, she turned her head towards a nearby stream, shaded by huge ferns.
Still too tired to walk, she crawled on her belly to reach the bank, dipping her head to drink.
The water was deliciously cold and fresh, with a stony flavor, as if it had emerged from a spring.
It gave her enough strength to gain her legs and stagger downstream to a sun-dappled pool.
Here, as she hoped, she found fish. The languid swimmers were large, lazy and surprisingly easy to swat out of the water.
Her daughter Thistle-chaser, and her mate, Thakur, might be better at fishing than she, but her skill served well enough.
She caught and ate several. Once sated, though, she noticed something odd about the fish.
At first Ratha thought the fish were trout, with the familiar trout head and eyes.
However, the body was longer, throwing itself into eel-like curves.
Trout also had two pairs of fins. These fish had three or four. The sight of these eel-trout made her uneasy; her stomach rolled.
However, they tasted like the fish she had eaten on clan ground. She decided that she hadn't accidentally poisoned herself.
Ratha's stomach calmed. Yawning hugely, she stumbled off to have a healing snooze beneath the ferns.
A sharp pull at her whiskers startled her out of sleep. Her eyes slitted open to see a scrub-jay-sized bird pecking at her.
It sidled around her looking for something else to pull or poke and she noticed that its body was longer than that of a scrub jay.
Her paw itched to slap the bird, but curiosity stopped her. Its wings, half-extended, seemed much broader than the jays she knew.
Each wing also appeared to have two tips. Ratha squeezed her eyes shut; opened them again.
First the fish, now this. Was she still so tired that she was seeing things?
The bird wagged its head, turning black, beady eyes on her. It squawked, crouched, and flitted away.
As she followed its flight, she thought she saw each broad wing...
...split down its length so that the bird had two single-tipped wings on each side.
She saw that these wings, like the fish fins, were in front and rear pairs. It had a pair of legs too.
The wings beat in counterpoint, the front set rising while the rear set fell, with long glides between.
Ratha shook her head until her ears flapped. This was a very strange place, she thought.
Every creature except the condor-eagle seemed to have...more...of everything.
What sort of beast was the flying animal who had helped her, Ratha wondered. A great bat that whistled and chirped?
It didn't smell like a bat, at least not like the little ones she had caught as a cub. And bats didn't have long, furred forelimbs
Getting up, she wobbled only a little. As expected, she hurt, and the talon wounds where the condor-eagle dug in pulled and stung.
Hoping the stiffness in her body would ease, she took a few steps and felt her stride grow more fluid.
Looking around, she swiveled her ears, unsure what to do next.
When in doubt, wash, as her mother had often said. Ratha sat and cleaned the dried blood and dirt out of her fur.
When she finished, she shook her pelt, smelling the breeze.
Catching the tang of salt, she found herself in a little valley that opened seaward into a meadow, but no beach lay beyond.
Instead the meadow perched atop the high cliffs she had seen from the air.
Ratha paced to the cliff edge and gazed at the sun sparkling on the water.
Somewhere out there lay clan ground. Would she ever return?
A shake in the ground under her feet interrupted her thoughts.
The tremor continued, making her drive her claws into the soil, awakening the cramped ache in her feet.
The air itself seemed to shake and rumble and the tremor grew stronger, bucking and jolting her.
Ratha decided that the cliff-top was not a good place to be.
She made herself unclench her claws from the soil, lunged around, and bounded inland.
The shaking made her path jagged and her strides uneven. A strange roaring echoed through the trees.
Panic drove Ratha deep into the forest before the ground settled and stilled.
Here the trees were massive, with huge root-dikes at their bases separating muddy hollows between.
She had to jump, scramble, and climb over the root dikes and snarls. She showed her teeth at the trees for impeding her way.
Not only were the trees frightening, but she felt as though eyes watched her.
Ratha used her rage to fight off a growing desolation and loneliness. She felt hungry again.
Fish could sustain her, but she really needed meat.
Tail still bottle-brushed and nape ridged, Ratha began prowling, threading in and out of the trees.
Hoots and shrieks overhead told her that other tree-dwelling creatures lived in the branches.
Ratha thought briefly and painfully about her treeling companion, Ratharee. The treeling was safe at home.
Ratha had given the small lemur-like creature to her friend Bira to look after while she directed the herders and Firekeepers.
Though she missed Ratharee, she felt glad that the treeling wasn't here. This place was too threatening for a gentle treeling.
She hoped that whatever she did catch didn't look like Ratharee. Even if it did have an extra set of arms or legs.
Weren't there any normal animals here?
Ratha recognized the presence of hoofed creatures from tracks in the soil.
The patterns, however, seemed a bit different than the ones she saw at home. She couldn't put a claw on it.
More of the hoof-prints were overlaid by others, as if their makers walked in a strange way...
...that made them trample more of their own tracks.
This brought another wave of uncertainty, but Ratha snarled it away and continued hunting.
A rustle in the bushes alerted her to ground-dwelling prey. It had a horsey scent, mixed in with something muddy or swampy.
Following the sound and scent, Ratha circled downwind of the beast.
She glimpsed a gray and black coarse-furred rump among the leaves.
The swishing tail looked a bit like a dappleback's. Curious as well as hungry, she came closer, choosing her steps with care.
She stilled even before a pair of elongated horse-like ears poked up through the foliage.
A short wrinkled trunk uncurled and extended to strip leaves from a branch.
Her tail-tip switched in puzzlement.
From the rear, her prey looked like a fat dappleback, had ears like a rumbler, yet also a short trunk.
What other surprises would it reveal?
ven before Ratha made the conscious decision to attack, she was belly-down, creeping silently.
She coiled and launched, knifing through the brush and landing on the creature's back.
The beast lunged, startled, honking in fear.
Clinging to the prey's shoulders, Ratha twisted her head around to bite the arch of the neck...
...but she didn't find it.
To her dismay, she couldn't get her jaws open wide enough to bite the mass of flesh above the creature's forequarters.
The beast didn't seem to have a neck, just more body, hidden by the leaves, but definitely there.
Confused, Ratha swung a forepaw up to strike the head, but she only hit what felt like another limb.
She lunged up, seeking the head. The thing had ears and a trunk, so it had to have a head.
Ratha's chest slammed into a furry, upraised portion of her prey's back.
Although her rear feet clasped the barrel of chest, her forepaws found more ribs. What was this thing?
Losing patience with both herself and her prey, she clawed her way up the slope of the raised part of the back.
She slapped frantically, trying to get her claws into the beast's head or neck. The creature bellowed.
She felt the upper body twist sharply, then something pointed and hard, like an elbow, rammed into her side, knocking her askew.
Her claws tore free and she tumbled into the branches.
As the would-be prey leaped away, Ratha caught a blurred impression of four running legs.
Was that a raised fore-portion of the body with another set of limbs (arms?), shoulders, a neck, and a head?
Then it was gone, leaving only swaying boughs. Ratha lay blinking, not sure what she had seen, or if she had really seen it.
Bruised but otherwise undamaged, Ratha crept away in defeat.
Thirsty, she sought out a stream. Again she caught and ate the eel-trout, then lay down, trying to make sense of her experience.
She tried to fit the animal together in her mind, but...
...there were too many parts.
The long ears, the wrinkled trunk, the fat rump, the hoofed feet, the lower belly and ribs she could identify, but the rest...
When Ratha's belly was reasonably full, she crept downstream.
On a mud-bank, she pounced on something that looked like a cross between a salamander and a snake.
Watching it squirm under her paws, she noticed that it looked like the newts on clan ground...
The salamander threw its body into curves to drive the legs, just like the salamanders and newts at home.
This creature, however,swung its body into double curves, combining walking with snake-like slithering.
Thinking that it might be deformed, Ratha caught another. It too showed the same extra limbs and manner of movement.
Thakur should be here, she thought. He would love to explore this place and its odd animals.
Raucous cries overhead made her eye the higher branches suspiciously.
She wondered if the fluttering creatures above really were birds. Certainly not the ones she knew.
Spying one on a dead limb, she paced toward it. Ah, that was better. Only one pair of wings.
Then she saw that it held to its perch not just with one set of bird-legs, but with two.
In addition to the expected pair of legs behind the wings, another pair descended from the chest in front.
The thing had the same number of legs as she, plus the wings. She snorted in disgust, whirled and trotted away.
The forest opened as she made her way upslope, letting her see more of the sky. Blue near the seacoast, it now looked ash-gray.
She wrinkled her nose at the sulfurous smell.
Ratha knew she was approaching the foot of the mountain range she had seen from the air.
More groans and rumbles from beneath her feet made her hesitate. Only the sea lay behind her, blocking her way home.
If she wanted to explore further, she had to cross these mountains.
The trees thinned, letting her onto open ground.
She walked across rocks with strange blobby shapes, like dappleback manure piles when the horses had eaten too much grass.
These, however, were solid and night-black.
When she stepped on one that felt strangely hot, she retreated, but when she found herself unhurt, she went on.
She soon encountered another stream, flowing across more of the blobby hot rocks. It steamed.
At first she thought the rising fumes were mist, but they felt hot.
With care, she walked upstream.
The water and rock blobs warmed steadily until the water boiled and heat shimmer rose from them. Had one of those rocks...moved?
Her fur prickled. She stared at another. Yes, they were moving. Very slowly. Not rolling.
Oozing forward like huge slugs.
A hot wind made Ratha's eyes water and drifting steam stung her nose.
Every hair bristling, Ratha retreated, showing her teeth. This was too much.
Extra-legged animals and oozing red-cored rocks. She spun around, heading downslope, seeking a place to hide.
She was overwhelmed, drowning in strangeness. She had to get away or go mad...
Ratha scrambled over a hillock entwined with roots, spied an opening, thrust her foot in. At last, a cave!
She peered in to check for cave inhabitants or other threats. Everything was clear.
She dived into the refuge, crawled into the damp darkness and curled up, burying her tail in her nose.
Soon her breathing slowed and she fell asleep.
Ratha woke, slowly, drowsily. She felt a furry body curled up against her.
“Ratharee,” she mumbled, expecting to hear an answering chirp. None came.
Must be a clan cub that crawled in beside me, she thought, and started to drift off again.
What a crazy dream she had about many-legged animals and oozing rocks.
She drew in a long satisfied breath, then realized that what she smelled was not the soil of her home den.
Her fur stiffened; her tail flared. Her ears flattened.
If this wasn't her home den, then what was this creature curled up beside her? Not Ratharee or a clan cub.
Dimness outside darkened the cave even more. Ratha struggled to see, even with her night vision.
Carefully she withdrew from the slumbering fur-ball and peered at it.
The ears, however were an odd mix of cat and bat.
They had a cat-ear shape and fur on the back, but the insides were completely bare.
The neck, chest and forelegs looked familiar, but behind the shoulders, Ratha found more than just the ridge of back.
She discovered another set of shoulder blades...
...but they lay along the back like a bird's instead of sloping forward. From these, two fur-covered spars poked up.
Each of their ends had a joint that bent, and ...
...what looked like three misshapen toes, one much longer than the others.
The rest of Ratha's little discovery; belly, rear legs and tail; resembled those of a Named infant.
She also found that the cub was female.
At first, Ratha thought that the spars were a deformity, since the rest of the creature matched what she considered normal.
She didn't want to give up the idea that it resembled her own kind.
The sleeping cub, if that's really what it was, moved the back-spars as easily as it flexed its legs.
Ratha decided that the projections were not abnormal.
The creature had most of her own parts. Why should she mind a few small extras?
The cub yawned, showing infant fangs and a pink, rough tongue.
It stretched, extending the two back spars and all its legs.
She noticed that a flap of furred skin extended from the cub's hip region to the tip of the shoulder spar.
Ratha's ears swiveled in puzzlement. What was this funny flap on the cub's back-spar?
It almost looked like a wing, though far too small to bear the little creature in flight.
The flap wasn't a unique characteristic either, for the cub had one on each side.
Again, two more limbs, not necessarily legs.
Well, it is consistent, she thought, remembering the multi-finned eel-trout and the snaky salamander.
The basic shape of these island animals was a long body, a leg at each corner, like her own, but an extra pair or limbs between.
If this was true, she thought, her head spinning, then I, with only two sets of legs, am the strange one.
Ratha sat in the dark, asking herself an unsettling question. Am I at a disadvantage in this place?
I certainly was when I tried to take down that chunky multi-legged dappleback beast, Ratha thought.
Do all the animals here run faster, fight harder, and fly faster than those at home. Am I...
...the crippled one? Am I like my daughter Thistle-chaser, who once limped on only three paws?
For an instant, her throat tightened, then she growled, banishing the thought.
She had planned to sneak out of the den, leaving the odd little cub behind...
...but the unsettling thoughts made her reach out a paw and gather it against her.
The cub stirred and its eyes opened.
They fixed on her with an unexpected intensity, seeking her gaze as a Named cub would do.
Ratha saw that the cub's eyes were larger and more elongated than those of a clan youngster.
The huge irises showed a smoky color that she couldn't make out in the dim cave.
To her surprise, the cub's pupils were elongated at a slant, rather than up and down.
Alien eyes, yet with an intentness and knowing quality that convinced her that this was not just another strange animal.
She saw no fear in the cub's gaze, just curiosity, and a strange shifting brilliance like the Red Tongue glowing through smoke.
The same light of awareness that gave her clan their names.
Her voice felt rough as she said, “Little one, how can you have this gift of my people in your eyes?”
The cub blinked and drew back its whiskers, as if she had blown in its face. But she hadn't.
Was it just her voice that disturbed the little creature?
The cub made odd chirps that rose in pitch. They became clicks, then faded to ghostly whispers too high for her to hear.
Ratha felt little pings all over her nose and muzzle, as if someone had kicked fine-grained sand at her face.
Blinking, she drew back her whiskers, realizing that she was reacting the same way to the cub's emanations as it did to her voice.
“Is this your way of telling me not to talk so loudly?” she asked it, softening her voice.
The pings faded back into clicks, then slid down into trills and tweets.
“You funny little chirping thing. I can do that too,” Ratha said, feeling an upsurge of affection for the cub.
She trilled back at it. The odd ears swiveled; the eyes widened.
The cub repeated her noises back to her. She tried more sounds and the cub imitated them exactly.
It paused, then tweeted a complex pattern and waited for her to reply.
Ratha tried, but many of the sounds were high-pitched, rapid trains of clicks that she couldn't reproduce.
She felt as though she were in a conversation of some sort, but she had no idea what either one was saying.
She also sensed that she wasn't holding up her end of the discussion as the cub expected.
It wrinkled its nose, canted back its odd ears and subsided into more feline sounds...
...such as little “yows” and trilling purrs.
She decided to name the cub, at least temporarily, after the clicking sounds it made. To her, it would be “Click”.
Click whined in alarm and clung to her, mixing clicking with whimpering.
Ratha had planned to leave alone, but now she knew she couldn't. It would be like abandoning a Named cub.
She glanced toward the cave's entrance. Outside she saw a strange flashing glow that didn't look like lightning.
She smelled smoke. The ground shook beneath and around her, spilling earth down on her and the cub.
Click's whimper turned to shrilling. Seizing the cub by the scruff, Ratha darted out of the cave.
Ratha nearly ran back in again when she saw the pink-orange flare and shower of sparks that filled the air with choking heat.
Click bounced in her jaws, the cub's little shoulder-shafts hitting her chin.
She didn't want to remember that rescuing a Named youngster was what originally got her into this mess.
The crackle of burning brush nearby joined the low rumbling. The ground continued to shake, throwing Ratha off-stride.
The cub's weight pulled painfully at her mouth every time she stumbled and fought to recover.
From the corner of her eye, she saw a mass of the blobby oozing rocks, some black, some glowing.
The nearby stream had gone beyond boiling to frothing. She leaped it and dashed away down-slope.
The rocks seemed alive, malevolent, purposeful.
The mass moved faster than she imagined it could.
It devoured grass and shrubs, felled small trees, sending up rushes of smoke, ash and steam.
The molten flow surrounded the cave Ratha had just left, rolling into the entrance.
If she had stayed... She shuddered. Sparks fell around her, making her flatten her ears and jump.
Rags of fire fluttered around her. For an instant she wanted to grab a branch and light it in the flames.
Surely the Red Tongue, her creature, would save her from this threat, as it had saved her and her clan from so many others.
She nearly dropped Click to find and light a torch when she realized how mad the idea was.
If the glowing mass could create the Red Tongue, how could her creature fight against itself ?
She felt more sweat ooze from her paw-pads and panting dried her throat.
Ratha heaved Click up for a firmer grip and ran downhill.
Following her old knowledge and instinct would have ended both of their lives in a horrible way.
She had already delayed too long. Smoke made her breath acrid, stinging nose and throat.
Eyes tearing, she fought not to cough or she might drop Click, who was already hacking and flailing. She launched into a gallop.
Wind blew the smoke back and Ratha slowed, thinking she had escaped the fiery ooze, but another wall of the stuff loomed ahead.
This mass was a thick, rough, black blanket, covered in what looked like charcoal.
It rolled forward more rapidly than the blobby mass, shedding clinkers.
The relentless flow consumed everything in its way, driving out small creatures and hordes of insects.
It cracked, broke open, and unleashed a red-gold stream that spilled like water across her path.
Blocked, Ratha turned, swinging Click around.
She headed off in a new direction, dashing through the forest, ducking falling, flaming branches.
She passed what looked like a bare, lumpy hill, spewing molten globs.
Some of the globs fell on the sides of the cone, visibly building it higher. Some showered towards her.
She dodged them, showing her teeth at the thing through Click's fur, and fled.
Ratha didn't know how many walls or dikes she had dodged or skirted.
Each time she chose a new direction, the enemy cut her off, driving her toward the sea and the cliffs.
Her legs shook with weariness and fright.
She saw an opening between two merging walls of charcoal-covered red ooze, slipped through it.
Ahead lay another black mass that had eaten the brush. She approached it, saw that it wasn't moving, and put a foot on it.
She found it warm, even hot, but not enough to scorch her feet, at least not immediately.
Grateful for the callouses on her pads formed by running, she leaped up and started trotting across the cooling field.
Once she got off this stuff, she might be clear of the threat. She picked up her pace, only to be halted by a new danger.
An open channel, yellow-white at the center of flow, rushed through the blobs and clinkers.
Confused, she tried to go parallel to it, but repeatedly encountered slower flows and dikes.
The obstructions forced Ratha back to the molten river. The only path ahead lay across it.
She couldn't help crying aloud at the demand of survival. How could she leap so far with shuddering legs and Click in her jaws?
Better to huddle here and let the fumes suffocate them than to try, and fall in.
She couldn't imagine what it would be like. Would the shock kill her instantly or would she feel her legs burning off ?
If she did sacrifice herself, could she toss Click to the other bank?
Even if she did, what would the cub do? An infant in the middle of this... No, she and Click had to stay together.
Even as she watched, the glowing river widened, melting its banks to swell the channel. She couldn't delay any longer.
The rocks under her feet were getting hotter, too. The slick sweat from her pads began to dry and then to sizzle...
Her fur bristled all over. Her heart felt as though it would batter itself through her ribs.
Backing up, she chose the longest run-up path available.
The walls of oozing fire-rock narrowed Ratha's choice to a shallow arc. She ran to the end of her chosen path.
Click hung in her jaws, curled up tight, all limbs folded.
Ratha crouched, then exploded into the fastest launch she had ever made. She knew she was running for her life and Click's.
Her breath hissed past her teeth, now clamped hard on the cub's nape, but Click held still, not crying out or struggling.
She knows, Ratha thought. She understands.
Ratha flew forward, driven by powerful hind-leg strokes that swung her rear feet close to her ears, then back to her flying tail.
She fixed her gaze on the far bank of the white-hot river, brought her hind-legs up and slammed them back...
...flinging herself out, her back bowed so strongly that front and rear legs rose above her belly...
... and her whirling tail hit between her shoulders.
An uprush of heat seared her underside and then became a wall in front of her.
Ears flattened, whiskers back, eyes narrowed and brimming, she punched through the barrier.
The searing air around Ratha made everything waver and shimmer.
It all seemed to slow during her flight,and she remembered briefly what it was like to soar on the condor-eagle's back.
Then she was descending, Click swinging up, nearly floating in her grip.
Her hind-legs drew up, her back curling in a downward arc, her front legs stiffening for the landing.
Her fore-claws struck; she felt her weight and Click's come onto her fore-legs...
... bending first the wrist joints above her fore-paws, then bowing the front legs themselves until she felt a shot of fear...
...that they might break. Instead, her fore-paws propelled her up in a strong rebound, clearing room for her rear paws.
Ratha swept her front legs back under her chest, claws nearly touching her belly. Her rear paws came down for another kick-off.
One rear foot struck hot rock, the other only burning air, turning her bound into a frantic scrabble.
Her rear paw, slippery from the sweating paw-pad, slid back on the rock. She lunged out, baring her long front dewclaws.
Ratha slapped frantically for a hold, but the rock was too smooth. She wasn't going to make it. Again, so close...
She swung Click as far forward as she could, trying to give the cub some sort of chance, then released the little creature.
Shutting her eyes, she whispered, “Go. Get away. Find your parents and tell them, I tried...”
She heard a little scrabbling sound, and thought it was Click fleeing. Instead, she felt small, sharp claws dig into her fore-paw.
She felt a surprisingly strong pull that stopped her from sliding. Startled, she opened her eyes.
Click lay belly-down along the rock, front claws deep in Ratha's front paw, rear legs extended back.
The cub's rear paws were wrapped around a low spire beyond Ratha's reach.
Ratha blinked with astonishment. None of the Named could turn their rear feet so far inward to cling as Click did.
She felt the cub shuddering with determination and pain. Click's belly fur was starting to burn, but the cub wouldn't let go.
Ratha struck out again with the other front paw. She hit a slight ridge in the the rock,and dug her dewclaw in behind it.
Her tail swung so close to the river's surface that she felt the fur on the underside singe and the skin blister.
She saw Click tighten her grip around the rock-spire. The cub rolled to one side, so that she also could use a back-spar to push.
Ratha stopped sliding. Incredibly, the cub's pull increased. Ratha's tenuous dew-claw hold didn't break.
She began to creep forward, faster and faster, until she could get her rear paws on the hot rock underneath her.
Pushing herself up on her forepaws, Ratha got her hocks and the full length of her rear feet under her for stability.
She seized Click's nape securely, yet tenderly.
The quivering muscles in her hips, back and upper thighs convulsed, throwing her forward into another bound.
A wave of delayed fright mixed with determination and a deep sense of gratitude swept through her.
Several more shaky leaps and her feet struck grass. Ratha broke into a gallop.
This was the longest and most dangerous jump she had ever made. She scarcely could believe she had done it.
No, she corrected herself. She and Click had done it. Without the cub's help...
She slowed to a bouncing trot to regain some of her breath, and then headed toward the cliff-tops, hoping she could find a beach.
The best she could do was a small hanging valley that opened with a drop to the sea.
She entered the valley and crouched with Click at the lowest point of the seaward cut-off, peering over the edge.
The drop was less than the cliffs, but still high.
Below, the ocean boiled and steamed from fiery gouts falling from cliff-tops on the other side.
The sky overhead became as dark as dusk, making Ratha strain to see.
Ratha felt her hope flee, and with it her strength. If someone had tried to get through, the smoke had beaten them back..
The bottom seemed to drop out of everything. It was too much. She could no longer even stagger...
...and could barely creep, dragging Click.
Ratha tasted blood in her mouth. She had accidentally bitten too deep into Cluck's scruff.
Remorse stabbed into her. Why did she always hurt the little ones she tried to care for? First, Thistle. Now, Click.
She released Click's nape, then held the trembling cub against her chest, licking Click gently.
“I'm sorry, Click”, she whispered. “I've hurt you. I didn't want to.”
Though still shaking, Click gazed up at Ratha, stroked her breast-fur with a back-spar, and gave a purring trill.
She not only can understand, Ratha thought. She can forgive.
The realization lightened Ratha's burden only a little, but it was enough.
Carefully, Ratha took Click in her mouth again, trying to avoid the bitten area.
Lowering her head, Ratha crept on through the choking fumes and smoke.
Finally she reached the cliff edge, and huddled, spent, her hind-legs drained of the power to launch her off the cliff.
Her head swam, warning her that she would soon lose awareness.
She could only gain grim comfort by the thought that she would be unconscious by the time the flow reached her.
Or before she hit the water, if she did jump.
Blinded by fumes, Ratha positioned herself and Click for what she feared would be an awkward tumble to the rocks below.
She called for one last push from her trembling hindquarters.
Click looked up again through the swirling gray, whistling and ghost-clicking frantically, but Ratha was too far over the edge.
Click's squall in her ears, she plunged, the cub's noise fading in the whistle of the wind, and her own fall into black.
From close above Ratha came a terrific crack.
She wondered dimly if a chunk of the cliff had come loose and would fall on her.
Something or someone hit Ratha, knocking her sideways, spinning her.
It grabbed her hindquarters, making a sling around her lower belly, halting her descent.
Jaws grabbed her nape, pulling her up and away from the frothing, steaming sea. She heard flapping, hard and heavy.
A second set of wing-beats joined the first; slower, but stronger.
Another set of jaws tried to take Click from her, but her own teeth were clenched on the cub and wouldn't loosen.
The pull ceased. Ratha then felt a gentle tongue licking her forehead.
A trilling purr sounded in her ear.
The scent around Ratha, although dulled by smoke and her own draining awareness, was exotic, but cat-like, and female.
A slight tinge of milkiness in the odor told her that her rescuer was a nursing mother.
No, not just any nursing female of this flying creature's species. Click's mother.
The tongue-lick seemed to say, "Thank you for rescuing my baby."
Something slipped around her shoulders and added to the upward pull, helping to lift Ratha higher.
Were those long cat-like forelegs similar to her own?
She tried to see her rescuers, but couldn't raise her head.
She felt her ears brush what felt like a furred chest as a neck reached out over her head and jaws again tried to take Click.
The cub mewed eagerly.
Ratha unlocked her jaws and let the cub loose.
Did Ratha imagine it, or did Click give her a soft pat on the cheek as the cub's mother took her?
Another trilling purr came from further back, this one deeper and male.
It seemed to say, relax, trust us, we will take care of you now. Let it all go. Let it all...
The last things Ratha heard before she slipped under were the increasing speed of wing-beats and the rush of wind.
When she woke again, this time with soft grass under her paws and belly, she wasn't alone. She lay beside someone.
The someone had fur that brushed and mingled with her own; whose ribs rose and fell, pushing gently against her side.
She blinked, but lay still. Still exhausted by the struggle, she felt so comfortable that she could just drift off again.
Curiosity nipped at her, refusing to let her sleep. She sighed, pushing back the lingering weariness to reclaim her senses.
Something covered Ratha, comforting and warming her. It was wide and flat, with spars that spread it over her.
She could feel them resting gently on her back. She cracked one eyelid open, saw filtered sunlight passing through...
Ratha rolled her head slightly, wanting to see more of this covering, but afraid of disturbing the sleeper.
In some areas where the velvet fur thinned on the underside, she saw fine veining in the membrane and along the nearest spar.
She realized that she lay under a wing, just like the ones Click would have when she grew up.
It belonged to Click's mother, lying alongside.
Though the wing first appeared to be a much larger version of a bat's wing, Ratha saw differences.
Support spars emerged from various places along the main wing-arm. They didn't just originate from one “hand” joint, as in a bat.
Turning her head to glance over her shoulder, she saw that one spar emerged from the “elbow” joint of the wing-arm.
Another forked from the main limb at the “hand” position, helping to support the wing
Ratha held her breath for an instant, wondering how this beautiful, fragile-looking structure had helped lift her from the boiling sea.
Her paw moved out to touch, to stroke, but the wing-spar shook slightly and she heard a cat-yawn. She snatched her paw back.
The wing-bearer was waking up. Instinct made Ratha tense, as if to flee, but she made herself relax. This creature had saved her.
Why now would it harm her? Above her, the wing lifted. It began to fold, in a manner much different than a bat's.
Did the main wing-arm actually grow shorter as the wing folded? Ratha wanted to shake her head, unsure what she saw.
These island dwellers had an endless series of surprises.
Trilling softly, Click's mother turned her head to Ratha. Her eyes were a silvery blue, with the slanted pupils.
The female's nose looked as if a dark brown leaf had flown against it and had stuck there, point up.
The ears resembled Click's, except that a fleshy stem rose up from the interior of each ear at the center.
Ratha had seen similar noses and ears on small night-flying bats.
The female's muzzle was a dark sepia, shading to golden brown on forehead and cheeks. The color intensified her silver-blue eyes.
Something touched Ratha between the shoulders. Fingers. They felt like a treeling's fingers, though larger.
Ratha controlled her impulse to flinch, telling herself that these creatures hadn't harmed her.
The touch moved down along her spine, inquisitive, yet gentle. The fingers sifted through her fur.
It felt oddly pleasant and Ratha found herself arching to meet it, like a cub enjoying the licks of a parent's tongue.
Glancing down, she saw that all the the winged female's feet were on the ground. How then was the other touching her?
Ratha looked back over her shoulder. Click's mother was using a wing shaft to stroke her, but more than just the shaft itself
Two long fingers and a shorter one that resembled a thumb emerged from the joint where the wing-arm bent backwards.
The wing-hand resembled that of a treeling, but larger, and with fewer fingers. It had claw-like nails that caressed her fur.
The hand stilled, closed and lifted as the wing itself settled against the creature's body.
Still tingling from the wing-cat's touch, Ratha walked a few paces away, then sat, sorting out her feelings and trying not to stare.
It felt strange being stroked by these creatures, as if she were a pet.
Now Ratha could see that Click's mother was a golden cream, with a slightly darker streak down her back.
Her color shaded down to sepia on all her limbs, including wings and tail.
Her mate's fur was also white, but with a blue cast, shading to dark gray, then black in the same places.
His eyes shone dark blue.
Click resembled her mother, except that her coat was lighter, with only a hint of the adult's darker points.
Ratha listened as the couple trilled, clicked and whistled to each other.
The interchange had the intensity, variety and complexity of an intelligent conversation.
One that she could neither understand nor join, she realized, hearing the female make high and low trills at the same time.
Ratha felt her ears sag slightly. Her Named cat-speech probably sounded like animal noises to these elegant fliers.
She suspected that their communication was as far above her level as she was above that of her pet treeling.
Was that how they saw her? As a clever, precocious, and even sympathetic animal,...
... but still no more than... a pet? Ratha felt her fur rise with indignation before the thought was complete.
Ratha quickly sat and licked her ruffled fur down. No. Would a mere “pet” have endured so much to save Click?
The wing-cat couple's expressions and actions showed that they respected her, even if they couldn't talk to her.
Both came to her and nose-touched. The feel of their odd leaf-shaped noses made Ratha want to wrinkle her own, but she didn't
Click's mother lay down to nurse her cub while the male groomed himself with his tongue and his wing-hands.
Ratha realized that she stood in another cliff-top meadow overlooking the sea, this one even higher.
The sun rose, gilding the horizon, then gathering all the brilliance into itself and spreading light across the sky.
She turned to the sunrise, trembling, knowing that she was facing east toward Clan Ground.
A soft cry escaped before she could smother it. Would she ever see her home and her people again?.
Ratha turned to the wing-cats, one sitting on each side of her, and couldn't help speaking aloud.
“Home,” she said, in a choked voice. “Can you understand? Can you take me?”
The only responses were concerned looks. Yes they wanted to help her, but they didn't know how.
Ratha lifted a paw and clawed in the direction of the rising sun. Click left her mother and scampered to Ratha's side.
The cub waved a back-spar. Ratha saw now that the spar had the beginnings of the adult wing and the wing-hand.
Click pointed the longest part of her developing wing-hand in the sunward direction, chirping excitedly to her parents.
The male and female looked at each other again. This time they understood.
Ratha watched, her hope lifting.
The male left, winging inland. When he returned, he had meat to fill their bellies. Gratefully, Ratha ate her share.
When everyone was done, they rested, preparing for the journey. At last the male stood up and called to the female.
Click's mother lifted her cub up, placing her on the male's neck, where she clung tightly. The pair flanked Ratha.
They walked with her to the cliff edge. Ratha knew that the only way they could launch with her was to plunge from this height.
Her trembling turned to shaking. If they couldn't recover before they hit the sea, or if they dropped her...
She stilled her fear, looking ahead, not down, as the wing-cats took their positions and put their paws around her.
The female took Ratha behind the forelegs. The male clasped her rear legs and tail.
Click peeked at her from her father's nape.
Ratha couldn't help clenching her teeth as she heard the swish of wings and felt the push moving her toward and...
... over the cliff edge.
The cliff-face streaked past Ratha in an upward-moving blur that sped up alarmingly. She stiffened with terror.
No, she was too heavy, they were falling too fast, they'd never recover before they smashed on the rocks...
The paws held her tightly. A terrific double crack resounded above her as two sets of wings spread and fought the air.
The abrupt jerk and lift left her breathless, then the fliers tipped over into a short glide while they recovered their strength.
Ratha dared not look down to see how close they had come to the rocks and wave-tops.
Her courage had its limits. She didn't need to test it further.
She went limp with relief, letting the flying pair cradle her as they climbed out over the sea toward the rising sun.
The wing-cats didn't rise as high as the condor-eagle had flown. Ratha gazed up, feeling her old desire stir again.
She wanted to run the trails of the upper sky once more, to experience the intoxication, but now she knew the danger.
Her fore-paw itched to point upward and the fliers would understand, but she held the paw still.
Ratha would not ask the wing-cat couple to risk such an ascent especially since they had the cub, Click, with them.
If she ever sought the sky's far reaches again, she would do it on her own, without endangering anyone else's life.
Unless they chose to experience it with her.
Ratha grimaced at her own audacity. For such a ground-bound creature as herself to dream of flight was nearly insanity.
Yet it had happened twice. Once when the condor eagle had seized her and brought her to the island.
Now, with the wing-cats, flying her home. Who knew what possibilities might lie ahead?
And who might chose to experience them with her. She though of her mate, with a warm feeling in her breast. “Thakur”, she purred.
Ratha knew she would never forget either journey. The outbound flight might have been more exciting, but she'd been fighting for her life.
This time she could just enjoy the wingcats' gift. No clouds interrupted the sweep of crystal blue above.
The incredibly clear air let Ratha see distances and beauty she could scarcely have imagined and would never forget.
The sun heated her fur, but the headwind from the wing-cats' flight kept her comfortable.
Sometimes the wing-cats changed positions, the male taking Ratha at the front, the female taking her hindquarters.
The couple did the exchange so skillfully that, after some nervousness during the first time, she trusted them completely.
When Click's father came to the front, Click could lean down from his neck and gently paw Ratha.
“You won't forget me, will you, Click.” Ratha said softly to the cub. Click cocked her head to one side and double-trilled back at her.
The cub must be starting to learn more of her parents' complex language, Ratha thought. Could I ever understand it?
She wondered if the wing-cats had names. There was Click, of course, but she had improvised that.
The couple had to have names. How else could they speak intelligently to each other? She was sure they did.
Such a wide variety and mix of sounds had to carry meaning.
Ratha listened carefully to the flow of whistles, chirps, tweets, trills and clicks back and forth.
However, she couldn't find anything that even resembled a clan word, let alone a name.
Sighing, she wondered if it was she who needed the idea of names and she was trying to find it in the wing-cats.
Intelligence had many forms in her world, Ratha thought. From the light in the eyes of her own clan and their names and speech...
...to the dream-stalking ways of True-of-Voice and his tribe of face-tail hunters.
Now she could add these flying felines from the strange island she had just left.
How many different kinds of this sapient gift existed in her world?
Probably more than she could ever find in her lifetime, even if she spent it searching.
She yawned. So much hard thinking drained her, and she was still exhausted from her trials on the island.
Against her will, she felt herself drifting into a doze.
The rocking sensation as the wing-cats carried Ratha only made her sleepier.
During the day she fought sleep, not wanting to waste an instant of the wonder around her.
At last, at dusk, she gave in, falling into slumber while the couple bore her on into the night..
Another sunrise warmed and woke her. She blinked, lifted her muzzle and peered ahead.
Clouds hung below the sunrise on the horizon, but beneath lay a strip of brown and green. Her heart leaped. She was almost home.
Her rescuers changed their course, angling to the left of the dawn sun. Their wingbeats slowed and they began a downward glide.
A fresh headwind blew in her face, alive with the scents of the world she knew. The strip of land ahead enlarged, showing details.
She welcomed the sights of beaches, headlands, cliff-faces, bays, coves, rocky jetties; even small offshore...islands.
She grinned wryly to herself. Hopefully her recent experience hadn't given her a permanent aversion to all islands.
Not all of the experiences had been bad. She might even want to go back for a visit,if possible, but not too soon.
The fliers flattened their glide. Now Ratha could recognize the places where she had prowled along this coast.
Behind the beaches lay windy dunes, and beyond, forests and plains.
Through those lands lay the trail that would lead her back to Clan Ground.
The fliers headed toward a cove where a river, flowing down from the forest, ended in a lagoon. It was Thistle-chaser's beach!
She couldn't guess how the wing-cats had known, but she felt sure that this was Thistle-chaser's refuge.
Here her once-crippled and abandoned daughter had struggled to survive before Thakur found Thistle and returned her to the Named.
The wing-cats skimmed low, passing over the surf. Ratha felt unsure about how they would land while carrying her.
They flew to the back-beach, where the sand rolled in softer dunes, back-winged, sank, and loosed her hindquarters.
Her feet dragged in warm soft sand.
She felt the male wing-cat's grip on her chest slacken and she slid through his paws and tumbled into the crest of the dune.
Ratha slid downhill slightly in the sand, then scrambled up to the dune's crest again, fearing that her rescuers would fly away.
Instead the wing-cats settled on the sand dune, one on each side of her.
She wished again that she could talk to them, but could only rub foreheads with each one, trying to show her gratitude.
Click squirmed on her father's shoulder. He helped the cub down and she ran to Ratha.
Without thinking, Ratha caught the wing-cub up in her paws, cradled her and caressed her.
“I will see you again,” Ratha said fiercely. “I don't know how, but I will.”
She held Click close, enjoying all the cub's strange little noises, even the ghost-clicks that pinged in her face
With a last lingering touch, she reared up and replaced Click on the male's neck.
Out of impulse, she slid alongside him, flopping a friendly tail over his back .
To her delight, he responded in kind, lifting his wings out of the way. His dark blue eyes lit with affection.
The female wing-cat also lifted her wings, inviting Ratha to slide-rub alongside her.
Ratha slid, rubbed, and tail-flopped until her fur tingled and her head spun with joy. She sat back to catch her breath.
Now that she wasn't just hanging from the wing-cats' paws and could actually see them, she noticed how deep their chests were.
If they were built like birds, their breastbone would be a keel-bone, and would anchor huge muscles that powered the wings.
She decided that it probably was, and wondered if some of the wing-cats' bones were hollow, to make them lighter.
While she was exploring that question, the time came at last for her new friends to leave.
She thought that they would spring up off the dune, but instead, they paced down to the hard damp sand of the fore-beach.
Facing into the wind, they closed their wings and launched into a gallop. Sand flew from their feet; their legs blurred; their backs arched and bowed.
They ran exactly as she did, but even faster, wings starting to open.
Now Ratha understood why Click's parents had those long legs, slender, muscular bodies, and lean, powerful backs.
They might fling themselves into the sky from high cliffs, but on the flat they had to reach a speed high enough to take off.
Even though the couple had fully spread their wings, they ran even faster than she thought possible.
She saw them swing their long tails to keep their balance at such high speed.
As they flashed past, she saw the great muscles in their chests driving the wings.
Did a gap appear between the sand and the flying feet?.Yes, and it grew larger as both wing-cats left the ground.
As a last surprise, stiff fur at the base of each tail flared out into a fan resembling that of a bird.
Ratha saw how the fliers used the tail-fan to balance and steer. The rest of their cat-tail streamed behind the fan.
Did the wing-spars actually lengthen, making the wings larger? Ratha couldn't tell.
The wind caught the wing-cats and swept them up into the sky.
Circling above Ratha, the wing-cats passed directly over her, as if stroking her with their shadows.
The female climbed into a loop and then did a roll. The male, carrying the cub,could only dip his wings.
Ratha lifted a paw in farewell. “May you eat of the haunch and sleep in the driest den,” she said, using the Named salutation.
Her ears and whiskers lifted. The couple were not heading back out over the sea. Instead they turned to fly northward up the coast.
Maybe they were seeking a new home here, to escape the fire-rock that had poured from the mountain on the large island.
Or perhaps a group of the fliers had already established a colony on the mainland.
She watched them until they became two tiny dots in the blue, then faded. They never wavered from their north-bound path.
She hoped they would stay nearby, so that she could see them again.
She half-paced, half-slid down the dune, her head still spinning with wonder.
Making herself a nest in the warm sand, Ratha lay down. Next, she would journey back to Clan Ground, but she wasn't ready yet.
She needed to eat before setting out,. She knew she could find or catch something on the beach or the nearby tide-pools.
That, however, wasn't what made her linger in her sandy hollow.
How could she tell the other clan members where she had been, seen, felt, and experienced? It would sound like a crazy dream.
Lying here in the sand, with the gulls calling and the wind hissing past her ears, she could nearly believe that it was.
The underside of her tail stung. She curled around to examine it.
Singed fur at the end reminded her that her tail had dipped dangerously close to the molten fire-rock river.
Then, close to her tail, she noticed paw-prints that weren't hers. Two sets, one larger; one smaller.
Nearby, some fur lay, softer and shorter than her own, shed from wind-worn wings...
Ratha gave herself a small purr and cat-smile, then settled down in her hollow to rest before seeking food.
She heard an odd honking that sounded familiar, and knew it came from a seamare.
Seamares were the lumbering web-footed dappleback creatures that her daughter Thistle-chaser had tamed and then defended.
Ratha really was home. Shed felt so tired, so aching, so hungry, but so glad...
She was drifting from the thought into a doze when a sudden honk blasted her fully awake.
She wrinkled her nose at a strong smell that was part horse, part seal and a lot of fish and clams.
Her eyelids sprang open, giving her a blurry view of a sleek rounded belly, awkward stumpy legs, and webbed feet.
Something, however, seemed to be missing.
Two pairs of legs. Four feet. Ratha looked up, searching for more limbs. She saw only the creature's neck and horse-like head.
Then she realized that she expected to see the six-limbed form of the animals on the island.
Ratha lolled her tongue, grimacing at herself.
You're not on that island anymore, she told her muddled brain. The creatures here have the right number of legs. The same as you do
Then she asked herself another question. Why was this seamare coming right up to her and peering at her?
Seamares didn't usually do that.
Why did its markings look familiar as if she had seen it before, and...
... why was it trying to prod her with its tusks?
"Splayfoot! No! No poke!" cried a sharp yowling voice. "Leave alone!" Ratha's ears cocked. Could it be?
The little figure came over the dune in a spray of sand. Rust and black fur. A slightly irregular gallop, favoring one leg.
Thistle-chaser, her daughter. It couldn't be anyone else.
Ratha tried to stand, but could only manage a shaking sit. At her motion, Splayfoot grunted and retreated.
Thistle was nearly on top of her and Ratha braced for the usual boisterous welcome...
... but her daughter slowed and approached gently, nose-touching and forehead-rubbing.
"Missed you, missed you, missed you!. Everyone did. Hunted everywhere. Chased nasty bird, no good. Thought...thought..."
Thistle faltered, voice starting to break. "Thistle, don't. All that matters is I'm back," Ratha interrupted.
“Fliers. They brought you. Not birds,” Thistle said, excitement making her words choppy. “Saw them,but not close. Who? Why?”
“They lost their young one,” Ratha answered. “I helped them find it, or at least I tried. They understood.”
“Can't help rescuing cubs,” her daughter said, a wry tone in her voice. “Is Ratha-mother's fate.”
Thistle-chaser brightened, side-stepping and doing her Thistle-dance. Ratha saw that it was excitement, not impatience.
“Maybe. Rescuing the youngster got me home. Are any of the others here?” Ratha asked.
"Thakur," Thistle jerked her head back toward the high dunes. "Came with me. Here now. Get him?"
In her joy, Thistle trampled on the prints and the soft fur, but Ratha had already set the image into her mind.
"Yes", she said softly, "get Thakur.” Thistle took off in another spray of sand.
Soon she was back with another figure whose copper fur and concern-filled gaze stopped Ratha's shaking.
Thakur, her mate, stood there, strong and real and loving.
She shed the last vestiges of a loneliness so deep and heavy she hadn't realized how it had been weighing her down.
Her mate spread himself atop her, comforting, warming, caring without words.
Thakur breathed her name. "Ratha, my Ratha..."
He turned her on her side and clasped her against him, his ribs heaving, his voice choked with joy.
Curiously, Thakur didn't ask where she had been. Perhaps he sensed that she wasn't ready yet to tell the story.
When Ratha felt stronger, he helped her stand, Thistle propping her up on the other side.
They took her to Thistle's old cave den at the back of the beach.
It took a while to make the trip, with many rests along the way. At last she stumbled into the soft sand in the den.
Her nose twitched, smelling meat.
She fell on it eagerly, fiercely, not asking how or where.
When she was only partially sated, she made herself stop, not wanting to get sick and lose what she had eaten.
"When you've rested and eaten some more, Thistle and I will take you back to clan ground. I'll ask the others..."
"...not to overwhelm you, since..." Thakur continued, said, licking Ratha
gently between her closing eyes.
Thakur's voice had taken on a slightly wry tone. It sounded a bit squeaky as if he hadn't spoken that way in days.
It told her how grief had flooded away his usual sense of humor.
How difficult it had been to go on, to help lead the clan, to protect the herd, to mind the cubs, while holding off despair.
Suddenly it was extraordinarily difficult to stay awake.
"You don't need to be buried under a panther-pile," Thakur ended.
"It's a very strange story," Ratha made herself say, her tongue leaden. "You may not believe it.”
“I'm not sure if I do myself,” she added.
"In time, Ratha," Thakur said, his purr low and rumbling.”When you are ready.”
The image of the wing-cats' footprints stayed in Ratha's mind as she snuggled against Thakur.
Thistle had accidentally obliterated the marks, so she had no evidence of her rescuers to show him.
She wondered if he'd seen them from a distance, as Thistle-chaser had. It didn't matter. He would believe her.
With his help, she would find the flying couple and their kind again. She would offer Named friendship and alliance.
And maybe see Click again...
By then, the wing-cub might be fully grown.
Would Click remember the strange beast with only four limbs who saved her?
Ratha hoped she would. Maybe Click could somehow teach her to understand the wing-cats' language.
She sighed, enveloped in her mate's warmth, and at last let happiness claim her.
* * *
For more about: (new links added from the top)
(New Twitter hashtag or search tag created for these links. Use #rathalink)
Just for fun, my attempt at 3-D animation of the big kitty. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWr_JjlymAY
Why are the clan cats called "The Named"? Because they value conscious identity and express it through individual names.
Preliminary sketch for Ratha's Island illustration: Attacking the Condor-Eagle: http://digg.com/u112zm
It shows Ratha attacking the condor eagle to free a captured Named youngster. Comments appreciated.
Various speculations about alternative evolution: http://tinyurl.com/cqn8wk
Ears like a rumbler? What's a rumbler? Meet Grunt and Belch! http://tinyurl.com/clyv35
Tahitian trees with “root dikes”
Paleogeography of Miocene California. http://www2.nau.edu/~rcb7/MidTertpalgeo.jpg
Ratha's Island would have been about 200 miles west of the coastline.
The world of the clan cats: Palegography of Tertiary California http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~rcb7/terpaleo.html
Six-legged walking by a bottom-dwelling fish: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?aid=53701
So what are the bristlemanes? Any guesses? Look here. http://tinyurl.com/cqh78o
Some early amphicyonid "bear-dogs" were the size of a small wolf. http://dotsindeeptime.blogspot.com/2009/02/paleoart-2.html
That was Temnocyonine ferox, from the John Day Formation in Oregon, the same place where Dinaelurus crassus turned up.
Argentavis had 5 foot flight feathers. http://tinyurl.com/d22vlp
Weight distribution is important for birds as well as aircraft. I leaned how to fly in a Cessna 152.
Argentavis existed 6 million years ago. Even larger teratorns may have existed earlier, say in Ratha's time, 20 million years ago.
How to control a hang-glider: http://tinyurl.com/dxhrod
She's using the teratorn just like a human would use a hang-glider, except that she's on top rather than underneath.
And the hang-glider is alive and tries to stabilize itself, which is why this works. Comments?
Cheetah dewclaw: http://www.predatorconservation.com/cheetah.htm
Cheetah dewclaw function: http://tinyurl.com/ca6558
The condor-eagle is based on the fossil giant teratorn Argentavis: http://www.avph.com.br/jpg/argentavis2.jpg
The giant teratorn, Argentavis, was huge. Photo compared to a man: http://ping.fm/YzIG8
Giant teratorn compared to a Cessna 152 aircraft. This is amazing: http://ping.fm/pHuDP
Many images show teratorns with vulture-like bare heads. They had eagle-like beaks, however, and probably fully feathered eagle-like heads.
Argentavis frightening sabertooth cats away from prey. http://ping.fm/ri6xK
Giant 30 million-year old teratorn fossil: http://tinyurl.com/cvnt25
Ratha, Thakur and Thistle pic: http://fit.deviantart.com/art/The-Gang-s-all-Here-105916668
A young Named cub – artist's idea http://tinyurl.com/daxgkv
Ratha tames the Red Tongue. Animation! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gHXF_RYOXM&feature=channel_page
Based on book #1 of the Named series, Ratha's Creature: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/827902.Ratha_s_Creature
Three-horn “deer” were based on protoceratids http://tinyurl.com/cuwzak
Even more about horse evolution http://tinyurl.com/74tdf
Facts and speculations about evolution and prehistoric beasties. Great blog! http://eobasileus.blogspot.com/
Original conception of dappleback; Hyracotherium or Eohippus http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6e/Hyracotherium_Eohippus_hharder.jpg
Striper (hipparion) picture - art by Mauricio Anton http://tinyurl.com/cgezm8
Skull and leg of Dinaelurus' cousin, Nimravus http://tinyurl.com/cf6mob
The "condor-eagle" is based on Argentavis magnificens http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6262740.stm
Argentavis magnificens (giant prehistoric bird) compared to a Cessna 152 aircraft: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6262740.stm#map
Fessran is the leader of the Firekeepers, who carry torches and tend fires. - artist's conception
Ratha and her people are extrapolated from the nimravid fossil, Dinaelurus crassus: http://www.rathascourage.com/research.htm
Cheetah face with black tearlines http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/ZooAnimalWallpaper/images/cheetah.jpg
Thakur the herding teacher http://blytzkrieg.deviantart.com/art/Thakur-and-the-Red-Tongue-100599656
Me (Clare Bell) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clare_Bell
Inspiration for Ratha http://www.rathascourage.com/2008/08/rathas-creatures-named-clan-cats.html
Dapplebacks and three-horned deer http://wandsandworlds.com/community/node/1847
Dapplebacks - When Birds Ate Horses http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1651601.stm
Dapplebacks - The Bush of Horse Evolution http://laelaps.wordpress.com/2007/09/17/beating-fossil-horses-creationists-take-on-an-icon-of-evolution/
Three-horn deer - Wiki article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetoceras
Three-horn deer - Image on a postage stamp http://www.geo.uw.edu.pl/HOBBY/STAMP/ANIMAL/afg.htm
Miocene birds of prey (Warning: Ratha's Courage spoilers) http://wandsandworlds.com/community/node/6634
Teratorn - Giant prehistoric bird of prey http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teratornithidae