Eela exploded from the underbrush in a shower of broken twigs and leaves, her normally smooth summer coat was studded in little burrs. Her muzzle was moist and her chest slick with sweat. She didn’t miss a step as she broke out into the steppes. She used the entire length of her lithe body to gain the most out of each stride. Her long, elegant legs, which were darkened by perspiration and blood falling from her shoulder moved in a graceful dance, carrying her into fluid bounds that made the ground fly by beneath her. She dared not look back and kept her glossy black eyes fast on the vast open space that flanked her. They could appear at any time, but at least here, she could see them. She made sure she had her eye on her destination; where the steppe grass faded into ruddy red sand.
Eela ignored the cuts and slivers from her flight, not to mention the claw marks gouged into the flesh of her shoulder. She was beyond pain or fatigue now; she had handed herself over to the powerful instinctual being that had kept her and her kind alive through the ages, despite being the favoured prey for the Retnath. They were performing a culling. It was something she’d heard about before, when they thought the herds too numbered. Eela had purposefully pushed back her own mind, not only to give way to her instincts, but also to set aside the pain of seeing the members of her herd and family destroyed by the massive, hateful beasts. She blinked and the tears merely absorbed into her fur along with the salted sweat of her desperate escape. She felt the pain of her strained lungs as if from a far away; nagging and bitter, but distanced. She bit down and swallowed it. She ran not just for herself, but for the two within her; the children of her gainful match with Oureth, who had fought so valiantly but fell trying to lead the beasts away from her and their unborn ones. She owed it to him to survive; so the little ones could survive.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw one; the Retnath, black and inelegant in the prairie, as if they never really belonged there. They were ungainly but fast on their two legs; standing proud. They had square heads split into a gaping maw with three rows of triangular, serrated teeth; all resting on a thick, short neck. Their arms, complete with their four sickle-clawed hands were curled up against their chests; fur jet black with stripes the colour of rust ribbing their back and laddering their legs. A long, serpent tail balanced them, their powerful thighs and legs the fulcrum. They were as big as trees, and sickeningly intelligent, their strategies changing from year to year. She could hear them speaking in their chattering, guttural language; likely planning her trap. As it approached from her left, she darted back the way she came in a graceful motion, and bounded several strides in that direction before zig-zagging back, away from the Retnath and towards the Divrodell desert, where the Retnath drew their borders. The red desert sprawled into the horizon in a succession of seemingly endless dunes.
Her herd had been slowly migrating eastwards over the past several years. It had been Oureth’s plan. He was convinced it would be what would save them. Oureth was sure that entering the unknown land was no greater risk than remaining in the Ardredu, where the western range and the Retnath gave them no other means of escape. She knew the place known as Divrodell was stark and featureless, and held little in nourishment or concealment for her kind. The land beyond that was a mystery. Her kind had never tread here before, the Retnath patrolled the edge of the desert diligently. She was the last of her kind in these parts. Her entire herd had been culled; in punishment for skirting too close to the edge of Retnath territory. She had decided to keep going when they’d found her. It was the only chance she had for herself and the babies she carried. There could be more Retnath hunters there for all she knew, but she had to chance it. She had no other choice.
With every fibre of her being she poured herself into her escape, catching the parched grass with her cloven hooves, sucking in air and breathing it out pants as she crossed the divide to the Divrodell desert territories. It was hot and arid, and the sand made her graceful gait awkward and laboured. She made sure there was as much distance between her and her pursuers before she dared to look behind her.
Eela trotted to a stop and circled ‘round, her sides heaving, nostrils flared. She stood facing the lands she and her herd had known for generations. Four Retnath stood there, but did not pursue. They stood on the edge of the red earth looking at her, taking tentative steps forward but being tugged back by another. One roared out his fury at the sight of her, but none of them took the step into the sand. The graceful Eela was astonished. Her astonishment grew into a cold terror as she began to imagine what it could be that would keep the fearless Retnath at bay as if held back by an invisible barrier. She swiveled her fine head and faced the desert, and then looked back at the predators, who glared at her with hateful green eyes. With a decisive blink she turned back to the dunes and walked on, occasionally looking back to see the four black killers fade into tiny dots and eventually become unseen behind the dunes.
The hot air dried Reetha’s grayish-brown sweat soaked fur into whorl patterns and scabbed up most of her wound almost immediately. Some flies buzzed around it, but she was too tired to care. The pain was slowly returning as her adrenaline faded and she started to feel the effects of her flight. She kept her ears perked high on her bobbing head, swiveling them to catch every sound. All she heard was the hiss of sand as it blew in sheets over the sharp ridges of the dunes. Her treads were light and delicate, nearly without sound. Occasionally, the scrabble of a beetle or the slither of a sand-serpent caught her attention, otherwise she heard nothing but sand and wind. Eela walked on, following the line of the setting suns, just as Oureth had done for months before as they crossed the herdlands towards the Divrodell desert.
The long day fell, and Eela walked on, choosing to forego sleep until she could find some means of cover and protection. By dawn, her exhaustion was complete. She was walking as if it was simply an automatic response, her lids drooping low, her muzzle dry and covered in grains of sand, along with the edges of her eyes. When she thought she could go no more, she discovered a small oasis in the scoop between several dunes. She could not see beyond the high sandy hills, so she thought it was prudent to rest here. The oasis was a mere gash in the sand where a shallow pool of spring water bubbled up, towering Franao trees and some strange shrub plants. The fragrance of the trees made Eela’s mouth water. How the seeds managed to find this waterhole and grow into trees she did not know, but she was grateful for them, their nourishment and their shade. She disturbed a nesting Sziszu as she entered the copse and watched it careen into the sky. She drank deeply, sinking down onto her front knees before settling her hind-quarters down onto the soft leaves that covered the ground. There she found a fallen, dried limb of the Franao, which she ate lazily, before drifting off to sleep in the shade of the trees.
“It’s a westlander—a female without horns. So small, almost the size of a child.”
“I never thought that little tale was true. She’s such an interesting colour.”
“Indeed,” Eela’s eyes flickered and she was faced by two silhouettes backlit by the setting suns. She lifted her head and tried to focus on their faces. They were like her! At least she thought so. As her head cleared and the light of the suns was filtered by a branch of the tree, she realized she was looking at Idru like her. She stood gingerly, squinting against the glare, and moving around so she could see them clearer. They simply watched her, and waited.
They were almost like her; except the female had four spiraled horns sprouting the back of her head, much the same as Oureth’s had been, horns that were impressive for a male in her herd. But they were small next to those of the male in the stranger’s company, his were nearly as long as his body, and they curved upwards at the tips. They were counterbalanced by a smaller horn that branched from each large one, pointing frontwards over his heavy brow. He was huge. Almost twice as wide and long as Oureth, and the female was as big as Eela’s mate. Eela looked tiny next to them. They were Idru; however; no doubt; the shape of the body, the thick chest and graceful neck, the large eyes, the memory-language. They observed her, eyes wandering down to the four parallel slashes on her shoulder, on which tiny maggots now squirmed, consuming the dead flesh and cleaning the wound.
“You are out of your element,” the male said to her, his voice was deep and filled with certainty.
"I had no choice,” Eela whispered.
“You are injured as well. It looks like the work of a Retnath. A very large Retnath.”
“We don’t see your kind often, that’s for sure,” the female interjected. She sniffed the air, and then shook her head, tossing her wispy white mane. These animals were almost black, much like the Retnath, not the soft grayish brown of her own herd. They each had a mane and the male a beard falling from his lower lip.
“She carries little ones,” the female concluded. Her eyes grew tender. The male shook his own head, but it was an expression of disbelief. He emitted a sigh.
“You cannot stay here, come along. You’re small, alone and injured. You could become hunted.” They moved around her, and she hesitated, choosing to follow when the female paused with one hoof poised, and looked back. “Come along.”
They left the oasis, and moved under the setting suns along the serpentine valleys between the dunes, following what Eela realized, was a well-worn path. The two strangers spoke, one of them surprised that she’d made it to the oasis; she spoke of the dreegu possibly being somewhere else, or sleeping. Eela did not know what they meant, but she surmised there had been some predator that was so great that it frightened even the Retnath, and had somehow missed her during her long walk across the dunes.
Great mountains appeared on the horizon. The scent of greenery and water grew stronger. The sand began to taper as they approached the slopes, and became green prairies, laced with thin vermiculate rivers that wound out into the desert, converging into a lake. There, she saw the dark silhouettes of other Idru. Hundreds of them and they all looked up at the sight of the pair that arrived, trailing a diminutive version of themselves with them. The great herd gathered and they looked upon Eela with curiosity. All the females had horns. Even the little female babies showed nubs of horns-to-be.
In the distance, the distinctive roar of a Retnath echoed against the mountain slopes. Not a single Idru flinched; Eela however, did. She froze and her muscles tensed and twitched, her fear was palpable and the Idru looked at one another in bewilderment. They began to speak out of turn.
“From the size of her wounds, I think that there is probably a reason for her to fear that sound.”
“Well, I imagine with a regular source of food, they’d grow rather large.”
“Yes. They would.”
“Strange, how tiny she is.”
“I’m not tiny,” Eela argued, “…not in comparison to those in my herd.”
“No horns, small size… no match at all,” Eela was distracted by the sounds of the Retnath. It approached them, and nobody seemed to care. The Retnath roared again, and Eela finally spotted it. It was by the river, hovering at the edge of the great herd. It was only a juvenile, no bigger than Oureth. It roared at them again and tried to approach a curious fawn, whose mother reacted without hesitation; instead of running away, she charged it, and lowered her head, butting the animal in the torso with her head and horns. The Retnath went flying to the ground, and scrabbled to its feet, trotting off on its two legs in embarrassment. It went chasing after a rat-like rhashri instead, which was less of a formidable match.
“Stupid things,” someone muttered. The herd then lost interest in her, and returned to their grazing.
“If there’s a little one, there’s bound to be at least two parents nearby, why are you not alerting the herd?” Eela asked incredulously. The male who’d found her cocked his head and then laughed. He looked knowingly at the female who nodded.
“I suppose you need it explained to you. That is an adult Retnath. The ones you know, they are not natural. You are not natural.” Eela’s forehead wrinkled in puzzlement.
“You are food. The dreegu came south after the time of the black sky, and claimed the red sands as theirs. It was once a connected place, the prairies once grew all the way across, but the dreegu ate everything. They do not care for water, and so they stay there between the range and the western forests. They cut your smaller herdlands off from our great expanse and your people have been trapped there since. The Retnath knew that they had to be careful… that the herds would not be replenished by the herds from the expanse any longer because of the dreegu. So they farmed you instead. They control your numbers and your growth. You are food.”
“We are all food, in the end,” the female added, nosing towards the maggots that seethed in Eela’s wound.
“How do you know this if you are cut off?”
“The meklos have told us. We believed them to be wild tales, exaggerations… we thought the stories of towering Retnath to be ridiculous… however now we know this is the truth.”
“Meklos? What is that?”
“The large flyers that take the sky; they are our brothers. They are Idru of the sky. They fly to cooler lands during summer.” Eela’s eyes filled with tears. Her entire people, not just her herd, her entire people were being contained for food for Retnath who’d grown huge on the glut. Why had the birds not come down to tell them, to encourage them to cross the land of the dreegu? She made it across, perhaps it was a risk, but what was worse? The male seemed to see her turmoil and came to her, nosing her neck affectionately.
“Never fear. You are safe now. Our herd is large, our range wide. Your little ones will grow up with little danger as long as we are here to protect them.
“Can we not tell the Meklos to warn my people? To instruct them to cross the desert?”
“The Meklos cannot take ground there. They are no match for the Retnath there. Besides, you alone crossed in safety because you are small, and fleet. You did not disturb the sands too much or make much noise. Many Idru, no matter how small each one is, would certainly cause the Dreegu to rise up from the sands and they would be eaten, bones and all.” Eela was shocked. She thought of Oureth, who was unknowingly leading the herd to certain doom. At least she survived, and the babies too. At least some Idru were allowed to live and breed in the Adredu; even if it meant a possible culling, and the loss of herd members. She knew these wild Idru here were not invulnerable; but they were certainly more equally matched against their predators. With a final look back at the dunes behind her, she sighed and followed her greater cousins into the thick of the herd.