by Eric Martell
Breaker paused at the drop-off point. He stood inches away from the edge overlooking the five-kilometer drop to the valley below, poised for a moment as if he were about to leap over the edge; then he spun to look at the brotherhood hall.
It was a long, low building with massive timbers supporting the flat flag-stones that made up the roof. The timbered walls were broken at intervals by massive rock columns, giving the entire structure the appearance of something that had survived for centuries, but which was gradually being crushed into the ground by its constant weight of snow. There was a large, flagstone patio that fronted the building. This was the site of all social activity and also the place where the clan linked arms in the face of the worst gales to perform the traditional midwinter storm defiance ceremonial roars.
The poles at the doors were covered with streamers of ribbon, snapping and popping in the stiff wind that roared down the slope. The fabric was woven of fine thread, so tough that the cloth was almost wear-proof, nevertheless the older streamers were frayed and tattered by the wind, as well as bleached nearly white. The newer ones were a deep, rich and shiny blue.
The color stood for valor and was the exact shade of newly-spilled blood.
Valor, tradition, self-reliance, brotherhood, and family were on Breaker’s mind. He was young and had his name to make and honor to protect, so these thoughts were entirely appropriate for him as he faced the gusting wind.
Breaker gloried in the fact that it was nearly gale-force. He pushed his massive head forward, defying it to shove him off the cliff. The wind responded by whipping his long hair and beard into his eyes.
A season ago, he would not have been able to stand in such a strong gust, let alone at the edge of a precipice. The past winter had been a long one, and he had used the time well, eating and growing strong. This year was his first as an adult, and he was just coming into the first flush of his power and mass.
Now others of the tightly knit group came forth, laughing and calling to each other in deep voices that blended in the wind into a roaring sound. They were a formidable clan in their massed strength.
A flock of ice birds came whirling by on the gusting wind. Breaker took two quick steps and leaped high to catch one in his mouth. The wind gusted and blew him backward dangerously close to the edge. His brothers roared in approval. He crunched the delicate, cold body, relishing the taste.
This was life! The struggle to survive. The strength that conquered the elements! The strength that conquered the competition! He knew deep in his hearts that he was ready.
The echo of the massed onlooker’s roar bounced down the valley, rebounding from peak to peak and fading into untold distances. After a time, an answering set of bellows came from the other fraternal groups that were gathered to greet the day, each in front of their clan halls, scattered among the peaks.
Breaker could almost make out individual voices in the chorus. Long study ensured that he recognized his competitors.
His clan moved closer, and they came together in a tight bunch, jostling for position as each tried to increase his status by moving closer to the leading males. Breaker alone stood slightly apart. This was not because it was expected of a young male before his coming of age, but because he fully understood the status game and knew he was not yet ready to compete with the older and heavier members. Some of them were over twice his mass and could easily shove him back.
Instead, his intelligence prompted him to stand aloof, as if he had no need to compete for status. He had concluded that this worked to his benefit in that the others recognized it as a form of superiority.
In fact, several of them glanced curiously at him as they attempted to work their way into the center of the scrum. Breaker’s gain in status was confirmed when two of the younger males made their way over and stood near him, electing to bathe in his glory, small though it was.
After a short time, Stoneskull, their leader, and most massive male, shouted that it was time to gather fuel and the milling group gradually became organized into several queues which made their way upward past the brotherhood hall and spread out along the edge of the dark, encroaching forest that overshadowed their ledge.
The forest was composed of flither trees nearly as old as the stones. It held numerous dangers and was nearly impassible. The only way through was to work along the edge of one of the many avalanche paths.
Strong though the trees were, the massed snow, shooting down at high velocity from the mountainside above snapped the trunks from the rocks and tossed them around like broken matchsticks.
This was a good thing, as far as Breaker was concerned. Not only did it provide an easy source of firewood, but it also allowed easy egress from the brotherhood’s steading. Worming through the tightly packed flither trees left one unable to guard against even the lesser predators that roamed the woods.
The groups gathered broken wood, vying to see who could bring the largest piece back to the pile on the front patio. The task was finished by late morning. Stoneskull allowed them to relax until mid-day feeding time.
Clatter came up to Breaker ostensibly to engage in conversation. This was something that Breaker usually tried to avoid, since Clatter was a lightweight, not to be taken seriously. Still, his words were cunning and often held two or three meanings, so Breaker did not actively shun him.
“Breaker, your tree piece was one of the largest today,” the thinner male said. “You’ve put on a lot of strength over the winter. It is apparent to all of us that this is your time. Have you given any thought to choosing?” Then without giving Breaker time to consider, he added, “You’d better have because others are already making plans.”
Breaker traced Clatter’s glance and saw Heaver standing in the middle of an admiring group of younger males.
He snorted, shook his head making his hair and beard fly, then said, “I’ve been busy working. What boots it to make such plans? ‘Tis well known that the shes have their own way at the choosing ritual. Besides, who among us has made the descent this spring? No one knows which girl will present herself until we go down and see. Even the older, married males have yet to descend to greet their mid-winter born children.”
Clatter shrugged and went over to Heaver’s group, doubtless to instill some germ of conflict there.
Breaker felt ill-used. Reminding him of Heaver was not a friendly thing for Clatter to have done. There was bad blood between the two of them. Heaver’s Pere, Lifter, had taken Breaker’s Mere to wife after Breaker’s Pere had fallen from a high ledge. This was an uncommon action, but marginally acceptable. However, it drove an unmovable wedge between Breaker and his Mere and also led to Heaver’s antagonism.
No one had seen the accident. They were certainly common enough. Group members often slipped and fell, sometimes with minor result and others times fatally. However, Breaker held a deep suspicion that Heaver and his Pere, Lifter, held some culpability in the event. They had been on the same ledge at the time of the accident. This would have given them the opportunity to push someone who might have been unsuspecting. Lifter was wifeless due to a prowling Greater Shait which had taken her as she returned from a late errand and he had been so quick to claim Breaker’s Mere, once she was single that it was unseemly.
Breaker tried to put the entire situation out of his mind by tussling with some of the others, but his energy level was too much for them, and they backed off, refusing contact. It was true. This was his year, his season was upon him, and his hormones were raging through his body. His muscles felt like bands of metal as a result.
He sat on a rock to think. He would ask Stoneskull for permission to descend. There was no way that the elder could deny him the right to make the journey. He was prepared for the hardship he would encounter, and he had already forged a courtship dagger in secret. Some of the males made a big thing out of creating the little knives, but he had preferred to work alone and privately at a forge of his own creation.
His courtship dagger was an ornate and lightweight work of art that appear heavier than it was. He had already procured the mass of thin streamers that would be tied to the hilt. Their drag through the thicker air lower in the valley would ensure that it would do no major damage to the maid who received the falling blade.
At mid-day feeding, Breaker was not surprised when Stoneskull called his name along with half a dozen others, including Heaver.
The leader stood and spoke with his deep, gusty voice.
“Young males. This spring you have come into your season. It’s been obvious to all of us, despite your reticence in showing it.”
There was a baaing of laughter from the entire group. Breaker and his cohort could no more suppress their boisterousness than they could stop breathing. Everyone knew which of the group was full of strange urges brought on by the onset of spring.
Stoneskull continued. “Although we will miss your help, you are hereby excused from your duties so that you can journey to the village of the shes. Take care to carry provisions. Even though spring is here, it is not unusual for a late blizzard to make the descent hazardous. Three years ago one such snowstorm killed all of the seekers. We cannot afford to lose an entire group in that manner. It weakens the brotherhood and makes it difficult for us all to survive.”
Breaker shrugged mentally. Everyone knew of the event. The blizzard had been days in coming. All knew it was on the way, yet the foolish ones had started their descent out of fear that the best shes would already have chosen mates from the competing clans. Their death was their fault. He would be more careful, of course. Besides, the weather promised fair for the next several days. There was no sign of snow in the wind.
The massive leader said, “Gather what you need from the common supplies. Take care to avoid predators. Climb carefully and do not slip. Trust no one from another clan and only trust those from your clan lightly. The journey is a time of anarchy. Normal rules do not apply. Still, take note! I will not hear of dire deeds among your group. If one of you kills another of our group, he will meet me in combat upon his return. Now go!”
There was a roar as the entire assembly repeated, “Go!”
Breaker and the others ran to gather the supplies they would need.
Heaver had already appropriated the best blanket and the best kukuri by the time Breaker shouldered his way through the door. The other candidates were closely aligned with Heaver and had conspired to block Breaker’s way, giving his chief rival time to select.
Breaker said nothing, only selecting items he deemed were adequate. He ignored Heaver’s taunting leer and gathered his supplies in silence. When he was ready, he exited the hall and headed for the edge.
Stoneskull met him there, at the drop-off.
“Breaker, take care on the way. Your father was my closest friend, and I wish not to hear of your falling also. You might not know it, but you have enemies who wish the worst for you. Journey well and come back a full male,” he said.
Breaker nodded silently, then turned and made the first leap, dropping down the cliff face to a ledge which extended horizontally to a passable crack leading downward.
His thoughts turned, as they inevitably must, to the season. It was spring, and he was on his way to seek a mate. He hoped that he would be successful and find a girl who was the envy of the others.
A loose rock rapped on the wall beside him. He looked upward to see Heaver staring down. Heaver called, “It was loose. I knocked it off to keep the others safe. I did not see you there.”
Breaker did not answer him. It was apparent that he’d been the target of an attack. He moved quickly along the ledge, then bypassed the crack, opting for the more difficult cliff beyond. The others were not as surefooted as he and would not be likely to follow where he led. He hoped to avoid any additional accidents by taking the harder path.
He knew that such perfidy could exist, but had difficulty in ascribing it to a clan member, even one as unlikable as Heaver. In Breaker’s mind, everyone should be honorable. Loyalty to family and clan was paramount.
The descent was long and beyond anyone’s ability to accomplish in the half day that they had left. He moved by stages from one foothold to the next; from one ledge to a lower one. By the time night was approaching, he had separated himself from the others by hundreds of meters. None of them could match his skill at climbing, and he gradually quit worrying about their ill will. This mental shift was helped by the sheer joy he felt in climbing.
At dusk, Breaker rounded a corner of the cliff and found a deep crack that led back into the rocks. It would provide admirable shelter for the night since the floor was composed of boulders that had fallen from above and jammed into a narrower part of the fissure.
He sniffed carefully. There was a bit of odor about the place that did not seem right.
Drawing his heavy-bladed kukuri, he advanced slowly, all senses alert. It was well that he held the chopping weapon high. The fissure was the home of a Lesser Shait. This creature was not as dire as the Greater form but was still capable of killing a lone brother.
He became aware of a shadow that moved slowly toward him. He stopped and backed a bit to give himself more elbow room. The Lesser Shait could mimic the rocks that surrounded it, blending into the background until it was nearly invisible. It continued stalking him as he backed up.
He picked up a heavy piece of stone to hold in his other hand. Shaits were difficult opponents — all pointy parts, teeth, claws, and body spikes. Their body spikes were venomous as well, so it was not good to come into direct contact with them.
With a rustle, the predator moved forward in its attack. Breaker slammed the stone forward, striking the creature’s visual patch, then chopped wildly with the kukuri. His blows severed several of the clawed arms. The Shait made a low moaning cry and lunged forward, trying to push him off the edge of the cliff.
Breaker slammed the stone against the creature again, then chopped downward with all his strength. The blade struck home, somehow severing a critical nerve plexus. The Shait curled into a ball form and ceased moving.
Breaker poked it carefully with the point of his blade. It did not move, so he slid between it and the wall, found a spot on the ball that was not protected with a spike and shoved hard. The Shait rolled forward and started to fall over the edge.
It was good that he had been careful. It was not fully disabled. Sensing doom in the fall, the creature lashed out and struck Breaker’s leg with one of it’s claws. It tottered there, balanced on the edge, for a moment, then fell silently into the void.
Breaker sat down heavily, dismayed. His leg was already numb. Apparently, the venom was not limited to the body spikes. The claw strike, while minor, had disabled him.
He worked at the wound, finally parting his thick fur and opening the flesh with the kukuri to bleed the venom out. That offered some relief, and he gradually relaxed and fell asleep.
Morning found him sitting at the edge of the crevice, his leg throbbing, but no longer numb. As soon as it was light enough to see, he started downward. There was no time to heal. The sun was advancing in its cycle, and eligible shes would be as sensitive to its light as he. They would present themselves for courting whether he was there or not.
His leg slowed him and made the difficult path he’d chosen far more hazardous. He nearly fell several times before he decided to slow even more. Below, deep in the valley, he could see the rooftops of the village. This was the home of the shes and the younglings. The males of the brotherhood clans only descended to engage in the choosing and then to bring supplies to their mates. The shes never climbed as high as the males.
Breaker could see movement far below him and off to the side along the more commonly used path. It looked like Heaver and his friends were now well ahead. He sighed. It couldn’t be helped. The Lesser Shait had seen to that. He’d have to go at his best speed and hope that he wasn’t too late.
His leg was aching by dusk, but he had reached the rim wall above the village. This was the lookout where the courting males laid up to observe the eligible maids as they displayed themselves.
Breaker found a comfortable point and then carefully studied the wall off to the left of his position. There was a hint of movement about a fifth of the way around, and he thought that might be Heaver’s group. There was also movement in three other places on the opposite side. His clan was not the only one which had sent candidates. The presence of the others meant that the possibility of bloodshed was far higher.
Males would meet in challenge over a maid. Such conflicts were all-out, no holds barred, and the loser was usually thrown down the cliff to impress the shes. Breaker stretched his leg and tried to get as comfortable as he could. The morning was going to be interesting.
About mid-morning of the next day, some of the first maidens sauntered forth. They wore gaily colored clothing and ribbons of various colors although none were blue. That color was reserved for the males.
The males had positioned themselves along the rim wall where they could be seen easily, each being careful to stand in a manner that emphasized their desirableness. Breaker was content to sit and watch the drama. None of the maids seemed to him to meet his requirements.
The maids appeared not to notice, but Breaker assumed they were discretely assessing the candidates. The maidens clustered well away from the wall, but finally, two of them walked away from the group. These two seemed to be conversing and unaware of the males above. They gradually wandered closer to the rim wall.
Tension rippled over the males above. One of the two seemed to have become interested in snow flowers that were almost directly below a single male. When she came within range, he threw his courtship dagger in a high arc, ribbons streaming behind it. It came down point foremost, and she looked up, eyes tracking it carefully. Just when it seemed the knife would miss her, she stepped quickly forward and caught it, allowing it to nick the upper part of her bosom.
At the sight of the blood which flowed from her skin, the male above let out a great cry of triumph and began the descent to finalize his claim. The girl, carrying the knife, moved quickly to meet him.
There was an almost imperceptible increase in the tension above.
The second maid was a bit of a flirt. She moved close to several hopeful candidates but carefully stayed out of knife range. Finally, she got a bit too close, and one male threw his knife. It arched over and down, the maid studying it carefully. At the last moment, she turned her back and walked quickly away, allowing the knife to plunge point foremost into the rocky ground.
The disappointed male dropped out of sight. His only chance would be to retrieve the knife after dark and try again on the next day. If he were unsuccessful then, he would return to his clan in failure. Such individuals gradually became less and less social, finally retreating into the forests, there to live a solitary life as best they could or to become a predator’s lunch. In either event, their names were struck off the roles of the brotherhood and never mentioned again.
Breaker continued to watch as several other maids came forth, caught the knives of their choices and left to meet the happy males in the village. None of the girls in the valley seemed to fit his criteria.
A slight movement at the village gate drew his attention. A slim maid was standing there. Her hair was the exact color about which he’d dreamed. Her demeanor was a combination of shyness and bold assessment. She’d been watching the males on display from a hiding place and now was more actively assessing them. Breaker stood and showed himself immediately.
The movement caught her eye, and she looked directly at him. This was not normal behavior. It was not the best of form to look directly at a male. It usually portended a rejection, but Breaker moved his head, acknowledging her glance. She lifted her head, and his breath caught. She was beautiful, smaller than normal, but stunning in her grace, fur thickness and color. He wanted her with all of his being.
She started moving in his direction, then paused. There was a rattle of stones from along the wall. Breaker turned to see Heaver coming his way quickly. The girl moved towards Breaker in a rush. She was suddenly in range, and he threw his courting knife towards her. Only after he’d thrown it, did he see that Heaver had thrown his knife simultaneously. The two blades arched down separated by the space of two arm spans. The girl looked from one to the other, then jumped directly under Breaker’s knife as it descended.
Rather than catching the knife with her hands, she elected to take the full strike on her bosom in the old-fashioned way. The blade wasn’t heavy enough to injure her, and the streamers ensured that it descended slowly, but it caused a heavy blood flow. Breaker cried aloud in triumph, while inwardly winces at the pain she must be suffering. He headed quickly towards the nearest way down.
Heaver met him at the top of the path.
“Where are you going, Failure?” Heaver asked. “That was my knife she took. You have no place in this now.”
Breaker said nothing for a moment, then quietly said, “You lie. An inspection of the knife in her hand will show that it is mine, as is she.”
Without warning, Heaver lunged forward, head downward, poised for the hardest strike he could make. Breaker tried to dodge, but his leg slowed him enough that the blow took him in the shoulder, spinning him around.
He made use of the spin and brought his arm around quickly, striking Heaver on the side of his head with great force.
The two faced off, then, in the traditional form, they rammed their heads together. Heaver bounced back, obviously stunned.
Flashes of light marred Breaker’s vision, but he ignored them and rammed his head into Heaver’s chest driving him backward again.
At that point, two of Heaver’s friends arrived and struck Breaker from behind. He flew forward, landing on his face at Heaver’s feet. Heaver staggered a moment, then tried to stamp on Breaker’s neck.
Breaker rolled away, bumped into a rock and climbed to his feet. Now he was facing three challengers.
The three drew closer, shoulder to shoulder, then linked arms, preparing for a joint charge that Breaker could not resist.
Breaker stooped, seized a large rock and slammed it directly into Heaver’s face. Heaver fell backward, dragging his two companions down with him. Breaker leaped to the side and bypassed the three before they could recover. By the time they had stood, he was halfway down to the valley.
The two helpers stayed where they were. After all, it was not really their challenge. Heaver, on the other hand, had everything to lose. He pursued Breaker, gradually gaining speed as he recovered from the blow.
The two males came out on the flat directly in front of the maid. Heaver bellowed in anger and Breaker spun to meet his charge. The two came together with a crash, and one fell back. Breaker remained standing, wobbling on his feet. Heaver lay twitching in the grass and rocks, neck broken.
Breaker looked down at his enemy, then turned to meet the she who had chosen him. They came together quickly, and she snuggled into the protection of his arms. Their mating patches pressed together bonding the two until death.
Breaker let out a bellow of pure joy, then turned his bearded face down to stare into the adoring eyes of his new mate.
In the low-orbiting Amalgamated Nations spacecraft, Captain Janice lifted her eyes from the macroscope and looked at her single crew member, Russel J. Wilson III, the A. N. compliance officer. She said, “Interesting creatures, Russ. From observing them, one would almost think they were more than mere animals.”
Russ looked up from his tatting, shook his head negatively and said, “No. They can’t be. Their sexuality is too, too, uh, I guess you’d say binary and monogamous, and besides, in my opinion, they have no proper societal values, no powerful over-arching government. Family seems to be all important to them. They’ll never develop a truly socialistic society. No. They’re primitives who depend on individual might, not bureaucratic authority. They’re animals alright.”
He paused, then added, “I’m going to have to report that you’ve been showing me a dangerous lack of respect. My title is C.O. You must address me by my full name and rank. Familiar address is one of the warning signs of non-conformity.”