Set in a distant binary star system, warring families struggle for supremacy. Against a backdrop of cataclysmic conditions, an alien race and a society forced to come to terms with the cyclical changes of their colony world, politics and intrigue thrive. From the author of Wyrmhole, Metal Sky, The Star Tablet and Wall of Mirrors, Caselberg gives us a new interpretation of a classic tale.
Leannis Men Darnak shifted uneasily on his padder. The beast snorted, sensing the repositioning of the Principal's weight and took a step forward. He pulled back gently on the reins, stilling the animal and reached down, almost automatically, to check the spear haft slotted into its leather case at his right. Behind him, Sandon Yl Aris sat astride his own padder. The man would take no part in the hunt, but Men Darnak liked him around. He never knew when his aide and advisor might pop up with something useful. Another beast snorted and stamped. Men Darnak gave a quick glance toward the offending animal, eyes narrowed, then turned back to scanning the grassland below.
The suns were beating down upon the plain, the weather warm, and the Clear Season grasses riffled in a gentle breeze. There was no movement apart from the soft waves prompted by the stirring of the air. Somewhere down there lay their quarry, hidden. The chuckah, a fleet-footed quadruped, bristle coated, liked to root around in the grasslands, digging through the dry earth in search of insects and other tasty morsels with its nasty curved tusks, tusks that could rip the belly out of a padder or man just as easily. He reached for his spear again, tracing the shaft softly with the tips of his fingers. On foot, once they'd chased the beast down, nothing stood between the man and those tusks than the tempered hardwood length of his spear. There lay the challenge.
Men Darnak had brought the boys along for this hunt. It would do them good to see the test, to learn the ways of the chuckah; their time would come soon enough. Roge and Tarlain, though Tarlain was barely old enough to ride his animal, would learn from this. He glanced back to his left, checking on the boys. Roge, as usual, was trying to emulate his father's seat upon the padder, his back straight, his gaze fixed upon the grassland below. Tarlain fiddled with his reins and fidgeted. He made to say something to Roge, but Roge stilled him with a grimace, and the boy settled back. Back at home, on the estate, their sister waited. There was no place for a girl on the hunt, but sometimes Men Darnak wished that their characters had been reversed. If Karin had been here, there would have been no fidgeting or complaining. He nodded to himself grimacing as he pushed the unwelcome thought away, and turned back to watch for signs of movement.
The ground in front of them rose to a low hill, and beyond that, forest, tall and sturdy ajura trees spaced across the rise. If a chuckah broke, it would race for the trees and Men Darnak was already plotting a path in his mind's eye. It was more dangerous chasing through the trees, the spiny branches whipping out in front of a racing padder, hard and sharp enough to impale a man if he didn't take care.
There, down below, a hint of something stirring in the grasses. Back behind them, came the noise of a vehicle. Groundcar or groundbike, he didn't care. It was something to disturb the stillness of the moment and he pressed his teeth together tightly, losing his concentration for a moment. There! A flash of movement. A brindled back cutting through the grasses. With a cry, Men Darnak spurred his padder into action, one hand looped in the reins, the other holding his spear aloft. The padders weren't the fastest of animals, and the chuckah was fleet of foot. He had to move if he was going to cut it off before it reached the tree line.
Men Darnak kept his eyes on the beast, not even glancing back to check the boys were okay. He could hear their own animals pounding down the slope behind him. He urged his padder faster, whipping through the grasses, the smell of freshly crushed vegetation and damp earth around him, marking the track of the racing chuckah. The beast knew they were after it now. For an instant, he lost sight of the low back, but then, a flash of movement. The chuckah was breaking for the right, heading straight for the trees. He leaned forward, seeking more speed where there was none. And then, the chuckah was out. It tore up the slope and darted between two massive shiny trunks and was lost from view. Men Darnak growled, pulled at his reins and swung his padder toward the tree line, kicking its flanks to urge it faster.
Leaning low on the animal's back, Men Darnak followed into the trees, swerving and leaning out of the way of threatening spines. There, up ahead. The sound of something moving through the dim light off to the left. He slowed his wild charge. Pulling the beast back to a gentle walk. Behind him, came the sound of other animals, the boys, a couple of the men. There was nothing for it now. They would have to stalk the chuckah. Dotted through the damp gloom lay clearings, broad grassed spaces. Men Darnak only hoped he would have the fortune to come across the beast in such a space. By the Twins, he was not going to return empty handed. He slowed his animal even more, then drew it to complete halt, listening. A slight breeze stirred through the trees, bringing with it the scent of old earth and the tang of ajura. Flexing his fingers around the haft of his spear, he waited.