“There—to your left, down low, just this side of the river.” Kaa’s voice broke into his thoughts.
It was but a speck, but it was indeed there.
His eyes punctured the hot haze of the valley. He had it for a moment, but he was unbalanced by the gusting wind. Kevv lost contact in a sudden bump of turbulence. Kevv craved his neck and head, rolling his eyes over right and left, squinting for whatever aid that might give, wings still beating ever upward. Knowing where to look was one thing, actually finding it again was something else.
He clawed for more altitude, and yet now reserving his strength.
Height was speed and speed meant life—or death sometimes.
Kevv looked for it again.
With a tip of the head and a drop of the left wing, Kevv circled to his left, for the sun was up there and the creature was going the other way. It was second nature to seek the sun and he didn’t even think about it, he just did it. His experienced posse, long in the development but now finely-attuned, followed his movements with grace and flair.
He was closer now. He could see it much better.
A pale speck coasted far down below, sliding along over the current of air that crested White Top. It paused, going on again, making occasional forays right and left, circling fully to watch behind it. It was too light in colour against the backdrop of hills and trees. Males rarely travelled alone.
At their level the only terrain was the billowing masses of the clouds.
Kevv tucked in his chin. Folding his wings into the tip-crooked, semi-trailing dive position, he aimed in front of it, but not too far. As the distance decreased, the Kor had a much better idea of speed and course.
Nosing over, Kevv plummeted straight down to check it out, followed by the calls of the posse, hard in his slipstream as he dove.
His rival, Kruum, edged in, getting up front, just past his left shoulder. Kevv was longer. He could make a better shape and he was heavier besides. The point of his bill was locked on the translucent form below.
Pointing his toes, he swallowed to lower the pressure in his eardrums as it was getting painful. Kevv edged out in front. Now was the time to purge the lungs and take in fresh air.
He was right on her, and ready to spread his wings, reach out and grab her…
Her gossamer wings beat slowly, spastically. She was flitting along against a warm backdrop where the sun pierced the grey skies and illuminated the soft green shoulders of the lower crags. It showed her in her best light. Down below was all darkness, all spaces where adult Kor would not go.
Only the luckiest whelps came out of there to join their clans on the crags above.
Thin shiny threads of the rivers and streams below attested to her probable purpose. Sooner or later they all had to drink. There were watering-places in the direction she was headed.
The buffeting was intense. The female loomed, growing in size until she abruptly pulled up on some warning sound.
Kaa, older but still virile, his grizzled tip fronds curling up with the force of wind, uttered a shrill shriek, spoiling Kevv’s aim. Kevv changed tactics, as the female turned hard right and pulled up, and began beating into the wind, face stricken and looking around over her shoulder as the posse pulled up, and out. They came hard around on her tail.
Kul, a good flier but small in the body, hung right on her left shoulder. She dodged and weaved and he couldn’t catch anything with his fingerlets.
“Yes! Get her!”
The voices were all around and she gave a small scream of terror, then put her little head down and really beat it.
“Get her! Take her! Hold her!”
She checked and dropped, dodging Kaa, coming up from somewhere below and making a head-on pass.
Kaa pulled up, and Kevv dove under, having gained a couple of lengths on her, and with Kul still on her wingtip. Ki-Ki and Kromm were trying to hem her in on the right side and now Kha-ah slipped in front of her and then broke hard into them all with a full-stop wingover turn. In complete panic, she turned again. In the short term, they couldn’t catch her, being bigger and heavier. But this was, unfortunately for their prey, a longer game…
It was a game of numbers, one versus the many, and they were all stronger in the end. It was a game for the males, and it was life or death for her, most probably.
It was the strong versus the weak, and they were strong and many, and she was weak and alone.
She still climbed, but Kevv was stronger in the upwards-acceleration and some of the others were too. They would catch her. He was convinced. She must have known it too, as she grunted and gasped in supreme exertion. The air rushed in and out of his nostrils and his lungs in time with his wing-beats. She dodged yet again as Krum came in from below.
Keeton, one of inferior status, came up along at his side and gave Kevv an inquiring lift of the chin, intent and focused on his own breathing. Equally as strong as Kevv, he was a little heavier and thicker in the body and he couldn’t stay there very long.
“Off to the right!”
Keeton saw his purpose immediately, and dropping back and slowing his pace, he spread to the right and gained height, ready to dive and pounce when the moment struck.
The gasps and cries of their quarry were clearly audible. Her head turned from side to side, there was white around her eyes and dampness under the chin where the girl had spit up to wet the thin fur and cool her heart for a burst of speed.
She was too low, and the valley was narrow, rising in front of her like a wall now.
She was going the wrong way.
Kevv turned his face to the left and looked back.
There was Kha-ah, too young to be a serious contender, but a clansman and therefore an ally nevertheless.
Kevv gave a jerk of his tail and indicated his intentions. He yelled at the young Kor, sweating now too, face flushed and eager for the chase…
“Cut her off! Cut her off!”
“Yes!” The youngster exulted and kept beating along, trying to stay in touch with the action and dropping lower to Kevv’s approving whistle.
Kha-ah’ss gait rippled, head up and tail up, head down and tail down, compensating for the massive and at the same time impulsive and quick-reacting effort from shoulders, heart and wings. The changes in course, the steering, the avoidance, the prediction and anticipation was an awesome rush of emotions.
“Ki-Ki.” Kevv looked directly below, and true to their bond, Ki-Ki, a kinsman from a nearby village was repeating his name and holding in the classic pursuit position for an inferior male who was both an honoured guest and lucky to be along.
She darted to the right, trying to climb. She sobbed, seeing one of their number right there, waiting with a roar of triumph on ready throat. She dropped, narrowly missed being snagged by Krum, and Kevv’s pulse shot up at the sight.
It couldn’t be long now.
She turned right again, and Kevv, pulling up hard to his own right, saw her sail right over his head, her face a mask of tears and terror, swinging desperately just out of reach.
Her scent came to him then, as his wingtips ruffled through her slipstream, and the thin red mist in his eyes and his brain grew stronger. He switched back in an instant as Kaa and Kha-ah harried her lower. Krum, coming around in a turn in the opposite direction, cursed, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with Kevv.
“Watch yourself, friend.” Kevv’s call was strong and harsh.
“Argh.” Krum’s retort was equally strong and harsh, but he had less influence with the others in spite of all his raw physical power.
He would never have the grace of Kevv’s clan and probably knew it, which accounted for his impatience sometimes.
Their victim’s piteous cries and erratic wing-beats bespoke exhaustion and despair. She knew her fate. Her breath was very loud and ragged now, coming in shrill desperate gasps.
Directly ahead lay black thunder clouds, veils of dark rain hanging underneath. While the Kor were not adverse to flying in rain and strong wind, she would be at a disadvantage there due to her inferior strength and size. What her thoughts were was but a guess. The slender form ducked under Kronn, dodged left, narrowly missing being hooked by Kul’s sharp claws, and then in a move that Kevv admired for boldness, flew straight at Ki-Ki, forcing him aside in self-preservation.
Clear of pursuers for a brief moment, she set off up the valley with renewed strength, pulling out several lengths in the space of a few breaths.
Kevv was directly behind her at the same altitude.
On his left was Krum, also at the same level, and on the right, Keeton, and up and behind his head he could hear more males, gasping their names for identification and location and chasing along behind.
She understood, better than they ever would.
The ground rose before her, and with a cry of despair, she saw the shadows of the males all round hers.
Those shadows were getting bigger and losing distance, as they sped up the slope and over the tops of the jungle-clad hills.
She had no choice now but to climb, and when she climbed, they got closer, breathing strongly with exertion but still strong for all of that.
Again, she sobbed and cried and darted back and forth. She tired to go back down the valley. She tried to out-climb them, hoping for a long steep descent into the rain clouds, her only hop of refuge, but it was over now. It was too late.
Kevv loved her in that moment. What sublime courage, in the face of impossible odds.
She pulled up, and tip-stalled, and went over, surprising them all but still with no real hope of escape.
She was finished.
Kevv listened to her weeping and she begged for mercy. She prayed for them to go away.
Down below, verdant green pasture, well above the tree line, beckoned like a flame, and her pace slackened, and she circled, completely surrounded by the soaring black shapes of the males as she panted and cried and they exulted in their victory. They wheeled and cried and called in their celebration voices.
From somewhere off to the east, more dark forms glided in and circled. They were males from Keemak’s clan. Their postures indicated they would respect first claim, although there would always be the threat of an incident.
There were only three of them, noted Kevv, as the scent of her came up to him again. Her legs dropped and she alighted, crumpling in a heap on the lanky blades of green growth.
He was two lengths behind, mouth open and eyes wide in glee.
His shadow fell over her, and he landed almost on top of her, his nostrils flaring, senses alight with the burning desire to conquer in this moment of all moments.
His lower beak dropped in a fine and contemptuous humour.
He said nothing, just feasting himself on this prize.
She wept, wings flat on the ground, heart beating at a wild rate, steam rising from her chest and belly area.
Thoroughly beaten, the bedraggled victim waited for its throat to be seized in the mouth…
It was an unspeakable moment for Kevv. Words had ever failed the Kor in this moment.
Folding his wings in, cocking his head left and right, secure in the knowledge that his kin and retainers hove in the periphery, Kevv sidled closer. She wept and cowered and sobbed, fingerlets up to defend her head.
She cried for his mercy, and her mother, and bewailed in broken, heartfelt tones this fate, this unspeakable fate to be born female.
Her chin and her chest were damp, and he mantled over her, wingtips drooping onto the ground, his eyes wide and his breath suddenly sparse in his throat.
He crowed to his brothers around and above and beside and to Keemak’s males as well.
He stood there and waited for challenge. No one disputed him. She kicked her legs and flapped feebly, and uttered mewling sounds, for in this she struggled against herself, her own true nature.
It was in her nature to be submissive, for all of the struggle and the drama, in spite of the fears and in spite of her natural regard for herself, for her own life itself.
He saw it all in a moment and still had no words for it. There was still strength and life in her and it aroused him enormously to hold her so, captive to him and his desire.
Kevv pecked her on the back of the neck and then stepped around her. Grasping her upper wing bones with his fingerlets firmly, he nuzzled at the brilliant scarlet of her throat, and then, as she begged him for mercy, maneuvering quickly to avoid the dainty but deadly talons on her knees and ankles, he inseminated her with a brief penetration.
With two great wing-beats, he leapt away to sit and crow on a naked promontory of white rock, preening and cawing and making his toilet, supreme in his accomplishment.
One by one, the rest of his posse circled in and alighted, until at last they were all there, waiting with impatient calls and lewd talk as each awaited their turn. Kevv kept an eye on Keemak’s young males and the girl sobbed and moaned and cried.
They mounted her in their turn.
It was a cruel fate that fell to woman.
Kevv could afford to be philosophical, for there would always be the strong and weak, engaged in their endless dance of fate.
To be among only one in every ten or, in some years, barely one in twenty, of those who were born, to be always weak, inferior and yet so much sought-after, the most highly-prized commodity of all, for the prize of having a woman was progeny—and without progeny no clan could grow strong or even go on.
It was a fate worse than death, and yet they were still born, called into the world.
And the manner of it was so unspeakably undignified—Kevv would have quickly killed himself rather than submit to such a fate and to such a status. So few of them did though, leading their lonely, ethereal, solitary lives, always looking over their shoulders in season but fertile pretty much all of the time.
Now that they had her, she was not going to get away.
Burdened by the need to nurse and protect her young, held down and slowed by the weight of the fetuses, and then the helplessly clinging infants, unable to climb or maneuver, she would be easy prey. Not just for the mating dance of her own species, but meat for many another.
With all those mouths to feed, her own body wracked by hunger and thirst and ravaged by the savage nature of birth, the odds were she and her progeny wouldn’t last very long.
The little ones were tenacious enough that a few would survive, marked in their fathers’ coats, rising up in their fathers’ territories.
The clan and the race would go on. That was its purpose, and only the lowly females could make that happen.
He’d never really had cause to question it.
But even so, it was far better to be a male.
“Kromm.” His younger brother backed away from the female.
Kromm looked over in question.
“Let our guests have a chance.” Kromm’s head jerked at the apparent injustice of it, but he wasn’t stupid and of his brother was always thinking.
The girl wept more quietly now, wracked by spasms of grief, and terror, and impotent rage.
Kromm moved away readily enough, as the dark shapes of Keemak’s posse turned as one and came in and dropped into the periphery of the circle.
The girl cried, and tried to get away, only to be blocked by a wall of bodies and penned in by pecks and jeers and calls from the heated and flushed males.
There was to be no escape.
From his perch, Kevv was well content. Down below, he could just make out, way off down in the valley below, a single pale shape, by its pattern of movement another female. She must be going to drink, and it surely was the season for it.
It was heating up and the ice was melting in the side valleys up high, and they had already found their first female.
Keemak, with the rest of his posse, was nowhere about, as Kevv’s eyes probed the heavens and the distance and the dizzying depths below. Keemak’s boys, if they were amenable and there was anything in it for them, might be amenable to another long pursuit.
Kevv launched himself out into turbulent air and let the wind take him for a while.
His name was Kee-Ko, The first among the three of Keemak’s people, he beat his way up strongly after having brief intercourse with their prey.
He came up beside Kevv.
Hovering faces into the warm wind rushing up from below, they were wing-tip to wing-tip, then turned away, each to slide back and forth, back and forth, holding a watchful position and conferring in low tones while the subordinates were otherwise engaged.
“Do you want her again?”
“No, I thank you brother.” Kee-Ko’s sharp prow bobbed in quick humour. “You are very hospitable, and I must also thank you on behalf of my kin.”
“Look down there. Way down. Right in between the two lakes, the ones that look like leaves.”
Kee-Ko regarded him with crisp, clear, pale eye. He took a long hard look.
“Yes. There is something there.” The tip of his tongue was briefly visible in his open maw.
“Will you help us?”
Kee-Ko wheeled, and soared, and looked down again.
It was also true there were enemies out there. He came back. Keemak was elsewhere and it was up to him to uphold their honour and carry on in their name.
Their wingtips brushed, once, and then again. Kee-Ko was his equal.
Kevv exhaled, more relaxed now.
As down below in the meadow, the last great dark shape hopped over on two legs and moved in for its pleasure, as the girl wept and moaned and quivered and bled, as raucous voices chattered and sang below, the two strong males kept an eye on the progress of that pallid, fleeting shape.
The warm wind carried a promise of much warmer, most likely even some wetter weather to come.