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“You know we need to depart before the pack closes in, Jin,” Hanla said. She was tall and thin for a cow, famished from the lack of food during the inhospitable months of winter. Her motherly instinct always persuaded her to pass on patches of grass she found to elderly bison that needed help uncovering food from the thick layer of ice and snow that blanketed the valley. Or to red dogs – the adolescence of their species – that had not yet learned to dig through snow.
Her horns were longer, yet more narrow than a bull’s, and curved outwards at the top. Hanla’s fur had never turned a completely dark brown, but instead retained a reddish tint from her younger years. As this was quite unique for her species, she had earned the nickname ‘Red Cow’.
“To leave this place now would interrupt the feeding cycle, Hanla. Let me lead my herd. Your input is not valued here,” Jin, the sturdy bull replied. A long beard hung from his face, nearly brushing the ground as it swayed in the frigid wind. Multiple runes decorated the thick, sturdy horns atop his head, each representing a separate year that the bison had acted as leader for the herd.
Dahj stood beside his mother, witnessing her facial expression turn from anxious to angry. Merely an adolescent, Dahj did not believe he had any influence over the decision making of the herd leader, so he held his tongue. At this age his fur was still gradually turning from a copper red to the common deep brown of the bison. His coat was still quite thin – barely adequate for the winter – and his chin still lacked a beard. Perhaps it would begin to sprout during the following spring.
“I’m sorry you feel that way now, Jin,” Hanla said, voice shaking. “You have typically valued my mate and I’s advice in the past.”
“Your mate… got himself and nearly half the herd killed from his last piece of advice,” Jin said with a hiss. Muscular and tall, he towered over Dahj. The bull had thick, curly fur covering nearly his entire body; quite appropriate for winter. The fur on his face had grown so bushy that it was beginning to impair his vision. It overlapped parts of his wet, beady eyes, socketed within drooping eyelids.
“Crossing that river was our only option! We were behind on our schedule. You know the river’s water level was higher than normal at that time of year. It should have been crossable, just like any other year,” Hanla replied, raising her voice. “I can’t believe you’re going to hold the death of Dahj’s father against me in a time like this!” She stamped her front right hoof into the frozen soil, sending debris flying to either side.
“We will not interrupt the rotation. Abandoning this area would be a waste. There is still plenty of food here,” Jin said sternly. Strings of snot flung into the air before instantly freezing to the surface of his nose in the bitter cold.
“To leave now means we will arrive at the next grounds too early. We would need to utilize every last blade of grass for the herd to get their fill before moving again. It’s quite simple, and why we visit the same places, at the same time, every year…” Steam billowed from the bull’s massive nostrils from huffing in frustration, creating a brilliant white cloud that reflected in the moonlight.
“They know we’re here. In an open field. Vulnerable, exposed. The threat of the predators is stronger this year more than ever before. Every day – pushing in, prodding. Exposing weak spots,” Hanla’s voice shook. “Three more red dogs this week. Dragged away in the night. How many more of the next generation must be sacrificed before you recognize the issue with sticking around?”
Jin fell silent. He turned back to the herd wearing an expression that displayed hopelessness. He seemed to at least be considering the spontaneity-fueled plan while gazing at his family that slept in the frosted grasses of the valley beneath the vast night sky.
Snow accumulated on the back of the animals, as well as the field – slowly shading it from deep green to sparkling white as they stubbornly waited out their stalemate. Hanla grimaced. She saw it as an ironic metaphor for the sands of time that were instead quickly slipping away.
“Running will never counter a threat; it just invigorates them. Our only option is to stand our ground and fight,” Jin said over his shoulder. “Fear is their best weapon, aside from the teeth.”
“At this time of year? Can you even begin to fathom the amount of energy would be burned attempting to fight a pack of predators? They are going to trap us here. Wait until we weaken. Energy spent on fleeing or fighting, we will quickly starve. Meanwhile, they are feasting on our young and sickly. Our species is not built for this, especially during the final feed of early winter,” Hanla pleaded.
“We are digging our own grave unless we leave. Right now.” The cow shook the mounding snow from her back. It fell in powdery sheets to the knee-deep layer that blanketed the ground with a soft thump. Large, stubborn clumps that had remained frozen to her pelt resembled large cotton balls that had been sewn on.
“Hanla. You must understand, there is a reason you have never been elected to be a leader,” Jin said bluntly. “Never even an assistant leader. You act under impulse. Frantically. You make these rash decisions, under the midnight moonlight, without considering conditions before you, or any kind of long-term consequences.