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The asteroid field lay virtually unchanged.
Since its inception five billion years earlier in this backwater galaxy, the jumble of spacial flotsam had existed relatively untouched by time. Assembled from the cosmic debris left over from the formation of the diminutive planetary system it encircled, the wide and unbroken ring of astral rocks numbered somewhere in the region of 90,000 and ranged in mass from pebble-sized asteroids to hulking planetoids several thousand miles in diameter.
Lying near the outer rim of the unmoving, weightless boulders floated a particularly mammoth specimen. Measuring 50,000 miles across, this impossibly huge asteroidal chunk equalled the dimensions of a large planet while lacking the spherical contours normally associated with celestial bodies of such magnitude. Its surface was instead a mosaic of assorted craters, sheer cliffs and bottomless crevasses that shaped the massive rock's outline into an incoherent pattern of jagged irregularities. Jutting outwards at the dim star and its lone planetary satellite forming the hub of the wheel of stellar rocks projected a monstrous outcropping of barren stone pointing menacingly at the moonless biosphere like a prophetic finger of doom. This was by far the largest of many such protuberances that rose out of the asteroid's craggy and pitted surface, being roughly conical in shape and shaded the same drab nondescript grey colouring the rest of the astral monolith.
A disquieting flicker of white incandescence appeared suddenly at the base of the outcrop to disturb the cloak of timeless serenity that had shrouded the torpid rock for aeons. The mysterious glimmer lastedonly an instant before giving way to a vivid, pulsating flash of harsh yellow that doubled in breadth and intensity with each passing moment. Within seconds, the sweeping brightness totally engulfed the tip of the asteroid, completely masking it from view before abruptly vanishing. The prominence unexpectedly shattered, blown apart by the devastating explosion heralded by the deadly hypnotic light display. The extreme force of the cataclysmic blast was evident only visually, for its deafening roar was smothered by the stifling noiselessness of space.
Pandemonium erupted throughout the stoic asteroid field as the impact of the tremendous detonation took effect. The planetoid reeled drunkenly from the blow that had blasted a fifth of its mass asunder and rent a disfiguring chasm on its already cracked exterior. Spiralling slowly away from its familiar resting place, the great lump of celestial rock dredged a sluggish path through the belt, effortlessly brushing aside its smaller companions as it unerringly pushed its way to the edge. Rotating with deceptive laziness, the errant asteroid broke free from its constraining brethren and exited into empty space to eventually be swallowed up by the immeasurable vastness of the inky void.
In the wake of its forceful departure the blasted planetoid left a growing melee of tumbling and spinning rocks, the product of a chain reaction of kinetic energy that swiftly spread amongst the formerly motionless space boulders like an incurable malignancy. The deathly stillness that had permeated the asteroid field for untold centuries was suddenly shattered. Rock after dormant rock was stirred into life after millennia of inactivity as the wave of disruption escalated. They tumbled uncontrollably after being struck by their close companions and in turn bumped and set into motion their immediate neighbours. The circular belt of stellar matter quickly became a confusing scene of shifting points of stone.
From out of the midst of this chaotic scattering of revolving rocks burst forth the jagged remnants of the shattered tip of the receding planetoid. Reduced by the explosive light to a mosaic of fragmented pieces, the shivered outcropping was hurled in all directions with unimaginable force. The majority of the shards were smashed into nothingness after colliding with the more substantial rocks careening around them, but a few somehow avoided being dashed to smaller pieces and were flung clear of the maelstrom. These dozen of so scraps of cosmic shrapnel erupted from out of the field at a staggering 90,000 miles per second, narrowly missing the isolated planet in the center of the rocky ring before shooting past the subdued sun faintly glowing in the near distance to vanish into the dark spacial depths.
This would have been the conclusion of yet another unremarkable, albeit violent, chapter in the infinite volume of interstellar events were it not for the nature of the astral missiles and the direction the horrendous blast had unwittingly fired them in. For although most of the fragments were no bigger than a football, they preceded a more substantial segment of the host rock that greatly overshadowed its leading entourage of tiny slivers. Meagre by galactic standards, the six-mile wide meteoroid was still of significant size to adversely affect any celestial body blocking its course, and four light years distant a fragile ocean-covered planet unknowingly stood directly in its path.
The unstoppable journey of the Annihilator had begun.
NOTE: For the sake of improved readability, the frequently unpronounceable dinosaur names used in this story have been replaced by user-friendly designations. Refer to the glossary for the proper terms and pronunciation listed against their colloquial variants, as well as the literal translations where researched.
The storm raged unabated.
Torrential sheets of rain driven relentlessly before howling gale-force winds lashed the densely wooded landscape. Flaring lightning forks stabbed the turbulent night sky, dancing along the treetops and reducing the sturdy boles they touched to charred monuments of smouldering timber. Moments afterwards, peals of crashing thunder rolled loudly through the stormy sky in aural accompaniment to the flashing bolts of energy. The air was alive with the sight and sound of the elemental forces as the tempest continued to loose its unchecked fury earthwards.
The time was sixty-five million years into the Earth's past, and the mixed forests cowering beneath the boisterous storm would some day become part of the mid-western United States of America. For now, the vast tract of pines, firs and spreading broad-leafed trees on the nameless landmass were home to the planet's dominant life-form--the dinosaurs. For 150 million years these 'terrible lizards' had walked the cosmically young biosphere and the ageless reign of the ruling reptiles appeared immutable.
Huddling around the columnar trunk of an ancient sequoia loitered a quartet of these imposing creatures, their mammoth shadowy forms rivalling even the immensity of the surrounding redwoods. The four Thunderfeet crowded close together in an effort to shelter from the savagery of the tempestuous night, but the bole they milled around was rooted on the edge of a capacious glade and its compact evergreen branches offered the animals little protection from the raging thunderstorm. Their dark hides glistened from the drenching rain pelting them, and the behemoths were briefly illuminated by the periodic flashes of crackling electricity that momentarily lit the sombre landscape. At the same time, a screaming southeasterly tore through the swaying trees, carrying with it a numbing chill that seeped through exposed flesh to freeze the bones.
A searing bolt of lightning arced high overhead to strike the tip of a nearby pine, blinding the unmoving Thunderfeet with its fleeting brilliance. The topmost portion of the tree splintered, crashing to the ground scorched and smoking not twenty feet from the giants. Spurred by the devastation visited upon the conifer, the cluster of reptiles hurriedly moved away from their redwood umbrella as the partnering thunderclap to the electrical display broke loudly across the wild heavens. Opting for the uninviting openness of the treeless clearing, the foursome proceeded into the glade in single file, anxiously surveying their windswept surrounds with fretful glances. Coming to an uneasy halt before a bare patch of muddy earth set like an island amongst a myriad of waterlogged craters, they stood around indecisively.
The clearing was ovular in configuration, and easily large enough to accommodate a half dozen of the gargantuan reptiles without causing them inconvenience. Ringed by a tightly regimented border of redwoods standing rigidly against the blustery weather, there was but a single entry point from the encircling forest into the secluded glade broad enough to permit the outsized dinosaurs unhindered access, albeit in a train. The exposed earth of the clearing floor indicated this was an area regularly visited by the giants, judging by the trampling of the fern cover into bare, compacted soil over time. The heavy downpour of nighttime thundershowers had now transformed the hardened dirt into a quagmire of sticky mud that clung maddeningly to the elephantine feet of the heavyweights.
'Hardly the best of nights to be overseeing a hatching, Grand Matriarch,' one of the three Thunderfoot cows commented to her elder compatriot. 'It's only water, Rosade,' Balticea declared nonchalantly, 'and if necessary we'll weather a flood to witness my daughter's clutch successfully hatch this time.'
The old cow who had answered was typical of her kind. Spanning seventy feet in length, from her elegantly tapering snout to the tip of her lengthy whip-like tail end, this latest link in the sauropodal evolutionary chain greatly resembled her remote ancestors in appearance: a long, almost sinuous neck, topped by a disproportionately small head, radiating from an expansive humped body and massive gut set upon four pillar-like legs, finally ending in the thinly elongated tail. Supporting her hefty thirty-ton weight were wide, five-toed splayed feet sporting tough blunted claws. The inner toe of each forefoot was enlarged and curved, providing the colossal plant-eater with an effective digging tool or scythe-like weapon for combating the few predators game enough to tackle a fully grown Thunderfoot. Colouration was the traditional drab hues found on animals of such immensity--a deep reddish-brown draping the upper body that graduated to a more earthy brown on the lower extremities. But there was a distinctive feature that set this individual cow apart from her uniformly similar companions. Her massively wrinkled frame denoted an age well exceeding the customary 100 year life span of her species.
A second stab of lightning speared the murky sky to the west of the clearing, heralding the ear-shattering thunderclap that burst directly above the Thunderfoot group. The plainly apprehensive reptiles barely flinched at the din of the tumultuous boom, their attention jointly focused upon the circle of untouched sludge at the very center of the glade. As if prompted by the clamorous skies, the youngest of the cows slowly plodded across the saturated earth toward the undisturbed area. The lone bull of the party, markedly smaller thanks to the dimorphism exhibited by the Thunderfoot sexes, stamped his forefeet agitatedly in the squishy dirt.
'Hold your ground, Sorrin,' ordered the elderly female.
Sorrin swivelled his neck to regard his herd leader. As Grand Matriarch, Balticea's command could never be ignored, and doubly so when the oldster happened to be the mother of his mate. Still, the perturbed bull was compelled to try. 'She shouldn't have to go through the ordeal alone, Balticea,' he contended.
'My daughter has our support,' stated the matron, 'but she must undertake this act alone.'
'Surely you could make an exception in Beliann's case,' Rosade interjected on Sorrin's behalf.
'No Healer. Tradition cannot be circumvented.'
'She has suffered the disappointment of so many failed clutches already,' argued Rosade. 'To have Sorrin at her side will give her much-needed moral strength.'
The Grand Matriarch was not swayed. 'If anything, Beliann must exemplify our ways. How would it look to the herd if their future leader flaunted custom just to allay personal fears? Longstanding practice has it that an egg-mother alone is the first to greet her hatchlings. I'll not defy that, even for Beliann.'
Sorrin glowered at his mother-in-law. 'Sometimes you're as cold-hearted as a Killjaw,' he accused.
'Sorrin! That's uncalled for.'
'It's all right, Rosade,' soothed Balticea. 'I've been called worse. I am not unfeeling, merely practical.'
The trio resumed their silent vigil over the Grand Matriarch's daughter.
Secretly, Balticea fervently wished otherwise but protocol was unalterable. Thunderfoot ritual was being observed by the attendance of the egg-father and both herd healer and leader on this special occasion. But as her dam, Balticea was inherently more than Beliann's chief. She was herself a worried mother desperate to offer her child comfort. Bound by matriarchal constraints, the stalwart old cow could only respond stiltedly in her capacity as the ruling Thunderfoot.
Rosade sympathised with her friend and leader while she gazed compassionately at Beliann struggling through the sea of mud. No Thunderfoot, other than the Grand Matriarch, better appreciated the mounting pressure their race was under to survive than she did. The ancestral Thunderfeet, once a thriving species, were nowadays being supplanted by the swelling herds of rival Shieldhorns and Duckbills. Little did the inoffensive giants know that they bore demoralising witness to their inescapable extinction in the face of unbeatable competition from newer models. The growing incidence of infertile clutches dug out by fretting mothers was making matters worse still. The healer was increasingly presiding over non-events in the Hatching Circle, and Beliann was not exempt from such heartache. Her current clutch was the swan song of yet another dismal laying season, and Beliann's ninth attempt in as many years to rear a brood. Aside from her and Sorrin's yearning to parent a family, the leader's daughter was under the unspoken obligation to produce her own heir to the vaunted matriarchship. Tradition only kept Thunderfoot society from collapsing entirely in the face of such calamitous times, a fact that compelled Balticea to adhere to convention with even greater strictness.
The watchful Thunderfeet waited for over an hour in the downpour, their uneasiness building to unbearable levels with still no sign of emergent life from the glade's centre.
True to reptilian form, these oversize lizards communally laid 100 football-sized eggs each in shallow, soil-covered trenches rather than giving birth to live young. Incubated by the warmth the covering layer of dirt generated, the developing infants were protected from egg-stealers by a solitary adult who diligently guarded the vital nests day and night. Hatching from their leathery cocoons twelve weeks thereafter, the newborn Thunderfoot would struggle to the surface to be welcomed by their mother, who instinctively knew the exact moment her offspring were due to emerge. The dam would then shepherd her brood to a collective nursery in the thickest part of the forest where the bulkier meat-eaters could not reach the tiny, defenceless hatchlings safe and secure in the impenetrable undergrowth. A season or two would pass before the fast-growing yearlings were of respectable size to join the adults of the herd that was always within earshot.
'Where are the hatchlings? They're overdue' muttered Sorrin. His eagerness for fatherhood had not waned despite nine seasons of letdowns.
As if answering her mate's call for action, the mud at Beliann's enormous feet moved slightly. Sorrin's cow backed carefully away and lowered her head to examine the sticky ground. The ooze moved again.
'Look!' Rosade exclaimed excitedly.
A tiny snout suddenly poked through the muddy ground. It was followed a heartbeat later by the rest of the head as the hatchling pushed upwards to survey its storm-tossed world with the infantile air of innocence. Beliann gently nuzzled her wide-eyed offspring, triggering the baby Thunderfoot to fully haul itself free from its underground nest. The attentive cow began licking the mud from the bandy-legged hatchling's soft hide, cementing the formative mother-child bond so critical in the precious few minutes following parturition.
'Mother, she's a girl!' Beliann delightedly proclaimed to the Grand Matriarch after finishing grooming her infant daughter.
Balticea heaved a sigh of relief. The unbroken matriarchal lineage of her family line was to remain intact. The elderly cow squinted. 'Are there any others?' she enquired. Though her mind remained sharp as a thorn, Balticea's eyesight was progressively failing.
Beliann fussily scanned the unmoving mud about her and sadly shook her head, her joyfulness tempered now by a measure of solemnity.
'I can see no more hatchlings, Grand Matriarch,' confirmed Rosade.
'Very well. Sorrin, you are free to join your mate. Rosade, examine my granddaughter if you will. I want to be sure that she is a healthy calf.'
The healer and bull did as both were bidden. Sorrin rubbed his neck affectionately along Beliann's flank and stared adoringly at the three-foot long hatchling sheltering from the inclement weather beneath her prideful mother's vast underside. She was a perfect replica of the adults, if only being a scant fraction of their enormous size. Rosade congratulated the happy pair before passing her appraising gaze over the youngster. 'Well done, you two. She appears to be in good health,' pronounced the healer. 'Except...'
'For what?' Balticea hurriedly asked.
'You had better come and see for yourself.'
Balticea trudged across the rain-splattered mud as the new parents strained to see what aspect of their calf's appearance concerned the healer so. The Grand Matriarch viewed her granddaughter through narrowed, rheumy eyes and gasped. While in every other respect she was an unblemished, if tinier, copy of her beaming folks, the hatchling bore a roughly star-shaped smudge of white on the baggy skin above her eyes. 'She's disfigured!' spat the old cow.
Beliann, turning her bulk to shield her stigmatised daughter, snapped defensively, 'She's beautiful, mother.'
The leader's hurtful comment was a natural, if unforgivable, reaction. Thunderfeet were undeniably proud of their unrivalled bulk and placed great emphasis on bodily perfection. Birthmarks and severer physical deformities were not tolerated in a society where perfect size was applauded. Imperfection was dealt with swiftly and cruelly. In times not so long past a rejected hatchling would have been abandoned in the perilous woods to suffer a lonely death from starvation or roving predators. Attitudes, altered by dire circumstances, had all but eliminated that barbaric aspect of Thunderfoot herd life. Faced with shrinking numbers, enlightened matriarchs now discarded impromptu death sentences on flawed calves in favour of a leniency built upon the premise that every live hatchling was needed to bolster diminishing herd strength. Age-old prejudices were notoriously hard to banish though, and not even matriarchal decree was enough to entirely stamp out the antiquated bigotry. Occasional instances of abandonment still occurred. Beliann's daughter therefore faced an uphill struggle for herd acceptance from the very start.
'We'll not desert our daughter,' Sorrin rumbled warningly to Balticea, joining his mate in protecting their mildly deformed offspring. 'I'll battle you if I have to.'
Rosade stiffened. The Grand Matriarch was herself unconcerned by the parental threat. 'Oh, don't be so melodramatic, Sorrin. You always were headstrong as a calf. I guess that's what appealed most to me when selecting you as Beliann's mate. Your stubborn streak matched my daughter's own obstinacy. However, the pair of you are over-reacting. My granddaughter's standing in the herd will not be affected by her unsightly blot. She is of my blood and one day will lead her fellows. They'll afford her the customary respect or face my wrath.'
Sorrin smiled grimly and backed down. None dared tangle with the formidable Balticea, with the notable exception of her belligerent son-in-law of course.
Balticea regarded her heir. 'A name for your daughter, Beliann, would be appropriate about now.'
The bolt literally came out of the blue, were it not for the grey thunderclouds overhead. Dazzling electrical fire engulfed the glade as the lightning fork grounded itself in the Hatching Circle. The stunned reptiles reflexively shied away from the searing flash that mercifully lasted only a split second, but nonetheless heated the surrounding air a thousand-fold before dissipating. Burned and temporarily blinded, the Thunderfeet recoiled from the acoustic impact of the thunderous shock wave that followed. An eerie stillness settled over the hammered clearing and the patter of raindrops became louder.
'Is everyone all right?' Balticea asked hoarsely. She grimaced. Even the air tasted fried.
'Shaken, and with an awfully bad case of sunburn, but alive,' groaned Rosade, her infamous dry sense of humour intact. "What was that?'
'Sky-fire, I think,' Sorrin groggily postulated. 'Beliann, are you and the baby alright?' An alarming silence was the only reply to the bull's query. A frantic note of worry tinged Sorrin's second call as the sightless and disoriented male stumbled about. 'Beliann, answer me!'
Balticea sniffed the statically charged air and wrinkled her snout in further disgust. Although Thunderfoot nasal passages were less developed than their predatory cousins, they served the plant-eaters well enough to differentiate scents, and the overpowering stench of charred flesh assaulted the Grand Matriarch's nostrils placed level ahead of her unseeing eyes. With a gut-wrenching realisation, she knew that what she smelt was more than singed hide. Balticea blinked away stinging tears as temporary blindness gave way to a harsh light dotted by indistinct blurs representing trees, her standing colleagues and the downed body of her daughter splayed on the muddy ground before her.
'Rosade, can you see well enough to tend my daughter?'
'I believe so, Grand Matriarch.'
'Then do so quickly.'
Sorrin's heart sank. 'Balticea, is Beliann badly injured?'
'We don't yet know, Sorrin. Be patient.'
'And my daughter?'
Making use of her more substantial bulk, the Grand Matriarch blocked the smaller bull from going to his mate's side now that his sight was improving. 'Let Rosade see for herself,' she commanded.
The healer shook her head to speed up her recovery, ignoring the pain of her own wounds. The shadowy bulk lying in the mud rapidly gained definition until Rosade was mortified to view Beliann's smoking corpse. She hurried over to inspect her patient. A feeble groan issued from the fallen cow during the cursory examination.
'She's alive!' Sorrin cried out, pushing past Balticea.
Rosade tore her smarting eyes away from the horribly smouldering Thunderfoot at the squelching footfalls of the approaching bull. Sorrin had fared better than his mate but was still a mess. His burnt skin was patterned with ugly blisters, the affected scales peeling off outright in patches, and his eyes were misty and glazed. The healer and matriarch looked equally worse for wear.
'Is there any hope of recovery?' Balticea pointedly asked Rosade.
'None, I'm afraid. Beliann is dying.'
Sorrin whimpered piteously. The staunch Grand Matriarch closed her eyes in resignation, showing no other sign of emotion. There were times when the healer's normally appreciated candour cut bitingly to the bone.
'The calf!' Balticea remembered, snapping her eyes open.
Rosade stepped around the distraught bull and pulled up short. The hatchling miraculously still lived and was unscathed, although plainly dazed. Her mother's bulk had taken the full force of the terrible lightning strike and shielded the vulnerable infant from harm. 'Your granddaughter is alive and well, if not a little thunderstruck,' she called back to the Grand Matriarch.
'Thank the Originator,' Balticea murmured under her breath.
'Sorrin?' croaked Beliann, gasping for breath.
'I'm here, my love.' He inched closer to his scorched cow and gingerly nuzzled her shuddering neck. Beliann answered with a moan of excruciating pain and Sorrin backed away, casting an imploring gaze Rosade's way. 'Is there nothing you can do for her?' he pleaded.
Tears welled in the healer's eyes as she regrettably said, 'I'm so sorry.' Beliann's only comfort was the damp weather, for the steady rainfall was cooling the stricken cow's horrific burns.
'I don't want to die,' lamented Beliann, her body convulsing uncontrollably as shock took hold.
Balticea interceded. 'Be strong, my child,' she urged. 'You have the blood of generations of matriarchs coursing through you. Draw your strength from them.'
Sorrin was about to decry the Grand Matriarch's utter coldness when his mate underwent a profound change. Beliann's body stiffened then relaxed and her laboured breathing grew easier, although she continued to wheeze terribly. Her imperious mother's words had had the desired effect. 'I wish to see my daughter,' the fatally struck cow requested.
Balticea nodded to Rosade and the healer revived the bewildered calf, gently nudging her along Beliann's roasted length. The hatchling's burnt and blistered dam raised her uncooked head with an effort. The infant Thunderfoot sensed her mother's distress and grew frightened. Beliann cooed reassuringly to her in a throaty rumble and the placated calf nestled against her trembly snout. 'My lovely little girl. I'll not get the chance to see you grow up.'
'I can't raise her without you, Beliann,' sobbed Sorrin, moving closer to his family unit.
'You must, beloved.' Beliann grimaced. To talk, even to breathe was indescribably painful due to her seared lungs and throat. 'Sorrin, I am not long for this forest. I can do nothing more for our daughter except give her my parting gift.' A fit of coughing racked the fading cow.
Sorrin inched nearer to his mate once her frightful hacking subsided. 'What is that, love?'
'To name her is my dying wish,' rasped Beliann. 'She is to be called Bronte.'
'A fittingly strong name,' approved Balticea.
Beliann's vision began to cloud, but she saw still the mountain-like figure of her aloof dam standing apart from them, momentarily backlit by a distant flash in the roiling heavens. Balticea somehow seemed invincible, even immortal. 'Mother, I gave us our next Matriarch,' she proudly said.
'You have done well, my daughter.'
Her last vestige of strength ebbing, Beliann said to no one in particular, 'Mark my words. Bronte is meant for greatness. Her birthstar tells me so.' She rested her head on the pillowing mud.
'Beliann, don't go!' cried Sorrin. 'Please stay with me. I can't live without you.'
'We will meet again, beloved,' avowed Beliann, closing her eyes. 'Promise to look after Bronte. My memory shall live through her.' She heaved a mammoth, rattling sigh and lay deathly still.
'She has departed for the Spirit Forest,' Rosade gravely pronounced. A faraway rumble of thunder emphasised the healer's sad declaration.
Unwilling to acknowledge the obvious, the Thunderfeet stood about in awkward disbelief. It was the uncomprehending hatchling that broke the pensive silence by announcing her hunger with a demanding squeak. Dragged from her reverie by the insistent call for food, Balticea took charge with her familiar authoritative brusqueness.
'Rosade, escort the calf to the nursery. Sorrin is in no fit state to usher his daughter anywhere at this time.' The Grand Matriarch eyed the sorrowful bull, his head and neck hanging dejectedly over Beliann's corpse. 'Besides, he has a ritual to conduct,' she flatly added.
'Who will mother Bronte later in life, after she rejoins the herd?' the healer asked, herding the hatchling cow away from her dead mother. Patient care extended to offspring and, as every biased female knew, bulls made lousy solo parents.
'I shall decide that come morning.' Balticea glanced stonily at the stormy skies. It had been a sleepless, harrowing night and dawn was not far off.
'You're not thinking of raising Bronte yourself?' queried Rosade.
The wizened ruler sighed. 'I'm too old to run about after a lively infant. For now, I'll entrust my granddaughter's future care to a foster cow. However, I will oversee Bronte's upbringing as often as my matriarchal duties allow.'
'Might I make a suggestion then?'
'By all means, Rosade. I value your advice.'
'Dorna and Tyron spring to mind as the best candidates. They hatched half a clutch this season and will provide brothers and sisters for Bronte to grow up with.'
Balticea considered the recommendation before rejecting it. 'That pair already has their brood to raise. One more or less won't make a difference to them. Florella is a better proposal for fostering.'
'She's only recently widowed, Grand Matriarch.'
'True enough, but Florella has the makings of an excellent mother. Her maternal instincts are strong and in need of an outlet.'
'As you command, Balticea.'
The healer frowned. 'Florella is still in mourning for her mate.'
'Caring for a juvenile should ease her through the grief process of losing her bull to those accursed Killjaws. As for Bronte having company, she'll enjoy a blissful season in the crèche alongside the older hatchlings.' Rosade hesitated taking the hungry youngster away to the nursery. 'Was there something else?' pressed Balticea.
Rosade struggled to find the appropriate words. In the end she gave up and could only say, 'I'm sorry I could not save Beliann.'
The Grand Matriarch softened ever so slightly. 'Don't blame yourself. My daughter was beyond your help.' Hardening up again, she commanded, 'Go now and see to my wishes.'
The aggrieved healer rumbled her assent, adding comfortingly before leaving, 'Beliann was right, you know. She continues living on through Bronte even now.'
Balticea had not the heart to respond with her true feelings that a parent should not outlive its child. She watched Rosade usher Bronte from the Hatching Circle, the calf warily approaching the puddles of rainwater dotting the soaked earth flooring the glade before playfully jumping around or splashing through the muddy pools. It seemed impossible to imagine the hopes of an entire Thunderfoot herd resting upon that one carefree infant.
The rainy night began to clear as the worst of the squall was blown eastwards by a blustering wind. A gentle downpour caressed the already sodden forestland, marking the anti-climactic end to the receding storm. A mournful rumble of lament echoed through the wood, rising in pitch and loudness to terminate in a shrill keening that bade the departing tempest farewell.
The Grand Matriarch grew sullen. She had listened to the sorrowing Death Wail of the Thunderfeet too many times during her century-long stewardship of her band. Sorrin was announcing the passing of his mate to the woodland inhabitants, as well as calling for the heavenly host in the Spirit Forest to welcome the new arrival into their celestial herd. The dutiful bull would stay at his dead cow's side over the next few hours to keep the carrion feeders off her cooling and stiffening carcass, thereby ensuring her soul safe passage to the afterlife. Only the unfailing appearance of the keen-nosed, larger predators would finally drive Sorrin from his unenviable vigil.
Balticea steeled herself. It would be unseemly for the Grand Matriarch to be reduced to a blubbering wreck in front of her juniors when informing them of her immediate heir's demise after they awoke at daybreak. She would grieve some time later in private when the only witnesses to her unbridled tears were the uncaring trees. Donning her impervious emotional armour that came with leadership, Balticea plodded heavy-hearted from the clearing that normally hosted new life, only to now personally embody death. On this fateful night she had been simultaneously blessed with joyfulness and cursed with tragedy.
Burying her conflicting feelings, the aged cow trod the path of inevitability. Life went on.
The nighttime downpour was unrelenting.
Less than 100 miles east of the Hatching Circle the dark storm clouds scudded from over the timberland onto the sprawling plain of Fernwalk, soaking the expanse of windswept fronds with their heavy curtain of moisture. Yet even the howling gale and torrential rain could not drown out the commotion made by the thousands-strong gathering of reptiles congregating dismally beneath the furious onslaught of the tempest. Pressed against the edge of the wooded blend of deciduous and evergreen boles heaved a raucous throng of Duckbills crowded haphazardly amid innumerable dark mounds blotting the flatland like an unsightly affliction. This noisome place was just one of the many breeding grounds of the gregarious hadrosaurs, for although they frequented the forest depths, the bipedal, duckbilled plant-eaters favoured open spaces for the hatching and rearing of their young. They subsequently sited their elaborately constructed dome-shaped nests on the verge of the treeless plain, never straying too far from the safety of their woodland haunt.
This particular colony of clamouring adults squabbling over nesting sites happened to be a breeding colony of crest-less Duckbills, for this newest and more numerous of the plant-eating dinosaurs was divided into two distinct families--those crowned with crests and those unadorned. Forty feet in length and weighing three and a half tons, this species was the largest amongst their brethren and wore the uniform colouration of their many-branched family, a lemony underside offset by a lime green body marked with irregular splotches of tan running along the back and flanks. Devoid of the ornate helmet and snorkel-shaped headgear enabling their crested cousins to produce a myriad of complex hoots and bellows, these plainer Duckbills nevertheless vocalised with equal loudness. They sported a distinguishing flap of crimson skin sitting atop a lengthened muzzle flattening into the broad beak that gave rise to their generic name. When inflated the bulbous nose sac acted as a resonator, so that the distinctive calls of the reptiles defied even the loudest rumblings of the thundering storm. Mingling with the chirping of the hatching broods, the honking adults turned the entire breeding colony into a vibrant cacophony of sonorous cries.
A single cow was strangely quiet, at odds to her rowdy neighbours. She was perched atop her mound, head cocked to one side while she listened intently for the first faint sounds of life stirring within the six-foot wide dome of vegetation beneath her. Nineteen eggs had been incubating for the past eleven weeks in a bowl-shaped depression scooped out by the broody female and lined with ferns collected by her partnering bull. Covered with an insulating layer of foliage, the clutch was protected from egg-robbers by the vigilant parents who took alternate turns between guarding the nest and foraging in the nearby forest. Her lifelong mate was returning from one such foray now.
'Any signs of life yet, Vetta?' the bull enquired, striding from the shadowy timberline. The pair had managed to win a prime location this nesting season, building their mound on the edge of the plain and backing against their wooded domain. Aside from providing a handy escape route in case danger threatened, the reassuring proximity of the trees bestowed easy access to and from feeding grounds.
'Shush, Laff. I'm trying to listen.
The bull strode to a halt before their nest and dropped to all fours. Despite his cow being a seasoned breeder, she fretted so before her eggs hatched. 'I'll relieve you for a while,' he offered. 'You've not eaten since the Life-giver rose.'
Vetta shot an annoying glance at the sunless night sky, the swirling clouds intermittently lit by lightning flashes and the drumming of their companion thunderclaps. 'Between the noise of the storm and our honking neighbours, I'll be lucky to hear any darned thing.'
'Vetta, go and browse,' insisted Laff. 'I'll keep an ear out for the younglings.'
'Maybe later. I've got a feeling they're going to call out very soon.'
Laff smiled indulgently. His scatter-brained cow had a skittish nature, but none could fault her dedication to motherhood.
A muffled chirrup issued from within the mound of decaying plant matter. 'There, I told you!' Vetta honked emphatically. She eagerly began excavating the nest with her forefeet to carefully reveal the eggs. Laff joined her in straddling the mound and together they expectantly watched as the first of their new brood emerged from the precious ovals of white.
'Hah! They're all bulls,' beamed Laff, minutely scrutinising their hatching offspring.
Temperature played a crucial role in determining the sexing of Duckbill young. An overly warm nest produced males, while a cooler mound reversed the gender assigning process to make the clutch all female. This simplistic adaptation of reptilian biology ensured an even ratio of bull and cow juveniles to repopulate the herds despite the apparent randomness of the process.
Vetta did well to hide her disappointment. Last year's brood had been the same and she missed mothering a dozen or more daughters. However, as she looked downward at the chirping hatchlings scurrying about her and Laff's feet, the cow's parental instincts kicked in and she began to meticulously groom the nearest of the infant bulls.
'That's queer,' remarked Laff.
His mate stopped licking that particular calf and looked up concernedly. 'What's wrong?'
'The last egg hasn't hatched.'
Vetta peered nervously into the opened nest. Sure enough the nineteenth egg was unbroken. Infertile eggs were not uncommon, although normally an entire clutch failed, not just a single example. Suddenly aware of its importance to the interested parents, the egg began to wobble. A crack appeared in the smooth shell and before long a tiny head poked out of the oval casing.
'Oh, he's just a latecomer,' laughed the relieved cow. The blinking calf wore a comical expression on his face, heightened by the ludicrous eggshell cap atop his head.
Laff studied the infant. 'There's something different about this one. He's not like his brothers.' The siring bull nosed his newest son, knocking off his askew headpiece and splitting apart the remaining shell to free the newborn. A peculiar birthmark in the likeness of a starburst adorned the youngster's forehead.
'He's different all right,' agreed Vetta. In the absence of daughterly cows to mother, she instantly adopted this specially marked male as her favourite. 'He's a funny little fellow. I think I'll call him Chappy. Any objections, Laff?'
'Not one. Now will you please go and feed.'
Vetta finally assented to her mate's urging to leave and forage. 'When I return I'll bring some choice tidbits of greenery to feed our brood,' she called back to him before disappearing into the adjacent woodland.
The Duckbill bull settled into the scooped out mound and his sons immediately started clambering over their large, patient father. The hatchlings would remain nest-bound and diligently fed by their parents in shifts for the following four weeks until they were of sufficient size to mingle with the herd. Laff and Vetta would then relinquish all parenting responsibilities for their offspring in favour of communal life, where the calves would loosely form groups based on age. More often than not they would attach their bands to the fringe of bunched yearlings from the previous breeding season to learn the all-important survival skills by imitating adult behaviour.
'You're certainly a character,' Laff said of Chappy, pleasured by his offbeat calf's antics. The bull with the birthmark was playfully chasing his own tail while his brothers busied themselves annoying their sire.
The fatherly bull became pensive. Duckbills were renowned in the saurian kingdom for their excitability, much as the Thunderfeet were for sobriety and the Shieldhorns for aggressiveness. Laff was the exception to the rule, for he was a studious thinker and contemplated his aberrant son. While Duckbills were indifferent to physical oddities, the disfigured calf did present a certain strangeness. Laff identified with that label and as a result perhaps bonded closer with this one hatchling than his siblings. Without knowing why, he intuited that what distinguished Chappy from his nest-mates was more than simple appearance. The specially marked hatchling's uniqueness was more than skin-deep. This strikingly individual son of his was primed from egg-release to lead a groundbreaking life. He sensed it.
The rainstorm continued its easterly course over the sopping fernland, drenching the already waterlogged prehistoric landscape further, as a gradual lightening of the cloudy skies heralded the oncoming of a misty dawn. Instinct warmed Laff that he was witnessing only the start of the rains. In two to three months, when the new hatchlings were strong enough to travel, the Duckbill herds would heed their racial urges and migrate along the western coastline of the mid-continental seaway dividing the landmass to winter in the bountiful northern summer. But for now he was content to watch his boisterous young at carefree play, happy in the knowledge that his cow would soon be back to satiate the hunger they were working up.