“Anson! Adjust the linkages on those reins!” the instructor shouted at me. The instructor, JB Schloss, shouts at everybody. I sometimes think he doesn’t hear well.
Redfeather was wearing her finest show tack for the Annual New Macedon Cross Country Tournament. At 16 standard earth years-old (12 New Macedon years), I was the second youngest entry this in this year’s event. Though sponsored by
I’m getting ahead of myself. There is some information you need to know.
For one thing, even though we call the creatures lions, they aren’t. I’ve seen images of earth lions in the data archives. Ours don’t look anything like them. Our lions are much larger. They are about the size of the draft horses that pictures show pulling beer wagons back on earth. They aren’t cats either. They aren’t mammals at all. The life forms on this planet don’t fit neatly into earth categories. Our lions are something like quadruped ground birds. They have serrated beaks, and the top nibs have saber-like extensions overlapping the bottom jaws roughly where the canines on a big cat would be located.
Why do we call them lions, then? Officially, we don’t. Formally, the animal is Gryphonis peregrina. They are the top land predators in the region around the first settlement, however, so common folk called them lions early on, and the name stuck. The creatures do have manes, like real lions, though they are feathery rather than hairy. Males and females both have them.
Lion-riding is an aristocratic sport. The animals are far too expensive to buy, train, and maintain for it to be anything else. As you must have learned from other reports, our society on New Macedon is firmly aristocratic. This dates back to the first days of the migration when the officers from the ship remained in command on the surface. The guidelines from earth called for democratic civilian government to be established once the first phase of settlement was complete, but somehow that never happened.
The difficulty of scratching an agricultural surplus from New Macedonian soil cannot be overstated. The ground just barely tolerates earth crops, and most native life is poisonous. The plebian farmers and serfs work so hard that they have little time or inclination to worry about egalitarian politics. The flesh of native animals is toxic to humans, so only lions have been domesticated and those only for sport.
Necessarily, we rely for food on the earth species we brought with us. Most of them arrived as seeds or frozen embryos. The Agriculture Department researches native species, as it has for generations, in order to identify anything edible. So far only a few mushroom-like fungal growths have been catalogued officially as safe. They taste foul, and misidentifying a mushroom species can be fatal. Fortunately, our pigs and goats seem to know the safe ones and aren’t put off by the taste. The other farm animals we brought with us from earth were not so discriminating, and so they died in the first generation.
In applied technology, New Macedon has backslid steadily, as was expected. Building up a complex industrial base takes a long time and a much larger population than we yet have. The most high-tech products we manufacture are radios. These are bulky sets no more sophisticated than earth radios of around 1930, yet they stretch the absolute limits of our capabilities. Only the technology left over from the ship is more complex, and this is rapidly wearing out.
Now the ship’s interstellar radio is about to fail, if the technicians are right, and there is no way we can repair it. Our last link with earth will be severed, though it has been a one-way link at best. We haven’t heard anything from earth since the ship landed. The techs blame low power levels and atmospheric interference, but they say earth has superior equipment and so you will hear us. I wonder. Anyway, these may be our last messages for many years to come. Each family of the aristocracy was allowed to transmit one text message containing something about our daily lives. My parents told me to do the honors.
I just barely qualify as an aristocrat. My highest-ranking pioneer ancestor was an ensign – as lowly an officer as it is possible to be – and my family hasn’t moved up socially since then. My parents sent me to
Most of the “right people” at Pern make fun of me. They pretend to smell my parents’ leatherworks on me. There is a whiff of jealousy in this. My parents’ leather mill has made us wealthier than most members of the upper crust. The products from our mill are well regarded, but social status is not about money and definitely not about accomplishment. In roughly equal shares, it is about birth and about hectares of farmland worked by serfs. We have neither farmland nor serfs. The mill employs a hundred plebeians, but all of them are free labor.
Only a minority of students at Pern sign up for lion-riding despite its patrician panache. Most prefer Lacrosse or rugby. This year there are a mere 19 student riders from all grades. Lion-riding is called the sport of kings, but I’ve never seen King Rennsler ride one in person. He is represented as doing so on coins, of course.
It is unclear why the lions allow us to ride them. They are strong and fierce enough to prevent it. My biology teacher claims that the lions never evolved any instincts about humans. So, with no built-in like or dislike of us, they just do what is easiest, and it is easier for the lions to go along with us than to resist us. My biology teacher does not ride lions, and I think he is wrong. I think the lions actually like human attention. That doesn’t mean they don’t ever get cranky, because they do, and a cranky lion is a dangerous lion.
I was telling you about fear.
It started the day an ordinary trail ride went wrong. Once a week or so, the riding class leaves the training fields behind and treks into the wilds beyond the settlement fences. It is beautiful out there, but there are risks. No other creature will challenge a lion except another lion, but this sometimes happens. A few months ago it did.
All 19 of the students plus Instructor Schloss rode up and over the hills that stretch east to west about ten kilometers north of town. Trees cover the slopes but there are grasses on the plain below. The “trees” aren’t the same as earth trees, but close enough. When we reached the edge of the grasslands, we saw a herd of grazing buffalo. As you’ve surely surmised, these are not like earth buffalo. Imagine a feathery armadillo the size of a truck and you’ve got the picture.
“Control your animal!” Schloss, shouted at me when he saw Redfeather’s position.
An exasperated Abigail added, “Anson! Who is riding whom?”
Abigail MacArthur is a natural at lion riding. She is the best rider at
The shout by Schloss drew the lazy attention of the nearest buffalo. The creature spotted Redfeather crouching in attack position. It ran. So did the rest of the herd. All of Redfeather’s instincts kicked in. She gave chase to the stampede, as did half the other lions on the trail. I pulled on the reins and shouted, all to no avail. Nothing I tried could stop her. Something else soon would.
Redfeather and several of the other
Normally, a retreat is enough to end a confrontation between lions. Not this time. The wild lion was enraged at us for chasing “his” herd, and he was bent on demonstrating who was boss in this territory. He singled out Redfeather and pursued her – and me. Due to his bulk, he wasn’t fast for a lion, so Redfeather was able to stay well ahead of him. Then she made a mistake. She rounded a rocky outcrop and slammed straight into a dense thicket. She was well able to claw her way through it, but not before the other lion would be on us.
Redfeather turned to fight. The beast already had caught up. A claw from the wild lion glanced my chest and threw me 10 meters into the thicket. My back hit the trunk of a tree and the world turned black.
Sense and consciousness seeped back. Grabbing the trunk, I pulled myself to my feet. The nearby shrieks and thrashes sounded muffled. I felt as though pillows were strapped to my feet. Colors were curiously muted. Without any sensation of pain, I noted that my shirt was blood-soaked. The muffled sounds suddenly stopped. I pushed my way through the thicket toward the lions. This was not an especially bright decision, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. By happenstance, it was the right action. Peering out of the thicket, I saw Abigail and Instructor Schloss on their mounts flanking Redfeather. The wild lion sat and stared at them. He was outnumbered and knew it. He shrieked his displeasure. He shrieked a second time, but did not attack. Finally, in a show of contempt, the wild lion carelessly turned his back and slowly walked away, growling all the while.
“Anson!” Schloss shouted.
“Here!” I answered. I emerged from the thicket.
“Oh hell,” he said, looking me up and down. “How bad?”
“I’ll live,” I responded, though I was by no means sure. I hadn’t dared to look at the wounds closely.
Abigail was less sympathetic.
“Anson, you bloody idiot! If you can’t control your animal you have no business being out here endangering everyone. You could have gotten her killed!” she exclaimed, meaning Redfeather.
“Can you ride?” Schloss asked.
“Get back on the lion then! You’re confusing her!” said Abigail.
“Get back on the lion,” Schloss agreed, speaking quietly for the first time in days.
Redfeather was twitchy, and my blood upset her. She spun in two complete in-place circles as I clung to her tack before I was able to pull myself onto her back.
Abigail scowled in disgust at the display.
In the saddle again, I felt an unaccustomed fear even though the danger had passed. All my muscles were taut. I unsuccessfully fought to keep my hands from shaking. I felt light-headed, almost as though I might pass out again. I wondered if I had lost too much blood. I decided I was just shaken. My senses sharpened, and the pain at last began to kick in. My chest felt on fire. I was glad of it. The pain distracted me from my fear.
Lions straggled back from all directions. Our troupe slowly reassembled for the ride back to the stable. Angry that the trail ride had been cut short, Abigail railed at the riders whose mounts had chased buffalo. A lion approached with two riders.
“We both were thrown, sir.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
“Goldspots wouldn’t let me catch him, sir.”
“Are you telling me he ran off?” Schloss asked.
“No, not exactly, sir. He just kept backing out of reach when I went to get him. And one time he swatted at me.”
“I’ll get him,” Abigail said. She and her mount disappeared down the trail without waiting for Schloss’s approval.
Misery truly does love company, so I was glad other riders had landed on the ground. I wasn’t proud of feeling that way, but I did. I hoped it would restrain Schloss’ wrath. For the moment he spoke with surprising reserve. I suspected it was because Erick, one of the thrown riders, was the King’s nephew. Schloss always handled the boy with a lighter touch than the rest of us, but he didn’t like to be obvious about it. So, he probably wouldn’t yell at me much more than at Erick.
I was not at all surprised when Abigail reappeared on Silverbrow leading Goldspots by the reins.
During the ride back to the stable and despite the distraction of pain, my unease deepened. Unpleasant thoughts raced through my mind. Would I be a laughing stock at school? What if I froze from fear? What if I washed out of the riding program, or, worse, out of Pern altogether?
The size and power of Redfeather came home to me in a way it hadn’t before. I realized she was just being polite when she obeyed me. Even Abigail controlled her lions only because her mounts chose to please her. No human was strong enough to force a lion to do anything. Lion-riding suddenly seemed insanely dangerous, but I couldn’t quit. I would let down my family by exposing myself as a coward. That sort of reputation sticks with a person and a family forever.
On Schloss’ orders, I went directly to the medical office as soon as we returned to the stable. It was the first time I ever had left Redfeather for others to tend after a ride.
My injuries looked far worse than they were. The beast’s claw had left a ragged diagonal gash across my chest, but it wasn’t deep. The Pern medic cleared me to return to riding in five days. The injury earned me some unwonted respect from the other Pern boys. The way they heard the story, I had faced and tangled with a wild lion. It was fortunate they reacted this way. In my fragile emotional state, the usual prep school taunts might have evoked an emotional response I never would have lived down.
The mere thought of lions terrified me in a way it never had before. I therefore ignored the medic’s orders and returned to the stable in two days. I feared I wouldn’t have the courage to return at all if I let my terror fester by staying away for the full five.
Tacking up Redfeather took every bit of willpower at my command. Abigail said nothing when she passed me in the aisle carrying the saddle for Silverbrow. It was almost too heavy for her, but she disliked offers of help. While wondering how much she looked down on me for the events on the trail, I became conscious of her few extra centimeters of height. I might have a couple years growth left in me while she probably had stopped, but the odds of catching up to her were at best 50/50. I had to remind myself that it didn’t matter: she was out of my league.
Preparations done, I removed the crosschains from Redfeather’s bridle and climbed on her back. I was literally rigid with fear. I feared losing control of the animal, of myself, and even of basic bodily functions. Redfeather and I exited the cavernous stable into the courtyard in front. The pain in my chest was still sharp and I could feel some wetness in the bandages from renewed bleeding.
“Anson! You’re holding the reins too tight!” Schloss shouted at me. “You can’t manhandle a lion. Just be firm enough to let her know you’re the boss. If you don’t annoy her too much, she’ll do what you tell her.”
This was the most basic stuff. I saw Abigail shake her head.
The instructions she gave to Silverbrow were so subtle as to be imperceptible to an observer. On one of those invisible signals, Silverbrow wheeled and trotted toward the training fields. Abigail was the only student able to handle the spirited Silverbrow this effortlessly. Not even Instructor Schloss rode him as well.
My riding actually improved over the next few weeks even though my terror not only failed to lift but intensified. I rode with an uptight severity that gave the illusion of good form. All the joy had been taken out of the sport for me, however, and Redfeather noticed. She responded to my commands, but was grumpier than ever in her ground manners. I think she believed I was displeased with her.
Schloss noticed my improvement.
“Anson, much better! With a lot of hard work you might one day be mediocre!”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t join the rest of the group today. I want you to train on the Tourney Training Course.”
The Tourney Training Course was a misshapen figure-8 track with a series of 10 jumps each at least three meters high. Only the best mounts and riders attempted them. Only the New Macedon Cross Country Tournament course, full of natural obstacles and man-made ones, was more difficult.
“Yes, sir,” I answered, not because I wanted to attempt the Tourney, but because I was afraid to say no. I never before had attempted a jump higher than two meters. I was anything but ready.
I rode Redfeather onto the track and approached the starting line. Redfeather glanced back at me as if to assess whether I was serious. She decided I was. I saw Schloss position his mount alongside the second jump. Abigail on Silverbrow was down-track by the third, a tall hedge with a water trap on the far side. I supposed they had placed themselves to attend to my broken body quickly.
I turned my heels inward and nudged Redfeather. She moved forward and gathered speed slowly. She understood what was expected of her and focused in on the first jump, which was constructed of simple rails. She accelerated to a canter and began to snort. I stood in the stirrups as we closed in. Redfeather leapt. My position wasn’t quite right. As she cleared the jump, her forebody dropped lower than her rear and the saddle rose up to smack me. I flew forward onto her neck and barely regained my seat before the second jump, a solid wooden fence.
The second jump went better. The leap jarred me, but I stayed in the saddle. We charged toward the hedge jump. At the last moment, Redfeather balked. I flew headlong over the hedge and into the water pit on the other side. Part of me considered just putting an end to it by breathing in the water, but instinct took over and I surfaced. I crawled out of the pit, soaked and covered in mud.
“Ha! Ha!” The laughter was from Abigail on Silverbrow. “Anson, Redfeather wasn’t sure you wanted her to jump.”
“Is that what happened?” I asked, unconvinced.
“Yes, she picks up everything you’re feeling.”
“I hope not.”
I circled around the hedge and climbed back on Redfeather, who stood quietly in place. I was terrified, of course, but Abigail was watching. Besides, I thought there was a real chance I might die on the next attempt. It was a comforting thought.
“Restart the whole course, Anson!” Schloss ordered.
We trotted back to the start line. I took a deep breath and nudged the lion again. Redfeather again charged at the first jump and cleared it. She leapt the second. Somehow I hung on. We closed on the hedge. I no longer cared what happened next. If Abigail was right, I probably was confusing Redfeather with that attitude. We were in the air. The lion cleared the hedge by half a meter and passed well beyond the water trap on the other side. The landing jarred my spine, but I held on by grabbing the feathers of the lion’s mane. Somehow I stayed on the lion for the remaining seven jumps, too. No one was more surprised then I was. I wouldn’t have felt more battered if I had been stuffed in a steel barrel and rolled down a mountain. I patted Redfeather’s neck as we slowed to a walk after the finish line.
“Anson, that was the worst form I’ve ever seen in my life! I mean the worst, bar none,” he said, “but it counts for something that you got back on after the spill and then finished the course. You’ve got guts.”
Guts? I was a sniveling coward. I got back on because I was too pusillanimous to stand up for myself and quit as I desperately wanted to do. This was the first straightforward praise Schloss ever had given me, and it was a mistake.
“Thank you, sir,” I answered feebly.
Abigail trotted to the start line. She gave Silverbrow another invisible signal, and he accelerated smoothly. The two flew effortless over the fences and hedges of the course. She didn’t look the slightest bit ruffled when she returned to the start line.
On Schloss’ instructions, for the next two weeks I practiced on the Tourney jumper course. I fell off a dozen times, but never was hurt seriously enough to withdraw from the sport with some semblance of honor, so I had no choice but to keep at it. My form remained terrible. I evoked laughter from anyone who saw it, but I did get better at staying in the saddle. When I didn’t fall off for three days in a row, Schloss raised the height of the jumps.
None of this relieved my misery. I had hoped that by pushing myself further and further I might eventually get past the relentless fear that was dominating and ruining my life. The plan didn’t seem to be working.
One day, Schloss let the class chose how to spend the afternoon. “It’s up to you, today. Training grounds or trails?” he asked. It was rare for him to leave anything up to us. Perhaps he was just testing us. Perhaps he was just testing me.
“Isn’t Razorbeak still out there?” asked Geoffrey, a Form VI boy.
“Razorbeak?” I asked.
“That’s the name Abigail gave the wild lion we met last time.”
“He might be,” said Schloss. “If you stay with the group and don’t chase his buffalo, he won’t bother you.”
The last thing I wanted to do was go back out on the trails, but I decided to stay quiet and let the others vote first. Perhaps a majority would vote against the trails. No such luck. The class split evenly. All of the students whose lions had run away with them the last time voted for the training grounds. The remainder wanted to go out, including, of course, Abigail. She looked at me for my decision. I sighed.
“Trails!” I said.
Once again the pleasant thought occurred to me that this time my ride would be lethal so I could have some peace.
Schloss took us on the identical path as before. We crossed over the hills and came to the edge of the grasses. To my relief, the buffalo weren’t there. We entered the grasses and crossed over to more woods beyond. We crossed a stream and the woods thinned. Abigail rode up alongside me. She bent down and plucked berries from a bush as she passed it. I thought she intended to save them for Silverbrow. Instead, she waited until she was sure only I was watching and then tossed them into her mouth. I was horrified.
She smiled and said, “I’ll be fine.”
Before I could respond, there in the open beyond the next brush line stood buffalo.
I don’t know if Redfeather truly was obeying my wishes or if she simply remembered how badly stalking buffalo had ended last time. Whatever her reasons, she didn’t crouch. I took some unsportsmanlike satisfaction in seeing seven of the other students struggling with their lions.
Razorbeak appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. He walked to a position midway between us and the herd. The buffalo were slow to respond to his presence, perhaps because he wasn’t focused on them. After much fidgety hesitation, one buffalo, however, began to run. Then they all did. Eight of the students followed the stampede on their runaway mounts. Razorbeak ignored them. He sat and shifted his stare slowly from Schloss’ lion Doublestreak to Silverbrow to Redfeather and back again. He remembered who had faced up to him the last time and was still angry about it.
“Don’t move, anyone,” Schloss advised. “One of the mounts is likely to run and then it will be a total rout. It’s not good for the plebs to see us reenter the settlement in flight.”
Class politics were the last thing on my mind. Instead, I was acutely conscious of an itch in the scars Razorbeak’s claws had left on my chest. I scarcely could breathe. All I wanted to do was run away. I worried I might convey the feeling to Redfeather unintentionally, if Abigail’s theory was right. At last, I could stand inaction no longer. I nudged Redfeather forward. She stood still. I nudged her again. With an audible sigh she walked straight toward the wild lion. Razorbeak held his position and waited.
“Anson, I did NOT tell you to do that!” JB Schloss shouted.
Nevertheless the instructor nudged Doublestreak forward. Abigail advanced, too. The rest of the students stayed in place. I tugged on Redfeather’s reins, and we stopped just beyond the reach of Razorbeak’s claws. Schloss and Abigail rode up on my flanks. The wild lion nonchalantly scratched his mane as though his presence had nothing to do with us at all. He yawned and strolled off with an air of disregard.
“We shouldn’t have any trouble from him in the future,” Schloss predicted. “We’ve established our right of passage with him. Don’t ever make a move like that again without my permission, Anson. Do you have a death wish?”
“An old earth psychiatrist said we all do.”
“Don’t get philosophical on me. Save that for your foppish professors.”
“You’re entering the New Macedon Cross Country Tournament.”
“You heard me. We’re having trouble getting enough entries this year. We need a couple more contestants to fill out the starting line-up. You’re going to be one of them.”
“Sir, I just started training on big jumps. I’m at least a year away from having the right to think about entering the Tournament someday. My form is the worst you’ve ever seen. You said so yourself.”
“Form doesn’t matter in the cross country. You just have to stay mounted. You know that. Of course, if you’re too scared, you can say so.”
“I’ll do it,” I said, against all my instincts.
“I thought you might. Now let’s try to round up everyone who went after the buffalo.”
So, to get back to where I began this story, that’s how I got to be grooming Redfeather on the day of the big tournament.
The Tournament is mostly about endurance. The winner most often is usually just the last contestant still seated on a lion. More than a third of the time, no one stays mounted all the way to end, in which case the last person to have fallen off wins. Only if two or more riders stay mounted all the way to the end does speed matter. In that case, of course, the first across the finish line wins. Only about 20% of the time does more than one rider finish. Injuries to riders are commonplace and fatalities happen every few years or so.
The risks, however, are what make the Tournament the most closely followed sporting event on New Macedon. It always draws a big live crowd and it is covered on the radio. At homes and in taverns, people huddle around their radios and listen to the announcers broadcasting from the scene. Vast amounts of money trade hands in bets. Winners and casualties in the race become celebrities. My parents, of course, were ecstatic when they heard I was in the race. I was much less enthused.
Most of the time during the Tournament, the announcers just blather gossip about the contestants, because they really can’t see what is happening on the course despite the balloon that gives them an elevated view. The Tournament track is 50 kilometers long. Most of it is beyond the formal boundary of the settlement. It winds through woods, hills, fields and valleys. A large red flag marks each jump, but even with the flags, riders occasionally become lost. Between jumps, the track is deliberately left unmanaged during the year in order to make it more challenging. Annual plant growth can make it hard to tell exactly where the track is. Bypassing a jump is an automatic forfeit.
The heavy favorite among bookies this year was Grover Balicek. Grover is a
Redfeather’s tack was simple but well made. It was branded with the name of my family’s mill. I had forgone festooning the lion with frills and ornaments, even though this was traditional in the Tournament. I really wasn’t eager to draw attention to myself. More importantly, all that loose cloth just looked like something else to get tangled on branches and jumps. I wanted to clear at least a few of the early jumps – enough to save face anyway. I hoped I wouldn’t be the very first to be thrown.
I unchained Redfeather and climbed on her. She had seen Tournaments before but she never had raced in one. She knew exactly where we were going and trotted in the right direction without any urging from me. I was glad she at least was up for it.
The lions milled around the reserve field while the event managers got things organized. The start of the race was delayed by almost an hour. That isn’t bad by Tournament standards. At last the announcers ordered the contestants to approach the starting line. The announcers’ balloon slowly reeled out the tether and rose into the sky. The reel stopped turning and the balloon swayed in the gentle breeze.
The lions made a colorful spectacle, draped in decorative fabrics, flags, and other gaudy accessories. Except for myself and Abigail, the riders, too, made a flamboyant fashion show. I looked plain in my school blazer and boots. Abigail was attired in precisely the same blazer and similar boots, yet somehow she looked elegant. Putting superficial trappings aside, I could see I was in the company of experienced riders. I was the least qualified entrant.
I never heard the starting gun. All of the lions leapt ahead at once, careening against each other and slapping at each other with claws. Redfeather paid no attention to my commands at all, but was fully consumed by the spirit of the race. Soon we were through the gates and out beyond the settlement fence line. We smashed through branches and thickets. Branches tore my breeches. Every moment seemed as though it would be my last. Despite the wild ride, Redfeather was outpaced by most of the lions. One lion after another pulled ahead until only two of the 30 were behind us. In one way this helped. 27 lions up front marked the proper route through the brush pretty clearly. Even so, it was only at the last possible second that I spotted the red flag marking the first jump. I got into position. Redfeather jumped it easily and I hung on.
The race took at least one casualty on every jump. Most of the lions continued the race without their fallen riders. By ten kilometers into the course, I had counted six contestants on the ground. I saw a red flag on a wide hedge up ahead. Redfeather zeroed in on the center of it and launched herself. On the other side lay a stunned lion who had stumbled on landing. The rider was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he or she was under the lion. I saw no way to avert catastrophe as Redfeather descended. I braced myself for a collision. Redfeather stretched her foreclaws forward and pulled when they struck the ground. Somehow she had cleared the fallen lion. The next jumper was not so lucky. I heard lions shriek and a man shout as the two lions entangled and the rider went flying.
Nearly halfway into the course, I was still mounted, much to my own astonishment. For the first time in months I was too terrified to feel scared, if that makes any sense. Redfeather early moderate pace now paid off as many of the leading lions tired. We passed not only fallen riders but one mounted contestant after another as well. Redfeather bounded over jump after jump. We closed on a pack of a dozen lions. It often happens in a race that a sizable group of lions will match their speeds and run together. They form a block through which it is difficult to break. Suddenly, the pack scattered, with more than half the riders losing their seats. Then I saw why.
In the trail ahead, directly in front of a jump built of logs, stood Razorbeak. Schloss had been mistaken. Razorbeak was not done causing trouble. I had no influence over Redfeather. She charged through the panicked pack and ran straight at the wild lion. To this day I don’t know if she did this with intent or simply because her attention was so locked on the jump that she didn’t recognize Razorbeak right away.
Redfeather stopped short directly in front of Razorbeak. She reared up and I buried my face in her mane. I bounced back with a bloody nose. She spun and retreated. The maneuver momentarily confused Razorbeak, but he recovered quickly, screamed, and ran after us. Redfeather ran toward a riderless lion and leapt over him. Razorbeak, focused on us, slammed into the other lion. The ensuing battle excited the other lions, and more riders hit the ground. Redfeather raced back toward the log jump and soared over it. For several seconds I reveled in our escape. Then I looked back and saw that Razorbeak had abandoned his fight with the other lion and was in pursuit. Redfeather sensed he was back there and increased her speed, though by now she was tiring.
We passed more lionless contestants and contestantless lions. I lost track of the count. I knew we were nearing the final segment of the course. Razorbeak entered a meadow which offered welcome forward visibility. I caught sight of the announcers’ balloon, which meant that they could see us too. Far up ahead was another lion. From the lion’s color and from the blue blazer of the rider, I knew it was Silverbrow and Abigail. She was approaching the penultimate jump of the course. Notorious for unseating more than half the riders who attempted it, it was a four-meter hedge with a water trap on the other side.
Abigail’s lion appeared to scrape the top of the hedge but made it over. It was hard to be sure at this distance, but I heard no splash and assumed she had cleared the water trap. I looked back. Though lagging, Razorbeak still followed relentlessly. This was carrying a grudge too far.
The hedge looked like an impossible barrier. Redfeather snorted furiously as we closed on it. She leapt. Redfeather’s claws tangled in the top of the hedge. We both somersaulted in the air as I desperately grasped onto her mane. Redfeather splashed belly-first in the deep water of the trap. We submerged but by the sheerest luck – there was little or no skill involved – I remained seated. Technically, I hadn’t separated from my lion, and so we were still in the race. I held on as Redfeather clawed herself out of the water.
Next to the water trap, a wet dismounted contestant stood next to a bright yellow lion draped in soggy purple. He clapped in approval. It was Grover Balicek.
Razorbeak appeared around side of the hedge. Balicek and his lion ran, but Razorbeak ignored them. He lunged at us. Redfeather jumped forward, but a swipe of Razorbeak’s claw was so close that I felt the wind from it on my neck. The water seemed to have refreshed Redfeather and Razorbeak’s appearance certainly was motivating her forward.
We entered the open gate marking the boundary of the settlement. Redfeather maintained her breakneck pace. We closed on Abigail who, obviously confident of her lead and not wishing to push Silverbrow too hard, cantered him almost casually toward the final jump. They cleared it with ease. It was a simple fence jump and we hopped over it without difficulty, too.
We closed to seven meters before Abigail looked back and realized we were there. Startled, Abigail spurred her animal on. Redfeather put on a burst of speed and continued to close the distance. Silverbrow crossed the finish line first with scarcely a meter to spare.
I looked back toward the gate as both our lions slowed and halted. Razorbeak was nowhere to be seen. He hadn’t been foolish enough to enter the settlement gates. He would have been shot down by security if he had. Tame riderless lions returned through the gate one by one.
Abigail and I trotted our lions to the award circle and stood side by side. We were the only riders to finish. We were the first one-two finish for
As the photographers completed their work and the announcers blared over the loudspeakers, Abigail said to me, “Your form stank.”
“What you did today was way beyond your skill level. You are lucky to be alive.”
“So, why did you risk it?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“I think you did it to impress me.”
In truth, it had been a minor consideration. After all, I knew she was out of my league. As an answer, I shrugged.
“Did it?” I asked.
“Weren’t you at least scared?”
“Me, too. Makes it fun, doesn’t it?”
“It gets the heart pumping,” I answered truthfully.
The announcers finished their wrap-up for the audience. Abigail and I left the circle and walked our lions slowly back to the stable.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” I said.
“You ate wild berries out on the trail. Why are you alive?”
“That was weeks ago. You’re asking me only now?”
“I’ve had things on my mind.”
“You may be brave on lionback, but are brave enough to challenge the social order?”
“I am if you are,” I said. I didn’t care about the social order, but this sounded like a chance to do something with Abigail other than lion-ride.
“I keep underestimating you,” she said.
She didn’t, but I kept that to myself.
“It’s a lie that all the native crops on this planet except mushrooms are deadly,” she explained. “More than 20 local plants have been identified as edible and nutritious. Some of them are even tasty. I’ve read the secret files. My dad is with the Agriculture Department. He brings documents home and leaves them lying around, even though he is not supposed to.”
“Why would the Agriculture Department keep secrets like that?”
“Why do you think? As long as the plebeians and serfs have to work nonstop to scratch a living from the soil, they have no time to challenge the aristocracy.”
“But you’re the aristocracy.”
“So are you.”
“Regardless,” she said, “I have a conscience, don’t you? Don’t you know how much easier it would make ordinary lives if we could grow food that is properly adapted to this planet?”
“So what is your plan? Do you want to go public with this?”
“No, we can’t just blurt it out. The government would deny it and we’d just disappear. They might even arrange some poisoning deaths and blame them on those native plants.”
“You sound a little paranoid.”
“It’s realism, not paranoia. I know these people. They are all so very well-mannered and amicable, but they are ruthless, too. We have to be clever about getting the truth out. Maybe we can introduce some of the plants ‘accidentally’ on a few farms and let the farmers ‘discover’ them. The news will get around. We can help it get around.”
“Something like that.”
“Want to join me at the after-party?” she asked.
The change of subject delayed my response. “Join as in ‘escort you’? I’m not Prince Darren, you know.”
“If you were, I wouldn’t ask.”
“I mean, your family is pretty elite. Will they object to me?”
“I’m not asking you to marry me. Besides, if they object to the company I keep, they can kiss my… never mind. You haven’t answered the question.”
“Good, but don’t ever call me ma’am again.”
“Abby. Clean up first. You smell like a lion. Meet at the dorm at seven.”
“Yes, m… Abby.”
Razorbeak had done me a world of good. I was getting rather fond of the old boy. I almost wanted to go find him and shake his claw. Even if the day should come when we have to hunt him down for safety’s sake, I’ll say a eulogy for him.
Fear did right by me, too, and for the first time in months, it has left me.