Campfire Xenobiology

"Selkie, Spotter, and Gauntjaws"

By Charles L. Honeycutt

 

The fire was blazing. On a chill night like this, it was good to gather around the heat, snuggle, and tell stories. Not the kind with ghosts and bogeymen; there were enough dangers in everyday life without making up new ones with which to scare the cubs. Nor were many of the traditional tales from Earth very useful. Most involved daring heroes and damsels in need of rescuing, mythical pantheons, and other such things that were so out of context that the younger Chakats had to stretch to follow the stories. Coming up with tales that made sense and had meaning on their strange new world was a challenge as fierce as slaying one of those ancient dragons that always seemed to be waiting for someone to walk up and behead them.

Starshine grinned to hirself as shi gently dropped the small, covered cages and hide bundles near the campfire. This wasn’t so far removed from that kind of story, after all. But then, the chakat had never accused hirself of being overly clever. Shi knew that the cubs didn’t come because they were entranced by hir poor story-weaving skills. They came because shi brought props. Starshine looked around the fire. Eight pairs of eyes glowed back at hir in the flickering light, a sight that never failed to unnerve hir. Not because their eyes were reflective; they were supposed to be. It was because Starshine didn’t consider hirself a public speaker. Shi was a scientist at heart, like hir father, and happiest when far off in the wilderness, just hir and a few friends poking at things and finding out what they were made of. But shi was a sucker for cubs with wide, pleading eyes, so shi spent most of hir free time trying to entertain them, while hopefully teaching them at least a little.

The chakat, who looked something like a shaggy panther with a creamy belly and chest, arranged hir props, looked up at the cubs and tapped hir muzzle, almost between hir eyes. It was an odd mannerism that shi had picked up from hir father, who had worn things called ‘glasses’ long ago, when everyone had two legs and poor senses. Years later, Starshine’s father not only still occasionally reached up to adjust hir phantom ‘glasses’, but had gotten hir mate and half of their cubs into the habit. Starshine took off hir fur-trimmed jacket, which had already become uncomfortable next to the fire, and produced a short stick to use as a pointer. It had the look of considerable wear, as if someone had been chewing on the tip.

Starshine gave the gathered cubs a secretive, knowing smile, hir own eyes blazing in the firelight. Slowly shi waved the stick around, as if it were a wand, passing it over each of the cages and bundles. Then shi gave the smaller cage, which had a hide covering draped over it, a quick but soft rap with the stick. The cage shook and emitted a short bark, then a gurgling hiss much like a Chakat gargling water. The cubs jumped, and Starshine tried not to laugh. Shi brought the stick to bear on the second cage, eliciting a louder series of barks, with an unpleasant squealing tone that made the cubs lay back their ears.

"Now then," shi asked. "Who can tell me what’s in this cage?" Shi pointed at the first one that shi had tapped. Almost everyone began speaking at once, and all of them were correct. "That’s right, it’s a bladder-bellied mudtrapper, or more commonly, a mudthug." Virtually every Chakat had heard a mudtrapper calling out in the dark at least once. "Now what’s in this cage?" Shi leveled the stick at the second covered container. Seconds of silence went by before one cub raised hir hand. Starshine pointed at hir.

"Is it a mudtrapper too?" the cub answered, hir eyes narrowed at the cage in uncertainty, as if shi might somehow will hirself to see through the hide cover.

"Right!" Starshine replied. "The sounds are somewhat different, though. Why is that?"

The cub frowned. "Maybe it’s a female. I heard the females get bigger, and they’re rarer, or maybe just harder to find."

"Also right! Both genders of mudtrappers grow very slowly, but females get first crack at it. The mudtrapper lays two clutches of eggs during the spring months, and the first clutch is always females. That clutch also consists of larger eggs, because the mother has more energy and nutrients available, but the actual number of eggs is smaller." Starshine laid a hand on the first cage, lightly stroking the covering as if shi was going to raise it at any moment. "Then the male clutch is laid, individually smaller and more numerous. They stay tiny for a long time, several years if the weather and local prey aren’t right. Most of the mudtrappers you hear barking are only about as long as your forearm." Shi removed hir hand from the cage and smiled teasingly. "Now, who here has seen a live mudtrapper?"

Not one hand was raised. "No one?" Starshine put on a sad face. "Why is that?"

Another cub answered without raising hir hand. "They’re hard to catch!" shi answered, almost jumping up as shi did so. "Mom says they’re small, and can dig fast, and they can hear us walking around on the ground no matter how quiet we are." The cub, who was perhaps four years old, was clearly enjoying having the group’s attention while shi spoke. "And they’re smart enough to escape anything they can’t eat! And…"

Starshine gently interrupted. The cub was talking faster and faster. "Thank you, Amy. That’s right, they are hard to catch, and it was a real pain to get these two without hurting them. Killing them would have been easy, but they taste so bad we can’t really eat them, so we had to make sure they would be okay when we release them later. They’re a little angry right now, but they’ll get over it."

"But why let them go again?" came another young voice. "Aren’t they going to just get big and attack people?" Some of the eyes around the fire grew noticeably wider. Starshine suppressed a sigh. Shi was going to get to this eventually, but had wanted to show off the specimens first and allay the cubs’ fears. Shi was really no good at controlling an audience.

After a second’s thought, shi continued. "They’ll get bigger, but it takes a long time. Most mudtrappers don’t get much longer than my arm." Shi stretched it out for emphasis. "And it takes them years and years to get that big. We don’t know how long they live yet, but our best guess is that one as long as my arm will be more than twenty years old. Most of them die before they get anywhere near that big." Starshine tapped the ground with hir stick. "Mudtrappers only eat and grow when it’s warm and wet out. The rest of the time, they hibernate a meter or so under the surface. We caught these two at the end of last spring and kept them buried. Then I warmed them up slowly, both to see how they act in this weather and to show them to you while they’re a little bit sluggish. As long as I feed them a lot before burying them again, they should be able to go back to sleep safely."

A hand went up, attached to the cub that had asked about letting the mudtrappers loose. Starshine pointed at hir. "Shir Starshine, what about Gauntjaws? Wasn’t shi a monster-sized one?" The cubs closest to the speaker tensed up as if they had just heard a scorpion hissing behind them.

Starshine made sure to keep hir voice and eyes casual. The truth was, no matter how many times shi talked about it, Gauntjaws still managed to give hir shivers. It was no wonder that even some cubs had exaggerated the stories and passed them along to scare their friends. "Okay, remember that it’s she, not shi. Mudtrappers have two genders. Gauntjaws wasn’t a monster, just bigger than usual, and probably a lot uglier. And I’ll tell you all about that, after we look at these two. First, you get to learn more about them so you understand what happened."

Shi pulled the covering from the first cage, resisting the urge to do so with a dramatic flourish. Most of the cubs gasped anyway. A gray-green animal was revealed, fat and four-legged, lying on its back in a large, squared-off bowl that was filled with mud. The bowl wasn’t nearly big enough to hide it, and it seemed huge and fearsome inside the cage despite being only a third of a meter in length. The mudtrapper had a mottled hide that looked thicker than bark, wide hooked claws on each leg, and a fat tail with a quartet of hooks near the tip. The head and limbs were angled inward, almost towards its belly. It had a semi-crocodilian skull, with beady eyes, enormous patches of flat, taut skin on top of the head, and a curved set of fanged jaws that was disproportionately large compared to its body. The skull had almost no flesh on it, only that warty hide. The mudtrapper opened its mouth, and the sides of its throat bubbled while it emitted a staccato bark.

"That’s a general cry of alarm," Starshine explained. "Mudtrappers are basically solitary, but they have an instinct to give a warning when they sense danger. We think that it’s meant to tell the youngest ‘trappers nearby to hide themselves. If the threat doesn’t sound too close, older mudtrappers will poke their heads up from their lairs and take a look around. If they feel vibrations nearby, they’ll burrow down and stop moving instead. They also bark when they’re trying to find mates, but these two won’t do that right now."

"Now listen to this bark, and see if you can imitate it." Shi picked up the cage and shook it just slightly, while showing hir teeth to the mudtrapper. It barked several more times, and tried to bury itself in the clay bowl, without success. Starshine looked around, smiling maternally as the cubs chorused their version of a mudtrapper bark. "If you learn how to do it right, you can find out pretty quickly if there are any of these animals nearby. Just remember, if you hear a bark that’s much deeper than these, it means that the mudtrapper sounding the bark is a lot bigger." In response to the cubs’ slightly panicky expressions, shi added, "but as I said, the largest one we’ve seen in my lifetime isn’t big enough to eat anyone here, unless it asks nicely and you say ‘Yes’ and then pour some salt on your head."

That made them giggle, and Starshine continued. "See the flat spots on its head? Those are sensory organs like eardrums, only a lot more sensitive. Mudtrappers can hear animals as small as rabbits walking on the earth above them, and they can usually tell how big the animal is. A person hunting mudtrappers has to do it alone, and with pads on their feet, or the ‘trapper won’t come up. And they can wait in the mud or water for hours with these." Shi poked the stick into the cage and lightly touched the mudtrapper on the nose. It emitted a vicious, bubbly hiss and swelled, its neck, belly and sides expanding immensely. "Mudtrappers have air bladders. They aren’t a weak spot, at least from the outside, as the hide is just as thick around them as anywhere else. I’ll come back to the hide in a second. The bladders let the mudtrapper live for long periods without oxygen, and, oddly enough, they are used as slow-digesting stomachs when the animal hibernates. When the animal is directly threatened, which isn’t often, it usually inhales powerfully and puffs up like this to scare away foes." Starshine tapped its nose again, and the hissing and puffing recommenced. "They also do this automatically when they’re in serious pain."

"Now, the hide. It’s layered and rubbery, and even on a young specimen like this male, too tough to cut with a knife. If you have to kill one, do it in a roundabout fashion. Here we go." Starshine replaced the cover over the hissing mudtrapper, then turned and removed the other cover, revealing hir larger female specimen. It had four legs like the smaller male, but two additional stubby limbs were present, just below the first pair. The cubs gasped again, though more in appreciation than fear this time. "This one is more used to me, because I practiced ‘trapper catching on hir this week. Even so, they don’t seem to be trainable, so never get comfortable around them. She could bite your fingertip off." Starshine was pulling a thick leather glove over hir left hand as shi spoke. The female mudtrapper barked twice as shi loomed over it. The chakat released the latch on the roof of the rough metal cage, opened it, and reached in slowly with the stick in hir right hand.

The cubs were all holding their breaths, standing on their toes and leaning forward so far that they would have fallen down if they had had fewer legs. Starshine leveled the stick at the mudtrapper with hir right hand, and tapped it on the nose several times. The chakat’s visage was calm, but rivaled that of a hunter in its intensity. The female hissed monstrously and puffed up at the attack, then lunged and caught the tip of the stick in its mouth with blinding speed. Half of the cubs screamed, and all of them jumped back, then forward again so as not to miss anything. The mudtrapper continued to hiss through its clenched jaw, while it spun its head on a surprisingly elastic neck, trying to break the stick. Starshine reached into the cage with elaborate casualness, and snatched up the animal by its neck with hir gloved hand. Shi let go of the stick with hir other hand, and the mudtrapper tossed it away. It began to turn its body around on that flexible neck so that its claws could reach Starshine’s arm, but the chakat laid hir other hand on the animal, and it froze instantly. Shi held it up, where the cubs could see it clearly in the firelight.

"Mudtrapper ‘ears’ are extremely sensitive," shi explained as shi gently ran hir nails over the back of its head. "I’m scritching them, just a little, but to the ‘trapper, it sounds like a herd of pukkas are running right over it. So it freezes up and tries to go unnoticed. That’s just a strange little instinct that Chakat Selkie discovered. Of course, if I was actually hurting it, it would fight back, but its neck is easily strong enough to support its weight, so it doesn’t object to being held this way." Starshine settled onto hir haunches and smiled at the wall of fascinated eyes. "Now form a line, and everybody come over and take a look."

The cubs did so, each one inching forward to examine the animal. At Starshine’s encouragement, all of them were willing to sniff the mudtrapper, and half of them were able to bring themselves to pet it. As they did so, shi admonished each of them to avoid playing with mudtrappers, and reminded them that shi had handled dozens before getting to be any good at it, and been nipped more than once. The cubs nodded dutifully. Shi smiled at the group, trying to project reassurance, then gently laid the mudtrapper back in its cage and threw the latch. It didn’t move for several seconds, and Starshine replaced the cover before it could get worked up again.

Amy raised hir hand after the cubs settled back down, and Starshine pointed at hir. "Shir, why do you pick up mudtrappers if you’re scared of them?" A couple of other cubs murmured, having noticed the same thing. Their teacher had no liking at all for the animal that shi had been holding.

Starshine looked down at hir hands for a moment, then took a deep breath and tapped hir muzzle. "Because, Amy, my parents were the first ones who ever saw Gauntjaws, a little before I was born." Everyone just stared at hir. "That story is part of this lesson, too. But one more thing, I almost forgot. Who noticed how many legs the female had?"

Three hands went up, and Starshine pointed at one. "Four!" that cub responded happily.

"That’s right, but there was something else." Starshine pointed at another hand.

"Um," the second cub said, "it looked like it, she, was growing two more legs?"

Starshine tapped hir muzzle again. "Quite right! Mudtrappers grow new sets of legs, very, very slowly. I’ve never seen one with more than three full pairs. Their bodies don’t get much longer in proportion, but as they grow new sets of legs and claws on those legs, they become much better diggers and more dangerous to their prey."

Another cub broke in without raising hir hand. "How many legs did Gauntjaws have?" Everyone looked at hir, and then turned their heads towards Starshine with infinite slowness.

Starshine didn’t answer for a long second. Shi cursed hirself for bringing up the subject. There was no point in lying, but shi didn’t enjoy the horrified looks that the answer always elicited. "Six. She had six sets." The cubs’ reactions did not surprise hir.

* * *

Starshine made sure every cub was snuggled in with a friend or two, then added a little wood to the fire, passed out snacks, and settled down onto hir belly. "Now, the reason we learned so much about mudtrappers in the first place was because of what happened about a year before I was born. My parents studied them in detail, and made sure to teach everybody afterwards." Shi took a few sips of a bark tea that only shi and about five other chakats liked. Starshine was always torn about this story. It served to warn cubs, and yet to teach them how important curiosity was at the same time. But despite the realities of the world in which they all lived, it always seemed somehow cruel to tell children about such things. Shi took a deep breath. "My father is Shir Selkie, and shi was what they called a ‘wetlands biologist’ back when shi had only two legs. You’ve probably seen hir before. Shi’s almost a reverse seal point, with a gray-brown coat and a creamy muzzle, tail and paws. Selkie is a bit bigger than average, and very muscular. Shi’s also got the longest whiskers I’ve ever seen. Shi’s not a loner, but shi does prefer being with only a couple of other people. Shi mostly stays nearby now so that shi can make sure hir family is surrounded and safe. Selkie spends time training older students, so you’ll probably get to have hir as a teacher in a few years. Shi has a collection that puts mine to shame, but you’ll get your tail hairs chewed off if you break something shi’s showing to you.

"Selkie’s mate is Shir Spotter, my mother. I know you’ve met hir. Shi’s the playful black-brown one with a few dark spots, kind of petite but tough, and hir left hand looks deformed. I’ve seen hir play ‘catch’ with at least half of you, and play ‘pounce’ with the other half. Spotter used to be a ‘Ranger’, and shi was known for being one of the best swimming instructors that anybody had ever met. They say shi could hold hir breath for four minutes, come up, take in half a gulp of air, and do it again with a smile, but I think that was an exaggeration. Spotter was hissing mad when shi woke up in a new body and found out that shi wasn’t any better at swimming and holding hir breath than anyone else there." Starshine threw hir hands up in the air and imitated hir mother. "YEARS of training, and then I had to start all over again! Mrowr! Hiss!" The cubs put their hands over their muzzles and giggled.

"They met about two months after waking up, became mates, and made a den. But there was so much work to do that they often had to spend a lot of time apart. Spotter, especially, had to spend a lot of time on patrols and in hunting parties. When Selkie had their first cub, Spotter got into a big argument with Blackmane. What they said or who started it, I don’t know, but Spotter wanted out of any job that took hir away from home, and shi wasn’t being too pleasant about it. Spotter has a habit of cocking hir head at people when shi listens to them, and Blackmane always said that shi ‘looked at things sideways’. It took those two months to make peace. Anyway, Spotter spent more time with hir family, and settled for digging latrines and making weapons, something shi was pretty good at. Meanwhile, Selkie would study new animals, their spoor, tracks and dens, and set box traps just to see what shi could catch and look at. Shi’s had to regrow fingers twice so far doing that, because shi never remembers hir gloves."

"The second spring came, and that was the first time anyone found out about old Gauntjaws. Some herds had been found in the boggy fields well north of the Home Caves the first year, but come the second year, they had all fled. Then chakats started hearing weird noises, throaty barks that echoed for quite a few kilometers at night, like the other nocturnal noises but louder. Hunters went looking for it, but without any luck."

Starshine took another deep breath. "Things kept going weird here and there. A few lone hunters reported being in pursuit of prey that just vanished, in ground too swampy to just run through. The loud barks were heard a few times a week, always from different areas. Chakat Wintry even said that shi saw a bull pukka stumble into a mud pit, and get sucked under in a few seconds instead of floundering. Shi said that shi heard hissing when it went down, but that might have just been gas rising."

The cubs were more huddled than snuggled now, and Starshine very much regretted telling this story, as shi had the previous times that shi had gone through it. No, regretted was not the right word. Shi despised it. But shi needed to take the mystery out of the whole thing. "Halfway through that spring, Chakat Spotter came back, late one evening, looking pale even in the firelight, even though shi was coated in a thick layer of mud. Everyone gathered around, even Blackmane, who was by hir side even before Selkie arrived, and Blackmane was the first to notice what was wrong with hir. Spotter was alone; hir flittery cub, Moth, wasn’t with hir. And Spotter’s left hand was missing."

"They bandaged hir arm and cleaned hir up, and eventually they got hir to tell what had happened. Selkie held on to hir the whole time, not pushing because shi already knew the most important part. Spotter and hir cub had gone on a long hike while Selkie was working. Moth, who was prone to running after anything that caught hir eye, was chasing bugs and bouncing around in puddles and making a complete mess out of hirself. Then shi slipped hir leash and took off running. Spotter ran hir down only a few seconds later near the mud flats out that way. Moth was hip-deep in mud and bogwater, and Spotter was ankle-deep, and sinking because of hir weight. Shi reached down and scooped Moth out of the mud, and when shi lifted hir back up, the boggy ground shifted and Spotter lost hir balance. Jaws as long as hir arm came out of the muck, and legs swung up and clawed hir flanks. Spotter tried to jump back, but shi was standing right on the belly of a huge mudtrapper, and shi didn’t have good footing. The mudtrapper snapped at Spotter as shi pulled away, and it took both hir hand and Moth before sinking back down."

Around the fire, eight pairs of alert ears had drooped down. Starshine gestured towards the youngest ones, and they came over and cuddled up against hir. They were all quiet for a few seconds, until shi saw that everyone was looking up and waiting for hir to go on. "Spotter dove in, but the mudtrapper was already burrowing down, and its lair filled with water and muck around hir. Wounded and unarmed, Spotter almost drowned. But shi did make it out, and shi did make it back home." Starshine skritched the cubs on either side of hir, and passed the bowl of treats around again.

"Spotter and Selkie didn’t move at all the whole night or the next morning. The hunters had gone out as soon as they heard a description of where shi had been attacked, and Spotter had to be pinned down to keep hir from trying to follow them. Everyone could see how shi was eyeing the flint knives that shi had made. Selkie would have followed the hunters also, but shi knew where shi was needed more. The hunting parties stayed out for days, but couldn’t find any scents or tracks or lairs, and the animal never showed up or made a sound."

The cub on Starshine’s right broke in. "Is that cause it could hear them walking around and it hid?"

Starshine looked down at hir. "Uh huh. Mudtrappers are predators, but very shy. They don’t like to be seen. A pack or herd of big animals nearby scares them." Shi looked around the group again. "Lots of Chakats hunted for the animal at different times and places that spring, but no one was able to even get a glimpse of it again, though they did hear it barking sometimes. Some of the cubs and superstitious adults made up names for it: Crooktooth, Dirtlurker and others. They settled on calling it Gauntjaws after Selkie drew a picture of the parts that Spotter had seen. The name was a bad idea. It made people think of it like it was a monster instead of a real animal." Shi reached back with hir tail and retrieved hir third prop, a long bundle wrapped in hide. "Now don’t jump, cubs. Too often, people like to scare each other with silly stories, and those stories go on and on until nobody knows where they came from or what the truth is. We kept this just to show that there’s really no such thing as ‘Gauntjaws’. It’s just a mudtrapper, like the ones in the cages behind me." Shi unwrapped the bundle and revealed two long, bent white objects. Starshine raised them up where all the cubs could see, and joined them together. Shi was holding the shattered remains of a toothy lower jaw. Even curved at a downward angle, it was at least seventy centimeters long. Taking a break from the story, shi let the cubs at hir side touch it, and then passed it around the group.

"Shir, why is it broken?" Amy asked as shi held the jaw. The bone was so damaged that it barely fit together at all anymore.

"I’ll get to that, dear," Starshine said in a kind tone. Shi didn’t take back the jaw, instead letting them all examine it at their leisure. "Now, everyone tried to console Selkie and Spotter, but they spent all their time with their heads nuzzled together, talking quietly. It was obvious that the animal at least looked like a mudtrapper, because Selkie had found small dead ones on two occasions. But no one knew much about them beyond what the scientists guessed from those bodies."

"Hunters kept searching, but there were no more signs and no more attacks. The weather grew hotter and dryer, and people had to stop looking and turn to other tasks. Selkie and Spotter went out and searched as soon as Spotter was able to travel, but they had no more luck. They came home again, and for days were so quiet that people were very concerned about them. Then they started acting strange."

"Selkie, who was strong to begin with, began volunteering for anything that involved heavy lifting. Shi carted rocks, dug holes, hauled logs, and would then come home and lift heavy stones for no reason at all. Shi made ropes and would use them to lift logs out of gullies, toughening up hir hands and backs even more. And every time someone found a mudtrapper corpse, shi would pounce to be the first one to look at it."

"Spotter took to swimming almost all the time, and would practice filling hir lungs and staying down as long as possible, for hours every day. Then shi started sparring with other chakats who were practicing fighting in close quarters, just in case some big animal got within knife range. It was rough work with only one hand, but shi made them treat hir hard, and shi got bruised a lot. When shi wasn’t doing that, shi was making literally hundreds of flint chips and just piling them up in a basket in hir den. Hir hand grew back partially, but shi never got its full use again."

The year passed slowly for them. Just before the following spring, Selkie took off on a biology expedition. Shi spent weeks figuring out how to catch young mudtrappers and imitating them, and when shi had a few, shi started learning about them." Starshine took another sip of tea. "Now of course you all know that what they wanted was to catch that one particular mudtrapper. Everyone knew that, sooner or later, it would attack another Chakat if they didn’t find it. Selkie had gone fishing with meat, rope and bone hooks to catch the little ‘trappers. But shi could not count on fishing to catch a big one." Starshine looked around the group.

"Because Gauntjaws… the mudtrapper would bite right through anything like that!" said an older cub.

Starshine tapped hir muzzle. "Quite right. They didn’t have metal hooks, and nothing else was big enough or strong enough to do the job. And they had already seen that the hunters had no luck banding together and tracking down the ‘trapper. So, Selkie and Spotter decided to get creative. I’m not saying that what they did was a good idea," Starshine held up hir hands, "but I was born later, so it must have had its good points."

"They had a few conversations with Blackmane and White Tip during that year, and conferred with lots of other hunters and scientists. Of course, everybody had theories, but they hadn’t even been able to test them for most of that year. The mudtrappers had been hibernating for almost fourteen months, so by the time Selkie was able to catch live ones, that one big mudtrapper was awake again, and no one knew exactly where it was hiding. There were patrols sent out to the bogs, but they didn’t have any more luck than the year before."

"Spotter began spending a lot of time camping out that way, and Selkie would send hir information on what shi had learned about the live ‘trappers that shi had caught. Truth to tell, Selkie probably wasn’t being kind to the ‘trappers, judging from what shi learned about them. Eventually they got back together and made a real plan, and started gathering tools for it during the day. At night, Spotter would camp out and just listen. When shi heard that big echoing bark, shi knew it was time, and went to fetch Selkie."

"They spent a day or two gathering plants, and hunted down and cleaned a kappu to take to the bogs with them. They were loaded down for their trip, and they wouldn’t tell anyone what they were up to, though everyone knew that it had something to do with mudtrappers." Starshine paused for a drink, and examined hir cup for a long time. "They really should have gotten some help, and probably a better plan. But Selkie and Spotter were… they were determined to make sure nothing happened to anyone else. They had even put off having any more cubs, just in case something went wrong. And like Blackmane said, Spotter looked at things sideways. Selkie told me later that shi had absolutely no fear for hir mate. Shi could see in Spotter’s eyes who was going to win. Spotter had been taking care of Selkie’s cub, and felt responsible for losing hir. Shi wasn’t going to have any cub of theirs be in danger again."

The cubs against Starshine’s sides were pressed so close that they had begun to feel like part of hir. Shi reached down and stroked their heads as shi talked. "They spent almost a week out there, far away from everybody else, and running off the Chakats that came by to see how they were doing. For hours and hours, they would move a little ways, then call out like male mudtrappers who were trying to mate. The other mudtrappers in the area were doing the same calls, but slowly they trickled off, until only one deep bark and a couple of other small ones could be heard out in the night. The chakats kept up their calls, moving around and narrowing down where that big voice could be. Without the other barks, they could hear her clearly, and since their calls were so loud and deep, she was trying to find them too."

Starshine stopped. "Does anyone know why that one big mudtrapper kept calling after the other ones had stopped?" Shi pricked hir ears, waiting for the answer.

There was a long silence, broken only by two or three ‘umms’ from the cubs. Then the little cub on hir right responded. "Ooooh."

Starshine looked down at hir. "Yes, Juniper?" Shi scratched the cub behind the ear.

"Gauntjaws… the big mudtrapper, she got so huge that she couldn’t find anyone else big enough during mating season, right?"

Starshine tickled the cub’s muzzle. "On the nose, muffin." Juniper beamed. "That mudtrapper probably hadn’t laid any eggs in years and years. Anyway, slowly they drew closer to her, always moving really slowly and lightly so that she couldn’t figure out what they were. After six nights, they had guessed almost exactly where the ‘trapper was hiding. She moved around a lot, looking for big prey and a mate, so they couldn’t wait. Selkie and Spotter hid, and Selkie gave out a huge bark, like this." Starshine raised hir head and let out a RROWP! RROWP!, which made all the cubs jump and giggle, and the nearby adults roll their eyes and smile.

"That made the mudtrapper stick her head up out of the mud and take a look around, and then they had her. They got to work. They rubbed animal fat all over Spotter until shi was slippery, and Selkie poured thick poison that shi had made from plants and animals that Chakats can’t eat all over Spotter’s backs and legs. It wasn’t very strong, just enough to make anything that bit hir want to let go. Spotter strapped flint knives to both of hir forearms, and two more to hir forelegs. They already knew that bows and spears would be pretty useless against a hide as thick as the mudtrapper’s, and the knives were just in case shi got too close. Selkie tied ropes to a leather harness around hir waist, attached them a couple of small trees growing nearby, and tied more between hirself and Spotter, with lots of slack to let out. Shi also had a knife and a stone mallet on hir belt, whose head weighed about two kilos. They took all the flint chips that Spotter had been making, and put them into a dry animal bladder, along with cactus spines, scorpion stingers, burrs and lots of other nasty stuff, and dolloped some more poison in on top of that. Then they stuffed the bladder inside the little kappu they had carried out there, and sewed it up. Spotter tied three more ropes to the kappu, and fixed them to hir harness."

They waited an hour, hoping that would be long enough for the mudtrapper to forget about the noise they had made. Selkie called out once or twice more, trying to convince the animal that it was safe. Spotter put big pads on hir paws made out layers of spongy leaves. Then shi slung the kappu over hir shoulders, put one more flint knife between hir teeth, and made hir way towards where they had seen the mudtrapper. Behind hir, Selkie was playing out the ropes and making quiet little critter-noises. Spotter stepped into ankle-deep water and soft mud under that, and walked oh-so-slowly, trying not to stir it very much. Shi waited."

"After a minute or two, a bubble came up to the surface of the water. Spotter saw it, and tossed out the kappu, its ropes trailing back to hir. It splashed heavily, and Spotter slowly reeled it back towards hir, giving it little jerks so it would splash more. Slowly shi dragged it over where shi had seen the bubble…and then with a hiss, the giant mudtrapper popped up and bit down on the dead kappu!" Starshine made a clamping motion with hir hands, and all sixteen ears around hir lay down flat while the cubs’ eyes grew huge.

"She tried to burrow back down instantly, opening hir jaws and chomping down hard on it again. But Spotter set all four paws, grabbed the lead ropes, and hauled back as hard as possible. Hir left hand wasn’t much good, but shi had hung the ropes where shi could put hir shoulders and full weight into the fight. Shi snarled as shi dragged the mudtrapper’s head back out of the water again, and it hissed back. It shifted its grip on the kappu, opened its mouth and chomped down again…and this time it burst the animal bladder the chakats had put inside the bait."

"The mudtrapper’s mouth was full of razor-sharp flint, stingers and everything else, and her tongue and nose were cut and burning. She inhaled sharply and swelled up her air bladders all the way, trying to chase away Spotter and the pain, and that just made things worse for her." Starshine paused, and three cubs spoke at almost exactly the same time.

"She inhaled the flint!"

Starshine smiled at them. "A really bad thing to do. Mudtrappers are used to sucking things like bits of meat and bone, mud and water into their air bladders, but this was something else. She shredded the insides of her air bladders to pieces. The ‘trapper hissed and screamed, which made it worse yet, and she bit down some more, and this time her teeth cut through the ropes on the bait. The mudtrapper sank down, howling and barking and hissing, and Spotter could smell her blood."

"Now, this is when Spotter did what might have been the single stupidest thing that any Chakat has ever done. They both knew that the mudtrapper couldn’t live under the muck and water for long, because her air bladders were too cut up. She would probably die pretty fast even if she managed to spit it all back out. But ‘probably’ wasn’t enough to make Spotter happy. Shi took off hir footpads and pulled the knife out from between hir teeth, and Selkie heard hir say, ‘Now let’s see who can hold their breath longer’. Then Spotter jumped in after the mudtrapper."

"That ground was like thin quicksand from where the mudtrapper had been digging. The mudtrapper wasn’t down deep, either, because she had to come almost right back up for air. The result was that a whole chakat landed on her belly right when she needed to take a breath, and both of them sank down. Selkie saw hir mate jump and vanish, and immediately began reeling hir back up. That was why shi had been training; Selkie knew that shi might have to haul Spotter out of deep mud in a hurry. Shi turned hir back on the fight, on the snarls and hisses coming from the bog about fifteen meters away, and leaned hir whole body into the motion. It was even harder than shi would have guessed. Not only was Spotter heavier from being coated in mud, despite the animal fat coating hir, but Selkie was also hauling up the weight of a ‘trapper that was even bigger than Spotter and thrashing around."

"Selkie hauled on those ropes, roaring and turning deep red even through hir facial fur. Shi managed to get to the trees securing hir and began wrapping the lines around them, and then shi looked back at the two. Spotter was wrapped around the back of the mudtrapper with all hir legs, where her claws couldn’t reach hir very well, but her hooked tail was stuck in the chakat’s shoulder. Spotter had wrapped hir safety lines around the ‘trapper’s neck twice and was squeezing it as best shi could, while shi was cutting into the side of the ‘trapper’s mouth with hir third knife and screaming into the animal’s ears to keep her confused."

"While Selkie was knotting the ropes around the nearest tree, the mudtrapper swung her head around and almost bit off Spotter’s head. She wasn’t much good on her feet, but she had so many feet that she was incredibly dangerous. The chakats had no idea that mudtrappers could grow so many legs. Spotter was punctured several times by claws despite being on her back. Selkie finished tying off the ropes, let hirself out of hir harness, and charged into the fight. Shi took hir stone mallet along; not the most useful weapon normally, but the chakats had guessed how tough the ‘trapper’s hide would be, and they wanted to have a good way to make use of Selkie’s strength."

Amy broke in, holding up the shattered pieces of bone that Starshine had passed out. "So that’s what happened to this, Shir?"

Starshine nodded. "Selkie broke the mudtrapper’s jaw wide open with one blow, and cracked her shoulder with the second blow before the mallet broke also. Then shi grabbed the safety lines and began tightening them, pulling the ‘trapper down every time she tried to get away. It was a brutal, terrible fight. Long after the chakats could barely stay on their feet, the mudtrapper was still trying to claw them and get away. Selkie got cut a few times, but eventually managed to drag the animal all the way to the roped tree, which was coming up by its roots by that point. Shi started lassoing the ‘trapper’s upper limbs and tying them back, while Spotter kept cutting, even sticking hir whole arm in the animal’s broken mouth to find soft spots."

"By the time they were done, a whole team of hunters had traveled all the way out to the mud fields to see what was screaming so loudly. Selkie and Spotter were too tired to even look at one another’s wounds, and the hunters had to wash and suture them. The hunters said that the mudtrapper had more knives left in her head than teeth, but I think they were exaggerating."

"Eventually they got Selkie and Spotter home, and while they were resting, almost everyone went out to examine the mudtrapper. Selkie kept the jaw, which they had cut out while making sure it was dead, but shi told the others that the corpse was to be burned when they were through with it and not brought back where they would see it again. Nobody went against hir on that, but after they had rested for a couple of days, they were yelled at and lectured so many times that it was a wonder the fur didn’t fall off their ears. Almost the whole thing had been Spotter’s idea, and shi hadn’t even discussed diving after the ‘trapper with hir mate. But Selkie defended hir from everyone, and was ready to bite people to make sure shi got some peace."

"What did they do next?" a small voice asked from Starshine’s left.

"They had five cubs!" shi replied. "I was the third. But they weren’t willing to have any more until they knew that at least that one danger was gone. Spotter became very peaceful after that. Shi made up completely with hir commanding officer, in more ways than one, and spent hir time herding kits. Shi didn’t want to have to think about hunting or fighting any more. A year of that had been enough for hir whole life. Selkie led the family, and trained every cub shi could catch about the local fauna. Shi goes on short expeditions with a class every year, just to make sure the mudtrappers stay small. Shi’s a very good teacher, though shi shoots questions at you until you think you’ve been shot with a bow."

The cubs were all quiet and peaceful, and Starshine thought they had gotten the message. Teaching the younger generation to treat ‘Gauntjaws’ like the animal it was, and not as a ‘swamp legend’ was a personal quest of hirs. Eventually, shi hoped, shi would be able to rid hir own mind of that myth. That Selkie and Spotter had blundered immensely by not involving other Chakats more, Starshine did not doubt, but shi wasn’t going to omit anything just to make them sound better. In fact, hir parents, a couple of decades wiser now, had admonished Starshine to not leave out the parts of the story that made them look foolish. As Selkie once told hir, ‘All we did was wander into a dangerous place with not enough help, club a dangerous animal, and almost die doing it’. Neither of them had any desire to be portrayed as heroic dragon-slayers. A loud ‘RROWP!’ came from hir right, and Starshine jumped halfway to hir feet. Everyone else giggled at the barking cub, and broke out into laughter when answering barks came from the cages. Starshine grinned and settled back down, and soon the entire group was joining in.


 

Chakats and the Chakat Universe are the creations of Bernard Doove and are used with permission.

The Colony and its original characters are copyright V. Ducain and are used with permission.

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