The first rumblings that something was wrong began two days after aun Sjir’phal and oun D’jir first went to the prayer hut to find the ancient tomes in their iron crates. Fights began to break out among groups of aun Deuili. aun Sjir’phal left the hut after a restless night sleeping on the ground. He paused at the door to stretch the tightness in his lower back. That is when he noticed two aun Deuili scrabbling around on the wet earth, hissing and spitting, all claws and raised hackles.
He made to stop it, when aun P’ata’lyh stopped him.
“They’re fighting for mating rights,” his friend told him.
“Mating rights?” he asked, dumbfounded. “Mating rights with whom?”
aun P’ata’lyh grimaced. “oun D’jir. He is the dominant oun Shi’ehl.”
oun D’jir stood at the door, scowling at the aun Deuili rolling around the puddles and looking no better than kits.
aun Sjir’phal’s mouth quirked, but he restrained himself. “oun Shi’ehl.”
“Bah!” oun D’jir stomped out of the hut to stand next to them. “How far into our past have we degraded?”
“This is beyond you,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured and bowed. “You have no say. The aun Deuil that wins you—“
“I know the rules,” oun D’jir hissed. He looked archly at aun P’ata’lyh then aun Sjir’phal. “Well? Are you going to fight the winner?”
“Do you want me to?” oun Sjir’phal asked.
“I care not what you do, but I am not some morsel of meat to be fought over.” His scowl quelled whatever aun Sjir’phal was going to say.
aun Sjir’phal bowed. “Ye. If we are mated, oun Shi’ehl, I will fight to make sure you remain relatively free.”
oun D’jir raised an eyebrow. “Relatively? If we go even further back in time, a High Priest never mated with anyone.”
“I know this,” aun Sjir’phal assured him. “Is that what you want?”
“I want a healthy colony with plenty of kits,” oun D’jir hissed. “But they must come from our own cells until there are enough genetic differences. We cannot mate.” He huffed in impatience. “I mean, we can mate, but we must be careful not to produce offspring from such couplings.” He sighed. “You and I were from different arks, aun Sjir’phal, so perhaps our offspring would do well. But I see at least one stupid aun Deuil in that melee over there who was from my ark.”
aun P’ata’lyh spread his hands. “This is a good thing, this fighting. We will establish a pecking order. You, my friend—“ He glanced at aun Sjir’phal. “You must win yourself a High Priest.”
aun Sjir’phal sighed and nodded. “You are correct. This is healthy for our males. We will establish who is dominant and, as dominants, you and I will pair the others up.”
oun D’jir made to protest, but aun Sjir’phal bowed. “Please, oun Shi’ehl. This is right for our people at this time.”
The oun Shi’ehl stared at him for a few minutes then sighed and nodded. “Very well. I leave it in your capable hands—“
“Ne,” aun P’ata’lyh interrupted. “The battle for ascendancy has no value without the witness of the submissive.”
oun D’jir drew himself to his full height, his mane raising behind him. “Submissive?”
aun P’ata’lyh bowed. “I beg pardon but that is an approximation. Could you win against an aun Deuil in battle?”
oun D’jir huffed a laugh. “There are other ways to dominate.”
“Semantics,” aun P’ata’lyh muttered and pointed at the group of oun Shi’ehl who were avidly watching the fight.
oun D’jir grimaced in disgust, but he made no move to leave.
The winner of the fight did not kill the other. Even bitter enemies realized how few they were, how fragile their bout for survival. The winning aun Deuil pranced and strutted before the group of oun Shi’ehli. He was young and virile, aun Sjir’phal decided, but not particularly clever or intelligent.
“For whom do you fight?” aun Sjir’phal demanded.
The aun Deuil made himself big, his muddy mane cresting behind him, from forehead to lower back. He was a silver-black aun Deuil. Beautiful and powerful, and he knew it, too.
“I fight for the High Priest,” he huffed in challenge, snarling his fangs at aun Sjir’phal.
aun Sjir’phal would have to conclude the fight and quickly while his opponent was still weary. He removed his scimitar and handed it to aun P’ata’lyh. His stun gun had been left on his ark that clung now to the space halfway between the moon and the planet. He removed his robes and handed them to his friend. He moved to the clearing beyond the first of the huts. As he walked, he rolled his shoulders and released the muscles along his back. He kept his tail tightly wound around his left thigh. It didn’t do to give away his nervousness by having the tail swinging at will.
The younger aun Deuil attacked him before aun Sjir’phal was even halfway to where he stood. He lunged himself at aun Sjir’phal and knocked him to the muddy ground. The air was knocked from his lungs, but aun Sjir’phal reacted defensively even as he struggled to recover. He wrapped his large hand around the other’s neck and squeezed.
The aun Deuil scowled and pulled from aun Sjir’phal’s grasp. They rolled over puddles and mud until aun Sjir’phal felt he had gained several pounds of wet earth. He lifted the other and kicked him away, jumping to his feet and gouging the soft ground with his claws. He went on the offensive and jumped on top of the other, punching his face until his face was smeared with blood. With a growl, he sank his fangs into the other’s shoulder, eliciting a howl of pain. The aun Deuil punched aun Sjir’phal on the nose in an attempt to dislodge him. The soft cartiledge gave way. Pain exploded behind aun Sjir’phal’s eyes. He bit the inside of his mouth to keep from howling. He grunted and released the other’s shoulder. He could taste the coppery sweetness of blood. The younger aun Deuli went on the offensive and attacked with renewed energy. Then they were throwing punches and rolling around.
aun Sjir’phal grew tired as they rolled around, punching, biting and gouging. He needed to end this. He had multiple slices on his midriff from his opponent’s claws. He was losing a lot of blood.
“You will lose, aun Sjir’phal,” the younger aun Deuil hissed.
But the younger aun Deuil was losing blood, too, and was getting tired from having fought most of the night. aun Sjir’phal knew this was his chance.
With monumental effort, he flipped his sleek opponent onto his belly and wrapped his arm around his neck. The aun Deuil fought in earnest, but the headlock effectively ended his efforts. He slapped his hand into a puddle.
“I give,” he muttered.
“We can’t hear you,” aun Sjir’phal murmured in his ear.
“I give!” he yelled.
aun Sjir’phal stood and stepped back. He turned in a lazy circle.
“Who’s next?” he taunted despite the pain for half a dozen wounds and a broken nose. He doubted he could defeat another, more seasoned warrior.
He raked his eyes over the gathered aun Deuili, who glared back at him, mute and defiant, but offering no challenge. There were quite a few bloodied and muddied.
“No one will fight you,” the defeated aun Deuil growled. “I had defeated several aun Deuil last night.”
aun Sjir’phal turned back to the gathering of Shajeen. “Here is how it will be then. I am the dominant aun Deuil. I mate with the High Priest. You will find your mates, but your mates must not be from the same ark. We’ve interbred enough.”
One aun Deuil stepped forward. “There are 110 aun Deuili and 42 oun Shi’ehli. How are we to decide who mates with whom? It is not fair to fight, leaving 68 aun Deuili without mates.”
One of the oun Shi’ehl took a step forward. “Some of us can have two mates or three.”
The oun Shi’ehli tittered behind him.
oun D’jir snorted. “My guards have to be celibate. That is an ancient law. So, twenty aun Deuili will not fight for ascendancy.”
“That leaves 48,” someone happily offered.
oun D’jir rolled his eyes and huffed a laugh. “Know this aun Deuili! If you are from the same ark as an oun Shi’ehl, you are forbidden from pursuing him. aun P’ata’lyh, assist me. We shall divide the oun Shi’ehli and aun Deuili into five groups. Then we shall see who goes with whom.” He ran his eyes over the oun Shi’ehli. “All those who came from the ark xema, stand here. All those from ark olta, stand here. All those from ark terson, here. And ark alpik? Here.”
oun D’jir saw that no oun Shi’ehl from the ark stok had survived. That knowledge sobered him.
He turned to the aun Deuili on the other side of the ground. “All those aun Deuili from the ark xema, stand here. From the ark olta, here. From the ark terson, here. And from ark alpik, here.” He counted. That left 30 from the ark stok. “I will take shanstk from ark stok to guard my temple. And shanstk from the other arks.”
aun Sjir’phal squatted under the prayer hut’s shadow. It was late morning, and the air was humid and promised to be sweltering by midday. He panted as he watched the High Priest appoint random aun Deuili to be his temple guards. He huffed with surprise when oun D’jir appointment the oun Deuil he had fought as the head of the guards. Perhaps losing to aun Sjir’phal had taken his desire to mate from him. Or perhaps all he wanted was prestige.
The aun Deuil bowed gratefully to oun D’jir and took his place, muddy and bloody, at the head of the twenty new guards.
aun Sjir’phal wiped the back of a hand under his nose. The hand came away wet with blood and mud. He grimaced. Rising, he strode past into the jungle. There was a waterfall nearby, along a path the colony had worn down and cut with their swords. It was the closest source of fresh water to their settlement. As he approached, he could smell the fresh water.
He paused on a boulder and gazed down at the jade green water teeming with colorful fish about a hand in length. The pool was deep and large. The roar of the waterfall dampened all nearby sounds. The boulder upon which he stood was cold to the touch and damp.
Removing his sword belt and trousers, he set them to one side and dove into the pool. The fish scattered away from him. Bubbles rose from his mouth and nostrils as he touched bottom and swam up to break the surface. Swimming had been instinctual to the Sha’jeen. aun Sjir’phal had never swum in his life, but he found he knew how to do it without much practice or error. The water was icy, but it felt good against his overheated body. The cold water also numbed the ache of his broken nose.
He swam to the edge of the pool and then scrubbed the mud from his fur and mane. He rinsed once more then climbed the boulders to gather his trousers and sword belt, striding naked as the day he was born back to the settlement. No one paid him any heed as he made his way to the long hall where the aun Deuili slept. He dropped his muddy trousers at the foot of his pallet and opened his chest to withdraw fresh robes and pair of trousers. He dressed quickly.
There was an ieh bouel sweeping the long hall floor.
“Please wash these trousers for me,” he told the neuter.
The ieh bouel bowed. “Of course, aun Deuil. Right away.”
As the ieh bouel approached, aun Sjir’phal studied it. He was a pretty, if smallish, being. There was nothing malformed or offensive about it. The ieh bouel came only to about aun Sjir’phal’s shoulder and it was graceful and lean, not bulky with muscles like the aun Deuili.
aun Sjir’phal put his hands out and touched the ieh bouel’s shoulder.
The ieh bouel started. He gazed flinchingly at aun Sjir’phal. “Have I offended?”
“Ne,” aun Sjir’phal assured him. “You are quite attractive, ieh bouel.”
The ieh bouel looked embarrassed and startled. He bowed. “Thank you.”
“I do not seek to mate,” aun Sjir’phal assured him hurriedly. “It’s just…why I have I so infrequently looked at your kind?”
The ieh bouel looked at a loss for words.
aun Sjir’phal sighed. “Never mind. Go on.”
The ieh bouel bowed again and picked up the muddy trousers and hurried away.
aun Sjir’phal huffed an embarrassed laugh and turned towards the front door of the long hall and made his way outside to where oun D’jir was still trying to determine who would pair with whom. He stood under the eaves of the long hall and watched, leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed over muscular chest.
aun P’ata’lyh strode through the throng of Sha’jeen and approached aun Sjir’phal.
“oun D’jir is doing a good job of pairing our people off off,” He murmured as he turned to stand next to aun Sjir’phal. “He’s a good administrator.”
aun Sjir’phal gaze followed oun D’jir as he walked between people.
He was taken aback once more by the oun Shi’ehl’s beauty. Despite his distended pouch, where he carried the growing kits.
“I am honored oun D’jir has agreed to mate with me,” he murmured.
“Ye,” his friend replied. “It is an honor to mate the High Priest.”
aun Sjir’phal glanced at his friend from the corner of his eyes. “I know, my friend. I am well aware of the honor.”
He ran his gaze along the lines of Sha’jeen. Would they survive, he wondered. There was so much to do, and something could always go wrong.
“You’re worrying again, my friend,” aun P’ata’lyh. “Put your worries on the foot of the God. We can’t control the future or even if we are to survive. All we can do is our best.”
aun Sjir’phal felt humbled at his friend’s wisdom. “You should mate with oun D’jir, my friend.
You are wise.”
aun P’ata’lyh hissed his amusement. “What would I do with such as young mate? You forget I am older than you. I enjoy not fighting for a mate and living quietly, my friend.”
aun Sjir’phal bent his head in honor of his friend.
They clasped forearms.
“I will sit on the Council and the laws I help approve shall be my offspring,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured. “Now, come with me to the healing hut. You are bleeding through your clothes.”