Chapter Thirteen

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"This is infuriating," announced Jekavi, sitting down heavily on the ground and glowering at Flax, who had trotted away, shaking his mane, and come to a halt about twenty feet away. Flax watched Jekavi for a few moments and then settled down to grazing again. Jekavi picked one of the long grasses and chewed it, looking at the three packbeasts.

"You can't blame them, really," said Tarke, sitting down next to him. "The last time they were handled they were castrated."

"I know. But they were asleep when it happened."

"Doesn't stop them feeling sore when they wake up," Louka pointed out. "They're not going to want to be caught."

She looked over towards the fire, where Nemeth sat, cross-legged, watching them and grinning.

Don't just sit and grin, said Louka. Think of a bright idea.

Nemeth stood up and came over, seating himself by the others.

"Why don't you just dart one of them?" he asked.

"Because you and Sherath are the only ones with darts, since you won't let anyone hunt any more without at least one of you," Tarke said.

"True. But you could always have asked. Which one do you want? And why?"

"Flax," said Jekavi. "I want to try this backpack on him to see if it will fit comfortably."

"Okay," said Nemeth. "Go and get some grain or something, and a halter. If you give him something good to eat as soon as he wakes up, and then maybe hold him and brush him while he eats, he might settle down enough to realise that you're not going to hurt him. I'll wait till you get back."

Nemeth sat, watching the packbeast grazing. The others left him.

You're a fool, Flax, thought Nemeth. If you just gave in gracefully we wouldn't have to dart you. And you're not really scared at all. He looked over to the two unicorns grazing close together. Hey, big fella! he called. Moondust lifted his head, shaking his forelock away from his eyes, and looked over. You could make life much easier if you'd only tell them we're not going to hurt.

Moondust snorted, shaking his mane, and returned to his grazing, his muzzle close to Moonwind's.

Not without a direct order from Farinka, eh? said Nemeth. Well, since she's still asleep, nothing doing. He looked up at the sun, now well past zenith, and then over to the roundhouse where they were sleeping. They should be awake soon.

Nemeth? called Tarke.

Yeah, what?

– You can get nearer to dart him if we keep back, she pointed out.

– Good thinking. Nemeth quietly sorted out his blowpipe and a thorn dart, and stood, watching Flax out of the corner of his eye. He walked vaguely in Flax's direction, not directly towards him but on a diagonal line that would take him fairly close. Every now and then he crouched to pretend to look at something in the grass. Flax stopped grazing, his head down, watching Nemeth curiously. Nemeth sat down, still watching the packbeast slantwise through his eyelashes.

He turned his head slowly, the blowpipe to his lips, looking for the soft skin behind Flax's elbow, and waiting for the beast to take a step forwards to expose it. Flax moved on, rolling his eye backwards to keep Nemeth in sight, but still grazing. It took one fast, hard puff – and seconds later Flax's legs buckled. He hit the ground heavily, and rolled onto his side. Nemeth was by him in a flash, his hand on the light dun neck, stroking him.

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