Not that there was much to cook. Most of the animals that his village hunted had moved out of the valley, looking for cooler, wetter areas. And the harvest this year was looking dismal; crops were growing poorly where they had sprouted at all. The axe made another thunk noise when he swung it again.
"Pico!" He looked up and saw his friend Bandt walking across his yard. Bandt was smiling broadly, and was carrying two dead umlio. Pico waved to his friend as he approached.
Bandt hefted the carcasses. "Those traps I set were worth it," he said. "Did you want one?"
"Yes, thanks," Pico replied. He took one of the animals from Bandt. His mate would be able to make stew for three days from the umlio. "I appreciate this. Did you want to eat with us tonight?"
Bandt shook his head. "No, thanks. I'm eating tonight with Tana." He smiled. "Maybe she'll be the one, eh?"
Pico laughed. "Maybe."
Bandt was still unmated, but always looking. "I've got a good feeling about her," Bandt said. "And you've got to love the way she swings that tail."
"I haven't noticed." Which wasn't quite true. Pico's eyes were turned by a good-looking vixen, just like any other male. But he kept it subtle. He still had a family to think about.
Winking conspiratorially, Bandt grinned. "If you say so. I'll talk to you later, all right?"
"Sure, and thanks again!" Pico watched his friend walk away before gathering up the chopped wood to carry inside.
Pico's mate Syrna glanced up from her sewing when he entered their den. She noticed the umlio resting on top of the pile of wood. "Where did you get that?" she asked.
"Bandt." Pico put the wood next to the cooking fire and set the umlio on the hearth. "He caught two and gave me one."
"That was nice of him."
Pico nodded and went back outside. The sun was as hot as ever.
Drifting across the village were the sounds of shouting. Pico hurried to the center of the village, where the noise was coming from. Several other Vulponi were gathered around Tolc. He was wearing his usual white robes and was carrying a large glass cylinder.
"I don't see how that thing could tell the weather," a large male growled, pointed at the cylinder.
Tolc held the cylinder aloft, and the crowd quieted. "This is a barometer," he said in a loud, clear voice. "I built it using records written during the Age of the Kings. It measures the pressure in the air and predicts a change in the weather."
"There are still no clouds in the sky," someone called from inside the crowd.
"The barometer has shown a drop in the pressure," Tolc explained. "It has been falling steadily all day. It will rain soon."
"When?" several people asked.
"Soon," was Tolc's only reply.
Pico wanted to believe Tolc's claim, but the crazy fool had been wrong so many times before. He was always going into the city to dig through the old records kept in the Library. A few months earlier, he said that he had made something that would make flowers of fire in the night sky, but he had only singed his fur and burned a shed down.
Bandt came up to Pico as the crowd began to disperse. "What do you think of Tolc's newest toy?" he asked.
Pico shook his head. "I think he's just playing off of people's fears and hopes this time. You can't predict the weather."
But as the sun set that evening, Tolc's predictions came true. The first few sprinkles of rain began to fall, dotting the dry, cracked ground. Kits went out to romp in the rain until they were called inside, muddy and tired. The rain fell heavier. Small rivers of water ran down the hillsides, into the valley. And then the lightening began.
Pico was sitting next to the hearth with Syrna, enjoying the cool, wet breeze blowing through the door, when Bandt ran up to their door holding a flickering lantern. "Pico," he said breathlessly, "the river's rising fast. The huts closest to the river are in danger of getting flooded."
Jumping to his feet, Pico grabbed his poncho and kissed Syrna. She grabbed his hand and held it tightly. "Got to go help, love," he murmured. "I'll be back soon."
"Be careful," she whispered back. He nodded and headed out into the storm with Bandt.
The river waters were muddy and violent. White-capped waves - Waves!, Pico thought, stunned - raced each other past the village. The water was lapping at the foundations of the huts. The other volunteers were already busy building an earthen dike to hold back the water, but the rain-drenched soil was difficult to handle.
Pico threw himself into the work, shoveling mud and rocks to put into the dike while keeping an eye on the river. He didn't even know how long he had been hauling materials for the construction when shouts came from those closest to the river. Pico tried to listen to what they were yelling over the roar of the storm and the river.
"...back...river! ...flood!" was all that Pico could make out. He took a few steps towards the river when a flash of lightening showed him that everyone was running away from the river, towards their huts.
Bandt appeared out of the gloom and grabbed Pico's arm. "Get Syrna and your kits, and get them away from the river!" he shouted.
The kits. Syrna. Not knowing why he was running, Pico turned and ran as fast as he could back to his hut. He skidded on the mud in front of his hut and went down. Bandt had followed him and helped Pico up. Bandt pulled open the door and rushed inside.
Syrna was sitting by the hearth still, but the fire had died to embers. One of the kits, who had probably been scared by the thunder, was sleeping on the rug by her feet. She glanced up when Pico and Bandt entered, relief painted across her face.
Bandt scooped the sleeping kit, Wind, into his muddy arms while Pico ran into the next room to fetch the elder kit, Ireda. "What's going on?" asked Syrna.
"The river's stopped rising," Bandt said, taking the shawl that Syrna gave him and wrapping it around Wind. "Tolc says that it's probably a log jam upriver. It could go at anytime, and the village would be washed away."
Syrna gasped. Pico held Ireda to him tightly, even when she began to wake and mumble. He glanced down at her and gently kissed the top of her head. His darling girl. She'll be a beautiful vixen one day, he thought.
Back outside, the storm seemed to renew its fury. The other Vulponi in the village were running for the trail that led up into the hills. The ground was slippery, and fallen branches made the going slow.
Pico felt the noise before he heard it. The ground seemed to shake beneath his feet. Gradually, Pico heard a dull, ominous roar upriver. "Daddy? What's that noise?" Ireda asked. Her thin voice seemed to cut right through the storm.
Pico, Syrna, and Bandt had just reached the trail where a small knot of villagers had gathered under the trees. Ciren, the village healer, came to see if they were all right. "We should be all right here," he said. "Besides, the trail is terribly slippery. People may get hurt trying to climb it."
"No!" Bandt yelled. In his arms, Wind began to cry. Syrna took the kit from Bandt. "We have to get away - and up - from the river. We'll get swept away if we don't."
Ciren shook his head. "We'll be perfectly safe here," he shouted over the growing roar from the river.
Bandt pointed upstream angrily. "Are you deaf? The whole damn river is going to come slamming down on us!"
Ciren shrugged and stepped away to greet two new arrivals.
"Bloody fool!" Bandt started up the path, his feet sliding in the muck.
Syrna looked at the steep trail and shook her head. "Ciren said that we would be safe here, Pico." She looked around at the other villagers gathered beneath the trees. "We are almost a klich from the river here. Surely we are safe."
Pico put his mouth closer to Syrna's ear. "I would feel safer if we went higher. Just until morning."
Syrna hesitated, looking down at Wind, who was whimpering in her arms. "All right," she agreed, and started to follow Bandt up the path.
On the upstream side of the valley, the forest exploded.
Until his dying day, Pico swore that everything happened in slow motion. The trees on the edge of the valley disappeared in a wall of water. As the towering wave swept into the wide valley, it began to spread out, sweeping away anything in its path.
Pico and Syrna struggled up the slippery trail. Wind was screaming, frightened by the loud noise of the water ripping up trees and boulders three klichs away. The mud proved treacherous, especially when the other villagers began to swarm up the trail.
Ireda had a death grip around Pico's neck, her muzzle buried in his neck fur. Pico looked up and saw Bandt standing in front of him, holding out his arms. "Give me Ireda!" he shouted. "Help Syrna!" The water was two klichs away.
Pico managed to de-tangle Ireda's arms from his neck and hand her over to Bandt. Turning downhill, Pico grabbed a tree branch with one hand and Syrna's wrist with the other.
The water crashed down below them, and the ground fell away from beneath Syrna's feet.
Pico's sapling ripped out of the ground, and he was dragged a few feet. Syrna dangled over the raging torrent where their home once was.
Reaching down with his other arm, Pico tried to pull Syrna up. Her blue eyes were locked with his as she shouted, "Take Wind first!"
Pico knew that he couldn't lift them both at the same time. While holding Syrna's wrist with one hand, he grasped Wind's small arm with the other. With a heave, Pico pulled Wind up beside him.
The ground beneath him responded to the extra weight by crumbling more. Pico strained to lift his mate, his eyes never leaving hers.
But her muddy fur was too slick for him to hold onto. He could only watch in horror as he lost his grip and she fell.
Pico would never talk about watching her fall, or watching her hit the water and disappear into the waves.
As the thunder quieted and the rain drizzled into a fine mist, Bandt found Pico curled up beneath a tree. He was holding Wind in his arms, quietly singing a lullaby and rocking him gently.
Bandt knelt beside Pico and put a paw on his shoulder. "Pico?" he asked softly.
Pico's eyes were bloodshot and teary. "She's dead. I couldn't hold onto her," he murmured.
Bandt bowed his head and sat with his friend in silence for a few minutes. Then, he said, "Ireda's with Roln and Petra."
Pico seemed to wake, looking around. "Where?"
"Up the hill. We're gathering to see who's..." Bandt stopped.
"Who's dead, you mean." Pico looked down at Wind, who was snoring softly. "I'll still have Syrna with me. And I'll make sure the kits know who their mother was."
With that, Pico stood up and looked down the hill, towards the river. Trees and other debris swept down the river, and he could hear boulders being tumbled in the riverbed by the powerful current. Then Pico started up what was left of the trail, to find Ireda.