The Seven Hunters

Chapter 18 Somber Valley

“It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”

― John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Two days before the events of Chapter 17:

Ah, there is the Great Valley. I can't wait to see my son again.

With the coming of the wet season, it was again time for Bron to return his herd to the Great Valley. They would not stay, of course, having assumed the migratory lifestyle of most of longneck kind, but it was nice respite from the toil of travelling. Most importantly from Bron's perspective, this would give him a chance to see his son again. Having been believed lost for so long along with his beloved mate, Bron cherished any time that he could spend with Littlefoot. Shorty would cherish the time spent with his adopted brother as well, although he would never admit it.

Bron then took the opportunity to take a look at Shorty, who was walking with several other juveniles in the herd. Bron had offered to carry Shorty along this leg of the journey, but the green longneck had declined. It seemed that he was trying to act tough and self-sufficient lately and Bron knew why.

Slightly shifting his focus, Bron noted the female longneck that was following the group of juveniles. She was the child of a newcomer to the herd and she was of the same kind as Shorty. Bron smiled at the scene. Shorty's antics reminded him of how he had behaved when he was his age. There were several females that had caught his interest back then, even though he was far too young to appreciate the instincts at work. His "tough guy" attitude had gotten him into his fair share of disputes with others of his age and it wasn't until he grew a bit older, and he supposed a little wiser, that he had mellowed.

Of course, Violet had a lot to do with that.

Littlefoot's mother, Violet, captured his attention ever since he first laid eyes upon her. He supposed that he was lucky to meet her after he had matured a bit. Not only would his younger self's attitude had dissuaded her, but she probably would have been tempted to put him in his place. As he had found out during an attack by fastbiters, she could hold her own in a fight. He thought after seeing that scene that his father must have been right when he said: "It is the quiet ones that you have to watch." Well, Bron certainly had been watching before, but he definitely watched thereafter.

His mood shifted into dark territory as he reflected upon his long-lost mate. Those memories were both joyful and mournful. The joy came from the fact that his time with her was the happiest in his life. Every day was a new adventure and although they were both in the Time of Great Growing during their courtship, her playful behavior and kindness seemed to bring out the inner child in him. That part of him which was suppressed so long ago in order to be tough for the others was pushed aside by her infectious enthusiasm. He didn't have to put up a tough facade in front of her as she would see right through it. It was from her that he learned that strength came from within and that one could be kind and strong.

He looked at Shorty again. He was still strutting along in a walking pattern that would be better-suited to a longneck several years older than him. Yes, Shorty still had much to learn. However Bron had no doubts that if Shorty kept his determination and coupled it with his new-found friendships that he would discover these lessons one day. Shorty had a hard life and he had built up a tough exterior in order to survive the harsh realities of the world. It was only in the last two years that he had begun to loosen up and form friendships again. First with his adopted brother Littlefoot, and then with other children in the herd. Bron hoped that this personal growth would continue.

Shorty seemed to detect that Bron was staring at him, and turned his head to look at his adopted father.

Shorty sighed, before raising his head in an assertive fashion.

"I am fine, Bron. I can take care of myself."

Bron chuckled. He noted that his laughter made Shorty cringe a little. He supposed that his response did not fit into Shorty's "tough guy" persona that he was trying to establish.

"Of course, Shorty. Of course." Bron responded. Trying to keep his amusement out of his voice, but failing miserably. Shorty began to sulk at Bron's tone. So much for the tough guy act. Bron thought in amusement.

Bron turned his attention to his right and focused upon the blue longneck that was walking slightly behind him. This was his recently-appointed deputy, Stomp. He was a large stocky longneck, who had a rather gentle manner about him. He was the perfect deputy for such a diverse herd as the one that Bron led and, Bron thought seriously for a moment, he would be a fine successor should anything happen to him. In fact, he had led the herd during Bron's brief excursions into the valley without his herd. Bron had always returned after these excursions in order to resume his leadership, but he found that Stomp was becoming more and more competent as the seasons rolled by.

Perhaps he will be good enough to take over soon. Bron thought to himself. Then I could give Littlefoot the proper attention that he needs. His grandparents shouldn't have to raise him alone. After all, he is my son.

...And Violet's. Some small voice in his head added. If he didn't have the lives of dozens of longnecks depending on him then he would have left the herd with new leadership long ago. He owed it to his fallen mate to ensure that his son had a safe and nurturing childhood. It was true that Littlefoot was in the safe and diverse Great Valley, but he still felt his paternal drives demanding that he do more. He wasn't there when they needed him during the journey to the valley. He didn't want to fail to be there as he child grew into an adult longneck. He didn't want to add to his already long litany of regrets.

"Okay, Stomp, we are almost there. Would you mind watching the rear of the herd for me?" Bron inquired to his young deputy.

"Sure thing, Bron!" Came the eager reply.

As the herd began to approach the valley, Bron could not foresee the terrible news that he would soon hear.

......

In the Great Valley the onset of spring had brought with it the blooming of flowers and the bringing forth of new life. The trees and bushes of the valley, which had been somewhat sparse during the transition from the cold time, were now green with new foliage. The winds were fresh with the new smells of rejuvenated life. Everywhere new adults were courting and would undoubtedly become parents in the coming months. It was a scene of happiness and new hope.

However, the joyous mood was not felt by everyone.

In a clearing between the majestic trees and plentiful ferns stood two elderly longnecks. Their demeanor was one that conveyed lingering grief. The type of grief that hurt like a festering wound, never completely healed and never forgotten. Their heads were drawn down as they ate in silence. None of the other residents daring to interrupt them.

"I can't believe that he is gone." The soft voice of grandma longneck called out. Though tears no longer fell like sky water from her shimmering eyes, it was obvious that the grief still remained.

Grandpa Longneck sighed at this. His face stared at the ground below as if he lacked the strength to raise it to its full height. He had no words of comfort to give to his mate. His heart was broken. Nothing could bring Littlefoot back. The last living legacy of their daughter was lost forever. They had all died and gone to the Great Beyond, leaving them behind. It wasn't right. A parent isn't supposed to outlive their children, or their grandchildren for that matter. The only thing that they had left was each other. He reflected that if it wasn't for his mate then he probably would have died from despair. He knew that she probably would have done the same. They were all that they had left now.

"Neither can I." He said sadly. "He would be running off now... about this time... to play with his friends." He muttered. "They always were so happy in the spring."

Grandma nodded. "They were happy all of the time."

"True." He added softly. "I guess... at least they are together now, aren't they?" He nearly broke emotionally. "At least he didn't have to go to the Great Beyond alone. He has his friends."

"But that damn sharptooth still lives..." Grandma longneck growled.

He stopped. Grandma was a forgiving soul, but Chomper's betrayal had awakened deep anger in the longneck. She could have accepted Littlefoot's death if it was due to misadventure or sickness, or even at the claws of any other sharptooth, but to have him be killed by one of his own friends... It was unbearable. She, Topps, and Volant actually argued in favor of pursuing the sharptooth during one of the valley's meetings. He had argued against this, as nothing could bring his beloved Littlefoot back, but she would not forgive. Even though he disagreed with the idea, he agreed to follow her if such a plan was organized. He would not let her fight alone. If the valley sought vengeance, then he would assist them with that endeavor.

However, in the end the trail ran cold. Volant was the last to see the sharpteeth flee from the valley and no further scouting runs could find a trace of them. They were long gone, fleeing like the worthless cowards all sharpteeth were. Only then did Volant and his mate put aside the thought of vengeance. With the diversion of revenge out of her mind, she was forced to deal with her own grief. The two longnecks were still in the process of recovering, but they knew that they would never be whole again.

"Don't think about him..." He couldn't even speak the hated biter's name. "He will meet a more horrible sharptooth than himself one day..." He asserted.

As the two longnecks tried to deal with the memories of what they had lost, two adult threehorns and a small infant were preparing to have their midmorning meal. They had settled into a small clearing, with the female gathering some loose treestars for her young daughter. The peaceful family setting was perverted, however, by a distinct air of melancholy. There was a family member missing from the feast. A family member who would never return.

"Eat up now, Tricia." Tria called down to the little threehorn. "You want to grow up big and strong just like..." She stopped herself before she could continue further. In times like this when all was at peace, she could almost imagine Cera still being here. Her cute arrogance... Her brash demeanor... Her caring nature that she always tried to hide... and always failed miserably. Yes, Cera was a good role model for her younger daughter, but now she was gone. Only Tricia remained.

Tricia noticed Tria's sad expression and deduced what was wrong. She still did not understand what had happened to Cera. When would she be back? She missed her dearly.

"Wen cew Cewa ba bak?" She asked in her babyish speech.

Tria nearly broke down at this and even Topps had to close his eyes to avoid overtly shedding tears. Tricia was too young to understand the true magnitude of death. It was a tough lesson to learn at any age, but especially hard for the young infant. She looked up to Cera and loved her dearly... and now she was gone forever.

Tria looked down at Tricia, with tears in her eyes. "Cera... Won't be back, Tricia." She answered softly. "She can't help it... but she's gone." She then broke down, as she couldn't take any more.

Both Tria and Tricia then began to cry as the two nuzzled. Topps joined the duo in order to comfort his grieving mate. He could slay sharpteeth with his powerful horns and he could intimidate the most powerful dinosaurs, but he could not fight against death. Death was the great equalizer. When it took his daughter he was powerless to fight back. The only thing that he could do now is provide comfort for what remained of his family. Chomper's betrayal had humbled him and crushed his family. He would never forgive.

After some moments, the trio finally calmed down and began to slowly eat their meal. They had not enjoyed a happy meal since their daughter was lost a week prior. Each assumed that it would be months still before they could regain some since of normalcy. Before they could wake up in the morning and not imagine for a moment that Cera was still here.

That was when they heard a commotion from some of the other threehorns.

Topps politely excused himself from Tria and urged her to continue her meal. He then walked up to the rapidly talking threehorns to see that one of the entrance defenders was walking towards him. This was a worrying development.

Ever since Chomper's betrayal, the Great Valley had begun to maintain watchers at each of the main entrances in case the sharpteeth returned. It was true that the valley had been attacked before, but never by an enemy which knew most of their entrances and defenses. Worse yet, these juvenile sharpteeth were quite small and could conceivable sneak in. Topps would die before allowing them to threaten Tricia or any of the other younglings. If that meant turning the valley into a less inviting and more defended place then so be it. After the terror that Chomper unleashed, the vote of the valley on the matter was nearly unanimous.

"What is it, Derkin?" Topps asked.

"Longnecks, sir! A migrating herd." The subordinate answered.

Topps sighed loudly. "More longnecks! That is all that we need!" He looked away for a moment. "If they are just passing through then let them in, otherwise tell them to get lost!"

"Yes, sir!" The subordinate answered, before pausing. "Um... Sir! There is something else." The subordinate quickly added.

"What?" Topps responded. He was not in the mood for pleasantries. His already limited patience was nearly non-existent after the loss of his daughter. Everyone knew not to bore him with details.

"This herd... is led by that longneck's father, sir." He responded.

Topps sighed. He was going to have to tell another father the terrible news that his beloved child would never return. His demeanor quickly softened. Longneck or not, he deserved to be told in the most compassionate and caring way possible. Littlefoot had a tendency to annoy him, but he couldn't deny his bravery and close friendship with Cera. He owed it to the fallen longneck to treat his father with as much respect as possible. He resolved to do so.

"That longneck, Derkin, was Littlefoot." Topps piercing stare seemed to bore a hole into Derkin's soul. The threehorn noticeably paled at the elder threehorn's stern rebuke. "Littlefoot, Ducky, Spike, Ruby, Petrie... and Cera... I haven't forgotten any of them." He continued. "And neither should any of you!" He then looked at the crowd of other threehorns who had congregated at the scene. "Because we failed they are dead. We must never forget that. We must never fail again." He looked down with a steely expression.

"Dismissed."

The other threehorns quickly dispersed. They knew when it was best to simply let Topps be.

With a heavy heart, Topps began to walk towards the advancing longneck herd. For the second time in a week, he was to be the bearer of bad news.

......

Bron's herd proceeded to enter through one of the main entrances into the valley. Bron was at the front of the herd, as his position as herd leader would demand. He was quite surprised to be greeted by a group of domeheads at the entrance. They were positioned in a line formation, obviously trying to block any longnecks from entering. This was a very unusual situation, to say the least. The Great Valley was usually a very inviting place. What could have changed this situation? Bron decided to greet the domeheads.

"Greetings. May we enter?" Bron asked in a cautious, yet friendly, manner. He had no idea what was going on, so caution was the best strategy at this point. A large domehead turned to face Bron and gave a simple, one word reply.

"No."

Well, he is certainly a happy fellow, isn't he? Bron thought sardonically. I wonder how these domeheads think that they can actually keep us out if we wanted to break in? Bron sighed. Now was not the time to take a page from the playbook of his younger self. A far more diplomatic path was advisable.

"Why is that?" Bron asked stoically. The friendliness was purged from his voice. That subtle change was not lost on the domehead guards.

"We are protecting the valley from sharpteeth." The domehead answered.

Bron laughed at this, which noticeably annoyed the domeheads. "Well, the last time that I checked I was a longneck and I have never heard of a longneck sharptooth. So, I think that you can safely let us in." As he said those words he began to walk towards the entrance.

"Stop!" The leader of the domehead group shouted. "You have to wait for clearance."

Bron sighed. He saw that Shorty was also agitated at the insufferable domeheads as well. He was scraping the ground with his forelimbs and giving them an expression of extreme impatience. You and me both, Shorty, you and me both. Bron decided that he would give the domeheads a piece of his mind, but that was when they were interrupted.

"Let them in!"

Bron turned to look at the source of the intrusion. It was Topps! I never figured that I would be happy to see that face. He thought sardonically. He decided to ask the threehorn about what was going on. If the valley had taken on a more paranoid footing then he figured that it must be Topps doing.

"Thank you." Bron responded, before looking at the dispersing domeheads. "May I ask what all that was about?"

Topps seemed to look away from Bron all too eagerly as he too looked at the domehead defenders. "New security." He paused for a moment. "We can't be too careful with sharpteeth."

Bron looked at the threehorn, who seemed to be intentionally not looking in his direction. Then he noticed his horn. He has a broken horn! When did that happen? He decided not to broach the subject yet, as threehorns were very prideful, but he began to wonder if the security situation and Topps's injury were related. "Well, sharpteeth were never much of a problem before."

Topps sighed. "Yeah..." He sounded utterly defeated, Bron noted. "Things change." He then noticed a distinct slump in the threehorns posture as he looked down at the ground. Was this the same proud threehorn that he knew from his previous trips to the valley? What had happened?

Topps then faced Bron and the look that he gave the longneck filled him with dread. Topps had the vacant look of a dinosaur who had suffered from a terrible loss. It was a look that he had seen before. He remembered that same look when he looked at his reflection after he learned that his mate had died. It was a look that he hoped that he would never see again.

"Topps... What happened?" Bron asked in genuine concern.

"Bron... Would you come with me for a moment?" Topps answered softly.

Something fell in Bron's stomach. Obviously something terrible had happened. He looked in the eyes of the threehorn that seemed to plead that he simply agree with the request. Bron swallowed. This was not good.

"Stomp?" Bron bellowed softly.

"...Sir?" Stomp answered uncertainly. He was unnerved by recent events as well.

"Lead the herd into the valley and watch Shorty..." Bron began.

"But Bron!" Shorty protested.

"Not now, Shorty." Bron answered softly. "I need to get to the bottom of this. Run along now."

Shorty looked ready to protest, but acquiesced and went with the rest of the herd.

Bron looked at the threehorn who began to walk in the other direction. He followed the seemingly mournful threehorn in order to find out what was going on. Where were they going?

After a few moments of walking, the threehorn stopped at the top of a large hill and sat down. His head was bowed in an exhausted demeanor. Bron's patience ran out and he demanded to have answers.

"Topps, what the hell is going on?" Bron demanded.

Topps sighed and looked at the scene below him. "Bron." He paused for a moment. "There was a sharptooth attack about a week ago..."

Oh no! Please no! Anyone but him! Bron's thoughts raced. He suspected that he knew where this was going, but he was uncertain.

"Is Littlefoot...?" Bron began, but he couldn't finish the thought. If he had been harmed then he would never forgive himself.

Topps slowly turned to look at Bron and in the instant he could see his face, he knew the answer even before Topps spoke.

"I'm so sorry, Bron. Littlefoot is gone."

That was when Bron screamed.

......

After Bron had heard the terrible news, he walked back to his herd in a daze. His beloved son was dead. What was he going to do now? What was he going to tell Shorty?

Shorty...

He knew that this news would crush him, but he knew that he owed it to his adopted son to tell him the truth. He wouldn't place that heavy responsibility upon Littlefoot's grandparents. Littlefoot had encouraged Bron to formally adopt Shorty and he knew that his lost son loved him like a brother. Despite the gaping hole in his heart, Bron resolved that he would continue to be a father to Shorty. He had failed to protect his son, but he would not make the same mistake for his adopted son. He was done running away from what was important.

"Shorty?"

A small green longneck ran off from two of the other juvenile longnecks in the herd. Apparently his deputy had sequestered the entire herd away from the rest of the valley's residents until their leader returned. A prudent decision. He thought morosely. Shorty was apparently playing with friends while waiting on his father to return.

"Yeah?" Shorty asked suddenly.

Bron looked at Shorty with a sad expression. How was he going to break the news to Littlefoot's beloved brother? Even though Shorty often put on a "tough guy" act, Bron knew that deep inside that he was an innocent and deeply hurt child. He had experienced the pain of losing his parents and helping other small longnecks find a new home. It was only when Shorty was befriended by Littlefoot and then he was adopted by Bron, that Shorty finally began to heal and act like a normal kid again. Now, Bron was about to deliver news that would hurt Shorty again. Bron resolved that he would be there to help Shorty pick up the pieces. It is what Littlefoot would have wanted. He owed it to his fallen son.

"Bron?" Shorty asked with some concern. He had never seen his adopted father with that expression on his face.

Bron paused. He had become distracted with his own doubts and grief. He swallowed. Now it was time to tell Shorty the truth...

"Shorty, my son... We need to talk..."

......

Volant was flying high over the valley as part of her "watch" duty. The valley had instituted aerial scouting ever since Chomper's treachery. It was hoped that by having regular scouting of potential threats and guards at the most conspicuous entrances, that potential incursions by Chomper and his allies could be avoided. The sharptooth knew the secret caverns, the hidden canyon, and many other entrances into the valley. If he were to use that knowledge... That was why the valley had made its decision.

She had to admit, however, that she regretted the loss of innocence that seemed to permeate the valley. The Great Valley was supposed to be a bastion of hope and openness to all those in the Mysterious Beyond, but now it was more on edge and restrictive than she had ever seen it. The defenses that they had brought into being were akin to what one would expect in a threehorn herd, but not in the peaceful valley. Chomper's attack had taken a lot more than their children. It had taken the valley's sense of security as well.

As she flew by a clearing in the valley, she saw a sight that filled her with sadness. Bron and Shorty had joined with Littlefoot's two grandparents in a bittersweet reunion. The two elderly longnecks have had time to process their loss at least, but Bron and Shorty were still in the depths of their grief. It was a heartbreaking sight.

Volant sighed. There was nothing that she could so to bring Petrie back, but she could ensure that no one else met his fate. She resolved to do what she had been doing for the previous four days and volunteer for watch duty again tomorrow. It was the least she could do.

......

As the bright circle began to fall in the sky, the four longnecks were still resting in the same clearing. Each was trying to wrap their heads around the tragedy that had occurred.

"I can't believe that he is gone!" Shorty cried as he reclined on his side. He was keeping his head on the ground as if his neck no longer obeyed his commands. He was utterly unreachable in his grief.

"Neither can I, Shorty, neither can I." Bron responded sadly while nuzzling his adopted son.

Bron had left leadership of his herd in the capable command of his deputy for the time being. Stomp had agreed with few words, knowing that they would neither help nor be welcome. He simply told his grief-stricken leader to take his time. The other members of the herd were horrified and saddened by the change in their leader, but were grateful for Stomp stepping up to command. Bron had chosen well in his successor. Several of the assembled herd was thinking the same thing at seeing their leader's display. Would Stomp soon be their new leader? They questioned if Bron still had the desire to lead at this point.

The grandparents sat beside Bron and Littlefoot's adopted brother. They couldn't offer much comfort except for their kind words and presence. They had suffered a horrific loss as well and had not recovered themselves. They suspected that neither of them truly ever would.

"I wish that I could have said goodbye." Shorty muttered sadly.

Bron thought for a moment as tears again appeared on his face. Littlefoot was gone, but perhaps Shorty could get closure of some kind. Bron looked towards the two grandparents and decided to ask a question that had been on his mind for awhile.

"After you chased... Chomper..." He nearly spat out the word. "...and the others, where did you...." He choked for a moment. "Dispose of the children's bodies." It was am morbid question, but it had a basis in logic. Longnecks, like many other dinosaurs, were visual and tactile creatures. Sometimes just the ability to see the dead or to feel their bones would be enough to begin the healing process. To begin to allow the mind to process that their loved ones were gone. That was what Shorty needed right now. He needed the chance to say goodbye, even if Littlefoot was no longer here.

Grandpa Longneck was taken aback by this question, but understood it all the same. He answered cautiously.

"We never did find the bodies..." He answered sadly.

Bron shot up suddenly. "You didn't?!"

Grandma Longneck shook her head this time. "No, we found no trace of the children."

Bron was now on his feet, much to the surprise of the other longnecks.

"Then how do you know that they are dead?" He asked with an almost manic expression.

Grandpa Longneck sighed. "Bron, we found no trace of them after the attack. Neither in the valley nor outside of it." He paused for a moment. False hope at this juncture would be more damaging than the lack of it. He had to get Bron to understand. "He is gone, Bron. I'm sorry, I wish it wasn't so."

Bron looked at him with a disbelieving expression. "I thought Littlefoot was dead before and I gave up any chance that I had to reunite with him or to be a proper father..."

Grandpa Longneck tried to interject. "Bron..."

Bron shook his head. "I won't fail him again!" His eyes were resolute and instantly the grandparents knew that there would be no reasoning with him. "I will find out what happened. Even if he turns out to be dead, I owe it to him to find out."

The grandparents stood stoically as Bron finished his words. They hoped that he wasn't condemning himself to a suicide mission. The Mysterious Beyond was an unforgiving place.

"Bron, Littlefoot wouldn't want you to risk everything..." Grandma Longneck began.

Bron answered firmly. "Without Littlefoot and Shorty I have nothing." He then looked at the small green longneck that had a sad, yet hopeful expression. Bron's mood turned noticeably softer then.

"Shorty, I want you to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Longneck."

"But Bron..." Shorty began, but Bron would hear nothing of it.

"No buts... I can't lose you too." Bron shed a tear after he made that statement. Shorty hung his head in resigned acceptance. No, he wouldn't put his father through that. He walked over to where the two elderly longnecks resided.

Grandpa Longneck sighed. "We can't change your mind, can we?" At Bron's negative shake of the head, he continued. "At least wait until the morning, Bron. You won't find anything in the dark."

Bron seemed to ponder this for a moment before answering. "Alright, but I must do this... Even if I find nothing, I have to try. I owe it to my son." He nearly broke down as he finished.

"I know, Bron, I know." Grandpa Longneck responded. "But remember that you have another son as well." He said this while looking at Shorty. "Don't leave him an orphan."

Bron looked at Shorty as well and noted his pleading eyes. He wasn't putting on the tough guy act now, this was Shorty without any pretense of bravado. This was the orphan who only recently had gained some measure of happiness in his life. No, Bron would not deprive him of this happiness. Littlefoot would not have wanted that.

"I won't. I will return, I promise." He said this while nuzzling the small green longneck.

As the four longnecks settled into an uneasy sleep, each focused upon the enormous loss that they had experienced. Sooner or later, Bron resolved, he would find the answers that he sought. What happened to Littlefoot? What happened to the sharpteeth? Where was that cowardly traitor, Chomper? Beginning tomorrow he would seek out the answers to those questions.


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