In the event, Anthser and Nikola did much better in the next section. It was one of the two they’d chosen, and while Southing and Justin started in the lead again, Anthser passed the other greatcat on one of the climbs and they maintained that lead for the rest of the section. Justin and Nik shot comparably in that leg. The final score was not enough to offset Justin and Southing’s edge in the first leg, but it left the two teams close again. “See?” Justin said after the scoring. “Plenty we can learn from you.”
“Assuming you didn’t let us win,” Nik replied, with a mock-suspicious glare.
Southing flattened her ears, offended, but Justin laughed. “Never in life, Striker.”
The third leg was Justin’s pick, and predictably, Comfrey’s team extended their overall lead further during it. “Ready to admit defeat now, m’lord?” Anthser asked, as he and Southing panted while awaiting the formal section three scores.
Nik and Justin had dismounted to stretch. Only Comfrey was as energetic and alert as when the afternoon began. Southing stretched her forepaws before her and clawed at the ground with back arched downwards. Their final trail began at the top of a steep slope and soon disappeared into a twisting path through dense undergrowth and sturdy trees. Their vantage was high enough to see past the trees and into the ravine below. A creek ran far beneath; reflections from the water flashed through the trees at irregular intervals. The opposite slope was just as steep as the switchback trail climbed it, then ran along a ridge and vanished into another valley. The various targets were set back in the dense wood, not visible from this distance. Southing eyed the final trail with a certain trepidation. “I’m ready to collect my wager if you’re ready to pay, Blackie.”
“What? And miss the most exciting part of the course?” Justin protested.
She rolled dubious eyes towards him. “If this is the best part, why did Lord Nikola pick it instead of you?”
“I didn’t say it was the part I was best at. Besides, Striker always picks this section.”
Nik bent over to touch his booted toes, grunting. “I may have become too predictable, Anthser.”
“Naw, Lord Comfrey’s just trying to manipulate you out of good strategy.” The black greatcat arched his spine and shook himself out, fur ruffling across his body.
An attendant brought them the score: Justin had out-shot Nik again, to cement Comfrey’s lead even further. “My offer to collect now stands,” Southing said.
“No it doesn’t.” Justin vaulted into his warcat’s seat without waiting for her to lie down first. “Come now, Feli Southing, it’ll be fun. Didn’t you say you love a challenge?”
“Let’s not cry mercy just yet, Anthser. Especially if you’re defending my strategy.” Nik waited for Anthser to stretch out, then mounted in the usual prosaic fashion.
The black greatcat nodded his acquiescence and asked Southing instead, “Have you run this course before?”
“Lord Comfrey and I have run it a couple of times,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve perfected an approach for it.” This particular section of course was distinguished from the others not only by the difficult terrain, but because running the trail was optional. Competitors could take any approach they liked, as long as they hit each of the six targets in correct sequence and at least once, and didn’t cross into a target’s hazard zone – the area about a target that was proscribed to prevent accidental shootings during the race.
“Only one way to improve,” Justin said cheerfully. Southing rolled her shoulders before his knees, and padded to the starting position. Anthser followed suit; the two greatcats crouched together at the top of the steep trail. A Markavian-uniformed man stood on the stump of a starting post, flag raised.
“He’s right, you know,” Anthser murmured to Southing as the servant began the countdown. “You don’t want to miss this.”
The flag dropped. Southing surged down the switchback trail.
Anthser followed for a half dozen yards, then twisted to the side, leapt through a gap in the trees, and flew. Nik clung close to Anthser, face hidden against the greatcat’s neck so that the slender branches scraped against the top of his riding helmet instead of skin. Together, they soared past trees down the slope to land a dozen yards ahead of Southing on the path below. Anthser roared, a deep triumphant note. They lost half a second as he recovered from the turn onto the trail and regained momentum running along it. There wasn’t another gap in the trees large enough for them until they were past the next turning. Then they were airborne again, Anthser’s paws fending off smaller branches and grabbing a thick one to bounce off of it and leap over a stubby tree, falling again onto the clear path below. Behind them, Southing cursed as she crashed through the woods in their wake. Anthser laughed, already racing away down the track. When they reached the bottom of the ravine, he jumped the creek and climbed one of the thickest trees instead of taking the switchback trail up. Claws sank into wood while Nik clung to the racing seat with the boneless ease of a leech. Below them on the switchback trail, Southing raced with her tail tip lashing. Justin grinned like a madman from his perch, form as good as Nik had ever seen it. Though she had much more ground to cover, Southing was remarkably fast on the trail, jumping sideways to rebound off the trees in taking the hairpin turns at nearly top speed. Heart in his mouth, Nik followed Justin with his eyes through one rebound, the viscount all but floating parallel to the ground for a moment before his warcat’s body twisted to land with a bone-jarring thump that nonetheless did not loosen her rider.
The tree Anthser was climbing swayed under their weight. The greatcat shifted his weight to bend it down toward the slope, his progress slowed by the vertical climb and the uncertain footing. It redounded away as Anthser jumped from it to the trail, Southing and Justin only a few turns below them. “They deserve to win, you know,” Anthser said between deep breaths. “Better’n we are.”
“I know.” Nik readied his bow as they crested the final rise, and loosed an arrow for the first target. “Let’s beat them anyway.”
“Gotcha.” Anthser pelted across the top of the rise; Nik had just enough time to sink three arrows into the target before they left it behind.
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