The Wolf and the Lamb
It happened five months into Gordon and Teesah's walkabout.
They'd been through the Northern end of the Western Range, and found nothing interesting - other than trees of a size they'd never even imagined before - so they'd headed back for the Desert, intending to cross it and see what there was to see in the Eastern Range. With Teesah's map of water-wells and natural oases, crossing the Desert was not the fearful trek it had been with The Lady. The mysterious wells seemed to be laid out randomly all over the Desert, and over the years the Akkelahn had managed to find dozens of them – always by accident.
Unfortunately – the last one they'd been to was dry. Teesah marked it as such on her map – once she got back to the village, everyone's map would be updated from hers. Meanwhile, they'd had no choice but to head for the next-closest source of water on her map; another one of the mysterious wells. One dangerously close to the Valley of Ghosts.
Teesah's people had known about the Valley of Ghosts for a hundred of years. It was a place where they just didn't go. People disappeared there. Forty years ago, an entire caravan – a new venture by a group of deer and elk who were unfamiliar with the desert – had gone into the Valley. The Akkelahn later found three of them – without their pack-animals – wandering around in the desert, nearly dead from dehydration.
The survivors said that their compatriots had just disappeared, one by one. Sometimes at night, sometimes during the day, sometimes while they slept, despite having two of the members staying up for watch. In the morning, they would pull off someone's blankets and they'd just be gone. No tracks, no nothing. Just gone.
And that caravan wasn't the only one. Besides them, whole squads of young Akkelahn warriors, wanting to make a name for themselves, had gone to check it out and never returned.
Teesah didn't want to get that close to the Valley of Ghosts – but they had no choice. Even a desert-dwelling Akkelahn would die without water.
The well was still half a day away when Teesah and Gordon stopped for the night amongst the sagebrush and tumble-weeds. Teesah – with her night-sensitive eyes – had the mid-watch.
(Translated) "Ouch! Shit!..." she exclaimed, loud enough to rouse her partner.
"Something stung me. Probably a scorpion... but I don't see it... Damn! It really hurts... It feels... uh..."
What Teesah was fast becoming to dizzy to say was that it felt like a strange fuzzy numbness was spreading through her body from the sting. It was scary – but she'd never heard of any fatally poisonous scorpions in the Desert, so she wasn't too worried, yet.
"Do you see anything? It's too dark out here for me..." Gordon said.
"No... no, there... uh..." her drowsiness was growing at a frightening rate – but she wouldn't have long to be frightened.
Before she said anything else, the rabbit too exclaimed, "OW! Damn!"
"G... Gor..." Teesah began, and passed out.
"Teesah? TEESAH! Teesah, wake up!" When Gordon had tried to brush the bug off, his hand had run across the small dart, as from a blow-gun. He couldn't see it in the night, but it was sharp on one end, and fuzzy on the other. While Teesah had been shot in the thigh, Gordon's dart had entered his neck, so he was out before he could manage to even throw his covers off.
Teesah woke up and blinked at the sun in her eyes. It was morning. She felt sick to her stomach, and had a truly nasty headache. She was also completely bound with ropes, and someone had leaned her up against a rock that was digging into her back. The cougar moaned and grunted as she discovered these things.
"Good morning, sleepy-head."
Gordon was similarly tied up next to her, she only now noticed. His drug had worn off faster simply because he was bigger. He'd been waiting on her to wake up for an hour now. There wasn't much else to do.
"I think someone wants to talk to us. At least – I hope so. Because if they don't, we're going to be sitting here... for a long time. You'll notice we're facing the rising sun... So I hope they show up soon. This might get uncomfortable."
Teesah shook her head – which made it throb mightily – and blinked several times trying to focus her thoughts. There didn't seem to be anyone around. And no tracks either. It was as if the two of them had just appeared there when they woke up, no evidence of how they got there, not drag-marks, nothing. As if they'd been captured by ghosts.
Teesah tried to extend her claws, hoping to be able to saw through the ropes around her hands, only to find out – to her surprise – that they were already extended. The way the rope was wound between her fingers and over her knuckles was doing it. Whoever had tied that rope knew a few things about cats, apparently. Not a favorable omen.
They were both looking around now, studying their situation. Judging from the location of the distant hills, they hadn't been moved far. They were still in the same basin-valley they'd been in before, so while they couldn't see behind them, they knew there was nothing there to see anyway. And neither of their noses or ears were picking up anything.
So they both gasped in shock when someone directly in front of them, and not more than twenty feet away, suddenly stood up. A young female hare with dun-colored fur that blended with the Desert itself. She wore a net-like poncho, to which she'd entwined bits of vegetation and sticks from the sagebrush. Somehow she even had little stones attached to the netting. She couldn't have been more than 14 years old – but obviously, this girl was a master of camouflage. The most striking thing about her was the black fur at the very tips of her ears, that rose into sharp points, as opposed to the fuzzy roundness of Gordon's ear-tips. Neither Gordon nor Teesah had ever seen anyone of her species before.
When they'd recovered from their surprise, Gordon asked, in Akkelahn, "Who are you and what do you want?"
The girl understood every word – but she didn't need them to know that. "My language?" she asked.
"Uhm... Who are you and what do you want?" he asked again. It was hard to believe this young girl had done this to him and Teesah all by herself, but there didn't seem to be any others around. Of course, given that she'd apparently been sitting there the entire time he'd been studying the landscape... well, who could know how many of them might be hidden the same way - in plain sight.
"I am Leeshandoahandrapskytotrabedenil. You may call me 'Lee'. I want to know more about you."
It wasn't really her that wanted to know more about the cougar-rabbit pair, it was the leader of the Desert Hare squad, who was squatting on the ground fifteen feet away, his weapon at the ready, prepared to fling his short, spear-like arrow at the strangers at the first sign of trouble. His short-name was Ben, and he'd taken it upon himself to find out more about these two – because he had an idea that was new amongst his people: Know Thine Enemy. To Desert Hares, all strangers were "the enemy" - but these particular two were... odd...
Odd enough a rabbit and a cougar together... but besides just that - why was the rabbit doing the talking? The squad had assumed that the rabbit – being a prey species – was probably the predator's slave. Even though they'd seen the couple sexing... Well, it wasn't uncommon for slave-holders to sex with their slaves. All the History Scrolls said so. But if he was the cougar-woman's slave, then why was he speaking?
"We would like to know more about you too, Lee," Teesah said, "That is why we are here." Teesah tried to cover her fear of the circumstances. This young girl - in this dangerous place - was probably part of why it was a dangerous place. She was probably a Ghost.
Ah, both Ben and Lee thought, now the woman was talking. That made sense. Unfortunately, she was saying dangerous things. They'd been looking for the Desert Hares? That would be... bad...
"Explain why you were looking for me, predator."
This girl had a strange way of speaking, for one so young... Teesah answered, "Uh, well, we weren't exactly looking for you – we are on a... uh..."
"Walkabout," Gordon said.
"Yes, 'walkabout'. We are looking for new things. Although... we still would not have come here if the previous water-well hadn't been dry."
"I see," Lee said – that made sense to her. The well they were probably talking about had dried up three years ago... "So it is an accident that you have found... me." She'd almost said 'us' before she'd remembered not to give anything away.
"Yes. Very much so. So... you think you can let us out of these ropes now, Lee? We are friends – not enemies..." Teesah said. Having her claws forcibly extended like that hurt. And as for the danger this girl represented - well, bigger groups of better-armed warriors than just her and Gordon had disappeared in this area. If the girl was a "Ghost" - then she and Gordon were already a lost cause.
"Rabbit," she said, looking at Gordon, "If I release only you, will you in turn release your Master?" Surely a slave wouldn't do that. This was a test.
Gordon's eyebrows rose. "My... what?"
"Your Master. The cougar-woman."
That's what he'd thought she said. He turned to look at Teesah – she was trying not to smile, despite everything. "Don't look at me like that..." he said.
Teesah began to giggle - even she couldn't believe it. It was just that - with the seriousness of the present circumstances - the idea of sexual role-playing - which was the first thing that popped into her head - seemed hilariously out-of-place.
Gordon tried to explain, "Uhm... Lee... I don't know what you think our... She's my partner. Not my 'Master'. Although, to tell the truth, sometimes I wonder about the difference, too..."
Teesah laughed, despite her headache and painful bindings.
Lee looked perplexed, by Teesah's laughter as well as Gordon's answer. "Your partner?" Her perplexed look turned into shock, "You are mates?"
"Yeah. We're mates," the rabbit confirmed, "She's my mate. I'm her mate."
"But... there can be no children from such a mating..."
"Yeah – we know that Lee. And we're mates anyway," Gordon said.
"We are in love, Lee," Teesah added, still chuckling to herself.
Pretending merely to be looking away, Lee checked with the squad-leader, who twitched one of his ears behind his back – where the captives wouldn't be able to see it. Too many things about these people didn't fit what the History Scrolls told them to expect. These people would need to be brought before the Elders.
Which was quite a radical thing to do, and he wasn't making the decision lightly. No outsider had been brought into the Valley for over a thousand years.
And no outsider had left the Valley... ever.
Lee went over to Gordon and pulled at the end of a rope that stuck out from an odd-looking knot - his bindings fell away almost miraculously. Gordon stretched and yawned hugely, now that he could move, while Lee left him there and resumed her former spot in front of them. Exactly her former spot. Teesah waited as patiently as she could, finally saying - "Ahem... If you don't mind?"
"Oh, yeah. I mean – 'Yes, Master'."
"Careful bunny-man – I could get used to that..." she said, erupting helplessly into giggles again. Maybe it was the drug.
Lee squatted down and waited to see what the strangers would do. Would they attempt to kill her now? Take her prisoner? The Desert Hares were almost psychotically paranoid of strangers – that was their way. They were a very closed society, even more so than the Black-Faced Coyotes. They didn't want anyone to know that they even existed.
But these two... a predator and a prey... mates... not master-and-slave... Well, maybe it was time to refresh the History Scrolls. Or write new ones.
And if the strangers were to attempt to kill Lee, ten more Desert Hares – all within fifty yards of where she squatted now – would rise up fling their atlatels at them. And if the strangers were to succeed even against those odds somehow – well, that's why she been picked to expose herself to them. She was only a shaman-in-training. If she lived – it would prove her worth in that role. If not... she was expendable.
"Thank you, Lee" the cougar said, flexing her claws in and out to make them stop hurting.
"You will follow me," Lee said, standing up again. She turned around and began walking. Gordon and Teesah – without their packs, without food or water – looked at each other and shrugged.
"Follow her," Gordon said.
"I think we should follow her..." Teesah replied, then began giggling again. They were most likely walking into their deaths, but what the hell, it was such a funny idea. "Come, slave."
"Cut that out," Gordon huffed, then added, with a nudge to her ribs, "For now, anyway."
They followed her.
Once they were on their way, the other Desert Hares around them got up to follow along behind. But neither Teesah nor Gordon heard them. Special shoes on their feet left no tracks, either. The strangers had no idea that the other Hares were right behind them.
Teesah said to Gordon, in Akkelah, "Gordon – she's taking us further toward the Valley of Ghosts..."
He answered back the same way, "Valley of Ghosts?"
"The blank area on the map. Gordon... no one ever returns from there... think we should make a run for it? I know we won't get far without water... but..."
"Teesah – that girl was sitting right in front of us. Right in FRONT of us BOTH – and we didn't see her. You really think she's alone out here? She's holding all the cards... But they haven't killed us yet - they must want something. Let's at least find out what."
Out of curiosity, Gordon turned to look behind him, and was not too surprised to see another, adult male hare holding a spear half an inch from his back as he walked. He had the same camouflage netting, and the same weird shoes. He wasn't smiling. Gordon didn't see the other nine members of the squad – but he wouldn't have been surprised to learn that there were a hundred of them out there.
"There's one right behind me, with a spear, Teesah... They have us. All we can do is hope."
The hare behind Gordon was actually Ben, and like all Desert Hares, he could understand Akkelah. But just as the girl had made no sign of understanding, neither did he. From the prisoner's conversation, he'd learned that they did NOT know about the Desert Hares, that their map had a blank area in it – his home valley – that they were called "Ghosts", and that the cougar was well aware of the Desert Hare's policy on visitors. Not a bad haul, for a few short snippets of conversation. He'd also learned that they weren't stupid, which was a good thing. He would have killed stupid strangers after their first few words. Ben had no qualms about that.
They seemed to be fairly wise, intelligent people... And they were... interesting. Yes - he'd made the right choice. Probably.
But it's hard to overcome 4,000 years of paranoia all at once. Ben wasn't really looking forward to explaining to the Elders why he was bringing them into the Valley. He was going to get a lot of heat for that. Still, he believed something, and he believed in fighting for what he believed in. Someone had to. Someday. Might as well be him. Now.
Standing under guard outside the House of Elders, Gordon and Teesah could hear the shouting going on inside. It wasn't sounding good. The hare that had been behind Gordon seemed to be the leader of that particular group, and he was apparently trying to reason with the Elders – but the Elders didn't sound very reasonable.
Things were pretty much going from bad to worse. Amongst the possibly thousands of hares here, they had only two possible friends – the young girl Lee, and the squad-leader inside who at least sounded like he was on their side.
Suddenly, it quieted down, and shortly after that, one of the Desert Hares poked his head out of the hut - "Predator - they want to ask you questions. Come."
She complied willingly – although still at spear-point. Gordon said, "Good luck," as she went by. Teesah was not heartened. These people were the Ghosts she'd been told about since she was a kitten, she was sure of it now. Be a good little girl or the Ghosts will get you! The very fact that she was seeing them meant she would probably not live long enough to tell anyone. No one ever had before.
The same hare who had come for Teesah poked his head out again after she was inside and spoke to the guards, "Take him over there by the well – we don't want him to hear."
That made Gordon a little nervous... but they had said they just wanted to ask her questions... Doubtless they'd be asking him the same questions, and comparing answers. A good idea - from their point of view - he supposed. No fools, these 'Ghosts'.
Three hours later – approaching evening – as Gordon sat on the edge of the well, they came to get him again, and he entered the hut. A rather exhausted-looking Teesah was standing in the back, still under guard – but the guards at least looked a little more relaxed. The ones Gordon had tried to talk to were like conversing with a wall...
They asked him questions, making sure he couldn't see Teesah for any visual clues:
How many of you are there?
Where did you come from?
What do you know about us?
Why are you here? They asked that over and over – it seemed they couldn't quite believe in the idea of a "walkabout".
Having got the military questions out of the way, they proceeded to more vague lines of interrogation like -
What is your village like? Who runs it?
What is your relationship with the predator?
The Elders didn't seem to really doubt anything Gordon said until they got to - Describe any other towns of cities you know, when they were made nervous and edgy by the rabbit's description of Civilization. Especially when he mentioned the un-finished road heading East through the mountains.
People in Civilization thought about life in terms of weeks - groceries, bills, commitments.
Gordon thought about life in terms of years – travel, training, seasons.
The Elders thought about life in terms of millennia - races that came and went, rivers that changed course, stars that moved about in the sky.
And most fearfully - populations expanding and moving.
It sounded to them like the people of Civilization were right around the corner – and headed their way - with numbers, technology, and near-limitless resources from a land they already knew to be rich. That's why the Hares lived in the Desert. Few people would bother them there. Who would want their land? No one, they hoped.
But they'd be coming anyway. History told them so.
When the Elders had finished with their questions, the hare-man in the middle of the table said, "Bring the predator forward."
The guards behind Teesah didn't have to prod her to move, but they did stay very close behind her as she began walking up to where the rabbit stood. Both of them had spear-points nearly touching their backs. And they didn't know it, but a non-verbal poll had already been taken by the Elders while Gordon was talking. The verdict was the same as it had always been, for thousands of years: death.
The guards were only waiting for the Speaker to twitch his ear, and they'd drive their spears home. Which was a bit of a shame, some of them thought... the tall one was a rabbit, after all - a close cousin, species-wise. They'd feel no such compunction about killing a predator, though. Predators were murderers, by definition.
Gordon and Teesah would never know it was coming. When you want somebody dead, it's a bad idea to tell them so. It leaves them with absolutely nothing to lose. History did not need to tell the Hares that - it was just common-sense.
The Speaker was only waiting for Teesah to stand beside Gordon because to have them side-by-side at their deaths satisfied some sense of symmetry for him. The decision had already been made, and he was happy with it. Things would go on as they always had – and when the other people came, they'd do the same thing. Only more often.
It was time. The predator was standing next to her rabbit "partner", and the guards knew what was coming, out of habit.
The Speaker could see the guards watching his ear for the sign, and without reluctance, he-
- He saw Lee come through the door, walking imperiously, as if she owned the place.
"Children are not allowed into the Council of Eld-" the Speaker began.
"I am not a child! I am the apprentice Spirit Talker of Alysha – and you know it. I have word from the Spirit Talkers and I have a right to be here!"
The Speaker knew these things, of course... he'd only been hoping that the girl hadn't. "Very well, child – what is your message?"
"The Oracle will speak," she said. Then she turned around, and walked right back out.
The Desert Hares were a patriarchal society – all the Elders were men. All the Squad Leaders were men. Women were required to perform as soldiers – just like everyone else – but the Real World was one of men. So it was only fitting – they believed – that the Spirit World would be one of women.
As in many male-dominated societies, women were considered somewhat mysterious, strange, even mystical. This was largely due to the many-fold mysteries of their bodies: their lunar cycle proved that they were linked somehow to the heavens, the miracle of birth proved that they were linked to Life itself, and their breasts were linked to the very concepts of fertility and sustenance. Beyond that, the sheer power of their sexuality proved – beyond a doubt – that women were different, that they were 'not of this world'.
So all the shamans – the "Spirit Talkers" - were women. All the spirits were women, for that matter. When men died, they simply ceased to exist. Only women had another life beyond the Real one.
What with their strangeness, their other-worldliness, and their Spirit after-life - women were a little frightening.
And The Oracle was the most frightening of them all.
The Message of The Oracle – if the Elders could agree on what it was in the first place – was absolute law. None would dare dispute it. Her visions were the commands from the Spirits themselves, from all the women who had ever gone before. The Spirits did not often interfere in the Real World of people – but when they did, one had damn sure better listen. Unfortunately, Spirits did not think or communicate in ways people were familiar with.
So for now, absolutely nothing would happen until after the Message had been received and deciphered. Whenever that might be. It might be a week. No one was going to ask the Oracle to hurry up. The Elders – and the guards, and Gordon and Teesah – would wait in that hut, only allowed to leave to use the out-house. Food would be brought to them if needed. They would sleep there, and they would live there until the Elders had figured out the Message was.
Five hours later, the Oracle came into the hut unannounced. She was clothed head-to-foot in solid black – even over her face. In the torch-light of the hut, she looked like a misplaced piece of the night itself, come into their presence from the Desert. The rest of the people in the hut resumed their previous positions as she walked right up to the Table of Elders.
"The guards will leave," she said. Her voice was calm, cool. Cold. Her words flowed with serenity and peace. Although neither Gordon nor Teesah had any idea what was going on, they could tell that this figure in black was the center of some kind of power. Real power. Not just Spirit power.
And so the guards did leave – without waiting on an okay from the Speaker. The Speaker of Elders had no power to dispute orders from the Oracle. They were taking Gordon and Teesah with them, although the Oracle couldn't have seen that from in front of the prisoners and facing the Elder's table as she was.
"The captives will stay," she said next.
Now the hut had only the five Elders and two prisoners in it - and the Oracle. She backed away from the table without looking, to the middle of the hut, close in front of where Gordon and Teesah stood, and slowly sank into the floor. Was she squatting?, or kneeling?, or sitting? – there was no way to tell through the black robes. She remained absolutely still.
For another three hours.
Then suddenly and without warning, she shrieked and jumped up, way up, almost hitting her head on the ceiling twelve feet above. She continued shrieking for longer than anyone's lungs could possibly have sustained such a thing, whirling, throwing herself to the floor, and leaping into the air again. She bounced off walls, she pounded her head on the Table in front of worried-looking Elders, she danced around the two prisoners like a black flame, she grunted and huffed and screamed and said non-intelligible things that might have been words – in some language none of the on-lookers knew.
And she kept doing it for far longer than was necessary just for effect.
Then - when the cougar and rabbit were both beginning to wonder if the woman was just insane after all – she leapt into the air once again and came down on the exact spot she'd started from, apparently in the same position, where she remained stone-still and winter-silent for a several minutes before she began to speak -
"Mammoths ruled this land, once," she said in her previous liquid-air voice, "All this land. All lands, everywhere. Then people came, and we found their bones - but the mammoths are gone from this land, now. All this land. All lands, everywhere. It is not the fault of the people. It is the fault of the mammoths."
The Oracle became silent and still again. Everyone waited in case she said more, but instead, a long moment later, she simply rose to her feet and left in the same way she'd come in – a piece of the night returning to the darkness.
The Elders began their discussion in hushed tones.
Meanwhile the prisoners - having been on their feet for over twenty hours now – and since the guards weren't being brought back in, sat on the floor and waited as the Elders argued.
Eventually they laid themselves out on the floor. The Elders barely spared them a glance. Eventually they laid up against each other, the cougar being spooned by the rabbit. Still the Elders mumbled amongst themselves unconcerned. Gordon and Teesah fell asleep listening to it.
They awoke to find the hut empty, except for the girl Lee, sitting cross-legged before them, with steaming bowls set out before her.
"Eat, drink. We leave today. Predator -" she said, pushing a bowl toward the cougar, "This is flesh for you. You'll excuse me if I do not care to watch you eat it." Lee got up, turned around, and sat back down again with her back to them.
"Uhm... thanks. Where are we going?" Teesah said, with some apprehension.
"Wherever the two of you choose to take us."
Teesah's eyes narrowed – they could leave the Valley of Ghosts? No one left the Valley of Ghosts! It was probably a trick...
Gordon was thinking something else though, "Uh... 'us'?"
"Four of our best scouts are going with you. I have been chosen for the mission as well. I am honored."
The captives - or ex-captives, if it could be believed - thought about that. They'd learned by now that the Desert Hares were very careful about what they said - and didn't say - in front of strangers. Was there was a reason why Lee had seemingly let slip that it was four of "their best" scouts. And, for that matter, that she had been "honored" to be included.
"We are to bring spies with us... Is that it?" Gordon asked.
Lee remained silent.
Teesah added, "And, of course, you have orders to kill us at the first sign of trouble..."
The girl made no sign of having even heard.
"We get it, Lee," Gordon said, "So... are you allowed to talk to us at all, or are the five of you going to just follow along like... like ghosts..."
"There are questions we will answer, and there are questions we will not."
"All right... so... do we get our packs and weapons back?"
"Once we are outside the Valley, your things will be returned to you."
Well, that all seemed straight-forward enough... But why? And - why now? "Lee," Teesah asked, "What did the Oracle mean about the mammoths..."
"I do not know what words she may have used. The Elders have interpreted her Message as 'You will adapt – or you will disappear'. That is all I know. So we will adapt. If the mission survives, that process will have begun. If it does not – we will try again, in some other way. Now you must take your food – we leave as soon as the others are prepared."
As Gordon and Teesah ate their brunch, Teesah - who was used to thinking in a military frame of mind – thought of something else. The question would have perhaps been better left un-asked – but it wouldn't leave her alone until she asked it.
"It would be wiser to keep one of us here, to ensure the other doesn't double-cross you, Lee. I'm sure your people have thought of that. Why are you letting us both leave?"
"Because we Hares do not split up partners. Even partners like you."
Ben had been picked as part of the mission as well, along with three other Prime Scouts. All male, of course.
None of them would say a word – Lee told them – until they'd reached beyond the valley rim. At that time, the predator and her prey-partner could begin asking their questions.
While they walked, Gordon checked out the equipment of the Hare in front of him, leading the way. They were no longer being held at spear-point. In fact, they didn't even have spears with them. Instead, each of the Scouts had an obsidian knife, and a quiver of short, feathered arrows – only a couple of feet long. More like darts. Next to them in the quiver was some kind of flat stick longer than the darts, with a groove in the middle, and a handle sticking up in the air. Gordon had never seen an atlatel before. And they all had on the same camouflage netting as they'd first seen the girl Lee wear.
They also had some strange kind of foot-wear slung over their shoulders, banging up against their back-packs. They sounded like wood as they knocked together, with thick leather on the bottoms. And they were irregularly-shaped - no two were alike, not even of the same pair. There were no straight lines, only curves. No wonder they didn't leave any tracks. Wearing those big, weird over-shoes, any tracks they did leave would be unrecognizable anyway. Furthermore, even without their special gear, they weren't leaving much sign of their passing, Gordon noticed. They had a habit of picking their feet straight up from the ground, and planting them flatly back down again, disturbing nothing.
'Valley of Ghosts' indeed. These people had made it their Nature to hide themselves - and they were good at it. Could one adopt a "Nature" by will alone? The rabbit didn't know, but the Desert Hares seemed to have the answer.
As the reached the rim of the valley, the Scouts and Lee all stopped to strap on their over-shoes. No one told the prisoners to stop and wait, but they did anyway – a fact that did not go un-noticed by the Hares. Nothing the cougar and rabbit would ever do was going to go un-noticed, if there was a Hare around to notice it. That's why they were there.
"So – we can talk now?" Gordon asked the lead Scout, Ben.
"Okay – so what's you're name..."
"'Ben', then," Gordon chuckled, "You people sure have long names."
"That, cousin, was only my first name."
"Gods... how many do you have?"
"Five. It would take several minutes to tell it all. Do you wish to hear?"
"Heh. No thanks, Ben. I'm 'Gordon'. My partner is 'Teesah'."
"I will remember. Which way shall we go, Gordon?"
Teesah broke in - "Back to Akkelah, bunny-man. What we've found – and what has happened since – is more than just 'Discovery'. My people need to know."
"You heard her," Gordon said off-handedly.
The Hare was having a difficult time understanding, though. "I was told that you were not her slave..."
Teesah began giggling again, and Gordon rolled his eyes, "She's not my 'Master'. She's my partner. And in this case – she has good reason to make the decision. And I agree with her."
"You let women make Real World decisions?"
"Uh... Yeah," Gordon answered. This was going to be a long discussion... "Ben... we need to talk..."
Gordon learned how their atlatels worked – the grooved stick acted like a lever, as if the dart-thrower's arm were three feet longer than it really was. The "darts" were hollow, and flexible – so that they wiggled through the air, rather than fish-tailing the way arrows do. They were extremely accurate, penetrated deeply, and the Hares could throw them over a hundred yards. Some of them could double that, they claimed.
In return – they wanted to know all about the bows and arrows that the Gordon and Teesah carried. The Hares examined the weapons carefully, holding them close to their faces. The strangers and Hares tried out each other's weaponry, and were each impressed by the other.
Teesah and Lee also talked, explaining their roles in their respective cultures. Naturally, they were each shocked at what the other believed. Amongst he Akkelahn, women were peers to men in every way, and they had no religion -
"But then – what happens when you die?" Lee asked.
"Well... we don't know."
"Don't you care?"
"Uhm... we don't really spend a lot of time thinking about it... When we die, we'll be dead. Whatever happens happens... I've heard a lot of different opinions from the caravans – and all of them think that their opinion is the truth. The Akkelahn don't really follow any one belief. Everyone just sort of comes to their own conclusions. Or not."
"We Spirit-Talkers actually speak with the dead! You don't believe in Spirits?"
"Uhm... we're getting on tricky ground here, Lee. Have you spoken with the dead?"
"No – I am only an apprentice..."
"Ah. Well, when you do, be sure and tell me about it, okay? Maybe you can make a believer out of me."
As they walked by a higher-than-usual ridge in the Desert – the ridge that had served as their land-mark during their first two weeks of hiking – one of the Scouts gave his pack to another Scout, and peeled off from their group, jogging towards it. Ben explained that his job was to relay news back to the Desert Hare's valley. When Gordon asked how he was supposed to do that, Ben – a little reluctantly – showed Gordon his signal-mirror.
It was just a simple piece of metal – about the size of a playing-card – polished on both sides, with a hole in the middle.
"How's it work?" Gordon asked.
"Uhm..." Ben replied, unsure whether that was one of the many things he wasn't supposed to tell the strangers.
But another of the Scouts spoke up, "Oh, go ahead, Ben. Just don't tell him any code."
Which seemed reasonable enough, so Ben showed the rabbit how it was used – look through the hole at your target, find the spot of sunlight that was shining onto you from the hole in the mirror, and make the reflection of that hole line up with actual hole itself. With the simple mirror and Scouts acting as relays in strategic locations, information could transit back and forth across the entire expanse of the Desert in a day. 'In a day' because of the biggest caveat to the system – you could only signal people who were the same direction from you as the sun. One could only send messages East in the morning hours, and West in the afternoon and evening. Still – it was a hell of a lot faster than carrying letters on foot.
"I would have never thought of that..." Gordon said.
"We thought of it about 2,500 years ago."
"Two thousand... how far back do you guys go, anyway?"
"We're taught the names of all the kings from the Old Kingdom up through the Republic. Three-thousand seven-hundred years. How far back does your civilization go?"
"Uhm... well... I don't exactly have a 'civilization'..."
Teesah said, "Mine goes back just over two hundred years, to the founding of our village. I used to think that was a long time..."
"You people are children," Ben said with contempt.
"Maybe – but we weren't hiding, either," Gordon replied.
"We didn't always hide. There was a time when we lived at the edge of the Eastern Range. You know of the Eastern Range?"
"Yeah – I've been there."
"But we were driven away by marauders. We managed to kill a lot of them – but they were too much for us. They were coyote-people, and we hadn't developed the atlatel yet. This was about two thousand years ago."
Coyotes? Gordon thought. "Were they... did they paint their faces black?"
"Inside their mouths, too."
"They're still there, if you didn't know."
"We do. Many of us still hope to reclaim our homeland, someday. We've been very safe here in the Desert – but there are... sacrifices... that we must make."
Ben shouldn't have told him, not yet anyway, but Gordon had been perfectly forthright about everything – including his superior weapons – so he took a chance. Besides, these people should know the kind of culture the Desert Hares lived in. It would show just how serious they really were.
"We have few resources, as you can imagine, here in the Desert. Sometimes, we have to thin our own population."
"You... Gods, man, you don't mean-"
The Scout who had gone to make the report eventually showed up jogging behind them two days later. Then, two weeks later, a different scout peeled off – but he took his back-pack with him. He wouldn't be coming back because they were outside the perimeter of permanently-manned signaling locations now. The hill to which the Scout was heading would become a single point of communication between the remaining Scouts and their Valley.
Teesah knew that particular hill. It could be seen from another hill near her village. She didn't bother telling the Hares that – they'd figure it out on their own, no doubt.
And when they finally reached Akkelah, the Desert Hares – or at least the three that now remained, after another one had headed off to station himself at that hill – were introduced to the first foreign culture they'd seen for three thousand years. Not counting the Black-Face Coyotes.
All the cougars – and even the villagers of other species – got a kick out of how nervous the Hares were amongst so many predators, but the newcomers eventually got over it when they realized that none of them actually ate other people. General Veetax turned up his nose at the "Ghosts" - as they came to be called - as "useless prey", right up until Gordon demonstrated the Desert Hare's singular talent. He brought Veetax out to the Desert and informed him that there were three armed Hares somewhere within twenty feet of where he stood. The General looked and looked, and walked about, and looked some more.
"You are mistaken, Gordon," he said.
Once the Hares stood up, Veetax suddenly developed a keen interest in them – and the cross-training began.
Meanwhile, Gordon took another look at those atlatels. There was something important about those dart-like arrows – but he couldn't quite think what.
"Gordon! How many times do I have to tell you – you can't draw a bow that powerful!"
"I know, I know. 'The archer has to be able to draw the string' – you've told me a thousand times, Lahso."
"Then get it through your thick rabbit-skull! Unless you can come up with a way to use both hands to draw the string, you might as well forget it!"
He'd said that as a joke.
"What?" Gordon asked, wanting to hear it again.
"I said... use both... hands..."
"What would hold the bow? It'd need-"
Gordon and Lahso seemed to tune in – together - to the same idea, completing each other's thoughts before either of them could actually finish a sentence:
"- some kind of... frame-"
"- braced on..."
"... and there would have to be-"
"- a catch to hold-"
"- and a release-mechanism that-"
"- against the archer's shoulder so-"
"- he holds it out in front and-"
The first cross-bow would be invented a month later. And a week after that, Gordon remembered why the Desert Hare's darts had been so interesting. They were stiff and light. The cross-bow - when fitted with one of the new laminated re-curved short-bows - packed an incredible amount of power. Normal arrows were snapping apart when they flexed from the sudden force of kinetic energy. When he tried one of the Hare's darts in it -
A new weapons-system was born.
And when it was shown to the Desert Hares – without prejudice – and it's workings explained to them in detail, the signal-mirrors started flashing. The Akkelahn and Desert Hares became allies – a new experience for both of them. For such an old race, the Hares were quick to "adapt", and soon there were almost as many (albeit somewhat nervous) Hares in Akkelah as there were cougars. The Hares were learning how to fight, and the cats were learning how to become "ghosts". Between their combined skills and the new wonder-weapon... Well, Gods help any enemy they faced together.
Taylor began college soon after getting back together with Tristan. He majored in Art – and pre-Med, which his advisor told him was an odd and fearful combination.
The next year, Tristan, now 25 years old, began submitting op-ed pieces to the paper. They were put in the "Culture" section at first, but as they gained a following, were moved to the A pages, and finally to the front page. Civilization was changing, again, and Tristan both kept tabs on it and egged it along through the mass-media. Neither he nor Taylor were going to be there to see the day when calling a stranger by their species would no longer be a slur, though.
By two years later – when Taylor was 22 – they were both getting a vague feeling of something left undone.
They had everything – each other, successful careers, money, enough fame to enjoy being famous but not so much that they felt the need to hide from the public. Yet they remained unfulfilled. There was more to be done, more to be achieved. There was something more important than what they'd accomplished in Civilization. If only they could remember what it was...
They felt this incompleteness more at some times than others, of course. And on one special night, as they were sharing the couch and Tristan read while Taylor sketched (sketched Tristan, yet again), they both felt it at the same time, and – perhaps for that reason - stronger than ever.
The wolf's mind wandered as he pretended to read. He could hear Taylor's charcoal scritch-scratching on the paper – much the same as it always sounded. He'd started doing that so long ago – at The Lady's shack out in the wilderness. Back before the newspaper, the art-shows, the commitments. Back when it was just them, and The Lady, and Gordon.
Gordon. What was he doing now? Had he ever met anyone after that cougar-woman... what was her name... Lisa? Teesah. That was a shame when she rejected him like that... Gordon deserved a woman like that cougar had been. She was really pretty cool - for a cat.
He'd kind of like to talk to Gordon again. How the hell would he find him now? Too much time had gone by. Unless the rabbit were to come to Civilization looking for Tristan, there was virtually no chance in the world that they'd ever find each other.
Everything had been so... simple, back then. Such clear purpose. That feeling just sort of emanated from The Lady – as he still thought of her. Purpose. Tristan needed a Purpose. He could feel it.
Taylor's mind, too, was wandering, and his sketching was just automatic. He looked back and forth from Tristan to his sketch-pad, but his mind was a million miles away.
Or at least, a few thousand. He still couldn't believe he'd actually done it – left the Town of his birth, with his wolf-boyfriend, come to this amazing place, made a life here. A life with Tristan. It was like a story-book – where the author left out the less appetizing parts - the ugly parts, and the boring details of every-day life - and only told the good stuff.
What would they think of him back in his Town now?
"Hey, Tris. Ya ever think about the Town?"
"Sometimes..." the wolf said a little uneasily. There was a reason why thinking about it made him uneasy – and Taylor was about to hit him between the eyes with it.
"Think anything's changed there, by now?"
"I doubt it, Tay. They weren't big on changing things. Balance, remember?"
"Yeah. It's hard to imagine that we believed in that, back then. That we controlled the Balance of things. Oh Gods – they're still eating people, then..."
Tristan swallowed, "Yeah..."
"That is so sick! They'd be murderers here!"
There it was. "Uhm... Taylor? I've killed and eaten people, y'know..."
Taylor put down his sketch-pad and looked into his wolf's guilt-laden eyes. "Aw, c'mon, Tris. We didn't know any better. How could we have known? There was no one to teach us..."
"Until The Lady."
"Yeah," Taylor sighed, and thought about her. There was something he'd never told his wolf... "She... she sacrificed herself for me, Tris. I only figured it out years later. She was giving me her water and telling me she'd already drank hers. Did you know?"
"I kind of figured that, Tay. That's just exactly the kind of thing she'd do. She told us once that it wasn't important whether she got here or not. Just that we did. Not even Gordon..."
"I wonder why it was so important that we made it here - we were just looking for someplace where we could live together, is all."
"Yeah. I dunno Tay. I really don't..."
Tristan closed his book, and the two of them just sat there, looking at each other on opposite ends of the couch, not speaking.
A few minutes later, Tristan said, "It's... kind of hard... Thinking of them still killing each other back in Town..."
"I know. Think how many must have died since we left. Who knows what they might have done..."
"Yeah. Uhm... We could go back..." Tristan said, feeling like he was at the edge of a cliff. Taylor felt it, too, but neither of them could have said why.
"And tell them the truth? Try to change their minds?"
"I know how you feel, Tris – like we can't just let them keep killing each other..."
"That's what The Lady tried to do - and failed. What makes you think we'd do any better?"
"Well... because... Because we have her example to go by. We know what she did, and that it didn't work. We'll have to think of a different way."
"She just went and tried to tell them..." Taylor remembered.
"Yeah. And all that happened was that she became a fairy-tale that you prey kids used to tell each other."
"Heh – you haven't called me 'prey' in a long time..."
"I guess I haven't... Y'know what else? I still can't get over how you still look just like you did when I chased you into the woods that first day. It's weird."
"Hey - remember this? 'The Wolf and the Lamb – maybe we'll be a fairy-tale someday'."
"Yeah. Gods – you were so... I dunno what you were. You made me feel so funny, though, just the way you were. Yeah, I remember saying that. I should write one."
"You should... Funny how people always remember the fairy-tales they heard as a kid..."
They both stared at each other in silence again – but now there was a feeling of excitement, and their eyes began to grow wider and more intense as more and more connections were made in their minds. They'd been standing on the edge of a cliff, high and steep. They could see the problem clearly from up there - but they were afraid of falling off. The Lady had once stood there, and even she – wise as she was - had fallen off.
But now – the wolf and the ram, together, were having the same idea:
"Tris? What if you wrote-"
"... you'd do the pictures, and-"
"- so that both the predator and prey kids would-"
"And I could do it so that the parents would think-"
"- but the kids would get it and-"
"- get older eventually, and they'd-"
"Tristan! We could SO do this!"
Instead of falling, they found wings to fly.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]