The Wolf and the Lamb
"Ow! Dammit, Tay!"
"I'm sorry! Oh gods... I didn't mean to hit you that hard, Tris... Are you okay?" Taylor asked, turning and running back to where the wolf lay on the ground, holding his side. "I didn't break anything did I?"
"I don't think so - just knocked the damn wind out of me is all. Geez - you said you were gonna take it easy..."
"I said I was sorry... I just, y'know... I get into it when you're chasing me and... well, I didn't mean to hit you so hard. I'm really sorry, Tris..." looking into his injured wolf's eyes as he lay there panting - his tongue hanging out, his teeth showing - Taylor felt a familiar but rare, of late, feeling begin to well up from his gut. They were alone on the chasing field, no one else around, so he just let it flow. It had been a long time.
And while the two of them remained frozen and helpless as it flowed from prey to predator, who should come upon them but Amy the red squirrel "hippie", and the woman who now ran the newspaper where Tristan worked. She shouted at them from afar, but they didn't hear, so she just kept on coming.
Until she was standing awkwardly only a few yards away, when it finally dawned on her what was happening. She watched in amazement.
Eventually Taylor blinked, breaking the connection, and Tristan shook his head to clear the fog.
"You haven't... done that in a long time," the wolf said.
"Yeah. I know," Taylor agreed, but there wasn't anything else to be said about what had just happened. There were no words. "So, uh, you're okay, right?"
Amy coughed into her hand to get their attention.
"Amy!? H-How long have you been there?" Tristan asked, acutely embarrassed.
"Long enough... That was so cool! I've heard about 'Giving' before - but never actually seen it done! How do you-"
"Uh, Amy..." the wolf sighed, "Look, we really don't want to talk about it, okay? Or at least I don't. It's kind of... personal..."
"It is? Oh! I mean, uh... yeah. Uhm... okay. I wanted to talk to Tay, actually... See if he could do a portrait of me, is all. Uhm... it can wait."
"I never make paying customers wait, Amy," Taylor joked, "Especially when they're my boyfriend's boss." He stood up and offered a hand to the wolf still prostrate on the ground, "Tris - you should take a hot bath until that feels better. And I'm really sorry..."
The wolf grunted and groaned as he got up, still holding his bruised ribs, "Yeah, I think I will. You two go ahead and talk business... See ya at the lodge for dinner, Tay. And remember: payback's a bitch."
"I'm so scared, Tris," the ram winked at him as Tristan turned to walk painfully back to the lodge.
Amy talked business, but only for as long as it took for Tristan to get out of ear-shot.
"So... Uhm... now that he's gone... can you tell me about 'Giving', or is it too personal for you, as well... I thought, since we're both prey, that maybe..."
"Do you have a predator partner, Amy?"
"Uhm... actually... no... I always wanted one, but just never seemed to... uh..."
"Well, if you ever do, then you won't need anyone to tell you how to do it, okay? It's not something you 'do' anyway - it's just something you feel."
"But - the way you were keeping him in a trance like that-"
"I wasn't 'keeping him in a trance', Amy... Look - it's not like that, all right? You just get a feeling... like, 'go ahead and kill and eat me - I want to be a part of you'. And you can sort of feel it coming, and you can stop it if you want... But if you don't, and it just gets stronger and stronger, then that's what happens. It's like the predators can see it in your eyes, or something - Tris won't tell me much." Truthfully, it was a little embarrassing for Taylor too, even if Amy was a prey-species like him. He tried to get back to business, "Now anyway - you want the Newspaper building in the background? Because architectural painting isn't exactly my specialty, y'know."
"You guys should do Blood and Teeth before you go on your mission. Speaking of which - how's the book coming?" she said, ignoring Taylor's attempt to change the subject.
"Oh... Uh, slowly. He keeps changing his mind how he wants to do it, and which scenes there'll be and stuff. And I can't really draw anything until I at least know which scenes I'm supposed to draw... But... you're right, now that you mention it... We should do Blood and Teeth again. We may not get a chance for a long time, once we leave, and-"
"Again? You've done it before?"
"Yeah. That was my twelfth birthday present. I suppose you wanna hear about that now..."
"You did it when you were twelve!?"
"Heh. C'mon, let's get back to the lodge. I hear they finally got in some Romaine lettuce. You can grill me over dinner. So to speak. Or at least until Tristan shows up - don't mention the B&T ceremony thing to him, okay? Predators are funny about that."
Captain Backoh the cougar and Prime Scout Ben the hare were practicing combat moves at the Common Area in Akkelah. Since the Akkelahn "Army" was a loose organization, being all mercenaries, there was no "compound" or "training field" or the like. There was basically a "park", and anyone could use it as they saw fit - as long as their "use" of it didn't interfere with anyone else's "use". These days – what with the visiting Ghosts - there was quite a bit of training going on in the Commons. The Hares, in turn, would take the Akkelahn to the desert to teach them how to "disappear", but the cougars were having rather a hard time with that.
Then again, most of the Hares weren't having much fun with their training, either. Both sides still distrusted each other, and they both still found it hard to believe that the other could possibly be "good guys". They'd lived in fear of each other too long, and told too many stories about what the other was like.
They were all soldiers, of one sort or another, and looked to their leaders for example. Their leaders were Backoh and Ben. So as long as those two didn't particularly get along on any level other than purely professional – neither would any of the other soldiers.
Backoh was just getting ready to demonstrate the 'Double Side-kick 180' when he saw two women come into the park - Chirie and another girl who usually appeared with her, Laura - a bison-woman. They made an almost comical pair because Chirie, being a squirrel, was quite petite, and Laura was - by anyone's standards - huge. That worked out for them though, because the squirrel had a tall, massive, muscular partner to train with, while Laura wanted to match herself against someone small, fast, and agile - her worst nightmare.
Laura had come to Akkelah not long after Chirie, so they were both pretty evenly matched, training-wise. They were both established soldiers in the Akkelahn "Army" too - proven and accepted.
Backoh had been obsessing over Laura since the first time he'd seen her.
Even he thought that was weird. Backoh was still single - odd for someone his age - because women... well, women just weren't all that important to him. Oh, he liked women all right. As much as any other red-blooded Akkelahn, he'd have said. Rather - he'd have said that before he saw Laura and found out what "desire" actually felt like. The enormous, black-maned, muscle-rippling buffalo-woman actually made Backoh's knees weak - and he couldn't explain why. He'd always thought that bit about 'weak-in-the-knees' was a bunch of romantic hooey - no cougar-woman had ever made him feel like that... But Laura, all that muscle, all that prey flesh, all that power, just did it for him. The velvet-like fur didn't hurt, either. He longed to touch it. A lot.
He forced himself to look away and try to get back to the business of training. "So Ben," he said, "I thought we'd... Uh, Ben?" The Desert Hare was nowhere to be seen. "Ben!" he called out, then said to himself, "Where the fuck did he... Oh, shit. Ben... you're behind me again, aren't you..."
"Would you stop doing that!? Seriously - it freaks me out."
"You mean like your Amazon buffalo girl-friend freaks me out?" Ben asked, still hiding behind the cougar, ready to dodge out of his line-of-sight if Backoh tried to look over his shoulder.
"She's not an Amazon! She's just... big," Capt. Backoh said, feeling as if he were talking to... to a ghost. "And... anyway, she's not my girl-friend."
"Just 'big'. She's seven-fucking-feet tall, Backoh. She probably weighs twice as much as you. And you can't stop staring at her. Think no one's noticed? Everyone's noticed. Go talk to her already..."
"If you won't do it, I will..." Ben said, stepping out from behind the cougar and beginning to walk toward the women.
"I thought you said you were partnered!" Backoh jogged up to him, hoping he'd stop before the girls noticed they were coming.
"I am. In fact, that's my husband over there on the archery range. Third one from the end."
"Your... husband?" Now Backoh stopped in his tracks, as did the hare. Ben had a male partner? He... he just didn't seem... like the type...
"Yes. I'm partners with a man, Backoh. I keep forgetting that you people don't do that..."
"It's not that we... I just didn't think you rabbits went in for that, is all. That's what Gordon told me, anyway."
"I'm a hare, you cursed predator, not a rabbit. And we... have our own reasons. The Desert Hares encourage same-sex partners - it helps keep the population down."
"Oh. Well that... that's..." Backoh didn't know quite what to say. Word of how Hares kept their population in check had made it around Akkelah... killing their own people... it was just incredible.
"Early in my career as a Scout, I had to assist in a Purge – that's what we call it. I was ordered to kill some of my own people. Most of them volunteer... most of them. He and I were detailed to kill some of the ones who didn't. After that... the thought of having a family..."
"I get it, Ben. 'Nuff said." Gods – these Hare-people had an almost disturbingly serious side. They'd kill their own people rather than expand their territory and risk detection. They'd even partner with someone they didn't really want to, in the name of population control. And all because the Black Face Coyotes had forced them out of their home 2,000 years ago. "But... you could have just stayed single... or, do you... uhm, do you like men..."
"I like women more, to tell the truth - or at least, that's what I'd have said before I was partnered. And no, I couldn't stay single - single people are a threat to harmony. So anyway, yeah, our wedding night was kind of... awkward. But he kind of grew on me, and I guess I did on him. We eventually fell in love. He's a wonderful husband. I'm sure that must seem strange to you."
"Well... a little... But I guess I'm just more surprised than anything... So, what's his name?" Capt. Backoh asked, "His short name, I mean. Gods, you people's names are nightmarish."
"Why... do you want to know his name..." the hare asked suspiciously.
"No reason. Just curious what your... husband's... name was, is all. Not a big deal, is it?"
Ben thought about it, and said, turning again to watch the two women doing their warm-ups so that he wouldn't have to see Backoh's face, "Dick."
The cougar's stomach tightened up and his mouth clamped closed, trying to reign in his laughter. Backoh's eyes squinted almost shut as his diaphragm began to spasm. He didn't dare breathe.
Ben looked over at the cougar's face. Well, at least he was trying not to laugh. That counted for something, and showed more sensitivity than he'd expected from a murderous predator...
Eventually, he took pity on the poor cougar's pain. He sighed, knowing what was coming, and said, "Oh, go ahead..."
Captain Backoh laughed so hard it hurt.
Ben endured it for awhile, then finally said, "Yeah, yeah – heard it all before. Hey – they got one of those new cross-bow things down there - I'm gonna go check it out." Backoh was still unable to answer – he couldn't get his breath back without erupting into laughter again. Ben frowned at him, "I don't guess you'll be up for any more training anytime soon?"
Backoh could only nod. Dick...
Eventually, several minutes after Ben had left him there, he got over his chuckles and returned to staring at the buffalo-woman on the other side of the park. They had finished their warm-ups by now, and were battling each other with practice-swords. The squirrel looked like a blur of grayish-brown, at this distance. And the bison looked... well, he couldn't take his eyes off her, anyway.
He didn't know that he wasn't the only one watching. But Cinpah did.
Cinpah hadn't approached Chirie for a date yet, or even ascertained her preference – the cougar-woman was too self-conscious about too many things: same gender, different species, prey... But if Capt. Backoh was going to be her competition, then she'd better get a move on. That was just what she did not need – to compete with a decorated Captain for a woman's attentions. She went over and stood next to the enraptured cougar.
"She's something, isn't she..." Cinpah asked, trying to sound casual.
"Huh? Oh, Cinpah... Yeah. Yeah she is..."
They watched for awhile in silence. Cinpah knew it was now or never – even if the squirrel-girl swung both ways, she couldn't very well out-rank a Captain - military people just think that way. But Cinpah had never known a squirrel before. She knew nothing about how they were, how they did things... how they felt about... stuff. In cougar society – or at least amongst the Akkelahn – there simply wasn't much same-gender activity. Cinpah was well aware of that. Painfully well aware.
And like most other Akkelahn, she'd never really considered the possibility of a partner outside her species. All that had changed when Chirie and her incredible tail had showed up. And when it turned out the little squirrel could fight... well, that was just the last straw. So she was a different species! So she was... prey... Well, okay – that was still a little weird.
But now this guy was checking out the woman Cinpah was crushing on. Or so she thought. The awful fact was simply this: he probably had a far better chance with her than Cinpah did. That just wasn't fair, and that, in turn, made her mad.
Meanwhile, Laura and Chirie were not unaware that they had an audience.
"Y'see those two cougars checkin' us out, Laura?"
"They're checking you out, Chirie. Yeah, I see 'em all the time. First time I've seen them standing together like that, though."
"What makes you think they're looking at me? I mean – well, I wish I could believe the woman was looking at me... but she I bet she's into you because you're so big. Sometimes I hate being a squirrel."
"You wish she was looking at you?"
"Yeah. I like women."
"You never told me that..." the bison said. She really didn't know what to think at this point.
"Well, it doesn't come up very often, now does it?"
"I guess not... but you never hit on me or anything... What, I'm not good enough for you?"
"Laura!" the squirrel giggled, "Gods – you'd crush me! I mean... seriously, and no offense or anything – but you're just too damn big... My head is barely above your belly-button! Gah!" Then something occurred to the squirrel that curled her tail in shame, "Uh... oh... you... you're not... uh..."
Now it was Laura's turn to giggle, "No – I just wanted to know if I should be insulted or anything."
"Rug-muncher. Anyway – it doesn't bother you that she's a predator? Suppose she gets carried away and-"
"Oh, stop it. People don't eat people. At least – these people don't. And... yeah... I think it's kinna hot, really, that I make her mouth water. You ever notice how Gordon's partner looks at him sometimes? If it weren't for them, I'd have never thought about dating outside my species... So, you don't think they're hot? Predators? You wouldn't go out with the guy?"
"Well... I can safely say that no little cat-boy's gonna be eating me, so... that's not really a problem..."
"Okay... so wouldja?"
"I could break him in half."
"Okay... so wouldja?"
"Seriously – if he's got any sense at all, he should be afraid of me..."
"Okay... so wouldja?"
"... Y'know what? I think I would," Laura smiled, and the smile grew wider the longer she thought about it, "Yeah... Definitely. Definitely would. Heh. It'd be kind of cool."
"See? Me too. I just hope they get the balls to come over here and talk to us. Maybe once you turn the woman down, I can have a shot..."
"Chirie – the cougar-woman doesn't have balls..."
Finally, on the other side of the field, Cinpah had been watching and fretting for long enough. "I'm gonna go ask her out," she told Backoh.
"YOU'RE gonna go ask her out?" Backoh repeated in shock. Was everybody doing this now?
"Yeah. I know – I stand about a snowball's chance in hell. Fuck it. At least I'll have tried. Then she'll be all yours."
"Hey! Not so fast! We'll both ask her out! Then she can choose!" He was saying that to the cougar-woman's back – she was already on her way. He jogged up next to her again, not quite believing that he was to compete for a woman's attentions – with another woman.
"This is un-fucking-believable..." he muttered on the way.
"Tell me about it," Cinpah agreed.
Chirie and Laura saw them coming, put down their swords, and waited, each expecting that the other was the party-of-interest.
When they were still ten feet away, Cinpah and Backoh both spoke at the same time, differing in only by two words: "Chirie/Laura, would you want/care to go out with me?" They were each speaking to the particular woman they had in mind of course, and they both immediately noticed that, and they both looked sideways at each other... and said – still in sync - "Wait. What? You mean-"
Laura and Chirie glanced at each other and giggled, then looked back at their still-confused suitors.
"You were talking about her?" Backoh asked. It had never occurred to him that Cinpah might have been interested in the squirrel. Next to the buffalo-girl, who would be?
"And you meant her?" Exactly the same thing was true for the cougar-woman.
Without waiting for them to figure it out, Chirie jumped up into a very surprised Cinpah's arms, bridal-threshold fashion. "I got mine!" she said to Laura, "Wheeeeee!" Cinpah gasped, speechless.
Laura gave her an amused look, and then swept up even more surprised cougar-man, "Me too. Now what do we do with them?"
"Hey!" Backoh cried, but he was already in her arms, chest-high, her breasts resting on his belly. Which... wasn't so bad, actually... True to his cat instincts, though, he looked down to see how far away the ground was.
He was way up there...
Just like Tristan and Taylor six hundred miles away, Gordon too was feeling the itch of Blood and Teeth. Which surprised him, the feeling of wanting to be bitten like that - and he knew it was going to surprise Teesah even more... But, how could it be done in Akkelah? There were no other B&T people here, let alone coaches for the ceremony.
Well, at least it shouldn't be too hard for the coaches to sew him back up when it was over... Gordon was quite a bit bigger than Teesah, and being a cat, her teeth were extraordinarily sharp – but not all that long, compared to a wolf's or a bear's.
Amongst the cougars, "doctors" were a special group – all in one family. There were currently three of them practicing the family trade – and one was out with a caravan right now. Which left two... and one of them was extremely old. Gordon wouldn't trust him to sew up a boot, never mind the veins in his neck.
Then, one day, out on the Commons, he saw the young Spirit-Talker Lee splinting a cougar's shin, and after a lengthy conversation with her he decided that yes, he could trust the young hare, at least as a back-up to the experienced Akkelahn doctor. So he had his two coaches. They'd need training on what to do, but the really hard part was still to come.
"You want me to WHAT!?"
"It's not like it sounds, Tee-"
"You are out of your mind! I'm not- I can't- Gordon!? What the fuck are you talking about?!"
"It'll be okay, there will-"
"It'll be okay? Biting your throat will 'be okay'?!"
"Teesah – remember when I 'Gave' myself to you? I know we've never talked about it, but I'm betting you know exactly what I mean about just from the name..."
That calmed her down fast. She looked aside and swallowed, "Yes..." she said, barely above a whisper.
"Well... it's part of that, sort of. The... uh... feeling, I mean, is-"
Teesah interrupted him - "Were you... Why did..." she began, and then paused while she attempted to formulate the real question in her mind - "Was that for real?"
"Yes, it was for real. But at the time... and that was my first time... I didn't know I could ever... feel like that. I mean... me? But, uh, it's just something that happens..." Gordon took a breath – this was so embarrassing, "Anyway, Teesah. It's – the biting thing I mean – an experience that... well, I want to have. And I want you to have it too."
"Well that's an experience I can live WITHOUT! Just what the hell am I supposed to get out of it, anyway?"
You get me, the rabbit thought of saying, but instead chose something less poetic - "I don't know. I'm prey... so I wouldn't understand anyway. I think that's kind of the point."
"Bunny-man... Pee-head- Yeah, okay, I'm a predator. But I'm not your predator! I'd never-"
"That's just it, Teesah – I want you to be. My predator."
It only took her a couple of days, and a lot more talking, to come around.
But the "doctors" still had to be trained, and meanwhile, cross-bow production was stepped up ten-fold, so that two weeks later, there were twenty-five of them circulating through the Army. People were volunteering to collect the cactus that Lahso needed for the resin, shape the wood, stoke the kiln – anything they could do in hopes of getting one. A special squad was sent into the foothills of the Western Range to collect the necessary oak, spruce, and – oddly – pear-tree wood they required. The Hares showed the Akkelahn how to make proper arrows for them. It became a Cause.
In that two weeks, Captain Backoh came to actually like Ben the Prime Scout. The kidding they had with each other over their respective partners had finally overcome their reluctance to befriend each other. It made them... seem more like regular people, and less like a legendary enemy. The other soldiers – seeing their leaders rough-housing with each other and trading insults, followed suit, and soon the Hares were considered "comrades" rather than just "strange visitors from another culture".
The cougar captain still giggled whenever he heard the name "Dick", and when Ben would make fun of the size and build of the buffalo-woman Laura, Backoh could only reply with "Hey – I like a woman who can lift me off the ground... With one arm. Would you believe - it comes in handy?"
Squads of Hares had been showing up to replace the trainees at Akkelah regularly for months now, and General Veetax decided it was time to trade – a company of 50 Akkelahn were to be assembled to visit the Valley of Ghosts.
Volunteers for that were hard to come by, however. The cougars had heard too many stories – and for too long - about people going there and not coming back. Plus, the way the Hares could just disappear as soon as one's head was turned was just outright weird – even if they were trying to teach the Akkelahn how it was done.
People eventually started coming forward, though. Gordon wanted to go back, so he'd bring Teesah, of course. Laura wanted to go, and convinced Capt. Backoh to join her by promising him things that are perhaps best left unsaid. Since Laura went, Chirie would go, and since Chirie would go, her cougar-girlfriend Cinpah would go... and so it went, down the line. Mostly cougars, but with two squirrels, a bison, four rabbits, six rats, three badgers (probably trying to prove their bravery to each other, the way badgers do), two horses, a lynx, three wolves, and three more coyotes.
They nick-named themselves the "Dinner Company", and the prey members dared the predators to try anything, with the kind of mock-bravado that only soldiers understand. Which proved to General Veetax once and for all that a mixed-species Army was a Good Thing.
Of course, Gordon had some business to attend to before he was ready to leave.
Gordon and Teesah allowed seven Observers to watch the proceedings of their B&T ceremony: Ben and Dick, Backoh and Laura, Cinpah and Chirie, and Lahso. Ben and his husband just wanted to see "if this whole thing is for real" – the whole idea went against everything any Desert Hare had ever thought about predators. The predator/prey partners, of course, had other reasons, and their prey halves - Laura and Chirie - had to do whatever they could to get their predator boy- and girl-friends to relax. Backoh and Cinpah, were noticeably, visibly anxious. Lahso was old enough that little surprised him anymore, but was still "interested".
When Teesah bit down with Stage Three force – enough to put Gordon through the death-shock, yet not quite enough to penetrate his skin - Gordon screamed. Only the Doctor had thought to bring something to plug his ears. The scream of a rabbit is a horrible thing to hear, and he'd heard it before, so he came prepared. Lee – the Doctor's assistant – put her hands to her ears trying to shield herself, but the ragged wailing still sent chills down her spine. Of the Observers, only Chirie was too mind-numbingly shocked by the sound to cover her ears – and she peed her pants listening to it.
By that time in the ceremony, of course, Teesah couldn't hear anything at all. She was tuned to her other senses, which were fast becoming saturated with one essence: Gordon.
After the rabbit stopped screaming, the Doctor and Lee checked the placement of Teesah's teeth one last time, gave Gordon his final instructions, and shooed everyone out of the room for Stage Four – the bite.
All they heard through the door was a short "Argh!" from the rabbit as Teesah's teeth sunk in. The Doctor and Lee began counting seconds.
The coaches and Observers had been told what to expect – but they still weren't prepared for what they saw when they all filed back into the room. It was tender, it was touching, it was primal, and it was... very bloody. That juxtaposition caught them all by surprise.
Teesah would later say that she'd never realized how much like a cougar she could really feel. She'd go on and on about it to anyone who would listen... and when someone asked her why she didn't finish it and tear through the rabbit's throat, all she could say was "I dunno... Uhm... I really don't know..."
When Gordon was around to hear that, he'd just smile to himself.
Tristan quit his job at the newspaper, devoting himself to the fairy-tale full-time. He and Taylor would sit for hours discussing how it should go, and what events to include, how to phrase them, what to leave out – everything. The wolf may have been the writer, but this was a joint venture. Besides, Taylor had been there too, and it was important that the story appeal to both the predators and prey of their home Town.
They decided not to use names – only species. And they weren't going to mention their age difference at the time, either. It would be called "The Wolf and the Lamb" - and the readers could make them any age they liked – but obviously young. The reason for this – they surmised – was that children don't want to hear about adults, but they also wouldn't put much faith in stories about other kids their own age. Children fantasize about being "bigger kids" - the ones they look up to. By leaving their ages ambiguous, they hoped to reach the largest audience – for the longest time.
Every detail of the story went through analysis like that. When Tristan finally had a beginning and Taylor had a scene to draw, they went through it all over again about the drawing, too. Taylor went through an entire sketch-pad just getting the first illustration worked out. They both felt the need to get it right. There would be no doing it over afterward.
During breaks from the fairy-tale creation, they discussed how they were going to actually get there. They had a copy of the map that Teesah has filled in, so they knew where the water-holes were. Crossing the Desert would not be like it had been with The Lady.
But they would have cargo this time, besides just food and water. They'd have books. Books they would seed throughout the Town – selling some, giving others away, stocking the library and the schools. The author of the book would be "B. and T. Partners".
They finally decided on a horse and wagon. That would at least get them to the glacier. They might have to pack the cargo across in several trips, but it seemed to be the best solution they could think of. Bringing a wagon also meant they wouldn't be able to cross sand, so there would be a delay going around that, as well.
The trip was planned out. People asked them how long they expected to be gone, and they'd just say "as long as it takes". That was a satisfactory answer to the Blood and Teeth people, and those who weren't just thought the pair were being cryptic.
The little fairy-tale book was finally printed – after 9 proofs and a change to acid-free paper. They wanted the books to last a long time.
And when Spring came – they closed all their accounts, said goodbye to their friends, and left. They'd been in Civilization for twelve years.
"Polar bear, from up North," Sam began his usual spiel. He certainly didn't recognize the two strangers – a wolf and a ram. So he was quite surprised when they both joined in and said right along with him, "Way up North. Help you fellas?" The pair smirked at him. Sam was not impressed with the comedy, but it did make him wonder just how they'd known what he was going to say...
"How did..." he began, and then it dawned on him, "Oh, my gods... You're... you're uh..."
"Tristan! And that would make you..."
Sam's mouth hung open, and then he shouted, "Taylor!!". Looking back and forth between the pair, and then settling on the ram, he added, "DAMN boy – you got BIG didn'cha!"
Tristan offered the bear a hand to shake, and Sam took it, only to pull the wolf into a bear-hug that nearly sprained his back. Taylor didn't even offer a hand, and just went right into the hug. Taylor was an adult ram now – but he was still Taylor. They took a table.
Where they - not necessarily in this order – rehashed old times, told stories of their adventures since last sight of each other, conjectured about Gordon and Teesah, and talked about how the world had changed. Sam also spent a lot of time talking about cute things his pre-teen daughter did – and how much he was dreading having a teen daughter.
There was another customer in the tavern that afternoon – a bobcat-man named Rowan. Kicked out of the caravan he'd been employed by for stealing food and subsequently trading it for beer, Rowan had been working his way south along the Western Range of mountains ever since. "Looking for opportunities", he called it. Mostly engaging in petty thievery, was the truth.
The conversation two tables over was just overwhelmingly boring for the bobcat, and he was about to move on, when he heard something interesting: there were apparently people who wanted – badly – to get hold of the ram. They were called "Black-Face Coyotes", and it sounded like they might be very interested in hearing that the ram would passing through their area. The wolf had told Sam that he and Taylor knew they wouldn't run into them because by the time they went through the Coyote's territory, they should be far to the north. That was a handy bit of information – it told Rowan where the Black Faces could be found, and where the ram "Taylor" would be. As for what they wanted with him; it sounded like some sort of religious grudge – which was even better news.
So all that smelled a lot like 'opportunity' to Rowan. He had a - stolen - horse, so he could cross the Desert, following his old caravan route, far faster than the wagon-hauling pair. He could sell this information. He ordered another beer and continued to wait, hoping to hear more details. But other than some crap about fairy-tails and politics, there was nothing more he could use.
He left $4 on the table – no tip – and walked out the door. There was money in this... he could taste it. Religious-type money. Religious-types always made the easiest marks... they would pay to hear whatever they already believed. If they'd been waiting twelve years to find this sheep, they ought to pay handsomely, too.
The Dinner Company entered a village that appeared to be completely abandoned – but then, given what they knew of the Desert Hares - that wasn't especially surprising. Gods they were a paranoid bunch, until they got to know you. And besides, they were probably all over the place, and just hiding. They Company been invited to come, after all... did they really think 50 Akkelahn were going to take on the entire village of a a few hundred Desert Hares, and in their homeland, at that? The Akkelahn weren't stupid...
At the end of the broad main street, they could eventually see three of the five elders standing in front of the Elder's Hut. Even when they weren't trying to, the Hares still blended into the background. Part of the reason was their habit of not moving – anything – while they waited. They did not shift their weight from one leg to another, or turn their heads to talk, or flick their ears, or drum their fingers... they simply stood like statues. Unless one was actively looking for them, one might pass them right by without ever realizing it.
The Company – headed by a triumvirate of hare (Ben), rabbit (Gordon), and cougar (Backoh) – were told where to make their camp. It was, of course, out in the most barren spot of desert they could find near the village – all the better to keep an eye on the strangers. The Hares would provide water, but that was all. The Akkelahn were expected to provide their own food, especially if they wanted meat. Luckily they'd brought a good amount with them in the supply-train.
It was a good-will exchange, but it took awhile to prove that.
Backoh had the idea that each day the Company should assemble in the square at the center of the village, and one soldier would get up and do something as a demonstration of friendship with the villagers. Some of the soldiers told stories – both biographical and fictional – some sang, some danced, a few played instruments. Most just invited the throng to ask them questions. Ben told Backoh that the simple question-and-answer episodes probably proved their trustworthiness more than anything else. The Desert Hares – being such good keepers of secrets – just assumed that everyone else would be the same way, and were surprised to find out otherwise.
It still took two weeks before the Hare mothers would let their children out of their sight. Children tended to be more inquisitive than was good for them – every Hare mother knew that.
During one of the get-to-know-us gatherings, when Teesah was singing - so Gordon was there too - Ben was telling Backoh the latest news from the signal-corps: another squad of Hares had arrived in Akkelah, rains had been spotted to the north, the iron-mongers caravan had been attacked and was successfully defended... and one odd bit of news – "There's a pair of travelers taking a wagon across the Desert alone. They're kind of unusual – although it seems less so now..." Ben said, looking around at the mix of Akkelahn predators, Akkelahn prey, and Desert Hares in the bleachers.
"What's odd about them? Backoh asked, only faintly curious. That girl could sing!
"A sheep and a wolf. Don't often see-"
Gordon's ears perked up and he broke in, "Sheep and wolf? Both male? How old? Which way were they going? Where are they now?"
The two professional soldiers were both taken aback by Gordon's sudden interest. And Ben, of course, was suspicious.
"Mean something to you?" he asked.
"Yeah... I used to know a pair like that. Both boy- uh, well, I guess they'd be 'men' by now. They were inseparable. Which way were they going?" he repeated, "And... a wagon, you said?"
"Yes, in a wagon. Headed north-east from the southern end of the dunes, probably a month from the Eastern foothills. No report on their genders... The Scout did report that they were both armed, though. The wolf has a bow, and the sheep seems to be carrying a sword. Does that-"
"Spirits and NATURE! That has to be them!" Gordon cried, and then began talking to himself, "I bet they're going home... Gods... I wish I could see 'em again... Tristan and Taylor. After all this time... I wonder how they made out in Civilization... Hey! Wait till I tell Teesah!" he sounded excited, but then his ears dropped and his brow furrowed. He said – still as much to himself as anyone - "Lessee... so they'll hit the mountains early summer. Yeah – the Coyotes oughta be well up north by that time. Good."
That got Ben's attention, "You... have met the Black Faces?"
"Yeah. Well – not me, but Taylor did. He's the sheep. He killed one and we had to get the hell outta there. Lucky they didn't follow us into the Desert."
"Gordon – you're telling me that this 'Taylor' person – a sheep – killed a Black Face Coyote?"
"Yup. He was just a kid too, 12 years old, I think. Used his sword. The Lady taught him well."
"They will still remember that, Gordon. They're funny that way. They still remember us Hares, too."
"But they should all be a couple hundred miles north by the time Taylor reaches the mountains..."
"Yes. They should. And you think they will just pass through?"
"They're on their way further east, yeah. Other side of the range, in fact. I wonder if I could catch 'em..."
"Good friends of yours, were they?" Ben asked.
"The best. We went through... a lot, together. I wonder why they're heading back..."
"It shouldn't be too hard to intercept them from here."
Gordon's eyes lit up, but he kept his voice down so no one else would hear, "I don't suppose you'd care to show me one of your maps..."
Ben did show Gordon one of 'his' maps, and was insulted that Gordon would think the Scout hadn't reported their speed. The very next day, Gordon and Teesah left to meet up with the travelers at one of the larger oases – one that was also on Gordon's map – and therefore on Tristan and Taylor's map, too. The rabbit told them that he intended to return shortly after the pair reached beyond the foothills and into the mountains proper.
Two weeks later, there was another message from the signal corps – the Black Faces had turned around, and were moving south again. Unusually quickly.
Ben immediately understood the significance, and told Backoh, who told the rest of his Company. Akkelahn were in danger. The Company would go. Fifty Akkelahn against – Ben informed him of the latest estimate – over a thousand Coyotes. The soldiers had weapons – but only a handful of the new crossbows. If it came to a battle... it would be bad.
As the visiting Akkelahn soldiers talked about it and made their preparations, the Hares began to get itchy too. The Coyotes were their arch-enemies! If anyone was going to wage war on them, it should be the Desert Hares! Not some strangers just trying to rescue their comrades... worthy and understandable as that was. Strangers who would probably die in the attempt... which would be kind of a shame... because they seemed like pretty good people. Even if a lot of them were predators.
But: the Council of Elders had decided. The Hares would not fight this battle. They'd been told to adapt, not fight. The Desert Hares were not a war-like people, the Elders said. They had no "Army".
Which was news to the Scouts, who'd been killing anyone who even got too close to The Valley all their lives. Who'd been going out into the Desert as if into battle, every single time. Who'd trained themselves to hide so well that they were called "Ghosts" by the Akkelahn. They weren't soldiers?
Ben had killed his own people under orders from the Council. That wasn't war? And why had he done that? Because these very same Black Faced Coyotes had run them out of their home, two millennia ago. Before they'd become soldiers.
Ben had trained beside acknowledged "soldiers" who were part of an undoubted "Army". He'd been considered a "comrade". Backoh – though a predator – was a comrade-in-arms that Ben felt he could trust when things turned bad. And now things were bad for Backoh – and here was Ben, hiding in his Valley, as his people had always done.
Well, not this time!
Prime Scout Ben was going – Council or no Council. He would leave the next morning – one secret the Desert Hares hadn't shared with the Akkelahn was that Hares could run – nonstop, under a full pack, and for days on end if need be. He only told his own squad that he would be leaving, no one else, and he didn't ask them to come. That would have to be their own choice.
Because after this, Ben would never be allowed back into the Valley again, on pain of death. He would no longer be a "Desert Hare". He'd just be a hare – lower-case, no adjective. But he could live with that easier than he could live with himself letting the Akkelahn die fighting his enemy.
Word of Ben's disobedience to Council Law got around, of course – soldiers love news and rumor – and once it did, there was no stopping the landslide.
Ben packed up his gear and headed out the next morning at a full-on run, headed for the Eastern Range – not for Gordon and Teesah and their friends. He'd meet them in the foothills.
He ran for ten miles before he ever looked back to see just over two hundred Desert Hares right behind him.
There were foragers, and signalers, one old Elder barely able to keep up, teenagers - some of whom shouldn't have been there, and even mothers... A lot of them weren't even Scouts. And now, Ben thought, I guess they're not 'Desert Hares' either...
Two-hundred and fifty against over a thousand? A thousand ruthless, flesh-eating, religion-crazed predators? Okay, so they might all die. But after two thousand years - it was time to find out. And maybe it was time to write some new Scrolls of History.
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