by Nathan Ryan
Text ©2006 Nathan Ryan; illustration ©2007 Cubist
Zel took a deep breath, deeper than the breathing of his slumber. There was a hesitation about it, as though the warm, dry air had gotten caught in his lungs. A moment later it came out as a cough. The flinty dust and chaff-like smell of dry tall-grass filled the air. His nose twitched twice; then his left ear rotated from back to front. The grass behind him was swaying, the wind above him was blowing, and the body before him was breathing. The gentle breeze softly rocked his left whiskers as his right lay crushed beneath his face. He lay there on his side a few minutes more before moving again. Eventually his eyes opened to a world at dawn. A lump of fur lay mere inches from his nose, also on its side. He nudged forward and sniffed it between its shoulders. Zels sleepy eyes sprang open although they still looked glazed over. Rayjsshh, he slurred.
He hastened to right himself, twisting around onto his stomach and sliding his feet underneath himself, but his body just kept on rolling. He fell off the back of the wagon and hit the hard packed earth with a thud that knocked the wind out of him. The rosy pink of his inner ears paledlimbs quivering as he strained to rise. With his body curled up, he began to retch. Between dry heaves he sucked down the dusty air, but the motions continued until a bluish creamy fluid splattered into the dirt behind the wagons right rear wagon wheel.
He eased back up, first sliding his long rabbit-like feet beneath himself and then creeping up onto all fours. After a few moments, and a few deep cleansing breaths, he opened his eyes and looked up into the wagon. There, fifteen sleeping bodies slept peacefully. The fur on the back of his neck bristledhe had been the sixteenth. Zel wobbled a bit like he might have been drunk as he stood upright, rested the flat of his tail in the dirt, and rose up on his hind quarters. He reached forward tentatively and nudged Reiji with a fore-paw. The fellow goma didnt budge. Im sorry, Reiji, Zel whispered to his friend. I didnt have enough for both of us. Please, wake up. But it only moved with the slow rhythmic breathing of slumber.
Zel looked over the cart. Fifteen fellow goma, all of them adolescents like himself, lay packed together from one end of the cart to the other. Out of the corner of his eye he spied the second old wooden cart piled high with produce: squash, corn, beans. The mound of food atop the wagon was like the hump of a camel he had once seen in the care of a nomadic trader. He looked from the cart full of produce to the cart full of his own kind. The warm wind blew, but Zel shivered. His whiskers pulled back against his round cheeks as he looked away from the truth.
Again he shook Reiji. Reiji, wake up. Theyll be coming for the Harvest Tax soon. Please, Reiji. A shadow moved on the road, drawing his attention. The silhouette grew and separated into several figures. They moved quickly, as though with purpose, and walked upright on two tall legsunlike his own people. His ears swiveled and tilted forward. There he remained as a gray salt sculpture for several minutes. The strangers spoke in deep voices that carried clearly across the waves of grass. Their words were not the soothing tones of the common tongue, Errna; they were the sharp, guttural tones of Prena, the language of felinesthe language of the nonili.
Zels tall ears slowly sank down out of sight. He crept back away from the cart until his heel stepped into something wet. He glanced down; it was his own blue bile. His nose wrinkled. Although he turned and started to distance himself from the scene, Zel paused once more to turn and frown at Reijis sleeping figure. He looked at least as heavy as Zel. Im sorry, friend, Zel whispered. Keeping his ears flat against the back of his head, he skittered away into the cover of the grass and toward the brush up on the distant hills slope.
The blades of grass flattened beneath him, leaving a broken and disturbed path marked with odorous bile from his rear left paw in his wake, but Zel pressed on. The nonili continued to close on the tribute behind him. Up ahead the grass gave way to albany thickets of septemberbush and milkwood. He squeezed in between the thick branches even as voices arose from the shadowy figures with the sound of agitation.
Smooth fynbos leaves and the sharp thistles pulled through his fur, tearing out tell-tale bits of fur to mark his path. Khat, oh khat, oh khat, he cursed as he weaved through the brush, leaving a trail of scented fur on the twiggy plants. His eyes darted back and forth. The dirt and grass had already wiped his foot paw clean. A soft breeze blew against his tall, long eyebrows. Soon the path widened out and he was able to change from his cumbersome four-footed walk to a proper hop without scraping up against anything. He followed the whisker sensation to the right, then clear around a milkwood tree. It was short, but tall enough to stand under without crouching. It cast an inviting shade on the ground. He darted behind the tree trunk and skidded to a halt, panting heavily. His ears shot straight up and twisted back in the direction of the path hed taken. The only sound came from the swaying branches overhead.
After a moment more, he turned and surveyed the paths forward. A southern pathway opened to him, leading back in the direction of his home village. His ears splayed softly in a sort of smile as he stepped in that direction. No, he said aloud. Reiji needs me. He turned and walked back to the tree. Khat, I cant go back. Khat! He looked down that southern path, the eastern path he just traveled, and then northeast through the brush. His upper lip curled under; he bit it and took a step toward the northeast. Its okay. Nonili are big, he said to himself. Theyll take a while to get through the brush. Ill just circle around and take a look.
Zel lowered himself down onto four legs again and began a slow and even-paced walk down the northwestern slope. He eased around a spiny bush, careful to keep from grazing it as he turned slightly northward. Although trembling, he kept moving. The grass beneath his feet gave way to rocky ground, which slowed his pace further. Sharp edges pricked his feet but didnt cut into his callused paws. He worked his way around the hillside which he had come past on his frantic flight. He could see the wagons, apparently unattended. Eventually he came across a dark recess in the hill. The cave was deep enough to fill with shadow, but not didnt look so deep that it might hide something truly frighteningat least not more frightening than nonili hunters. There Zel waited soundlessly, his ears ever erect.
The sun continued its ascent. It was an hour after his escape before Zel finally started down the hillside. His gaze roamed from side to side as he passed from the rocky ground into the tall grass once more. He crouched as he went. Something moved in the wagons; he froze in mid-step. Waves of brown grass danced before his eyes between his goal and himself. A pair of goma ears popped up, and then a second. A tired groan arose, followed by the sound of dull claws scratching across wood. Zel stood up straight, and bounded the last few leaps to the wagon. Several of the others were up and moving about, but Reiji slept on.
Two of his fellow goma turned and gazed at him wide-eyed. What are you doing here? they asked.
Zel shook his friend. Reiji! Reiji, wake up! Theyll be back any minute. Reiji!
The sleeper stirred. Im awake, he said; one eye cracked open.
Wake faster. Weve got to get out of here. The nonili will come back when they lose my trail. Weve got to be gone by then Everybody! Weve got to get out of here. Theyre going to come back.
Reiji reached out and grasped the nearest wagon wall. The strain of exertion was clear in his grimace. Who put you in charge, huh?
Zel grinned. Good sense, my friend. Come on; let me help you out of there. Take my paw Good, now one foot at a time. Soon Reiji, the last of the seasons live Harvest Tax offering, was up and moving. Zel turned to face the others. I woke up early, before the nonili arrived. I led them up into the hills and snuck back around. Weve got to go the other way.
The group murmured. We should go home, someone said, followed quickly by a well be safer there, and who made you our boss.
Zel stomped his foot and looked at one of the offending speakers. Look Tam! Who drugged us and put us on that cart? Huh? If we go back home, theyre just going to send us again Guys? Guys! Where are you going?
Home, said one floppy eared doe.
Reijis eyes narrowed as he glared a moment at the others. But he shook that look away. If were going home we should at least go the long way through the brush, he said. If we take the road the nonili are going to find us. He flashed Zel a quick glance and a nod. To buy us time.
To buy us time, Zel nodded knowingly, adding weight to Reijis suggestion.
The other youths looked at each other, slowly nodding assent as they came to an agreement. They left the road that led home and began to make their way into the southern hills. Constantly they reminded each other to keep quiet, not stray, or to keep their ears down. By the noon hour they were well into the brush and hills, pointing their noses too far south for a direct path home despite the complaints of the better number. Reiji slowed his pace just slightly with every hill they crossed and the others slowed behind him.
The murmuring continued to grow further back in the train where Zel still worked for a delaycoaxing some and cajoling others. As the sun reached its zenith two of the larger youths came up from behind and shoved Reiji onward. Pick up the pace. If youre so scared of the nonili catching us, why are you stalling?
Im not stalling, he countered, although he didnt break stride.
Tam, the goma on his right, sniffed and looked down his nose at him. You just dont want to go home because the chief doesnt like you.
The other grunted. And now you and Zel are trying to herd us off in your own direction. What do you plan to do, start your own little herd? Or maybe youll dig yourself a lowly little warren.
Reiji just kept on waking, trying to ignore them until his left shoulder was bitten. Hey, he protested, if you dont like the pace, dont blame me. Im not keeping you here. Hop on home if you likeits faster. I prefer to walk.
You think youre better than us?
Reiji turned to glare at Tam. A voice called from behind. Reiji, Tam, Ekel! Is there a problem?
The larger Ekel turned to see Zel approaching, his ears all smiles. Yes, there is a problem. Its youholding us back. What are you planning to do, Zel? And why did you wake up so much earlier than us?
Zel smiled and lowered his head slightly. Its obvious youre upset. I apologize if I had anything to do with that. If you like, you can go on ahead. This pace suits me. Anyone who wants to hop on ahead, can. He cast a quick glance around to the others, who looked not nearly as sure of themselves as they had when first they set off for home. He smiled knowingly. As for me, well, Im tired from running those hunters around. Trell Spring is down on the other side of this hill. I think Im going to rest here for a while, then head down to the spring and get refreshed.
Youre wasting time, Tam said. Why are you keeping us from going home?
Because the nonili hunters will go there looking for us. I dont want to be there when they come. You can do whatever you like. Ive walked too far today.
Me too, Reiji chimed. I think Ill sit here with you for a while, Zel. Do you mind?
Not at all. Company is always welcome. Anyone can take a break here. It is a nice shady place, after all.
Ekel hopped to Zels side and glared down at him. You talk nice, but who put you in charge?
Feel free to leave me here and go home. No ones stopping you.
Cut it out, Ekel. The voice came from one of the others. She was just starting to settle down into the shade herself. Were tired, and were scared, and Im staying here. No ones keeping you. No one wants you and Tam around anyway.
Reiji sniffed back at Tam. You see. Everyone can make up their own mind. Everyone who wants to stay, stays. Everyone who wants to go, goes. Goor you wont make it back before sunset.
Tam looked Reiji up and down before turning back to Ekel. Hes not worth it. Come on. Lets go everyone. No one but Ekel moved. I said lets go!
Cut it out, Tam, said one of the reclined. Theyre right. Were not going anywhere.
Ekel glared at Zel again, but when Tam turned and left, Ekel had to turn and hop after him.
Not bad, Reiji whispered to his friend. All but two. Not bad.
The wind whispered through the leaves overhead, casting fawn spots on the weedy earth. Zel watched them play across his fur. I guess. The spots of light continued to play on through the afternoon, even as the youths lounged. From time to time someone would stir, but they went nowhere. Zel watched them with a blank expressiontwo huddled here, three cuddled there. He looked over at Reiji, who had settled in next to him and was starting to groom and time slipped away. From time to time a few slipped off downhill and returned. Zel made the trip down to the spring himself. Still, all ears were at alert and heads would turn every time someone came back from the spring.
Eventually night fell and the group huddled closer. Some eyes closed, but many stayed awakewatching, listening. As the sun peeked into the sky again Zel stood up on all fours and began to stretch. The others took notice and began nudging each-other to wakefulness. He turned his gaze to each of them and looked them over. Their ears drooped with fatigue; they were likely very hungry. He turned in the direction of home and began his walk.
As the others started to fall into line he sped up to a distance-eating hop. The train hopped down the hill to the spring, and on through the valley toward their hometown. Although the wind was at his back, Zel didnt know another path to the village from there, so he followed it home. No one spoke in those hours as they passed along the trail. The sun was well on its way up into the sky by the time they rounded the last hill and got their first view of home.
Smoke still rose from the ashes of grass huts and the broken-down frames of wooden structures. Red flames still burned in the recently harvested fields. Zels pace slowed to a crawl, but those behind stopped. Nothing was moving in the village. As he approached Zel got a better view of the devastation. Everything was blackened by fire; the ground was still warm. He turned his gaze back to the others. Reiji was hopping up to meet him. Its all gone, Zel said.
I know, he answered. This was bound to happen. It probably burned all night.
Zels ears sank. There arent even any bodies.
Taken instead of us.
Zel turned and looked around. In the corner of his eye he noted a blackened wall still standing. He turned and gazed upon it. The granary is still standing.
I know, Reiji whispered. We have to start over. They want us to start overor else there will be none of us to harvest next year.
Zel closed his eyes and shook his head fiercely. No, he said. No, no, no. He hopped ahead into the middle of town. Everything there was charred except the stone-walled well. He turned to see Reiji hopping up to him. What are we supposed to do?
We have to keep going, he answered with a shrug. Winters coming and we dont even have houses. We dont have the strength to build a new town before then. The ground is too flat here for a warren. So we have to build, and probably live in the barn most of the winter.
Zel looked down the path leading down the valley to see the others still huddled outside the ghost town. You should be leading us, Rej. Everyone likes you, you know. They always did no, dont interrupt me. They always did. You should be in charge here. Why didnt you step forward before?
Because I dont have the walnuts, he answered, eliciting a laugh from his friend. I buckle under pressure; you dont. You know what needs doing. Point me in the right direction, Zel, and Ill go there.
Zel opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated. His mouth closed, and he turned to walk around to the far side of the well, watching the ground beneath his feet.
Zel? Reiji inquired.
These arent going to be easy times for us, Reiji. We cant play games like, he chuckled, like the search-out we played last week. And it isnt like yesterday when we could let everybody do whatever they wanted. Were not going to make it if we split up any more. Were goma; we stick together or die. He looked intensely back at his best friend. Khat. I dont want to be chief.
Reiji stepped forward to the edge of the well and looked down into the darkness. They say every chief starts off likeable
and ends a tyrant, Zel finished. A brisk wind blew past, penetrating his fur. He shivered.
Not exactly something anyone should wish for, but maybe you can be something in between.
They stared at each other for some time. The stillness was broken by the sound of footsteps. Simultaneously they turned and saw a few of the others starting to make their way into the ruined town.
The friends exchanged a quick glance. Reiji nodded.
Zels eyes inspected his weary looking fellows. Reiji, go out and collect the others, bring them to the well here. As Reiji hopped off, Zel turned his attention to the three approaching goma who were starting toward the various paths between the charred buildings, as if they were going to wander about. He called to them and waved them down. When one lingered too long he set his ears forward and stamped his foot, jolting the lingerer into compliance.
In very little time Reiji had the others in tow. Their wide eyes drank in the starkness of a place that had been so familiar. More than a few seemed to shrink, making themselves small in this place that might never again be safe.
Zel looked them over, all thirteen of them, one at a time. They seemed to shrink even further under his gaze, all but Reiji. He shook his head slightly, his ears swaying with the motion. We have to keep together, he said, or were not going to make it. This place isnt safe anymore. That much is obviousso were leaving.
A murmur of dissent arose but quickly faded when Zel grunted at them with a stern eye. This is not open to debate. If we stay, we are just going to be harvested. And if not, then itll be our children. No one is staying behind.
What do you mean no one? someone called out to a chorus of affirmations.
Zel looked at the dissenter. He was round of eye and low of earmarks of high breeding. But these marks didnt mask his fear. Reiji was already approaching him. I mean no one, Wen. Were leaving, and were taking the food with us. That means we have to tear down part of the granary and the attached barn and build containers. The nonili would have left the wagons intact for farm work.
Thats crazy! Wen shouted. Carry off our food? How far can we take it? Where are we going to go? To the next nonili prides territory? To be captured by those slavemonger susa? To throw ourselves on the mercy of some other warren?
And how come you woke up so early? Did you have a stash of Yorba root? Have you been holding out on us? Whats gotten into
With a powerful kick from Reijis hind legs Wen found himself skidding across the ground face first. Reiji turned back to face him. We already put Zel in charge. The time for a change of heart is gone. Anyone who thinks otherwise will have to deal with me. Got it?
The group stared at the normally quiet Reiji in shock. Slowly their eyes turned and looked at Wen. The contender was slow in getting up. He looked back at them with eyes half closed. The young goma looked at each other in question. Slowly, one by one, their eyes turned their backs on Wen.
Good. Well be eating soon. I know youre all hungry. First, we have work to do. Zel remarked. He pointed at the first three to have turned toward him. You three scour this town. Find everything still useable and bring it to the barn. His eyes searched out the doe who had spoken out against Ekel the other night. When their eyes met he said, You and I will take an inventory of whats in the granary. Reiji, take everyone else, including Wen, into the barn; figure out what we have, and what we need to build. If anyone doesnt have enough heart for the work, motivate them.
Soon everyone had scattered, going about their assignments without another word of dissention. Despite the growling of his stomach, Zel held off eating until everyone had finished their assignment and all could eat together. But even when all had their food before them, no one ate. Even Reiji just sat and stared, drooling slightly, until Zel cleared his throat and took a nibble of his raw vegetables. No one had wanted to wait and cook anything.
The sun rose high into the sky and had almost set by the time Reiji was able to give Zel a full account of what they had, what they could do, and what would have to be left behind. Most of the sacrificed had, like Reiji, been trained by their parents in their various crafts, so they were not short of those who could work with wood and nail. All the tools to rebuild and farm had been left behind, as had been expected. And there was more food than could be carried.
If we leave any of it behind, the nonili will eventually come and take it. I dont like the idea of leaving them a last meal, Zel commented.
Reiji nodded slightly as they stood alone in the light of dusk. He said, I agree. And some of the others may be tempted to come back if there is food left here.
Alone? I doubt it.
Dont be so sure. The draw of home is powerful. You saw how they wanted to come here even though the nonili would find them.
They sat alone in the silence of the gray landscape, blending in with their stillness until Zel broke it. What would you do?
What I would do is stay, but youve already said were leaving. I dont know. Leaving is the right thing, but we cant leave anything to come back to. Reijis ear twitched at the sound of movement in the barn. Burn it.
Zel lowered one ear and looked at him. Burn it? Burn food?
Burn it. We cant leave and still have this place behind us ready and willing to have us back. Whatever we do, we have to do all the way.
Burn it, Zel echoed, still mulling over those distasteful words. Well see. You really should be the one making these decisions, Reiji. You know, its not too late for you to take charge.
He shook his head and looked back at Zel. You know why I dont.
Your father has nothing to do with anything now. He was a respectable woodcrafter and his challenge was justified. Our generation has never faulted you for it. Zel sighed. And if its that youre afraid of what happens when youre wrong, well, khat Rej, so am I.
I know. Its not that. Just, just because someone has good ideas doesnt mean hes any good at getting things done. I mean I mean Im not a leader.
Zel placed his forepaw on his friends shoulder. You could be, but I understand. You just dont take initiative. Its not a flaw, Reiji. Its a part of who we are. Few goma ever stand up and do anything, even when their ideas are great or when the thing is right. I go and do things, but I dont always have the right idea. Maybe if you point me in the right direction, I can lead?
Reiji chuckled. You got it, chief.
So, where will we go? Wen was right. No ones going to take us in. Do we find an empty plot of land and build a new shelter to last the winter?
The first stars of twilight shone in the sky, bright wanders against the sky. Zel gazed up at them. No. Were going to Koogranka, the Covey freetown to the north.
Reiji stood up on his hind legs, and then hunkered back down on his tail. Thats a long road. Even ignoring that, what do we do once we get there?
Zels gaze returned to his friend, standing tall against the falling darkness. He nodded toward the barn, indicating that they should join the others. Whatever we have to.