Carnivores of Darkness and Light: Journeys of the Catechist, Book 1 by Alan Dean Foster

“I would have hoped,” he told her in a small masterpiece of understatement, “for more encouraging words.”

Her eyes opened. They were blue again. “I like you, Etjole Ehomba. Simple or not, smelly or not, it would trouble me to see you come to harm. But I can’t stop you, nor would I if I could. Each of us chooses our own adjectives, our own modifiers. I choose to sit here, in this comfortable, sunny place, and parcel out my learning to those who will listen and pay. It’s a good life.” For the second time he saw the twinkle in her eyes. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to stay with me a while. Given enough time, I might be able to talk you into saving your life.”

Her body manifested itself in quiet ways that could not be ignored, not even when she was revealing matters of great import. He had been aware of it ever since she had entered the room. Now her gaze metamorphosed from penetrating to inviting, and the way she shifted in her chair produced sounds he could only hear with organs other than his ears. They were loud, and forceful, and they threatened to drown out his own inner voice.

“I can think of nothing that would please me more,” he told her frankly, “if only I was not committed to fulfilling this obligation, and if I did not have a woman waiting for me in my house.”

“Your house is a long way from Kora Keri, Etjole. Who is to say what your woman does to keep boredom from her door when you are not there?”

“I cannot worry about that.” He rose. “I prefer not to create pain without foundation.”

Smiling insidiously, she fondled the crystal cube. The inclusions within seemed to torque slightly in her direction. “I could look and try to learn the answer to that question for you.”

He turned away from her. “I would rather not know.”

The seer Rael sniffed, unable to mask her derision completely. “So you choose blissful ignorance. It strikes me a poor way to go into battle.”

“Who said anything about bliss? And is this a battle I am fighting here? If so, whom am I battling? There is no one present except you and I, and I do not want to think that I am fighting with you.”

Her lips, which in another time and place he would gladly have stilled with his own, tightened. “What a maddening man you are, Etjole Ehomba! You must pardon my forwardness. In my profession I am not used to dealing with men or women of principle. So I am having difficulty deciding what you are, and how to deal with you.”

“I told you,” he explained patiently, “I am—”

“A simple herdsman; yes, yes!” Rising abruptly from her chair, she turned away from him and stalked toward the rear portal. “A simple herdsman with an answer for everything. Worse, you are right.” Whirling around, violet eyes blazing, she wagged a warning finger at him. “If you insist on pursuing the course you have chosen and succeed in following it to its end, you are going to die, Etjole Ehomba! Do you hear what I am saying; do you understand my words? You are going to die! What, finally, do you have to say to that?”

His voice was as calm and controlled as ever. “You have a very pretty finger.”

Dropping her arm, she inhaled sharply. “I think you’re right, and that I was wrong to ever think otherwise. You are a simple herdsman, uncomplicated and disingenuous. You’re too naïve to be frightened. That—or you are the most subtle of sorcerers I have ever met.” Her tone thawed. “Many are the men who have pursued me for months, years even, without success, but you have ensorcelled me in a matter of moments, and with me doing most of the talking at that.” She shook her head slowly as she regarded him, a baffled look on her face.

“Who are you, Etjole Ehomba? What are you?”

Before he could reply yet again that he was but a simple herdsman from the south, she had spun on the heel of her slipper and vanished through the rear-facing beaded portal. The meeting was over. For an instant, he considered following her, to try to explain further, to do his best to assuage her upset and unease. But it might very well be dark in whatever back room she had vanished into, and the walls would certainly be closer to one another, his options for flight narrower. Nor was he entirely sure he would fight very hard to escape. Best not to place himself in a position where he might be forced to find out.

The entrance beckoned behind him. Leaving himself no more time to think, which might prove unsettling, or to feel, which could prove worse, he turned and departed.

It was only later, when he was safely back among the boisterous, jostling crowd in the bazaar, that he was struck by the realization that she had not charged him for his visit. Dipping one hand into a pocket of his kilt, he absently fingered the little sack of gravel from the beach near the village. The simplistic, repetitive activity always helped to remind him of the village and to strengthen his memories of home. The more he thought of the dazzling seer Rael, the more he needed that reinforcement. And if her words were to be believed, he had exerted as profoundly unsettling an effect on her as she had on him. Their lovemaking would have been volcanic.

But it was not to be. He pushed on through the crowd. There were preparations to be made. If, as she had told him, he would find no boat master in this country willing to attempt an ocean crossing, then he would have to seek farther north. That meant restocking the few basic supplies he could carry on his back. Salt, sugar, a few carefully chosen spices, some basic medicinal powders, and whatever else he could afford that might prove useful over the duration of an extended overland trek. If he was fortunate, he might learn of a caravan of some sort traveling north and join them for guidance and mutual protection. But since he could not count on doing so, he had to be prepared to press on alone.

Of the lands to the north of the Kohoboth he knew little, only what village oldsters like Fhastal and Meruba mumbled around communal campfires. Half and more of that might be as much sheer invention as literal truth. Fhastal in particular could be exceptionally imaginative when it came to telling tales of distant lands and strange peoples. He had never paid more than cursory attention to such ramblings because they had never functioned as anything other than stories, related for the entertainment of adults and children alike.

Now he struggled to remember what he could of those babblings, hoping to winnow a few kernels of fact from the dross of speculation. The region north of the Kohoboth was called the Unstable Lands. He did not know why. Was it because knowledge of it was so limited, or were there reasons more sinister? He would know soon enough, he realized. In the absence of access to an oceangoing ship, that was where he had to go next.

But first, restocking. And something else. He turned, heading back toward the inn that had provided him with such good food and sleep. Not because he was hungry, or even because he was ready to choose a place to spend the night, but because of something the beauteous Rael had told him. A small matter he intended to take care of even though she would not experience the resolution of it.

He did not think that he smelled, but he was willing to take her word for it. After all, she was a seer, and her word was to be believed, and until he left Kora Keri behind he would be forced to suffer the company of others whom he might not want to think the less of him. So he would sacrifice, and have a shower.


IT WAS RAINING WHEN HE LEFT TOWN EARLY THE FOLLOWING morning, a drab drizzle the color of liquid charcoal that dampened his spirits if not his determination. An image appeared unbidden in his mind: of Rael, lying naked beneath silken sheets in a warm room, with the cool, clean rain-swept air pouring in through an open window, chilling the interior just enough to make the sheets a welcome accompaniment, bending them snugly across the bed, letting them outline the curves of her sleeping form with gossamer gentleness, almost as soft as …

He wiped water from his mouth and eyes and pulled the hood sewn to the back of his collar lower on his forehead. Using his spear as a walking stick, he exited the old part of the city via the northern gate. It was considerably smaller than the one that ingressed from the west, there being far less traffic to and from the northern reaches of the city than from east or west or from the south, where the town faced the river. The two miserable guards stationed outside ignored him. They were huddled together against the rain and wholly occupied with those travelers desiring entry. A glance showed that neither of them had been among the quintet that had, to their detriment, harassed him on his arrival days earlier.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster