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

“How?” he asked simply. “I have never seen or heard of such a thing, magician.”

“As soon as I saw what kind of creatures were threatening us, I was no longer worried. And stop calling me that.” A touch of irritation crept into the southerner’s voice. “I am a herdsman; nothing more, nothing less.”

“As you say, mag—herdsman. You were not worried? You are the first interloper I have ever encountered who was not terrified by the very sight of the giant browsers.”

“That is because I know them,” Ehomba explained. “Or rather, I know their kind. You see, I come from a dry country, and in dry country there is always constant competition for pasturage. Left to themselves, cattle will compete with sheep. There are also the wild animals: the antelope and the rhinoceros, the mice and the meerkats, the bushbuck and the brontotherium, the gerbil and the gormouth.”

Simna’s brows drew together. “What’s a gormouth?”

“Tell you later.” To the sangoma he added, “In the face of such endless competition for forage a herdsman can do one of two things: poison and kill those that compete with his herds for food, or try to work out some kind of mutually acceptable arrangement that satisfies all.”

“And you,” the sangoma asserted, “you are a compromiser.”

Ehomba nodded. “The Naumkib are not a violent tribe. Our herds and flocks share with the oryx and the deer. They understand this, and so do the animals we claim for our own. To maintain this peaceful arrangement it is sometimes necessary for the parties involved to ratify and adjust, to discuss and debate. The talking of it is delegated to those of us who possess some small skill in conversation.”

“And you,” Simna declared bluntly, “you talk to hares.”

“Yes.” The herdsman nodded once. “I talk to hares.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the quietly browsing brown behemoths behind them. “Among the Naumkib there is a saying for each species, for each of the grazing kind we have learned to deal with. For the hare it is ‘Speak softly and carry a big carrot.’ Unfortunately, I have no carrots to offer these, but I think it would not matter. To impress these would take a carrot the size of a sago palm.

“But they recognize a conciliatory spirit, and being of a nonviolent nature themselves, were quick to respond to my overtures.” He looked down at the green hominid, who, while still wary, had managed to cease trembling. “I do not know if it is natural to your tribe, Boruba-Ban-Beylok, but you, at least, should learn some hospitality.”

Immediately, the sangoma dropped to his knees and placed his forehead and palms upon the ground. “Command me! Tell me what it is you need of me.”

“Well now, that’s more like it, bruther.” Strutting back and forth while picking at his teeth with the point of his sword, Simna considered the offer. “For a start we—”

“We need nothing from him,” Ehomba declared, interrupting. “I take nothing from someone who is offering under duress.”

“Duress? What duress?” Simna demanded to know. “I’ve drawn back my sword, haven’t I? Besides, what’s wrong with taking from someone who’s under duress? D’you think he’d not do so if given the chance?”

“I do not know,” the herdsman replied softly. “I know only that I am not him.”

“Well, I ain’t him neither,” Simna protested, “but I do know that finding a way through this bulwark of bastard grass is going to be Gimil-bedamned difficult, and that he probably could show us the way!”

Eagerness shining from his face, the sangoma rose quickly to his feet. “Yes! I can have several of our youth guide you! Otherwise you will quickly become hopelessly lost and wander about until you perish.” He waved an arm at the green barrier. “In the grass there are no landmarks, no way to determine direction. Even at night, the tops of the blades will shut you in and keep you from seeing the stars. Nor can you climb to find your position. The upper edges of the blades are too sharp, and can cut a person to shreds.” He tapped his chest.

“Only the Tlach know the way, and are small enough to slip easily between the blades.”

“We appreciate your insights,” Ehomba informed him, “but we must move quickly. Therefore your offer is declined.”

Sword hanging at his side, Simna gaped at his friend. “Declined? You think we’re going to be able to travel faster through that mess without a guide?”

“Yes.” Turning, Ehomba smiled reassuringly at his bemused companion as he started back toward the browsing hares. “And we are not going through the grass—we are going over it.”

“Over—oh no, not me! Not me, Etjole!” Simna started backing away, toward the familiar, comforting, unmoving rocks. “If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking …”

Reaching the haunch of the nearest hare, Ehomba turned to look back at him. “Come, Simna ibn Sind. I have a long ways yet to travel and therefore no time to waste. Is it so very different from mounting a horse?”

“I don’t know.” Uncertain, unsure, but unwilling to be left behind, Simna reluctantly took a step forward. “I’ve always had a decent relationship with horses. My own relationship with hares has been solely at the dining table.”

“I would not mention such things around them.” Placing his left foot on the brown hare’s right, Ehomba stepped up. Using the long fur as a convenient hand-hold, he pulled and kicked his way upward until he was sitting on the broad chestnut shoulders just behind the great head. The enormous, towering ears blocked much of the view forward, but there was nothing to see anyway except the endless, monotonous field of grass.

“Why not?” Making an easier if more hesitant job of it than the herdsman, the always-agile Simna boosted himself into an identical riding position on the neck of the second elephantine hare. “You’re not going to tell me they can understand us?”

“Not our words, no,” Ehomba informed him, “but they are good at sensing things. Feelings, emotions, which way a predator is likely to jump. Helpless as the majority of them are, they have to be.” Leaning forward, he spoke into the nearest ear. He did not have to whisper. With auditory apparatus the size of trees, the hare could have heard him clearly from the top of the final jungle-draped ridge.

With a turn and a leap, they were off, Ehomba holding tightly to the thick neck fur and maintaining his usual contemplative silence, Simna howling and protesting at every bound. With each mighty hop they cleared tracts of grass that would have taken men afoot many difficult, sweaty minutes to traverse, and with each jolting landing Simna ibn Sind seemed to find a new imprecation with which to curse the extraordinary method of travel.

They were not alone on the veldt, nor were the Goliath hares the only oversized creatures to be seen. The wind-whipped, emerald green food source was host to an abundance of equally remarkable creatures. At the apex of every gargantuan leap they could see down and across the soaring grassland. Tree-sized blades twitched where hippo-sized mice gnawed at fallen seeds. Caterpillars as long as dugout canoes felled stems like nightmare loggers at work in an unripened forest. Earthen ramparts that would have made any siege engineer proud were the work not of attacking or defending armies, but of bull-like moles and gophers that burrowed prodigiously beneath the rich soil.

Once they were attacked by crows the size of condors. Unceasing in their search for an easy meal, the black-feathered robbers struck boldly from all sides—not at the hares, which were far too big to serve as prey for them, but at the far smaller riders clinging to their backs. Simna had his sword out as soon as he saw the first bird approach, but he never had the opportunity to use it.

Sharp, barking caws and cut-cuts sounded on his right. Using his legs to maintain his seat, Ehomba was sitting up straight, hands cupped around his mouth in a most unusual fashion, and shouting back at the marauding crows as good as they were giving. To hear those clipped, guttural caws coming from his mouth was an entertainment any prince would have paid to witness. Simna got it for free. Given the seriousness of the circumstances, his commentary following the crows’ departure perhaps ought to have been less acerbic.

“Wait, don’t tell me!” The swordsman made a great show of analyzing in depth what had just transpired. “I know, I know—you can talk to crows, too.”

Untutored herdsman though he might be, when it came to unfettered sarcasm Ehomba was not above responding in kind. “You are very observant.”

Holding tight to the neck fur of his hare, Simna reserved his rejoinder for the moments when he and his mount were sailing freely through the air above the grass. “So you’ve convinced me. You’re not a sorcerer. You’re just the world’s greatest talker. What else can you talk to, Etjole? Turtles? Nightingales? Dwarf voles?”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster