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

“In my country there are many crows,” the herdsman responded without a hint of guile. “Living there is as hard for them as for hares or cattle, men or lizards. It is …”

“A desert country, a dry country, difficult and bleak—I know, I know.” Simna returned his gaze to the unbroken swath of green that still stretched out in every direction before them. “Not that I’m complaining, mind. I’ve always been adept at the languages of man, but never bothered to try learning those of the animals. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know they had languages. Maybe it’s because no one I ever met or heard tell of knew that they had languages.”

“It sounds to me,” his companion called across to him, “like you have spent most of your life around men who only talked and did not listen.”

“Hah! Sometimes, they don’t even talk. They just swing things, large and heavy or slender and sharp. I’ll make you a deal, bruther. You take care of talking to the dumb animals we encounter, and I’ll take care of talking to the men.”

“Fair enough,” Ehomba agreed, “but there is one thing more you will have to help me with.”

Simna glanced over at his friend. “What’s that?”

“How does one tell which is which?”

Onward they raced through the high green veldt, their mounts seemingly tireless, covering great difficult distances with each bound. Until, at last, it seemed that they were tiring. They were not. It was the universal perspective that was being altered, not the enthusiasm of the hares.

The first indication that something had changed came from Simna’s observation that they were covering shorter and shorter distances with each bound. This was immediately confirmed by Ehomba, who was the one to point out that the hares were jumping as frequently and as powerfully as ever. It was not that they were covering less and less distance with each leap, but that they were covering less proportionately. Because with each hop now, they were growing smaller and smaller.

The hares shrank to rhino size, then to that of a horse, then a calf, at which point they could no longer support their human riders. After a very bad moment during which he thought he was shrinking as well, Simna realized that he and his companion were not changing in size. It was only the world around them that was changing.

They followed the hares forward until both fleet-footed creatures were reduced to the size of those that Simna knew from his travels in his own homeland and other countries: small brown furry creatures that barely came up to the middle of a man’s shin. Their noses still twitched, their whiskers continued to flutter, and in every other aspect they were unaltered, even to the white splotches on the face of his own former mount. But the journey had reduced them from giants to the reality of the world he had always known. The real world, he decided—though in the company of a singular individual like Etjole Ehomba, who was to say what was real and what imaginary?

Along with the hares, the grass too had been reduced in size until the tops of the highest blades rose no higher than his waist, with a few isolated, more productive patches reaching to his shoulders. The taller Ehomba could see easily over even these.

Bending, the herdsman made unintelligible sibilant sounds to the two hares, who listened attentively. Following a light pat on the head of each, they turned and scurried back into the grass from whence they had all come.

Simna watched them go. “What will happen now? As they travel south will they start to return to their former extravagant size?”

“I believe so.” Ehomba was trying to follow the progress of their mounts, but his efforts were defeated by the dense growth that closed in behind them. When not in their exaggerated state, small hares needed to be ever vigilant. Once back in the veldt of the giants, he reflected, they would be safe once again. Tilting back his head slightly, he glanced at the sky. Unless, of course, there soared among the clouds in the region they had just fled hawks and eagles that reached proportionate size. Such a winged monster would put all the tales of rocs and fire-breathing dragons to shame. What a wonder it would be, though, to see such a creature! An eagle with the wingspan of a nobleman’s house!

He was glad they had been spared that particular marvel, however, because it would have meant that the monster would surely also have seen them.

Walking north, it was not long before they came upon a kopje, a rocky outcropping rising from the surrounding veldt. At its base was a small pool, not so shallow as to be too hot, not so stagnant as to prove distasteful. By mutual agreement it was decided to make camp there for the night.

When Ehomba announced that he would build the fire, Simna waited and watched eagerly for the herdsman to generate sparks with the tips of his fingers, or blow flame from his nostrils, or conjure it out of the thin dry air with closed eyes and staccato chant. He was sorely disappointed. The fire was started with flint and dry grass and much careful blowing on the tiny wisp of smoke that resulted.

Perhaps the tall herdsman was nothing more than he claimed to be: a simple master of cattle and sheep with an unusually adept skill at multispecies linguistics. One who would maintain that assertion even under torture or threat of death. He would have to, Simna knew.

Otherwise others might find out about the treasure he was after.

Smiling to himself, knowing that he knew the truth no matter what the disarmingly personable southerner might claim, Simna prepared for the coming night. Let the “herdsman” think that his traveling companion believed his fictions. Simna knew better, and that was enough for now. When the time came, he would confront his laconic companion more forcefully.

As forcefully as was necessary to ensure that he got his full share of what they were after. Whatever that was.


WITH THE BLACKNESS THAT FOLLOWS THE DAY PULLED OVER them like a speckled silk veil, the two men crouched around the fire taking turns trying to identify the sounds of the night. Occasionally, they argued. More often, they agreed. Ehomba was impressed by his well-traveled companion’s range of knowledge, while Simna appreciated the acuity of his tall friend’s hearing.

Not that it was always necessary to strain to hear the murmurings of the night creatures. A well-spaced assortment of screeches, yowls, roars, bellows, hisses, and whistlings surrounded them. A few they were able to identify, while the perpetrators of the majority remained as unknown as if they had come down from the dark side of the moon.

Once, the clear, still air resounded to the sounds of horrific conflict between unseen combatants. The noise of battle died away without any concluding scream, suggesting that the fighters had resolved their nocturnal dispute in nonfatal fashion. Not long thereafter, a high-pitched, lilting song that tinkled like running water made melody drifted across the grass, beguiling all within range, man and beast alike. And as they were about to retire, a small blue serpent whose back sported a pattern of pink diamonds slithered silently through the lonely encampment, passing directly and disinterestedly beneath Ehomba’s ankles before disappearing back into the grass.

Simna rose abruptly at the sight of it and started to reach for his sword. When he saw that his companion was not only not afraid of the scaly intruder but actually indifferent to it, he slowly resumed his cross-legged seat on the ground.

“Do you talk to snakes, too, bruther?”

“Occasionally.” The herdsman sipped from a leather water bag. “They have much to say.”

“Really? It’s been my experience they just bite, kill you, and go on their way.”

“They should be forgiven the random burst of temperament. How would you like to go through life without legs or arms? Considering how unfairly Fate has dealt with them, limb-wise, I have to say that I find them admirably restrained.” Finishing his drink, he recorked the container and set it aside. “Under the circumstances, I think I would find myself wanting to bite everything in sight, too.”

“You know what your talent is, Etjole? In case you didn’t know, I’ve just decided for you.” Simna was preparing to turn in. “You sympathize with everything. You know what your problem is?”

“No. You tell me, Simna ibn Sind. What is my problem?”

The itinerant swordsman pulled the thin blanket up over his legs and torso. Upon it, a grieving maid had embroidered her feelings for him in certain and graphic terms.

“You sympathize with everything.” With that he rolled onto his back and opened his eyes to the dark heavens. Everyone knew that the grains of sandy material that filled one’s eyes and induced sleep were actually made of star-stuff. While lying beneath an open sky, this material would gradually sift downward to fill the corners of a man’s eyes and gift him with a sound and healthful night’s rest. Knowing this, Simna had never been able to understand how people were able to sleep indoors. No wonder so many of them tossed and turned uneasily in their beds.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71

Categories: Alan Dean Foster