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

Tomorrow he would do something to unsettle Ehomba twice as much as the herdsman had unsettled him. That promise gave him something else to think about, to focus on. With visions of cerebral revenge boiling in his thoughts, he finally managed to drift off into an uneasy, unsettled sleep.

When he woke the following morning his good humor had returned, so much so that all thoughts of retaliation had fled from his mind. Sitting up on his blanket, he stretched and let the rising sun warm his face. Ehomba was already up, standing on the other side of the campfire staring into the distance as he leaned leisurely against his long spear. Staring north, where they were headed.

A humble man, the condescending Simna mused. Some would say single-minded, but it was as easy to think of him as highly focused. As he prepared to rise from where he had been sleeping, the swordsman happened to notice the skin of his left forearm. As he did so, his eyes bugged slightly.

A neat line of red spots ran from wrist to elbow. Some were larger than others. All were grouped in twos. The pattern was plain to see. What sort of biting insect would make such marks? He rubbed his hand over the pale splotches that were already beginning to fade. They did not itch, nor had whatever had made them penetrated the skin.

The repeated double pattern reminded him of something, but for a long moment he could not remember what. Then it struck him: They were exactly the kinds of marks the fangs of a snake would make.

Hopping back onto his blanket (as if that would provide any refuge or protection!) he looked around wildly. When he bent low he found that he could make out marks in the grass and the dirt. Many marks, familiar patterns in the ground, as if he had been visited during the night by a host of serpents. A host who had left their signs upon him as a warning, and a commentary.

Straightening, he scrutinized the surrounding grass, but could see nothing moving. Only the tips of the blades disturbed by the occasional morning breeze, and the flitting of hesitant, busy insects.

“All right,” he called out to the open veldt, “I apologize! Snakes do have brains! Now leave me be, will you?”

With that he turned to see Ehomba staring back at him.

“Well,” he groused as he snatched up his blanket and shook it free of dirt, grass, litter, and assorted would-be biting fellow travelers no bigger than the motes of dust that swirled in the air, “what are you laughing at!”

“I was not laughing,” Ehomba replied quietly.

“Ha!” Roughly, the swordsman began rolling his blanket into a tight bundle suitable for travel. “Not on the outside, no, but on the inside, I can hear you! You’re not the only one who can hear things, you know.”

“I was not laughing,” Ehomba insisted in the same unchanging monotone. Turning, he gestured with his spear. “That way, I think. More inland than I would like to go, but I think there may be water that way. I see some high rocks.”

Pausing in his packing, Simna squinted and strained. Despite the best efforts of his sharp eyes, the horizon remained as flat as the beer in the last tavern he had visited. But he was not in the mood to dispute his companion. It was too early, and besides, Ehomba had already proven himself more right than wrong about the most extraordinary things. When a man was right about visions of ultimate beauty and terror, much less about snakes, it made no sense to squabble with him over the possible presence of distant rocks.

Shouldering their kits, the two men struck off to the north, heading slightly to the east. As he walked, Simna found himself apologizing to the young shoots of grass on which he unavoidably stepped, and followed each apology with an unvoiced curse in his companion’s direction. The red spots on his arm were nearly gone, but that did not keep him from carefully inspecting any open places in the grass ahead before he strode through them.



“What?” Simna had been watching a small flock of brilliantly colored parrots chattering and cackling in a nearby tree. The unprepossessing tree itself was as worthy of attention as its noisy, joyfully bickering occupants. In the open veldt, it was worth marking the location of anything above the height of a mature weed for use both as a landmark and a possible camping site.

“I hear screaming.”

Maybe his eyesight was not as keen as that of the herdsman, but there was nothing wrong with Simna ibn Sind’s hearing, which was sharp from untold nights of listening intently for the creak of doors or windows being stealthily opened, or for the ominous footsteps of approaching husbands. The instant that his tall companion had drawn the swordsman’s attention away from the tree, he too heard the rising wail.

His brows drew together. “It’s coming at us from the east, but I don’t recognize it. If it’s some kind of beast, it’s a mighty great huge one to make itself heard at such a distance.”

Ehomba nodded solemnly. “I have an idea of what it might be, but this country is strange and new to me, so we will wait and hope it draws near enough for us to make it out.”

His friend spun ’round to face him. “Draws near! We don’t want it to draw near, whatever it is. We want it to go away, far away, so that we don’t hear it anymore, much less set eyes on it.”

The herdsman glanced down at the other man. “Are you not curious to see what it is that makes such a consistent and ferocious noise?”

“No, I am not.” Simna kicked at the grassy ground. “I am perfectly happy to avoid the company of anything that makes consistent and ferocious noises. If I passed the rest of my life without ever seeing anything that made consistent and ferocious noises, I would be well content.”

“I am surprised at you, Simna.” Once more Ehomba turned his attention eastward. “I am always questioning things, wanting to learn, needing to know. I am afraid it made me something of a pest to my mother and an enigma to my father. The other children would taunt me whenever I wanted to know the name of something, or the meaning, or what it was for. ‘Curiosity killed the catechist,’ they would tell me. Yet here I stand, alive and well—but still boundlessly ignorant, I fear.”

“I wouldn’t disagree with that,” Simna muttered under his breath. The roar from the east was growing steadily louder. The problem now was not how to hear it, but how to avoid it. His gaze fell on the kopje. “Unless it’s some harmless but large-throated creature coming toward us, we ought to be prepared to deal with it. For once we have the opportunity of some cover, however slight.” He nodded in the direction of the prominent rock pile. “I suggest we avail ourselves of it.”

“Yes.” Ehomba smiled at him. “A question may be as easily answered from a position of safety as from one of exposure. You are full of good common sense, Simna.”

“And you are full of something too, bruther Etjole.” Putting a hand against the taller man’s back, the swordsman gave him a firm shove in the direction of the granite outcropping. “But I am growing fond of you nevertheless. I suppose there is no accounting for one’s taste.”

“Even if I am not leading you to great treasure?” The herdsman grinned down at him as together they loped toward the looming rocks.

“Save your fibs for later, bruther.” Despite his inability to match Ehomba’s long stride, Simna easily kept pace with his companion.

Several small, yellow-furred rodents scurried for holes in the rocks as the men drew near. From the far side, a large bird rose skyward in a spectacular explosion of iridescent green and blue feathers, two of which trailed from its head and exceeded the rest of its body in length. Though it had the appearance of a songbird, its call was as rough and jagged as that of a magpie.

There were no caves in the rocks, but they found a place between two great sun-blasted whitish gray stones that was large enough to accommodate both of them side by side. While the depression did not conceal them completely, it afforded a good deal more protection than they would have had standing out on the open plain.

“See!” This time it was Simna who reacted first, rising from his crouch and pointing to the east. “It’s coming. At least, something’s coming.” Shielding his eyes from the blazing sun, he squinted into the distance.

“It certainly is.” Ehomba gripped his spear tightly. “And it is not an animal.”

By this time the distant screaming had risen to a level where both men had to raise their voices slightly in order to make themselves understood to one another.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster