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

“But it is, it is!” Throwing back his head, Ahlitah let out a long, mournful howl that was a mixture of melancholy and roar. It was at once impressive, terrifying, and piteous. When he had finished, like a tenor at the end of a particularly poignant aria, he fixed his gaze once more on the empathetic herdsman.

“Don’t you see? Until I have repaid you in kind for what you did for me—without your being asked, I might add—I can’t proceed with a normal life. I couldn’t go on with that burden resting heavy on my heart and thick in my mind. However long it takes, whatever the difficulty involved, I have to discharge it before I can again be at rest.”

“For Gudru’s sake, Etjole,” Simna whispered urgently, “don’t argue with him. Accept the offer.”

“Your annoying friend is right.” Sitting back, Ahlitah scratched vigorously at his belly with a hind foot. “If you send me away, you not only shame me, you spray on my soul. You say to me that my offer of all I can give is worth nothing.” Scratching ceased as the great cat resumed its pacing. “You reduce me to the level of a jackal, or worse, a hyena.”

“Oh all right!” Fed up, Ehomba waved a diffident hand in the litah’s direction and turned away. “You can come along.”

The cat dipped its head, its long black mane falling forward like a courtier’s cape. “I cower before your unfettered magnanimity, oh maestro of the condescending arts.”

“If you want to do something for me,” the herdsman responded, “you might lose some of that feline sarcasm.”

“Sorry. It’s in a cat’s nature to be sarcastic.”

“I know, but yours seems in proportion to your size. Over time, I see it growing tiresome.”

Teeth flashed in a grinning display. “I will try to restrain my natural instincts. Given present company, that may prove difficult.”

“Do your best,” Ehomba instructed his new companion curtly. He looked back at the kopje. “It has been a wearying day.”

Simna let out a muted guffaw. “That’s me bruther—master of understatement.”

“We might as well rest here until tomorrow.”

“Agreed.” The litah turned and began to walk away.

Simna called after him. “Hoy, where are you going? I thought you were with us?”

The cat looked back over its maned shoulder. “I am going to find something to eat, if that’s all right with you. Maybe a human can live on anticipation and fine words, but I cannot.”

“Don’t get testy with me, kitty,” Simna shot back. “I’m as hungry as you are.”

“As am I,” added Ehomba. “If you truly want to be of assistance, you could bring back enough for us all to eat. We will make a fire.”

“I’ll enjoy the warmth,” Ahlitah growled back. “We cats quite like fire. We’re just not adept at fabricating it.” He sniffed derisively. “You, of course, will want to use it to burn perfectly good meat.” Turning, he surveyed the veldt. “I will be late, but I will be back.”

“Why so?” Simna’s expression became a smirk. “Are you like the male lions that let the females do all the hunting?”

Sliding smoothly through the grass, the litah did not deign to look back. “Idiot. Male lions hunt often and perfectly well—at night. During the day our dark manes are highly visible through the yellowed or green grass and give our presence away. That is why the females run the day hunt. For the same reason, I am a better night hunter than any lion, and can bring down larger prey than any cheetah.”

Ehomba moved to stand behind his friend. “Do not taunt him. He is unhappy at having to accompany us. If a man has one bad moment and strikes out at you, your face may suffer a bruise.” He nodded out into the veldt. “If that one has a bad moment, he is liable to take off your head.”

“Aw, he’s all right,” Simna insisted. “He’s obligated to you, and I’m your friend, so he won’t let harm come to me.”

“Probably not as long as I am alive, no. So it is in your best interest to see that I stay healthy.”

“Hoy, that’s always been in my interest.” Simna grinned broadly as together they turned toward the kopje. “If anything were to happen to you, I’d never find the treasure. Not,” he added in haste, “that I’d want anything to happen to you even if there was no treasure.”

“There is no treasure,” Ehomba replied forthrightly.

The swordsman clapped the tall herdsman roughly on the shoulder. “Yeah, right—what a kidder! I’ll bet among your fellow villagers you’re considered a real comedian.”

“Actually, I believe they think I am rather dry and somber.” He smiled hesitantly. “Of course, I do not think so, nor do my children or my wife.” His expression twitched momentarily. “At least, I do not think she does.”


THERE WAS ENOUGH DRY WOOD TO MAKE A FIRE ON THE KOPJE, but not a large one. Raised above the surrounding grass on the rocks, the blaze would still be visible for quite a distance. Even so, Simna especially was beginning to doubt the truth of the litah’s words as evening gave way to night and there was still no sign of their erstwhile ally.

“Maybe he decided he wasn’t so indebted after all.” Using a long stick, the swordsman stirred the vivacious embers that winked at the bottom of the fire. “Maybe he met an obliging pride, or a lone female in heat, and decided some things were more important than tagging along with us.”

“I do not think he would leave like this. He was very adamant.” But as the night wore on and the moon came to dominate the speckled bowl of the sky, Ehomba was less certain.

“He’s a cat. A prodigiously talkative one, ’tis true, but a cat still. Cats set their own agendas, and big or small, those rarely include tending to the needs of humans.”

“Listen.” Ehomba froze suddenly, his face highlighted by the glow of the campfire.

Simna was immediately on guard. “What is it? Not more wind, I hope.” Visions of angry wild relatives of the demolished tornado appearing in the middle of the night to wreak vengeance on those who had murdered their brother swept through his thoughts.

“No, not wind. Something moving through the grass.”

Ahlitah was almost upon them before the flickering blaze cast enough light to reveal even the outline of his massive form. In his jaws he carried the limp, bent body of a wandala, a medium-sized antelope whose horns had spread wide and thinned out until they formed a great membranous sail attached to the skull. Using this the animal could tuck its short, fragile legs beneath it and in a good breeze literally fly across the tops of the veldt grass, flattening its body to assume a more aerodynamic shape.

The successful hunter unceremoniously dumped his offering onto the rocks alongside the fire. “Here is meat. You may have the flanks. I know humans are fickle about what portion of animal they eat.”

“Hoy, not me.” Drawing his knife, an eager Simna set to work on the carcass. “When I’m hungry I’ll eat just about anything.”

“Yes, I see that. But then, one would never mistake you for the fastidious type.” Settling himself down on the other side of the body, Ahlitah began to eat, ripping dainty chunks out of the hindquarters of the dead wandala.

“You were late,” Ehomba declared accusingly. “We had begun to wonder.”

Blood stained Ahlitah’s muzzle as he looked up from the other side of the cadaver. “I had to wait until it was dark enough for the night to hide me. When I stand or stalk, I am taller than any other cat. Better a certain kill that takes time than a quick one that fails.” Lowering his head, he thrust his open jaws into the wandala’s soft belly. The ragged percussion of bones breaking drifted out across the veldt.

“This situation makes for an interesting puzzle to contemplate,” the litah announced later, when cat and men had finished eating. “Here we sit, as companions if not as friends. I kill for you. But if we were in your homeland to the south, I would be hunting your herds and flocks, and you would be trying to keep me from doing so. Trying to kill me, if it became necessary.”

“That is true.” Ehomba watched Simna slice steaks from the side of the dead antelope, the easier to pack them for carrying. “Oftentimes it is not personal preference that makes friends and enemies, but circumstance.” This time it was he who mustered the feral gaze, peering deeply into the eyes of the litah. “It is a good thing I trust your word, for fear you might try to eat me in my sleep.”

“And I yours,” Ahlitah replied, “or I might worry about you acting like just another man, ready to leap to murder at the first opportunity and skin me for my valuable coat. How fortunate that we have such trust in one another.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster