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

“On the contrary, my friend, my aspirations are considerable. I desire greatly to live a long and healthy life in the company of my woman, to see my children raised up strong and of kindly mien, to have always, or at least most of the time, enough to eat, to continue to be able to watch over my animals, to enjoy the company of my friends and relations, and to walk once again along the edge of the sea, listening to its song and smelling of its perfume.” His eyes glistened. “That, I think, should be enough for any man.” Slipping his free hand into a pocket, he felt of the pebble-filled cloth bag there, wondering how much of the sea-smell still clung to the shiny rock fragments.

They walked in silence for some time before a wide grin came to dominate the swordsman’s face, wiping out the indifference that had been extant there. “Hoy, now I see.” He shook his head and guffawed delightedly. “Oh, you’re good, good it is you are, Etjole Ehomba! You had me going for a while there. It’s a clever, clever magician you are, but you can’t fool me! Not Simna ibn Sind. I’ve been tested in the marketplaces of wily Harquarnastan, and gone toe-to-toe with the shrewd and shifty barkers of the Yirt-u-Yir plateau. But I’ll grant you this: You’re the subtlest and sneakiest of the lot!” He executed a joyful little pirouette, dancing out the delight of his personal revelation. Ahlitah looked on with distaste.

“‘Have enough to eat.’ ‘Walk along the edge of the sea.’ Oh surely, sorcerer, surely! As a cover it’s brilliant, as a mask unsurpassed. No one will think anything more of you, humble master of steer and sheep that you are. What a masquerade! Better than pretending to be a merchant, or storyteller, or unoffending pilgrim.” While walking backward in the direction they were headed, he executed several mock bows, making a dance of it as he repeatedly raised and lowered his head and his outstretched arms.

“I concede to you the title Wizard of the Incognito, o masterful one! Herder of goats and sovereign of infants; that shall be your designation until the treasure is ours.” Resuming his normal gait, he fell in step alongside his friend while Ahlitah padded along opposite. “You almost had me fooled, Etjole.”

“Yes,” the herdsman responded with a heartfelt sigh, “I can see that you are not a man to be easily deceived.” He focused on a lizard that was scampering into a burrow off to their left. It was blue, with bright pink stripes and a yellow-spotted head.

“Just so long as you realize that,” Simna replied importantly. “Hoy, but I’ll be glad to get out of this desert!”

“The desert, the cleanness and the dunes, is all beautiful.”

“Speak for yourself, devotee of dry nowheres.”


Lifting his head, the litah let loose with a long, mournful owrooooo. It echoed back and forth among the dune slopes, escaping their sandy surroundings far faster than could they. When it was finished, the big cat eyed his human companions. “In this I side with the swordsman. I love tall grass and shady thickets, running water and lots of fat, slow animals.”

“Then why are we lingering here?” A cheerful, composed Simna looked over at the great black feline. “So this long-faced drink of dark water can set the pace? If we let him determine it, we’ll find ourselves dawdling in this accursed country until the end of time.” With that he broke into a jog, stepping easily and effortlessly out in front of the others.

Despite the burden imposed by the hovering pond he was towing, Ahlitah stretched out his remarkable cheetah-like legs and matched the man’s pace effortlessly. Ehomba watched them for a moment before extending his own stride. It would be useless to tell them that he had wanted to move faster all along, but had held himself back out of concern for their welfare. It was better this way, he knew. Healthier for Simna to have made the decision.

He did not smile at the way events had progressed. There was no particular gratification in knowing all along what was going to happen.


The Tale of the Lost Tree

THE TREE DID NOT REMEMBER MUCH OF WHAT HAD HAPPENED, or even when it had happened. It was all so very long ago. It had been nothing more than a sapling, a scrawny splinter of wood only a few feet high, with no girth to shield it from the elements, no thick layer of tough bark to protect it from marauding browsers.

Despite that, it had thrived. The soil in which it had taken root as a seed was deep and rich, the weathered kind, with ample rain and not too much snow. It had neither frozen in winter nor burned in summer. Though it lost leaves to hungry insects, this was a normal, natural part of maturing, and it compensated by putting out more leaves than any of the other saplings in its immediate vicinity. As a consequence of insect infestation, several of the others died before they could become more than mere shoots.

The tree did not. It survived, in company with several of its neighbors. In spite of the fact that they had all taken root at the same time, two of them were taller. Others were smaller.

Growth was a never-ending struggle as they all strove to gain height and diameter. Though ever-present and never ceasing, competition from others of their kind was silent, as was the nature of trees. In its fourth year one of its neighbors fell prey to hungry deer during a particularly long and cold winter. They stripped the bark from the young growth, leaving it naked and unprotected, and when spring next came around it was easy prey for boring beetles. Another succumbed to the benign but deadly attentions of a bear with an itch. Scratching itself against the youthful bole, it snapped it in half, leaving it broken and dying, its heartwood exposed to the callous, indifferent elements.

But this tree was lucky. Large animals left it alone, insects found others in the vicinity more to their liking, birds chose not to strip its young twigs for nest-building material. Every spring it budded fiercely, fighting to throw out new leaves and to photosynthesize sugars before they could be consumed. Every winter it lay dormant and still, hoping the migrating herds would leave it alone.

Then, just when survival and long life seemed assured, disaster struck.

It happened late in autumn and took the form not of anything with blood in its veins but of a vast and powerful storm. The terrifying weather swept up the coast of the land where the tree grew, destroying everything in its path that was unable to resist. Even some of the great old trees that formed the bulk of the forest mass where the tree lived were not immune. Unprecedented winds roared down off the slopes of the western mountains, descending like an invisible avalanche. As they fell, the winds picked up speed and volume.

Trees that had stood for a thousand years were blown over, their roots left exposed and naked to the world. Others lost dozens or even hundreds of minor branches and many major ones. The forest floor was swept clean as leaves, logs, mushrooms, insects and spiders, even small animals, were sucked up and whirled away.

The sapling held fast as long as it could, but its shallow, young roots were no match for the unparalleled violence of the storm. It found itself ripped up into the sky, where it joined the company of thousands of tons of other debris. Since the storm had struck in autumn, the tree had already shut down in anticipation of the coming winter. Sap was concentrated in its heartwood, waiting for the warmth of spring to send it coursing freely once more throughout the length and breadth of the young growth.

Now it was at the mercy of the berserk elements, which tossed and flung it about as if it weighed even less than its slim self. How long it was carried thus, over water and field, mountain and plain, the sapling did not know. It might have been an instant or a month. A tree’s sense of time is very different from that of most other living things.

Then it felt itself falling, tumbling crown over root, spiraling toward the ground. Nature is rife with examples of extraordinary accidents, and the fall of the tree was one of those exceptions. It landed not on its side as would have been expected, nor on its crest. It struck the ground with its slender trunk exactly perpendicular to the earth. Bare roots slammed into and partially penetrated the loose-packed surface, giving the tree immediate if uncertain support.

Expelled from the tail end of the swiftly moving storm, the tree shuddered in its farewell gusts but did not fall. The tempest continued on its way, wreaking devastation to the east and leaving the tree behind. It was surrounded by other debris that had been abandoned by the weather, but most of it was dead. That which was not soon died and began to decompose.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster