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

“We cannot offer you gold or silver, Ehomba. Those are man-things and we do not keep them. I can promise only guidance, and gratefulness. I will understand if your obligation weighs too heavily on you to let you detour even a little from your predetermined path.”

Ehomba considered the request, and the monkey seated solemnly before him. After a moment he rose abruptly, using his spear to lever himself upward. Startled, the members of the troop leaped about in a sudden, mad fit to regain their weapons. Their leader hastened to calm them.

“Peace! The man has something to say!”

Tilting back his head, the lanky herdsman peered up at the slim bodies within the branches. “Nothing is predetermined. I will help you—if I can.”

His response inaugurated an even greater racket than before among the members of the troop. They leaped joyously from branch to branch, flung handfuls of leaves into the air, and did somersaults on narrow tree limbs without a single spill. When they began to quiet down, Gomo rejoined them, scampering up a trunk and swinging himself effortlessly back into the branches.

“This way, friend Ehomba.” From his perch he used his spear-stick to point northeastward. “It is not far to the Aurisbub, and we need to hurry. In order to look for help, we had to leave the females and young in the care of juveniles and silverhairs. They will be wishing anxiously for us to return.”

Ehomba nodded as he followed along below, occasionally glancing up into the branches to check the troop’s direction. “Just don’t expect me to travel through the trees. I am no monkey.”

“No,” Gomo agreed sadly. “Your kind has lost that ability and that freedom. We feel badly for the tribe of men.”

Although the vegetation grew steadily denser as they moved inland away from the coast, there were still places where the troop was forced to drop to the ground and walk upright. Out of the trees, they were at their most vulnerable, and their alertness was correspondingly heightened. At such times they tended to shed their monkey bravado and cluster closer to the tall, well-armed human.

Once, they saw a patrolling leopard. A reversed female, her yellow spots were prominent against her black body. She only glanced in their direction. Of more concern was the herd of hairy elephants that lumbered past close on their southern flank. But despite the presence of young among them, the elephants, hot within their woolly coats, were interested only in reaching the river and assuaging their thirst. A couple of matriarchs bellowed in the troop’s direction, raising both trunk and curving tusks, but did not swerve from their course. The troop paused briefly to let the herd get well ahead. It would not do to stumble into the migrating behemoths in the middle of the night.

The members of the troop shared their meager rations with the man in their midst, and he accepted the nuts and berries and fruit more out of politeness than necessity. Still, it was good to be able to conserve his own stores. One never knew when the future might prove less accommodating.

Eventually a line of taller trees appeared ahead, stretching unbroken from south to north. Birds and small dragons and squeaking pipperils flocked above it while rodents mowed the shorter grasses in long, disciplined ranks. Unlike the barren coast, this was clearly a region of abundance.

“Yonder lies the Aurisbub,” Gomo told him as his troop broke into a gamboling trot. “We are a little south of where we should be. When we strike the river we will turn north, and soon I will be back in the bosom of my family.”

“I wish I could say the same.” Mirhanja’s warmth was already a too-distant memory.

“I am no seer, Ehomba, and so cannot prophesy the end of your journey. But by traveling along the Aurisbub to the Kohoboth and then to Kora Keri, I can predict that you will achieve it sooner.” He slipped a long, lanky arm around the human’s thighs. “Come now. We are close to friendly faces and places.”

The explosion of joy that greeted the appearance of the troop was something to see. Females and young came pouring, tumbling out of a clutch of trees that grew close to the river, setting up a din that had to be heard to be believed. The acrobatics the herdsman had witnessed earlier were as nothing compared to the circus that now ensued. The scene of reunion was one of utter and unrestrained monkey mania.

When families had been reunited and juveniles and oldsters relieved of their duties as guardians, Gomo introduced him to the members of his own family circle. For the rest of the day and on into evening, he was forced to tolerate the attentions of two incredibly energetic, playful youngsters. They clambered all over him despite periodic admonitions from their parents to cease and desist. For the young monkeys, it was as if a wondrous perambulating, talking jungle gym had wandered into their midst, exclusively for their enjoyment. At Gomo’s urging, Ehomba would smack them off his head or shoulders when their antics grew too distracting. But he could not bring himself to do it often. They were small, innocent, brown bundles of pure unadulterated fun. The thought that if something was not done they might become food for marauding slelves was a sobering one.

There was very little moon that night as Ehomba sat in the crook of the orange-pod tree looking out at the silvered river and listening to Gomo chatter on beside him. Nearby, he could see monkey families settling down for the night, females clutching their infants close to their breasts, juveniles piled one atop the other, males sleepily doing their best to stay alert and on guard. In keeping with the beauty and tranquillity of the surroundings, it should have been a setting of pastoral contentment. Instead, unspoken threat saturated the air with tension.

“They always come from there.” Gomo pointed. “From across the river. They must live in the taller trees on that side.”

“At least you can see them coming.” Years of standing watch over flocks day in and day out had sharpened Ehomba’s night vision to the point where it was far more sensitive than that of the average person. Something flapped slowly as it made its way downstream, and he tensed momentarily before unbending: It was only a perffus, dragging the surface of the river for fish with its hooked wingtips as it glided along silently above the water. As he followed its progress, the flier’s right wingtip suddenly dipped and jerked as it lanced a bug-hunting fish just below the gills. Quickly transferring the catch to its beak, it flapped mightily to straighten out and regain altitude. The last Ehomba saw of it was a flash of silver from the unlucky fish as predator and prey disappeared into the trees on the far bank.

But the movement there did not cease. Instead, it multiplied as a dark mass emerged from the wall of forest. It grew larger as it drew nearer, and in doing so resolved itself into individual shapes.

Gomo sounded the alarm. Half asleep, terrified females and infants were herded into the largest trees, where the bigger branches would offer some protection. Armed males gathered to protect them, while a strike force of the best fighters clustered around their leader. They would attempt to ward off the attackers before they could harry the more vulnerable members of the troop. The tribe’s cries of panic and agitated chattering roused every animal along the river.

Ehomba clutched his spear firmly as he hunched down next to Gomo. The air around him was thick with the musky odor of the troop, but he hardly noticed it. As a herdsman, he had lived around and among animals all his life, and their smells did not bother him.

“It’s them,” Gomo murmured unnecessarily as he gestured with his spear-stick. “Why won’t they just leave us alone?”

“You are easy prey.” Ehomba seemed to become one with the tree, hardly moving. “I can see several problems with your defense already.”

The troop leader’s eyebrows lifted. A lesser individual might have construed the human’s observation as an insult, but the desperate Gomo could not afford the luxury of indignity. “Is that so? What, for example?”

“No time. Tell you later.”

In the absence of moonlight it was impossible to count the number of attacking slelves. They were more than a handful and less than a horde. Within moments they were in among the trees, diving at the troop, trying to reach the unarmed females with their infants. The monkeys screamed defiance, jabbing at the night fliers with their spear-sticks, firing feathered arrows at the dark shapes that darted between the branches. In the feeble light it was almost impossible to take proper aim at a target.

Ehomba fought alongside them, roaring the battle cry of his village and thrusting with his much longer spear even as he wondered what he was doing there. Then a shrill, piercing scream rose above the general cacophony and confusion, and he knew. An infant small enough to fit in the palm of his hand had been wrenched from its mother’s arms by one of the attacking slelves. Piteous to hear, the wretched, hopeless cries of the little one were soon swallowed up by the noise of battle.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster