It is clear that the beasts are meant to be pressed into service. They are large and muscular and have frames that can support great weight. They are happy in their works for they are simple creatures and require only base comforts to be cared for. It is actually surprising to me that it has taken so long for a fruitful relationship to ripen between our peoples! So many of the tasks we have at hand are those that the creatures would delight in if they were not so stubborn. In fact, their obstinance as a race is the one quality that reveals them to be lambs in need of shepherding. It is truly our burden as humankind to bring the beasts to bear and no matter their hostility, the onus is upon us to rise above their cries and to quell their refusals with extreme prejudice.
It is with these facts that I, His Royal Majesty’s Chief Scientist, declare it right and proper that the cowbeasts be compelled into service of His Majesty. Hunters will be compensated for any male or female that has been reasonably subdued and is of a temperament suitable for work. It is so declared on this 14th day of this 3rd month in the 2nd year of the 3rd lustrum of His Highness Iranon the Traveled, and written in His Name.
-Edict of Romnod, Chief Biologist of Aria, the City of Golden Flames
The trip around the lake had been long. He had followed the coast upstream. Though he trusted the Mother, it did not mean he would listen to her wholly. He was now a day’s journey from the herd.
Though E’Schat had spent his time living off the land and exploring the valley, this was the first time in his life that he had been gifted an opportunity to contemplate true solitude. The Sisters of the Moon had always watched over him, as constant as the sentinel trees of the grove. Even during his yearly visit to the lake, some Mooncalf or another would be tasked with accompanying him into the foliage. In his last few years, it was Fa’teem who had brought him.
They would camp and graze along the coast. One year, Mooncalf Hi’acyn had taught him how to make a boat out of fallen trees. They lashed together the dead wood with vines and on the last day they floated downriver half the length of day. He could still smell the jorjor trees and cattails even now.
Once, he stumbled into a patch of poison mashberry brambles and had spent the trip soaking in the lake while Mooncalf Ash’ara frantically collected roots to make salves for the bull’s wounds. It would have been a poor memory had not Ash’ara revived the trip with scary stories about the softskin devils and wars of the past while E’Schat later convalesced in the night air.
He had always looked forward to the annual camping trip, but in his later years, he had begun to question the motives of the Mother and Sisters. Why were they always so adamant about the trip? He had asked Fa’teem the year before and she changed the subject immediately. It was a question to which they would never give a straight answer.
Not long after he returned from his last trip, the Mother had missed her moon cycle. The Mooncalves had begun to plan a great feast and dancing but the Mother had decided it was time for another camping trip. She promised E’Schat that he could explore downriver this time. His excitement canceled many of his questions and his reluctance to miss the dancing. He had seen the tribal dancing of the Sisters, but Fa’teem was dancing the Flames of Night, his favorite. Still, how could he pass up a chance to explore downriver?
Soon he was going on monthly trips, stargazing under the light of the full moon, which was actually quite difficult at times, but E’Schat did not mind. He loved the full moon the most. It was full of life just like the forest. He would spend the nights falling asleep to the calls of the bullfrogs. And so the last year had gone.
But something was still amiss. As he went away more and more, his questions began to grow. By the end of this day, he would begin to get his answers.
Though he was not supposed to talk of the herd, he knew many stories of them from the stones as well as Mooncalf Ash’ara. Tales of great Fathers who had led the legendary warrior cows of Cowendru in battle against their neighbors, the Hoomanz. He knew of the great split after the battle that had led to the Time of Peace; the herd had grown too large in the wars and they could not graze without destroying the land. The People had to forage different lands. Only the People of the Plains stayed put. The People of the Forest, the displaced Black Furred tribe, began new lives and new traditions. They learned to live in balance with the forest through understanding the cycles of life and death. They grazed in a great migration around the forest, slowly marching along the outskirts. The slight valley with its rivers and lakes ran throughout providing water.
E’Schat struck north after he circled the lake and crossed the river into unfamiliar territory. He foraged as he had been taught, picking berries and digging for roots while staying away from the agaric that the Shamans of the Moon used to divine the fates. The forest had plenty to offer until he finally intersected the Circle as he supposed he would.
The Circle was a great path of migration that the herd walked continuously throughout the year. As the season approached autumn, they would be close and just as E’Schat had planned, within a few days, he found the ancestral Circle of his people, a swath through the forest the width of fifty cows shoulder to shoulder. The foliage was freshly cleared and E’Schat knew it had probably been only a few days since the herd was here. As slow moving as they were, they could not be far and the thought only pushed him faster.
Once oriented, he traveled in the direction of the newest growth, gathering food where any had been left. He knew from the tracks that he had been getting closer. Now, he could smell the musk of the herd. His excitement was palpable. The herd had always held such wonderment for him. Now that he had been given his freedom from the Sisters, he would finally be able to join them. With the tools of N’abu, he was sure to find usefulness as a traveling sculptor.
He had tried the hammer and chisel as he had traveled, filling a day of two with the sweat of his brow. They cut through stone as a paddle through water. In his wake he left works of craftscowship that even the Sculptor herself would have been proud of. The tools had taken his meager skill to a new level with their ease of use.
Nearing the end of his day’s journey and feeling more tired than the moon at dawn, E’Schat spotted a simple creek that must have fed into the river judging from the direction of its flow. He approached and leaned down to drink when he saw something at the corner of his eye. A sudden flurry of movement on the other side the water shocked him. Across the creek, an equally startled cowcalf who had been gathering water lowed a high pitched warning at E’Schat and ran off before he had a chance to react.
After the long journey, and the thousands of rehearsed greetings and conversations he had prepared, this was not the first encounter he wished to have. He sighed and began to travel in the same direction as the young cow.
As he walked, he saw more and more cows moving quickly in the direction he traveled and they did not slow as he called out to them the formal greetings he had been taught.
Finally, he saw a cow approaching that was unafraid of his advance. He walked boldly to greet her and began to start a long speech he had prepared.
“By the stones and trees, I am E’Schat of the Valley. I have come to . . . “
He had gotten no further than his preamble when the words died in his throat. Fa’teem approached hurriedly. “By the stones and trees, shut your muzzle! Why have you followed us? Quickly you must leave!”
“Leave? I have only just arrived. I should ask how you have come to be with the herd!” E’Schat retorted.
His surprise was evolving into anger at the sight of the Mooncalf. Is this why she had been so quiet? Had she divined his plan and come to prevent him from joining with the herd? He would not be deterred.
He began to try to push past her, not waiting for a response. She grabbed his bag, “You must leave! Else all our work will be for naught!”
“Your work? To keep me from the herd has been your work?” E’Schat tore away from her, spilling his bag everywhere. He saw more of the People fast approaching and made to make himself known before Fa’teem could silence him. “I am E’Schat of the Valley and I have come to make this my herd!”
A snort of anger, a stampede of one and E’Schat found himself face to face with a wall of muscle covered in black and white peppered fur.
“I accept your challenge, whelp.”
A right hook to the body sent E’Schat sprawling, trying to find his breath. He did not have time to rise before he was being kicked and pummeled. He vaguely heard a scream as he began to simply react. Grabbing the hoof that was kicking him, he lifted it up as he rose from the ground, reversing the situation as the newcomer fell to the earth.
E’Schat tried to cover the bull, but the stranger was stronger than E’Schat was swift and fought the young calf off. Both found their feet and squared off, circling and backing up slowly. Of all the imagined moments greeting the herd, this was the furthest from his mind. Perhaps it was a test. Only the strong may join the herd.
E’Schat knew that to lose in combat would be shameful. He had seen the statues of those with their horns cut as a mark of humility. If he lost, he would be shunned and sent out of the herd to wander the earth. E’Schat could not afford to leave what he had only just found.
The large bull charged again and E’Schat charged back. The dirt kicked up behind them both as the distance between them collapsed.
E’Schat angled his head at the last second to avoid a mutual impaling. They met in a torrent of thunder as their foreheads crashed and their horns locked. E’Schat tried to twist and turn the bull into submission, but the bull was more brutal and used his immense brawn to push the twist onto E’Schat. The bull punched at E’Schat’s exposed neck and gut.
E’Schat had never truly fought before but now tried to raise himself up large. The strength and unexpected onslaught of his opponent was proving too much for him. The more E’Schat wrestled, the more he lost his footing. He grew tired with every step of lost ground. What had happened to his ceaseless energy from a couple days ago?
The bull finally pushed E’Schat to the ground with a well-placed shove that forced a misstep. The calf fell hard, toppling into the gravelly dirt, again the wind pushed out of him. On the advantage, the bull kicked the prone E’Schat in the head with a hoof that may well have been made of stone.
The world exploded into stars and E’Schat could see the ancestors shaking their heads in disgust. The last thought E’Schat had before the world went black, was that of N’abu turning his face from the bullcalf and the rest of the herd doing the same.
Ͼ Ѻ Ͽ
E’Schat woke bound to a tree. He could sense the ancestors fading away from him as he returned to the present.
The sky was calm and fair. The winds had ceased and the clouds had fled. The light hurt his eyes.
Around him stood the cows of the herd. They stood at the edge of a circle drawn in the dirt around the tree. Before him, at the center of the circle, burned a small fire. A bull crouched near it, his back towards E’Schat, who could see various tools resting in the coals. The bull was pushing them around with a stick.
Past the flames, at the far edge of the circle, he could see Ma’dea in her traditional robes attended by Mooncalves in similar attire. He smiled faintly recognizing the garments that he had once helped embroider with Mooncalf Ash’ara.
For special occasions. I wonder what we are celebrating?
He could feel the bruises in his body start to ache as his spirit returned to a battered host. He began to remember that he was no longer in the valley. The unfamiliar cows reminded him that he had found the herd and that he had suffered defeat at the horns of an unknown assailant. The crouching bull reminded him of his shame.
Pain lanced through his temple with the memory and E’Schat winced, endless shapes dancing behind his eyelids. He shook his head, trying to sort his mind back into order. When he opened his eyes the bull at the fire rose and turned to face him.
“Good. You have awoken. It is a pity to have to punish the oblivious. I take no pride from it. But to look in the eyes of my captive, to name his crimes and take my just reward – there is honor in this.”
The greying bull walked over to E’Schat. Cupping the bound calf’s drooping chin, he lifted the captive’s face square. Impotent wrath burned alongside unbidden pain in E’Schat’s eyes as they met the bull.
“Mark my face, calf. I am Duk’mar of the Black Furred. Father of the People of the Forest. Firm and irrevocable is my justice which I exact upon you.”
Duk’mar raised his opposite hand in which he held a strange two-handled tool whose hemispherical implement glowed red from the fire. Releasing E’Schat’s chin, the old bull took the tool in both hands before him and in a show of ceremony pulled the handles apart revealing the tool to be a set of cruel shears.
“Your transgressions are numerous but chief among them you have worried my herd with your deficient attempt to acquire wives. You have soured the milk of my Mother who has arrived to birth my first true heir. Taking that from you which gives you strength shall forever mark you among the people as a coward and a sneak thief.”
“I was not here to –“
“Silence! You dare interrupt! You are lucky I do not make a eunuch of you, you Motherless whelp”
E’Schat fumed at the insult and implication that he was without connection to the land and the herd. But he was not without connection. He knew the words and stories of the ancestors. Even though they were ashamed, E’Schat could not betray them further.
“By the stones and trees, I am of the People and I request the generosity of your herd! If you have no milk to give me, better to give me your horns and let me perish here.” E’Schat proclaimed into Duk’mar’s face.
The words of N’abu flowed from the calf. They were the same words that N’abu had spoken when he returned to the Great Tribe with the secrets of the land. They were touchstones of the People and to turn down the request would be equivalent to turning away potential knowledge.
Duk’mar smiled, “You think some borrowed sentences that you probably stole will save your coal-rubbed hide. You are a better charlatan than I give you credit for. Tell me, did you kill the Black Fur in his sleep? Cause no runty cur like you could take even one of my bastards in a true scratch. I shall enjoy this.”
Duk’mar opened the clamps as wide as he could and brought them up to E’Schat’s horn. He could feel the heat radiating past his face. Instead of pulling away as Duk’mar expected, the calf was grim and made no move at all. Instead, E’Schat tried to read the story of his life in this moment.
He could see reflected back from him in Duk’mar’s eyes a life of castigation from the herd. He would be doomed to walk in shame, marked forever. All creatures of the world would know his disgrace and would turn from him. Who would follow such a failure? No cow nor bull. Without herd and without rest would he be condemned to wander. E’Schat saw all this and more as Duk’mar began to squeeze.
“Enough!” a voice cried from the edge of the circle.
E’Schat snorted in quick successive bursts as Duk’mar opened the clamps again and turned to the speaker that had dared interrupt his justice.
A’lif was at the edge of the circle, Mooncalves and cows of the herd giving her space to stand next to the Mother.
“Enough?! You demand that this be enough for his transgression into my herd? This stranger who bears no blood in common with me demands my hospitality?”
“He is not a stranger. He is not of foreign blood. The words of N’abu must be honored or you shame us in the eyes of our ancestors and bring an ill omen into this circle and into this herd,” A’lif replied without emotion. The muscles that held her jaw dispassionate tensed and her carefully held brow did not furrow.
Duk’mar pointed at the bound calf. “This calf is nearly a full grown bull. He did not spring from the stones and trees with sharpened horns and ill intent. I will not be tricked by witches and whores!”
“Again, I implore you. Cut his ropes and let us give him milk.”
“Do you stand for this calf?”
A’lif stepped forward to cross into the circle. The Mooncalves murmured; it was forbidden to trespass a Circle to which one was not invited. Mother Ma’dea reached out a hand and placed it on A’lif’s shoulder.
“Stop. You must not.” Ma’dea carefully pulled A’Lif back from the edge of the circle. “It is forbidden.”
The Mother looked deep into the eyes of A’Lif. Mournful memories passed between the two as they each remembered E’Sigen, who had died birthing their shared ward. A’Lif returned the gesture, and the two stood for a moment in embrace before slowly bowing until their foreheads touched. They locked horns softly and lowed together.
Ma’dea continued loud enough for the Mooncalves to hear, “The calf is my burden. I am the Mother and I birthed this calf.” The Mother let go of her friend and turned toward the fire, toward Duk’mar, toward E’Schat, to look into the green, willful eyes of a calf she so very nearly saved from this fate. Instead, she saw now, fate was only as strong as you fought against it.
With deliberate sureness she crossed the threshold of the circle, first one hoof then the other. On the other side, her fate was simple and she did not fight the truth of the world.
“I stand for this calf. E’Schat, calf of E’Sigen, Mother of the Valley of the Mooncalves, Shamans of the People of the Forest. Only until this moment have I failed my duty to keep you apart from this bull.”
Duk’mar pursed his lips, closed his shears, and stepped to the fire. He slowly lowered the tool back into the coals, pushing them around in a small circle. He meditated on the white centers that undulated with the pulse he could hear in his ears. He put the tool down and let it rest.
He took a calming breath before speaking, “I see. Only the Mother could betray the Father so deeply as to keep my heir from me. To make a craven milksop of him, this hurts twice as deep.”
Duk’mar turned to appraise E’Schat no longer as an aimless wanderer but as offspring.
E’Schat spat into the dirt.
“I am the primal spirit of this land,” Duk’mar continued. “That the essence of my seed would lead to this weak excuse of a bull. Without me speaking them,” Duk’mar turned back to the Mother, looked past her to the Mooncalves that had conspired with her, conspired against him, “you know your crimes.”
“I know that we have given him stronger weapons than you will ever dream. We have taught him to speak the language of the stones and the trees. We have taught him the paths of the stars and the wisdom of Mother Moon. We have taught him all the sounds of the night and delights of the day. We have taught him how to ask the world for what he needs instead of demand of it what none may ask. We have taught him so that one day he may return to this herd and lead where you never could.”
“May you die knowing that I will strip away from this calf more than just a horn. You have taken my heirs from me. I will take your heirs from you.”
Duk’mar took a sharp rod from the fire and stepped towards the mother.
“Firm and irrevocable is my justice which I exact upon you,” he said to Ma’dea.
“The gaze of the wise will see through your lies,” resolved the Mother, lifting her chin.
Duk’mar plunged the heated implement into the chest of the Mother, a shrill hiss steaming from the wound. Ma’dea staggered backwards into the arms of the Mooncalves that watched in horror.
The cows at the edges of the circle erupted into grief, lowing and scratching at their faces. The Mooncalves made space and carefully laid the Mother down on the ground. She pulled at A’Lif who leaned down to her blood specked lips.
“Save . . . the . . . calf,” came the belabored whisper.
A’Lif looked between E’Schat and the Mother. She looked at Duk’mar heaving in the circle and turned instead to the dying Mother. She pulled a small knife from her belt and carefully measured Ma’dea’s abdomen with her fist. With a deep low and an unspoken prayer for forgiveness, she plunged the blade into the Mother.
Roses bloomed among the embroidery as A’Lif cut into the dress and stomachs of the Mother. The Mooncalves hurried into action, each of them trained in the birthing arts. One ran to collect water, another towels. Others helped A’Lif try to save the last of the Mother before the life had fully left her.
In the middle of the circle, Duk’mar stood snorting. He began to paw at the ground with his hoof. His brow furrowed as he watched the Mooncalves try to save the calf that he had visited every full moon for last year. Somewhere within him he hoped they failed. He would not interrupt their effort though. That would not be justice.
Instead, he turned back to the fire to collect his horn shears. They were well heated again. They had lost their eagerness as he had been tricked into talking with the calf. There would be no long speeches now. He covered the distance to E’Schat and their eyes met again. E’Schat, remembering the Mother, simply lifted his chin expectantly.
“Well my son, it would appear I have no milk to offer you.”
Duk’mar raised the clamps to E’Schat’s sinister horn, the red hot crescent blades eager once again. As they touched the horn, flames licked up on contact. Unable to resist any longer, E’Schat bellowed his pain into the cloudless sky. Duk’mar smiled, savoring the foul sulfur that permeated the air, tangible and odiferous, snipping off the horn in a searing cloud.
As he once again faded from consciousness, E’Schat thought he heard a scream that smelled of lilacs.