The ones that seem to be most feared are the intact males. They have a choleric humor that lends itself to their control of female harems. Reports collected by Barnabus the Blue indicate that the gelded males can range between melancholic and phlegmatic humors, losing much of the stubbornness that is a black mark against the breed as a whole. These are most suited to works in the mines and bogs. The females are much harder to classify in general terms. What can be gleaned from their primitive lifestyle, it seems as if in the absence of male guardians, the females take on dangerous roles that would be deemed impermissible by our standards of decorum. This makes the use of females of the species unpredictable. It is still up for debate whether it is worth the resources to keep the females beyond the necessary breeding stock.
- From “Bestiarum Vocabulum” by Romnod, Chief Biologist of Aria, the City of Golden Flames
As E’Schat tore away from Fa’teem, the pouch fell from his shoulder. The calf pushed on into the herd and past Fa’teem.
He was headstrong, she knew, and had already forgotten his pack. She collected it so that she could force it back into his hands and send him on his way. As she lifted the pack, the flap fell open. Within, she glimpsed a flash of fire as the bag passed through an errant strand of sunlight that had penetrated the upper canopy of leaves and branches shadowing the creek.
Her curiosity overtook her concern. She reached into the pouch to withdraw the tools that hid among the rations and herbs that E’Schat had gathered. The pouch fell again to the ground as she admired the ancient implements, captivated by their history. The stones and trees, woven with the magickal energies of the forest, spoke to those who knew how to listen. Fa’teem knew the language well.
As she gazed upon the tools, they took on a dark visage. She saw the edge of the chisel well up with blood and begin to drip down the hilt into her hands. The granite mallet took on an umber hue, as though coated with a thick coat of dried blood.
A crash startled her, and now instead of the creek she had been beside moments before, the landscape had changed beneath her very hooves to a deep valley between two mountains. Above one, the brightness of the sun. Over the other the darkness of night softly illuminated by the moon. From her high vantage, the horizon rapidly expanded into a roiling battle between the light and the darkness.
Between them, in the valley, were the countless bones of her people, desiccated and forlorn. She could see the horns of bulls and cows, old and young, able and lamed.
A susurrus of rattling started, turning into a tumult of clattering as the bones to stir before her, connecting back into their joints. The partial skeletons began to rise as they reconstituted themselves, all turning to face Fa’teem. As they stood, their tendons and muscles began to grow and the clattering was replaced by a strangled gurgle of anguish that evolved into a deep low of grief as the throats of her people learned to speak again.
Finally, their skin formed and sprouted furs of many hues and patterns and their tongues cried together a song that Fa’teem felt in her soul.
“Our bones are dried and our hope is gone
We are cut off
Open our graves and bring us up from them
Bring us back to the land of our people.”
The song ended and silence filled the valley as the army of her people stood before Fa’teem. Abruptly, a competing refrain of harsh fanfare sounded behind her. She felt frozen, unable to look, yet slowly, deliberately, Fa’teem turned and cast her eyes over her shoulder.
Only the swirling sky was behind her. When she looked again to the valley, she was alone, her people gone. The sun began to set to the west, happy to steal into the land of light the Children of the Moon. Lady Moon rose to prominence over the scene. Though Fa’teem could see her light, she felt empty, and Fa’teem chose instead to look to the empty valley. Together, they wept.
She closed her eyes to slow the stream of tears that welled up unbidden and when she opened them again, she was beside the creek holding the tools of N’abu, which had become simply objects again.
As she took in her bearings, she saw that she was alone. She gathered the pouch, thrusting the tools inside again, before running with full haste to speak with Sy’ras, captain of the hunters.
Ͼ Ѻ Ͽ
Sy’ras was a stalwart cow and had always exhibited the good sense that kept her returning from long hunts with success, both in capturing prey and escaping danger with her life. Her eyes were deep-set from years of gazing on the horizon, searching for signs of boar or bird that would sustain the herd. She actively sharpened her spear, Sy’ras was well aware of the strange mood that had gripped the herd.
Cows rushed past their encampment, chattering nervously about a newcomer and Duk’mar’s intervention. Byl’ba and Ti’hit, who were cleaning a boar together, raised eyebrows at each other but continued cutting sections of meat to be hung in the smoker instead of speculating on the fate of this poor stranger. Others with less discipline turned to follow but a curt shake of Sy’ras’s horns paired with a stern gaze sent them back to work in sullen silence.
It was not hard for Sy’ras to spot Fa’teem’s frantic approach against the flow of cows and she looked up at the approaching Mooncalf. Sy’ras gave her bronze-tipped spear a final scrape against her oiled whetstone.
“What hurry brings you here when Duk’mar’s justice is being dispensed? I would think you better suited at the side of the Mother than here amidst the slaughter of our dinner.”
Out of breath, Fa’teem tried to gasp out words that she had read within the prophecy, “The . . . humans . . . are . . . coming!”
“What nonsense do you babble? The humans? They have not broken our peace in generations. Why would they start now?” said Sy’ras
“Mother Moon has shown me through the stones and trees. Please we do not have enough time. Organize the sisters! They are already here!” Fa’teem cried desperately, grasping Sy’ras’s shoulders passionately.
Sy’ras had known Fa’teem since they were calves together. They were sisters as most in the herd were of the Father’s blood, but they had been close in age and raised in the same calf brood. When Fa’teem had been shown to have the gift of speaking with the stones and trees, she left to join the Mooncalves to learn the ways of the ancient herds. Sy’ras had taken up the spear and bow with great proficiency and went the path of the hunter-warriors. Though they had grown apart as they rose in their respective trades, they had remained cordial and friendly. Never, though, had Sy’ras seen the Mooncalf so shaken. That alone changed her thinking and her mind began to sink into the mantle of command.
“Byl’ba! Ti’hit! Gather the hunters that remain. Arm yourselves for boar and post around the camp.” Sy’ras turned back to Fa’teem. “And you, will you take up the spear?”
Fa’teem looked deep in the eyes of her friend, “Lady Moon has given me another task. I must save the calf. You must survive this, sister. We will depend on you when the sun is brightest.”
As if to punctuate Fa’teem’s disquiet, three short peals of a hunting horn sounded in the forest a short distance away. A warning call from one of the scout posts. The hunt was no longer out in the forest. It was here in the herd.
Fa’teem grasped Sy’ras in a sudden embrace that startled the hunter and she instinctively did not return the affection but nonetheless felt bolstered as Fa’teem pulled away and looked at her one last time. “Rouse the alarm! We do not have much time.”
With that, Fa’teem turned to run back in the direction of the herd itself to intervene and rescue E’Schat from whatever fate had befallen him. The hunter-warriors behind her were stirred into action by the dependable Sy’ras. The alarm horn sounded and she hoped that would be enough to delay the inevitable long enough to do what she must.
The crowd was easy to find but were all fixated upon a scene that was obscured from Fa’teem by the number of cows that had gathered. Why had they not started answering the call?
She did not allow the dense mass to slow her as she pushed to the edge, many cows giving her dirty looks until seeing her costume and the terror on her face.
In the flurry of her vision and all that the moon had shown her, she was unprepared for the group of Mooncalves that were supporting A’Lif. As Fa’teem breached the bowels of the crowd, A’Lif pulled the calf into view for all to see, the womb of Ma’dea cut open from the belly. Fa’teem screamed and fell to the side of the dead elder to grasp at her garment.
She grew despondent for a moment wondering what great sins had been committed for the forest to punish them so before controlling herself through the meditations she had learned. When confronted with death, it was important to remember the cycle of life has always included death. That we eat the flesh of the dead for nourishment. That we return the dead to the forest and nourish the forest. That we wear the skins of the dead and make our shelters from the dead. The mantra did not provide comfort but it did provide clarity of purpose.
Fa’teem looked into the circle past A’lif, who was starting the swaddle the undersized calf, and into the circle. There, Duk’mar was removing the horn tip from the cutters. She did not stand on ceremony and leapt over the body of Ma’dea into the circle. Now the herd focused on her. Duk’mar sneered angrily, imminent wrath written on his face.
“I am rich with justice today, it would appear. Do you stand for this calf as well?”
“We are under attack! Gather arms, sisters!” she cried as she reached the center, looking instead to the faces of the cows around the circle.
The cows all turned their heads to listen and their ears flicked as the sounds of the alarm horns began to sound and they realized their intent. Some began to panic and turned to stampede away from the circle while others recognized the responsibility to defend the herd and ran to gather their weapons. Duk’mar’s sneer diminished but did not disappear.
“When this is over, do not think you will escape my judgement too for transgressing into my circle.” He turned from Fa’teem to grab a short sword that had been heating in the embers before reiterating the Mooncalf’s call, “To arms!”
Duk’mar ran in the direction of the horns as Fa’teem turned to the slumped body of the bullcalf. She pulled out her own small ritual dagger and began to cut at his bonds. Within minutes, E’Schat was free. She gathered his horn tip and then slung his body over her shoulders. While he was big for his age, she was able to carry him slung over her shoulder into the edges of the brush and towards the creek. The sun was rising higher in the sky and she knew her time was running out.
When she pulled him into a dense cover, she twisted the slumped E’Schat off her shoulder and guided his body to the ground.
He began to stir as Fa’teem pulled a variety of supplies from the pouches that she carried on her belt.
She first selected some mint leaves and other cooling herbs that she began to chew and make a poultice. She ripped a cloth from her cloak and used it to bind the poultice to the young calf’s wound. As she tightened the bandage, E’Schat let out a moan and his eyes began to flutter.
He looked at her and recognition set in, a small half smile appearing on his face. She paused, hesitating under the realization and weight of what she was about to do.
This would have been easier without an audience, Fa’teem thought as she reached again to the pouches at her side. E’Schat followed the action and his eyes became wide with worry as he saw what they drew forth: the fly killer.
The Sisters used the mushroom as a way to keep the bothersome flies at bay. They would take a mixture of their milk with cut-up pieces of the agaric and heat it over a fire. Bowls would be left around, especially during large gatherings. E’Schat remembered being very young and tasting the sour milk in a moment of bravery instantly regretted. He regretted it more heavily that evening when the toxins gripped his stomachs until they emptied again and again.
But the Mooncalves used them for other reasons too. E’Schat later learned that the diviners of the Sisters would go out among the clearings and listen to the forest and the stars and moon and interpret the truths of the world and the paths of the future.
Fa’teem leaned close to the calf and whispered as she spoke.
“It is forbidden for me to give you these, but I have seen many things and know that this agaric is able to release much of the potential in a seer. I know that the stones and trees speak to you, E’Schat. I have seen you often in the forest or on the banks of the river listening to them, unable to hear anything else.
“But these sacred mushrooms will heal you. They will heal you the way maggots eat away an infection or as leeches heal the blood. They will heal you but first they will take something away. Forgive me, Mother, for this, my sin.”
Even though E’Schat could only murmur a protest through his pain, Fa’teem took the mushrooms and began to chew them. She looked about the trees, flitting her eyes about searching for threats, finding none.
When the agaric was mushy and easily swallowed, the Mooncalf pulled it from her mouth and fed bits of the bolus to the weakened bull. She massaged his jaw and made sure he choked it down.
Fa’teem touched his cheek compassionately and looked deep into his green eyes. She pulled off the large green cloak that she had been wearing and tied it onto E’Schat, rolling him and tucking him into the garment as though it were a small blanket.
“I must leave you now, E’Schat. The herd needs me now as much as they will need you in the future.”
She placed his horn tip in his pouch with the mallet and chisel. “Tell them you are naught but a simple carver. These are the tools of your trade,” she said as she pulled the bag over E’Schat’s shoulder
After touching her snout to his, Fa’teem turned back toward the direction of the herd. She once again took up her dagger. Fa’teem looked skyward, her lips moving in silent prayer, before running toward the sound of cows marshalling for war.
As E’Schat lay there, the sound of his breathing was fierce in his ears. Though the forest now washed over him with the smells of sodden leaves and peat moss, he could still detect hints of smoke from the fire that had seared off his horn.
He too could hear the warning horns sounding, but everything felt much more distant and clouded by pain. The herbs did work to cool the burn, but it still pulsed in throbbing lances through his head and down into his very being. He tried to close his eyes and block out everything but the sounds and smells of the forest.
He lay there and drifted in and out of consciousness as the pain began to subside.
He woke, calm, looking to the trees and stones. The forest was changed. It was still the forest that he had closed his eyes in, but, now, it was more vibrant. Every leaf was separate and unique. He followed the lines of one until it ran into another and into another and into another.
No longer did the sound of his breathing block the music that could be heard in the green space. It was trying to sing softly to E’Schat, telling him to go back to sleep. He could taste the breeze on his fur as it rustled around him, asking him to play.
He stood carefully, trying to follow the wind but his unsteady legs were not ready. Falling back down in the quiet dirt, he instead turned his nose to the river. He could smell the current, patterns changing, telling him of the rocks or branches just beneath the surface. He could feel it widen and narrow around bends and curves, giving birth to new flows and paths. Yet around him, the dense foliage prevented any view. He stared at the soil and pawed at the leaves with his hand.
He saw them then. The People had risen from the dirt. Pushing aside leaves were herds upon herds of cows and bulls. They pulled themselves from the silty mud and, none more than half an armspan tall, began to assemble around the fallen calf. They lifted him up and paraded him. They called his name in victory. They found in him something he could not see in himself.
One started to low a great song that spoke of time and memory and E’Schat could see that each of the silt-calves was distinct. Different voices picked up the song as other voices fell away. The song was ever-present. Each voice, no matter how strident, was soothing as it picked up a unique melody and joined into a harmony for as long as their time was.
One stood forward as it took up the song. She looked familiar to E’Schat but he was unable to place her among the Sisters. As she stood, she walked over to E’Schat, no taller than his head.
Though small, she had a chill grasp that gripped him by the forehead. E'Schat could feel the fur stand on end all the way down his back as she leaned in to whisper her song to him.
“You are my begotten son. In you, as in all things, lies the primal spirit of the world. You must never let them forget it.”
He was not sure he heard the cow at all but felt warmth now spread instead from her hands and into him. She gripped him so tightly he could turn neither his head nor his body.
The warmth was interrupted by the taste of clashing spears and hunting horns. The copper of blood was strong in his mouth as its strength was returned to the stones and trees.
Gone were the silt-soil People. Gone was his true mother. The forest screamed at E’Schat, who grabbed at his ears but could not mute the noise. He could not breathe. He could not see. All he could do was feel a hundred wounds at once. He felt as his people were captured, stolen from his forest, stabbed and murdered. He felt the intruders. They too screamed and died, and the stones that made up the heads of spears, arrows, and axes all sang in vengeance with the People.
He again tried to stand, this time successful in gaining his feet. He turned from the song of war that coursed through his senses and tried to retreat into the forest. The forest floor grabbed at him, trying to trip him. When he looked down, he could see it was the People, hiding among leaves and roots.
The visions had come back, this time to mock him and jeer at him. He could not outrun them. No matter where he stepped, they were there to greet him. He could hear their laughter in the wind, greeting him at every turn. Unceasingly cold, they grabbed at his tattered cloak, pulling him down into the darkness of his own mind. He could see the faces of his mother and Mad’ea among them, vengeance written in their eyes for his abandonment. He did not fight them then; they had earned at least that. He let them drag him into quivering apologies and tears of pain remembered. They clenched his stomach with a bronze grip, pulling him to the ground, not letting go until he had purged the sins from his belly. Their frozen fingers gouged at his eyes until he could see naught but black and feel naught but fire behind his gaze of the void.
He woke and wiped the sick from his mouth. He could not feel the ghosts in his heart anymore nor could he remember when they had left him in peace. His head was clear and E’Schat looked where his hooves had led him in his madness. The forest was bleak, branches of the Impuror trees naked of their leaves. The sound of running water drew him to the edge of the small creek. The pungent odor of rot rose to greet him as he leant down to drink. Then he saw it. A thick log caught up in some branches. Deep down, he wished it was a log, but he knew. Evil followed him, and he knew it was no log. Logs did not grow fur or horns. The body freed itself from the bank and flowed downstream to greet E’Schat, face-down. His eyes followed its slow journey as it passed him in the current and then his eyes gazed upstream. Then he saw them and knew why the ancestors had brought him here, why they weren’t in his heart. Not just one log, but hundreds being pushed along by the waters from the mountain, from his forest home.
E’Schat sat along the bank watching the carnage flow past him, no longer thirsty. He was no longer hungry nor tired nor even surprised. He called them by name if he recognized them, said prayers even for those he did not. They were dead. He was alive. The prayers were his to say. Lost in the world of the spirit, it was not until the voices spoke aloud that he realized he was not alone.
“Looks like we missed one, boys. Big one too. Gods! What do these monsters eat to get that big? Grab some ropes and bring that other one around too.”
E’Schat turned from his vigil. The will to fight was leaving him. Now his time had come to join the ancestors.
They were small, the hoomanz. They were mostly furless yet they wore furs and other clothes to make up for the disadvantage. Their speech was stilted and their eyes small and shrewd. Here they were: conquerors of the forest valley.
The furless creatures pulled Duk’mar from the line of captives. There were not many still alive, but E’Schat was happy to see Mooncalf A’lif among them. She still held a bundle in which E’Schat could see a mewling calf.
The one who had been speaking had erratic yellow fur and bronzed skin covering his face, but E’Schat could still see long veins of scars striating his cheek. He wore bearskin and E’Schat could only assume the scars had been earned in the conquest of his trophy. He poked at E’Schat with a short sword that still had the blood of cows and calves dripping from the deep grooves.
When E’Schat made no move to resist the sword, the hunter said, “Well this one here must be one of those docile types we heard about. Fully intact though. That’ll have to be taken care of.”
Holding onto a short lead rope behind him and pushing him forward, the hoomanz stood Duk’mar next to E’Schat. One came from behind and kicked him in the back of the legs.
“Kneel, you beast!”
The rest of the pack laughed as Duk’mar toppled to his knees. He was covered in wounds. A deep cut rose from his side up to his armpit.
The one E’Schat assumed to be the leader of this group spoke first, “Now what’s a feller supposed to do when he’s got two prime specimens for the mines but unfortunately, they both still got their dangly bits. Now, Romnod, he says they only going to pay bottom dollar for some stags as yourselves. What’s an honest hunter to do?
“I say I make the best of both worlds. What say we snip the both of you and just pretend that it was like that the whole time?”
His speech sounded strange to E’Schat. He could understand the words but it felt foreign, changed. They tumbled out of his captor’s mouth, not wanting to take the right shape as they fell into the world.
It wasn’t until he saw the shears that E’Schat realized the danger in the shape of the fur-faced one’s words. The hoomanz brandished the shears at the bulls.
E’Schat looked to his father and could see the bull gritting his teeth. As the shears approached just a little too close, Duk’mar lurched forward, catching the encroaching oppressor full in the stomach. Like a doll made of river reeds, Duk’mar flung the creature back behind him into the one holding his bonds.
While not free, Duk’mar was no idle threat. The hoomanz swarmed the creature, trying to stay away from the horns that Duk’mar swung wildly. More than a few sustained a gore before a group of three were able to tackle the creature and set too with stabbing Duk’mar with their swords.
“You will never make a woman of me!” Duk’mar was able to cry out before turning to E’Schat. Duk’mar’s brow furrowed and his eyes were losing their life as his blood soaked the silty banks red. “No coward will ever be my son.”
E’Schat watched as the old bull breathed his last. Duk’mar’s tongue lolled out of his mouth as the forceful creature’s body relinquished control. Dead, he seemed diminished, deflated. E’Schat was not sure if it was the same bull he had fought somewhere in recent memory.
E’Schat could see the result of fighting the furless ones. While he was not bound, he could run or fight or resign himself to the fate that lay ahead. He had not forgotten the charge of Fa’teem.
“Maybe it’s just better to kill this one too. Save us half a headache. Plus, we already subdued all these cows. That’s worth more than what we spent on the trackers.”
“I’m a simple carver! Not a warrior,” blurted out E’Schat.
“A simple carver eh? What makes it so I should believe you?” said the yellow-furred hunter.
“The tools of my trade. Here, I have them in my bag.”
E’Schat went to reach for his tools, but the swords rose in response. E’Schat slowed his movement and looked pleadingly at the hunter. When no thrusts of the weapon responded, E’Schat continued to pull the mallet and chisel from the bag.
The hunter sheathed his sword and took the tools from E’Schat. He tested their weight. E’Schat could see A’lif in the line of captives, watching carefully but staying quiet.
“Oh shit! These are some nice tools! You actually may be a carver. Wow this here thing is sharp. How ‘bout it? You want to join up?”
E’Schat looked back to the corpse of Duk’mar. He turned to the shears that had been regathered. Then finally he focused again on his tools in the hands of the hunter.
E’Schat measured his words carefully. “I will not resist you. I am your captive and will join you. I have but one request. Those tools were the tools of my father’s fathers. I ask that if I am to carve, you allow me the use of the tools that passed to me and are familiar in my hands.”
The hunter smiled a cruel grin. “What’s yer name, beast?”
“I am E’Schat of the Blackfurred, scion of the People of the Forest.”
“You just say your name was Skat?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. Well, Skat of the Shitstained peoples of the forest, I, Hammer Rob, accept your arrangement.” The hunter looked around to his fellows and pointed with the chisel to the kneeling calf. “Bind him.”
Hands roughly grabbed E’Schat and pulled his arms behind him. He felt rope once again dig into his wrists and could feel the knots tightening him into bondage.
The hoomanz with the shears stepped forward. The hunter held up the chisel to stop them.
“Nah, Tesh, allow me. This thing is sharp after all.”
E’Schat pulled against his binds but it was too late. Hammer Rob smiled once again before getting to the grisly work.
They bandaged E’Schat tightly as the blood was not stemming. The unorthodox method of castration had left E’Schat mutilated and in excruciating pain. The hoomanz had cows carry E’Schat to waiting carts. Every step brought another wave of stabbing torment through the calf.
The cows tried to be gentle with E’Schat but no amount of compassion could shake him from the agony.
Hammer Rob stopped by the cart and appraised the close-eyed calf. He laid the mallet and chisel next to the bandaged calf. “Well, I’ll say you earned these, Skat. You’re gonna need them where you’re heading.”
With that, the hoomanz loaded the rest of their quarry, the various cows and calves that had survived the slaughter, into the carts. A final pass of the area was done and food supplies were ransacked, the fallen stabbed for good measure before being pushed into the river, and the corpses of the hoomanz dead were collected. When nothing more was left to be ravaged or stolen, the hunters whipped their horses and the carts began to pull forward.
E’Schat opened his eyes. They were no longer the eyes of one who would submit. He had tallied his losses for the day. Firm and irrevocable was the justice which E’Schat would exact upon them.