‘Daraf, come away from there.’ He waited a moment. ‘Daraf, come away from there, we’re going home now’.
‘But I’ve found something! I’ve found something look!’ Nahren heaved a sigh and trudged with endless patience across the snowy path, up to the rocky outcrop the boy had recklessly scrambled up, feeling his own way up more cautiously with his hands. The stone was deeply cold underneath his palms, and wet.
‘What is it?’ he asked, a little more tetchily than he would have wished, then glanced up. The boy had gone quiet, staring down at a hollow amidst the rocks, deeply still, his breath coming in tiny frozen puffs. Disquieted, he made it to the boy’s side in two swift strides, making him start, then glanced down and, seizing the child by the scruff of his neck, pulled him back protesting from the edge. It was a longer fall than he would have thought from the side, and he kept a mindful hand on the boy’s shoulder. Perhaps the river now a trickle at the bottom had flown more strongly through this part of the ridge once, carving out a tunnel collapsed into a tumult of rounded and jumbled stones, and little pockets of airy darkness. The view made him dizzy, but he saw straightaway what had so captured Daraf’s attention. A dead ruhk was in the darkness below, its body twisted grotesquely across the rocks, its’ mottled coat strangely fluid with the patterned stones, a bright blood splash like a lolling tongue. He supposed it must have fallen, landed just so, broken its back. It did not look to have struggled much, nor lain there long...he looked up again uneasily. It was unlikely, but he could see the ruhk was female, and he did not wish to think of it having had its mate nearby, or cubs...he heard nothing on the wind but its own voice. He smelt nothing but the lingering odour of the cool carcass, but he didn’t trust his nose or his ears in this muffling, deadening chill. It was beginning to snow again, and grow dark. Meyorn would be annoyed with him for letting Daraf talk him into staying out so late, not without justification, he thought ruefully. He was, after all, supposed to know better.
‘Come on Daraf,’ he said again, ‘Come away from here. It’s dead. It won’t hurt you.’ He tugged the child’s sleeve, and the boy got reluctantly to his feet.
‘It’s so big,’ Daraf said breathily, awed and dragging his steps, craning back at it. Nahren heaved another sigh and stopped a moment. ‘I didn’t think they grew that big!’
‘Bigger, sometimes,’ Nahren answered, thinking a little prudent fear mightn’t go amiss for a boy that ran up rockfaces in such weather, ‘Don’t you listen when your teachers tell you about such things?’ Daraf looked abashed, still staring down at the body on the rocks, a fragment gone astray from dark tales. ‘Yes, Den Nahren,’ he said meekly, ‘But it’s not the same as seeing it yourself,’
‘No, it’s not,’ Nahren agreed, waiting for Daraf to get to it in his own time. He could find the way back asleep if he had to. Which he might, at this rate.
‘It’s so still. Like it’s waiting.’ The child stared still, straining his ears, fascinated, but not quite so fearless now, he fancied, feeling him clinging a little tighter.
‘It’s going to stay still. I told you. It’s dead. You can see from how it’s twisted, its’ body is broken.’ Daraf glanced up uncertainly, then smiled, that I trust you smile he always cherished. Nahren smiled back.
‘Come on,’ he said a final time, ‘Let’s go home’.
‘All right.’ They turned to go, picking their way across the rocks with more care than either had gone up it. He felt, rather than saw, Daraf slow for one final look, a tug on his arm, then the child leapt at him with a frightened noise. He had flung the boy behind him, spun snarling and raised hands, claws outstretched, before he had even time to find what the threat was, so conditioned was the reaction. Daraf, moved by his own instinct, stayed very still behind him. He confronted a pair of malevolent yellow eyes fixed on him out of the gloom above his head. Another ruhk, and not a dead one, lurking on the rockshelf higher up on the right. He felt fur bristle all over, then calmed a little. It was not going anywhere. This was injured - normally, a serious cause for alarm - but severely enough that he judged it would not be going anywhere, let alone attacking foolish wanderers. More, it was juvenile, and thus possibly not so dangerous, though he did not care to chance it. It raised its head, aimed a snarl at him, then sagged back onto the ground. Its shoulder looked crushed, and it lay on its side, its breathing shallow.
‘I think we are safe from it,’ he said to Daraf, lowering his paws, feeling the hard talons slide coolly back into his warm, shrinking flesh with an unwelcome tingle. ‘There has been a rockfall, is what has happened here. The first ruhk we saw fell and was killed, this one has been hit, and is nearly dead.’
‘What are you going to do?’ Daraf asked, scared, and clambering swiftly up his legs to perch on his back, like an infant, but he could not blame him for his fright.
‘Nothing, we are definitely going home.’
‘You’re going to leave it? But it’s hurt!’
‘We cannot help it, Daraf,’ he explained patiently, moving on again, keeping a wary eye on the animal up above, which watched him back. He had always found the predatory intelligence of ruhks somewhat eerie, and its steady regard was unpleasant. Dying animals shouldn’t be possessed of such equanimity. He imagined it getting up after they had gone and following them home, snuffling around outside the lodge, looking for a way in, which was, of course, ridiculous. Of course.
‘Because it is badly hurt and we are not trained to look after sick animals!’ His own fear made him snap, and he was sorry for it, but he only wanted to get home now, and stepped swiftly down the side of the hill, Daraf clinging to his shoulders. He swung him down again when they reached the bottom and the safety of the path. Their own footprints from just a few minutes ago were becoming filled with new snow, looking as though their shadows had made them. ‘Now come on, your mother will have both of us for dinner herself if we are any later getting back.’
‘Here you go boy,’ Maya said cheerfully, tossing the meat into the cage with a wary glance at the animal inside. Killer gave her a restless look before padding softly over to his meat. She stood up, leaned back, considered. He was walking fine now, and had put on enough weight under her care. She supposed he could probably go back into the wild. Probably. If he could remember how to hunt, if he’d been old enough when she found him to have learnt properly. She wasn’t sure, and she couldn’t teach him. He swung that disturbingly familiar canid face round to look at her a moment with deep yellow eyes. He resumed eating. A bone cracked. He was a magnificent animal. Now full-grown, the wolf stood high on lanky legs, yet still appeared incongruously powerful for all his sleek leanness. Anders came in to watch, as she suspected he might do - the boy never seemed to lose interest in watching the wolf - and she prudently took a firm hold of his hand. She had caught him pressed up to the bars last week, in here by himself, and his parents had banned him from seeing the wolf for a few days for his disobedient foolishness. It was Anders who had named him Killer, with that irrepressibly charmless attitude of little boys. The warmth of his small hand slowly seeped through her own cold gloves, and she felt that familiar pang, remembering what it felt like, with her own child, then resolutely blocked it from her mind, again. She’d heard them talking to each other yesterday. How do you get over something like that? they’d said to each other. Good question.
‘Are you going to let him go now Dr Brooks?’
‘Soon,’ she said, reluctant to answer his questions tonight, and knowing where this was going.
‘Can’t we keep him?’
‘No, we can’t. He’s a wild animal and it’s not fair to keep him in a cage. He’s not happy.’
‘We can let him out the cage, keep him the house. He’s very clever. I can teach him tricks.’
‘He’s not a dog, Anders,’
‘Well, he looks like one, and I was reading that book you gave me, and it says dogs are the same as wolves, they can even have babies together.’ She sighed, annoyed and not sure who with, him or herself. Had she really been stupid enough to give him a book that said that?
‘Dogs and wolves are very like each other,’ she tried patiently, ‘But they’re not exactly the same. Dogs have been living with people for thousands and thousands of years, and they have got less and less like wolves in that time. They are used to living with people now and they are not fierce. A wolf isn’t used to people, he will get unhappy without other wolves, and he doesn’t know he’s not allowed to bite you if he’s unhappy. Do you see?’
‘I suppose,’ Anders said, sullenly, scuffing his feet across the floor of the equipment shed that was Killer’s temporary home, then, looking up at her slyly, ‘Daddy says if you were going to let Killer go, you should have done it already, and he says, you and him and Mummy have all been out here learning about wolves so long so you should know. You want to keep him too, don’t you?’
‘That’s rubbish,’ she lied, ‘I was worried that he was still too ill to be able to look after himself. It’s winter after all and it’s very cold out there, and he has to find other wolves who will want to be his friend and help him catch food.’
‘If you say so,’ Anders said, in a smug tone that clearly said he didn’t believe her, and he was pleased at having second-guessed a grown-up. She shooed him off on the pretence of having to clear up, though it was certainly getting late. She stared morosely at Killer a bit longer, who had curled in the corner and stared equally morosely back at her, with mournful puppy-eyes, for all the world like an oversized huskie. Two years stuck in up here in the backwaters of Canada monitoring the recovery of the wild wolf population. Yes, she should have known better, but she was still reluctant to let Killer go. She probably shouldn’t have taken him in in the first place, but she didn’t know what else she was supposed to have done.
A little while ago, she had finally taken Anders out for the promised wolf-watching session, driving out as far as they safely could, when they’d found the young wolf lying in the snow, leg broken in a fall, half-starved and half-frozen, Anders yelling at her to look from the back of the truck, jumping out and running heedlessly into the wilderness, scaring her that she might lose him if she didn’t keep up. The pack hadn’t entirely moved on, they were waiting in the eaves of the forest, just upslope. She could see them. She could feel them, in a prickle of skin at the back of her neck when she turned her back on them. Even after all this time, and knowing they would never normally attack humans, there was still something primal in her that shivered in moments like that, stuck out, vulnerable and alone in the wilderness. It had been getting dark, and she was obliged to examine the wolf in the glare of the headlights. If he had been younger, just a cub, she might have taken him in. She wouldn’t have been able to release him again, but you could tame them from infants, if not easily. Or, she might have shot him, put him out of his misery. He had looked up at her, strangely calm, whined softly. If he’d been older, she might have been reassured that, once recovered, he could look after himself, that he was already an accomplished hunter and would find his own pack to rejoin, or wheedle his way into another. Or, she might have shot him. But she’d had a seven year old with her, watching her every move, expecting her to do something, and it was hard to explain that particular kind of brutal compassion to someone still young enough to think that everything came coloured clearcut black and white, Good and Bad. She had crouched down in the snow beside him, her boots creaking, and stared at those eerie, chatoyant eyes bouncing the light and her own dark reflection back at her, set in a resonantly familiar, noble canine face. Anders was silent and fearful beside her. It was very quiet. The wolf didn’t move. She reached out a gloved hand and touched it, felt fingers sink into fine, deep fur, and suffered a moment of dislocation in the swirling snow and gathering night, an erratically flotsam piece of jetsam memory; of another place, a long time ago and very, very far away, and a deeply alien face, her fingers lighting trembling on his cheek...an unspeakable trespass, an unbelievable risk, but driven by some deep instinct she had had to touch....and the alien had caught her hand in his teeth. Yet he had not bitten her.
‘Is it going to die?’ the high-pitched voice interrupted, fretful and close to tears, jarring her back to the present. ‘Can we take it back, make it better?’ The wolf licked its lips, whined softly, made no other movement, but it was trembling now. She withdrew her hand shakily. How did you get over something like that, anyway?
‘Well, we’ll try,’ she’d said, wondering if she’d be able to lift it.
Nahren gave Meyorn an apologetic look when they stepped through the door of his house, but she made no comment on their tardy return and simply asked if they had enjoyed their evening walk. Daraf, of course, immediately began telling her with great excitement of the ruhk, fear forgotten now he was inside again, safe and warm, then, when his father came in, began telling him all over again, complete with dramatic re-enactments. Nahren would rather not have had it recounted in such graphic detail, most especially not his momentary lapse of judgement (‘Den Nahren was so brave, and fierce!’), but he reflected that it was, after all, the first time anything of the sort had happened to the child. The family was visiting him, and their city dwelling was very far removed, in so many ways, from this remote little village, clustered at the bottom of the mountain slopes, overshadowed by thick forest all around. Here, they could relax from the strict courtesy and protocol crowded town life demanded, be a little more uninhibited, but here, too, wild beasts roamed. Daraf grew tired of his adventures after a while, and settled on a chair, rubbing his face, determined not to be put to bed.
‘We should have helped the sick animal,’ he said after a while, petulant with tiredness. ‘Why didn’t we?’ Nahren looked at Broda, who shrugged, then at Meyorn, who seemed to consider a moment, then came over to sit with her son. Nahren sat opposite, watching.
‘Do you remember how we told you that when people are scared, or hurt, they get a little dangerous?’ A solemn murmur of assent, paying attention now. This was grown-up stuff, which he wasn’t supposed to know, so it was worth listening to, now Meyorn had decided to tell a little, anyway. ‘Well,’ she continued, ‘Some animals are like that too. The more clever ones, the big hunters, like the ruhk. When they are hurt, you must leave them alone, because they don’t understand that you are trying to help them, and they will attack you.’
‘But you don’t leave people when they’re hurt!’ Daraf protested, wriggling a little in her embrace. Meyorn sighed.
‘People are a bit different. We are more clever, you see. But you remember what we told you about trust?’
‘You’re always talking about trust,’ Daraf grumbled, and Nahren smothered a chuckle.
‘That’s because it is important. When we are hurt, we are like the ruhk, we can be dangerous, but if someone comes to help us, if we already trust this person, then we know they won’t hurt us, don’t we? So we don’t hurt them back. If we don’t know them, then we might still be scared. You would be scared if it was a stranger, wouldn’t you?’
‘No,’ Daraf said stubbornly, but it was plainly not something he really meant. He settled, and Nahren thought that was the end of it and they might get some peace, when he abruptly sat up again, and said, ‘But Den Nahren, you helped a wounded stranger, didn’t you?’ He grew excited again, ‘Tell me the story again! Tell me how about how you found the strange woman who crashed in the woods!’
‘Very well then,’ Nahren said, ‘But after I tell you the story, you must be good and go to bed, and you must remember what your mother has told you about ruhk, and trust.’ Daraf nodded solemnly, and Nahren began his tale, weaving an exciting mystery. Seeing a fireball in the night, he had gone to investigate the next morning and found the crashed spaceship - something Daraf was endlessly fascinated about, and demanded detailed descriptions of every time the story was told - and the strange-looking woman who had been in the spaceship, struggling out of it, hurt, and collapsed. How he had picked her up and carried her back to the village, where they had looked after her until she was better and people from all over the land wanted to know about her, until at last he went with her all the way to the big city where Daraf and his parents lived, and saw all the important people who ran the place, right up to Dar Aludrah herself. Daraf was not to be dissuaded from his point of pursuit though, and again demanded to know why Nahren had risked getting attacked by a stranger. ‘She was very badly hurt,’ he explained patiently, hoping the lie didn’t show in his voice, ‘When I saw her, she fell deeply asleep, as sometimes happens when you are hit on the head. She could not have hurt me asleep, and she was anyway quite small, so it was no risk, not like the ruhk.’ Mollified, Daraf dropped the subject, only to start demanding answers to questions like what humans looked like, and what they ate, and did they smell funny, and where exactly did they come from, until Broda tickled him to make him stop, then swung the child up and carried him upstairs to bed.
‘I’m sorry,’ Nahren said instantly they were gone, ‘I didn’t mean to cause trouble.’ Meyorn waved it aside.
‘Daraf is quite capable of causing trouble without anybody’s help. I’m sure you did as well as could be done,’ then added, kindly, ‘Rei’pannath.’ He felt the praise, the affirmation of her trust in his judgement, but wasn’t as warmed by it as ordinarily he would be, even coming from Meyorn. He was lost in the recollection of that fateful day, now that Daraf had brought it up again, and the encounter with the ruhk had left him with abraded feelings, rubbed up to the surface once more. The others went to bed eventually, but he wandered off and stood on the porch, breathing in the crisp night air, restless, staring up at the sky, which was clearing now and showing stars.
He thought of that momentous discovery again. He was a junior ranger for the forestry management in this region, and had gone to investigate the source of the night disturbance locals had reported to him, worrying that, in the season’s dryness, the fire would catch and spread. He had walked some distance into the more impenetrable parts of the forest, where most folk did not go, relishing the chance for a legitimate reason to explore, stretch his legs, spot wildlife. It was a beautiful day, a little too hot, but he was well-used to that by now, and content enough to plod along in his sturdy boots and thin trousers, and, underneath the canopy, it was still, but shaded. Creatures scattered in startlement as he passed. He had been singing as he started off, but hushed as he proceeded further, now stealthy, curious. After climbing for some time, the ground began to slope gently downhill again, and the scent of burning wafted up to his nostrils, sobering his good mood and speeding him on. He could see a thin curl of smoke rising above the trees, hanging almost motionless in the still air, but it seemed to be slowly dissipating. At length, as he reached the valley bottom, he saw it ahead of him; a gleaming as sunlight caught metal through the broken canopy of the trees. He went forward carefully now and so it was that he saw the small craft, shaped a little like a tiny jet aeroplane, crumpled and crushed and steaming from where it had skidded to a final halt, obviously having gone through most of the trees upslope of where he stood, leaving a smashed and blackened trail behind it.
He’d hesitated, shocked. He had never seen a design like it, and all of a sudden he was sure that it was not one of their own. Perhaps it had come from the Mardukahn territories; but that was absurd. They had never been so advanced as the Alnayrrin, and, whilst relations had greatly improved since Aludrah’s alliance with Kahr Bahin, he could not believe they would send such craft flying with impunity across Alnayrrin territories. And right out here, which was nowhere, too. He picked up his radio to file a report, like he was supposed to, and then didn’t know what to say, so he put it back and crept closer. There was no sign of life anywhere about it, but his nostrils were picking up the smell of it, of people, he thought, mixed in confusingly with all the burning plastics inside and plants around. He called out a greeting as he approached the door, not wanting to surprise anyone inside. There was a glass windscreen at the front. It was splattered with deep red liquid, like blood, but a brighter colour - no, it was blood; his nose told him so, though it smelt very strange somehow.
In increasing unease, he went round to the door on the side that afforded him some access. Somebody had already opened it, and he jumped back instinctively, then, when nothing happened, leaned forward, peered inside the cramped space. It reeked of blood and burning, almost enough to make him gag. He fought down the urge to run. There was a figure lying slumped across the front console, very still. He stepped inside, tried another greeting. The craft made an ominous creaking noise. He reached out a paw, touched dark, hairless, blood-stickied skin and whipped it back with a yelp. There was no response from the...thing. He felt vaguely ashamed. It was quite dead, and there was nobody else in the cramped cabin. He was dimly aware that the layout of the place was wrong, the colours were strange, there were complicated symbols everywhere he did not know...but most of all, he was aware of the dead creature, person he presumed, man he guessed, lying in the seat for all the world as though it had just fallen asleep there, it’s amazingly strange, flat face, impossibly delicate hands, alien smell....
He ran out again, heart pounding. Could it be happening again? Twelve centuries ago, everyone knew, the strangers had come, destroying everything, killing half the world and more, leaving that great and terrible Silence behind them. His mind raced in a dozen terrified directions, before he calmed down and went so far as to look at the body again. He considered himself reasonably well-read. He had studied the history of the Long Silence, he had seen some of the few pictures and many depictions of those long-ago invaders. This man was nothing like them, and, moreover, did not represent a very convincing threat in his current state. He calmed completely, wandered curiously round the craft outside, picked up his radio again, and once again forestalled himself in the act of turning it on. There were footprints in the disturbed earth round the back of the fallen craft, certainly not his. There had been another one. And now it was gone. With the swiftness of both of the skilled tracker and that ancient predatory heritage, he leapt almost soundlessly after it. The creature had stumbled - limping, he judged - down towards the base of the valley. If not invasion, he deemed he knew what had prompted its’ course, if it were any natural kind of being - water. He could hear for himself where the river ran over a small fall into a deep pool, a watering hole for many of the larger animals in the forest. The footprints went straight for it. It was a short distance, but his quarry had evidently stopped a few times, and when it had, there were often small patches of blood, only recently tacky. In spite of himself, he was concerned. He did not want to reach the pool only to find another body. That would answer none of his questions, and he was curious, now. He hoped it were not dangerous, or somehow monstrous. It was not monstrously sized, at any rate, to judge from the slender footprints. He ran on.
He slowed his pace to a more cautious one as he approached the water, ducked down at its edge to hide amongst the vegetation. His quarry, only just ahead of him, it seemed, was there by the water’s edge, a small, flighty-looking thing, dipping its hands into the water and bringing them filled to its tiny mouth, strangely rapid movements. It was wounded, clearly, its clothes darkened in patches on the leg and its face sticky with that vermilion blood. Probably, it was half-mad, crazed with pain and fear, the death of its companion, its helplessness, trapped here alone, and yet...he could not find it in him to be afraid of it. It looked not to have any weapon, and if that were so, he judged he could handle it with ease. He stood slowly, silently, and it abruptly froze. Disturbing. He would have sworn with confidence that he had made no sound, but it spun round suddenly, turned that astonishing and astonished face to him. It saw him, clearly, and got slowly, stiffly, to its feet. He walked forward, stopped again, and they stared at each other. A myriad of expressions passed across its - her, he was sure now - face, conflicting feelings, perhaps, if such things meant anything to her as they did to him, but he could only stare at the bright intelligence, above all, the clear sanity, salient in her eyes. She said something, a high-pitched, musical tone. Calm, questioning, a pleasant sound. He found he did not know what to do. He’d expected to have to strike her down. She walked cautiously right up to him, and he was shocked, outright shocked, at such boldness, feeling his ears flatten. Wasn’t she afraid? And yet...it was enchanting, it was like some fantastic, phantasmal creation from all those childhood tales had stepped right out of myth in front of him, fearless and made real. She reached a hand up to his face, and he wondered at it - such trust! How could he refuse? He could not. He accepted it, returned the gesture, could not find it within him to do otherwise, which she accepted back, awkward but unhesitant, and a sudden joy surged in him as he said the words. Sometimes it happened, that you could trust someone so completely, so quickly, though it had never happened to him before and sensible people didn’t believe it. She would not harm him, nor he her, that was what they had said, even though neither of them understood the other’s words at all, they trusted and it would be all right. He reached to take her arm, help her along, and she followed, still trusting so completely, trying to talk to him, a wonder in every step they took. He had carried her after a time, when it became clear both that walking was paining her too much and she would not object to his doing so, and so, they had arrived back. Then everything went crazy.
Joseph had come to see her a couple of weeks ago, against her wishes and much to her annoyance. Annoyance, because it re-awakened all the old pain, and she blamed him for that as for everything else, as she blamed herself. Somehow, he had found out that she was leaving, and came to, well, she didn’t know what he came for. A last attempt at reconciliation? Trying to talk her out of it? Or perhaps, as she was, just angry and hurting and it was a new excuse to come and lash out at her. Certainly that was what it had turned into.
‘Killer?’ he’d sneered, when she’d shown him her pet, ‘And you treat him like an abandoned puppy,’
‘What do you know about wolves?’ she’d retorted, feeling her temper rise already.
‘Not a lot, admittedly, but I know you can’t keep him here.’
‘I don’t intend to, I’m going to release him when I’m sure he’s well.’ Joseph had paused, regarding her with that perceptive look she’d grown to hate, and she’d felt compelled to add, ‘It was a crappy situation. I couldn’t just leave him there with the kid hanging around, and I certainly couldn’t shoot him. To be honest, I don’t know if he’ll be able to survive out there by himself, which is why I keep delaying....but I do realise, that I can’t do anything more to help him.’ It made her terribly sad, all of a sudden, in a sense of powerlessness. All that exquisite, savage beauty, to be just abandoned, thrown to the mercy of chance, and the long hard winter. Joseph had shrugged, like it wasn’t important.
‘You know, I think I know why you’re going back,’ he’d said, thoughtfully, ‘I think you don’t want to admit what you’re really like inside, and, next to them, you can pretend you’re civilised.’ She’d sighed. That was a low blow. They’d already argued about her going and she didn’t know why it would matter to him anymore. There was still a scar across his forehead. She didn’t know why he didn’t get it removed.
‘They’re not savages, Joseph, they’re not even primitive. They even have space-age tech, for goodness’ sake, I don’t get why people talk about them as though they’re a bunch of illiterate hunter-gatherers living in the woods and dressing up in animal skins’.
‘Then why aren’t they in space?’ he’d countered,
‘It’s complicated,’ she’d answered, ‘They had a bad introduction. You know that. Why are you asking me stuff you already know?’
‘They’re afraid of themselves. And so are you. You won’t find answers there. You know you’re just running away.’
‘Yes, thank you, Joseph, for your insightful pyschoshit analysis, and while we’re talking about running away, can we ask what the hell you think you’ve been doing, flying off to be the big adventurous military hero, all over again?’ That scored, and she was almost sorry, later. Almost. He had turned and stared at Killer again, then back at her.
‘Would you let them go?’ he’d asked.
Nahren had lied when they had asked him about it, told them he had found her unconscious by the water, just so. He found he could not explain, not his own actions, and certainly not hers, and it hadn’t seemed important at the time, not compared to the wondrous fact of her being there, and there being others after, who were neither old invaders nor new, but who wanted trust between their peoples. Yet, as it all gathered momentum, and he and Dar Brooks were bounced up higher and higher in both the general awareness and in importance, his little innocent lie and his doubts seemed to grow and grow. He longed to tell someone about it. He longed to ask Brooks about it, what it had meant, what she felt, but they did not have the words to frame the question or the answer then. He did not know if it was exceptionally important, or utterly trivial; it felt like both to him. He had, in the end, crumpled before a private audience with Aludrah, told her everything in confidence. He dared not lie to the leader of his people, and she had seemed so wise and knowledgeable, he was sure she would know the right of it. He trusted her to do so. She had said he was right to have told that small lie, that it would only confuse people, that it probably was not important at all, but even if it were, all it meant was that Brooks and the rest of the humans were different from them, which everyone knew, but nobody wanted to have pointed out to them. It was a politician’s answer, but he saw the right of it. Different and incomprehensible meant difficult to trust, and he most earnestly did not want a discord created between them. Better not to emphasise such troubling details. He was not sure about Aludrah, but he had trusted Brooks, that was the crux of it, right or wrong, and he had found it impossible to believe ill of her. Aludrah, who had a whole people to think of, who kept many secrets behind that reserved, regal expression, and Brooks, his unexpected guest, who trusted like an infant, but with an adult’s wisdom and self-assurance, who had played kindly with curious children, who had laughed and been delighted at everything new she saw, and had always shown trust in him.
Until troublesome boys asked awkward questions about ruhk and strangers, he had almost forgotten that one unexplainable fact he still could not interpret. Almost, but not quite, and he not forgotten Brooks. He stared at his boots. They were new, and of very good quality. Dar Aludrah had asked for his assistance, his knowledge, his experience - such as it was - with the human delegations that visited, and he had always refused, finding himself at some deep level resisting. He did not know why. Fear, perhaps. But now, after all these years, he had been asked again by the new Council Leader, Den Tykonn, and he had been unable to refuse anymore, even though he had been offered the position of senior ranger here, unable to refuse, because Brooks was coming back. He remembered that trust. He couldn’t forget it, couldn’t stop feeling it, and, more than anything, couldn’t resist the imperative to assure himself it still existed, to keep that bond between them. He looked up again. The heavy clouds obscured everything, except the whirling flakes drifting slowly down, flashing briefly in the light from the porch before disappearing into the night again as they fell to the earth. All the answers he found for himself were unsatisfactory. Tomorrow, he would have to take the high-powered rifle reserved for such duties, and go out and kill the ruhk if it was still alive. He should have done it earlier; he would have done, rifle or no, had the boy not been there to see. He allowed himself another self-indulgent sigh, and went in again.
She woke suddenly in the night, roused by an ominous crashing noise. A deep and inexplicable fear gripped her. Diving out into the chill air she shrugged into her clothes hurriedly, grabbed a torch, and, on a disturbed afterthought, the pistol she had for emergencies, ran clattering down the stairs. If that idiotic child had got in to sneak a look at the wolf she swore she would send the brat packing straight home, guests or no. She fairly crashed into the door, fumbling for her key, then calmed slightly. It was still locked, so it couldn’t be Anders. Then what? She walked in cautiously, playing the torch around the room, not wanting to throw the light on with her already-dazzled eyes. There was a deep-throated growl. Contorted shadows leapt up at her, but it was all snowmobiles and weather instruments....the cage in the corner was barred and secure. The torchlight bounced off a pair of baleful yellow eyes looking straight at her. Killer made another complaining grumble, settled on the floor, looking expectant. She switched on the light, immediately making the room look more human, though more artificial. The wolf seemed somehow even more alive when contrasted with all the inanimate, impersonal machinery. His gaze was still fixed on her, with that absolute focus of the hunter, void of any emotion, just watching, paying attention, analysing. Narain had looked like that sometimes, when he was thinking about something. Waiting with absolute stillness. Killer made her feel inadequate when he looked at her like that, as though he somehow knew she just wasn’t cut out to be the predator he was, almost as though he was secretly contemptuous of her. Narain had never looked like that.
‘Hey there boy,’ she said, cheerful and relaxed as she always made a point of being towards him, ‘What you been up to? Got a spot of insomnia?’ Her own inane chatter annoyed her, but she always ended up talking to it like that. He broke eye contact, moved fluidly.
The wolf had been throwing his weight around. One end of the cage had scratches all down the side where he’d been trying to get out. Her breathing returned more to normal and she stood there, considering. Dimly, sounds in the distance came to her. Wolves, far away. Killer looked up, ears pricking. She made a decision, and resolved to undertake it now. No more delays.
As usual, Nahren rose before the rest of the household, stood outside to take in the morning. The clouds had gone, and it was deeply, crisply cold, cloudless blue above. He went inside in search of breakfast. All that had been put by the night before was gone. He sprang up the stairs, needed only the briefest of looks to know, thundered back down again, put on his boots, grabbed his jacket and pocket phone, seized the rifle, and ran.
It was a long walk to the ridge where the rockfall had occurred, a swifter run but not swift enough. He had not roused Meyorn or Broda when he had found Daraf gone, and it terrified him that this may have been a mistake - but. And but. They were Daraf’s parents, and they would almost certainly not be able to act rationally if the lad was in trouble, and that could spell the worst disaster. He had left a note by the door, he couldn’t do otherwise; he hoped they would understand, he definitely hoped they would not follow. A clear trail of tiny footprints wandered on ahead, not entirely steady, unsure of their direction perhaps, and he accelerated, his muscles turned to liquid warmth, streaking across the land, burning the cold out of the air around him as he passed.
He was concerned enough that by the time he reached the site of the rockfall he quite abandoned all caution and sprang up the ridge, stone to stone, with reckless haste. To his immense relief the child was standing there where they had stood yesterday, clutching his food bundle, looking round in confusion. He spun in fright when he heard Nahren scramble up, then relaxed, unwisely. ‘Fool!’ Nahren shouted, relief surpassed by fury, ‘Idiotic boy, did you not listen to anything we said?! That ruhk would soon as eat you as that food, and sooner go mad and kill the both of us!’ Daraf flinched.
‘I’m sorry!’ he blurted, ‘I only wanted to help it!’ Nahren gave this the contemptuous look it deserved, reigning back his temper for a more measured retort. Daraf looked back and up.
‘It’s gone, anyway...’ he said, mournfully.
‘What?’ Ice crept back into his cooling, trembling limbs.
‘I looked all around, I even climbed up where it was, but it’s gone....’ Nahren wasted no more time and scrambled up for himself. Gone indeed, but not far, he would warrant. He could smell ruhk everywhere, could make no sense of it, nor the melee of footprints and bloodied snow around, was grateful at least they did not run in packs, like the ebun.
‘Daraf, listen to me,’ he said urgently, springing down, ‘We have to get out of here now. Your ruhk is still around, it would not have been able to go far, and now all it knows is that it is hurt, it is mad, it is hungry, and we are here. Leave the food here. Now!’ Daraf scurried to comply, and they carefully went back down the rocks. The wind carried a low grunt to him. He decided not to comment on it, but Daraf heard it anyway, looking around fearfully. Now he’s scared, Nahren thought sourly to himself. He thought it would be all right, but he did not want to be caught by surprise. There was movement in the trees behind them. The last few rocks to the path back through the forest. He made a decision, went first, turned as Daraf started to carefully climb down, one rock at a time, swung his rifle out. A snarl, a blur of motion and the animal half-flung itself, half-fell at them. He fired. Daraf squeaked and leapt straight off the last rock, balling up and landing with a muffled thump. The ruhk crashed dead to the ground beside him. He stared, willing himself to calm again as he contemplated its injuries. Incredible, how something could keep going like that, after a night and maybe longer with freezing, broken bones. Only the Meladahn could do that to such an extremity. In people they called it Hudahnses. And people were Meladahn, the radicals had always sworn, and the evolutionists had finally proved. He shuddered, then grunted with a start as Daraf flung himself at him, shaky and mewling and scared. He sighed, picked the boy up and slung him over one shoulder, the gun on the other.
They began to walk steadily along the path. It was warming up a little, but gone cloudy, and the gloom under the trees seemed to seep out and pervade the whole landscape. Days like this always left him with a jittery, expectant feeling, when the whole world felt still, waiting. There was only the steady whoosh of their breathing, the creak of his clothes, and the omnipresent, dull crunch of his boots on the thin snow. Daraf, thoroughly chastened, was very, very quiet, which suited him fine, a warm, soft weight on his left side, slowly falling asleep, the gun a cool hard one on his right, quiescent. They began to descend the hill at the edge of the forest, and he got out the pocket phone at last, frowned at the signal, but tried it anyway. It began to ring, fuzzily. He pressed it to his ear, and was deafened by Daraf’s sudden scream in his other. An incredible weight struck his back, the phone shot from his grasp, and they both went sprawling, tumbling sliding down the slope, separating. His jaw had smashed into the ground with a force that turned his vision red for a moment, and needle agonies were digging into his back. With a titanic effort, he flipped over on to his side, punched and kicked backwards, finally dislodging the crazed animal and struggling to his feet, trying to disentangle the shoulder strap of the gun from his arm, in the end giving up and firing off almost randomly at it. It went wide, but the animal already had bloodied flanks and one crushed paw, which had probably saved his neck from being broken.
Another ruhk, another wounded ruhk. He was an idiot. One female and one almost-grown cub, and he hadn’t given more than a passing thought to the fact that litters were almost always of two or three. The gunshot did not discourage it and it leapt at him again, teeth snapping shut almost in his face. He forced it off with the rifle, feeling a terrible surge of power in his muscles - it was probably three times his weight - an answering roar in his own voice. He did not want this. It charged again. He did not know where the boy had got to. He needed to reload but couldn’t. This time it knocked him down and he very nearly didn’t get it off again, felt claws rake agonisingly down one arm, and his own spring out in response. Only a moment left for rational choice, so he made the only rational choice, and cast aside the gun.
He sprung to meet its next charge, arms outstretched, the dark hard knives at the end his own swift death, and he exulted in them. They hurtled together with a force that made bone crunch and splinter, he was not aware whose, he didn’t know anything except that the man that was Nahren was drowning in a red, roaring sea, and the animal that was Nahren was riding a crimson, hormonal wave of bloody death, grappling and striking and rolling over and over again...strike strike strike...he would kill all that threatened him and his...they crashed into the trees with teeth going into and through his arm, that he did not feel, and he strained forward and sank his own through hot fur into hotter flesh, felt it choke, tasted blood and almost blacked out on another racking, primeval surge of power....brought the other arm round, aimed those needles for its eyes...kill kill kill. Failure. Roll. Grapple, strike, strike again, smash into a trunk, sight gone, back, open maw of death stretching wide...strike! Red explosion, flesh parting, streaming along his fingers into air. It toppled, fell with a crash. He kicked and struck and struggled out from under it, stopped with an effort, or maybe exhaustion, or maybe victory. The world rolled over and over and settled on dark branches above him. He supposed the ruhk must have abandoned its companions after the rockfall after it freed itself, but, unable to go far, and perilously close to being tipped over into hudahnses from its trauma, had smelt the blood and them, had come back, and then finally toppled into the full reaction when he had shot its littermate.
He was aware that he was thinking about ruhk for a reason, and tried to remember how he had got here, lying on his back in the forest...had he fallen? He thought he remembered falling....Hearing returned, sight re-focused properly, the whole place reeked nauseatingly of blood and death....there was a dead ruhk lying next to him, bleeding from dozens of puncture wounds and ragged scores down its’ flanks, its throat torn and skull partially crushed...and, Silence, he was a deep bloody mass of pain himself. With that ultimate shock awareness returned with a slam of his heart. He struggled up, somehow, spat (vomited?) blood and teeth. One of the teeth wasn’t his. He thought he shouldn’t have been able to move, but it kept you going, did hudahnses, while it lasted. Probably it had only lasted a few moments, if that. The pain was still only at the corners of his mind. He couldn’t move his left arm. He had to get up and out of here and get himself some help, before he went into shock....Daraf. He found the child swiftly, sensibly scrambled into a hole out the way, but the boy was near hysterical and wouldn’t go near him, so that he had to be unkind and forcefully dragged him out, made him walk beside him. He found the phone but it looked broken and he couldn’t press the buttons or remember which ones to press anyway. He left the gun. He didn’t dare put a weapon back in his own hands in this precarious state.
He took Daraf’s hand in the one of his that worked, and began trudging back with grim determination. It should only be half an hour from here, if he remembered rightly...he didn’t remember things very well at the moment. Step after agonised step. He had a broken rib somewhere; felt everywhere. He could not shut his mouth properly. His arm dripped steadily, alarmingly. He was going to be like the ruhk, he would jump on anybody who came near, even to help...but he walked anyway. He had a terrible craving for something sweet, even though he wanted to be sick. Even uninjured, a hudahnetic attack left you gasping for water and with critically low energy levels if it went on too long, everything spent in that desperate effort....he remembered that, at least. He did not know what he should do about it, except keep walking. He was gasping for breath now, not seeing anything properly anymore, and would have stopped, but Daraf was urging him on now, they were nearly there, he wasn’t going to leave Den Nahren, no, not when he would fall on his face in the snow and not get up again, but Den Nahren had to keep walking. He kept walking. Everything turned watery. The world was a two-toned haze of colour, bloody rents in endless white, red pain, white cold, and a deep blue quiet...the silence would smother him. He was afraid now, of that deep quiet. Where had it come from? He had been attacked, like the world had been attacked, long ago, and he went insane, like the world went insane, long ago, and he would die, and there would be nothing of him to find but that Silence, like the Long Silence of the world....and what was he to say to Brooks, who had never known this? Shame swallowed him, red pain, white cold. The child’s voice faded, everything faded, and Silence stole over him...red on white, swallowed by a deep, blue quiet.
With a great deal of swearing and grunting, she got the cage up on the portable trolley, lifted it up onto a powered truck designed for the purpose, rolled up the sliding doors and drove out into the cool night air. A pleasant evening, the midnight sun revealing the land in that strange not-night, not-day of early dawn, aurora glinting overhead. She drove on through this twilit dreamlike landscape; looming craggy mountains catching the light on their snow-tipped peaks in blood-red and golden streaks, red on white...brooding mysterious forest, a deep blue quiet all around, a land where creatures wild of heart lived. She could hear Killer pacing around over the intrusive roar of the engine, and wondered what he was feeling, what he was thinking, if indeed he thought at all. She picked a spot not far from where she had found him, near the edges of the range of his home pack, but not inside. If he were to go back, he would invade on his own choice. Best she could do. She leaped out, crunching on the hard ground, feeling the bite of the early morning air, and suddenly realising that if she did not get back soon, people were going to be waking up and wondering where the hell she was. Well, there was a phone in the truck, they could call her if they wanted.
She walked round to the back of the truck, swung the hatch down, made ready to unlock the cage. Killer had stood expectantly, knowing something was up. He was giving her that look again. It was so damn hard not to personify that intelligence, make it up to be something you thought it should be. She unlocked the cage door, opened it an inch. He didn’t move. She was seized with a sudden, reckless boldness. After all, who was the real killer around here anyway, the wolf or the woman? Everybody knew the answer to that question. She swung the door wide, met his gaze defiantly, staring him down. Damned ungrateful beast. I saved you, when I could have left you to die, and all you do is repay me with snarling rage and that sullen, superior silence. Killer ducked his head down, licked his lips nervously. She reached in one last time, to say goodbye, touched his face. He looked up, whining, gaze searching.
‘It’s okay boy, you can go now, go on, go find yourself some proper friends.’ He bit her. Hard. She pulled her hand back with a startled, pained cry, seeing blood spray, caught in a glistening arc in the morning light, and in that moment he surged out the cage with a force that stopped her breathing, but he landed beside her and ran without pause off in to the distance, all that power reigned back in, a wraith ghosting across the rocks.
She stared after him a while as he picked his way amongst the rocks, sniffing at the ground, whilst she tore off her part of her sleeve and wrapped it round the hand. It stang with with the cold. Well, serve her right. She wasn’t sorry she had tried, somehow. When it reached the treeline, she could see the wolf pause, pale against the trees, looking back down at her a moment, the absolute still wait of the predator, a consideration, an acknowledgement, perhaps. In her mind, she saw Narain again, standing outside on the slopes, near a small village they had passed through on the way to the city, one isolated fragment of a faraway dream. He had turned when she had slipped a little, with that uncanny hearing of his, and she had followed him up, accepting a solemnly proffered hand at the top of the steep rise, still unsteady on her feet. His every movement deliberation, carefully considered. They had all been so gentle-natured, so kind, and Narain, above all others, risking everything for a stranger, an invader, rather than let her die there, in that quiet, gravely valiant way of his. He threw her into stark contrast. She felt it every day, and she had wanted to do what he had done, on her own small scale, somehow. Then the wolf was gone. She remained standing, a small piece of violence cast amidst the empty landscape.
After a while, she got in the truck and drove back, to leave.
Meyorn and Broda, disobeying his instructions, had found him the end, carried him the last distance, that he did not think he would have made on his own, got him home and fair drowned him in sweetened water. Then they had packed him off to the district hospital, where he was bandaged up, pumped up with more sugars, drugged to a pleasant warm numbness, and sent home again, where he fell asleep, all that night and the next day.
Slowly at first, then more quickly, he recovered. At length, he was able to get up and sit at ease - relatively - in front of the fire, stiffness in all his joints. His jaw was still swollen right up and he’d eaten nothing but soup for five days. He stood out on the porch again one evening, feeling the need for fresh air and to be away from the others and their polite kindness. Daraf was still wary around him, and it pained him somewhere, deep inside. Children were like that, they gave their trust without thought, and then, when something like this happened, they took it away again, frightened, and unable to understand that adults were not perfect. Meyorn assured him he would get over it. Only children did that too. Adults couldn’t, they just - broke - but then, adults didn’t give it away so lightly in the first place. Not usually, anyway. He had all but decided not to go to the city after all. Den Tykonn would have to do without him, Brooks would manage, he was sure, and he had made no promise. There were plenty of people there working with the humans now.
Meyorn came out to stand quietly beside him, and that was another pain. He should perhaps have tried harder with her, risked more, but she was older, and much wiser, and he had thought to bide his time, somehow thinking he would change and she would not. She knew it, too. He could hear the forest above stirring in the wind, like the murmur of a thousand voices, and he was determined that this time, he would not give up. He was going back out there, and he was going to do his job, no matter its dangers and occasional unpleasantnesses, because it was the harder thing to do, and running away to the city would be so easy.
‘You are too critical of yourself,’ Meyorn commented, as though she could hear his thoughts, and he turned to look at her. ‘Are you still coming down to the city with us tomorrow?’ He found himself unable to answer her. He swore he could hear ruhk out there, mocking him. Meyorn turned away from him, looked out into the night, then back at him, expecting some sort of answer. So he told her about Brooks.
‘You know,’ Meyorn said at last, long after he had finished and silence had fallen between them, ‘When I heard on the news about the humans coming, and all about you and Brooks, I told everybody how I knew you, and thought that it could not have happened better, that it was you who found her.’ He grunted, not wanting to be consoled or appeased.
‘Well, what of it now?’ he said, grudgingly.
‘I just think it’s sad for her, if she comes back here, and there’s no one that she trusts from the start to meet her.’
He was ashamed, he felt it blister out all over him whenever he thought about it. Everyone had been understanding, but, in this modern age, when one was protected from much of the dangers that used be ubiquitous, when society had developed its careful strictures, its careful safeguards, to make sure it didn’t happen, a full Hudahnetic attack was rare, and it felt like he hadn’t quite lived up to his own expectations somewhere. As usual. He tried to picture himself facing Brooks again, and couldn’t quite manage it. He remembered a moment, he had persuaded her out into the woods to show her, well, the things that mattered to him. He had turned round to find her lagged behind, shivering with cold and struggling stiff-gaited. But still dauntlessly following after. She had been so fearless, offering trust to a stranger, going along with him, and all the time, with that intrinsic calm. Even crashed on an unknown land, with her companion dead, herself lost and in pain, even dragged from one alien town to another, meeting one stranger after another, she had been evidently frightened many times, perhaps most of the time, but had never lost that intrinsic calm, had never refused to offer that trust, like a child, but, unlike a child, had never taken it back again, and, unlike a child, had never found a place she did not dare to tread. Next to her, he seemed to fade. The memory did too and he found Meyorn gone again. He remained standing, a lonely dissonance resonating off the hills.
He walked inside. Meyorn was waiting for him.
‘You’re going,’ she said, a statement, not a question. He let out a slow breath. Sometimes, he hated how she was always right.
‘It would be nice,’ he admitted, ‘It would be...simple...to stay. But no, I’m going. I’ll go.’
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