Because of the many requests I have had for additional stories about Ryahda and her world, I am posting this short story describing a hunt that took place approximately 60 years prior to the events narrated in PDU-1.
The tree was before us, waiting, as we had seen it within our dreams, not yet within sight but nonetheless brooding over our minds, casting its spell, its aura, as we made our way through the vast dry expanse of desolate sand dunes, eroded valleys, and barren plains of windswept rocks and monoliths that made up the unexplored region. Behind us, many days away on its high plateau with its brush and game and water, its gentler climate, the land of the Donda lay, waiting our return from this mission.
We would, of course, when we arrived at the tree day after next, approach it carefully, quietly, under the dim light of the stars, well after the moons had passed below the horizon. For this was the time best suited for our purpose, what we had to do: it was the time least likely to cause our death.
It was also, in its way, because of our prey, the most dangerous.
I looked at Myriah laboring beside me, shorts and tunic dusty as mine, headband holding her long hair out of her eyes in the wind, catching the sweat, her movements sure and precise on the shifting sand in spite of the heavy pack she carried, the weight of her weapons. Sensing my gaze upon her she raised her eyes and I smiled with encouragement. Her grin in return, flashing white in the dark of her skin under the searing sky, gave me added strength. Made the sadness of our mission easier. Made life itself easier.
We did not speak, of course. In hunting, as in war, those that spoke least while communicating most had the best chance for survival.
Towering above us in the distance, shimmering like a phantom of the mind within the heat of the day, the fata morgana hung, the mythical city where some said gods and demons made their homes, planned their battles, had their feasts and orgies; its walls, battlements, and turrets were clear to the eye, seemed to be beckoning. It had long been before us; had risen while we were still within the borders of the brush country, walking with our diaks. Had slowly receded as we progressed, day by day, keeping pace with us. Had watched as we reached the outcropping where we had decided to leave our companions. Had observed us taking our first dose of sy'ahta, saying our good-bys. No doubt knew our companions would remain there, on guard, until we returned.
We reached the edge of the dune we were crossing, started carefully down its side, watched the phantom city disappear from view. It happened occasionally that seekers would request passage across our land, wishing to make it to the abode of the gods, hoping to fulfill their dreams, and this we invariably allowed although we well knew that, of those that had preceded them over the cycles, few had ever returned. It was true that many believed they had succeeded in their quest, had found what they had been looking for, and perhaps this was true. But we never questioned, for with the Donda freedom of choice was paramount.
Gusts of wind, swirling, blew sand down the lee sides of the dunes, snaking like smoke over the strange pits of fire I had once seen high in the Endos Mountains far across the Da'Kal river; shifting like fog off the damp river valley, its swamps and trees and fields, early in the morning; drifting like the snow that sometimes came even to the desert during the long hard winters...
The heat poured down; the glare burned our eyes; the air was almost painful to breath; we moved through the immense silence at our steady pace, that pace which warriors, trained to it, could keep up hour by hour, day by day, mind blanked but alert, aware but--
I too heard it, found myself standing with one foot in the air, listening to a sudden soft thrashing sound in the distance.
I looked at her, gently placed my foot on the ground, and she touched her dry lips with her tongue. I nodded, and she grinned again. We set our packs carefully down; then stringing our bows, began to work our way to the bottom of the dune. Made it, started carefully up the side of the next one. Reached the top, and, on our bellies, peeked over the edge. Found we were at the end of the area of sand dunes and the beginning of another vast plain of windswept rocks, low hills, and monoliths.
Down at the bottom of the dune and to our left, in a shallow wadi, well out of bow range in an area of rocks and boulders, a k'anda was eating something it had just caught. It was almost invisible against the background, the red of its feathers blending perfectly with the colors around it. Its beak, like its feet black, was long and curved, well suited for digging into burrows, seeking out the snakes and lizards and sand toads and insects it subsisted upon. Its two legs, long and powerful, well adapted for running, were also formidable weapons: cornered, it could be a dangerous fighter. Weighing slightly less than a large tonga, and distantly related to the night hunters, its wings had long ago been lost in the evolutionary mists of time.
It raised its head, looked around uneasily, its eyes large, protruding, alert. In the solitude of the desert psychic powers seemed to develop easily; we knew it wasn't our scent, the smell of water in our flesh, the k'anda sensed; we were almost directly downwind and too far away. Nor the faint sounds we had made in our passage. It was the shadow of our minds...
We froze our thoughts, became as a rock, a grain of sand, an insect...
Above us our home star burned, pouring down heat, heat flowing like a river, steady, intense, burning; within our ears we could hear the steady beat of our pulses, hear the gentle sound of sand occasionally letting loose around us, small slides flowing down the sides of the dune, onto the plain, forming rivulets; could hear time flowing like music within the stillness of our minds, a stillness unto the vast emptiness of death, the ceasing of experience, an absence that, now out of time, perhaps never had been...
Then the k'anda, its head moving, looking here, there, but now slowing, alertness fading from its eyes, glanced at the ground, forgot what it had been doing, simplemindedly went back to its meal. And we smiled -- carefully.
Then I nodded to Myriah, this being my turn to make the stalk; backed carefully down from the ridge, began my approach. Keeping my mind as blank as I could while in motion, not allowing myself to think about the purpose of our mission. Or why we needed the k'anda.
* * *
I finally came to the bottom of the dune, glanced up through the emptiness of my mind at Myriah to check that everything was all right, that the k'anda was still eating, still unaware of our presence; saw by her position, the way she lay, bow beside her, that this was so; began drifting, only a grain of sand in the wind, less than a thought, not even an insect crossing the vastness, to her right, seeking a place to leave the dunes, cross the wadi. Drifted within, yet without, time; drifted until I was far enough away from both Myriah and the k'anda to safely enter the wadi. Crossed it on my hands and knees, from rock pile to rock pile, until I reached its far side, climbed back up to the plain, circled wide until I arrived at a point abeam the k'anda, began my return to the wadi. Encountered a low hill, climbed to its top, and, on my belly, carefully looked over its edge.
Only the emptiness, the heat of the wind, the silence, the dryness of the ground. The pounding of the blood within my ears...
In a distant corner of my mind, carefully guarded, now far enough away from the k'anda to allow faint patterns of thought, I inspected the lay of the terrain, analyzed my task. The hill, just out of sight of where the bird was feeding, continued down onto an expanse of rocks and gravel. Once there I saw I would be able to work my way from one group of rocks to another until reaching the wadi, then start the final approach. For the way of the k'anda, once it sensed my presence, if not cornered, would be to flee; flee with the wind at its back to deny me its scent, flee towards the dune so as to be able to cross it, start evasive tactics out of my sight.
Flee right into Myriah's hand. Myriah, whose mind would be so firmly locked, whose body would be so still, that the k'anda, in its fright, would not detect her until it was too late, was well within bow range.
That is, if everything went as planned. If I managed to get close enough to guide it correctly, not exactly the most simple of tasks when stalking a telepathic animal. If it was still there, still eating, by the time I completed my approach and moved into position. If the wind didn't change, dust dancers form...
So many ifs. So many questions. Yet these questions, once the stalk began, had to be kept from the mind for they always led to pressure, and pressure led to mistakes, and mistakes to failure.
Then a sharp gust of wind fluttered my hair below my headband, dislodged a stream of sand and gravel that started down the hill. And I, a grain of sand too, one of many, followed it...
* * *
A flicker. Seen from the corner of my eye.
I froze, on my hands and knees, one hand off the ground, in an exposed area by some rocks midway between the hill and the wadi, a lizard working its way from one hiding place to another. Slowly looked up at the carrion bird circling in a thermal high above looking down at me. Watching, as a spectator at a play during the Fair of Torac; but, in this drama, a spectator that could interfere with the events upon the stage; could, if given the chance, strike the actors down.
Was I its prey? The one it was seeking? I did not think so; they rarely risked attacking anything larger than a baby tonga unless it was sick or injured, could not fight back. Perhaps its interest was just curiosity.
Or, could it be aware I was hunting? Was it waiting its chance to steal some of my prey? Could it be forming images within its mind of me, what I was doing, where I was going? Of the k'anda?
I did not know.
However, it was generally considered their minds were too primitive to project thoughts and images, could only reliably project emotions: if I did nothing to excite it it probably would not alert the k'anda, would not attract attention to me. For the presence of a carrion bird, in these plains, hunting, was as normal, as common, as night and day. As common as discovering a lizard within the rocks...
Its shadow passed over, began to drift away, the bird beginning to lose interest, its incessant hunger driving it to seek other, more profitable game; and, removing my attention from it, continuing on my way, my stalk, I started to put my hand on the sand...and, in a moment of frozen time, an instant when everything snapped into sharp relief, noticed a slight oddness of texture, a faint out-of-place dip by a rock -- and found myself abruptly spinning back and to the side as the ground suddenly opened and a harsh cry sounded from above. Found my dagger out of its sheath, in the air, making its turn, landing, with an arrow following, before I consciously realized what I was doing. Found myself standing on my feet, exposed, in full view, another arrow in my drawn bow, hair flying, staring at an ah'itka pinned to the ground less than a warrior distant, writhing in its death agonies, venom squirting from its fangs...
And immediately clamped my mind back down as a second cry, following on the heels of the first, this one a call, rang over the valley. Dropped to the ground, let out my breath, became the lizard I always had been, always would be. Just a lizard moving across the sand. Then, from the side, over the ridge, near the k'anda, another carrion bird answered the first; started towards us.
The lizard, in its weak way, frantically projected fear of the birds hunting it, scuttled under a rock. Peeked outside.
A second shadow now joined the first, began to circle...
And it seemed I could suddenly sense the k'anda's mind seeking out across the distance, unmasked, a faint shadow of what a diak cub during the pre-weaning period sometimes projected; could feel confusion, a wondering at what was going on over here. Seemed to sense a feeling that there had been, behind the mind flare of the carrion bird, something else... That something was wrong, out of place... Better flee... Yet it had something to occupy it, did not want to leave unless it had to; was waiting to see what developed... But was nervous, suspicious...
I realized I did not have much time. That its unease had to be resolved quickly or it would be gone, we would lose it. And the questions, behind the mental barrier, flickered lightly into being: How could I get the carrion birds to cover me? How could I turn their presence to my advantage?
I slid into a trance state, taking my mind deeper and deeper into a blank nothingness, knowing I could not work on this problem on the conscious level without alerting the k'anda, had to allow my inner awareness to examine it, come to a decision by itself...
...and slowly became aware that my pulse had steadied, become normal, that time had passed, that now it was all right to open my mind slightly. And this I did, allowing my masked gaze to drift across the serpent in front of me -- called by some Protector of The Desert and by others Child of The Donda -- to the camouflaged burrow behind it, to the young massed deep within. Then my gaze returned to the ah'itka, its flopping body, venom still dripping from its fangs; watched as its movements gradually slowed, finally came to a halt. And the solution to my problem came to me.
For it was typical Donda thinking. Considering the so-called value of the ah'itka; a value based on a rather odd characteristic of its poison: the fact that while in full doses it has well earned the serpent its popular name of two-step, in lesser doses it somehow causes, in those who manage to survive the convulsions and coma, a strange and complete amnesia. And this amnesia has in its turn caused an even stranger belief: the belief that this poison, when diluted and mixed with some other agent, some unknown drug or food, is the hidden secret behind the immortality of the transported ones. And, of all those who hold this belief, perhaps none hold it more strongly, more energetically, than the priests of A'Kon, who, in order to obtain enough venom for their experiments on slaves, are willing to pay for the ah'itka fifty times its weight in gold. A price that, for some reason, still seemed hardly enough to those that would have to cross the land of the Donda without permission to seek it.
In life, there was lots of irony.
I smiled again.
The shadows drifted over me, the sound of wings heavy in the air, as, keeping my mind guarded, knowing, from the lack of a warning signal from Myriah, that the k'anda was still there, still undecided, I slowly reached out, retrieved my dagger, wiped it clean in the sand, replace it in its sheath. Then took my bow, carefully inserted it within the burrow under the rock, cautiously scooped out the squirming, snapping, hissing mass of young. Deposited them around the arrow, splintered, that went through the body of their mother.
Then moved away, blending into the background, as the carrion birds, sounding a cry of triumph, immune, like the k'anda, to the poison, snapped their wings shut, swooped down, flared, landed, and began to feed. With a greedy appetite that even I, a lizard, could detect.
Began to feed on a Ka'Don's ransom of ah'itka.
But then, to me, as to the rest of the Donda, neither the priests of A'Kon nor their gold was of the slightest interest.
* * *
It stood, the k'anda, in front of me, at slightly more than twice bow range, feathers ruffling in the wind, head poking within a pile of rocks. Around their base the sand was well dug up; from my position I could not see what it was doing.
I drifted a little closer, just an insect upon the breeze, almost in a complete state of trance my mind was so blank, so guarded; moved into the protection of another rock. Halted as the k'anda looked up, around, its large wary eyes seeking, searching uneasily; it was obvious it sensed something, was uneasy. Moved even further away from awareness, deeper into the trance, waiting...
...slowly became aware that our home star had lowered, was nearing the horizon, that I was in a new position, that the k'anda was pulling something out from under the rocks; noticed vaguely it was a snake, a young one wriggling and snapping; seemed to get a slight impression as I drifted back down that the k'anda was now holding it to the ground with one foot, had bit its head off, was eating the body, that the sand was drifting around its feet in the wind, making patterns...
...as I became aware that I had moved forward once again; realized from a great distance, faintly, as if in a dream remembered, that I was now within herding distance, that range where, though the arrows would not have enough energy to penetrate to a vital organ, bring it down, they still could reach out far enough to turn the animal, guide it in the proper direction. Realized it was now time to stand up, open my mind, flood the k'anda's mind with shock so it would not sense Myriah's mind, send it to the top of the dune. And wondered, faintly, as my mind began to sink again, if...
...and discovered myself in a different place again. Discovered, with a faint sense of shock, almost dislocation, well guarded, that I was now, for the first time in my life, within killing distance of a k'anda not driven in my direction by someone else, human or diak. A killing distance that was on the very border of bow range, it is true, but still bow range: I could, with almost total certainty, reach a vital organ now with one of my arrows. And I felt a terrible temptation try to rise, under the guard of my mind, one that whispered fiercely: Do it! For, within recent memory, no warrior had ever managed this coup, penetrated this far into the radius of a k'anda's psychic defenses. Not since Talina, the greatest Donda leader of all time, had done so some 140 cycles prior to my awakening.
Now! While you have the chance!
Yet something stopped me, something deep down, unrecognized, and I found myself slipping back into the trance state, slipping ever deeper and deeper into...
...an awareness that the k'anda was looking at me with shock starting to dilate its eyes, and my mind snapped to full consciousness as the k'anda staggered with the force of it, realized that I was drawing my bow, was almost within knife range...
...as the k'anda wheeled, dropping the snake in its beak, still alive, began running...and I led it slightly, taking into consideration the wind, started to release my arrow, bring it down...
...and remembered my warriors, the other members of my clan, their pride. Remembered my leadership was based on equality. Realized that my bringing down a k'anda by myself would, on a deep level, shame a few of them -- not in my personal band, but maybe in other bands -- might cause resentments, even possible questions of self-worth, and found I could not do it, found myself shifting my aim slightly and sending my arrow to the right, herding the k'anda to the left, towards Myriah or where I hoped Myriah was. Then another to the left, herding it a bit to the right as it started up the dune, approached its crest, now completely out of range...
And the question hit, like a blow to the stomach: where was Myriah?
I felt a sick sense of shock, a sudden wave of misery; time seemed to stop while regrets, uncertainties, self-blame, flowed through my mind, to the k'anda.
For I suddenly realized we were going to lose it; realized I had made an error, had sent it to the wrong place, that it would pass out of bow range of Myriah, that I had misjudged the terrain. And that, having had it within my grasp, needing meat so badly, I had let it go. And now...
Then, suddenly, just as the k'anda reached the crest of the dune, was about to pass over and out of sight, I saw Myriah stand, almost within -- yes, within knife range! -- saw the k'anda shift direction, suddenly somersault, begin to roll down the dune as Myriah planted a second arrow into it.
And realized with shame I should never have pushed myself so far, not in a matter so important to us as this one was. Realized that fate had thrown its spear this time for me; would not do so again. And the awareness flowed over me, unpleasant, that I had serious character defects within myself, character defects I had to face, had to correct. Realized also I did not deserve the affection, the trust, of my band, of the rest of the Donda. Wondered once again, as I had many times before, why it had been given to me?...
And started forward to congratulate Myriah. For few could get that close to a fleeing k'anda without the fear and excitement within their minds giving them away. And my love for her, like my love for the rest of my band, my people, filled my heart. Made life worth living...
* * *
After we had buried the k'anda under a pile of rocks, meat untouched, protected, and were settled in our light sleeping bags, the night far progressed, the moons long below the horizon, Myriah said, "You were well within bow range of the k'anda, weren't you?"
I shrugged, deeply embarrassed, said nothing.
She smiled, kissed me; whispered, "I love you." Fell asleep.
I lay there for a few moments more, thinking over the day's events, the lessons learned and the errors made; then, under the brilliant stars, the silence of the desert and the peace it brought in spite of our mission, I too finally drifted off.
* * *
We were being followed.
I sensed it as we passed a monolith, moved into the shelter of some rocks beyond: a feeling of darkness over my mind. Looked at Myriah. She returned my look, nodded in the slowly shifting shadows of the moonlight as First Moon began to pass below the horizon, Second Moon getting ready to follow.
We said nothing, of course. We had half-expected this to happen, only not so soon, so far out. But it was the breaks of the hunt; the risks were always high.
There was going to be death tonight.
And we were still unprepared, still had not reached the place where we had planned to cache our packs -- a place where they would be secure against both discovery and destruction. For without them we probably would not make it back alive: the water they contained was necessary for our survival. Yet, were we to have our packs on our backs when--
Myriah touched me lightly, hand delicate in the night, whispered, "In my dream..."
I looked at her in the dim light, a hunter, a warrior; looked at her fluid, wary, diak-like stance, the light breeze moving her hair; looked at her eyes seeking, searching, aware. Looked at the bow held with the casualness of long experience, the sheen of much use upon it; looked at her, knowing well what was in her mind, the dangers it held, nodded. "It was in my dream too. About six kuls from here. A small monolith."
She nodded. "Yes. Somewhat smaller than the one we just passed, it had, at its base, a jumble of rocks. Within this jumble there was an opening. An abandoned animal's burrow. Perhaps a tarl. This opening led into a sort of tunnel. And behind the first bend..."
I nodded, gazing out over the hard, flat plain of the ancient lake bed that stretched before us, the cracks within its surface testifying to the violence of the thunderstorms that occasionally swept the region, the scattered clumps of rocks and monoliths forming patterns within the moonlight, casting shadows, deep wells of blackness where death could be hiding, lying in wait. But since we were now being followed, it was our only chance. And a thin one, at that.
Myriah whispered, "If we can make it before Second Moon fades from view..."
I nodded again. For that was when the attack would probably come. Quietly observed, "If our dreams were accurate..."
Myriah smiled faintly, with the fatalism of the warrior, one who had lived with death for a very long time. "Well, we'll soon find out..."
We silently drifted out from the rocks, away from their shelter, into the open, changing our direction slightly. Then the light dimmed as First Moon passed completely below the horizon and the shifting shadows stabilized. As it did the breeze shifted from our side to our back, bringing a subtle scent to us. And Myriah's teeth flashed faintly, almost carnivorously, in the darkness.
And I smiled.
For we now knew for certain who our follower was. And where.
* * *
We came to a stop within the shelter of some boulders, looked across the open plain in front of us at the monolith. It didn't look quite as we expected, of course, but then nothing first seen within the Dreams of Change ever does. And it wasn't just its size, or its shape, or the superimposed perspectives with their sense of alienness that made it appear so different. It was something else, something far more subtle, something perhaps to do with cross-species perceptions, the profoundly dissimilar structures of our brains from those of our diaks. Yet, even from more than a kul away, we were able to recognize it easily, and we knew the opening at its base would be where we had dreamed it. Knew also that it would go back in, make its turn as we remembered, lead to the little chamber where we could cache our packs in safety.
Then the light breeze began to shift again, within the silence, and I knew it was time to cross the final distance, that we were running late, Second Moon now almost below the horizon. And I forced these thoughts from my mind for the moment, touched Myriah gently, and we moved out. Drifted into the protection of the long shadow of the monolith being cast across the plain by the moonlight, well aware that we were being hunted, might not make it alive. And wondered where our follower might be.
For of course we had lost her scent after the first momentary shift in the breeze, knew she had changed her position, altered her tactics, was now aware that we knew she was there, stalking us. And, naturally, her hunting was still as soundless, as subtle, as before, none of us having control over the random motions of the wind, and were it not for that sense of darkness, that psychic sense that sometimes, under the quiet of the desert, came floating up, giving, to those adequately experienced and receptive, advance warning, we might already have been taken. Yet, the night was far from over, our mission still far from being completed. And First Moon was now almost gone from sight...
* * *
"Go ahead," I whispered to Myriah, covering her against attack, all of my senses hyperalert, seeking around us for the slightest indication of danger. At my side the monolith reared in the fading light of Second Moon, the opening before us. A light sheen of sweat covered our bodies in the cold of the night, the stars brilliant above the desert landscape.
She nodded, lay down her bow, slipped her pack off. Placed it gently on the ground next to the opening. Retrieved her bow; looked up, around, seeking within the shadows, seeming to sense something, uncomfortable. Then nodded to me.
I repeated her actions, removing my pack, placing it next to hers. Then I retrieved my bow with a sense of relief. Looked around, seeking, listening.
Only the sound of my blood within my ears, the scent of Myriah next to me, the gentle breeze flowing from our side. Yet there was something wrong, a sense of --
Then Second Moon disappeared. And the world faded, became dark, mostly shadows against the starlight.
And Myriah whispered, "Shall I check the tunnel?" And when I nodded, she dropped to her knees and, bow in one hand, began to work herself into the now invisible opening.
* * *
The shape, dark, heavy, dropped from above, a faint scratching on the rocks giving it away, and the starlight was blotted out as I rolled, releasing an arrow. Then I was on my feet as the shape whirled, letting out a scream, and I sank another arrow home. Then something caught me a brutal blow to the shoulder, the upper arm, knocking me against the rocks as my bow flew off into the night, and I found myself spinning into a deep well of darkness as the shape reared up and I knew I was dead...
* * *
I awoke with our home star in my eyes, my head on Myriah's lap, tears in her eyes. Beside us the diak lay, one of Myriah's arrows in its throat, severing the vertebra, the only shot that can drop one in its tracks.
My left arm was held with splints made from my pack, wrapped with strips of leather cut from its bag. Nothing needed to be said as I reached up, gently touched the tears on Myriah's face with my good hand, faded back into unconsciousness...
* * *
"It is fortunate the blow was backhand," Myriah said. "Otherwise the claws would have taken your arm off."
I nodded, the need for silence no longer necessary. "She must have circled downwind of us, been waiting."
"Yes," said Myriah. "A wise animal. It's a shame she had to die. Her age must have been more than ninety cycles."
I nodded, feeling regret for the diak, said, "Let us hope her cubs turn out to be as competent as she was."
Myriah shrugged, her pack and my water heavy on her back. "We'll see."
"True," I said, masking the pain of every step. "Time will tell."
* * *
Even from half a kul away, because of the added sensitivity caused by sy'ahta, we could sense the cubs, their psychic emanations. And that, fortunately for us, they had not yet opened their eyes, were still susceptible to imprinting. Yet there was danger here, too, for if they were to open their eyes too soon, imprint us before we were ready, we might overdose on sy'ahta. It would take careful monitoring from here on out so we could be prepared, could begin to reduce our twice daily doses so as to reach zero and the beginning of da'ahta at just the right moment.
We entered the cave in the small butte beneath the tree, looked down at the cubs on their bed of sand. There were five of them, eyes still closed, each weighing about an ar. Three were female. I reached out with my good hand, gently picked up the tiny creature that was projecting to me so strongly, held it against my breasts. Myriah took the water skin, dropped a few drops into its mouth for me, then I took the meat I was chewing, raw, and placed it within its mouth with my lips.
I smiled, sending forth thoughts of comfort, love, holding it close, gently rocking, and it swallowed. Gave it another bit of meat.
Myriah dropped another few drops of water into its mouth. Then I fed it again, and, with its third taste of meat its mind began to calm. Its tongue reached out, tentatively licked my face. Within its body a faint vibration began.
I cuddled it closer, kissed it. Fed it again. Felt it begin to drift off to sleep within my arms. And smiled to Myriah, who smiled in return, now feeding her own cub. For the beginnings of an'tala had been made for the four of us...
...And the signs were auspicious.
* * *
The fata morgana shimmering behind us, we slowly worked our way across the vast sea of dunes, cubs in our arms, keeping our body contact with them close. Projecting love and protection and care. Feeding them regularly, at the first hint of hunger within their minds. Giving them water. Stroking. Nuzzling. For there had to be this constant physical and psychic contact until, probably several passages from now, they first opened their eyes and, looking into ours, imprinting occurred. And I wondered, as kul after kul passed under our feet, as we worked closer and ever closer towards home, about the many mysteries of an'tala, the way it formed, grew over time. Wondered about the intensity of the bonds that developed, bonds so complete that a diak, once well established within them, would never breed. Wondered about how, in the truest sense of the word, the relationship was monogamous, based so strongly on love and trust and a mutual one-to-one telepathic interdependence that it was not unknown, on the death of a warrior's diak, for the warrior to choose death too rather than go on living...
"How are you doing?" Myriah asked, looking at me with concern. We were working our way now down a steep slope into another of the vast empty sand valleys, could safely speak, and perhaps she had been noticing a slight sign of pain I occasionally could not hide, a tension within my face, a stiffness to my gait. The mother diak had not been without strength, and her blow had not been light.
I smiled, said, "Much better. My arm's already starting to heal. You did a fine job of setting the bone."
"If we'd only thought to bring some -- " Myriah hesitantly began.
"I would not bother to take it," I answered. "The little pain I have is hardly enough to risk fogging my mind while traveling."
She grinned, her concern underlying her expression, the warmth of her love flowing over me, and we continued on our way. I was lightly burdened, of course, only carrying my cub and dagger, my currently useless bow across my back. Myriah was also lightly burdened, though not so much as I, her pack containing only our blankets, our water, and a small amount of meat. The rest of our meat we had left behind in the den, beside the remaining cubs, well cut up, after feeding and watering them. We had tried, naturally, not to touch them, either physically or mentally, so as to prevent any trace imprinting, and perhaps we succeeded in this. Whether they would survive or not we would in the end never know, but of course one did all they could to influence fate's spear.
"Tomorrow night," Myriah observed as we reached the bottom of the valley, moved into the long shadows cast by the setting of our home star, First Moon rising bright in the sky above us, "we should make camp."
"Yes," I whispered. "I both long and dread it." We had been on reduced doses of sy'ahta for two days now, and would take our last dose at our next rest stop.
She nodded. Her eyes grew suddenly wet, and she turned her face from me.
We continued our march across the vast emptiness.
* * *
Yes, I whispered with my mind, come, and a vision of a small fire beside an outcropping of rocks drifted through my consciousness, warriors around it, others standing guard; then, through a faint undercurrent of pain, stiff movements, shadows, stars, scents, a warmness began to build within my mind, the familiar security of an'tala, and a moment later I was burying my face, covered with tears, in Ta'Jah's pelt, sensing her age, her aches, knowing her time was upon her, unable any longer to deny it in the further reaches of my mind. I shuddered with grief, dimly aware that Myriah was doing much the same with Tu'Kah, then shadows formed around us in the starlight, the members of my band, mounted on their diaks, respectfully keeping their distance, understanding well the intensity of our suffering, and we slowly made our way into camp. And, this time, rare for me, when a pipe of chanda was offered, lit, by Lahn, I accepted. And I saw, as I lay curled between Ta'Jah's paws, my head on one of her forelegs, the hair gray upon it, through the growing flood of my tears, my barriers dissolving, Myriah hanging onto Tu'Kah's neck, shaking, her cub still held close to her.
I could not tell where the cries I heard came from.
Then the drug began to take effect, and, safe between Ta'Jah's paws, surrounded by my warriors, trembling, I gratefully surrendered to it, allowed it to...
* * *
...A dream formed, of the k'anda, of where Myriah and I had buried it, and I seemed to see two diaks, aged, stiffly make their way to it. Dig it up, eat a small part of it. Then the scene shifted to the tree, moved into the den below it, and the remaining cubs seemed to grow, open their eyes, begin to hunt under the careful instruction of the two old diaks. Then the scene shifted again, and I saw a hidden place, Ta'Jah within it, the darkness settling down...then nothing.
I cried out, felt another pipe pressed within my hand...
* * *
<...I love you...> formed within my mind, the shadows of the chanda deep, and I felt my face gently licked as if I were a cub. Then Ta'Jah stiffly rose, turned, and slowly, painfully, moved into the desert. I cried out again, tried to rise, follow, felt myself held down. Fought the pipe away, struggled desperately, hysterically tried to reach my dagger. Found my nostrils being held shut, the pipe forced between my lips. Gasped, drew smoke into my lungs, coughed, found more forced in, began to spin, fell tumbling into blackness...
* * *
Life: so short, so short... Again I cried out; again the pipe was forced upon me...
* * *
I came awake, sane, something nudging my mind, looked around. Lilah and Sh'an stood guard, bows in hand, strung, the early light of our home star highlighting their long hair. On the outskirts of our camp their diaks lay, also watching. Beside me, curled with her diak, Lahn lay sleeping. Across the fire Myriah lay, her cub in her arms, chanda pipe beside her, face still streaked with tears. I knew Ta'Jah was gone, as was Tu'Kah.
Within the coldness of the morning, the scent of winter coming, I felt my vision blur, the wail once again start to build within my mind -- when there was a faint movement in my sling. And along with it, the faint shadow of a thought, tremulous, hesitant, tentative, distant, a sense of...something...what?...
A shadow, seeking, probing, trying to find...
I looked down at the helpless cub in my arms, head poking out of my sling -- and at that moment her eyes opened, looked directly into mine, yellow, with specks of brown, the slit pupils large and black, and an indescribable emotion exploded within my mind, began building, flowing back and forth, finally stabilized, locked in place, and the name of a star swirled out of the night, unbidden, the star we used to guide ourselves across the desert, the star on which our very lives depended. And I whispered, within the growing light, with a sudden deep surge of love, need, as I kissed my cub, tears once again flowing down my cheeks, "I will call you Ly'is."
Hesitantly the small tongue came out, licked my face.
Then, deep within Ly'is, the vibration began. And I thought, never again will I go through this. Never again. I will die first.
<...love...comfort...love...need...> Flowing both ways.
And I knew Ly'is to be my last diak.