A low, hooting cry stirred Mechebe from his fretful nap, bringing his half-conscious mind to full awareness in a heartbeat. His eyes flared open as his tufted ears lifted vertical, swiveling to pinpoint the direction of the summoning warble. Sleep had given him no peace of mind, and now waking brought the pivotal announcement into unavoidable proximity. He took a deep breath, released it, and lifted his long, bearded muzzle from his crossed forepaws. His toes were tangled, claws placing sharp curve against sharp curve; the massive talons dangling from his dewtoes were the only ones exempt from his unconscious expression of anxiety.
He looked up, seeking a glimpse of the sky past the evergreen canopy. The shade of blue suggested afternoon, but the bloody tinge to the wispy clouds belied that and told him it was evening already. The sun was fleeing the sky in hopes of rest, much the same way Mechebe had fled the center of the territory in hopes of serenity. He wished the sun better luck than he had found.
“Ready?” came a sharp, light voice behind him. Mechebe didn’t look, pulling his paws apart gently before pushing himself up from his bed of mulch and moss to stand on four strong legs. His luxuriously long tar-black fur kept a few dried leaves as prisoners; he shook off when he heard the tell-tale crinkle-crackle from beneath him.
“I am restless from waiting,” he answered after another deliberate breath failed to bring calm, stretching his legs and flexing his ankles. His tail, long and thick and smooth, hung in a low curve behind his haunches, kept as still as he could manage; the barbed tip alone twitched, made of age-fused spines that grew like a lizard’s rattle-tail.
“You’re worried,” remarked the voice, accompanied by the sound of sniffing.
One of Mechebe’s packmates stepped up to his flank, looking up at the larger man with a mixture of disapproval and amusement. “You think Neserre will send them away.”
“I fear he will,” Mechebe corrected. “I do not know his mind.” He touched damp noses with Zojeki, a spry man with mist-grey fur that darkened in an intricate mottled pattern on his angular face. Mechebe was easily twice the grey’s weight and width, for all that he was only two feet taller at the withers. Where Mechebe was muscular, Zojeki was lean; where Mechebe was dense, Zojeki was compact; where Mechebe was strong, Zojeki was amazingly swift.
They made a decidedly odd pair.
“Ssst.” Zojeki tossed his narrow muzzle dismissively as another series of hoots echoed through the tall-treed forest. “We are called – stop worrying and start walking.”
Mechebe flicked an ear in slight annoyance, but he began pacing away from his dozing nest, a few stubborn leaf-bits drifting down from his belly. “You think he will welcome them?” he asked his friend, ears falling to an uncertain angle.
Zojeki made a noncommittal noise, then nosed a stray twig from the black’s long beard. They walked with barely an inch between their shoulders and hips. “Don’t know. Can’t know, either. Quit trying to predict.”
Mechebe felt his head sink lower, the arch of his long neck becoming more pronounced. “Neserre is wise,” he murmured in his deep, growling voice. “If he sends them away, it is because they are dangerous. I will have been wrong about them.”
The grey snorted, keeping pace with the longer-legged man easily. “You have been bare-chested to the strangers for a score of days now. You haven’t had an escort for two scores. How dangerous can they be, if they didn’t take such an opportunity to kill you?”
Mechebe’s ears fell to his head, softer than the snow that would soon arrive. “They can be very dangerous,” he answered quietly. “They choose not to be. They can call fire–”
“Mechebe!” hailed a third voice, and both men glanced over to see another packmate winding a path between the straight, rough-barked trunks that stretched so far skyward. “Is time! Hope for good news!” The black-furred woman gave them a kind smile, fangs hidden and eyes half-lidded.
“Hoping,” Mechebe replied, voice betraying his uncertainty. He could hear other people walking now, fallen leaves breaking to tree-dust beneath so many paws; the pack congregated on Neserre’s summons to hear what the verdict on these strangers would be. Mechebe and Zojeki were silent as they entered the clearing around the shattered rocky outcropping that served as a speaking place. Around them, their packmates gathered and sat, tails curling around haunches, ears at various angles of anticipation and alertness, eyes brilliant in the fading light of late afternoon. Some fifty men, women, and children formed an attentive crescent, all facing the speaking rock, all waiting.
Neserre sat crouched upon the rock’s craggy crown, a scarred man with glossy rust-red fur and a sleek body that bore his age well. Unlike most of the pack, he was in his terokka skin, the body-shape that allowed him to walk on two legs instead of four and use his forepaws as hands; unlike none of the others, he was dressed in hardened leather armor whose decorative feathers and claws had mostly fallen off, severed tails and ears worn nearly furless from age and use. The crude stone-tipped spear in his grasp was still stained ruddy from yesterday’s kill; Neserre was no indolent king.
Once silence fell and bodies stilled, Neserre pushed himself to stand, leaning just slightly on his spear. “I have spoken to all of you,” he said slowly, voice cracking with weather and experience. “I have heard your thoughts, and weighed them with my own. I have especially listened to Mechebe, who learned the strangers’ language to understand their intents – who, among all of us, became the very closest to these creatures from the sky.” He met Mechebe’s gaze for a moment, a compassionate look in his eyes, though no smile softened his countenance.
The red-furred man continued, voice strengthening. “I have considered for hours on end what this thing might mean for our pack, and the packs and clans who are our neighbors.” He swept his eyes across his packmates, hunters of each of four ethnicities, of every age. His people. He took a breath. “And I have decided to send the strangers away.”
A heartbeat of surprised silence was shattered by a rush of conversation, voices speaking over each other – some in protest, some in approval, but most in confusion. Many had guessed what Neserre would choose, and almost as many had guessed wrongly. Neserre stamped the butt of his spear on the rock, and the noise quieted obligingly. “I know! I know,” he said again, more softly. “I know. I am surrendering a great opportunity.” His face hardened, ears stiffening. “But I am charged with protecting this pack as much as guiding it, and I see more danger than benefit to come from these creatures and their sky-beast. I–”
“They’re no danger to us!” a sharp voice cried, cutting him off. Zojeki sprang to his paws and slid from corata skin to terokka, four legs to two, and stood with his spine nearly vertical. His tail lashed as growls for his rudeness rumbled from his packmates. “They are harmless, Neserre. No fur, no claws, no fangs–”
“They have weapons!” shouted a far deeper voice, a brown-furred youth who stood defiantly, as tall as Zojeki and twice as broad. “They have tools, better than ours, even better than the tools of our neighbors who shape metal. We cannot cut those metal skins they wear–”
“And their bright magic– I have seen them start fires from air, without tree-flesh to burn,” added another packmate loudly, sitting up. “They could light fires to us.”
Mechebe made a low whine in his throat, ears pressed to his head in unhappiness; he stood, hesitant, and was as tall as Zojeki for all that he was in four legs and the grey on two. “They are peaceful,” he exclaimed after a split second, his voice projecting well over the rising snarl of overlapping conversation. “They heal with their magic. They–”
“ENOUGH!” roared Neserre, a screaming edge to his voice instantly silencing the pack. His tail lashed behind his knees, and he held himself rigidly tall until everyone had sat again; he stared those few who remained in terokka skin down until they slipped back into corata skin. Zojeki was the last to settle to all fours, his hackles half-bristling but his ears splayed deferentially.
Neserre looked last of all to Mechebe, face softening slightly. “I understand how this hurts you, my friend,” he said, “but you must abide by this decision. I need you to return to the strangers and tell them that we wish them no ill, that we wish them to leave, that we wish them to never return. Will you do this for us?”
The black shrank from the piercing gaze, spine curling tightly. “Yes,” he exhaled, head falling in defeat. He would not, could not, go against a direct request from Neserre. Next to him, Zojeki rasped a growl in his throat, only quieting when Mechebe nudged the grey’s ribs with the back of his forepaw.
“Thank you.” Neserre lifted his gaze to the rest of the pack and lifted his voice again. “Do not let this be a divisor among us. Go and be well today. The strangers will be gone from our lands soon.”
Had Neserre not bid them be peaceful with each other, some of the pack would have confronted Zojeki about his interruption; as it was, several sent him pale-toothed looks as the gathered men and women began dispersing into the forest again. Zojeki returned the hostile grimaces one for one, ears flared vertical again and tail writhing behind him. Mechebe put a hind paw on it so that only the tip could twitch; he didn’t move until almost everyone had gone.
Neserre gripped his spear in his long jaws and sank into his corata skin, the better to leap down from the three-man-high speaking rock; he landed with creditable grace for his age and gave Mechebe a solemn look. The black dropped his head but didn’t break his gaze, so the red huffed approvingly and padded off smoothly, muscles rippling beneath his sleek pelt.
It took more minutes before the clearing was empty but for the grey and the black. Zojeki kicked Mechebe’s calming paw from his tail, stood, and shook off, sneezing thrice. “Are you really going to tell the strangers to go away?” he asked in a hushed, scornful voice, pale eyes flicking to his friend.
Mechebe was the very picture of despondence, curled into himself with low ears and wide eyes. Zojeki nearly recoiled. “I can’t not,” the bigger man murmured, staring at a point on the still-grassy earth near his paws.
“I hate your sad eyes,” the grey snapped. He studied the motionless black for a moment, then stuffed his snout into the soft undercurve between Mechebe’s jaws and throat, breathing in all the delicate scents that comprise person and man and packmate and unhappy. He drew back with a snort. “Let’s go for a walk before I say something else you’ll regret.”
Mechebe unfurled and stood, the blossoming of an impossibly shaggy shadow, but his head and tail stayed almost painfully low. “Be at peace,” he murmured, tone belying his words. “You’ll do no good.”
Zojeki chattered his teeth together in amusement. “I never do any good,” he retorted. The stillness of the evening was invasive, reaching cool fingers into the atmosphere of disappointment and frustration that surrounded the pair. He hissed at the darkening sky, then began walking. Mechebe kept pace without thinking, taking two steps for every three of Zojeki’s.
They walked in silence, no longer separated by any space, Mechebe’s long fur brushing against Zojeki’s flank with each stride. Like all men and women who escaped the agonizing uncertainty of adolescence, they communicated by scent more than sight, and sight more than words, but by touch most of all – and the texture of hide against hide was a comfort, a balm to Zojeki’s temper and a reassurance to Mechebe’s distress.
By the time they neared the edge of the wide territory that Neserre’s people called home, Mechebe had marshalled his thoughts and logicked his emotions into neater boxes. “Where are we going?” he asked Zojeki, though he knew every step of the path they walked – he had come this way scores of times in the past eight seasons.
“We’re going to talk to your strangers,” the little grey answered, “and tell them that we need more time to convince Neserre and the pack to let them st–”
“No,” Mechebe snapped, drawing a startled look from his friend. “I will not go against Neserre in this. If the strangers stay, he may take it as a move of aggression. He may attack.”
“Neserre is not so hasty,” Zojeki said dismissively. “He would send you to them more times to see why they were slow. You could bring back messages of earnest peace, cooperation, all that.”
Mechebe bared his teeth, his muzzle loose, an expression of disapproval but not overt hostility. “No, Zojeki. I tried, and I failed. Let it go.”
“Sad eyes again. You didn’t fail! No one failed,” the grey added more softly, green eyes somber for a moment. “Neserre is doing what he thinks best. He is… a good leader. But he doesn’t understand the strangers like you do. If you can get more time, talk more–”
“Scratch it, Zo!” The brief outburst sent a handful of nearby lizards scurrying into holes in tree trunks. Mechebe stared his friend down, ears lifting briefly. “I told him everything I know, everything I think I know, everything I hope. He listened. He decided. End of hunt! Let it go.”
Zojeki placed himself in opposition to the bigger man, face to face and no longer flanking, and stared up the two-foot height difference. His thin fur rose in bristles along his sharply-defined shoulders and hips and his tail lashed behind him, the barbed tip making a practiced arc in the air behind his haunches. “Why don’t you ever fight for what matters most to you?” he demanded with a snarl.
Mechebe drew breath to respond heatedly, then deflated himself with a long sigh. “Because,” he murmured, “I wouldn’t win. Neserre is thrice my age and ten times as wise. If he says the strangers are dangerous… maybe he sees something I missed.”
Zojeki stared the black down for a long moment, then spun on a paw and lunged into a headlong sprint down the unseen trail, the fleetest man in the pack even in tangled woodlands. He vanished between the tall trees in two heartbeats, the sound of his paws on the crackling earth silence within four.
“–Zo!” Mechebe bellowed after him, the leaves trembling with his volume. When no response came and the grey did not return, the shaggy black pushed himself into a gallop, ducking low branches and leaping arching roots. He knew where Zojeki was going, and he could only hope his friend wouldn’t do something foolhardy before he, too, reached the strangers’ den.
Image Credit: The New Cafe (Racer) Society.