Brahman Tolmure grinned at his young pupils.
“Okay, enough learning for today, the weather is nice, you kids should go play,” he said, holding back the flap, the children briefly glanced at the sunlit grassland.
“Please Brahman, just one more story,” little Leucoi Yutha pleaded, the others nodded in agreement.
Umma, Leucoi’s elder sister, added her voice to the plea, “Yes, please Brahman Tolmure; please tell another story.”
“No, enough stories and lessons learnt today, you should go outside and play games that teach your bodies.”
“But, Brahman, it will be raining soon enough, there will be no time to play,” Leucoi added.
“Rain?” Tolmure turned and looked at the sunny weather, “I don’t see any—” The scent hit him, the soft tangs of moist dust on the wind, the scents of wet grasses and the subtle hints of wet rock. “Ah, but I smell it now too, very well, one more story.” He dropped the flap as the first dark spots of fat raindrops darkened the earth beyond.
The inside of the tent grew tense as the children grew silent in anticipation of the story. The soft remains of the logs on the fire settled, casting dancing sparks upward in a swirl of light. Brahman Tolmure looked at the rapt faces watching the sparks rise with the smoke.
“Careful children; watching the flame weakens the Lea and there are things that live beneath that everyone should fear.”
The children turned and stared as raptly at their teacher as they had the flame.
“Is that true?” Umma asked, her eyes flitting in fear toward the glowing embers once more.
“True as the Mother’s love,” Tolmure said. “Let me explain with a story:
“This story happened five years ago, during what should have been a warm spring. We had migrated to a world that was entering spring; we had arrived in a warm spring shower, to beautiful green forests and crystal clear mountain lakes. It seemed a beautiful land, the trees were rich with soul-blossom, and we were sure that there would be plenty of soul-fruit for the swollen bellies of the expectant mothers. Yes, some of you little ones were growing in your mothers.
“We don’t know why, there was much speculation, but suddenly the weather turned. It began to snow.
“At first, we were all quick to brush it off, the mountains were high and the lakes were cool, the snow would pass, but days of snow turned to weeks, and the lakes refroze. Soon the streams froze too and, let me tell you, things looked very bleak. We could have migrated away, but with the weather so bad, we would have almost certainly have walked back a season, and swollen bellies wouldn’t wait. So the decision was made that the whole Field would walk an elk path toward the summer-fire in the south.
“Only someone wouldn’t wait. One of you little ones, decided that he couldn’t wait for us to reach warmer lands, he decided that he must be born in snow and ice, born in the sudden earth-winter that stole the water-spring. So, his mother couldn’t walk away with the others, and when he was born, the baby wouldn’t be able to walk any Lea path until he was weaned — apart from migratory roads, of course.
“The Elders had a moot, and decided that all of the Brahman would be sent, far and wide, deep into our past lives and through the Lea to try and find any knowledge of soul-fruit that would be ripe in time for the child’s weaning. All the Brahman left, scattering back along our personal histories, looking for a sign. I fell myself, back through my life, and then the life of my travelling soul. The tree that my own soul had come from was not one of the trees tended by our people, it was a wild Soul-Tree, far away from our migratory paths. I could find that tree only by reliving the last days of that life I had once lived. Since the Brahman who had found that tree had only recently passed from our lives to rest in the ground, his memories could not be used to find the tree again.
“Since only I stood any chance of finding a soul-fruit before the child was ready to wean, I was sent at once to seek the tree.”
The Brahman pauses, looking at the children, and one in particular, before he goes on.
“I walked a long way to the east, passing through dangerous territories. Once off the mountains in the low, snowbound steppe, I saw signs of the Wild-Hunt. This made me wary and I was cautious as I approached the coastline. It was good that I was careful, because I travelled slowly I was able to spot the paw prints in the snow, to avoid the patrols and cover my tracks behind me. When I reached the coast, and could see the ocean, I could also see the camp smoke of a five hundred strong hunting pack. Hundreds of tents pitched on the beach, they were surviving the harsh weather from the warmth of the ocean and the fish they netted daily. I was effectively trapped by them.
“For two days I crept about, trying to find a path past them. The days were cold, the nights colder, and I had little food, but some salty grasses and a few pieces of dried fruit I carried with me. I tried to sleep, nesting in the long grasses, covered in snow, but it was hard to sleep knowing that the Wild-Hunt were close enough to smell. Two days… Can you imagine?
“That second night, I was determined to slip past the sentries and make it to the sea. I rested, watching the sentries as they cooked their foul-smelling fish meal. My eyes grew tired, staring at the fire’s glow, just like you all were. Then it happened.
“The Lea was weak from me watching, and wishing to distract the Wild-Hunt away from my position, to give me a chance for breaking for the shoreline. There are things that live beneath the Lea, they are not beings, not spirits, less than anything that exists, but they are hungry. Hungry for form, hungry for existence, and my aimless wishing into the fire was heard. I didn’t intend it, and live in fear that such things are possible. For a moment, I imagined a head and arms in the flame, and that was all it took.
“The fire roared high, as a beast made of living flame exploded up from the logs and firewood. It reached across grabbing one of the lookouts by the leg, and his flesh seared instantly. His screams alerted the whole cliff, and the Hunters came running from all around.
“I heard one voice call out, ‘Where one comes, others may follow!’ and so they did.
“Flaming Dæmons stepped free of the summoning fire and the weakened Lea there. I was paralysed with indecision at that moment. One part of me called to flee, to run back away from this unleashed Hell, another part told me that as a Brahman my duty was to undo the damage I had wrought here. That the Dæmons were my responsibility and no matter the cost to me, I should help the Wild-Hunt to defeat this incursion, but another part of me reminded me that whilst I had responsibilities to fix this, I had greater responsibilities to that mother and to that child.
“I ran, but not home, I took advantage of the confusion, the fires and the dancing shadows. Legs pumping hard, I broke across the cliff-top and ran down past another of the lookout fires, now deserted, running down the sandy trail, down onto the broken sand, and straight into the camp of the Wild-Hunt.”
Tolmure paused again, looking around the room, some of the smaller children scared by the details, the larger ones hanging on every word.
“What happened? Did they catch you?” Umma Yutha asked.
“Did they eat you?” Leucoi grinned.
“Don’t be silly, Leucoi. If they had eaten him he wouldn’t be here, he’d be one of them,” said the boy next to Leucoi.
“No Scardda, if they’d eaten me, then one of them would remember me, and if they died and a tree grew, one of you could eat the tree and you’d remember me too. For me to become one of them, I would have to taste their blood. I did not. They were so agitated by the fire-dæmons on the cliff that they ignored me completely. I literally ran past twenty of the Wild-Hunt, and only one of them stepped to block my way. Her head was like a great jungle cat, and she blocked my way with a huge, clawed paw held out.
“‘What is happening?’ she asked, her eyes narrow as she stared past me.
“I made my voice deep, and growling and told her, adding that the lookouts needed help, and water to dowse the fires. With that I ran around her as though headed for a tent, not getting close enough to let her see me clearly, or catch my scent. I grabbed a bucket and carried it running for the ocean.
“I ran for a green path, one of the few I could sense on that wide beach. I heard a shout go up behind me: my scent had been found. Howls and horns of the Wild-Hunt, I hope none of you are ever on your own when you hear them. At that moment I was the most afraid I had ever been in my life. Only my past-lives had known a greater fear, and for them, the nightmare came after they had first heard the baying of the Wild-Hunt.
“I didn’t know what to do, the path called me forward into the water, but the Hunters called a part of me back. At that moment I had doubt, as well as fear. The baby that lay nestled in a tent so far away, could I curse him with the same soul I knew? There is great darkness on the wheel-of-life and my soul has tasted most of it, could I curse another to know those tastes? Could I? Should I? I didn’t know, and without an answer I stood in the shallow waves, slowly freezing.
“The baying of the Wild-Hunt grew louder behind me, but I did not turn and look at them: I was reaching forward through the Lea trying to find a green path. Only one, did I find and, throwing the bucket aside, I dived headlong into the waves, and onto the turtle path.
“I slid into deep water, diving deep and driving hard with my flippers, pulled away from the beach and the Hunt. They chased me, of course, that is their nature, and whatever they may be, they are always as true to their nature as we are to ours. Flashing tails twitched the Lea behind me, fast moving Tiger sharks flitting along through the shallows, they quartered the reef seeking my scent. I swam deep, but suddenly there was a pulse of movement, the Lea shaking behind me: they had my scent, and I thought, with that, I was doomed.
“Panic is no friend to the hunted, it wipes the mind clear of plans and I was nearly lost then. My mind blank, I followed the guide spirit deep, diving away from the shore, and the sharks above me. Only when I realised we were going very deep, and the Lea was darkening did I remember my destination. I tried to keep my mind focused, but it was hard with the ripples and pulses of pursuit so close behind me.”
The children had gone quiet, listening to the story with intense concentration.
“Remember the destination, it will save your life, one day,” Brahman Tolmure told them directly.
“We will,” several promised softly back.
“I will spare you the worst details of that chase. They nearly got me twice in open water as the guide lead me to the surface to breath, but each time panic threw me from the path for a moment, and I caused the guide to dive deep, for the dark safety below, before remembering the path once again. Each time the hunters lost me, before they found my scent once more, I pulled a little ahead.
“I arrived at a shallow reef and pulled my shell up out of the waves and down into the calm lagoon within. The sharks massed beyond the reef, unable to complete their path into the lagoon. I shifted free of the water, hauling my exhausted body from the Lea and collapsed on the beach.
“I don’t think I could have lain their too long, though, as when I recovered, the tide was only just washing the top of the reef, and the Lea was frothing with the pressure from the hunter’s desperate to complete their path and come for me. I got up and, without entering the Lea, ran.
“This was a red sand land, rich, but arid soil, deep rooted plants. I grabbed leaves and fruit from the bushes and shrub as I ran, chewing on the dry leaves, and sucking down the rich, fruit juices. I found a long migratory path that headed the right way, but I chose to ignore it, instead choosing a shorter lizard path, and dropped heavily into it. The guide regarded me with a slowly chewing jaw, as I felt the reptilian coolness wash the panic and fatigue from my frame. For an age we regarded each other, and then suddenly the spirit turned and dashed into the scrub. With a flick of long claws on the soft sand, I ran after.
“I ran on, under the dark blue sky, keeping to the shadows of the trees, away from the hot sun. Somewhere behind me I felt the twitch of the Lea as the sharks arriving physically in the lagoon, before the Hunters stepped free and followed.
“It was time, using the cover of their Lea activity I changed path, and destination. Warm blood, flooded my heart and mind once more as I rose off that quick, little lizard path and onto the long, bounding Boomer path. I flashed through the scrubland, the huge leaps of the spirit guide leading me quickly through the shore scrub into the more dense forests beyond.
“It was mid-morning when the spirit stopped and we drank, and ate, before collapsing to rest. We slept for a few hours through the middle of the day. The guide spirit woke me by standing up once more in the late afternoon, and we were off again, racing in languid bounds through the forest.
“The darkness of that night didn’t slow us down, and I chased the Boomer spirit through thick forests until the trees began to open up into light grasslands again. Predator scents hung in the night air, snakes, monitors, and a fanged marsupial I’ve never seen, but smelled terrible. We risked sleep in the dead of night, nesting together in the long grass, and taking turns to watch. More spirits joined us, and when we left that camp we were a mob of six, flying from the dawn’s light deeper into the scrubland of the interior. Though I was careful to keep track of my guide, and follow only his path.
“We slept again, through the heat of the day, beneath the broad shadow of Eucalyptus trees. The soft-furred, and sharp-clawed denizens there regarded us with narcoleptic stares, but did not interrupt their chewing. I ate with the rest, the red flowered grasses tasted good, and were filling after our long run. Then we heard them. The baying howls filtered through to our path as strange yelps and squeals in the distance. Long Boomer ears turned and focused, and all at once we were away once again, fleeing through the bush and across the arid soil.
“On we fled, with the sounds of pursuit trailing behind. We set a languid pace, long flying leaps through the evening sky, which was turning the same red as the sandstone rocks that erupted in low hills ahead. The Lea there was altered somehow, but I had no clue then what it meant, had I known, I would have left that path at once and slipped to another — so it was probably well that I did not.
“We rested in the dead of night, nervous, and exhausted, I ate and drank, but could not bring myself to sleep. Though the guide and the others took their turns in watching, I could not relax. Distant whistles and yells, told me I was pursued, and the spirits, while they would be as eaten as I, they would return the next time the path was walked, as though nothing had happened, where I would be gone, nothing more than a predator’s memory.
“When the Boomers woke, we were off once more, I was weary, but fear drove me on. The baying was close when we started, but soon fell away behind. At least that’s what we heard, and we scented nothing on the wind. Of course, I now know that many hunting species are very deceptive and the Wild-Hunt, with a few exceptions are the most devious and deceptive of predators there are.
“We had slipped between high canyons of layered red rock, and were fleeing in huge bounds along the ancient river bed that had cut the red rocks so long ago. The Lea had a very different feel now, and I thought we were safe, even relaxing slightly into the run, as weariness made my hops shorter and lower. To any predator watching I must have looked very inviting, weary and inexperienced I would look quite tasty to those who prey on our kind.
“So far did I fall behind, though that I almost lost sight of my guide, and that panicked me. It would be all too easy for me to use ancient instincts that lay latent in my soul, instincts that would have turned me into one of the Hunters all too easily. I pressed forward, suddenly afraid and concerned about regaining sight of the lead Boomer, grateful I had not lost sight of the others, and that the territory was tight, contained, easy hunting. I froze, slipping free of the Lea in that moment. I smoothed and sealed the quiet gate I had exited from, just in time. As I ran suddenly to the side, and threw myself into cover, I felt the Hunters pass beyond me in the Lea, hot in pursuit of the guide. They ran ahead of me into that narrow territory and I knew the Boomer ahead had changed, no longer guided by my desires, he was now running away, the marsupial wolves and cats flitting along after him.
“Carefully I climbed the sandstone cliff, easing myself up from that ancient riverbed, onto the ancient banks above. Scrub trees and bushes clung here and there to the red, crumbling rock, and so did I. I worked my way along the cliff edge, following the riverbed below. I don’t know why I did it, fear or curiosity could both be blamed, I guess. I needed to know, to see what happened. Besides I thought, when the hunters had finished on the guides they would be quick to realise I was not there, and would have to double back, anything I did to confuse the trail would buy me extra time, and for now if I steered clear of the Lea they would not detect me easily.
“Then the most extraordinary thing occurred, and I realised that a great many instincts deep in my soul had caused me to query the wisdom of chasing into that killing ground after the guide. As I watched, hunters began to appear from deep in the Lea. Exploding out individual henges about them, rather than arriving through a leader’s gate. This was odd. With shock, I realised I could smell blood in the air, and noticed some of them were wounded.”
“What had happened to them? Brahman?” Umma Yutha asked in a choked whisper.
“I must confess, for a moment, I had no idea, but then as the last of the hunters appeared I knew, for he was held in the teeth of a huge Monitor lizard, over twenty feet long. She, for it was a female, snapped her head up and the limply dangling hunter disappeared into her throat, gone without even a chew, terrifying. I clamped my jaws shut, watching in horror as the pack faced off towards the huge lizard. Even as I watched, they were shifting, walking onto her path, becoming giant monitors themselves, but they were slow. She had already hissed, spitting a nasty mix of bacteria, saliva and venom into the dingo eyes of those too slow to follow.
“Even those who shifted immediately fared little better, her reptilian form blurred, becoming covered here and there with long, thin spines, like those from a porcupine. Even that was not enough, as I watched the thick lizard tail suddenly altering to become an enormous scorpion stinger. Monstrous in her new chimerical form she snapped, clawed and stamped about her. She raked brown-black corruption from out of the Lea and flung it aggressively at the gathering hunters. Cutting the pack of hunters down with teeth, paws and venom, she filled the riverbed with whimpering, terrified invalids, before slipping herself into her normal form.
“She was beautiful to look at, but I felt only horror as I watched her finish with them. Having eaten one, she bound the others. Some still alive, she then pushed them into the Lea. Others she immediately killed, hanging them to allow the blood to spew from their open necks upon the sandy soil of that red riverbed. I don’t think I moved for hours. Frozen in time and space as I watched her store provisions, cooking and slicing, jarring and sealing, I am sure she knew I was there, for twice I felt her look directly at me, but she did not move to attack, and eventually her preparations complete, she slipped silently into the Lea once more. Finally I felt the spell had broken and slipped away, walking for a day or more to the north before I risked slipping into the Lea once again. The paths to the south crawled with Vermis now, so I moved slowly, carefully hunting about until I found the path I needed. It was a different, but similar, species to the first, bigger and redder furred. The guide was an old female, and she regarded me with a cool glance before she began leading me on.
“Four days I bounded along behind her, matching her leaps, sleeping when she slept, eating when she ate. On the fourth day, to my surprise, she spoke to me.
“‘Why do you seek your own soul tree?” she asked me.
“I thought spirits couldn’t speak,” one of the children said.
“Oh, they can all speak, but most people can’t listen,” little Leucoi answered swiftly. Drawing a sharp gaze from one or two of the adults.
“Leucoi is right, in part. All spirits can communicate, but they rarely choose to do so in words, although they all speak our tongues,” Brahman Tolmure added, before he continued with the story. “I said that I sought soul-fruit for a mother of my field, desperation drove me to seek my own soul-fruit as I would rather curse the child to share my own travelling soul than be cursed to never walk the Lea.”
“The old doe nodded sagely, ‘I know the soul-tree you speak of, and know the sadness of that soul. You are brave, Tolmure Rostha, brave to carry that weight, brave to show no fear as you watched the Broccen butcher and kill. You are great, but you prepare the way for another,’ she told me, ‘and that gives you greater power than you know. The Wild-Hunt cannot catch you, the Broccen would protect you, even Lord Vermis may turn a blind eye to you this hour, for so has Dai-Nubathor spoken.’
“She pointed across the desert at the dark blue lines of mountains on the horizon. ‘There you will find your soul-tree,’ I can take you no closer, as this is the edge of my territory and I dare not risk that as well,’ and with those words she dropped her form, becoming the beautiful Broccen female I had watched in horror. She graced me with a smile, and a swish of hip and tail, before she was gone, away on a path I could not see, let alone follow.
“I held form and bounded across the desert. I was not in Lea, but held my animal form to bound across the real desert.”
“Ancient memories stirred deep within me once more, I recognized a hill shape here, a huge tree near a rock. Each landmark guiding me to another, but it was a long process, and there was little to eat and nothing to drink. I confess, I nearly died in that desert, so arid, and so little to eat, I felt drained and exhausted by everything I had experienced. Until finally, having wound my way up the mountain, near a dry creek bed I found it. It was a squat ugly thing, heavy with thick roots that pierced, not just the ground, but also an ancient, horned skull and twisted gnarled branches that hung heavy with dark nuts. Dark memories haunted its branches and leaves, and the whole tree had an air of one kneeling in penance. So tired was I that I fell to sleep beneath the dark shadows of that soul-tree.
“Anyway, enough — the sun is shining again, the rains have stopped for today. Run along and play now,” Brahman Tolmure chased the children from his tent into the sunlight. Only one of them lingered, and Tolmure regarded the small form with a suspicious eye, “What is it Leucoi?”
“It was a good story, Brahman, but…” the child began.
“But what Leucoi?”
“I think something worse happened on the way back,” the child blinked up at him.
“Worse? What makes you say that?” Tolmure asked, his heckles rising softly with mild distress at several memories he could never share with children.
“Well, the great mother had planned for you to take that soul, and bring it back. Surely those who hate her, planned something bad to stop you, didn’t they?” his young face turning hard for an instant, reflecting dark memories from a terrible past-life.
A past-life the young calf shared with a Brahman who had eaten nuts from that tree, so hungry was he that he risked everything for that food; and was almost overwhelmed by that past-life being reborn within him. Only his love and duty for his Field were strong enough to subdue that past-life and allowed him to pluck another nut that he had carried starving and thirst maddened back across a desert. A Brahman who had nearly killed and drank blood to slake his thirst because of ancient instincts too strongly rekindled; and would have done had he not been stopped. A Brahman who only held onto any sanity, because on that fourth night when he was no longer sure who he was, he had made it back to that Broccen’s territory, and she did not kill him. She had wetted his mouth with water trickled from her own pretty lips. She had fed him grains, and fruits, and held him, and called his name, while he screamed and raged in the night unsure who he should be. She who had soothed his soul and mind with her ministrations, touch and love; she who had never let him know her name.
He remembered too the way she had lead him through the deep Lea to the edge of her territory once more, leading him clear to a Black Swan path that soared away across the ocean. He remembered the Dæmons that stalked him and her in that dark territory, eager to claim the prize they felt close, that their master had sent them to intercept. She had hidden them both that night, and when he had flown away, he had tried not to think of her, left behind him on that beach, as they closed in. How she had fought, beautiful and terrible against them, to protect him and give him time to escape?
“No Leucoi, nothing bad at all happened on the way back,” he lied to the small child and sent him off to play.
Find out what happens to Leucoi when he grows up in An0ma1y (The Paradox War)