"Tristan, Taylor – you'll be sleeping out here tonight," the Lady said, "Make yourselves comfortable by the fire. Gordon will bring you enough wood to keep it going through the night."
The rabbit grunted in an un-friendly way and left to get more logs from the pile.
"We're... just going to sleep out here in the open?" Taylor asked uneasily.
"Exactly. What were you imagining your arrangements would be, if you hadn't found us?"
"Oh... well... I guess I hadn't thought about it, much..."
"I daresay. Neither had your wolf partner. So now you will get to see what you were in for. You wouldn't have even had a fire! Honestly – you were prepared to live like animals, weren't you..."
"We are animals!" Tristan said, incensed, "I'm a wolf! He's a sheep!"
"So you say. You will get a taste of that tonight. And I imagine rather more tomorrow. You will learn." With that, the Lady went into her shack and shut the door. Tristan and Taylor looked at each other – now what? After a short while, they could hear Gordon approaching.
"Gordon? Where do you sleep?" Taylor asked.
"Got my own shack, little ways behind the Lady's. Workshop next to it. And don't be borrowing any of my stuff, either – it may look like a tornado hit it, but I know where every little damn thing is. You want something – you ask."
"What kind of stuff do you have that we'd want to borrow?" Tristan wondered.
"Considering that you didn't bring anything with you, wolf-boy – I imagine you'll want to borrow everything. And I'll lend it to ya, sure – just return it better'n I lent it, is all."
"My name is Tristan, idiot bunny-man."
"Whatever. I don't hold with no predators – I'll tell ya that right now. The Lady thinks it'll be handy having a wolf, but if it were up to me... Well, anyway, might as make yourself useful, long as you're gonna be here. When you gotta pee, you mark your territory fifty strides in every direction. See if you can do it tonight. Taylor – you use the out-house. And I mean every time – I need all the urine I can get. You'll see the pee-pot in there. Use it."
"You need... pee? Why?"
"Oh – you'll be finding out, Taylor," the rabbit smiled meanly, "No doubt in my mind. Soon's your boyfriend there makes a decent-sized kill, you'll find out. Now enough questions – we get up early 'round here. G'nite."
"G'nite, Gordon," Taylor said. Tristan didn't say anything.
The night was... rough. The ground was lumpy, hard, and cold, even if it was summer. There were strange noises. Bugs crawled on them. Taylor had an especially hard time of it, being so afraid of what might be out there in the dark, so Tristan spooned him - which made the lamb feel a little safer, anyway. All in all, the night was horrible. They each got less than three hours of actual sleep before Gordon came down to wake them up.
"Wakey wakey, love-birds! Have a good night? I see ya let the fire go out..."
"That'll be enough of that, bunny-man," the Lady said, stepping down from her porch steps, "You know, Gordon – there is a reason I call you 'idiot'. Go and get the things you'll need to help build their shelter. I'll leave that to you. One day will be enough?"
"I imagine. We'll give 'em half-walls, a floor, and tent the rest of it. A day should do it."
"Then off with you. I'll send Tristan to help you in a bit – I want to talk to the boys, first."
The rabbit bowed slightly and said, "Ma'am", and he was off. The Lady turned her attention to the bleary-eyed pair, still yawning and stretching themselves.
"Well, Tristan, Taylor. Your first night out of Town, was it? How did you sleep?" She began stacking more wood on the smoldering coals.
"Barely at all" Tristan said, "Gah! My tongue hurts again..."
"We'll see to that later. You know – an animal-wolf would have found that place by the fire extremely comfortable – except for its fear of the flames. Are you afraid of flames, Tristan?"
"Of course not. I'm not an animal."
"That's not what you said last night... but no, you are not. Remember that. And Taylor? You look like you fared no better..."
The lamb stretched yet again, trying to answer at the same time, "No... it... was... (yawn)... awful... And my back hurts. And my arm's all pins-and-needles."
"Taylor," she said, just as the wood started smoking, "I won't lie to you – you are too young to safely make this journey. We will-"
"I'll take care of him," Tristan said defensively, "You said I'd come in handy, so – well, we come as a pair."
The Lady stood up slowly, "I can see that, Tristan. If you had not interrupted me – I was about to say that we will all do what we can. It will still be dangerous for him. You will not be able to watch him constantly – none of us will. There will be times when he will be on his own. Are you ready for that, Taylor?"
"Uhm..." he hesitated, glancing at the wolf for support. Tristan nodded at him, and Taylor said somewhat uneasily, "... I guess so..."
"No. You are not. But after today – you'll be better prepared than you are now. And even more so tomorrow. Perhaps by the time we leave, then you will be ready for that. We will see – personally, I think you can do it. Now then. Let us take care of your wolf's tongue, and we'll see what's to eat. Oh – Tristan – you've never eaten anything but meat, I suppose..."
"Uh, no, ma'am, I haven't."
"Well – then this will be a new experience for you. I imagine you won't like it – god knows it took me a long time before I could stomach meat – but it will feed you, nonetheless. The pots are stored at the south side of my house, Tristan. Fetch the biggest one you find there. Taylor – get this fire going. I shall return shortly."
She disappeared back into her shack.
"Well... I guess we have jobs to do already, Tay..." the wolf said.
"Yeah. Uhm..." Taylor looked up at him with a little fear in his eyes. This would be the first time Tristan would be out of his sight since they'd left Town, and even if they'd spent the night here, the Lady's camp was still a 'strange place' to the lamb. "Tris? You don't think I'm... too little, do you? You think I'll be ready by the time we leave? I'll be twelve by then..."
Tristan squatted down on his heels to look the boy level, "Taylor – she doesn't know you, is all. You'll be fine. Just listen to her, and me, and... Gordon too, I guess... and you'll be okay. And... Tay?"
Tristan kissed him, full on the mouth, letting his tongue stay behind a little when he pulled his muzzle away from Taylor's – even though it hurt incredibly to do so. "Good morning."
"Gah! What is that taste? That stuff she put on your tongue yesterday? Ick!"
"The fire, Tay... see to the fire. I'll be right back."
"Pfft! Ptooey!" Taylor said, spitting, "Tastes like burnt hair!"
Breakfast was some sort of grain and mashed root gruel, as far as Tristan could tell. It certainly didn't look appetizing – gray and granular, lumpy as well. But it didn't taste too bad. He was rather surprised – the only non-meat thing he'd ever tasted before was Medicine-Grass – which was almost tasteless. This stuff... well, he could get used to it. The Lady was surprised, too.
"Really? You like it?"
"Yeah... yeah, I kinna do. Weird, huh? You said you eat meat? Uh... can I ask why a goat would want to do that?"
"Meat is a very compact form of nutrition, Tristan – a little bit goes a long way. It would be impossible to cross the Desert if we had to carry vegetation to eat. By the way – as our resident Predator, you're going to be taking over the position of Hunter from Gordon. Get him to show you how."
"Show me how?" Tristan laughed, "A rabbit is going to show a wolf how to hunt?"
She only looked at him amusedly, "You have a lot to learn, young wolf. Now – take this bowl of gruel to Gordon – he'll be down that path there," she pointed, "chopping down trees, I imagine. Tell him you're to be the new Hunter. And Tristan... bunny-man doesn't like predators. DO try to keep your cool. This isn't going to be easy for you - or him."
"I think I know how to handle a rabbit. Thanks for the breakfast, uh... do you have a name?" he asked.
"My name is ma'am. Or Lady. Take your pick."
"Ah. Well – thanks for breakfast, ma'am. Taylor! Let's-"
"Taylor will be staying with me. His education is to begin while you and Gordon build your house."
Tristan glanced at Taylor nervously, and the lamb looked back with equal nervousness, but said, "I'll be okay, Tris..."
"Well... I guess. I just don't like... What if a bear comes along or-"
"How's your tongue feel now, Tristan?" the Lady asked, "And your nose? Can you breathe through it yet?"
Tristan looked at the Old Goat slyly. "Point taken. See ya later, Tay. Ma'am..."
After he'd left – the Lady noticed that the lamb watched the wolf until he was entirely out of sight, and even a little beyond – she said, "Taylor – clean this pot in the stream. I need to find you a belt."
"What's a 'belt'?"
"A strap that ties around your waist. Your first bit of clothing, I imagine..."
"Yeah. Uh... why do I need a belt?"
"To carry your sword, of course. Stop asking so many questions."
"She said I'm supposed to take over hunting, by the way. I can't believe you're a hunter..."
"Oh she did, did she. And oh you can't, can't you?" Gordon said as he drank/chewed his gruel, "Tell me sumpthin' wolf-boy – you ever hunt animals?"
"Of course not!" Only the lowest of the low hunted animals. They hunted them, killed them, and then sold the products to the Town. In return, they were paid – and universally reviled. A disgusting thing to do. Goes against The Balance. But people - predators anyway – oh, they paid for the meat, all right, and everyone paid for the hides - no problem there. It was just one of those things no one talked about – the same way they didn't talk about the prey who never sent their first-born out to do Balance Duty.
"Uh-huh. Well, what'd ya think you were gonna hunt out here? People?"
"Well... actually... I hadn't thought... I'm supposed to hunt animals?!"
"And I bet you never even held a bow in your life..."
"A bow? Weapons?" This was getting worse and worse, from Tristan's point of view.
"This is gonna be fun," Gordon said, grinning, "I can already tell. Look; this isn't a Balance thing anymore. We're here to survive – so you'd best wrap your head around that. No matter what un-Balancy thing we gotta do – we're going to get to Civilization. Balance will have to take care of its own damn self – and believe me, it does. It don't need no help from us."
"I refuse to use weapons to kill! I won't do it!" Tristan said, half-aghast and half in panic.
"Good! You tell The Lady that. Just make sure I'm around when you do, okay? I like watching her teach predators lessons – it's a beautiful thing to see. But for now – you got three trees to go before I spell ya. Get to it."
While Taylor poked, slashed, and stabbed the life out of a bale of straw, The Lady organized her shelves of herbs, ointments, and other ingredients. She tried to keep them organized – but over time, they just became chaotic again, as if by themselves. The Lady was a bit lazy about putting things back where she found them. By the time she went to check on the lamb again, that bale of straw was never going to bother anybody again.
"All right, Taylor – that'll be enough for today. How are your arms doing? Tired?"
"Kinna – and I think this sword is getting heavier, somehow. Is that normal?" The 'sword' was actually a short-sword – more than a dagger, but less than a full-blown lance. On Taylor, a real sword would have dragged the ground while hanging from his belt.
"You'll find out why it's 'getting heavier' tomorrow, little lamb. You may be in a rather a lot of pain by morning... Good for you though. Builds character. Now, come into my shack. We'll start your real education."
Once inside, Taylor looked around. Two walls were covered with shelves of short paper tubes with lids and a few glass and ceramic bottles. They all had writing on them, but it was some weird language that Taylor didn't know. The other two walls were taken up by the door in front and the bed in back. Boxes were stuffed under the small bed, and above it was another shelf – of books. The only light came from the door, but an oil-lamp stood on an uneven table next to the bed. There was only one chair – identical to the one outside, and The Lady was sitting in it.
"What's all this stuff?" Taylor said innocently, in awe of the sheer number of items lining the two walls of herbs.
"That's what you're going to tell me, Taylor. These are all my ingredients – herbs, roots, extracts – a few combinations. Here," she handed him a notebook and pencil, "Start in the corner over there. For that whole wall, I want you to make me a picture of every jar there – with it's label. Think you can do that?"
"EVERY... there must be..."
"A lot. Yes, there are a lot."
"The names are all funny..."
"They're pronounced just like they're spelled. We'll get to all that. Begin drawing. I'm going out to tend the field – damn rabbits have been hanging out around it again. They seem to have found a way through the fence. Do not go outside until someone comes back. Understand?"
Gordon watch cheerfully as Taylor attacked his last tree with the ax. The wolf was swinging and chopping as if he held a personal hatred towards it.
"You'd best pace yourself, wolf-boy. We got a long day ahead – and I doubt you're used to this kind of physical labor."
"I can take it," Tristan said curtly.
"You mad about something, are ya?"
"Yes I'm mad about something! You! You don't like that I'm a wolf – I get that. You're a rabbit, after all. You don't like that I'm with Taylor – none of your business. You think it's funny how I feel about hunting animals, and with weapons, at that. Seems like there's a lot of things about me that you don't like."
"Did you want me to like you, wolf-boy?"
That stopped Tristan's furious chopping for awhile, and he thought about it as he panted for breath. "Well... I'm not looking forward to putting up with you for who knows how long, is all."
Then the rabbit surprised him - "Yeah, okay – you make a good point. I'll back off. Something you should know about rabbits – and something you probably already know, too: we're the ultimate prey, y'see. We don't herd, and we're pretty much defenseless – about all we can do is run. That's why we breed like we do. As a result of that, our lives – and in general, I mean, obviously not mine – are geared towards making lots of little rabbits. We don't abide by anything that doesn't fulfill that – homosex, cross-species, birth-control – any of it. So besides you being my natural enemy; yeah, you and Taylor push a lot of my buttons. Especially him being a child and all... So I can't help that. I can't understand how The Lady doesn't have a problem with you and Taylor... but apparently she doesn't, so I'll try to cool it."
That seemed... unusually reasonable, for something from Gordon. Tristan continued cutting down the tree, until finally it fell over. "Okay – what now?"
"Now you take a break. I'll start cleaning 'em up – you watch what I do, wolf-boy. You'll get your turn soon enough."
"My name is Tristan!"
The rabbit looked at him with narrowed eyes, both ears down, "So far, wolf-boy, you ain't impressed me enough to earn being called by name. I'll let you know when... if... you do. Now gimme the ax."
They hauled the logs, one by one, back to The Lady's shack by tying ropes to them and dragging them along the ground. It was hard work – again. Tristan was starting to feel it.
At lunchtime, The Lady and Taylor joined them and Tristan was very annoyed at the weapon the lamb now carried. He didn't say anything about it – but it bothered him. It felt like Taylor was being corrupted, somehow. After lunch – a vegetable stew, which Tristan quite enjoyed – the men went back to work digging holes for the corner-posts of Tristan and Taylor's new home. The lamb went back into the shack to continue his drawing of the wall – the lettering of the labels took the longest: sorbium lecithicus and such. The Lady went off to look for more 'medicines', as she put it.
Gordon kept Tristan entertained with a running monologue of Construction Techniques – a commentary that the wolf found singularly boring... but it was less offensive than most things that the rabbit said.
Their floor was to be raised off the ground, suspended from the corner-posts, as were the walls. "Keeps the damp out," Gordon explained, "And not just for you – but for the wood as well. You want as little as possible touching the ground. Things that touch the ground tend to rot. I wish we had some cement. Of all inventions, I love cement the best. It's permanent. See, how it works is-" he carried on as they worked, changing subjects without a pause.
Eventually, Tristan got tired of the constant onslaught of what was – to him – nonsense, "So bunny-man - you come from this 'Civilization' place too?"
"Nope, never been there. Don't especially want to go either – doesn't sound like my kinna deal... but the Lady's from there. Although she says she wasn't born there... doesn't talk about it much. Someone took her to Civilization, just like we're gonna take you. Like I said – she won't talk about it. She came back here to get more recruits. That's what she's been waiting for – people like you two."
"She's been waiting here for... two decades, to take people back to Civilization?"
"Heh. Yeah. She was hoping there'd be more... but after this long, I guess she figures that two is going to be about it. She's getting too old to wait any more. The trip to Civilization is going to be very hard. I can't believe we're taking a lamb..."
"No one else came along wanting to go? In all that time?"
"Oh, we've had a few – usually runaways just wanting to go somewhere else besides where they came from. Sometimes adults - the same way. Most of 'em seemed to think we owed 'em, for some reason – I think they figured they deserved better'n what they had. You guys are the first two she's accepted."
"She accepted you..." Tristan said.
"I have other reasons for being here. I wanted to get away from 'Civilization' – from Towns, let alone Cities. I'm just not cut out for it, see... rather live on my own. That's kind of hard to do when yer a rabbit. But I can take care of myself pretty good now – with what she's taught me about fighting and weapons an' stuff."
"So... why are you sticking around her, then?"
Gordon looked at the wolf as if he were the world's biggest idiot, "'Cause she hasn't told me I can leave."
By that evening, all but the last touches – the door, for instance – remained to be finished. Taylor and The Lady watched the rabbit and wolf work as they sat in their accustomed places around the fire.
Once the door swung free on its hinges, Gordon said, "Well – that oughta do it. Ya got a floor, four walls, and a roof. Next thing I suggest you do is get yerselves a mattress – although I'd rather not think about what you're gonna do on it... Ya need to collect some straw or maybe moss – moss is softer, but ya gotta let it dry out, so it takes a week or so – and The Lady will make ya something to stuff it all into. Up to you – my part's done. I'm sittin' down for awhile."
"Yeah... Uh, thanks. Gordon," Tristan said, and then turned to Taylor, "I gotta go... mark some territory, Tay. Be right back."
When Tristan got back, The Lady was busy sewing something, and Gordon was sharpening his knife on a whetstone. He sat on the ground next to his boyfriend, leaning his back against a log.
"God, Tay – I'm exhausted. I don't think I've ever been this tired..."
"Aww," the lamb said, looking down-hearted, "Does that mean no sex tonight?" he smiled up at the wolf and when Tristan looked down at him to make sure what he meant - stole a kiss.
"Hey!" Gordon exclaimed, "You guys wanna watch it with that stuff? It makes some of us sick, y'know."
"You really are an idiot, bunny-man," The Lady said, not even glancing up from her sewing.
"It's okay, ma'am. He has his reasons..." Tristan said, adding, "Tay? Wait till we're in the tent."
"I can't kiss you when Gordon's around? I thought the whole reason we were here was to get away from people like him..." the lamb asked.
"Look, kid" Gordon explained, "It's nothing against you or your wolf-boy personally, okay? I just don't like to see that stuff. Not between you two. I know you're gonna do it anyway – that's bad enough. Don't do it around me, is all."
"It's okay, Tay. He can't help being an asshole," Tristan said, looking at the rabbit, not at Taylor.
Gordon glared back, but remained silent. The Lady smiled to herself.
Taylor shrugged and said, "Well, if you say so, Tris. Anyway – I found some Ickystem you can get me slicked up with, so – if you're not too tired - I'd really like to-"
"God, Spirits, and Nature!" Gordon exclaimed again, unable to believe what he was hearing. He looked from Taylor to Tristan, as if expecting an explanation for the boy's bizarre behavior.
But Tristan was trying to keep from smiling – Taylor was being Taylor again, and it was funny watching the rabbit react to it. It reminded him of himself, a few months ago.
Taylor looked at the rabbit and said, "What? I can't even talk about sex in front of you? It's not like me an' Tris were sucking on each-"
"Taylor!" Gordon shouted this time. The Lady grinned and listened, her hands still at work.
Tristan, unable to contain his laughter now, told Taylor, "We'll talk about it inside, Tay. Not around the idiot bunny-man, okay?"
Gordon looked at Tristan again, but imploringly this time, "Is he always like that?"
Tristan chuckled, "Pretty much, Gordon. Pretty much."
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead