Tob clung for dear life to the shaggy mane of the gurjuk, streaking across the plains to the south, in search of Benda, and the vision which had been revealed to him in a dream. In the vision, a great silver fish — which he somehow instinctively knew represented his friend — had been caught up in the claws of an even greater eagle. The two struggled, resulting in the eagle dropping the fish into the deep dark waters of a lake, which Tob took to be Lake Squamat, on the southern borders of these plains.
As is too often the case with neighbors, the Squamats were bitter rivals and on-again off-again enemies with the tribe to the north of the plains, which occupied the lake shores, river valleys, and meadows around Lake Holmat. Tob was dimly aware of these facts in a broad way through the tales and rumors told by the animals and other passengers upon the Great River which he had followed into this land. He did not know what kind of welcome — if any — to expect when he arrived on the shores of Lake Squamat, he a lowly tuber astride a feral plains-scavenging gurjuk. But he felt his new friend, whom he’d dubbed Benda the Just, was in trouble, and perhaps in all the Wide Lands, he might be the only one in a position to help.
Though he had intended, following his vision, to make haste for the lake settlements, his gurjuk steed had other ideas. It was now too dark for Tob’s meager tracking skills to be of any use, but the senses of that beast were only heightened in the dark, its natural time of activity. As they ran, Tob sensed the animal’s sudden change in attitude. Slowing to a trot, it sniffed the air, and the ground, twitched nervously, laying its ears back in a slight whine.
“What is it?” Tob asked.
The gurjuk came to a halt, and sniffed hard the ground in a widening circle. Tob had no choice but to go along for the ride. The animal had heeded his call, certainly, but was following its own volition and instincts beyond that. Tob might nudge it along the way, but he could not control this terrific beast who, presumably, could chomp him to pulp in a single stroke of its jaws.
The gurjuk stopped and stiffened, each ear tracking in a different direction independently. Suddenly its body tensed, and it bolted off in a new direction. Tob began to feel dizzy.
Out of the darkness, they began to hear curious yowls and yips, and at the periphery of his poor night vision, Tob’s many eyes caught sight of two lean, large bodies, one running up along one side, dropping off, and being replaced by another on the other side. Tob suddenly realized what was happening: it was a hunting party. And they were the prey. Tob’s gurjuk ran for its life, zig-zagging this way and that, trying to outpace the great gurjuks who chased them, whose stride was nearly double its own.
The poor beast was frightened and exhausted, and when one of the great gurjuks lunged and barreled into him from the side, Tob’s steed was knocked clear over, and tumbled end over end, rolling in the long wet grass. In the confusion, Tob too was thrown loose from his precarious hold in the creature’s mane.
Not far off, he saw the two great gurjuks close in on the smaller one he’d ridden. The creature was so frightened, he put up no fight, but rolled over on his back, submissively exposing the soft flesh of his stomach, stubby tail curled up between its legs. One of the great gurjuks looked down on him, as though laughing. The second came over, to mock-bite his neck. Then they let him get up, and the three played a furious three-way game of chase off into the darkness, leaving Tob all alone.
Tob, however, was nothing if not resourceful. During the scuffle, he laid low in the tall grass, and hoped his vegetable nature would not arouse the natural curiousity of these bloodthirsty scavengers. It did not, and by the time the three had ran off to play, Tob’s eyes and nose (in the sense he could be said to have one) had pin-pointed the soft light of a small camp-fire not too far away. Creeping still through the grass quietly, so as not to arouse undue attention, he made his way toward it as best he could.
Due to his small stature, and slow, careful pace, it took him quite some time to get over there. Twice during his trek from where he had fallen, the three gurjuks streaked past him, taking no notice. But each time, he fell flat against the earth, trying to will himself invisible. Eventually, their game took them elsewhere, and Tob’s little rootlets took him to a bit of cover in the form of a not very large rock. He crouched behind it, for he could now see the beings by the fire. Two creatures like men, but not like men, with long snouts, and hard natural protuberances, like armored, segmented shells covered much of their bodies. They gobbled away hungrily on what appeared to be small roasted game, then argued, laughed, and gambled for a time, before falling asleep.
Tob did not understand their language, but by their gestures, they seemed to keep indicating a third person in their party. And before long, Tob realized another figure lay sprawled on the ground, on the far side of these creatures. Hope rose inside Tob it was his friend. But he had to wait until the two captors were asleep — and the gurjuks far off — before he would chance crossing over there.
Eventually, his moment came. Snores rose heavily from the soldiers, for heavily armed and armored they were. Tob counted the long moments since hearing any sign of the great gurjuks, which he now understood to be their mounts. He could have circled round the sleepers the long way, and perhaps should have. But he felt another choice opportunity like this might not come along again, and it must be seized at once.
Wobbly though he was, getting up onto the ends of his rootlets, he made a calm but calculated beeline right past one of the sleeping Xenarths, and past the fire. Once there, he saw laying on the ground, propped up against some saddle bags, the brilliantly illuminated magnificent harp Eril. And he knew their prisoner could be none other than Benda. His heart leapt into his mouth, figuratively speaking, for what kept him alive and active was not a heart at all, but more like a fibrous kernel at the core of his being.
When he was past the first guard, and had rounded the far side of the fire, the flames betrayed him. A tiny tongue of flame, little more than a spark, leapt out of the crackling log, and landed on Tob’s purple hat. Even though he knew he should not, he panicked, and pulled off his beloved hat, and stomped it furiously onto the ground in an attempt to extinguish the flames.
He made not much noise, but as career soldiers, Xenarths are notoriously light sleepers, and the second guard awoke with a start, hand reaching to the hilt of the weapon on his belt. But his eyes did not immediately land on Tob, as his brain was expecting either Holmat or Squamat raiders — men, in other words. Tob had time to deftly pick up his hat, and squeeze by the second soldier and off outside the circle of the fire’s light. By the time the first was awake too, each had their arms drawn, and were facing out in a ring from the firelight, back to back, slowly circling.
They did not see Tob still, by luck, or perhaps by the enchantments of Makkarin, he never knew. But in the dark, he scrambled directly to where the third sleeping figure lay, evidently bound hand and foot, and without hesitation, dove inside the folds of its cloak.
And it was only just soon enough, for as soon as he did so, a piercing cry shook the very air itself, and a huge form blotted out the stars, descending rapidly on the Xenarths, who raised their weapons to ward it off.
It was no use though, for its talons were out, and they slashed cut easily through even the hard armor of their Xenarth flesh. They yelped in pain. The great wings pulsed once, and they were thrown heavily off their feet, and the small fire scattered into a field of small burning debris. The dreadful bird screamed again in rage, and the Xenarths cowered in abject terror. In a flash, before Tob even knew what was happening, the eagle who was Murta, had caught the sleeping form of Benda up in its claws, and Tob with it. With a great leap, it took to the air.
Originally published at http://www.timboucher.ca on September 12, 2019.