Dark Hunger


Page 56



‘There . . .’ Gariath whispered, his voice afraid to confirm what he knew, ‘there were Rhega here.’ His eyelids twitched. His hand pressed hard against the stone. ‘They were . . . we were here.’

Were.

It was not the name of his people or his family that echoed in his mind. It was that ugly, muttering qualifier that caused his brain to ache and his lips to quiver. Rhega were here. They are not any more.

That should have been the end of it, he knew, one more reason why hope was stupid, one more reason to go running back in tears to the comfort of hatred and the warmth of anger. He should have gone back, back to fighting, back to bloodshed. But he could not bring himself to walk away, not yet, not before he looked to the elder and asked.

‘Where did they all go?’

Gariath’s ear-frills twitched as he heard the sound of leaves rustling. He cast a glower out over the surrounding underbrush. Had one of the weakling humans followed him to this place where they weren’t meant to go?

Just as well, he thought as he flexed his claws. There was no more reason to continue this imaginary game of pretending they didn’t deserve to die. There was no more reason to keep them alive. They were the answer to his question, they were where the Rhega went.

No more questions. No more excuses. This time they all died.

‘Come out and die with a bit of dignity,’ he growled, ‘or start running so I can chase you.’

His unseen spy answered, bursting from the foliage in a flash of red. It moved quickly, tearing so swiftly across the green and through the stream that he did not even lay eyes upon it until it was upon him.

There was a sudden pressure upon his ankle, warm and almost affectionate. Slowly, he glanced down, his claws untensing, wings furling themselves as he stared at the tiny red muzzle trying to wrap itself around his foot.

The pup, apparently, did not sense his smile and the young creature renewed his vigour, clawing at Gariath’s leg with short limbs, trying to coil a stubby tail about the taller Rhega’s leg to bring him to the ground.

Gariath reached down and tried to dislodge the pup with a gentle tug. The young Rhega only held on faster, emitting what was undoubtedly intended to be a warning growl. His body trembling with contained mirth, Gariath hooked his hands under the pup’s armpits and pulled him up to stare into his face.

From behind a short, blunted muzzle, the pup stared at his elder. His ear-frills were extended, not yet developed enough to be able to fold them. His wings were tiny flaps of skin hanging on his back, the bones not strong enough to lift them yet. His stubby little red tail wagged happily as he stared at Gariath through bright eyes.

That’s right, Gariath remembered with a smile, our eyes are supposed to be bright, not dark.

‘I almost got you,’ the pup growled. He bit at Gariath’s nose, the taller Rhega’s nostrils flickering.

‘I don’t know,’ Gariath replied with a thoughtful hum. ‘You’re a pup.’

‘I’m a Rhega.’

‘You’re small.’

‘I’m big.’

‘Big enough to be held like a pup, maybe.’

At that, the pup emitted a shrill snarl and bit Gariath’s finger. The sensation of tiny teeth grazing his tough hide was familiar. He remembered a pair of jaws nipping at him in such a way, two equally small voices insisting how big they were.

The smile he offered in response, however, did not feel so familiar.

‘Fine, you’re huge.’ Gariath laughed, dropping the pup.

The smaller Rhega landed with a growl and a scrabble of short limbs as he scrambled to his feet. Gariath, in response, fell to his own rear, taking a seat opposite the pup. He could not help but stare at the small creature; he had forgotten how small he had started as. The pup was tiny, but not weak, unharmed from the fall, back up and on all fours as he growled playfully at the older Rhega.

Did I ever growl like that? Gariath asked himself. Were my eyes ever so bright?

‘I might not be so big now,’ the pup said, making a feinted lunge at the older Rhega, ‘but my mother says I will be someday.’

And at the pup’s words, Gariath felt his smile drop, fade back into a frown.

He doesn’t know, he realised.

And how could the pup know? He couldn’t see himself, couldn’t look at the way the sunlight occasionally passed through his body. He could not see the distance in his own eyes, suggesting just how long he had been so small. He could not see that the earth did not depress beneath him when he rolled and jumped.

He couldn’t possibly know he wasn’t alive any more.

‘What’s wrong?’ the pup asked, tilting his head to the side.

‘Nothing is wrong,’ Gariath replied, forcing the smile back onto his face. ‘It’s . . . just been a long time since I’ve seen one of you . . . one of us.’

‘Me, too,’ the pup said, plopping onto his rear end. ‘There used to be lots of us.’ He looked around the glade and frowned. ‘I wonder when they’re coming back.’

Tell him, Gariath told himself, he deserves to know. Tell him they’re not coming back.

‘I’m sure they will soon,’ Gariath replied instead.

Coward.

‘I hope so . . . they left a long time ago.’

‘Where did they go?’

The pup opened his mouth to speak, then frowned. He looked down at the earth dejectedly.

‘I . . . I don’t know.’

‘Then why are you still here? Didn’t your father take you with him when he left?’

‘My mother was supposed to,’ the pup replied. ‘My father left . . . long ago, long before she did.’

‘He died?’

‘I . . . think so. It’s hard to remember.’

The pup placed two stubby clawed hands on the tiny bone nubs that would someday be two broad horns. Would have been, Gariath corrected himself.

‘My head hurts thinking about it,’ the pup whined. ‘You’re not going anywhere, are you?’

‘Of course not,’ Gariath said, smiling. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Grahta,’ the pup said. ‘It means—’

‘Strongest,’ the older Rhega finished. He flashed a coy smile. ‘Are you sure it’s accurate?’ He prodded the pup, sending him tumbling over. ‘You don’t look very strong.’

‘I will be someday!’ Grahta scrabbled to his feet and lunged at Gariath’s hand as he pulled it away. ‘It’s a much better name than whatever yours is, anyway.’

‘My name,’ the older Rhega said, drawing himself up proudly, ‘is Gariath.’

‘Wisest?’ Grahta laughed. ‘That can’t be right.’

‘What makes you say that?’ Gariath asked, frowning. ‘I’m plenty wise.’

‘You’re plenty beat up, is what you are.’ Grahta poked his stubby finger against the cuts crossing Gariath’s flesh, the traces of black where his skin had been burned. ‘What happened to you?’

Gariath stared down at that finger, prodding so curiously, taking everything in through a tiny digit. They had fingers so tiny, he recalled.

‘I . . .’ he whispered with a sigh, ‘I hurt myself.’

Tried to kill myself, he added mentally, tried to join you, Grahta, and your mother and father and my—

‘That wasn’t too smart,’ Grahta said, frowning. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be the smart one?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’ve heard you talk to the other creatures you walk with. You yell at them, call them names, try to hurt them.’ The pup’s frown deepened, his eyes turning towards the earth. ‘My father used to talk like that.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were listening.’

‘You didn’t sound very happy.’

Gariath followed the pup’s gaze. ‘I’m not.’

‘Why? Don’t you have enough to eat?’

‘I have enough to eat,’ Gariath replied. ‘I just . . . I don’t have anyone to talk to.’

‘What about those creatures?’

‘The humans?’

‘Is that what they’re called? They smell bad.’ The pup tilted his head to one side. ‘Is that why you’re not happy? Because they smell bad? Maybe you could ask them to wash.’

‘Humans are . . .’ Gariath sighed. ‘They smell bad no matter how much they wash. And they only smell worse the more of them that are around.’

‘Are there a lot of them?’

‘Many.’

‘More than the Rhega?’

Many more. Thousands more. There are no more Rhega. Tell him. He deserves to know.

‘You don’t have to worry about humans,’ Gariath said, ‘so let’s not talk about it.’

‘All right,’ Grahta said. ‘How come there’s only one of you?’

Gariath winced.


‘I mean,’ the pup continued, ‘don’t you have a family?’

‘I did . . . I do,’ the older Rhega said, nodding. ‘I have two sons.’

‘What are their names?’

Gariath paused at that, staring intently at the pup. ‘Their names are Tangahr and Grahta.’

‘Like me!’ The pup ran in a quick circle, barking excitedly. ‘Is your son the strongest, too?’

‘He was . . . very strong,’ Gariath whispered, his voice choked suddenly. ‘His brother was, too. Much stronger than their father.’

‘I’m sure you’ll be strong too, someday,’ the pup said, nodding vigorously. ‘You just need to eat more meat.’

‘I’m . . . sure I will be.’

‘Not as strong as me, though.’

‘Of course not.’

‘I’m very strong, you know. Once, I even killed a boar on my own. It was back when—’

The stream whispered quietly around them, no other sound to distract Gariath from hearing the pup. Every word echoed in his mind, every word felt like a claw dug into his chest that he couldn’t dislodge. He could hear himself in the pup’s voice, he could hear his own shrill bark, his own boasts, his own proclamations that he had made to his father when he was so young.

The proclamations his sons had made to him.

They were so boastful, he thought, smiling at the pup, they talked so much . . . they never stopped talking until . . .

‘Grahta,’ he interrupted softly, ‘why aren’t you with your family?’

‘I . . . I’m not sure,’ Grahta replied, scratching his head. ‘I think . . . I think Grandfather asked me to wait. He asked me to stay awake.’

‘For what?’

‘For you,’ Grahta said, looking up at the older Rhega intently.

‘I’m here now.’

‘And you’re not going anywhere, right?’

‘Right.’

‘Okay, good.’ The pup scratched his head. ‘Grandfather ... Grandfather said . . . uh, he wanted me to tell you something. ’

‘What?’

‘He told me to tell you . . . not to follow me.’

Gariath felt his heart stop, his eyes go wide. ‘Whwhat? ’

‘He said you can’t come where he went, where I’m supposed to go, not yet.’

Something welled inside Gariath’s throat, lodging itself there. ‘But . . . why not?’

‘I don’t know,’ Grahta replied, shrugging. ‘But why would you want to go? I’m right here. We can play!’

No, Gariath told himself, we can’t play. You have to go, Grahta. You can go, now. You can fall asleep. I’ve heard the message. You can go.

Gariath looked at the pup, eyes wide, teeth so small in his smile. Tangahr smiled like that. Grahta’s eyes were so bright.

No . . . NO! he roared inside his own head. Tell him. Tell him he can go! Tell him he can sleep! He’s been awake for so long!

Grahta fell to all fours, tail upright as he barked a challenge at the older Rhega. Tangahr always barked like that. Grahta didn’t like to fight . . . Tangahr teased him. What . . . what Rhega doesn’t like to fight?

Tell him . . . TELL HIM! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO HIM!

‘Grahta,’ Gariath whispered, ‘how long have you been awake?’

‘A . . . a long time, I guess,’ the pup replied, sitting back down. He yawned, a shrill, whining sound accompanied by exposed rows of stubby white teeth. ‘I’m very tired now, since you said it.’

Good, Gariath told himself, inhaling sharply, he can rest. He deserves to rest. He deserves to . . .

Gariath watched the pup walk in a circle, then curl up, folding his tail towards his snout. His eyes went wide.

Tangahr . . . Grahta . . . used to sleep like that.

‘Grahta,’ he whispered. Upon hearing no reply, he said loudly. ‘Grahta!’

‘What?’ the pup asked, opening one bright eye.

‘Don’t fall asleep yet!’

‘But I’m so . . .’ the pup paused to yawn, ‘so tired. I’ve been up for so long.’

‘I know, but stay up a little longer.’ There was no reply from the younger Rhega. ‘Please.’

‘I’ll be back, Gariath. I just want to sleep a little.’

‘No, Grahta, don’t fall asleep. Please don’t fall asleep.’ Gariath was up on his knees now, standing over the pup. ‘Don’t leave me alone, Grahta. I . . . I’ve been alone for a long time now. Please, Grahta . . . please.’

‘Maybe you should . . . should go and see Grandfather,’ Grahta suggested, yawning. ‘He said you should go and see him.’

‘Where? Where did he say he would be, Grahta?’

‘Somewhere . . . north? I don’t know what that means.’

‘Then how am I supposed to find him?’

‘You’re . . . you’re Wisest, aren’t you?’

‘I’m not very smart, Grahta. I need you to stay up and give me directions. Please, Grahta, stay up a little longer. Stay awake, Grahta.’

‘I . . . I’m sorry,’ the pup said, almost snoring. ‘I just . . . I’m so tired.’

‘Not yet, Grahta. Talk to me for a little longer. Tell me ... tell me about your mother.’

‘Oh, my mother . . .’ The pup smiled wistfully, even as his red eyelids drooped. ‘My mother . . . her name was Toaghari . . . it means . . .’ He opened his mouth wide in a yawn. ‘It means . . . Greatest. I . . . I hope she comes back . . .’ He settled down upon the earth, pressing his face against his tail. ‘Soon.’

The sound of the pup snoring carried over the sound of the brook whispering, but it faded with every passing breath. More sounds returned to the world: air from the trees, breezes blowing over the sand, moisture rising from the earth. Grahta’s sound of slumber was a distant part in the world’s great chorus.

As was the sound of Gariath’s own voice.

‘Don’t blink,’ he told himself, gripping the earth in two trembling hands. ‘Don’t blink. He’ll go if you blink.’

He tried to hold the image of the little red bundle, his side rising and falling with each breath, in eyes that were quickly streaming over with tears.

‘Don’t blink.’

He tried to hold the image of wings too small to flex, a tail too small to do anything but wag, eyes that were bright as his once had been.

‘Don’t blink.’

He tried to hold the image of two similar bundles, rolling over each other at his feet, barking and nipping, wagging and whining, their voices fresh in his frills as they boasted, proclaimed, roared, growled, snarled and snored.

‘Don’t—’

When he opened his eyes again, Grahta was gone. The earth was not depressed where he had been, the sunlight continued to pour despite his absence. The sound of his sleeping was lost on the wind.

‘No,’ he whimpered, pawing at the ground. ‘No, no, no, no, NO!’ His roar killed the sounds in the air as he threw back his head. ‘Hit something,’ he told himself, sweeping his gaze about the glade. ‘Hit! Kill! Make it bleed! Make it die! Kill something! KILL!’

The only thing that shared the glade, that could possibly satiate the urge, was the impassive elder stone looming over him. Snarling, he levelled an accusatory finger.

‘YOU!’

He struck the stone, felt his hand crack, and fell to the earth with a cry. There was nothing to hit. Nothing to kill. No anger, no hatred. He was left alone with hope. Quietly, he laid his head against the rock, his body trembling as tears slid down his snout to trickle across the rim of his nostrils and fall to the unmoved earth.

Grahta was gone. The Rhega were gone. Gariath was alone.

With the scent of nothing but salt and wind as the world continued around him.

Thirty-Five

NOTHING REMAINS

There was very little in the supply crate to suggest that Argaol ever really expected them to return alive, Denaos thought as he rummaged blindly through the various sundries and goods within. The moon was not much help in illuminating his search.

‘Blankets . . . fishing line . . . but no hooks,’ the rogue muttered, rolling his eyes. ‘Rope . . . who needs rope on an island? Waterskins, empty . . . bacon . . . dried meat . . . salted meat . . . dried salted meat.’

His hands clenched something long and firm. Eyes widening, he pulled something stout and rounded free. Scrutinising it in the darkness, he frowned.

‘A . . . lute.’ He blinked at the stringed instrument. ‘What ... did he just throw whatever he could spare into this thing?’ Quietly, he noted the inscription on the wooden neck. ‘Not a bad year, though.’

‘Could you possibly hurry it up?’ someone called from behind. ‘I’m sort of . . . you know, trying to keep someone’s leg from becoming gangrenous and falling off.’

‘If the Gods had mercy, such a fate should befall my ears,’ the rogue muttered.

Sighing, he sifted through everything else the captain had deemed worthy for chasing demons. His persistence, however, eventually rewarded him with the knowledge that the old Silfish prayer had yet to be proven false.

‘Gods are fickle, men are cruel,’ he recited as he wrapped his hand around something smooth and cold. He pulled the bottle from the crate and watched his own triumphant smile reflected back to him in its sloshing amber liquor. ‘Trust only in yourself and what lies in your cup.’

That smile persisted as he walked back to the fire, back to his doubtlessly grateful companions. Who else would have had the foresight to smuggle out a bit of liquid love, after all? Granted, he reasoned, it’s stolen love. But what is love if it doesn’t leave someone else unhappy?

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