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Fawn couldn't understand why anyone would want to kill her family and other residents of her little peaceful village.
by Frances Monro
I came home one day to find everyone dead, slaughtered. I had wandered in the hills all day, resting under the trees. I moved around the patches of milk thistle, clover and dill, gathering, grazing. Now in the cool of evening as the shadows lengthened I had come home.
I crossed the stream and walked up the muddy path between the gardens into the village. I set down my baskets of herbs at the door of my mother's hut and poked my head inside but there was no-one there.
I surely must have had some presentiment that something was wrong as I walked across the village green. It was quiet. Did I think it was simply a quiet, sleepy afternoon, and nobody was about? Where was everyone?
They weren't on the green, it was deserted, the soft earth was marked by fresh ruts from the passing of some strange cart. There was only one other place they could be. I walked across the grass to the Temple.
On the porch at top of the steps I found the first body. It was Moonstone, the old Guardian. He had dragged himself through the door, leaving a trail of blood behind him, to die in the sunlight. His fur was burned, his skin blackened, the stench appalling. His leg was gone.
I shouted something. I ran into the temple. And... I must have blacked out because the next thing I remember I was kneeling by the body of my mother, cradling her in my arms, wailing with pain and anguish. She was lying on top of Climber, her youngest fawn, I think she had been trying to protect him, to cradle him with her body when they were both cut down.
Another blackout. I don't know how long I bawled out my grief. The next thing I remember North Wind held me in his arms and his familiar scent filled by nostrils. "Oh Fawn," he said, his voice cracking. "Oh Fawn, they're dead. They're all dead."
The sacred stone was gone from it's niche above the altar. Nobody would have touched it, it was holy, handed from Priestess to Priestess for longer than anyone could remember. The killer must have taken it.
The Priestess was one of the dead. She must have been right by the killer's side when they started to fire. Her body was almost unrecognizable. I'd heard of off-world weapons before but I'd never understood how horrifyingly powerful they were.
There were a few wounded. We tended their burns as best we could and gave the water they begged for. Most of them died. A few slowly got better, although they would bear the scars for the rest of their lives.
North Wind and the other males dug a big pit in the village green. It was hard to look at him, he was so young and strong, so alive. He was a very young buck and he always seemed even younger to me.
I had grown up with his mother, Clover, as my playmate and companion. North Wind was her first fawn, and she doted on him. She named him for the havoc he created in the gardens, knocking over stakes and trampling plants like the north wind.
He was always running up to me to show me his treasures, a strange flower or a shiny stone. He was always laughing and clowning around even as an adult. He was impossible to take seriously.
I think we might have mated in the last time of rutting. I don't remember much, it was an intense mindless time when instinct ruled, but his scent stirred up vague hidden feelings.
We wrapped the bodies in whatever was available. We dragged them to the edge of the pit and rolled them in. Men, women, and children, they lay together in one grave.
It hurt to lay my family's bodied in the grave. All my babies. I tried to be gentle. It hurt to lay Clover with them. And Moonstone. And the rest. It just hurt and hurt. Then we filled the earth in on top of them.
When it was done there was a mound of fresh earth in the middle of the green. I went to the Temple and knelt before the empty altar. "Why did they do this to us?" I asked the Goddess. "Why did you let it happen? What have we done to deserve this? Why? Why?" My cries echoed around the dark, empty space. There was no answer.
The evening was deepening and the crickets from the bushes in the cooling air. The first stars shone in a midnight sky. Other survivors moved quietly about the village carrying baskets and jugs. From the porch of the Temple I could see everything, including the dark mound of earth in the centre of the green.
Wheatgrass lay on a pallet nearby, his chest and arms covered with burns. I could still faintly smell burnt hair and flesh. Buck lay covered up on a pallet by the wall. He had died not long ago, and we would bury him in the morning.
There was a faint cough. "Can I have some water please, dear?"
I got up and poured some water into a glass and took it over to him, moving in a daze. "Here you are, Wheatgrass." Kneeling, I helped to prop him up, shivering as he grunted in pain. I held the glass for him, he took it and drank before passing it back.
"Ah, a little more, lass."
I poured more water, he drank, then I set the things down and helped to make him comfortable again. I remained kneeling by his side, lost in thought.
"Lass, need to get my tools put away in my hut, or they'll rust."
"What? Oh... I'm sorry, I was a world away. There's no need to worry. I made North Wind put them away earlier. We used one of your metal shovels. For digging. I hope that was all right."
Wheatgrass coughed. "Ah, yeah, that's fine lass. Just make sure they get put away, safe and dry." He sighed and shifted. "Ow. Who'd a thought it, eh? They make such good tools."
"I hate them. How could they do this?"
"Ah, don't know. Traders, visitors come up here before. Lots of times. Never did anything like this before."
"What happened? Why did they do it?"
"Don't know, lass. I was working in my garden when the stranger drove up in one of their metal carts. He went into the temple."
"Just one male? One male did all this?"
"Yes. I thought he was a trader. I didn't have anything to trade so I went on working. Then there was shouting and other noises from the temple. Then screams. I ran over to help but I met the human coming out. He burned me, set me on fire, with a thing. A weapon. I screamed and ran away. I fell into the stream. I guess I passed out."
"Oh Wheatgrass, I'm sorry. I should have been here. I should have helped."
"If you'd been here you'd only have been killed too, lass. I'm glad you were away."
"I wish I had been here."
That night I slept in my mother's hut. My hut now, I supposed. The hay was full of memories, full of the scents of my dead family, my babies. Their ghosts clustered around me. I wished I could die too. But there had been too much death, too much killing. Every life was precious, even mine.
In the morning I left, following the wheel marks of the stranger's cart. There were clear tracks in the mud of the trail leading away from the village. They crossed each other sometimes, one over the top of the other. One set was older, the other newer. The implication was obvious: The stranger had driven to the village in his cart, then driven back after the killing.
It was a rainy day, overcast, windy and cold, although my fur protected me from the worst of it.
I felt tired. I wanted to lie down and never get up again. I wanted to sleep, but I could not, I had to follow the tracks. I trotted onward, slowing to a walk when I was tired. I ignored the sights and smells of the forest and paused only to graze or to sleep when I had to.
I felt numb. I had no thoughts. There was nothing else to do. I walked as if in a dream. It was a long time, two, three days. Things seemed to blur together.
The human settlement was in a valley near the coast. I could see the blue of the sea along the horizon. It spread out before me, an encroachment, a cancer, pushing back nature. I would not turn back.
I got up and walked on my hind legs, and extended my fingers from my fore-hooves. Humans did not see someone walking on four legs as a thinking being.
The human dwellings were metal and glass and dull gray stone, and other materials I don't know. The air smelt of hot burning rubber and dust, sharp, nasty dry smells.
The trail became a road, and the road acquired a hard black coat. The tracks I followed were lost. I stopped and scented the breeze, looking at the towering buildings and smelling their alien smells. I wanted to cry. How would I find the killer among so many?
I plodded onwards, refusing to do the sensible thing – to give up and go back home. I stumbled deeper into the alien city keeping my head down. I was too scared to try to talk to humans but I didn't know what else to do.
They stared at me. None of the humans approached or spoke to me. Eventually I walked right through the city and out the other side. I came to a flat empty space where the human sky ships and vehicles stood dotted about. I stopped then and buried my head in my hooves. I looked up when a human woman approached.
"Hello, my name is Light, you’re Fawn, aren’t you? I think that we should talk."
"H-How do you know my name?" I took a step back, then stretched my neck to sniff her carefully. She had no scent. It was like she wasn't there.
"Oh, we’ve been watching you for some time. Please don’t be afraid. I’m doing this badly, aren’t I? There’s nothing to be scared of I want to help you."
I could see her, I could hear her, but I couldn't smell anything. Was she real? Was I crazy? How could I communicate with someone with no scent? I knew I should be afraid, but it was too much, I was overwhelmed. I was too tired. Or maybe I just didn’t care any more. What could they do to me that was worse than what they had already done?
"What do you want?"
"I want to talk. I’m the avatar of the Light of Other Days. We know what happened to you and your family. We weren’t able to stop it, but we want to help. Won’t you come up to the ship and talk about it?"
I sighed, rubbing my head with my fingers and closing my eyes. "All right, I’ll come."
The woman led me to a strange hut made of wire and shimmering glass. She coaxed me through a transparent portal that made my fur stand on end. As the woman offered me food and drink, the ground fell away, without any sensation or fuss of any kind. The sky grew rapidly darker and night fell.
"It’s all right," the woman explained. "We’ve ascended above the atmosphere to meet the ship – myself – in orbit. Don’t be alarmed. Please try the juice and cookies. I made everything according to your physiology and cultural preferences."
The world was a blue and white wall below, the sky was black and full of stars. Ahead a point of light grew into a silver bubble which swam up out of the darkness to be revealed as an enormous silver sphere. Our little craft sailed straight into it without pause, passing through the silvery wall and floating over a verdant forest dense with trees and ferns and mist. We settled gently through the trees to the ground. The craft we were in vanished, leaving us standing in the forest.
Light sat on a mossy rock. "Welcome to, um… me. The Light of Other Days. I’m an avatar of the ship – that’s a body I use when I need to walk around and talk to people. Thank you so much for coming up here. I’m afraid planets make me a little nervous – they’re so uncontrolled with hurricanes and electrostatic discharges and the like. Random events. I feel much more secure and comfortable being able to talk to you here in me."
"Well, I’d just like to say... Sorry! I’m so very sorry about what happened to your people. I feel terrible about it. It’s exactly the kind of thing we’re supposed to prevent and we failed you. I’m sorry. We feel that we owe you a debt and we will help you in any way we can."
I sighed and knelt in the leaf litter. I plucked a handful of grass and nibbled on it. It smelt real. It tasted real. "Who are you?" I asked. "What are you? What is this place?"
"Oh... Oh yes, of course. Well... You live on a planet, a world, we call it Isruly. We brought your ancestors here across space, from another world, about five thousand years ago."
"You brought us here?"
"Your ancestors, yes. They were starving – just a local famine and crop failure, but it was life or death to them. We offered them the choice of sleeping for a while and waking up on a new world with plenty of food, and rich croplands. Some of them accepted our offer, and we brought them here. That's why we feel responsible for you."
"Why did you do that?"
"Your original creators planted you on a remote world, far from any human settlement. Your form and biology was adapted to suit your new home – rather more radically than most – we call you a post human species. Old Humans are the original species, everyone else is descended from them, you and me both. We are rather different from you, we are Minds, machines, not a biological species like you."
"We were intrigued by your herbivorous biology, and your peaceful, co-operative nature. We hoped your species might be a good influence on the other races in this part of space."
"We are the Consensus, a group of Minds with a common purpose. We look after this volume. Basically we see our role as promoting progress and growth and preventing war and other forms of conflict between species. We try to make sure that everyone can live and develop in peace. We watch over a huge volume of space and do… really very little. Less than we’d like to mostly. I’m afraid I was far away, dealing with other things when this happened. We hadn’t anticipated trouble here, everything seemed to be going so well! But random acts of random individuals are almost impossible to predict. So here we are, too late, cleaning up the mess as usual."
"The wounded? The victims?"
"We... arranged things. We got the local humans to send a medical team to your village. There was some argument, but in the end your people accepted their help. The wounded are being cared for. We’ve done everything we can. And we found you. Do you want me to take you home? I can do that."
"I want to find the man who did this."
"Ah… May I ask what you intend to do?"
"I want to ask him why."
I lived in the forest clearing on the Light of Other Days for the next few days, grazing sparingly and sleeping a great deal. The human woman Light tried to engage me in conversation from time to time but I felt tired and it was hard to respond. We were waiting for another ship to arrive – the Point of Diminishing Returns – once that happened, Light explained, we would decide what to do next.
The murderer had escaped on a ship to another world, but Light said there was no need to worry – they knew exactly where he was and they could travel much faster than he could.
Then one day I woke up. I felt refreshed and somehow at peace, more alive than I had in weeks. But I felt guilty at a sudden realization: I was recovering from my grief.
I bathed in the forest pool and groomed my fur, trying to remember how long it had been since I'd last done so.
Light entered the glade accompanied by another avatar. The Point of Diminishing Returns had arrived. The Diminishing Returns did not bother with a human avatar but instead appeared as a pillar of fire, endlessly falling golden sparks, it wasn’t hot, though, and it didn’t smell like fire, or anything else either.
"Fawn, this is Point of Diminishing Returns, the ship I told you about. Have you given any more thought to what you wish to do?"
"I want to confront the murderer of my people and ask him why he did it."
"Oh dear. That would mean traveling to Salust, another world. You can't imagine how far away that is! It has a different climate, different seasons, hazards and dangers you might not even recognize. Wouldn't you rather go home and let us handle this?"
"But your people need you, Fawn, and your babies. Your mate needs you."
"What? My mate? What do you mean?"
"Your mate... North Wind?"
"North Wind? He's not my mate. That's not how we do things." These people saw so much, knew so much. But sometimes they understood so little. "I can't go home until I understand why this happened and how I can prevent it from happening again."
The shower of golden sparks spoke for the first time. "Right. Well that seems pretty clear. Anyway, I’m the Point of Diminishing Returns."
"I am pleased to meet you."
"Ah, yeah. Me too. Let’s talk about your fugitive. He's a human. His name is Roul Milnar, he has his own ship. He left Isruly on the night of the massacre and we’ve tracked him to Salust – an inhabited planet in a nearby system. He seems to have gone to ground there."
"Why.. did he do this thing?"
"I don’t know. If we had known he would do this, if we’d thought it even likely, we would have stopped him. We don’t know a lot about him, he’s some kind of a trader, in curiosities and antiques, he acquired his ship on his home world for purchasing trips. It’s not a very advanced design."
"A trader? A trader did this?"
"Yes. We examined your village and the temple thoroughly. We know he did it, there is no doubt. May I ask, what do you know of the object he took?"
"The sacred stone? Our most precious relic. It is only ever taken from the alter to perform healing. It was given to us by the Goddess herself and passed from hand to hand, High Priestess to High Priestess for as long as anyone can remember."
"It is very old," Light said softly. "The Priestess carried it with her when we brought your ancestors here. It was at least ten thousand years old then. We call it a Thrintun Hyperdrive."
"It is the sacred stone of the Goddess."
"Well, whatever it is it obviously doesn't belong to Mr Milnar. We're prepared to help you get it back, if that's what you want. I consider it a matter of justice."
"It must be returned to the temple, and given into the hands of..." she shrugged. "Whoever is to be the next Priestess."
The pillar of fire bowed. "We have the power to do almost anything we can imagine. We know practically everything that is knowable. But we are not gods – we can see into the future as well as anyone can, but we could not predict this, otherwise we would have stopped it. We can’t predict any more than anyone else what effect our actions will ultimately have. There is a randomness inherent in the universe that defeats even the coolest, most rational gaze. For this reason we only act when we must."
"Normally we deal with much larger problems than this. Planetary wars, Genocide, Biological extermination weapons. The only reason we involve ourselves in something this small is simply to prevent it from happening again, or... for personal feeling. Justice. Pity. Compassion. That kind of thing. This crime occurred between two different human species, interstellar technology was involved, and the man in question has the power to do a lot more harm. I think we should take action to ensure that he does not."
"The greatest good for the greatest number," Light said, her tones gentle. "By pruning this branch of the tree of humanity we trust the whole will grow straighter. We try, terribly hard to stop the species from killing themselves or each other. It’s a thankless task. We don’t make moral judgments about people’s nature, but we help when we can, and we remove threats. We will remove this threat for the benefit of all."
Light and the pillar of fire led me to a cabin aboard the Point of Diminishing Returns. It felt like a small ship, the curves of the walls suggested an oval or seedpod shape, smaller than the village green. Light bowed and made her farewells, then the falling sparks showed me to a small cabin with a bed, a slot in the wall that provided food and a tap for water. A smaller adjoining space provided for the elimination of waste. The air smelled of pine needles, but there were no pines visible. It smelt chill and fresh, like a mountaintop.
"You can set the walls for any view you prefer. It's just an illusion, but it gives the appearance of space." The ship cycled the view through a verdant grassland, an ancient ruin, or a seaside setting.
I shook my head. "I don't want illusion, thank you."
"There are no windows, and nothing to see in hyperspace. I could project a simulation of the star field for you, if you wish."
"Just leave them blank."
"Very well. The trip to Salust will take little more than a day." The machine image bowed and retired.
When we arrived at Salust the avatar showed me to another little transparent bubble, much smaller than the I had ridden in previously. Point of Diminishing Returns called it a shuttle. It stayed behind. A silent floating machine – a drone - accompanied me as a guide. It looked like a silvery box, about half the size of a person. It smelt sharp, chemical.
The shuttle was barely big enough to hold us, packed in like fawns inside their mother's womb. The chair hugged me tight, it was soft and warm and felt like skin. The bubble slipped down towards a blue world that looked much the same as my home. Without any sensation of movement we dropped straight down, the sky turning purple then a beautiful shade of blue. Clouds appeared and we fell into them, then there was ground below. We touched down without the slightest bump or sensation of any kind.
Holes irised open on both sides of the pod, and warm fresh air invaded the interior. I got up from the clingy chair and stepped through one of the holes. Salust felt hot, tropical, or at least this part of it did. The air was warm and humid, the sun hot on my fur. There was a brackish, swampy smell. I was standing on a riverbank. There were reeds and long grasses between low scrubby trees. Insects buzzed around.
The ship had said the murderer’s vessel would be a short distance upstream, easily visible. I turned and walked slowly along the riverbank, keeping to the shade of the trees. The stranger’s ship came in sight above the trees, it was a low black shape, a lumpy dome, like a metal tortoiseshell. It looked completely different to the shining silver organic shapes of the Consensus ships.
I sat on the warm riverbank and sighed, lowering my snout into my folded arms. At last my goal was in sight. Why did I feel so reluctant to confront him? I had come so far for this and now I wondered how any good could possibly come from it. Knowing why would not bring them back, all the dead, all my babies.
I rubbed my stomach. At home the season would be turning. The leaves had fallen, the first frosts would be on the ground. I could feel a certain swelling in my belly. New life, new babies to replace those who had died. Perhaps the Goddess had answered my prayers after all, in her own way. Perhaps Light was right. Perhaps I should go home.
But first there was something I had to do. I sighed and closed my eyes and tried to prepare myself. Time passed.
"Well, are we going to do this thing now, or just sit here all day?"
I looked up, it was the floating machine, the drone that the Point of Diminishing Returns had sent with me.
"Yeah lady, I speak. The name is Armara-Gurbax. I don’t mean to be rude but I’ve got a job to do here. If you like you can wait here and just let me go and do it. In fact that would be a lot simpler, and a hell of a lot nicer for you I suspect."
"No. No… I have come this far. I cannot give up now. Very well, let us go and do this thing."
I got up and trudged towards the human ship where it hulked low above the trees like some black metal fortress. Once another drone zipped towards us, but it fell to the ground with a crash.
"Primitive," Armana-Gurbax said in satisfied tones. "Very primitive." I realized that in some fierce mechanical way the drone was enjoying this.
We walked up to the side of the ship without any further interruption. A heavy metal door slid up to let us in, and then another inside that. The interior of the ship was cool and smelt metallic. The light seemed bluey-white to my eyes and it came from white panels in the roof. Faint whirring and mechanical sounds could be heard.
"This way," the drone said, leading me down a corridor.
We emerged into a room with many lights and buttons arranged in sloping arrays and consoles. Glowing lights played across the surfaces. A human male sat in a large throne before an array of lights. As we entered, he turned to gape at us and tried to get up, but he stiffened and fell back in his chair. The lights went out and the mechanical noises stopped. After a second the overhead lights flickered and came back on, dimmer than before.
The drone shone a hard white light on the human. "You are Roul Milnar," it stated.
"Who are you? What do you want?’
"None of that matters in the slightest. You can’t move because I’ve locked your power armor. Even if you could move it would be no good reaching for the guns in the locker by your right knee, because I’ve taken the liberty of frying them all. The only reason you’re not dead now is because this female wants to ask you some questions. Answer her questions and then we can be on our way."
"What? What is this? Who are you?"
My attention was distracted by the sight of a small object on a shelf. It was the sacred stone. I went over and picked it up. There were other things on the shelf, gold and statues and jewelry. I left them alone. The Sacred stone was smaller than I remembered, just a small clear orb of glass or quartz with a warm light glowing in it’s heart.
"What are you doing? Don’t touch that! Put that back!" the man commanded.
"It is our sacred stone. It belongs to us."
"You don’t even know what it is! You stupid primitives, worshiping a glowing rock – It’s a Thrintun hyperdrive core from the third expansion. Your ‘sacred stone’ is over fifteen thousand years old. Heaven knows how it ended up in your hands, you have no idea what it’s worth."
"It is our sacred stone. It was a gift from the Goddess herself. It heals. It was passed from hand to hand for generations. It belongs to us."
"That’s a waste. You don’t need a Thrintun hyperdrive for that, you could just go to the clinic at the settlement."
"We don't need to. We have our sacred stone."
"Yes.. We are primitive." I turned to look him in the eye. "Why did you kill my people? Do you hate us?"
"They attacked me! They wouldn’t listen and then they attacked me. I was defending myself!"
He believed it. I could sense it. It smelt like he was telling the truth. A shock ran through me and I felt a chill. It was impossible. "The temple is a place of peace. Everyone is welcome there. Everyone is safe. Nobody, nobody would have attacked you there. Not while you were in the sanctuary."
"They attacked me," the man repeated with some satisfaction and hope growing in his voice, perhaps sensing that there might be a way out of this after all. "They came at me and I defended myself. They were screaming, running, but they kept coming at me, more and more. I had no choice."
I sighed and closed my eyes, concentrating, trying to understand. What he said was impossible, wasn’t it? After a moment I guessed. "You wore armor. You carried a weapon…" A smell of burning, acrid and unpleasant, still rose from the locker the drone had mentioned.
"Of course I did. It was a primitive planet, a dangerous environment."
"You came for the stone. You wanted to steal it?"
"I offered to buy it! They refused to listen and then they attacked me!"
"The stone is sacred. It is not for sale."
"That’s what they said. They refused to listen. They had no idea what it was worth!"
"So… You got angry? You made threats? You waved your gun around? You started shouting."
"They attacked me."
"No." She sighed deeply, and tears began to leak from her eyes. "You frightened the children."
"What? There were no children there."
"Yes there were. In my race the body grows to it’s full size in a year or two, but the mind takes many years to grow. We keep our children in the safest place we have, the place where nobody would dare to hurt them, our sacred place, our place of peace. We keep our children in the temple."
"I didn’t know!"
"Anyone would have told you if you had asked. You shouted and waved your gun and frightened the children. They screamed and ran. You panicked and started shooting."
"There were soldiers, with armor and weapons!"
"The Guardians, trying to protect the children."
"They kept charging me! More and more of them! They wouldn’t stop. I had to keep shooting. They wouldn’t stop until there were none left!"
"Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts. They were trying to stop you from killing their children." I sank to the floor and wept, broken anew at the tragedy, the senselessness of it.
"All right. I think that’s enough." Armara-Gurbax said. "It’s time to end this. Fawn, close your eyes."
The drone threw a black field around me, like a thick cloth, cutting out the light. I couldn’t see, but I could hear noises. When it was over the drone picked me up with it's fields, it was like floating in water. It carried me outside then removed the cloak so I could see again.
"Is it over?" I asked.
"It is finished."
I turned back and frowned at the metal side of the ship, rising above us like a cliff, the door sealed tight. "Are you just going to leave this here?"
"Sure. I’ve dumped the reactor and sealed the port. Let it rust for all I care. You don’t want it, do you? The Point of Diminishing Returns will take you home, or anywhere else you want to go."
"Oh." I turned and walked down to the river, the humming drone following behind. After a while I said, "I thought he would kill me."
The drone wobbled from side to side, fields shimmering briefly, perhaps, a shrug. "Yeah, he might have, I guess, if I wasn’t here."
"Yes." I felt numb and tired. I sat and stared into the water for a while, loosing myself in it’s shimmering reflected sunlight. I held the sacred stone in my hoof and cried again. I cried for Raoul, that poor waste of a human. There had been too much killing, too much death. All life was precious, even his. I should have stopped the drone from killing him. I should have tried.
My hoof shook. I wanted to throw the glowing stone into the river and be done with it. It has caused so much death, so much suffering. But I did not. It had been a gift from the Goddess. It was not my place to throw it away – it belonged to all my people. I thrust it into the pouch on my belt.
I got up, dried my eyes and walked away.
The drone hovered in mid-air, watching her go, it’s fields shimmered again, more pronounced than before, and they took on a darker tone, showing it's frustration. The Point of Diminishing Returns wanted it to look after her and protect her from harm, so after a moment it turned and moved off, following her.
We spent, I don't know, a few weeks on Salust. There were wide, hot grasslands, good grazing if rather tough. The local predators would have made a meal of me early on if it wasn't for the drone. It blasted anything that attacked me with it's rays or sliced them up with it's fields. I begged it not to kill them, and for the most part I think it obeyed, more or less. The smarter predators soon learned to avoid us.
We didn't talk. The drone tried a few times, but I was too lost in misery to respond. We wandered across that parched landscape in silence.
Eventually my depression lifted, and I found myself wondering if the first snows had fallen on my village. Had they gotten the crops in in time? My winter coat was hot and itchy. I longed for the crisp smell of winter air. It was time to go home.
The drone led me back to the shuttle. The landscape seemed new to me, I had drifted across it in a dream, hardly noticing it. We got into the shuttle and it floated up into the air as gently as thistledown. The sky turned purple, then black. The stars came out and Salust shrank away below.
Point of Diminishing Returns had left about it's own business. We were on our own. The drone put me to sleep for the trip back, explaining that it could take months, and there was not enough food, air or water aboard to keep me alive. But Light came and picked us up and two weeks later I awoke in her forest at dawn. Three days later we were home.
Light woke me in the middle of the night to tell me. "We're here. We've arrived at Isruly. Your shuttle is waiting."
The forest was cool and misty. Soft glowing pink flowers covered the tree-trunks. I entered the shuttle with Light and the dark trees fell away below. Soon we were surrounded by a sea of bright stars. We fell towards the dark world below.
The sky ahead of us turned blue and the sun came up much faster than normal, I could see it move. Clouds were streaming past and we plunged into them.
"Well, Fawn, I guess this is it. How do you feel to be home?"
"Good." I smiled and patted my belly. "I'm glad to be home. Thank you for your help."
Light smiled back. "I hope that we will never meet again. I hope you'll never need us again."
"I will remember you."
"And I you. Farewell, Fawn."
We touched down on the village green just after dawn. Light and the shuttle vanished. It was cold. There were patches of snow on the ground, and my breath steamed. The temple seemed smaller. The grave mound was much as I remembered it, a sad, bare hump of earth. In Spring the grass would grow on it.
Wheatgrass sauntered over. "Well, the things you see when you get up for a quiet piss in the morning. Welcome home, Fawn."
"Wheatgrass! You survived!" We hugged.
"Of course I survived, you don't get to be as old as I am without being tough, lassie. The human medicines helped. "
"So what have you been up to, Lassie. We were worried about you."
"I went after the killer. I had to know why he had done it."
"Goddess, Lassie, you shouldn't have gone by yourself. I would have gone with you. Well, someone would have."
"Anyway, I'm back now. And I brought this." I took the sacred stone out of my pouch and held it in my hoof, glowing softly.
"Goddess. The sacred stone."
"Who's the new priestess? I should give it to her. Who did you choose?"
"Goddess, lassie, we didn't choose anyone. How could we? There was no priestess to choose, no sacred stone to give her."
"Then who should I give it to."
"Whoever you choose, Priestess. Fawn, you hold the sacred stone, that means you are the priestess. It passes from hand to hand, from priestess to priestess. The stone has passed to you. The Goddess has chosen."
"What? Oh. Oh Goddess. I guess I see what you mean. I hadn't thought of it that way. Oh dear. I don't think I'm ready to be a priestess."
"You'll get the hang of it, lassie. Priestess. Someone has to be Priestess, and it looks to me like you've been chosen."
"I guess I'll have to. Um, I've been thinking. It's too dangerous to leave the sacred stone out in plain sight. It attracts predators. We need to make a hiding place, under one of the temple flagstones I think. We only bring it out for healing. We tell outsiders that the killer stole it."
"Aye. That sounds sensible."
"Can you make the hiding place? You have tools."
"Aye, I'll get right on it."
"Thanks. And Wheatgrass..."
"I don't think there's any need to talk about how I arrived, is there? The flying and everything? I really want to get back to normal now. No more excitement or adventures."
"Normal sounds good, Priestess. Your secret is safe with me."
I looked down at the stone and sighed, it's gentle beauty, the warm healing glow that had caused so much death and suffering. It seemed I wasn't going to be rid of it that easily. I shoved it back in the pouch.
"Fawn! It is you! You're back!" Even as I looked up I was engulfed in North Wind's hug and almost knocked to the ground. "And you're pregnant!"
"Of course I'm pregnant, North Wind. It's winter. All hind are pregnant at this time of year."
"Yes, but you're you! And you're pregnant, and back, and everything. I missed you! Congratulations!"
"There's so much to show you. Everybody came, from all the villages, and some of them are going to stay. There are humans here! Thistledown borrowed your hut, I said you wouldn't mind. Everybody helped. Holly and I are making a water wheel. Come see, oh, come see, come see! Come and meet everyone! I've got so much to show you!"
I smiled and nodded my apologies to Wheatgrass, letting myself be dragged away. North Wind had so much to show me. I smiled again and caressed my stomach with my hoof. "Maybe," I murmured, "In a few months I'll have something to show you."
|Ten Fathom Station||The Hissy King|
|The Return||Knight and Dragon|
|House of Three Faces||Another World|