Authors: Alexander Key
“I've heard about it,” he interrupted. “There was an emergency call a few minutes agoâwe've got to get over there fast. Feed Doubtful while I find some tools and sacks.”
They were soon on their way with shovels and containers, and tools to break through the wreckage.
n the wet dawn the youngest herder listened silently while the oldest herder told what had happened.
The hunters have the creature bottled up in a canyon, but there are not enough of them to go in after it. It's a dangerous spot, and the beast has every advantage. So they've sent for more men, and extra weapons. They plan to circle the canyon rim and blast the thing to death.
The youngest herder swallowed, but said nothing.
Well,” the other went on, “aren't you happy to hear about it? They'll kill it now. They'll blow it to pieces. Isn't that what you wanted?
The youngest herder turned away. “I
I don't know â¦
t his first sight of the wrecked storage building Boy Jaim could only gape with a feeling of sick shock and disbelief. Everyone who saw it that morning had the same reaction. This just couldn't happen. The men who had planned the storehouse long ago had built it well. It was proof against the elements. It had to be, because it housed the extra food the Five Communities depended upon in an emergency.
Now the greatest emergency in memory was upon themâand here was the dreadful fact of collapsed walls burying everything inside under tons of rock, and a smashed roof funneling mud and rain into it.
It seemed impossible that the Golden One, with all his incredible strength, could have brought about such destruction. But he had. Boy Jaim saw the trench that had been cunningly clawed around part of the building, allowing the deluge of rain to wash out the foundation. For hours torrents had been pouring into the wreckage, soaking the grain. Mud, washed down from the higher ground, had already ruined much of it. If any of the remainder was to be saved, it would have to be done quickly.
People from Central were already frantically at work when Boy Jaim and L'Mara ran to help. Others were hurrying toward them from all directions. They toiled like Trojans, prying away stones and cutting holes through the roof to reach the grain. While grim members of the archery teams stood guardâfor who was to say the beast wouldn't return and attack the crowd?âshovel squads worked madly to fill containers with soggy masses of stuff, which were flown to the nearest homes to be dried out.
The rewards for so much effort were unpleasantly small. By the middle of the afternoon hardly a tenth of the building's contents had been removed. The rest, lost in a soupy mixture of mud and debris, was beyond recovery.
Back home at last, Boy Jaim spread the final half-filled bag upon the flagstones in the main room. Here a fire had been kindled in the long-cold fireplace and the solar heat turned on. L'Mara's mother had flown over to help her, and the two were on their knees, trying to spread out the few bushels of sticky salvage so it would dry better. It covered the floor in a curious mix of mud-stained corn, wheat, and several kinds of beans.
The same scene, Boy Jaim knew, was being repeated in dozens of houses all around the area. Wearily he drew off his rain jacket and wet boots, then slumped down near the hearth to get the chill out of his body. Slowly his fists clenched and his jaws knotted.
Tira, straightening her tired back, glanced at him and sadly shook her golden head. “What's the matter, Boy Jaim?”
“Nothing,” he mumbled.
She sighed. “Yes, there is. I can't pick up your thoughts like L'Mara, but I can guess what you're thinking. You're blaming yourself for what happened.”
He stared at her a moment, biting his lip. Suddenly he exclaimed, “Well, isn't it my fault? Isn't it? If I'd killed the Golden Oneâand I could have if I'd triedâif I'd killed him when everyone wanted me to, we wouldn't be in this trouble now. We'd still have the storehouse.”
“Possibly so. But you did what you believed was rightâthat's the main thing.”
“But maybe I wasn't so right, after all. I mean, how can you be right if you make other people suffer? If I'd killed the bearâ”
“No! Stand up for what you believe in. I was very upset about last night, but at the same time I was proud of you for saying what you did to Bors and the others. There's no excuse for senseless killing. I thought we'd progressed beyond that kind of thing, but it seems we haven't â¦”
Tira paused and shook her head again. “I don't mean that a person shouldn't fight back if he's attacked. That's why I brought all our bows over. I don't think anyone should go outside now without being armed. Frankly IâI'm afraid. Why that awful monster hasn't already killed someone â¦”
Boy Jaim said, “I don't think he will. Not directly, anyway.”
“But didn't he attack you and Emmon?” asked L'Mara. “Andâand I'm sure he would have tried to kill
if we'd got any closer.”
“The only way I can figure that,” he told her, “is that he just wants to kill me.”
L'Mara gasped. “Kill you! But why?”
“I don't know why. Unless it's because I'm the only person who can talk to him. Maybe he doesn't want me to learn something.” He shrugged. “Anyway, that's how it looks. If he'd wanted to, I'm sure he could have killed lots of us very easily. What was there to stop him? But he knows what's coming, so he just decided to destroy our food and let nature finish us off.”
“You really don't think the rainâ”
“It's not the rain, L'Mara. I tell you, the rain's just part of something else.”
Tira's eyes were tragic. Almost in a whisper she said, “I can't understand it. It's like a nightmare. A beast like that, coming out of nowhere, hating us â¦” She looked up suddenly and asked, “If it isn't the rain, then what
it we have to worry about? Haven't you any idea at all?”
He shook his head wearily. “IâI can't even guess. But the Golden One knows. As soon as I've had some sleep, I'm going to try him againâ”
“No!” Tira exclaimed. “I can't allow youâ”
“I've got to,” he said determinedly. “Can't you see? I don't want to kill him, and I wouldn't have much excuse for not killing him if I didn't try to find out what he knows. If I keep after him, I'm bound to learn something. Even if I learn it only a few hours ahead of time, it'll give us all a chance to get ready and save ourselves.”
L'Mara said quickly, “A'right, but if you go, then I'm going with you!”
“Not this time. I may have to follow that bear around, and pester him for days. I know more about him now, and with Doubtful to help I'll be safe enough. Anyway,” he added, “I'd rather have someone home I can keep in contact with all the time. It may be very important.”
” she told him silently. “
But you be careful, âcause if anything happened to you I'd, well, I'd just die.
“That works both ways,” he replied, as he got down on the floor and began helping them spread the grain.
Aw, I'm just a little girl to you. I just remind you of a squirrel â¦
What's wrong with that? You also look like Tiraâ
I don't! She's beautiful!
Sure, but that doesn't make you ugly.
Her jaw dropped, and she stared at him in such wide-eyed astonishment that he might have laughed if he hadn't been so exhausted. Didn't she realize that in a year or two she'd be the most stunningâThen his hands clenched as he stared out at the rain. In a year or two, if the Golden One had his way, none of this would matter, because there wouldn't be a soul left in the Five Communities.
Tira said, “Why don't you go and get some sleep? You look ready to drop.”
“I'm all right. You need to rest more than I. You couldn't have had much sleep with that bunch of archers around all night.”
She gave a little shrug. “It doesn't matter. The main thing is this grain. We've got to get it dried out before it spoils. Oh, this awful rain! If it doesn't stop soonâ”
“It's getting worse. If you and L'Mara are going back to West Com this evening, maybe you'd better get started now. I'm afraid it's going to turn dark early again.”
She shook her head. “We're staying here. Andru's got his friends with himâthey're trying to plan how they can kill the bearâand they can all feed themselves.” She paused and frowned at him. “Boy Jaim, listen to me.”
“What is it?”
“When you go looking for that beast in the morning, I want you to take your bow.”
“IâI can't do it. If I go armed, he'll know it, and I'll never learn a thing from him.”
“You're sure of that?”
He nodded. “That's the way it has to be.”
The rain increased with the early dark, but at dawn it slackened again, as it had the day before, and continued steadily with no sign of letting up. Boy Jaim studied it with a vague feeling of dread. The dread turned into a black foreboding as he hurried through breakfast, hardly touching the food the others had fixed, and got ready to leave. He knew L'Mara felt it, then realized Tira did too. Was the world coming to an end today? It almost seemed like it.
At the last minute Tira ran and brought the case that held his bow and arrows. Again she tried to make him take it. “You must!” she insisted. “I can't have you go out and face that creature without some way of protecting yourself.”
For a moment he almost weakened. Then he thrust the case aside. “I've got to be honest with him,” he said grimly. “Can't you see? If I'm not, he'll know it, and I won't have a chance. He won't even listen to me.”
“Honest with a murderous beast like that?” she cried. “Why, he doesn't even know the meaning of the word!”
“Yes he does. He's honest in his wayâhe told me exactly how he felt about us, which sure wasn't much. Well, it's about time he heard another side of it â¦”
Tira shook her head despairingly and said no more. L'Mara, standing frozen and big-eyed beside her, did not speak until the house was out of sight behind him in the rain. Then she called silently, “
Please, Boy Jaim
please, please be careful! If he really wants to kill you, he'll try to trick you
so watch out for tricks.
He assured her that he'd keep his eyes open and told her to stop worrying. Then he gave his attention to the gray scene around him and headed slowly for North Com.
“I'm going to circle North Com and fly as low as I can,” he explained to Doubtful. “You ought to be able to whiff him somewhere. If we don't pick up his trail that way, we'll surely find it on the river. He's got to eat.”
“Phantoms don't eat,” Doubtful mumbled.
a phantom. How many times do I have to tell you that? He's just as real as we are. He may be big, but he's still a bear, and all the bears I know eat fish.”
The white dog hunched closer to him for warmth, then grumbled, “I never said he wasn't real. That's the whole trouble. I've seen and whiffed too many things like him in my sleepânow we've got one of âem for real, and you tell me he's not a phantom. But your kind is supposed to know more than my kind â¦”
“Oh, have it your own way. He's a real phantom, and he eats phantom fish. Stick your whiffer out of the window and keep whiffing, or we'll never find him in this rain.”
“It's not going to do us any good if we do find him. If we were half as smart as the birds, we'd be flying south.”
“Flying south! Whatever for?”
“To get away from here. Isn't that reason enough?”
Boy Jaim frowned. “Doubtful, have you noticed any birds flying south?”
“Sure. Heard lots of them the other night, before the goats came.”
So the birds had all flown away. No wonder they hadn't heard any singing. But why south? There was nothing down there but rocky hills full of caverns, then endless ocean, with strings of barren islets.
Then he remembered that at one time, according to old Emmon, birds and even some animals had migrated with the seasons. But that was ages ago when the winters were vicious and supposedly there were warm continents to the south. Or had the birds gone to the caverns?
He puzzled over the birds for a while, then forgot them as he caught sight of the flooded fields of North Com. All the low ground was under water. Ponds and widening lakes extended through much of the woods to join the distant river.
Somehow he hadn't realized how badly flooded the area had become. He'd had a feeling the Golden One would circle the Five Communities, but it was hardly likely with the water the way it was. As for fishing, that would be almost impossible with the rain-swollen river spread out over so much territory.
Where would the beast go?
Boy Jaim swung past the scattered houses on the higher ground and began cruising slowly over the wooded hills beyond them. Continually he sent his thoughts out, searching. It had always been easy for him to sense the presence of most creatures, if they were not too far away. But the Golden One was elusive. The other evening, before the big rain came, the monster had appeared suddenly without any warning.
“Can you whiff anything?” he asked presently.
“Not exactly,” Doubtful muttered unhappily.
“Huh? What do you mean by that?”
“He's just in the air, but nowhere near. Or maybe it's just that I know he's somewhere around and wish he wasn't. Why can't you forget him?”