Authors: Alexander Key
“That impossible beast!” Emmon's voice was squeaky with strain. “For the life of me I can't imagine where he came from, or what he's got against us. But he's got a grievance of some kind.”
“Grievance?” said Andru, his long face sharpening.
“Absolutely. Where do you think those goats went after we drove them out of West Com?”
“I'd hoped they'd keep going straight on over the hills. Didn't they?”
“No,” said Emmon. “They turned toward South Com. And when they're driven from there, I'm quite sure they'll head for East Com, and finally for North Com or Centralâwherever they'll do the most damage.” He sighed and shook his head. “But everybody's been warned, and they're out putting up barriers now. So maybe the destruction won't be too great.”
Andru stared at him. “Are you telling us that those confounded goats are actually being driven around the Five Communities?”
“I am. I haven't sighted the beast yet, but there's no doubt about what he's doing. There are dead goats in the pasturesâstrays that tried to get away when they were driven here. One of them was struck so hard” the Elder paused a moment, looking sick, “âthat it landed high up in the branches of an oak tree.”
There were gasps, followed by a shocked silence. Then Tira's mother, a thin, quiet woman named Malla, said solemnly, “It has begun.”
has begun, Mother?” There was a note of fright in Tira's voice.
“The Time of Trouble. Everyone knows the prediction.”
Boy Jaim had heard the prediction all his life. Where it had come from he didn't know, but it was one of those things people always repeated with a laugh because it seemed so silly. It didn't seem silly now, and the thought of it brought a sudden unpleasant prickling down his spine.
Man will be afflicted by hoof and claw, and there will follow a time of trouble
One of the neighbors grumbled, “Well, we've sure had it by hoof and claw. Maybe Malla's right.”
“Malla's always right,” Zimah muttered. “I think the Trouble has started.”
Tira's frightened eyes turned to her father. Suddenly she cried, “Oh, this is a lot of nonsense! Why don't we forget what's happened and start planting again? If we hurry, surely there'll be time to raise another crop. Don't you think so, Andru?” She glanced at her husband.
“Yes,” said Andru. “But first we'd better do something about that beast. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted by what we're up against. When Boy Jaim first told meâ” He shook his head and went on, “We'll have to call an immediate meeting of the Council and decide what steps to take.” He looked at Emmon. “Don't you think so, Elder?”
“That's the logical thing to do,” old Emmon replied. “But I'm afraid,” he added, spreading his thin hands, “that logic isn't going to help us now. We cannot change what will be. It is in the stars.”
Startled, Boy Jaim looked at him curiously. He heard his uncle say almost angrily, “Don't tell me, Elder, that you believe in that foolish prediction!”
“I'm not thinking of the prediction,” old Emmon said mildly. “It's the stars I'm concerned about. I studied them last night, and I don't like what they tell me. We
in for trouble.”
“What kind of trouble, Elder?”
“I don't know yet, Andru. But my advice is not to attempt a second planting this year. The seed will be wasted. If the goats damage some of the more important fields in the other communities, we cannot afford to waste a single handful of seed.”
“But skies above,” Andru protested, “we've plenty of dried stuff put away for emergencies. In a pinch we could use some of that for seed. To hear you talk, we're in for a famine!”
“We may be, Andru. All I know is that the planets and the stars are in positions they haven't been in for a millennium. Certain delicate balances are in danger of being upset. Almost anything can happen.”
“After a goat invasion,” Andru growled, “I'd say it's already happened. If we don't get rid of the devilish beast that's driving them, we'll have goats breaking into our houses next.” He stood up grimly and added, “I'm going to call an immediate meeting of the Council.”
Boy Jaim watched him stride into an alcove and begin stabbing at the buttons of a radiophone on the desk. A certain combination of buttons could send a signal to any other phone in the Five Communities, or alert all the phones at the same time. Andru said into the transmitter, “This is Councilman Andru of West Com making an emergency call. Please notify all Elders and Councilmen that an immediate meeting of the Council is requested. I repeat: This is Councilman Andru making an emergency call â¦”
Boy Jaim contrived to go with Emmon when they flew to the Council Hall at Central.
“Please don't fly straight there,” he said. “Let's swing around over South Com and see if the goats have broken through the walls. We've time enough.”
“Well â¦” Reluctantly the Elder turned southward. He muttered, “I think it's the bear you're concerned about, far more than the goats.”
“You don't want him killed.”
Boy Jaim burst out, “Do you think it's right to kill him before we find out what's wrong?”
“Certainly not. It's bad for man to kill. Very bad. But my personal feelings hardly matter. There are ten Elders, and twenty-five Councilmen. If all the Councilmen vote to kill the beastâand I'm sure they willâit will take all the Elders to turn them down. You know that will never happen.”
“Butâbut couldn't you sort of delay things? I mean, if I just had time to talk to him, maybeâ”
“Ha! Do you really believe you can talk to the creature?”
“IâI think so. Anyway, I can try.”
“That might be very dangerous, my boy. If the Golden One will kill goats, he probably will kill man if he has the chance. I've already warned everyone not to go walking far abroad until something is done. Great stars, do you realize the position we're all in? A strange and vicious animal, a killer, has appeared suddenly in our land. He threatens our very existenceâand we don't even possess a weapon we can use to defend ourselves. We'll have to hurry and
Boy Jaim hadn't considered this side of it. Now, with a shock, he realized the Elder was right. The peace between man and beast had been in effect so long that it had hardly seemed possible the Five Communities could be in actual danger. But of course they were.
As for weapons â¦
It was a little hard to think about weapons, for people hadn't needed such things for ages. The ancients in the day of the wheel had used something called a gun, but he wasn't sure how it worked. The only gun he'd ever seen was an odd-looking relic in the museum at Central, so eaten with rust that only pieces of it remained. Andru had once said it was a laser, and that to make one like it would be a simple matter. Maybe so. But Andru often spent weeks making some complicated thing he called simple.
On the other hand lots of people, including L'Mara and himself, went in for archery. His West Com team, in fact, had beaten all the others. Target arrows wouldn't have much effect against a creature like the Golden One, but they'd be better than nothing in an emergency. It occurred to him that a sharp metal-tipped arrow, coated with poison, might be the easiest way to destroy the bear. It was a horrible thought, and instantly he blanked it from his mind for fear someone might pick it up.
“I've about decided,” old Emmon was saying, “that the beast is demented. Has that occurred to you, Boy Jaim?”
“Whyâwhy no, sir. It could be sort of crazy, but somehow I don't believe it is.”
“Then why is it driving the goats? Why is it trying to plague us? What has it got against us? Hal I say the beast has a devilish bee in its bonnetâand that amounts to dementia.”
“Well, it's sure got something in its bonnet,” Boy Jaim admitted. “But it can't be really crazy, or the other animals wouldn't have listened to it. I mean, it took an awful lot of brainsâor some sort of mental powerâto turn everything against us.”
“Everything? Even the birds?”
“I haven't seen a bird since I came home yesterday. Have you?”
Emmon tugged at his beard and peered out over the pastures sliding by beneath them. “H'mm. Come to think of it, I haven't even heard a cricket chirp lately. I don't like it.”
Boy Jaim swallowed. “Don't you see? That's why I've just
to try to talk to it and find out what's wrong. If you vote to kill it, what's going to happen to all the other creatures? Will the birds come back? Will the animals ever be friendly again? I'll bet they won't!” It was an intolerable thought, and it made him a little ill.
They were approaching the first walled lanes of South Com now, and beyond the lush gardens that circled the houses they could glimpse the ripening fields that filled the lower valley. So far they had sighted no goats, not even a stray. But as they swung around the base of a hill, Emmon suddenly gasped, and Boy Jaim saw a great mass of goats breaking from the cover of the woods high up on the right. They plunged down the slope in a solid tide upon the nearest field. The outer wall of the field had a recent break in it that had not yet been repaired. The goats were being driven straight for the weak point.
“The cunning beast!” Emmon exclaimed. “He herded those goats around out of sight, then turned them at just the right place. Nothing can stop them now. My warning didn't do any good.”
Boy Jaim could hear startled shouts and see people running in the distance. But they were too late to stem the tide. The field was already being overrun, and some of the frightened goats were even crashing through the gates into the adjoining fields. In a short time all of South Com would be trampled as badly as West Com.
The Elder shook his head and swung the air sled around. “There isn't a thing that can be done to help them. We'd better go. I can't be late to the meeting.”
“Wait!” Boy Jaim begged. “The bear must be close. I'll bet he's right up there on the hill somewhere, watching the whole thing. Let's see if we can locate him.”
“There isn't time. We ought to be at the Council Hall now.”
“But it'll hardly take a minute. I know that hill. There's a spot up there beside a big oak where you can see the whole valley. I'm sure he's there! No one's had even a glimpse of him yet, and this is our chance!”
Emmon frowned, then shrugged. “Oh, very well. Perhaps it would be wise. Seeing him might give us a better understanding of what we're up against.”
vening had come again, and the youngest herder climbed the slope to where the oldest herder stood waiting.
To his question, the oldest herder shook his head. “No, I haven't heard a word. Somehow I believe the beast has fooled the hunters. It's probably escaped.
You want it to escape!” the youngest herder accused, suddenly seeing a truth he had not realized before.
Maybe I do, son. There are so few creatures like it left. Don't you think it has a right to live?
Of course not! It's a killer! It
I know. But what made it that way? We've been on this planet some time, and we've done a lot of killing ourselves. Who gave us that right?
he Elder swung the covered sled around in a wide circle to the other side of the hill. Carefully, at treetop level, they approached the open area at the top. Finally, Boy Jaim pointed to an ancient tree growing amid a jumble of boulders. “That's the place,” he whispered, trying to see into the sun-dappled shade beyond the rocks. “He ought to be there somewhere â¦”
“I can't make out anything,” Emmon muttered. “We'll have to get closer.”
Something warned Boy Jaim that they were close enough already. He tried to tell Emmon to turn aside, but his tongue seemed momentarily paralyzed.
He had entirely forgotten Doubtful, who had followed him aboard and had curled up to sleep in the back of the cabin. Now suddenly the small white dog leaped forward, bristling and barking. Doubtful's sharp bark, seldom used except in an emergency, jerked Boy Jaim out of his trance. On the instant his vision seemed to clear. Instead of the uncertain pattern of bright sunlight on rocks, he saw the incredible shape of the bear.
Its shadowed outline blended with the rocks, and it was so huge that his eyes had simply been unable to accept it at first. There was a long second when time seemed to stand still while he stared at it, an endless instant when he became aware of a hundred things about it that he would never forget. There was its size, so much greater than he'd dreamed. Then its color where the sun touched itâthe exact gleaming gold of Tira's hair. There was the immediate feeling of coiled grace ready to explode into movement, which other bears didn't have. And most startling of all, there were its eyesâwhich were looking directly into his own. Black eyes, cold and knowing. Intelligent eyes â¦
the eyes seemed to be urging him.
Doubtful's sharp bark came again, and in a flash Boy Jaim reached for the control lever, where old Emmon's hand seemed to be frozen. As the air sled bobbed upward, the coiled grace of the Golden One exploded into motion. Had the bear's leap come a fraction of a second sooner, the sled would have been smashed to bits. As it was, one mighty sweeping paw barely touched a corner of it, but it was enough to send the sled spinning like a leaf in a whirlwind.
When the shocked Elder was able to stop the spinning and gain control, Boy Jaim looked back wonderingly at the great bear. It had moved into the open and now stood calmly watching them as if nothing had happened.