Authors: Alexander Key
“Serpent?” Emmon shrilled impatiently. “What have serpents to do with it? Tell me what the beast said!”
“Whenâwhen I told him he had the wrong idea about us, he said we had the wrong idea about ourselves. Then he asked, were we so stupid that we would expect the serpent's brood to be other than serpents.”
Emmon stared at him. “
he called us!” Suddenly he shrilled, “But what's going to happen? Didn't you ask? Couldn't you find out?”
Boy Jaim swallowed. “I asked, but he refused to tell me. IâI couldn't find out a thing.”
Malla, mother of Tira, came over and said, “I know what's going to happen. It's happening right now. It's going to rain, and rain, and rainâ”
” Tira begged.
“Just listen to it!” Malla persisted. “Do you realize what it's doing to the fields in North Com and East Com? It's flooding them.”
them?” Andru repeated.
“Of course it's flooding them! Those areas always flood in a bad storm. It's happened several times in my memory. This year all the root crops are planted in those two areas. I
them not to do itâ”
“Heaven preserve us!” Emmon whispered. “No one can harvest a thing over in those fields now, and every last bit of the crop will rot in the ground. I wonder if that devilish bear knew it would rain like this?”
“I'm sure he did,” Boy Jaim told him. “That's why he drove the goats around to South Com instead of North Com.”
For a moment everyone was silent, listening fearfully to the rain. The stout old house shook with the sound of it. They might have been plunged under a monstrous cataract. How, Boy Jaim wondered, could the skies hold so much water to hurl upon them?
Then he became acutely aware that Bors was scowling at him.
“Where did you see the bear?” Bors demanded.
“Over by the river, south of East Com.”
“And you saw it too, L'Mara?”
L'Mara shivered. “Yes. IâI could hardly believe it. The thing was
Bors said, “Did you hear it talk to Boy Jaim?”
She looked up curiously at the big man. “You know I can't talk to animals the way Boy Jaim can. Nor can any of us do it. I can understand Doubtful, butâ”
“But you couldn't understand anything that may've been said between Boy Jaim and the bear?”
L'Mara's small mouth grew tight. “What are you trying to do, Bors?”
Bors growled, “Just wanted to find out the truth about this animal lover.” He snorted. “He's got a great imagination, so maybe he's been fooling himself as well as the rest of you. But he can't talk to animals any better than I can.”
“He can too!” L'Mara cried, and Boy Jaim said, “Bors, I think you've gone far enough.”
“I haven't started,” Bors replied grimly. “Instead of acting the idiot, pretending you can do something you can't, you should have killed that beast while you had the chance.”
“I agree,” Andru snapped.
“I didn't have my bow,” Boy Jaim told him. “Anyhow, I wouldn't have used it. I'm not going to killâ”
“Crazy fool animal lover!” Bors roared. “You'd actually let that beast stay alive and endanger everyone!”
“The bear's not the real danger!” Boy Jaim cried, “It's something else, and the rain's only part of itâ”
“Shut up!” Andru ordered. “I've had all the nonsense I can take out of you for one day.”
Emmon held up a hand in protest, managed to squeak out something about testing the poison, then his voice failed him entirely.
“Was that the excuse for killing goats?” Boy Jaim said furiously. “That they were testing the poison? Who did it?” His voice rose. “Who killed the goats?”
“I killed plenty of them!” Bors roared. “And I'd have killed more if there'd been time. What of it?”
“What of it? Whyâwhy, you're worse than the bear! You're a barbarian! That's what you areâa dirty, bloodthirsty barbarian!”
Andru seized him by the shoulder and jerked him about. “I'll not have that kind of talk in my house. Apologize to Bors!”
Boy Jaim tore away. “I won't do it. I meant what I said.” He stared around him and suddenly realized that Bors was not the only one who had killed today. Hiras had done it, and so had several others. He could see it in their eyes, and now it came to him with a shock that it had been done with Andru's approval and urging.
“Barbarians!” he cried, looking from one to the other. “We've gone for centuries and called ourselves civilized. Now all at once you start killing!”
“A goat's only a goat,” Hiras snapped back. “What's the difference? We should have got rid of a lot of them long ago.”
Andru said grimly, “Are you going to apologize?”
Andru's lips thinned. “You've turned against your own kind in favor of beastsâand now you've insulted people under this roof. If you refuse to apologize, you cannot remain here.”
“Then I'll leave.”
In the sudden silence as he whirled for the door, Boy Jaim was conscious of the thundering of the rain, and he could feel the anguish in L'Mara as she stood with her small fists pressed tight against her face, her eyes huge upon him. Then, at the door, he heard Tira gasp and call out to him.
“Wait!” Tira cried. “It's madness to leave on a night like this! Andru, you can't do this to him. You just can't!”
“He can apologize,” Andru said harshly.
Boy Jaim paused briefly at the door and glanced back at Andru. In a voice that did not sound like his own he managed to say, “You know how I feel about what's been done. I'll
In the next instant he had wrenched open the door and was rushing out into the rain.
He was too upset to think of the tarpaulin he and L'Mara had used earlier, and the roaring cataract that struck him drenched him in an instant. He made it to the sled and scrambled inside. Only now, as he sank shivering upon the seat, did he discover that Doubtful had come with him.
He drew the trembling dog close to him for warmth, then turned on the searchlight and tried to see through the rain. He found it difficult to distinguish anything more than two or three feet ahead. Had there been much wind it would have been impossible to use the sled. But by now the very weight of water coming down seemed to have stopped all movement of the air, and he was able to rise slowly and then cautiously feel his way out of the courtyard.
When he was above the lane that wound in the direction of Central, he came down close to the ground, adjusted the searchlight, and began following the dim footpath between the walls. Earlier he would have gone above the trees and trusted to the compass in his mind to take him straight to his destination. But in this incredible downpour he could not bring himself to lose contact with the earth. There were occasional houses on either side, though he had to guess when he passed one. The rain completely drowned the glow of every light.
A short distance from Andru's house the path he was following turned into a torrent. Later, on lower ground, the torrent became a series of spreading lakes. When he passed the final stone wall on the outskirts of West Com, there was nothing left to guide him and he was forced to depend entirely on instinct.
Every few minutes L'Mara would call and ask fearfully if he was all right. At last he told her, “
Stop worrying about me. I'll soon be out of it.
Where are you now?
” He supposed he was in Central for it seemed he'd been traveling for hours and he'd finally reached higher ground. A slight change in the sound of the rain made him think there must be buildings close on either side.
L'Mara said, “
Everyone but Emmon and Grandmother Malla believes there'll be nothing more to worry about when the rain stops
except the bear, of course. What do you think?
I've already said I think the rain's only part of it. Somehow I'm going to find out
He was interrupted by a low growl from Doubtful, and he asked quickly, “What is itâthe bear?”
“Yes. I whiffed him. Real faint in the rainâbut I think he's close.”
Instantly, Boy Jaim turned out the searchlight. He went on blindly, using the light only to locate the path when he had strayed into the trees.
He was aware of the worried questioning in L'Mara's mind, and he told her, “
Doubtful got a whiff of the bear somewhere behind us
what the thing's doing here, but I think we're safe â¦
He wasn't at all sure he was safe, and he was shaking with more than the cold as he tried to feel his way faster through the blackness. Once, above the roaring of the rain, he thought he heard a heavier and somehow different sound from the area back of them. He tried to tell himself it was only thunder in the distance, or perhaps a great tree that had fallen after having the ground washed away from its roots. Many great trees would fall tonight.
But as he rushed on, his thoughts finally centered on the bear. What was the Golden One doing in Central on a night like this? There had to be a reason.
The reason came to him more than an hour later, just as he was edging the sled along a wall toward a familiar gate. “Oh, no!” he gasped, as the truth struck him with shocking force.
Instantly L'Mara called in fright, “
What's happened? Where are you?
Before answering he caught up Doubtful and, leaving the sled on the path, hurriedly thrust open the gate and ran to the house.
Inside, while he tore off his sodden clothing and dug into a chest for a blanket, he told her, “
I'm all right
I'm home now
but I believe I know what the Golden One was doing in Central. He was wrecking the main storehouse.
He was aware of the shock in her as she replied, “
but that's where all the grains and dried things are kept! How awful! What are we going to do?
We can't do anything now. But everybody
had better get over there as soon as daylight comes, rain or no rain, and save what we can, or there won't be much to eat this winter
Wearily he drew another blanket from the chest, then pulled it over Doubtful and himself as he sank upon the nearest couch. As soon as the chill left him he knew he'd better get up, build a fire, and go searching for food. He hadn't had anything since early morning, and if he put off eating till dawn there might not be time for it. He was only guessing about the storehouse, but within him was the sickening conviction that the bear had wrecked it. It was exactly the sort of thing the Golden One would do.
As he stretched out under the blanket his hands clenched in sudden hate for the implacable creature who was bringing such hardship to the Five Communities. Hate was a strange and awful emotion; he'd never felt it quite like this before. Then it swiftly faded as the sleep of exhaustion washed over him.
Doubtful's sharp bark awoke him at daylight. He lay still a moment, rubbing his eyes and wondering where he was. From the way he felt he was sure he couldn't have been asleep very long. Not more than an hour or so. Was that a bell he'd heard?
Suddenly, as memory flooded back, he was startled by hearing the bell again. Its quick, repeated ringing came from the corner of the hall. The sound brought him to his feet and he hastily drew one of the blankets over his shoulders. It was the emergency signal of the radiophone.
For an instant he was surprised that the set was still in working order, though there was no reason why it wouldn't be. It was just that he hadn't heard it for so long. He ran to it, turned on the speaker, and went rigid as he heard an excited Councilman from Central announce the destruction of the main storehouse. Every able-bodied person was asked to come immediately and help save the food.
It was the news Boy Jaim had been expecting, yet actually hearing it was a shock. For long seconds after he had turned off the speaker, he stood clutching the blanket around him, trembling in the chill. Through the window beside him he could see that the rain was still falling, though it was no longer the blinding deluge of last night. It was frightening, just the same, to feel the bite of winter in the airâand look out upon a world still covered with midsummer green.
What was going to happen? While people tightened their belts, would it turn colder and colder and colder?
All at once, with a despairing shake of his head, he began running through the house, searching for dry clothes. He found some old things of this father's and discovered they fitted him perfectly. It gave him a strange feeling to be wearing Big Jaim's clothes. He hadn't realized he'd grown so much.
He was very aware of his hunger by now. It was suddenly gnawing in him, but there wasn't time to cook any of the dried stuff stored in the lower level. The best he could do was open a jar of fruit his mother had put up years ago. It was much too sweet, though it took the edge from his appetite. Doubtful sniffed his share of it, then looked up at him reproachfully. It wasn't the sort of thing a dog could eat.
He was wondering what he could find to feed poor Doubtful, when he heard the door to the courtyard being quickly opened and closed. Reaching the hall, he saw L'Mara with a heavy basket in her hand. It was full of things to eat.
Her small face was pinched from lack of sleep, but her big eyes were popping. “I also brought your clothes,” she said in a rush. “They're out in the sled.” Then she burst forth excitedly, “No one would believe me last night when I told them what you said about the bear wrecking the storehouse. But he did! I just now flew by itâand there it was, all squashed down with the roof broken over it and the rain pouring in! Itâit just makes you sick! What are we ever, everâ”