Chapter 21: Conclusion
Next day, the clean-up began. The dead lay everywhere, nearly three thousand of them - mostly Coyotes. The remaining Hares - they had lost almost three-quarters of their initial 200-strong force - started by piling their dead for burning. There were just too many to bury. Then one of the Akkelahn dragged a dead soldier from his Army to the pile. The Hares looked at him strangely for a moment, then shrugged and carried on with their grim task. The Hare commander Ben, of course, didn't even notice, sitting as he was by his husband's blanket-covered body.
Of the Akkelahn, only 13 soldiers had been lost, two of them were of the three sibling Black-Face Coyote ex-patriots. They had gone too far in proving their resolve and courage to the other Akkelahn. Be that as it may though, resolve and courage had been proved, and the rest of the soldiers felt pity for the lone brother remaining alive. Not that they said anything to him to that effect, of course. It was just understood.
Tristan, Taylor, and Gordon trekked back to their ruined wagon to see if it could be repaired, and more importantly retrieve any of the fairy-tale books that they Coyotes hadn't destroyed. As it turned out, they Coyotes hadn't touched any of them, hadn't even broken open the crates to see what they were. At the time, they'd been in pursuit of the Restoration of World Order, and it hadn't mattered to them. Teesah, of course, had to stay behind while her ankle healed. She didn't argue the matter with Gordon. She was only too happy to stay off her feet - it hurt like hell.
The dead Coyotes were piled separately. When Lee saw that, she flew into a rage, demanding that Backoh explain to her what difference it made - the dead were the dead, after all. He dismissed her with a wave of his hand and a roll of his eyes, and Lee spent a solid hour cursing him in every language she knew. She thought Backoh was a stubborn old man with old-fashioned ideals, and Backoh thought Lee was an idealistic kid with little life-experience in the Real World. And they each thought the other was "stupid", of course.
Wood was cut and piled, the fires were set, and everyone settled down to eat and rest and think about what to do next. They weren't soldiers anymore. The "Army" had been an ad-hoc conglomeration, and now the reason for it was gone, so what now?
The Desert Hares were out-laws according to their own Council of Elders back in the Valley. No doubt they'd be welcomed back as heroes, now that the war had been won, but really, what was the point of going back to that desolate, dry, paranoid hole in the desert? They'd just won an entire mountain-range for themselves! Their ancestral homeland! Would they just leave it now? Not likely.
As for the Akkelahn, they were also thinking that this seemed like a nice place, and they too had fought for it. Like the Valley of the Hares, they too came from a desert village. Here, they had rolling grass-covered foothills, forest and mountains on one side, and desert on the other, in case anyone really wanted to live there. This place seemed good. Those who had families began to consider the prospect of moving them.
Moving them to... what? There was nothing here. Not a building, not a tent, not a privy - nothing. At the very least they'd need tools to start from scratch, and they had none with them. And they would have to stake out lands. How much? And where? Where would the new town be, if there was to be one? Who was going to make these decisions?
Well, for now it was good enough just to be alive - to eat, tend their wounds, rest, and mourn the dead. As for all the all that other stuff... they would just have to wait and see.
"Sir! We've captured a spy, sir!" an overly-excited young horse shouted at Backoh as he was changing the dressing on Laura's thigh.
"The war's over, son - you can stop calling me 'sir'. And what do you mean 'a spy'?"
"Yes sir! Uh, I mean... yes, Captain. Uh..."
"Never mind. Where is this 'spy'?"
"Oh. We're bringing her, sir. We found her lurking around the edge of the camp - an enemy spy!"
"Don't jump to conclusions about that quite yet. Spies generally have to spy for someone. Let's see what he wants."
"It's a she, sir!"
"Well then, let's see what she wants then. But stick around, son. In case you're right."
Backoh sighed. He'd had enough of being a leader, for awhile. Trouble with that is - once established, it's hard to drop that mantle ever again.
Some other ex-soldiers brought up the frightened-looking Coyote.
"My language?" he asked her.
"All right then, let's make it easy: what were you doing here? My people think you're a spy..."
She answered haltingly, trying to find the right words on the fly, "Me come... by... Medicine-woman. See by Black-Face. When fight great. Need Medicine-woman. By... big hurt... much."
Backoh glanced at the messenger, "You get any of that?"
"I think she's talking about Lee, sir - she was tending to the Coyote wounded during the fighting. I think she wants her to-"
"I'll get my things," Lee said. She'd seen the prisoner being man-handled through the camp by her guards, and wanted to make sure no harm came to her.
"You'll do no such thing. You're needed here, Lee - we can't spare you in order to make the enemy more comfortable."
"What 'enemy'? The battle is over, Backoh. Let her go - I need her to show me-"
"I forbid it!"
"Very well, I'll see if I can find them myself," Lee said in defiance, and asked the Coyote woman, "Where? Which way?" The woman pointed North.
"See here, Lee-"
"Try and stop me," Lee said simply, and turned to go.
"Lee! Gods damn it!" Backoh spat, and then turned to the horse still waiting, "You! What's your name?"
"You go with her Jace - see what the hell's going on. If you're not back here in an hour, we'll send a patrol out looking for you. Got it? Dammit... and take this woman back too. But keep an eye on her - got it?"
"And stop calling me... oh... forget it."
An hour and ten minutes later, as Backoh was assembling the 10-man patrol to go after them, Jace showed up again, out of breath and naked but for his under-clothes.
"Sir!" he said between pants.
"I said one hour, didn't I? Now what - my god man - where are... is Lee in danger?"
"No, sir, she's fine. Maybe a little overwhelmed - there's a lot of them sir, maybe a hundred. I stayed to help as long as I could but-"
"Well... Lee can be... she needed a lot of stuff, sir. They have nothing out there, not even a fire. Absolutely nothing. She made me give her my clothes to use as bandages. Then I had to go get some sticks for splints and-"
"No fighting? No ambush?"
"No sir. Just wounded. And some wives and husbands, kids..."
"Kids? They have families?"
"Yes... sir. Of course they have families. What's left of them anyway. We were fighting the entire Tribe, they said. They left the little kids behind before they mobbed us, but other than that, it was everyone. They don't have special soldiers or anything."
"Gods..." Backoh berated himself. Yes, of course they had families. They were - or had been - the enemy, but they were still people. "Well then-"
"Sir - I have to get back, as soon as I can round up some more cloth. Maybe a few blankets. Oh - and we need-"
"I'll get the blankets - meet you back here in 5, Jace!," one of the members of the patrol (an elk - a species known for being big-hearted) spoke up and ran off. Others began to chime in too. Soon Backoh was left standing there, bewildered, with just Jace.
"Uh... am I dismissed sir? I really need to go and-"
"I'll meet you back here, Mr. Jace. I guess I'd better see this for myself. I imagine they need food and water, too?"
By the first light of morning the last of the wounded Coyotes had been moved into camp. By that evening, over twenty of them had died anyway. Nonetheless, there were still more wounded, or orphaned, Coyotes in the camp than there were Akkelahn and Hares combined. In fact, there were nearly as many unwounded Coyotes as there were Akkelahn and Hares.
The Ben wandered back into camp in the morning - he'd been off by himself all night - and looked around at the scene in astonishment. As he gawked, a cougar with an armful of what looked like garlic passed him, and told him that Backoh could be found "over by the tree". Ben didn't need to ask which tree. There was only one for half a mile around. When Ben commented that the cat was carrying a awful lot of garlic, he smiled and said guiltily, "It's the only plant I recognize that I know you people can eat... I don't know much about plants. But hey - bunch of us predators are going out to find some meat later - you wanna come?"
Ben said no, thank you, and tried to hide his shock at even being asked.
"Yeah, didn't really think so. Just wanted to let you know you're invited, is all. My name's Patrick, by the way. See ya!" he said, and went on his way. Ben watched him handing out his garlic to each of the many boiling pots in the camp.
He found Backoh leaning up against the tree, his arms crossed over his chest. He seemed to be thinking about something.
"I leave camp for one night, Backoh, and you've let it be over-run by Coyotes again," he said, half-jokingly. Only half, though.
"There's more of them than there are of us now."
"What are you going to do with them all?"
The cougar's eyes turned to the Hare, "Do? ME do?" he smirked. After a moment he added, "Know what I saw a little while ago?"
"I saw Lee - your Lee - playing with a little Coyote toddler. Didn't even have his snout dyed yet... I dunno when they start doing that. But anyway, Lee was playing with him, and the little Coyote was all giggling and screaming, and a bunch of adult Coyotes were watching - and they didn't do anything. Not a damn thing. Seemed like it was fine with them - a Hare playing with a baby Coyote. Something's happened to those people. They were out for our blood yesterday - but something's changed. You can just... sorta feel it..."
"I don't feel anything..."
"Yeah, well... You got your own reasons, I know. Maybe you should ask Lee about it. In fact, maybe I should too... Odd kind of girl, that one."
A month and a half later, Tristan, Taylor, Gordon, and Teesah were back at the 100-foot waterfall that overlooked the valley of The Lady's shack. They'd taken the wagon apart and lowered it down piece by piece, and then the horse . It was the second time they'd disassembled the wagon - they'd had to do it in order to cross the glacier too, packing it across in two trips. Gordon was astounded to see that parts of the wagon he'd thought were merely decorative suddenly turned into runners for sleds. The boys - grown men now - had really thought this out, and he was duly impressed.
By this time, Teesah's ankle had healed to the point she could walk. Gordon had been worried about that, wondering if it was a good idea to have brought her. But then, the prospect of not seeing her for the 4 month round trip - because he and his wife would be returning on foot - convinced him. He'd never in his life - prior to Teesah - imagine he'd have anything like what he had with the cougar-woman, and he wasn't about to lose it.
"Remember the last time we stood here, Tay?" Tristan asked as they prepared themselves to be lowered down one final time.
"Barely. I was what - 12?"
"Yep - not even a teenager yet."
"You're mean," Taylor said, then nosed him.
"The Lady was with us then..." Gordon said while the wolf and the ram continued nosing. Those words put a stop to that.
"Yeah," sighed Tristan, "And she seemed kind of sad that she was only bringing the two of us to Civilization. And now here we are, trying to do the same thing she did. I dunno what makes us think we can do it... If she couldn't, what chance do we have?"
"Does it really matter, Tris?" Tay asked, "We still have to try. And besides - what was it she told us? - 'Quality over quantity'? Anyway - it's making me sad standing here like this. Let's lower Teesah down first. We should be at the shack tomorrow."
Teesah moved toward the sling, but Gordon put his hand on her shoulder, holding her back. "Boys... Teesah and I aren't going any farther. This is where we turn around."
Both the wolf and the ram looked at him in astonishment. Tristan managed to say, "What?"
"It's like this, Tristan," the rabbit explained, "What you have to do down there - what you've come here to do - is your business. Your fate, maybe. Whatever happens, it'll be you two that do it - succeed or fail, or something in between. I don't belong there, and neither does Teesah. The history you make together needs to be yours. Not 'ours'."
"But-" Taylor started to say. Tristan cut him off.
"Tay? He's right. This is our thing - something we need to do. Our purpose - not his. Let them go."
"But..." Taylor said again, tears stinging his eyes.
Gordon consoled him, "We'll see each other again, Taylor. I just... know it, somehow. Our paths will cross again."
"Where are you going to go, Gordon? What are you going to do?" Taylor asked.
"Yeah, pee-head - what are we going to do?" Teesah added, smiling wryly.
Gordon looked around himself at the others, considering, and eventually said, "I dunno. A lot of things are happening, suddenly. A lot of paths are open. Who knows what's going to happen? Tell ya what though," he gazed at his wife, "I bet we'll be surprised..."
"Life with you has always been surprising," she said, gazing right back.
Hugs were exchanged, backs were patted, and the 'boys" were lowered to the bottom of the falls, together. They waved goodbye.
Even before they reached the shack, they knew something was up. They could smell smoke. Someone was cooking meat. They'd expected to find The Lady's old shack run-down and rotting, the camp-site overgrown. They'd expected to hardly recognize the place.
Instead, once they rounded the final bend and saw the Camp for the first time - it was as if they'd never left. Everything looked exactly the same. Except for the strangers.
There were six of them, all together, obviously divided into couples. A female lynx and a mouse-boy, a wolf and his doe, and two skunks - both female. They all froze when they saw Tristan and Taylor coming. The wolf dropped the pot he was carrying, the mouse dropped the wood in his arms onto his own foot, and the doe stabbed herself with her leather-punch and sucked on her wounded thumb. One of the skunk-girls merely crossed her arms over her chest, and the other looked at her, and then apologetically back at Tristan and Taylor.
The oldest of them - the cat, maybe 15 - stood up, her mouth still agape. No one said a word.
Until Taylor said simply, "Uh... hi..."
"You... you're 'Taylor'?" the lynx-girl asked.
"Uh... as a matter of fact, I am. How'd you-"
"And you're Tristan..."
"The Wolf and the Lamb! I don't believe it! After all this time!"
"Someone wanna explain what's going on here?" Tristan asked, frustrated and perhaps a little worried.
"Wait!" the lynx cried excitedly, "Just wait here. We have something for you - I think it'll explain everything. Then maybe you can explain some things to us. Hold on. Be right back." She disappeared into the shack.
Taylor and Tristan looked around at the remaining couples. Two predator-and-prey couples. A pair of skunk-girls. Actually, the skunk-girls were harder to explain - they could've been a couple and still lived in the Town. Since they were both skunks, no one would have paid any attention...
The lynx came back with a oil-skin wrapped book, which she gave to Taylor, and a rolled-up blanket that she handed to Tristan. There were words embroidered on the blanket, running from one end of the roll to the other. It said -
Whoever finds this: wait here. They will be back.
"I don't get it..." Tristan said.
"We found it hidden up in the rafters of the shack," the cat explained, "Unroll it. There's more."
He did. There was.
For Tristan and Taylor,
I hope you had good adventures, but I am sure I cannot imagine what they have been. Surely I am dead by now - a worthy death, preferably. If you are reading this, then it was.
Taylor, my book of medicines is under the porch steps. You may need a refresher after all this time. I hope you found what you were looking for in Civilization. You were such a sweet, pretty lamb, it was never a wonder to me that Tristan fell in love with you. How could he not? Even Gordon did.
And Tristan, my over-confident wolf. I wonder what you are like as an adult. I wonder if you still look up to Gordon and try to hide it like you used to. I don't imagine the rabbit is with you - next time you see him, tell him that his heart - if not his brain - used to astonish me constantly, as did the depth of your love for Taylor. You are an extraordinary wolf.
Now: go off and do what you came back to do! And good luck.
Roma - the Old Goat
"My name's Tina," the cat offered, and then pointed one by one to the others, starting with the mouse - "This is my boyfriend John, the wolf is Thomas, his girl Lindsey, and the skunks are Arin and Leslie. Arin's the mean-looking one. They're not girlfriends, by the way... I mean, they are... but they're not partners or anything."
"I'm only here to keep her out of trouble," Leslie said.
"Fuck off," said Arin.
"Uh... Hi. I guess. So I guess you already know our names..." Tristan said awkwardly. He was still trying to absorb this new situation. It wasn't what he'd expected. Or planned for.
"Gordon didn't come with you?" the doe asked.
"No..." answered Taylor, still a little stunned as well, "He... he had other stuff to do. Said this was me and Tris's deal. What... I mean, why are you people here?"
"We came for the same reason you did, I'm guessing," the lynx answered, "To find the Old Goat! Guess we were a little late... I came about three years ago, then next spring Thomas and Lindsey showed up, and that fall in walks Arin and Leslie. We've been waiting here for you guys. I still can't believe you're actually real! Are you going to take us to Civilization?"
These questions were coming too fast for Tristan, "Whoa, whoa there, uh..."
"Tina - we just got here! We haven't even unpacked! I mean..."
"But - that's why you came back, isn't it?"
"But what, wolf-boy?" Arin the skunk-girl asked, frowning, "It does exist, this 'Civilization', right? You've been there, right? What's the problem?"
"Well... we sort of have a job to do," Taylor answered, "And after we do it, we sort of need to stick around to see... if it works..."
"How long?" Arin asked, nearly scowling now.
"Uh... we don't really know..." Tristan answered.
"Well THAT'S just fucking great..."
"Look," Tristan said, getting frustrated with Arin's presumptuousness, "We had to wait six months before we left - and there's a lot to do in the meantime. Maybe we'll go next summer. Meanwhile, we need to get ready: we'll need food, sleds, clothes... this horse is going to need a barn..."
"And you'll all have to get B&T lessons," Taylor added.
"B&T?" Tristan asked, "We never talked about that..."
"Did we need to, Tris? It's tradition!"
John the mouse didn't like the sound of that, "Tradition is what we're trying to get away from..."
"This is a new tradition, then. You'll like it. Trust me," Tristan said, and then turned to Tina the lynx and added, "I bet Taylor here can teach you a few new cat-tricks."
Tina looked at him askance, "A sheep is going to teach a cat new cat-tricks?"
Tristan smiled, "Yeah. Sounds kind of familiar... I can't wait to watch!"
"FOUR TIMES bigger? The garden has always been big enough for the six of us - well, the four of us who eat from it, anyway - why does it need to be FOUR TIMES bigger just for you? Tristan doesn't eat plants, does he?" John the mouse asked unbelievingly. Taylor had brought him to the fenced in garden to expand it. They both had shovels.
"Not usually he doesn't. It's not just for us - we gotta plan ahead, John. There may be a lot more of us by the time we leave. Now c'mon, let's start digging, we gotta go back to town tomorrow and sell some more books. Oh - and remind me if I forget: we're going to need more fence, too."
"Okay. But... why are you even selling the books? I mean, you said you didn't write them to make money..."
"Because if we give them away, people won't think they're worth anything. That's just how people are - everywhere. They only think it's good if it costs them. Now start digging, we got a lot to do."
An hour later, Taylor thought John could probably use a break, and looked over to see how the young mouse was doing. He was doing fine, oddly enough.
"Geez, John - you're pretty strong for a little mouse."
"Not so little. Tina's only a year and ten months older than me. But yeah, everyone tells me I'm strong. I dunno why... I don't do anything special or anything."
"Girls grow up faster. So... how'd you and Tina ever hook-up, anyway, if you don't mind me asking."
"During Balance duty. She caught me." John's face had a worried look, and his whiskers were twitching more than usual.
"But she didn't eat you, obviously..." Taylor tried to lead him on.
"She tried to bite me, but I got my hands around her throat before she could. We sort of had a stand-off for awhile..."
Taylor could see where this was leading - it was just as he'd thought. "And then?"
"And then... well, she still had her mouth wide-open over me, and... I was staring at her teeth - I'd never really seen any predator's teeth up close like that before... and... something happened."
The sheep grinned, "I bet it did."
The insides of John's ears turned pinker than usual, "Whaddaya mean?"
"Don't be embarrassed, John. Something like that happened to me when I met Tristan - we were both doing Balance too. And listen - it still happens sometimes... the same thing, kinda. Right?"
"You... you know about that?"
"Yeah - and I bet Thomas's doe does too. You ever ask her how she met her wolf?"
"But you figured it's probably the same way, I bet."
"Well..." the mouse was acutely embarrassed by now, "It happens to other people? I thought it was just me..."
"It gets better, too."
"B... better? How? When? What do we-"
"You'll see. Don't be in such a rush. The best part is still to come, John."
"Hey... Hey... I need a damn break!" Arin panted, jogging to a stop. Tristan, who'd been chasing her, came up beside. "I'm a skunk, y'know - not a goddamn wolf. I can't run for-fuckin'-ever!"
Tristan chuckled, "Gods Arin - you have a mouth like a badger, you know that?"
"Yeah - and I speak my mind too - and people give me shit about it. That's why I came here... Anyplace has got to be better than Town. Fuck, man."
"You don't have to be crude to speak your mind, Arin. It doesn't make you sound smart. Just makes you sound... crude."
"Fuck you, wolf-boy. Maybe I just am crude. Ever think of that?"
Tristan laughed outright this time.
"What the hell is so funny?"
"Nothing. You just remind me of someone. So anyway, that's why you're here? I mean, I know Tina said you weren't partners with Leslie or anything, but I kinna figured-"
"She likes boys. I think they're gross. Actually, she keeps crushing on predator boys, too, so coming here seemed like a good idea for both of us. Although... I never really believed the road-stories were true. Still can't fuckin' believe it."
"Ah. So she's just your friend then..."
"Yeah - and she really does keep me out of trouble. I have kind of a temper... gets me in deep shit a lot. Which is dangerous for skunks - we ain't got no natural defenses like the animal-skunks do."
"Don't worry about it. We'll get to that in Combat. You should be good at it - if you can keep your temper under control."
"I can't wait. I wanna kick some goddamn ass!"
"Gods... I bet Gordon was exactly like you at your age..."
" 'They knew they were home. But the other people of the Village would watch the Wolf and the Lamb play in the fields, and wonder how such a thing could ever be. The End.' For the third night this week. Now that's enough fairy-tales - go to sleep, you two."
"Did they live happily ever after, Mom?"
"I suppose so - once they learned the importance of sticking to their own kind. Now close your eyes and go to sleep."
"But - they were still playing in the fields..."
"Yes, but they were living in the Village, dear. I guess it's okay for them to play in the fields... I bet the wolf ended up eating the lamb eventually, though. It's Nature. Now for the last time - go to bed!"
After their mother had left the room and closed the door the younger one asked her brother, "Terry? You think the Wolf ever ate the Lamb?"
"Of course not - geez... I don't know why parents always get that part wrong. The Wolf probably ended up marrying the Lamb, and they ran away together again. That's what I think happened."
"Where would they go?"
"How should I know? Go to sleep. To the West, probably."
"Where the Old Goat lives?"
"Yeah. Go to sleep."
"Gordon - we have a problem," Backoh said, Ben right beside him. The two had become he de-facto Government of the New World - the Akkelahn looked to Backoh for leadership, and the Hares looked to Ben. The former Black-Face Coyotes - the dye had worn off by now, so their faces were no longer actually black - looked to both of them, and to Lee for spiritual needs. In fact, everyone looked to Lee for that. Lee herself wasn't so sure she liked it - being Shaman left little time for herself. Not that she knew what she'd do with time to herself... but it would have been nice to find out, for God's sake.
"Another one? Why do you guys always come to me to be the tie-breaker?"
"Because you're the only neutral party around," Ben said, "And besides - you're still here. You keep saying you want nothing to do with government, yet you don't leave. It's pretty suspicious, I say."
"Pretty damn suspicious," Backoh added.
"What did you guys want. Get to the point." Gordon was getting annoyed. The cat and the Hare had a point, and he knew that they knew it.
"Fine: some of the Hares-" Backoh began, but Ben broke in-
"SOME of the Hares, mind you..."
"SOME of the Hares think they should have an area just for themselves, apart from the Akkelahn, and-"
"And you don't think that's a good idea, I bet."
"If I could finish a sentence," Backoh said, frowning, "It's Ben who doesn't think it's a good idea. Seems to me like - if that's what they wanna do, then they should be allowed to do it."
Gordon's ears perked up, "And Ben? What do you say?"
"I say we Hares have lived with just ourselves long enough. If we're going to be a mixed-species community, then those Hares who are bitching - and it's only a few loud-mouths - should just deal with it. It would be a mistake to officially segregate us from everyone else. It would just lead to trouble down the road."
"So what do you say then, Mister Just-Leave-Me-Alone?" Backoh chided him.
"Hmmm..." the rabbit hmmm'd, rubbing his chin. "You both have good points... but I'm sorry Backoh, I gotta go with the Hare on this one. I mean - look at us. We're all different species, even the Coyotes are living amongst us now. No one seems to have a problem with that..."
"A few do..." Backoh said, playing devil's advocate.
"Not many, though," Ben waved it off, "And I have to admit - they do seem like decent enough people. A fact I don't like admitting..."
"As I was saying," Gordon huffed, "Not many seem to have a problem with that. And if this is to be a community, then I think we all agree that it's the species-diversity that makes us strong. So I say no - no special quarter for just the Hares."
"Toldja," Ben said to Backoh.
"Stupid weed-eater," Backoh said.
"Filthy carnivore," Ben quipped without even looking in the cat's direction. "So Gordon, now that that's settled, have you decided what you're going to do now? I see you've built yourself a new wagon..."
"Ain't decided yet. Me an' Teesah are still talking about it."
Just then, a cougar-man happened to walk by - it may not have been coincidence. He looked at Ben, and Ben looked back at him. They didn't wave, they didn't even nod acknowledgment of each other, but the look Ben and the cat were exchanging was curious enough that both Backoh and Gordon noticed it.
Once he had passed, Ben turned his attention back to the rabbit as if nothing had just happened.
"What's with the cat?" Backoh asked.
"That's Patrick. I think he wants to court me," Ben answered matter-of-factly.
Backoh and Gordon exchanged looks, then Backoh asked, "Uh... I thought-"
"It's too soon to talk about it now. Ask me whatever it is you're going to ask me in 5 months."
"What happens in five months?"
"Anniversary of the Battle. End of Mourning Time."
"Oh... Uh..." Backoh tried to get his mind back on track, "Anyway, like we were saying - we really need you here, Gordon, as the Neutral party and tie-breaker. If it weren't for you, the people would constantly be accusing one or the other of us of favoritism."
"I never wanted to be a politician, boys..."
"You think we did?"
"Well we didn't Gah! I had no idea so many people could be so stupid! I think I'm starting to lose my fur..." the cat complained.
"Some days I get so tired of listening to their petty bickering and sucking-up that I can barely get my ears to stand up anymore. C'mon, Gord. We both hate to say it, but this could all fall apart if you leave. We've come too far for that to happen - we're molding a whole new civilization here..."
"You'll go down in history..." Backoh tried to appeal to the rabbit's ego.
Gordon sounded surly, "Y'know - once upon a time, all I ever wanted was to be left alone..."
"We will leave you alone! As soon as you promise to stay!"
A young stallion and a female bear suddenly stepped out of the darkness and into the firelight. Their eyes were typically wide, but the group sitting around the fire was used to that, by now.
"That'll be 15 and 16..." someone said.
"Both plant-eaters, too. Good thing we made the garden bigger."
"A horse! Dibs on him helping me cut wood tomorrow!"
"Hey, look - they have packs. That automatically makes them smarter than the rest of us..."
"Shut-up. At least I brought a canteen."
The bear - she might have been 17 - stammered, "Uh... Is... is this where... uh-"
"The Wolf and the Lamb live. And before that, the Old Goat. Yeah - this is the place," John the mouse said, "C'mon in. Bill - get 'em a couple of bowls and spoons, they'll be hungry. Leslie - you have bunk-space for 'em in your tent, right?"
"Four places empty, just like you said. No mattresses, though - hope they brought blankets."
"So," another anonymous voice spoke, "You two are together, I imagine? Partners?"
The stallion answered, "Oh no - just friends. She likes girls, so... just friends."
"Reeeaaaally...", a female skunk stood up and fluffed out her tail, "Well it's about god-damn time!"
By the late the next spring, wooden buildings were replacing the tent-city, and there was an almost continuous caravan of Hares and Akkelahn going back and forth to their respective homes to bring back families and equipment. Apparently Akkelah was moving in it's entirety, whereas about two-thirds of all the Hares in the Valley were moving to the new land.
The city was named "Rome". It was Gordon's idea, and Gordon now sat in the triumvirate. No one could have been more astounded at that turn of events than Gordon himself.
It was also the anniversary of the Battle - but that wasn't something to be celebrated. Rather, it was something to simply be remembered and thought upon, each individual to his- or her- self. The pit where the ashes from the fires had been buried - the ashes of both sides, together - had become a protected and roped-off area. A lot of the previous soldiers spend a good part of their day standing behind the ropes, looking at the plain parcel of manicured ground.
Ben was one of them. He'd been there most of the day, off and on.
In the evening, a certain cougar came to stand beside him.
"Patrick," Ben said, no meaning in his voice.
"Ben," Patrick replied in kind. They stood looking awhile longer, then the cat spoke again. "I... I came to ask if I might have permission to court you, sir..."
"Don't say 'sir' when you do that. And who's been teaching you Hare ways, anyhow?"
"I asked Lee about it."
"Ah," Ben said. That figured. "Well, at least you waited an appropriate amount of time - but this is a hell of a place to ask me..."
"Actually... I thought... I thought this could actually be just the right place. In the presence of your husband, so to... uh... In the presence of your husband, I mean."
Ben stared at his would-be suitor for a long time, trying to make up his mind what he thought about that. Then he stared for an even longer time at the center of the memorial.
"Yeah. Okay. You may begin courting me tomorrow, Patrick. But hear this: you are never going to take Dick's place. You understand?"
"I never intended to, Ben. I know I can't. I would never even want to. That's between you and him and it can never be taken away."
"... Right... Well... good, then." Ben hadn't expected the cougar to say anything like that. He really didn't think Patrick was ever going to get very far in the courtship - being a filthy meat-eater and all - but... well, stranger things had happened.
Two months later, the triumvirate were sitting at their triangular table. The arguments of the day had been decided, and it was time to relax. One of the Akkelahn had been making a lucrative business of brewing apple-jack, and Gordon opened a bottle of it. It was sickeningly sweet - but had a kick to it, at least.
"But, I thought you said you preferred women..." Backoh said to Ben.
"I changed my mind. Man's prerogative."
"Look, Backoh. Yeah, I still kind of do, but... I've spent a good part of my life married to another man, and... it... I don't know, it just seems comfortable now, is all. Okay? Now get off my back about it."
"And... a cougar?" Gordon threw in.
"Yeah, well... that part I'm not so comfortable with. But I will say this for him - he's... well..." Ben paused for a moment and then finished, "He's persistent..."
Backoh groaned, "I'm not even gonna ask..."
"Are we there yet? My goddamn feet are killing me!"
"Could someone please shut her up?" Tristan yelled.
Arin laughed. The troupe of forty-six kids and eight adults had already been up the falls, through the first set of mountains, across the glacier, over the other set of mountains, and were finally getting to the western foothills. Arin had been asking Tristan that question every single day - usually waiting until the wolf was already frustrated about something. She just liked digging at him. Even her girlfriend couldn't stop her.
"Hey! Hey, guys!" a fox at the head of the line shouted back to them. She had just topped the peak of a hill. "Hey! Come look at this! I know it's not Civilization, but it's awful big, whatever it is!"
Tristan and Taylor ran up to the top with the rest of their followers.
"Holy fuck..." Arin said, when she got there. It was the biggest city any of them - other than the Wolf and the Lamb - had ever seen.
"I guess they've been busy," Taylor said.
Tristan - again forgetting that he was supposed to be the eloquent one - only said, "No shit..."
-=The Wolf and the Lamb=-
Once upon a time, there was a young Wolf and a young Lamb, and they lived in the same Village. They never met, though, because the Wolf had to be a Wolf, and the Lamb had to be a Lamb, and wolves and lambs don't spend much time in each other's company because wolves eat lambs.
Then one day they were both in the same field, and the Wolf said to the Lamb, "I am going to eat you!"
"Okay," said the Lamb, "That's what I'm here for."
So the Wolf opened his mouth and placed it on the Lamb's throat. But when he tried to close his jaws, they wouldn't close. No matter how hard he tried, the Wolf's jaws just would not bite down on the Lamb.
"I can't eat you," the Wolf said.
"Why not? Isn't that your job as a Wolf?" asked the Lamb.
"Yes. But I can't. I don't know why. Next time I catch you though, I will try again."
"Okay," said the Lamb.
And they met like that several more times, but the Wolf still couldn't bite the Lamb.
"This is ridiculous," said the Lamb.
"I know," replied the Wolf, "Here, we might as well go home, then."
Later, as they walked back to the Village together, the Wolf wanted to take a short-cut through the woods.
"I'm afraid of the woods!" said the Lamb.
"You don't have to be afraid, I'll be with you," said the Wolf.
"But the dark woods are scary because I can't see," the Lamb complained.
"That's okay. I can," the Wolf replied, and they walked and talked and by the time they got back to the Village, they were friends.
They could only play in the fields and woods, though, because they knew the other people in the Village - the deer and the horses and the cougars and the coyotes and mice - would think they were strange for being friends. They had to keep it a secret.
So they could never play any indoor games together on rainy days, or meet at the playground to play Hide and Seek. They both really liked to play Hide and Seek, although it was always the Lamb that hid and the Wolf that did the seeking. They weren't even allowed to just sit together and talk. They weren't supposed to be together at all, ever. Everyone knew it was wrong. Even they knew that.
So they left the Village one day in the summer and walked toward the setting sun. The Lamb had heard that there might be someone who would take them to a place different than the Village. A place they could be friends and no one would care.
Late in the evening, as it began to grow dark, they found an Old Goat who lived in a house by a stream. By this time the Wolf was hungry, and said to her, "I am going to eat you, Old Goat!"
The Old Goat replied, "Go ahead and try. I will not let you. You may be a Wolf, but you are stupid."
The Wolf had never heard such nonsense, and tried to bite her, but she smacked him on the snout and said, "You are a clumsy wolf. Try again."
And he did. This time the Old Goat smacked his nose hard.
"You are not much of a wolf," the Old Goat said, "Here - I shall pretend to be a wolf. You watch me and do what I do."
The Wolf laughed at the Old Goat, "I should let a Goat give wolf-lessons to a Wolf?" he said.
"Don't you want to learn how to take an Old Goat like me down?" she replied.
"Yes, I would," the Wolf said, sheepishly, "But we were really trying to find a place different from our Village, where we could play together. Can you take us to such a place?"
The Old Goat considered, and then said, "If you can become a good enough Wolf then I will take you." And she began teaching the Wolf. Much to his surprise, he had a lot to learn.
Then the Wolf asked his friend the Lamb, "Would you like to learn how to keep away from wolves? I have always been able to find you and catch you when we play Hide and Seek. It would be more fun if you learned to run better and hide better."
"Sure I would!" said the Lamb.
So the Wolf and the Old Goat both began teaching the Lamb how to be a better Lamb. It was like playing, and both the Wolf and the Lamb had fun learning.
Then in the winter, they left the shack and headed for a place the Old Goat called "Civilization". She said it would be very different from their Village, so they were excited to go, even though it was a long ways away.
As they traveled, they crossed a great Desert.
Since the Wolf could see at night, he watched for danger while the Old Goat and the Lamb slept. And since the Lamb could see colors, he looked for water, which is blue, and grass, which is green. The Wolf couldn't see either one.
Several months and many adventures later, they reached Civilization. The Old Goat turned around, and said, "Here you are. I will leave you now, and go back, in case there are others who want to come."
The Wolf and the Lamb waved goodbye to her. They would never see her again.
But she had been right about Civilization. All the different kinds of people seemed to live, talk, and work together, and no one seemed to even notice how odd it was. There was a Cougar talking to a Deer! And a Horse pushing a Coyote on a swing! No one seemed to care!
Since they didn't know where to go, the Lamb tried to ask a passing Rat.
"Excuse me, Mr. Rat? We are new here, where should we go?"
"Rat? Rat? I am not a Rat!" the Rat shouted at him, whipping his tail back and forth in agitation, "Rats are vile and sneaky creatures! They carry disease! I could never be a Rat! Good day, sir!"
The Lamb asked the Wolf, "Why was that man mad at me for calling him a Rat? Do you suppose he was actually a really big mouse?"
"No, no," replied the Wolf, "He was definitely a Rat. Here, let me try with someone else. Pardon me, Miss Bear? I was wondering-"
"How dare you call me a Bear!" the Bear cried, "I am a Person! Bears are ungraceful and ungainly, and they smell bad. I am certainly no clumsy, smelly Bear! How rude!"
The Wolf and the Lamb looked at each other wondering what was going on, and then the Lamb tried again with a sheep who happened to be walking by:
"Ma'am? We're new here, could you please tell us where we should go?"
"Oh, of course, young man. You should stay at the Lodge until you learn your way around - it's right down that street, turn left at the corner, and carry on to the end."
"Why, thank you. Ma'am? May I ask, uh, what you are?"
"What do you mean 'what I am'?"
"Well... my friend here is a Wolf, and I'm a Lamb, so-"
"Wolf? Lamb? I see no wolves or lambs around here. What a silly boy you are!" The Sheep turned up her nose and walked away from them.
"At least back in the Village I was still a Wolf," the Wolf said to the Lamb.
"And I was a Lamb. Here, we are nothing. I liked being a Lamb."
"I liked you being a Lamb, too," the Wolf said.
Then the Lamb said, "Maybe we should just go back home."
"They still won't let us play together, if we do."
"True - we can play together here, but it won't be much fun if you aren't allowed to be a Wolf," said the Lamb.
"Or you a Lamb," said the Wolf.
So, after all that, they crossed the desert again, and had more adventures, and returned home to the Village. The Wolf chased the Lamb in the meadow, and the Lamb played Hide and Seek with the Wolf. They could only play together outside of the Village, but it was still better than the other place.
And whenever they talked to anyone, they'd always ask, "What are you?", and the people would say, "I'm a Cougar!" or "I'm a Ferret!" or "I'm a Mouse!"
They knew they were home. But the other people of the Village would watch the Wolf and the Lamb play in the fields, and wonder how such a thing could ever be.