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No Vuelvas Nunca Mas
By the time Jar comes back, Bush is sighing as if at some constant irritant. He seems to feel that we have been waiting too long. If _he_ feels uncomfortable being fairly visible in broad daylight, or at least daylight as broad as it gets in the jungle areas I have seen so far, surely he could sneak off into the shadows. But then, he would risk losing us.
It wouldn't be all that great of a risk to take. Snow and I are both panting and feeling our ribs acutely with each breath. I know the humidity is hard on him, and somehow I don't think it should be on me, with my body style, but I'm nonetheless dehydrated and--
*KcKkrraaKCKk*-- a startling herald of the storm to come rolls electrically out of the sky above the canopy and lowers, seemingly out of its own noise, drapes of raindrops through layer upon layer of leaves; every one of the initial drops that trickles into my mouth past my flattened ears and rumpled, damp cheekfur has a different flavor. The rain has yet to clean off the residue of life on everything it passes on the way to our small clearing. It must not be even touching some of the spots in the deeper jungle, where the growth is denser.
The rumbling, which passes quickly out of the way of the more even continuation of warm rain, seems to faze Bush not in the least. He moves from his impatient, yet stolid crouch only to stare Snow and myself down for a while; he knows the cover of rain might make us try for a run.
Jar's banded form, trickled over with mud and bits of weighed-down and broken foliage, slinks bulkily into our midst and makes itself upright, extending yellow, black and off-white scales and muscles in Jar's approximation of limbs and talons. He sidles up to Bush with his lips drawn back tight in what may be agitation, and says something inaudible to him.
"All right," rumbles Bush, his words slightly distorted by the overlay of lines of raindrops, "Get up and let's get going. I'm _watching_ you," he says more to Snow than to me, "and you are getting away with _nothing_. We know about how much we can trust your kind, around here."
Snow looks about to say something, then apparently changes his mind. I know Bush means me, too, in 'your kind': whoever we are, we somehow stumbled into his territory, and it takes no more than this to be labeled as treacherous. Of course, it would not quite stand to reason that he does this with _every_ creature that crosses him, would it? Then again, if he thinks we arrived magically, Snow may be right; the unpredictable nature of our appearance could have thrown him for a loop. Still... I hope _I_ wouldn't react this way to strangers. Not that I know. I don't think I was unfriendly, though, whoever I was, at home.
"You're mine," Jar wrinkles his upper lip at me, and I see his black tongue lying in a flesh-hole in his mouth, and realize that these men aren't even worried about what we're thinking; they don't even smell us or take in the air around us. Their tongues have been still; they have more confidence than they seem to, perhaps.
I hope, though, that some of the agitation displayed by Bush has not been in our imaginations. Perhaps they just don't sense things well in the rain, or perhaps their odd shapes make for different sensory equipment.
I don't like it, all around. I don't like Jar "claiming" me and jabbing me in the clumping fur on my side to get me going, and herding me into close spaces in the brush where, with the rain pattering and running all around me, I cannot tell where Snow's footsteps are coming from nor what Jar's smell means. He could be behind or beside me, or the distasteful tartness on the leaves could be left from when he crossed this spot on his scouting errand.
A wind wafts down in a sweeping and curving of the draperies of rain, and as we climb they are gone, entirely behind us in the jungle.
Then-- the rain stops, the _wetness_... _Stops_...
Shivering in my thick, should-be protective coat as water evaporates from it in the dry, cool breeze that seems to just catch us in the lowest of its reaches from off the top of the rise, I blink and stare around me in surprise. I sensed the wafting into the jungle line of a bend of dry, chilled, air, but this I did not expect.
It is dry. Dry and cool.
Still, the sun is searing in its way, here.
Further we climb from the drooping leaves and black trunks behind us, and I can clearly see Bush, Jar and Snow in the groove-- one of many-- that leads up and out of the damp valley. I step carefully, watching for whatever new minute hazards might be among the rolled rocks and tan grasses trickling and growing on the steep side of the landwall. Snow looks back at me, but Bush is walking steadily and watching him, so he makes no noise. He doesn't have to, anyway; everything is visible here. Jar mutters something unpleasant every time I shudder my back-muscles and shake water off my head. I can't help it; I have to dry off. I can hear the rain still falling off its edge of wind behind us; the cutoff in my environment here is as sudden as it was from burned grove to surrounding jungle.
As we climb, I can see Snow lift his muzzle and take increasingly eager whiffs. He perks up and shakes his own head, drawing in more and more of the dry air. We are nearing the sort of high place that he wanted to reach; maybe he can get a sense of where we are from here. Is it possible he could make a run for it when we hit a flat place? He isn't built quite like an alpaca for running, certainly, but here Bush and Jar aren't quite themselves. Their tongues are flicking out now, frequently, and when they notice me eyeing this movement they reduce it.
So, they bluff confidence by withholding their tongues. If only they weren't so strong, we could have made an escape back in the forest. I'd be willing to bet I'd be faster than Bush or Jar, if I had some food in me.
I plod on, and whuf a little out my cooling nose. Who am I kidding. They're not giving us a chance yet.
Jar sticks a false talon in me.
Bush turns for a moment and glares at me, and I cringe.
Snow, in the moment Bush turns, looks at his captor with an expression that alerts me. Snow is never going to stop considering our position, but he is never leaving without me, either. At that moment he could have run, counting on a head start over the rise and perhaps a herd of alpacas somewhere to aid him when he was tracked down. Instead, he watched Bush's glance move away, and his face registers a defiant expression in that tiny space of time.
He's mocking Bush, and it raises my spirits.
More than that, I know I need another chance to talk to Snow alone. We're in this as a team, so say his actions.
It's a good thing. I would be awfully lonely without him. I can't even really count myself as a true ally; I know as much about Snow's past as I do my own.
My shoulders ache and my pawpads are burning as they did in the ashes, only now it seems to stem from the overall fatigue and growing hunger that pervade my cat's body. I feel heavy, and with each push of my hindlegs up the incline I growl a little in my head until I realize that Snow must have it worse than I; his body is built like a human's and he has to work harder when keeping his weight forward.
For the first time, I remember distinctly being human.
I took a drug! I must have. A potion of some kind. Why would I do a thing like that..?
The clarity of whatever life was passes and the tough grasses and wind become exclusively clear. Bush and Jar, keeping tabs on us at all times, now seem to round out like ugly storm clouds and then elongate and gain their serpentine forms, limbs held in against their sides and muscles put to use in the ascent. I have seen Jar do it before, in the trees, but here it not only looks bizarre in the open places but Bush is doing it too-- and he looks altogether too versatile for my tastes.
There are birds here, and most certainly insects in the grasses, but although the life is teeming it is cautious. Only certain wheeling birds, white with colored tips to their wings, cry out raucously and dip close enough that we can make eye contact. I feel a beetle scuttle away under my left front paw, but otherwise I can't sense anything remotely threatening in the grass.
Of course, that may be because I've given up and am focusing on the obvious threat-- the claws and fangs of the brown serpent-man powering his way up the groove alongside the composed, although somewhat wind-whipped and dirty, Snow.
I get the feeling that perhaps I am focusing too much on my surroundings. If I had some time to really sit and think, listen to my mind, remember, then it might not be a mystery at all why we are here or what is going to happen.
As it is, I'm busy with these paws, this tail and these ears, and all the sights and sounds and pain around me, minor though any one thing might be, and I can't get past the fleeting images I have been able, in rare instances, to conjure.
All right, maybe "pain" is overreacting a little, but the constant discomfort and the pokes and prods and scratches and emptiness are getting to me. I am getting progressively surlier and progressively less adamant with my expressions of it. Damn snakes anyway.
We crest the valley wall and pause just before we would be visible on the horizon. The sun seems to go on in its daytime forever here; it seems impossible that it could drop out of our line of sight when we are at this height. Snow is casting about excitedly for what I guess could be clues to his pathway home, but Bush is looking down at a mauve-dust and tan plateau, circled with grey stones and yet more of the dry grass, some ways down a path that seems to have been pressed into the terrain. I bounce my nose over it a bit from where we stand and find that the temporary trail was caused by Jar's first passage to this place.
Jar again slithers up to Bush and confers whisperingly with him. I look at Snow, but he shakes his head. "Wait until we know what their plan is," he murmurs.
I prick my ears at him in affirmation and try to lick grime out from the creases in my fur where my joints have been rubbing all day. Snow watches the snake-men, outwardly nervous yet seeming to think on something deep, and tries to nibble dirt from between his own fingers with his long front teeth.
I am startled by Bush bumping into me from the rear, back again in his more humanoid shape although I had not noticed him change nor move. I fear I have become too lazy in my confusion. As my ears unflatten and my breathing slows, Snow keeps now-stern brown eyes on the serpent but seems to feel we are not in dire physical danger yet. Bush turns his eyes as if aiming a cannon at me and hisses without opening his mouth. Then he says, "There will be a guard. If he does not let you in, well then they all die. I _could_"-- and he jabs an elongated "finger" into the hard dirt for emphasis-- "kill them all myself, and no trouble, but don't you all think there has been eeenough sufffering?"
Bush's mouth reworks its muscles and bones and he continues. "I have no quarrel with them if they-- well, you know more than enough about _that_ already. It is obvious the treachery that results from such-- practices. You should not be here. In return for my leniency, you shall bring me the bottles. You--" he points at Snow-- "have hands with which to carry. And _you_, Cat--" he spits in a way I find insulting although I should already be as insulted as I can get-- "are to aid him in the task of averting the idiot villagers' anger should they catch him at the removal."
"I don't--" I begin, but Bush cuts off my own voice with another gesture, this one a slicing motion down towards the plateau.
"We will wait here until dark falls... Until then, you will keep quiet and rest. Do you think I would tell you more than you need to know?"
I mutter an assortment of responses, merely flinching a tad when Jar gives me the usual assortment of ticks and scratches. Bush, probably because Snow is seeming so aware and eager up on this high place, suddenly lines up alongside his shoulder and rams into his side. I growl, Jar nabs my hock and twists it, and Snow flares up in obvious rage. His liquid eyes blaze now, and he almost lands a blow on the nebulous form of the madly hissing Bush, but as he swings out too far in an arc Bush slams his head up under Snow's arm and leaves him backing off and trying to bend it down comfortably, certainly bruised.
Bush seems satisfied as soon as Snow has to retreat. I just catch a glimpse of some bewilderment crossing Snow's white face, as though he has attempted a technique that _should_ have worked and did not. Bush leans his jaw from one side to the other and his eyes, with their appearance of some false, transparent coating, glisten smugly yet, I hope, distractedly as he stares down the alpaca-man.
"Serves you right," he intones, as if he needs to justify the bruising to himself yet has no more specific reasons to add.
Of course, they are all in his twisting, huge brown head. Along with those fangs that reset in his flesh as he works the attack on Snow out of his form. He could have bitten him. I don't know what would happen if he did.
The imaginings this brings to me make me sorely tempted to try something, anything, to inflict a little pain on that huge swath of brown scaled hide.
If he kills Snow, I will kill him.
If this is a dream, and I wake up, I promise myself I will come back tomorrow night and enter his world again and kill him.
I blink some wind-dust out of my eyes and peer carefully up at Bush.
If he is some figment of my mind's symbology... Some-- piece of something, me, whoever I am, then... Then, I do not know. I try to make it possible that this is a dream, try to fit him into a slot in a person I do not know. Me.
And if these are parts of me, all of them... And the land my mindscape, then why am I so solidly planted inside this spotted body with the whiskers and coughing voice, and hunger?
I'll keep Snow. Him I like.
The rest of you, vanish-- begone. I should like to wake up now.
I execute an imaginary, commanding sweep of an imaginary hand of unknown sex and color.
Nothing, of course, happens.
I sigh. Well, I knew as much.
I try to sidle a little closer to Snow, but as the ground is, despite all appearances of the ball of the sun in high places, darkening, I cannot now make out for certain just _what_ blotches around my alpaca-man friend are shadow, and which are extensions or even the bulk of Bush. Jar I can see, gaudy in his yellow bandedness.
I don't dare go sniffing near the places Bush seems to be occupying in his guarding of Snow; he could lash out at me as soon as I know where his scent ends and his body begins. My whiskers brush something and I freeze, but despite the windswept snake mustiness all around, what I brushed was a flying insect and nothing more.
It is not truly dark, but the new twilight from the deeper valley, mixed with orange almost opaque to my senses in the sunset, I am tired and confused and I sit on my haunches to groom.
Jar snickers or clears his throat, I'm not sure which, and randomly nips up a portion of my fur and skin between two lengths of sharp scales.
Nope, I'm definitely not dreaming.
The dark becomes truer. Out of what I had almost decided was mere shadow rises the patterned form of Bush, rocking his approximated shoulders and staring down at the orange and black and grey panorama of the valleys. His tongue flicks out obviously four or more times, then he abruptly quits taking stock of his surroundings and takes Jar close to him for one moment's giving of near-silent information or orders.
"We go down now," he says to me and to Snow. Snow nods, almost as if acknowledging a superior.
"I don't--" I try again, but Snow actually gives me a glance that makes me hurt, and shushes me. Why would he--
"Shut up!" snaps Bush. He looks at Snow, but Snow folds his arms and nods again. For a moment the snake-man pauses, but then thrusts his face close to my own. "You have no questions. I know the place, I know the rules. All you can do here is damage. _Now_. You can do things my way and we will all get along much better, or we can try it the killing way, maybe the way people from your park like it, yes?"
I almost nod, but remain motionless.
Bush stands tall. "Nnnow then-n. Now then. Up, all three of you. Jar and I are going to escort _you_ two, one on either side, down to the village, to show you where. Now, they will not trust me. They do not know what's good for them, but you have seen the grove and you know the truth. You _see_ what this harvesting and drinking brings upon us! We are moving alongside you, until the place where the guard might be aware. After that, you tell him you escaped from me. You tell him _exactly_ that, or I'll kill you. My body will eat the vibrations of your words and I will know before they are out of your _mouths_. So get it right. Then, when he lets you in, because they will, they always will, innocent and idiotic things, you befriend them and then you may eat. They will feed you.
"Find where they keep the bottles. You _know_ about which bottles I am talking."
I stare at him, honestly dumbfounded, but Snow speaks up. I had almost forgotten, in this short time, how clear and deep his voice was before he only whispered and muttered. "We know."
Bush shudders, perhaps angrily, perhaps not, but after a glare at Snow and a dismissing gesture at my blank face, he continues: "Once you have been there overnight, and had the day to find the bottles, the next night, tomorrow night, the jaguar attacks the person who keeps the drinks and the alpaca carries them out to the rocks and drops them. I will be there, you must bring them out to _me_ so I can see them fall."
There seems to be an improbable silence in the air. There must be infinite noises and activities going on in the grasses under our feet, but compared to the jungle even this wind-whipped and chilly place is still and quiet.
Bush seems about to say one thing, changes his mind, and lowers his voice to a threatening grumble that almost seems complemented by the straight wind. His pitted, varnished skin and jungle-made form seem all out of place on this rise, yet he is making it more his than ours. All of this is his. We are nothing here.
How glad I would be to go... Perhaps it really is true that we could be contributing to some horrid affront on this land, with our very presence.
Could not one jaguar make a huge, devastating, completely accidental difference?
"You will do these things," growls the serpent, "because if you do not then I will destroy all I have to destroy in order to get my hands on those bottles. If no one _else_ willl sseee what isss com-com-_Coming_ of the drunken parties they think they _have_ to hold, of the loss of these bottles into whatever accursed place you come from, if _no_ _one_ but _me_... Then, then I will. I will kill them all. And I will kill you. And your lives will have ended. Just like _that_."
Snow moves a little bit closer to me. Bush watches us closely, but makes no attempt to threaten the alpaca-man.
"By tomorrow night, either trick them into giving you the bottles or force them yourselves. By tomorrow night, or I burn what will burn and kill the people. They can make more fermented drinks from the fruit trees scattered in the forest-- they can, I know. I am generous and will only kill those who appear in my jungle... _Unless_ those who have been using the bottles insist upon keeping those _things_ where people like you and-- and others can get them.
"Get the bottles. And now, you see I said you could eat. The villagers will feed you. You know what to tell them."
I know, this time, to nod in agreement. Snow was right. We have to behave as if the plan is impeccable. If it isn't, if we give him enough reason to worry about it, who knows what Bush might do. He is uneasy and dangerous enough as it is.
I begin to wonder about the persons who may have come before us. Was my world, Snow's world, the only one? What sorts of creatures were created with this-- drink, this thing in the bottles? Something is weighing on Bush's mind that has taken him from the trees where he lives and brought him in search of mere fermented drinks in some cold and stone-walled village.
I wonder who lives there. They could kill us on sight. They could kill us on scent, if they fear Bush and he and Jar have left their scents layered all over us.
Bush tugs Snow briefly by the arm and Jar gives me a somewhat tired poke with a claw. We begin picking our way down the gradual incline to a more even, narrow continuation of the top of the rise, towards what can now be seen and smelled as a few fires lit in amongst the stones. What had seemed to be a circle of plain stones must have hidden carved or piled houses, or perhaps there is grass thatching that appeared as the rest of the hill from above.
The smoke, faint though the scent is in the current direction of the wind, sets me in mind of burning and back to the charred section of jungle... and the bones.
I do not think I have ever dwelled on death for so long at a stretch. It begins to feel unlikely after a time, dreamlike, something to be ignored and set aside as having been aggravated into existence by a headache or too much-- something. Some sort of food. Again my recollections have come and gone.
No, death is not imaginary, not here or anywhere, I think. Yet after hours of pondering it it does seem almost laughable. Like a tiny child's obsession with just one kind of make-believe, before he or she outgrows it in a week or two and goes on to something else.
But don't even the most inane make-believes stay with us _somewhere_?
I try to call up one of mine, and only get the wind and Jar saying something to Bush over my back. They are worried about being scented before the villagers can be fooled into believing we escaped them back at the top of the rise.
At last, Bush stops us with an arm held out and backs off to one side, indicating that he will climb away out of range of scent and sound, and wait near the cliff-edge which he told us about.
Jar makes his way off to the other side.
As soon as we are parted from the snakes, even before Bush has taken his eyes from us in the starry dark-- and somehow I doubt he will, even when we think he has-- Snow lays a brown palm on my back and hums to me.
"Not here," he says, in what I could almost swear is a chuckling tone.
"Well, maybe not, but in the north, yes? There is snow there, where you were named. Can you get there from here?"
"I can, if I have to."
"Bush says you can't."
"I have to, so I can."
I shrug at the logic, but I don't shrug hard enough that Snow will remove his hand. Of course, he can't walk leaning down like that for long, but it's pleasant contact after Jar's mistreatment of my jaguar body.
The village, and its sounds and now smells, gets closer. Stepping in the dark, with few obstacles to unbalance or distract us, it does rather feel as though we are being approached as opposed to approaching; the wind moves hardly more than it did when we were still, and there is sort of a floating sensation with the snake-men no longer breathing directly down our necks and backs.
There seem to be voices emanating from beyond the insulating stones, but they are like none I have ever heard before. They whuffle, and chirp, and trill in purrlike tones that seem to be true voice rather than vibration. Whatever creatures are speaking, they are not humans as I seem to recall from home, and they are not serpents like Jar and Bush. Could they be birds?
Suddenly a turn in a plane of the wind carries an intense draught of rodentine odor. At least, it smells like much more than, but rather similar to, the mice and rats in the jungle which eluded me until Bush and Jar came along and gave me no more chance to consider practicing stalking. Something about it is different, though, the way the birds swooping over the rise before sunset were different from those that flitted confettilike among the thick growths in the jungle.
Snow treads on the side closest to where Bush would be if he were following any sort of expected path, and frequently eyes those shadows and devotes an ear to that area. "I think he's nearby, but being cautious," he whispers to me. "They have to be careful of their strong scents on the wind."
"The villagers don't seem too worried about theirs," I mutter. "They don't seem afraid of the fires and all that, either. The place is pretty damn noticeable."
"Well, it's a village," Snow shrugs. "That's just it. Do you really think Bush could take them down? They'll obviously kill him on sight, or he wouldn't need us to go in for him."
"Whether they _want_ to or not, he seems pretty hard to kill, to me."
Snow watches the dark sides of the rise again. "I don't know. It's just him and Jar. I wonder..."
He trails off, and does not start speaking again for so long that we are almost at the level where we can no longer see over any of the wall-stones, and I mention quietly, "There should be a guard. Have they not sensed us coming?"
Snow stops. "They have. Let's approach just a little closer, and then wait. We don't want to barge in and give them a chance to attack us from all sides."
I lower down on my knees and elbows and flatten my ears, but although there have been a few pauses in the talking that goes on amongst the night-fires in the small village, nothing comes flying out from between the stones nor over the top to attack me. Snow seems slightly nervous, and yawns widely. "I wish it were day," he says, and just then a black, ropelike shape curves out and away from a seam in the wall of huge, smooth boulders.
"Who are you?" whispers a menacing, yet somehow upbeat voice. It is like the hiss of Jar or Bush, only dry and light.
I leap back and hiss, trying to stop this instant reaction of mine but too tired to care much how overreactive I may appear. I cough out a few syllables of nonsense and then quickly draw a front paw in front of my mouth, regaining composure and staring at the rope-thing.
It is, indeed, pitch black, and instead of coming from a seam it appeared to _be_ the seam, black and rounded as the carven edges of stone and suspended by the last third or so of its body from a higher point on the wall.
Snow, too, has been startled, but he soon folds his arms in front of him again and remembers our ordered lines. He even goes so far as to glance uneasily about him before reporting: "We are Snow and Gatherer, and we escaped from a serpent named Bush..."
"Come inside," says the coal-hued snake. "You can see the patch of light around this bend, where you may enter. You, the jaguar, you may leap over wherever you like."
I almost try to do so, but given my unjaguar-like clumsiness so far I silently follow Snow to the normal entrance. The snake disappears, but then I see it flowing across our path, looking like some cold lava in the licks of firelight behind it. "Come in, come in and stay inside; he isn't likely to be far behind you."
I put a paw up on Snow's hip and urge him to lower an ear to me, and hiss to him: "Why aren't you telling him the truth? Now we are on no one's side."
"I will not tell everyone, not before someone we can trust hears the whole story. We can't have them all thinking we perhaps are agents of Bush."
"Won't they anyway?"
"Not so far, the snake is not blocking our way out."
The black form, heading into an area of fire, rises in a nebulous serpentine shape and puts down his legs, and appears as much a shadow as all those falling away from the people near the fire. They are, as our noses have told us, rodentine. One is watching me nervously, the others are scenting the air and moving themselves to better avoid ashes and take in our scents. One catches something on Snow that he does not like, and grunts irritatedly.
"These two say they escaped from Bush," the serpent guard tells the one who grunted. "They will smell of him."
"Is Jar still with him?" inquires a petite, reddish-spotted white rodent-woman.
I nod, still intermittently licking my front right paw and attempting to gaze about without staring anyone in the eyes. All of the people, save perhaps two or three, one of whom looks like a llama and another whose form I cannot make a name for in my head, have large, rounded, furry heads and fur on their leathery, somewhat delicately shaped hands. Their coats are a variety of colors, some smooth and flat and others tufted and coarse. Their pink ears are bare.
"He saves his hide by doing everything that Bush says," a male states gruffly. "One of these days or nights he'll mess up and that will be it for him."
"You mean Bush will kill him?" I put down my paw and shift from one to the other. Snow simply returns all the stares placidly, and sniffs the air about him as the villagers do.
"'Course he will. How did you get away?"
I glance at Snow. It's the wrong time-- we can't tell them all right here out in the open; Bush will be listening from somewhere, and we can't take one aside as we could have the snake-guard. Now there is no way to tell who can be trusted. Still, they seem friendly.
"Waited for the rain and climbed out of the jungle," Snow replies readily. "We knew there was a village this way because Jar had gone this way, and mentioned the village."
One of the rodents shudders. "What did Bush want with us?"
"Nothing, at least not yet," Snow assures him, while I just watch with my mouth hanging slightly open. He has accounted for the scents of Bush and Jar that remain out on the paths; if Bush is listening, this should make him trust Snow more than ever he did. I hope that's a good thing. And I hope Snow is on my side as I have believed...
"He'll be here soon, but not to track us down, and not as soon as you might think," the alpaca-man goes on, with the dark eyes of all the villagers watching him uncertainly. "He was going to use us to get to you, and then kill us. Now, he will see if he can find another someone to send amongst you. It's only then that you need to worry; until then, if we stay here, we are safe, and if we leave, he will kill us. Gatherer and I have no weapons, and Gatherer is not interested in fighting. We wish to stay and help you prepare against Bush's next plan, whenever he develops it. May we?"
One of the villagers turns to me questioningly, looking for corroboration, but I take a moment before I nod dumbly. Snow _seems_ to have it covered. If only I could think this all out; Bush can surely find no fault from wherever he is listening. If we go through with his demands, no one will be the wiser until we actually steal these bottles, whatever drug or drink they may contain. It is far cleverer than anything he has come up with so far; Snow is way ahead of him. On the other hand, if we can't get to the bottles by tomorrow night, Bush _will_ attack the village.
Somehow I don't have any trouble believing that he shot and burned the people in the jungle.
But, could he take on this whole village and get away with it? Where does my own safety lie?
Come to think of it, where does my morality lie? If I knew exactly what Snow is thinking, then there would be little question-- I would follow him. I still am not certain of who he is and what he wants. Right now I am relieved to be away from our captors, and am not interested in making enemies... Do I care what happens to these people? Does Snow? Of course, this is their home, they seem to know who they are.
If anyone around here is expendable, shouldn't it be the one who has few memories and little understanding?
"Don't underestimate Bush," says a large, grey-furred man who appears slightly different from the rest. Some of the others' incisors chatter in agitated agreement. "He's done in as many as he can and he'll take more with him when he goes. Of course, he can't take down this village or he would have done so before now. But he's been trying, as the alpaca said, and the more obsessed he is the more dangerous he becomes."
The black serpent steps up to the fire, removes something from it with a stick, and unrolls leaves from around it. An incredible odor of meat rises from the dark chunk, and the guard lifts it, careful of the steaming surface, and moves away, saying, "I am going back to the wall, and all of you can be assured I'll be more alert than ever. He won't get in here without killing me first."
I feel myself drooling and lick my chops several quick, polite times. The serpent looks back at me, but then disappears.
"May we have some food?" Snow, straightforward as always, immediately acquires soft, hot vegetable matter of some kind off the fire, as well as sticks of a sort of plant that some of the villagers are gnawing raw. It all smells very green and only mildly appetizing, until another small, cooked carcass is removed from a fire and unwrapped for me. I mumble a thank you, and dive into tearing it apart, noticing the burning on my lips and palate but feeling unable to stop if I wanted to. It seems to be a whole small animal, with stubby crunchy limbs and charred ears the shape of those on our villager hosts. My brain registers a similarity, and I glance around, but no one seems in the least disturbed at my eager swallowing of the animal.
I have eaten three of the carcasses, washed a bit of crumbling skin from my paw, and drunk deeply of water offered in a stone basin near one of the huts when I finally feel clear-headed and able to speak and reason.
"What kinds of animals were those?" I ask first.
"Guinea pigs," replies a woman villager, fingering one of her own ears casually as she does so. "They trust us, so we keep them safe and raise them and some of the predators eat them. That way you all can live in the village and we don't hand over anyone of our own."
She seems unsurprised that I would not know this key aspect of their culture, and Snow notices this as I do.
"We... Don't come from here," he offers, gesturing to the gathering and pricking his ears in careful friendliness. "Not at all. We come from a place far north, and these are not our bodies."
"We know," nods the frosted-grey man with the tail that curves almost up to the back of his neck. "It's why Bush hates you, and would kill you if you leave. It's why he wants us dead; to keep us from making the drinks. It's the drinks that do it, and he can't see it any other way than as an evil."
"But... Is it?" I growl in my deep, still uncertain voice.
"No, it's just drinking, it's Bush that makes it so damned. He never sees straight."
I don't know quite what to say or ask about that; I feel as though I am missing a lot that comes of living a lifetime in this world.
A few of the villagers make cautious circuits of the area, and someone goes to see to it that the guard is fine, alert and on duty. Soon, several of the rodent-people and the llama have dispersed to nearby huts which, as we can see when up close, do include thatching and rounded, low doorways. I see the face of a tiny, glossy-furred child peek around the edge of a doorway, eyes wide in what is probably perpetual amazement at the world, staring at me to confirm what his parents are telling him about Bush and the strangers.
In a slow wave, a picture of the park at my old home comes back to me, and I recall a human child holding onto something that went straight up, like a flower, and eating candy of some kind. I reached into my pocket, and paid money. The man who sold the curios was right next to the child and the popcorn wagon.
I took some plain popcorn and went to coax in the geese, to see if the few who were not too aloof to approach me would eat near my place under a willow at the river.
The whole piece plays once, washing by, then as I try to recall the money and the bottles-- the bottles-- I lose it again. The wave fades into another, this time purely of the world where I reside as this jaguar.
"We would like to talk to someone about the situation here," Snow speaks up. "We don't understand precisely how the bottles work, or how to get home. Is there someone who can tell us? Someone who knows about the bottles?"
I see his nervousness as he hopes that, should Bush be listening, the actual questions we need to put forth will be negated by the fact that he seems to be gaining access to the bottles the village has in its possession.
"I could," the grey man answers. He inclines his silky head in a slight bow. "My name is Stone, but perhaps the actual keeper of the bottles would be a better one to ask. He knows all about how you come to be here, and when you'll be going. Maybe he could help. His name is Dust, and he had been simply overseeing the brewers until we knew there was something more to the drinks than tradition."
I pad over to Snow and touch my cheek to his leg, which elicits one of his friendly hums. "All right, we would like very much to meet him, thank you. But now Gatherer and I need to talk, and to rest."
Stone shuffles a little closer to us, his black eyes glistening sharper than Snow's soft, melting ones. "Don't take this the wrong way," he mumbles, "but I would like to keep an eye on you. You just came here, you're strangers, and whether or not you escaped from Bush there is the scent of serpent all over you-- and it's not Jacinto's." He nods in the direction where we last saw the snake-guard. "Let me stay with you."
Snow looks down at me, and nods. We may as well cooperate with these people; we are so in the habit of mistrusting, after over a day and a night with Bush and Jar, that we forget we would have been perfectly friendly with anyone else we had met. We need to relax a little while we can.
"One question more, about the bottles, perhaps you can answer," Snow turns to Stone as the three of us make our way to a breezeless spot between two huts, comfortably far from the wall and the angry men beyond it somewhere on the cliff. It feels good to know Jacinto is out there, but he is not nearly so large as someone like Bush.
If this goes smoothly, if we _follow_ Bush's plan and take and dump the bottles, what then? Will these people be able to help us? Would they bother, if we turned out to be thieves? Could we make it back inside the walls and be among the survivors if Bush decided we have to die?
He will kill us, I realize. The two of us, if not the villagers. He's only using us to get at the drink bottles. After that, he will destroy us.
"There are more men and women helping Jacinto tonight, since you are here," Stone offers, as if reading my thoughts. "They will keep a watch and circle inside the walls. Jacinto feels safe on the walls, that is his job. Now, Snow, what was your question?"
"We have heard tell we cannot get back to our home from here. Is that true?"
"No, I should think you would be able to," Stone replies promptly. "But I don't understand all the details about that. I only know the bottles have powers, powers to make people travel where they never could have before."
"Even with wings?"
Stone nods. "Even with wings, or even with weeks of travel on foot. It is like no other travel our world has seen. To Bush, well, to Bush it has become an obsession. There were some visitors..."
I hear insects, and people murmuring in their chirping and purring rodent voices. I gain a little more confidence with each swivel of my ears; there seems to be nothing I am missing in the immediate area.
"There were visitors, and they came to the place where we found the fruits which we ferment to make the drinks. They stayed only a short time-- then they disappeared. But there were two or three who returned, and they had a fight with a small party of Bush's people. There were some deaths. The killers who were not put down by the snakes disappeared, the same as they had the first time.
"If the same ones had come back again, well then we all should have supported Bush in attacking and subduing them. Their actions had seemed unreasonable and even cruel, and we have little doubt they were after territory they should not have. But the next strangers who appeared, confused and new in the fruit grove, were not the ones who had fought the party of serpents. They were true strangers, and Bush killed as many as he could as quickly as he could.
"We consulted the others who had lived with Bush, and found he had not consulted them. He acted on his own, and in doing so he secured the fate of most of the serpents living in that part of the jungle at that time. For, in revenge, those visitors who survived came back, and-- well, there was war. I know no gentler way to put it. I know not whether any of this story has been told where you come from. But here, it is well known and still the jungle is not home to snakes-- no one will yet move in there. They are all afraid of strangers, and of Bush."
"But," I growl quietly, "I thought they were on the side of Bush? Surely he would not kill other serpents?"
Stone shakes his head, opening his mouth to speak and then pausing to listen to a nearby flutter of insect wings, reopening his mouth and replying to me: "Bush has ceased to have any common sense about the drinks and the people in general. He attacked where others would not have attacked, began an enmity that he cannot now live down. Anyone who comes forth to question his actions is asking for death. He has always been a fighter, never been part of his people. Somehow, I believe he really thought he could help them by avenging the deaths that first took place. But he could not-- or, at least, did not. He provoked a group of people who knew nothing of the first deaths. And only Jar remains with him, other serpents gone or killed, Jar alone submissive and keeping Bush satisfied with his obedience. Bush will not hesitate to kill anyone who ventures out to isolated fruit trees to harvest. We've lost only a few that way; lately we bide our time until we have almost used what we have in town. Everyone has become afraid of Bush, yet there is nothing, I must admit, that I would see to fear in him if he had any sense left in him. But it's all gone, I'm afraid. He's been at this for months without signs of stopping."
"Couldn't the killers come back, the ones he is scared of?" I ask, afraid to take Bush's side, but afraid as well that something about his obsession might be justified.
Stone mulls that over. "I... suppose. But they have not, and in fact it was years in between the arrivals of the first group and the second one, the one Bush attacked on sight. They had no knowledge of the first group; in fact, we questioned some here and they were confused and friendly, much as you yourselves seem to be. I don't know how the bottles work, but if they _could_ come back, I am guessing the power of their adversaries kept them away. Somewhere else someone must have gotten ahold of a number of drinks, and all partaken of them without knowing what they would do. I must say, although they were not a part of us and this is our home, they had little choice but to fight back as fiercely as possible. They were in a strange land, and Bush attacked them mercilessly; they saw all the serpents as one with Bush as he saw all the strangers as one with the purposeful and vicious adventurers."
Snow seems to try to find a comfortable resting position; his elbow rests first on his knee, then he sets both arms oddly at his sides and balances with head and spine. I glance at him, then watch curiously. I find my own most comfortable resting position, and Stone watches both of us.
"I understand these are not your bodies. Some of the bodies of the other visitors have been... Very odd. Not from the jungles or the mountains at all, or rarely or never seen if they were. There were tall ones with thick, white fur like the alpaca's, but coarser and with tiny, glittering eyes. There were beings with huge claws and those with no claws at all but long stringlike arms and hooked teeth. I don't know what to make of it; it is almost as if one's drunken visions may come true. And yet, when we partake of our own brews there are no such occurrences. That is something else that Dust can talk to you about. There seems to be something he knows, something he has given to others among us. They talk of hallucinations and journeys. I think I believe them; I have seen visitors, and who knows what worlds they may come from? What worlds do you two come from?"
"I--" I begin, but Snow takes over smoothly.
"We are from a place to the north, although now I see it may be what feels like north, in a different world entirely. This sky and this land may be more than distant, they may be from dreams or another real world."
Stone curls his lip in a smile. "Dreams? Am I your dream, Snow? It doesn't seem likely, to _me_."
Snow hums pleasantly. "No, well, some of this land is quite dreamlike. Where Gatherer and I come from, some things are not possible that are possible here. Talking is different. Sight and sound, bodies are changed."
"What," I finally get to ask, "was your body, Snow? How, precisely, did we get here? You _do_ remember. My mind seems numbed by whatever we took, some of my memories and important things gone."
He sidetracks me, even though I realize he is doing it. "What are important things to you, Gatherer?"
"I... I don't know anymore. You. Food, and getting away from Bush. I would like to go home. But I don't know what home is."
"Home," Snow speaks out with evident lack of fear that Bush might be crouching just over the wall, clear in his beliefs that he knows what the serpent-man will do next and it will not come tonight, "is where there are rivers and parks not at all like this village, nor the grove nor any other place where we live in these bodies. You know the parks, and places I have never seen, and I know places you have never seen. But, none of this would matter if we stayed in these bodies forever, and I realize that now. I have to get north, but at some point I must change. This body's home is here, my other body's home is where you have lived. Do you remember your body?"
"I remember mine. Gatherer, I know what I want. Do you know what you want?"
"Yes, I... think so..."
"What do you want?"
It's too much again. "I want to sleep. I remember my knees, and some kind of clothing on them. I used to recall more, but it's gone now. Can we sleep?"
Snow looks at Stone, and they both take a good listen, then nod to me and to each other.
"I'll stay up first," Stone decides.
"I'll watch after I have rested," I yawn.
Snow leans over onto one side, lowering himself carefully onto his elbow and ribs. He ends in stretching his arm completely out beneath his neck, and seems satisfied. "Do you want to rest closer over by me?"
I nod, pull myself up, plod the few steps over to Snow's side, and drop down next to him. I had forgotten we could do this; Jar has me trained to stay away from Snow.
After a few moments Snow reaches over and picks a toothed seed out of my neck-fur. I lean into him, appreciating the action, realizing I am too tired to give myself the grooming I really need. I work at a few of the sticks and tangles in his white head-coat. Stone watches us, and begins nibbling at the fine, grey hairs between his fingers.
We appear relaxed, and I am too tired to speak anymore, but I know that I am not the only one sniffing constantly for serpent scent above and beyond the fading layer on Snow's fur and skin.
Day in the village is diluted in its color
and sounds, as if the closeness of night and my
anxiousness brought it all deeply into my senses
and now the light opens up and separates the
rodent-people, the food-scents, the pattering feet
of children who are allowed to play in the sun.
Jacinto is sleeping on the wall; I can see him
from beyond the fire that is being stirred up by a
ticked-fur woman as she periodically admonishes
small, big-eared children for chasing Guinea pigs
they do not need. The Guinea pigs flee, squealing
in a peculiar bell-like tone, and I recognize the
words and mesh them; most of the people here are
Guinea pig-people, as the serpents are
My watch over the night was uneventful, and when Snow awoke to take his I pressed him for more information on where we came from and who we are, but he seemed irritable and sleepy that late at night and I eventually gave up.
Now, having eaten a much-relished breakfast, we follow Stone to the clay and rock structure that he says holds the drinks in their bottles. The clay is lit pale tan and yellow by the sun, and I feel an uncomfortable urge to be cheery and lax; as though I know somewhere in my consciousness that if I do so I will be asking for trouble. Bush is watching; I sense it, and at every step I take in another nuance of the active little village but also another section of wall, another shaded patch, worrying that the huge golden-brown form will appear in his patterned bulk and that will be the end of things.
Still, there are many people here. Perhaps Snow and Stone are right, and Bush was lying and would not be able to so easily take this place.
Stone, now that I am clear on most of the species represented here, puzzles me until I remember something about that curly tail; it goes on an animal I am quite certain I have seen before. A memory-scent comes to me, one of what I believe is shaved wood. In a house? A... Shop? A pet shop. I revel in the recollection. The name won't come to me, but I know that I have snatched another segment of my previous life. Any time I can do that seems to heighten my strength in this one.
Stone's coat, blowing in little puffs and separated by the wind to show its close-packed, shaded hairs, makes me certain I should know what he is called, but I can't make it come to me.
No matter. I know more about myself, at any rate.
I have a heavier, yet more springing step after food and a memory.
What is important? Snow asked me that.
I really don't know. I know he won't leave me, and he is working on a plan. Now, if this Dust will tell us how to get home, we can both go.
But what if we are stopped?
What if we are? Could we stay here?
My only fear, I begin to realize, is of Bush. I do not... I do not _need_ more of the old me except to tell me how I came to be-- to be here, to be this cat. This frightens me. It could be too easy to let something happen to everyone else, just to save my life, if I have no need to return to what I was.
I walk in closer step with Snow. He glances down at me, and wrinkles his nose pleasantly.
"Snow," I try again, "who are you? We are friends, yes? Who are you?"
"I am your friend."
"Why won't you tell me?"
He does not open his mouth, but his eyes express something to me, something I do not catch as we are at the arch to the cool room where the bottles are kept.
Immediately upon entering behind Stone, I am struck with a recollection; certainly these were the kinds of bottles involved.
The color is that of some kind of seaweed, sort of a brownish green, only glass and glimmering, dully as the sun cannot penetrate here.
Dust, a Guinea pig man in some woven clothing like the piece Snow wears, turns from studying a bottle to greet us. His whuffled "Hello" sounds pleased and curious. Stone introduces us, then excuses himself to go take over for one of the other men carefully surveying the wall.
"I knew you had come, but was busy last night," Dust tells us. He has a rough coat, and multicolored spots including a nearly black one over part of the pink of his ear and one eye. It makes him look comical, yet I don't doubt there is intelligence here. "Once I heard, a few of us had to go and make sure we have enough food for a few days."
"You risked going out?" Snow stands over a wooden shelf full of bottles and inhales over each sample.
Dust nods, shrugging off the idea of danger. "We had little choice, I thought, although if Bush does try to starve us out, the obvious choice if no other prisoners present themselves, we _should_ be able to shoot him from the entrances with few lives lost. How many men does he have?"
Snow leans close to the Guinea pig. "None but the striped one, Jar. I don't think he planned this well." His voice drops to a whisper. "He knows we are here, of course, but not because we ran. He sent us in to get the bottles."
Dust immediately begins chattering his teeth, and for a moment I think he will bite Snow and I grumble warningly and show my claws.
"So, what? Are you going to attack me?" Dust gathers up two or three bottles in his arms and backs against the wall.
"No, no," Snow insists in a very low tone. "Listen to us. We just need to get home. Bush knows nothing about the bottles except that they bring strangers here. Let me ask you, Dust, if people have come, and fought, because of these drinks you have, why create them? Why not stop?"
Dust chuckles suddenly, replacing the bottles and shaking his head. "You don't understand. Stone, others-- really, all the men, they just won't do without their drinks. It's tradition. They have to have them. I say, at least let me keep them then, keep track and study them. I give out the bottles now, so there will be less in the hands of-- well, of those who come from wherever you come from. _But_-- but, I have _found_ things out. I have studied, and I know. I don't want to give these up to Bush either, if I can help it. He could travel the worlds."
"How do you mean?" Snow starts turning a bottle over in his hands, peering at the line where the nearly clear drink shows through the greenish glass. "I thought Stone said that all of you can drink from these without any effects."
"_These_, yes," Dust nods eagerly. "But not _all_. Not the ones found by the smoking areas of the cliffs. Some of the explorers who have brought them, have tried them. I have asked them to do so again, to discover their effects. It is amazing! I have yet to attempt traveling myself. I fear leaving these drinks in the hands of others, when Bush is so treacherous. I worry that someone will lose some and far more dangerous strangers than yourselves may come through."
Sitting on my spotted haunches, relaxed now that I see Dust and Snow are calm with each other, I feel distinctly _un_dangerous, and am a bit ashamed to have Dust note it so openly. I cough a bit, randomly attempting a better growl. I wonder if I could roar. Somehow I think it would come out all wrong.
"The other bottles, then. That the-- explorers have brought. They are how we get home?"
"Oh no," Dust waves a paw. "That's easy. You simply wait."
"Wait..? For how long?"
I stare up at Snow and Dust, and Dust cocks his head at Snow's incredulity. "Not long. Have you been here... how many days?"
"Two or... three," I answer. "Something like that."
"About twice that, maybe a little more, altogether. Unless you have taken a drink from these bottles before."
"I don't remember doing so..." I am uncertain on that. What if I did? What does that mean?
Snow shakes his head. "I didn't."
"How did you come by them? There was more than one, yes? Or you would be the same creatures."
I don't have an answer to that one, although I feel it was close in my recent rememberings.
"Gatherer drank from one, and disappeared. I took the other. I was curious. I barely had a sip when everything changed."
"You were right with me?"
Snow gives me only a blank expression in reply, and now I know he is hiding something that frightens him. He has a doubt.
"What _is_ it? Snow, I--"
"I am not like you," he concedes. Dust looks on worriedly.
"What difference does that make?"
Something serene and maddeningly mysterious crosses the alpaca's features. "If it makes no difference, Gatherer, I am glad, and we have as much as answered your question."
I am left speechless once again. Dust offers to show us the other bottles, the large, clear ones, collected in the smoking areas of the mountains some way north-- though not, Snow guesses aloud, quite so far north as our home.
Dust slowly, proudly retrieves and holds out in his arms a long, thin-necked bottle of clear glass, almost filled with a golden-clear fluid suffused with minute bubbles.
"This is one of them, there are more."
"What do they do? If you drink them, I mean." Snow seems interested in everything. I am not so curious, instead considering the information Dust has offered-- that we will simply go back when the time of the drink is up.
We will go home, if what he says is true. We will be back to what we were.
But... I don't remember Snow. I don't want to go, not if it means I won't remember him there. If those I knew have been forgotten, and Snow was not among them until that moment, then could I not forget everyone I knew here?
Most I could do with forgetting, but I want to remember Snow.
I think I am beginning to understand just a little of what is in his mind.
While Snow talks to Dust, I sit still and watch. I watch Snow's brown skin and the way his neck and hands move. I hope to make it stay, in whatever of me goes back. I wonder if, when a memory ever comes at home, I will see him with the unkempt yet still becoming fur on his white head, or whether I will see him as he looked after he first shook it out in the burned grove.
I pull a paw over the back of my ear and see that I have again forgotten everything; I can't even recall what I know I have been recalling all along. I stare again at Snow. This much I will remember.
"Now, we have seen with these," Dust informs the curious Snow, "that the person who partakes of it will return to his home when it is done-- but, he will return to the place that he was in, in the other world."
Snow cocks his head, and Dust carefully sets down the bottle to gesture and explain. "You see, there is this place, and the other. In the other, one who has drunk from such a bottle will exist at _some_ point on the land that is just like _this_ land, only it could be far or near. He or she must travel back to this village, even if they drank the potion while in this village. We think that maybe this means the same thing happens with these bottles, our own, but we are not certain. We have not been able to conduct such explorations."
"Well, if it does, I could do that," Snow muses. "I could get to my real home from here, if I changed back in this place. These clear bottles, then, come from the world where I used to live?"
"They must have, as near as we can figure out. Some have been seen there."
Gears are beginning to be sparked into action in Snow's head, but I'm not seeing whatever he's seeing. "And-- they change one who drinks from them? As your own bottles do?"
Dust nods. "See, this comes from a place where they ferment fruits, and some of my people have been in a different self, a different place, and seen it."
Snow now takes Dust aside, asking him something in serious tones, but I take a look at the bottle. I recognize something on it! It is a leaf shape, something from one of the governments at home. Something about the south, a southern place in a northern country. The image on the bottle's label includes some white grapes, and the leaf and a vineyard name I cannot read. Yes, this must be from home. I cannot recall the name of home, the country's name, but it is a large and open place and all of its villages and towns belong to states-- states, and this is from one of them.
"I know this is from home," I announce.
Snow turns and nods to me, but keeps a slight distance with Dust and continues questioning him.
"I want to know what you're talking about."
Snow pauses, thinks, then grants me this much: "These drinks, what they do. What sort of people one would turn into."
"What would it matter? We will be changing back into ourselves, rejoining our own world in a few days whether we take one of these or not."
"In fact, I wouldn't advise it," Dust tells me quickly. "One time a man who had come here with a bottle of our own drank from one of these, and he never came back. They could be very powerful, when combined together. Very risky. The effect may be permanent. We don't know."
Snow looks at me, and finally answers my question with an "I'm just curious."
The day... The rest of the day is... Pleasant. Pleasant in a dry, airy, angry and worried sort of way. All of us eat, all of us chatter, all of us are looking over our shoulders every minute. We aren't waiting for Bush, either. We are waiting for dark. _Then_ we will begin waiting for the snake-man and whatever of his hurt and angry fighting strength he may feel it meet to loose upon us.
It seems, for one long moment in the afternoon, that dark may never come. There is a lifting of carefully hopeful muzzles, scenting the air, almost believing night could never fall and that whatever nasty fight we must engage in with the dark will never occur.
For the villagers do not want to kill Bush.
I do, and I would. I would, but I don't think I can. I couldn't catch a lizard or a mouse, I couldn't keep even _Jar_ from twisting and bruising my leg and doing what he wanted with me. Rage boils up when I think of Snow and the blows Bush dealt on the rise before we came here, but I don't feel any particular fighting skill coming with it.
For evening, I deliberately keep myself hungry. I see that Snow does not drink as much as he did last night.
The Guinea pigs and few other villagers, including Jacinto as he descends for a quick meal of an offered non-humanoid Guinea pig, watch us closely. They know we have not yet decided what to do, and they know we did not tell the whole truth last night. Dust has not spread too much about us, but it is clear to all that Bush will be in the area when it gets dark _tonight_, and not at some undefined time in the future.
Snow is quiet, near me for most of the day. Finally, I ask him directly: "Do we do it? Or wait until he attacks the village?"
Snow shakes his head, evidently clearing his mind. "Here, we feel safe. But it is as Stone said-- Bush should not be underestimated. We could do it, take the bottles, but it would be a task that we could not finish without a fight, and then there would still be Bush to contend with when we were done."
"Dust trusts us, most of them trust us."
He nods. "I know. Why lose the trust of these people, in the only place where we _may_ be safe until the potion wears off and we are... At home? I don't think we should do it. But that means he will attack them all, and from what Stone says he is mad and driven. He may not make much sense, but he is big-- and strong."
"He moves so well, you haven't hit him yet, Snow. And Jar too, although I hate to admit it. I can barely fight him. Is it fair to have these people try to fight?"
Snow gazes around at the people who happen to be passing at the moment, all of whom peer at us carefully before continuing on. Stone has been around, too, twitching his silky tail and eyeing us with warm, but cautious glances. "They will have to fight him to his death, Gatherer. Once he kills us, he will try to take the bottles himself, and if his behavior in the jungle is any indication he will take lives."
"You could what?"
"Well, we're not taking the bottles, right?"
"I could do as much damage as possible. I could try."
"Gatherer, I don't-- I don't like it. No. You'd be killed, and not a mark on him. This is _Bush_ we're talking about, here."
I sigh, picking with my teeth at a ragged place in my coat and trying to warm the chill that blankets me. "I... Know. But I would tire him down. It would just be me. Snow, I don't _like_ what I'm feeling, I'm wanting to hide! I could tire him down, do _something_."
Snow does not make eye contact with me, but scents of concern flow off him while he thinks. Finally, as a touch of blue and grey enters the light and I begin to feel sick flutterings in my throat, he agrees, "All right. All right. Of course, I am coming with you."
I sense there is no arguing that. We simply rise and find Dust, and tell him that we will be slipping out of the village and finding Bush, and hopefully tiring him down some before he outright attacks the people.
Dust pats my head with a paw, and pats Snow's hand. "I have not known you long, and it is such a shame about Bush."
I try not to let too much sympathy for the snake-man filter in. I can have no excuses-- I must be able to use claws and teeth without hesitation, because I know Bush would use them on anyone who threatens him... And that, to his mind, is everyone.
I purposely blank out the few memories that trickle into my awareness. I want nothing to miss.
It's just one man.
But I'm not even a real, single jaguar.
And then... There's Jar.
Well, we're fed now, and rested, and I am just barely hungry, and mad.
It will have to do. My jaguar body will have to do.
It is not yet twilight when we depart the
village proper. This is our first mistake.
If we had gone earlier, we might have had the jump on him, or at least we could have seen him coming. But we were _preparing_ in the afternoon, and not _watching_.
It is not even near dark, it is _just_ blue and grey on the very edges of our senses, there is none of the twilight oddity when Snow makes his way silently out the main entryway to the village and I clamber over, then leap as lightly as possible off of, a spot on the back wall facing away from the cliff Bush instructed us to meet him on.
Somehow, he heard the talks. I don't know how. Maybe he flattened out and listened on the ground. Either way, he was here all day and he is not where we were sternly instructed to meet him.
If he had been, Snow and I would have met in the middle and confronted him, hoping to find Jar on the way. We fully expected to be able to wait until dark and catch a glimpse of Jar approaching.
I glance around wildly, then take stock and calm myself, but the overwhelming odor of the banded serpent-man is soaking my nostrils and I know he heard me coming over the wall. Where Bush is, or what may be happening with Snow, I do not know. I only know Bush will not be where Snow could possibly expect him to be.
I hear a dreadful squeal before I feel anything. It comes from the other side of the village, and sounds like the little food-Guinea pigs when they are pursued, only it is clipped off at the end and is so hideously high in pitch and volume that I retch.
Then, a familiar shape lands on my back.
I cough, turn over, and kick out, literally forgetting to extend my claws for several blows and then having no problem with them after that, although all I am clearly conscious of is the blood running down my thigh that reminds me of rain.
Jar, putting all of his energy into fighting, seems surprised, and in a burst of awareness beyond blood, rolling and kicking, I know he was not counting on me being stronger when fed. The earlier shortcoming had never occurred to him.
He hisses, I roll, and he seems to extend more claws and daggerlike scales from nowhere, but as he does so I find more creases in his torso to gain hold on with my rear claws. I care for nothing but to get a good rip in on his gut and end it all for him, and get to Snow and Bush. Bush was in the village, only a moment ago, someone has already died.
My right foreleg gives out. I hang on with my mouth instead. I feel a searing pain in my shoulder, met with some dangling ache further down... I have to let go, I can no longer balance.
Jar is no shape and all shapes at once. I can't let go and get away, know I must, hang onto one part and try to kick out, then this becomes another limb or folds in and his head is at me.
I know I have been bitten, then, at least twice. Once at least would have had poison.
I _have_ to get away from him then. He is no threat, and Bush is, and I could be dead before I reach the others and help.
I am free. Jar is bleeding, as am I. I dare not rake into him once more, but as a target he is tempting, close to my body and my madness. It is all seen through a haze, but of poison or bleeding stupidity I cannot tell at all.
I growl a threat and dare to turn tail. Jar does not pursue. I think he is moving, running, but I am not sure. If he catches me, he could break my back when my leg is dragging like this.
I try to leap over the wall, but although my hindlegs almost work and I am up, where I would touch with my forepaws one has no strength and I jerk, lose balance and slam my chin onto the rounded boulders.
My vision is swimming. I hear squeals and grunts, but some of them seem unright. I tumble off the wall and smear bits of myself behind me on the stone and dirt, forcing myself finally into a semi-upright position. I think I see Jar's black and yellow again, but then it is the sun and I am looking upward awkwardly, and the blackness is in streaks in my eyes as the late-setting sun burns.
Some of the colors may be real, I tell myself. Some of it may be real, real twilight, real fur and stones. Somewhere is the white Snow and the jungle-pattern of Bush, I must remember it. He is mad and dangerous, and I have already been bitten. I have to be in his way.
I try to trot through the village, but a three-legged, drunken gallop works better and I register purposefully the pain of each footfall, making sure I know how far I have come. I need to know where the opposite wall is. I should reach it... Now...
I scrape the side of the wall, not noticing until too late what my whiskers tried to tell me, but I reset myself and make it through the opening. On the ground is something black, and I think it is a pool, but it is Jacinto.
The body is limp. On the wall, my ears claim, Guinea pig men and Stone are firing darts or arrows, things that disrupt the air and are all whining towards the same target, my target.
I growl to them to stop, something in my pounding head wanting them to do it my way, whatever that way might be. I know they are not hitting him, and I do not know why they waste their arrows.
He will not respond to threats.
He will only die.
By now I cannot stop galloping; my hindquarters will not take anything from my brain except to keep wheeling me forward in this intoxicated, drooling, stiffening manner, and I feel the pounding and the sharpness extend from their homeparts to the other parts of myself, the places where I bleed from and deeper inside.
Snow is also telling them to stop firing; I can hear his voice and it is right. Bush is at an angle off the path where he appears to be in range but is not. Their perception of his distance from them is lacking; I focus as best I can and he is blurry, but I know how far he is and it is too far.
I have an idea he might take a risk. For one clear moment, I see what I could make him do and I come closer as I think, or try to think, my body never slowing-- I see the man, patterned for the jungle floor, with the bow of the person he killed near the village wall, crouched waiting for his chance to shoot at the men.
He needs to shoot at them-- _needs_ to. But there is no cover between him and the wall. He's desperate and mad, but not that desperate.
All goes black, but I feel myself continue to move. The ground is rolling under my feet like waves and tossing them forward.
Bush hisses deep in his throat, then I know he opens his mouth, and from memory I recite to my blacked out eyes the pale flesh inside as the hiss deepens and widens into a familiar roar.
I hope I am roaring back, but my throat is so cut and dry and sick that I cannot tell where the effort is coming from-- in the drawing in of breath, or in the forcing out of any kind of voice.
I blunder into something, and if scent serves me right it is the enemy. He grabs me around with some limb, and lifts me, but I am heavy. I feel his breath in my ears, but do not hear anymore.
I think Snow is calling, but it is only in my mind and it is not his real voice. It sounds like something else, something I imagined before. I like the sound.
I feel myself crash into the ground, and a form presses close along my length. It is as I had hoped. Something stings the outer edges of my senses, and the form beside me writhes along my hide. The vibrations of a roar, and then more of the thumps and writhing, and I begin to float because the battering is becoming uncomfortable.
I come back into myself. I turn, forgetting what I am doing, and look up. Bush is dripping saliva from his own mouth, and we both reek of blood. They're hitting him. He's hitting some of them, no doubt. But he is only one man.
Bush looks down, painfully resets his eyes and glares, sees his shield still alive, and I deal a blow as best I can with a stiff paw across the side of his throat.
Someone lands another shot.
Bush roars, fires, then tries to jam a leg into me without losing too much of the protection of my body; his attention is divided.
"Hold!" Cries Snow. "Gatherer is moving-- Gatherer is still alive!"
It registers that I have arrows in me.
"Bush," I try to speak around my swollen tongue.
"Shut up, just _die_ why don't you." The snake-man is wincing as he speaks. Someone at the wall squeals, and there is a thump. Then, a jarring nearby and some crease in Bush is entered by another weapon.
"Hey! Kill me!"
I don't know why, but it works-- he's too distracted. Bush leaps up just long enough to spread himself over my front end and land his fangs in my neck.
I almost like the feeling. All sensations are dulled in the midst of so many; Bush's jaws are strong with his pain and madness and he digs in with his fangs in sharp and insistent, shocked repetition. When someone lands a shot, he bites, chewing into my neck instead of writhing to avoid the arrows, and it keeps going on.
For one instant, I remember everything. I remember I was alone, I remember the green-brown bottles and the taste of the drink and the others in the park that day that I was alone. I remember the burned grove. I remember being able to breathe.
My pain, which had been consistent with my heartbeat, evens out to a sensation somehow surrounding my body yet very, very still. My heart has stopped. All of Bush's weight collapses on top of me, and his fangs twist out of my throat.
"You can't do that."
"I can, I must. Gatherer will die."
"Gatherer _will_ die. Gatherer has died twice already and we have watched it happen. You can't--"
"The third, or the fourth time the heart stops will be the last time, I can't wait for that. The things you are giving, the medicines, they are not helping. Let me give the drink."
"No one has ever come _back_!"
That's Dust. He is talking to, of course, Snow, the only man with a voice like that. I smell death, then I smell Snow, then nothing.
"From the other world, or from the _dead_?" Snow demands, pounding a palm on something.
I try to whimper, groan, cough, anything, but my face is frozen. I lift a paw, and see its spots before my slit eyes. There is a sudden flurry of activity.
"Gatherer! Stay awake! Don't sleep! Listen, you must take this potion. This one from home."
Damn, I'm not _dead_? Sure, yes, I'll do whatever you say, Snow. Where will you be? Are you taking one too? Work, voice, work. Damn.
Pain returns, and I decide to fade. Snow jerks me awake with a cruel slap to the side of my head. Searing sensations, throbbing in time with my heart. For how long?
"Take this. Get ready to swallow."
Dust is protesting in the background. "Snow, listen to me, no one knows what will happen."
"But you have used it before, _not_ with another potion, and your men told you what it does."
"Well. Yes, but..."
Snow's warm breath awakes some of the pain in my nostrils. His eyes are right over mine. I try to nod, but nothing happens.
"Gatherer, this is a potion to take you home. It will change you, out of the body with the poison. I need you to trust me. Whatever happens, when you get to the other world, _wait for me_."
I stare as hard as I can. I try to prepare to swallow. I can feel my throat, but all is dry and I can't raise any sort of action.
"You're looking at me, good, look at me... Look, and hear me. You trust me?"
I want to answer.
"Gatherer, do you want to be with me?"
I want to answer. Does this mean you will be there? I don't know anyone else. What are the real memories? I twitch. Snow's deep eyes are close on mine, and he seems sure of something as I do this.
"You trust me."
I attempt another twitch, but nothing comes. Suddenly, blackness seems to rise from my gut and limbs. I feel myself tightened and thrown back, and there are cries. I jerk and cannot stop myself.
Time passes. It may have been only moments. Nothing stops me, yet I stop. My heart feels weaker. I can blink, but only a few times; suddenly I know that in this tiny window of time I could swallow, and I will Snow to give it to me now.
Snow is there with a bowl. He opens my jaws for me, and I thank him as best I can by opening my eyes against the pressure of the swelling.
"_Wait for me_. I have to get back the other way. Trust me?"
This time I can nod, although it feels like my spine is one long piece of vine. Snow nuzzles me once on the forehead, and pulls back enough of my lip to trickle the liquid into my throat.
I am cold.
I fluff out my feathers and raise one foot up to my breast, and suddenly nearly choke on my own startled realization that this is not me, not the jaguar, and the cold is a mere chill which my motions ward away; this is not the humid jungle nor the dry rise, and Bush is dead.
I fall back onto both feet, and shake in wonderment; somehow I am just _here_.
Here is not home, it is not the park, but new words and surroundings are coming into my brain in my head on this slim neck that whips around as I take in this place, and I know it is the world Snow intended that I be sent to.
Like the patch I will look for, on his neck. On my neck. I hear voices, discussing mundane things like the weather, and they cannot be far away.
It comes back. The vineyard. I am here.
I am _there_. That is, I am... I am home, from there, the jungle... I...
No one knows that I am new to this place, and I try to tell them, and the new word for "Hello!" comes out as new words came out during my time in the jungle, in the cat.
There is a pause in some of the many conversations, then some voices call out, cautious yet friendly enough: "Hello, who are you?"
"Gatherer," I try, and indeed a new sound for my name comes out. I shake my light-boned skull and settle my wings, and look at myself. My feet are black, and flat. I want to try stretching a wing, but worry about awkwardness. The colors around me are bright, chill and clear, yet not so chill as it becomes further north. Here I can wait, because he has a long... Flight... Ahead of him...
I press my beak experimentally into the scalloped grey of my wings, and the feathers part only slightly. I draw one through my long black beak, revealing a black feather beneath the grey.
My chest, scalloped too, warmly shaded, is layered in shorter and softer feathers which part with a mere shuddering motion of my beak through them. I hear the voices responding to my introduction, curious and concerned at my silence.
"Gatherer? Where are you? Are you all right, Stranger?"
"I'm fine," I respond somewhat absently, still overwhelmed with the somehow familiar newness of it all.
From above, then, the contrast of white straps on black necks, and several other Canada geese tilt back their wings and extend their dark legs, and land near me with a look of combined welcome and skepticism.
I incline my own head and blink at the representatives of this flock. Some of them, I think, I would know from the past, if ever I really paid attention to the geese. In the Spring they will be north from the Carolinas to Iowa, and I will be... That is, I _would_ have been feeding them. This year, I guess I will be among them, if they will have me.
One of the larger hens says something quiet to a companion, and another bobs her head a few times and then admits, "You look all right, I guess. What are you doing in the vineyard? Are you planning on coming with us?"
"If you are," offers a medium-tall young gander, speaking up before the older geese offer an opinion, "I wonder if you would be looking for a mate."
"Oh, no." I shake out my feathers down to my tail in a pleased gesture, so he will know I am not insulted, but answer, "He's coming."