By Charles Matthias
Part III: Flesh
Charles rubbed the single silver earring between the pads on his left paw. Only an hour ago, it had been on the ear of his closest friend, Germes. Now it was his, and he was the operator of Keener's Fang. They were headed west through the mountains towards the lion encampment. Germes would be fed to their enemies once they arrived.
Try as he might, Charles could not focus clearly on the tracks ahead. He kept seeing that black stone in his friend's paw. It was a shimmering obsidian moon against the red sky of his fur. Every year, four male jackals shared the fate of this fifteen year old. Every season, one was sent to the lions as food.
And Charles was driving the train to take him there.
Glancing briefly over his shoulder, he spotted the reclining Germes - no earrings, no clothes, and no dignity. Yet the jackal seemed to be completely calm about the whole affair, as if he were simply out for a stroll through the park.
"How can you sit there like that?" Charles finally asked, barking out his frustrations.
"Like what?" Germes asked, his yellow eyes turning to the one-silver.
"So calm. Don't you know what is going to happen?"
Germes looked past Charles through the front screen as the train barrelled on through the twisty hills and forests. After a brief reflection, the food nodded his head. "I know."
"But how can you face it like that?"
"Why wouldn't I?" Germes remarked as he licked his nose.
"You're going to die!" the operator barked curtly.
Germes then smiled pleasantly. His words came as if from a great distance. "But everything I care about in this world is going to be taken care of. My clan is made safe, and you will look after my mate. And I know that the Keener's Fang is in good paws."
"But don't you want to live?"
"Of course. We all want to live. But how can I tell my clanmates no? How could I say to you that I deserved to live but you didn't?" Germes licked his nose again, and then stood up finally. He put one paw on Charles's shoulder, and squeezed tightly. "You are a good friend Charles. I am glad to have you as a brother."
Charles nodded, and patted the food in return. "I'll miss you."
"Don't. I'm just a mechanic who was nice to you."
Could he have cried, Charles thought he might very well have. But he did not, but instead returned to watching the tracks. They went on and on without end, but for the most part took care of themselves. They were neither damaged nor cluttered, making for an easy ride. However, it was a lonely one. He did not speak to Germes again.
Shortly before they arrived at the lion's camp, Anaid came into the engine room and dismissed Germes. "Charles, I'd like to speak to you."
"What is it, Anaid?" the one-silver asked.
Anaid glanced back at the doorway, saw that it was closed, and then spoke softly. "Three years ago, my brother was chosen. So I know what you are about to witness. I wanted to prepare you for it."
Anaid nodded, his eyes downcast. "The first thing I must tell you though, because I know that you and Germes are such good friends, is that you must stop thinking of him as anything other than ordinary meat...."
He first saw the lion's camp when they crested a small ridge and looked down on the wide plains bellow. It was larger certainly than beautiful Keener's Grove, but the construction was much the same. The longhouses framing a central pavillion, with freeranging cattle in pastures spread about the area. As they came closer, Charles saw that the lions went about their town much as any other animalkin might.
Yet the stench of their horrible flesh was overwhelming. As he brought the train to a stop atop the raised platform, he felt a steady growl forming in the back of his throat. Standing tall upon the platform with arms crossed, and paws spread wide was one of the lions. There were flecks of blood in its golden mane and fur. Its cold cruel eyes scanned the train, finally settling upon the door.
Despite his willingness to die for his people, even Germes seemed to react hostily towards their foes. But with Charles's paw on his shoulder, the jackal without earring walked out onto the platform. The one-silver stood beside him, trying to keep the growl from growing any further.
The lion reeked of contempt. "Can the little dog do more than growl?"
Charles bared his fangs and hissed at the vile creature. Germes glared at the feline, but held back his temper and his fellow jackal. "I'm the chosen, and this is my brother. Are you going to honor our agreement?"
"We shall honor it. Shall he?" the lion inclined his head towards Charles.
"Charles!" Germes shouted.
Charles closed his lips, and calmed himself, tucking his tail between his legs. "I shall honor it," he spat between his fangs.
"Good, then come. We are ready for you." The lion turned about on its hind paws, and began to descend the stairs to the grasslands below. Germes and Charles followed after, each repelled by the reeking feline odors.
The ground was level and the grass tickled his ankles as they walked past the longhouses. He ignored the glares and the jeers that passing lions gave him. Charles resisted the temptation to claw out their throats whenever he was called a dog. Even the cubs seemed accustomed to bullying the jackals. The one-silver could feel that growl coming back, but he held it in check. He was allowed passage in and out of the lion's camp so long as he did not try to interfere. His duty was to watch.
The grisly deed that was his was also stipulated by the agreement. Anaid had made all of it clear to Charles, and the need to think of his best friend as meat. The lions had wanted the jackals to see what they could do to them if they wanted. They sought to show their dominance over their canine foes. And so, the brother of the chosen was made to watch as they ripped the sacrifice limb from limb and gorged on the flesh.
The central pavilion was lined with at least thirty adult lions, and at least fifteen small children. The imposing figure that had met them at the Rail came to the center of the ring, and dragged Germes with him. Charles was stopped by two other large predators, their musk gagging the jackal.
Nothing was said, and nothing needed to be said. Charles watched as the adults released their children, who scampered towards Germes who lay in the center like a rag doll. One by one the figures that could not have been more than three-feet tall, fell upon their vicitm and bit into his flesh. Germes did not scream at first, but only at first. As the short grass and dirt was stained red from the torn flesh and blood, his voice cried out into the uncaring sky.
Charles watched as the meat struggled underneath the cubs, their crimson muzzles dipping into his flesh, and breaking his bones. One pair of cubs broke off from the others as they fought over the severed tail, but neither won as they tore it in two. Another cub padded away with a more gruesome prize and sat down away from the others to chew upon its stringy muscle.
The screaming finally ended when one of the cubs ate out the meat's throat. The head lolled to one side, and the lifeless eyes stared vacantly out at the crowd. Charles recoiled even more from the bile stench, but the lions held him in place. Swallowing once more, the one-silver watched as the ears were bitten off, and the eyes plucked out. Every last bit of flesh was eaten by these cubs, not a bit was wasted.
Not a single adult ever moved in to stop the children. They let them eat all of the sacrifice. The cubs needed the food to become strong and healthy. Soon, there was nothing left, not a single bit of loose flesh, only bones to be leisurely gnawed upon. Yet he kept watching. Two of the little monsters were tossing the skull back and forth. Several of the lions were commenting on how long this dog had lasted before finally dying.
In some ways, they were no different from the jackals. He could see the kits playing around with the skull of some prey after it had been eaten. It was not hard to imagine his fellow clanmates talking about these sorts of things. Yet it was the lions doing all of it, not his clanmates.
His gaze finally settled onto the lion who had brought them here. One of the cubs had given him a quick hug after showing the feline what he'd taken from the body - a small piece of leg bone. Charles watched as the blood smeared onto the adult's chest. His ears went flat against his head, and the growl started coming back to his throat, but he managed to keep it down.
The lion walked calmly to him, and grinned, the odor of blood and feline musk overpowering. "I shall take you back to the Rail now."
Charles turned, and allowed hismelf to be escorted from that unholy pavillion. He paid close attention to the houses, many of them decorated with the bones of their kills. He noted the faces of his enemies, and their self-satisfied grins. In his mind, fires burned over all of it, razing it to the ground. He could see the children dancing in the fire, their flesh torn from them as they had done today. As he climbed the steps of the platofrm back to the train, he could not feel any remorse for his thoughts.
Anaid and the others were there waiting for Charles. Most saw his face, and then went to find someplace else to be. The two-silver was more resilient than that. He'd worn that face three years ago.
"Charles? Are you all right?" Anaid asked simply.
Charles turned to look back once at the village. He then liked his nose, wishing the stench would leave him. "No. I wish that his flesh could have fed our own kits instead. Damn them."
Anaid nodded, and leaned a bit closer, his voice soft. "Is there anything you want right now? Anything we can get you?"
Charles strode purposefully to the engine room. "I want to get out of here. I want to go home to the Grove."
"Then we shall go home," Anaid replied. "Do you think you can handle it?"
"Of course." was all Charles could find to say before closing the door behind him.
His fellow clan members were all exceedingly defferential to him in the following days. They were only staying at Keener's Grove for two more days, but in that time, Charles found himself the recipient of much sympathetic attention, and when he did not want that, an awful lot of private space. Most of it came from his fellow mechanics, but even the higher ranking jackals showed him an inordinate ammount of respect.
There was one person that he avoided though. Charles did not particularly care to see Lodera, and stayed away from her longhouse. Instead, he slept in the engine room, letting the sounds and the murmurings of the great Rail sooth him to slumber. Anaid had at first suggested he see Germes's mate, but Charles gave him a glare that had quieted the two-silver. Nobody ever mentioned either her or the meat's name to him again.
However, the thing that concerned him most was not what he had just witnessed, but what would happen to him in the coming week. It was not more than seven or eight days till his time in this world was up, and the potion would give out. He had to return to the Compound to get another bottle to ensure that he remained a jackal. Hall had said that there were plenty of those left.
After explaining the situation to Anaid, the older jackal had agreed that returning to the compound with all haste was in their best interests. Also, that is was doable. They would have to move a bit faster than normal, but if they were not slowed down for any reason, it would be well within the safe limits. And for this Charles was glad.
She came late in the evening after most had gone to bed. Charles had retired to the cabin, after having drunk a bit too much of the more exotic juices that the Keener clan had to offer, and had wished for some peaceful sleep before they had set out in the morning. It was not to be.
He had smelled her first. It was a sweet aroma that made him sit up in some surprise. Then, his ears upraised, he detected the faint sound of toe claws ascending the banister outside. Charles glowered at the entrance way, and was sorely tempted to close and lock the cabin door, but found himself unable to do so.
Instead, in walked Lodera, her bright yellow eyes not so bright anymore. She wore very little, only a short gown that fell to her knees. He found his eyes straying down her lines of nipples, noting each one in succession. Finally, Charles stared her in the eyes again. "Go away, Lodera."
"Please," she said, stepping into the room. A faint tinkling could be heard. Charles glanced at the two-silver earrings she wore. She had not had those before he'd left.
"What is it?" He replied curtly.
"I was worried," her words were soft, and soothing. And her scent was enough to incline Charles to let her stay. "I was worried about you."
Growling lightly at himself, he tucked his tail between his legs and pointed at the floor. "Come, sit."
She did so, and then gently tapped the hard floor with one claw for a moment. "They told me that you had been drinking."
"Yes." Charles could still feel a bit of a buzz from the wine.
Lodera licked her nose in thought. "Anaid told me what you said." Her words were measured, and Charles considered them. "I don't think you will find a single jackal here who would disagree with you. I know I don't.
"When I heard that Germes had been chosen, I stayed inside my room and would not come out. I prayed that Keener would spare him, I truly did. When you all came back, I ran out to see if he would come back with you. When I saw you, I knew he was dead. I wanted to be there with you, but you did not let me get close. Why haven't you let me get close, Charles? Germes was your brother and my mate. Why didn't you come to me?"
Lodera was leaning forward at this point, and had placed one paw on his outstretched legs. He could feel her pads against his fur, his flesh, and they trembled at her touch. Finally, Charles found his tongue. "I didn't want to remember him. Everytime I thought about you, I thought about him. I wasn't ready."
Her nipples jiggled slighty as she scooted a bit closer to him. "Are you ready now?"
Taking a deep breath, her scent filling his veins with heat, he abruptly replied. "Yes, I think I am. I'm glad you came."
She nodded, her paw massaging his thigh back and forth a bit. He reached out and placed his own paw upon hers, and traced out small circles in her rust-colored fur with his claws. "Do you miss him?" He asked then, his voice low and gentle.
Again she nodded as her face jowls droopped. "Germes was kind and gentle. He never hurt anybody." She then looked wistfully at him. Charles could smell her sorrow and her need. "I just came into season yesterday, and I was hoping..." she could go no farther before she began to shake with the sadness.
Charles took her into a tight embrace, letting her sob into his chest. Though she could not cry, her misery was equally profound as his own had been when he'd lost his mate. Not a word needed to be said for so many minutes as they just sat there hugging each other. Images of the previous day came flashing back to his mind, but he shut them out. He had to be strong now. He was a jackal, and they were strong.
When her sorrow had finally run its course, she leaned back a bit, stared down at the ground, and took several deep breaths. Her eyes rose once again to meet his, and he felt his heart pound harder. She spoke haltingly, as if embarassed by what she had to say. "I was hoping to bear Germes another litter before the winter sets in. Only he's gone now."
Charles replied a bit faster than he might have had he still not been slightly inebriated. "Germes is my brother, I'm responsible for his affairs."
Lodera reached down to her gown with both paws, each one trembling slightly. "Will you?" Her scent was answer enough for him.
"I will," He replied softly, his paws removing his own pantaloons and jerkin. As she slipped off the gown, he could see her need before him. Charles had never before been with a woman like this, but he knew what to do.
Lodera lowered herself to the floor of the engine room, her tail stiff, and her legs wide. Each of her nipples seemed to stand up in expectation. Charles removed the last of his clothing, and then climbed between her legs, and leaned over her chest. Staring into her eyes, he drank in the odor of desire. He'd always wanted to spend time in foreplay when he finally had the chance, but all such thoughts were swept aside by that overwhelming fragrance that he had first smelled when she had climbed those steps.
She gasped only once. He did not make a sound. Instead the two locked themselves together in a silent consummation of flesh. The two jackals continued for what seemed like hours to Charles, until finally he felt his orgasm. He stiffened for a brief moment, and the only sound he could hear was the beating of their hearts. Then it was gone, and he stared downwards at her, locked in place.
She reached up a single paw, and scratched the side of his muzzle a moment. He brushed a strand of fur from over her eyes, lost in those yellow orbs. Within those pupils, Charles found the whole meaning of his life here. The change was so remarkable, that he could barely fathom it. Yet he knew it to be true.
"My mate." The words were hardly even a whisper, but he knew from her smile that she could hear.
"My mate," she replied in kind. Then Charles wrapped his arms about her, their flesh still tied, and laid down next to her on the hard floor of the cabin. All thoughts of getting a good night's rest were gone.
Though at one time he would have been embarassed by having the two silver find him lying in the embrace of a lovely vixen on the engine room floor, this was not such a time. In fact, as Anaid stepped on board the Keener's Fang, Charles waved at his superior, while Lodera gently stirred beside him in the predawn twilight. The older jackal did not say anything, only returned the gesture, and continued on his way down the length of the train.
Charles leaned back down, resting his head against her canine chest, his tongue gently licking an exposed nipple. Lodera gazed at him, her sleepy eyes filled with a sense of contentment. She gently scratched him betwen the ears, making his tail wag against the floor. "Are you sure you have to leave?" she finally asked forlornly.
He nodded a moment. "I need to. I have to go back to the Compound if I want to ever come back to you."
"But why?" She traced a claw down his chest to his mostly furless belly and tickled him in a sensitive place. "Surely you can be with your mate at least one more night."
He reluctantly shook his head. "No, I can't. If I don't leave today, I won't be able to come back."
She sat up abruptly. "I don't understand." Lodera still held that fire in her eye. It was much the same as when he had first met her only five days ago.
"Did no one tell you what I originally was?" Charles was surprised that the meat had not told her of his origins.
"No. I thought you came from a different area and wanted to join our clan."
Charles chuckled mirthlessly. "In a way that is true, but not quite the way you think." He liked his nose a moment, to gather his thoughts. "Until just over three weeks ago, I was not a jackal. You know of the Compound to the west do you not?"
"Yes, our clan has been trading with them these last two months now." Her scent was slightly confused.
"Well, I lived at the Compound before I became a jackal. I drank a potion that made me this way. My time here in this world is almost up. I need another potion to become a jackal again. I know that there are some back at the Compound, but that is the only place I know where they are."
Lodera pulled back a bit, her paws falling in her lap. "So you are leaving me?"
Charles finally sat up properly as well, his tail wagging in agitation behind him. His paws cupped her own, an he gripped them tightly. "No, I will be back with you soon. I intend to drink another potion that will make me a jackal again. How could I not? This is my home now, and you are my mate.
"I've left too many people in my life behind. I cannot do that again."
She grinned slightly at his words, and then leaned forward and gently licked his muzzle. He returned the gesture, and then helped her to her hindpaws. "The others will be arriving shortly. We'll be departing in an hour or so. I have to prepare the engine."
"I will count the moments until you return." She said, already walking towards the door.
"You will not get very far," Charles assured her.
Lodera grinned, her tail wagging, and the two silver earrings in her left ear tinkling lightly. And then, she was gone. Only the beautiful fragrance of her scent was left behind. Charles savored it, filling his nostrils with the odor with each and every breath he took.
The brief moments of his good mood after he'd visited the lion's encampent were gone by midday. And his perpetual gloom lasted him several days. Anaid took over for him when he got tired, but he only let himself have a few hours sleep each night. Charles stood in the engine room, took his meals there, and became like Faltaf in habit.
When others did talk with him, it was only briefly, and usually only to ask him what needed repairing in the engine room. Otherwise he said not a word to the others. They were his clanmates, but at the moment he needed his time alone. But the two-silver was determined not to let Charles stay in his forced misery forever.
But sometimes, events don't work out for anyone. So it was that three days into the return trip, Anaid came by late in the evening after they had departed from a weigh station at the intersection of three different rail tracks to both relieve him and warn him.
"You need some sleep," Anaid said after quickly closing the door behind him.
Charles yawned wide, and then stretched out hsi arms. 'I think you are right. Will you take over for me while I go to the bunks?"
"I think you should sleep right here."
The comment caught Charles off gaurd. He'd been heading to the door, but stopped and looked at his elder. "What?"
"Sleep here. It would be better for you."
"Why?" His eyes narrowed as he glared at the evasive jackal.
"Trust me, please." Anaid remarked calmly. But there was a hint of fatality in the two-silver's voice that only strengthened Charles's curiosity.
"No. You tell me why."
Anaid looked back at the door, and then sighed. "There is a lion onboard."
Charles felt the growl return to him, and his anger flared. He found his fangs bared and his ears erect before any words could escape his lips. His heart beat with an internal fire that had seemed dormant. "A lion? I will kill him!" Charles turned to the door, but Anaid grabbed him by the shoulder.
"No you won't!"
Charles struggled against the stronger jackal's grip, clawing at his chest and arm. "Let me go! He is our enemy! I must kill him!"
"I know!" Anaid barked, effortlessly pushing Charles back. Even though the one-silver was quite strong as a jackal, in contrast to his human form, Anaid was still stronger. "Do you think I like seeing him back there? Do you think I haven't forgotten what they did to my brother? I know what you saw at their camp. I know what they did to Germes."
That name caused Charles to start, only inflaming his rage further. It was the first time he'd heard that name since the Rite of Choosing. "They butchered him!" Charles barked between clenched teeth. Spittle flew in every direction as he growled and snarled at what lay beyond the door.
"And what do you think they will do to the rest of our clan when they find out that you killed this lion? What do you think they will do to Lodera?" Anaid's voice was so confidant and sure, his scent so fierce that Charles was momentarily balked.
"I don't know," he growled
"They will do exactly the same thing."
Charles stared into the two-silver's eyes. Despite his own rage, he could see the loss and the sorrow it would wreak. He turned back from the door, and crumpled to the ground, his tail tucked between his legs. "I want to kill them. Kill them all," he muttered and sobbed into his fur.
Anaid walked over to the controls, and began watching the tracks. The train sped along effortlessly and smoothly. It was only two days till they arrived at the Compound. They would arrive early in the morning, giving Charles about an hour or two left till he would vanish from sight. It was not much leeway, but it would have to do.
"I am glad now that I made Germes the operator after Faltaf died," Anaid suddenly said. "Had you still been a one-copper, I don't think I could have stopped you from killing that lion when he'd first come aboard."
"Why did you?" Charles asked after a moment's reflection.
"Why did I what?"
"Make Germes the operator."
"Because he made a mistake."
"So you move up in this world by failing?"
Anaid turned to glance at the cynical jackal. His expression was much the same as it had been the night Faltaf had died. It was utterly unreadable. "No. His mistake cost a clanmate his life. That is the sort of mistake no one repeats. I knew I could trust him. As I know I can trust you."
"Who did I kill?" Charles asked causticly.
"You were going to kill the lion. Why haven't you?"
Charles stared at the two-silver incredulously. "Because you stopped me!"
"I'm running the train now. I am not in your way. What is stopping you from getting revenge for Germes's death?" The questions were so innocent, yet Charles hated each one of them. He growled slightly at the two-silver, but his tail stayed between his legs. The scent of his own rage was still in the air.
"The other lions will kill Lodera if I kill that abomination."
Anaid opened his mouth in a wolfish grin. "And that is why I trust you."
Charles felt slighted by the remark, but shrugged it off. "Is he going to be disembarking at the Compound?"
"Who the lion?" Charles nodded. "No, he'll be gone before that."
The one-silver tried to smell his foe, but only the lasting impresisons of his rage and Anaid remained. Sighing, he curled up upon the hard floor and closed his eyes. "Wake me when it is morning," Charles asked in a soft voice.
"I shall, sleep well, my friend." It was the first time that Charles could recall the two-silver ever calling him friend. And on that note, he drifted away into a world where lions died beneath his claws, and their flesh was in his jaws.
He sat in the orchard rolling the bottle back and forth in between his paws. Charles wagged his tail every few seconds. The scents about him, fresh with the newfallen snow, were filled with his friends. However, after giving him a potion from the jcakal stock that Hagen had identified, they had left him alone as was his request.
But there was a single figure waiting for the inevitable with him. Slomer, the old coot, had announced that he would stand by the one-silver's side until he returned to them. In fact, the one-copper was once again regaling him with tales of his younger days upon the Rail. Charles was only half-listening though.
Only a month ago he'd stumbled out of this small area upon paws. On a whim, he tried to remember what it was like having hooves instead. They were such a dim memory now. Sometimes, when he was just on the verge of sleep, it would be clear to him, but then it would recede back into the shadows.
Dwelling on his parents and his friend from the old world did him no good either. They all looked like jackals to him now. With a bit of chagrin, he had to admit that in the last two weeks, he'd almost completely forgotten about his folks. Charles had told Corey that he wanted to be a jackal again so that he might continue searching for them. He didn't have the stomach yet to tell them of his decision.
"...Well I clobbered that skunk but good before he left! If you think what you smelled in the bathrooms was bad, then you have a lot to learn, kit!" Charles returned his gaze to the old coot. He could have cuffed the one-copper on his ear for calling him a kit, but this was Slomer. In a few years, he'd only be worth his meat; they could afford a little leeway.
"I can imagine," Charles remarked absently after the older jackal had finished his latest tale.
Slomer however noticed his distraction, and asked him what he was thinking.
"What am I thinking? Not much really." He leaned back, staring blankly at the green bottle in his paw. "I guess about this."
Slomer nodded. "Are you happy you became a jackal?"
Charles was a bit startled by the question, but his answer was immediate. "Yes. I am very glad I became a jackal."
"None." Charles then paused, and added, "Have you ever killed a lion, Slomer?"
"Me? No. But there was one time..."
"I don't want to hear another story." Charles cut him off rather curtly, but he needed to ask this question of one as old as this jackal. "Have you ever wanted to kill a lion?"
Slomer's face fell a little bit. "We all do. They think of us as meat."
"We are meat." Charles interupted again. Looking down at the bottle again - the bottle that would keep him a jackal and a member of the Keener's clan as he should be - he muttered beneath his breath, "We are all meat."
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