The Shepherd of Zakhbaal
by Bill Bowler
Chapter 5: Contact
In the short grass near the pit where Omar had been trapped, Tiger opened his eyes. He felt the hard surface of the rock beneath his head as the world slowly came into focus. One side of his face was covered with crust.
He unfurled his fore tentacles, climbed slowly to his feet and stood wobbling. Searing pain shot through his head and torso, and he fell back to the ground. The impact sent a pulse of pain through his left side. He lay still, breathing and gathering his strength, fighting to subdue the pain that bored through his head and wracked his limbs.
After a moment, he struggled to his feet again. Tiger forced his middle legs to move, then his rear legs, and dragged himself to the pit. He looked down over the edge, but the pit was empty now.
Tiger whimpered for his companion. In confusion, he moved around the pit, and caught a trace of something familiar, a residue of struggle. A faint trail of emotion led away from the pit, along the path that cut through the tall grass.
Tiger looked up in the direction the trail of feelings led, and saw the mountains in the distance. He became aware of a new sensation, as if sharp, pointed shafts were being thrust deep into his back. Tiger’s throat constricted, as if he were being strangled, and he struggled to breathe.
This stabbing and choking were not his, but became his, reaching Tiger’s mind from some distant source, which he began to recognize. Relief and joy flooded through him. He was not alone.
Tiger started off down the path, slowly, unbalanced, forcing his legs to carry him, and seeing dimly through one eye. Weakness in his limbs and the terrible pain in his head forced him to stop frequently to rest and gather what remained of his strength.
Light and dark came and went, and came and went again. As As Tiger drew nearer to the mountains, the sensation of being stabbed and strangled grew stronger. The source of the feelings grew closer, and awareness of his lost companion gradually filled Tiger’s being.
In a period of darkness, Tiger emerged from the long grass and stood at the foot of a rocky slope that rose up to a sheer stone wall. He had rested, and drank from the cold waters of a nearby stream. Strength was returning to his powerful limbs, though not yet what it once had been. Sensations emanating from his nearby companion now filled Tiger’s consciousness, and gave him purpose. He bounded up the slope, and made his way along the base of the wall and up a narrow path cut in the stone.
Omar pressed his cheek against the cold stone pillar to which he was leashed. The ropes that bound his arms and legs had worn raw, red streaks into his flesh. The anger he had felt for his captors was giving way to weariness and indifference. He was tired of struggling. But as he stood, sagging in the ropes that held him, new emotions began to seep into his being.
The once faint buzzing that had lurked half-noticed in the dim background of his mind now entered his consciousness. Hate, fearlessness and devotion washed over Omar’s dull indifference. He heard a low-throated growl from the darkness beyond the perimeter of light from the fire. His captors heard it, too, and reached for their spears.
Tiger crept from the shadows, ferocious, fur bristling, snout curled back, fangs bared, snarling, his fore-tentacles ready to snap like a pair of whips, the hooked claws on his second legs unsheathed and ready to strike.
The hunters raised their weapons. Vaktar stepped forward, ready to fight or die. He saw the deep gash and caked fluid on the creature’s face, and knew it was wounded. Old Svak took the whole scene in with a glance. He saw the danger, and he saw the look that passed between the creature and their captive. Svak waved his villagers back, away from Omar.
Tiger glared around with a single flashing, coal-black eye, then leapt in one bound to where Omar was tied to the stone pillar. Vaktar thought the end had come for their captive, bound and helpless before the enraged beast.
But with a sweep of his claw, Tiger cut the leash and the ropes that held Omar’s arms. Omar dropped to the ground beside Tiger and put his arm around the alien creature’s shoulder.
Svak had heard of such things, but had doubted their truth and never expected to see the bond with his own eyes. He fell to his knees and lowered his head to the ground. Vaktar and the villagers followed his lead. After a moment of complete silence, Svak rose and hobbled slowly towards Omar and Tiger, supporting himself with his staff.
Tiger bared his fangs, but Omar whispered something only Tiger could hear, and the creature lowered its head.
Omar stood and waited.
Svak approached, laid his staff at Omar’s feet, and bowed low before him.
Omar picked up the staff and weighed it in his hands. He saw that it was made of bone and covered with fine carved images of creatures like Tiger. The staff was topped with a sharp hooked claw, like those on Tiger’s middle legs. Omar handed the staff back to Svak, and bowed low to him in turn.
Svak spoke to the crowd, and the villagers dispersed, chattering and gesticulating excitedly among themselves. He turned back to Omar and led him to one of the stone domes that stood behind the hearth near the face of the cliff. They pushed through a curtain of reeds that hung in the entrance way, and Omar found himself in a spacious chamber protected from the elements. The floor was covered with a soft mat made of woven grass. A crude mattress stuffed with white fluff from the forest brush lay opposite the entrance.
Svak reached up and slid aside a rough plank that was set in notches in the center of the ceiling, revealing a large open skylight. Omar looked up, and saw the black night sky and twinkling stars. He heard a hushed rustling and felt a gentle breeze as it rippled through the reeds in the entrance and swept up through the open roof.
The reeds in the doorway clattered lightly. Vaktar entered the chamber carrying Omar’s backpack and laser, and placed Omar’s things on the floor of the dwelling. Draped across Vaktar’s arm was a garment made of soft fur. He unfurled the garment, held it up, and Omar saw that it was a hooded cloak lined with smooth fabric and decorated with fine, ornate stitching. Vaktar handed the cloak to Omar, and Omar understood that it was a gift, a peace offering. He slipped it over his shoulders, and Svak and Vaktar nodded in approval.
Tiger poked his bloodied head gingerly through the screen of reeds and then pushed through to the interior. Svak and Vaktar watched the wounded creature with fear and respect in their eyes, and gave it wide berth as they backed out through the reeds into the night.
Tiger padded around in a circle and curled up by the entrance. Omar was saddened to see his friend with such injuries. If he had been more careful, if he had paid more attention to the shadow of the flying beast and not led them blindly out into the meadow, then perhaps Tiger would not have had to suffer so.
But regret was a path that led nowhere. Omar stretched out on the mattress. His shoulder ached, his ribs were sore, and his neck was raw and chafed from the noose, but he sank into the soft fluff mattress and felt his first moment of comfort in many days. He put his hands behind his head and gazed up through the skylight. Before long, he was sound asleep.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler