The Shepherd of Zakhbaal
by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 6: The Lesson|
Omar Jones travels to a distant Earth-like planet where he encounters an alien civilization. He is by nature taciturn in the face of personal conflicts and tragedies, but as he approaches his destination he begins to experience strange sensations and emotions. When he reaches his journey’s end, he finds the one thing he thought he had lost forever.
Omar woke with dull red sunlight warming his face. He smelled an aroma like grilled steak and heard activity outside. Still stiff and sore, but refreshed, he rose from his mattress.
Tiger lay by the entrance, his one good eye open, his snout resting on his rolled up fore-tentacles. His face was still a mess, covered with congealed fluids that had run from his head wound. Two of his three eyes were swollen shut. Omar studied the deep gash in Tiger’s head. The wound seemed to be closing.
Omar pushed through the reeds and went out to the plateau to find the villagers gathered around the hearth. A large animal was roasting on a spigot and a pot of fibrous stalks was simmering in brown liquid. The villagers were sitting cross-legged on the ground, eating off thin flat stones. The chef motioned for Omar to sit, and served him a slice of succulent meat and a scoop of boiled plant fiber.
When Omar had eaten his fill, the chef removed his plate, bowing low. Omar belched, looked around in case he had offended anyone, and stood up, smiling to those around him.
Omar heard the approximation of his name called out in a guttural bass voice. He turned to see Svak emerge from the central dome, leading a female by the hand. The female was taller and slimmer than the villagers. Her legs and arms were longer in proportion to her body. Her face was downcast and hidden by fine brown strands of hair that covered her features. Her skin was smooth and free of fur.
Svak led the female across the courtyard and placed her hand in Omar’s. At first touch, her emotions flowed directly into Omar’s consciousness. He sensed her curiosity, her strength of will and determination.
Behind Omar, Tiger pushed his head out the entrance of the stone dwelling and saw them standing together. He pushed through the reeds, limped up to the female and brushed his side against her leg.
Omar did not so much as see, as sense her initial recoil at the sight of the ugly, open wound in Tiger’s head, and then the softening of her heart as she registered the pain such an injury must have cost the creature. She knelt beside Tiger, without a trace of fear or revulsion, and gently stroked the bridge of his snout.
Looking up into Omar’s eyes, she spoke in English. “My name is Lyla.”
Omar was too stunned to reply.
* * *
After the morning meal, Lyla led Omar and Tiger down the rock path to the base of the cliff, and then down the slope to the meadow that spread beneath the high plateau on which the village stood. They sat in a spot where the grass had been cleared. To Omar’s amazement, Tiger curled up and put his head in Lyla’s lap.
Omar studied Lyla. Once again, as when he had first splashed down and seen the alien shore, he had the strange, unreal sensation of the familiar, a feeling that he had known her somehow, though he couldn’t remember or imagine how or when.
“Yag Vaktor sselp. The hunter’s name is Vaktor.” Lyla spoke first in the clicks and whistles of the villagers, and then in English.
“Yag Vaktor sselp,” Omar repeated the phrase.
“The holy man is Svak.”
“Vaktor and Svak, hunter and priest,” said Omar.
“Svak is our father,” said Lyla.
“Whose father?” asked Omar.
“Ours,” said Lyla, “Vaktor’s and mine, all of ours.”
Omar said bluntly, “Svak cannot be your father.”
“He adopted me. My real father is the Shepherd of Zakhbaal.”
Lyla pointed towards the horizon. The broad grassy plain stretched away from them, bordered on one side by the chain of mountains that stretched as far as they could see. In the distance, in the mist, loomed a gigantic peak whose summit was hidden among the clouds.
“Mount Zakhbaal,” said Lyla. “The old city and fortress are there. My real father is there, with his robot. He went insane and killed the others. He killed my mother.”
Memories were welling up inside Lyla. She was emotionally vulnerable, but she felt instinctively that she could trust Omar, and the words poured out.
“Something happened to him. Maybe he’s ill and needs help. He thinks this whole planet belongs to him. People are just toys, or tools. At first I wanted to kill him, but then I just wanted to get away. Dramka helped me escape. She unlocked the gate and I ran out into the forest.”
Lyla stopped for a moment to gather her thoughts.
“You don’t have to tell me,” said Omar. His eyes were focused with a grim determination.
“I want to. I want you to know.” Lyla put her hand gently on Tiger’s head, and laughed.
“I got lost in the forest. Some escape. I ran and walked for two days and found myself back at the river across from the wall. That’s when I panicked and just turned and pushed deeper into the underbrush. Vaktor and the hunters found me. They brought me to the village, to Svak. Even though I’m the enemy, even though my father had been sending the robot against them, they’ve cared for me. I’m not going back.
“Sometimes we see the flyer from Zakhbaal. Villagers disappear, or we find them dead, horribly burned. My father says he’s defending us humans, but he just wants total control.”
“You’re from Earth,” said Omar. It was more a statement than a question.
“Yes,” said Lyla. “We came when they destroyed Earth, when they finally blew it up.”
Tiger raised his head and looked towards the mountain towering in the distance. As she spoke, Lyla’s fear and grief and courage had flowed into Omar and his alien companion.
Omar said quietly, “We’ll try to help.”
* * *
The flyer from Zakhbaal appeared the next day.
Omar and Lyla were seated with the villagers on the rock plateau, finishing the morning meal. Tiger began to whine. They heard a faint hum in the air and saw a sleek metallic airborne vehicle, glittering in the red sunlight, flying low over the treetops and moving in their direction.
The chef doused the fire and the villagers began to scatter, some hiding in their stone dwellings, others running from the plateau towards the face of the mountain.
Lyla took Omar’s hand with a sense of urgency. “We better get out of here.”
Omar and Tiger followed her. They ran behind the row of domes and then along a hidden path that led higher up the mountainside. The path wound around the far side of the mountain until it dead-ended at a large boulder.
“This way,” said Lyla. She led them off the path and along a narrow rock brim that hung high above the valley.
A small opening was concealed in the face of the mountainside. They crouched, and Lyla led Omar and Tiger into a low-ceilinged tunnel. They found themselves in pitch darkness. Lyla held Omar’s hand and pulled him forward, feeling her way along the wall.
After a few moments in complete darkness, they emerged into a dimly lit, vaulted cavern, a large cave inside the mountain, illuminated by the few faint beams sunlight that made their way through an aperture in the rock high above them.
Many of the villagers, mostly women and children, were huddled on the floor in the center of the space, clinging to each other. No one made a sound. One child began to cry and was hushed by his mother.
Omar was startled to see Svak standing by the wall near the entrance with his back towards them. He was calm, concentrated, and seemed unconcerned or unaware of the aircraft from Zakhbaal.
As Omar watched, Svak scratched black lines on the stone surface of the wall with a charred stick. He squeezed juice from a bowl of berries, and spread colors with a crude brush made of long grass bound to a stick.
Along the wall, Omar saw images of the stone domes where they lived, the squat humanoid forms of the villagers, an image of a long, tentacled creature like Tiger, and another of a giant quadruped with a large shaggy head and thick legs.
“Chok,” said Lyla, pointing to the quadruped. Despite the fear and anxiety she was feeling from the flyer’s approach, she smiled. “A delicacy.”
At the edge of the mural, Omar saw a drawing of a streamlined silver vehicle aiming a red beam, setting villagers on fire.
* * *
As the flyer approached and the villagers scattered for cover, Vaktar took his spear and crouched behind one of the domes where he had a clear view. Within moments, the plateau was deserted. The fire in hearth still smoldered, and cooking and eating implements were scattered about on the table and on the rock surface.
Vaktar heard the humming noise grow louder, and the silver ship appeared, rising vertically above the edge of the plateau. It hovered in place, sleek and shining in the reddish sunlight.
At the nose of the ship, Vaktar saw the Shepherd’s robot positioned inside a transparent bubble. The robot’s weapon was mounted through a hole in the canopy with its barrel protruding. The lens fixed atop the robot glowed red and swiveled left and right as it scanned the area.
Vaktar was not afraid. He had seen what the laser could do to one of his own kind, but he accepted the proximity and possibility of death without fear. Instead, he studied the enemy with calm, intense focus, searching to understand what weak points it might have. He saw none.
The robot’s red eye scanned the perimeter of the plateau, past the dome where Vaktar crouched. There was no motion, and no sound but the hum of the flyer’s engine. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the ship swung around and flew back in the direction of Mt. Zakhbaal.
In the cavern, Tiger sensed Vaktar’s approach, and the rest of them heard noise at the entrance as the hunter scrambled into the cave. The powerful warrior looked weary but resolute. Omar saw creases in Vaktar’s face around the yellow eyes, signs of worry, of responsibility.
Vaktar gazed for a moment at the mural. “It’s beautiful, Svak.”
Svak lowered the piece of charcoal for a moment. “Sometimes I think it’s a pile of stinking Chok dung, not what I had hoped to show, not what I see. But better a poor image than none at all, so those who come after us can know.”
Vaktar nodded in agreement, and then turned to the villagers huddled on the floor.
“It’s safe to go now.”
* * *
The next day was peaceful. Life seemed to have returned to normal. When the morning meal was finished, Lyla once again took Omar down the rock path to the meadow that spread below in the shadow of the plateau.
It was time for another lesson. Omar was absorbing the alien language quickly and was already able to express himself in simple terms. Tiger padded along behind them. When Lyla and Omar sat at the edge of the field where the grass had been cleared, Tiger stretched out beside them and warmed himself in the sun.
“’Zakh,’” said Lyla, “means ‘belongs to’.”
“Zashk,” repeated Omar, mangling the sound.
Lyla laughed. “’Svak-zakh,’” she said, “means ‘belongs to Svak.’”
“Lyla Omar-zakh.” Omar pronounced the sounds impulsively.
“Lyla belongs to Omar.” Lyla translated the phrase. She put her hand gently on Omar’s arm and asked, “Omar Lyla-zakh?”
Something stirred deep inside Omar. It was more painful than physical wounds. He forced the feeling down, out of his consciousness, stifling it before it could flare. Tiger sat up and whimpered. Lyla watched Omar and stroked Tiger’s soft, striped fur.
“And Zakh-baal?” asked Omar. “What does that mean? Belongs to what?”
“Zakhbaal means ‘belongs to no one’,” said Lyla, with no emotion in her voice.
Omar picked up a flat thin piece of rock and began to scratch combinations of lines, curves and circles with a piece of charcoal. He wanted to develop a written version of the villagers’ spoken language. There were sounds the villagers used that did not exist in any Earth language, and Omar would have to create new symbols for those.
As evening fell, the faint smoky aroma of roasting meat drifted across the meadow. They could see the light of the fire up on the plateau. Omar and Lyla rose and, hand in hand, walked back up the slope towards the path to the village. Tiger trotted along behind.
After the evening meal, Lyla went with Omar to his chamber. The screen of reeds in the entranceway rustled in the soft breeze, and through the open skylight, they could see the stars twinkling in the black night sky.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler