Why the Elders Bare Their Throats
By Patrick Weekes
17 February 2003
Once upon a time there was a young Doli named Goawal. He was five years old and small for his age, barely chest-high to an adult, but he was very smart. He loved his village and felt safe in it, for the crafters had put up high wooden fences to keep out the ferocious Rikath.
In those days, small groups of children from the village would go out with an elder to gather fruits and nuts. It was dangerous, but the elder carried a long spear, and all the children could use slings.
One day, the village children were out foraging when a Rikath came upon them, a great snarling gray creature with long fangs and crimson eyes. Goawal's ears lay flat in fear. The Rikath smelled of old blood and sharp things. The children froze just as they had been taught, and the elder bounded off, back legs strong even though he was over twenty years old. The Rikath darted after him, stone knife ready in one paw.
Most of the children counted to sixty-four, as they had been taught, and then began to head home.
Goawal, however, asked one of his friends, "Why didn't it eat us?"
His friend's ears flicked in annoyance. "They only chase us if we run," he said, "and they hardly ever eat children or females. They're just stupid animals."
"But it had a knife. Animals don't have knives." Goawal's nose twitched with curiosity.
The others stomped their feet in disapproval. "We go home," they said. "That is what we do when a Rikath takes an elder. Come."
But Goawal did not go home with them. He crept in the direction that the elder had run, a rock ready in his sling. In a little while, he found the Rikath already at work.
It had killed the elder, and was using the elder's spear to carve up pieces and put them in a leather pouch. It held the spear awkwardly, just behind the metal tip. Goawal was afraid. He had never seen a Rikath this close before. Its ribs showed through the gray fur, and its arms, far too long -- almost as long as its legs -- were all bone and sinew. Its eyes were hooded. Its nose was blunt, its ears small and triangular, not long and leaf-shaped like a Doli's.
Then the Rikath stood. Goawal realized that the wind had changed, and froze. His little heart nearly stopped again as the Rikath growled, "I can smell you, little Doli." Its low voice was rough and full of teeth.
"We have a sling," said Goawal, poking his head out from behind a tree. "If you try to eat us, we'll break your head." After a moment, he added, "How come you can talk? Animals can't talk."
The Rikath made a hissing noise. "This one will feed me for many days. I could not eat both of you before you began to rot."
"You didn't tell us why you could talk," Goawal said again.
"I listen by your fences," the Rikath said. Goawal knew then that the Rikath was a very sad creature, because it used I, the punishment word.
"You are alone?" Goawal asked. "We are sorry."
The Rikath hissed again. "I do not need anyone -- except things to eat." Then its ears flicked. "And you're alone, too."
"We're not alone!" He stomped his foot angrily, the thump-thump loud in his ears. "We're good! We listen to our elders!"
"Do you? Then tell me, little Doli, what is this?" The Rikath pointed at the tip of the elder's spear. "Where do you find this kind of stone?"
"That's metal, not stone," Goawal said. "You make it by making rocks hot."
"How hot?" The Rikath's ears perked forward and its red eyes narrowed. "Tell me how to make this metal, unless you want to be eaten!"
Goawal was very frightened, but he sang the forging song and hoped that the Rikath would be satisfied. When he finished, the Rikath made him sing it again and again, making marks on a thin piece of wood with its stone knife and asking what certain words meant. An hour later it finally said, "I suppose you have earned your life today, little Doli. Now get out of here, before I eat you anyway." It bared its fangs, and little Goawal ran away, bounding through the brush and not stopping until he found his way back to the village.
A season passed. Most of Goawal's friends became growers or crafters. A few became runners, carrying messages to the other villages. Goawal, still small for his age, kept going out to gather fruit and nuts with the children.
One day, he and the others were walking along a trail when suddenly the elder jumped into the sky, upside down. Goawal was confused until he saw the rope that hung from the tree limb above and looped around the elder's foot.
The children froze. A moment later, a small stick flew out of the brush and pierced the elder's shoulder. The elder twitched for a moment, then went still. His spear dropped from his paws.
Goawal's Rikath came out from the brush a moment later, snarling and baring its claws and fangs, and the children squealed, too terrified to move. It jumped up into the tree and began untying the rope. The children looked to Goawal. "We should escape now," they said. "It's distracted." Goawal clapped his paws in agreement, and the children crept off. But Goawal stayed behind.
The elder dropped to the ground, and Goawal saw that the stick had killed him. "How did you do that?"
The Rikath dropped out of the tree. "You again? You're going to get eaten pretty soon."
"You already have the elder," Goawal said, ears flicking. He didn't think the Rikath would really eat him.
"It's an arrow," the Rikath said, as it began to carve up the elder. "Like a rock from a sling. I use a bent stick and some dried gut to make it fly. It works better with the metal tip." It pulled the arrow out of the elder and wiped the blood off; Goawal saw that the tip was indeed made of metal. "Why aren't you creeping away from me?"
"You made a trap." Goawal's nose twitched in curiosity. "Why don't you trap the otters that swim on the river?"
"The otters swim too quickly," the Rikath said, "and three of them would only feed me for a day."
"But if you set a lot of traps, you could catch lots of otters instead of having to eat Doli. You could catch them, then preserve the food, so you wouldn't have to hunt."
"Preserve it? Better than just drying it?" the Rikath said, ears perked. Was it annoyed? No, Goawal decided. Ears like that must mean curiosity for the Rikath. "How do I do that?"
Goawal sang the storing-food song for the Rikath. He had to sing it several times. Goawal thought the Rikath would remember better if it stopped making marks on pieces of wood. When he was finished, Goawal said, "There. Now you don't have to eat us!"
"No," said the Rikath. "If we Rikath don't eat the Doli, you grow too large in number. There wouldn't be enough of those plants for you all to eat, and many of you would sicken and die, and the sickness would ruin the whole area so that nothing could live here."
"We'd just grow more food," said Goawal.
"No. It doesn't work like that," said the Rikath. "You'll see what I mean. I got a message a few days ago. Something happened to one of the villages nearby. It burned down, and the survivors are coming to your village. Too many survivors." The Rikath growled. "Now leave me, little Doli." It went back to untying the rope.
"That's a lot of knots," Goawal said. The Rikath had wound the rope around a log that turned. "And it's all tangled up on the log."
The Rikath hissed. Goawal tensed; was it angry? "Foolish little Doli, don't your people use pulleys?" It hissed again. Goawal realized with annoyance that the Rikath was laughing. "It lets me lift heavy things and set traps. The turning of the log does the work for me." Goawal looked closely at the rope and noted how it wound around the log. Then the Rikath growled fiercely at Goawal and said, "Now go, before I get hungry!" Goawal wasn't afraid this time, but he left anyway. He bounded through the woods until he caught up with the children, and they went back to the village.
Goawal told no one about his talk with the Rikath. But a few days later he found out that the Rikath had told the truth: a runner arrived from a nearby village followed by almost a thousand of the villagers.
Terrible creatures had come -- monsters made of stone, taller than a Rikath, with shiny black and purple skin and no faces. They had arrived in a metal flying thing that hummed. They had sticks like an elder's spear, except that flame hissed out of them. Most of the male Doli had died, burned to ashes while they tried to use their spears and slings. The monsters had even killed females and children. Less than half the village had escaped, and they had brought no supplies of their own to Goawal's village.
Within a month, food was running out. Goawal asked one of the growers why they didn't plant more. "We tried, but the ground isn't right," the grower said. "It's like a female who isn't in heat. It won't grow the highgrain. We'll have to clear more farmland from the woods."
The crafters had to make more buildings to house the new villagers. Goawal showed the crafters the Rikath's pulley, and the building went much faster, now that they could use larger beams and lift heavier stones. They also built higher fences to protect against the Rikath and the new monsters.
Fruits and nuts were still needed, in greater numbers, and Goawal knew where the best fruit was. He was guiding some of the new village's children and one of their elders there when a Rikath leaped from the brush, growling horribly. It was not the Rikath Goawal knew, and its claws were dark with dried blood.
Goawal and the others froze, and the elder who was with them bounded away, but this Rikath kept coming toward Goawal and the children. Then a flash of gray fur sprang from the bushes nearby and pounced on the Rikath. Goawal watched the confusing tangle of fur and claws. There was growling and ripping, and then a flash of metal. The strange Rikath stopped moving, and the other creature stood up, panting. It was Goawal's Rikath, holding a long knife.
"Why did you do that?" Goawal asked, as the elder and the other children ran away.
"He was in my territory," said the Rikath. "And he'd already eaten today." It bared its teeth. "Only the mad kill if not to eat. Only the foolish eat the young."
Goawal realized that this was the first time he had met the Rikath without the Rikath having something to eat. "H-have you already eaten today?" he asked.
"I will," said the Rikath, pointing at the dead creature.
"You eat your own?"
"Why not? Lot of meat on a Rikath." Its ears twitched. "This one hunted near the other village. He has burns on his arms."
Goawal saw that it was true. "It fought the monsters?"
"Of course." The Rikath growled. "Wouldn't you fight someone who was trying to burn down the plants you eat?"
"But the monsters were burning Doli . . . oh," Goawal said. "We should go after the other Doli. They'll get lost without us."
"Good luck, Doli," The Rikath said. "You'll have more problems coming soon."
"Another village?" Goawal asked. "How do you know?"
"My people send messages to each other with bats."
"The bats can speak?"
The Rikath hissed. "We draw the words on thin pieces of wood and tie them to the bats. Drawing words also helps us remember things." Goawal was still confused. "I will . . ." The Rikath seemed to be struggling to find the right Doli words. "Teach me how you put up those new stone buildings, and I will teach you to draw words. I give you something, you give me something. That is the Rikath way."
"The Doli just give each other things," Goawal said. "And why do you want to learn about stone? You cannot hunt with big stones. They won't help you catch food."
The Rikath was silent for a long time. "Someday, I'd like to hunt well enough to be able to raise a child," it finally said. Goawal started. He had never thought of the Rikath as more than an it. "By the way you reckon things, I am very old. I have lived almost seventy years. When my mother was young, the Doli barely understood the idea of weapons. Your people learned how to make spears from my people. Now you have a weapon-making song, and you will never forget. My people can only hold knowing in wood. The wood rots quickly in the forest, and if I am always hunting, I cannot take the time to re-copy my knowing.
"But if we had a place to meet," she added softly, "a strong place made of stone. . . . We could preserve food, so we wouldn't overhunt the land or fight each other. We could draw many words and keep them safe, so that our children would have them. . . ."
"You want a village," Goawal said.
"You are lonely. We told you before that you were alone."
"Yes, you did. You are a smart little Doli." The Rikath hissed. "I have food today. I will not eat you, even if you do not tell me how to make buildings out of stone."
Goawal thought for a moment. "There is not a song for stone-working yet. But what I know, I will tell you."
Goawal came home late that night, and the elders were angry with him. When he told them how the talking Rikath had shown him a way to put words into wooden strips, they shouted at him, and used the punishment word, the "you" that meant "you alone." But when he told them of another village being burned, their ears flicked back in surprise. Another runner had just come to the village, telling of more Doli behind him, their home burned down.
When the new Doli came, mostly women and children, there was even less food to go around. There wasn't enough room to dispose of waste properly. Some Doli got sick. Snarling Rikath attacked the town in groups. The elders told the crafters to forge more weapons and shore up the walls, and they stopped the children from going out to gather nuts and berries.
Within a few months the elders and the young were getting sick from eating nothing but highgrain. The new walls were strong and high, and the metal weapons were better than the crude Rikath spears, but the Doli from the other villagers still cowered in fear of what the monsters would do when they came.
Goawal didn't know what to do. He was learning to be a crafter. There were too many growers already, and no need for runners when no one left the village. He was not very good at it, though. He thought he would have been better as a runner, but even that was not quite right. Finally, one night, as Goawal practiced putting words on pieces of wood, he realized what he could do to help.
The next day he stopped an elder and said, "When the monsters came down from the sky to attack the villages, the Rikath around those villages fought the monsters. What if we could get them to do it again?"
The elder thought. "That is not a bad idea," he said finally. "Let the Rikath and the monsters kill each other. The monsters planted their own crops once the village was burned. Perhaps they can be reasoned with. . . ."
"No, that's not what we mean!" Goawal stamped his foot. "You've got it all wrong!" The elder shuffled back, surprised by this outburst from a still-young male. "Elder, will you meet our Rikath?"
"We do not talk to the Rikath!"
Goawal clapped his paws in agreement. "We do not." He looked at the elder. "But I do." Goawal touched his own chest as he used the punishment word. "I am not a good grower or crafter. I am different. But I can help. I have talked with my Rikath and learned from her. She is not a stupid animal. To survive, we need the help of the Rikath. I can talk with them. Let me help us."
The elder looked around. Beside a nearby hut, an infant howled for food. A thin female held it, her eyes blank, her ears slack. A few males carried building materials to the fences, legs trembling from hunger. Finally, the elder clapped his paws. "Take us to your Rikath, Goawal. If it is the only way, it shall be done."
They went out later that day, the elder with his long spear and Goawal with a heavy bag that he dragged along behind him. They walked out toward where Goawal remembered the Rikath being, calling, "Rikath! Rikath!" in querulous voices; the elder kept the sharp metal of his spear pointed in front of them in case the wrong Rikath came.
Finally, when Goawal was beginning to worry, the wind changed. He caught a sudden scent of fear, pain, and hunger. The bushes to their left rustled, and an arrow buzzed out, just missing the elder. "Wait!" Goawal cried. "Wait, you don't have to eat us!"
"You again?" The Rikath stood, bow taut with another arrow. When she saw him, her bony shoulders drooped. "I'm sorry, little Doli, but I haven't eaten in two days."
"We caught some otters for you," Goawal said. He dropped the heavy bag and backed away, as did the elder.
The Rikath came over and sniffed the bag, and then looked up at Goawal.
"Why?" she asked in a soft voice.
"You said before that the Rikath would fight the monsters, just as we would fight someone who stole our crops." The Rikath grunted. Goawal pointed at the elder. "The elders would like the Rikath to fight the monsters, so that many on both sides die, and no one kills the Doli anymore." The elder looked at the Rikath, who snarled at him. "We've both got it wrong."
"Too many Doli," the Rikath growled. "Poisoning the water, the ground. Soon you will all sicken and die, and then the Rikath will have nothing to eat but bats and otters. Then we will die, too."
"You're right. There are too many Doli," said the elder. "Too many for us to feed. Many will die even before the monsters come to burn our village."
"That will be soon," the Rikath said. "The monsters are going first to the plains villages. When they are gone, this forest will be next."
"Then it is time we . . ." Goawal pointed. "You, Rikath, and us, Doli. It is time that we all work together, using what we are, what we can do. We would like you to take a message to your people. . . ."
The monsters arrived not long after in their huge floating machine. It crushed a large section of forest as it landed, and then part of it opened, metal hissing and moving. A ramp extended, and the monsters poured out. Smelling of sickness and decay, they moved toward the Doli village with their sticks held ready, a solid wall of purple-black stone.
Then the Rikath attacked from behind, dozens of them fighting as a team, as the Doli had taught, shooting metal-tipped arrows and stabbing with fine Doli-made spears. The Doli could not fight the monsters, but the Doli never fought except when they had to. The Rikath fought all the time, and were much better at it. The monsters turned, surprised, and some of them were even killed.
The monsters recovered from their surprise and threw out their lines of flame. Some of the Rikath were burned to ashes, but most were able to escape, some back into the forest, others to the walls of the village, where rope ladders had been hung over the walls for them. In just moments the monsters were alone. From the village, Doli and Rikath alike took up the Rikath-made bows and arrows and began firing down at the monsters. More of the monsters fell, and when the Rikath began to fire some of the captured monster-weapons, too, the wall of purple crumbled and broke apart. The monsters turned around and fled back to their flying machine, and took off into the sky.
It was not a simple victory. The monsters returned many times, and killed more Doli and Rikath. It was a hard fight each time to drive them away. But the Doli and the Rikath worked together, learning from each other, and each time they had more tricks to play on the monsters. The monsters returned less often, and finally not at all.
By the time the monsters were gone for good, the Doli and the Rikath had been living together a long time, and many things had changed. The Rikath now hunted only for new things to learn; over time they became some of the very greatest scientists and teachers. The Doli worked together to improve upon the Rikath inventions. They also sang new learning songs and made many written copies of what the Rikath learned, ensuring that Rikath knowledge was never forgotten. Goawal's Rikath had her village.
The Doli were the best planners and organizers. They became the community leaders. With help from the Rikath, they made sure that villages did not grow too quickly or hurt the land with too many Doli. The Rikath protected the Doli from rogue Rikath. The Doli could go into the forests and gather food in safety, and in time they did not even need walls anymore.
And on every eighth day, everyone assembled in the center of the village, and volunteers among the elders offered themselves to each of the Rikath. And there were always enough volunteers, for what Doli would not sacrifice himself to help so many others? The Doli and the Rikath became comrades, and then allies, and finally, many years later, friends.
And when little Goawal, who had been the very first talker of the Doli and who was now a respected elder, finally came to the Rikath, his first Rikath, and bared his throat at the old hunter's feet, it was with peace in his eyes. And the red eyes that stared back at him were warm with love.
Copyright © 2003 Patrick Weekes
Patrick Weekes is a graduate of Clarion West 2000, and has published stories in Realms of Fantasy and Science Fiction Age. He lives in California with his wife and cats, and enjoys rock climbing, bodysurfing, cross-country skiing, and lying about his hobbies in order to sound like an outdoor person.