Methven - Day Six - Part Four
From the bottom of its quivering haunches to the top of its snarl-furrowed brow, it stood something under two feet tall. It had a face like a Chihuahua, big, spade-shaped incisors with a Letterman-sized gap between them and mulish lop ears flattened down against its neck.
I took all this in in a single, swift glance, before my eyes were drawn to the thing around its neck. It looked as if it were wearing an elaborate fur stole of some kind. Whatever it was extended from its jawline to mid-chest and it pulsed in a hypnotic and mildly intimidating fashion.
Only mildly, though. The rabbit/dog thing showed no inclination to attack me again and I began to suspect I might live through the afternoon, after all.
Slowly, I began gathering my legs under me. It didn't like that. It bared its teeth, slitted its eyes and began inflating the thing around its neck.
I stopped moving, fascinated by what I was seeing. The animal's neck pouch grew and grew until it obscured everything beneath its lower jaw. At full expansion, it looked like a tan, furry beach ball with a Chihuahua's head glued on top.
Then it roared again.
If you've ever heard a lion roar from up close, you have a faint idea what it was like to hear that thing from less than six feet away. It had a lot more subsonic bass component than any mere lion, though. Think of the difference between a poodle's yap and the deep, menacing woof of a Rottweiler. Now imagine your lion is the yapping poodle.
I didn't actually soil myself. I'm proud of that.
As soon as my heart started beating again, I jumped to my feet and ran toward the little pest, yelling and waving my arms.
It bared its teeth at me, then bounded off into the surrounding "grass" and disappeared.
I turned around to face my companions.
"WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?"
Of course, that just set them off again.
I tried to see the humor in my little confrontation, but it was no use. I was still so high on adrenalin that my pulse was thundering in my ears like a Rose Bowl halftime drumroll. Disgusted, I left them there, howling like so many deranged hyenas, and stalked off to find my crossbow.
"Hey, Drewsie! Come buh..buh..buh-HAW-HA-HA-HA!"
Yeah, thanks for nothing, Bruno.
By the time I found my missing crossbow, I'd managed to calm down considerably. I was even able to shrug off the renewed gales of merriment my reappearance created.
"You..ah-ha-ha..you should have seen..HA-HA-HA..!"
"Yeah, I'm sure you would have found it equally humorous if it'd happened to you, pal."
"It did happen to me-he-he! About fifteen years ago-ho-ho..oh, man!"
He nodded again.
"Yeah. Same way it happened to you. I thought I was going to die..HA-HA-HA-HA!"
I let him wind down.
"So, what the hell was that thing, anyway?"
"It is called a 'khaboy', Mr. Drew."
"Meaning what, exactly?"
"It means 'annoying' or 'irritating beast', Mr. Drew."
That provoked a fresh outburst from the rest of the gang. Even Læ couldn't help but join in.
. . .
We made it across the meadow and started gaining altitude again before the storm rolled in.
We were on our way up a glacis slope, when I happened to look behind me to see how spread out we'd gotten.
"Hol-ee shit! Læ! Check that out!"
"That" was a purple thunderhead sweeping across the heath toward us. The other side of the meadow was completely obscured by a curtain of rain and, from the speed of the thing, it was packing gale-force winds, as well.
"Find us cover, Mr. Wilde. Now."
I nodded and began scanning the slab we were approaching. There was a good-sized roof hanging over it about a quarter-mile to the East. I'd been planning on giving it a miss, both because it was out of our line of march and because, as much fun as it might be to climb for sport, we had another agenda in mind.
Now, though, it was just the ticket.
I pointed it out to Læ, who nodded approvingly. I bellowed to the crew to follow me and we headed East.
The storm caught us before we'd gotten more than a hundred yards.
Instantly, we were all drenched to the bone and being buffeted by strong gusts of rain-laden wind. The footing became extremely treacherous. Not only was the rock wet and slippery, but the rain cascading down the slab above us quickly became a series of fast-moving streams which snatched at our ankles, threatening to dump us on our butts at any moment.
Before we made it to the shelter of that big overhang, we were all wet, cold and thoroughly miserable. Not only had we spent the better part of an hour slogging across a quarter-mile of sodden glacis, but we'd then had to scramble a good ways up a 70° slab against a solid sheet of water.
The blinding dazzle and deafening boom of lightning all around us hadn't exactly helped, either.
Entering the shelter of the overhanging rock was like stepping through a curtain.
By comparison with the exposed slope, it was relatively still. That was important. It was dry, and that was very important. Once we got the tents up and a fire going, it was comfortable. And, when we changed into dry clothes and the smells of Bruno's gourmet cooking began to permeate our refuge, it got downright homey.
"Y'know," I ventured, gesturing with my mug of Sumatran medium roast toward the torrent of water spilling past the perimeter of our camp, "for a day that started out so crummy, this isn't too shabby at all."
Læ shook her head.
"I beg to differ, Mr. Wilde. This is, in fact, a most unfortunate turn of events."
"Well, sure, we got wet and all..but we're dry now. What's the big problem?"
"A downpour of this intensity will make travel difficult for several days to come. It is even more worrisome that we are still at a less-than-optimal altitude."
"Well, I don't know about you, but, personally, I happen to like oxygen."
"As do I, Mr. Wilde. Unfortunately, the same is true of a good many Methven predators. And, with the flooding we have already witnessed in low-lying areas.."
"What? 'With the flooding we've witnessed..' what?"
She made a wry mouth.
"I fear we will have unwelcome visitors."
"Okay, so we rig the food up where tachts and whatnot can't get at it, we keep our eyes open and we hope the nasties decide it's too wet to be out running around. What else can we do?"
"You are correct, of course, Mr. Wilde. That is all we can do. Let us hope it is enough."
"Hey, as long as it keeps raining like this, I doubt we have anything to worry about."
Of course, five minutes later, the rain stopped.
. . .
Pith and I drew first watch with Læ. There wasn't much sense in patrolling our perimeter. It was too small and the slope was too steep.
Instead, we took turns staring into the darkness out near the edge of the overhanging roof, where miniature waterfalls continued to stream down from above. While Pith took his turn, Læ and I worked on my swordsmanship.
"You are improving."
I shook my head.
"Not so you'd notice. Or, at least, not so I'd notice. Let's face it--by the time I'm a danger to anyone but me, I'm going to be eligible for Social Security."
"Truly, Mr. Wilde, you are improving. Your grip, your stance and your sense of time all are noticeably better than when we began."
"Well, hell, sure they are! I didn't know jack shit when we started out. Now I at least know enough to understand just how deeply I suck at this so-called 'art'."
"It is true that you are far from expert. Nonetheless, you are learning swiftly. I expect that, were you to find yourself in actual combat, you would present more of a threat to your opponent than to yourself."
"Gosh, that's comforting."
"Indeed. Shall we consider the use of envelopment in preparing a compound attack?"
I brought my blade up and saluted her.
"By all means, let's."
We had at it again and I'm happy to say I actually got inside her guard long enough to touch her shapely left breast with my point. Of course, she immediately beat my blade aside, stepped inside my guard and pinked me in the solar plexus, so my swelling head deflated pretty quickly.
Besides, I've got a sneaking hunch she let me get inside her guard, just to boost my morale.
It worked though. When Pith's watch was over and it was my turn to watch the night, I took my blade with me out to the edge of the firelight. While I watched the water cascade in front of me, I practiced that envelopment to riposte in quarte that had gotten past Læ's guard. By the time Læ herself came to relieve me, I'd added a displacement that I hoped would keep her point out of my guts in our next assault.
"Very nice, Mr. Wilde. You might also consider extending the phrase with a change of line."
So much for the element of surprise.
"Thanks. I'll see if I can work it in."
I returned to the fire and had a little chat with Pith about our respective progress in the fine art of swordplay. It turns out that he's no more convinced he's gaining ground than I am.
"Like th' dance. Just can't recall th' steps is all."
"Well, if you smoked more dope, maybe your memory would improve."
"You doggie! You hintin'?"
"No. I'm asking. We're pretty much done with our watch. Why not catch a buzz?"
He pulled a big, green, sticky bud and some Zig-Zags out of a ziplock bag he had stashed in his backpack and rolled up a fat one. It couldn't have taken him more than a minute or so.
Pith has had lots of practice rolling joints.
He scooped an ember from the fire onto a flat rock and used it to fire up the jay. We passed it back and forth until it was down to a roach, then Pith knocked the coal off the end and swallowed it.
He and I sat there in companionable silence, watching the flames create dancing shapes and feeling the greenbud creep up on us. It was damned good stuff and I hadn't had any in several days, so it hit me hard.
Pretty soon I started to giggle.
Pith grinned at me, his teeth huge in the firelight.
"Share th' movie?"
"Oh..I was just thinking about..about that..thing this afternoon."
He shrugged, still grinning.
"Kinder than 'cowboy', or whatever Mantami called it."
"You know..you're right. 'Thunderpuppy' it is."
We grinned at each other.
"That thing scared the shit out of me."
That set us both giggling and it wasn't long before we were howling like idiots.
It really was funny. I finally had enough distance on it to appreciate just how ridculous I must have looked to everyone else and thinking about how outraged I'd been at their entirely natural laughter sent me into fresh gales of hilarity.
Damn that's good marijuana!
Anyhow, we weren't even close to calming down when Læ came scrambling up the slope.
"Drew, Pith, arm yourselves and wake the others! Quickly!"
"ARM YOURSELVES AND WAKE THE OTHERS!"
I staggered to my feet, sword in hand. Sitting for so long after the day's strenuous activities had me stiff as an overstarched shirt collar.
I looked down at Læ steaming up the slope toward me and that's when I spotted them.
Eyes in the night. Lots of them. Feral, red pinpoints and the scrabbling clatter of claws on naked rock, both getting closer fast.
(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)