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The Runner

by Sean Hower


The creature eased around Nikul. “All right. Without looking, tell me what weapons each of those men carries with him.”

Nikul closed his eyes and conjured up a shadowy vision of the men from his memory. In that dream state, he walked around them, looking over each one. “They both carry a knife and a hand ax. One has a bow and the other has a spear,” he reported.

The creature hissed.

Nikul opened his eyes and looked back at the Kyuwai. He had been right. Now that he was aware of it, he took the chance to memorize every detail he could pick out from his surroundings. He then turned back to the creature. “Who are my people, who are our cousins, and who are our enemies?”

“Simple,” the creature snickered. “Your people are the Theehan, your cousins the Hammanu, and your enemies the Kyuwai. You will have to try harder than that to win. Now, for your next test. When was the last time I’ve seen an entire people exterminated?”

Nikul closed his eyes. A jumble of shapes and sounds pulled together into the moment he first saw the creature. Their entire exchange played out as though he were someone else watching from nearby. The vision sharpened. The background noise, birds, the wind in the trees, Nikul’s heartbeat, faded away. “That’s a trick. You said ‘I can’t remember when it was that I last saw an entire people exterminated.’”

“That is correct.” The creature’s face bent into a frown despite its permanent smile.

“There was a man named Gweisul. He was married to a woman from the east and had three children. She and all of the children were killed during the flood season. Gweisul was grief-stricken and in his bottomless sorrow he vowed to rid himself of all human contact. He built a hut far away from the village on the Salmon River north of where the Red Stream joins the river before it flows west into the Southern Fields.

“His family, who lived in the village, worried about him and so one by one they came to visit Gweisul to convince him to return. His brother Ansul was first, followed by his sister Feiwyn, then his cousins Yenku and Kul, then Halsun, then Hedsul, Merik, Gweigin, and Eikul. None of them could bring him back.

“His family gave up and left him alone on the river still very worried and not knowing what to do. One night, a great snake came from the east, crept into Gweisul’s hut while he was asleep, and ate him.”

Nikul stopped, suddenly aware of who that snake was.

The creature was lost in nostalgia.

Nikul shivered. “Where did Gweisul’s wife come from?”

“From the east,” the creature said a bit too quickly. “And now, little one. In this forest there are seven kinds of trees, twenty-seven kinds of plants, and four kinds of herbs. There are rabbit and squirrel. There are thirteen kinds of birds that make quite a lot of noise. There is one stream that runs through the center. I eat three times a day, and sleep as long as I please. I intend to eat those two later today and if you lose our game I will eat you as a snack at sundown.

“I’ll probably start with one of your feet or a hand. I haven’t decided yet. You have all five fingers on your left hand, so perhaps I’ll eat three of those before eating one of your toes. My question for you is what were my first four words after I answered your question?”

Nikul was surprised. He had been concentrating on the numbers and not what he had thought was casual conversation. He explored his memory once again and after a time gave his answer.

“’And now, little one.’”

The creature bristled. “Maybe I should just eat you now,” it said, slithering down to the ground and moving very close to Nikul.

“We had a bargain, Great Spirit,” Nikul pleaded.

The creature sighed. “Of course. So let’s continue with our game.”

The two went on through the day until the shadows began to stretch eastward across the ground. Each presented a story, a twist of words, or some other obscure event to the other. The sting of Nikul’s wounds and the intensity of the contest wore him down. His attention faded and he was having trouble thinking up tests to put to the creature. Finally, his thoughts failed him and he could not think of anything to say. He scanned the forest hoping to catch a new detail.

“Is there a problem?” the creature grinned.

“No. No problem.” He needed something but found nothing. A cold anxiety gripped him. Then, inspiration surged when he saw the head of the Kyuwai. “What color were the eyes of the man you ate?” he said.

“Brown, of course. You’ll have to try harder than that otherwise I will have to judge you the loser.”

Nikul smiled. “You’re wrong. They were blue.”

The creature looked doubtful. “Come, come. This is cheating and I won’t have it. I’ve never seen a man with blue eyes.”

“This one had blue eyes.”

“I don’t believe you and besides there’s no way to show who’s wrong.”

“But there is,” Nikul said. He staggered to where the Kyuwai’s head had fallen and picked it up. It was cold and sticky, its face twisted in terror. “See,” he said, holding the head up so that it could be inspected.

The creature let out a grumble that broke into a raw anger. It rose up on its tail. The nubs along its torso spun out like whips. Before Nikul could react, the creature drew him against its body, wrapped itself around him, and squeezed. “You are very lucky,” it spat. “I should eat you just to put an end to that luck. But we made a bargain.” It released him. “Now leave my forest before I change my mind.”

“Which way to the other side of the Spineback Buttes?” Nikul gasped.

The creature nodded to the left.

“I thank you for your mercy, Great Spirit. I will never enter your forest again and I will be certain to tell all of my kith and kin to stay far away.”

“Be gone!” the creature said. It took up another of the Kyuwai and ate him.

Nikul bowed and ran away.

Just before morning, he emerged from the forest and was elated to be free of the creature. His body cried for food and rest and the last of his water did little to slake his thirst. He wished for nothing more than to sink into oblivion where he would be released from his pain and fears.

“Just a little rest can’t hurt,” he told himself, leaning against a tree. “Just close your eyes for a few seconds.” The thought of rest warmed him and he fell into a place between the waking and sleeping worlds where the ghosts of Kyuwai warriors haunted him.

He awoke full of shame. He gripped the necklace that Naad had given him, and asked for strength. He then continued at an awkward run, floating between waking and sleeping dreams. Days and nights blended into a twilight filled with battles and snakes.

Nikul found himself in a village when night pinched out the last light of day. Worried faces, faces he hoped were Hammanu, ushered him into a longhouse. There he was seated before a group of Elders. Their long faces, deeply creased with age and wisdom, reminded him of the creature.

“I am Nikul of the Theehan people,” he said at the men. His voice was a distant blur and was accompanied by a rhythmic clacking. “According to — ” he began, but visions of the creature coiled around his memory and snuffed out the words. He despaired. His body plunged into a biting cold that stole away the little strength he had left. The world shifted sideways and he had a vague sense of falling.

“According to — ” he began again and again the creature coiled around his thoughts. He sought strength from the necklace and ordered himself to say the words.

“According to our ancient bonds of brotherhood and friendship, and in this time of need, we, the Theehan people, invoke our alliance and ask you to come to our aid.”

The long faces of the Elders chattered at each other.

Satisfied that he had delivered the declaration appropriately, Nikul closed his eyes to take a short rest. He awoke when hands, like the branches of an aspen, shook him. “The Kyuwai have formed an alliance with vermin from the other side of the river. They move on our village. We need your help, otherwise my people will be annihilated. Please send help.” He heard someone quite close to him sobbing. “I beg you, please send help.”

The long faces chattered at each other again. Nikul watched with detached fascination as their words grew and shrank, voices carried away by a secret wind. He wondered if they had understood him. He wondered if they would send help. The thought of them turning their backs on his people made him frantic but in another moment he found that he didn’t care. He had done his part and he just wanted rest.

One of the long faces appeared before him, nodding gravely. It kissed a closed hand and then that hand, with its fingers spread, touched Nikul’s forehead. The touch told him that all would not be lost, that he and his people would be safe. Happiness and safety settled around him. He closed his eyes to embrace this serenity and he slipped completely into the world of dreams.

* * *

Nikul awoke in a wooden shack just big enough for him to lie down. He was covered in skins and at his feet were the remains of several beeswax candles. Dozens of charms and fetishes dangled from the crossbeam of the low ceiling and clinked softly together on a gentle breeze that came in through a waist-high entrance. A sooty smell, mixed with a sour odor, tickled his nose. He felt weak. His body ached and his injured leg hummed. It took a painful effort to bend it only slightly and he wondered if he’d ever walk on it again.

A shape appeared in the entrance; long and coiled with spindly arms.

Nikul was sure it was the creature, and he shrank away.

“You’re finally awake.” The voice was pleasant. The shape stepped into the shack and transformed into a thin man. His vest, and the feathers and trinkets attached to it, marked him as a doctor. He carried a wicker bowl.

“Where am I?”

“In a place for the sick,” the doctor said. He knelt beside Nikul and put his hand on his forehead. “Good, your fever’s broken.”

“Which village?”

The doctor smiled. “Hammanu.” He jabbed his thumb into the bowl. A red cream the consistency of mud coated his thumb when he pulled it out. He pressed his thumb to Nikul’s temple and drew the stuff across his forehead to the opposite side. He chanted a few words in the same spirit language that the Theehan doctor used.

“Are they safe?”

The doctor was confused. And then: “Oh, yes. A runner came in yesterday. Most of your people survived.”

“That’s good,” Nikul said, unable to muster any other words. “That’s good.” His joy was overwhelming and he broke down into tears. “That’s good.” In the visions of celebration and joy that danced in his mind, he saw the creature coiled in a tree grinning at him.

Copyright © 2012 by Sean Hower

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