The character of Ketrin is heavily influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli. In particular, the plot owes a great deal to “Tiger! Tiger!” in The Jungle Book (1894), and “Letting in the Jungle” in The Second Jungle Book (1895). If you’re only familiar with the Disney versions, you should definitely give the originals a look, if only in the Project Gutenberg versions.
This story has taken a ridiculous amount of time to
get even this far. I began it, would you believe, in October 1999 - a whole
Apologies to everyone to whom I advertised the story for making them wait so long.
The story takes place several hundred light years from
Earth in about AD 7500, give or take a century or three....
You can take the boy out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the boy.- Traditional
“Come, my son,” she called, and Mowgli stepped into the light, and looked full at Messua, the woman who had been good to him, and whose life he had saved from the Man-Pack so long before....
“My son,” she stammered; and then, sinking to his feet: “But it is no longer my son. It is a Godling of the Woods!”
As he stood in the red light of the oil-lamp, strong, tall, and beautiful, his long black hair sweeping over his shoulders, the knife swinging at his neck, and his head crowned with a wreath of white jasmine, he might easily have been mistaken for some wild god of a jungle legend.
“Son,” she said at last - her eyes were full of pride - “Have any told thee that thou art beautiful beyond all men?”
“Hah?” said Mowgli, for naturally he had never heard anything of the kind.
- Rudyard Kipling, excerpted from “The Spring Running”, 1895
Sixteen Years AgoSecure within his mother’s den, the cub dreamed. The cub was smaller, slower, weaker and less agile than his brothers; by the pack’s standards he was a runt. Some of the pack elders had made it known to the cub’s mother that they considered him a weakling and a liability to the pack. It was clear to them that he would never be able to fend for himself, and they wanted him mercifully killed as soon as possible. But the female had driven them off fiercely, making it plain to the elders that she would defend her small one to the death, and she was one of the pack’s most respected fighters.
And so, oblivious to the strife it had aroused, the small cub had suckled his adopted mother’s teat alongside her other cubs. As the warm milk laced with chemical messengers was absorbed into his bloodstream, the naked cub snuggled close to his sleeping brothers and dreamed of things that had happened long ago....
Long AgoHad the creature desired a name she might have called herself Whitebrush, after her most prominent feature. Tonight she anticipated good hunting. Both night-glows were in the sky, round and bright, and cast their light into the clearing where the prey grazed, wary but as yet unaware of Whitebrush’s presence. Whitebrush could have stalked the prey just as easily by scent alone - indeed, the light would be to her disadvantage if she were careless enough to let the prey see her.
But Whitebrush was never careless. The prey would not see her in time. Slowly, with infinite stealth, and taking care to keep her white tail out of sight, she approached. One step closer. Another. A brief pause. Then another silent step.
Suddenly the prey looked up. Whitebrush froze. Had the prey heard her? It was unlikely. She, like all her kind, relied on silence for survival. More likely the prey had been startled by a noise in the forest. Perhaps a bird had disturbed the branches, or a climbing animal. With infinite patience Whitebrush waited for the prey to settle.
Sure enough, after a while the prey nervously scanned its surroundings, then lowered its head and returned to the laborious task of grazing on the tough forest matgrass. If she had been human, Whitebrush might have felt superior to the prey because her method of feeding was more efficient. But she did not. To her, as to the prey, it was simply how things were, part of a mode of existence that never changed, year in, year out, generation after generation.
She could never have guessed that her existence,
and that of every living thing in the forest and beyond, was about to change
Whitebrush had chosen her moment. Her powerful leg muscles tensed as she prepared to pounce....
There was a sudden, blinding flash of light.
Whitebrush immediately turned tail and fled, obeying ancient instincts that told her such a flare could only be caused by lightning or fire. Obeying the same instincts, the prey also fled. Its directionless flight carried it straight past Whitebrush, and its hooves would have trampled her had she not leapt into the brush at the last moment. Once the terrified herbivore was safely past, Whitebrush picked herself up, shook herself, and ran after it, not in pursuit but in continuation of her flight.
After a few moments Whitebrush paused for breath, and forced her intellect to take over from her instinct. Looking back, she could still see the glow faintly through the trees. Although her kind only possessed rudimentary colour vision, she could see that the light had a bluish cast, unlike any flames she had ever seen. Nor could she feel any heat from the direction of the light. Warily she began to retrace her steps, sniffing the air as she went. There was no smell of smoke, but there was an unfamiliar bouquet of scents. Many were unrecognisable, but she seemed to discern an unknown animal musk. Gingerly she padded up to the edge of the clearing.
Within the clearing Whitebrush beheld a sight that resembled nothing in her experience. The bluish glow emanated from a region in the centre of the clearing, about twice as long as her body and almost twice as high as it was long. Its edges were straight and sharply defined, and there seemed to be strange objects moving about within the glow, things that almost looked like upright, two-legged creatures.
Whitebrush wrestled with new concepts. It was as if the glow were a hole in...in...in what? There was no object in the clearing that the glow could be a hole in, and a hole could not exist by itself. Or...could it?
After a few moments, two of the strange upright things moved forward and emerged from the glow into the clearing. Whitebrush moved back into the shade of the trees.
The creatures had strange shiny skins that resembled neither fur nor hide. They walked upon broad, toeless feet and possessed elongated digits on their upper paws, which they were using to carry a number of unidentifiable objects from the glow into the clearing.. As for their heads, they were disproportionately large, as round as the full night-glows, and seemed to have no eyes, mouths or noses. Whitebrush was bewildered by their appearance, but though her hackles rose she refused to admit to herself that she was afraid of them.
And from those strange featureless heads emerged sounds, which seemed to be their method of communication. The first to make noises was the shorter of the two. The sounds it produced were high-pitched and somehow pleasing to Whitebrush’s ears, while the larger - the female? - made deeper, almost growling, noises.
(High): “Wow. This is incredible. The probe reports didn’t do the place justice. I’ve never seen such a lush environment. I wouldn’t mind taking off this damn helmet and getting a breath of this planet’s atmosphere.”
(Low): “I wouldn’t recommend it. According to the probes the air’s thick with potential allergens. One whiff, and it’s anaphylactic shock time. As if that weren’t bad enough, the local proteins are incompatible with the human digestive system.”
(High): “Guess the colonists will have to undergo full-scale genetic modification, then. It’s a small price to pay for living in paradise.”
(Low): “And who says there are going to be any colonists? If you ask me the whole planet should be preserved as it is.”
(High): “I wouldn’t put any money on that happening. If the Colonization Committee doesn’t approve this planet for development they must be crazy.”
(Low): “And who says they’re not? If they do give their approval millions of colonists will come swarming in, and they’ll wreck the planet’s environment within a century. We may be the last people who’ll ever see this forest in its natural state.”
(High): “God, why do you have to be such a pessimist? The colonists won’t be allowed any form of tech that could cause major pollution or mass extinction. If people want to live here they’ll have to hunt and farm using traditional methods.”
(Low): “That’s hardly going to solve the problem. Humans create environmental damage just by breeding and multiplying, and even handsaws can make pretty short work of a forest if there are enough people to wield them. Just think of all the maritime countries in Earth’s history that devastated their forests in order to build ships, then used those ships to invade other countries and plunder their forests.”
(High): “Look, we’ve been over this whole argument more times than I care to remember. Either the human race expands, or it stagnates. Would you rather allow humanity to become extinct? Even now there are still Nature First cultists setting infected lab animals free because they think animals are more important than people. Is that really what you want? People have to live somewhere.”
(Low): “The way I see it, people can live just as comfortably in artificial environments like space stations and Martian-style domes. Look at the Archipelago system. Twenty-seven fully self-contained space stations, orbiting a star with no planets. Their economy is booming and they’re building a new station every two or three years.”
(High): “My sister went there for a while and she hated it. She said it was like being stuck in the big city with only a few small parks for recreation. The only big trees and wild animals are in the biodome stations, and they’re strictly off-limits to the public. She said it’s not surprising a lot of people call it the Gulag Archipelago.”
(Low): “Look, I’m not saying it’s perfect. I just think we should try to find some way to avoid damaging natural environ - ”
(High): “Whoa, hold on a minute. We’ve got company. The monitor’s picked up a large animal in the bush, about ten metres away. Take a look. It’s kinda like a cross between a wolf and an Alsatian, only bigger.”
(Low): “Oh, yeah, I see him. Only that striped butt makes him look more like a thylacine.”
(High): “Yes, but thylacines are extinct Earth marsupials, and all the data we’ve got from this planet suggests that its mammals are all placental. You know, I could swear this guy’s watching us.”
(Low): “What, are you getting one of your telepathic hot flashes again?”
(High): “Hey, you can scoff, but this planet does have higher than usual kilo-electron-volt neutrino readings, and there’s a theory that KeV-neutrinos can enhance ESP.”
(Low): “Right, and I bet you can tell the future from tea leaves. Well, if he can watch us, we can watch him. I’m siccing a mosquito-droid on him.”
There was a high-pitched drone, and a moment later Whitebrush felt a stinging sensation in her right foreleg. It seemed that an insect had taken her for a sitting target. Growling with annoyance, Whitebrush tried to ignore the irritation and concentrate on what the strange creatures were doing.
(Low): “There. Once the nano-implants reach his sensory cortex we’ll be able to see and hear everything he does.”
(High): “She, not he. Sensors have just finished scanning her hindquarters.”
(Low): “Wouldn’t you know it? I’m surrounded by women. Anyway, the xenologists ought to be pleased that we’ve begun our survey with such a handsome specimen.”
(High): “Right. Wonder if these creatures run in packs like wolves?”
(Low): “We’ll soon find out, just as soon as she decides to stop watching us and reverts to her natural behaviour. I suggest we withdraw just as soon as we’ve programmed the rest of the mozzies to seek out different species to monitor.”
Presently there came some more insect-like buzzing, but it soon faded into the distance and Whitebrush was not bitten again. Indeed, the stinging in her leg had faded almost to nothing.
A little afterward, the two-legged creatures stepped back into the hole-in-nothing, which shrank to a barely-discernable point of light. If Whitebrush had not known it was there she probably wouldn’t have noticed it.
And then a rumbling in her belly reminded her that she had not eaten for hours. Forgetting the strange beings for a while she set off to stalk new prey.
In the years that followed Whitebrush saw the two-legged creatures only rarely. She was not certain they were the same kind she had seen before, since they had real faces with eyes, small noses and narrow mouths, but they all made similar sounds to those the others had used. This seemed to confirm Whitebrush’s theory that the sounds were a type of communication. But to the end of her days Whitebrush never discovered what the creatures were or what they wanted.
Sixteen Years AgoThe cub woke. The dream had been filled with confusing sounds and images, and the cub knew that it was no use trying to make sense of them. The dream had been sent for a reason, and that reason would become clear in due course. Until then there was no point in worrying about it.
But as the cub snuggled up to his mother’s soft fur, he couldn’t help remembering that the strange beings in the dream were furless, and had large hind feet, and long fingers on their forelimbs like some types of climbing animals. And in the moonslight that dimly penetrated the cave, the cub stared at his own hairless forelimb with its five elongated digits, and wondered....
The PresentIt was just before dawn, and Silvermoon was just setting behind the trees. Sherinel stirred nervously at his post. He could hear the pounding of his own heart. Was that a bird calling or something more sinister? And what was that rustling in the undergrowth? It might be a harmless rodent, but there had been reports of lupinoids in the area. Sherinel had never seen a lupinoid, and from what he had heard, he wouldn’t want to either. They were said to be as long again as a man was tall, standing more than eight hand-widths tall and possessing ferocious jaws. A pack of lupinoids, it was said, could wear down even the most fleet-footed prey by a combination of speed and strategy, for they possessed an animal cunning that bordered on intelligence. And even more ferocious than lupinoids were the striagons, the striped death that seemingly walked upon feet of air....
Not for the first time that night, Sherinel found himself wishing he were well within the village’s protective stockade instead of standing guard against gods-only-knew how many potential attackers, armed only with a spear and what little wits he possessed.
What he wished most of all was that he could have lived far away from the great forest and its deadly predators altogether. He would gladly have agreed to live as a hermit atop a remote mountain, exchanging the sultry heat of the jungle for snow and ice and freezing winds, if it meant he never had to stand guard over the village again.
Why, if a wild lupinoid should approach the village now, he had a good mind to invite it in, just to pay back Borvinn and the rest of his “beloved” fellow villagers.
There was another rustle in the scrub. Dry-lipped, Sherinel clutched his spear. Be careful what you wish for, he thought....
A pair of eyes was watching him. They were not the eyes of a rodent. They were too large, and forward-facing. And they were staring straight at Sherinel, with every appearance of intelligent deliberation.
It was a lupinoid! What else could it be?
The alarm gong forgotten, Sherinel ran howling from his post.
The whole village was roused by the commotion. By the time the villagers managed to calm the terrified Sherinel enough that he could speak clearly, the men had armed themselves and made their way to the gate.
Borvinn, the chief hunter, grabbed Sherinel by the arm and dragged the reluctant guard after them.
“Stupid little coward,” growled Borvinn. “If there’d really been a pack of hungry lupinoids out there they’d be feasting on our women and children by now. Fine guard you turned out to be.”
“I didn’t ask for guard duty,” muttered Sherinel.
“Well, that’s too bad,” said the hunter, “Because guard duty is a duty. You’re supposed to be proud to be asked to serve your community, and to be ready to give up your life at a moment’s notice.”
In fact Sherinel had frequently considered giving up his life, but not in defence of his fellow villagers, and certainly not for the likes of Borvinn.
“Now follow me,” said Borvinn, striking Sherinel about the head. “You and I are going to find out what’s invaded our village, whether you like it or not.”
“That’s the problem,” mumbled the wretched youth. “Nobody ever cares whether I like it or not, least of all you.”
This remark only earned him another slap. But this was relatively mild punishment by Borvinn’s standards, so Sherinel could hardly complain.
When they reached the gate, there was no sign of a fight. Instead, the men were all muttering in astonishment.
“Let us through,” demanded Borvinn, yanking Sherinel
after him. When they saw what the men were looking at they too were transfixed
The creature that stood in the clearing was no lupinoid. Although wild, ragged and unkempt it was unmistakeably human.
It was a boy of seventeen or eighteen years, with the first suggestion of a beard and moustache, tall and well favoured in every respect. His hair, which looked as if it had never been cut or combed in his life, was garlanded with aromatic flowers, and fell more than a hand’s breadth below his broad shoulders. His purple eyes looked as feral as any lupinoid’s, but he merely gazed at the villagers with quiet curiosity. His body was lean and muscular, and apart from the flowers, his only adornment was a sheathed knife with a jewelled pommel that hung from a leather cord about his neck. He showed not the slightest embarrassment at being otherwise completely naked.
Sherinel could not help but stare at the strange youth. He envied the boy’s casual nudity, but hoped his own scant clothing would serve to conceal his sudden erection.
Surprisingly, this was one matter upon which he and Borvinn were in total agreement, although Borvinn wore more ample clothing that would better serve to conceal his...interest in the boy.
“Who is he,” and “Where did he come from?” the villagers asked each other. “Has he been living wild all his life?” “How could he survive in the jungle?” “Why didn’t the lupinoids kill him?” Meanwhile the boy merely stood patiently, waiting for the villagers to make a move.
Once it had become clear that there was no danger the men allowed the women to join the group, and many of them cast maternal eyes over the strange youth. They all agreed that he was a good-looking boy (secretly, so did Sherinel). One of them turned to another and said, “Mavrida, wouldn’t he be about the same age as...?”
Mavrida gasped. For a moment she merely stared at the boy, scarcely daring to believe what her heart wanted to be true. Then before anybody could stop her she rushed forward and embraced the boy tearfully. “Ketrin!” she cried. “Oh, my son, is it really you? Can it be true?” The boy was clearly not used to human contact and seemed uncertain how to respond at first, but then returned the embrace gingerly. “Oh, Ketrin, my son, my son,” cried Mavrida, laughing and weeping at once. “After all these years I believed you dead! Oh, if only your father had lived to see you!"
Behind them, unseen by any of the villagers, a
pair of dark figures melted silently into the undergrowth.
A little after celebrating their son’s first year Mavrida and her husband Ruthyar had been visiting relatives in a neighbouring village when they were attacked by a striagon, a predator far more deadly than any lupinoid. There had been no reports of striagons in the area, which meant that this one must have only just changed its hunting grounds. Despite Ruthyar’s plea to take the child and run, Mavrida insisted on staying to defend him and managed to distract the beast long enough for Ruthyar to wound it. Although its wound was far from fatal it had apparently decided that the two humans represented too much effort for too little reward and stalked away to lick its wounds. Both Mavrida and Ruthyar had also sustained flesh wounds in the fight, and it was not until they had tended each other’s injuries that they inspected little Ketrin’s cot and found it empty.
A few years later another striagon - or perhaps the same one - had been sighted in the vicinity of the village and Ruthyar had joined a hunting party led by Borvinn. Two days later the hunters returned, but Ruthyar was not with them. Borvinn reported that Ruthyar had died heroically while defending two of the younger men from the beast. Most of the villagers were willing to accept this version of events, but from that day forth Mavrida had looked askance at Borvinn. The chief hunter was a ruthless and ambitious man, and he had always been jealous of Ruthyar’s wealth. Would such a man shrink from murder? Certainly none of the other hunters would dare speak out against him.
Since then not a day went by without Mavrida wondering how her life would have progressed had it not been marred by tragedy. She looked enviously at all the happily married couples and their children, dying a little more inside while smiling and waving politely at them.
Yet somehow she had never given herself wholly to despair, and now by some miracle her son was returned from the forest. She had been given an opportunity to make up for lost time and she was determined not to waste it.
As for Borvinn, the hunter was sceptical that a toddler could have escaped even a wounded striagon, yet this newcomer had clearly survived in the jungle somehow. If he was not Mavrida’s son, who could he be? And where, for that matter, did he get the knife? It was no ordinary hunting blade. The workmanship was worthy of royalty. But if the boy was a prince he had certainly fallen on hard times.
Borvinn voiced none of his doubts, but merely clapped a hand on Sherinel’s shoulder. “There now, my lad,” he said, with all the false camaraderie he could muster for the benefit of the crowd. “There was nothing to be afraid of after all. This is an occasion for rejoicing. A mother is reunited with the son she believed dead.”
Mavrida by now had taken the boy by the shoulders and was leading him into the village. As they walked past Sherinel he found his gaze drawn inexorably to the boy’s flowing black hair, broad shoulders, naked back, firm buttocks and muscular legs....
If he couldn’t find an opportunity to relieve his arousal soon he was going to go mad.
Had Borvinn noticed Sherinel’s erotic interest in the boy it might have resulted in another beating for him. Fortunately the chief hunter had removed his hand from Sherinel’s shoulder and seemed not to notice as the hapless guard slipped away.
If he’s really Mavrida’s son, thought Borvinn, then I’m a striagon’s brother in law. The boy’s probably some thieving retard who ran away from his own village and somehow survived to find his way here.
But Mavrida’s belief that the boy was her son represented a great opportunity for Borvinn. Not only did Mavrida still hold the key to Ruthyar’s gold, but also the boy had the prettiest arse Borvinn had ever seen - and Borvinn was something of an expert on that subject.
And very soon, he intended to get his hands on
Taking the boy by the hand, Mavrida led him into her home. First she removed his floral crown and placed it outside to prevent its scent from becoming overwhelming in the small house. She guessed that he wore it to help mask his own scent while hunting. Next, despite his obvious reluctance, she managed to persuade him to give her his knife, which she placed upon a shelf. Her maternal instincts told her it was dangerous for a boy to have such a thing, even though intellectually she knew he must have used it often in the jungle both for hunting and defence. Another part of her wondered, as Borvinn had, where he had managed to get hold of such a richly-adorned weapon.
For a while she merely stood and looked at him, while he gazed coolly back with those strange violet eyes. “Ketrin,” she said, “Do you remember me? Do you remember your name, Ketrin?” The boy showed no sign of recognising the name, but he opened his mouth and produced a series of strangulated noises. Mavrida was alarmed for a moment, until she realised he was trying to mimic human speech.
“Yes,” she said, placing a hand upon his shoulder. For a moment he seemed about to pull away, but then relaxed. Surely by now he must understand that she meant him no harm. “Yes, Ketrin, try to talk. Can you say your name?” She pointed to his chest, which caused him to look down in puzzlement. Mavrida could not help smiling in spite of herself. “Ketrin,” she said. “Ketrin. K...et...r...in. Say your name. K...et..r...in.”
After a few moments the boy seemed to grasp what Mavrida wanted, and did his best to form the right sounds: “Kkhhh...Kkhhe-e-ehhh...” but after several minutes of effort, despite Mavrida’s encouragement, he seemed to tire of the exercise.
“All right,” she said, smiling. “You can rest now. There will be time enough later for you to learn to speak. For now, let’s get you tidied up a little.”
First she took a small hard stone - it was of a type known as fire-mountain stone, though she could not have said why - and began to file down his ragged fingernails. This seemed to disturb him at first, until she showed him her own neatly manicured fingers. She supposed that in the forest he would be forced to scrape his nails upon tree-bark or rocks. Next she washed his face, which he found disconcerting but bore with fortitude. Then she set about the task of taming his unruly mane. Combing his tangled locks took no small effort on Mavrida’s part, and no small amount of squirming on the boy’s. Then when she began to cut his hair he seemed afraid that she meant to cut it all off - he had seen a number of bald men in the village. When she was done, however, his hair framed his face neatly before falling to his shoulders. Then it only remained for her to wash and dry it and tie it at the back with a cord. When she was done she led him to the small mirror that hung upon the wall at eye level.
The boy had seen his reflection in pools before, but the mirror astonished him. How could a pool of water hang upright? He was surprised when he tested it with his finger and found it to be strangely dry and solid. It did not ripple like a pool. But what surprised him most of all was the beauty of the face that stared back at him from its strangely smooth surface. If he had not known the face was his own he would have fallen in love with it.
The smile that resulted from this revelation brought tears to Mavrida’s eyes once again, and she hugged him more fiercely than ever.
For the rest of the day, Mavrida showed him around the village, teaching him the words for things and showing him how the villagers lived and worked, how they grew food and herded animals and made clothing and household items. To his considerable irritation, she had insisted that he conceal his nudity with a waistcloth. It surprised him that the villagers were so concerned about body coverings that they had a special mouth-sound for not wearing them. He constantly scratched beneath the garment, occasionally reaching into it as if to pleasure himself, and was frustrated when Mavrida gently restrained him. Because he could not understand speech, she found it difficult to explain that that was not something people did in public.
Ketrin seemed especially fascinated by agriculture.
In the forest plants grew wherever their seeds could find a suitable patch
The notion of actually growing plants where you wanted them to was astounding, although he didn’t quite see the use of it.
While Ketrin was looking over the village, the villagers were looking him over. Most of the village girls ogled his body, disappointed that they had not had the chance to see him before he was clothed. The younger ones giggled and gossiped, while the older ones simply cast speculative glances in his direction, hoping to catch his eye.
Most of the menfolk regarded the boy as a potentially useful addition to the village’s workforce. He clearly possessed strength and endurance, and if he really had survived for years in the jungle he must be brave and resourceful as well.
Borvinn also had plans for the boy, but he too was patient.
That evening Mavrida cooked dinner. The boy sniffed sceptically at the cooked meat and vegetables she set before him, but seeing that Mavrida was happy to eat them he decided that any free meal was better than none. Of course he snatched up the food in his fingers and scoffed it down like a starving lupinoid, but, Mavrida reflected, there would be plenty of time to teach him table manners.
Then there was the whole business of teaching him the difference between a cooking pot and the other kind.
The house had only one room, and Mavrida made up a makeshift bed for the boy with some spare sheets and blankets, on the opposite side of the room from her own. He was used to sleeping by day and hunting nocturnally, but he had been awake for a night and a day and so soon fell asleep. But in the middle of the night he awoke, feeling stifled by the blanket, and threw it aside. He had awakened with an erection, and decided to take advantage of it, now that there was no one to complain. While he did so he considered what he had learned in his first day in human society.
In the forest he had often seen and heard humans in the distance, though if they had seen him it was only in fleeting glimpses, easily dismissed as tricks of the light, and he had certainly made no sound. By listening to the sounds they made he had come to understand that they communicated by making noises with their mouths, but he had never learned how to mimic those sounds. And as the woman who fostered him had demonstrated, every conceivable object seemed to be represented by a sound of its own, and not only objects but - and this was another radical idea - abstract concepts as well. So many sounds! “Pot.” “Hair.” “House.” “Man.” “Fire.” “Waistcloth.” “Mirror.” “Jungle.” “Food.” How could the humans remember them all? But then, the boy supposed it was not so very different from his having to remember what all the scents of the jungle meant. Both sounds and scents imparted knowledge about the world. But there was an important difference. Scents could not be given arbitrary meanings, but sounds could.
His head was spinning from the new information he had absorbed in just one short day. No doubt there was a sound to describe the way that felt too.
Even more astonishing than the concept of sounds representing things, was that of sounds representing people. The woman who had adopted him, for instance: “Mavrida.”
Most mind-boggling of all was the thought of having his very own representative sound.
“Ketrin,” he thought. It was the same sound, he realised, that “Mavrida” had called him when she first saw him. And the way she had rushed forward to embrace him....
If he guessed correctly, that meant she had lost a cub that she had called “Ketrin”, and now believed him to be that cub returned from the forest. It might be true, he thought. He was obviously the cub of some bereft human mother.
Very well, he thought. If “Mavrida” believes me to be her son, then “Ketrin” I shall be, if only for her sake.
“Ketrin”, he thought. “Ket...rin”.
He liked the sound of it.
He would have to practice making sounds with his mouth, if only so he could repeat his own sound and “Mavrida’s”.
And also, so that he could learn all he could of human society, as his brothers wished....
A few moments later Ketrin achieved his long-postponed orgasm, then drifted off to a contented sleep and dreamed.
In his dream one of the strange two-legged creatures from the hole-in-nothing stood before him and lifted its hands to its bulbous head. Then with a sudden twisting motion, it pulled its head off. He cried out in fear, but then saw that the “head” had been hollow, some kind of protective covering for its real head. Now the creature’s true face was revealed, and Ketrin was startled to discover that the face was Mavrida’s.
Ketrin woke. What did it mean? Could it be that the creatures Whitebrush had seen emerging from the hole-in-nothing were humans? But Whitebrush had thought of the newcomers as things that had never existed in the world before, which meant...what? That Whitebrush and her kind had dwelt in this world long before humans came into it? But if so, why had humans come to disturb the peace of the four-footed kind?
It was in order to find answers to such questions, Ketrin now realised, that the pack had sent him to dwell among humanity. Only a human who had lived among lupinoids could teach lupinoids the nature of humans.
Assuming, of course, that he could ever understand
human behaviour himself.
Over the course of the next few months Ketrin was put to work in the village. Sometimes he assisted with planting seeds. This was tedious, undemanding work, but Ketrin was interested to see how well the seeds he planted would grow. More often he was given tasks that would require physical strength, like helping to build houses. It did not take him long to learn simple commands like “Hold that beam upright” and “Fetch me that hammer”. And often he would be given the job of taking the village’s vorn herd grazing.
Some of the villagers joked that Ketrin was as
strong as a vorn himself, and almost as intelligent. If he heard and understood
these remarks, he gave no sign of it. At any rate, the vorns never gave
him any trouble, but would merely allow themselves to be led docilely to
the grazing fields some distance from the village stockade. Perhaps their
compliance was due to the fact that they sensed something of the predator
about Ketrin. In any event none of the beasts was ever attacked and none
of them stampeded while Ketrin was in charge of them. The only time Ketrin
required assistance was when one of the females began calving at the grazing
Somehow Ketrin realised that the birth was going to be a difficult one and ran back to the village for assistance. The chief herdsman had rebuked Ketrin for leaving the herd unattended, but when they arrived all was as Ketrin had left it. With a little assistance from Ketrin the herdsman was able to deliver the calf safely, but as the two men returned to the village with the herd in tow he continued to remind Ketrin that the herd could have been attacked or run amok and scattered while Ketrin was gone.
In fact Ketrin knew that the herd had been in no danger, having set his own guards over it. But of course he could hardly tell the herdsman that his precious vorns had actually been guarded by a pair of lupinoids.
Ketrin learned to speak with astonishing rapidity, and when Mavrida judged that his understanding was sufficient she took him to the priest’s services in the village’s small chapel, which he held twice every ten-day. The villagers worshipped a colourful array of gods and goddesses, all of whom possessed interesting physical characteristics like yellow skin, two heads, four arms, wings, fins or animal heads. As Ketrin understood it each of the gods was responsible for some aspect of human existence, despite seeming to spend all of their time fighting with or making love to each other. Unfortunately from Ketrin’s point of view the priest never went into detail about the lovemaking, although his descriptions of the fights were quite exciting and gory enough to satisfy any young man.
When Ketrin asked Mavrida where all these gods could be found, she told him that they could not be seen by ordinary mortals unless they chose to be seen. With perfect lupinoid logic, Ketrin then asked what the gods smelled like. To this Mavrida had no answer, and Ketrin was disappointed that he would not be able to track down the gods by scent. He would have enjoyed challenging a god to a fight, particularly if that god had more limbs than he did. Such a being would surely prove a worthy opponent.
Ketrin enjoyed the priest’s tales of the gods’ adventures, but there was one aspect of the holy teachings that Ketrin found hard to understand. For the priest always insisted that after they had finished creating the world the gods had created the plants and animals and finally mankind, and had given humanity dominion over all lesser beings.
These teachings, of course, directly contradicted Ketrin’s interpretation of his dream. If the creatures Whitebrush had seen emerging from the hole-in-nothing really were humans, it meant that the human race had arrived in this world only recently compared with the countless generations of lupinoids that were here before them. And where did the gods fit into that view of things?
Ketrin knew better than to confront the priest
with these objections. In any case the priest was a kindly old man and
a compelling storyteller, so did it really matter whether his stories were
true or not?
The village boys made fun of Ketrin’s ignorance of village customs, but he paid no heed to their taunts. Naturally some of them decided to beat some sense into them, and he rewarded their efforts with numerous cuts and bruises. To their credit, one or two of them managed to land telling blows upon Ketrin before being defeated, earning some measure of his respect in turn.
Mavrida was unhappy to hear of her son getting into fights, but after consulting the other boys’ parents she came to the conclusion that it was merely a passing phase. In fact it was more of a bonding ritual. Once the boys established that Ketrin was the best fighter, they treated him with respect and allowed him to join their games.
In addition to the usual races, ball games and wrestling bouts, there were also the games the boys played behind the houses when no adult was looking. There were the comparisons of size, at which Ketrin scored highly, and the masturbation contests, at which Ketrin set new endurance records.
Sometimes the boys would sneak over to a part of the stockade that the adults had not discovered, where small holes drilled through the fence afforded the boys a clear view of the stream where the girls regularly bathed. The guards assigned to protect the girls were protected from any corrupting glimpses of bare flesh by wooden screens on the stream bank, but none of the girls ever suspected that they could be seen from inside the stockade. Sometimes two girls would bathe each other, and do other things together that the boys found both shocking and exciting.
Often the boys would become so aroused that they would pleasure themselves, trying desperately to stifle their orgasmic groans lest they should be found out. Some of the older boys even took to pleasuring each other on these occasions, and Ketrin was no exception. He had no qualms about mating with other males, since lupinoids did it all the time. The pack’s head males usually kept harems of three or four females each, which meant that lower males in the pecking order were often left without mates. In order to alleviate their sexual frustrations these unattached males would usually mate with each other while awaiting the opportunity to challenge a head male and, if successful, inherit his harem.
Ketrin was of course regarded as an unattached male, but even when he was fully grown the discrepancy in size meant that he could neither mount nor be mounted by his brothers and so had to be content with self-stimulation. What human genitalia lacked in size compared to a lupinoid’s, they more than made up for in terms of sensuality and endurance.
Ketrin was disappointed to learn that adult humans mated in private, since he had been hoping to observe them at first hand, but from what some of the older boys told him he had a fairly accurate idea of the technique. It did not seem very different from the way lupinoids mated, except for two things. Firstly, male humans were only supposed to take a single mate for life - though this, the boys suggested, was an ideal that was seldom fulfilled; and secondly, male and female humans mated face to face. Ketrin was more dubious about that. In his experience, when humans faced each other they nearly always talked, and that would surely distract them from the business at hand.
He clearly a great deal more to learn.
Meanwhile Borvinn, who had been biding his time, began to draw his plans against Ketrin and Mavrida. One evening the chief hunter crept out of the village and followed a little-known trail into the forest. Though he was nervous about travelling alone in the jungle at night, the one who had made the path had assured him that it was protected by spells. Only if he strayed from the narrow track would Borvinn be in any danger.
After a half-hour that Borvinn’s fear told him was at least two hours, he arrived at his goal: a small, ramshackle hut that almost seemed to have grown into the surrounding trees. Here he hesitated. He had heard strange rumours about the one who dwelt within.
This is stupid, he told himself. I’m here on business. He’s not going to harm a potential customer. Taking a deep breath he entered.
The interior of the hut was dimly lit by a faint greenish glow whose source Borvinn could not determine. The floor was piled high with the skins of lupinoids, striagons and many other animals large and small, and many more hung upon the walls. It was only when one of the skins stirred that Borvinn realised there was a man wearing it.
“Greetings, Borvinn. You have need of my services.” The voice was little more than a whisper, yet clear and distinct. The speaker moved forward, revealing a face like worn parchment. He looked at least a hundred years old, and those years had not been kind to him. One of his eyes was cloudy and blind, but the other stared at Borvinn with the intensity of a flamehawk’s.
Borvinn swallowed. “Yes,” he muttered. “It’s about - ”
“The boy, Ketrin. You want to use him to help lead you to Ruthyar’s gold.”
Borvinn almost found himself blurting, How can you possibly know all this? But it was the old man’s reputation as a sorcerer that had brought Borvinn to him, and he would be a poor sorcerer without the Sight.
“Yes,” said Borvinn, clearing his throat. “I need something that will bind the boy to my will. Do you have anything that will help me?”
The old man seemed to consider this for a long moment. Then he reached behind one of the hanging animal skins and drew out a small leather pouch.
“You want to fuck the boy,” said the sorcerer, matter-of-factly. “I have no sorcery to make him do your bidding, but I can give you the means to render him helpless, so that he cannot resist you.”
“Helpless?” muttered Borvinn, feeling his loins stirring. The old man chuckled.
“Ah, yes, that excites you, doesn’t it?” purred the sorcerer. “The thought of being able to do anything you want to that gorgeous young man, anything at all, while he lies helpless in your arms...”
Borvinn was indeed excited. His erection was throbbing almost painfully, and the images conjured by the sorcerer’s words only served to increase his arousal.
“Motionless as a statue, yet warm flesh and blood, his beautiful body yours for the taking...”
By now Borvinn was fighting to retain his composure before the old man. The sorcerer was of course perfectly aware of the effect his words were having. He had a great deal of experience at judging his customers’ desires and manipulating them.
“And so you take those lithe, naked limbs in your arms, caress his chest and stomach, and slowly, slowly, slide your throbbing erection into the warm, inviting cavern of his anus, and all the while he cannot move, he cannot struggle, he cannot cry for help....”
But Borvinn did cry out loud as his body finally succumbed to the hypnotic effect of the sorcerer’s words. The sorcerer watched with great satisfaction as Borvinn stiffened and moaned in orgasm.
“I...forgive me...” Borvinn muttered, when at last he regained the power of speech, ashamed of his loss of control.
“There is nothing to forgive,” the sorcerer assured him. “You were overtaken by your desire. But if you purchase this trinket from me, all your desires may be fulfilled. Just think, Borvinn, your next orgasm could be with Ketrin, just as I have described.”
“Well, then, what is this trinket that will make him helpless?”
From the leather pouch the old man drew two small blue crystals. “Take one of these stones and place it near the boy. Sewing it into a concealed pocket of his clothing would be ideal.”
“That could be difficult,” said Borvinn. “He doesn’t wear much. Some days he still forgets to wear anything at all. If he’s herding vorns the other herders usually don’t worry too much whether he’s naked or not.”
“Well, that is your concern. As long as one of the jewels is in close proximity to him you will be able to use the other to render him helpless. Simply concentrate upon the stone and he will become paralysed, just as I have described. And once he is helpless you will be able to hold him hostage against Mavrida’s cooperation.”
“This is all very well,” said Borvinn, “But how do I know it will work?”
By way of answer the old man, demonstrating far more strength than his appearance would have suggested, pressed one of the jewels into Borvinn’s hand and forced him to close his fist about it. He then placed the other jewel against his own forehead, where it began to glow with a pale blue radiance.
Borvinn was instantly frozen where he sat, incapable of the slightest response.
“These jewels are very ancient,” the sorcerer told Borvinn, pleased to have a captive audience. “Nobody knows where they came from or who made them. A great many years ago I found a cave that had been sealed centuries before. Standing in the darkness at the rear of the cave was what looked like the statue of two naked men wrestling. Each had a jewel in a circlet upon his forehead and one clutched in his hand, and nearby was a large chest containing a great many similar jewels.”
Borvinn stared at the blue glow that was caged by his own fingers, and struggled vainly to unclench his fist.
“When I came closer I saw to my astonishment that the men were both breathing, and their eyes turned to look at me, but they remained motionless as stone even when I pricked them with a knife, and then when I took their balls in my hands and squeezed them.
“This was clearly a powerful sorcery, and one that I could use against my enemies. Using certain arts I was able to learn how the men discovered the stones some time before in a place where - well, that doesn’t matter. You’ll not have heard of the place anyway - and how their sorcery worked. The men had obviously been fighting for control of the stones and had each managed to place his own stone upon the other’s head and activate it before he realised what the other was doing.
“There was a certain delicious irony about their fate. Each man could have released the other by simply relaxing his will, but neither trusted the other to release him in turn, and so they continued to hold each other fast until they had both forgotten how to free each other anyway. Of course, I could have freed them by removing their circlets, but there was always the possibility that once freed they might freeze me, and I wasn’t willing to take that risk.
“In any case, I enjoyed the irony of their fate - I told them so, although I have no idea whether they could understand my language - so instead, I spent a few pleasant days shafting their frozen behinds. Oh, yes, Borvinn, I know exactly what you want to do to the boy, and I can assure you it’s quite delicious when they’re helpless! But then my water supply ran low and I was reluctantly forced to move on. So I said farewell to my new friends and re-posed them with their hands on each other’s pricks. Then I took the jewels from the chest, re-sealed the cave mouth - I never did learn who sealed it in the first place - and left them paralysed for eternity, and serve them right.
“And so, Borvinn,” he concluded, “That is how I came by the jewels, and how I know - as you also know by now - that they work exactly as I have described.”
With that, the sorcerer relaxed his will, the stone in his hand ceased to glow. Once more Borvinn came, howling with ecstasy while the sorcerer chuckled. Once the last of his ejaculatory spasms had finally passed Borvinn found that he was able to move again. Immediately he dropped the stone from his hand onto the floor.
“Now,” said the old man. “There remains only the question of payment.”
The sum that the old man named was many times what Borvinn had been willing to pay, but he knew there was no question of Borvinn’s holding out for long.
The old man knew as well as any that time-honoured
adage: sex sells.
After Ketrin had dwelt in the village for about three months, Borvinn politely invited him to join the men and older boys around the evening campfire. Mavrida was dubious, suspecting that Borvinn might use the situation to take advantage of her son. Still, she could hardly allow the men to think she wanted him clinging to her skirts like an infant.
Then an idea came to her. If Borvinn were to try anything Ketrin should at least have the means to defend himself. And so, as Ketrin prepared to leave for the gathering, she took his sheathed knife from the shelf where it usually rested nowadays.
She was not aware that while she had been out buying bread one afternoon, Borvinn had slipped into her house and stolen the knife. He had returned it a little later, praying that neither Ketrin nor Mavrida would notice that one of the jewels upon its hilt now looked a little different.
“There now,” she told Ketrin, slipping the leather cord over his head. “You want to look your best, don’t you?”
Ketrin looked slightly puzzled, but did not argue.
“Good. Now I know the men like to tell lots of tales about how brave and strong they are, and about how many women they’ve...you know.”
“Well, most of the time they’re just boasting to impress each other, and they’ll certainly try to impress you too, so you shouldn’t believe everything they tell you. Still, I dare say you could tell them a thing or two about surviving in the jungle, my wildling.”
At this, Ketrin grinned. “Many story,” he said. “They not believe half.”
“Just be careful of Borvinn. He can be very charming when he wants to be, but that doesn’t make him a nice man. Do you understand?”
Ketrin nodded again. There was something about Borvinn that reminded him of a striagon, a predator that kept rival predators in check through threats and intimidation. All Borvinn needed to complete the image was a set of stripes.
“And I know they’ll offer you lots of drink, but try not to drink too much. They may try to get you drunk and... take advantage of you.”
Having observed Borvinn’s behaviour toward some of the other boys, Ketrin had some inkling of what “taking advantage” might involve, and he certainly had no intention of letting Borvinn “take advantage” of him.
Unfortunately he had rather less of an idea about what “Getting drunk” meant, having had little or no exposure to alcohol and its effects. Whatever it meant, he was sure he could handle it.
And so Ketrin took his leave of Mavrida and made his way to the men’s circle. The sun was sinking beneath the trees, closely followed by a narrow arc that was all that was left of Goldmoon, but Silvermoon would soon be rising, almost full, to blend its radiance with the orange firelight. About twenty of the older boys and men were already seated about the fire when Ketrin arrived.
“Ah, here he is,” announced Borvinn, “The latest addition to our village community. Not three moons ago, if you can credit it, this boy was running naked with the wild animals, yet here he is today enjoying the company of civilised men. For many years Mavrida believed her son dead, yet by some miracle he is returned to her, and to this village, alive and well, and - if I may say so - in robust health. So let us drink to honour the return of Ketrin, son of Mavrida and of her late husband Ruthyar of unsullied memory.”
The men drank their ale heartily, and Borvinn handed Ketrin a flagon that was almost overflowing. Ketrin had never tasted anything like this bitter concoction, but decided there was something to be said for it.
“That’s it, lad, drink up,” said Borvinn. “I must say, that’s a fine looking knife you have there, my boy. You really must tell us how you came by it some day. But we were speaking of Ruthyar. Ah, if only he were here to see you, young Ketrin, I know he’d have been proud to have fathered such a... fine looking son.” So saying he placed a hand upon Ketrin’s shoulder in what was clearly meant to be a paternal gesture. Ketrin had to admit that Mavrida was right: Borvinn certainly could be charming when he chose to be. Remembering her other words, though, he remained wary. But just to be sociable he continued to sip at his drink as the evening wore on.
“Your father was a fine man, Ketrin,” said Borvinn. “I was proud to count him among my friends. Mavrida no doubt has told you how he was killed by the striagon, but of course only those of us who were there - ” Borvinn gestured in the direction of three or four of the older men - “Can tell you what really happened upon that fateful day.” The hunter sighed wistfully, and his voice became muted. “He was a hero, Ketrin. That’s a word that’s often bandied about, but there are few men who can truly be called heroes. Your father was just such a man. If it weren’t for him, I would be dead now, and so would Sharavel and Korven here.” The men he had named muttered their assent. “He died to save us, Ketrin. It is often said that there is no greater sacrifice a man can make. Listen now, Ketrin, and with the permission of our assembled fellows I will tell you the whole story.”
This was met with cries of “Aye,” and “Tell the tale,” and “The boy deserves to hear.”
“Indeed he does,” said Borvinn, and took another swig of ale to lubricate his throat.
Ketrin did not understand all of Borvinn’s words, but he grasped the gist of them. He could hardly help but notice that Borvinn had done almost all the talking so far. True, he was chief hunter, but surely there were others who held equally important positions in the community. No, the reason Borvinn was dominating this meeting was that he wanted to impress Ketrin; to convince Ketrin that Mavrida was mistaken about him. Realising this, Ketrin remained sceptical.
On the other hand, he was curious about
what had really happened to Ruthyar. And a feeling of pleasant light-headedness
was slowly creeping over him. He wasn’t sure what was causing it, but he
took another sip of ale and prepared to hear Borvinn’s story.
“It was a grey morning when we set out,” Borvinn began. “The rains had not yet begun but there were distant rumbles of thunder and flashes of heat lightning and the air was close and muggy. There were ten of us in the party and we were hoping to find the striagon that had been killing our vorns. Ruthyar was convinced it was the same beast that had attacked him and Mavrida on that fateful day. There was no way we could be sure of that, of course, since striagons change their hunting grounds so frequently, but as far as Ruthyar was concerned it was almost a personal quest. Killing the beast, as he saw it, would avenge the death of his precious son.” Borvinn took another sip of ale (he was secretly pleased to see Ketrin do the same as if on cue) and sighed. “Ah, if only, if only he could have guessed that his son was alive, and would grow into such a fine young man...” Borvinn let his words hang in the air for a few moments. Just as he hoped, Ketrin was as impatient as he was curious.
“So what happen your hunt?” asked the boy.
“Well, my boy,” said Borvinn, “There is little to tell. It was a sweltering day in midsummer. There had been no rain for almost two full moons and the streams were beginning to run dry. Maybe it was lack of water that led the striagon to attack the village, but in any case I wasn’t going to stand for it, so I rounded up the bravest men I could find. When he learned that the beast might well be the same one that had attacked him and Mavrida all those years ago, and - so we believed - killed their infant son, naturally your father was anxious to have a chance at taking revenge on the beast, despite Mavrida’s fears. I’m afraid that made him somewhat reckless despite my warnings.
“We had been stalking the beast for the better part of the morning when Korven spotted fresh droppings. We split into three groups so that we could flank and encircle the beast. Korven led the group that went left, Sharavel and I brought up the creature’s rear and your father led the group that took the right flank.
“After another hour or so I knew my group was getting close. The we heard the beast roar and we rushed out of the trees into a broad clearing.
“It was a terrifying sight. The striagon was charging Korven, and all he could do was stand there in terror. No reflection on your courage, Korven, I’d have done the same if I’d seen those jaws hurtling toward me like death on wings, and I imagine that even a jungle-dweller like Ketrin might have done the same.”
Ketrin did not argue with this.
“But just then,” Borvinn went on, “the beast roared in pain and checked. Ruthyar had arrived just in time to see the beast charging and had speared it in the rump. The striagon whirled and roared, clearly trying to find its attacker, but the first sight its eyes fell upon was Sharavel and me. Immediately it charged us as well, but Ruthyar managed to grab a spear from another man and hurl it into the beast’s left flank.
“The creature screamed defiantly - I tell you, my boy, the thought of that terrible sound chills my blood even to this day - and having identified Ruthyar as its true attacker it immediately gave chase. The rest of us followed but we knew that by the time we caught up to the striagon there would be little we could do for Ruthyar.
“Well, Ketrin, that was the last we ever saw of Ruthyar. A few hours later we finally caught up with the striagon which had finally been weakened by loss of blood. We still only just managed to avoid getting clawed and bitten before we could finish it off. And then the rains came, and we were forced to slog our way back to the village through thick mud. We never found a trace of your father’s body.”
The drink seemed to have done something to Ketrin’s head. He could no longer think clearly. But something about Borvinn’s story was nagging at him.
“Big striagon eats man, you find no bones, blood?” he muttered. “No thing all?”
Then the thought of his father leaving no remains for Mavrida to mourn struck him as the saddest thing he had ever heard, and he was surprised to find his eyes overflowing with water.
Borvinn took this as a cue.
“Ah,” he said. “I... think it would be best if you gave me some time alone with the boy. The story of his father’s death has obviously affected him greatly.”
The others filed past, patting Ketrin’s shoulders or head and muttering quiet condolences. After a few moments Ketrin and Borvinn were left alone by the fire.
“Good,” said Borvinn, abandoning all pretense. “Now I’ve got you just where I want you.”
Before Ketrin could ask what Borvinn meant, Borvinn took hold of the crystal in his pendant and concentrated. Its twin in Ketrin’s knife-hilt, which Borvinn had substituted for the original jewel, began to glow.
Ketrin suddenly found himself frozen. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move a muscle. When Borvinn began to caress him he could not pull away, nor when the older man slowly licked the tears from his face before slipping his tongue inside Ketrin’s mouth. He couldn’t even move when Borvinn rolled him onto his stomach and slowly began pulling down his waistcloth.
“Now, Ketrin,” said Borvinn, stroking his frozen
buttocks, “I’ve got you exactly where I want you.”
To be continued!
(October 1999 - August 2000, and that’s only Part One!!!)