by John Shirley
The A'taranda’s long tail, a powerful ribbon of flesh and leather ending in a barb, lifted and vibrated back and forth, holes in the tail making a shrieking sound with the motion: a sign it was about to charge. The shriek and whipping of the tail was intended to paralyze its quarry with terror and confusion. A hunter not ready for an A’taranda’s rush was good as dead—its attack ended in a rampage of slashing talons. The tongue would retract, to be replaced with the sharp piercing tube stabbing stiffly from its long, tapered maw. The talons would tear, and then the forelimbs would hold the man down so the feeding tube would penetrate his body; the tongue would whip out through the tube to lap up the man’s wet inner parts. No one was known to have survived its rush once struck down. The only way to kill the thing was to aim your weapon true before the rush. To do this a man must surprise the A’taranda, which Vonn had been poised to do, till Jann blundered onto the scene.
Jann had just time to lick his lips and prepare to die—before Vonn jumped up, shouting, “Here, beast! To me!”
The A’taranda hadn’t seen Vonn –for it tended to discount the motionless--and now it recoiled in surprise, turning to set itself to charge him, even as Vonn fired the crossbow, the bolt flying to bury itself in the creature’s neck, just below its’ head. Vonn cursed—he had aimed for the skull, where a properly placed bolt would have killed it instantly. Now –as the vines overhead twitched and slithered like snakes in typical Paradinian reactivity--he must take an even greater risk.
He drew the scimitar from its sheath across his back, the drawing motion becoming a downward stroke as he rushed the A’taranda, severing the slashing, taloned forearm so that the A’taranda spurted inky fluid from its neck and the stump of its forearm. The predator shrieked with its vibrating tail and recoiled another step, searching for an angle of attack. Its piercing tube darted out—but Vonn had anticipated this and twisted himself to the right, so that the tube only burned the skin of his left hip, ripping his hunter’s leggings; in the same moment he angled his blade up and drove it deep into the upper thorax of the beast, piercing its primary heart.
The A’taranda jerked hissingly back, becoming an S-shape, so that four of its stubby limbs waved frantically in the air, the motion twisting the blade from Vonn’s grasp. But it was dying now, falling on its side to thrash wildly, turning the mosses inky-purple with its lifeblood.
Vonn waited till the thrashing eased, then stepped in, pulled his blade free, and saluted the beast. “A’senka Karosand A’taranda!” he said, as hunters who’d trained with the mountain primitives always did, after a kill of this kind.
He still had his back to Jann, but, going down on one knee to clean his blade on the moss, he shouted, “Get you over here, Jann, and pull this ravenous mollusk from my back! Three minutes and more it has gnawed at me!”
Jann shook himself from his almost paralytic fascination, and hurried to Vonn, bringing out his pocketknife.
Vonn leaned over the boulder, hands flat on the stone as he spoke. “I felt the nasty thing drop on the back of my neck from the boulder the instant I heard the A’taranda coming…"
Jann shook his head in silent wonder. The spiderlike bloodsucker did not dig deeply into its host, but its gnashing was excruciating to endure.
Jann lifted the cloth, winced at the sight of the thing clinging bloodily to his teacher’s living flesh, between his shoulder blades. It made a puddle of blood there and extended a little black tongue which lapped doglike at the blood.
He dug under its mandibles with the knife, prying it loose, then flicked it onto a stone.
Vonn strode to it, ruefully crushed the parasite under his boot-heel. “You can put some wound-closer on me, I can’t quite reach the spot. Now tell me why you have interfered with my hunt, blundering in here with all the rackety noise you made?”
Jann swallowed his exasperation. Vonn didn’t give him the respect he craved—but then, he knew that he had not yet earned it. “There’s a starcraft landed without permission by the border with the Golldens. I saw them there myself, from the air. And Vonn--they killed one of my behemoths!”
“Did they! And did they see you?”
“I don’t know—I suppose they thought they were taking a pot-shot at a wild one. But I got the herd out of there, as quick as I could—I was afraid they’d shoot Aleshna out of the sky before they saw me there...”
“So they are poaching—for sport, since there’s nothing much left of an exploded Behemoth.” Vonn scowled. He hated the pointless killing of animals. He'd have spared the A'taranda had it not come so close to the manor. “A starcraft. Who do you think it was?”
“It looked Kastillian to me. They ignore the treaty when they choose. I wanted your...your counsel.”
Theoretically, Jann’s mother was in charge of the Manor, while her brother Denmo was away. But the bibulous Denmo was always away, drinking wine and smoking Groak in the reeking dream-dens of Lapis, Paradine’s only major city, two hundred miles northwest. And Sena spent her days with her weaving, and in charity rounds to the outlying villages; she had lost the heart to run the manor, soon after her husband’s death, and it fell to her son and to Vonn a Vleet. Most specifically, to Vonn. Technically he worked for Jann, but Jann usually deferred to Vonn.
“A starcraft,” Vonn repeated musingly, scratching in his thatchy gray hair—when he bothered to cut it he did the job himself with sheep sheers. He dug a small bottle of wound-closer from his belt pouch and tossed it to Jann. “I’ve been half expecting them. The Peacekeepers would have so informed you, if they’d known they were on your land. Therefore the Kastillians landed under the umbrella of a sensor-damper. Which suggests they are up to thievery.”
Jann applied the wound-closer. “The gigglin' skreff can't break our laws with impunity. We can demand their papers and see that the ship's captain is fined...”
“Yes—but with some preparation,” Vonn said, straightening and putting his shirt back on. “Come on...”
They jogged down the wooded path together, toward the village, silent for long minutes. Jann knew that despite the medicine, Vonn would be in pain from the bite, but he showed no sign of it. After a few minutes, Vonn said, “Remember—if it is the Kastillians, they have weapons we don't have. We must deal with this quietly, unless they force our hand. Could be they mean us no harm—but we've got to take care not to provoke them.”
Jann growled to himself. “They’ve killed one of my skyherd elders! Why did we let them bully us into the SlowTech Agreement? Some of us have stashes of energy weapons, computers—there are the black markets, secret Tech Clubs. The SlowTech can't last—people are groaning under it, Vonn! If we had more energy weapons, enough Stropps, flyers for aerial attack, we wouldn’t have to creep around like frightened children...”
“And then we’d have a whole Kastillian fleet to deal with.” Vonn shook his head. He turned to look at Jann sadly. “You have always hungered for more technology; all your generation shares the hunger. History has shown what an excess of technology does to a society. The Kastillians do us an unintentional favor by keeping our technology in check—they think it keeps us from being a military threat, but in fact it makes us stronger...with the strength that matters. It's the inner capabilities that matter in a man-- not his reliance on crutches!”
They both glanced to their left at a sudden motion there—but it was only an Oosh tree, revolving in place. No one had yet figured out why the bright-yellow, globular Oosh tree occasionally revolved in the socket at the top of its roots, nor even how, though botanists sometimes came from Lapis to puzzle over it.
“We've let them push us too far in the low-tech direction,” Jann said bitterly, looking back to the trail. “Even computers are proscribed—one to a township! It's outrageous! Technology is freedom, Vonn.”
“Transcending desire is freedom,” Vonn a Vleet said. “Inner freedom is all that matters.”
Jann grunted, and shook his head. It maddened him how Vonn could be so right, and so wrong-- at the same time.