Call of the Wild

Chapter 1

Gerroo watched the newcomers approach. They walked on two feet, erect, without ever placing their forepaws upon the ground, as though perpetually advertising their availability for mating; and they had no tails. Their bodies were covered in veils: brown and floating veils that billowed with the hot wind, veils that made them blend with the grass and the earth, covering the bright white gleam beneath. They were strange.

But she had never seen clouds descend to the Plains before; only in Song did such things happen, in generations past. Her people had never yet been visited by the deities of the sky; and it came as a mild surprise to her, a challenge to her half-formed theological principles, that these two visitors from on high had a scent - a distinct and complex mingling of odors carried to her on the warming breeze. Perhaps they allowed it, to herald their coming. The wind told her many things. They were both male, one older than the other, though both strong and healthy, smelling of fresh sweat and exotic pheromones. Their perspiration smelled of confidence and skill and intelligence, like hunters, leaders of packs. This and their posture made her look eagerly for the band of females which must surely follow in their wake, but there were none to be seen. So they must be nothing more than a bachelor band after all – a strange thing, considering their upright stance and their abundant, overwhelming dominance signals.

Maybe all gods reeked like an alpha male. It was strange indeed.

She eyed the younger one as the pair approached. This smaller cloud had head fur sticking up straight in tufts, like an infant. The other was significantly larger and had sprouted a full mane, a flowing full cascade of fur, some spilling over its face, most of it falling over both shoulders, fluttering a little in the wind. This would be the alpha of their pack.

Sure of this one and most important thing, Gerroo loped forward to intercept them and stood upon her hind feet as they did – not in the mating signal, only in a hopeful imitation of their own weird gait. She waited for them to speak first. The clouds that sailed across the World's ceiling were silent except in time of monsoon; but perhaps these emissaries who bore a full-blooded scent would also have voices with which to howl?

They stopped a short distance away, and stared at her, with waning-moon shaped eyes, eyes that were colored like the sky, white and blue and only a speck of black in the center. Their azure gaze was more unsettling than all their other foreign traits combined, but Gerroo was a Scout, unafraid and sworn to protect the pack. Eventually she spoke, for they made no sign of breaking the silence, and the day was growing older, noon fast approaching.

Welcome to the Plains, strangers. Why have you come? She asked, in her own tongue, as politely as she could.

The strangers held up their forefeet – white as clouds, and splayed into long, attenuated parts like tree branches, soft and bending extremities without claws or fur, and then settled down upon the ground before her, folding their hind legs beneath them and lowering their veiled bodies to the sweet-smelling crushed grass, the brittle dirt. Their blue eyes never left hers.

Gerroo accepted this signal. They did not grant her dominance – she had not expected that anyway – but they offered non-hostility. She knew the Songs. The clouds were powerful, and unpredictable. They could be friend or enemy, bring help or disaster, good luck or ill omen. In any case, it was wise to listen and obey the Laws of hospitality, for the clouds were bound to the Way as surely as the humblest thing that crawled beneath the sun. She settled herself against the baking earth opposite them, front legs stretched out in the pose of watchful peace. The clouds sat with their haunches folded under them and their spines perpendicular to the earth, pointing back skyward to their origins. It looked most uncomfortable. The veils bunched up around their limbs, making them look like piles of fresh turned earth, anthills surmounted by small, round heads. When the visitors still said nothing, Gerroo continued.

These lands are marked for hunt by my pack. As far as the scent carries. Are you here for food?

Again they seemed to understand at least part of her speech, though they said nothing in reply. The taller one reached under its veil-covering and withdrew a soft skin, the smooth gutted carcass of an animal that had no scent but that of minerals. The stranger upturned this flaccid object, until a trickle of water dribbled upon the ground from its small mouth. An image of water, cool and clean, appeared unbidden in Gerroo's mind, as sharp and present as though she had scented it.

She stiffened and thrummed a warning deep in her throat. The Cloud had touched her Dreaming, without permission. But perhaps all gods did thus. Her hackles slowly settled again. It would be unwise to exhibit hostility to a deity, even a trickster of the sky.

The younger one then opened its mouth to speak softly. She inclined her head, both ears straining forward to catch the unfamiliar cadence of its voice. It was resonant, promising a good howl like a young hunter. She heard his teeth and tongue clicking and stopping his breath in a meaningless rhythm, a pattern without thought behind it. The song of what he said was empty to her mind, but it rose and fell fluidly, twisting across the blistering air like a scudding cloud. The older of the gods nodded his head in answer, his chin dipping and rising again, his blue eyes never leaving Gerroo. She licked her jaws, thinking. This was hard. Difficult. They understood some of her thoughts, and could touch her Dreaming, but she could not understand them.

However, the Law commanded generosity, It was a sacred duty to show them to water, though they were the keepers of water themselves. Perhaps it was a test? She stood and half-turned, holding them with her eyes. Come.

And she trotted away, leading them to the place where the Scouts often stopped for a drink, the little cleft in the rocks where water leaked and pooled in the mud before the ground drank it back. They all three pushed through the overhang of the greedy plants, and stepped into cool shade. The strangers then drank, lying flat on their faces, one keeping watch while the other sated his thirst. They were seasoned hunters, these clouds. She barked in laughter at the manner of their drinking, though: they did not use their tongues like proper people did, but plunged their flat snouts into the puddle as though eating it. When they had finished, they drowned the empty mineral-skins in the water until they too had drunk their fill and grown bloated with it. The heavy sacks then went back under the earth-colored veils.

Gerroo thought they might leave then, climbing back into the sky or dissolving into mist like the dew at morning. But the clouds stayed solid, scented strongly of sweat and weariness, and hot blood running freely in their veins. The smaller one dropped its veil covering to the earth, revealing loose-hanging skins of white beneath. Then it did a strange thing: it clawed off its own hide, until this too lay crumpled atop the veil, revealing another white skin beneath, one damp and much better-fitting to his form. The older cloud repeated this bizarre ritual, until the ground was covered with their cast off hides, the bloodless remnants of their flaying.

Then they stretched out beneath the branches of the flowering bush, to sleep.

Gerroo cautiously sniffed at their cast-off skins, and found that they smelled of sweat and hunger and battle-heat, but also of vegetable fiber and a harsh lifeless mineral stink, one she did not know. It was all a mystery beyond her comprehension, one which might mean good or ill for the pack. In either case, she knew her duty: she must watch the watering hole as long as they stayed. It was the Law. She laid down a short distance away, where the sun could not beat too hard upon her back, and prepared for a lengthy vigil.