|This story is a work in progress.|
From an external vantage point in the rolling hills of the French-Swiss border the mightiest engine of physics experimentation on the planet was hardly visible. The 27-km circle traced out on the surface was merely a marker, a remnant of the construction of the tunnel a hundred meters below. The Large Hadron Collider threaded through that, a pipe jacketed in superconducting magnets that channeled particles pumped up to the highest energy man could yet manage.
About the same energy as a baseball pitch, Reynard Cramer reflected as he swiped his passcard through the reader to summon one of the service elevators. Cramer had been an electrical engineer for many long years and had plenty of experience with high-energy systems. Million-volt main lines at power plants, laser capacitors at the National Ignition Facility with enough stored power to rival dynamite should something go wrong. Yet it never ceased to amuse him how much effort it took to funnel just that seemingly trivial amount down into the small handful of particles circulating through that ring.
The whole process was on hold right now and it was up to him to get it back online. The accelerator was fine, but just getting particles up to speed wasn't the end goal of research here; in order to do an experiment the particles had to smash into a target, the spray of fragments being recorded by detectors arrayed around the impact point. There were seven targets distributed around the circle with seven different detector arrays, each designed to probe a different aspect of the microscopic realm's physics. Most were gigantic behemoths, thousands and thousands of tons of magnets and circuitry. Leave it to the inherent perversity of the universe that the one he was heading down to service was BOLIDE, the smallest of the lot at barely the size of a train locomotive.
His job at CERN was plum, the top of his field. Reynard wished he'd landed it years ago. At the age of forty-nine, his career was now clearly past its peak and on the final run toward retirement. The stereotype of distinguished elderly scientists with long white beards and accumulated wisdom creasing their features was largely a myth; with the rapid pace of change these days physics was a young person's game. Reynard was overweight, beardless and balding, and most of the time when he tried to follow the papers being generated by the researchers here he felt more confused than wise.
But engineering, that he understood. BOLIDE was the newest of the detector arrays, hurriedly added to the LHC's design when new principles and areas of knowledge had popped up during construction. The target suspended in its center was a Bose-Einstein condensate, a tiny knot of ultra-cold matter. Isolation from external perturbations was essential to keep it preserved in that delicate state. Not easy considering the sorts of magnetic fields the rest of the system was tossing wantonly about...
Reynard climbed into one of the small electric service vehicles and set off down the gently curving track toward BOLIDE, his laptop and toolkit stowed on the seat beside him. Something was introducing a 71 Hz oscillation into the target's containment fields. He wasn't sure, but it was probably a misaligned filter in the power system. Should be easy enough to fix if that were the case.
Small though it was compared to the other detectors, BOLIDE hulked in its subterranean chamber, almost completely filling it and leaving only a narrow space beyond the path of the service vehicle's tracks. This was the main reason Reynard didn't like the beast; its hurried design phase and construction had left a lot of cut corners and ragged edges. The other chambers had a lot more room, and were frankly just more impressive to be inside. Reynard grunted as he squeezed through to the nearest access panel where he could get at the power system's readouts.
He got in place and pulled out his radio. "I'm at the detector, what's the stats?"
"1746 électroaimants supraconducteurs, dont 1232 aimant dipolaires de courbure sont répartis autour des deux anneaux accélérateurs lovés l'un dans l'autre." Reynard sighed. The interference from the electrical systems and the thick layers of earth made communication hard enough as it was, but even though he'd been living on site for over a year now he'd made little headway in learning the local language. Yet since his name was of French origin, most people assumed he had native fluency.
"Well, keep the beam out of the chamber. I'm on this."
Reynard got to work. He was able to detect the 71 Hz signal just fine, it was indeed in the power system, but the trick was figuring out which feeder was the problem one. He had to deactivate them one at a time to check. The system could remain running okay with one feeder down, but more than that and he'd lose the condensate that had been established. With the system currently primed for a shot he'd rather not do that; they'd have to power everything down and start from scratch again the next day. The hotshot physicists who'd designed today's run and probably spent the past few months of their lives working on getting grant approval for it would not be happy.
Fortunately he found the problem quite quickly. A filter on feeder line seventeen was wonky, just as he'd expected. He turned off the feeder and pulled out the radio. "I've got it, I'll see if I can get this to work without having to dig for spares."
"Doté d'un canon court et d'un barillet de 5 coups seulement."
Reynard sighed again, the signal even more distorted. That makes two signals now... He pulsed the power through the feeder, trying to reset the filter. It didn't fix it, though the frequency increased it to 76 Hz. Whatever that meant. The spurious signal was causing the condensate to oscillate inside its chamber in the bore of the accelerator, though, and it was supposed to be held rock-solid in the middle of the beam.
He dreaded having to physically pull modules out while any part of the system was still hot so he spent a few more minutes tinkering with settings in an attempt to clear the area. Something started buzzing in the tunnel outside. Clear the area... It took a few more minutes for the thought to work its way through Reynard's concentration. Oh shit!
The boys in the control room must have been having as much trouble with the radio as he was. When he'd turned off the feeder and the oscillation had temporarily stopped, they'd thought he'd fixed the problem. They were gearing up for a beam shot.
Reynard grabbed for his radio while scrambling to squeeze back out of the narrow passage. Idiots! Check your screens, I turned the faulty feeder back on! "Arret! Arret!"
But evidently nobody was listening at the other end at that moment, or perhaps they were just too slow. Indicator lights on the accelerator tube flickered just as he got out from behind BOLIDE's bulk, signaling the arrival of the packet of high-speed particles. They slammed into the oscillating condensate deep inside its core and Reynard winced. Even though the screwup was harmless, it meant a wasted day for sure now.
It should have been harmless, at any rate. Reynard caught his breath in surprise and cringed when, a moment later, a blue nimbus crackled over the surface of BOLIDE. Thank god I got out from there...
He had just enough time for that thought before the world exploded in a brilliant flare of light around him and then both the world and his thoughts plunged into darkness.
Reynard groaned, then coughed. The air was laden with dust and he was lying on his back on hard concrete.
It was still dark, there wasn't even emergency lighting. What had happened? BOLIDE exploded. But that didn't make any sense... I'm lying here, aren't I?
Don't panic. Don't move. I could be hurt. Reynard closed his eyes and breathed through his nose, hoping the dust would settle quickly, and tried to think things through calmly. He didn't smell smoke, just powdered concrete or rock, so that was good. He didn't hear any creaking of the roof about to cave in. There was a distant sound of wind... No immediate concern.
He felt no pain. But he did feel very strange. He lifted his hand, clenching it in the darkness and feeling the grit on his palm. The other hand performed likewise. Okay, that works. Now legs... woah. They flexed, but they didn't flex quite right. His knees didn't straighten easily, his feet felt strangely heavy and his ankles stiff. But again, there didn't seem to be anything injured. There was no debris lying on him.
"Hello?" Reynard called out, his voice pitched high and tight with more fear than he'd realized. Okay, shit, calm down. So BOLIDE exploded. They'll send help for sure.
The dust was indeed settling, enough for Reynard to take some deep breaths. That didn't feel right either. There was a sense of weight on his chest but not nearly enough on his stomach. He moved his hands to his midsection and stifled an alarmed gasp.
I'm thin. What the hell? His fingers found other strangenesses - his shirt seemed to disintegrate at his touch, the fabric turned into a loose mat of fibers somehow, and beneath it was a layer of short, dense hair. But that all seemed like trivial details. His abdomen was slim and firm, the spare tire he'd been carrying gone without a trace.
I have a concussion. That made sense, explaining away all of the other things that didn't in one fell swoop. I must have hit the back of my head when I fell and now my brain's swelling and my body image is screwed up. Reynard sighed and tried to relax again, holding still while he tried to remember what to do about that. Stay awake. Get medical help. "Hey, help! Where is everybody! I'm hurt, damn it!"
Reynard coughed again, unable to get his voice back down into its regular register. Minutes passed. The elevator was nearby, why wasn't anyone coming? Maybe help isn't coming after all? Maybe...
It was quite frustrating. He didn't feel like his thoughts were addled, but at the same time he knew that the situation he was in didn't make any sense. He couldn't trust himself to figure it out. "Damn it," he murmured more softly. "I need to get out of this hole."
He was pretty sure at this point that he didn't have a spinal injury, and he didn't think that moving his head was likely to worsen any brain injury that might be going on in there, so Reynard carefully rolled over and tried to get to his feet. It was an exercise in disorientation. His legs seemed proportionally shorter than they should have been, his feet bigger and clumsier as if he was wearing clown shoes. His body was inexplicably light but a heavy mass weighed the front of his torso down. He managed to get onto his hands and knees and then paused for a moment to pat himself down.
His shirt was sloughing off like shredded kleenex so he brushed it away. The pelt of short hairs clung more tightly and wouldn't budge. But even that was secondary in Reynard's mind right now as he gingerly hefted and squeezed the breasts suspended on his chest. He didn't believe it, couldn't believe it. What kind of physics experiment gone awry could give a guy breasts?
The next logical question came to mind, and he slid his hand down his fuzzy belly to check between his legs. A tentative touch at first, then a more frantic grope with a bewildered whimper. There was just a pair of fleshy lips down there among the surprisingly thick and curly hairs, fitting in perfectly with the breasts and leaving nowhere for anything else to hide. It seemed hard to ignore the evidence that he'd somehow been turned into a woman.
A very hairy woman with deformed legs. He had been lying next to the wall so he propped himself up against it as he rose unsteadily to his feet. He felt hopelessly awkward at first, his proportions below his waist all thrown out of whack and his tendons pulling in unfamiliar ways. But then he let his posture adjust naturally and he rose up onto his toes, a strangely comfortable pose.
His pants and shoes had fallen apart along with his shirt and he could feel a much thicker, woollier coat of hair down there than what covered his arms and torso. His bare toes felt numb, not at all uncomfortable from bearing his full weight on the hard concrete, and he gave one foot a ginger tap on the floor. There was a solid clacking sound. Hooves, of course, he thought giddily. A physics experiment that gave him breasts and hooves.
"Will someone please get me out of here!" The shriek echoed through the tunnel, making him cringe and flick his ears at his own desperate high-pitched voice. Flicked my ears... He reluctantly explored further. He had long, pointed, furry ears sticking out from the sides of his head, a scalp full of hair longer and thicker than he'd had even in his youth, and strangest of all a pair of huge curved horns were anchored in his skull. To his immense relief his face still felt human. Though fuzzy and with a broad, flattened nose...
"Get out of here," he reminded himself weakly. Yes, let's do that. Unlike everything else that had happened to him, this was a problem he could deal with.
Reynard groped his way along the wall, the silence broken only by the soft clack of hooves and the distant moan of wind. There should be sirens, it occurred to him. Considering how catastrophic this accident had been, to cut off all power and even kill the emergency lighting, he should have been able to hear them even here. Unless some sort of EMP had fried everything, even on the surface? That didn't make sense.
The concrete wall was rough, the floor uneven. And it was sloping upward. That didn't make sense either, the tunnel curved in a giant circle but should have been level. What could twist it without collapsing it outright? Nothing he could do anything about right now, so he continued onward. Soon he was heartened by the glimmer of light ahead.
The tunnel emerged into sunlight, so blindingly bright after the darkness he'd been stumbling through that Reynard had to screw his eyes shut again for a minute to let them readjust. There was only the wind whistling in his enormous ears, the sound of sand whispering across the ground, the distant cry of what could have been an eagle... it was so vivid that, the irrationality of it all aside, Reynard was hardly surprised when he was finally able to open his eyes and look at the landscape outside.
He wasn't in the Alps any more. There were mountains on the horizon but they were low, rounded knobs rather than the snow-capped crags he was used to. Smaller outcrops of orange rock dotted the savanna between here and there, carved by centuries of wind, and the rolling grasslands were interspersed with patches of barren soil and the occasional small gnarled gray-barked tree.
Reynard's new legs felt weak. He sank down to sit on the edge of a low boulder at the mouth of the cave, so numb and bewildered that he barely noticed when he pinched his stubby tail under his weight.
There were so many impossible things going on that the fact that he'd developed a tail hardly seemed worthy of note right now.
"Okay," Reynard announced to himself - as far as he could tell he was completely alone right now - "so here's the score. One," he crouched down and scratched a line in the sandy soil with a fingertip, "I'm a girl." His voice caught slightly but he kept it level; he'd never live it down if he lost it on just the first bullet point of his presentation.
"Two, I'm a goat-girl. Or maybe a sheep-girl." He shook his head. The fur covering his body was a muted sepia shade of dark brown, not any color he'd ever associated with sheep before. "A satyr, maybe, assuming there's such a thing as a female satyr." He tugged on one of his horns and sighed. They were big and curved like a ram's horns, but there was no questioning his gender.
"Three, I'm not in Kansas any more." A strained chuckle. "Well, Kansas is actually closer to this than France or Switzerland. Maybe I'm back in Arizona."
"Four..." Reynard paused, examining the fourth line he'd drawn in the sand. He actually hadn't thought this far ahead when he'd finally dragged himself out of his daze and decided to get things straight. "I'm not injured," he concluded. "No bumps to the head. Hell, I feel great. For a goat-girl."
He sighed and stood back up, flexing his strange legs. His chest bounced, his gut didn't. He stomped his hoof. "I must be young again, somehow. What a trade-off. Ask me again later if it's worth it."
A long pause, and then he continued without answering. "Five. I've got no clothes, no tools, and no one to help me. Well, maybe I have tools, back in the tunnel. But I'm not sure what good they'll be, and I don't want to go bumbling around back in the dark if I can help it." He looked around at the wasteland he was stranded in. "Six, I have no idea where the nearest help is, or how long it'll take to get here. Seven, I'm already talking to myself."
Would it help if I reminded myself that that's the least worrisome symptom of insanity I've got to deal with right now? Reynard shook his head, ears twitching and suppressing an inappropriate grin. No, I guess not.
So what do I do? He could last days without food, even without the fat reserves he'd spent his life accumulating. Water would be more of a problem; this arid landscape made him thirsty just thinking about it. But he'd grown up part of his childhood in Phoenix, and who didn't spend a lazy weekend or two pondering desert survivalism in a place like that?
Reynard hadn't ventured out from the security of the tunnel mouth yet, but he could nevertheless see a number of clusters of prickly pear cacti within easy reach. He could cut them open and subsist on the juices they'd stored... if I had a knife, he sighed. Basics. I need basics.
This was not the sort of problem he'd been expecting to have to solve when he went down that elevator shaft scant hours ago.
"Wait, hours?" Reynard squinted up at the Sun, then switched to the more practical method of judging its elevation by looking down at the angle of the shadows it cast. "It's almost overhead. It was just three o'clock at CERN, and I wasn't out cold for long or the dust in the tunnel would have settled before I woke up. This can't be anywhere in North America. A desert just a little bit east of CERN's longitude... Africa? Swell." On the one hand, that made getting help far less easy; Reynard knew little about Africa. On the other hand, making a useful logical deduction like that made Reynard feel somewhat more confident in his own abilities. He found himself smiling.
Wipe that grin off your face. You've got a lot left to figure out yet, and it's not even your face. Reynard sighed at his own spoilsport attitude, but grudgingly accepted it. It didn't matter where he was right now. If rescue came, it came. He just had to survive until then.
And as for figuring out what exactly had happened to bring him to this situation in the first place... I may not be up on the very latest in particle physics. Quantum teleportation, sure, maybe I can buy that. But why am I a goat-girl? Better to focus on the more immediate questions, the ones he both stood some chance of solving and the ones that he had to solve.
Learning to walk without a wall for support was one such problem. Reynard killed two birds with one stone by taking a short journey around the rock outcropping the cave was under, getting a full view of the surrounding terrain in the process. There weren't many distinguishing features aside from the distant mountains, he didn't even know yet which direction was north. By the time he got back to the cave mouth he wasn't quite so wobbly on his hooves any more. It was a small accomplishment but he'd take what he could get. And I suppose if I have to walk around here barefoot, having hooves is not so bad...
Tools. He needed to see what was left down in the tunnel, but without a light source he dreaded going back down there. Perhaps if he could make a torch... Need tools for that too. And wood, and rags, and pitch. Or equivalent. Good luck with that. So, lacking any other option, he headed back down into the pitch blackness to feel his way around.
The concrete walls had lost their smoothness and uniformity, but not via conventional damage - the floor was covered in dirt, not debris. If Reynard hadn't known what the place was supposed to be he'd have taken it for a natural cavern. Reynard found the service vehicle parked about where he remembered leaving it. He wouldn't have recognized it otherwise; instead of the smooth metal surface of the machine his fingers found an enormous heap of crumbly powder. From the scent he guessed it was rust. Reynard winced as his hand brushed one of the tires, now just a pool of tar.
There were probably toxic chemicals from the battery in that pile so he quickly moved on. The chamber that had contained BOLIDE was next, and progress beyond was blocked by the sagging heap of what had once been that great engine of physics; now collapsed on its crumbled supports, probably completely oxidized as well. He pawed through it for a few minutes in a vain search for his toolkit, but decided that even if he found it it was probably ruined too. He picked up a piece of debris and returned to the surface to examine it in the sunlight.
It was like everything had been returned to some sort of unfinished state. His clothing had become a pile of unwoven fibers, the tunnel had become a rough cave, the machinery inside had been reduced to ores. The piece of BOLIDE he'd brought with him was now fine green malachite, apparently a fragment of the thousands of tons of magnet but unblemished by any visible flecks of metallic copper. "So why the hell am I a goat-girl?" Every time something started to make a little sense, that one question came back and threw it all back into confusion.
Could have been worse. Could have turned me into compost. Would've made sense... Instead he'd been made young and fit, he'd even got back a molar he'd lost years ago. So yes, he decided, it could have been worse. And now at least he knew what he had to work with.
He would have to make everything he needed from scratch. He wished he'd spent more than just one year in the Boy Scouts.
The rest of Reynard's first day was not very productive. He was reluctant to venture far from the cave, and didn't see any particularly favorable directions to try in any event, so his resources were very limited. The rock of the outcropping was something sedimentary; flaky, crumbly, and not very useful for forming tools. There were a few scrawny woody shrubs that resembled sage but weren't quite the same, a few thickets of low-lying cacti, and as much dry grass as he could pick. He'd tried twining together the raw fiber from his clothing into usable string but hadn't had much success.
At least he'd guessed right about the moisture content of the cacti. Peeling one open had been quite tricky without anything sharp and he'd punctured his fingertips quite a bit trying to deal with the needles, but he got enough palatable juice out of the deal to make up for it. He wouldn't die of thirst in the immediate future, though the taste was quite bitter.
The Sun set in the direction of the mountains, so that way was west. Reynard marked the direction with a line of rocks for future reference. He'd be able to figure out his latitude soon enough once Polaris became visible, and from there he could start making guesses about exactly where in Africa he was.
The sky reddened and darkened as night fell.
The air had been almost oven-like at the height of the day but now a chill rapidly descended. Reynard found himself actually thankful for his strange coat of fur; it had probably saved him from sunburn during the day and now it served to take the worst of the bite out of the cold. His shaggy legs were just fine, though the thinner fur on his upper body let enough through to trigger a shiver.
His shiver wasn't just from the cold. The chorus of insect noises changed character, the day shift quieting down as the nocturnal creatures roused themselves; off in the distance Reynard heard what he guessed to be coyotes howling. He'd settled into a nook at the mouth of the cave to rest, cloven-hoofed feet pulled in protectively and the most weapon-like rock he'd found close at hand, but he felt far from secure. Wish I had a fire. He kicked himself for putting off thinking about lighting one, even though he knew that he didn't have enough fuel available to keep it burning through the night anyway.
He'd survive. Coyotes didn't bother bigger creatures like him, and he wouldn't freeze to death with this fur. Tomorrow morning he'd be rescued, he assured himself, and all this would be explained.
The stars were coming out. Reynard allowed himself to admire their beauty; even the relatively remote CERN was normally too flooded with light pollution for the full display to be visible like this. Need to find Polaris before I sleep... Reynard frowned. The constellations were unfamiliar. Was he all the way into the southern hemisphere? He didn't know the constellations down there.
A crescent moon was rising. That would settle it for sure; he remembered an old mnemonic about which side was "up" in which hemisphere. It was just a matter of figuring out if the Man in the Moon was on his head...
There was no Man in that moon. Reynard shook his head, yet another impossibility being added to the pile. The mottled pattern on that moon's disc was not the same as Earth's moon. He was sure of it; there was a reddish streak on it that was as obvious as it was unfamiliar.
Far off in the distance a whistling cry rose up and the coyotes fell silent. It was strangely melodic, almost pleasant, but it wasn't any animal call that Reynard had been familiar with from Earth life. "I suppose I should have guessed sooner," he whispered to himself. "There isn't any life like me on Earth either..."
The accident had sent him farther away than Arizona or Africa. Rescue would probably not be coming the next morning, or any time that Reynard could hazard to guess. For the first time the true depth of his solitude struck him and Reynard stifled a quiet sob. No matter how impossible his situation seemed he was going to have to deal with it entirely on his own.
Reynard actually did manage to catch a little sleep during the night despite the chill of the air and the fearful strangeness of his situation. Waking up and finding himself still in it was a bit of a shock, but after he took a few minutes to regain his bearings - yeah, still a female satyr - he climbed groggily to his hooves and clopped over to the cave entrance to meet the dawn.
The red light of sunrise tinted the rock and soil of the savanna a deeper shade of orange. Reynard snorted and sat down on a small boulder to think about what to do next, trying not to be distracted by the restless flicking of his ears and tail.
The cave seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It fit relatively smoothly with the landscape, the walls having been changed from concrete into the native sandstone and reshaped to look naturally carved, but there weren't any traces of other caves visible nearby and there certainly wasn't any sign of flowing water. And there were only so many usable cacti in the vicinity to sustain him... "I'm going to need to get moving," Reynard concluded reluctantly. Southward looked most promising; the sparse dotting of trees seemed denser in that direction. Logically, he should set off that way before his reserves became depleted.
But he didn't want to leave the remains of BOLIDE behind, wrecked and useless though it may be. If there was any hope of rescue whatsoever it seemed likely that this would be the place it would happen; it was the only spot where he knew for certain that travel from Earth to wherever he was had occurred. But there was certainly nothing that he could do to effect it by himself, and since the Large Hadron Collider had just had a big bite taken out of it it would be a while before anyone on Earth could try any similar experiments.
Assuming anyone over there had any idea what had happened or what to do. "I have no idea what's happened to me." No idea other than what I can see with my own eyes, that is. Assuming I believe them. Reynard's hand slipping down to his hairy crotch but he quickly pulled it away and hooked his fingers over the tip of one of his horns instead. "Let's limit the number of impossible things I believe before breakfast, okay?" He nodded to himself and gave a strained chuckle.
Breakfast. Reynard was getting hungry, though not as hungry as he would have expected - the small amount of cactus flesh he'd eaten yesterday for the moisture must have been reasonable fare. Good to know, he'd grab some more before he left. But before then...
Reynard didn't have any good writing implements but the cave wall was soft enough that he could scrape lines in it reasonably well with a pointy rock. He carved crude letters; 'REYNARD CRAMER 30/05/06 FROM EARTH'. After some thought, he added under that; 'BECAME F/SATYR ON ARRIVAL'. It was unlikely that anyone would figure out what that meant without further clues, but his space was limited and he assumed that if anyone were to follow him they'd learn more than just this.
'NO WATER HERE, GOING SOUTH'. That was in case anyone who came through would actively go out in search of him. There was room for one more line and Reynard spent a few minutes pondering what to write. Nothing profound came to mind and so ultimately he just left the pointed rock on the ground in front of the wall. Maybe the next guy will need to add more.
There wasn't much packing to do. Reynard rolled up the frazzled fibers from his old clothing into a ball, figuring he could perhaps make string out of it or if all else failed use it as tinder, and stuffed the piece of BOLIDE's magnet he'd retrieved into it. It didn't seem right to not bring at least some token of it along with him. Tucking the bundle under his arm, Reynard set out to the south.
Morning seemed to be a good time of day to travel. The cold of night dissipated quickly but hadn't yet been replaced with the furnace heat of midday, there didn't seem to be any large predators about, and there was ample light to see where he could place his feet. The sandy soil was tight-packed and his hooves handled the surface well; he made good time.
The cave from CERN soon vanished into the distance behind him. He stopped at the next outcrop, just a small pile of boulders on a low hillock, and hammered a crude arrow into the surface of the rock to make sure he wouldn't lose the trail. He had no idea if he'd be coming back this way but there was no point in burning bridges unnecessarily. Every few miles would probably suffice. He hoped.
Morning started to edge toward noon, the furnace creeping slowly back across the landscape. Reynard was amazed by his own fitness, he'd been walking for hours without a hint of fatigue in his strange goat legs, but now he was starting to pant from the heat. He knew he couldn't afford the moisture loss, not without some guarantee of being able to replenish it; the trees were still extremely sparse and the cacti were a literal pain to harvest.
A splintered crag of rock off to the southwest offered the shelter of shade and he made his way there. The outcropping was as old and worn as the others but appeared to have split in relatively recent geologic history, leaving an overhang with just enough headroom for a person to relax in for a while. Or a satyr. Reynard approached cautiously, ears flicking nervously as he checked for any other large animals that might be lurking in the welcoming shadows, then crept out of the scraggly sagebrush when it became apparent he was alone. He sat down on a well-worn rock, set aside his modest bundle of raw materials, and patted dust from his shaggy leg-fur with a sigh.
If there are aboriginals around, this would make a good camp... The thought had crossed Reynard's mind a few times already but this was the first place he'd come to that might have been expected to hold any traces of evidence. There were no obvious markings on the rocks, but the soil did seem unusually gray here and there were a few bits of wood mixed in that looked like they might have been charred. Firepit? If so, the place wasn't very frequently or recently used. There wasn't any soot on the overhang's surface. The soil seemed pretty well churned up, though, so perhaps something had obliterated the traces. Hard to say.
It had been about twenty-four hours now, Reynard reflected as he eyed the angle of the shadows on the ground. He was starting to accept that what had happened, had happened. This was all too real and too long-running to be a psychotic episode. Leaning against the cool stone behind him, careful not to knock his horns against it, he rubbed the back of his neck and sighed.
A quiet hiss echoed his sigh from somewhere nearby. Reynard froze. Was that wind? There was definitely a strong breeze blowing through the desert that day, he'd been caught in the occasional gust of dust while walking, but this had seemed a little too sudden and close by to be sand slithering through the rocks. Maybe something else slithering through the rocks. Reynard picked up his bundle and slowly rose to his hooves again.
There was the sound of something moving in the outcrop overhead, the faint scratching of claw on stone. Reynard's heart was pounding. He had no weapons, there wasn't even a rock nearby... there. He spotted a branch lying half-buried in the dust that looked like a suitable club, a short distance out from the nook he was sheltering in. Should I? He was defenceless where he was, and while the thing in the rocks might not know that right now that didn't guarantee it would keep at bay forever. Staying here would make his shelter into a trap.
Reynard had not yet tried running in his new legs but found that with fear at his heels he picked up the knack quick enough - if anything it was the slight bounce of his breasts that threw him off rather than his altered gait. He didn't have time or the presence of mind to think about it, though. Something leaped down off of the rock onto the sand behind him, he heard the weight of the landing and knew it was at least as big as he was. It emitted a piercingly shrill whistle as Reynard frantically seized the branch and ripped it from the ground, spinning to face whatever nightmare was pursuing him.
He turned just in time to glimpse it scampering back into the deep shadow of the outcrop's cleft, a limber long-limbed quadruped with black skin and a thin lizardlike tail tipped in russet brown. Reynard was left brandishing the branch and panting somewhere between terror and triumph. Had he scared it off? What was it?
Just when he started edging toward triumph, the creature poked its head back up to peer out of the shadow at him. Its face was eerily humanoid, somewhat like a monkey, but its head was crowned with a strange bony-looking crest and its red eyes were large and luminous with reflected sunlight. It squinted, baring predatory fangs, and gave a whistling chitter. Another pair of luminous eyes appeared deeper in the darkness behind it. There were more of these things.
Reynard stepped slowly and carefully back, keeping the branch raised, suddenly unsteady on his hooves. This was the first identifiably alien animal he had ever seen. Aside from myself, of course, he thought giddily. Some sort of rock monkey things. Why aren't they attacking? If I've stumbled on a bloody pack of these things... He glanced up in sudden insight, momentarily dazzling himself with the brilliance of the desert sun. "Nocturnal, eh? Thank god." The creatures were crouched down in the darkest, coolest nook that was likely to be found within miles of here, and of course he'd gone bumbling right into it. Thank goodness there had been that lesser alcove to draw him away from the main den!
Once he'd established to his satisfaction that they weren't going to brave the light of day coming out after him in the open, Reynard resumed his journey southward with a new sense of urgency. There were dangers out here beyond simple dehydration. He had been lucky twice now - the first night when he'd stayed in the cave without even knowing about these things, and just now - but now he needed to find a place to camp that was a little more secure.
At least he seemed to have picked the right direction. As the miles and hours passed the density of the sage-like plants and dry tufts of grass steadily increased, the land sloping downward slightly toward what seemed like it might be a drainage gully. Just the place to find water. There were clusters of trees visible in the distance that almost warranted the term 'grove'. But despite the boost in fitness his transformation had given him, he was starting to tire; robbed of a midday rest by those shadow-dwelling beasts he'd had to keep moving through the heat of day and it was starting to get to him. The light clop of hooves became a shuffle and he dragged the crude club along behind him more as a totem against danger now than as a usable weapon.
A shallow depression dead ahead was filled with a cluster of scraggly trees, and perhaps more importantly rimmed with a field of prickly pear; Reynard picked up his pace and panted more eagerly at the thought of the bitter liquid refreshment he could squeeze from them. Maybe if he was lucky there might even be a spring of real water in there...
Luck wasn't entirely with him, the patch of cracked, dry mud in the center of the ring of trees indicated open water was seasonal here at best. But the shade of the trees apparently wasn't sufficient to shelter those rock monkey things during the daytime, so Reynard was at last able to take the time to rest and carefully peel the cacti for their moisture with minimal finger-pricking. It wasn't much of a meal but once again his needs were met, enough to keep him alive and kicking for another day.
If he survived the night. Reynard sat on the rim of the dry waterhole pondering what he should do to prepare. Those things looked pretty agile. I bet they can climb trees. Probably better than I can, he sighed, lightly stomping a hoof on the hard-baked mud. His cloven hooves were great for bearing the rough ground, but he was beginning to sorely miss his old toes... among other extremities. "Worry about not being eaten first," he reminded himself firmly.
Nodding and flicking his ears nervously at the thought, he glanced around to take stock of his situation. It wasn't evening yet, but the afternoon was wearing on. He couldn't count on finding a better place; he'd have to make camp here. There were plenty of branches from which to select a better club, and scattered around the edges of the waterhole were a number of small rocks that could be useful. But his most important defence would probably be the single great invention that had separated man from animal - and hopefully would separate satyr from animal now, too. Reynard would have to make a fire.
The principles were easy and obvious. He just hoped he'd be able to put them into practice in the next few hours...
His fingers were already sore enough from dealing with the prickly pear spines, Reynard's efforts at fire starting were pushing his pain threshold to the limit. The traditional bow drill approach didn't work out; he wasn't able to make adequate string from the fibers he had available and there weren't a lot of springy branches available from the half-dead trees. He'd had to resort to rolling the drill stick back and forth between the palms of his hands. His new skin was tough and his muscles strong, but by the time he had managed to generate a smoldering ember he felt like his arms were ready to drop off.
Fortunately he had ample tinder. The wadded grass caught with a tiny, intermittent flame at first, and Reynard had to carefully add just the right amount at just the right rate - too much would smother, too little and the ember would die. But his methodical engineer's mindset served him well and soon he'd built the little flame up to the point where it was consuming twigs. Reynard sighed in relief and sat back on his haunches, light-headed from all the blowing he'd done to nurture it this far and also from no small amount of relief.
The sun was getting low and night fell quickly in this desert. He would have likely not had time to try something else if this approach had gone badly wrong.
He'd gathered up a large pile of wood before getting started, so Reynard was able to get the fire up to the level of a respectable campfire in short order. He took a few minutes to relax. The wood was dry but resinous, the scent of its smoke quite pungent in his broad nostrils, but it was a welcome smell. The smell of civilization.
A distant whistling cry came out of the deepening twilight and Reynard flicked his ears, nervous again. Just in the nick of time. Those rock-monkey things could have decided to track him down; it had only been a few hours' walk and he had no idea how fast those things could go on open ground. As tired as he was, he had to prepare.
The tip of the strongest, straightest branch he could find went into the fire. It would make for a poor spear but it was the best he could manage; he had no other way to sharpen anything right now. Shorter, stouter branches were set aside as both fuel for the fire and as bludgeons. There were a few good-sized rocks around but he had no way to fasten them to a handle to improve their clubbing potential so they'd have to serve as thrown weapons.
Reynard pulled out one of his primitive spears and started rubbing the char off the top with the biggest rock, doing his best to make it pointy. "This is pitiful," he murmured to himself. "I've got a PhD in electrical engineering and in physics. If I just had some tools..."
He snorted. Considering what had happened to everything he'd brought with him, perhaps tools weren't even possible in this world. There was no way to tell right now and no point in pondering it. Less than an hour after nightfall, with the glow of sunset still lingering over the western mountains, the creatures from the rock outcropping arrived.
Reynard was alert, his enhanced senses picking up the sound of their clawed feet even before he caught the reflection of the firelight in their eyes. The creatures evidently recognized his awareness of them immediately, as they ceased all pretense toward stealth and exchanged a warbling whistle. Reynard counted two... no, three. One was smaller than the other two. He allowed himself a small measure of relief; he'd had no idea how big a pack he might be confronting. Three seemed like it might be manageable.
One of the creatures skulked up to the edge of the barren water hole and raised up on its haunches to peer over the dry vegetation that formed a modest barrier around the rim. It was harder to make out details in the flickering firelight than it had been in the brief glimpse he'd got back when he first encountered them, but this time at least he had more time. "Rock monkey" wasn't quite so accurate now that the thing was down on flatter terrain, but the limbs certainly didn't look like those of a wolf or a cheetah and they had long fingers and toes. It was a quadruped but not completely optimized for that role. You're a Shadowcrawler, Reynard decided. Somehow the scary-sounding name was reassuring, a definite label with which he could classify this thing.
The Shadowcrawler let out a series of sharp, barking chitters, the whiteness of its teeth flashing out against the black of its skin. The other two Shadowcrawlers were prowling out to the sides, presumably searching for a good direction to lunge from. Reynard figured it would be best not to let them have free reign in planning their assault. Keeping his spear clutched tightly in one hand and his senses alertly focused on the creatures moving to surround him, Reynard crouched to scoop up one of the rocks. Bracing for a counterattack, he hurled it at the Shadowcrawler that was still raised up on its haunches.
He missed. The rock whizzed past the Shadowcrawler and crunched into the sagebrush somewhere behind it, nowhere near the creature's head. But although Reynard's heart sank he staved off the worst of the disappointment. The Shadowcrawler flinched from the projectile, dropping back down to all fours and twirling in the underbrush to look at where the rock had landed. Reynard crouched to pick up another. These creatures were being quite cautious; the other two had jumped back at his movement rather than lunging to the attack, a heartening sign.
But they weren't intimidated yet. The larger of the other two Shadowcrawlers, apparently deciding to test Reynard's mettle, crept forward onto the open hardscrabble. Its eyes were almost closed, squinting against the brightness of the campfire. Reynard gave silent thanks to his ancestors for its invention and let fly with the second stone. This one hit, glancing off of the Shadowcrawler's back with a surprisingly loud clack - it seemed the creatures had some sort of armor plating there. It was enough to startle the second one off too, though, and for the moment the Shadowcrawlers retreated.
The standoff was still very tentative. Reynard found that he was panting despite the pleasant coolness of the night and tried to calm himself by adding a few more branches to the fire. It was crackling merrily now, the light stretching out to cast skeletal shadows from the surrounding grove of trees.
"I'm not going to die here," Reynard growled under his breath. The Shadowcrawlers chirruped back. It was annoying how such menacing creatures made such inoffensive-sounding vocalizations.
After a brief regrouping in the darkness, the two larger Shadowcrawlers came prowling back toward Reynard's camp side-by-side. Reynard tightened his grip on the spear, gritting his teeth. "Why couldn't I be a predator too?" He mumbled plaintively. "These stupid horns are decorative at best... Yah!" Reynard let out a frightened bleat as one of the Shadowcrawlers darted forward. He stabbed at it with his spear, but the tip deflected down off the Shadowcrawler's chest and broke against the ground. He jumped back just barely ahead of the grasping swipe of claws, dancing perilously close to the edge of the fire. "Cra-ah-ah-ap!"
But the Shadowcrawler didn't take advantage of Reynard's precarious situation, pausing once again to rise up on its haunches and peer at him through tightly squinted eyelids. In hindsight Reynard would have liked to have claimed that he recognized how much trouble the firelight was giving this thing, but really he just grabbed the nearest vaguely weapon-like object he could get his hands on to replace his broken spear; he yanked one of the burning branches out of the fire and held it out in front of him.
As a torch it wasn't much, but apparently having the hated fire suddenly move closer even in that weak form was enough to spook the Shadowcrawler that had lunged for him. It hopped back, chittering in displeasure, and the one that hadn't tried lunging yet crouched down in a defensive pose.
Reynard seized upon this slight reversal in desperation. "Back! Scat!" He advanced, waving the glowing brand and stomping his hooves vigorously. The Shadowcrawlers really didn't like that, turning and scampering back into the underbrush. "Hah! Fire, eat it!" Reynard shouted, almost verging on hysteria, and hurled the branch after them.
It dawned on him a moment later that he really shouldn't have thrown away his only weapon in hand. But before he could panic too badly, the tinder-dry shrubbery he'd thrown the branch into flickered to life with flames of its own. "Oh..."
The vegetation was too sparse in general to sustain a wide-ranging grass fire, but perhaps for that very reason a lot of fuel had piled up around this dry water hole. Reynard soon found himself having to squint too, and the heat became worse than the height of midday as he crouched in the center of the blaze - the expanse of dry mud forming a fireproof "eye" around him that was just large enough to make the fire endurable.
By the time the flames finally died down the Shadowcrawlers were nowhere to be seen; they must have had enough and gone off in search of other prey. Considering that Reynard was at wits end himself, he counted himself extremely lucky. The tips of his hair had gone frizzy, his bundle of string-making material had burned with the rest of the flammables, but he himself was unharmed.
Unharmed, but very sore and tired. Reynard's dark hooves were further blackened by charcoal as he trudged through the leftovers to gather any remaining fuel for his own small fire, still crackling to itself in its isolated pit after the uncontrolled rush of everything else burning away, and then once he'd collected enough to last the night he lay down half-curled beside it.
Somewhere in the distance, the coyotes - or something that sounded very like coyotes - started up their plaintive howling. Reynard couldn't help but smile and relax at the familiarity. If coyotes are feeling safe right now, maybe I can too.
He slept very lightly, waking every hour or two to startle at some nighttime noise and add a few new branches to the fire, but at least he got some rest. In a way it was better than the first night he'd spent in this world; he'd been tested and he had survived.
The next day's dawn revealed the full extent of the mess Reynard had made with last night's fire. The trees had apparently all survived, but the dry grasses and bushy cover around the edges of the dry hole had gone up like flash paper leaving only bare sticks and char behind.
Reynard himself was quite the sight for sore eyes. His body hair was singed in a few places and thoroughly darkened all over with soot. Sleeping on the dusty ground again had certainly not helped things. He was dirty and sore, and very hungry and very thirsty.
Cacti weren't going to cut it as sustenance in the long run, he sighed, but that was still all that was available. One pleasant surprise presented itself; a large patch of prickly pear that had been caught in the blaze last night had had all of its spines burnt to stubs, making it easy to deal with for once. I'll have to remember that trick, Reynard thought to himself as he choked down his morning meal.
He had no way to bring the fire with him, but having got it started once from scratch already Reynard decided he could count on being able to do it again should another campsite with adequate fuel present itself. He gathered up a few of the best drill sticks he could find. Other than that... Reynard sighed. He'd lost the remnants of his clothing, his spear had sucked, and a wooden club wasn't much to be proud of. All he had left was the bright green chunk of malachite he'd taken from the remnants of BOLIDE. All of his worldly possessions could fit in his own two hands.
Probably for the best since that was all he had to carry them with. It was time to go; there was nothing left here.
Reynard resumed walking south, continuing to follow the rolling contour of the land in what seemed like a descending direction. Despite his light load his hooves were starting to drag, the springiness sapping from his goat-like legs.
Where am I going? The question weighed heavily. He certainly wasn't going to stay where he was, between the dry heat and the Shadowcrawlers he wouldn't last much longer there, but the lack of a solid goal certainly didn't help his enthusiasm. All he could do was keep moving and hope for... something.
The Sun crept up toward zenith and Reynard found he couldn't pant to alleviate the heat on account of the dryness of his tongue. He needed to find shade, a safe place to rest. Rock outcroppings were becoming more numerous and dry gullies were starting to become commonplace, but Reynard was wary of such things now. He was moving too slowly to face another Shadowcrawler ambush.
A dark smudge appeared in the shimmering ripples of the horizon ahead. Reynard squinted and angled his shuffling gait in its direction, lacking any other landmark to aim for. There was a speck circling high overhead in the sky, a bird of some sort that emitted an occasional eagle-like cry, and Reynard hoped it was a good sign rather than some local equivalent of a vulture. As the dark smudge grew closer Reynard's spirits started to lift. Maybe it is just an eagle.
The dark smudge was a grove of trees bearing thicker foliage than Reynard had seen yet, a greenish mound poking up over the top of the depression they were growing in. Reynard picked up his pace, trotting along beside a twisting erosion channel that snaked down the orange clay toward it. Shade, and vegetation, and...
Reynard let out a voice-cracking whoop at the reflected glint of sunlight that peeked through the leaves as he topped the last rise. It wasn't much, but there was an actual pool of open water nestled in the sheltered hollow. He barely kept from falling as he staggered down the slope, only skidding to a halt right at the edge when caution once again managed to rise to the surface of his mind.
Were there alligators? Desert piranha? Gourds that spat acid? Reynard tip-toed lightly on his hooves as he made his way through the narrow band of green grass and shrubbery that swaddled the pond. It was little more than a puddle, maybe ten feet by thirty feet and no more than two or three feet deep at its deepest; there didn't seem to be any place for large predators to hide.
It was enough caution to satisfy Reynard. He crouched down at the side of the pond, scooped up double handfuls of water, and drank until he felt bloated. Then he sat back on the grass with a relieved sigh. "Made it," he murmured. "Didn't know this was where I was going, but man am I glad to be here." After all the bad spots he'd stumbled into over the past two days perhaps the fates had simply decided to throw him a break for once.
The grove was very small and the pond seemed to be fed primarily by ground water so there were no inlet or outlet streams. Reynard spotted a couple of small lizards living in the undergrowth, and there were smaller sparrow-like birds flitting about, but he seemed to be the largest animal around by far. Just the way he wanted it.
Now that he'd had a drink of proper water, washing days of bitter cactus juice from his mouth, he turned his attention to his hunger. He needed to find something better to eat than prickly pear. Once he'd had a short rest he climbed back to his hooves and began exploring the grove to see what was available.
"What do I eat, anyway?" Since he hadn't had much in the way of options before he hadn't really considered it, but it occurred to him that not only were all the potential foodstuffs around him of alien biochemistry but his own digestive tract probably was as well. He'd been able to ignore the outward physical differences for the most part, but now he had to ponder the inward ones. "Are goats ruminants? Not a ruminant, I don't think." He rubbed his abdomen, quite sure he hadn't felt the need to regurgitate anything... well, aside from just not liking the taste very much. He probed his teeth with his tongue. "Still pretty human in the dental department. A bit bigger but the same general shape. I guess I'm an omnivore." He hadn't seen any fruit or berries around, and wasn't sure how to go about digging for tubers, so... He focused his attention on one of the small lizards.
Hunting turned out to be harder than he'd imagined. The little lizards were fast, and his only reliable weapon was a club; his aim wasn't good enough with rocks to stand much of a chance of hitting one with something big enough to harm it. But as he crept about in the underbrush trying to spot where the little buggers were hiding Reynard lucked out once again; he disturbed a snake that decided to try scaring him off rather than retreating. A solid whack with his stick killed it without getting close enough to let it sink its no doubt highly venomous fangs into him.
Reynard was at the point where he was feeling a bit light-headed, but wasn't yet anywhere near desperation. He carefully considered his food preparation options. He had nothing even vaguely resembling a knife, and wasn't exactly familiar with how to skin and gut an animal anyway, so he decided to keep it simple. He made himself a small fire - it was as hard on his hands as the first time and his arms were even more tired when he was done, so he resolved to tend this one carefully - and draped the snake over a stick to roast it in the flame.
It was probably the worst-cooked meat he'd ever eaten but under the circumstances he found that he really didn't mind. It was a meal, and it left him satisfied. "Definitely an omnivore," he sighed in contentment.
He had a fire, he'd had food. What next? He'd decided he would camp here for the night, not wanting to abandon the first real source of resources he'd encountered so far and just too tired to seriously consider it, but he was still spooked by the encounter with the Shadowcrawlers the previous night. He'd lucked out in driving them off. How would he fortify his position this time? Despite the relative lushness of the site - or perhaps because of it - there wasn't nearly as much firewood readily available. He set about gathering up what he could, though, just in case a large pyre might be necessary.
It was in the course of that search that he discovered something that briefly took his mind off of Shadowcrawlers altogether. The largest tree in the grove, no more than about twenty feet tall but with a squat, gnarled trunk suggesting many years of age, had a pattern of markings cut deep into its bark on the side facing away from the water. Reynard cleared the brush from the tree's base and spent a long while trying to decipher them. A triangle, three vertical lines, and a V shape. Very simple, too simple to convey any obvious meaning. But more complex and purposeful than any random animal scratching or natural scarring could likely account for. And even more tellingly, a short distance away was a ring of blackened stones that marked the site of an old firepit. Maybe that was why there wasn't so much firewood available here.
Reynard hadn't spent much thought hoping for the possibility of rescue. Once he'd discovered that he wasn't on Earth any more, there was no reason to assume that there was any other intelligent life besides himself on the entire planet. But now there was evidence that there might be others and it set loose a flood of speculation. The mystery of how he'd crossed over to this world and how he'd been given this body were so far beyond him that there was little point pondering it but this was a puzzle he could more easily grasp. Other stranded people, from other worlds, maybe? Or natives? Considering the reaction of the Shadowcrawlers to his fire the previous night it seemed unlikely that they'd be capable of building one. He looked down at his furry legs and touched the tip of one of his horns. Satyrs like me?
The notion put an odd queasy sensation in his gut that had nothing to do with what he'd recently eaten. He wasn't entirely sure he liked the idea and he couldn't put a finger on why. It made no sense, he should be ecstatic at the possibility...
He was naked aside from his soot-and-dust-caked fur, and underneath that he was a female satyr. Under the circumstances of the past two days neither consideration had seemed all that important compared to the matter of basic survival. But now that he had food in his stomach and what seemed like a nice place to camp for the night, he realized that the issue had merely been waiting for his attention. Reynard crossed his arms over his breasts and felt like blushing. There was nothing remotely cloth-like in the oasis. Even if he'd been able to skin the snake he'd eaten it wouldn't have amounted to much and he'd have no idea how to make anything with it anyway, so naked he would have to remain.
Fortunately there were still other more pressing matters to occupy him. He busied himself with other preparations for the night, moving his fire over to the old firepit near the tree and noting various advantages of that location that he wouldn't have thought of himself - shelter from the night wind, shade from the sun, and protection against attack from behind should predators show up. Once that was done, he spent a while trying to hunt for more food. There weren't any other big snakes that he could find and the little lizards had become even more timid, so he didn't have much luck. But it kept him distracted and that was almost as useful.
The Sun was getting low in the sky by now, though, and after two nights of little sleep and two days of travel Reynard was extremely tired. The fire was strong and stable, he had a reasonably good club in hand, the space he'd cleared under the tree had a comfortable nook to curl up in. Despite the weight of his thoughts Reynard soon managed to doze off and had his first really solid sleep since arriving in this new world.
With sleep came dreams. Reynard woke with a start the next morning, not quite remembering what he'd dreamt but somehow alarmed by it. He spent a moment frozen aside from the alert twitching of his ears and nose, taking in his surroundings and recovering his memory of how he'd got in this situation.
The fire had burned down to embers since he'd stoked it last, but it should be easy to bring back up again. The air was still cool but not uncomfortably so. What had awakened him? He stealthily took hold of the cudgel he'd been sleeping with, ears perked as he kept track of the faint scuffling right nearby, and ever so slowly turned his head to look.
He missed the little lizard with his first blow and it scampered away before he could throw a second. Reynard had to laugh; catching those bastards was hard. He'd probably have to find something else for breakfast, or at least wait until he was fully awake before trying again. He put the club to more productive use helping him rise to his hooves, stretching with a groan to loosen his joints. Despite his built-in woolly padding sleeping on the ground was a pain.
Day four. Reynard didn't have any destinations or deadlines in mind so he decided that he'd spend the day honing his meagre survival skills a bit more before considering any further travel. There was sure to be more to eat here than he'd discovered so far. If nothing else, perhaps he could experiment with ways to make prickly pear more palatable...
With that culinary threat hanging over his head to provide motivation, Reynard started his day exploring the little oasis for any resources he might have overlooked the previous day. He found that a type of grasshopper-like insect was quite palatable when lightly roasted, that the roots of some of the species of grass had large nodules that tasted almost like peanuts, and that the lizards had disappointingly little meat on them when he finally did manage to peg one with a thrown rock. It was modest progress but it kept the edge off of his hunger.
One part of the oasis that he hadn't yet explored was the pond itself. He knew he was probably just being paranoid, it was too small to support large predators and there were no bones or other signs of danger around it, but for some reason the water had seemed unsettling somehow. As the Sun crept up to zenith and the desert heat started penetrating even the shade of the trees, though, Reynard decided that there was no better time to overcome his reluctance.
Probing ahead of himself with a stick just to be on the safe side, Reynard stepped into the clear water and started wading in deeper. The mud squeezed up uncomfortably between his cloven hooves but it didn't cling, and the coolness seeping in through the fur was quite welcome. He'd had some vague notion of spear fishing or pulling up water plants in search of something edible but now that he was actually in it Reynard's first priority became simply bathing. Between the soot and dust he'd become quite filthy. Perhaps it was for the best that he didn't seem to sweat any more.
He was ginger with himself at first. He'd resisted the temptation to explore any more of the changes to his body than were strictly necessary, finding it creepy in the extreme, but now... it had been days and there was no sign he'd be changing back into his old body any time soon. And there were other people somewhere on this planet that he'd need to face at some point. He stood in water up to his chest, gently buoying his breasts, and ran his fingers through the thick fur on his hips and thighs. Definitely female, he repeated inwardly as if still not quite believing it. Or not quite wanting to believe it. I still think of myself as a "he". Maybe I should... No, he decided, there was no good reason to start thinking otherwise. He was still Reynard Cramer, no matter what had happened to his plumbing.
Reynard found himself looking down into his reflection and froze, allowing the surface of the water to become still. Shaded by the foliage overhead he was able to make out a surprising number of details. The obvious horns and ears aside, even the more human-like features were completely different. The face was rounded and feminine, the brown fur fading to cream around her nose and mouth and darkening to black around her eyes in a pattern that somehow enhanced the alien attractiveness. And her eyes themselves... Reynard blinked, startled as the details became clearer in the surface. Her eyes were dark brown, the irises filling them entirely without any visible white, and her pupils were horizontal ellipses.
Her eyes? That was him reflected there! Shaking his head to break contact, Reynard took a deep breath and submerged himself fully to rinse out the rest of his hair and clear his mind with the chill of the water.
When Reynard finally emerged from the pond some time later he felt like he'd gained an extra twenty pounds of weight from the water trapped in his woolly fur but looked like he'd lost an equal amount from the way the water flattened it. He dried out quickly once he was in the Sun again, though, the dry desert air drinking it up greedily and fluffing him back out again. Despite everything he felt clean and clear-headed, ready to face this world once again.
Having thoroughly explored the little oasis from top to bottom now, Reynard took inventory of the resources he estimated were here and how long they were likely to last him. He figured he had perhaps three days' worth of food, though it would take a lot of effort to get all of what was available. He figured he could spend that time trying to make tools and weapons for when he had to move on. There wasn't an awful lot to work with here but at this point his needs were pretty basic too.
He spent the rest of the first day trying to make a spear that didn't suck. He still couldn't find anything remotely knife-like to either sharpen the tip or serve as a point, still relying on the fire to do most of the work, but he did find a piece of wood that made for a better shaft than his previous attempt so he considered it progress.
He was glad to have it during the subsequent night, when a pack of coyotes actually came skulking around the pond to drink; they kept their distance but it was good to know that in a pinch he could probably have killed one of them before the others took him down.
The next day he succeeded in spearing one of the lizards with it. It died more from blunt impact than from piercing damage, but nevertheless it gave him further confidence in the spear's basic soundness. He ate the lizard for brunch along with some of the peanut-nodules and then settled down to his next experiment; weaving a basket out of reeds plucked from the water's edge. It was surprisingly challenging, and the first two small baskets he put together turned out so crude as to be effectively useless; they fell apart as soon as he tried loading any objects into them. But he'd want the carrying capacity for supplies when time came for him to move on, so he persevered. The third basket was coming along much better, incorporating many of the lessons he'd learned from the first two.
Sitting in the shade by the water's edge Reynard was so engrossed with his handicraft work that he didn't initially react to the faint bleating call that filtered in from the desert beyond, even though his ears twitched at it. It wasn't until the sound of footsteps reached him that he finally looked up from the half-finished basket in alarm. Something's coming! He scrambled to his hooves and grabbed his spear, retreating from the water's edge to hide behind one of the trees.
An upright, humanoid figure. Someone was coming. Reynard's concealment was poor and wouldn't last for long, but it gave him the opportunity to examine the new arrival in some detail before it noticed him. It was another satyr, sure enough, and seeing one from the outside for the first time like this was unnerving.
This satyr was clearly male. He wore a long, crude cloak made of what appeared to be animal hide, but that was all; his front was completely exposed and Reynard couldn't help but shudder at the size and obviousness of his manhood... or goathood, perhaps was a more accurate description. He sported a furry sheath that matched his lower body better than his upper. His upper body was rather shaggy too, though, and he had a wilder look to him than Reynard did. His curled horns were much thicker, almost like a bighorn sheep's, and his face had a distinctly animalistic cast to it. But he was carrying a spear of his own in one hand, much better crafted than Reynard's own and complete with what appeared to be a stone point lashed to the end, and he had a hide satchel slung from his shoulder. He was clearly sapient.
The satyr paused near the far edge of the pond, looking around and sniffing the air intently before letting out another call. "Neya-a-a!" Reynard's heart skipped a beat; he had no idea what the sound meant but he could tell there was some sort of meaning there.
First contact. Oh god, how the hell am I supposed to handle this? He had no idea how to approach this satyr properly. The last thing he wanted was to wind up killed for violating some custom or territorial boundary he'd be perfectly willing to respect if he'd only known about it. He really wished he knew what those notches in the tree trunk meant now...
The goat-man appeared quite wary himself, sniffing the air suspiciously. Reynard realized that whether the creature could scent him directly or not, the smell of woodsmoke would be obvious and he'd have to know that someone was camped here recently. Then the satyr saw the basket works Reynard had left behind on the shore and he crept over to investigate. "Mwah henna, henna ehn?" He murmured more quietly as he poked at one of them with the haft of his spear.
Reynard had no idea what language the satyr was speaking, of course - it would have made no sense for the natives of this world to speak anything familiar to him from Earth. But still, it was clearly a question or ponderance of some sort. Reynard's heart was hammering with apprehension but he felt he really should take some sort of initiative rather than just hiding behind this tree until he was discovered. Leaning out slightly to peer around the edge of the trunk, he gave an equally quiet reply. "Um, hello. I come in peace."
The satyr looked up sharply and both he and Reynard tensed in alarm, but the tension lasted for only a split second. There was an almost immediate sense of recognition in the other satyr's expression and he relaxed again. "Henna!" His exclamation sounded quite pleased and Reynard cautiously mirrored the male's grin.
"I hope that's a greeting and not an insult or a challenge," Reynard murmured.
The male cocked his head slightly, a bit of confusion mixing into his expression. "Mwah henna se haren eras," he said, glancing around the oasis again. "Eras henna ehn? Eras?"
Reynard gave an apologetic shrug. "I'm sorry, I don't speak... No, no speak." He shook his head and pointed to his mouth.
The satyr's confusion grew, but to Reynard's relief it didn't seem to be translating into aggression. He was evidently still quite wary of some unknown threat lurking somewhere nearby, but also just as evidently pleased to see Reynard. After a few more exchanges of mutually incomprehensible words the satyr began cautiously approaching Reynard's tree and Reynard forced himself to stand his ground. When the other satyr came within arm's reach Reynard finally took a step back to maintain that distance.
The satyr immediately stopped, apparently uncertain about Reynard's reaction. "Henna," he said once more - a word that Reynard very much wanted to know the meaning of at this point - and gave a gesture very much like a respectful bow. Reynard hoped he was interpreting the gesture's intent correctly and on an impulse gave a quick curtsy in return. I can't believe I did that, he berated himself with a nervous chuckle. He was feeling almost light-headed from the tense surreality of the situation.
The satyr gave a startled blink, evidently not understanding Reynard's response, but then with a flick of his ears appeared to dismiss his own confusion. He reached into his satchel and pulled out a short leather thong with what looked like a small bluish-white seashell fastened at the end. He held it to his chest and spoke slowly and clearly; "Miur. Miur." He thumped his chest once to emphasize the word, then held the thong out toward Reynard.
His name? Or the word for seashell? Or for chest? Arg, so confusing! The satyr proffered the thong, clearly offering it to him, and Reynard took it gingerly. Let's go with name, it seems the best bet. His name is Miur. So... Reynard held the thong against his own chest. "Reynard," he announced just as slowly and clearly. "Reynard." He gave his own chest a thump for emphasis, wincing slightly at how it made his breasts bounce.
Miur cocked his head, clearly still puzzled by Reynard's reaction. Reynard tried again, pointing to Miur and saying "Miur," then once again touching his chest and saying "Reynard."
Reynard could almost see the metaphorical gears turning in the satyr's head, and waited in suspense while Miur tried to work it out... and then gave a hopeful grin at the expression of dawning comprehension. "Ren," Miur said, and reached out to place his hand on Reynard's chest. "Ren. Ren, se haren Miur."
Reynard's grin stayed frozen for a moment, along with the rest of his body, and in hindsight it was probably the best startle reaction he could have had to Miur's touch. The satyr certainly didn't seem hostile. He seemed quite friendly, in fact. There was no reason to offend him by flinching away. But then Reynard's surging lightheadedness got the better of him and he staggered slightly, catching himself against the tree. Miur pulled back in alarm, breaking contact, and then seemed to stand in hopeless confusion as to what to do next.
Reynard recovered his equilibrium quickly and gave Miur another grin. "It's okay, I just haven't had much to eat lately." Miur didn't understand the words, of course, but seemed somewhat reassured by Reynard's tone nonetheless.
All in all, Reynard later decided that this first meeting with another satyr went quite well, even though he didn't understand most of what had happened. In a way it was a major relief. Now he had someone else to help him, someone else who could take up part of the burden of trying to figure things out. He wasn't going to have to do everything on his own.
Miur spent a while pacing around the oasis, sniffing and searching for something Reynard couldn't guess. He seemed nervous, and that made Reynard nervous too, but eventually he seemed satisfied with the oasis' safety.
He hadn't brought much with him. Reynard didn't want to pry, but from what he could see Miur's equipment was quite primitive. He had what appeared to be a flint knife or chopper, a bow drill much like Reynard had been hoping to make one day to ease firestarting, a crude waterskin, and some dried... something... that appeared to be travel provisions. It was somewhat disheartening that there didn't seem to be an advanced civilization here. But at least Reynard now knew that the environment here wasn't entirely hostile to his new kind of people.
Miur refreshed his waterskin, and while he was down at the water's edge he pulled up one of the lily-like plants that had been growing there and started chewing on the stem. Reynard watched silently from a short distance away, making mental note of the edibility of that plant. He wouldn't have guessed it just from looking at it.
They didn't talk much at first. Miur seemed to be at a loss regarding Reynard, clearly not understanding what was going on with him, and Reynard was very careful about saying or doing anything to offend Miur. Miur seemed like he was friendly but Reynard had no idea what was going on in the goat-man's head. Limiting himself to observation seemed prudent right now.
But Miur was observing Reynard too and managed to pick up on at least some of the things that he was having trouble with. After spearing one of the elusive lizards when it poked its head out of a small burrow under a gnarled root he pulled the carcass out and waved it in the air. "Ren," he called. "Enufta ohtena. Ren?"
It was the first time Reynard had heard those particular words and so they meant nothing to him, but Miur obviously wanted his attention. Reynard moved in closer and Miur laid the dead lizard the ground between them. "Lizard," Reynard offered, but Miur just flicked his ears and ignored the foreign word; Reynard wasn't sure whether Miur was able to tell that Reynard was using an actual language rather than just making random noises. Instead, Miur crouched down by the burrow and reached inside, groping around for a few seconds before pulling out a handful of small leathery lizard eggs. An all-too-human grin crossed his caprine features. He popped one directly into his mouth and then offered another to Reynard while he chewed.
Reynard was still holding on to the leather thong and seashell in one hand, unsure what to do with the gift, and now he took the egg in the other. This one was easier to figure out, though even after everything he'd been through he still hesitated at the thought of munching on a raw lizard egg. He almost declined it. But the combination of hunger and desire to avoid giving offense overcame that and he tried the egg too. I've eaten a snake already, after all. It was actually quite good.
After that Miur offered him a sharp stone flake from his satchel and gestured at the dead lizard. Reynard guessed immediately what was being suggested and he grinned nervously; he'd never actually tried preparing one of these things before, he'd just roasted stuff until it didn't matter what condition it was in. But this was an excellent opportunity to both learn how to do it and hopefully gain more of Miur's trust.
The two of them wound up sitting together at the fire, Reynard doing his best to properly clean and cook the lizard while Miur spent some time whittling Reynard's spear into better shape for him. Miur seemed quite puzzled by Reynard's lack of skill but didn't interfere with his attempt, even though Reynard messed up the skin in the process of getting it off and had no idea which giblets were preferred eating. He offered the cooked meat to Miur, who accepted one leg but indicated for Reynard to have the rest.
The gestures were simple but effective. The exchange between the two of them established a modest rapport, though necessarily a wordless one, and Reynard stopped keeping such a distance when following Miur around to learn from what he was doing. Miur, for his part, apparently remained puzzled by most of what Reynard did. But even when Reynard did give offense - for example, leaving the seashell-on-a-thong by the campsite was apparently a faux pas - Miur seemed willing to accept Reynard's ignorance and not get upset. Reynard resolved that particular issue by tying the thong around his wrist and Miur's irritation seemed satisfied.
The rest of the day went much like that. Reynard learned a lot of little practical tricks, eating better than he had since arriving, and Miur seemed happy having him around. Reynard didn't learn anything much about Miur and his people, on the other hand. The satyr rarely spoke and used only simple sentences, allowing Reynard to start guessing at a handful of words' meanings but nothing beyond that. He apparently had some notion of what the markings on the tree meant but didn't explain it in any useful way. Was he part of some tribe? A nomad, or just out hunting? An exile? There was far too much that Reynard didn't know yet. Fortunately there didn't seem to be any big rush.
As night began stealing up on the two of them, though, Reynard began feeling a bit awkward. Miur stoked up the fire and began arranging some of the larger rocks and fallen branches near it, setting up an alcove that was well positioned to catch the heat for a sleeper curled up in it. When Reynard began mimicking him and setting up a sleeping spot of his own, however, Miur seemed surprised about it. That's when Reynard realized Miur was sizing his alcove big enough for the two of them to share.
In the days since the accident that had sent Reynard here he had confronted only those aspects of his situation that he had to confront, ignoring the rest as being irrelevant to the immediate needs of survival. He'd accepted the lack of what he would normally consider palatable food because he had to eat. He'd accepted having hooves and goat-like legs because he had to walk on them. But until now he'd been able to reject the fact of his changed gender. Sure, the weight of the breasts and the absence in his crotch were ever-present reminders, but that was not much different from the long pointed ears or the stubby tail...
Reynard found himself huddled at the opposite side of the clearing from Miur and his fire, sitting with his back pressed against a tree and his furry knees hugged protectively to his chest, trembling a little. "Ren, si haren Miur?" Miur asked with a confused and somewhat hurt tone. He climbed to his feet and tried approaching Reynard but stopped immediately at Reynard's obvious flinch.
Reynard forced himself to give Miur a smile, hopefully taken as a reassuring gesture. Near as Reynard could tell 'haren' meant 'friend'. "Ir haren Miur," he managed - his best guess at how to say 'I am your friend.' Then, his satyrese exhausted, he switched back to English. "But I'm just... I've got some issues I can't possibly explain right now. I'd try miming but there's no way it'd make sense."
Miur cocked his head and chewed his lip. "Ir ohn henna saffi," he explained hopefully, spreading his arms in a gesture that he probably intended as reassuring too but that also served to draw more attention to his naked maleness. "Saffi, henna. Saffi."
More words Reynard didn't know, but delivered in a soothing tone that managed to counteract at least a bit of Reynard's unnamed fears. He relaxed visibly as Miur returned to his bedding, settling down to keep a careful eye on him but nothing more than that.
Reynard's tremble eased even as the night's chill began to descend. He remained where he was, though, trying to work through the underlying cause of his near freakout. It was hard since he kept rejecting the reasons the moment they rose to mind, but just as he'd come to accept that he had hooves he had no choice but to eventually accept these conclusions too.
He found Miur attractive. Not in an overtly sexual way, to his relief; he just felt good when he thought about Miur being around. But it was still enough to shake his sense of identity quite severely. He just wasn't supposed to feel that way about guys, and he was damned sure he never had before now.
I'm a girl. The thought had more weight now than it had when he'd thought it previously. A satyr girl. Satyr girl, satyr female, satyr woman... He rolled the words around in search of one that fit comfortably, but although none of them did he realized that perhaps it was just a matter of time before one caught hold. Assuming he didn't find some magical way out of this place and this body.
He looked over at Miur sleeping curled beside the dim red glow of the fire, still facing in his direction and with his ears twitching alertly to the sound of the night life, and gave him an experimental smile. It still felt forced. "Sorry about this," he whispered under his breath, too quiet to catch even Miur's sensitive ears. "Hopefully I won't be such a basket case tomorrow."
There was a distant sound of a coyote calling, but Miur didn't rouse so Reynard decided it wasn't something to worry about. Sliding down from a sitting posture to a more relaxed recline, Reynard eventually managed to follow the other satyr into sleep.
Reynard woke with a start early the next morning to the sound of Miur scuffing sand onto the firepit. Miur stopped the moment Reynard moved, evidently still worried about Reynard's incomprehensible behavior around him, but once Reynard had blinked the bleariness away without reacting further Miur went back to his task.
Why's he doing that? Reynard climbed to his hooves, stretching out the kinks from his poor bedding and running his fingers through his hair to remove some of the dust. Then he blushed under his fur and turned self-consciously away from Miur as the heavy thoughts that had weighed him down last night came rushing back.
Fortunately Miur paid the gesture no particular mind, allowing Reynard the chance to recover his equilibrium quickly. He's preserving the embers so we don't have to waste fuel on it all day, he realized, and sighed in relief. Yes, things do make sense. Reynard sought out the most secluded spot in the tiny oasis to take his morning bathroom break before getting back to the business of learning everything about desert survival from Miur that he could.
Today's lesson was one of shelter. The two of them went down to the pond - Reynard following Miur's lead, and Miur pausing now and then to ensure Reynard could keep up with what he was doing - and pulled out bushels of reeds. It was far more than Reynard had been using in his attempt at basket-weaving, and at first he couldn't figure out what Muir's intent was with such an ambitious project, but when the woven reed mats got large enough Miur started hanging them from branches to enhance the much-needed shade that was cast by the trees. Reynard's first few attempts tended to spontaneously unravel, but Miur had a trick with weaving the edges that Reynard soon picked up for himself.
"Ha!" Reynard gave a satisfied laugh once they had enough of the mats hung to give a genuinely enclosed feel to part of the little clearing. "We'll have condos up in no time. Bani, bani." Reynard had figured out that 'Bani' meant 'good', or perhaps 'finished'.
Miur grinned. "Yes tren saha. Yes, yes."
Reynard blinked in surprise and Miur's grin widened. "Why, you sly goat. You're paying attention to what I'm saying after all."
It was pretty far from genuine communication yet - Reynard couldn't tell if Miur's guess about the meaning of the word 'yes' was any more accurate than his guess for any of the other words he'd been trying to pick up - but it was very heartening to know that the exchange was really a two-way street. They both became a lot more vocal after that, rambling on for hours as they went about their increasingly routine hunt for small game and edible tubers around the little oasis. It was only the second day he'd been working on it but the language was starting to click just a little. It helped that the grammatical structure seemed to be very simple indeed.
That night Reynard still slept on the far side of the fire from Miur, but without the confusion and tension of the previous night. Miur was evidently still nonplussed by Reynard's reluctance to get near him physically but seemed willing to leave the issue be and give him space. Reynard was quite grateful for that.
And so it went for the next few days, with slow but steady progress being made on all fronts. Miur never got past a few individual English words, but Reynard picked up enough satyrish to speak in a simple pidgin. Since as far as Reynard could tell satyrish itself was almost a pidgin in terms of linguistic complexity that actually put him pretty far along to full fluency. Reynard also learned quite a lot about basic techniques of desert survival as their camp became well-established and even somewhat comfortable.
Reynard tried to return the favor even though there wasn't really much he could teach. Reynard was a physicist and engineer, and Miur apparently had little understanding of abstract concepts beyond those of the immediate here and now - he couldn't even reliably keep track of numbers past ten. But Miur showed a lot of patience with his efforts, and even interest, so Reynard kept at it despite its seeming hopelessness.
He tried to explain to Miur that he was from another world, that he was not born a satyr. Miur only seemed to grasp the idea that Reynard was from extremely far away, however, as if 'Earth' was some land just beyond the farthest mountain range. Not being born a satyr was even less comprehensible to him. Or perhaps he simply accepted it in such a straightforward manner that it seemed like incomprehension. Miur listened to his every explanation with interest, however, and if nothing else explaining himself set him more at ease.
The topic of his change in gender was one thing that never came up. At first Reynard himself wasn't comfortable with it, and then as their rapport grew he worried that Miur might not be comfortable with it. Miur had never seen a human, of course, so Reynard's tales of them naturally meant little. But Miur certainly knew the concepts of male and female. Reynard had enough trouble with his own thoughts on the matter without getting Miur involved in them too.
Miur's own history had aspects that were hard for Reynard to understand. He had apparently been born in a large family or small tribe - larger than he could put a solid number to, at any rate - and at some point in the recent past he had struck out on his own. The reason for the parting was unclear but didn't seem to trouble him any, and he'd left with a fair amount of quite useful items in his pack, so Reynard guessed it was voluntary or perhaps customary. Deeply-ingrained custom could explain Miur's inability to comprehend Reynard's curiosity about the details; the male apparently just assumed that everything that made sense to him should make sense to everyone.
It would have been frustrating if Miur's patient acceptance of Reynard's frustration hadn't been so disarming. It was as if Miur had known and accepted right from the start that he would never fully understand Reynard, with merely the specific details of that lack of comprehension to be established by their discussions. So in a way perhaps Miur actually understood the situation better than Reynard himself did.
Reynard was actually starting to feel somewhat safe and comfortable for the first time since arriving. It therefore came as a bit of a shock when he was awakened in the middle of the seventh night by the sound of melodic whistling.
Reynard sat bolt upright and then froze, ears twitching, while he shook off the muddled daze as quickly as he could.
Miur was already up, clutching his spear and crouched on the other side of their sheltered clearing. He motioned to Reynard, though whether he was asking him to come to him or stay where he was wasn't very clear; despite learning the basic spoken language there were still subtleties like this that caused problems. Reynard didn't want to be caught unprepared, though, so he decided to go with the former. He picked up his own spear and rose silently to his hooves.
"Shadowcrawlers," Miur whispered unnecessarily as Reynard reached his side. Actually, he used the Satyrish word for them, 'Endai', but since Reynard had no idea what the literal meaning of that was - assuming it had any beyond representing the animal itself - as far as he was concerned they were still called Shadowcrawlers to him.
Reynard nodded, holding silent for a moment to listen for the whistling. When it came again he tensed, then relaxed ever so slightly; it sounded like they were quite distant. "Far away?" He whispered to Miur.
Miur grimaced. "Now, yes. Not far enough. I don't like this."
Reynard didn't need much skill in the subtleties of Satyrish to recognize that. He nodded again and glanced around the campsite nervously. He'd told Miur about his encounter at the dry water hole and how he'd narrowly escaped, with the singed hair still noticeable in a few spots on his body as proof, and Miur had seemed more impressed by that than any of his tales of life on Earth. Shadowcrawlers were bad news. And there was very little easily burnable fuel left in the oasis now that they'd been living here for all these days, so his patented strategy of setting everything around him on fire wasn't going to work a second time. "What do we do?"
"They are hunting." Miur wobbled his head in a gesture of uncertainty. "You met them... five days ago? Maybe not hunting us."
Five days sounded about right. Close enough that Reynard wasn't about to check his 'journal', a stick he'd been carving notches into to keep track of time. It seemed like it should have been longer, but the fear of that night came flooding back as if it was yesterday. "If they come here..."
Miur tightened his grip on his spear and gave a quiet and quite ungoatlike growl. "They can't have you."
Reynard responded with an equally quiet chuckle, tightening his own grip similarly. His first spear had been ridiculously ineffective but this one was apparently the latest in Satyr technology - straight, smooth, and with a stone tip that was actually pretty sharp if he stabbed hard enough. It was somewhat reassuring. He hoped it wouldn't come down to actually testing it against Shadowcrawler armor, though.
Going back to sleep wasn't an option, obviously. Miur stoked up the fire with what wood they had on hand to get it burning with reasonable brightness and Reynard didn't want to go out into the darkness far enough to adapt his eyes to get a clear view of the stars so he couldn't guess exactly how much night remained. He hadn't really become all that familiar with the new constellations anyway.
The two of them sat down together, Reynard for once overcoming his aversion to physical proximity and hunkering down next to Miur, and waited.
"Not enough wood," Miur grumbled quietly.
Reynard nodded. His original estimate of how many days' worth of resources were in the little oasis had been proved woefully short by Miur's skills but it was becoming clear that their days here were numbered. They'd run out of fuel to stockpile for the fire and pulling down live trees didn't seem like a good idea in this arid climate.
"Where..." He paused, trying to remember enough of the right Satyrish words to form the question. "Where will we go to? What oasis is near here?"
Miur frowned and was silent for a long time, long enough for Reynard to start worrying that he'd asked improperly. But Miur was apparently just thinking about it. "Beyond Meshta rasa," he finally pointed in a southwesterly direction. "Three days, there is pwane." Reynard cocked his head, unfamiliar with the word, and Miur clarified it; "long oasis water, moves. Water snake."
Ah, a river! Reynard's pleased expression made Miur grin. That was exactly what he'd been most hoping to find when he'd first set out into this land, it would serve as both a source of sustenance and a great landmark. He doubted Miur's people had cities, he hadn't even been able to communicate the concept to him successfully, but anything even remotely city-like would probably first establish itself on a river. "Are there tribes there?"
Miur's grin slipped and Reynard drooped again slightly, realizing he'd come close to one of the few subject areas that were touchy for some reason. Miur really didn't seem to like the idea of encountering another tribe. Though he didn't exactly seem to fear the possibility, and he didn't seem to have any particular antipathy toward anyone.
"Some," Miur admitted. "But not much now. It is too early."
That didn't explain much, even though Reynard knew all the words, but he decided against pressing for a further explanation. "And Shadowcrawlers?"
Miur hesitated and then gave a noncommittal head-wobble. Reynard sighed, then tensed again as somewhere in the distance a Shadowcrawler's keening whistle joined in. Miur put his hand over Reynard's and gave a squeeze. "They can't have you," he repeated firmly.
Reynard gave a weak smile and a nod. His previous encounter with Shadowcrawlers must have shaken him more deeply than he'd realized, Miur's touch was actually reassuring by comparison.
The Shadowcrawlers kept their distance but for Reynard the stress of keeping guard was almost as tiring as an actual fight would have been. As the night wore on he found himself dozing off, and with Miur keeping watch he actually did manage to fall asleep.
Day seven dawned hazy, the morning light muted by orange dust lofted high in the atmosphere by the wind. It was still more than enough to drive the Shadowcrawlers back into their daytime refuges, though... at least Miur seemed to think so, so Reynard decided to allow himself the relief of having managed to survive the night.
There wasn't much time to savor the feeling. Having been prompted to get moving again Miur was eager to make all haste, and they had a lot more possessions to pack now than Miur had had when he'd first showed up. The two of them busied themselves gathering it all up, rolling the woven reed mats into crude packs and tying them to a pair of long, straight branches that hadn't quite been suitable as spear shafts.
Most of the stuff was probably technically Miur's, given how much more work and knowledge he'd put into it than Reynard had. Reynard had only one item in particular to call his own; the fist-sized chunk of malachite he'd buried earlier for safekeeping. When he dug it up Miur was quite impressed. "I have seen green stone," he told Reynard, "but not so big and pure. Where is it from?"
"From the Earth cave," Reynard told him. Then he hesitated, trying to decide whether to say more. If this mineral was considered valuable perhaps he shouldn't be so quick to mention where thousands of tons of it could be easily dug up. It might prove very useful as a bargaining chip if he came upon a more advanced tribe later on.
Miur nodded. "It is a piece of your home. I understand." He reached out and for a moment Reynard thought he was going to take the rock, but instead he just touched the blue seashell that was still tied around his wrist. "This is from my home. It is ours now. We can take it with us, our home is where we are."
Reynard blinked. Lots of deep thoughts from a simple satyr who spoke such a simple language. He could only give a smile in response, tucking the hunk of malachite into one of the rolled mats.
They ate a late breakfast of lightly cooked reed root and, after a last look around the place to see if they'd forgotten anything, set out before the morning coolness faded entirely. Southwest toward Meshta river as Miur had indicated the previous night, though how far they'd need to travel before they reached it was less clear. Somewhere between a few days and a week; Miur himself didn't seem to know for sure.
Reynard had long since recovered from the several-days hike he'd taken to get to the little oasis in the first place. Indeed, he felt better than he had at the start; the odd proportions and balance of his body were more familiar now, and he was well fed and more confident. But he had cargo now. What he'd thought had been a stretcher to carry between the two of them turned out to be more of a travoirs, intended to be dragged by one, and with Miur already carrying his own pack it fell to Reynard to schlep the thing along.
He didn't feel at all resentful though. Miur was pulling his weight in so many other ways, not the least of which was actually knowing where they were going, that this seemed a minor contribution to make. The two of them fell into single file with Miur in the lead. They chatted occasionally, Reynard asking Miur for satyrish words whenever anything new came along he didn't know the name for, but for the most part it was a nice steady pace with nothing much to think about.
Except perhaps the weather. The orange haze in the sky only seemed to thicken as the day progressed. Reynard welcomed it, despite the heavy scent of dust it put in the air, because it appeared to be sheltering them from the furnace heat of midday; the filtered rays of the sun weren't nearly so scorching today. But it seemed to bother Miur more, he kept glancing up with a worried expression. Since Miur knew so much more about the local environment than Reynard did a worried Miur worried Reynard even more,
"What is it?" He finally asked, pointing skyward. "What is coming?"
"Sand wind. A big-sand-wind... I don't know. Maybe."
'Big-sand-wind' wasn't a concept that had come up before, but fortunately Satyrish tended to rely on stringing together simple descriptive words into compounds to name things so it was pretty easy to guess he meant a sandstorm. Reynard grimaced. "Is a big-sand-wind dangerous? Will this-" he patted one of the reed mats "-protect us?"
Miur shrugged noncommittally. "Yes. Not nicely." He didn't seem too worried, though. Reynard sighed in resignation. He'd been chased by monsters, nearly roasted alive in a fire he'd killed his arms making in the first place, punctured his fingers on cacti and had eaten all manner of things that just shouldn't be eaten. Weathering a sandstorm would be unpleasant but, given Miur's apparently cavalier attitude, survivable. He could endure that too.
Like a rainstorm that hung in the air but refused to actually break, the sandstorm's menace loomed for hours. But by noon the the wind had died down to its usual sporadic furnace gusts. Reynard was relieved by the false alarm even though the heat of the unfiltered sun began working in concert with the settling dust to parch him worse than usual. Miur seemed to be affected too, and there was no need for a word of discussion when they came upon a small shaded spot next to an upright slab of sandstone and a lone scraggly tree. The two of them dropped their loads and settled down in it.
They'd packed some provisions from what was left of the oasis' resources, a bundle of tubers and cooked shoots that provided a stomach-filling meal if not a tasty one. Miur shared his waterskin and Reynard was careful to sip only as much as he felt he really needed; he didn't want to deprive Miur and did not want to have to go back to gnawing on prickly pear to survive if they ran out. Even so, it was a surprisingly pleasant rest. The ground shimmered all around them with heat ripples but their patch of shade was like a tiny oasis of its own - reassuringly, too tiny for anything else to take shelter other than the two of them. They sat together with their backs against the cool stone.
"Your humani hennasen," Miur mused out loud, breaking the comfortable silence. "It is very nenaan."
"Hm?" Reynard hadn't heard a few of those words before. 'Humani' was human, of course - Miur always pluralized words the Satyrish way - and 'henna' was 'friend', but the other bits were new and the context wasn't obvious.
"Your old hennasen, your green rock. Very..." Miur trailed off, having trouble figuring out how to convey the meaning. After a bit of miming back and forth, though, Reynard realized 'nenaan' meant 'impressive' or something along those lines. He smiled and thanked Miur for the compliment.
But something seemed to be bothering Miur about it. "Is it why you don't wear mine correctly?"
Reynard cocked his head, knowing all the words Muir had used this time but still not sure what he meant by them. "Your... hennasen?"
Miur nodded, leaning over to put his hand on Reynard's. Reynard blinked, almost flinching away, before he realized Miur was just touching the leather thong tied around his wrist. "Oh!" He relaxed again. A token of friendship. "The green rock isn't a hennasen. We don't have hennasen on Earth."
Miur's expression was almost comically shocked for a moment, but then he gave a wry smile. "Your humani tribe is very strange. Will you learn?" He offered. Reynard nodded, wanting to know all the customs he could find out about. Miur carefully untied the thong, holding it up and pointing to the shell. "It's from me," he explained. "It's of me. Miur. I give it to you, my henna, and then all can see. Ren is haren Miur." He reached over and gently fastened it around Reynard's left horn, the leather strap criss-crossing artfully over itself a few times and knotting neatly overtop. Miur examined Reynard and his smile broadened in satisfaction. "That's how it's done by my father's women in his tribe. I worried that you... thought my tribe, Miur tribe, wasn't as good. You didn't know?"
Reynard smiled too, but more as a delaying tactic than anything else while he tried to sort out what Miur was telling him. He could feel his heart starting to hammer in trepidation as pieces clicked into place. I don't think 'henna' exactly means 'friend'. "I didn't know," he murmured quietly in English. "Oh, God... you think we're married now, don't you?"
Miur cocked his head, not understanding the words. But Reynard kept up his smile and managed an even tone. "I didn't know," he repeated in Satyrish. He touched the horn decoration, the shell hanging just barely in the edge of his peripheral vision. The urge to rip it off and run flickered briefly to mind but he quashed it; it seemed likely to be a very bad idea. "It... it is good, Miur."
Miur sighed in relief. "I worried, worried, worried. But you don't like me coming too near, so I was silent and careful. It is good." He gave a little laugh. "My henna. I didn't know too."
It finally struck Reynard just how awkwardly Miur had been behaving around him over the past few days since they'd met, too. From what Reynard had learned from Miur's difficult-to-translate tales, Miur was young. Clearly mature, but a very young man... a young man who'd just left his old home life behind, setting out into the world to make a new life for himself. And the first girl Miur had met had been him. Reynard couldn't help but laugh as well. Oh, poor Miur. I know how it is, guy. Moments earlier Reynard had wanted to run away but now he felt like giving him an enormous hug. A hug and a-
Woah, there! He gave himself a mental slap to the face to get his thoughts in order. Outwardly his smile didn't falter but inwardly he was tremendously confused. Reynard tried to buy himself some more time by asking Miur more about the tribe he'd come from.
Where Miur had so far been a near cipher, he now came bursting forth with information. Perhaps he'd been so reluctant to talk about it earlier because of his fears of inadequacy, but whatever the reason for his surge of openness Reynard actually managed to forget his own troubles for a while as he tried to follow Miur's verbose Satyrish. Miur's father had many 'hennani', which if Reynard's new translation was correct indicated a polygamous culture. And Miur had many brothers and sisters. The relationships were too complex to follow, perhaps more complex than Miur himself could follow.
Complex was good. It kept the two of them occupied while the hottest part of the day passed, the patch of shade that was their refuge beginning to grow long and the ripples of heat fading a little. The two of them got up, dusted themselves off, and hefted their cargo. It was time to get moving again and they still had a long way to go.
The decoration affixed to Reynard's horn hung just at the edge of his vision, only noticeable when he actually thought about it. Reynard did his best not to, but once they got trudging again he and Miur didn't talk as much on the afternoon leg of the day's journey so it was almost impossible to avoid. I've only been here for a week now, he reminded himself, and I've only known Miur for a few days. There's still so much I don't know about this world and how I'm going to fit into it. Hell, I should still be far more worried about winding up in a Shadowcrawler's belly than about winding up in some primitive goat-man's harem.
As the day wore on and Reynard's hooves began to drag with fatigue, though, he eventually found himself lacking the energy to worry about anything much beyond finding a nice comfortable place to curl up before nightfall. Miur was both more fit than he was and hauling somewhat less of a load, so by the time he picked out a trio of scraggly trees on the horizon and suggested setting camp there Reynard was quite ready to go along with that. He had just enough drive left to note that there was a marking carved into one of the tree trunks similar to the one back at the oasis, but not enough to explore the puzzle of its meaning further.
The waterskin was about half empty when they were done with it. There were a few edible tubers they could dig up, though the waning sunlight made it difficult to find them. There was just enough dead wood available to get a very small fire going - no more than a pile of embers, not very reassuring. But it was the best they could do and Reynard was tired enough that once he finally lay down on their reed mats he quickly fell asleep.
Miur kept guard for a while longer before joining him. There were distant whistles in the night but there wasn't much more they could do about it right then.
They didn't find another open pond like the oasis in the next few day's travel, but the density of the vegetation was increasing slightly as they traveled and once Miur's waterskin ran dry he knew of better sources of moisture than prickly pear. Unassuming little sprigs of growth hid tubers that could be cut open and squeezed for milky water. Small mounds hid colonies of insects whose grubs, though repulsive-looking, made for a nice snack. Despite the surprising bounty of the land, though, the trip had a certain sense of desperation to it.
The Shadowcrawlers were calling each night now. The sound of howling 'coyotes' that had so haunted Reynard on the first few nights was now a nostalgic memory; they'd either moved on or gone to ground lately. From his discussions with Miur it seemed that the Shadowcrawlers were intensive and well-coordinated pack hunters, sweeping their territories and flushing their prey; the small group Reynard had encountered had apparently been quite fortuitously small. They hadn't known about Ren yet.
It eventually came up that the symbols they'd seen marked on a few tree trunks along their journey indicated some measure of the risk the local Shadowcrawlers presented. So far they'd all been the same but Reynard was keeping an eye on them to see if there would be any clues to interpret their meaning in more detail. Miur was surprisingly little help in that regard; the satyr was aware of them and their significance, obviously, but seemed to consider them just as inherently inexplicable as Reynard's attempt to teach him Arabic numerals.
Miur himself remained a bit of an enigma to Reynard. Not because they weren't communicating; Reynard had developed a reasonably firm handle on the language by now and Miur had become quite talkative once he'd been reassured that Reynard's slight had been unintentional. No, Reynard was more mystified by what Miur felt about him. There was nothing overtly sexual about their attitude toward each other, and despite Reynard's obvious lack of knowledge of the world around them Miur didn't take advantage of that to exert any sort of obvious dominance. They were just two people who were doing their best to work together and survive. And yet, clearly, Miur's culture was patriarchal...
Reynard wasn't even really sure what he himself felt about the situation. In a perverse sense he was sort of relieved they were being dogged by Shadowcrawlers; it left no room for uncertainty or awkwardness. They simply had to keep moving.
On their fifth day out from the oasis - Reynard's twelfth since the accident, though he'd started becoming a little uncertain of his count - the great sand wind finally returned to make good on the threat that had spurred them to travel in the first place. Dawn's light was duller and more orange than ever, a sullen sunrise that refused to lift. The two of them hurried to break camp and shortly after they'd got moving the dust began to fall.
It was parching and filthy, clinging to their fur and caking at the edges of every orifice. For the first time in days Reynard found himself sorely missing clothing. Miur's leather cloak seemed to help him somewhat but the thought of sharing it with Reynard apparently didn't even occur to him. Reynard had to make do with one of the reed mats hung over his shoulders.
Miur had other concerns weighing more heavily on him. "Dark," he murmured under his breath. "Dark day." At first Reynard thought he was being figurative. But something was driving his hooves more quickly than the general unpleasantness of the dust could account for. Over the past few days they'd entered terrain that was both lusher and rockier than the open plains around the little oasis had been; there were many opportunities for shelter that Miur was passing up in his urgency. Reynard almost had to trot to keep up with him.
The whistling of the wind was joined by a faint but regrettably familiar strain. Reynard's ears pricked alertly and he stumbled as his attention was diverted from finding his footing on the gravelly wash they were following. "Miur! Shadowcrawler!"
Miur glanced back at him. "Dark. Wind makes the sun go away, the Shadowcrawlers stay out."
"Oh, crap." Surely they can't track us in this mess, though? Reynard shook his head; he had no idea how these things actually did their hunting. For all he knew they were telepathic or something. But whatever the case, one thing was clear; today they weren't restricted solely to the night. The one piece of security he'd been clinging to no longer applied.
Reynard didn't have as much trouble keeping up with Miur now. If anything, the male satyr was taking more time than Reynard would have liked; their route was made twisty by the chaotic hillocks and gullies that marred the area and Miur kept pausing at every rise to peer around for some sign of their distant pursuers. Or some other sign, perhaps. Reynard noticed a Shadowcrawler warning symbol notched into a gnarled tree as they passed and hoped that Miur was looking for a defensible refuge of some sort.
The wind began to pick up, blowing some of the dust out of their fur that it had deposited earlier but stinging exposed skin with flying sand. Reynard squinted and found himself grateful for some of the changes that had been wrought upon his face; his lashes were a protective screen and his broad goatlike nostrils closed to thin slits that filtered out the worst of it. Even so it was becoming less and less tolerable. "Miur!" He called over the howling wind. "Uh, where..." He hesitated, not sure of the words he needed to frame the question properly.
Miur turned, and an expression crossed his face that made Reynard's pulse rocket and the blustering wind around him seem to momentarily fade. Behind me. Reynard let go of the travois handles and dove forward, cloven hooves slipping in the loose soil. He hadn't seen the lurking Shadowcrawler, didn't even see it now, but as it pounced he heard its wickedly long talons click and scrape against the rock it had been perching on beside them. Too close! He imagined he could feel the claws lancing into his back, cringing inwardly at the searing pain that would cut through him before he'd had even the simplest of his questions answered.
But Miur lunged too, hooves slamming into the ground right in front of Reynard's terrified eyes as they launched him over his fallen body. There was a deafening crack, the whump of bodies landing in the dirt right beside him, and a guttural hiss of anger and pain.
Reynard had no time to think, only react. He scrambled to get back to his feet, cursing his sluggish reaction time and poor reflexes. Miur and the Shadowcrawler were scrambling too, the crawler attempting to grapple him with its gangly black limbs and Miur frantically trying to pull free. He seemed disoriented, bright red flashing on his forehead where some spike or spur of the creature's armor had cut him.
He'd dropped his spear when he'd sprung to Reynard's defense. Reynard's eyes fell on it as he stood and he grabbed the wooden shaft, whirling to thrust it at the beast. It had managed to sink its teeth into Miur's shoulder, preventing it from dodging; the point struck the side of its chest and bit solidly. The armor plates apparently only covered the creature's head and back.
Wounded, the Shadowcrawler yanked free from its grapple with Miur - the male satyr letting out a hoarse cry of pain louder than the Shadowcrawler's own pained hiss - and leapt back up onto the boulder it had launched its ambush from. Reynard tried to keep hold of the spear but was yanked off his hooves, losing it and falling to all fours. The new geometry of his goat-like legs served him well in this situation, however. He scrambled back upright with surprising ease, grabbing a smooth grapefruit-sized rock as he went.
The Shadowcrawler's feral but eerily humanoid face conveyed hesitation. But it didn't seem all that badly hurt, and Reynard had lost the spear he'd hurt it with - the rock hardly seemed an adequate substitute. So what's it waiting for...?
Some subconscious cue slipped in, perhaps a subtle shift in the Shadowcrawler's stance, perhaps from Reynard's own more-than-human senses, or perhaps just a sudden leap of logic. He whirled around, letting loose a terrified scream even as he smacked the rock hard across the head of the second Shadowcrawler lunging from the other side. The Crawler's momentum wasn't deflected significantly by the blow and it slammed into him, sending them both tumbling to the ground again together. Reynard screamed again and fought against the creature's wiry body, rolling over with it to come out on top.
Incredibly, despite the throbbing pain in his fingers, he still had a grip on the rock. He raised it in both hands, preparing to bring it down on the Shadowcrawler's head with every ounce of his strength. The first blow had stunned it; instead of lashing out at him with its talons it just cringed, awaiting the killing strike.
Reynard hesitated. He wasn't sure why, but for a moment he locked gazes with the beast - luminously yellow catlike eyes meeting brown horizontal-pupiled ovine ones - and the tableau held. Miur groaned in pain as he struggled to get back up, then froze as the rushing wind carried a chorus of keening whistles and chirrups from all around them.
There were more Shadowcrawlers here. They'd stalked the satyrs efficiently, surrounded them, laid an ambush that the two of them had walked right into. We're dead. Why aren't we dead yet?
He looked up. The wounded Shadowcrawler on the rock was tensed to leap again, but was seemingly part of the same tableau as Reynard and the Crawler under his rock. Its eyes flicked down at the other Crawler, then back up again to meet Reynard's. An epiphany struck - either a crazed notion or a flash of insight, Reynard couldn't tell which. Is it wondering the same thing about this one...?
Though he seemed to be unable to stand, Miur was groping for his lost spear. Reynard took one hand off his rock and reached over to touch him, giving his arm a gentle squeeze. Miur stopped and turned to look groggily at Reynard.
"Okay, monster," Reynard murmured in English once his heaving breath had come under some modicum of control. "We've got a standoff. You can kill us, but you don't want me to smash your friend here and don't think you can stop me by pouncing."
The Shadowcrawler hissed, baring bloodied teeth, and nearly provoked that very reaction. But Reynard managed to stay his trembling hand and responded with a giddy laugh. "Right. You're a smart beast. Just like me." In a way that made the Shadowcrawlers even more terrifying, but Reynard knew that even a split second of panic would probably kill him right now. And Miur along with him. Reynard spared the other satyr a glance. He was in pretty bad shape, bleeding from wounds about his head and shoulders. It would have been even worse had the leather cloak not given some modicum of protection.
"We can't just stand here at this impasse forever, if nothing else my arm will get tired." Reynard muttered under his breath. Then he bit his lip, for a moment irrationally fearful that the Shadowcrawlers would understand English somehow. Don't be stupid. Anyway, I'm sure they know they can wait us out... Reynard's 'hostage' made a low keening noise and shifted slightly, prompting Reynard to tense threateningly and everyone to once more freeze in place. "Okay, maybe we don't have time to wait each other out," Reynard sighed. "Let's try this. Miur!" Reynard offered his hand to the wounded satyr.
Miur blinked, hesitating a moment in obvious disorientation before taking Reynard's hand. Following Reynard's lead and moving with slow, careful deliberation, Miur rose shakily to his feet. Then he looked down at Reynard for further guidance.
Reynard's voice caught. He was unable to fully comprehend the words he was trying to say, but it wasn't due to unfamiliarity with the satyrish language. Go, he thought. Go, and... He didn't have a plan, there were no ideas for how Miur might return triumphantly to rescue him. He just didn't want Miur to die here. Maybe if he held this standoff as long as possible while Miur fled, by the time his arm faltered he'd be far enough away to be safe...
"No," Miur murmured. "Ren." He gave a gentle tug on Reynard's hand, his own intent far less conflicted. He wasn't about to leave Reynard here.
Reynard almost laughed out loud; there wasn't any other reaction he could come up with that fully encapsulated the complete mess his thoughts were in. But instead he just nodded. Your turn to lead. Not like I have a plan anyway. Taking utmost care to keep the rock raised and ready to smash as he moved, Reynard stood up next to Miur.
The other Shadowcrawlers were visible through the blowing dust now, some of them at any rate - dark shapes perched in the rocks, eyes glittering in the dimness and all fixed on Reynard. In the midst of all that, though, Reynard felt an eerie calm settle on his heart.
Keeping a tight hold on Miur's hand, Reynard lowered the rock and awaited the flurry of talons and teeth that would follow. All around them the Shadowcrawlers hissed and chittered. But they didn't pounce. Reynard found himself beyond calm now, almost dazed. They're not going to kill us?
"Ren," Miur nudged him. "My henna, we go." Reynard blinked and carefully lifted a hoof, stepping over the fallen Shadowcrawler. They began walking. Reynard flinched at the sudden movement as several of the dark shapes, no longer held at bay, leapt down from their perches... but they weren't leaping at him, they were jumping down to the side of their fallen comrade. Miur kept up a steadier pace despite his own wounds. Running might be bad, Reynard realized. Predators chase things that run.
Predators also killed and ate the prey that they'd caught. Reynard's head spun as they left the site of their ambush behind, making his way increduously to safety. What just happened? They'd traded the wounded Shadowcrawler for their own lives, it seemed, a deal so good Reynard couldn't believe it.
Not that they were out of the woods yet. The sandstorm was still raging, Miur was soon leaning heavily on Reynard as the wounds he'd suffered took their toll, and Reynard was feeling pretty shaky himself.
It had been the closest he'd come yet to dying on this alien world and for one brief moment he'd almost been ready for it... ready to die to give Miur a chance to get away. A connection had been forged between them that he'd now been forced to recognize, something more real and solid than any mere horn-trinket could signify.
At least Miur seemed to feel no need to talk about their situation. They forged on through the dark day in silence.
It actually began to get a bit brighter as the afternoon wore on, the winds dying down and the dust beginning to settle out of the air just a bit faster than the sun was setting. But Miur and Reynard kept up their gruelling pace until finally Miur saw something that gave him an obvious sense of relief; a gnarled tree nestled among the rocks.
"We stop," he sighed wearily. "We rest."
Reynard nodded, puzzled but unquestioning, as he helped Miur sit down on the most comfortable-looking tuft of grass in the tree's modest shade. He needed the rest too by this point so he could only imagine how exhausted Miur must be. He sat down next to Miur and tried to relax. It wasn't easy, Reynard was still twitching at every shadow that might conceal a lurking predator ready to pounce, but Miur seemed to feel safe and that helped Reynard feel safer too.
The tree's trunk was squat and thick, but its branches were sparse - it was either near death or it was one of the hardiest old lumps of wood Reynard had yet seen. Reynard examined it intently, partly out of curiousity and partly to keep him distracted from the Satyr he was leaning against despite no longer needing the support. What was it about this landmark that made it a place of refuge? There was another of those incomprehensible symbols carved into the dusty bark, he noticed right off the bat, but it was a few minutes before it dawned on him that it was different from the others he'd seen before. Instead of three vertical lines and a V this one had just one vertical line and two horizontal lines.
"That?" Renard pointed and asked quietly.
Miur blinked, momentarily puzzled by Reynard's request for clarification and perhaps still dazed by his experience. "Yes," He explained. "Shadowcrawlers... Shadowcrawlers ohne land, the Shadowcrawlers that ate us not ohne. Not come here."
The explanation itself didn't make much sense, Reynard didn't know enough Satyrish and Miur was in no condition to dumb it down enough for him to learn the new words. But it hinted at something Reynard had been speculating for some time now, especially since realizing how smart the creatures were. "Shadowcrawlers are territorial, we're in some other pack's territory, right?" He murmured the rhetorical question in English and Miur just gave a pained grunt in response.
Reynard winced sympathetically, his attention finally drawn back to Miur's wounds. The teeth and talons had dug deeply into Miur's shoulder and back and the crusted blood had continued cracking and leaking during the journey. Hopefully now that they'd stopped they'd have the opportunity to finish scabbing over. "No water," Reynard sighed in satyrish. They'd dropped almost everything in their scramble to get away from the Shadowcrawler ambush, they had only the satchel Miur had had with him when they'd first met. Back to the basics yet again.
Miur nodded with resignation. "We rest," he repeated. "I rest. Water... later."
The two of them sat in the shade of the gnarled old tree as the day ended, the dust in the air turning the western sky orange in a glorious blazing sunset. The fear drained completely out of Reynard despite the deepening shadows, driven away by fatigue and by Miur's reassuring calm. Perhaps it was the calm of hopelessness but Reynard didn't think so; the Satyr seemed confident enough in explaining himself even if Reynard didn't completely understand what he was saying. If I don't completely trust the guy by now I'd be crazy.
The sky was fading to purple, the first of the alien stars already pricking holes in the dark. Miur winced as he tried getting more comfortably on the hard, dusty ground. "Hey, here," Reynard offered, sliding down to the ground himself and putting his arm under Miur's injured shoulder. Miur blinked in surprise and then gave Reynard a very human smile as he settled against him.
Against her. Reynard sighed, finding that he no longer flinched at the thought. Perhaps I'm just that tired. Or perhaps... Despite the lack of fuel or energy to light a fire the two of them slept soundly that night. They kept warm in each others' arms.
Reynard was stiff and sore the next morning, the worst she could remember being in either body. Stiff, sore, and parched. But Miur was surely feeling worse and he let slip only the occasional grunt, so Reynard felt no urge to complain. Indeed, the morning felt wonderful. They'd made it through the night. She was alive.
For now. Perhaps I've become a little too secure in Miur's survival skills, she reflected silently as they clambered laboriously to their hooves and stretched out some of their muscles' kinks. Everything around them was coated in a layer of tan dust, the few withered sprigs of vegetation and the wind-sculpted expanses of rock alike, a powdery embodiment of how arid the landscape truly was.
"We go?" Reynard asked.
"We go," Miur nodded with a flinch of pain. "Find water."
Despite their various aches and the increasingly rugged landscape the two of them were able to make a reasonable pace. The very lack of supplies that drove them helped immensely in that regard, partly in giving them a sense of urgency but mostly from the lightened load. Dragged those blasted reed mats halfway across the desert and what good did they do me... They took only short breaks as the sun grew harsh, not wanting to lose their drive to go on, and Reynard's mood started to head in stranger directions.
I have nothing. Nothing but my body, and it's not even mine... no, it's mine. I don't have my old body. It would never have survived here anyway. I would have lost that either way. Reynard gave a tired chuckle. I'd be dead. Maybe I am dead. Maybe I'm really just a crazy satyr who thinks she remembers someone else's life. Makes more sense than anything else...
"Ren?" Miur's voice had a worried undercurrent to its tired tone.
Reynard realized she'd been starting to mutter her thoughts out loud and grimaced, falling silent for a moment. At least there's still the fact that I think in English. Though if I'm crazy that doesn't necessarily mean much. Oh, wait! "Miur." The two of them came to a stop. "My green rock. Where is it?"
Reynard hadn't thought of that piece of malachite since before the Shadowcrawler attack and for a terrible moment she thought perhaps she'd dropped it along with so many of their other meagre possessions. But Miur only hesitated for just that moment before reaching into his leather satchel to produce it. His expression was inscruitable.
That was something solid. Reynard could see the faint seams that used to be separate coils in BOLIDE's magnet before they'd fused together into that raw chunk. It was real.
Reynard shook her head and felt tears threatening to spill precious moisture. It was useless. "Get rid of it."
Miur smiled gently and put it back in his satchel. "It is your home. You will need it again."
It took a few seconds for Reynard to figure out what Miur meant, partly thanks to the language but mostly because it was not at all the reaction Reynard had expected. He thinks of that as my old wedding right, effectively, right? Wouldn't he be glad I wanted to get rid of it...?
Miur coughed, wincing in pain at the effort, and Reynard's eyes widened in alarm as she realized how haggard he looked. Several scabs had resumed leaking a little despite how long his wounds had had to coagulate. Crap. Does he think he's not going to make it? That noble bastard. No way. "Let's find water, Miur, we can find water."
Miur nodded. "Meshta Rasa, one more day." They resumed their hike.
It didn't look like they were getting closer to water. If anything the dryness was just getting worse and worse, the ground now mostly solid rock under their hooves and no significant plants beyond the occasional tuft of dry grass. There weren't even the bitter prickly pears Reynard had subsisted on during her first few days. But Reynard had nothing else to do but continue marching on. Her gait became unsteady, another reminder of her first few days trying to get the hang of walking on these cloven hooves. She and Miur held on to each other as they staggered onward.
Blessed night fell. Reynard wanted to stop and lie down, but Miur urged her onward and she felt obliged to keep trying; if Miur could manage it then surely she could. But although the cool air soothed their parched tongues it was soon too dark to see, leaving them stumbling and clattering over increasingly trecherous rock. Never before had the utter blackness of night in the wilderness seemed so dangerous.
"Stop, Miur. Stop, we have to rest," Reynard finally dragged Miur to a halt. The male Satyr was breathing hard and at first seemed almost unaware of Reynard's words, but after a moment it seemed to register. He gave a heavy sigh and sank to the ground.
Fortunately there was a reasonably comfortable hollow just a short distance away, easily findable even in the blackness, and they snuggled together as they had the previous night. Reynard didn't fall asleep quite so easily, though; her throat was achingly dry and Miur's labored breathing worried her. And his furry skin was a bit beyond the comfortable warmth it had provided before, now almost hot to her touch.
But her fatigue was greater than all of that combined, and soon she drifted off anyway. Not even the distant howling of the coyotes could overcome it.
Dawn. The fingers of sunlight slipped between Reynard's dust-caked eyelids, dragging her awake to confront aching muscles and thirst once more. With a groan she slipped her arm out from under Miur's neck and pushed herself up on her hands and knees to see the path ahead.
Her breath caught in her throat. The rolling, rocky ground that had seemed so endless the day before extended a few hundred meters farther on, and then it just... stopped. In the distance beyond the gap the low-angled light from the east highlighted the ragged top of a matching cliff face, the far side of a vast chasm. Why didn't I see that last night? I guess it was the lighting and fatigue- holy shit, imagine if we'd kept stumbling on in the dark.
Reynard was still too tired and thirsty to think straight about this obstacle. She turned to Miur and gingerly tried to nudge him awake. The satyr was already panting even in his sleep and the angry red wounds didn't seem in much better condition than they'd been the previous day, but Reynard knew she had little choice. "Miur. Miur, wake. There is... no rock, big hole." She bit her lip in frustration at how many holes still remained in her Satyr vocabulary.
Miur woke with a start, and then a wince. "Uh... Ren." He tried to rise but couldn't even manage as much as Reynard had. "Help me up."
Had their circumstances been any less dire Reynard would have still had much lingering bashfulness over how she and Miur had to cling so tightly to each other to help get the injured man up on his hooves. As soon as they managed it and Miur could see what lay ahead of them, however, his dusty lips spread in a weak smile. "Pwane-moll." He took a shaky step and Reynard went with him to keep him from falling. She had the nagging fear that Miur was delirious but there was little else to do.
Then even that small doubt was banished as they shuffled to the edge of the abyss and a wonderful vista spread below them. The chasm was a canyon, and stretching along the bottom was vegetation - still quite sparse by Earth standards, perhaps, but in Reynard's current context a veritable forest of lush greenery. And running through it all was a twisting, glittering brown snake of fresh flowing water.
"We made it. We made it, Miur!" Reynard turned and hugged Miur, more than a little delirious herself at that moment. Then Miur grunted in pain and, with the realization that she wasn't about to die of dehydration after all, Reynard's bashfulness came flooding back. She eased her grip, releasing the pressure on Miur's injured back and on her own bare breasts. "Sorry," she mumbled.
"My henna," Miur coughed, a weak chuckle. Reynard's grin returned under her blush. "Go down. Hard, I can't. Get water."
Like hell I'm leaving you here. "Come on," she murmured in English as she peered in both directions along the lip of the canyon and chose north as the more promising option. "We'll find a gully or something that's easier to climb." Miur didn't protest as she got them both moving again, focusing all his effort on keeping up with her assistance.
Having once lived in the relative vicinity of the Grand Canyon on Earth, Reynard had of course been there a few times herself. This canyon - 'pwane-moll', Reynard guessed was the Satyr word for such a thing - had such eerie similarities that despite all the evidence that had accumulated to the contrary she couldn't help but half expect to stumble across traces of a National Park pathway at some point. She tried to put such thoughts out of her head. No, they were on their own here, and it was up to her now to get them down that cliff. She refused to be thwarted now that water was literally in sight.