4: Night

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I felt something hard jabbing at me.  I tried to move away but I was inexplicably stuck like a sheep that had wandered off and gotten itself hopelessly tangled up in a mass of thorns.  There was a miasma of rotten vegetation, earth, and ant spoor.   Random blows rained down on my head and upper back no matter which way I turned.  Then a thing with many hands seized my arms and dragged me out into a hot, golden brightness toward a babbling that sounded like many voices stitched together to form a single, ghastly narrative.  The humans like to talk about jinn, shayatin,  and spirits.  Truly, I don't believe in such things, but if they do exist I now know what one must sound like.  I vaguely remember curling up into a ball.

Looking back, I found it a little strange that the sheep episode came to mind then. One of my first contacts with humans was with a pair of young shepherds who found me with one of their sheep. It was stuck and I was trying to reason with it and decipher its baaing and bleating language in an effort to help and establish good relations, not realizing that I was dealing with a beast. I do think I've come quite far since those early days.

Some hours passed before I was myself again.  The gathering coolness of night helped clear my head a little and I was greeted by a sky that reminded me of star clouded lapis, tinged with purple undertones fading into gold and black where sky met horizon.  The clean darkness, like a hive,  promised hope and new beginnings.  The illusion faded when I perceived the remnants of Gillian's scent.  She had been hit by a musket ball.  Our, or now rather, my burrower was seriously but not mortally injured.  That is, if my guess was right based on the lingering remains of her status emissions.  

I realized that I was laying on a quilt placed over a couple of carpets, which was how we usually slept.  I used to prefer a shallow burrow in the sand but I felt it important to adopt humans ways if I were going to learn about this alien race.  After almost a year of carpets, I had gotten to like the arrangement quite a lot.  Sometimes we put up tents or canopies but oftentimes we didn't.  Most of the time we camped during the heat of the day and traveled at night.  The fact I was alive and the others hadn't left was a good sign.  Wasim reclined not too far away.  He was propped up with several pillows.  His head was bandaged, though some blood was seeping through the wrappings.  His left arm was in a sling and one of his legs was splinted.  He had some deep bruises on his face and one of his eyes was swollen closed.  

I had gotten lucky.  I was mostly just sore and although my hide was cracked in a few places it was nothing I couldn't patch up.  All I needed was the pot of chitin cement I carried in my bag for such things.  Deceptively tired though.  I felt good until I tried to get up and move about.  I only remember feeling this level of enervation once or possibly twice before in my long life of almost five years.        

I clicked a feeble but joyful greeting, which Wasim acknowledged by showing his teeth.  I didn't trust myself with the nuances of meanings attached to human smiles, but given the situation I knew this was no time for mirth.  Wasim always surprised me with his faculty for interpreting my clicks.    

"We're alive," I said.

"Yes, my friend, we are.  Thanks to the gods and to Gillian."

"What happened?  Is Gillian still alive then?"

"That pig, Zaafer, had the men shot."  He tried to make a motion with his good arm and grimaced.  "They got Doc too." 

"Shot?  Which men?"

We traded a few other questions and answers back and forth.  Neither of us was in much shape for conversation and things became confused.  I pieced together that Zaafer had those men executed, who had remained loyal to Wasim and tried to fight back against his takeover of the band.  The man with the spear accidentally impaled himself and was dead.  Sifr was trapped under him and that is what probably saved her.  Apparently the worst of the collapse was toward the back of the cave where poor Wasim was located.  Myself and the others were only partially buried.  I couldn't imagine falling dirt inflicting much damage to Gillian unless by chance a large stone fell on her.  Burrowers are built for such calamities.  I asked about Gillian but I couldn't get much out of Wasim except that she had saved him somehow and a bunch of men had shot at her.  Gillian retreated toward the back of the cave and that was the last he saw of her.  Wasim passed out and came to several times.  The last time he remembered, Sifr's friend, I don't remember the woman's name, was carrying him in her arms outside the cave. 

Wasim seemed to have trouble staying awake and I slept off and on as well.  He must have dreamed because he'd mutter and sometimes cry out, wake up for a moment in a welter and maybe ask a question only to fall back asleep again.  His restlessness made me miss the hive.  That was the only place I ever dreamed and even then not very often.  We higher morphs sometimes smell and even hear a nepenthean voice in our sleep.  Some say it is one way we perceive the comforting emanations of our queen, which is what I believe, while others have different ideas.  

Doc had a number of wild and contradictory theories on this subject.  For one so logical and literal in many ways, our former leader took a lot of interest in human gods and such.  One time, it even allowed itself to be initiated into a local cult to a jinn!  One shouldn't argue with the dead, so all I will say is I hope dear Doc was right and that even now it enjoys the endless bounties of the eternal hive or the  jinn's paradise, or perhaps is blessed by having achieved unification with some universal egregore.    

Eventually one of the men tossed a bag and a water skin in our general direction.  There was camel meat, nuts, and dried fruit.  A good meal though I don't enjoy dried meat as a rule.  The man frowned at Wasim or perhaps just his poorly bandaged head.  I assaulted the fellow with questions.  

All he would say was, "Zaafer will decide everything tomorrow.  Your fate lies with him.  Now shut up and don't cause any more trouble."  

I was too exhausted to argue and began a study of the camp from my quilt.  Not long after I must have fallen asleep.  I didn't dream.     

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