Absulla collapsed in exhausted relief onto her cot.
“How’s it going?” Urielle asked, looking up from her sewing.
“Two more left today,” Absulla sighed, throwing her arm over her eyes and wishing it was dark and quiet already so she could just sink into sleep. “They say learning about love has too many rules and they’d rather go hunting,” she groaned.
“Arelil did warn us that the other chlotka weren’t well suited for this sort of thing,” Urielle said.
“I know. And Arelil was more right than he knew. I’m starting to wonder how I managed to succeed with him. I only knew him for a handful of minutes before I set him free that day.”
“Yes, well those handful of minutes were the first of his life,” said Urielle, setting aside her sewing and going to the kettle to stir the stew. “Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe chlotka learn best in those first few minutes out of the shell.”
“I’m beginning to think that’s exactly the case,” Absulla sighed. “Where’s Hendron?” She sat up suddenly, her nerves buzzing with a terrible thought. “Please tell me he didn’t go wandering off. With this many chlotka around and half of them deciding that they have nothing more to learn…”
“He’s fine,” Urielle interrupted, smiling at Absulla’s worry. “He says he’s learned how to use that little U shaped thingy. He says he can ride rainbows now as if they’re flowing waterfalls. He’s out flying.”
“Chlotka can fly if they want to,” Absulla snapped irritably. “Flying doesn’t make him safe. The only reason we’re safe in this cottage is because Arelil is outside.
“That isn’t the only reason we’re safe,” Urielle said, pouring stew into a bowl and handing it over to Absulla. “We’re also safe because those chlotka out there respect you for teaching one of their kind to be more than a just hunter. Besides, worry worm, Hendron says that chlotka respect rainbows and leave them alone.”
“That’s true,” said a voice from one of the windows.
A tree limb had somehow grown its way into the little cottage and now rustled its leaves into the semblance of a face.
“Arelil, come inside and get some stew,” Urielle laughed.
The tree limb oozed like a liquid onto the floor and reshaped itself into a chlotka, a form which had somehow lost its terror-inducing effect in the year that Absulla, Urielle and Hendron had spent living in this unusual chlotka colony. The chlotka form, the one they generally defaulted to when not mimicking some other creature, was a compilation of shining black scales, teeth and horns. Everything about it inspired fear, which made them the most feared predators in all the lands.
Usually solitary creatures, the chlotka had come together to live in something of a village over the past year, hoping to learn from Absulla the art of love. This art was an illusive thing, mostly thanks to its spokesman, Arelil. Absulla had been there when Arelil hatched, and the brief conversation they had before she freed him into the wild had dealt with love and sacrifice. Her action, freeing him, was most certainly going to get her killed. Or so she had thought at the time, anyhow. Her selfless action had remained with Arelil, and somehow he had found others of his kind and impressed upon them the power and need for love. So much so that they had banded together and freed Absulla, Urielle, Hendron and Absulla’s guard Yondi from captivity and brought them here to begin lessons on love.
Arelil slurped his stew happily, constructing a purr deep within his chest to demonstrate his pleasure. Urielle laughed, pleased, and ran a hand over Arelil’s plates in a motherly fashion.
“You should see the size of the mammoth Mibbins took down,” Yondi said, entering with an intimidating slab of meat resting on his shoulder, which he slapped down on the small table. “She said I’d be a good hunter if I could only change shape,” he added with a beaming smile.
Absulla had to admit that where she had failed with the chlotka, Yondi had absolutely succeeded. Here she was trying to teach them a concept foreign to their nature and Yondi simply connected with them as they were. It was possible that he had taught them more about love in the last year than she ever would.
“Yondi, that’s wonderful!” Urielle said happily. “This will feed us for…”
A roar drowned out whatever she said next. Everyone froze. Arelil’s purr ceased. He dropped his bowl of stew and shot through the front door. Several roars filled the air, one of them his. Urielle’s eyes were wide with astonishment but Absulla had felt this moment coming. Chlotka were predators first. They were barely community minded and even less suited to concepts such as love and sacrifice. Their patience had been wearing thinner by the day and not even the novelty of Arelil, who at four years was not fully grown, could keep them interested. She knew that at some point they would decide that they’d had enough, at which point she and her friends would become their meal. Arelil would try to stop them, but he’d fail.
“They are finished listening to love,” Arelil called through the doorway.
His voice was tight with worry. It was exactly as Absulla had feared it would be. She took a deep breath and stepped through the doorway to face the thirty-some chlotka surrounding Arelil and the small cottage.
“We are finished with your teaching,” hissed the one known as Bebs.
Their names had been given to them by Yondi, one and all, beyond Arelil. Chlotka didn’t name themselves as they didn’t tend to live together and had no need for naming. Yondi had insisted, though, and indulgently, they had adopted the names he gave. Absulla had a sudden inspiration.
“You have nothing more to learn from me,” she said. “I’ve taught you the principles of love and selflessness in words, but it wasn’t me who was your teacher.”
“Is this trickery?” Bebs asked, cocking her head to one side. “We’ve had enough of your words.”
Several chlotka crept forward. Absulla tried to keep the trembling in her hands hidden from their view. She wondered if there was any way to instruct Arelil to leave before… well, before. She knew he’d defend her to the end, and it seemed that might be quite soon.
“Not trickery,” she said. “A revelation I’ve only had recently. Here I was trying to teach you something by describing it, and Yondi achieved it through actions. Mibbins, why did you give him a portion of your kill?”
Mibbins looked around at the other chlotka as their gazes fell on her. If possible, she looked embarrassed.
“He earned it,” she said at last.
The chlotka took another step in. Her point had been missed.
“He earned the meat,” Absulla said quickly, “or he earned your trust? Which is it?”
The advance stalled again as the other chlotka focused on Mibbins.
“Both,” she replied, and the advance resumed. Arelil bristled, scales sparking against each other as he swelled to look larger than he was.
“Then you have learned love,” Absulla declared, as triumphantly as her trembling voice would allow.
This did slow a few of the chlotka as they paused to consider her words, but others continued to edge forward. They were getting close now. Within pouncing distance of Arelil. Absulla hated this. She hoped that her conversation had given Uriell and Yondi enough time to escape from a window or something. A mist drifted down on Absulla’s cheeks and she savored it. The day had been a warm one, without a cloud in the sky. A little rain would be just the soothing thing to make her last day of living a good one. She imagined how the roots of the trees around her would drink it in. Something wholesome could come out of this day, even should things turn out for the worst. And it seemed like that was the direction things were taking. The chlotka called Nok crept in too close for Arelil’s liking and Arelil struck out at him. A sinister chuckling filled the lungs of the other chlotka. They didn’t consider Arelil a threat.
“Yondi has been a selfless friend to you, each and every one of you,” Absulla said. She was scrambling for anything more that she could say to change their minds. “In his actions he has shown you what I described with words. That is love. That is selflessness. Mibbins, you didn’t have to give him a portion of your kill but you did. Your action was selfless. It was an action of love.”
“I have learned this love?”
“Yes, Mibbins, you have. You understand friendship. Do you like the idea of your friend Yondi getting hurt?”
Mibbins considered this.
“Then you truly have learned what we came here to teach,” Absulla said.
As she said this, Urielle took her hand on one side and Yondi took her other. Her heart sank. They were supposed to be far away from here by now.
“Friendship means not letting someone you care about face down fear by themselves,” Urielle said in a clear voice.
“When Absulla set Arelil free she thought she’d die for it,” Yondi added. “She did so anyhow ’cause she knew it was the right thing to do. And three years she sat in a tower cell thinking she’d be snuffed the next day and never once did she wish she hadn’t done it. If you’re about to have a meal, it’s worth knowin’ the quality of the lives you’ll take.”
Absulla blinked at Yondi. He wasn’t one for big speeches. Most days he seemed a simple sort of person. She liked him well enough, but she’d never thought of him as someone who was paying attention to the world quite to the degree of everyone else. Yondi wasn’t finished.
“As for Urielle,” he said, “she’s the warmth of the mothers you didn’t have. She’s tended to all of you one time or another. Aches, meals, whatever you needed, she provided. Ye came here to learn love. How can you look at Urielle and not recognize it?”
Several of the chlotka had stopped their forward movement. A few sat down. Many more still crept ever forward, though. Arelil lashed out at one called Angen and Absulla was surprised to see that Mibbins swiped his hip with her spiked tail when he didn’t back down. She strolled past him to take up a stance at Arelil’s side.
“Yondi is my friend,” she declared.
Absulla noticed a few of the chlotka toward the back disappearing into the woods. The mist had ceased and warm sunlight kissed her moist cheeks. She closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation. The air felt even warmer than the afternoon’s heat, which didn’t make sense. She opened her eyes, and was puzzled at the red hue that had come over the world. Hendron stood nearby, taking in the scene.
“The rainbows have sent me to collect you,” he said. “They say the chlotka are finished with us, but they aren’t.”
“Fine by me,” Absulla said, nearly laughing with relief. She could see the chlotka easing away from the rainbow.
“Yes,” Urielle sighed in relief.
“You go on,” Arelil said. “I’ll find you.”
Mibbins rubbed her shoulder against Arelil’s playfully.
“I think I’ll stay put,” Yondi said, surprising them all.
“Honey, it isn’t safe,” Urielle said delicately.
“Not for you, that’s sure,” Yondi said. “Listen, you don’t get them like I do. Go on. I’ll be fine here.”
“Yondi, you don’t understand what’s happened here,” Absulla started, but Mibbins spoke up.
“Yondi is correct,” she said. “He’ll be safe. Go.”
Urielle threw her arms around Yondi’s shoulders. Hendron shook his hand. Absulla wasn’t sure what to do. She took up both of his hands and met his eyes.
“Yondi, you’re pretty amazing,” she said. “You live like a ripple and arrive like a wave.”
Yondi smiled his usual, self-conscious smile.
“You and your big words,” he said bashfully. “Go on. I need to cook that meat before it spoils.”
With that he ducked back into the cottage and set about preparing the meat he had brought in.
“Ready?” Hendron asked.
Already the ground had separated from them and warm red air sped them into the sky.
“I don’t know if ready is the word,” Absulla laughed. “Eager to see what’s next. How’s that?”
“Exactly as it should be,” Hendron smiled, taking Urielle’s hand in one of his and Absulla’s hand in the other. “Exactly as it should be.”
Written by W. C. McClure. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Also, please help support this indie author by buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!