Chapter 14: A night in Exile
Copyright © 2018 by Brian Bixby
Exile is another world. Or it’s a different plane of existence on this world. Or it’s in another dimension. Take your pick. They all amount to saying that it’s a lot like Earth but not quite the same. The only way to get from our world to Exile is through a magical portal. Also the only way to get back, too. How to create a portal is a closely-held secret entrusted to the head of Enforcement, which of course these days is Vesta Fox.
The Council decided a long time ago not to execute or imprison dissidents and other criminals, but to send them into Exile. Naturally, they were not told the secret of how to construct a portal to come back. No one is supposed to come back.
Somehow, about thirty years ago, the dwarves stole the secret of the portal from Vesta’s predecessor. They created their own, and migrated en masse to Exile, closing their portal behind them. But every so often, one of them opens a portal and slips back for a while, or lets an Exiled god come back. Vesta, like her predecessors, tries to shut these portals down as soon as Enforcement can find them.
My mother found a portal, and used it several times in the years around my birth. Just her being mischievous . . . until she found out she was pregnant with me. She made one more trip after I was born to tell my father. The next time she tried to use the portal, it was gone; Vesta Fox had found and destroyed it. (Ironic, that.) My mother’s not been back to Exile ever since.
So, I am now in Exile, in a forest north of the last known location of the dwarves’ main village. I merely have to get to the village (if I’m not killed), find my father (if he’s not dead), convince him to come back with me (if he has any feelings for me), hope he knows one of the dwarves who can open a portal (and we don’t know how many do), and persuade that dwarf to do so (although I have nothing to pay him with). And do it in about three-and-a-half days, before Council meets on Monday; Mum and Vesta think they can stall Council until then. Now you know why Vesta thinks too many things could go wrong.
She’s right, as I figure out within half an hour. I was hoping to take a bearing off the setting sun, but the forest here is so dense and it’s so dark I can’t tell where the sun is setting. I guess, and I guess wrong . . . or at least not right enough that I get out of the forest before it is definitely night.
My next logical step is to start a fire, to keep myself warm and scare off predators. Guess what? It must have rained recently. Everything is damp. By the time I start a fire, it’ll be morning and I’ll have become some wolf’s midnight snack.
So time to take to the trees. For about one year in my life, when I was seven, I was a tomboy. I climbed trees all the time. It’s my only real nature skill. I can pick out a good tree to climb just by looking at it for a moment. I see something that looks like a maple, and head for it. I have to jump to get the lowest big limb, but from there it is easy street. I climb until I find a comfortable perch, limbs positioned so I can sit on one and rest my back against the other. I look down and figure I am about twenty-five feet from the ground. I should be safe. So I settle down and plan to wait until sunrise before I climb down and go find the dwarves’ settlement.
Time passes. I hear odd noises, but nothing threatening. To kill time and keep my mind busy and awake, I try to reason out exactly what happened when there were sort of two of me wandering around, but still can’t quite make sense of the whole affair. And I think about what I’m going to say to my father, when I find him, if I find him. Mum didn’t have much time to tell me anything about him.
Sometimes it’s not the noise that clues you in, but the silence. I’ve subconsciously noticed that it’s been getting really quiet. Now I’m listening, and I can’t hear anything. But I can smell something, something musky. It’s oddly attractive.
A low-pitched growl comes from below, and I see something move. It growls again and there’s more movement. I finally make it out in the dark. Something is coming up the tree. Something with claws. And sharp teeth.
It’s a panther. Or some other sort of big cat. It growls and sort of barks as it slams one paw in after another to climb the tree. I can see its teeth and its eyes. There is no color in those eyes, not in this light. It doesn’t matter. I can tell it wants me, presumably for a late night supper.
I do not want that thing any closer. I pull out the gun. As if it knows, it growls and lunges, leaping to grab me. It’s coming right at me! I drop the gun, I’m so startled. I can hear both the gun and the panther fall.
The panther yelps in pain, and then starts up the tree again. It seems to be moving faster this time, making a growling noise almost continuously. If it doesn’t try another lunge, it will be on me in seconds.
I’d strapped the walking stick over my shoulder. Now I swing it off, and prepare to strike down with it when the panther gets too close.
It gets close, closer. I can smell its muskiness, its cat-like nature. It’s making me a little bit light-headed. I’m having trouble concentrating as I position the stick to strike it right on the snout. I’m thinking about how close I want it to get to be sure of giving it a good hit when it lunges again. It catches me by surprise. I feel a sharp pain in my leg. I strike down in a panic, catch it in the face, I think, and it drops.
The cat tumbles down again, but I’m barely paying it any attention. I look at my leg, trying to see what damage the cat did to it. In the dim light it’s hard to tell. I finally find four slight scratches, a matching pair on each side of my left leg, each very thin and short, but each getting bigger as they bleed freely. I’ve been clawed by the creature, barely. Probably why I still have a foot there. I grab some wet leaves, wipe off the blood, and then lick my hand and use it to rub the wounds with saliva. I’ve heard that’s a last resort way to try to disinfect wounds. Though, come to think of it, considering what people eat, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Too bad; it’s all I can do.
With that out of mind, I try to locate the cat, see if it’s started up the tree again. It hasn’t. Instead, it’s circling the tree at its base, looking up at me every so often. Its growl has changed, become deeper, louder, with a rhythmic element to it.
Maybe I’ve scared it off. At least off climbing up after me. Now if it would only go away.
We settle down, the panther (or whatever it is) and me, each watching the other. The panther keeps up circling the tree with its spooky rhythmic growl. I check my leg periodically. It doesn’t bother me much, and it’s stopped bleeding.
The smell of the cat becomes thicker, even up here. It’s disturbing, hard to explain quite why. Maybe it’s making me nauseous. My head starts to beat with the rhythm of the growls. I kind of lose track of time.
’Long around its three millionth time around the tree, it occurs to me what a stupid hunting strategy this is. The energy expenditure is wasteful, almost like it’s showing off how powerful it is. It’s almost like it just expects me to admire it, that I’m going to climb down the tree and surrender myself to it. Hey, I’m not that cheap a date, Mr. Panther!
I shift my position down a little lower to get a better view of the cat. My eyes are quite used to the dark now. If only my eyes didn’t pound in synch with my head. I can see the cat fairly clearly. Long body, clearly mostly muscle. Powerful limbs. I’m betting it’s male. It smells like a male, I think.
The smell is even stronger down here, and my head is throbbing. It’s hard to think. I finally growl at the panther, hope that will make it go away. Nope, if anything it seems more interested. Its growling gets louder. I growl back. I growl in a different rhythm, just to show who’s boss. We fight with our growls, each trying to get louder, each trying to set the rhythm.
The male panther is being stubborn. He’s not switching over to my rhythm. I am going to win this. I have to get closer, face to face if need be. I drop to the ground eager to confront the panther.
I stand up and look toward the panther. I can’t make sense of what I see at first. The panther has stopped growling. It looks at me, but it isn’t moving. And then it falls on the ground.
Only then do I see the man standing behind the panther. He’s lowering a gun, a rifle by the looks of it. He’s killed the panther.
I’m going to kill him.
I take two steps. And then the death smell from the panther hits me, the smell of life dying out, the smell of failure, of defeat. It overwhelms me, and I fall to the ground in a swoon.
My next, what, maybe two or three hours are a nightmare. I wake up, smell dead panther, and swoon again. In those brief conscious moments, I’m aware I’m being moved. Someone is carrying me over his shoulder. Presumably the hunter, the hunter I was going to kill because he killed the panther. That is not a sentence that makes much sense to me right now.
There’s one thing I’m sure of. My trip to Exile is not going according to plan.