Hoppers Part 1

Hoppers Part One: Legends, Prologue, Part One

 

      The Legends, least to greatest:

 

* Let one honor the Elders when commanded; Lest dishonor fall upon one’s head

* Honor other’s tunics; Lest one’s own tunic has no closet in which to drape

* To care is to care; Let those who will not understand be without society’s care

* Hoard not, neither goods nor a mate; Lest this one’s plenty becomes one’s scarcity

* One will obey the councils; Lest a message of judgment be against that one

* Duties are duties; Lest society’s duty is not revealed in turn

* All need to eat; Those who will not to apply themselves will not to eat

* Mothers, only mothers, care for their young; Lest Society cares not for them

* Fate is Fate; Denying fate denies the scrolls and oneself

* Judgments for the one must be borne by the one; Else other fall into the same condemnation

* One eats his share; Else he will have no share

* Secrets are secrets; Exposing secrets will expose one’s self

* One will provide for his own; Lest none provide for him

* The Forested Mountain is death; Let none speak of death (The Silent Legend)

* Rules are rules; Those who break them break their bond with society


 

Prologue

 

Think back, if you will, on a world with an odd castle in the middle of a vast prairie. If this were Earth, which it was not, you would perhaps think of the Middle Ages. At least until you looked closer at the castle. This was an ancient world, in a dimension that has no relevance to our own, except in the shared twilight of dreams.

This world was dying.

The grass surrounding the castle was not grass; it was a life that bears characteristics of both animal and plant. A nervous system allowed each stalk to feel a breeze, to feel thirst when it rained not, to feel satisfaction from the nutrients its roots pulled from the ground.

 It would scream if it could, upon being uprooted or eaten. Alas, it could not. It had no mouth, no lungs. It had feelings just the same. No one, and I mean no one will ever know this except for you and I. After all, who knows the thoughts, the pain, the fears, of those who cannot speak for themselves?

This non-grass was broken by occasional clumps of genuine plant life, usually cactus-like shrubbery bearing various forms of berries. There were also occasional stands of trees. The shrubbery grew around these, as well.

The great beasts in the savanna were not lions, if that’s what you mistake them for. They were feline-like carnivores with powerful saber-like teeth, and legs that would propel them so fast that when they charged they appeared to onlookers as a single line in the non-grass. In a solid blur they would lunge from the place they propelled themselves to the location they would stop, invariably many yards away where their defenseless victim would find itself locked in powerful jaws. While these animals would enjoy chewing on a blade or two of the non-grass, such would not sate the beast’s taste for raw bloody meat. Thus, while plentiful, these carnivores were not overrunning the plain feasting on the non-grass.

However, their favorite food would be found within the castle, and within a thousand similar castles spread across the vast plains that spread across most of the land masses on this planet.

Within this structure was an odd little humanoid beast known as a Hopper.

Rather, within the castle were several hundred Hoppers. There were about two thousand, actually. It was far from filled to capacity, but it would never again reach the total of five thousand it could have long ago comfortably supported.

It was early morn, and so while we will look inside to investigate these strange beasts, we will do so quietly, lest we spying from our own dimension disturb the sleep of these wondrous creatures.

The first thing you may notice as we imagine our way over the sandy steps leading into the main of the castle is that there was no walkway or gate. The entrance, these steps, was a series of landings with no real steps, which were set jutting from the stones along the wall. This was because the entrance was not designed to allow humans in, but to accommodate Hoppers. Hoppers would not walk into the castle; they would hop.

Three leaps and a Hopper would be at the wide top of the outer wall.

So the castle was not designed to protect the inhabitants against humans, or even against other Hoppers, as a Hopper was not capable of being a threat to each other. Nor had they been for a thousand generations. It was designed to protect the Hoppers against the giant cat-like carnivores they called Lhinos, which preferred Hoppers above all other sources of food. Lhinos could not hop, they could not jump very well at all, they were able only to travel perpendicular to the plain by walking, or by launching into a mad run. But they seldom strayed far from a castle hoping a hapless Hopper could be caught outside off guard, while the castle protected those within. Keep in mind the Lhinos could not ascend the landings, each was too high up for them to jump or climb.

The second thing you may notice is that the castle was built of a type of marble. The outer walls circle a thin strip of field, which was like a thin outer courtyard. This outer courtyard was as wide as the outer wall was high, but not quite as thick as the massive outer wall. The inner wall was higher and thinner, and was divided into six unequal segments, some for living quarters, others to work, others to eat or play.

The largest and central segment, rising like a mammoth rectangular pyramid with broad terraces, housed the living complexes. In what could be considered the front of the castle, just within the inner walls on the other side, there was a very large courtyard.

The ground of the huge courtyard was just that, bare ground, dry dust. The stone blocks of the castle were marble. Above the height a Hopper could reach while standing, the marble was rough and unpolished. But closer to the ground and the walkways, the marble was buffed to a glass-like sheen by countless generations of cleaning and rubbing. No new castles would have been built for countless millennia. An environmental balance had been reached long ago, and the ancient ways were not only gone, they were entirely forgotten. Life went on.

Life also very slowly wound down. Nothing was gained, but all things eventually wear down. This was one reason why this world was dying. Nothing new was being infused, and as it continued gradually winding down, this world would crumble and eventually die out. As things stood, this was not to happen for a very long time. All creatures would go about their business for millennia as their ancestors hd, until over ages they become less, and lesser, and then lost. Gone.

We continue our exploration.

If we were to look inside the far reaches of the castle, into the enormous two-level circular store houses to the public hall and adjoining dining hall, and we were to go from there into the living chambers that were traversed by following the gradually inclining hallways up twenty levels, we would see much more of the same architectural style. We do not have the time, however, because our story is about to begin.

So we will pacify our curiosity about these gorgeous walls as we follow one particular hallway to the room of one particular Hopper. We find the doorless archway that serves as an entrance to his chamber and find him lying still in the stark darkness.

Do not make the mistake of thinking the naked creature laying on a bed of brush was a human. While he appeared very similar, a button nose set on a freckled face, note that the long soft reddish-brown stuff on his head was fur, not hair. A mane, really, shared by both males and females, though the males’ manes were usually half again as long. While he looked muscular in a taut, lean manner, his arms were wiry while his legs were rippled with muscles of a shape more akin to a kangaroo’s rather than a man’s.

Notice also that even in sleep he wore an exaggerated grin few humans could hope to mimic draped over the thin puff of facial fuzz on his chin.

Think on his nails. Almost human, but notice how they came out to a point, slightly tapered, claw-like. This Hopper would at a quick and casual glance be taken for a handsome young human, but trust me, he was nothing of the sort. Look, though, how Man-like in slumber!

He scratched. He stretched. An eye, a single green eye, was exposed as he grudgingly lifted one lid. There was little light, just a few reflected gleams of torchlight bouncing off the marble of the halls, and so he opened the other lid.

His stomach was complaining. The communal breakfast call would not happen till first sunlight, but that was some time yet. He was hungry then, at his awakening.

He thougt about hopping out into the prairie, finding berries or maybe the luscious seeds of the non-grass his kind called “Annah.”

But that would be akin to what we would call “Russian Roulette.” After all, who could see the lunge of a Lhino in the dark, to hop out of the way in time? Instinct would often serve, but it would often fail, as well.

The communal breakfast will not be served for some time, but even as he lay thinking of his rumbling tummy, many Hoppers were involved in preparing the day’s first victuals. Those whose lot fell on this day have risen and have met in the great kitchen, and have been sorting berries, chopping Annah, boiling starchy leaves into “Maragoo,” a wonderful porridge…

The Hopper whose birth name was Markam but is called by all by the nickname of his youth tries to resist but could stand it no longer. “Lumper,” he said aloud to only his own ears and ours, “You need food before you shrivel into bones.”

He stood up and retrieved his tunic from where he had tossed it last night upon a stool, and he draped it over his form. With long strides of his powerful legs, he exited his quarters and padded down the hallway toward the dining hall.

He stopped. At each intersection of the hallways, a plaque was inset into a wall with one of fifteen adages. Rather, one of fourteen, since one, the “Silent Legend,” was posted only in the most venerated halls, where average Hoppers can’t tread. This one read “Rules are Rules” in the language of these creatures.

Well, it was in reality a more flowery form of language, from countless generations past, in words mostly only the Elders know except for the adages known as the “Ancient Legends.” Think of how only our lawyers and priests know Latin, I suppose, except for Marines, who at minimum know the words “Semper Fidelis.” These fifteen rules were much like our Ten Commandments, except these were still obeyed by the Hoppers.

Which is why Lumper stopped. The Elder known as Bartilla had told Lumper just that the last time he was chastised. “Come to think of it,” Lumper thought to himself, “I was scolded for helping myself to too much dinner.”

Which meant that to everyone else he had stolen the servings off another Hopper’s plate. He could still remember Bartilla’s stern lecture.

“Rules are Rules,” Bartilla had quoted slowly and solemnly, “And those who break them break their bond with society.” That was the second part of that particular Legend, which was usually left unsaid but always understood to include it. That Bartilla had not simply left it inferred meant that Lumper’s offense had been serious.

Lumper decided to wander about, anywhere but to the Dining Hall. We follow.

Note that while the castle that this tribe of Hoppers lived in was rather large, it was no great town or city, for there was no such creation among Hoppers. After about what we might think of as a half-hour, Lumper aimlessly wandered right into a side portal of the Dining Hall.

He was shocked as he realized what he has done.

“I better ought not,” we hear him exclaim aloud to himself, remembering Bartilla’s warning.

But his belly argued that one of these plates were his, and it really did not matter which one he ate. He had never been reprimanded for taking his own share.

“No, I can’t afford the trouble,” he decided, and even turned to go.

His nose caught drift of the aroma of the food laid out and reported directly to Lumper’s hungry gut, bypassing his common sense entirely. The spicy smell of Puff flowers, actually little caterpillars that inhabit the Gutri tree, caught his nose.

Puff flowers were Lumper’s favorite.

“Just my plate,” he decided, and set about the consumption of the nearest helping.

It could be said that it took a while for a Hopper’s stomach to report getting full, and thinking he was still hungry, he would continue eating after he should be sated. He should therefore eat slowly, to allow his stomach time to catch up to reality.

In this regard, Hoppers were much like us, and Lumper was satisfied not at all as we watch him greedily clean his plate, not even when his portion was consumed, for he had eaten lustily and with guilty urgency.

Therefore, he was nearly as hungered as before, only now his appetite was fueled by the taste of delectables on his palate as well as aroma and sight. He turned his eyes upon a nearby plate.

“It’s stupid,” he told himself, “There are unused plates at every meal. One more won’t hurt anything.”

He had finished half a second plate when one of that day’s conscripts for kitchen duty returned to the dining hall to finish her share of the preparations.

“Lumper, what are you doing?” Lyssabrenna asks, recognizing him even in the dim torchlight, recognizing almost instantly as well that he was near two plates that have been stripped, one entirely, of food.

Lumper hems and haws, but no plausible explanation of his actions came to his mouth. She slowly shook a claw-like finger at him and said,

“Lumper, the Elders won’t like this.”

 

PART ONE: RULES ARE RULES

 

1

 

Lumper had known that he had been on the outskirts of trouble. He simply never realized it was this serious, nor had he understood how adamant the Elders were going to be regarding this matter. As he stood in the center of the courtyard, with scores of Hoppers in a great circle around the wall watching the event, he felt the courtyard closing in. His legs grew weak.

He noticed Lyssabrenna in the crowd. Why, he wondered silently, has she done this to him? He had always liked her. Then he realized that she looks entirely miserable. Serves her right, he thought.

Against the North wall of the courtyard, aside the portal leading into the great Common Hall where dancing and festivities were often celebrated, stood a large White Mistion tree. Every Hopper castle had one in the courtyard.

The name of this Mistion tree was “Omage.” A long time ago, the Hoppers of this castle were the Omagi, but that had been long forgotten by even these Hoppers. Now only the tree was named.

It being the tree of judgment, that year’s Elders of the Council stood under it to decide the matter. Lumper looked from beneath furtive brows at the five of them, their flowing white robes ominous to him. The Council elders were the only even among elders in white robes.

Saboa was Eldest, a female wise and on the Council as long as any living Hopper could remember. Darnbatton was perhaps the youngest. Lumper could remember him when he was no elder, and called by his nickname Spinjumper because, with one leg a little shorter than the other, he’d turn a little in the air when he hopped. Would knowing him, being his friend once, play in Lumper’s favor?

Lumper doubted it. Spinjumper had been a friend and mentor long ago. Lumper had been chubby, unusually so for even a young Hopper, and the older Spinjumper had the leg. They had been a natural pair. Both were awkward.

“Ah, Lumper,” his best friend Throughbed whispers from behind. “Me and my brothers wish you well in this.”

He turned around some, and Throughbed and his siblings Markedback and Singer each gave halfhearted smiles, fearing the worst for Lumper but trying to put on a good face. Lumper returned the sad little effort of a grin.

Then he turned back to the Elders and continued his contemplation. Spinjumper had once been a good friend also.

Spinjumper had grown up fast and wise. While Lumper was slimming and becoming popular for his carefree ways, Spinjumper matured and applied himself to studies. There was no longer a fondness between them.

Lumper saw his mother in the crowd. He resisted the urge to run and hide his face against her. He had been dispelled from her nest, and though love remained, he was responsible for his own now. He had no problem ignoring the tenth Legend, “Judgments for the one must be borne by the one.” His mother, however, need not receive the second part of that Legend, “Lest other fall into the same condemnation.”

He swallowed at her visible grief at his situation and returned his thoughts to his judges. If his mother was frightened, he was in sore trouble.

Martues was the scary one. He had that way of boring through a Hopper with an accusing stare. Lumper burned under it even as he stole a furtive glance at the wizened elder.

Bartilla was fair. Lumper hoped for mercy from him. He could not believe the Council would…no, he shook his head, shuddering at the thought.

He again noticed Lyssabrenna in the crowd. He was still angry with her. Lumper often allowed her slow-witted brother Binky to follow him like a shadow, and she repaid his condescension with betrayal.

Some of the Hoppers gathered here today were here as friends, hoping the best for Lumper. And of course there were his siblings from Mother’s nine matings over her long life, and his two nest brothers and nest sister, Brood, Eriman, and Marilana. Most other Hoppers were here of civic duty or simple morbid curiosity. Judgments were seldom called for, and for those who glean joy from the humiliation and misfortune of others, this was a good day.

For the first time Lumper really believds in his heart that the judges might not grant him one more pass. He realized that the last time he helped himself to a second plate, he expected “one more pass.” And before that, with the tunic he “borrowed” because he left his room without his own. Even before that, two seasons ago, when…

His legs were feeling thin beneath him.

Enough of that, he thought. He realized that all the Elders serving as judges in this matter are glum and serious. Especially, he noticed, Elder Phragma.

Phragma, well, he was a worrisome one. Phragma was to Bartilla what Lumper had once been to Spinjumper. He was a protégé, a younger companion who followed hard on an older example’s path. Only Phragma never veered off. He followed Bartilla into the eldership at a young age, and onto councils.

Phragma was a stickler for the Legends.

It was hot out here in the courtyard. Lumper longed for the cool of the marble halls. After this was over, he would rush to his room and…

What of it were he not allowed to return to his room?

Never in Lumper’s short life had he seen an exile, but older Hoppers spoke of them as if they were once common. What if his were the first in many years? He would be cast from the castle.

Without the castle walls in which to find refuge from the Lhinos, he might survive a day, a week, a season were he to push his fortune past the edge of reasonable expectation.

He would be Lhino meat! Lumper thought of countless acres upon acres of plains filled with hungry Lhinos, stretching all across the world to the feet of the Forested Mountain…

Even in his peril Lumper could not think of that forbidden domain, and touched his forehead in a superstitious bid to counteract any bad consequence of its evil name even crossing his thoughts.

The judgment proceedings became a blur to him. As expected, Saboa began by reciting the charge: “Theft.” Lumper was not exactly sure what that even meant. Anything could be returned, or replaced. It was only stuff Hoppers found in the prairie every day.

Martues pressed angrily into the charge, reminding his peers of Lumper’s past offenses. Darnbatton, or as Lumper still thought of him, Spinjumper, quickly pointed out that “One offense unanswered will lead to many,” which, though not a Legend, was said to be in the Book of Answers the Elders referred to.

Spinjumper was definitely no longer someone Lumper considered a friend.

Almost immediately Saboa was in agreement.

Bartilla gave a momentary defense, citing Lumper’s youth and the relatively small value of the theft.

Phragma answered quickly, and loudly enough that most of those gathered could hear clearly. Lumper noticed he seemed bigger when speaking thusly. Maybe it was simply his own growing fear. Phragma began saying,

“A few bites might seem a small thing, and I have heard it said that it is free to us and so belongs to no Hopper.

“But how do we get these free bites on our tables? Hoppers go outside daily and gather. Are the fields free?

“I say you, no, they are not. Each morsel is gleaned under threat from our adversary the Lhino. Many have fed Lhinos seeking such a morsel, and though we are graced to have no fresh memory, many more in the ages ahead will do likewise.

“This is no youth, but a full-grown male, who stole not a free and unimportant piece of earth, but the blood of those who risked self that we may have food on our plates and the plates of our children”

At this, Lumper’s spinning brain heard little more, only the decree: “…to be banned forever from our midst.”

 

* * *

 

Lumper’s head was throbbing, his heart pounding, hearing the screams of his mother even as his siblings held her from rushing to him. He responded a typical Hopper way to the danger befalling him: he hopped.

Once, twice, high enough that had his menace been a Lhino, the charging beast would have passed harmlessly underneath.

His foe was not a Lhino, it was a band of larger, older Hoppers set to firmly cast him out of the castle. His third jump put his head sharply against the arch of the east portal from the courtyard, and he landed with such a thud many thought him dead.

It was soon realized he was not dead, and so the males that had pursued him picked him up, and together they hopped his limp form over the walls and into the prairie sun.

There they left him, and in the distance, a band of fanged, tawny beasts caught a waft of the aroma of their favorite morsel, heightened by the smell of blood oozing from a gash in the hapless Lumper’s brow.

 

2

 

Many Hoppers failed to believe an actual exile would take place. Therefore, when news spread, the landings on the castle walls and the top of the walls, and any tower that offered a view, became packed with Hoppers young and old. Many were well-wishers, unable to abandon a loved one at his last hour.

Most were engrossed in the spectacle of the day.

Lumper’s siblings and three of his mother’s past mates were on constant guard of his mother to prevent her from rushing out to him. Some spoke of pulling her from the wall, but to force her to leave him entirely, they would never be forgiven.

Soon voices saw the Lhinos afar in the wind-swept Annah. The Annah parted from their mass as they stealthily drew to a good pouncing position. From the level of the plain they would be invisible. From the castle walls several hundreds of their backs were seen. It would be minutes now, and all would be over, for Lumper lay still where he was left unconscious on the grass.

Some of those in the higher towers could see in the distance a couple of the Lhinos crouched, readying their deadly pounce. They saw the helpless Lumper stir, his first pained movements sealing the fixation the hungry carnivores had on him. None of those watching from their vantages in the castle noticed, in one of the occasional stands of berry bushes, another figure suddenly readying a desperate move.

Hoppers would have argued later over exactly what transpired next for a long time, but a lone Hopper pounced out of the berry stand nearest the fallen Lumper. In a feat of extreme strength, the unknown Hopper grabbed Lumper about the torso, and leaped with a hop that propelled both straight up even as the first Lhino charged. Jaws slapped shut, enamel of fangs brushing skin of the unconscious Hopper’s feet.

One could hear the merged gasp of the audience upon the walls as fang went for foot.

The gasp, was of course, over the unexpected rescue.

The pair landed, and the rescuer again instantly launched the two of them in what any Hopper knew had to be excruciating effort. At this, many upon the wall knew who the brave but foolish savior was. Binky had been in the bush, more interested in finding berries than in the proceedings of a trial he had not really understood.

A second beast missed its charge in the same fashion.

A third jump was not as frantic. Too near the base of the castle, no beast was in trajectory to mount its charge and stop without dashing itself against ancient marble. With a fourth leap, the two landed on the lowest landing on the wall, amid a startled pack of Hoppers.

With a few more hops, the two were in the outer wall and Binky stood in the strip of Annah just within, Lumper over his shoulder.

In moments they were thronged by the crowd, which in agitated shock came to them to be part of whatever was happening.

The family and friends of Lumper, of course, gathered round to see if this rescue would change matters. Many others came to give moral support.

The Elders and Hoppers en masse gathered near the pair, and the greater part of the mob, which soon comprised nearly every Hopper living in the castle, gathered to watch.

Lyssabrenna pushed her way through the crowd for the simple reason that her brother had been he who had rescued the exiled one.

Even as she drew near she heard her brother shouting at the crowds, defiant, angry. How unlike him, she thought. She heard his words over the din.

“What is wrong with you? You fed a Hopper to the Lhinos. What did you do? What did you do?”

Lyssabrenna heart pounded as she heard Phragma shout above the din of a throng of Hoppers, “This then applies: Lest other falls into the same condemnation.

“He has protected the Exiled One from the consequence of actions, defying judgment. He must also join the Exile in exile.”

She pushed to the front of the crowd to see her brother had been herded into the place of judgment the ill-fated Lumper had so recently stood alone in. Instead of standing alone, however, Binky was clutching the still-stunned Lumper, keeping him from falling, seemingly protecting him from the crowd. He was simple, but bright enough to realize he had angered the crowd gathered against him. But he held his peace, new fear getting the better of his recent outrage.

He closed his eyes against the crowd. He could not shut his pointed ears. To shut out thoughts of all said against him, he tried to remember the symbols that together spelled his simple name. As usual, they would not form in his mind, but it eased the fear.

Lyssabrenna could not hold silent at all going on about her. Her brother was guilty, true, but in mind he was a child. The judgment could not apply.

“Are you so foolish, Phragma, that you would condemn a child?” Lyssabrenna was not ignorant of the Legends. She knew that opening her mouth to defend her brother, her fate became tied with his. She saw her family in the crowds, the face of her mother aghast at the instant loss (for were they not doomed?) of two children in what seemed an instant.

“You tie your future with that of an exile, Lyssabrenna,” Phragma replied. The crowd was silent, its roar dropping to a mild hum as Hoppers strained to hear this incredible new development play itself out.

“He is but a child, Phragma, you know that. He does not understand.” Of course, she knew her life was then tied together with her brother’s.

“She speaks true.”

All ears, including Phragma’s, were stunned by these three words coming from none other than Phragma’s mentor, Bartilla.

Then came a cacophony of argument among both the assembly and the council.

“He is a good Hopper, and knew nothing of the ruling,” Lyssabrenna cried loudly, that all could hear, “He knows nothing of law, only of heart. He is tried for a kind act.”

“He is also like a child, simple, knowing only what a child knows,” Bartilla argued for her sake. All eyes locked upon him. He spoke with greater passion than any might have expected, especially since his protégé’ took an opposing stance.

Perhaps against any other Hoppers Bartilla might have sided with Phragma. But he saw the frantic fear in the soft green eyes of Lyssabrenna, the plea in her gentle cries for mercy on behalf of her brother, and then, in fact, for herself.

Bartilla loved Lyssabrenna.

No other Hopper knew this. Lyssabrenna did not know this.

Bartilla himself was unaware of this, since even to that day for almost as long as Hoppers have lived in the castles, the emotion of love between a male and a female was not a factor in the lives of Hoppers.

The lust of mating was not this love. Since Hoppers have stopped building castles, perhaps for as long as they have lived in them, females in heat would be wooed by males. The slyest among the strong would she chose as father to each litter. Love existed between mother and offspring, among siblings, among friends even.

A strong bond even existed between a father and his offspring.

But love between male and female, this was unheard of, and even Bartilla stood unaware of his malady.

”He is simple. Let the young Hopper stand free of his guilt.” With this, he concluded his argument. Those few watching Lyssabrenna saw her heave a visible sigh of relief.

Phragma’s face twisted strangely at Bartilla. Bartilla’s protégé’ was, perhaps for the first time in his adult life, unwilling to cease his opposition. He had deferred always before to his mentor. This time, he had placed his reputation on this matter before not only the council, but before the entire congregation. He was not ready to concede.

As he again shouted his argument to the crowd, one could see the faces of the two accused fall again, hope dashing from their eyes. Phragma’s voice roared now above the crowd:

“Were the Legends allowing for the simple, I would say, return the exiled one to the plain alone. Ceranol, the Hopper known as Binky, is of age, however, and the Legend is clear.

“Rules are rules.”

The cascading chattering among the gathered inhabitants of the castle drowned out the quiet words of Saboa which concurred with Phragma. She was hard placed to allow them passage past her thin lips as it were. Darnbatton’s voice was more ready to the charge, but only those near at hand heard.

Saboa stood tall and raised her arms for silence. Slowly the murmuring ceased as the crowd strained to hear judgment.

She was slow to speak, looking at the mass of anticipating eyes, at the two Hoppers before her awaiting judgment with dread in their own eyes, at the injured Hopper she had passed judgment on so short a time before.

She had to speak. The words at the back of her throat were the decision, if not unanimous, of the council. She decided she would stand down after today, let a younger Hopper do such things. She had grandbabies to tend to.

“These two join the first in exile.”

 

3

 

Lyssabrenna had attempted to gain a little time for Lumper to regain his wits. As she was denied and ordered from the castle, with a band of Elders ready to expel them should they resist, her mouth opened as if of its own accord, defiant and angry:

“You think to hand us to death. We will live. We will flee to the Forested Mountain, where no Lhinos live.”

All stopped. All stood in their tracks. Their escort backed away, the crowd itself cowed.

There were two subjects a Hopper was never allowed to mention: death, and the Forested Mountain. Here was a Hopper speaking of both.

The fourteenth Legend itself was never spoken aloud. It was not even freely engraved in plaques on the walls. It was known only in the holy places of the Sanctuaries of the Elders, taught visually to young children who were told never to utter the evil words. Those hearing her immediately fell quiet, and whispers of “She said aloud the Silent Legend” were heard at the fringe of the gathering, followed by shock and stillness.

“The Forested Mountain is death; Let none speak of death.” Thus commanded the fourteenth Legend, and no living inhabitant of the castle could imagine anyone ever breaking this dictate.

All merely looked one to another, unsure of what to do next.

Even Binky and Lumper, the latter being astonished back into semi-consciousness by Lyssabrenna’s words, could merely look at one and then another face in the crowd, each ear on their heads independently twitching in search of words spoken by the gathered Hoppers.

It was Martues who broke the silence.

“Thus let it be known no innocents were condemned today. Cast the evil from our midst!”

Even many who heretofore had sympathy for the embattled outcasts joined in on the chant soon running through the crowd: “Cast them from our midst, cast them from our midst.”

Until then, no one had moved to take any action against the trio, who huddled together for comfort. But those who had moved away, afraid of the evil their ears still tried to block, were slowly regaining courage to act. The wall of Hoppers surrounding Lyssabrenna, Lumper and Binky was closing in one slow footfall after another.

Lumper was regaining enough wits to be close to panic again. He spoke for the other two when in a slow, fear-drenched voice he firmly said, “Jump.”

Lyssabrenna needed no prompting. She said merely, “Follow me,” and thrust her uncharacteristically slim legs as hard as she could, not toward the castle’s outer wall, but toward the inner walls and chambers.

“The wall is the other way,” Lumper cried out after her, but followed anyway with a powerful hop. Binky merely followed his sister a moment after that.

There was no time for Lyssabrenna to explain her reasoning. On an instinctive level, she perceived in the mob a mentality that had been buried in countless generations of Hoppers.

There was no Legend commanding that a Hopper was not to harm another. Hoppers did not intentionally harm other Hoppers, it was not in their nature.

These three had in an instant become so evil to the others that their very existence was being perceived as a stain upon every Hopper in the castle.

The first few Hoppers following on their heels were no longer content to attempt seizing them and ejecting them from the castle. Lumper was the first to stay in one place long enough to see his pursuers had rocks from the courtyard in their clawed fingers.

Binky had soon overtaken Lyssabrenna, for his legs were much more powerful than the average Hopper, and hers less so. But he knew not where she had been heading to, and she murmured under breath before calling after her brother in the loudest voice she could muster.

“Binky, this way.”

Lumper, while not fully recovered, was still a strong young Hopper, and he reached her landing spot in time to startle her. For good reason, the vanguard of the mob was mere seconds behind.

“Uh, I think we better…”

Lyssabrenna had leaped after her sibling before he could finish. Realizing that Binky had went right into the hall leading into the living quarters, he cursed the day under his breath. Immediately he was hopping after her, with no time to spare before the first two pursuing Hoppers were in sight again. Unfortunately, they saw him before he was ducking into the halls.

Binky and Lyssabrenna were not far ahead. Binky was going no faster than his sister, and Lumper was soon beside them as they raced down the hall.

“I think they mean to harm us,” he gasped through panted breath.

“Of course they mean to harm us,” Lyssabrenna snapped back, “I spoke the Silent Legend.”

They heard the first of their pursuers reach the landing behind them and begin running after them. Binky had one of Lyssabrenna’s hands and was pulling her after, trying to add speed to her running.

Lumper took hold of her other and did likewise.

“This next passageway, to the right,” Lyssabrenna shouted as they heard the others gaining on them.

Not bothering to slow down much as they leaned into the turn, Lumper heard rather than saw a stone whizzing past his head and clattering down the direction they had just abandoned.

“We will take this to the third hall, we will then go left.” Lyssabrenna was hard pressed to get these words out. All three were panting and gasping, but fear kept them going.

The other two heard the loud thud when Binky was hit between the shoulders with a fist-sized stone. He winced but kept running without so much as a groan. Three other stones went clanking past, near misses. The Hoppers were not adept at throwing. That they were throwing them at all was entirely unexpected. Nevertheless, this one had hit the mark, and Binky felt the pain transferring throughout his upper torso.

Fortunately for the three, those chasing them had to stop to throw. But their improvised ammunition was soon spent, and when the three turned into the third hall, the closest pursuer lunged into Lyssabrenna, smashing her out of Lumper’s grip and into the corner of the intersecting walls in spite of Binky’s best effort to pull her to safety.

The tackling Hopper had smashed squarely into the wall as well, and was stunned a bit when Lumper did the unthinkable and gave him a powerful kick in the face, sending him sprawling backward and into the path of his three closest comrades. Tangling into their momentum, all three collapsed into a sliding heap that continued past the turn and down the hall.

Both Binky and Lyssabrenna stared gape-jawed at their companion. This was as great a sin as uttering the unspeakable.

 Neither had ever seen a Hopper strike another. Such a thing was not only unheard of, it likely had never been thought of as well.

“Come on,” Binky shouted, grabbing her hand and tugging. Her feet almost instantly complied.

Others had reached the intersection, but those who had followed close behind were as shocked as Lyssabrenna and Binky had been, and stopped, staring alternately at their rapidly disappearing quarry and the three Hoppers picking their selves off the ground.

This pause lasted only a second, however, as two or three, more determined than ever, shot off in pursuit.

In what seemed like but a moment, they were at another landing, and would have jumped but were stopped by what lay before them.

They were on the west wing of the inner walls, but while their flight through the living quarters took only moments, the mob of Hoppers had been largely outside. While most blindly followed into the living quarters and were moments behind them, a score or more had wisely hopped around the whole complex and waited for them. They had paused long enough for one, a big bulky brown furred Hopper Lumper knew as Kicker, to come plopping onto the landing.

Lumper didn’t even hesitate. His right foot shot up and out as it had before, and Kicker flew backward off the landing. For a fleeting wisp of time, Lumper grinned at the irony. Then he heard the crunch of Kicker reaching the ground two stories below, and the sickening reality of life and death reestablished itself.

“To the west wall,” Lyssabrenna said in a groan, and almost as one, the three were airborne.

So were half a dozen large rocks. Again, the incompetence of those aiming to hurt them worked in their favor, and after seeing Kicker knocked backward off the landing, none were anxious to meet a similar fate. They held their distance.

But growing numbers of Hoppers were ringing the upper walls of the castle. Growing numbers of rocks were heaved at every stop. One caught Lumper in the cheek as he made a jump, and he spun and landed poorly.

He had seen the Hopper who had thrown it, one who had, like Kicker, been a friend. He stopped long enough to grasp a rock in his hand and return it. But his aim was no better than that of the others.

He leaped again.

Binky and Lyssabrenna had landed not far away, a roofless corridor leading between two small courtyards. Five other Hoppers landed a moment later, and Lyssabrenna was immediately in their grasp.

Two stood between Binky and Lyssabrenna, and two held her firmly by the arms.

The other was coming from behind with a rather large stone in both hands. Binky knew of him. He was an elder called Harmennack, brother of his own father.

Lyssabrenna had her head turned, enough to see Harmennack raise the stone over her head.

She hopped.

With two large male Hoppers holding her, she merely lifted a few inches off the ground, but it was enough to spare a serious blow to the head. Nevertheless, it tore into her shoulder blade, and upon landing, the two holding her forced their knees into the back of hers. Harmennack began readjusting himself.

Binky found it hard to think. The other two weren’t sure of grabbing him, for Binky was one of the strongest Hoppers in the castle, perhaps the very strongest. So they stood before him, blocking the way. Binky quit thinking. He simply acted.

The blow of his foot into the first Hopper knocked the unlucky fellow into one of those holding Lyssabrenna, who found his head pushed to where hers had been when Harmennack brought the rather large stone down. He would not wake back up to feel the headache afterward.

The second Hopper hopped away quickly.

Lyssabrenna was a quick study. Her first act of intentional violence against another Hopper was against the one still holding her. She broke his leg with a kick sideways into his knee.

Harmennack was still in shock and revulsion at what he had done to the other Hopper, a reaction he would have also had if he had been successful with Lyssabrenna, when Binky’s big foot caught him straight center of his face.

Harmennack would wake up to a headache, and in fact would never be quite right again.

“Are you okay?” Binky asked his sister, who, upon nodding an affirmative, said, “Jump.”

Jump they did.

Lumper had momentarily lost sight of his compatriots. But he quickly propelled himself beside them as soon as they were again visible to him.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, pointing to the castle walls. “We’ll shove our way through.”

It was not really necessary, though. When they got to the top, the Hoppers at that spot simply parted to allow passage.

The three didn’t even pause at the lowest landing before taking their last leave of what had been the lifelong sanctity of the castle.

 

 

4

 

The Annah stretched as far as the horizon, broken only by occasional clumps of woody vegetation and the rarer cutaway depression of a streambed. First one pride, then another, of the dreaded Lhinos had caught sight and scent of the stray Hoppers. While none had yet launched an attack, they followed close by through the afternoon and were still at hand as the sun set toward the horizon.

Lumper felt each new leap burn every muscle in his legs. Hoppers can span good distances. This day’s journey, however, was much longer than any Hopper was used to.

They had slowed some already for Lyssabrenna. She was not as strong as many Hoppers. It seemed likely that she would be the first to become Lhino food were the Forested Mountain not found soon. Binky stood by in case a charging beast sensed opportunity in a pause too long, or a hop too low, but he too was weary, and his thinking, never too clear, was actually now quite muddy.

Nor had they paused to discuss the day’s events. Priority was seeking refuge from the Lhinos. If merely one or two Lhinos had been tracking them, they could have slipped unnoticed into the berry bushes. Or they might hop atop a stand of Gutri trees and curled for a sleepless rest, for eventually an astute Lhino’s nose would find them, and Lhinos have been known to push over Gutri trees to get to the Hopper hiding inside. One had to stay alert if one sought refuge in a Gutri tree.

Finally Lyssabrenna could stand no more. The pauses between each leap were growing longer, her distances shorter, and finally came a leap that would not have saved her had it been to avoid a charging Lhino. This went not unnoticed among the many waiting, hungry eyes that immediately focused onto every movement of the three.

Binky was quickly to her side, but she tried waving him on.

“I can’t go any further, brother. You go to the Forested Mountain without me.”

In the distance, Lhinos were calculating trajectories and distances. The first one that had mental focus on the targeted meal would launch.

“I will help you. And don’t say that name again,” he shuddered as he even mentioned it indirectly. “Leap, then talk.”

She did so, Lumper joining the two as they landed. The three together might seem an easier, more inviting target. In reality, this added having to pick the target from among the many before launching. While the target, Lyssabrenna, was chosen, she had to be re-identified at every landing.

“I am sorry,” she said, “I thought we would be there by now. We’ve traveled long. They cannot be far.”

“I am not leaving you.”

“Why did you have to say what you said back there?” Lumper’s angry insertion into their conversation jarred the two. Binky was a little confused as to what Lumper meant. He had difficulty tying present conversations to a day’s events unless it was spelled out for him.

“Leap,” Lyssabrenna reminded, and while she put more effort than she thought she still had, it was not the strongest hop.

The other two had overshot by enough not to converse, the shouting required would have allowed Lhinos to hone on them quickly. So the three hopped to a single spot, instinctively, each other’s body language communicating to the other the intentions on a subconscious and subliminal level.

“I am done,” she said, “You two need to keep going until you reach the Forested Mountain.” Binky began to protest, Lumper began to rage against her repeated blasphemy, but she silenced both with a gesture of hand.

“They cannot be far. Lhinos do not live in the hills. They cannot charge.”

The three of them leaped again. When they landed again, tears wet Binky’s face.

“I won’t leave you,” he swore, his face a mask of despair. His pain at the thought was two-fold; she would be leaving him, as well.

“I’ll leave in a heartbeat,” Lumper said, “It’s your fault we’re in this mess.”

Lyssabrenna ignored this. She had done her duty in reporting him as surely as she had done her duty in standing by her brother.

Although, truth be known, she would have been silent had she realized her duty would lead to Lumper’s exile. She was not about to admit that to him though. He was being mean.

“And please,” Lumper added, “quit mentioning that evil place.”

They jumped. In the distance, a Lhino that had begun crouching to pounce began drooping as it relaxed, its quarry out of the line it had set. It trotted to another point to calculate a pounce for the countless time this night, but something in its subconscious recognized the depression between it and its prey. It would have to trot to the creek, and clamber down to the bed, over the creek, and back up the other side. It might have given up, this Lhino as well as the two collective prides, but it was near dusk. The prey would weaken.

“You have to understand,” Lyssabrenna said as soon as they landed, and turned to Binky as she said, “I am weakened. I cannot go on much further, and you cannot long aid me. My fate is certain, yours is not. Fate is fate,” she said, quoting the ninth Legend, “If yours is to live, embrace it.”

She then glanced over to Lumper to address him. She began her speech, but her eyes drifted to the Lhinos that had taken to a slow trot toward them rather than being frozen in deliberate calculations. First one, then others had broken their routine to begin trotting to this side of the small chasm created by the creek bed.

“Lumper, only you can take care of my brother now. You can do this only if you do as I say. We were raised to avoid the mention of the Silent Legend, but thoughts of it are not forbidden, and I have read of it in the ancient texts. I think we are meant to go there.”

Lumper had been ready to raise objections on several points, and rant, but Lyssabrenna’s reference to the texts stalled him. He was a bit awed by the idea of a true Reader; a Reader who knew more than one’s name and the Legends was usually called an Elder, and Lyssabrenna had therefore been not long from becoming one.

Of course, in a minute he would remember that the Elders had turned against him and that would be another thing he was angry toward her for.

“So you need to find, will it make you feel better if I call it the Secret Place?” She still wasn’t looking directly at Lumper, she was looking at Lhinos beginning a climb into the creek bed. She was subconsciously noting that Binky and Lumper were more than ready to jump.

She was also noting the effort it was taking the Lhinos to cross the depression.

“Yes it will…you’ve read of it? And…we need to jump.” Lumper was obviously nervous. Many of the tawny beasts were closer than he had ever been to them before, and while they were only walking toward them, the ones still on the other side of the creek still visible. The close proximity of Lhinos was itself reason for fear.

If Lumper was nervous, Binky was terrified. The three had finally learned to subconsciously anticipate from one another’s body language intended directions and distances. Such was the nature of Hoppers. Nevertheless, Lyssabrenna, pointed toward her intended landing and simply said, “Jump.”

Thus Lyssabrenna began directing their jumps. After no more than another six jumps, no more of the Lhinos followed. In fact, they had given up a chase that would in no way replenish the nutrients wasted on chasing the Hoppers. They went back to their home hunting grounds, catching the few scurrying field rodents they could find.

“Why did they leave?” Lumper asked, Lyssabrenna leading them on small jumps that skirted one side of the creek to another.

“They cannot streak across a creek bed. They would lose elevation and crash, very hard, into the other bank.

“Which is why,” she added, “we must go to the For…to the Secret Place. There are many trees there, there are hills and rocks, and Lhinos do not live there. They would kill themselves every time they charged.”

“How do you know,” Lumper asked sarcastically.

“It is in the Ancient Texts,” she replied simply. “A lot of Texts.”

Lumper wasn’t going to argue.

Their jumps were shorter, lower, but the three were worn as they never knew they could be. Any conversation was stifled. Each grabbed what Annah stalks they might to chew on, but the day’s misadventures were taking their toll.

Darkness was falling.

None of the three had much experience in being outside at dusk. The sun sunk quickly between the time they decided to start looking for trees to loft in and the time it was too dark to have a hope of finding any. They might have found a cluster of Gutri trees in which to hide, but Gutris were known to attract Lhinos as well, a place to shade in the heat of day. With as little starlight as was shining through the thick night air, they would not be safe.

Therefore they kept trudging. Soon their hops were exhausted as well. Lyssabrenna was the first to not make the other side of the creek on one of her hops.

The bank was not the highest or the steepest, but enough so that by the time she tumbled to the bottom, her legs were bruised, her arms and face battered. Dazed, she sat up, nursing an elbow in particular, as her brother reached her side.

Above, Lumper considered leaving the two of them and continuing. Maybe another colony of Hoppers might be found, maybe they would embrace him. These two would only get him…

He could not even think the mention of death, so ingrained the teachings.

…In trouble.

But he owed Binky for saving his life.

But Lyssabrenna had put it at risk in the first place, and Binky did not, could not undo all the damage.

He decided to leave. He was ready to leave. Certainly, he would leave them.

His feet and hands led him down to the other two anyway, just as Binky was helping his sister to her feet.

“You’re tired,” Binky protested, to no particular end.

“Yeah, well, I’ve said I’d be the one to give out. You and Lumper go on. I’ll find a place to hide and catch up later.”

She was under no illusion she would catch up to them later. Binky might feel better thinking she would.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea, Binky.” Lumper looked at the other two as he said this. Binky was strong, but he was sweaty and grimy, and he had been injured before the journey had even begun. He looked every bit the worse for all of it.

But Binky looked in better shape than his sister. Lumper felt odd for it, even though he himself was worn and injured. “We can go on, Binky, while your sister hides and rests here.

“Or,” he continued, in spite of himself, “we can go along this creek bed until we all find a place to hide.”

“Markam,” Lyssabrenna said using Lumper’s formal name, feeling that such a mature piece of logic on his part deserved a nod of recognition, “That may be the finest thing I’ve heard said all day.”

Lumper refused to show it to the others, but something inside him stirred when she had paid him credit. Something inside him had stirred, not merely the biological urge to mate that a female Lyssabrenna’s age can induce by secreted hormones. Rather, an odd giddiness Lumper could in no way explain.

He began to lead them through the dark, starlight muffled by night mist their only guide, when he walked into the sticky sheet of webbing. Mema Ivy, and he was stuck in it’s sap and barbed thorns.

He constrained the panicky desire to scream.

Binky, directly behind him, slightly bumped into him as he stopped unexpectedly. “Wha…?” He began, but Lumper quickly silenced him.

“Shh. Stop. I’m stuck to something,” he said in a whisper, dread filling his heart, “And I can’t get out.”  

5

 

They had come together late in the still of the night. No rest had come to them, nor would it.

No tables, no podiums stood between the seated figures and one another. The small hallway was entirely unfurnished except for the five stone benches and the somber Hoppers brooding upon them.

Saboa sat in what could be termed the premier seat, although the five were alike and formed a perfect pentagonal formation. To her left, sat Bartilla, then Phragma. To her right, Martues, then Darnbatton.

As was the case in serious matters, the five had indulged in meditative silence while collecting thoughts. Now, Saboa was ready to speak, gathering from many unspoken cues that the other four were ready as well, much the same way two Hoppers traveling together begin to signal intentions through body language.

“They cannot be allowed to disturb that which is unspoken,” Saboa stated plainly.

“They will never arrive, Elder Saboa,” Martues said rather sadly. “Surely by now there are Lhinos licking their chops.”

No one noticed the intense pain expressed on Bartilla’s face. It was not out of place to feel the passing of any Hopper personally.

Darnbatton quickly agreed. “It is dark in the plain, and they were young. May the Great Life bless us with those to take their place.”

“May the Great Life bless us,” Martues and Phragma echoed, almost simultaneously.

“Nonsense,” Saboa said, her face distorted with concern and skepticism.  
“These young Hoppers, they are an extraordinary trio.

“Were there only one of them, I’d say, surely they will never reach their destination.

“And you may be right. The odds against them, they are great.”

Saboa stroked the long fur of her head in contemplation for the length of an uncomfortably long pause, the others holding their words until she had finished. Finally, she said,

“There is a hidden strength in each. Markam whom we call Lumper is clever, even more so than we credit him for. Lyssabrenna is wise. Even the Hopper Ceranol, whom all call ‘Binky,’ he will not tire easily. There is a strength not merely of flesh adversity may bring to fruition. If there is a way, these three will find it.”

“Then what do we do?” Martues asked what all thought.

“None of you have sat in the seat I now sit,” Saboa said, her arms and legs stretching of their own accord, as Hoppers arms and legs are wont to do. “If you had, you would know there is a way. I have met with those of us who take turns sitting in the chief seat.

“The ancients knew this might happen. They had left us with the means of dealing with this threat.”

Threat. Bartilla tossed this through his mind, unwilling to accept the idea that Lyssabrenna might be a threat.

“There are secrets hidden in the mist of ages, and you four must learn them in order to cope with this danger.”

A slight gesture of Saboa’s hands waved off any questions for a moment. From her robes she took out an old copy of a text the original of which had long ago turned to dust. She handed to Martues on her right.

Martues, Darnbatton, Phragma, and Bartilla, one by one they read, one by one their faces grew long.

When finished reading the scroll, Bartilla reverently began rolling it up, and said only, “What now?”

His real question was for details. The scroll had told them all exactly what was to be done, but not one of the four sitting with Saboa had any idea as to how to accomplish it.

“The ancients left us with tools,” Saboa began,” and not without means. One of you have to track down the exiles and obey the scrolls.”

The young Darnbatton was so startled he arose from the bench before controlling his reflex and sitting back down again. Martues looked at Saboa with a blank uncomprehending stare, and Phragma simply cocked his head in amazement. Bartilla’s jaw hung limp.

For some time after, not a word was said. Saboa was allowing the Elder Hoppers she led adjust their thoughts to this new concept. Finally, Darnbatton, shaking to his bones, voice aquiver, said, “I’ll go. I know his ways.”

“And he yours,” Saboa said,”No.” Darnbatton was unable to hide the ease of relief pasted suddenly upon his countenance.

Martues simply thumped his own chest and said, “I’ll do it.”

“Rather, they would likely overpower you,” Saboa replied.” Your heart is noble, brave Martues, but the three we seek are cunning and strong.”

“Then I go,” Bartilla said in a voice that cracked.

“Then you go,” Saboa agreed. “You are young, yet strong, as cunning and wise as any other Elder. You stand best of us in doing this thing.”

Phragma had his head in his brow, contemplating hard on whether to speak, or to remain silent. He made a decision, and before fear would cause him to alter his course, said to all, “And I with him. Someone,” he said, stroking the soft black fur of his head in contemplation of this course of action, “to watch his back.”

“You need not,” Bartilla said, “There is no need for two of us to risk the threat of…the threat of the plains.”

But Saboa would have none of it, for she thought that to have two to go out on the plains an excellent idea.

There would be no rest this night for Bartilla, Phragma, or Saboa. The other two were dismissed, and after taking from the two volunteers an oath of silence, Saboa began teaching secrets. Of course, the oath was redundant. They were bound never to divulge things learned in the chambers of these five Elders without consensus of all, they were bound by their oath of council.

Lyssabrenna had been under oaths as well. Yet she spoke to the entire assembly things hinting of dark secrets. Redundant oaths helped assure redundant fealty to duty.

Saboa told them of tracking across the plain, how to follow almost imperceptible patches of broken Annah where a Hopper had landed, and to look in such patches occasionally for footprints. She told them of other Hopper castles, and of secret code words they were to tell the Elders of such castles lest they be ‘dealt with’ as well.

Not long before the first light of day, Saboa took the two to a windowless chamber known hitherto to only those serving at head of the chief council. Within it, the secrets of countless millennium gathered dust, even though it had been regularly maintained and replaced. The size and make of any other storage chamber, the single torch barely lit the entire chamber with faint and flickering light. Only that near Saboa was adequately aglow.

Some of the instruments herein were pointed and sharp. The mining of the planet’s minerals had been forgotten by Hopperkind after the time the castles were finished, and these tools were odd to look upon, and the two could only guess at their use. Metal was rare and used sparingly in their world. In this room a wealth existed.

Not only were tools for mining stashed in the chamber, but tools for cutting stone, for felling and sawing timber, all these were within this chamber. There were machines as well, but to the ignorant Hoppers, unfamiliar in their use, they seemed mere hunks of metal. Only Saboa knew better.

Saboa took the scroll they had read earlier and placed it on a shelf of such scrolls, memories of an otherwise long forgotten history. She picked up another. From a bank of shelves on a wall Saboa took two pairs of straps fitted with burrs of metal from a pile. She then took two pointed stakes, the height of a Hopper, sheathed in metal. Finally, two thick blades sheathed in an odd covering were picked up.

“Come with me,” she said, leading them to another chamber of the Elders. None other than the dozen who cloistered here knew what it was they did here. They were teachers, teaching Elders of mysteries, but not all secrets were shared. In this chamber, the highest of the Elders, those who took their turns in the chief seat were gathered.

These explained the odd instruments to the two volunteers. The scroll Saboa had brought in with them in place of the other was an odd thing indeed. It was a drawing of the land, indeed of much of the world, and was explained.

“Memorize as best you may,” Saboa said, thinking of things told her by the other chiefs of times past, things she could not tell these she sent to glory or doom. And Phragma also, he committed to his recall the details of the map.

As well in this room, thin and meager packs of dried provisions had been prepared. The straps with the burrs were hooked to their feet, the provisions to their backs, the blades to waists and legs. Escorted by the first of morning’s dim hint of light to the walls, each had sad thoughts before leaving this place that was home, with no surety they would see the wonderful halls again.

Bartilla had no choice, torn as he was. He knew what he had to do after the first two Elders were turned down for the mission. He only regretted that now he would have to figure out a way to separate himself from Phragma.

Bartilla knew not when he had first fallen to the enchantment. Had it been passing her in the halls? Brushing close enough to bask in her musky scent? Or had it been watching her work in the kitchens, her robes wet and clinging from steam and sweat?

It may have been answering questions she asked in the archives, questions stemming from her veracious appetite for learning. After all, the look of wonder in her soft green eyes was beautiful to behold. Yet she held sway over him far beyond any mating urge could explain. He would save her. He would follow her, perhaps she was still safe, and together with her he would find an alternative to the Secret Place. His heart was not in this home he was leaving, even as Saboa waved them on. .

It was out on the plain, surely far away, surely with the exiled Lyssabrenna.

Another’s heart was perhaps more mixed, but he too looked out onto the plain with a sense of anticipation. Once, Phragma had loved Bartilla as a brother. It was hard, however, always being one step behind. Bartilla was slighter older, slightly wiser, slightly quicker in every way. Phragma was always a second.

Phragma was of course not privy to the deepest secrets of the place none dared speak of.

He was, however, perhaps the most learned of the rest of the Hoppers. Perhaps only Lyssabrenna of those not chief had memorized more of the scrolls in the archive. None matched his mastery of the Book of Answers, not even the exiled female.

Those scrolls also spoke of legends and hinted to the Deep Secrets.

He, Phragma, had put these things together in his mind. If these secrets existed, he would find them, and they would be his.

He would be second no more.

(expires March 3 2019)

Randolph StewartComment