Herd Instinct (A Prosatio Silban Tale)

(Story idea by the redoubtable Ann Clark; two-and-a-half printed pages. If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)

IF SOMEONE YOU LOVE BEGINS to act strangely, you could do one of two things: ignore the situation and try to carry on regardless, or engage as best you can.

That was the problem Prosatio Silban was puzzling over. His dray-beast, a shapeshifting buopoth named Onward, was usually enthusiastic about pulling the cook’s galleywagon. But this morning, his head hung between his forelegs; he didn’t at all meet the cook’s concerned gaze; and instead of his usual merry rattling hoot, his only vocalizations were soft sad sighs.

“What ails you, my friend?” asked the cook, offering the quaint beast his favorite breakfast – a greasy, purple, lavender-scented fatberry cake. But Onward showed no interest in his preferred provender, and only sighed the louder.

I wish I knew more about his species beyond the chance rumor and traveler’s tale, Prosatio Silban thought. But I’ve never even seen another buopoth. Perhaps we should harness-up anyway?

“C’mon, boy,” he said. “Let’s get going.”

He opened his galleywagon’s yoke and gestured Onward toward it. The buopoth looked at his human companion, then at the harness. Slowly, he flowed into the latter until it fitted him, sighing as he went. He took one of his more usual forms – a somewhat elephantine ox – and glanced at the cook.

Prosatio Silban climbed into the driver’s-bench and flicked the plaited yak-hair reins. They were in the middle-western portion of the territory known by all as the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell. His plan was to drive southeast to cosmopolitan Soharis and seek custom in one of the many-harbored city’s marketplaces.

However, Onward had a different plan. Instead of obeying the cook, he made a wide half-circle on the packed-dirt road and headed west toward the Reckless Hills.*

“No, Onward!” Prosatio Silban called, pulling up on the reins. “Other way! The other way!” But the heedless beast continued on its course.

It should be mentioned at this point that when the cook acquired his galleywagon a quarter-century ago, it came with a long quirt hanging by the driver’s bench. The cook lifted it from its hook, hefted it in his hand, raised it high, and swatted an errant bloodfly.

Anyone who needs this to discipline a dray-beast is too horrible a driver to even try to manage such an animal, he thought, but it’s always open season on flies.

Prosatio Silban gasped and stood up on the driver’s bench for a better view.

Soon, they had left the road entirely and were angling northwest beyond the hills and their soft valleys of fragrant mint and short, yellow-green velvetgrass. They were now in the Western Wides: monotonous savannahs, punctuated by the occasional tall baobab stand and low bluestone outcropping.

At least we’re making good time, wherever we’re going, Prosatio Silban thought. Onward broke neither pace nor sweat as he galloped across the flatlands, drawn to some unknown destination about which the cook was becoming increasingly curious.

Overhead, the sun was arcing down toward the flat horizon, bringing out the rich colors of sunset. A light headwind began to blow past them, but Onward pressed on regardless. As they ascended a low rise, a subtle humming caught the cook’s ears; a melancholy melody whose source and tune he couldn’t quite place, but which was becoming louder – and the headwind stronger – as they reached the rise-top.

At the broad summit, Onward slowed to a crawl, then stopped. Prosatio Silban gasped and stood up on the driver’s bench for a better view.

Below them was a well-defined depression about a mile across. On the rim was a thick tangle of massive skeletons, with gaps here and there. Below the bones were hundreds – thousands? – of buopoths, swaying round in alternating clockwise and counterclockwise circles a central and very large bluestone. Atop the stone lay an enormous, motionless buopoth, its legs splayed out in a way that signified it wouldn’t be moving anymore.

“The Vale of Bones,” Prosatio Silban whispered to himself. “Where buopoths come to die.”

He shot an alarmed glance at his beloved companion. But before he could react further, Onward had flowed out of his yoke and down the rise, to be immediately lost in the circling throng.

Please, Hartiz, Protectress of Companion Beasts, let this not be the last I see of him, the cook pled silently. He closed his eyes, thinking grateful and worried thoughts, then opened them. The ethereal humming had grown more intense as the chatoyant creatures revolved faster and faster, and from his vantage point he could detect a fragrance like sun-warmed and indeterminate spices. Soon, the air was alive with the rattling hoot of a vast number of buopoth throats, counterpointing the otherworldly drone.

The fragrance grew stronger. The sounds grew louder. The wind blew fiercely. Prosatio Silban closed his eyes, this time against the strong breeze blasting his face. His ears were filled with an extraordinary music that went on, and on, and on…

Suddenly: silence.

The cook opened his eyes.

Every buopoth was lying prostrate facing the central stone and its sad burden. As he watched in silent wonder, the great buopoth slowly melted into the stone. Soon, there was nothing left of it.

A collective sigh went up, and the buopoths broke ranks and flowed up toward the gaps in the bony heaps. One approached Prosatio Silban. It cast him a meaningful look and poured itself into the galleywagon’s harness, filling it.

“Is that you, boy? Are you back?” asked Prosatio Silban. “Did you pay your respects?”

With a happy rattling hoot, Onward drew the galleywagon in a wide half-circle – and headed back the way they had come.

* So called because the Uulians consider reckless anyone who travels beyond them.

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