C.J. Henderson brings us a second story set on the world of Byanntia, this time focusing on ex-Chief Bollatu of the Kuzzi. — ed. N.E. Lilly
Young as the Mountains
by C.J. Henderson ©2005
“The tragedy of age is not that one is old, but that one is young.”—Oscar Wilde
Bollatu stood at the water’s edge, staring out toward the horizon. The sun had just begun to shatter its edge, spilling across the vast Northern Ocean of Byanntia. Dawn—not the best time to push out in search of the great fish. But then, that had only been an excuse, anyway.
They voted nay, thought the old chief. All of them.
Bending his back, the Kuzzi warrior threw his still‑powerful limbs into the job of sliding his hunter’s skiff across the hard‑packed blue sand and into the water beyond. He reached the lapping waves by instinct, his eyes not seeing the ocean before him, his conscious mind not actually concerned with the hunt. Throwing himself into the moving boat with accustomed ease, Bollatu landed in the center lightly, managing the maneuver without wetting any of his fur.
What did you expect, he asked himself with a bitter tone. That they would accept the judgments of a failure forever?
The chief was the oldest of the Kuzzi, a proud warrior who in his elder years still stood an even eight feet high. A short coat of horizontally striped fur covered his body, as it did all of his people. The blue, black and grey markings were a natural camouflage which allowed the Kuzzi to blend well with the planet’s landscape.
Bollatu did not differ from the rest of the Kuzzi in any remarkable ways. His head was surrounded by the same thick mane, the usual single black stripe parted his forehead and muzzle. His chin and jaw were covered with the typical longer fur of the Kuzzi mane, setting off his muzzle and hard, blue lips like the rest of his fellows, his shoulders broad and chest rippling with thickly layers of muscles.
But Bollatu felt different that morning. As his skiff followed the morning tide out to sea, for once he felt much older than the rest of his tribe. He felt tired. Weary. Betrayed.
It’s you that’s betrayed them, his mind whispered in dark recrimination. Led them astray, forced them to eat the lies of the past. Murdered them—
The chief sat back in his boat, closing his eyes, letting his mane cushion his head against the rear panel seat. Still close to shore, the current rippled gently against the sides of the skiff. The sound was smooth and pleasant—relaxing.
They voted nay, the voice from the back of his mind repeated. What do you have to relax about?
Bollatu sighed. His was a nomadic warrior race that had lived on their planet since the beginning of time. Their cherished story cycle gave them a history extending back through a hundred and twelve thousand cycles. Over all that time the Kuzzi had formularized their way of life. Their population had always remained small due to the ravages of the Gr’nar, frightful beasts that returned from a generational hibernation to destroy everything in sight. Over the centuries the Kuzzi had learned to calculate the coming of the creatures. They knew when to move to avoid their coming and to where. When the Gr’nar arrived they would slaughter the plainsherd, but never the Kuzzi. The nomads were too clever.
When others had come, outsiders from the stars—the Earth’ings. They had come to Byanntia and build permanent homes. They went where they wanted, did what they wanted, acting like children lost in the dark. Some of the younger Kuzzi had been concerned. The Earth’ings would swallow their world, they said. But Bollatu had said, no, leave them be. Soon will come the Gr’nar and the Earth’ing bones will litter the sand.
All had agreed. Of course, Bollatu was correct. None could resist the Gr’nar. The greatest Kuzzi warriors—even in groups of a thousand—had been devastated by the great god beast.
Let the Earth’ings plow and build and roam. In twenty‑two cycles they will all be dead. It had been a time of great laughter.
But the years had passed and the Gr’nar had come, and it had not destroyed the aliens. It’s arrival had not even driven them away. A few pawfuls only did it kill. Pawfuls! It usual cycle of blood had been reduced to a few days. A single Earth’ing had stopped it—cold and final. And then, the alien had not even shown the Gr’nar the dignity of slaying it. He had turned his back on the god beast, allowing it to slink off to its lair.
“You knew it would come back to plague your land and sons, Jacob Matson,” snarled the warrior in confused contempt, “and yet you let it live. Knew its death would have washed you in glory. And you let it live.”
Bollatu sat upright in his skiff. Rage boiled his blood, steamed the water within his brain. He had been so certain, positive the Gr’nar would sweep the plains free of the Earth’ings. But, he had been wrong. And now for the first time in all of Kuzzi history, a chief had been removed from his station.
Bollatu stared out across the endless water. Only a pawful of times had there ever been a vote. Seven times throughout all their generations. Seven times the entire nation had been brought together to cast their stones—blue to retain their chief, black to send him out. Not one blue stone had been cast for Bollatu. Not by his smoke mates, his sister, his children—not even his wife had thrown for him.
Why should they?
Bollatu frowned. Why was it his fault the Earth’ings had triumphed? Millennia of tradition said they would fail. None could stop the Gr’nar—ten thousand grandfathers wagging their collective fingers down through the centuries had said so—
And you listened to them ...
Disgusted, the former chief threw aside his thoughts. It was over. Fine, let the next chief do better. Tired of self‑pity, annoyed with simply drifting, Bollatu picked up the double‑bladed oar next to him and thrust it into the water. A smooth stroke pushed him forward, followed by another the next second. The oar shifted from side to side, silently slicing the water, the skiff effortlessly gliding faster and faster toward the horizon.
“Good day for fish,” whispered the elder Kuzzi, as if fishing were what he sought from the Northern Ocean that day. In a tone still thick with anger, he looked over the side of his skiff and muttered, “Are you hungry down there?”
Setting his oar aside, Bollatu pulled up his line and cast. Securing the cast’s handle in its notch in the cross brace before him, the Kuzzi held the hooked end of his line up for examination. Having not really come to fish he had, of course, brought no bait. A thin laugh grumbling through him, the elder worked his mouth, pulling together a thick wad of mucus and phlegm. Spitting it onto his hook, he cast the wicked curve of barbed metal into the ocean, shouting—
“Well, eat this!”
And then, Bollatu laughed. No sooner had his hook sunk but a few feet beneath the surface when his line jerked. Something had taken him at his word, impaling itself on his invitation.
Everything dies that listens to you
Laughing again at his own cynicism, the elder warrior watched as coil after coil of line dashed out over the stern. Something big and fast had decided to challenge him. Reaching for his hauling gloves, he told his hidden foe—
His heavy, resin‑woven gloves in place, Bollatu hauled on the line. Of course, he was not trying to drag whatever had taken his hook to the surface. This was only the opening lunge in a duel he expected would take the next half hour or more. The rate at which the coils of line had snaked overboard told him he had something big, a fellir, a houlta—twenty pounds worth, at least. Whatever it was, it had to be made aware that it was in a struggle. The Kuzzi’s opening tug would let it know there was a new force in its life, and then the battle would truly begin.
As the elder warrior worked his line, easily letting a few yards play out, hauling them back in, letting them out again, he began to relax. The sun was warm on his fur, the occasional splashes churned up by his struggle refreshing. The fish began circling the skiff, going deeper and deeper, trying to find a direction from which it could not be pulled back. Bollatu easily kept the line from tangling against any of his vessel’s edges, his still strong muscles easing the line around and around.
Slowly the elder’s cares were being left behind—forgotten. The contest had shifted his focus away from the internal. As his fingers stiffened, he would hold the line secure with one paw while flexing the fingers of the other. Then he would let his line play again, pulling the fish short with his refreshed paw while loosening the rest of his fingers.
Then, finally, the line went slack. Bollatu’s hidden adversary was heading for the surface. The warrior’s forehead ridged, his lips smiled. He had tired his foe to the point where it could think of nothing else to do but to run straight toward its captor.
“Come to me, swimmer. We’ll prove I’m not dead yet.”
The water broke, shoved to both sides by a leaping form. Water caught the light, surrounding the fish in reflected dazzle. Bollatu marveled at his prize.
“A geldiffa—this close to land.”
The elder laughed, pleased with himself. Seeing his enemy, he could tell the great fish weighed forty, forty‑five pounds easily. Then, in the background, Bollatu noticed the distant shore, discovering he had traveled much further than he had realized. The warrior did not care, however. What could that matter? Forward, toward the end of his line, that was where his attention was demanded. The geldiffa, all blue and yellow stripes, hit the water again cleanly, gliding below its surface, racing for the bottom.
He’s trying to throw the hook—he’s done this before.
A real adversary, decided Bollatu with a grunt of admiration. A worthy foe. This would be a battle worth fighting.
The Kuzzi found himself repeating the steps he had already made. First playing out and hauling in the line, working it around his skiff as the fish went deeper and deeper, constantly switching directions as it again tried to find some space of ocean that did not connect him to Bollatu’s line. The warrior smiled with a child’s sincerity. He had not been so happy in many a year.
Then, once more his line went slack. Again, the geldiffa was racing to the surface. For a moment Bollatu’s breast swelled with pride. In his moment of despair, the gods had sent him a challenge, a sign, an opportunity for redemption within his own eyes. It was a small thing, but life was assembled from small moments, and he was in no position to argue. Then, his split‑second of joy was dashed.
Instinct sent his free paw to the bottom of his skiff, feeling for vibrations. His eyes scanned the water around him. Something was wrong. To his left, the ocean was beginning to swell. It was a signal—the geldiffa was returning to the surface. No longer trying to escape Bollatu, instead it was running from something else.
“What in all the gods...?”
Bollatu’s mouth froze open in amazement as the geldiffa broke the water once more, not merely leaping this time, but shooting straight upward into the atmosphere. Before his prize catch had begun to sink back below the waves, the water beneath the fish boiled and then split apart, shattered by the arrival of a black and massive form.
Bollatu sat in his tiny skiff, his boat and himself dwarfed by the incredible monster swallowing the ocean before him. So gigantic were the chuln’fa’ulu that their skins were used by the Kuzzi to make their central meeting tents. The nomads did not hunt the great fish, of course. They only salvaged their carcasses on those fortunate occasions when one of their dead drifted into shore. Even the Gr’nar‑killing Earth’ings had been impressed by the size of the largest creature Byanntia had to offer. Unable to pronounce the beast’s Kuzzi name, they had labeled them “Melvilles,” claiming the word to be a compliment.
There was no way to stop chuln’fa’ulu. The records spoke of insanely daring bands of Kuzzi, twenty, thirty boats worth, going out with spears and throwers, looking for the glory of being the first mortals to slay a godfish. None had ever succeeded. Few had ever returned.
All these things flashed through Bollatu’s mind as he watched the chuln’fa’ulu break the surface. He smelled the terror of the geldiffa—<em>his geldiffa—as it struggled upward, flopping desperately, only to fall pitifully back toward the ocean and the waiting jaws below.
The godfish’s jaws came closed, Bollatu’s prize disappearing from sight. With a casual shrug the massive beast turned and headed back beneath the waves. The elder warrior stared, his mind numb, emotions racing. He had been so at peace, actually happy, and then ... there was no sense he could make of the moment playing out before him.
Had he been given his purging moment only so that he might be punished further? Was he naught but a toy of the gods? Was he to be scorned by not just his tribe, but by all life as well? To have snagged the geldiffa as he had, surely it had been a chance at redemption. Now, was it so easily taken away?
Is what you allowed so easy to walk back from? The elder winced, his stomach churning with fury. Was your mistake that minor?
At his feet, his line was disappearing once more. Second after second more coils disappeared over the side, leaping into the air two, three at a time. Without thinking, Bollatu’s paws reached out.
“No,” growled the Kuzzi, his anger smashing reason. “Not this day. Not to me.”
His left paw grabbed at the disappearing line, carefully catching a straightened segment, not one of the snapping loops which could slice his paw in half with a motion. The elder gave the line careful jerks, testing the great fish, gauging how far down it intended to sink. The line stopped.
“Not far,” muttered Bollatu. As the line limped, he asked himself, “Coming back so soon? Why?”
The warrior reeled his line back in as quickly as he could. Four hundred yards he returned to the floor, refusing the notion of cutting it, of backing away from the challenge he had made.
Retreat, the back of his mind questioned with a sneer. To where? Why?
He sensed tension in the line. Knowing the geldiffa had already been chewed to bits, he realized his hook had reestablished itself somewhere within the chuln’fa’ulu. Perhaps it was lodged in some swollen abscess, wedged between two teeth where it was striking some nerve, serving the great fish a pain it had never known.
“Not used to being hunted, eh?” taunted Bollatu.
The warrior’s mind reasoned quickly that it was impossible for the chuln’fa’ulu to understand what was happening. Unlike the geldiffa which had been harvested from the ocean for eons, the godfish had no instinct for such impunity. Still retrieving his line, Bollatu watched the water, waiting for the chuln’fa’ulu to return.
Again the ocean boiled as the great mass broke the surface, hurling water in all directions. The elder left off gathering his line, his paws closing on his spear. Made as a boy, carried throughout his life, it had served as his staff of office for more than thirty cycles. Carved from the straight trunk of a young stinger tree, it possessed weight and cutting power. Filled with authority and memory, it spread confidence throughout its owner.
The godfish made a wide circle, then began moving toward the skiff. Was it somehow following Bollatu’s line back to the boat? Did it know they were enemies? Did it matter? Pulling back and planting himself as best he could on the pitching floor of his vessel, the warrior shut one eye, watched his foe’s progress, gauged his moment, and then threw.
The spear dashed forward, slamming through the thick black skin of a monstrous eye, sinking nearly two feet into the vision of the onrushing horror. Terrible as the attack was, however, if the chuln’fa’ulu noticed any pain, it was but a moment’s distraction at best. Onward came the godfish, jaws wide as a cavern, water rushing over the terrible rows of broken teeth.
“And so it ends,” whispered Bollatu. Still standing, balled fists at his sides, he waited for the monster. His skiff rocked wildly as it tipped upward over his foe’s lower jaw, Kuzzi and vessel flipping inside the massive mouth. The skiff swirled, twisted by the miniature whirlpool created within the godfish’s maw. Then, motivated more by anger than either desperation or self‑preservation, Bollatu suddenly jumped to the back of his craft with force, pushing its prow upward into the roof of the great mouth. The sharp edge dug deep into the soft lining, the skiff’s transom wedging against the bottom of the gullet.
The elder was thrown sideways as the godfish thrashed against the sudden pain. Bollatu instinctively sank his claws into the side of the chuln’fa’ulu’s mouth, hanging on against the churning current. His oar fell from the skiff, bouncing off his shoulder. Grabbing out, the warrior snatched it from the air. Digging its pointed blade into the chuln’fa’ulu’s throat, Bollatu pushed himself toward the great mouth before him.
The warrior laughed as he staggered forward. He had jammed the godfish’s mouth open, and now it could not dive for fear of drowning. A fish, he though, afraid of drowning. The idea made him giddy even as he fell repeatedly, thrown about effortlessly by the chuln’fa’ulu’s panicked thrashing. Water crashed against Bollatu as he struggled toward the flapping lips before him. Despite the wedge blocking its throat, the chuln’fa’ulu still strained to close its great mouth. Reaching the doubled rows of the godfish’s horrible teeth, the elder found his line once more. He could not see its end, buried somewhere beneath the constant rush of ocean falling in and out of the open mouth—could not determine why the creature had noticed his hook.
Nor did he care. At that moment, all that mattered to the warrior was escaping the beast’s gullet before he followed his geldiffa to its bottom. Poised to dive out into the ocean, however, the godfish thrashed once more, sending Bollatu falling against its lower jaw. Eleven spikes tore into the elder’s side, the great teeth ripping skin, piercing muscle. Blood sluiced out of him, the taste of it sending the chuln’fa’ulu into wilder spasms.
Bollatu dug his oar into the godfish’s mouth, pushing himself off the tearing rows. None of his wounds were terribly threatening, but several were deep and all were painful. Pushing himself erect, however, the warrior sneered—
“Best you can do?”
—and then dove outward into the welcoming ocean beyond. Bollatu landed feet first, dragging his oar behind him far under the waves. The chuln’fa’ulu passed overhead, plunging the ocean into darkness for the long moment it took to glide by. Not having taken in a deep enough breath before jumping, the Kuzzi struggled his way back to the surface. When his head broke the water, three things caught his attention instantly. The first was that he was now much closer to shore. The second was that the end of his line was floating several yards in front of him. The third was that the chuln’fa’ulu was no where to be seen.
Had the skiff come dislodged? Had the tremendous pressure of the godfish’s straining jaws finally snapped the vessel? Had his hook come loose as well? The warrior reached out for the floating line before him.
“Where are you, thing?”
As if in response, the godfish’s great body shattered the ocean’s surface some distance to his right. Such a quick return told Bollatu that his wedge was still in place. He reasoned that the chuln’fa’ulu must have dived in an attempt to clear its throat with a rush of water. Unable to remove the blockage, it had hurried back to the sky for another breath.
Bollatu bobbed in the water, taking in his own deep breaths, watching his adversary. The chuln’fa’ulu floated with the current. Although its remaining good eye was trained directly at him, it made no move to continue their struggle. It did not try to submerge again, nor did it attempt to make for the open sea. As the warrior’s strength began to return to him, he looked upon the godfish for the first time without anger.
The monstrous beast glistened in the sunlight. As its gasped one short breath quickly after another, the elder realized what must have happened. He could see that the chuln’fa’ulu’s mouth had reached the point where it could almost close. Bollatu knew his skiff had shifted, perhaps even shattered. Now it was wedged within the godfish’s throat. The elder knew in was only a matter of time before his adversary would swallow one wave too many and choke to death.
Suddenly, his anger drained, numbness gone, Bollatu felt a great surge of pity for the dying beast before him. Graping his line tightly, he began pulling himself toward his victim. Sad, sorrowful notes trembled from deep within the beast, drifting across the ocean. Reaching the chuln’fa’ulu’s side, the elder pulled himself upward—paw over paw—until he reached the bristling rows of teeth once more. Straining with all his remaining power, trying not to excite the still flowing wounds along his side and abdomen, the warrior pulled himself up onto the hardened ridge which served as the godfish’s lower lip.
“And what would you all say,” wondered Bollatu of his former tribe members, “if you could see this?”
Half jumping, half falling, the warrior cleared the jagged teeth by inches. Standing, he made his way backward through the dark gullet until he found the blockage. Indeed, his skiff had been dislodged by the chuln’fa’ulu’s dive, but that had only made things worse for the godfish. The vessel had followed the downward water flow and wedged itself further back in the creature’s throat, leaving only the slightest of air passages.
Bollatu shook his head sadly. Not caring what might come next, laughing at his former inability to understand Jacob Matson, he whispered to himself—
“No wonder they all threw black.” Looping his line around the still solid center spar, the elder added, “If I could have seen this moment, I would have thrown black, too.”
Pulling against the horrible weight, the elder strained to free his shattered vessel. The movement tore at the lining of the godfish’s throat. Blood oozed as the creature exhaled harshly. Bile rushed up from its stomach in cascades. Bollatu ignored the smell, ignored the pain in his own body, ignored the derisive laughter within his head. Instead he merely struggled—step by step—toward the thin line of light so far away. A great cough shuddered the beast. The warrior fell to his knees, almost losing hold of his line. Fighting to maintain the tension he had created, the elder felt his left glove finally eat through. Blood leaked from his paw, but he refused the accompanying sensation. On his knees, he crawled onward, dragging at the skiff.
“Move, damn you. Move. Move.”
Digging his heels into the floor of the chuln’fa’ulu’s mouth, Bollatu drew his remaining line into a loop and tossed the loop end forward. Snagging it around one of the godfish’s teeth, he threw his weight into pulling on the line, using the great fang to increase his strength. For a long moment the warrior strained, his eyes fast shut, heart racing, breath held deep. And then, the godfish coughed once more.
Instantly Bollatu was thrown from the chuln’fa’ulu’s mouth. The elder hit the water at a bad angle. His left side going numb, he sputtered violently, gasping for air. The Kuzzi floundered, his good arm tangled in his line. Something was attached to it, weighing him down, dragging him under. Then, a shadow appeared over Bollatu’s head, and the remains of his skiff were returned to him along with a shattering flood.
Max L. Kornev, captain of the U.R.S. Canton, was an insatiably curious man. When he noted that passage had been booked on his vessel for an alien being, he saw an opportunity to not only brighten some of the dull travel hours ahead, but to accomplish what he had come to space to do in the first place—to meet another life form for himself.
“That’s a hell of a story.” His tone not revealing whether or not he believed what he had been told, he added, “back on Earth we’d called it a ‘whopper.’”
In the grand tradition of the ocean‑going vessels of his past, Kornev had requested Bollatu’s company at his table that evening for dinner. The chief had accepted, knowing that if he were to travel amongst humans, he would have to learn to deal with them. Attempting to do so, he inquired, “Is that a good thing, or a bad one?”
“Depends, I guess,” answered Kornev honestly. “Probably good this time.”
Bollatu nodded. When he had awakened on the beach, he had laughed for a long time. How he had managed to drift all the way back to shore without drowning, he did not know. Nor could he say why his bleeding wounds had not attracted any predators. Perhaps, he had thought, he had endured enough bad blessings for one day.
“Can I ask you a question?” Bollatu nodded in response toward the captain. “I noticed your ticket was purchased by a Jacob Matson. Isn’t that the guy you said killed your Gr’nar?”
“Yes,” answered the old warrior. When Kornev gave him a look even the Kuzzi could interpret, the elder answered, “for some reason I can not explain, once I realized I had survived I felt it necessary to tell the tale to the man who had destroyed my ability to lead my tribe. He asked me what I was going to do now that I was no longer chief.”
“What’d you tell him?”
Bollatu made a “tsking” sound moving his tongue against his teeth. Giving the captain a look the man understood, the old warrior answered his question.
“I told him that on the morning I had gone to the sea, I felt old. I had left my people—gone to the ocean to die. The ocean spit me back. Thus I was free to do as I might.”
Bollatu answered Kornev’s next question before he could ask it. “The big tooth, the one that snarled my line, it washed up on the shore with me. I traded it to Matson for passage on your vessel.”
Kornev raised an eyebrow. “He bought you a Rim Circle Trip. That’s a lot of ticket for a tooth.”
“He came, took my world. I told him that I would leave to take his heavens.”
The captain smiled. Did the alien know how much this Matson had done for him?
Then again, thought Kornev, considering what Bollatu did for Matson by sitting back and letting humans get establish on his planet, maybe the price wasn’t all that steep.
The captain paused for a moment, staring out the observation port built into the close wall of the dining room. In many ways it was a senseless luxury, but it was one he delighted in. Staring out at the endless sea of stars, he thought that, maybe, he knew what the alien before him was feeling.
“There was a poet on my world,” said Kornev, pouring himself and his guest another drink, “Emerson, they called him. He once said that ‘few envy the consideration enjoyed by the eldest inhabitant.’ Good thing you’re just a kid, huh?”
“I do feel young,” he answered, surprise in his voice. “As young as the mountains.”
Man and Kuzzi laughed, banged their glasses together, drained them, then laughed once more.
For some reason he barely understood, however, he had felt it necessary to make his way to the Twin Feathers ranch and tell his tale to the man who had destroyed his ability to lead his tribe. That finished, however, he made to rise. Matson held up his hand.
“Where ya goin’, Chief?”
“Am Chief no more. Only Bollatu now.”
“Ah, yeah,” answered the old rancher awkwardly. “Still, that doesn’t answer the question. What’re ya goin’ ta do now?”
“This morning, I felt old. I left my people—went to the ocean to die. The ocean spit me back.” Thinking of the massive tooth upon which his line had snarled, nearly dragging him to his death, he pointed at the fang now sitting in the corner of Matson’s porch and said, “The ocean took my boat, and gave me this. Now, I give it to you.”
“And, pray tell, what do I give you in return?” asked the rancher.
“The stars.” While Matson stared, the warrior explained, “You came, took my world. Now I will leave, and take your heavens.”
The rancher knew what Bollatu meant. A smile crossing his face, he winced as he estimated the cost of a ticket on the next ship that might come to Byanntia. Still smiling, though, he held out his hand. He too knew what it meant to grow old.
“There was a poet on my world,” said Matson. “Emerson, they called him. He once said that ‘few envy the consideration enjoyed by the eldest inhabitant.’ Good thing we’re just a couple of kids, huh?”
C.J. Henderson is the creator of the Jack Hagee hardboiled PI series and the Teddy London supernatural detective series as well as the author of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Black Sabbath: the Ozzy Osborne Years, and far too many others to mention here. He has written over 50 books and novels, hundreds of short stories and comics, thousands of non-fiction pieces and welcomes all your comments at www.cjhenderson.com.