Most of the army base turned out to witness the departure of Company G the following morning. Father Locke’s students stood in the front row, and Elfric Tarbengar noticed from his position at the end of the front row the curious presence of Corporal Tezelin in the back row. This glimpse was enough to stem any surprise he might have felt when the corporal appeared at his elbow after all the Company G vehicles had disappeared down the road and the Leeward soldiers began to disperse. “Trainee Tarbengar, come.”
Elfric followed him eastward through the base. Along the way, they passed a pair of legs sticking out from beneath a large shrub. Tezelin barked, “Hart! Come!”
The legs wriggled under the shrub, and the animal sympathist from Mother’s staff appeared out the other side. He wore only a pair of boxers.
“Hart, where are your pants?” Tezelin snapped.
Private Hart looked down at himself in mild surprise. “Dunno. I just had them…”
Tezelin crouched down close to the shrub and held out a hand. A low growl preceded the appearance of a young wolverine, who sniffed Tezelin with wary interest. The corporal bent down lower, until he was nearly nose to nose with the wolverine. “Mm,” said Tezelin, “it’s hot out for your kind, isn’t it? Where did your friend leave his fur? Do you know?”
The wolverine growled again.
Tezelin straightened. “You ‘just had them,’ did you? This child says otherwise.” He stood and led off again, this time on a straight line toward the dorms. Rather than enter, he stopped under the shadow of the wall at the back and uttered a shrill chirping call. From one of the open windows, his tiger bush-cat leaped down to land at his feet. “Hart, go check your room for your pants.”
The younger animal sympathist ran for the back door. He appeared at another open window minutes later, waving a pair of khaki ripstop pants. “Gii had them!” he explained.
“Put them on, you fool, and get back down here.” Tezelin grabbed his tiger bush-cat as it started prowling toward Elfric’s bear cub. “Leave him alone,” he scolded.
Elfric picked up the cub as a full-grown jaguar leaped down from the window where Private Hart had just been. The jaguar gave both of the smaller animals a keen scrutiny.
“No,” said Corporal Tezelin firmly. “Not food.”
At this, the jaguar lost all interest in the cub and the cat.
“Hart! Get down here!”
Private Hart came through the window pants-first, landing on his feet easily after the fifteen-foot drop. “Ready! Where to, Jude?”
“Cliffs,” said Tezelin.
They walked a roundabout path eastward, avoiding most of the town to arrive on the bluffs above the harbor cliffs. Tezelin sat on the edge looking south. His feet dangled and the wind ruffled his shaggy hair. “Hart. Any changes?”
Private Hart shook his head. “I’ll stay with Mother.”
“Mm. Apologize and thank her for putting up with all the trouble you cause her. Try harder not to cause any more trouble than you can help.”
“I get too comfortable with Mother,” Hart admitted.
“You, Tarbengar.” Tezelin tipped back his head to savor the bright sun. “Are you staying with Father?”
Elfric frowned. “Yes.”
“Then you need to be ready. Which village– Barburg?”
“Little Barburg,” Elfric said.
“I was born in Sieburg. Went to Fortress for my obligatory four years, got recommended to Father Locke for his leadership training course. Nothing was ever the same. I ended up moving to Current-town, then out into the jungle at different outposts. Almost went feral. I was so sick of people.” Tezelin sighed.
Elfric stared at him in shock. “You’re from West Territory?”
“Originally. Now, I wouldn’t claim it even if someone offered me money.” He swept a hand across the vista before them. “What do you sense here?”
Private Hart said immediately, “Gulls, gannets, mice, shrews, foxes– thirteen of them, just over there– rabbits, all kinds of fish, and there’s a few shearwaters, and…” He squinted down at the water. “Dolphins!”
“How did you sense all those so fast?” Elfric asked.
“I didn’t sense; I come out and play with them every day,” said Hart.
Tezelin chuckled. “Are they healthy?”
“Pretty healthy,” was Hart’s answer.
“Do you know why? You don’t find this much wildlife so close to most big towns. Why here?” Tezelin looked at Elfric for a reply.
“Is it that the town hasn’t grown this direction yet?”
“That’s part of it, but that just raises the question, why hasn’t it grown this direction? There aren’t many animal sympathists in Northeast. None of the ones who are here are native to this area. Some years ago, I was up this way for a training simulation visit, just like now. That was when I met the Crow Woman. Ever heard of her, Tarbengar?”
Elfric nodded slowly. “She was kicked out of West Territory when my parents were still children. Everyone wanted her exiled from Haazak altogether, but the capital elders wouldn’t listen.”
“Not everyone,” Tezelin corrected him. “The outer villages did want her exiled, but plenty of others disagreed. The chaplain school stood by her. The territorial elders didn’t have a problem with her, but they were too worried about appeasing the outer villages to take a stand. Know why she got so many mad at her?”
“She taught nature worship,” Elfric began, but he stopped short because Corporal Tezelin was shaking his head.
“That’s just what your parents told you. She believes that we are responsible for guarding and tending nature. I’ve heard her speak. I can’t say I agree with everything she says, but this area is healthy because that woman persuaded the Leeward elders and the Harbor Guardians to make a preserve of it, to keep the harbor productive. Hart, you go too far in the same way the Crow Woman goes too far. Animals aren’t our peers. They are themselves, and we are ourselves. We’re different. They have their roles, we have our role. They can defend themselves against each other, more or less, but they can’t defend themselves against us. And Tarbengar, West Territory goes too far the other way. Animals aren’t our slaves and tools. They aren’t disposable. That cub you’re raising: are you going to turn him into a lookout beast?”
Elfric gazed warily at the older man, reluctant to answer.
“That’s the plan, I’m guessing. So that cub gets staked out like bait, living the rest of his days on a tether at the village’s edge so the Decay will go after him before it can touch a human? The Decay wants us. It takes animals if they’re all it can get, but it wants us. It’s our fault it exists in this world. All those animal-seeded sources out there are our failure, because we failed to protect what was given to us.” Tezelin exhaled, calming himself. “I know all you’ve been taught. I was taught it too. But you’ll see differently when you’re with Father. Once you’ve seen differently, you can’t not see differently any longer. Have you found out yet why you’re here?”
Elfric said, “No.”
“Ask. Father doesn’t pick up students on a whim.” Corporal Tezelin turned to the other man. “Hart. Have you been looking around, like I said to do?”
Private Hart rolled onto his stomach and stretched to his full length. “Looking around… oh, to see if any of them are enough like me. I looked. They aren’t.”
“Do you plan to find a mate someday?”
“It’d be nice,” Hart murmured, sleepy in the sunshine.
“Then I’ll tell you what Camelia told me: you won’t find one under a shrub or in a hole in the ground. Animals are more comfortable company to keep, but you need humans to balance you out. Understand? She worries about you. You’re a grown man now. You can’t go streaking naked like you do and expect to find a good mate. They’ll run screaming from you.”
“Uh-huh… run screaming… uh-huh…”
“Hart, wake up and listen. Your active principle is strong, but you can’t let it control you. You are human. If you won’t take up the responsibility that comes with being human, you’re putting your animal friends at risk. Understand?”
“I get it, Jude. I’ll try to remember.” Private Hart yawned. “Tell Camelia hi for me.”
“She does worry about you.”
“Thank her for me.”
“Have you gone back to see your parents lately?”
“I stopped just before we came here.”
“How was that?”
Private Hart shrugged. “Not too bad.”
“She’ll be happy to hear that. I better get moving. Don’t want to make Captain Haigh wait too long, or he gets antsy.”
“Antsy,” Private Hart repeated with a grin. “I love it when you say that. Antsy.”
“What’s so funny about antsy?” Elfric asked.
“It’s a West Territory word,” Tezelin said. “Everywhere else, they think it’s funny. You, Tarbengar, come back with me. As long as Hart has his pants on, he can take a nap here if he wants.”
“Good to see you, Jude,” Private Hart yawned.
When Elfric and Corporal Tezelin returned to the base, Captain Haigh had his truck parked in front of the mess hall. “Antsy,” said Tezelin, “just as I said. Are you going to ask Father? Or do you not want to know who put you up for a recommendation?”
Elfric frowned. “No, now I’m curious. I didn’t think about it before.”
Tezelin stuck out a hand toward Elfric. His tiger bush-cat jumped up to sink its claws in the man’s shoulder guard and stare at Elfric over Tezelin’s shoulder. “Nothing personal against you, Tarbengar, but you’re bound to hit the point where you need to choose. If you want to talk to someone who has been there, come look me up.”
Accepting the offered handshake, Elfric nodded. He watched from a distance as Tezelin climbed into the truck and Captain Haigh drove away. Then he meandered out to the command tent, where Father had his staff working on paperwork. “Father Locke,” Elfric began, “can I take a little of your time?”
“Yes,” answered the man, “I can spare some time for you, Tarbengar. What’s in your thoughts?”
“Who recommended me to you?”
Father Locke turned in his chair to retrieve a ledger from the portable safe behind him. “I received your recommendation from a young man named Gisler Tarbengar. Your oldest brother, I think?”
“Gisler!” Elfric stared at Father Locke’s impassive features. “But why? I haven’t seen him, haven’t heard from him… in years!”
“He never told me not to tell you,” said Father Locke, “so I will. He came to me with a number of questions first: could anyone make a recommendation, did it have to be with the parents’ express consent, how old did the student need to be, was it only for enlisted military. I gathered from all his questions that he knew someone he wanted to recommend, someone young whose parents might not approve. I settled his direct questions and asked him who the recommendation was for. Gisler told me about his family and the rift between him and them. It was his youngest brother, he said, who worried him most. His youngest brother had a thinker’s disposition and a deep reverence for the Only One. Gisler was afraid that the culture in your village would spoil those qualities and lead you to become hardened in the prejudices that are so common in the hinterlands of West Territory. He asked if I would give you the opportunity to see a wider world. He came to me with this recommendation six years ago. See, this line here.” Father Locke pointed to an entry handwritten in the ledger. “Eleven years old is too young, I told him, but I flagged your name in the registration system so that I would receive a notification when you signed up to do your obligatory four years.”
“Gisler,” Elfric repeated.
“This isn’t the answer you expected,” Father Locke observed.
“No, I… I wasn’t sure what to expect. I never thought about it until Corporal Tezelin asked the question, and then…”
“Gisler Tarbengar is stationed in Northwest Territory presently. We are going to spend time there after we leave here. Do you wish to see him?”
Elfric came out of his stunned reverie. “He’s in the army? What does he do?”
“He’s one of the rangers who patrol the line of ranches and farms that depend on Sawtooth Ridge for their supplies. I have heard him referred to in jest as Gisler the Grizzly, or as Grizzler Tarbengar. But you haven’t answered my question: do you wish to see him?”
“I do,” Elfric said slowly. “I have so many things I want to ask him… if he’ll see me.”
“I doubt there’s any chance that he won’t see you. What happens after that point will depend on you.”