Important notice to rights owners: I respect and enjoy these worlds. If you object to any of my work within a world you legally control, please contact me and I will remove it.
by J. Stanton
Digger was still puzzled. “But if Ed died to save you,” she asked, “why was that so shameful? Even if he was punished for it?”
“You still don’t understand, Digger. Maybe you can’t. When your name is eaten, you don’t exist anymore. You never did.” Grim Eyes sighed. “So talking about you is…grrrr, I can’t explain it right.”
“It’s a lie,” said Boneclaw Mother.
Grim Eyes nodded. “Yes! Speaking of the Eaten is like lying. Like claiming you killed something you didn’t.”
And that’s the worst thing ever, for hyenas, Digger thought.
“It’s better if you die,” Grim Eyes continued. “That way everyone else can remember you without lying to themselves.”
“I…I think I understand, now,” Digger said slowly, as what Grim Eyes had said slowly sunk in. To hate yourself just for thinking about your father…“So where does that leave you now? And Ed?”
“I don’t know,” said Grim Eyes. “To everyone else, he’s still the Eaten. But now I can think of him without shaming myself. I have a father again, even if I never knew him.” She smiled.
“You have much more than that,” Boneclaw Mother said. “I don’t know exactly how these things work, but I suspect your father is now a god, or at least part of one.”
Grim Eyes’ brow knitted in puzzlement.
“Who else will take He-Is’ place? The males need a god, too. And this one is brave, brave as any female. This one is strong, because he refused his Name. A Nameless to redeem the Nameless.” She grinned. “I hope She-Is-Fiercer likes skin painters.”
“She’s been without a mate for ages, if the legends are right,” Digger said. “No wonder she’s fierce.” And they all shared a chuckle.
There was a long pause.
“Earth rat, what will you do next?”
“I don’t know.” Digger shook her head. “I want to go home. But the only person who knows anything about how to get there is Trader Manuel, and I’m sure he’s gone already.”
“As you’re still a hyena, and my daughter,” Boneclaw Mother said, “I invite you to the village for one night. The elders need to hear the story of the Eaten, and they need to hear it from you.”
“Um, sure, yes, of course,” Digger said doubtfully. “But won’t that cause a big argument, probably with spears? I don’t want to end up as a rug in your hogan, even if it’s the nice one you sit on.”
“And then you need to leave before Bloodtail and her line get wind of what has happened,” Boneclaw Mother continued. “That’ll take a while, though, because even the most brainless of the elders understand that.”
Digger thought for a while. “Boneclaw Mother, this means a lot to me, because I loved Ed, and it means what he did will be remembered. But are you sure this won’t tear your tribe apart?”
Boneclaw Mother shook her head. “You were right. I don’t want to die with this on my shoulders. And I am dying,” she said.
“You always say that,” Grim Eyes said. “I think you’re immortal. You’re old, but you never seem to get any older.”
“This time it’s true,” she said. “I’ve held on to life for so long because I knew something very important was coming, and I was the only one who knew enough to guide us through it. Shadebones is wise, for her age, but…” She laughed. “But now it is done, and Jhalm and his warrior monks are gone, and the God Beneath is dead, and just as he has been released from his bonds, I can release myself from mine.”
“Mother!” Grim Eyes exclaimed. “Don’t talk like that!”
“Oh, shut up,” she replied easily. “Live in my blind, arthritic body for two days and you’ll be begging for death. Besides, I’ll be around for a few weeks yet, maybe even a few months. I have to teach Shadebones everything I know, and I have to drag us out of a few stupid superstitions. Especially the males, who I hope will trust us more after we tell them what the Eaten has done.”
And, for the moment, there was nothing more to say.
“Can we go now?” Digger asked. “Before I lose my nerve?”
Boneclaw Mother smirked as she took Grim Eyes’ and Digger’s arms. “What happened? You were ready to stand on a roof and shout it to everyone.”
“I already did. The one that mattered, at least,” Digger said, nodding to Grim Eyes as they edged out the door.
“Bloodtail is going to be so angry, and I’m going to be so happy. You can’t understand what it’s like, earth rat,” said Grim Eyes. “Status is everything, for us. When your father is Nameless, it’s like…grrrr, I can’t explain it. Like you’re insulting them just by existing.”
Digger thought about that. Wombats didn’t have the overdeveloped sense of honor the hyenas did, but still…there were clans with too many bossy supervisors or careless engineers, and their children were always under suspicion…
“No one ever says anything, but everyone knows it,” Grim Eyes continued. “It’s like I have to be twice as good at everything.”
“But Bloodtail will still hate you, won’t she?” Digger asked. “She’ll probably hate you more.”
“That’s fine. I hate her too. She’s a vain, stuck-up bitch who thinks that being as insufferable as her mother was makes her the great hunter her mother was.”
At that, Boneclaw Mother laughed. “Grim Eyes, just when I’m sure you’ve got rocks in your head, you surprise me.”
“Thanks, I think.” Grim Eyes grumbled. “Anyway, she’ll always hate me. But at least half of me won’t hate myself. I’ll be able to tell my children about their grandfather, and they won’t have to go through what I have.”
“You have children?” Digger asked, surprised.
“Not yet,” repled Grim Eyes. “But now that I’m not basically a bastard, I think I’ll make a play for Shadebones’ nephew,” she said, nudging Boneclaw Mother, who laughed.
“Do it, Grim Eyes. You’re only young once.”
“They still tell stories about you, Boneclaw. They say you were chased out of every hogan in the village.”
She cackled. “More than once. It’s fun to be young and stupid, Grim Eyes. You’ll have plenty of time later to be old and wise. Too much time,” she said, wincing and holding her hip.
Sooner than Digger thought, they arrived at the hyena village.
“I didn’t realize it was so close,” she said.
“That’s because I didn’t lead you in circles this time,” Grim Eyes replied.
“Wait,” said Boneclaw Mother. “Digger, my adopted daughter, Little Mother of Earthquakes, there is one thing you must remember when telling the story. Listen well.”
“Tell the story the same way you told Grim Eyes. Don’t tell them that ‘Ed’ is really the Eaten. Let them ask afterward, just like before.”
Arm in arm, they strode confidently past the guards.
To Digger’s surprise, the elders didn’t immediately start arguing. As soon as Digger finished, which didn’t take long, Owl Caller just said “The one you call ‘Ed’ was the Eaten, of course.”
Digger gulped and nodded.
“He died where his bones will never be found.”
“The tunnel is gone,” Digger said.
Owl Caller smiled a sad, painful smile. “I am sorry, Skin Painter,” he said, addressing no one. “We sacrificed your name to save ourselves. Now you’ve sacrificed your life to save all of us, even though we don’t deserve it.” He shook his head, slowly. “We cannot give your name back, for that would hide our own guilt.”
Boneclaw Mother nodded. “What has been done cannot be undone.”
“Yet you will never be forgotten,” he growled with a fierceness surprising in one so bent with age.
“Males need a god of strength, not of weakness and failure,” said Shadebones.
Is this how it happens? Digger wondered. How are gods made, anyway?
Boneclaw Mother just smiled.
“There’s a lot more I want to tell you,” Digger said. “Ed said so many wise things, and someone should remember them.”
“He’s a legend now, Digger. Maybe even a god,” Boneclaw Mother said. “Anything else we say about him will just cheapen it.”
Digger sighed. “I don’t want a legend. I want Ed back.”
“He gave everything he had,” said Boneclaw Mother gently. “Don’t ask him for more.”
The three of them were relaxing in Owl Caller’s hogan.
“You’ve given us a great gift, Little Mother of Earthquakes,” said Owl Caller, pouring something vile into something bubbly. “Shadebones has no poetry in her, but she’s right. Our legends shape us, and the legend for males is one of weakness, failure, and exile. But we can’t just be imitation females, either.” He added a pinch of something pungent, and stirred. “Now we have a legend of our own. And we can honor the Eaten.” He sniffed the resulting mixture and, apparently satisfied, handed the cup to Digger.
“Last time I drank something you gave me, I spent ten minutes vomiting into the bushes and passed out,” she said, examining the contents doubtfully.
“I think we should get her out of here before something goes wrong,” Boneclaw Mother said.
Owl Caller laughed, but flattened his ears respectfully as he mixed another cup. “Everything’s over, Boneclaw Mother. Jhalm and his monks are gone, He-Is is finally dead and at peace, and there’s a big, fat boar carcass hanging next to the fire pit. Let’s enjoy ourselves for a few hours, shall we?”
So they did.
“Little Mother of Earthquakes, my strange adopted daughter, I am dying and I will not see you again,” said Boneclaw Mother. “And I hope you find your way home somehow. But if your wanderings lead you back here, you are part legend yourself and you are always welcome with us.”
A single tear slowly emerged from under Boneclaw Mother’s mask as they shared a long, fierce hug.
“Goodbye, Boneclaw Mother.”
Still a bit loopy from Owl Caller’s ‘medicine’, Digger walked into the deepening shadows, back to Rath and towards an uncertain future.