Jackals

“Are you tired, shines-in-the-sun? Are you a little calf, that you cannot run with us in the sand?”

Three wiry bodies bent to peer into my face. One gave a warm snuff in my ear. Another lapped at the sweat on my throat. For my part, I continued breathing. The oven-dry air stabbed needles into my tongue and throat with every inhalation. As unpleasant as it was being licked by a fanged hunter, I enjoyed the meager shade they cast over me.

“He does not smell of dying, not yet.”

“Come on, slow-as-a-cow, we have further to run before we reach where we are going.”

“Yes, get up, puppy-ears, we must run.”

I did not move until A’az crouched over my legs, snarling, “If you will not stand on your hoofs, chews-the-grass, I will bite them off and take them with me, while you are left for the vultures. They are already watching you, bald-as-a-worm.” He pointed one claw to the sky, where a pair of specks circled lazily high above. Then he bared the dagger canines at the front of his long jaws and lunged downward. They snapped shut an inch from my ankle.

That time I moved, lurching to my feet. All three of them threw back their heads and laughed that horrible, yipping, high-pitched laugh.

Still shrieking, they moved west and north at a trot. It didn’t seem all that fast to look at it, but they had run this way since before dawn without rest. Now it was nearing noon, to judge by the sun.

They gave no sign of slowing or changing course. I staggered behind them, my heels and toes sinking into the loose sand with each step. Their slight frames floated on round pad feet, leaving hardly an imprint to follow.

“Keep up, keep up, gut-for-legs, even the sand snakes could catch you, and they have no legs at all.” Jefad, if I recognized the growling voice correctly–not easy to do, at first. I did not look up, but kept following the biggest set of prints. These belonged to Skast, the quiet one who ran in front. I didn’t know if that made him the leader or not, but he was the only one who moved in a straight line. The other two kept looping around to chivvy me forward, snap their teeth behind my neck, and compare me unfavorably to cattle.

Jackalmen don’t think much of livestock–except as easy meat–but I was even lower on their list. I had stopped retorting hours ago, partly because no matter what I said they hurled that skin-crawling shriek of a laugh back at me. Mostly, I didn’t have the breath anymore.

“Please… Water. Please,” I mumbled between panting breaths. I was pleading with God, or the Universe, definitely not the Jackalmen. They were so far ahead I didn’t think they could hear me anyway. But a glance in front showed six huge ears swiveled back to face me; I immediately shut my mouth.

“The little calf needs a drink.”

“Why should we thirst, when there is lizard’s blood and night’s mist and juicy sand-beetles?”

“Follow, follow, soft monkey, there is further to run.”

The words floated back to me from far ahead; somehow I kept running, though my feet felt very far away. What else could I do?

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