The Nature of the Beast
Jabob, the Beastkeeper
By W. P. Hall
“There, my pretty.” Jabob said calmly as he looped the leather strap over the djac’s tusks. “And that’ll be supper for you, Amelia.”
The beast was anything but pretty, and its gender all but undistinguishable to someone less knowledgeable about its physical make-up.
The tusks grew steeply from the lower jaw, framing the animal’s boar-like snout. Long, sharp and jagged, the tusks seemed designed only to rip and shred the flesh of any animal or person who threatened its existence, but were also handy hooks from which to hang a bucket of grain.
Jabob moved slowly to the next animal, ignoring the grunts and smacking sounds issuing from Amelia’s snout.
“And for you, too, Paisley my beauty.” He hung a similar bucket over this djac’s tusks and it began its eating noises.
“That’ll be all of you, for sure.” He said, brushing his hands together to rid himself of the grain residue there. He put his hands on his hips and gazed proudly over his stable of beasts. Battle beasts, they called them, and he: the beast-keeper. But they were his charges, his babies to raise and to train.
They varied in color from a deep green to brown to nearly black. Short, thin and agile front legs for maneuvering contrasted hugely with long, thick rear legs; for strength and bursts of powerful sinew. In between, a large, humped back where, in a complex array of straps, latigo, and saddle, would sit the beast-rider; up high to carry a lance and a distinct advantage over his foes.
The beasts’ tusks could rip the innards from a horse in mere seconds. A man had little chance against the animals, unless he could swiftly put an arrow or lance squarely into one of its eyes and through it, into its brain.
“Ho! Jabob!” A soldier waved from the stable fence. “How goes it? Will they be ready?”
Jabob raised his hand in half-hearted greeting as he looked over his beastly charges. They were yet young, only yearlings most of them, but he had trained them the best he knew how.
“They will be ready, Harkin. Always ready.” He turned from the rider and began collecting the empty grain buckets.
“Bloody riders!” He muttered. They always expected too much, the beast-riders. If an animal did not react quickly enough for one of them, they beat it or kicked it, leaving bloody holes where the metal healspurs dug deep. And that Harkin was the worst of the lot; a real troublemaker.
Sometimes, a beast turned; defending itself and the rider paid with his life, skewered and disemboweled within the time it takes to swallow once.
Jabob hated the riders, for when they returned at all, it was betimes without the beasts they rode out on, and many times it was with injured and bloody animals. Jabob perforce, had put his beasts down in order to save them from suffering. He refused to think of the plain fact that were it not for the riders and the war, he would have no job and his family would eat even less than they did now. He also refused to think of the great haunches of broiled djac he had occasion to take home to his loved ones when he was forced to kill one of his charges. He would rather hate the riders, the Djuhah and the wars than admit he and his were dependent upon them.
The beast-riders would accompany the Djuhah, the dreaded Holyslayers of Maritka, into battle. The battle that would begin tomorrow. The battle that would decide the fate of Maritka and Aerd, not to mention the fates of the citizens of both, and himself, Jabob, one of the least of those.
Jabob had mixed feelings about the war. King Ginse and the Aerdians probably deserved to be punished for the death of Habim – the now deceased heir apparent of Aerd – and to be sure, for the last ten years the Djuhah had been raiding and looting Aerdian villages; skirmishing with Aerdian troops. A victory for Maritka would expand its borders, giving the citizens a better choice of land and goods than was currently available, for the beaten Aerdians would perforce be made to give up their holdings.
But Jabob hated and feared the Djuhah. They could, and did, exercise their battle prowess on Maritkins as well! Should one, by misfortune, accidentally offend a Holyslayer, he could be certain to feel that Djuhah’s wrath on his own head or that of a family member.
Jabob had gathered all the buckets from the tusks of the many djac he kept. There were fifty-seven in all, though some would not participate in the battle. He knew every one as if it were his own child. He knew their habits; their temperaments and he had a name for each one.
Now it was time to secure the stable and go home for the night. He hoped for a relaxing evening with his wife and daughter, but usually that did not come, for his thoughts always dwelled on the beasts, the chores, and the war.
As was usual, it was dark when he arrived at the small hut wherein dwelt his family. After brief greetings from his wife and daughter, he sat at the table to consume a meager meal of stew and grain biscuits. He had just gotten a spoonful down when a banging came at the wooden door.
He looked at his wife, Bahira, to see if she had expected anyone to come calling this day. She glanced at him with a look of concern and briefly shook her head. Setana, his fourteen-year-old daughter – no longer a girl but seeming to blossom into womanhood as he watched – did the same.
He wiped his lips with a cloth and rose to answer the knocking.
When he unlatched the door, it was rudely shoved from the outside and two men burst in. They were in the black, flowing robes of the Djuhah, and they roughly shoved Jabob aside and herded the women into a corner. They moved about the room searching for weapons or men.
He thought to take offense, and fight them, but he knew that would be foolhardy. They would kill him instantly, with no regret.
The women stood, frightened as Jabob was bodily searched for weapons. Upon finding none, they permitted him to sit. They positioned themselves on either side of the door as another robed figure strode importantly inside.
“Jabob.” The man said, and nodded politely as if he had been an invited guest.
Jabob stood and nodded back, holding his temper in check, for here was a man that could end his life.
“Husam Ibn Ohim.” He answered. “Please sit.”
When the visitor had seated himself at the table, in the chair usually occupied by Bahira, Jabob again seated himself and spoke.
“Was this rudeness necessary, Cousin?”
Husam smiled a disarming smile. He was a handsome man.
“I am afraid so, Cousin. There are many who hold animosity toward my office. Though you are not suspect, it is the usual procedure.”
“I thank you for not harming us.” Jabob said. Then to his wife: “A meal for our visitor, Bahira. And salt.”
Though they had little, it was customary to offer a visitor a meal. And the salt, a bond of safety and assurance, even though Husam was not well liked or a much-welcomed visitor.
Husam ate the stew and ingested a bit of salt with it, in essence, giving Jabob responsibility for his physical safety for the next three days; a Maritkin ritual almost always respected and adhered to. But Jabob was not overly concerned – even though he would have hardship feeding and entertaining Husam if the latter chose to take advantage of the ritual – for he knew that Husam would be going into battle in the morning. No one could guarantee one’s safety if that one insisted on putting himself into a perilous situation.
When Husam had finished the meal, he pushed the bowl toward the edge of the table where Setana retrieved it and took it away. Husam nodded again, this time in thanks for the food.
“I did not come here to be a cordial visitor, or to take advantage of your hospitality.” He said.
Jabob nodded in knowing agreement. “I had to assume as much, son of my father’s brother. For you have not come to visit in several years. Since the raiding began.”
“A shame, is it not?” Husam answered. “That war takes us away from family? You are my only living relations, and yet I seem not to have the time to keep up with familial acquaintance.”
“So, what does bring you here, Son of Ohim?”
Husam laughed. “Yes, they call me the son of our god, but it is only a title, is it not? Whomever succeeds me will also suddenly become a son of Ohim.”
“Succeeds you?” Jabob asked. He looked at the two men who stood alert by the doorway, arms folded over their chests.
Husam leaned back in the wooden chair with a sigh.
“Yes cousin. For I feel that I will not return from the battle on the morrow. And if that is so, then someone will be chosen to be the new ‘Ibn Ohim’.”
“Then you have come to say goodbye.” Jabob said, with no little relief. He hoped it did not show.
“That, and to tell you that when I am killed, as my only living kin, you shall inherit my holdings and land.”
Sharp gasps from the corner, where sat the women, took Jabob’s attention. Setana and Bahira both sat straight up with hands to mouth in astonishment, for they knew what Husam’s statement meant for them. He had great land and buildings, and much stock in goods and animals. They would be rich by most Maritkin’s standards.
Jabob tried to hold his emotions in check.
“That is quite generous, Cousin. Have you no children with whom to pass on your holdings?”
Husam laughed again. “None that I care to acknowledge, Jabob! Though you may have to fight false claims to my inheritance, I have seen to it that you will always come out the victor.” He reached into his robes and produced a packet of documents and a heavy pouch.
“Here is the proof of your ownership and enough money to hire such help as you may need to discourage false claims.”
Jabob sat thoughtfully for a few moments.
“And if you win the battle?”
Again, Husam laughed heartily.
“If we win the battle, and it is nearly certain that we will, I will still be dead. So you needn’t worry. But since I am here now, I would be interested in your view on the war. Do you consider ours a holy war?”
“Each side has a cause, Cousin.” Jabob said. “Is that not true?”
“A cause?” Husam answered. “Perhaps. But ours is the true one. In the name of Ohim, we fight for vengeance. Our future king has been taken from us: Murdered, to be sure! What other reason could possibly overwhelm such a cause?”
“Perhaps…” Jabob hesitated, but only for a moment. “…Fighting for one’s freedom is more important than revenge.”
“But are we not also fighting for our own freedom? If we win, the Aerdians know we will enslave them and slay their rulers. Should they win, the outcome would be little different, with us becoming the enslaved.
“Tomorrow will be decisive.” Husam continued. “We win our freedom, or they keep theirs. We have fierce fighters and fiercer beasts.” He gave a look of significance at Jabob.
“Yes,” Jabob agreed. “We have fiercer beasts, to be sure. The djax are more than ready for battle.”
“Good!” Husam stood abruptly. “Then all is settled.” He reached his hand toward Jabob who took it in his grasp.
“May you return to us, no matter your vision of death.” Jabob said, though it was with difficulty.
“And may you enjoy your new-found wealth.”
Husam nodded to the women, then turned and strode quickly out the door followed by his two bodyguards.
When they were certain Husam was gone, Bahira and Setana rushed to Jabob and hugged him, doing a dance around him, laughing and shouting.
Jabob allowed them their joy, then announced that he would be spending the night at the stable, readying the beasts for the morning departure. The females barely noticed his going, so excited were they at thinking of ways to spend their newfound wealth.
He spent the entire night cleaning, and pampering the beasts that he loved so. He cleansed minor wounds, rubbed them down his straw, all the while speaking softly and low. He gave them each an extra portion of grain and prepared harness and saddle. He knew he would see few, if any again, after the battle had ended.
It was barely daylight when Harkin stuck his head in the door of the stable building. “Ho, Jabob! Are they ready?”
Are they ready, he asks! Why not ask: Did you work the night through so that my beast is the best, and will not turn on me during battle? The arrogant….
“Aye Harkin,” He answered tiredly. “They are ready. They are always ready on time.”
“Good!” I shall pick mine now.”
Harkin ran out to the holding corral and leaped the fence. In horror, Jabob followed, yelling.
“NO! Harkin, you cannot approach them so quickly!” He ran to the fence waving his arms, but Harkin had already run into the midst of the beasts and was quickly surrounded.
Before Jabob could react or even think about going for help, Harkin was flying up high into the air, blood scattering and splattering the beasts, getting their own blood hot for battle. When he landed, he was skewered like a haunch of beef being roasted for a feast. He hung by his belly on the deadly tusks, still alive and screaming, but to no avail, for another beast answered his scream by ramming his tusk through Harkin’s eye and into his brain.
Jabob could only watch and shake his head at the man’s stupidity.
When the rest of the riders came to claim their steeds later in the morning, they found what was left of Harkin spread on a blanket in bits and pieces, and Jabob strolling among the djax cleaning and brushing to rid them of any sign of blood. The riders also shook their heads ruefully and marveled at Harkin’s ignorance.
They also found the beasts more and better prepared than at any other time, and Jabob was praised by these men that he hated so. He took the praise in stride, saying little, for he had doubts that even with the advantage of battle-beasts and Djuhah, that the battle would be won. Their cause may be just, but the Aerdians also had reason to fight. And their reason was to keep their freedom and way of life. Such fighters with such a cause could overwhelm even the fiercest fighters.
He watched sadly as the army marched off to battle; The Holyslayers leading the way, and Husam Ibn Ohim leading them. After the other troops, the beasts and riders brought up the rear, keeping pace.
When they were out of sight, Jabob saw to the remaining djax, the breeders and studs, then turned to walk away toward his home.
But, he thought, not his home for very long! What was he thinking? Of course we would win the battle! Who could stand up to such an army? He may never see his beloved beasts again, but he would not be a beast-keeper any longer. For soon he would be rich with land and holdings and need never lower himself to such labor again! He could retire and live in leisure for the rest of his days. Of course we would win. Wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we?