Wrath & Gunfire: The Barvan Campaign
Why the Hunter Hates the Rabbit
In the beginning, the Prism was not known to the other gods, imprisoned as she was in the world of the incorporeal—it would be some time before the Bear would travel far enough north, exploring her frozen domain, to meet the goddess of dreams in the lights of the northern sky. Also in the beginning, it was long millennia before the Stranger would appear, stepping out of the egg that fell from the sky. But in the beginning, the Hunter was there, as primal and powerful as any of the other gods.
In this beginning, when the sky was bright, the sea was dark, and the land unpeopled, the gods opened their newborn eyes to blink at the new sun of young Middian. They looked around, studying each other, and saw that many of them had fur and whiskers, others had scales or cool, smooth skin, others feathered wings. Only one of them seemed to have no covering, a strange, pale brown creature who stood on two legs, blinking with dark eyes and staring at the assembled animals.
The gods began to explore the world, discovering their realms and responsibilities. They gave each other names, for they all spoke all languages, and understood each other well, though they did not all agree. Only one of them did not speak well—the creature with no fur or scales or feathers. When he spoke, the other gods laughed, though the kinder among them tried to hide it. His voice was so strange, so lisping and stammering and ugly to the ears.
The Rabbit, laughing his high-pitched laugh that seemed fit to split the sky, called him Stumbletongue, and the other gods laughed, too. All laughed except for a few who did not care for jokes, like Tiger and Wolf, and the Heron, who was too kind, and the Frog, who was too busy singing his mad songs to notice the capers of the other gods. The newly-named Stumbletongue clamped his mouth shut and glared at them all, with a particularly baleful look for the Rabbit.
By this time, most of the gods had discovered what they liked best and where they preferred to live. The Great Leviathan ruled on the largest continent, breathing fire and mist and playing with magic. The Heron and Waterfowl cavorted together in the water and the air, fooling each other in and out of love. The Golden Eagle roamed the skies, and the Whirlwind confined himself to small disasters that the other gods quickly put right, laughing at his sport. The Armadillo began to explore the new earth, traveling back frequently to tell the others what he had seen.
The Tiger and the Wolf enjoyed their hunts in the jungle and the forest, meeting frequently to wrestle and spar. They did not yet know death, though. All the creatures they hunted were gods themselves, and therefore always escaped the hunt, which was more for sport than true.
The Fox and the Frog did battle over who made the finest art, though the Fox was always in fun while the Frog was madly serious. The Boars began to till the earth and cultivate crops, always curious about how they could make the plants’ children better than what came before. The Rabbit laughed and joked with all, never in the same place. The Snake discovered that she enjoyed disappearing into the green of grass or leaf, leaping out in the least-expected places and laughing her hissing laugh at the other gods’ startlement. The Bear gave birth to twins while far north in her explorations and made the first home when she retreated to a cave to protect her children from the snow. The Panther chased the Canary in endless circles, never closer, never farther behind.
But Stumbletongue had not yet discovered where he was meant to be.
Stumbletongue went to Leviathan, who was inventing the art of conjuration. The god with no covering bowed before the great dragon, and waited for an audience. He waited for days, and did not flinch as powerful sparks flew by his head, flows and showers of magic in all colors, bright and hot and dangerous even to gods. At last Leviathan ceased his experiments and bent his head to speak to the smaller god.
“What do you seek, Stumbletongue?”
“I wish for you to teach me powerful magics, Leviathan.”
“Hmm.” The dragon lifted his head up and away, gazing down at the pale creature with narrowed eyes. “I cannot teach you magic, little Stumbletongue. Magic is too large for you. That is for me to teach to my dragons, when they come to Middian. They will learn from me all there is to know of power and fire. But you, I cannot teach. Seek your destiny elsewhere.”
Stumbletongue bowed and went his way. As he walked, the Rabbit saw him, and stopped to mock his presumption for asking to be taught magic when he couldn’t even speak properly. Stumbletongue said nothing, only continued to walk, his head down, showing nothing.
He found the Boars busy digging up a stump rooted in one of their fields. Stumbletongue knelt on the ground and waited for them to acknowledge him. For days he waited, while they prepared for the sunny season just beginning in a frenzy of tilling and planting. At last the Sow noticed the pale creature kneeling at the edge of the field, and she nudged her husband with her tusk. The Boar nodded, and they came to listen to his words. The Sow spoke first.
“What do you seek, Stumbletongue?”
“I wish for you to teach me the secrets of the earth, great Boars.”
“Hmm.” The Boar looked to the Sow, then back to the two-legged god. “We cannot teach you these secrets, clumsy Stumbletongue. These are home-secrets. You are a god, and the sky is your roof, the wide earth your floor. When the time comes, we will teach what we know to people who need our knowledge in order to live, to feed their children and warm their homes. But you, we cannot teach. Seek your destiny elsewhere.”
Stumbletongue bowed and walked away. As he left the field, the Rabbit saw him, and paused his endless capering to mock him for being rejected by the Boars, the most benevolent of all the gods. Stumbletongue said nothing, only loped on, his head down, his mouth grim.
He found the Fox painting a magnificent artwork with her tail, using the natural colors of the world as her pigments, a large slab of rock as her canvas. She was deeply engrossed, and Stumbletongue knelt down to wait. For days, he watched her create marvelous images of creatures of all kinds, most of them not seen in the world yet. He suspected that the images were prophetic, but he did not know where she had learned things not yet to come. At last she stopped to clean her tail, and noticed him watching.
“What do you seek, Stumbletongue?”
“I wish for you to teach me fine and useful crafts, glorious Fox.”
“Hmm.” She circled him closely, studying him with bright yellow eyes that saw all there was. “I cannot teach you my crafts, slow-witted Stumbletongue. Your hands were not made to hold my delicate tools, and your mind is not fierce enough to endure the heat of inspiration. Someday, my students will come—I paint their images now. But you, I cannot teach. Seek your destiny elsewhere.”
Stumbletongue bowed and departed. As he went, he watched for Rabbit, waiting for him to come and mock his quest. But all he heard was high-pitched laughter. He plodded on, his head down, his face empty.
One by one, Stumbletongue visited all of the gods, asking each in turn to teach him their special abilities. Each of them refused him, some with kind words, some with harsh. The Whirlwind only laughed, and though his laughter was nothing like the Rabbit’s, Stumbletongue heard the tone of the Rabbit in it.
At last he had only the Tiger and the Wolf left to ask. Stumbletongue hesitated before stepping into the forest where it bordered the jungle, breathing deeply and taking one last look at the sun. He heard rustling beside him, and knew that the Rabbit was pacing his steps, eager to see how his search would end.
He found Tiger and Wolf wrestling in a clearing, neither ever gaining advantage over the other. They growled and leaped and bore each other down, only to leap up again and begin the game anew. Stumbletongue did not kneel, but stood watching, waiting for the sport to pause.
In moments the Wolf noticed him, and broke off his attack, charging to the edge of the trees where the naked god stood. Stumbletongue did not flinch, and the Wolf scraped to a halt just before crashing into him. They stood nose to nose, dark eyes gazing into deep gold.
“What do you seek, Stumbletongue?”
“I wish for you to teach me the wild arts of the forest, Wolf.”
“Hmm.” The Wolf sat back on his haunches and licked his chops, studying Stumbletongue with unblinking eyes. “What did you ask of the other gods, Stumbletongue?”
“I asked the Leviathan to teach me magic. I asked the Boars to teach me earth-secrets. I asked the Fox to teach me fine crafts. I asked each of them to teach me their abilities, for I have none of my own.”
Wolf stood up and began to pace. Behind him, Tiger lounged in the bracken, grooming his paws. “You asked ill, foolish Stumbletongue,” the Wolf said. “You should have asked Leviathan to teach you wisdom, the Boars to teach you goodness, the Fox to teach you persistence. You should have asked the Waterfowl to teach you courage, the Whirlwind restraint, the Snake watchfulness. You should have asked the Bear to teach you how to protect and nurture, the Frog how to enjoy music, the Heron how to love. You have squandered all.”
The Wolf stopped pacing and sat down again. “You should have asked the Rabbit why he laughed. He would have told you, and you would have been better for it.”
Stumbletongue said nothing, only stared at the Wolf, his hands clenched into fists.
The Wolf tilted his head to one side. “Ask me to teach you justice, little god. If you ask, I will bestow on you all I have to give.”
Stumbletongue turned away, staring at the forest. Deep in the bushes he saw the eyes of the Rabbit, watching him. He saw mockery and ill-will, and did not see truly. With a wordless cry of anger, he seized a stick laying on the ground and began to beat the underbrush with it. After a time, he heard the soft padding footsteps of the Wolf, walking away.
He turned around, and saw the Tiger standing there, watching him calmly. “I will teach you how to hunt,” the Tiger said. “I will teach you something you can do with that stick in your hand.”
Stumbletongue nodded. He looked back at the forest, and could not see Rabbit anymore. But he knew then that he would catch the Rabbit one day, and end the mocking forever.
The god with no covering never spoke again. In time his first name was forgotten, and he was known only as the Hunter, implacable and cruel. Tiger taught him to make his stick into a spear, but he fashioned the first longbow himself. In the end, he forgot what Tiger had done for him, and began to hunt him as well. He never learned justice, nor any of the other qualities that the Wolf had recommended.
This was the first rift between the Wolf and the Tiger, and it never closed. Whenever they met afterward to wrestle and spar, it was no longer in sport. Grievance has piled on grievance, and reconciliation is now impossible.
And the Hunter will always hate the Rabbit, and will hunt him until the world ends and the stars fall from the sky.