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Chapt. 9: Land of the Ruah
By Michael Jesse
The ruah was standing so close they could feel hot breath puffing from the holes in its horns. Four other ruah were emerging from the woods — three males and a female.
"Jack," Laura muttered, barely moving her lips. "Say something. Tell them we come in peace or something."
Jack cleared his throat and said, in his normal voice, "we come in peace."
"I meant with the flute," Laura clarified.
Remembering that his flute existed, and that he had hands to play it, Jack pulled it from his robe pocket and raised it to his lips. He did not know how to say "we come in peace" so he played, "we won't harm you."
After a surprised silence, three of the five ruah fell into convulsive tooting, which Jack and Laura had come to recognize through Ronnie was ruah laughter.
The largest and sternest of the ruah silenced the two smaller males with a glance. Then, in a movement so quick Jack had no chance to react, it lunged at his face, its horse-like teeth snapping shut only inches from Jack's face as the boy fell backwards into the shallow water. He was unharmed because the ruah was only snatching from his hands the little wooden flute.
"Where did you get this?" it demanded in notes so deep Laura could feel the vibration.
"I . . . its just a . . . it's only my flute," Jack stammered in English, no longer able to communicate.
The lone female in the group now rushed forward and put herself between the children and the giant male, facing him. "There's no reason to frighten them. Can't you see they're only children?"
"Children or not, we must find out where that ship has gone."
"Well did it occur to you to just ask them? And let me see that." She took from his mouth Jack's flute. Holding it between the thick black toenails of her front foot she held it up to her eyes, examining it closely. "It's only made of wood," she declared dismissively, and extended her foot to offer it back to Jack.
The big male issued a single, disapproving note that was not among the words Jack and Laura had learned from Ronnie. The female turned her back on him and faced the children, who stared back. They had already known female ruah did not have horns, but this was the first time they'd seen one up close. Above her eyes, where the males had horns, the female had nostrils that looked more human than that of a horse, but were considerably more animated than either because it was through them that she whistled. As she spoke, one nostril would flare open while the other squeezed itself nearly closed, and then they would reverse or contort themselves in other ways.
"Don't be frightened," she was saying. "My name is Riona and I assure you that we all" (here she glanced fiercely back at the males) "wish to thank you for warning us yesterday about the aggressive intentions of your fathers. Can you tell us where they have gone? Did they abandon you as punishment?"
Jack stared back at her, too dumbfounded to reply, so Laura whistled her first ruah words. "We . . . don't know … where ship … gone." All this time she had watched and listened as Jack and Ronnie talked, but she'd never realized there was a way she could do it, too, though she was too unpracticed to get out more than a few rough words.
Riona smiled — Laura was sure it was a smile. Her mouth didn't move, but her nostrils curled and her eyes looked exactly the way their mother's eyes did when she smiled. She even had dimples.
Jack had by this time recovered enough of his composure to play his flute, so he finished telling the story of how he and Laura had come to be on this side of the ocean. He left out those parts of the story that he could not even have explained in English.
As Jack recounted what he'd heard MacWilde and Procktor say about capturing ten young ruah and killing the adults if necessary, the two young males trumpeted in outrage and clacked their horns together until the big male silenced them again.
"That was quite brave of you," Riona said, " but we had already heard from someone that you two were special." As she spoke, two more males cantered out of the forest — one a full-grown male and the other a youth with a small growth of horns.
"Ronnie!" Jack shouted, and then blew on his horn the musical equivalent as Ronnie bounded up and knocked him over like a big dog.
The other newcomer came up to the group and stared at Jack and Laura.
"Hello," Laura whistled, enjoying the look on his face.
Riona seemed amused as well. "Menda," she said, "These are Laura and Jack. Children, this is Menda. And you have not yet been properly introduced to my husband, Verdu."
"Happy . . . to . . meet you," Laura whistled, making eye contact in particular with the giant one, who was slightly less scary now that she knew his name. Jack and Ronnie were just getting to their feet and Jack played a greeting he'd learned from Ronnie that said, "Blessings of The Spirit."
"Blessings. . . ." Menda started to reply, but trailed off in the middle of the phrase, and then said to Verdu, "It's just as young Rahnee said. To be honest, I didn't really–"
"Report," Verdu said quietly, and Menda snapped to attention, for the first time averting his eyes from the children.
"As you instructed, sir," he piped in a disciplined military-like cadence, "we dispatched two runners to locate Rahnee's parents. And because it will take at least two days to reach their village we've arranged for him to stay at the school with others his age until his family arrives."
Riona sat down on her haunches so that her face was at Jack and Laura's level. "And now what is to become of you, little ones?" she asked them. "Did you think ahead about what you would do in a strange land after leaving your fathers' ship?"
"They're not our fathers," Laura whistled haltingly as she struggled to hit the right notes. "Our parents are . . . at first we thought . . . it was a dream . . . no . . . we don't really . . . have a plan."
"Well don't you worry," Riona said. "Verdu and I will be your guardians."
A high-pitched note of surprise came from one of Verdu's smaller pipes. Riona looked back at him teasingly. "I didn't say we were going to adopt them forever, dear. But the community has responsibility to help these two somehow."
"Of course," Verdu said quickly. "We will take them to Irenia. She will know the proper thing to do." He started to say something else, but stopped as at least 20 more ruah emerged from the woods and ran towards them.
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