Even though he now made his way through kinder lands, the sun was still fierce, and its unrelenting gaze made him sweat inside the furs he wore to protect himself. This was a wide, continental region, and few clouds banded the sky – from the look of the ground, rainfall was most likely scarce, with the vegetation fed by regular cycles of flooding due to precipitation near the rivers’ sources; distant highlands to the north, most likely. As the sun crept up to its zenith he took shelter in a sparse coppice of tough-barked trees. Their fronds offered enough shade to relieve the dull ache that had begun in his head, but they made little difference to the heat. He crouched there in the gloom, staring out at the land all around. His initial relief upon stumbling across this more fertile area had dissipated, and now it seemed as parched and unpleasant as the deep desert from which he had staggered, reeking and bloody. How he longed for tall mountains burned with crystalline frost, or even the crushing black depths of the ocean. Anything but the flat horizon blurring into haze, the great blue dome of this sky, so bright it hurt to even crane his neck upward. But his new frail body would die in almost any other environment, he reminded himself. Though there was danger here, there was also the possibility of survival. He had seen many kinds of animal on his travels and even now he picked the remains of another herbivore from his teeth. He could exist here indefinitely, but that offered little satisfaction to one whose ego had spanned the stars.
It was here, while crouching in the shadows, lost in the reverie of what had been taken from him, that the First heard the sound. It was distant, faint and carried on the hot wind across the barren savannah, but unmistakable. He turned slowly, searching out the source of it from within his hiding place. He felt his heart shudder at the sound, for it was a reminder of another thing he had lost. Once, his voice had soared alongside that of his brothers and sisters in the great choir which sang the heavens into being. The ditty that was now carried to his sensitive ears could not match the rich and complex harmonies, the mathematical purity, of those ancient songs of stars and cosmos, but it still stirred something in him. How he had missed the sound of singing. How lonely and desolate and silent had been his existence over the past few days since his abrupt banishment. Fresh tears sprang up in his eyes as he watched and listened, trying to discern words and meaning.
She came walking into view after a few minutes, over a slight rise to the west. He stared at her from behind the fronds that concealed him. She was like him in so many ways, and yet different. In basic form they could have passed for members of the same species, but he could sense even from this distance that a gulf separated them. She was of this primitive, savage world and though he could see the light of intelligence in her deep gaze, he saw nothing that indicated she possessed the indelible spark of soul that made her truly sentient. She was naked, with a clean, bronzed body and dark hair. Her form was pleasing and he felt another stirring within him, this time in his loins, body parts he had heretofore given little thought towards. He considered her as she walked by just a little way from him, picking small, shrivelled fruits from a thorny bush and putting them in a rough sack made from the cured hide of some animal. Yes, she was beautiful indeed, with wide hips and high, firm breasts. Young and alive and unaware that he watched her, hidden. His mind turned back to his encounter with the herbivore at the muddy creek the previous day, how he had fallen upon it and satisfied his bestial desires. Would it be so different to do the same with this creature? What was the throbbing tightness at his crotch but another pang of hunger? And she was, like the nameless herbivore, just another animal of these strange lands, despite how she might resemble him. He felt himself begin to stand, but then the woman opened her mouth and began to sing again and he stopped.
It was unintelligible jabber to him, of course, but as he listened he began to discern some meaning. She had a simple language, and her song was equally rudimentary, nothing more than a childlike rhyme about the world around her. There was a pattern to the rhythm and melody, but she appeared to be composing the verse as she went, singing the berries and the rocks and the trees. Her voice was fine and clear and, despite the attraction he felt to both her physical form and the song that reminded him of his lost home, he felt himself wilt. He understood then that there were some acts of bestiality from which he might never rise if he were to give in to them.
Her song continued and the First watched her, transfixed. She gathered berries until the sack was bulging and then turned and began to walk back the way she had come, still singing softly. But then, as she passed a large weathered stone, he saw something dark move on the ground and, before either he or she could react, a long, sinuous shape had darted out and clamped jaws around her slender calf. She let out a wail and tumbled to the ground, sending her precious forage scattering across the dusty earthA. The creature that had attacked her, a snake no more than a few feet in length with yellow-brown scales and alternately dark and light patterning along its length, had been well-camouflaged in the brush. But it was too small to make a meal of its victim – she had simply strayed too close. It hissed with something like frustration.
The First burst from his hiding place and the snake, spooked by the sudden arrival of so many huge animals into its territory, retreated back under the rock. He stooped over the fallen woman whose face had now begun to turn pale. She looked much like him, although her skin was much darker and her face a little broader. She stared at him as he leant over her and placed a gentle hand on her injured leg. He knew without looking that the snake had injected some venom into her and that she would die soon unless he could find some way to help her.
“Who are you?” she asked him. Just a few minutes observing her was sufficient for him to have discerned enough of her simplistic language to understand her. He had once decoded the elemental pulses of a fading neutron star: the workings of this small primate’s mind were laid bare to one such as he.
“I am called the First.” When she looked at him in incomprehension he realised his mistake. Her song had been rooted in the here and now, saying nothing of before or after, past or future. Perhaps these creatures were limited in that way. “The Morning Star,” he clarified, “the bright star that comes with the dawn.”
She nodded, understanding. “I am called Gift.”
He smiled. “Are your people nearby? Is there one who might be able to heal this poison?” His hand hovered a few inches above her calf. Already her flesh was beginning to darken and swell. Her brow was covered in sweat.
“Singing Folk,” she said, “over the ridge. A few miles, near the stones.”
It was obvious she wouldn’t be able to walk. “I’ll carry you,” he said, reaching beneath her and easily lifting her up in his arms, “you show me which way to go.” Her skin felt cold to the touch. He would need to walk fast, but he was strong – stronger than this woman or perhaps any of her people, and doubtless he was wise beyond their understanding. They would revere him, or perhaps fear him. By chance or design, he had found a path in this world of his exile. As he walked by, the snake hissed again, recoiling from his presence. Gift lolled in his arms.