He was a young man, one of the Singing Folk who went hunting most days. The First didn’t know his name, but he saw him now and understood him as he stared into his wide eyes, white with fear and pain. He was bleeding from a bloody gash on the side of his head and one of his arms hung limply by his side. The morning sun seemed to slip behind a cloud as the people of the settlement parted around him. They all knew that four men had been sent out to hunt before dawn, but only this one had returned. “Silent Folk,” the man said as he dropped straight down into a sitting position on the hard ground. The First bent to him, placing a hand gently on his shoulder, but then he fell sideways into the dirt and didn’t move again. Even Wind was powerless to help him.
The Singing Folk were scared. The simple joy they’d begun to take in working their land was gone, and the primitive ploughs lay untouched in the new fields. It was as if they had regressed suddenly, disappearing back into the comfortable, familiar world they’d once known. As the First walked around the primitive village, he saw some people gathering their small belongings together, as if preparing for flight. But there was nowhere to go. The desert to the west was an impassable barrier, for no one could survive long in its unforgiving environs. Already occupying a thin sliver of existence here on the edge of the world, it seemed as if the tribe, perhaps the last of their kind, was destined to die out. Either the wastes or their mysterious enemy would destroy them: the only question was which it would be, and how soon.
He sought out Gift. She was as morose as the rest, sitting in the hut they shared. They had become lovers almost by default, without ever discussing it. The First relished the intimacy with another living creature, and the pure physicality of the sensation. His mortal form, though limited, offered different advantages, beyond those he’d ever imagined. Now he rested a gentle hand on her knee and looked into her dark eyes. “Why do you fear the Silent Folk? Who are they?”
She shook her head and avoided his gaze, unwilling, like everyone else here, to talk about them.
“Please. I can help you. I want to help you, Gift. Do the Silent Folk hunt you?”
“Who knows why Silent Folk do anything? They come, they take the land, they kill us.”
“I see. And now they’re here…”
“They killed Hand,” she said with a shrug. Hand was the young hunter from the morning, he had learned.
“Gift, you must take me to the Silent Folk. I have to know who this enemy is. Do you understand? If I know them, I can find a way for the Singers to survive…”
It took some persuading, and he got no help from the rest of the Singing Folk, but eventually she agreed to take him east, across lands they rarely travelled except on the longest hunts. No one would go with them except Stone, who alone of his people seemed to understand the importance of the mission. Together the three of them travelled for several hours across the scrubland, moving gradually uphill into a region that was more heavily forested than the savannah that was home to the Singing Folk. The sun was high when they crept through a dense clump of spiny bushes whose needles snagged on the furs he still wore, but which didn’t appear to bother the naked Gift and Stone in the slightest. They were uncharacteristically silent as they moved through the brush, and then wordlessly ducked to peer through a gap in the foliage. The First crouched behind them and frowned down at the valley below. There, he saw a village not at all unlike the one they had left behind on the rocks, except that the people who moved silently around the rough huts built there were quite different.
A month ago, the First might not have been able to tell the difference between these people and the Singing Folk, but now he had come to know the nature of his new community and he looked at the Silent Folk, as these must surely be, with new eyes. There were similarities, of course; they were obviously closely related, perhaps they even shared a common ancestor less than a thousand centuries ago, but the Silent Folk were a more robust form. They had thick, unlovely bodies, with broad, muscled shoulders and hands like wide spades. Their backs were stooped and their legs splayed slightly at the knees. They moved slowly, but with an intensity and physicality that made everything they did look painful. Their brows were heavy and they had wide noses and mouths. Their skin was pale, the colour of baked earth. But, more than the physical differences, there was something else disturbing about them. They were indeed silent. No song lifted through the air from their village, and no chatter even seemed to pass between them. Men, women and children went about their slow business of living – skinning game, lightning fires, knapping stone tools – all in wordless isolation. Occasionally they might grunt at one another or communicate with a simple gesture, but there was no sense of camaraderie between them, no indication that they felt joy in each other’s presence, or kinship of any kind. As a woman on the periphery glanced up blankly towards the sky, he caught sight of her deep, dark eyes buried beneath that great overhang of a brow, and he knew that, even with a thousand years, these people would never make the conceptual leap that Gift and her kind had. They did not sing. They were intelligent, but they would never have souls.
Strangely, Gift looked over the village of the Silent Folk with interest. She was young, and although Stone had the good sense to be wary of his racial enemies, the First realised that Gift might never have actually seen any in the flesh before. “They are like us,” she said softly, evidently seeing the same similarities he had at first.
“No,” the First said, “not like you.” He saw it all then, the horror of it: the Silent Folk were stronger than the Singing Folk. They showed evidence of the same kinds of injuries that spoke of a life spent battling a hostile world, but they bore them with stoic indifference. A smashed hand here, a game leg there, but they were not slowed down. They were better evolved for this place, and they would out-compete the Singing Folk at every turn. No doubt over the last few millennia they had done just that. They had sacrificed the potential of community and language for the brutal necessity of simple survival. They had no possessions, no adornments on their homes. Their lives were bleak and empty and, across this whole planet, the First knew they had come to dominate. An entire world, bereft of true mind, ruled by these aimless, cold creatures. And he knew why he had been sent here.
“We have to go,” he told Gift, taking hold of her arm, but then she turned and screamed. Stone surged up to his feet, but he wasn’t fast enough to avoid the flint axe that was now flying towards his face. There was a spurt of blood and he went down with an animalistic howl. Three of the Silent Folk stood behind them, regarding them impassively. Gift continued to scream. He let go of her arm and rose to his full height, towering over the Silent Folk men. If they felt fear, they showed no sign of it. They were just animals, like the herbivore by the stream so long ago.
As Stone writhed on the floor holding his bleeding face and Gift curled into a ball, hands covering her head, the First let his madness take hold of him. It was short, bloody work, and when it was done he grabbed his two friends and fled through the carnage as fast as he could, back to the home of the Singing Folk.