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As mentioned in the Afterword to Part Ten, parts of this instalment were written simultaneously with the expansion of the last one, hence the much shorter than usual gap. I can’t guarantee greater consistency between the parts, though! While the title character remains very much on the sidelines, he still remains very much in the protagonists’ thoughts, not to mention your humble(!) author’s. He is, after all, (Ketrin, that is, not the author) the reason they’re putting themselves through all this trouble. Would you walk, swim or row countless kilometres through dangerous jungle just to find a missing friend? Personally, I’d probably go and find a new friend. But maybe that’s just me.
PS: The map has been updated to reflect the events of this episode. I’ve tried not to include too many spoilers.
The story takes place several hundred light years from Earth in about AD 3502, give or take a century or three.
You can take the boys and girls out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the boys and girls.
There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
--Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
As the day wore on the lupinoids began to scent another pack in the distance. They and the wildlings howled to announce their presence, and Sherinel decided it would be best to join in.
Their howl was immediately met with an answer. Sherinel couldn’t tell for certain, but it sounded like ten or more lupinoids, and not too far away.
+All right,+ he told his companions. +We don’t want any trouble with the locals. No challenges. We’ll just ask them to let us pass through, and if that means we all have to bare our throats to them we’ll do it. Understand?+
They all projected their agreement telepathically. Not long afterward they were met by a scout from the local pack, and after Sherinel had explained their situation the scout led them to the pack leader, a red-brown male with black stripes and a long scar on his snout.
+You been in a fight?+ he projected.
+We’ve been fighting striagons,+ Sherinel told him. +We don’t want to fight any of you. But it looks like you’ve met a striagon or two yourself.+
+Yeah. Killed the rotten thing but it marked my face. That scar on your belly from a stripeface too?+
+Yes. That was a while ago, though. By now I’m getting pretty tired of the things.+
+So, where are you headed now?+
Sherinel nodded toward the east. Scarface turned to his packmates, and there was a brief telepathic conference from which Sherinel’s pack was excluded. Finally the lupinoid turned back to face Sherinel.
+There’s a two-leg pack over that way,+ he told Sherinel. +They don’t bother us and we don’t bother them. You going there?+
+They might have some things that we need,+ he replied. Besides which, he thought, it would make a refreshing change to meet a village whose hunters did not think lupinoids were vermin.
Scarface considered for a moment, then without warning leapt at Sherinel and knocked him off his feet.
Sherinel had been expecting something of the kind, and so he lay still as the scarred lupinoid closed its jaws around his throat. The rest of Sherinel’s pack hung back and watched, knowing instinctively the price of interference.
+You are in my territory now and you will do as I command,+ thought Scarface. +Is that clear, two-leg who shares thoughts like a four-leg?+
Sherinel did his best to imitate a lupinoid’s submissive whimper and replied: +Yes. I understand. None of us will interfere with your pack in any way.+
Scarface continued to pin down Sherinel for a long, tense moment. Then he released Sherinel and stepped back, allowing the human to sit up.
+All we ask is to rest here a bit before we head on to the two-legs’ territory,+ Sherinel thought. +Will you be our friends?+
+All right,+ thought Scarface. +Follow me, stripeface-killers. There’s a stream over here where you can drink.+
Sherinel breathed a huge sigh of relief. The Maiden had not led them astray, and in the human village they might find better weapons with which to defend themselves against further striagon attacks.
Scarface led them to the stream and prepared to depart.
+Thank you,+ Sherinel thought to him. +You’re doing us a bigger favour than I can tell you.+
+Hey, you killed a bunch of stripefaces,+ replied Scarface, and left them to rest.
They drank at the stream and settled down to rest on the mossy bank. The male wildling was still depressed about Night’s death, so Sherinel embraced him and rocked him to sleep.
Before drifting off himself, he thought: Tomorrow we arrive at the village. Then we’ll find out if the people here really are as hospitable to lupinoids as Scarface seems to think.
“She’s been in there an awfully long time,” said Tolar.
“Can you blame her?” grinned Tharil. “We both know how attractive Lord Ral-ne-Sa is.”
It was only a little later, however, that Suvanji did emerge from the shrine of Lord Ral-ne-Sa, wearing (only) a thoughtful expression.
“Well?” Tolar demanded. “Have you done your silent speech thing with Lord Ral-ne-Sa? What have you learned about him?”
Suvanji and Ketrin had in fact exchanged every relevant piece of information about each other that they could think of. Ketrin had been surprised to discover that he was not the only wild human raised by lupinoids, and even more surprised to learn that Mavrida had actually left the relative safety of her village to come and look for him.
Suvanji had explained Tolar’s moral dilemma to Ketrin, and between them they believed they had figured out what Suvanji should say to Tolar in the hope of resolving it.
“The being you call Lord Ral-ne-Sa is very powerful,” she told the chief hunter. “So powerful that he can be in many places at once, and one of the places he has chosen to dwell is within the body of that wildling youth.”
Tolar and Tharil mulled this over for a moment.
“So,” Tolar said at length, “it really was Lord Ral-ne-Sa who called Sun and Fire to our aid when we were starving and ill. He accepts and approves of our worship.”
“Yes,” said Suvanji, “and there is more. The wildling that Lord Ral-ne-Sa has blessed with his presence is called Ketrin.”
She then went on to explain the whole of Ketrin’s history just as he had told it to her, and then recounted her own story in detail, answering all of Tolar and Tharil’s questions as best she could.
Only days before Suvanji had known only rudimentary speech, yet now she astonished herself with her sustained eloquence.
”And so you see,” she continued. “Nipper and I could not have come here today if it had not been for Ketrin. I know exactly how it feels for him, being paralysed by sorcery for so many moons. Both he and Lord Ral-ne-Sa are happy with your worship, but Lord Ral-ne-Sa agrees that Ketrin deserves to be set free as soon as can be.”
“But then,” said Tharil, “why has Lord Ral-ne-Sa not released him already?”
“The spell that holds Ketrin immobile, and held me and Nipper, was created by the one Mavrida called the sorcerer,” Suvanji told them. “He may also be what you call a god, or perhaps a demon. As powerful as he is, not even Lord Ral-ne-Sa can remove the sorcerer’s spell on his own. That can only be done by someone who holds another of the blue crystals.”
“And this... Mavrida, you said? Ketrin’s human mother. She holds the crystal that freed you and Nipper.”
“Yes. If she finds her way here she will be able to free Ketrin too.”
Somewhat to her surprise, Suvanji found herself smiling at the thought that she might soon witness that reunion. Tolar’s expression, however, seemed less enthusiastic.
“Well,” he said, “I’m... sure that will be a joyful day for them both. But now, forgive me, I imagine you must be tired after all you’ve been through. Let’s see if we can’t find you a nice dry hut, and something to eat.”
Tharil said, “I’m sure my sister won’t mind sharing, at least until we can give Suvanji more permanent accommodation.”
“All right, it’s settled, then,” declared Tolar. “Sleeping under a roof will undoubtedly seem strange to you at first, Suvanji, but you’ll soon get used to it. Until we meet again.”
Tolar gazed thoughtfully at the naked wild girl as Tharil led her away. Normally the sight of such perfect female buttocks and legs would have aroused lustful feelings in him despite his usual proclivities, but at the moment Tolar was preoccupied with a different thought.
If what Suvanji had told him about Ketrin and his mother was true, then the village might soon be losing its idol. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that that must not happen. He was reluctant to make enemies of Suvanji and her friends, but he was determined at all costs to prevent them from restoring the village’s god to mobility.
As Tharil walked Suvanji across the village toward his sister’s hut, he was acutely aware of all the villagers who were unsuccessfully trying not to be seen staring at the nude girl, and he was quite certain that she was equally aware of them.
To take his mind off the thought he asked, “By the way, how’s the leg now? I’m ashamed to say, I’d almost forgotten about it.”
“So had I, Tharil” she replied. “It hardly hurts at all now.”
“That’s incredibly fast healing,” said Tharil. “Still, you’d better keep the bandage on for tonight. In the morning we’ll see if it wants replacing.”
Tharil’s sister, a woman in her mid-twenties, was already standing in her doorway as her brother and Suvanji approached.
“So, you’re the wild girl they’ve all been whispering about,” she said, letting her gaze roam appreciatively over Suvanji’s body while her jealous neighbours could only watch from a distance. Finally she asked the wildling, “Can you talk?”
“Yes,” said Suvanji. “I’ve talked a lot today. My throat’s sore.”
“Don’t worry, Suvanji,” said Tharil with a wry smile. “Now that you’re here, I’m sure you can rely on Therys to do all the talking.”
“Ah, I thought you were here to ask me a favour,” said Therys. “I suppose you’d like me to share my hut with, um...”
“Suvanji,” said Tharil. “Just for a few days, if that’s all right.”
“Right. Suvanji. Pretty name. Well, all right, then. Come on in, Suvanji. It may be a bit cramped with the two of us, but I’m sure we’ll manage.”
Tharil took his leave and the two girls walked into the hut.
The interior of the hut was both strange and familiar to Suvanji; strange because it was the first time she had ever entered one, yet familiar because of her brief telepathic joinings with Lendrin and Ketrin. Thus she knew, even before Therys told her, the functions of the various pots, utensils, clay figurines and other human artifacts contained within. Even her reflection in a mirror came as no surprise, since she had already seen her own face through Lendrin’s eyes.
“We’ll have to find some clothes for you,” said Therys. “Not that any of us mind seeing you naked, but it is rather distracting.”
Therys herself wore a pale green one-piece dress with short sleeves and a knee-length skirt, cinched at the waist by narrow strip of cloth.
From her telepathic bond with Lendrin, Suvanji understood how clothing could be used to both conceal and accentuate the shape of the body. She had mixed feelings about wearing it, herself, but knew she had no choice if she wanted to get by in two-leg society.
“Still,” Therys continued, “I suppose that can wait a little while. Are you hungry? I have some dried meat and fruit that the men brought back from the Valley, and if you don’t mind talking a bit more I’d really like to hear about you and your adventures, and a little ale is sure to help that sore throat of yours.”
Perhaps Suvanji was becoming better at reading human faces, or perhaps Therys had some residual telepathic ability that Suvanji was picking up. Either way, the wildling realised that her hostess was trying to seduce her. She didn’t mind. After all that she had been through in the past few hours, it was an enormous relief to find herself surrounded by friendly creatures, however strange their ways.
So she took a clay mug of ale from Therys and sipped slowly, savouring the unfamiliar taste. Then she began to recount her story while Therys sat beside her on the hut’s one and only bed, laying an arm across her shoulders and caressing her with increasing intimacy until they both gave in to pleasure.
Later, as she slept in Therys’s arms, Suvanji found herself entering a vision-dream. Part of it was very dark and upsetting, but she was not able to wake until the vision had played itself out in full.
The blood would not stop. As she staggered on through the darkening forest carrying her tiny burden, Shendra could feel the wetness dripping down her legs onto the matted jungle grass. It was only a matter of time before she either died from blood loss or was found by some predator.
Shendra had never been so afraid in all of her sixteen years, not for her own sake, but for her daughter’s. The infant was no longer crying, and Shendra feared that her efforts to save her might have come to nothing.
“Oh, gods, please help me,” Shendra sobbed. “I know that I sinned by lying with Ralvin before I was of age and concealing my expectancy from my parents. If I am to die for my sin then so be it. But my child is innocent. I beg you, o gods, please let her be saved. Please...”
Wracked by another sudden spasm of pain Shendra fell to her knees.
“Please,” she whispered. “My life is in vain, but do not let hers be too. Save her. Please... save...”
Shendra’s strength was gone. Her body slumped into a supine position and her baby slid gently onto the ground beside her.
As her consciousness began to slip away, Shendra was startled to see a pair of purple eyes peering down at her. They were the eyes of a huge, golden-furred lupinoid, whose face seemed to fill the sky to overflowing.
This could be no mortal creature, but a god, come to claim her soul. So be it. She had no fear for herself, only for the child she had tried so hard to bring safely into the world.
Lord of lupinoids, she thought, eat my soul if you will, but I implore you, if you are capable of mercy, spare my daughter.
The purple eyes grew until she felt she was drowning in them. Her fear and anguish left her, to be replaced by a great sense of peace. She knew that the god of lupinoids had answered her prayer. Though she would die, her daughter would live. Shendra wept in gratitude.
The great lupinoid’s jaws enfolded her, taking her life swiftly and without pain.
Lying nearby, the infant sensed that something was wrong, and began to whimper quietly because she was too weak to cry.
The moons had not yet risen by the time a young lupinoid discovered the body of a two-leg female lying in the forest. She could not have been dead for long because her flesh was still sweet. Game had hitherto been scarce, and he was relieved to have found enough meat not only to nourish himself, but also to regurgitate for his mate. She could not hunt with him because she was tending to their cubs.
It was only after the lupinoid had finished eating that he became aware of something stirring in the bushes nearby.
Approaching cautiously, the lupinoid discovered a small two-leg cub, whining quietly and squirming weakly with its naked brown limbs.
The lupinoid considered for a moment. The two-leg cub was none of his business, yet for some reason he felt reluctant to abandon it to certain death.
A little later that night his mate was surprised to see him enter their den carrying a two-leg cub by the scruff of its neck.
+Ours,+ he told her. +Our new cub.+
She might have put up an argument, but as she looked and sniffed at the helpless creature she was overtaken by the same curious reluctance to kill it.
+Ours,+ she agreed, and allowed her mate to set down the two-leg beside her cubs. The newcomer was weak, but not too weak to crawl forward and begin suckling with the others.
After the cubs had fed it was time for sleep. As the warm milk laced with chemical messengers was absorbed into her bloodstream, the naked cub snuggled close to her new siblings and dreamed lupinoid dreams.
The new cub would grow up knowing how to use her hands and walk upright, but thanks to her lupinoid mother’s milk she would also share her furry siblings’ telepathic ability and hunting instincts. The god of lupinoids had answered Shendra‘s prayer and saved her daughter - on his own terms.
Suvanji woke with a gasp, surprised at the strength of her emotions. There was an unaccustomed wetness on her face.
“Suvanji? What’s wrong?” asked Therys, waking a moment after.
“I... the vision...” said Suvanji. “It was real. She was my mother. My human mother. I saw how she died.”
She brought a hand to her moist cheek. “What’s wrong with my eyes?” she murmured.
“Nothing’s wrong,” said Therys. “You’re crying, that’s all. The dream upset you.”
“It wasn’t just a dream,” said Suvanji. “I think it was a memory. I saw my mother die, soon after I was born.”
“But how, Suvanji? Nobody can remember that far back.”
“I don’t know how, Therys, but I know what I saw was true,” insisted Suvanji. “My mother was called Shendra. Her family disapproved of her being with child and wanted to take it from her, so she ran away from home, but her time came sooner than she expected, before she could reach another village.”
Suvanji wrapped her arms around herself. Therys enfolded them from behind.
“She was so scared,” Suvanji murmured. “Alone and without help, she managed to bear me alive, but she couldn’t stop the bleeding afterward. Before she died she begged the one you call Ral-ne-Sa to save her child. And... and I was saved, though she didn’t live to see. A lupinoid found me and took me back to his mate, and they raised me as one of their cubs.”
Nipper, who had been napping outside, was aroused by Suvanji’s feelings of distress and came bounding into the hut, staring around for trouble.
+What’s up?+ demanded the lupinoid. +Are you hurt?+
+I’m all right, Nipper, I’m all right,+ thought Suvanji. +Don’t worry about me.+ Slipping out of Therys’s embrace she hugged her lupinoid companion tightly, half as a gesture of reassurance and half to prevent her from doing anything rash.
+You’re upset,+ thought Nipper.
+I’ll be all right, Nipper, really. It’s... two-leg feelings, that’s all. I’m just having trouble getting used to them.+
Therys moved slowly to Suvanji’s side, careful not to startle her lupinoid friend.
Once Nipper was satisfied that there was no danger she calmed down, and was content to sit with the two humans for a while.
By now the afternoon was well advanced. Once Suvanji had brought her unfamiliar emotions under control Therys took her a little way downhill to the bathing stream. Nipper tagged along, but Therys insisted that if the lupinoid wanted to play in the water she would have to go downstream. As it was, Nipper’s experiences in the rapids had put her off paddling, at least for now.
After bathing the girls went further downhill to relieve themselves. Therys was annoyed when Nipper insisted on sniffing her crotch afterward.
“Just what does she think she’s doing?” Therys asked. Suvanji relayed the question telepathically, but she had already guessed the answer.
“She says she wanted to confirm her suspicions,” said Suvanji. “When she smelled you earlier she thought you were pregnant.”
“Oh. Well, of course I’ve lain in worship with Lord Ral-ne-Sa, but then so have a lot of us. Can Nipper really tell so soon, just from the smell?”
Suvanji gave a lupinoid-style grin. “Oh, yes,” she said wryly, with a glance down at her own torso. “She’s already proved that.”
Slow realisation spread across Therys’s face. “Oh... you mean that you’re...? But wait. You only lay with Lord Ral-ne-Sa earlier today! Surely that’s too soon even for a lupinoid to tell!”
“Oh. No, Therys, I did not lay with Ke... Lord Ral-n-Sa. Lendrin is the father of this child.”
Suvanji sighed. “I wish he were here. I wish I could tell him that he is a father. It was simpler before... when I lived as an animal. When a friend died or had to leave the pack because they were old or sick, I was sad for a while, but then forgot about them. Now that I’m human I can’t stop feeling sad that my friends aren’t with me.”
“That’s another normal human emotion, Suvanji,” Therys assured her. “I’m sure your friends are out there looking for you. It’s only a matter of time before they find you.”
Suvanji nodded thoughtfully. And when they find me they find Ketrin as well, she thought. That lifted her spirits a little, and she was further distracted by the sight of Nipper apparently chasing something.
The two girls followed to see what Nipper had caught, and saw that she had cornered a small orange reptile, about a cubit long and a handsbreadth in width.
“That’s what we call a jalget,” Therys told Suvanji.
“Nipper’s taking revenge for being chased by that gwanna,” said Suvanji.
“Just watch,” said Therys with a grin. “I think she might be disappointed.”
Pinned against a small ledge of rock, the jalget seemed to have no chance of escape. Then, to Nipper’s - and Suvanji’s - considerable surprise, the little reptile hissed angrily, reared up on its hind legs, puffed itself up to three times its normal girth, and extended a colourful, half-cubit wide fringe around its neck. This rapid transformation so startled Nipper that she gave a yelp and leapt backward half her length, while the jalget deflated its body and scurried away to safety.
The girls laughed uproariously. Laughter was another emotion that was new to Suvanji, and a far more welcome one.
Meanwhile the lupinoid attempted to regain her dignity. +Did you see the size of that thing?+ she thought. +Nearly bit my head off!+
Suvanji chuckled and hugged her friend. +Yes, Nipper,+ she replied. +You were very brave.+
Suvanji sat beside her friend for a while, and beckoned for Therys to do the same. Nipper allowed the villager to place an arm about her shoulders. Lupinoid-fashion, the three of them simply enjoyed each other’s presence for a while, until Therys said it was time to get back to the village before everyone began to wonder where they were.
Escorted by some of Scarface’s scouts, Sherinel’s party arrived at the human village the following morning. The village was surrounded by a high stockade, but the gates stood open, giving them and the villagers plenty of time to appraise each others’ appearances.
To Sherinel’s eye the village was neater and more well laid-out than the one he came from, and the people appeared more cheerful. Not surprising, he supposed, if they didn’t have a bastard like Borvinn in charge.
A number of the villagers had stopped to stare at the approaching strangers. Sherinel supposed they had never before seen humans, let alone naked humans, in the company of lupinoids. For the first time in many days he felt self-conscious about his own nudity, although (it pleased him to note) he was no longer ashamed of it.
About twelve cubits from the gate Scarface’s packmates halted. +The two-legs don’t like it if we get too close,+ one of them told Sherinel. +Your four-legs better stay with us while you two-legs go in.+
+All right,+ he replied, and relayed the message to his friends.
To the wildlings he thought: +Remember, two-leg packs communicate by yapping. There might be a lot of that by the time I’m finished. Also, don’t be offended if the two-legs stare at us. They’re only used to two-legs who cover part of their bodies. Oh, and don’t stroke yourselves while we’re here. Pack two-legs don’t do that out in the open.+
They did not have long to wait before they were met by a sentry, who looked them up and down suspiciously and demanded to know their business.
“The lupinoid pack let us pass,” said Sherinel. “That ought to tell you something.”
“Maybe,” said the villager, “but that doesn’t explain what brings you here in the first place, naked and all.”
Briefly, Sherinel explained the nature of his quest, his meeting with the wildlings, and their struggles with striagons.
“If it hadn’t been for Scarface and his pack I don’t know what we would have done,” he said. “Got killed, probably. As it is, one of our lupinoids didn’t make it, and the rest of us have been lucky to survive so far. Now I’m throwing us on your village’s mercy, hoping to beg some shelter and maybe some better weapons to help us make it through the jungle.”
The sentry remained suspicious, but allowed them to enter the village proper. Unsurprisingly the villagers did indeed treat the naked newcomers to their stares. Sherinel did his best to ignore them and act unselfconscious.
The sentry led them over to a large house near the centre of the village. Within they were met by a man in his mid-thirties who was clearly the chief hunter.
“Master Jezrin,” he announced, “This is Sherinel and his companions, who have quite a tale to tell.”
Gazing quizzically at Sherinel and the wildlings Jezrin said, “Well now, Ryvan, is that so? Tell me, Sherinel, are you three meant to be lupinoids or people?”
His attitude did not appear unduly hostile, which was probably a good sign. Even so, Sherinel remained somewhat cautious.
“You could say we’re a bit of both,” he said, “Although I came late to it.”
Sherinel went on to repeat his account of how they had come to the village. When he had finished the chief hunter stroked his beard thoughtfully before replying.
“Well, lad,” he said, “that certainly is quite a tale, but you do all look like you’ve been living rough. And smell like it too, if I may say. As you’ve no doubt gathered, we have a truce with the local lupinoid pack. We treat them with respect, sometimes even hunt alongside them, and in return they guard this part of the forest against striagons. They’ve also had occasion to scare off hunters from other villages from time to time. The fact that they let you pass certainly counts in your favour.”
“You believe me, then?”
“I’m inclined to,” said Jezrin. “Now that you’re here, though, what do you intend to do? If you’re looking to move in with us we might be willing to accommodate you, as long as you obey our laws. Of course, you’d need clothes. I’m sure you’ve got used to running around naked in the jungle, but you’re back in what’s laughingly called civilisation now.”
“Well, as to that,” Sherinel replied, “it’s a tempting offer, but we’re not looking for a home. I’m searching for my friend Ketrin, who was lost in the jungle several moons ago. All I know is that he was seen somewhere downriver, near a big waterfall. I don’t suppose you’d know where that is, would you?”
“A waterfall, you say?” Jezrin stroked his beard again. “I do seem to recall hearing of such a thing, a long time ago. If I recall rightly, the fall was situated at the shore of a great lake, far downriver to the southwest of here.”
“That certainly sounds like the place,” said Sherinel. “I’d be grateful for any assistance your village could give us in making our way there.”
“And what about your friends?” said Jezrin. “I notice they haven’t had much to say for themselves so far. You haven’t even told me their names.”
“That’s because they don’t have names,” Sherinel told him. “They’re wildlings. What you said about looking like lupinoids was truer than you know. They were raised by a wild pack and never learnt to speak.”
“Really?” said Jezrin. “How curious. I have heard rumours about such people, but until now I’ve never given much credence to them. Still, it would certainly explain their wild appearance. But if they can’t speak, how do you communicate with them? Gestures and signs?”
“They have learned to interpret my movements,” Sherinel admitted. “Mostly, though, it’s an ability they and the lupinoids have, which I also happen to have acquired - the ability to share thoughts. I know that may sound hard to believe, but I swear it’s true. We can tell each other what we want without speaking. It works at some distance too - for instance, if I wanted to I could call to our lupinoids who are waiting with the pack outside the gate.”
Jezrin spoke quietly: “That, ah... that wouldn’t be a threat, would it, lad?”
“What?” Sherinel was taken aback. “Oh... no, no, of course not. Even with our lupinoids, we’d hardly be foolish enough to try to take anything from a well-guarded village by force.”
He flashed a brief mental communication at the wildlings, and all three of them placed their spears on the floor and took a step back.
“I promise you our intentions are peaceful, and we only ask that you treat us in kind. For now, I humbly request a place where we can rest until our wounds have had time to heal, and for later, some help in making our way to the waterfall.”
Jezrin picked up their spears and handed them to Ryvan.
“Very well, young Sherinel,” he said. “Since you and your wild companions look about ready to drop from exhaustion, I’m sure we can make up a pallet for you in a spare hut. We’ll keep your weapons safe for the duration, if you don’t mind.
“As for later, though... we may be able to offer you supplies and equipment, maybe even a man or two to act as guard and porter. The only question is, what can you give us in return? Our pact with the lupinoids ensures that we’re never short of food, and you don’t appear to have much else that could serve as currency.”
Sherinel sighed. “That’s true. We have nothing to trade. Not even clothes.”
Jezrin smiled, feasting his eyes upon the three attractive, young, naked bodies that stood before him.
“Well, now,” he said wryly, “I’m sure we can work something out...”
On the evening of her arrival at Third Hill, Suvanji went to meet the village’s midwife. Erennya was a good-looking woman in her forties, a mother of two and spiritual mother to most of the village. She was far too familiar with female anatomy to be fazed by the wildling’s nakedness, but simply greeted her warmly.
Like Therys, she was doubtful that a lupinoid could sniff out a pregnancy at so early a stage, but nonetheless agreed to offer Suvanji whatever advice she needed.
“The first thing I need to ask,” said Erennya, “is whether at any time in your life you have contracted the disease we call stipple. This is a common illness that can only be caught once, and I don’t think there are any adults in Third Hill who didn’t catch it when they were children. However, since you have not lived among humans until now it’s possible you may not have been exposed to it, and if contracted during pregnancy it can be harmful to the unborn.”
Erennya went on to describe the symptoms: “You feel very weak and feverish, you lose all sense of taste and smell, and your body erupts in painful blotches. It takes several days to recover, and even after the blotches have faded they often leave a faint discolouration of the skin.”
Suvanji thought back. Having been raised in lupinoid society she had seldom been called upon to exercise her memory, but now she began to recall incidents from her past life.
“I think... there was a time that I became very ill,” she said. “Some of my pack wanted to abandon me, but my lupinoid sisters stayed by my side and brought me water. I felt better after a few days, but then they got weak and lost their sense of smell, and I had to hunt and bring water for them until we all got better.”
Erennya moved forward to examine Suvanji’s torso more closely. “Yes,” she muttered. “Turn around, Suvanji, let me examine your back too. That’s it. Yes, you do have the marks. Nothing disfiguring, fortunately, but certainly noticeable if you know what you’re looking for.”
She smiled. “I suppose that’s only to be expected from one of Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s chosen. It must have been hard for you, suffering hardship and illness without human reassurance, but you are among friends now. We’ll make sure you and your child are well cared-for.”
Suvanji hugged her fiercely. “Thank you, Erennya,” she said. “I’m grateful for your help.”
“But you still have concerns?”
Suvanji nodded and told Erennya about her vision. Erennya was sceptical as to whether it told Suvanji’s true history, but recognised the genuine anxieties that it represented, and so she placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eyes.
“Suvanji,” she said quietly, “you are as strong and healthy a young woman as any I’ve seen, doubtless thanks to your hardy jungle upbringing. And as long as you’re living here you will have every assistance in ensuring a healthy pregnancy and birth. That is why you’ve come to me, after all. So, come now. Ask me all you wish to know.”
“All right,” said Suvanji. “First... I don’t even know how long human females carry for.”
Suvanji emerged from Erennya’s hut at sunset. Her head was filled with more knowledge than she had ever dreamed of concerning human pregnancy and child rearing, but she was reassured by Erennya’s quiet confidence. She had become a little alarmed when Erennya told her how big her belly was going to get, but since several of the village girls had recently lain with Ketrin she would at least be in good company.
The question of her body shape once more reminded her about the issue of clothing, but that could wait until tomorrow. For now, she simply made her way back to Therys’s hut.
Therys shared out some more bread and meat with Suvanji and then introduced her to a beverage made by boiling dried leaves, sweetened with the honey of some forest insect. Later they spent some time gently making love until they both drifted off to sleep.
Suvanji’s dreams that night contained no distressing memory-visions. For the most part they were simply the kind of lupinoid dreams about hunting, fighting, playing and mating with which every wildling was familiar. Later, however, the image of the stone Maiden flashed through Suvanji’s mind, to be replaced by that of Lendrin and Mavrida walking in an unfamiliar part of the jungle. Their lupinoids were with them, and they had been joined by a smaller red lupinoid and a young wildling girl. In the dream Suvanji cried out to her friends, only for the vision to fade into morning.
+Maiden?+ she thought. +Are you there?+
There was no reply, but she was convinced the dream had been sent by the Maiden to show her that her friends were still safe.
May the Maiden keep them so, she thought.
Lendrin and Mavrida
Mavrida’s Ring Goes South
The feelings Mavrida was getting from the blue crystals told her there was another crystal in much the same direction that they were headed. Something convinced her that this time she was being drawn to the crystal that was holding Ketrin. At any rate, the course they were taking seemed to be leading toward wherever the rapids ended, which raised their hopes that Suvanji and Nipper were in the same general area.
If the road had still been in anything like its original condition the going would have been far easier, but decades of neglect and the encroaching jungle had turned it into a chaotic mess of mud, stones, roots and fallen trees. It was still easier than trying to hack their way through the forest, and the lupinoids and Pyrri found it less of an obstacle than the two villagers. Nevertheless, after long days negotiating the ancient highway and fending off striagon attacks, they were profoundly relieved when it finally led them out onto a ledge overlooking a broad body of water.
Pyrri strode fearlessly to the edge and looked down. “Wha’that?” she asked. Even before Lendrin had decided to begin teaching her, she had started to imitate some of his and Mavrida’s human sounds. Already she had picked up a basic vocabulary.
“It’s called a lake,” said Lendrin. “I think I see a path down. When we reach the bottom you and the lupinoids can help us catch some fish while we figure out how to get around it.”
The path was narrow and steep in places, but the lupinoids bounded down it without hesitation. Though they did slip once or twice they deftly recovered their footing and soon reached the bottom, followed swiftly by Pyrri on all fours.
Lendrin and Mavrida followed more cautiously. Steep though it was, the path carved into the cliff face was in better condition than the road which led to it. Taking the route one step at a time the two villagers managed to negotiate its several switchbacks without incident.
They found themselves on a three cubit wide ledge of rock, with hundreds of cubits of cliff at their backs and water ahead. To their left a huge waterfall roared distantly, while to their right the path led eventually to the end of the cliff and back into the forest.
“Well, we can’t swim across or walk under waterfalls,” said Lendrin, “so unless you feel like climbing back up, it looks like we make for the forest.”
Mavrida sighed and nodded, and they made their way slowly along the base of the cliff. from time to time they found the path blocked by fallen boulders or trees and had to swim around them.
Pyrri and the lupinoids wasted no time partaking of the lake’s abundant fish. Pyrri seemed to have some experience at swimming, and was able to stay submerged for alarming lengths of time before emerging with her catch.
Lendrin knew that eating raw fish wouldn’t cause the wildling any problems, though he did caution her about the danger of swallowing bones. He wasn’t sure if it would be healthy for Mavrida, though, so the two adults shared salted meat, nuts and berries from their packs.
They proceeded slowly along the cliff, always wary of possible rockfalls from above. They were still some considerable distance from the forest when they came upon an unfamiliar object that had apparently washed up against the bank. Pyrri seemed intrigued by the human-built artefact.
In shape it resembled half of a nutshell, though somewhat more elongated, a little over four cubits in length and two in width, made of curved wooden planks held together by pegs. Inside, two long wooden poles with broad, flat ends lay across a pair of wooden benches. A set of two-cubit high wooden posts were attached to the sides, supporting a light basketwork canopy.
“I’m sure I heard about something like this in one of the old tales of the gods,” said Mavrida. “I think it’s called a bout. I suppose it was used for catching fish, and these wooden poles must be what they pushed it through the water with. I wonder what happened to the owners?”
“Perhaps they fell out and drowned,” said Lendrin. “Sad for them, but maybe an opportunity for us.”
“Are you serious?” replied Mavrida.
“It would be a lot faster than going around through unknown terrain.”
Mavrida eyed the conveyance sceptically. “It’ll never hold all of us,” she said.
“Well, there’s plenty of room for just us two,” said Lendrin. “Red and Grey can swim alongside, and Pyrri and Howl can take turns swimming with them or sitting with us.”
“That’s assuming it still floats and we can get it moving in the right direction,” she reminded him.
“Can it really be that difficult?” he asked innocently.
The bout was half-full of water, but with a little help from Pyrri the two adults were able to raise it from the lake and tip most of the water out. A cursory inspection revealed no holes, though Lendrin conceded that water might seep in through narrow gaps between the planks. “Still,” he said, “ we should be all right as long as we can scoop it out faster than it gets in.”
“It’s risky,” said Mavrida, glancing past the bout toward the forest shore. “I just wish the Maiden would give us some guidance.”
Pyrri and the lupinoids had finished eating and were sitting quietly on the cliff path, waiting for their pack leaders to decide what to do. Lendrin exchanged glances with Red and Grey, and thought: +Do you think you’re up to swimming all the way across this water?+
The lupinoids gazed across the lake, to where the hazy silhouette of the south shore was just visible.
+Guess so,+ thought Red.
+If we have to,+ thought Grey.
+Small two-leg and littl’un won’t make it, though,+ added Red.
+Not sure about you big two-legs either,+ thought Grey. +No disrespect, leader.+
+None taken,+ Lendrin replied. +We’re going to try using this wooden thing here to float across in, and if Pyrri or Howl get tired they can float with us for a bit.+
Red and Grey moved forward to inspect the bout. They had no way of evaluating the human artefact’s capabilities, but Lendrin was their pack leader, so they could only reply, +If you say so.+
Despite her anxieties Mavrida agreed to help Lendrin test the bout. Placing his spear in the bout Lendrin picked up the sticks and carefully eased himself onto one of the seats. Mavrida laid her spear beside his and moved to sit opposite. Pyrri and the lupinoids nudged the vessel a couple of cubits away from the shore, and they waited a few moments to see what would happen.
The bout settled a little in the water. There was a shallow puddle beneath the humans’ feet, but most of it seemed to have come from small leaks in the rain canopy.
“All right,” said Lendrin. “Now let’s see if we can’t get this thing to move in the right direction.”
Cautioning the wildling and lupinoids to keep clear, Lendrin extended the sticks over the side with the broad ends in the water. The sticks fitted neatly into indentations cut in the side of the bout. After a little trial and error Lendrin figured out how to use the sticks to push the bout forward, and a little more practice saw him steering more or less accurately.
“Well,” he said, “We know that it works, Mavrida. Shall we go on?”
Mavrida glanced at the receding lakeshore and took a deep breath. “If we don’t do it now we’ll never do it. All right, Lendrin. Let’s get to it.”
Lendrin nodded, and applied himself to the sticks while Mavrida began scooping out the puddle with her cupped hands.
+All right,+ he told their swimming companions. +Everybody keep clear of the sticks or they might hit you. Only, if I should accidentally drop one of them into the water, then please grab it before we lose it. Red and Grey, you’re too big to fit in the bout with Mavrida and me, so you’ll have to swim behind all the way. Pyrri and Howl, you can take turns riding inside with us. Who’s first?+
Without a moment’s hesitation, the wildling girl boosted the small lupinoid over the stern and into the vessel. Of course the first thing Howl did was to shake himself dry, which made a little more work for Mavrida, but then at Lendrin’s command he sat quietly at the rear.
After scooping most of the water out Mavrida sat up and looked back at the cliff. “You’re doing well, Lendrin,” she told him. “It looks like we’re making good progress. And if you get a moment, you should take a look at the falling water back there. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
In order to look back Lendrin had to figure out how to turn the bout around, but having done so he had to agree with Mavrida’s assessment. The waterfall was truly spectacular. If her husband hadn’t turned out to have been alive, he would happily have made love to her on a lakeshore with a view of the fall. As it was... he decided it was best to concentrate on propelling the bout.
Since the bout was now facing the other way Lendrin tried pushing it backwards, and found that it took less effort.
+Red, Grey, let me know when Pyrri starts to tire,+ he told them.
+Looks like she’s starting to now,+ thought Grey.
+All right. Howl, feel like swimming for a bit? Out you go, then. Now come on in, Pyrri, and don’t argue. I know you want to prove how tough you are, but you’re still young.+
Reluctantly, Pyrri hauled herself into the bout and moved to sit beside Mavrida. When she saw Mavrida scooping out the water Pyrri unhesitatingly began helping, and continued until it was time for her to change places with Howl again.
Although Lendrin had to pause and rest a couple of times they seemed to be making good progress across the lake. The waterfall receded in the distance and the far bank approached. Lendrin was somewhat discouraged to see more cliffs on the south bank, but he wasn’t about to give up.
Later, though, the rain began to strengthen, accompanied by a darkening of the sky and some ominous rumbles of thunder. To make matters worse, a wind was rising at Lendrin’s back. That was not only uncomfortable but somewhat impeded his progress. Nor was it their only problem.
“The canopy’s leaking,” said Mavrida. “We’re taking in water faster. If it gets any stronger I’m afraid it’ll start coming in faster than I can scoop it out, even with Pyrri’s help.”
Lendrin sighed. “If I didn’t know better - and I’m not sure that I do - I’d say this was the old man’s doing. Oh, where’s the Maiden when you need her?”
With a deep breath he redoubled his efforts. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. By now the bout was more than halfway to the south bank, which was some comfort, but Lendrin was beginning to tire, his arms and back were aching and his hands were becoming blistered. Moreover, Red and Grey were also beginning to flag, and there was nowhere they could rest.
Mavrida looked back at her lupinoid friends worriedly. She did not need telepathy to realise that they were beginning to tire.
“We have to do something, Lendrin,” she said. “After all we’ve been through together, I can’t let them drown.”
“I know, Mavrida,” panted Lendrin, “but what can we do? Oh, we should have gone around. I’m sorry, Mavrida. It was foolish to attempt this.”
“Too late for regrets, Lendrin,” she said. “You know how I feel about self-pity. Anyway, I have an idea. Which of the lupinoids is the most tired?”
“Red, I guess. She won’t admit it, but she’s fighting to keep up.”
“All right, then,” she said. “I have to change places with her, then I can help Grey and Howl, while Pyrri keeps on scooping.”
Lendrin wanted to protest, but he knew there was no point arguing with Mavrida, so after a moment he simply sighed and nodded. He raised the poles so that Mavrida could get out and swim to the rear of the bout, while Red swam to the front.
Once Red was safely aboard, he lowered the poles and resumed pulling with all his might - for all that was worth. The truth was that Lendrin had never prided himself on his strength. If Suvanji were in his place she would probably have propelled them all the way across by now.
The memory of his wild goddess roused turbulent emotions, so Lendrin tried to put her out of his mind while applying his back to the task of getting his small entourage to safety.
Mavrida swam behind the bout with Grey and Howl at her sides. Howl was still keeping pace fairly well, but Grey was breathing hard. Mavrida moved closer and placed an arm around her friend’s torso, while still using the other to propel herself.
Mavrida was surprised at how quickly the water was draining the warmth from her body. She had never experienced real cold before, and the experience was not one that she welcomed. Still, she was at least able to share what warmth she had left with Grey, who probably needed it more.
Lightning flashed accompanied a moment later by a burst of thunder that rolled and echoed around the cliffs ahead and behind. Lendrin remembered the bolt that had separated him from Suvanji. If the sorcerer had been able to control lightning near his home, could he also control it at this distance? If that were true, he might just be honing his aim.
Oh, sweet Maiden, protect us, thought Lendrin. If ever we needed your help it’s now.
For a moment Lendrin thought he could feel the Maiden’s presence in his mind, but it was gone before he could be certain he wasn’t imagining it.
+How are you doing with the scooping, Pyrri?+ he asked the wildling.
+The water in here isn’t getting much bigger,+ she told him. +Throwing it out makes my forelegs tired, but not as tired as swimming.+
+Two-legs call them arms, Pyrri,+ he told her. +Anyway, you’re doing well. Keep going. I hope it won’t be too much longer.+
As if in mockery another thunderbolt struck the lake, sending a small jolt through Mavrida, Howl and Grey.
Lendrin thought to himself: If this really is target practice for the old man, we won’t stand a chance. Then again, at least it’ll be quicker than drowning.
As if in response to his thought, Lendrin seemed to sense the Maiden’s presence once more. He was still uncertain as to whether she was real or just his imagination, but real or not, she gave him hope, and he redoubled his exertions.
Meanwhile, Mavrida and Grey recovered from their shock and continued to swim strongly, but Howl was beginning to tire, so Mavrida reached out and pulled him toward her until he was close enough to lift himself partially out of the water and rest his forepaws in the middle of her back.
More lightning discharges struck the water, but still none fell close enough to cause any damage. The southern cliffs were looming larger, and Pyrri thought she could see a gap in them. After a brief pause to allow Red and Grey to exchange places, Lendrin set course toward it.
“Mavrida,” he called, “how are you holding up?
“I’m all right, Lendrin,” she replied. “I don’t feel so cold or tired, even with Howl hanging on to me. I think the Maiden must be helping us after all.”
Encouraged by her words, Lendrin pressed on. It might just be his imagination, but he thought he was also feeling stronger now.
+How’s it going, Pyrri?+
+More water’s falling in from above,+ she told him. +It’s harder to throw it out fast enough.+
+Do your best,+ he told her. +We’ll be all right as long as we can find land before the bout fills up completely.+
The gap in the cliff grew closer until it was revealed to be a gorge containing a river channel that drained off of the lake. Given the choice between searching the southern side of the lake for a landfall or taking their chances with the river, Lendrin and Mavrida agreed on the river.
The lightning was now less frequent and seemed to be receding even as the entrance to the gorge approached. A current was already becoming noticeable, and Lendrin knew he would soon be using the sticks more to keep the bout on course than to propel it.
“All right, Mavrida, come back in,” called Lendrin. “I need both you and Pyrri to scoop out the water now that the canopy is leaking more. The lupinoids will have to swim behind us, and if Howl gets tired then Red and Grey can take turns helping him. I just hope once we enter the channel that we don’t encounter any dangerous rapids like the ones upstream.”
As the bout approached the gorge Lendrin found himself struggling against cross-currents and eddies that threatened to dash it against the cliffs, and waves crashing over the sides only made the job of scooping out harder for the women.
Once they finally crossed the threshold the current became stronger, as did the wind, but at least the bout was heading straight and true and was not being propelled as swiftly as Lendrin had feared. The lupinoids were still swimming strongly behind, with Red and Grey taking turns to carry Howl on their shoulders (and to complain about it).
The shadow of the cliffs reduced the already-gloomy visibility, making it difficult to see whether their tops were getting higher or lower as the journey progressed. At least the river seemed to run in a more or less straight line, and was deep enough - so far - to keep them above any submerged obstacles.
On the other hand, Mavrida and Pyrri were at last beginning to tire of scooping out the water, and to make matters worse the tear in the canopy was growing and letting in more rainwater. Fingersbreadth by fingersbreadth the bout was beginning to sink.
Come on, Maiden, don’t desert us now, thought Lendrin. Don’t let us drown after all we’ve been through.
Perhaps the Maiden heard his plea, for at that moment Mavrida let out a gasp of astonishment. “Lendrin?” she cried, “Lendrin, my ring’s glowing. The red stone... I think it’s a sign from the Maiden.”
Even as she spoke, the stone emitted a brilliant red glow that momentarily illuminated the eastern side of the gorge. The glow lasted only a moment, but it was enough.
“Lendrin, quickly,” said Mavrida. “Just coming up on the left, there’s a gap. A narrow stream that feeds into the river. We may only have moments before the current carries us past it. Hurry, Lendrin, we have to go that way. I just know it. It may be our only chance.”
The insistent current seemed determined to carry them on downstream, but by a supreme effort Lendrin managed to turn the bout toward the barely-visible opening in the gorge, while the lupinoids fought to follow.
It took all the strength they could muster, but eventually they managed to win free of the current’s grasp. They found themselves in a small tributary gorge that was barely twice the width of their own vessel. Had it not been for the flash from Mavrida’s ring they would never have seen it.
They were now moving upstream, but the current was more gentle, and grew more so as the channel widened. At the same time the cliffs on either side gradually sloped downward toward forested hillsides and fell away.
By then the bout was almost completely swamped, but before it could sink completely Lendrin managed to beach it on a shallow embankment where he and the girls disembarked.
“Thank the gods I can get rid of these things now,” he muttered, throwing the poles down beside the vessel and rubbing his blistered hands.
The lupinoids struggled ashore a few moments later and furiously shook themselves (temporarily) dry.
Now that the bout had seemingly served its purpose Lendrin considered letting it drift away and sink, but on reflection he decided to keep it for now, in case they needed to travel further upstream. So with Mavrida’s help he tipped it on its side to empty out most of the water, and left it lying there so it wouldn’t fill up again.
Aching and exhausted but grateful to be alive, the humans and lupinoids lay down on the muddy bank. As if in acknowledgement of their escape, a wan shaft of sunlight briefly penetrated the overcast to shine upon their prostrate figures.
“Well, we’re here,” muttered Lendrin. “Wherever here is.”
“Closer to Ketrin, at any rate,” Mavrida replied. “Suvanji and Nipper as well, with any luck.”
Lendrin nodded. Luck, and the Maiden, had certainly been with them so far. But just then there came an ominous rumble of thunder in the distance, reminding them both that the sorcerer was still searching for them.
The thunder made Howl nervous, so Mavrida held him and stroked him while crooning to the tune of an old lullaby:
My little lupinoid,
Please don’t be paranoid,
Lightning will not bite you.
We can face striagons,
Just you and I alone,
They’ll never dare to fight you.
After some discussion, once they had rested for a while, they agreed to abandon the bout and continue on foot. After consulting her crystals, Mavrida was convinced that Ketrin was somewhere to the east, and so they followed the stream away from the river gorge.
The next few days were more or less uneventful. Pyrri and the lupinoids found plenty of game, and the forest yielded plenty of fruit. There seemed to be no lupinoid packs or striagons in the area, which came as some relief after the hazards of their recent journeying. The only drawback was the rain, which grew heavier again as the days wore on.
Then, on about the fourth day after their bout journey, the lupinoids became wary. The rain made visibility and scenting poor, yet something was alerting them to potential danger.
Then Mavrida spotted figures moving in the distance. “Looks like people,” she whispered. “Can’t tell if they’re wild, or...”
She broke off with a gasp as Lendrin emitted a startled grunt and fell to his knees.
“Lendrin!” she cried. “Are you hurt?”
“Someone’s shooting at us!” he gasped. “For gods’ sakes get down, all of you!”
Mavrida moved to crouch beside Lendrin.
“Don’t worry,” he muttered, “it’s just my arm. Don’t know if he was aiming to kill or not.”
Mavrida’s fingers tightened about her spear as she heard someone running toward them. Snarling, Red and Grey hurled themselves toward the intruder.
Some time in 2011 - April 2012
TO BE CONTINUED
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The Shendra chapter was the first part of this instalment to be written. I originally conceived it as a separate short episode, a sidebar to the main story, and it took a long time to realise that Shendra was actually Suvanji’s mother. There was originally a bit more to it concerning the god of lupinoids and what he did with Shendra’s soul... but that will now be revealed in a later instalment.
You might guess that all of our heroes and plotlines are now converging upon Third Hill. Mavrida and Sherinel still have some way to go before they get there, though, and if and when they do, it still may not be the safe haven they’d hope for.
By placing Sherinel and his friends in striagon territory I realised I’d written myself into a corner. Somewhere, somehow, they had to find help, and of course the only help they could get would either be from a friendly lupinoid pack, or a friendly human village. So I split the difference and used both.
Meanwhile, the “bout” journey took quite a bit of working out. There was an earlier version in which Mavrida’s pack hitched a lift with some fishermen who took them to Third Hill voluntarily. Apart from the fact that it would have been too much of a coincidence (yeah, like it’s not a coincidence that they conveniently find an abandoned boat complete with rain canopy and oars?), the current version offers more opportunity for conflict... as you’ll be aware from the cliffhanger.
Who is the mysterious figure running toward them, who’s apparently about to get their throat torn out by lupinoids? I suspect some of you have already guessed, and are hopefully on tenterhooks. Whereupon I shall leave you hanging for now, but with any luck not for too many more moons this time...
In our next incorrigible instalment:
IT ALL BEGINS TO MAKE SENSE
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