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In this instalment I’ve modified the way telepathy is represented. Previously I’ve used italics to denote the POV character’s use of telepathy and +plus signs+ to indicate whoever they’re speaking to. From now on, and retroactively if I ever get around to it, I’ve decided it’ll be much simpler and less confusing to just use plus signs. All clear?
And now some tales of topographic notions. I haven’t updated the map, but there’s very little that needs to be added. Just to remind you: Sherinel, the male and female wildlings, Ash, Silverpaw and Shadow are all in Jezrin’s village; Mavrida, Lendrin, Pyrri, Red, Grey and Howl have just arrived in the Hidden Valley; and last time we saw them Suvanji and Nipper were in Third Hill.Now think on’t dot dot dot dot dot dot.
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.
The Price of Friendship
A day had passed since Sherinel and his pack had arrived in Jezrin’s village. True to the chief hunter’s word, his people had prepared food and drink and a comfortable hut for the newcomers. He had also agreed to help them in their search - in exchange for one simple favour.
+So the two-legs want us to mate with them?+ asked the female wildling.
+Yes. And in exchange they’ll help us in our search,+ Sherinel replied.
+All right,+ she thought.
Sherinel hugged his wildling companions and thought: +There’s one thing I need you to understand clearly. I know I’m the leader of this pack, but I will not order you to do this. It has to be what you want.+
+But we do like mating,+ thought the male.
Sherinel smiled. +Oh, yes, I know that well enough. But the point is, these two-legs might try to take advantage. That is, they might get rough with you, try to do things you won’t like. And if that happens, you must not let them. If they try it with me I certainly won’t. Am I clear?+
+You order us not to let them hurt us when they’re mating,+ thought the female.
+Right,+ he replied. +But if you do have to stop them, you must try to do it without hurting them, all right?+
+All right,+ they agreed.
Despite their agreement Sherinel still felt as if he was exploiting his friends for personal gain. Yet, as he himself had pointed out, they had nothing else to trade.
And so, that evening Jezrin arrived with Ryvan and a young woman who Jezrin introduced as Ryvan’s sister Ryala.
“If it’s all right with you,” said the chief hunter, “Ryvan would like to introduce himself to the wild girl, and Ryala to you, while I get to know your male friend.”
Sherinel relayed this to the wildlings, who eyed up their prospective mates briefly before expressing their approval.
“That’s fine,” replied Sherinel. “I’ve told the wildlings not to get too rough with you, and they’ll let you know if they think you’re too rough with them. One thing, though, Jezrin - the male’s lupinoid friend died saving us, and he’s still a bit upset about it.”
“Then it seems he’ll need some comforting,” said Jezrin. “Don’t worry, Sherinel, I can be gentle when I have to.”
Jezrin and Ryvan led the wildlings to a pair of nearby huts, leaving Sherinel with Ryala.
“Um, just to let you know,” Sherinel told her as she undressed in front of him, “I don’t have a lot of experience with women. Two or three times with the female wildling, that’s about all.”
“Well, never mind,” she said. “It looks to me like your body is more than willing to learn.” Then she embraced and began caressing him, and he found he was in no position to argue.
Next morning Jezrin, Ryvan and the wildlings returned to Sherinel’s hut. He didn’t need to ask the wildlings how it had been for them - they had shared most of it with him telepathically, enormously enhancing his own pleasure and ensuring that he was more than capable of satisfying Ryala.
The wildlings might have played a little rough with their village mates, but the villagers had given as good as they got and nobody was complaining. More to the point, Jezrin soon confirmed that he was ready to uphold his side of the bargain.
“I have to stay and prepare for the next hunt,” he told Sherinel, “but Ryvan and two more of our best hunters can accompany you. Together with you three and your lupinoid friends, that should be more than enough to get you as far as the waterfall, and it’s possible Scarface might spare a few of his pack too.”
“Thanks, Jezrin,” said Sherinel, embracing him. “Without your help I don’t know what we’d have done.”
Jezrin stroked his beard. “Well,” he said quietly, “truthfully... I have a kind of feeling about you and your wild companions. Something tells me that finding this friend of yours may important to many others beside yourself.”
“I’ve had that feeling too,” said Sherinel. “I mean, increasingly I’ve had the sense that he was... I don’t know, needed for something. There’s something unnatural happening in this forest, and somehow I’m sure it’s connected to him.”
“Unnatural? Like the striagons, you mean? That red glow in their eyes when they attack... and they don’t kill humans or lupinoids for food, have you noticed? They just abandon the bodies. Almost as if something was controlling them.”
“But why?” said Sherinel, “To scare people away from the forest? And why lupinoids as well? There used to be stone roadways through the forest, even a great wooden bridge across the river gorge. Now the roads are all overgrown and the bridge has fallen into the river.” (He decided it would be best not to tell Jezrin of the part he and his lupinoids had played in hastening the bridge’s collapse.)
“So,” murmured Jezrin, “you’re suggesting that someone or something caused the villages to become isolated, to stop trading with each other, and also caused the striagons to become unnaturally aggressive?”
“That’s how it looks to me,” replied Sherinel. “If there’s some other explanation... well, I can’t imagine what that might be.”
“Well, one thing’s sure,” said Jezrin. “The sooner you get underway the better.”
Jezrin was as good as his word. By early afternoon Sherinel’s party was ready to depart. Second hunter Ryvan was accompanied by a pair of handsome youths whom he introduced as Velleth and Rilshan. The way the two of them exchanged frequent glances left Sherinel in no doubt that they were lovers.
“I’ve told our lupinoids to expect you,” Sherinel informed the hunters. “Even so, don’t be offended if they seem a bit suspicious of you at first. There might be a bit of nudging and roughhousing, but they won’t bite. Well, not to the bone, anyway.”
The hunters were equipped with spears and bows. “Here,” said Ryvan, handing additional spears to the wildlings. “With any luck we’ll have time to train your friends to hunt and defend themselves with these.”
Watched by the curious villagers, the expedition exchanged farewells with Jezrin and set off. A little way past the gate Silverpaw and Shadow almost knocked Sherinel off his feet with the force of their greetings. Ash and the twins were a little less zealous, but happily welcomed their friends back before acquainting themselves with the newcomers.
Seeing the lupinoids once more had reminded the male wildling of his loss, and he bowed his head miserably. Sherinel placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. The male exchanged a brief glance with Sherinel, then took a deep breath, lifted his head and thought: +I’m all right.+
Once the lupinoids had finished acquainting themselves with the three villagers Sherinel was surprised to see Scarface himself, leader of the local pack, approaching.
Without preamble, Scarface thought: +Which way, two-leg?+
+That way,+ replied Sherinel, facing east toward the river gorge.
+Lots of stripefaces that way,+ thought Scarface.
+I know, but we can handle them, right?+
+Yeah,+ thought Scarface without a trace of doubt.
Sherinel summarised their exchange for the villagers’ benefit.
“You can really exchange thoughts with lupinoids?” asked Rilshan.
“Oh, yes,” said Sherinel.
“Well... can anyone learn to do it?”
Sherinel looked thoughtful. “You know, that’s the one thing Jezrin never thought to ask. Or maybe he was waiting for you to ask for him. Well, the simple answer is, yes, anyone can acquire the ability, although I’m not sure everyone would want to - or should.”
“Then,” asked Velleth, “do you think you could teach us? We’d love to be able to talk to lupinoids.”
Sherinel considered their request. After a moment, he told them: “The method is simple enough. The only thing is, it does take a little time to adjust to, and we can’t afford to have any of our party disoriented while we’re vulnerable to attack. Once we’re past the dense striagon territory you can ask me again.”
The others murmured their assent as Scarface huffed impatiently.
All right, we’re ready, thought Sherinel, gesturing for the others to follow.
Though I walk in the Valley
Torrential rain soaked the Hidden Valley, impeding progress and visibility. In spite of the conditions, however, Tharil’s men were in good spirits due to the success of the hunt... and also because they now had an attractive young woman in their midst.
It had taken Suvanji quite some time to persuade Tharil to let her join the hunt. When he had argued that hunting was not a woman’s work, his sister had immediately leapt to Suvanji’s defence, pointing out that she was hardly a typical woman and had been hunting with lupinoids all her life.
“You’re only defending her because you’re sleeping with her,” he had muttered.
Therys had refused to dignify that retort with an answer.
In the end, though, he had given in to their demands, despite some muttering that a woman might bring the hunters bad luck.
Suvanji had also won the argument about what she should wear. Tolar had suggested a traditional skirted dress, but once accepted into the hunting party she had argued that a waistcloth and halter - similar to Mavrida’s outfit - would be more practical. Even this modest apparel took some adjusting to, but the wildling decided she could live with it.
Privately Tolar and Tharil had hoped that when she wasn’t hunting they could persuade her to wear something a bit more concealing. In the meantime Tolar agreed that her leg was now sufficiently healed to allow her to join the next expedition to the Valley, which had been due to embark a few days later.
Now, that expedition was almost over. The hunters, twelve in all counting Suvanji, were transporting their kill on sleds. Despite the men’s initial insistence on doing all the hauling themselves, Suvanji had demonstrated that she was perfectly capable of doing her share.
So it was that late in the day she found herself helping two of the men to haul a particularly heavy sled. Ahead, scouts armed with spears and bows kept watch through the dense bands of rain, accompanied by the lupinoids Sun, Fire and Nipper.
Suddenly, Suvanji saw Nipper’s ears prick up.
+What is it?+ thought Suvanji.
+Sounds like two-leg yapping, somewhere forwards,+ thought the lupinoid.
Suvanji started. Two-legs? Could it possibly be...?
She was about to tell the men, and to warn them not to shoot, but one of the scouts - Kemmet by name, a bad-tempered individual in an orange waistcloth - pre-empted her announcement by gesturing to the others and muttering: “I can see someone moving up ahead. Strangers, in our Valley, if you please! We’ll see about that!”
Before Kemmet was halfway through speaking, Suvanji had dropped her rope and begun running toward him. By the time he drew his bow, she was upon him.
In the instant before he loosed, she barrelled into him full-tilt, howling, “You’ll get us all killed!”
The arrow was deflected... but perhaps not far enough. As she and Kemmet ploughed into the mud, Suvanji heard a grunt of pain in the distance.
“Stupid girl, what in the gods’ names did you do that for?” roared Kemmet.
Suvanji barely heard him. With a lupinoid’s agility she had regained her feet and was hurtling in the direction from which the sound of pain had come.
A moment later she encountered something hurtling the other way. Something with bared fangs, intent on mayhem. Another was close behind.
A villager confronted by two attacking lupinoids would certainly have died. The lupinoid-raised girl, however, knew that she had a slim chance of survival if she kept her wits.
As the first lupinoid leapt at her Suvanji flung an arm in front of her throat. The impact knocked her off her feet, and her attacker’s fangs pierced her forearm. A few moments more and she would lose the limb, even assuming she kept her life.
Attempting to remain calm, she projected her thoughts as loudly and clearly as she could:
+Stop, four-legs! Do not kill me! I submit! I submit! We didn’t mean to attack your pack! It was an accident!+
The force of Suvanji’s will broke through the lupinoid’s killing instinct, and it paused as if stunned before opening its jaws and withdrawing.
+Two-leg female raised by four-legs?+ it thought. +Is that you?+
Suvanji took a deep breath and sat up slowly, wincing a little as the agony of her wound began to register.
+Red!+ she thought. +Yes, it’s me, your old packmate! Don’t attack the strangers. It’s all a mistake.+
“Suvanji!” called Tharil. “Are you all right?”
Doing her best to ignore the pain for diplomacy’s sake, she made her voice as level as she could before replying: “Yes, Tharil, I’m all right. Don’t let anyone else shoot! These are my friends! They came looking for me, and a fine greeting they got.”
From the other direction a voice cried, “Suvanji? Sweet gods, is that you?”
A figure staggered toward her, knelt and enfolded her with his arms. Behind him stood another familiar figure with an astonished expression on her face, while a little further back were a naked girl and a small red lupinoid, just as Suvanji had seen in her recent vision.
+Oh, gods, Suvanji, it is you!+ he thought. +Are you hurt?+
+Just my arm,+ she replied. +It’s lucky I managed to persuade Red to stop before she could bite it right off. What about you, Lendrin? That fool could have killed you!+
+He only got my arm too. Looks like we have matching wounds.+
Red and Grey were already licking those wounds, assisting the humans’ healing processes with their anticoagulant saliva.
+Oh, Suvanji,+ he thought with a sigh. +I hoped we’d see each other soon, but I never dreamt it would be like this.+
+I’m just happy to see you both, Lendrin,+ replied Suvanji.
For a long moment they held each other, rejoicing in their miraculous reunion. They would have been content to remain in their embrace all afternoon, but Suvanji knew the hunters wouldn’t be that patient.
+These two-legs aren’t really hostile,+ Suvanji told Lendrin. +They’ve treated me well. One of them just panicked when he saw strangers.+
+Well, then,+ Lendrin thought, +I suppose I’d better go and persuade them they’ve no cause for panic.+
+Their village is called Third Hill+ she told him. +Tharil is their hunt leader, but he wasn’t the one that shot you.+
Lendrin nodded, stood up and faced the hunters, visible as blurred silhouettes in the distance. Behind him, it was Mavrida’s turn to embrace Suvanji.
“Hunters of Third Hill,” he called. “Suvanji tells me that Tharil is the name of your leader. My name is Lendrin, and my friends and I have come in search of Suvanji, and another wildling. We accept that your attack was a mistake and will not retaliate. Our party consists of myself, a woman, one wild girl-child and three lupinoids. May we approach in friendship?”
“You may,” came the reply. “I’m Tharil. I offer my sincere apologies for any injury you have suffered. My man Kemmet acted without orders.”
As Lendrin beckoned the rest of his friends to come forward he heard one of the huntsmen mutter: “That’s right, tell ’em my name, why don’t you?”
“Yes, KEMMET,” Tharil snapped, “why don’t I tell them the name of the idiot who nearly started a bloodbath?”
“What bloodbath?” grumbled Kemmet.
“If their lupinoids had attacked us, our lupinoids would have retaliated and we’d now be looking at fatalities on both sides. Starting with you, if there was any justice. So don’t you give me any more lip, Kemmet. Understand?”
Kemmet muttered under his breath and stepped back.
Lendrin strode forward to meet Tharil, with Suvanji and Mavrida at his side. Behind them, somewhat chastened after their mistaken attack, came Red and Grey, and finally, urged on by Pyrri, came the nervous young Howl.
Seeing Lendrin’s and Suvanji’s injuries, Tharil gestured to one of the men. “Chennith! Got a couple of wounds for you to look at.”
Chennith immediately came running over. Wincing at the sight of Suvanji’s bitten arm he took cloth bandages and teska poultices from his pack and began tending her.
“Again, I am truly sorry for what happened,” Tharil told Lendrin. “I only hope that our hospitality will go some way toward making amends.”
Most of the men viewed the newcomers with slightly wary interest. Kemmet’s cynical expression marked him out from the rest.
Mavrida whispered to Suvanji: “Is that the man who attacked us?”
“Yes,” replied the wildling.
“Mavrida,” cautioned Lendrin, “you can’t retaliate after I promised we wouldn’t.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I only want to give him this.”
Taking the object she referred to, she walked over to Kemmet and pressed it into his hand, saying: “I believe this is yours. I just took it out of my friend’s arm. Doesn’t have his heart-blood on it, but you can’t have everything, can you?”
With that, she strode back to her friends, leaving the startled Kemmet holding his bloodied arrow. Suvanji grinned like a lupinoid.
Throwing the arrow to the ground, Kemmet made some muted utterance about uppity females, then pretended to find something to do to keep himself from getting too close to Lendrin’s group.
Once he had tended to Suvanji’s arm as best he could, Chennith set to work on Lendrin’s. Suvanji took the opportunity to steal aside with Tharil.
“I owe you all our thanks,” Tharil told her. “You risked your life for us. If it hadn’t been for you there really would have been a bloodbath.”
“I just acted on my lupinoid instincts,” she replied. “But there was something else I wanted to talk about.”
Lowering her voice, she said, “Tharil, I haven’t told Lendrin or Mavrida about Ketrin yet, or about... the other thing. I want to wait until we reach Third Hill, and I’d rather no one else mentioned them before I do.”
“All right, lass, that’s fair enough,” said Tharil. “I’d say you’ve earned a favour or two, after all.”
“Thank you, Tharil.”
Once Lendrin’s arm was bandaged he and Mavrida made their formal introductions to Tharil.
“Suvanji has spoken of you, of course,” said Tharil. “You’ve come a long way in search of her, it seems, but what I’m most curious about is how you found your way into the Valley. I was always given to understand that there was only one entrance, which is why we were so startled to find you here.”
“Well,” replied Lendrin, “once we’d made our way to the north shore of the lake, we found an abandoned bout. We weren’t sure what had happened to the owners, but we thought they wouldn’t be in a position to complain if we borrowed it.”
“Bout?” said Tharil. “Oh, you mean boat! You mean to tell us you managed to row all the way across the lake, and then found a waterway into the Valley? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“And why’s that, I wonder?” muttered Kemmet. Tharil ignored him.
“I don’t think we could have done it without the Maiden’s help,” said Mavrida. “There were many occasions when we might have drowned, been struck by lightning or dashed against the cliffs. We only found our way from the main river channel into the Valley stream by chance.”
Lendrin shot her a brief glance. He was certain Mavrida had not told him the full story of how she had spotted the entrance to the Valley, and now she was telling Tharil even less.
“That is, if you can call it chance,” she continued. “No, I’m sure we wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for the Maiden.”
“Suvanji has spoken of this Maiden,” said Tharil. “From what I hear, she seems to be a goddess, just as Lord Ral-ne-Sa is god of lupinoids.”
“That name isn’t familiar to us,” Lendrin confessed, “but then, in the villages to the north lupinoids are not well-liked.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Tharil. “I’m told they are even hunted for their pelts.”
Lendrin sighed. “I may as well confess, Tharil. At one time I also hunted them. I’m wiser now. Perhaps it was your Lord... Ral-ne-Sa, was it?... that moved me to change my ways.”
Even as they spoke, some of Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s subjects were getting acquainted. Nipper greeted Red and Grey as old friends, harrying them into submission as she had once done. The moment she finished with them she approached Howl, who immediately whimpered and rolled over and received a paw to the chest and a token nip for his troubles.
Things did not go all her way, however. No sooner had she re-established her dominance over Mavrida’s four-legs, than Sun arrived to reaffirm his dominance over her. Though she was smaller and more agile, Sun’s advantage in size and strength soon began to tell, and she finally submitted. All honour satisfied, the two packs exchanged friendly greetings and sat down together.
Meanwhile Suvanji, who had drawn apart from Tharil to allow him to speak with Lendrin and Mavrida, found herself facing the flame-haired wildling, who bared her teeth in challenge.
“Is she serious?” said Tharil.
“Oh, yes,” replied Mavrida. “Pyrri can tell Suvanji is a wildling like herself, so she challenges her just as a lupinoid would a rival. She knows she’s not mature enough to have a chance of winning, but she can’t help following her lupinoid instincts. Don’t worry, though, Suvanji won’t hurt her.”
To the villagers the challenge was laughably one-sided, but Suvanji accepted it seriously and closed with the pale girl. As the two girls struggled briefly there were a few whistles and cheers from the men, earning them an angry look from Tharil.
Mavrida couldn’t help noticing that Kemmet seemed to be paying an undue amount of attention to Pyrri’s naked body. He would bear watching, Mavrida reflected.
Despite having to favour her injured arm, it took Suvanji mere moments to wrestle Pyrri to the ground and pin her shoulders. Suvanji did not close her jaws about the younger wildling’s throat, as a lupinoid would, but simply held her for a few moments while telepathically ordering her to submit. Pyrri obliged by whimpering quietly, and after waiting the requisite few moments more Suvanji released her. The two girls stood up, and Suvanji sent Pyrri on her way with a playful slap.
“We’ll be camping for the night soon,” said Tharil. “In the morning we’ll make our way back to Third Hill. Of course you’re welcome to share our meal and shelter.”
There was a bustle of activity as the men unpacked tents and began erecting them. Suvanji wanted to help, but Tharil insisted that she rest, give her arm a chance to heal and spend time with her friends.
Lendrin hugged her with his good arm. “That’s right. We’ve both missed you, and we’ve come a long way to find you.”
“Nipper and I both knew you would,” she said.
Mavrida said, “I see it didn’t take them long to get you into clothes.”
“I’m sure it won’t take you both long to get me out of them again,” she grinned.
“It’s strange hearing you speak so fluently,” said Mavrida. “The last time I saw you, you were still just learning to talk.”
“I know,” said Suvanji. “There were things I had to ask Lendrin, and I didn’t have the words, so I mixed my blood with his to give him the power to share thoughts with me. When we did, it was so close and intimate that I gained all his knowledge of speech, and many of his memories as well.”
“That must have been while I was still in the ruins with the old man,” said Mavrida. “I only managed to escape from him because -” then she broke off, her face darkening. “Well... I’ll talk about that later.”
Suvanji nodded. “I have many things to tell you both as well, now that I have words to do it.”
“I’m sure there’s a lot we have to tell each other,” said Lendrin, “but I think we should wait until after we’ve eaten.”
The men continued busying themselves setting up the camp and preparing firewood. The presence of so many strangers was making Howl skittish. Seeing this, Pyrri knelt beside him and began crooning, in a voice that was hoarse and untrained but held the promise of sweetness:
Mah lidda lupinoy,
Pliss don’ be pamanoy,
Lahdnin will nah baht you.
We cah fay strahyagon,
Jush you and I ahyalon,
Dell neva daya to faht you.
“What in the world was that?” said Tharil.
Mavrida grinned. “That’s astonishing. I made up that song to calm the little lupinoid during a storm. Pyrri’s only heard it once, and she repeated it note-perfect. If she had a better grasp of language she’d have been word-perfect. It sounds like she’ll have a good singing voice too, once she’s trained it a bit.”
Soon the tents were erected, two large round canvas structures with no floors, and small holes near the top. Using sparkstones the men lit oil lamps to illuminate the interiors, then laid piles of wood in the centre of each which they also set alight. The firewood had been under canvas, but in the current climate it was impossible to keep it very dry, and so it produced large quantities of smoke.
The purpose of the holes now became clear, since most of the smoke was drawn through them to the outside rather than filling the tents. The men placed wooden trestles on either side of the fires and began roasting the meat they had caught on spits that they mounted on the trestles.
“Burn meat?” asked Pyrri.
“No, Pyrri, they’re cooking it,” said Lendrin. “The heat softens it and changes the flavour. You should try some when it’s done.”
“These tents are only big enough for six men each,” grumbled Kemmet. “Are you gonna let the strangers eat and sleep with us?”
“Why not?” said Tharil. “They’ve been sleeping in the rain for days. It’s about time they had a bit of shelter. Corlin can move into your tent - I’m sure he’ll be delighted - and the newcomers can move in with the rest of my half. That’s just one extra adult to a tent, plus one child in mine - assuming the wild girl can be persuaded to sleep under canvas. We can manage, just until we get back to the village.”
Kemmet muttered something under his breath, but knew better than to confront Tharil openly.
As Kemmet stalked away Tharil sighed and turned back to his guests. “I’m sorry for all the trouble he’s caused you,” he said. “As Suvanji can attest, he’s really not typical of our people.”
“No need to apologise,” said Mavrida. “There was one just like him in our village. Only he was more ambitious and persuasive, and managed to become chief hunter.”
She sighed. “He was the one who drove my son away. Well, if Kemmet thinks he can try anything on, he’ll have a fight on his hands, that’s all I can say.”
“Don’t worry about him,” Tharil told her. “Rest assured, we’re all keeping a very close eye on him. I’ll tell you one thing - there’s no chance of him ever becoming chief hunter of Third Hill!”
Once the meat was cooked the hunters and their guests made their way into the tents and sat on canvas mats, leaving the lupinoids on guard outside. At first Pyrri was a little hesitant to enter the unfamiliar structure, and was wary of the fire until Lendrin assured her it would not harm her unless she tried to touch it. Eventually it was the aroma of “burned” meat that drew her in.
As Kemmet had predicted, the tent was a little cramped, but Suvanji and Lendrin helped by snuggling as close together as they could, and Mavrida allowed Pyrri to sit in her lap. The men carved the meat with hunting knives and served it up on squares of canvas. The adults did not stand on ceremony but began eating straight away. Pyrri, however, merely held the canvas as if she were waiting for something.
“What’s the matter?” he asked Lendrin. “Isn’t she hungry?”
“She’s just obeying her pack instincts,” Lendrin replied, “She’s the smallest, so she’ll eat last.”
Sure enough, after what she considered a respectful interval the young wildling attacked her meat with all the ferocity of a starving striagon.
+You don’t need to eat so fast,+ Lendrin told her. +Nothing’s going to steal your food here, so why not slow down and try to enjoy the flavour?+
The flame-haired wildling considered this for a moment, then resumed eating, perhaps a fraction more slowly. In any event, the taste of cooked meat clearly wasn’t putting her off.
Once everyone had finished, two of the men went out to feed the lupinoids - their portions were of course raw. Then the humans were offered a selection of forest fruits and mild ale to wash down their meal, before the fires were doused, blankets were broken out, and the lamps extinguished.
Pyrri found the notion of sleeping under a blanket a little odd, but given that or sleeping in the rain she decided it was another two-leg foible she could live with.
The crowding in the tent was alleviated slightly by Lendrin and Suvanji sleeping together, and as it turned out, two of the men had had a similar idea.
+Isn’t Mavrida going to join us?+ thought Suvanji.
+Not right now,+ Lendrin replied. +We’ll explain why when we all get a chance to catch up.+
Suvanji glanced across at Mavrida, wondering what could be troubling her friend. But then such considerations were driven from her mind by Lendrin’s embrace.
+It feels like forever since we were together,+ thought Lendrin. +We have some catching up to do.+
They made love for half the night, sharing their sensations and emotions via their lupinoid telepathy.
Sherinel’s party set out heading west toward the river. As Sherinel had expected, they had not gone far past Scarface’s territory before encountering a striagon, but the beast was quickly despatched by Sherinel and Ryvan.
“Well, that looked easy,” said Rilshan.
“Don’t get overconfident,” replied Ryvan. “Right now we’re all fresh and there was only one of them. There’ll be lots more where that came from, so stay sharp.”
He was right. Before nightfall three more striagons attacked. With the help of the twins, the male and female killed the first. The second fell victim to the lovers, assisted by Scarface, while Sherinel and Ryvan had their first taste of cooperation in bringing down the third.
None of these attacks had resulted in serious injuries, though a few of the humans and lupinoids had suffered painful bruises and sprains.
As the day turned to twilight Rilshan and Velleth looked apprehensive, but Sherinel assured them that striagons seldom, if ever, attacked at night.
“Then,” asked Velleth, “wouldn’t it be better to travel by night and sleep in the daytime?”
“Probably not,” said Sherinel. “I have a feeling the striagons wouldn’t hesitate to kill us in our sleep. This way at least we can be reasonably sure they’ll be sleeping at the same time as us.”
“Oh. Well, that’s comforting,” muttered Velleth.
His partner replied, “It’s better than nothing. Out here we have to take what comfort we can.”
They made camp and settled down to sleep as best they could. Rilshan and Velleth snuggled up together, as did the male and female wildlings.
“If it’s all the same to you,” Ryvan told Sherinel, “I won’t lie with you. Nothing personal.”
“All right,” said Sherinel. “I could use some sleep anyway.”
As he was drifting off to sleep Sherinel seemed to see the Maiden’s face before him, but it was wavering and indistinct. Her voice came as if from a great distance, and he could only distinguish some of the words.
“... rinel... hard to get through... cerer is jamming... isten caref... not go east, Sheri... ust go sou... reach Third... outh, Sher... do you underst...?”
And then she was gone, and Sherinel drifted into full sleep.
He woke at dawn as the others were rousing. The lupinoids reported that they had scented two or three striagons in the distance, but they didn’t seem to be approaching just at the moment.
As they broke their fast on dried meat and fruits, Sherinel told the villagers about his vision.
“I think the Maiden was telling me we should head south instead of west,” he told them.
“Why?” said Ryvan. “What’s south of here that’s so important?”
“The Maiden said we must reach the third something. Whatever kind of place it is, I’m guessing that Ketrin will be there, and not at the waterfall after all.”
“Well,” said Ryvan, “you’re in charge. We’re just here to assist, remember. If you say we need to go south then south we’ll go. I don’t suppose it’ll be any more dangerous than heading west anyway.”
Sherinel prayed he was right.
Suvanji, Lendrin and Mavrida
Leaving the Valley
In the morning, after the humans had dressed and performed their ablutions at a nearby stream, they struck camp and prepared to depart the Valley. The rain had eased a little, but the sodden ground would still hamper their progress.
Despite her injury Suvanji insisted on helping pull a sled. “It’s my forearm that’s hurt, not my shoulder,” she told Tharil, and in the end he had no choice but to concede.
Kemmet muttered something about women sticking to women’s work. As usual nobody paid him any heed.
Lendrin and Mavrida also offered to help in spite of Tharil’s insistence that they were guests.
“We’d like to walk with Suvanji,” said Mavrida, “and if we’re going to be walking beside her anyway we might as well take a sled rope each.”
“Besides,” Lendrin added, “it’ll make a change from pushing a bout through the water.”
Just then Pyrri sauntered past, yawning and stretching languidly. Something seemed to have put the young wild girl in a very good mood. She paused to favour Lendrin and Suvanji with an appropriately feral grin, and then strolled over to greet the lupinoids.
“What was that about?” said Tharil.
“I have no idea,” said Mavrida.
Lendrin and Suvanji exchanged a thoughtful glance. Mavrida gave them a quizzical look, but if they did have an idea, they chose to keep their it to themselves for the moment.
“Hmm. Well, as I was about to say,” Tharil continued, “the Valley is encircled by impassable cliffs, but Sun and Fire had discovered a tunnel, so they were able to forage here during the drought. Thankfully Lord Ral-ne-Sa persuaded them to show us to the tunnel entrance, otherwise we would never have found it and would have suffered terrible losses from famine.
“If we maintain a steady pace we should be able to reach the tunnel by nightfall, but we won’t actually leave the Valley until morning because there are fewer predators within. Once we’re outside we’ll all have to keep our eyes and noses alert.”
“Well, at least you have a few more eyes and noses now,” replied Lendrin.
This was true. Red and Grey were now content, with Lendrin’s blessing, to join Tharil’s party as scouts. Howl, on the other hand, was still timid, and stayed close to Pyrri for reassurance.
The mud made the going slow, but at least the rain seemed to be keeping away such predators as there were in the Valley.
While the men trudged along pulling their sleds, Pyrri kept pace with Howl close behind. Unfortunately she just happened to be walking beside Kemmet, and she was an incidental reminder of his recent humiliation. So when he thought nobody was looking, Kemmet extended a foot to catch the wildling’s leg and trip her up.
Except that her leg wasn’t there. Some lupinoid instinct had warned her to get out of the way at the last instant, and so instead it was the startled Kemmet who lost his balance and fell face-first into the mud.
“Been at the ale again, Kemmet?” laughed his sled partner, extending a hand. Kemmet ignored both the remark and the help, and laboriously hauled himself back to his feet.
“It’s that little savage’s fault,” growled Kemmet. “She tripped me.”
“Didn’t do,” insisted Pyrri. “Trip youself.”
“Come here, you,” cried the hunter, attempting to grab a hank of Pyrri’s voluminous hair. Once again she sidestepped neatly, this time following through with a kick to Kemmet’s abdomen that once again left him flailing in the mud, to the amusement of his fellow hunters.
In spite of her youth, she was strong enough to have grievously injured Kemmet if she had wanted to, but she did not consider his antics a serious threat and so had restrained herself.
“Little monster,” cried Kemmet, once he had managed to catch his breath. “Come here! I’ll kill you!”
“I won’t, an’ you won’t,” she said.
“That’s enough, you two,” roared Tharil. Kemmet and Pyrri turned to see him striding toward their battleground.
“I will not have fighting in my party, understand?” said the hunt leader.
Kemmet glowered. Pyrri, lupinoid-fashion, whimpered and bared her throat to Tharil.
“All right, Pyrri,” said Tharil, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I know it wasn’t your fault. Just stay out of Kemmet’s way from now on, all right?”
The wildling panted her assent and moved several paces away with Howl in tow. In spite of Tharil’s reprimand she was still in good spirits, the more so for having helped put Kemmet in his place.
“Who says it wasn’t her fault?” snarled Kemmet. “Did you see what she did to me?”
“Yes, I saw,” replied Tharil, “and I can’t wait to tell Tolar how you got beaten up by a little girl!”
The men roared with laughter. Kemmet’s glare looked as if it could melt rock.
“Now,” said Tharil, “I’ll have no more trouble from you, or for starters I’ll cut your ale ration. Understand?”
Tharil turned away so that Kemmet wouldn’t see the size of his grin, but he could feel the surly hunter’s eyes attempting to bore a hole in his back.
As Mavrida and Lendrin shouldered their burdens alongside Suvanji, the wildling turned to Mavrida and asked quietly: “Mavrida, why didn’t you lie with Lendrin and me last night? Is something wrong?”
Mavrida placed a hand on her friend’s cheek. “It’s not you, Suvanji,” she sighed. “It’s my husband. Ruthyar. I’ve discovered that he’s alive, or at least... he’s not dead yet.”
Mavrida went on to recount her adventure in the old man’s lair.
“As long as I thought he was dead,” she said, “I was able to convince myself that I wasn’t dishonouring his memory by taking other lovers. But now I know the old man is keeping him in that terrible half-alive state...” She sighed again. “I just don’t know where I stand any more.”
Suvanji placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “If the Maiden could save me and Nipper from falling to death, she must be able to save Ruthyar from the old man.”
Mavrida wished she had Suvanji’s faith in the Maiden’s powers. How could even she free Ruthyar from his paralysis, when the spell was the only thing keeping him alive with a striagon’s fangs in his throat? Even so, Mavrida managed a smile and a nod for her friend’s sake.
In an attempt to divert her thoughts from her own problems, Mavrida said, “You know, Suvanji, I’m sure we’re all dying to hear about each other’s adventures.”
And so, as the party trudged eastward through the rain, the three of them exchanged accounts of how they had arrived at the Valley, constantly interrupting each other with requests for clarifications and expansions. Mavrida and Lendrin were enthralled by Suvanji’s description of her fight with the gwanna, while she was fascinated by the story of her friends’ bout journey.
“I have to admit,” Lendrin told her, “once I’d moved the bout a few hundred cubits away from the north bank I was convinced that I must have gone mad to attempt it. And yet here we all are, and far sooner than any of us ever expected. Admittedly some of us are a little worse for wear, but at least we’re alive.”
The surly Kemmet, several cubits behind, caught snatches of their conversation and muttered cynically to himself. He also cast repeated glances about him, as if fearing that Pyrri would attack him when he wasn’t looking. He need not have worried. The wild girl was taking Tharil’s advice to heart by keeping herself and Howl well out of Kemmet’s way.
If the hunters had thought their party’s size would discourage striagons from attacking, they were wrong. No fewer than three attacks occurred, the first shortly after noon and the others before the afternoon was half-done.
During the first attack Sun and Nipper harried the beast long enough for Tharil and Suvanji to spear it. The second striagon was met by Red and Grey, and once again it was Suvanji’s spear that dispatched it. The third was not scented by Sun until it was almost upon him, and its advantage of surprise might have cost Sun his life, had Kemmet not managed to put an arrow in its throat before it could maul the lupinoid.
Lendrin was surprised to see Kemmet saving a lupinoid, but he supposed the surly hunter was doing it because he had to, not because he wanted to.
“Say what you will,” Tharil conceded, “he’s a damn good archer.”
“It’s just a pity he couldn’t pick all of his targets so carefully,” replied Lendrin, not caring if Kemmet heard him.
They remained vigilant for the rest of the day. Even Pyrri kept a lookout, occasionally scampering up trees with the agility of an arboreal rodent.
“What does she think she’s gonna do if a striagon attacks?” muttered Kemmet. “Throw nuts at it?”
“Why not?” said Tharil. ”If nothing else it’d distract the beast, and if she dropped a big cholnut on its head she might even kill it. Now quit griping for once, will you?”
In the event there were no further incidents, and as the day began to darken the weary travellers began to discern a grey stone wall looming out of the rain.
“Well, here we are,” Tharil told his guests. “Hopefully we’re not too far from the tunnel, but as I said, we can wait until morning to find out.”
While the other men were setting up camp, Chennith the physician set about changing the wounded couple’s dressings.
Lendrin’s arm was healing slowly but surely, just as Chennith had expected. Turning to Suvanji, he was surprised at how much her wound had healed in just one day. Nevertheless, it was more extensive than Lendrin’s, and even a wildling’s healing powers had their limits.
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” he told her, “but you might never get back all of the strength and flexibility in that arm. Still, I’d say a stiff arm is a small price to pay for surviving a lupinoid attack.”
“That moron Kemmet,” Lendrin muttered. “I swear, if I hadn’t promised not to retaliate...”
“You’re not a striagon, Lendrin,” replied Suvanji. “There’s nothing to be gained.”
Lendrin sighed and nodded. “I suppose you’re right.”
“I’m sure you’ll both feel better after a meal and a good night’s sleep,” Chennith told them. “Besides,” he added confidentially, “you needn’t worry about Kemmet. Like as not, one of us hunters will bump him off sooner or later.”
+Does he mean it?+ thought Suvanji as they walked away.
+I think he’s joking,+ Lendrin replied, +but you never know.+
The night passed as uneventfully as the previous one. In the morning as the men broke camp, armed scouts set out in each direction to find the tunnel entrance. At Suvanji’s suggestion, one group was accompanied by Sun and the other by Fire. Red, Grey and Nipper stayed behind to help guard the main group.
After a short search, Fire’s group found the tunnel. Fire relayed the information via Suvanji to Sun, who informed his party by pricking up his ears, growling and turning back toward the campsite.
Shortly thereafter the entire group was reunited at the tunnel mouth. Lendrin and Suvanji stood side by side, sharing intimate thoughts. Mavrida stood by them, afraid of the consequences if she were to become too intimate. Oblivious to this, Pyrri crouched beside Howl, repeatedly humming the “Little Lupinoid” song as she had done for most of the morning. Had she realised how much irritation this was causing Kemmet, she would only have hummed the louder.
“All right,” Tharil told the newcomers. “We cleared the tunnel when we entered, but you should still be careful of loose stones and roots. There’s bound to be some water on the tunnel floor as well, so just watch your footing. The tunnel is narrow enough that striagons can’t gang up on us, but it will also be constricting if we do need to fight.”
Sun and Fire entered the tunnel first, followed by the humans in single file, some carrying oil lamps, with Nipper, Red and Grey as rearguard. The confined space made the lupinoids nervous. Even Sun and Fire who had made the trip before, were skittish, and the humans couldn’t help feeling it as well, even those who not happen to be telepathic.
In the event, however, their passage through the tunnel was uneventful, if uncomfortable, and in short order Tharil announced that they were approaching the eastern entrance.
“All right, Suvanji,” he said. “You can tell Sun and Fire to scout out the entrance just in case any striagons happen to be lurking out there.”
Suvanji nodded and relayed the command to the two lupinoids, who bounded toward the faint oval of grey daylight in the distance. Within moments they were outside, and Suvanji passed on their message that the area beyond the tunnel seemed to be clear at the moment.
Just as Tharil was preparing to lead the party out, however, there was a blinding flash of light from the entrance, followed by a concussion that shook the walls of the tunnel. Suvanji caught Fire's panicked thought: +There’s stuff falling!+
And then there came a rumbling noise, and the air was full of choking dust, and the humans were wailing and the lupinoids howling, and it was all that Suvanji and Lendrin could do to stop the lupinoids biting each other and their human companions in the confusion.
Once the shaking had stopped and the dust had begun to settle the humans picked themselves up and took stock of the situation. A few of the men had suffered bruises and sprains when they fell, but fortunately none of them seemed to be seriously hurt. Kemmet spoke for all of them when he muttered, “What the holy fuck just happened?”
“I think a bolt of lightning struck the cliff,” said Tharil. “It looks like the tunnel’s blocked this end. Suvanji, can you tell if Sun and Fire are all right?”
“No,” she said. “They’re not replying. They might have got clear before the rocks fell, or... they might be dead.”
Tharil sighed. “Let’s just hope they’re all right. Keep trying to raise them. In the meantime... what about the other end of the tunnel? Can we get back into the Valley?”
“Nipper’s fastest,” said Suvanji. “She’ll soon tell us.”
No sooner had she spoken than the lupinoid responded to her command by darting back along the tunnel until she was lost to sight.
“But surely it’s open,” said Chennith. “I mean, one lightning bolt couldn’t cause a landslide at both ends, and a strike at each end would be a pretty unlikely coincidence, wouldn’t it?”
“The old man could conjure lightning,” said Lendrin. “That’s how he separated Suvanji from me in the first place.”
After a little while Suvanji spoke bleakly: “Lendrin was right. This is the old man’s doing. Nipper says the Valley entrance is blocked as well. We’re trapped.”
“Oh, well, that’s just wonderful, isn’t it?” growled Kemmet as he rounded on Lendrin. “So now you’ve gone and got us involved in your feud with this lightning-conjurer, and we’re all going to die here instead of just you and your flea-bitten friends!”
Lendrin bristled but did not dignify the hunter with a reply.
Tharil spoke very quietly: “Kemmet... stop moaning and start digging. That goes for all of you. We’re not dead yet, and we are not going to panic.”
Just then Suvanji gave a small gasp.
“What is it?” asked Tharil.
“Sun and Fire. They’re alive. They ran off in panic when the rocks fell, but now they’re back. They can’t see a way in, though.”
“Hardly surprising,” said Tharil. “At least they made it.”
“Lucky them,” muttered Kemmet. “Doesn’t help us any.”
“Then we’ll just have to help ourselves, won’t we?” replied the hunt leader. “Come on, keep digging.”
The men took turns at trying to clear the entrance, and the women insisted on being allowed to help. After an hour of laborious effort they had managed to remove several large stones with their bare hands, but what little forward progress they were making was impeded by further small rockfalls. Privately, Tharil was worried that even if they did manage to reach the entrance, the tunnel might collapse on top of them before they could get out.
“This is hopeless,” muttered Kemmet. “We’re getting nowhere, and if you hadn’t noticed, the air’s getting stale. If you ask me, this is as good a time to panic as any.”
“Kemmet,” sighed Tharil with all the patience he could muster, “we’re not going to have a scene here, all right? Especially not in front of the women and child, and with a bunch of excitable carnivores nearby.”
“So what are we supposed to do? Just lay down and die?”
“If you know of a way out of here I’ll be glad to hear it. If not, well... then the least we can do is die like men.”
“It’s all the strangers’ fault,” said Kemmet. “I should have killed them while I had the chance.”
“And then their lupinoids would have killed you.”
“At least it would have been quick,” growled Kemmet, but then thankfully fell silent - whether praying or sulking, Tharil neither knew nor cared.
“Maybe we should try the other end,” one of the men suggested. “It might not be so bad there.”
“Do you really believe that?” asked Tharil. “Besides, we’re already exhausted without having to trek back along the tunnel and start digging again from scratch. No, I hate to say it, but it really doesn’t look like there’s a way out for us.”
Mavrida and her friends sat dejectedly, some distance apart from the hunters.
+Are we going to die?+ thought Pyrri.
Lendrin sighed. He knew there was no point lying to the wildling, who must have seen her share of death while growing up in the jungle.
+Yes, Pyrri, it looks like it. We can’t get out of the tunnel, and we’re using up all the air inside. Soon we won’t be able to breathe any more, and that’ll be the end of us.+
True to her lupinoid nature, Pyrri did not respond with an emotional outburst. Instead, she simply sat quietly and drew her knees up to her chest. Howl whimpered quietly and lay down at her feet.
+I’ve enjoyed being in your pack,+ she thought.
+We’ve enjoyed having you with us,+ replied Lendrin and Suvanji, sitting beside her and placing their arms about her shoulders.
For a time there was little to be heard in the light of the flickering oil-lamps, except the sound of lupinoids snuffling miserably and the humans’ quiet prayers to whatever benign god might be persuaded to offer them a miracle.
April - October 2012
TO BE CONTINUED
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Well, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the biggest miracle of all will be finishing this story by the end of 2012... or 13... or 14...
As I’ve mentioned before, I do know where I’m going with this thing. It’s just taking a hell of a lot longer than I imagined it would to get there. Sigh.
Also, for a story called Ketrin, there’s a conspicuous absence of Ketrin in it lately... although I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that a character who never moves doesn’t get much to do. Right now he’s more of a McGuffin than a protagonist - he’s the object of Mavrida and Sherinel’s searches. But will Ketrin ever get unparalysed? Well, now, that’s the question...
On another note: just why is Pyrri so cheerful the morning after she’s slept in a tent for the first time? Well, she happens to be telepathic, and two of her telepathic friends were making love in the same tent... I hope nobody thinks there’s anything weird about that. Remember, this kid grew up in the jungle, so she knows exactly how mating works for lupinoids and other jungle animals. You really can’t blame her for being curious about how two-legs do it, or for feeling satisfied when she finds out. So it’s a bit of a shame that she and all her newfound friends are probably going to die now, don’t you think?
In our next implausible instalment:
ARE WE THERE YET?
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