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Perhaps because he'd agreed our clans would be allies, or more likely, it was just the Ifshiri way, his attitude changed abruptly. 'David get clanmates,' he said. 'We hunt croki, eat soon.' He heaved himself to his full height and after a moment's hesitation, held out a huge hand towards me. I grinned up at him as he pulled me effortlessly to my feet and began to feel much better when he grinned back rather ruefully. 'Quick fight,' he said, waggling his head slowly. 'Horban fight good.' He frowned and walked away, scratching his neck.
In typical Ifshiri fashion, all but the youngest now completely ignored us as everyone went about his own business. A group of six, including the leader, swooped off to hunt with the customary cries while three of the four youngsters left to go gathering, leaving a rather nervous little one in charge of the camp.
Mahrham and I at last had some time to cuddle Corkai and show him how much he meant to us and I wanted to find out if he'd been hurt. I wasn't sure whether I should ask him if he'd been fucked by any of the raiders, but I did anyway and he quite readily said 'only by one of them'. He was bigger than Tamori apparently, much too eager and had hurt him a bit. The worst thing was being tied up all the time, because the thongs chafed and he'd cried a lot because he was frightened and missed Tamori.
Corkai mentioned that he hadn't seen the big one since his release and I realised Horban had been out of sight. Corkai's eyes widened when we showed him the body lying beside the fire and he quickly waggled his head; apparently I'd settled another score without knowing it. I wondered whether Horban had been the one actually responsible for Peter's death and then decided that even if he hadn't been, it didn't really matter. I'd finally closed that account as well.
The fire sputtered and flickered as we walked away, illuminating the little one who'd been left in charge. I watched for a moment as he clasped his hands self-consciously behind his back and gingerly reach out a foot to nudge the body, as if checking to make sure it was really dead. He did it again, then glanced up to see me looking at him and fled with a nervous squawk.
We made good time back to where we'd left the others, finding them if anything better for the rest. Corkai had bounded on ahead of us and almost knocked Tamori over in his eagerness to be back with his partner. I'd seen Tamori shed a tear or two in the past but there was no holding them now and I had the silly thought that if Eater happened to come by, it would probably reject Corkai as being much too wet.
After we'd all had a good hug and a cry, Mahrham spent far too long re-enacting our talk with the leader and my fight with Horban, including it seemed, every word, gesture, sound and action. When he got to the bit where I asked for Horban's skin, Fyrsh squealed in excitement and I thought Tamori's chin was about to drop off completely.
I only then remembered the raider's leader had invited us to eat with them and Tesharah stood with a grimace, saying he thought he was going to have to walk all the way. We were about to set off when Corkai pranced over with a gleam in his eye and said he and Tamori would catch up with us later. I glanced at Mahrham with a grin and he pulled me into a hug, growling 'soon!' into my right ear.
We found out from the youngster left in charge of the campsite that his leader's name was Gwor, his own name was Horla and he was nine years old. Naturally this made Fyrsh his immediate firm friend and they pronked off to play together after we'd assured Horla we would look after his fire.
The youngsters who had been gathering soon reappeared with a good supply of fruit, including mendri of course and some of the purple ones I liked, which they called 'yeppi' but Corkai had always called 'helo'. The difference in the names made me wonder just how isolated the Ifshiri clans were and why.
Gwor and his hunters returned with the customary yelps and whoops, in high spirits after what looked like a very successful hunt. As well as croki from the plains, they had visited a nearby swampy area and had caught some fish and shellfish, plus a long, scaly thing that looked like a bigger version of the lizard which had shared Corkai's blanket.
I got another lesson in the Ifshiri way when Gwor and the larger members of his clan welcomed Tesharah and Tamori as if they were old comrades, showing obvious concern for their injuries and offering salves and poultices to aid the healing and ease the pain. For his part, Corkai behaved as if he had never seen these particular Ifshiri before and immediately made friends with everybody.
While the elders sat and talked, we younger ones did the usual butchery of croki and the fruit preparation. I paid particular attention to what Horla was doing as he'd been given the job of dealing with the lizard thing. It was almost as big as Horla himself and looked to be quite a job and I was eager to see exactly how he would handle it. However; watching his little knife fly made it quite obvious he'd done such tasks many times before and the beast was skinned, filleted and rolled onto long, wooden skewers before the fruit was even half finished.
I didn't really want to trouble Tamori so soon after his ordeal, but I was a bit worried about Horban going off in the warmer weather. After I'd finished gutting my croki I found Tamori back on his blanket, peering at some leatherwork as usual and broached the subject of skinning my former opponent. Tamori frowned slightly, agreeing it should be done as soon as possible and certainly before the body stiffened. He preferred to prepare his own skins he said, but had never before skinned one of his own kind and was looking forward to the challenge of preparing such a large hide.
He groaned a bit as he accepted my shoulder to help him up and I anxiously asked if he was sure, but he said the stiffness in his muscles would ease as soon as he started working. We hunted around the outskirts of the camp until we found Horban lying at the bottom of a small, sandy depression, still looking nice and limp. Tamori told me to go and get Mahrham and together, the three of us hauled Horban's carcass back up to the edge of the dip so that sand wouldn't keep falling onto the work. Tamori grinned, pointing out that once we were done with him, we could just roll him back down again and cover him up.
Tamori asked me where I wanted the cuts made, and was both intrigued and highly amused when I showed him, using a piece of charcoal from the fire to mark the exact line I wanted him to follow. Mahrham's eyes also widened as he took in exactly how Horban was going to keep me company, his increasing grin and waggles showing he thought it an excellent idea.
We were about to leave Tamori to his task when he called us back.
'Tamori not do all work,' he grinned, shaking a scolding finger. 'Tamori need things.'
'Tamori tell, we bring,' I grinned back.
'Not bring all,' he retorted. 'Need find lorrit mound.' He grinned again. 'Horban big Ifshiri. Need big lorrit mound.'
I wasn't sure what lorrit was or why Tamori needed a mound of it, but Mahrham was waggling his understanding.
'Need many leaves and seeds from tree with sticky brown fruit, like fat hand,' Tamori continued. 'Take two bags. Need much dribsi. Take one bag.'
Again Mahrham was waggling eagerly, while I was still trying to figure out what Tamori was asking for, but he was already deciding which of his flensing blades to begin with and waved us away with a customary flap or two of his hand.
Mahrham commenced our quest for Tamori's ingredients by asking the youngsters if they'd seen such a tree in the nearby forest. Two of them said they had and would happily lead us to it. When he asked about a lorrit mound however, they all nodded and said they hadn't come across one recently. We soon ran out of Ifshiri to ask and were about to give up, when Fyrsh said he thought we'd passed one about halfway from where we'd first left the three of them to rest before confronting the raiders.
Mahrham chose three of Tamori's empty bags and asked me to help him kit up. I couldn't see why as the forest was fairly close, but I had no doubt Mahrham would tell me in good time. We trotted towards the trees accompanied by two of the youngsters, both of whom I discovered were actually Gwor's own twin sons and were named Gworal and Gworshi. When I asked them what the 'al' and 'shi' meant, they grinned and held up fingers for 'one' and 'two'.
Although the forest was quite close to the sea, I nevertheless checked with the two young ones that there would be no sonta lying in wait and they both assured me the ground was too wet. They said I could usually tell because there were some trees that only grew in such wet places, which had big, bright red leaves instead of green ones. As if to make the point, the path we took must have passed under one of the red trees, because there were a few of the huge leaves on the ground. I wondered why Fyrsh or Corkai hadn't mentioned the red-leaved trees and made a mental note to ask them.
We followed the winding path past some tempting mendri vines to a gnarled, dark coloured tree with brown, hairy leaves. I offered to do the climbing and immediately wished I hadn't; not only was the thing impossibly sticky, it also stank of the same sort of resin which used to build up around the blade of the colony's wood-saw. I spent far too long clambering around, picking the repulsively soft and smelly fruits and handfuls of sticky leaves, tossing them down to my companions. When they finally called me back to the ground, they all went into fits of giggles and when Mahrham showed me my reflection in one of his swords, I could see why. I looked a bit like Peter had when his dad pulled him out of the silage pit, except I'd had time to do up my trousers and poor Peter hadn't, which caused some raised eyebrows.
I spent a few futile moments trying to pull the tenacious leaves out of my hair, but they just stuck to my fingers. Gworal took pity on me, leading me to a spring-fed pool in the middle of the forest to wash off. Water had very little effect on the sticky sap however, but when Gworshi suggested I use mud instead, I had more success. I rinsed off in clean water from the spring until Mahrham reported I looked reasonable again.
Our next objective was the dribsi. I noticed Mahrham hadn't even asked anyone about this and knowing Mahrham, he hadn't just forgotten so it had to be something he knew how to get. When we left the forest, we gave the two bags of sticky brown stuff to the youngsters before they headed back to the camp, but Mahrham told me to mount up and we proceeded in roughly the opposite direction, travelling at about three-quarter speed.
We were rapidly approaching something shining like hazy glass in the distance, but I still hadn't worked out what dribsi was until we reached some salt-flats. They seemed to be in a strange position, so close to the water, but when I looked seaward I realised we were actually climbing. The flats would only rarely get flooded and were perfectly placed to allow the salt to build up.
By the time we'd finished filling the remaining bag with dribsi and had washed the last caustic remnants from our stinging hands, my stomach was starting to tell me it needed some croki. Mahrham must have been feeling the same way because he told me to hang on tight as we raced towards the campsite at top speed, reaching it just as Ifshah set. The sky was left to Ifshin and a spectacular meteorite display, which everyone was watching lying flat on their backs and pointing up excitedly, having already eaten most of the croki and fruit.
Our new friends Gwors one and two came to our rescue, having conspired with Fyrsh and Corkai to save us a good supply of food, including some of the skewered lizard which was pleasant but not outstanding. While gnawing at half a croki, it suddenly occurred to me I had a large supply of salt close to hand and I couldn't resist fetching some and sprinkling a bit on my croki leg. I was quite taken aback when I found that far from enhancing the flavour, it made the croki taste rather strange, as if it wasn't quite as fresh as it should have been. Considering the fact that these croki had been scampering about the plains not half a day ago they were unlikely to be spoiled, so the result of my culinary experiment was mystifying. When I tried it with the lizard meat I got much the same result, so I gave up; either the salt wasn't pure, although by itself it tasted all right, or the chemistry of Ifshi life just didn't go well with salt. I remembered Mahrham mentioning my blood tasted bitter, like the leather-curing fruit, so maybe it was the saltiness he didn't like.
I hadn't realised Tamori wasn't present until he clumped back around the fire with a half-chewed croki in one hand and most of the outside of Horban in the other. He sat with us to rest and finish his meal, reporting that the skinning had gone well. As we'd agreed, he'd left Horban's sheath and tail intact as a mark of respect and the youngsters of the clan had helped him roll the remains back down into the hollow, covering them with sand. Tamori said that with any luck, Horban would nourish a fine stand of bushes to help shield the campsite. I thought that being Horban they'd probably turn out to be croki-bushes, but even then they'd be useful.
After he'd inspected and approved our haul of dribsi and sticky brown stuff, Tamori asked us if we'd located a suitable lorrit mound. Mahrham rounded up Fyrsh and the four of us set out to do whatever Tamori needed to do with a mound of lorrit. We travelled at only a moderate pace in deference to Tamori's aches and pains, soon reaching the site Fyrsh had noted before. As I'd finally realised it had to be, it was a mound of lorrits rather than lorrit. The mound was as enormous as the creatures were tiny, but when I got too close, Tamori pulled me back, warning me that lorrits were as ferocious as croki, but thankfully a lot smaller. He and Mahrham used long sticks to hoist all that remained of Horban into a nice, flat position on the side of the mound and we left him there for the lorrits to do their work. On the way back to the campsite I asked Tamori what would happen and he said that exposing a skin to the lorrits was an indispensable first step in preparing any hide. Not only would they remove every last piece of flesh, fat, tendon and membrane that remained, but their excretions would start the curing process. I was amazed when he added that it was quite a complex procedure, taking a full twelve days to ensure Horban was properly cured and wouldn't just rot into a smelly, hairy mess. I began to feel a little awkward at having given him such a long and difficult task, but when I tried to apologize, he said he was actually very pleased to have something so interesting to do.
Back at the camp, I remembered to ask Fyrsh about the tree with the big red leaves and he said he knew of it from the larger of the two forests near the cave. I told him what Gworal and Gworshi had said about it being a sign the ground was too wet for sonta and he waggled slowly, adding that he'd only seen it in the one forest and hadn't realised the connection. It was a good thing to know though and he would be sure to tell Corkai. To say I was taken aback would be a poor description of my reaction; I'd actually known something about Ifshi that my little friends weren't aware of! Then I remembered what Tesharah had said after we'd left the colony; that I was a young Ifshiri and still learning to be one, but that one day, I would teach the Ifshiri. The bit about the red leaves was only a small thing, but it gave me a totally disproportionate thrill.
Everyone was making preparations for sleep as Mahrham and I set up our own blanket after performing the usual ablutions. It had been another exhausting day, but apparently not exhausting enough for Mahrham, who spent fifteen minutes or so showing our highly amused new friends all the different noises an Ifshiri could produce when he sat on a human's penis.
We still had eight or nine days to go before we were due to return to the colony for Porrhin and Tesharah and Tamori needed to recover as well, so we spent the time with Gwor's clan cementing new friendships, particularly those between Gwor's sons and our two youngsters. Little Horla wanted to join in their games as well, but I couldn't help noticing he kept falling down. I recalled that when I was younger I'd had a similar problem which Mum had diagnosed as a mild infection of the middle ear and it prompted me to ask Gwor if he knew what was wrong with Horla. Gwor shrugged, saying he'd been perfectly well until about a year ago, when he'd started wobbling, which was why he was usually left in charge of the fire while the others hunted or gathered. Unfortunately for Horla, his condition seemed to be getting worse and Gwor had already decided not to take him on next year's roving unless he got better.
Despite his affliction, the little Ifshiri was a bundle of youthful energy and it took a while before I managed to keep him still for long enough to ask him what happened when he fell over. He said he got a funny noise in his head and then just started to feel dizzy and fell down. I thought Horla was another candidate for Mum's attentions as his problem might well be easy to cure, so I asked Gwor if we could take the youngster with us when we went to collect Porrhin. Gwor gave another massive shrug and said Horla's father had been killed during the last roving and now that he had no one left to take care of him, we were welcome to him if he wanted to go. I was rather taken aback by Gwor's lack of concern and his apparent desire to be rid of Horla, but Mahrham said it was logical. If Horla was getting worse, he would just be an increasing burden to the clan, unable to hunt or gather, yet requiring support for his problem. They wouldn't abandon him of course, but if another clan wanted him, then it was up to Horla if he went with them.
I asked Tesharah what he thought and he said he was unwilling to accept Horla for much the same reasons as Mahrham had suggested, but in our case it was worse as we only had three properly trained hunters. I reluctantly had to agree he was right, considering that Tesharah and Tamori themselves were still not fully fit and Porrhin would probably need many days to recover his speedy agility and would be a bit of a burden himself for a while.
Then the obvious solution occurred to me and I asked Tesharah if he could get Gwor and his clan to come with us. I must admit to being a bit worried about taking the clan that had killed Peter back to the colony, but I was an Ifshiri now, so I put thoughts of the past away. Besides; I didn't have to take them all into the colony and it wasn't necessary to connect little Horla with Peter's death. Tesharah agreed to ask Gwor to accompany us and I managed not to be too surprised when Gwor cheerfully consented. They arranged to leave the next morning, Gwor noticing my poorly suppressed expression and grinning, saying he'd planned to move soon anyway as the nearby forest and plains were rapidly running out of things to eat.
[To be continued.]
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