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I woke with an aching head and a blocked nose. At first I thought I had a disease of some sort, but when Mahrham groaned himself awake with the same symptoms, he told me it was the usual after-effects of too many staggerfruit and would wear off quite quickly once I'd drunk as much water as I could. I dimly remembered the current sensations as being similar to those I'd endured after the redberry-juice episode with Peter and wasted no time at all in following Mahrham's advice. I gave him a drink as well and he moaned again, putting an arm across his eyes to block out the morning light.
I left him mumbling something about never, never eating staggerfruit again and went out to empty the night-bowl. I soon found Mahrham and I weren't alone in our pain, as most of the clan members I encountered also seemed to be either holding their heads or still showing traces of the staggers. The one exception was Teshshin who looked bright and cheerful, telling me he'd once tried staggerfruit when he was five years old; he hadn't enjoyed the consequences at all and had never had any since. I had to say I agreed with him, particularly when I found the fizzing still hadn't completely gone away and I tripped over a rock while sneezing, bruising my left knee.
Teshshin waited for me while I returned the bowl to our sleeping chamber, then I walked back to the smithy with him to find the twins already hard at work on the bellows, encouraging the coals in the brazier to a fierce whiteness. Teshshin showed me the heavy lump of metal we'd made in the furnace. It was intriguing in its ugliness, all black and spiky, looking nothing like the beautiful objects it would soon become. However, I hadn't only come to watch the smith at work, but to ask for yet another favour. I'd often seen Corkai light fires with his oddly shaped piece of metal and sharp rock and asked Teshshin if he had a small piece of metal he could let me have. He said it was a fairly common request and always kept a few 'sparkers', as he called them. He took a small object from one of the hollowed-out shelves lining the smithy walls and tossed it to me. It was an irregularly shaped stick of metal with a rough, unfinished feel to it and the smith grinned as he said it was the easy half of the pair to obtain.
'Sparking rock hard to find,' he said, fishing out a small piece from a pocket in his apron and showing it to me. 'Teshshin use much, need more.'
I took the piece and ran my fingers over it. It was hard and heavy, the cut edges very sharp. 'Does Corkai know where to get sparking rock?' I said, as I handed it back and Teshshin waggled reluctantly.
'Corkai father tell Corkai. Go get sparking rock. Not come back.'
True to the Ifshiri attitude towards the past, he was loathe to talk about it, but from what he would say it seemed Corkai's father was one of the Ifshiri who had just mysteriously vanished. He had set out alone on the comparatively simple task of obtaining more sparking rock and had not returned. When I asked for more details, he shrugged and said he didn't know. The fact he seemed rather upset and wouldn't look at me suggested to me that he, and probably the other Ifshiri as well, thought Corkai's father had become yet another of Eater's victims.
I thanked Teshshin for the sparker and walked back to towards the communal room. As I passed the female's dais I decided to have a talk with her about Corkai's father. Maybe she would have a better idea of what had happened to him.
how pleasant to have someone to talk to.' I had to grin to myself - she sounded just like Mum used to when one of the other colony women had come calling.
'Good morning, female. I hope you are well,' I thought, hopefully getting the pleasantries right and feeling the warmth of her appreciation.
'Yes indeed, David. Ifshah shines a little brighter each day. It is good for the little ones made at this time. They will grow fast and strong.'
'How long will Mahrvid take? Can I see him?' My excitement drew a peal of tinkling laughter.
'He will take a little over one hundred and thirty days, depending upon the weather,' she said, smiling at my eagerness. 'If clouds come, then a little longer.' She formed an image in my mind of a huge storm, as it would appear from her perspective upon the dais, complete with thunder and lightning and swirling grey clouds shutting off the life-giving rays.
And no, you can't see him I'm afraid. He is only the size of a grain of sand and is still deep inside me.' She sensed my disappointment and I could almost feel her patting me comfortingly on the back.
But you didn't come to talk about Mahrvid, did you.' A picture of a huge Ifshiri formed in my head. 'His name was Corsimit and he was a great hunter.' The image of Corsimit turned its head and smiled as a younger, rather cheeky-looking Ifshiri ran up and kissed him. 'Tamkai was Corsimit's second mate and Corkai their first son. We lost Tamkai to Eater when Corkai was only two and he was just four when Corsimit disappeared, so I'm afraid he wouldn't remember much about his father. It is as Teshshin has told you; Corsimit left one morning to search for more sparking rock
I listened and watched as she recounted her last conversation with Corsimit, two days before he left. It was like looking at a child's storybook, watching an adventure unfold as the female accompanied her tale with images, some sharp and detailed like the age-lines on Corsimit's face, while others were soft and fuzzy, as if seen from a distance. The female's voice almost faded into the background as she sent me shadowy details from Corsimit's memory, walking up an icy, rock-strewn path
then I couldn't hear her at all and everything seemed to fade to background noise. I suddenly became Corsimit, staring fixedly at a very familiar and strangely shaped rock formation, apparently from the same viewpoint from which I'd observed it, the ledge above the garden.
David?' The female sounded a little concerned as she mentally shook me back to the present. 'What did you see?'
'I'm not quite sure
it was just a big rock with a funny shape, but I've seen it myself. It's on the other side of the glacier.'
'Do think that is where Corsimit went to get the sparking rock?'
maybe Corsimit recognised the type of rock, even from that distance.'
'But of course, we can't be sure it is related to the sparking rock,' the female pointed out, 'much less to his disappearance.'
but you did gain the image while he was discussing his trip, didn't you, so there seems to be a strong connection.'
'That is true,' she admitted, and then sounded rather sad. 'I am tired of losing my children so soon, David. Corsimit was forty-six, but he was strong and brave. It was a great blow to the holt when he died.' She sighed, and seemed to descend into reverie for quite a while. Images of Ifshiri, young and old, singly and in groups, floated through my head. Some were laughing and playing, others standing as if posed. There were hundreds of them, probably thousands, some sharp and detailed, others dim and faded, coming and going like snowflakes landing on a hot surface. 'All gone,' she whispered, then the images suddenly ceased as her mood brightened.
But that is past,' she said firmly, in true Ifshiri style. 'We shall not think of it. Go now, back to Mahrham.'
I did exactly as she commanded, feeling as if I'd suddenly stepped outside life and was looking at myself through another's eyes. Some of the images the female had shown me must have been many thousands of years old, because the holt itself had changed from a small, single, crowded cave to the larger complex it now was and yet the pictures she'd flashed at me hadn't come in chronological order. One second the holt was a tiny, smoky hole and the next, it was spacious and airy, only to become a mixture of the two in the next image. It was very disorienting and by the time I reached Mahrham, I was actually running, eager to be back in the stability of his grasp with his arms and legs folded reassuringly around me.
Predictably, my mate wasn't in our sleeping chamber but I soon found him in the garden, enjoying a bath. He looked fully recovered from the staggerfruit woes and was singing to himself as he washed. I'd never heard Mahrham actually sing before. He'd often crooned and hummed but hadn't added any words as far as I could remember. I had to grin as I hid behind some bushes and listened to him; he wasn't very good as singers go, but made up in volume what he lacked in control. Then I heard him warble our names and realised he was singing about us. It was a very bawdy song, but what did I care? It was being sung by the best voice on the planet and I tossed Horban over a handy branch and joined my delighted lover in the bath with a big splash. As I'd expected, he didn't mind being interrupted in the least.
We still had some time to ourselves before Mahrham would head off to join the hunters and I lay in his arms back in our sleeping chamber, looking up into his big, brown eyes, wondering how to broach the matter of the sparking rock. I wanted to go and search for some, but it'd be useless my going alone as I wouldn't recognise it if I fell over it and besides, Mahrham wouldn't let me. Taking Corkai with me would solve both problems, but then there was the danger factor to consider. If I could persuade Mahrham to come as well, then maybe we could avoid Corsimit's fate, whatever it had been. For all I knew he'd fallen into a crevasse while crossing the glacier, though having seen it up close, I doubted that even the bravest Ifshiri would have attempted it, never mind alone.
'What David thinking?' The fork in his tongue slid down my nose, gripping my nostrils and pinching them closed. When I opened my mouth to breath, his tongue immediately popped inside and twisted itself around mine, ensuring that all I could do in answer to his question was make gargling noises. After we'd finished giggling, I told him about the strange rock formation I'd seen and the connection with Corsimit. When I said I wanted Corkai to go with us to obtain some more sparking rock, Mahrham wasn't at all eager.
'Long walk down. Must go over river, go back up other side.' He nodded firmly. 'Ice river too dangerous to cross.'
'How long would walk take?'
He thought for a while, muttering numbers to himself.
'Eight days, maybe ten.'
'That long? Why so long?'
'Two days go down, then cross river, go back up. Same on way back. Have to hunt for food each day.' He waggled faintly. 'Eight days.'
I had to admit I was a bit disappointed. Standing outside the mine, barely a morning's walk away, the place I wanted to get to was just across the glacier. Mahrham was right though; it was much too dangerous to try crossing it and the apparent closeness of the far side was an illusion.
I pointed out that not only did the holt really need more sparking rock, but that we might be able to find out what happened to Corsimit and perhaps even to some of the others who'd just vanished. It was a slim chance, but surely worth the trip. Mahrham considered my proposal for a while and I thought from his growing expression that he was about to refuse, but eventually he said we should discuss it with Tesharah and Tamori at the evening meal. It was the next logical step, so I grinned and waggled my agreement as Fyrsh stuck his head in the doorway to tell Mahrham they'd leave him behind if he didn't hurry up.
I lay on my back watching my beautiful mate cinching up all his belts. I noticed he'd recovered his fifth from Porrhin and was again able to sheathe all his knives and swords. He looked very impressive indeed and must have seen I thought so, because he grinned and knelt by the blanket to give me goodbye hugs, licks and kisses before hurrying off with Fyrsh.
Maybe it was the long talk I'd had with the female or more likely the repercussions of too many staggerfruit, but I was finding it hard to keep my eyes open and must have fallen asleep.
There seemed to be quite a lot of noise going on outside our sleeping chamber when I awoke, which wasn't surprising as I had somehow slept right through until the evening meal. I dressed hurriedly and went out to find everyone already gathered around the fire and about to start eating. I spotted Mahrham sitting next to a freshly belted Porrhin and soundly berated him for not waking me up.
'David need sleep,' he protested, tugging me down into his lap. 'Mahrham come wake David for croki,' he whispered, rocking me gently in his arms and I forgave him instantly.
I helped myself to some croki and fruit while admiring Porrhin's six new belts, all cinched up neatly and bristling with gleaming, newly hafted knives. He gave me a big grin, saying he was relieved to be properly dressed again. I could tell there was something else he was relieved about as well when one of the youngsters came to sit close to him. Porrhin slung an arm around him and the look of delight on his face told me he'd found a new mate at last, while the excited gleam in the young one's eyes suggested he was just as happy with the situation.
Mahrham drew my attention to Tesharah on the other side of the fire. The leader was beckoning us over and as we went to join him, Mahrham said he'd already mentioned my idea of a trip to find more sparking rock. I saw Tesharah lean over to Tamori and say something and we had both of the elders' attention as we sat down beside them. Tesharah offered us some more croki, but said nothing about the trip until we'd all finished our meals. When in due course he did speak, he was true to form and it wasn't at all what I'd expected him to say.
'David tell Tesharah real reason for journey,' he said, licking his fingers. Tamori was watching me intently, while Mahrham's gaze flicked to me in some concern.
I had to grin; Tesharah was much cleverer than he looked. Either that, or he'd come to suspect I might have a number of reasons for doing whatever I did and asking me to come clean was the best way of finding out what they were.
I recounted my climb to the ledge above the garden and the strange rock formation I'd noted because of the flash I'd seen. Then I mentioned the other flickering sparkles I'd spotted during the mining trip and that Teshshin had said he thought they were ice crystals, turning as they tumbled down the mountain.
But David not think so. David see something Teshshin not see
' I told them of the third sparkling object and how I'd watched it for a while before Teshshin had hurried me along.
Other thing move up mountain. Not go down.' There were looks of puzzlement on the faces of the other three and I shrugged. 'David not know what things mean,' I said, apologetically. 'Maybe danger. Maybe find why Ifshiri not come back.' I told them about my conversation with the female and the image she'd shown me of Corsimit, gazing pensively at the strangely shaped rock. I looked at the three of them in turn and grinned.
'Maybe only find sparking rock.'
Tesharah surprised me yet again with his next statement, which was that he'd talked to the female after Mahrham had approached him and she had tried to persuade him to allow the expedition.
'Female tired of losing children,' I waggled, knowingly. 'Female want to know why.'
Tesharah looked down at me in some surprise, then grinned slyly and nodded. 'Female say we soon run out of sparking rock. Need more.'
Despite feeling a little crestfallen, I had to laugh at the Ifshiri logic of necessity taking precedence over the desire for knowledge. Tesharah patted me on the shoulder and as I'd half expected him to, said he would discuss it with Tamori and give us his decision in the morning.
[To be continued.]
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Reading this story, chapter by chapter, instead of the entire book at once, is rather interesting. The way the Ifshiri approach concepts, such as memory, life, death, all remind me of creatures on Earth that humans have studied. If only we could talk to our animals.
Yes indeed - so many of our concepts and ideals fly in the face of nature and our so-called 'intelligence' leads us down many wrong paths. Our very way of life, the fact that we have no predator capable of restricting our numbers, means that we are breeding ourselves into extinction. Life is not sweet - it is a vicious dance for survival. One of my oft privately-quoted (!) examples is the never-ending pleas we hear from 'save the children' etc funds - all of which of course have their own axes to grind: so you save 5000 starving children - what happens? They grow up and produce 25000 starving children. Of course, nature is necessarily ruthless and under its rules, the initial 5000 would die, thus solving the problem, but what do we do? We allow our 'humanity' to ensure that the problem continues. Nature is logical; we are not.
Amusingly enough, was just speaking of this concept 2 days ago on EvE Online (where I play..) I said that the only predator humanity has is Mother Nature and when it gets going, really kicks our asses.
Very true - she's trying her best, but we're a very clever pest, always managing to stay one step ahead. She's tried variola, ebola, yersinia, cholera, polio, malaria etc, and now the zoonoses are getting going - what's next on the goodie list, I wonder?