"The Adventures of Reur" — Part III — June 14, 2012
Reur's journal, dated 18 days after first contact with the Totanbeni apprentices, Tread and Mucker.
"A new language cannot be learned in two weeks. The Totanbeni tongue's sounds are not so different than my home tongue's, but enough that a wrong inflection could have me climbing a fish instead of a tree. Mucker finds these slips hilarious, and contrary to his usual silence, my mistakes cause him to roar with laughter.
"Tread and Mucker seem to have little interest in learning the Median tongue, and Tread shows no desire to stop teaching. To be fair, I have little desire to teach them, as teaching them would impinge on my learning. It would help, though, if they had some system of writing. Tread is a competent and persistent teacher, but ideas are hard to mime."
The continuing story of Reur, the first mapmaker.
It is a actually a collection of shorter stories that have been arranged chrono-
logically into a saga. It is an example of the Mar mapmaker tradition — any story about the adventures of a reckless and foolish explorer who survives trials through a combination of cleverness, stubborness, and dumb luck.
"Mucker is a giant of a man, fully head and shoulders taller than I. He is quiet and reserved, though some things throw him into fits, sometimes anger, sometimes joy. Tread is smaller, but still a hand taller than I. He is talkative, and tries to teach me about everything around, though he expresses surprise when I don't know certain types of plants."
"They both defer to my decisions, though arguments between them can get heated. Little of what they say in their arguments is understandable to me, but I learn more about ideas when they raise their voices. I imagine I will understand all of what they are saying, given several more weeks of listening and talking to them."
"As for the stabbing, Mucker stays silent and Tread inexpertly deflects my questions. The interesting point here, is that they call the man master in their arguments between each other — one of the few words I've learned through their arguments — but have not tried to lie to me about what happened. They simply refuse to respond."
* * * * *
"No fish, high levels of calcium and magnesium in the water, ..." Reur blinked in the sudden darkness as his tablet wound down. Rain fell gently and cold from the sky, but water dripped steadily from his nose onto the tablet. He brushed his face with his hand and put the tablet away.
Tread and Mucker huddled close together on the other side of their fire, which formed more acrid smoke than flames.
"What is this?" Reur said, in the Totanbeni tongue. He pointed at the fire. "What is this?"
"Fire," Tread said. He held out his hands to it. "Warmth."
"Fire," Reur said, "Warmth. What is this?" He picked up a clod of tightly packed plant material. He had sniffed it and tasted the decaying mass, which Mucker had cut out of the ground earlier. Clumps of it sat near the fire to dry off.
"Peat," Tread answered. "Peat burns well." He gestured to the fire.
Reur repeated the words, assuming he meant "peat burns," though the phrase "fire burns" didn't have that extra syllable in it. There must be another word.
But to say that peat burns was good news, because they hadn't seen a tree for the past two days. They had sloshed through standing water the whole time, or found one of these islands, almost entirely composed of peat. The plants the peat must form from were tall grasses that stuck up out of the water around the islands. "Cattails," Tread called them.
There were no fish. There were no rocks or other plants. There were lots of bugs. Mosquitoes, Tread called the ones that sat on his arm and bit him, as he casually slapped Reur and killed it. Mosquito was one of those words easily mispronounced. Forget the inflection, and you said "sickness." Reur reached for his tablet.
Tread crab-walked closer to Reur and wiped water off his arm.
"Water," the taller man said, and Reur repeated it, forgetting the tablet for now. Tread made his hands fall. "Rain."
And so their conversation went, until Mucker said something to Tread that Reur couldn't translate, and the moons were out, and they slept.
The rain continued to fall in the pre-dawn hours when Reur woke. The two Totanbeni slept in their sodden clothes, the peat clinging to them. He touched his belt and wandered down to the edge of their island, to the water recently freshened by the rain. He pulled out his tablet and wound it up.
"No fish. Nothing living in the water, except these plants and some algae. We can wade through it. Our boots get sucked into the bottom, but not too hard. And not a tree in sight. There is nothing similar to this at home. They call it a fen' here.
"The rain has continued for two days, which is a change from the clouds of the previous week. Tread says this is usual for this time of year. His implication was that this was what it was like every day."
Reur stared at the clouds, wondering how thick they were, or what caused them to just sit there, or why the Totanbeni didn't use their magic to sweep them away.
So he was considering when he saw the bird, circling high above. He wasn't really aware he watched the bird until it gave a cry, which startled him. He hadn't seen much of anything living in this fen in ages. It sounded like a raptor, but what hawk could live in this fen was beyond him.
"It must live someplace else," he said, and as if to prove his point, the bird made a quick circle and turned south.
Reur started following it, splashing into the water heedlessly. He wondered if it was native to here or if it was anything like the birds back home, and if it was, how it got here.
Tread and Mucker had dropped entirely from his mind.
* * * * *
Tread woke, shivering, wet and cold, to Mucker pouring water over the smoldering remains of their fire.
"I'm looking forward to getting home," Mucker said. "Someplace dry."
Tread wiped water off his face and scrubbed the sleep from his eyes. He looked over to where Reur had fallen asleep. His sodden pack lay there, but Reur was missing. He glanced around. Reur liked to wander off on his own, but he usually didn't go too far.
The island wasn't that big, but Tread couldn't see the strange man.
"Where's the stranger?" he said, standing up and looking around.
Mucker stopped cleaning up the camp and stood there silently.
"What?" Tread said, still not seeing Reur anywhere. He began to panic. "Mucker? What?"
"He was gone when I woke up," the taller apprentice said.
Tread ran over to Mucker and hit him upside the head. "How could he be gone? Where did he go?"
Mucker scowled, but hope lightened his voice. "Does it matter? We can go now! We can go home, or someplace else, and not have to worry about this stranger or our master."
Tread growled under his breath, scanning the ground of their wet little island. "We can't go home without the master. They'll ask how he died. What do you want to say?"
"Say this stranger killed him."
"And where were we when he died?" Tread reached water, skirted the edge of the island. "Will you have blown up the shadelshif in vain? You know the stranger looks like no one we've seen. His magic is like none we've seen. We can be heroes instead of outcasts if we bring him back. Worse than outcasts. Dead."
Mucker shook his head, stupid resolution painted across his face.
Tread sighed. It was the same argument. Mucker would say, why not kill Reur like we killed the master? Tread would say that this was a new enemy, and the tribe would acclaim them for bringing him, and no one would say anything about Hoth's death. No one would bother to ask about it. Both of them knew they couldn't lie about something like that.
He walked here, and here, Tread thought as he paced the island. This is Mucker's weight, overlapping him. Did Mucker look for him? Here he is again. He stood here for a while, then ...
"Ah ha!" Tread cried. "Here! Footprints off the edge, here. South! Does he know how close we are to the river?"
"That's the wrong way!" Mucker protested. "I wanna go home!"
"Stop sounding like a big baby, and follow me." Tread gathered up his belongings, all soaked through. Mucker hadn't moved. "Your greatfather would want it."
"That's mean of you," Mucker said.
"Well? Did you blow up the shadelshif in vain?"
Mucker's face contorted. Tread prayed silently to his own greatfather that Mucker never remembered that Tread had plunged the knife into Hoth, and Mucker could speak against him.
Finally, Mucker gathered up his stuff, and they began the nigh impossible process of tracking someone through water.
* * * * *
If Reur had been running away from Mucker and Tread, he would have had a two-hour head start through water and rain in an flat, treeless fen, punctuated in places by peat islands.
But he wasn't running from them. He was chasing the raptor. The farther he got from them, the more the land changed. More islands appeared. Some were more mud-colored than peat. The water grew darker, browner, and more plants grew out of it. A current brushed his legs. He thought he saw an animal, swimming away from him.
Then the ground disappeared beneath him, and he plunged underwater.
He surfaced, gasping for air. Treading water, he lowered his legs until they hit the muck below. The water would be up to his chin if he stood. He wiped the water from his eyes. Losing sight of the raptor might have irritated him, except now there was the interesting idea of a river in the middle of this fen.
"Or maybe this is the edge of the fen," he said, mostly in his language, but partly in the Totanbeni tongue, because his had no word for fen.
He figured he could swim back to where the water was shallow — it was easy to see now, where the clear water ended and the brown water began — or he could see what was on the other side of the river. Of course, he couldn't see the other side of the river. He treaded water for a bit, then decided to play it safe.
After all, he thought, who knows what may live in this river?
Getting his feet back underneath him at the edge of the fen, he saw a copse of trees to the west. Those had not been visible before. The current in the river was stronger than he had felt it.
He sloshed toward the trees, thinking about how firm the ground must be here that the river ran so close to the fen without flowing into it. The fen's water was so clean, too, yet Mucker always boiled their water before he made the thin stew that was always dinner. Reur wondered what he would do if they had to use river water. Sieve it first? There was mud between his clothes and skin.
Shivering and dripping, he sloshed onto the relatively dry mud bank around the trees. Mostly they were small, stunted things, but four of them were larger, with thick roots sticking out and into the muck of the water. These shouldered up against the river side of the island.
In the center, though, was a giant tree Reur was sure he had seen before, and as he walked toward it, he picked up a green, eight-pointed leaf that some storm had knocked off it.
"It can't be," he breathed, reaching for his tablet.
A cry overhead make him look up. The raptor circled above him, something clutched in its talons. It lazily coasted in, and Reur saw its nest, high up in the tree Reur approached.
Clawing at the trunk, he pulled off a piece of bark and examined it, just now noticing the rain had stopped. Then he removed his boots and gloves, and, leaping to catch the lowest branch, he climbed the tree.
At the edge of one of the lower branches, he reached out and grabbed another leaf, then whipped out his tablet so quickly he almost fell. Above him, the raptor landed on the nest, and its chicks started crying for their dinner. Absently, Reur noted two distinct cries — two chicks.
Sketching the leaf in the tablet, he called up an old page with a similar sketch. The page was so old, he almost couldn't find it. Suddenly, there it was, a matching leaf. Matching. More than five thousand miles separated these two trees, yet they were the same species. They were both kalysuts.
Except one grew where water fell in moderate amounts, and one grew in a lake. Its roots must be soaking in water all the time. This one received far less sunlight, and far harsher winters, although probably not the hurricanes they got. There was less salination in the water, but a larger collection of base minerals, calcium and magnesium.
"This tree should not be able to grow here," he said.
"What is this?" a voice said next to him, in a barely recognizable Totanbeni dialect.
Reur looked up into the eyes a man he did not recognize, who grinned at
him with sharpened teeth and swung a long pointed stick around to knock
the tablet out of Reur's hands. Watching it fall, the mede noticed
three more men and a woman below him, holding his gloves and boots and staring
at him in horror. All of the people were covered from feet to hands to neck
in hemp cloth.
Suddenly, the raptor's cries came again, and his head shot up to see three women at the raptor's nest above him. Two fended off the bird with spears while a third put something small and struggling — the chicks, Reur realized — in a knit sack. The woman who moved the birds had a hat with feathers on.
"Totanbeni?" he said.
The man growled and prodded him with the spear. He said something angrily, but Reur couldn't understand him.
Someone shouted from below, holding up the boots and tablet. The man shouted something back. Reur recognized this one.
"Leave him here? Yes!"
"No! Don't leave me here!" Reur said in his tongue, then switched to theirs. "Leave him here? No! Leave him here? No!"
They laughed, waving the boots at him.
"Mosquito," the man said, scraping at his mud-covered body with the spear. "Mosquito."
Reur shook his head, batted the stick aside. He tried to jump down, but the man stalled him. They struggled, and finally Reur lost his balance, and he and the man fell to the mud. Reur landed on top and sprang to his feet, arms flailing. Two of them grabbed his arms before he could do any damage to them.
The man's reaction, though, surprised him. He had landed face first, and he leapt to his feet like a raptor taking off, scrabbling at the mud on his face. He turned around in circles as though blind, then plunged head-first into the river. No one tried to stop him, and he never surfaced.
It had all happened so fast, Reur wasn't sure it had happened at all. Except suddenly no one was holding him, and the seven remaining people had left the island in two canoes with his boots, gloves, tablet and the chicks.
Reur stood at the edge of the island, his screams an echo of the raptor's above him.
* * * * *
Tread and Mucker had paused where the fen reached the river, staring at the muddy water with apprehension.
"Surely he didn't go this way," Mucker said.
"Path of the Snake points to the river," Tread said. They could sense more than see the path Reur had taken.
"He seeks to kill himself then. Truth, he did kill himself if he went in there."
A loud cry rose from downriver. It was Reur's tongue. Then it repeated, in Totanbeni, "Leave him here? No! Leave him here? No!"
Tread moved first, barely hesitating before sloshing as quickly as the fen would let him.
"They have boats," Mucker shouted over their splashes, huffing behind him.
"They'll just leave him without boots."
"This is our chance! We can say they killed him!"
"If we don't have him, no one will believe he killed Hoth!"
Mucker moaned when Tread didn't call Hoth master, but Tread didn't stop. When they reached an island with a kalysut on it, they saw Reur faced south on the edge, screaming incoherently. A hawk screamed with him.
Tread and Mucker climbed up on to the island and stared at Reur, covered in mud, barefoot and bare-handed, his clothes torn. His hair was plastered in mud. Muddy water dripped from his ears.
"He'll have caught the sickness," Tread said, and Reur turned.
"Leave him here? No!" Reur shouted at them. "Totanbeni?" He pointed south.
Mucker shook his head as Tread said, "Different tribe."
Reur looked at him incomprensibly.
Tread pointed at himself. "Totanbeni? Yes." He pointed at Reur. "Totanbeni? No." He pointed south. "Totanebeni? No. Different tribe."
Reur mimed working on his tablet. Tread dredged the word from his memory. "Write?"
Reur nodded, then grabbed Tread's hand and dragged him south.
Mucker moaned and shook his head.
"No," Tread said, pointing north. "We're not going after your write. You don't have any boots. You've caught the sickness."
"Sickness," Tread said, prodding at the mud covering Reur. He mimed drinking water. "You drink river?"
Suddenly Reur stood stock still, and Tread thought he had gotten through to the man. His lips moved, and he spoke rapidly in his own language, fiddling with his belt. His eyes opened wide with shock, and he ran and scrambled up the tree.
"Boots?" he said finally, stripping water and mud off himself. Mucker moaned as some of it splashed on him.
"No boots," Tread said.
"Leave him here?"
"No, we won't leave you here."
Mucker grumbled, wiping his shoulder and moving out from under the tree.
"Shut up," Tread told him.
"Write," the stranger said. "Different tribe, write, boots ... return to me."
Not bad, Tread thought. I don't remember teaching him that one. By every moon and all my ancestors, who's leading whom here? Resigned he looked south, and said, "Mucker, get a fire going. We're going to be here a while."
"Until he dies?"
"I don't know."