"The Adventures of Reur" — Part IV — June 21, 2012
The raptor keeper was the fourth most important person in a tribe.
First came the chief. She made the day-to-day decisions involving where the tribe would go, what they would hunt and who would go hunting.
Second to the chief was the guider. Everyone could use magic, and everyone knew how, but he taught it and arbitrated on what uses Vagalen — their tribe's patron god — would consider beneficial.
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.
Most directly above the raptor keeper was the eldest, who passed on the stories, languages and trade routes, tribe names and customs, and a hundred other skills and knowledge to the young men and women. He mediated when tribes met, both tribes sending their eldests out to manufacture the ground rules of a gathering, by which the tribes lived until they separated.
The keeper trained the raptors, and the raptors provided food and rare trade goods for the tribe. Spears sufficed for big hunts, but when on the move, the keeper and her apprentices ranged ahead to provide fish and smaller game for the soups. The skins of the smaller mammals, the feathers of the birds they caught, all of these became trade items. What was difficult for a man to see, a raptor could spy from through the trees.
One of their birds had died recently, which was why the raptor keeper, Raven, and her two apprentices found themselves far north of the tribe's camp. Raven's friend, Pinion, and four warriors protected them as they sought the nest of the hawk Raven had spied three days earlier. Its flying patterns suggested it was seeking food for recently hatched chicks.
Up here, near the fens and bogs, the river dominated. The river was everywhere, but here, sometimes great stretches of it spread out before them, like a slowly moving lake. They coasted from tree island to mud island in their canoes, patiently waiting for Raven's signal that the hawk was in sight again. It had appeared at irregular intervals, but mostly from the north, and more frequently now. They were close to the nest.
One of the warriors tapped the side of his canoe lightly, calling attention to a bird circling north. Raven watched it, gauging its speed and direction. She liked these warriors, who had the patience needed to be keepers themselves. She had even developed a relationship with their leader, Talon, during this trip.
"It's over the fen," said Pinion, her constant companion on these journeys and a keeper himself in all but name. His tone was neutral, but Raven felt fear tingle her spine.
The fen marked the south edge of Totanbeni territory. Crossing it or entering it would certainly make them marked. The Totanbeni controlled the land north of the fen, and their shadelshifs hunted all along the coast, making fishing difficult. A good keeper could fish with a hawk, but it was dangerous.
Needless to say, if the hawk's nest was north of the fen, they had wasted three days following it. No one would go there, even if no Totanbeni had been seen for months.
They waited near their grass island until the hawk dove, chasing down some food. Raven felt relief. If it had sought an animal, it was no longer in the fen. She gave the order to follow it.
Quickly, they shoved away from the island and paddled hard into the river, pushing east against the current. They were no more than halfway across when Raven gave the call to go back west — the hawk had changed direction. Raven watched it circle lazily over one of the tree islands ahead.
"The nest!" Pinion hissed, and she nodded. Today, they would have the chick, and could head back home.
They relaxed, letting the current pull them, just at the edge of the fen and not quite in it. Raven could see the clear water where it met the brown of the river, and she thought about how that crystal clear line separated the north from the south, the Totanbeni from the rest of the tribes.
The Totanbeni — dead worshipers — would kill sooner than take prisoners. If any non-Totanbeni was found in the land they controlled, death would be sure. Maybe not swift, but it would be sure. The tribe Raven belonged to could ill afford to lose one member, let alone eight, because of something like this.
Then Pinion tapped her on the shoulder, and she saw the man.
He looked nothing like anyone she had ever seen before. His hair was long and curly and his skin very dark, more than just sun-browned like her. He stood near the kalysut on the island, ignoring the hawk's nest, as though he had never seen a kalysut before.
Talon looked to Raven for instructions.
She couldn't wait for this stranger, and he was outnumbered anyway. She had to get the birds now. There were two chicks up there, getting fat on whatever their parent had brought them. Training could begin sooner if the birds had empty stomachs. She had a mind to get to work as soon as night fell, sooner if possible.
She ordered the warriors to subdue the stranger while she and her two apprentices bagged the chicks. Quietly, they grounded the canoe and spread out around the tree.
Raven hopped out of her canoe, and she saw one of the warriors holding a pair of boots in astonishment. She looked up, to where Talon sat on the branch, and saw the man there, dripping muddy water, bootless and gloveless.
"The sickness will take him," said Pinion, for her ears alone. Again, his tone was neutral, but the way he read her fears scared her even more.
Taking a deep breath and nodding, she motioned her two apprentices up the tree, and the three of them climbed.
She nearly fell, when the man said something, but Talon interrupted then.
"What is this?" he said, prodding the man's hands with his spear.
Whatever else they said was lost to Raven, for her apprentices now fended the raptor away from its chicks. She reached in with a thickly gloved hand, grabbed the meal and tossed it out. Then she took the squirming chicks — almost full-grown, they were exactly the right age for training — and put them in the sack.
She climbed back down, and her apprentices poked at the raptor until it fled, bleeding.
"Totanbeni?" the man said.
"He's one of them," Talon growled, prodding the stranger again. "But he doesn't look like one of them."
"He's caught the sickness. We should leave him here." A warrior waved the boots and strange, rectangular object at Talon to come down.
"Yes, let's leave him here."
"Leave him here? No!" the man said in his strong Totanbeni accent.
The warriors laughed at him, held up his boots and gloves and the strange tablet thing he had held.
"He knows the language pretty well," Pinion murmured to Raven as Talon tried to convince the strange man that he was going to die no matter what happened to his boots.
"What are you suggesting?" Raven said just as quietly.
Pinion made a chopping motion, a gesture meant to tell her how stupid she was. "Remember the tales from the Darstein? The strange tall ships that arrived at the edge of the Totanbeni land?"
She felt her eyes widen. "They couldn't have made it so far up the river so fast."
"Not as a tribe, maybe, but as an individual?"
Now she made the chop gesture, a smile on her lips. "He is just a suicide, to wander off alone."
"It may explain why he is covered in mud."
There was a shout from above. The man grappled with Talon on the branch, the two of them lurching in their precarious position, shaking the entire tree. Suddenly they both fell off, and Raven held her breath as Talon landed face-first in the mud. Pinion held her back, and two warriors grabbed the struggling stranger.
"Don't be stupid," Pinion whispered harshly, and Raven felt irritation rise in her — at Pinion, at Talon, but mostly at herself. She was in charge here. This wasn't supposed to happen. And Pinion shouldn't have to remind her of her duty.
Talon leapt to his feet, staring blindly around him, scraping mud frantically from his face and screaming madly. He wandered in circles, never coming close to anyone. Suddenly, he started running and dove into the river.
Raven didn't know if he ever surfaced, because Pinion guided her back to the canoe quickly, and her apprentices dropped the chicks near her. The warriors returned, leaving the man but taking his boots, gloves and the man's device. They shoved off, the man staring stupidly after them.
He must have no idea what trouble he is in, she thought. Pinion is right. He must be from those ships. But alone? It made no sense. Everyone knew power came from the tribe. To go alone, that would be to kill yourself.
So she stared over her shoulder at the man who had killed Talon, but didn't know why Talon had died. In her heart, she felt peace, because this stranger would surely die by morning.
* * * * * *
Mucker found the man's body two grass islands to the west, bloated and full of water. Reur inspected it carefully, cautiously using a pair of long sticks to inspect the damage the worms had done to him. Tread stripped the man of boots and gloves, while talking slowly about who he was.
"Vagal," he said. "Bird tribe. This man was a warrior. The feathered hat person you described was their bird keeper. They came for the hawk's chicks."
Reur didn't understand half of it, but he did understand why Tread had sent Mucker out to find the body. Reur couldn't travel very far without boots. This fact he tucked away, because he couldn't write it down. The water, the mud, most of the plants were all poisonous, and from then on, anything that could move itself could probably kill you. Tread's story about the plants that could eat people must be a poor translation.
He stared at the corpse of the raptor as Mucker plucked its feathers. It had returned, bleeding from the spear wounds, to die in its nest. Everything important in its life had been taken from it. Reur didn't recognize the coloring of its feathers, but he knew raptors generally mated for life. If there had only been one here now, then the other must have died somewhere, somehow, after the chicks had hatched.
They ate the raptor in silence while the boots dried by the fire. Reur
wished he could write. He hadn't seen any similar magical artifacts
between these two since he had gotten here. He hadn't really seen them
use magic at all.
Well, maybe they haven't because they don't have any devices to use, he thought.
But he only had two sources of magic to use, and now one of them was gone. It was imperative he get it back. Mucker especially was not pleased they were not headed north, but the quest for boots was important. Tread seemed more inclined to listen to Reur. How could he convince them to search for his tablet? Would the prospect of getting his boots back be worth it?
"How did you find me?" he said in Totanbeni. "Through water. River. Fen. Rain. Mud?" There was no way he could have left a trail.
"Path of the Snake," Tread said. "Magic."
"Magic? How do you use magic?" They had to stop for him to work out how to say "use" but he learned another word that way.
Tread shrugged. "The guider taught us." Another discussion, to learn "taught."
Reur touched his belt. "I use magic," he said. Touching the belt had activated it. He put his hand in the fire, grabbed a clump of burning peat and pulled it out. He dropped it at his side, showed them he had taken no wounds.
Mucker did the same thing with a grin. "I use magic." Tread scowled.
Only he didn't have to use a device. He had nothing he could have used. Reur had nearly used up all the power in his belt doing that, but Mucker didn't have a supply to draw from. Reur understood the mechanics of magic as well as the next mede, and what he had just seen wasn't supposed to be possible. But these people weren't Kalkorae. They may not even be mede — beyond the physical differences. Why should he assume their magic worked the same way?
Why were they afraid of the mud and water if they handled magic so well? If they could do what he just did, why couldn't they protect themselves like he had, protecting his body from the dangers of the mud as soon as he knew it was dangerous?
And how can I ask them these questions when I can't speak their language fluently yet?
So for the rest of the night he forced language lessons from them and went to sleep exhausted but feeling better for the loss of the tablet. They would go after it in the morning.
"No," Mucker said. "We're going home."
"Return write to me," Reur responded. It was morning. At least, it was lighter. The rain had returned, and mist rose over the river.
"Path of the Snake. Find write quickly."
"The river," Tread said. "We can't cross it. We need a boat."
"Swim," Reur said, miming the action.
Mucker threw up his hands and stomped away.
"It's miles!" Tread said. "I don't even know how far across it is! We won't make it!"
Reur frowned at him. There were a lot of new words there. "What? I don't believe you."
"Far! You know how far we've traveled from the coast? That far!"
"We won't ... not ... make it," Reur said, trying to make a stand.
"We will make it," Tread corrected.
"We will make it. My write is too important to leave."
Tread hesitated. "Is it like your belt?"
"Wait," Tread said, and walked purposely over to where Mucker sulked, facing north, toward his home. Reur did wait, stomping around in circles in his ill-fitting, borrowed boots.
Maybe when I get my boots back, I can leave these.
Nothing had separated the Totanbeni pair from the Vagal group physically. Though, in hindsight, seeing the females of these strange people had sparked his interest. They were so much larger than mede women! And so confident in this swamp. Reur imagined that this swamp only extended along the river. He had never heard of a river so wide that it couldn't be swum. And the current of the water probably kept it relatively safe, compared to the standing stuff in the fens. The fens were certainly a deadly place, even if Tread's stories about man-eating plants weren't true. Then again, Tread had never lied to him about anything. Not even about the slaying of the man they called master.
Tread returned about the time Reur's thoughts returned full circle. I wonder if Totanbeni women carried as strong roles in their society as these Vagal women seem to.
"I think I know what we can do," Tread said.
"We're going to find your write."
Mucker scowled at them as they headed north, and Reur could only guess what Tread had said. But he thanked every god he knew, and his ancestors and the moons, like Tread and Mucker did, that they were going to track down his tablet.