"The Adventures of Reur" — Part VII — July 26, 2012
Reur's journal, dated 36 days after his bargain with the Vagal:
"This land is full of life. From the glorious kalysut — how they grow here remains a mystery to me — to the smallest drop of water, life grows in vast quantities. Everyday I discover a new species of plant, insect or animal, and must stop and make notes. I think I shall write a book about this expedition.
"Of course, all of these stops frustrate Tread and Mucker. Mucker grumbles where he thinks I cannot hear him (does he know I understand far more of their language than I cannot comprehend?), about how at this rate, we'll never get home'. Tread is more direct, but I enjoy my little act of incomprehension around him. He has not bodily hauled me anywhere yet, though that time may someday come. They are larger people. I have no doubts about their physical strength.
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.
"The conundrum is Raven. I told her she could go, but she remains, insisting that I cannot care for the raptor chicks. She cares for them as they were her own children, and she seems to welcome my many stops for observations as opportunities to rest or train the chicks. They are more fledglings in any case, past first molt. And vile little suckers, clawing and gouging at the leathers she wears, until she soothes them, at least.
"So we are traveling, ostensibly to the Totanbenis' homeland. But Raven seems wary, and I wonder at what. We travel very slowly through the mass of life that is this land, and I'm afraid I often lead us off in another direction because something more interesting seems to be ahead (see suckmud willow 2B and kalysut 4A observations, prior pages). Tread and Mucker are wonderful people, but not great navigators, and it will be intriguing to see when they discover we have headed south and east for the past week."
One of the raptor chicks sat on a piece of deadwood, head hooded. The other perched on Raven's arm, head cocked as it listened to her soothing words. She held its leash tightly, then tossed her bait into the air. As it leapt for it, she gave a sharp whistle — the command for jump — and as the leash paid out, but before it jerked the bird back, she whistled differently, for it to come back to her wrist.
It came back, and she gave it a bit of food, encouraging it with words.
Then she repeated the game.
"Are you going to name them?" Tread asked, not quite staring at her.
"They will get names when they are fully trained, Totanbeni," she said coldly. "You know nothing about what I am doing, or why, and so you should keep your poor thoughts to yourself."
"I'm just asking," Tread said, scowling.
"Is he done yet?" she asked, as the raptor returned to her arm again.
Reur scribbled furiously on his pad where he knelt in the mud in front of a large bush. Raven knew the bush wasn't what fascinated him — or it wasn't when he had jumped at the ground and demanded someone hold his muddy gloves so he could write. Something in the bush had caused his excitement.
This was the third one of these today, in which the strange, dark-skinned man with the mismatched eyes had stalled them to use his slate for whatever it was meant to do. He had tried to explain his writing to her, but he hadn't made much sense. Recording thoughts so they could be remembered later? She had commented that his memory must be quite poor if he couldn't remember what he did that day. And if he couldn't remember what he did a week ago, then he must not have done anything interesting.
At least each of these interruptions gave her a chance to work with the chicks he had managed to save from Pinion and Red Feather, may Domin flay them alive. Acquiring the chicks had been tough enough, and then Pinion had deposed her before she could even start their training. Red Feather was a competent handler, but she was a young apprentice. She had trained — helped to train — three chicks. Raven had known Red Feather would fail, but certainly not this miserably. She finally had gotten the two chicks to quit trying to eat her.
Hooding the one on her wrist with a whistle meant to show pleasure, she wandered over to hover near Reur's shoulder.
"What is so interesting this time?" she asked.
"The spider," he said, without looking up. His eyes were glued to an eight-legged monster nearly as large as her hand. "I've never seen one quite this big. I don't see a web around, but not all spiders make webs to trap their prey. I wonder what it eats?"
"Mice," she said. "It stalks them. I'd be careful," she added. "They move like lightning."
"Ah," he said, withdrawing his hand. "Poisonous, then?"
"Is it a spider?" She nodded back at where Tread stood. "Do you know where we are going?"
He looked at her then, a small smile on his lips. His nose dominated his face, and his forehead appeared twice as large because his hairline was so far back.
"We are headed to Totanbeni lands. Tread and Mucker want to get home."
She frowned. "We are heading away from Totanbeni lands."
"We are?" He seemed unconcerned. "There is so much to learn here. Your land is so strange. Oh, it's gone." The bush appeared empty.
"No, it's there," she said, backing away a bit. "On your slate."
He looked down at his slate, mostly covered by the giant, hairy arachnid.
"Oh, gods," Tread said, staring at them as Reur stood up carefully and held the slate close to his face, eyeball to eyeballs with the spider. "He's doing it again."
"What?" Raven asked, standing near Tread and waiting for the inevitable.
Reur reached around behind the spider and grabbed it behind the head before it could jump at his mouse-sized nose. He held it squirming in his hand while he rewound his tablet, muttering to himself about marks on its underbelly. The legs flailed wildly. Then he tossed it back at the bush, where it vanished.
"All right," he said, standing up and brushing hairs off his slate. "Where's Mucker? We can still make a couple of miles before nightfall."
Mucker was a big man, even for a Totanbeni. And he was strong, because big men are asked to do jobs that require big people. If he knew the word stereotyping, he would agree that he had been. But another stereotype about big men is that they are simple. Mucker wasn't simple so much as he took extra time to understand things.
Mucker knew, for instance, that among the reasons he had been an apprentice to the guider Hoth was because his great-father's bones girded the shadelshif. The guider, the shadelshif captain, the apprentices and the men who crewed the shadelshif drew on each other for their magical strength, but his great-father's bones provided a catalyst for that magic, making it even stronger.
So his great-father had been a great man, and to make his spirit happy, Mucker had become an apprentice, despite his slowness in comprehension. Hoth already had two apprentices, Tread and Brok. But with two apprentices, Hoth mostly ignored this new one. Brok had helped Mucker learn to use the magic the shadelshif as a unit created. He had explained, over and over again, with infinite patience, what Hoth had given up on trying to teach Mucker. Hoth later killed Brok for bringing him the wrong tea, which had been the morning Reur had shown up.
And that night, Mucker watched Tread kill Hoth.
Since then, they had not been able to go home. They had allied themselves with Reur, the Kalkorean Mede, the stranger from overseas. They had chased him across the fens and bogs. They had followed him, on a raft made from peat, deep into non-Totanbeni territory, where they had picked up this woman Raven and the two birds. And now, days afterward, when they should have been home, they still weren't.
Mucker was starting to worry that they were headed in the wrong direction, so when Reur most recently fell to the ground to inspect another bush, he had made mentioned to Tread that he was going to scout around. Not that he expected to find something.
And not, he admitted to himself, as if I know what to look for.
This part of the swamp was muddy and mostly choked with rotting vegetation. The canopy high above them barely let them see the sky. When it rained, which it did fairly often, there were no wet sheets hitting them. The water funneled down around the trees and cascaded off branches and leaves like thousands of miniature waterfalls.
So he was somewhat surprised when his meandering walk came across an edge to the trees, which opened up into a wide, sunlit clearing knee-high with wild rice. A dozen people, harvesting, stopped what they were doing to stare at him.
"How ..." he started, raising his hand, before they all rushed him.
Reur led the search for Mucker, who Tread said had been scouting the area for some reason. Raven remained with the two chicks and their packs.
Tread found the tracks soon enough. In some places, the mud was far too wet and would gloop in on itself, swallowing tracks. But most places, it was a good texture to keep the boot print solid. Mucker had ranged around the camp several times, in a widening spiral. Then he had just set out, heading the direction they traveled.
"We would have caught right up to him," Tread said, his eyes red from where tears threatened to come out. "What could have happened?"
Reur didn't say anything, because he had noticed a second set of tracks, paralleling Mucker's. Someone had followed him. But these tracks stopped and turned around long before Mucker's did.
"Someone scouting out us?" he said out loud, quietly.
"What are you doing way over there?" Tread called. "Mucker walked this way!"
Reur looked up. He was some distance away from Tread, focusing on this second set of tracks. He looked around, then made a direct route for Tread. The tracks would still be there, probably, even if it rained. They could worry about them after they found their companion. He brushed some branches out of his way.
"Or can we?" he said, thinking of Raven alone at the camp. He slapped a mosquito on his shoulder. But women were women, and though he had known some median women to be soft and fearful, Raven would feed the raptor chicks from her mouth. She would be all right. He stepped on what felt like a wet branch.
He caught up to Tread, who was staring at him white in the face and making strangling noises.
"What?" Reur asked, and Tread pointed back the way Reur had come.
Reur turned. The suckmud willow was just retreating.
"And the snake," Tread said, breathing again. "Must've been as big as my arm. The bright orange type, too."
"Ah, the deadly poisonous one? Shame to miss it. I'd like to see one."
He wandered on, following Mucker's trail until it reached the edge of a clearing knee-high with plants.
"Wild rice," Tread said at his shoulder. "Looks like someone was harvesting it."
The ground was well-churned with boot prints.
"Seems the harvesters took some offense to Mucker," Reur said. He looked around. "They must have a camp somewhere, right?"
"A village," Tread said, strain in his voice. "No one really like the Totanbeni. If these people recognize him, he'll be killed."
Reur nodded. "Yes, but, ceremoniously, right?"
Reur repeated his last sentence to himself. It had been in his native tongue. He didn't know "ceremoniously" in Totanbeni.
"Um ... They would sacrifice him?"
Tread shrugged. "It's better to get your sacrifices from outside the tribe. Sendala is the goddess of fertility, so using your own tribe isn't as good an idea as using someone else."
"Sendala? That's the moon?"
"And the goddess of fertility."
"Harvesters would worship her?"
"Among others," Tread said, "but more importantly, he's Totanbeni."
"So he may get killed as a sacrifice, or he may get killed as a Totanbeni?"
Tread nodded. "And we may get killed for standing here."
Reur looked around. Maybe it was one of these people who had followed them. He wondered how long they had been followed. He couldn't imagine that somehow they had been led here. Mucker would have surprised the harvesters.
"Wild rice," he said out loud. "You told me about this."
"It grows really fast. If they were harvesting it today, and they stopped, they may have lost a crop."
"Ah." Reur reached a decision. "Go back and get Raven, and camp closer to this field. I'm going to go in."
"Um ... I know what they'd do to a Totanbeni, but I don't know what they'd do to you. You look too different."
"Then there's a chance I won't be killed."