"The Adventures of Reur" — Part IX — Aug. 9, 2012
Firth laughed again at his teacher as he and his friends used slings to toss mud-covered rocks at the old man. Hartog always cringed and cowered before the boys, holding up his hands to ward off the stones, then jerking them back if anything came near them. His clothes covered him from neck to toes, so the only danger was if the rocks hit his hands.
The boys, five in all, found tremendous pleasure in tormenting their teacher. To them, he was a long-winded, tiresome, foul-mouthed old fool. They always enjoyed when the old man insisted to their fathers that they must go on one of these trips into the field, to learn survival skills. Firth himself knew that he had learned all this from his father growing up; at twelve, he knew everything. What could Hartog teach him?
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 rocks exhausted, and the eldest cowering by his pack far from the fire, the boys lost interest. They crouched down to check the stew.
Firth tossed some more salt into it.
"Be careful how much you put in," Hartog called from his corner.
Firth whirled and snarled, then laughed as Hartog cringed away.
"I know how much to put in, old man," he said, spitting toward Hartog and missing his ear by an inch. "I've been cooking all my life." He turned to the eldest, and the other four boys watched with interest. "How long have you been cooking, old man?"
Hartog was old, of that no one could deny. The lines on his face had lines. His skin was mottled, dark spots competing with white spots so the boys couldn't tell what color he had started as. One of his eyes was milky white, and most of his teeth were missing. That's why they had to cook the stew so long. To make it mushy for him.
Firth's mother had told him that Hartog wasn't a Send, that he was a Totanbeni, a tribe of death-worshipers from far to the north. The Totanbeni were soft, because there were so many of them, so no one attacked them, so they never had to fight, which made Firth grin. Maybe someday he would lead the Send against these weaklings.
Firth's father had said Hartog couldn't be trusted, though he had lived with the Send for more than fifty years. He was a spy, no matter what he said about running for his life and the Totanbeni wanting to kill him. Someday he would run back to them, and tell them everything about the Send, and the Send would have to invite their allies into a giant war like those of legend.
Hartog insisted on teaching the boys, though, and no matter what disrespect their mothers had for the man, and no matter what they boys thought, Hartog had taught them things the tribe never knew before. Though they taunted and attacked him, it was a measure of sport only, and the boys knew Hartog was simply crazy.
"Many, many years," Hartog answered. "Since before there was fire."
The boys laughed, hooting. Briefly they did their rounds of bird calls — red-tailed raptor, horned owl, jay, tottot, and ending with a slew of vulture calls.
"You can't cook without fire," Firth said as the calls died down.
"But you can, Firth," Hartog said, sidling closer. One of the boys made to toss a rock at him, and he cringed, but sidled again as the rock wasn't thrown. "You can. There are places, far to the east, where the water comes to the surface boiling like the stew in your pot."
"Then there must be fire underground," Firth said, but he was somewhat unsure.
"Molten rock," Hartog answered. "But not the fire we know. Not burning coals and peat and dead plants. Rock crushed and heated by rubbing things together really quickly, like when the snows come and you do with your hands to keep warm. A different kind of fire."
"What else was around in this time without fire?" one of the boys asked.
"Were there red-tail raptors?"
"Were there tofus?" They all made thupping noises with their tongues, laughing.
"Were there suckmud willows?"
"Even more dangerous things, boys, even more." Hartog had made it to the fire by now, and the boys made room for him.
"There were drakes," he went on, his milky eye rolling close to Firth's face. He turned his head to stare at another boy. "Huge, spider-like creatures that spat poison and could move like wild rice grows. There were colossal, stone-formed monstrosities that you couldn't tell from the mountains. And you are learning magic now, eh? Eh? The group magic? Well, they couldn't be harmed by it, boys. Couldn't be touched. Throw mud at it, with konig worms. With all in it that would kill you, boys, and what would they do? Lick it off themselves and laugh at you!" He threw back his own head and laughed. Then he snapped his head down and stared at them, and the boys felt magic being used to make the night seem darker around them.
"But the most dangerous ones," he said in a whisper, and the fire seemed to burn blue-black, the smoke rising into something that looked like one of them, "you couldn't tell from one of you. It could talk like you, act like you, drink and think like you." The smoke formed into Firth's face and howled at him, teeth sharpened where they should have been rounded. "They would kill a boy, and sneak in and take his place. Then they would kill and eat his friends, one by one, and more would come and take their places, until every one of them was this twisted, evil creature. Magic wouldn't harm them, if you could figure out who they were. You could tell, by the slits in their eyes, and the files in their teeth, and the fires on their breath."
The smoke breathed fire onto Firth, who could feel the chill of fear race up his back.
"What were they called?" someone asked, voice quavering.
"These, our greatest fears? These, vile miscreants? Boys, these were damnens."
He sat back, and his magic plunged them all into darkness.
Then the fires returned to normal.
"But they're all gone now, destroyed when the swamp was born. Damnens can't exist when there's so much life about, see."
The boys all sighed in relief, and started laughing and nudging each other. Firth didn't join in right away though, and later, when the stars were out and the fire was dimmed, and Hortag sat alone, his milky eye glinting in the starlight, Firth dreamed of twin shadows chasing him across the swamp. There was so much darkness in the swamp, a damnen could catch him from anywhere.
Morning dawned eventually, and no damnens had ravaged the boys in their sleep. Waking up occurred in a rush, as it always did. The last one awake, of course, ended with a bucket of water over his head, so as soon as one woke up, the rest leapt to their feet. Hartog generally received the splash.
They headed home. Their village was one of seven that were part of the Send tribe. The villages were scattered in a wide, irregular circle in and among mostly cleared parts of the swamp, the better to grow wild rice and other products. When they returned, they knew they would go back to harvesting.
Most of the way back, a group of the town's leaders caught up with them. Firth recognized his mother, who didn't acknowledge him. They hauled Hartog bodily aside and questioned him in a low voice.
Firth leaned in.
"Why would a Totanbeni be so far south?"
Hartog's responses were too quiet. Then Firth's mother noticed the boys.
"Harvest," she told them. "The north field. Before it goes rotten."
They grumbled and dragged their feet. School may not be fun, but at least it wasn't work.
"Now!" she hollered, and they ran.
Firth was the first to the field — he would have to answer to his mother later, and he hated her for it — and so he was first to see the small, black man harvesting the rice, line by line. The rest of the boys caught up to where Firth was staring.
"Drake," someone said, and ran off.
Someone is telling our parents, Firth thought. He shook, too, in fear. The monster had not noticed them yet. It just kept on harvesting.
"Damnen," someone else said.
Hartog said they can't live where there's so much life. Firth glanced around. But I've never seen anything like this thing before.
"It's stealing our rice."
And they ate people, not rice. He pulled out his sling and gobbed up a clod of muck. Whirling it over his head, he hurled it at the beast.
A half-dozen other balls followed, all aimed true, and slammed into the creature, knocking it down into the mud.
It rose to its feet almost immediately, clumsily, and shouted at them.
"What'd you go and do that for? I'm only helping you out!"
Most of the boys fled in shock, but Firth stood where he was, frozen in shock.
How'd it learn to speak our language?
Even before Tread was out of earshot, Reur had wandered into the wild rice field. His feet sunk up to his ankles in mud, and water covered several more inches of his boots. Each step was a sucking, pulling, arduous process.
But eventually he crossed the field, to where the people had dropped their tools and sacks. Harvesting knife, sack full of cut plants. The rice itself was left alone, to be shucked later, if that was what they did to rice.
Reur wasn't sure why he picked up a sack and a knife and started harvesting, but he had a general idea. A large part of his thinking was that this was interesting work — how much can be done in an hour? What do you feel like after doing this? Walking in the wet field was a chore by itself, but he found that he could cut several levels of rice without moving, then take two squelching steps, and repeat.
He had harvested for no more than an hour before he noticed the boys, each one taller than him but still smaller than Mucker or Tread. One appeared at the edge of the field, toward the way Mucker must have been takne, then another, until there were five. Reur kept on harvesting.
If I am seen doing something good, then I have something to bargain with.
He heard more than saw the first clod of mud, but he felt it before he could do anything about it. It slammed into his arm, and he dropped the knife. Then four more clods pelted him, almost as one, and he slipped and fell with a great splash.
Angrily, he rose to his feet again, shouting at them, "What'd you go and do that for? I'm only helping you out!"
Most of the boys ran after that, but one held his ground. Reur felt his anger fade quickly, staring at his arms and body where the water and muck dripped off it. He automatically reached for his belt — then remembered he had traded it to the Vagal keeper, Pinion, in exchange for his tablet. The tablet seemed so much more important at the time.
"Water!" he cried, lurching through the mud toward the boy. "Quick! Get some clean water!"
"Damnen, you stand in water," the boy said, and ran away.
Reur chased after him, wondering how the boy could move so quickly through this slog. He nearly tripped over something half-buried in the mud and water, and lost the boy as his gloves explored the thing. It was a stump, or log or wood stepping stool. He looked around and found more near him.
This was how the boy ran so quickly! He wasn't in the mud, he was on these steps! Reur, still holding the sack of rice, jumped up on one of them and walked cautiously along the path.
Finally, he reached a town built on a dry hill in the swamp.
A dozen structures stood around a central clearing, which had a kalysut sapling growing in the middle of it. A bunch of men gathered around a building on the far side of the clearing, but more immediately, Reur recognized the boys hovering on this edge of the clearing with several women and a man. The boys saw him, and the one who had spoken to Reur pointed at him. The women and man advanced on him.
He held the bag in front of him as an offering.
"Rice!" he said. "Rice!"
They hesitated, and he could hear a woman say to the boys, "What was it doing in the field?"
"Harvesting," said one.
"Stealing our rice," said another.
"Rice goes bad," Reur said loudly. "The time for harvest is now, and no one was harvesting. I harvested your rice. Save the crop."
"He speaks with a funny accent," said the man.
"Where are you from?" the first woman, who clearly seemed to be in charge, asked him.
I have to get clean. The worms will kill me. "Across the ocean. Far west."
"Damnen!" said one of the boys, and Reur cringed as the slings were brought to bear.
"Water!" he pleaded. "To clean me!"
"Firth! Stop!" the woman ordered. She looked back at Reur without sympathy. "It may be too late to save you, but you did help us harvest when these boys did nothing but run." Reur saw the boy called Firth's back go rigid, and murder shot from his eyes at the woman. She did not seem to see him. "This is a day for strangers to show up. I am Heli."
"I am Reur."
"Garth, my husband, will help you clean." She nodded to the man.
The man approached Reur and took the bag of rice as Heli rounded on the boys, Firth in particular, and ordered them back to the field with admonishments about shooting first and asking questions later.
As Reur was led away, his eyes met Firth's. The young boy's face showed nothing, but in his eyes, Reur read trouble.
And no one assumed I was with Mucker. He glanced at the crowd at the other end of the clearing. He must be in there. I hope he all right. I hope Raven and Tread are all right, and don't try anything stupid.