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[For easier reading, engage both the aA and Pilcrow (¶) symbols at the top right of the chapter.]

With the warmer seasons rapidly approaching, the croki were already starting their annual migrations into the higher hills and even onto the lower slopes of the mountains beyond. Once they left the plains for good they would be more difficult to catch, so Tesharah and Gwor agreed the clans should remain united for the final big hunt, splitting up the haul according to clan size. They decided to make the campsite near the drop hole the base camp as although the water source was a fair distance away, the cliffs and river made a natural trap while the forest was large enough to stand several days predation by such a large group. Naturally, all the younger Ifshiri were delighted as the drop hole was a favourite play site. Mahrham and I grinned at each other when we heard, thinking of the fun we'd had and definitely included ourselves among the youngsters.
On the other hand, we had also been included among the hunters and were thrilled to learn that both Gwor and Tesharah were keen to see the croki net in action after we'd declared ourselves ready to use it on real croki instead of their namesake bushes.

The big hunt was set for two days hence, which would give everybody adequate time to rest and prepare. Tesharah and Tamori readily agreed that two more days would see their aches and pains sufficiently healed and I was also pleased, because it would give me some time to start Horla's treatment and to see what I could do about Tamori's eyesight.
But as usual, first things came first and the hunters raced off to surprise more croki, while a large band of youngsters went to gather and make sonta's life difficult by throwing sticks into its web. As usual, poor little Horla was left to mind the fire so I stayed with him to make a start on his ears. Once I'd had a good sniff down inside both of them, it was obvious that something was wrong with the right one, though the left didn't smell too bad. I had no idea whether what I was going to do would help, but in the absence of any training, all I could do was make a up a concoction of the four medicines I'd taken, disregarding any possible  interactions between them and work the resulting suspension as far into Horla's ear as possible. If the problem was too deep, then what I did probably wasn't going to cure him, but if I did nothing he'd most likely get worse. As Mum had said when I'd protested the use of emergency rations on my own little earache, 'it isn't an emergency yet dear, but it'll become one if we leave it', so I'd shut up and let her syringe my ears out, which was something I absolutely loathed.
I had some problem getting the first treatment into Horla's ear, as his hairy canals were designed to stop just that sort of thing from happening, but with a little help from the patient I used a soft piece of grass to trickle it down and guide it in. It took some time, but I managed to get a surprisingly large amount to disappear into Horla's head and when I asked him if it hurt, he just said 'what?' I got him to lie on his side for a while, massaging the area round the ear to try and get the treatment worked in as deep as possible. After a while I did the other ear on the 'better safe than sorry' principle. I had enough treatment for three days and then that would be that. Either it worked or it didn't.
Tamori's problem was another matter. Here I could see what was going on, or rather Tamori could. The young ones had returned from their fruit gathering and I collected quite an audience as I prepared a handy croki-bush by hanging the kit's sight-chart from a couple of thorns. Again I hadn't the first idea about fitting someone with a pair of spectacles, but if Tamori kept straining his eyes at the rate he was doing; well … they certainly weren't going to improve.
Tamori was rather mystified when I sat him down right in front of the decorated bush as soon as he returned from the hunt, all the youngsters giggling when I tied one of his own cloths over his right eye. I had to admit myself he did look a little strange. I showed him the heavy gadget with the trial lenses, but no matter how we adjusted it, there was no way we could get it to stay in the correct position in front of his eyes. Eventually we tied some thongs to it and secured them at the back of his head, which seemed to work adequately. Ignoring the fact he couldn't read the letters, I told Tamori they might get blurry or clearer and he was to tell me when it was best. Thankfully he just managed to avoid waggling his head and throwing the test rig off.
I had no idea whether Tamori was long or short-sighted or whether he had any of the other million or so defects the human eye could have, according to the information sheets inside the box. And there was the first problem; Tamori wasn't human. As with Horla's treatment, it was strictly try it and see.
I started with the plus lenses, although I doubted he was long-sighted from the way he peered at things and from Tamori's reactions, he wasn't too impressed with the results. When I got into the minuses however, he started to get very interested and at -2.75 I hit the target. The audience was getting as excited as Tamori was and I was having great difficulty keeping the rig stable on his head. I tried lenses between -2.6 and -2.8 at different angles, but -2.75 at about 20º was as good as I was going to get.
In the same way, I tested his right eye, finding it was much worse than the left, at -4.2 and about 110º. I flipped all the test lenses back and chose the correct ones from the box, inserting them into the trial slots and twisting them to the correct angles. If it wasn't right, then it was the best I could do. The notes had talked about 'additions' for close vision, but I had no idea how to test or provide for them, so I just slid the final lenses into position and waited for Tamori's verdict.
It wasn't the shouts of joy I'd hoped for or even shrugs of indifference, which wouldn't have surprised me. In fact, for a while I'd thought he'd gone to sleep, but he was actually crying. Tears were pouring down his face, making it absolutely certain that right at that moment, he couldn't see anything at all. As the notes had recommended, I used the wax pencil thoughtfully provided to mark the tops of the lenses, remembering to put a big 'R' and 'L' on them before I removed the rig from Tamori's head.
The look on his face as he reached out a trembling hand and gently squeezed my arm was worth a hundred mendri. I put the rig down and gave him the biggest hug I could, very thankful when he remembered not to treat my ribs like sonta would have done. I suppose it was a bit early for him to get so excited as I hadn't yet made up the spectacles; it was quite an easy job though, once I'd mastered the snap-on rims. All the lenses were exactly the same size and shape and by the time I'd finished, I had to congratulate the far-away technicians for making the kit so simple to use.
I polished the marks off the lenses before handing the finished spectacles to their anxious new owner. Although the adjustable earpieces were no match for Tamori's anatomy, the gasp of astonishment as he peered through the lenses was wonderful to hear. He looked at his own hand in his lap, slowly turning it backwards and forwards as if he never seen it before. He looked up at me and a puzzled frown came over his teary face until he took the spectacles off and found he could see me properly again.
'David give Tamori eyes back. Tamori give David good kiss,' and he certainly did, leaving me gasping for breath as his huge tongue licked every inch of my face.
I explained that the spectacles were for close work only and he waggled so vigorously, they threatened to fly off. I quickly added they were very delicate as well and he grinned, saying he understood. He took them off and wrapped them carefully in two or three cloths, making a package about as big as his own head before stowing it away in one of his bags.
I was helping the youngsters gut croki and prepare the fruit only a few minutes later and noticed Tamori had the spectacles out of their bag again. He'd tied them neatly onto his head with a doubled thong arrangement and was happily sewing away with a big, contented smile on his face. I watched as he looked up when Gworal approached his blanket and gave him a ball wrapped in leaves. Even though I was an Ifshiri, I couldn't help wondering what it was. My bemusement deepened as he careful unwrapped a large lump of mud and started on what looked suspiciously like an exercise in clay modelling.

Horla's treatment continued for the next two days, the last portion having been instilled into his ears on the morning of the big hunt. I'd got a bit worried the day before, when he'd complained of pain in the right ear and a lot of evil-smelling pus had come out, so I'd put the treatment I'd normally have given his left ear into his right one instead. That last morning, I'd had a good sniff of his ears as usual and was pleased to find that neither of them smelt much at all, which I thought had to be a good sign.
Both Mahrham and I noticed that Horla had rarely left our sides in the last three days and was always with one or other of us, as if he preferred our company to those of the other youngsters. Apparently they hadn't yet noticed he no longer fell down all the time and were still reluctant to let him join in their boisterous games. It had occurred to me that maybe by killing his brother I'd unknowingly assumed some sort of foster-role and inherited Horla, but Mahrham just grinned, saying Horla probably felt safer with me because I was the only one as tiny as he was. I spent the next twenty minutes showing my mate just who was tiny, much to Horla's delight as Mahrham lay sprawled and gasping beneath me, with my penis jammed inside him as deep as I could get.
We were cuddling and licking and getting our breaths back when I noticed Tamori beckoning me over from his blanket. We walked across to find out what he wanted, which was ostensibly to show me the results of his modelling; it looked like it had split into three pieces when he'd baked it in the fire, but apparently it didn't matter. He took the three bits and fitted them together, holding them up balanced on his hand. It was fairly crudely done, but it was obviously a copy of my own head. After I'd looked at it for a bit, I understood what he'd used it for and realised that Horban must be nearly ready at last.
Tamori tossed the head into the fire, grinned at me and took my hand, tugging me towards a little grove of bushes. I felt a little less happy when I realised Horla had come along as well, but he was going to have to get used to the idea of me wearing his brother's skin.
I literally gasped when I saw what Tamori had done with Horban's outsides. He looked magnificent. His hair gleamed like Mum's gold rings had when she'd polished them and in some way, he looked as if he was still alive. The illusion was helped by the fashion in which I'd asked Tamori to remove the skin. The most delicate part had been the head; Tamori had cut across the bridge of the nose, down around the cheeks, then down both sides of the neck and around the front of the neck to the centreline down the chest. The centre cut split down both sides of the sheath, then around the abdomen, meeting at the back just above the tail, forming a large, flowing cloak with the headpiece attached. The eye-sockets, rounded ear-holes and all the edges were beautifully bound in exquisitely tiny stitching and the ears had been stiffened to stand proudly erect. Horban's shoulders had been a lot wider than mine, so Tamori'd had plenty of material to form a cape which would fit me and the openings where the arms had been were so well disguised as to be unnoticeable.
To say I was pleased was an understatement. I could tell that Tamori was just as happy with the outcome as I was, waggling his head constantly and smiling quietly to himself as I crowed with delight over his creation. Mahrham was obviously impressed as well and my only concern was with little Horla. What did he think of what Tamori and I had done to his big brother?
By this time, nearly all the members of both clans had come to see what all the fuss was about, an enormous shadow falling over me proving to be Gwor, flanked by his two sons. Tamori carefully removed the cloak from its leafy support and offered it to me, draped across both arms in a sort of ritual gesture. I took my new skin from Tamori in the same way, as respectfully as I could. Despite a smile, I even had tears in my eyes, which didn't go unnoticed by most of the Ifshiri. I wasn't consciously trying to make something of the moment; it just seemed to affect me that way.
They all watched as I slowly lowered Horban's head over my own, causing quite a few gasps as my eyes appeared through Horban's orbits. The hot clay treatment had shrunk the head quite a bit and it fitted me perhaps a little too snugly, but Tamori said it was better tight than loose and assured me it would soon expand to suit me perfectly. I tied the thonging to secure the cloak around my throat and turned to Horla, gently taking his hand.
'Horban will ride the plains with David,' I said, quietly, trying to sound firm and strong. 'Does David honour Horban?' I felt quite a relief when Horla stroked his brother's skin, looking up at me with his mouth still wide open in astonishment before giving a quick little waggle, but I noticed he slowly shrank back into Mahrham's clasp when I let go of his hand. I hoped his shock or dismay would soon pass as I'd grown very fond of Horla. Maybe it was how he'd treated me in my despair, even before I'd realised the connection between him and Horban, or perhaps it was just the memory I had of him standing mournfully by the fire, gently nudging his brother's body with a toe. I think I'd lost part of my heart to the youngster and I intended to ask him if he would like to come with Mahrham and me when the clans split up. There was a bit of a problem perhaps in that I hadn't yet asked Mahrham, but I was certain he would know I wasn't interested in Horla in a sexual way.
A thunderous, throaty rumbling from Gwor brought me back to the present. Predictably, he wasn't there to look at Tamori's handiwork at all, but had come to tell everyone it was time for the hunt. Three of his clan would be despatched to act as beaters and the young ones were about to leave for the forest to scare as many croki as they could out into the open.
While Mahrham and I were getting organised, I asked him about Horla coming with us and he agreed that even though he was as old as Fyrsh, Horla was nowhere near as robust or capable. He was bright, certainly, but needed looking after. And as I'd killed his only remaining relative, it was understandable I should offer to care for him. I caught the 'I' immediately and asked him what he meant, assuring him that if he didn't want it, then neither did I.
I got a quick lesson in more of the Ifshiri way. Mahrham pointed out that even if Horla wasn't sexually active now, he soon would be and as I already knew, Ifshiri young were very demanding. Horla needed a strong male, not only to provide him with the sex he would want, but to be his teacher and protector. Simply put, our clan had none to offer him.
I'd just had my mind wrenched from the human viewpoint to the Ifshiri one, but Mahrham wasn't finished with me. He suggested Horla would probably accept the offer to accompany us, purely because we wanted him and no-one else did. However; far from helping Horla, we would actually be doing him a disservice. There were two large unattached males in Gwor's clan and they would soon notice Horla had stopped falling down - if indeed the treatment I'd given him had cured his problem. But what if it hadn't? If he came with us, we could find ourselves encumbered with a permanent, possibly worsening problem.
Mahrham had given me a lot to think about and as we rode off to join the hunters, I had to agree my mate was right and it was best Horla stay where he was. Again I was annoyed with myself, because I'd known everything Mahrham had known and he'd come up with the right answers and I hadn't. However; I did manage to make the correct Ifshiri decision in one respect and promptly forgot the entire matter.
I'd made another decision as well. Despite my eagerness to wear it, for this hunt at least my new cloak would stay right where it was, wrapped up on our blanket. It would serve me well on the cold winter days and nights out on the plains, but as magnificent as it was, on a hunt it would just get in the way, particularly as we hadn't yet practised using the net while I was wearing it.

[To be continued.]
Link to part 21: [link]
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