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There were nine on the hunt altogether, though three were beating and wouldn't join in the kill until later. Mahrham explained that the first objective was to get the croki to mill around in a herd, then we would attack the outsides of the pack while trying to avoid splitting it up. I said I was curious as to how the croki were actually killed, as running at top speed on three legs with a wall of croki teeth around you didn't seem to me to be too safe and anyway, none of the croki I'd ever gutted had knife or sword wounds. Mahrham grinned at this and said Tamori would be utterly disgusted. He wouldn't be able to produce proper blankets and bags with damaged skins and would sniff, complaining that all they were good for was cloths. I saw the sense in this, though it didn't help me figure out how the croki were dealt with, but Mahrham just smiled and said I'd see.
The beaters on the plains and the youngsters in the forest had done a good job in scaring up quite a large herd of croki and the hunters immediately started their whooping cries, racing backwards and forwards, raising great clouds of sand as they pursued the stragglers at the edge of the throng of panicking animals.
'David start net!' yelled Mahrham, beginning his run towards our milling prey as I began whirling the net around my head with both hands, gripping Mahrham's waist tightly with my legs as he wheeled to skirt the croki.
'Now!' he cried, and I released the net with a full-throated scream, watching anxiously as it flew truly like a blanket, landing on a sizeable knot of croki. Mahrham immediately screeched to a halt and yelled at me to dismount. He raced towards the net, scattering unfettered croki like leaves and promptly started kicking the struggling trapped animals in the ribs. When I tried to come to his aid, he shouted at me to keep away until they were all dead. I didn't need too much dissuasion as I knew croki teeth were lethal, particularly to soft skin like mine.
'So that's how Mahrham kills croki,' I said with a grin, when he finally allowed me to help him disentangle the net from the catch. I was pleased to find none of the strands were broken, though a couple of points had come unstitched and repairs would give Tamori something else to ponder over.
'Best way,' he said, grinning back. 'Run along croki side, give good hard kick. Hit ribs with top of foot or hurt toes.' One of the croki decided it wasn't quite dead and tried to raise its head, bleating harshly. I winced as Mahrham gave it a final whack in the stomach, whereupon it succumbed with a squawk. He saw the look on my face and burst out laughing.
'David not like kick croki?' he said, picking one up by the neck and waving it at me. 'David watch Tesharah,' he said, dropping the croki onto the ground. 'Tesharah stamp on croki head! Kill quick!' He lifted a foot and pretended to trample on it.
I wasn't going to let Mahrham tease me and calmly picked up a croki of my own, whacking him on the backside with it. He yelped with surprise and shot forward a few feet before spinning around and racing back towards me, rearing up on his hind legs and gnashing his teeth, eyes flaring. He grabbed me under the armpits, hoisting me bodily into his chest and gave me a really slobbery licking, finishing with a lip-numbing kiss. I hugged him tight, licking him back and his grip relaxed as he started to whimper. I giggled and lifted his floppy ear.
'Are we going to hunt,' I whispered, rubbing my groin across his sheath, 'or are we going to fuck?'
He threw back his head and groaned, then laughed ruefully. 'We hunt,' he wailed despairingly, then took my breath away by half twisting and tossing me up onto his back as he simultaneously dropped to all fours. I yelled with delight, managing to retain my balance and fit my feet into the riding gear as he grabbed the net and passed it up to me.
Our first foray had caught seven croki which I thought wasn't too bad, considering Mahrham normally returned with somewhere around eight or ten. We left the first lot where they lay and raced off towards the herd, which had already started to cross the swiftly flowing little river and would soon be trapped by the sheer drop of the cliffs. The beaters had joined us by this time so the croki were under intense pressure, milling around and screeching in panic, raising billows of choking, smelly dust.
I readied the net for our second sortie under the combined scrutinies of both Gwor and Tesharah, loping along behind us. Again Mahrham screamed 'Now!' as he darted in towards a tightly bunched group of the little animals and I released the net at full stretch with a throaty yell. This time it slipped sideways a little as it flew, but still managed to trap five croki with a sixth caught by just a spur on the hind leg. I was off Mahrham's back before the net had landed and he streaked towards the one trapped by the leg, kicking it so hard it flew right over the net, landing on the far side. Needless to say it was quite dead, the other five swiftly following it into croki oblivion.
We immediately mounted up for a third run but most of the croki had crossed the river by this time, so I was forced to dismount and wade through the waist-deep, icy water, to avoid getting Mahrham's belts and the riding gear wet. He made me ford upstream of him and kept a tight hold on my arm as the torrent threatened to sweep me away. Mahrham said the trick was to pick your spot carefully and not to try and fight the current, but to go with it. We made it to the other side without incident, Mahrham practicing the one-handed David-throw up onto his back before we galloped off to slay some more croki.
In all we killed twenty-nine in four runs. We could have got many more, but Mahrham judged we should stop at that point. As it was, he couldn't carry me as well as all the croki and I would have to walk back; he would be well loaded down with twenty-five little corpses to my maximum of four. It still bothered me I was so weak compared to him, but at least I was doing better than I had only a short while ago.
We retraced our steps to the other three kills, where Mahrham showed me how to strip the fibres from spurgrass stems and use them to tie the croki into pairs by the neck. He said it was important to get the heads turned outwards so the sharp slicing teeth couldn't touch your skin, which was why they were always tied by the head and not by the feet.
When we'd all returned to the campsite with our crop of croki they were counted up, totalling well over a hundred and thirty. Despite Tesharah's polite protest, Gwor insisted we get a little more than our fair share. Having watched the net in operation, he said he was impressed with it and Tamori readily showed him how it had been made. I wasn't sure how they'd get rid of the fearsome sonta glue without a good supply of acetic acid, but the answer would undoubtedly be mud of some sort and knowing Ifshiri ingenuity, it would probably work better. Quite how they would use the net after they'd made it was another matter, although the amusing image of little Horla twirling a net while perched on the back of one of Gwor's huge lieutenants did pop into my head.
The late afternoon was fully occupied, gutting and cleaning all the croki, as not only would they last better on the trip to the holt, as Mahrham called our next destination, but they would also be a lot easier to carry without their insides. When I asked why the skins were left on many of them, Mahrham said they were the ones we would take with us, the hides forming the basis for Tamori's next lot of blankets, bags and cloths.
Ifshah obliged us all by setting just as we finished eating a very satisfying meal and almost everyone headed off to the drop-hole for some fun on our last night together. I wasn't sure about Horla coming so soon after his ear treatment, but it would have taken a sonta to stop him so I didn't bother trying to dissuade him. Even Tamori came along, much to Corkai's delight, but the water run was apparently uncomfortably tight for Gwor, Tesharah and two of Gwor's larger clanmates, who elected to remain at the campsite. Mahrham looked at me in surprise as I burst out laughing at the thought of the enormous Gwor hurtling down the water-chute and getting stuck like a cork in the exit hole and we both had a roll-around giggle when I told him.
My mate and I ended the day tired and happy, though not too tired for Mahrham to want to have sex. Astride my back and deep inside me, his whines and yelps and my gasps rose to a climax and again I glimpsed Horla watching us intently as Mahrham and I bayed our combined passion towards Ifshin's soft, golden glow.
We all rose early the next day to prepare for the trips to our respective holts. I learnt that Gwor's holt was located in the mountains far to the rear of the colony, while ours was in the range behind the cave with the pool. I was pleased to see little Horla wasn't too upset at the parting as his rapid recovery was starting to be recognised by his clanmates and he was a good deal happier.
For my part I was very excited at the prospect of eventually meeting our females. I'd assumed there had to be more than one, though Mahrham always referred to 'female'. Even more thrilling was the fact I was wearing my new skin for the first time. After just a morning's ride, the headpiece was starting to relax from its heat-treatment with Tamori's clay model and felt quite comfortable. I'd worried it might be too hot but found that in fact it was somehow cooler than just allowing Ifshah to beat down upon my unprotected body. Everyone thought the cloak looked magnificent, but Fyrsh giggled, saying Mahrham and I looked very strange from even a short distance away, like a six-legged Ifshiri with an extra head where his penis should be.
Despite a short rest stop at the tiny waterhole on the way, we made reasonable speed past the sand-mountains to the junction of the upper and lower trails and were almost within sight of the cave when Corkai drew our attention to the fact we were being followed. It was obviously an Ifshiri, but he was too far away to identify because of the heat-haze. I was a bit worried when I realised it had to be Horla, particularly when Mahrham said he could already see the individual had no belts.
As we waited for him to catch up with us, it occurred to me our pursuer seemed to have approached from the seaward trail rather than the higher plains trail we had travelled and I somehow doubted little Horla would have been able to make the distance so quickly. Our questions were answered when Fyrsh and Corkai let out almost simultaneous shrieks of glee, shooting down the trail towards the newcomer. Even I could tell by this time he was much larger than Horla and when he reared up to his full height and hugged the two youngsters to him as they flew into his open arms, I couldn't help the tears that sprang to my eyes. It was Porrhin.
'Night dark, no Ifshin. Porrhin sleep,' he whispered. 'Eater come quiet. Not call.' He covered his ears to demonstrate the stillness. 'Porrhin lucky,' he hissed. 'Hear noise, wake up. Look outside, see Eater coming quick. Porrhin yell loud, wake Fred.' Porrhin nodded his head sadly. 'Eater so fast, Porrhin friends have no time.'
I tried not to, but I was crying again. Porrhin tentatively held out a hand and I took it, Mahrham allowing him to pull me towards him, Porrhin hugging me as he continued his account of the attack on the colony.
'Porrhin happy Eater not call. Jump through window, run fast to fence. Not be fast enough,' he grimaced, showing us his arms and legs. They were all covered in sores and open wounds where Eater had started eating him as he ran. 'Porrhin climb fence quicker than lizard up tree,' he grinned grimly and I managed a smile as I remembered the reptile which had shared Tamori's blanket on a stormy night.
Porrhin carried on with the tale of his escape, relating how he'd jumped the twenty feet from the top of the fence, straight into the moat. He hugged me close while I sobbed at his description of the screaming that had risen in waves as Eater reached more and more of the trapped, confused colonists. The noise was terrible he said; Fred's alarms were blaring, the animals and humans alike were making awful sounds and the whole dreadful scene was accompanied by the din the buildings made as they started to collapse under Eater's assault.
And then it was over. Shockingly suddenly, the lights went out, the alarms fell silent and all the screaming stopped. Porrhin didn't wait to see anything further. He climbed out of the moat and ran towards the nearest forest where Eater couldn't penetrate and the croki would weaken its call. It took him quite a while to reach it without overstressing his recently healed leg and once he was safe, he ate some fruit and then fell asleep, totally exhausted.
It was poignant to realise that Porrhin had probably been sheltering on one side of the forest as the combined clans were approaching the other side on the way to the colony, but of course, none of us could have known. If he'd decided to stay where he was we might have picked him up very quickly and learned the terrible news a little sooner, but Porrhin grinned wryly and said Eater had terrified him so much that despite the fact he had no knives or waterbag, he wanted to put as much distance between it and him as possible. He'd followed the little river past the drop-hole to the first campsite and had waited there until he realised we weren't going to pass by, then almost in desperation, he'd headed for the holt.
We made the rest of the trip towards the cave at the same moderate speed. Tamori wanted to take some time to start cleaning and treating Porrhin's wounds and indeed, they were starting to look rather angry. Porrhin said he'd been covering them with his own urine as much as he could, but there just wasn't enough. However; Tesharah said we had to keep moving up into the mountains at least until we reached the snowline or the croki would start to rot. Tamori waggled, agreeing Tesharah was right but he did manage to gain a very short rest for all the Ifshiri to give Porrhin's legs a quick urine bath.
If Porrhin was pleased to finally receive some care for his wounds, he was delighted to find Mahrham had rescued his knives. Though Tamori had no leathers left, Tesharah, Tamori and Mahrham all donated a belt, whereupon Porrhin thankfully resheathed some of his more useful blades, albeit that many of them were haftless.
Despite his injuries and their protests, Porrhin immediately relieved a number of the others of some of their croki and we continued the trek into the hills behind the cave. As we passed close to the open roof of the cavern, I would have liked to have taken a look down into the blue pool below but I knew it would be far too dangerous to approach the edge of the collapse, so I reluctantly forwent the pleasure.
Just beyond the cavern we crossed a marshy area, then the trail started to get quite steep. In places it was so narrow I thought the larger Ifshiri at least would have difficulty negotiating some of the tight, slippery turns, but much to my surprise they proved to be far more agile than I.
My sand-toughened feet were scratched and cold by the time Tesharah called a halt. He'd chosen a small, blind valley facing away from Ifshah's setting might, with what looked like a permanent bank of snow at the far end. We all thankfully dumped our croki into the drift, leaving some for the evening meal. There would be no mendri unfortunately, but the hills abounded with berry bushes, so Mahrham and I went gathering while Fyrsh and Corkai started collecting for the fire.
We returned with our colourful collection of berries and succulent flowers just in time to watch the final stages of Tamori's treatment of Porrhin's injuries. Though Porrhin endured it stoically, his winces and little moans of distress bore evidence of the ruthlessness with which Tamori approached his task. Infection had obviously begun in a number of areas and Tamori spared Porrhin no pain as he rigorously cut out the affected flesh. I noticed all the Ifshiri were drinking unusually large amounts of water and knew poor Porrhin would soon get some relief.
The meal that night was a happy time. We were all pleased to have Porrhin back, safe if not quite sound and listened to his stories of the time he'd spent in the colony. I knew it was going to be hard for me to hear, but surprised myself by quickly being able to laugh with the others at Porrhin's stories of the fun he'd had with Jake in particular. Apparently, Jake had seen no important differences between Mahrham and Porrhin and had immediately adopted him as best friend. Porrhin had spent some happy moments helping Jake with his animals and in the days he'd passed recuperating, he'd come to love the little rascal as much as any of the humans did.
He'd also spent a great deal time with Mum, Dad and Fred, helping Fred understand the Ifshiri language and lifestyle while the scientists apparently found him a mine of information.
'All gone now,' he whispered sadly, gently squeezing my hand. I waggled slowly, fighting back the tears which were starting to get a little annoying. They would keep coming, despite my efforts to control them. I'd thought it strange at first that my clanmates could empathise with me and comfort me while themselves not being nearly as susceptible to such emotions. Maybe it wasn't so much they didn't worry about events in the past, but had a different way of looking at the past altogether. Gwor's attitude to Horban's death for instance and my own clan's apparent lack of concern when we all thought that Porrhin had died.
Quite suddenly, I knew the female would know; she would be able to help me look at things as I should. Then I felt like I'd been hit on the head with a rock. Amazingly, I knew I was already looking at things differently, just from the realisation I soon would be. I was able to laugh freely at the joy Porrhin and Jake had shared, and the good-natured fun everyone in the colony had enjoyed at Porrhin's expense as he struggled to fit in. I giggled as he recounted the hilarity which had greeted his first encounter with custard as he'd allowed Jake to feed it to him, spoonful by delicious spoonful, until he couldn't stand it any more and had grabbed the whole bowl and drunk it in one big slurp. 'You're supposed to share!' Jake had yelled and from then on, they had shared everything.
[To be continued.]
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