[For easier reading, engage both the aA and Pilcrow (¶) symbols at the top right of the chapter.]
For his part, Porrhin was understandably astonished when we told him that some forty days of his time at the colony had been spent dragging me back from death. He was horrified when he heard what Eater had done to me, partly because he now knew exactly what had happened to the colonists. I was greatly moved when Porrhin suddenly got up and walked away from the fire. I heard him crying and realised he'd had a horrible picture of Jake's terrible fate flash into his head. I wanted to comfort him as he and the others had comforted me, but Mahrham's gentle hand on my wrist and the merest nod of his head persuaded me otherwise, while a look around the fire showed me that everyone else was ignoring Porrhin's pain. I thought about it and realised they were right; he wanted to be alone or he'd have stayed and shared his feelings. I suppose it was about then it dawned on me that Porrhin had actually saved my life when he'd hit me on the head at the colony. If he hadn't, I'd never have met Mahrham and would probably have died with the rest of the colonists during an inevitable Eater attack.
The only other event deemed important enough to tell Porrhin about was the encounter with Gwor's clan and the death of Horban. Naturally, Porrhin had noticed I was wearing part of an Ifshiri but he hadn't remarked upon it, knowing that in the true Ifshiri way we would probably tell him about it sooner or later. When I asked him what he thought, he said it depended upon whether I had killed the Ifshiri myself or just stumbled over a dead one. When he saw my stunned look he grinned and said he knew I must have killed the Ifshiri myself or Tamori would not have prepared the skin. Tamori's face had a wise, thoughtful smile of appreciation and his faintly amused waggle confirmed that Porrhin was right.
We told Porrhin the tale of the abduction of Corkai and my clanmates embarrassed me horribly with glowing accounts of the fight with Horban. Porrhin admired the work Tamori had put into preserving the skin and couldn't wait to set up some croki-skull targets for catapult practice. To everyone's surprise, not least his own, he proved quite proficient, quickly smashing three skulls to smithereens at fairly respectable distances. When I asked him why he thought he was so much better at it than the others, he said it had taken him days to be able to handle even a human spoon, never mind a knife and fork and now he wasn't sure his fingers would ever be fully Ifshiri again!
When he handed the catapult back I could tell it was with reluctance. Not openly of course, but I could see his eyes follow the weapon as I put it back in my bag. I knew he would never ask to use it, much less if he could have it and I took great delight in teasing him, watching his face as I took the smaller catapult from my bag and handed it to him.
'Porrhin like?' I said and was mildly surprised when the waggle he produced didn't dislodge his ears.
'Oc!' he said, practically jumping up and down with excitement and promptly started scrabbling around for stones. He forgot his injuries and kept us all amused for a while as he apparently attempted to destroy all the significant vegetation in the immediate area, though I was impressed that he carefully avoided any of the scrubby little bushes or stunted trees which produced anything remotely edible.
I looked up with a smile as my mate's big hand landed on my shoulder, his forefinger gently brushing my neck as he tugged me into a kiss. We sat by the fire watching Fyrsh and Corkai gleefully pointing out more and more difficult targets for Porrhin to aim at, smiling at the merriment they all enjoyed irrespective of whether he managed to hit them or not.
Tesharah was snoring quietly, his tail twitching fitfully. I wondered whether he was dreaming of having sex with Fyrsh, or perhaps chasing fleet-footed croki through the spurgrass. Tamori was still awake, fondly watching his own little mate pronking excitedly through the drifts of snow, scattering the flakes into twinkling orange clouds. Ifshin was about to set and mercifully we would have at least a short period of semi-darkness before Ifshah resumed its blazing progress.
For some reason I suddenly thought of little Jake again, making Mahrham start as a shudder went through my body. I'd just made a decision; I hadn't the faintest notion of how I was going to accomplish it, but I wasn't going to let Eater get away with it this time. Somehow I was going to find a way to kill it.
The remainder of the trip to the holt proved uneventful but extremely tiring, as we didn't arrive at our destination until the end of our second day in the mountains. I had to admit I was rather unimpressed with my first view of the clan's home, the entrance being somewhat less imposing than the cave near the plains. The one redeeming feature was the wonderful view; the air at this altitude was crisp and clear and even in Ifshah's fading light I could see quite a distance. Although the mountain scenery itself was spectacular, the outstanding feature was a large glacier, winding its way from a cleft in the mountains above, down to the hills below. I fancied I could almost see the point at which the ice turned to water, realising the glacier must feed the marshes, which were themselves the source of the swiftly flowing little river that ran down the cliffs beside the lower cave.
Once inside the holt, my initial impression of drabness quickly changed. The damp walls of the tunnel were coated with a strange, glowing, crystalline substance which I later learned was actually a phosphorescent fungus. The light it provided was soft and cold and while the greenish quality wasn't exactly inviting, it was enough for me to be able to pick out the path between the rocky pillars and buttresses. I wished I could see it with Ifshiri eyes, as to them it was probably bright and cheerful.
I could hear faint noises in the distance and when we turned into a dimly lit, icy cavern, I thought we must be close to our goal. Everyone started thankfully divesting themselves of their croki burdens and stacking them on roughly hewn ice shelves. I followed suit, having belatedly recognised the larder for what it was and giving a few stretchy groans of my own as I rid myself of my four little half-frozen carcasses.
We continued up the slightly rising passageway which gradually widened, leading towards a bright opening some distance ahead. I judged we must have been well into the mountain by the time we reached the main cavern, which was as much a surprise as it was a delight. Like the cave far below, there was an opening in the roof, but it was obvious that in this case the opening was artificial as it was regularly curved and precisely positioned on one side, to allow the light of Ifshah to illuminate the area. Matching the shape of the hole in the roof was a large, arc-shaped, rocky dais in the centre of the cavern with a huge, misshapen lump of ice at the near end, twinkling in the last rays of the day.
As we wound our way down the ramps towards the floor, I became more aware of the immense size of the place and the various smells and noises. Mahrham pointed out a large alcove towards the rear of the cavern, gleaming with the ruddy glow of a furnace and ringing with what sounded like the noise of a smith, hard at work on some metal object.
Once down on the floor, we passed a second alcove to the left on our way towards the centre. I had no difficulty recognising Tamori's workshop, hung with belts and cloths, blankets in all stages of completion and many croki pelts on wooden stretchers, some salting, some covered in the revolting, sticky brown tanning paste, while others dried over a slow fire. The noise of our approach must have alerted the tiny Ifshiri tending the embers, because he jumped up with a happy cry and pranced over to greet first Tamori and Corkai and then the rest of us. When he realised that despite my Horban disguise I wasn't an Ifshiri, he gave a little cry of alarm which rapidly turned to coos of amazement as he appreciated just how strange I actually was. I knew I was going to have to get used to this reaction and took Horban off so he could get a better look at me. Tamori said his name was Branai and he was his second son, not yet old enough to go on rovings but just the right age for minding fires and tending leathers. Branai returned the hugs and licks Tamori and Corkai were giving him, but he still kept a wary eye on me and soon decided he would be better off tending his fire.
As we neared the central dais I began to take in the size of the huge lump of ice sitting on it. The surface was soft and smooth, suggesting it had flowed and folded, then refrozen. It had a slight bluish tinge but was shot through with tiny, pulsating lights of different colours, as if someone had taken a deep, starlit night and imprisoned it in a half-melted ice-mountain. There were dark patches as well; dusky shapes which for some reason I felt I should be able to recognise, but couldn't.
The air was filled with a strange, twittering noise; almost a ringing in the ears, but with a singsong, metallic quality to it. The noise got louder and more insistent as we walked up the ramped front section of the dais onto the rocky surface. My clanmates stopped at the very edge of the ice-block and I watched, puzzled, as they all reached out with their right hands and placed them gently onto the icy surface. Mahrham looked at me with a little grin and waggled for me to do the same. I tentatively touched my palm to the frosty blueness and the twittering stopped abruptly.
'Welcome, David,' said a soft, whispery voice in my head. At last I had met the female.
The others had long ago been dismissed and were presumably off refreshing themselves or renewing clan ties and bonds. Mahrham said he would show me our area later, scooting away with a shame-faced grin when the female gave him the mental equivalent of one of Tesharah's clips around the ears.
She had no name and didn't know how old she was. She knew how old everyone else was of course, as she had given birth to all of them. I'd kept a tally of the few days which had passed since my sixteenth birthday and she solemnly promised to remember it for me as she did for all her young. I thought she must have been thinking I was a rather strange thing for Mahrham to have brought home and tried to tell her how I felt about him, but she said there was no need; that as soon as I had touched her, she was instantly aware of such things.
I asked if there were other females, to which she replied that she was the only one at present, but would create another when her time to die was near. Mention of death brought back memories of my family and friends in the colony and when I told her what had happened, she said she had detected the sadness in my thoughts but hadn't wanted to probe too deeply into such pain.
I spent quite a while telling her of the colony's struggle to exist; why we'd left our own world and what Eater had done just as it looked as if the experiment was going to succeed. I told her of Fred and what we'd discovered about Eater, the female replying that she knew the exact instant Eater had attacked. She had detected the sudden cessation in the strange singing noises she had been hearing for eighteen years and I realised it must have been the moment Fred had turned off the beepers.
The female confirmed what Fred had suspected; that Eater had been responsible for the lack of progress in Ifshiri development. In a strange contrast to her fleet-footed males, she herself was largely immobile, barely able to travel along the dais to remain within Ifshah's life-giving light. It would take her much of the night to move to the far end of the platform, to be ready to greet Ifshah in the morning. Her laboured movement was also the reason the holt was located well above the permanent snowline, so Eater could not invade her sanctuary and consume her. When I told her I'd made up my mind that one day I would kill Eater, I received a warm, hug-like feeling and she said she had long pondered a way to do exactly that, but had yet to come up with a solution.
Ifshah finally cast its last feeble rays, the female saying she had to conserve her energies and prepare to start her move to the far end of the dais. She asked me to return in the morning if I wished and I reluctantly removed my hand from her deceptively warm surface, feeling a momentary jarring panic as I was suddenly left alone inside my head.
Mahrham was nowhere in sight and in fact, there didn't seem to be too many Ifshiri about at all, which surprised me given the size of the place. Although there was obviously work going on, I'd expected more of a busy, hive-like quality to the holt, but if it hadn't been for the din emanating from the alcove at the back, it would have been eerily quiet. I slung Horban over my shoulder, walking around the dais towards the rear of the cavern to investigate the origin of the noise, which I'd assumed from the ruddy glow was a smithy of some sort. It proved to be exactly that, but far from being attended by a huge, brawny Ifshiri, it seemed to be the domain of three youngsters. The two smaller ones looked sufficiently alike to be twins, with the third perhaps a little older. It was he who was the source of the ringing sounds of metal upon metal as he hammered away at a half-formed blade while the others operated a huge set of double tread-bellows made of wood and leather, coaxing almost white heat from the glowing coals within the huge brazier beside the anvil. They were intent on their labours and didn't notice me as I peered in from the gathering darkness, which I thought was probably just as well given Branai's reaction to my strange form.
As I moved further around the rear wall I noticed that what I'd thought was a third alcove was in fact a passage and assumed Mahrham must have gone down it. The tunnel was quite short, opening into a second, somewhat smaller cavern with a large fire-pit in the centre. The same fungus I'd seen at the entrance to the holt provided dim lighting, both around the walls and on the low, curved ceiling There were numerous small openings around the entire periphery of the cave, some of them similarly lit and obviously occupied, while others were dark and bare. One of them at the far end in fact looked like it might be yet another corridor.
I passed Tesharah's little cavelet, barely big enough for him and Fyrsh, while Porrhin's snores reverberated from another but there was no sign of Mahrham. I was starting to feel a little lost when I heard Tamori's voice coming from a nearby opening and hesitantly peered inside. He and Corkai were sitting on their blanket in greenish gloom, picking through the contents of their various bags, both of them looking up as I poked my head around the corner.
'David, come! Sit,' invited Tamori, sweeping some empty bags aside and patting the blanket in the usual manner. He had his spectacles perched on his head and was sorting leather thongs into lengths. I sat down next to Corkai, who gave me a hug and a lick and then swore good-naturedly as he lost count on the cloths he was gathering into small piles.
'David can't find Mahrham,' I said, rather inadequately and Tamori grinned at me mischievously.
'Mahrham go see Mahrham father,' he said, while Corkai smiled quietly to himself. I wasn't sure what they knew that I didn't, but guessed I was about to find out
'David go down tunnel. See Mahrham,' said Tamori, gesturing in the direction of the small opening at the rear of the communal room. I thanked them both and gave Corkai his hug back, slinging Horban over my shoulder as I walked towards the small rear tunnel, deciding halfway down that my cloak would be better used protecting me from the bitter chill I could already feel as I neared the opening.
As Tamori and Corkai had obviously expected, I was surprised by what I found outside. The tunnel gave onto a wide, snow-covered plain, looking in Ifshah's deep twilight rather like a surrealistic garden, with various types of fruit and berry trees and bushes planted in clumps, protected on three sides by massive ice walls. What gave the garden its unreal quality were the huge, life-size statues of Ifshiri dotted about the place. They were all depicted standing on four legs, each covered in drifts of snow and icicles. As far as I could judge, every one of them was at least as big as Gwor had been, most of them quite a bit larger.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a movement down one of the paths and followed it, to find Mahrham standing in front of one of the massive statues. He was talking to it, recounting our big croki hunt and gleefully relating our success with the net. I realised with a shock that what I'd thought was a statue must actually be Mahrham's father
which meant the other statues were presumably real Ifshiri as well
or rather, had been real Ifshiri.
Mahrham introduced me formerly to his parent but didn't name him. For a moment, I half expected the statue to come to life and greet me in a booming, icy voice, but it remained quite still and silent. Mahrham patted his father's solid flank in a farewell gesture and put his arm around my shoulder. My freezing feet moved eagerly as we started back towards the tunnel while Mahrham explained that many very old Ifshiri chose to die in this way. After a final session with the female, they would say goodbye to their sons and friends, choose a favourite patch of the garden to stand in and just freeze to death. I asked Mahrham how old the various individuals were and he replied that as far as he could tell from their sizes, they must all have been around ninety, perhaps even a hundred. When the summer came, one or more of them would probably thaw out and start to rot down into the soil, fertilising the shrubs and trees they had chosen.
[To be continued.]
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