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When we joined the other Ifshiri preparing for the evening meal in the communal area, I found the holt housed just twenty-three individuals including the female, though I now made the number up to twenty-four. Apart from Tesharah and Tamori, there were only two other elders. One of them was lame in one leg and busied himself keeping the holt in order, while the other was in his late seventies and starting to feel the burden of his years and immense size. Standing upright he must have been over ten feet tall, but he was stooped and twisted from a painful condition which Mahrham told me occasionally afflicted the older Ifshiri. Although the old one was comparatively young, Mahrham thought he would soon choose to end his suffering and join his friends in the garden.
It was the Ifshiri way, Mahrham explained. Life was too hard to allow the population to grow as it would outstrip not only the food supply but the living space as well. Even at full complement, the holt could house only forty individuals and old age, accidents and disease had taken a number of mature Ifshiri in the last few years. Eater alone had been responsible for five deaths in recent times and three others had just disappeared without a trace. The clan was very relieved to have Porrhin back relatively safe and sound as he would have been a sore loss to the hunting strength, being one of only four or five members strong and fast enough to deal with croki.
Naturally I was initially the source of much astonishment and some amusement to the small flock of youngsters, who ranged from tiny yearlings to eight or nine year-olds. At their combined urging, I resignedly stripped naked in the warmth of the fire so they could all coo and giggle at my pale hairlessness, though in fact I'd noticed recently that I was starting to grow a soft, red down on my cheeks and chin. As usual, my amazing expanding penis and external testicles caused much merriment, but within a very short while I became just another Ifshiri, even to the somewhat nervous Branai.
One of the youngsters I was particularly eager to meet was the smith, whose name was Teshshin. By now I was getting used to the way some Ifshiri chose to name their sons and therefore wasn't particularly surprised to find out he was Tesharah's second son. He was eleven years old and although quite mature and strong enough to go roving, chose to stay in the holt and fashion the metal items the clan required. I showed him my knife and he said that although he recognised it, it wasn't one of his, but had been made by his mentor who had only last year gone into the garden.
After the evening meal, Mahrham showed me which of the little sleeping caves was ours and when I tentatively enquired where I might attend to toilet necessities, he grinned and handed me some soft leaves and a small metal bowl with a loose-fitting lid. I was thankful I didn't have to go out into the frozen wilderness, though Mahrham pointed that out I'd have to at some time to empty and clean the bowl. I sighed in resignation, but in all truth it wasn't that much different from the communal privies at the colony and in fact, a lot less smelly.
We ended the day as we had so many others, enjoying our love for each other. I proudly showed Mahrham I was starting to grow my hair after all and he snorted with laughter, saying he'd seen longer hair on croki teeth.
I awoke somewhat stiff and sore from my first night on the hard ground of our sleeping chamber. Though it was floored with some sand, it wasn't at all comfortable and I decided we either had to have another blanket or more sand before I'd willingly sleep there again. I carefully disentangled myself from Mahrham's sleeping grasp, wrapping Horban around me before going outside to empty the night bowl. I hadn't had a chance to wash for a couple of days and assumed there must be some facility for cleaning oneself, but when I happened to meet Fyrsh on his way outside on the same errand, I had mixed feelings when he said he'd show me just what I'd have to endure if I really wanted a bath.
To the far right of the garden, a small waterfall flowed down the icy rock surface which had been hollowed out behind and below it to form a large, oval trough. It had been worn away into deep notches at the far end, to allow the overflow to trickle down irrigation ditches leading to the various garden beds. I cheerfully allowed Fyrsh first use of the facility, despite the fact my feet felt as if they'd freeze solid if I stood in the one spot for too long. I made yet another of my mental notes to beg Tamori for a pair of shoes.
'Warm weather come soon,' grinned Fyrsh, splashing around happily in the bath. He pointed to the opening at the front of my cloak and giggled. 'David penis not like cold!' When I looked down I had to agree with him. Not only had I turned quite blue and shrivelled away to a mere nub, but anyone looking at me would have thought I was as testicle-free as the rest of my clanmates.
'All of David not like cold,' I responded ruefully, my teeth already starting to chatter. I couldn't stand it any longer, tossed Horban over a bush and hopped into the bath at the other end. I promptly slipped on the unexpectedly smooth bottom, drawing shrieks of laughter from Fyrsh as my legs shot up into the air and I slid towards him, buttocks first. The shock of the sudden immersion almost made me disregard quite how cold the water was, but after a little while I realised that in fact it was a fair bit warmer in the water than out of it. Of course the difference was relative and it was still much too frigid for me to stand for more than a minute or two. I almost changed my mind when I eventually had to get out though, thinking for a moment that I might be about to join Mahrham's father as a permanent addition to the garden.
I left Fyrsh still scrubbing merrily away, making it back to the comparative warmth of the communal room without actually freezing to death, while realising with every agonising step just what a boon Horban was proving to be. I decided someone was probably going to have to tell me I smelt a bit before I'd voluntarily bathe again. Either that, or it was going to have to get a lot warmer rather quickly.
I hoped Mahrham would still be where I'd left him as a warm Ifshiri was what I needed most right at that moment. I was pleased to find him awake and still in the sleeping chamber, but got thoroughly annoyed at myself when he pointed out I must have left the night bowl outside. I told him it could wait for a while, but he grinned and said he couldn't, so I had to go and get the damned thing. I soon got my warm cuddle though, together with some rather more strenuous activities to brighten up a cold morning.
Mahrham woke me later in the day with the news he had to go hunting. Although we'd brought quite a number of croki with us, they wouldn't last for very long and food gathering had to continue, both for daily needs and to restock the larder to sustain the holt during the next roving. Naturally I wanted to go with him, but he said the net would not be much use in the bush-studded hills and that a different, stealthier technique was necessary to catch croki during summer. He gave me goodbye kisses and licks and a little moan as he reluctantly left me standing forlornly at the entrance to our sleeping chamber. I soon cheered up and had to grin to myself at the wonderful effect we still had on each other. It seemed like such a long time ago that I'd first met my wonderful Mahrham, but it couldn't actually have been much more than a quarter of a year.
Then I found myself starting to think about less pleasant things and dispelled the memories by quickly getting dressed before going to look for Tamori, to ask about the possibility of footwear of some kind, only belatedly realising he would have gone off to hunt with Mahrham and the others. It occurred to me that Branai might know if such items as shoes were ever made, so I went to search him out in the workshop. As I passed the female's dais on the way, I noted she was already about a third of the way from the end nearest the ramps and decided to go and have another talk with her after seeing Branai.
The youngster let out a surprised squeak as I appeared from beneath a hanging blanket, but soon made me welcome. When I asked him about footwear, he said it was not uncommon for older Ifshiri to wear protection for their feet as their movements became slower and more unsure. He looked at me rather uncertainly and said I didn't look very old and I laughed and told him I was only sixteen, but I didn't have the Ifshiri's resistance to the cold. He waggled thoughtfully, disappearing into the nether regions of the shop. I could hear him hunting around somewhere at the back, muttering to himself so animatedly that for a moment, I thought there might be someone else back there with him. At last he reappeared with a motley assortment of tangled cloths and hide scraps which he dumped on the floor and invited me to inspect. There were indeed a number of pairs of slipper-like things, done up along the top and around the ankle with criss-crossed thongs but unfortunately, they were all obviously intended for very long and narrow Ifshiri hind feet. In desperation I tried on the smallest pair, but they didn't fit the width of my feet and we both agreed they looked quite ridiculous, flapping around fully a hand's length beyond the ends of my toes.
Branai told me not to worry; that he could make me a pair quite easily by that afternoon. When I got a bit embarrassed at taking up his time, he grinned and said I could repay him by showing him how to make a thing that shot stones like Porrhin's. I smiled at his childlike eagerness and told him it was called a catapult and that it was a bargain. He spent some time examining my feet, making little drawings and markings upon a cloth with a piece of charcoal, finally telling me to come back just before Ifshah set and he would have them ready for me.
Having arranged for footwear, I decided to put off my audience with the female for a while longer and talk to Teshshin and the twins about knives. I'd found out the night before that the two youngsters were in fact twins and were the sons of one of the hunters who'd been taken by Eater during a roving about four years ago. They were six years old and were called Mokrit and Moktor. I'd noticed they sat close together and often actually held hands and Mahrham smiled, saying that since the death of their father, they were rarely seen apart. They went everywhere together, even to attend to their toilet.
Teshshin was in the smithy but the twins were absent. The smith was wrestling with the brazier as I entered and I hastened over to help him tip it onto its side so he could rake out the dead coals onto a large, blackened cloth.
'What David want from Teshshin?' he said shrewdly, wiping his hands on his long leather apron, while I had to grin at his accurate assumption of the reason for my visit.
'Teshshin help David, David help Teshshin.' My smile brought an answering one to his grimy face.
'Ah! Then Teshshin have much work for David!' He grinned fiercely, waggling his head furiously as I wondered what I was letting myself in for.
'David need knife. Two knives.'
He waggled again slowly while I explained that my beautiful little knife was an excellent weapon, but I needed something for jobs like croki gutting. He quickly wagged his understanding as I went on to describe the useful half-sword, half-saw that Corkai carried and said I wanted something like it, perhaps a little longer and with a lightly curved blade. Teshshin said he'd have a look and see if he had anything suitable, but that meanwhile my first request was easy to fill. As Branai had done, he went hunting in the rear of the smithy, returning bearing not one but three exquisite little utility knives, all of them already hafted. Two of them were double-sided, the third being single edged and a bit longer in the blade. I examined all of them carefully then asked him which he would choose. He shrugged, pointing out that I'd not yet held each of them properly, as I would do if I was actually gutting and when I did so, it was obvious the single-sided knife was better weighted and balanced than the other two and I immediately chose it. He grinned rather self-consciously, admitting that it was one of his own and he was pleased to give it to someone who would choose it.
Teshshin promised to have a look at Corkai's little sword and after thanking him for the knife and telling him to call for my help when he needed it, I left him gathering the cloth full of coals into a bundle, presumably to take outside for disposal.
As I exited the smithy, I noted the female was almost exactly in the middle of the dais and suddenly realised she made a perfectly good method of telling the time, if indeed such a thing was ever really needed in the life of the holt. I walked up onto her platform and as soon as my hand touched her skin, she registered my presence.
'Hello, David,' she murmured, quietly. Not that she made any actual sound; the voice was all in my head but it was quite clear and distinct. 'Before we talk, I would like you and Mahrham to come to see me tomorrow morning. Tell him it is time.'
It was strange after so long to hear someone talk as I did, or rather as I used to, but then of course it was only in my mind and I hadn't the faintest idea how she did it. I told her that naturally, we would come to visit her as she wished.
'Do you run the holt? I mean
are you in charge, or
?' She gave one of her tinkly laughs.
'No, David. I just sit and dream most of the time, but of course I have all the children to care for.'
She must have read my mental confusion, because she directed my eyes to one of the vaguely recognisable dark patches within her body and I watched as she gradually shifted layers of her own substance from above the spot. It stirred fitfully and I recognised it for what it was - a tiny Ifshiri, barely as big as my hand and as yet without his forelegs.
'His name is Porrham,' and she laughed again, immediately catching my half-formed question. 'And yes, he is Porrhin's second son. I expect you have detected that sometimes the children are strangely named, but they usually follow the pattern.'
I was glad she'd explained it, because Branai's name had thrown my theories into disarray and she thought me a smile and said sometimes the obvious names had been taken, in which case she would just start a new line.
'Can we talk more of Eater?'
Her brightness seemed to dim with my question as a deep mental sigh whooshed through my head.
'I would rather not, but of course we must.'
'Has Eater always been with the Ifshiri? Do you know where it comes from? How it breeds?' The questions poured out until the female almost begged me to stop.
'Some years it is one and big and yet other years, it is many and small, but this year Tesharah tells me it is bigger than ever before.' She paused as if thinking. 'It seems that it grows and shrinks like the croki. When there are many, Eater is big, but then it eats too many croki and the croki do not come and Eater grows smaller.' It sounded perfectly logical to me; what Fred would have called the law of supply and demand, but I wasn't about to burden the female with human theories.
'And the breeding?'
'Ah, now that I do not know. I'm afraid I find it hard to comprehend that Eater seems partly mechanical. I understand the concept, but do not know how it could have come about on Ifshi.'
'So you don't know where it comes from? Or where it hides when it rains?' She gave an apologetic sigh.
'I'm sorry, David, I have no knowledge on either subject. I depend upon my children for all my information and although I have lived for many hundreds of years, none of them has ever brought me any real facts about Eater. I know it is a menace and keeps us tied to these caves, but that is all. I am very glad you have decided to kill it and I would be most interested in discussing your method if you should so wish.'
I doubted I was going to get any really useful details from the female and said my goodbyes, promising not to forget to bring Mahrham the next morning.
I returned to our sleeping chamber to tidy up but then remembered my resolve to get more sand. I decided to ask the lame one, who was cleaning the communal room and readying the fire-pit by removing spent embers, using much the same method Teshshin had employed. He was grateful when I offered to help and I asked him about the sand as we carried the heavily-laden cloth out into the garden to distribute the ashes among the bushes. He said I could get more sand in two ways; the first was to use a heavy object he called a scratcher, which was so big it really needed two Ifshiri to handle it. It was very basic in operation apparently, and worked on the simple principle of scraping away at the walls of the sleeping chamber to convert solid stone into nice, soft sand. He estimated about a morning's work by Mahrham and me would give us all the sand we wanted. He also pointed out that it had the happy secondary effect of enlarging one's living quarters - only minutely, admittedly, but then, if one needed a great deal of sand
On the whole I thought his second method much the preferable, which was to take as much sand as one needed from some of the unoccupied chambers. I noticed a distinct twinkle in his eye as he offered the easier alternative and laughingly accused him of making the whole thing up about the scratcher, but he grinned at me wide-eyed, saying that indeed he hadn't and that I could go and get the thing from Teshshin if I felt like wrestling with it.
I laughed and left him to his chores, using our blanket to take a little sand from a few of the bare chambers until I had quite a thick covering on our floor. I arranged our blanket and various belongings neatly, then went out to see how Branai was doing with my shoes, remembering to take my bag with me.
[To be continued.]
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"Oh keep writing like this. I enjoy reading."