For the Love of Monsters

<< A Bygone Mineral Empire

“We remember, the better to forget.”

-Whiteshore folk tree number eleven

A fish slapped against the rocks, and flopped around a bit. Its gills blossomed to show their red. Its brief time in the unnatural climate cut short with a flip and a splat and a splish.

Barnarr shook himself free of the river’s blood.

Rurd stalked across the short ground rise ahead, looking for trapjaws or thin-hunters. Signs indicated that as close as they still were to camp, hungry things had come this way recently: carved wounds on some well-chosen trees and scent and broken brambles dotted the forest around them. Beginning the second full day of their journey had been better than sleeping and keeping watch, but if one of the bigger predators of the rivers and trees ambushed them then Grenfooner was the only member of their crew likely to win out in a contest of strength.

Paddling across the stiff constant tributary, the large man’s strength obviously was flagging. Shallow places on the riverbed made it possible to swim the long gap from shore to shore, but they didn’t make it easy. The bone and wooden tools he had helped a bit with floating; the flints and leathers and his own coat did not.

Barnarr reached out and pulled him ashore when he came within a few paces.

“Thanks,” Grenfooner said.

He grunted and put some distance between himself and the wettest rocks before following Barnarr’s example. The packfolk surveyed the land, first for safety, then for the objectives Ardnap had provided, then for paths ahead. Little chance that Rurd would have missed anything they’d catch, but little was not none.

Two puffed-up forms slowly climbed after their comrade, less dripsome than extremely damp. The wind quickly dried them, but on the edge of the sky hunched heavy mean rainclouds. The trio’s pelts would be damp again soon enough.

“We’re going to need more meat to salt soon,” Barnarr said. “I’m already down to the last of my berries.”

“Given how far we’ve come, I don’t think overhunting will be a problem,” Rurd said, reappearing silently. Barnarr’s surprised tail-twitch was hidden thanks to the sporadic wind.

“No, just finding and bringing down our quarry without getting mauled or otherwise surprised by something,” Barnarr didn’t say.

They clambered over the rise and slowly became reacclimated to dryness – or at least, to a lessening of water sleeving the body. Slowly, they began to follow the water’s path back toward the swaying dark hammock of the sea’s inland-reaching finger. Slowly, they took up watching the land again.

It wasn’t that Whiteshore had no idea what the world looked like this far from home. Some tribes like the Longbacks made enormous looping journeys that lasted half a generation. Their way of life supplemented packfolk of the area with secondhand experience, traded for secondhand victuals. Barnarr himself had a vague notion of what the world looked like almost half a season’s traveling sunfocus from the place his tribe called home, and the same distance every other direction that didn’t fall into the sea. But “vague” was the operative part of that description. Vague, and possibly obsolete, and probably less dangerous-sounding than the truth warranted.

Thieving outcasts? Aggressive game? Convulsing lands? Keep an eye out; it could be these and more besides.

The veil of unknowns meant the group’s pace wouldn’t be as brisk as they might like. It meant they’d need to trek tirelessly. If they drew upon their collected fieldcraft wisely, if they put their heads down for maybe a quarter of each day, they might get as far as the large shoreside Destroyer settlement purported to lie sunfocus. None of them would admit it, but the thought that they might find that region suitable to their needs caused hackles to rise.

A glance behind made Barnarr squint. He didn’t fear the ruins, precisely, but their implications instead.

Several hundred heartbeats down the river from where they’d made their crossing, he could pick out the timeworn remains of something on either shore. Furred with grass and bitten by the rain and sinking, yes, but he still thought he could identify the outlines as the start and stop of a bridge. He didn’t have much reason to suspect the builders’ ghosts to stick around any longer than the ghosts of packfolk. “Humbling” would be the discovery that there once existed people capable of spreading from the unknown far end of the land to the near. The thought that they had had the tools and knowledge to dictate terms to the land was…

He didn’t know a word for it, and he didn’t know if he liked that they’d been and gone.

“We’re coming up to the seashore,” he said instead of what he’d been thinking. “Anybody else want to try catching some trout?”

Grenfooner didn’t react. He did pat the quiver of his arrows, but using arrows to fish wasn’t something any of them could do well.

“That depends on how many spare nets you brought,” Rurd said, smiling.

“Only four spears and some passable rope. Why net when you can catch with a more hands-on technique?”

Rurd let the smile drop.

Barnarr stopped joking.

After a moment Grenfooner shook with laughter.

“That was a joke!” he said, heavy steps landing on a couple of dry sticks. “That was funny!”

Barnarr opened his mouth to respond and nothing came out. Instead he walked over to an especially tall tree and marked it. They’d probably come back this way, after all.

To try and make sure they did, he also selected a distinctive stone from the rocky edge of the soil. It told the story of where they’d been, and hopefully it would guide the group back to its stone brethren.

All three kept up their strong pace.

The strong sun struck miniscule waves as the river’s mouth disgorged three tiny insects. Rurd kept away from the seashore’s edge, stalking across a shallow chapped incline of stones and sawgrass and sand. Grenfooner hunkered down by a tide pool. Barnarr’s ears twitched and he twisted at the waist to follow the sounds of life – birds, bugs, the smaller animals of the brush.

“What sort of conditions do you think Ardnap would call a success?” he asked, idly.

“Eh?” Grenfooner responded.

Rurd half-stepped, looking over a shoulder down the grade at the menfolk.

“Can you think of something you’d see where you’d say, ‘Yes, this is exactly what Whiteshore needs,’ and turn around to head back?”

One of Grenfooner’s eyebrows rotated slightly.

“We haven’t seen it yet,” he rumbled.

“No, I agree, but if we had some more tangible ideas of what we should be looking for – like ‘it should have plenty of rocks, and a couple of trees, and a small pond’ – then we’d be able to maybe try to stick to the sort of terrain where we’d find dips in the earth with not much soil, that patchy soil that’s soft between your toes.”

“We’d want a place that’s big and open and grassy, or near a shore without too much dirt, or covered with hilly woods,” Rurd said, stepping a bit closer. “Preferably all of them, but maybe not if there was something else that made it nice. Empty caves. A spring.”

“A bunch of neighbors.”

They both looked at Grenfooner, split between amusement and genuine contemplation.

“What if other tribes have come and made homes for themselves there already?” Grenfooner asked, serious now.

“I suppose it depends on who they are, and what they want, and how much space they’ve left untouched.”

“What if they’re other folk and not just some tribe?”

Barnarr didn’t have a ready response for that. His tongue squeezed out and wetted his nose. He sniffed, snorted, thought.

“Name one bunch that might be anywhere out here for any reason,” Rurd cut in.

“Herdfolk, or flockfolk for that matter, or maybe plaguefolk, if-” Grenfooner said.

“Alright, and of those, which would be completely intolerable and utterly unacceptable as neighbors? For that matter, if you’d probably starve otherwise, are there ANY folk you’d totally reject even living in the same camp?”

Grenfooner chortled and stood.

“I know a bit of flockfolk tongue. You’d have to bribe me with double portions every day to just keep from wringing necks out of annoyance.”

“Let’s be serious,” Barnarr said, nostrils twitching and stretching as he caught slight whiffs of unfamiliar stenches. “If Ardnap is right, and I think he is, we’re probably going to have to compromise on all kinds of points. Maybe we’ll found a camp for flockfolk to call home as well.”

“And do what!?” Grenfooner sputtered. “Feed them in exchange for lime-covered homes and never-ending screeches?”

Barnarr had started to argue for the sake of argument, but he started to see some sense in his suggestion.

“We give food and shelter and keep them safe when bad weather or mean creatures come around, they scout and find interesting things in the treetops and carry messages for us.”

“What, like Kakab Bentf-”

“Yes, exactly like Kakab Bentfoot and her flying companion.”

When both the others gave him looks of consternation, Barnarr grimaced.

“It wouldn’t be easy or simple or nice, but if one of our ancestors managed to strike up a friendship with one of theirs then…”

Rurd didn’t exactly look like she’d hurt anyone so much as suggesting the idea.

“They stink too much,” she said anyway, and started moving again.

Grenfooner looked like he’d gotten some food for thought, leaning back to sit on his rump.

Shortly after, they managed to catch a young springer, and tore it apart for later cooking.

They kept going until the sun sank back into its resting place, then – tired and a bit hungry despite everything – most of them went mostly to sleep.

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