Kursaal crouched down beside one charred, fallen form, recognising it from his very brief acquaintance it as Aajika’s mother. Her hide was charred and blistered, sightless eyes gazed up at the sky. Two men brushed past him to investigate the fire, dragging the corpses away from it.
‘Only the adults,’ muttered Kursaal’s father. ‘Where are the cubs?’
Kursaal looked up and went to examine the corpses from the fire. His gorge rose when he saw what had been done before death.
The other warriors watched from the mouth of the cave. Kursaal turned round. ‘You’re right,’ he said excitedly. ‘Aajika is not here. Nor her brothers and sisters.’
‘They were taken….’
The voice was weak, almost a breath of wind. It filtered from deeper in the cave. Kursaal sprang forward. He returned shortly after, carrying into the light the battered form of Aarau, Aajika’s father.
A broken arrow jutted from the man’s chest, and he was bruised and bloody, but somehow he had escaped being flung onto the pyre with the rest of his kin. The warriors gathered round, shouting questions at the weak old man, until Tolkaan pushed them away.
‘Give him light,’ he urged, ‘Give him air. Let him tell his tale.’
Kursaal propped Aarau against the cave wall. The man’s eyes flickered open; he gazed blindly at the sky.
‘Where is my daughter?’ he rambled. ‘Where is Aajika?’
It was just what Kursaal wanted to ask. He shook the man gently. ‘She is not here,’ he said. ‘What happened? Was it…the Deathcaps?’
Tolkaan crouched down and peered into Aarau’s face. The man was having trouble seeing and his breathing was erratic. He did not have long, that much was clear. But he must know what had happened here.
‘The slavers…’ Aarau wheezed suddenly, and a muttering went through the assembled warriors. ‘The Deathcaps, aye… they came from the jungle on their reptiles. We didn’t stand a chance! I tried to fight but was flung aside. They took the young, raped and killed the old. They took my daughter!’
Kursaal gripped his forearms. ‘Where did they take her?’ he said urgently. ‘Do you know where?’
Aarau tried to speak, but instead of words his last breath wheezed from his lips. His head fell to one side and he lay still.
‘Fool,’ growled Tolkaan. ‘You should not have shaken him like that.’ Rising, he looked around at the other warriors. ‘So they have taken the cubs as slaves,’ he said. ‘We must pursue them beyond the jivnik swamps, fight them and bring them back, or else their blood price. The trail is clear through the fungus forest. It will only be hard going when we reach the swamp.’
He shrugged with resignation. Kursaal laid Aarau’s body on the ground beside the others. The surrounding mushrooms were already lined with perching scavengers.
‘We must bury them,’ he told the rest.
His father rounded on him. ‘Would you waste time?’ he hissed. ‘Are you a coward as well as a deviant?’
Another elder joined them. ‘Your cub is right,’ he said. ‘We cannot leave them to be picked over by the winged reptiles. He must stay behind and inter the corpses.’
‘No cub of mine,’ said Tolkaan hotly, ‘will stay behind when there is fighting to be done.’
‘Kursaal fought well against their leader,’ said another warrior. ‘We will need him. I and two others will bury the corpses. We will join the rest of you on the trail when we can. It is plain enough.’
He took two others and began to dig graves in the blue mould beneath a great mushroom.
‘It is indeed plain enough,’ Kursaal said thoughtfully. ‘Surely our victory was too easy.’
‘What do you say now, cub?’ his father demanded. ‘More coward-talk?’
The other warriors were already walking down the trail of broken stems that led into the mushroom forest. ‘We fought for only a short while,’ Kursaal said, as he and his father followed, ‘and then the Deathcaps retreated.’
Tolkaan shrugged expressively. ‘We routed them!’ He pounded his chest. ‘We are the mightiest of tribes.’
‘Meanwhile,’ Kursaal added, ‘they were raiding our outlying settlements.’ The territory of the Tribe was not fertile enough to sustain a large population in one area, so it was thinly spread, with the Crags as the largest settlement due to the number of caves. Otherwise the Tribe had settled wherever there was shelter from the sulphurous rain.
‘Don’t you see, it was to distract the main body of warriors that they attacked?’ he added. ‘Meanwhile, more of them were raiding the settlements.’ Smoke still rose in pillars in the distance on every side. ‘Then they rode off together, making no attempt to conceal their path.’
‘They are fools,’ said Tolkaan uneasily. ‘Here is what will happen: we will pursue, fight them, then a truce will be called when enough are wounded or dead on either side. Then we will bargain for our kin. Depending on many things, we may win them back, or we may receive a payment in kind. That is the way it has always been.’
He scowled at Kursaal. ‘Do not think to win Aajika as your mate,’ he said. ‘That is not our custom. When you are a mighty enough warrior, you may win your own mate in a raid on another tribe such as this.’
They strode on down the trail. Kursaal was right: the Deathcaps had made no attempt to conceal their progress. It was almost as if they wanted to be pursued. Their reptiles had smashed their way through the avenues of mushrooms and toadstools, no doubt driving the slaves before them. The trail was clear for all to see.
The Tribesfolk chanted a death song, of the sort they recited on all such expeditions. Tolkaan told him tales about raids and reprisals in his youth and they marched onwards through the forest. The mushrooms grew in the fertile loamy area that stretched between the foot of the mountains and the jivnik swamps that infested the shore. The Deathcaps themselves were said to live aboard a floating island out in the swamp.
Tolkaan had seen it in the past, although only from the tangled woods of the shore; he had never set foot upon the Deathcaps’ island. The enemy tribe had an ideal position for raiding, able to strike inland and then retreat to their watery fastness, then to bargain for the lives of the slaves, or were they hostages?
It had not been the Deathcaps who Kursaal’s father had raided in his youth, not their people from whom Kursaal’s mother had come. She had been a woman of the Hive-folk, who dwelt in the plains along the coast, in great towering nests of dried clay, from which they went forth to gather food or to hunt. Tolkaan and some others of the Tribe had surprised a foraging party, slain the men, and brought back the women and girls as mates.
It had always been so, Tolkaan insisted. Kursaal acknowledged this. He knew it was wrong to desire a she of his own people. But when they rested later on, sheltering from the rain beneath a large mushroom after the burial party joined them, he couldn’t stop his thoughts trending towards Aajika, her honey-sweet face, her slender, clever paws.
‘What’s that?’ a warrior said suddenly, pointing.
The rain still hissed down, bouncing off the cap of the mushroom and cascading down onto the mould. It hung like a curtain, obscuring the jungle beyond. But hovering over them in the rain was a huge shape.
Kursaal glimpsed it only for a second, and then it was gone beyond sight, vanished behind the cap of the mushroom. He rose to his feet excitedly from where he had sat leaning against the mushroom stem.
‘That is the thing I saw,’ he told the warriors, most of whom had also seen it. ‘That is what stampeded the face-horns!’
‘That,’ said the warrior said scathingly, ‘was what scattered the face-horns?’
Tolkaan awoke. ‘I saw nothing last time,’ he said, ‘but I heard the noise. The roar. I heard nothing now.’
‘There was no noise this time,’ said Kursaal. ‘The rain must have drowned it out. But nevertheless it was the fish that flies.’
‘Out in the rain?’ asked another warrior. ‘Nothing flies in the rain. Everything seeks shelter. Only the mushrooms and the trees are tough enough to withstand the rain.’
The vegetation was tough, and had developed an ability to filter out the caustic element in the rain, and absorb sweet water. Even the youngest of cubs knew that drinking water could be found in the stems of any mushroom or the trees that grew closer to the coast. But it seemed that the flying fish could also survive in the rain.
‘That is fitting,’ said Kursaal, ‘if it is indeed a fish. Fish can live in water.’ And yet the streams in which fish dwelt came for the most part from the vegetation, where the sulphurous element was diluted. The rain as it fell from the clouds was lethal to all but thick hided mushrooms and plants.
‘I saw the men in its mouth,’ said one feather bedecked warrior pensively. ‘What fish flies in the air with men in its mouth?’ It was a riddle.
‘I heard that there are big fish in the great ocean,’ ventured another man, a grizzled elder. ‘Sometimes they eat men foolish to venture out in great canoes. My mate told me, and she came from one of the shore tribes.’
The rain began to ease off then, and after a while the warriors ventured out. The liquid was absorbed into the mushrooms for the most part, some into the mould. Soon it was dry. Kursaal looked to the skies, but he saw no sign of what he had seen before.
‘Did your mate tell you of any fish that flew?’ he asked the elder, Enzi his name, walking alongside him as the warriors returned to the trail.
Enzi shrugged. ‘She told many tales,’ he said. ‘Aye, she spoke of flying fish, but they were the same fish that swim in our streams and pools. They flew from the water and then back again when the shore folk ventured out in the morning to harvest them. Sometimes they flew straight into the canoes and lay there helpless. Out of their element at last.’
‘But this was no fish a man could eat,’ Tolkaan objected, walking on Kursaal’s other side. ‘I glimpsed it during the hunt when my son was trampled. I saw it better this time, despite the rain. It was bigger than the biggest mastodon, the hugest thunder lizard. Some say that flying reptiles that size have been seen up in the mountains, but people tell lies. Besides, that flying thing had no wings. What kept it afloat?’
Enzi shivered. ‘What can a warrior accomplish against witchcraft? For that is what it is. We must find the witches who have conjured up this evil spirit and smother them. Then it will depart to the underworld from which it came.’
Tolkaan nodded wisely. Enzi’s plan was a good one. But Kursaal wondered where they would find the witches responsible. He wondered if they dwelt in the island of the Deathcaps.
After two more sleeps, the trail led them down to the edge of the jivnik swamps. The swamps announced themselves by their stink long before Kursaal first glimpsed them through the increasingly sparse fungi. A foul, earthy stench met his twitching nostrils, and he knew that they were now far from anywhere they could count their own territory. A cold wind blew through the mushrooms and toadstools, and glimpses of red water were visible in the distance, then the dark, twisted trunks of trees. The trail led straight down the slope to the edge of the forest. To the banks of the swamp.
Miles of orange woodland stretched ahead of them, but beneath the trees lay nothing but red water. Water in which hardy fish and reptiles might swim, and tough trees might grow, but which would burn and blister the flesh of any human foolish enough to swim in it.
The warriors gathered on the bank in perturbed silence. The trail vanished into the water. All knew that the floating island of the Deathcaps lay somewhere beyond the orange trees. But how to reach them? The Deathcaps’ reptiles possessed hide thick enough to be able to swim, but the Crag Folk did not.
‘We will cut down trees,’ said Enzi. ‘Make canoes. That is what the shore folk do. My mate told me.’
Their attempts to make canoes went badly at first. While some warriors kept watch from the bank, spears and spear casters at the ready should any Deathcaps or other hostile tribesfolk make an appearance, others used their stone axes to cut down orange jivnik trees.
Kursaal was one of these. His arms soon ached and sweat poured down his dark hide and yet his axe blows seemed to have made little or no impression on the hardy bark. These trees grew in the very water itself, he reminded himself, peering uncertainly into the steaming liquid. No wonder they were so hardy. But canoes were the only way they could reach the floating island. They were the only means at his disposal of finding and freeing Aajika.
He brushed the sweat from his eyes and forced his weary limbs to work. At last several tree trunks floated in the water by the bank.
‘What now?’ Tolkaan asked Enzi curtly. ‘How will we sail in these? What did your mate say?’
The grizzled elder shrugged his shoulders. ‘We must sit upon them, it seems to me,’ he said.
Kursaal could see that he had very little idea. Were the matter not so urgent, he would have thrown up the notion there and then. But they had to find the floating island where the slavers had taken their kin. He looked at the others. Mighty warriors all, blooded and hardened fighters and hunters, they looked down at the canoes with hesitation on their faces.
‘We must make haste,’ Kursaal said, and climbed aboard the first.
Using his spear caster, he pushed off from the side, gripping either side with his legs as he had seen the Deathcaps do with their riding reptiles. Cautiously, he poled himself out into the tree shadowed swamp water.
Hearing a splash from behind him, he turned his head. Enzi had climbed aboard another log and was poling it out behind him. The rest of the warriors still stood fearfully on the banks, looking away from each other in shame. Then Tolkaan clambered aboard another trunk and set out. Soon the other warriors were punting after them, across the swamp.



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