“Water and earth together let us do anything.”
-Whiteshore folk tree number seventy six
The morning light tickled Barnarr’s nose until he sneezed.
When he looked around, over the world barely lingering in the purity of night-quiet, he felt like he’d defaced something. Any hungry things in the area certainly heard, but he wasn’t as worried about them as he was his fellow-travelers.
Rurd gave him a look that said if they’d been tracking something, she’d have cut off his nose and used it for bait. Grenfooner huffed, less concerned with his traveling-companion’s poor timing than said timing’s consequences. Tooth and spear readied, knives were loosened in their pouches, Grenfooner quietly strung his thick bow.
The salted wind scoured their ears. Nothing burst from the woods to assault them. An insect rested upon a freshly congealed globule of sap on a nearby tree, the damage indicative of recently applied claws or antlers. Branches creaked. The shore made that ageless sound of sea barely hidden past a bow-shot horizon.
Giving the bushes and tall grass a last canvassing, Rurd slunk out to where the faint dawn and earth met. She poked her head out from behind a few fragmented boulders to watch the sea. She kept her head at an angle that meant she was sniffing for interesting things in the vicinity.
While she investigated, Barnarr kept a spear forward and twisted for easy throwing. He hunched over low, dashing for a big copse just ahead. Huge bushes and a few heavily-leafed trees turned it into something of a grotto. From concealment he eyed the way ahead to sunfocus, which went down to a meadow looking over a high tide shore, and quickly glanced over the dense forest to his right. All he saw was a distant flock of game birds on the down slope of a hill. The hill had grass about as short as his own fur. No reasonable place for anything to hide nearby.
He stiffened when he thought he spotted a swaying form disappear behind a far distant clump of trunks. His spear rose to a ready stance, but then every muscle locked up for just an instant. He stared harder. Making a concentrated effort to see what lay in the morning murk wouldn’t help you spot something unless you stared right at it, yet he couldn’t help himself.
From behind came wind-in-the-weeds movement. He didn’t have to turn to see Grenfooner sneaking nearer. When Rurd came darting in from the sea side, they spent a few moments more in silent communion.
Nothing approaching from behind. Nothing approaching from the front. So why did the urge to flee abruptly stand and command their attention?
They left for the meadow, moving fast and low.
The meadow’s plane bucked and sank, waves coming together to make small hills and small dips. Barnarr wasn’t terribly explorative in his spare time. That being said, he’d seen a few relics from the times before. Buildings that more often than not lay mostly or completely underground. Fragments of material which clearly didn’t occur naturally. Legend had it that some of the territories Whiteshore had staked as their own were directly atop grand time-worn Destroyer tombs, though he didn’t really hold with that story - they’d uncovered nothing of the sort in the tribe’s attempts to gentle the land. It still meant that he had the impression of sunk buildings as he ran onto the open grass: things of barely modest size that slept under soil blankets, but which might awaken if disturbed. If seriously bothered, they might even open their jaws and swallow an incautious packfolk into the dark earth.
To their relief, they made it without incident.
“I won’t be leaving any hairs or nail-filings here,” he half whispered. The place gave him the creeps for some reason, a reason whose furtiveness itself made him shrink inward yet further.
None of the group said anything for a few long moments after that, just kept going. Distress in their members bubbled up to become a distress in their whole. After all, they constituted a pack, small as it was. All of them would prefer to avoid revisiting the area.
When they got far enough from the inexplicably grim woods and fields, Barnarr picked up a nearly flat pebble. He scratched along the surface of the pebble until it grew scuffed-white on part of its broad face, then put it away. Best to mark their connection to the place, so others who might carry the rock would recognize it as a tie to a questionable locale… or at least coming from near that questionable locale.
By the time the sun made the surfaces of their pelts hot to the touch, they’d settled for a short breather beside a tree-crowned hill. A blustery breeze was starting, the sort that made it very hard to smell anything upwind and positively impossible for anything else. Their chosen seating lay between the ocean of light covering the rolling grass and the slanted green-filtered spears that managed to get through branch and leaf. Overhead, several birds - not flockfolk - fought the currents. They’d had the ill fortune to be airborne when the wind picked up; they now had the task of keeping aloft, or fleeing the evil air, or getting reduced to pap by the unforgiving ground.
Each of the trio panted. Were it quieter, their bellowing chorus would make a disorderly symphony. Barnarr’s lungs huffed medium-low, Rurd’s high and nasal, Grenfooner’s a steady toneless undertaking. Breaks came in the form of tongues licking noses, or very brief glances around their environs. They did not at any time raise the matter of their sudden fright. They simply waited for their gasps to lessen.
“Why do you think you were chosen?” Barnarr asked.
Grenfooner’s hackles rose after a heartbeat.
“I mean, chosen for this mission, this errand,” Barnarr clarified.
“I gathered that was what you meant!” Grenfooner said.
Judging from Rurd’s face, it wasn’t the question’s ambiguity that was upsetting.
“I’m not claiming you aren’t capable or skilled,” Barnarr said.
He fanned the cutting wind with his hands.
“It’s just that we three were sent on this outing. You, and you, and me, instead of Derbref or Fooroo or Ker or anybody else. Hasn’t it crossed your mind to wonder why?”
“... somewhat. More in the sense of asking what’s caused the current trouble for our tribe. Not in the way you’re describing.”
Grenfooner’s growl didn’t have as much violence in it, but it served to remind the listener that he could probably break a branch in half by just squeezing it hard enough.
“You’ll probably be able to kill most things that would give us trouble,” Barnarr told him.
When Rurd turned to see if her visual assessment of the large Whiteshore man matched that principle, Barnarr said, “I’d think you’d manage to find a way home even if we ended up across the sea in the land of monsters.”
“And what about you?” Grenfooner asked.
A very good question. A very good question that he’d asked himself several occasions on the journey thus far. A question he hadn’t focused on in the context of what had caused the tribe’s supply difficulties.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Barnarr said.
Rurd’s squint wasn’t exactly respectful, but it said she’d be mulling the issue over in her mind quite a good deal from now on.
“Well, let’s get moving,” Grenfooner said. “In my dreams I’d like to find our destination right over the next hill, or the one after, or the one after that. It’s not this one, though.”
They started off again. This time, they didn’t make quite so much of an effort to keep their distance from the waves.
That line between water and earth continued wavering, running in a generally sunfocus-sunfall direction, turning from stone bones arguing against the waves’ incursions to sand that got in between a walker’s digits to stake a rough-chafing claim. All the pebbles had stories of their own to tell, all the trees overlooking the shore bore husks of salt-cured bark. Their walking showed them numerous microcosms presided over by root-diggers and bug-eaters and shore-haunting fish. Every time the sun moved they happened upon scenes not worth remembering, snippets of eventfulness that slowly seeped into the mind and colonized it to grow a larger sense of the land and then moved on. Not a bad land, this stretch, but not what they were seeking.
It grew quite warm after a while. Barnarr waited until the sun reached its peak, then wandered away and paddled a short distance into the waves. The others joined him shortly, Rurd grumbling about lost time. Just a little swimming around helped improve morale quite a good deal, though. Shoulders relaxed and tails hung loose.
They quickly saw that the shore curved wide around and formed an inlet, and rather than spend a large amount of time doubling back to examine territory they’d already glimpsed from the water, they elected to swim the gap. It wasn’t terribly far, and if they happened to get tired the tide was in a flow stage; their burdens wouldn’t pose any significant risk. At worst, Grenfooner would have to turn back parallel with the shore, and follow it to a slightly less broad or less deep crossing. Neither of the others had any qualms about their swimming capabilities.
It was by chance that Rurd’s paddling took her out farther than the others, and she happened to get caught in a small shift in the current. She gave a yelp, the sort that said “pain” with a surprised note. It wasn’t easy to keep afloat with occupied hands, but Barnarr grabbed one of his spears, turning and paddling in her direction immediately. Grenfooner sort of lurched after, too heavy to hold any weaponry without capsizing but more than happy to kick… and really, if he needed to, he’d also be happy to sink and have it out hand-to-mouth with anything hostile. The only difficulty would be making it back to the surface.
No violence proved necessary.
“Hit something,” Rurd said.
Her shortness of breath stemmed from agitation, not exhaustion, and she turned easily in the water. Nothing like a sliver of panic to inspirit the flagging soul.
“Scraped my foot. Don’t think I’m bleeding, but it smarts. It’s not rock, whatever it…”
Barnarr’s spears didn’t appreciate attempts to be submerged, but he sucked in a lungful and sank below the surface with a well-worn haft trapped under him. Water crashed into his ears, sound cracking and then shushing. Tumblings of bubbles galloped past his eyes. Brightness became tame.
The ever so slight webbing between his digits let him push forward until from the gloom heaved a hump longer than he was tall. It lay there in shuddering stillness, slightly jagged in outline. Large gaps on all sides revealed it was hollow, yet stuffed with sediment. Slips of gnashed and ragged tearing pointed up and out and around. Part of the carapace had a shredded gill appearance - it made him think of a wood plank splintered down into thready fibers. The shredded part extended farther upward than the rest, close enough Barnarr could almost jab it even without swimming nearer; he guessed this part had connected with Rurd’s foot. No blood visible.
When he surfaced, he huffed out the water which had begun leaking into his nose. He turned, replaced his spear with the others, then unshouldered the strap.
“Hold this!” he told Grenfooner. “It’ll help you float.”
Before the larger packfolk could argue, he dove down again.
Without so many of his buoyant belongings, it proved easy to swoop level with the object. He scanned it, seeing a large round edge sticking out of the muck on the side - a wheel?
A hand ran across the top of a gaping opening. Neither cool nor warm, but between. One of those materials the Destroyers used. Not their refined-stone stuff that tarnished a thousand ways and whose edges could carve the unwary explorer wide open. He thought it was the same kind of stuff as Ardnap had in his ear - rigid, usually smooth, melting and bending when warmed with a torch or fire for too long, and producing the foulest most poisonous stench imaginable when burned.
Whatever it was or had been, it looked inert for now.
Satisfied that it wouldn’t bite or maul anybody, he was about to return to the surface when something in the silt stood out. He hesitated long enough that his lungs urged him to move, then jerkily ducked down to look inside.
There, right in the largest sloping opening. An odd shape with the tiniest hint of color.
He asked that the Destroyers turn their heads away, then swept his hand down. It grabbed at the gray-brown sediment inside the brown-gray bulk and pulled.
The thing moved a bit, then stopped.
The halted motion convinced him for a heartbeat that it was a bottom-dweller of some kind, roused to anger and preparing to whip around. Suddenly, though, the sediment loosened and allowed him to pull the prize free. His arm yanked back for a moment. He got a very good look at it for just an instant, then put it safely away and swam up.
As his nose broke the surface, he snorted out the sour of the ocean. He sneezed.
“It’s fine,” he tried to wheeze. “Just part of the land.”
He led the charge toward the shore after receiving his spears back.
After shaking himself out, he reached back under his belt and withdrew the thing. Not entirely sure of whether he was seeing rightly, he knelt and scoured some of the muck from the thing with a handful of stones, then wiped it a bit more with a handful of grass. He grunted as he nicked a finger.
There were things that he disliked in the world, but few seemed to so callously yet thoroughly dislike him back as sawgrass.
Turning the much cleaner shape in his hand, he disregarded its stink, resolving to wrap it later so the odor wouldn’t drive him nose-blind. A more unnatural thing he’d never before seen. Between his digits, the leftover slatherings of mud squished and discolored.
And yet… and yet, it was pretty.
“What is it?”
Grenfooner probably didn’t approve his taking unknown things from unknown places. It wasn’t hard to hear a skin of wonder wrapping the words, though. Rurd’s approach from farther back suddenly slowed, then she shook herself, and slowly walked up as well. Their shadows craned over his shoulders.
“I think it’s a tree,” Barnarr said.
A blatantly false tree that was about as tall as his head was wide, but a tree nevertheless. Spiky and pointed and surprisingly textured, the tips of what were probably branching boughs had extremely simple things capping them, geometries like tetrahedrons or spheres or cylinders. The whole thing was of one piece, the tough material molded and dotted with coloration to give it decoration. At the bottom was a round base, with a more complex something-or-other under the tree’s shade, covered still by splatterings of mud. At the top was a spindly, spiny burst that seemed far more eye-catching than its tiny size warranted. What colors it had clearly bore out old age. Its edges had dulled. Yet the thing had endured mostly subsumed by the mud.
“How curious,” Rurd eventually said, the first words since their bodies stopped their rhythm of dripping. The gentle wind gave her voice more body rather than stealing it away.
It took some effort to put it away and continue their march.