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Chapter 3: Homecoming

Four days later, the Neanderthals sailed through serene waters up a long narrow fjord. The smell of land came strong. Redwood trees clung to gray cliffs, covering the hills like a ragged tapestry. Where a gentle valley met the water’s edge, the city of Smilodon Bay perched—a collection of expansive manors in the human part of town, with homes built from fitted stones and roofs tiled in copper, green with age. Flower boxes under the windows brightened the homes, while barns and dovecotes backed the properties like attentive servants.

But the outskirts of town served as a stark contrast. There in “Pwi Town” squatted the poor huts of the Neanderthals—crafted of rough-hewn lumber and covered in tar. The smoke of smithies and cook fires shrouded the homes in in a grimy haze.

Two wide-hulled trading ships had dropped anchor in the deepest part of the harbor, but the small Neanderthal vessel skirted past them, dropping sail and rowing up to the weathered docks.

Several Neanderthal women were washing clothes on the rocks at the water’s edge; they raised a shout as the boat neared. A crowd of Neanderthal women and children rushed down to greet the boys, eager for news of their adventure. Their early arrival hinted at a good haul.

But faces fell in dismay when one smiling mother rushed from her shack, and noted her missing son. No one had to tell her what had happened. The boys’ lowered heads, the empty seat in the boat—all told the tale.

Denni’s mother let out a terrible wail, then collapsed, overcome with grief. Her husband had been taken by slavers many years ago, and the woman lived with the hope that someday he would escape and return home. With no other children, she lived with an aging sister.

As she wailed and her eyes became stricken, Tull worried that Denni’s mother might die from this. Another young woman grabbed her as she fell, and the Neanderthal children began to wail also. They covered their heads with their hands, and the sound of sobbing and shouts of astonishment spread like the gush of wind that ripples over a field of wheat.

Tull watched the incident unfold helplessly. He’d hoped that the news could have been relayed quietly, intimately. The Pwi had a saying: “Only the best of friends should bear sad news.”

Among the Neanderthals, with their rich emotional lives, grief was a ravaging thing. It could strike like a plague, bringing entire families low. All too often, those who mourned gave up eating, gave up drinking, and gave up life.

To avert disaster, now was the time to celebrate Denni’s life, to speak soft words to the mother, praising what he had been. The proper way to break the news would have been to hug the mother and whisper the news to her, leaving a gift of tears on her shoulder.

But Tull was not close to her, so he only squeezed her hand and peered into her stricken eyes. “Your son has a fine, strong spirit,” he said. “Denni walks among us still.”

It was a stock sentiment among the Pwi, but Tull knew that his words did not help. She peered out at him from the depths of her sorrow like a wounded mouse from its burrow. There was no understanding or comfort in those dark eyes, only pain.

Even to Tull, his words sounded hollow. It would take a more skillful speaker than he to paint a peaceful face on Denni’s death.

The only hope for his mother would be if those close to her could rescue her from her grief. So the Neanderthals gathered around her in a tight knot, touching her, whispering words of comfort.

Tull felt helpless, and the sentiment weighed him down like a stone. As a halfbreed, he was an outsider among the Pwi, tolerated more than welcomed, like a beggar who perpetually haunts a city. He let others carry the grim news to Tchar’s family, wishing that he could do more.

For nearly an hour he waited near the docks while the crowd swelled. One old woman mentioned that Chaa was still on his spirit walk, that after five days he was unconscious. Fava ran home to see him, so Tull and Ayuvah unloaded the boat and each carried two kegs of honey up to Theron Scandal’s inn.

It was late afternoon, and a warm gravitational wind had begun to sigh down from the mountains, hissing through the redwood trees. Up on the ridge above town, a tyrant bird, one of the smaller breed of dragons, swerved down the sky toward a redwood. It beat its stiff feathers once, twice, clutched the uppermost limbs in its talons, and swayed in the treetop.

Tull watched the tyrant bird, with its gaping teeth and blood-red serpentine head adorned with a venomous horn, and its cold intelligent eyes. The tyrant bird posed no threat to him, since the ancient human Starfarers had genetically programmed it to hunt for different prey, yet Tull shivered at the sight of it, for a rage in its eyes spoke of judgment and an eagerness for execution.

Tull and Ayuvah carried the kegs of honey uphill to Moon Dance Inn. Tull flipped his shoulder-length copper hair back to let the wind cool his neck.

Moon Dance Inn was a long two-story building. Its lower level was made of round river rocks held together by mortar, while the upper floor was carved of fine cedar, stained red.

Eight columns of hand-carved oak supported an upper balcony where, later each evening, half-clad ladies would call down to invite sailors and passersby up to their “bridal suites.”

Great thick vines of red roses climbed the oak columns, and flower boxes on the balcony trailed red trumpet vines.

Two albino peacocks strutted in the grass at the front of the inn. The muted colors in their plumage hinted at greens and blues as vibrant as an opal. They called “Ayaah, Ayaah,” as they fanned their tails in display and warily watched the whores' bastard children dash about the streets.

Theron Scandal, the owner of the inn, shambled out the front at that very moment, his thick arms covered with sweat and flour from working in the kitchens. He was a burly man, with a blunt nose and hair as dark as a black bear’s. He surveyed the street, scratched his beard, and nodded at Tull and Ayuvah.

Scandal waved impatiently. “Bust a testicle, boys! Get those kegs up here.” Ayuvah and Tull hurried into the stifling warmth of the inn and dropped the honey kegs on the counter of the bar.

The inn smelled of yeast and sizzling meat—the mouth-watering scent of rising rye-bread rolls coupled with the pungent odor of fermenting beer.

Scandal escorted the young men to a table, called to a serving boy for plates and mugs. “Only four kegs?” Scandal asked. “I wanted six.” Leatherwood honey was a prize, and Scandal was the only trader who dealt in the stuff. He’d regret losing the sixth barrel.

“We got only five,” Ayuvah apologized. “We have one more down in the boat. We had trouble—slavers.”

“Hunh,” Scandal said, as if preoccupied. He seemed to be gazing inward, and did not ask for details. “Time to settle up then,” he said. “But first, sit with me a moment. Have a fine dinner.”

Tull immediately knew that Theron had another job offer for him. It wasn’t polite to talk business with a Pwi on an empty stomach, so Tull and Ayuvah sat, staring up at the fat innkeeper with genuine interest.

The common room was sizzling hot—the sticky heat of late summer made intolerable by the blistering heat of cooking fires. Green bottle flies buzzed in and out the open doorway, glittering like emeralds when shafts of sunlight struck them.

A bowl of hazelnuts sat on the table. Scandal picked up a couple of nuts, cracked them between his thick fingers. At the sound, two gray squirrels scurried from the kitchen and climbed into his lap, poking their noses over the tables to sniff. Scandal set the nuts on the table and stroked the squirrels between the ears as they crunched the hazelnuts between their teeth.

A gangly youth brought mugs of dark, warm beer, plates of cabbage smothered in pungent white cheese, and sweet sausages rolled in grape leaves and flavored with curry and anise. Tull and Ayuvah drank deeply from the beer.

Scandal watched the boys intently, gauging them. Ayuvah was a Neanderthal, strong as an ox, one of the best hunters and guides on the coast. Tull was a young man, almost twenty. He had the broad, forward-thrusting face and dark-red hair of a Neanderthal, with thin eyebrows, each hair as distinct as a small copper nail over deep-set eyes the yellow-green color of dying grass. His hawkish nose was broad and close to the face. His shoulders were wide and muscular. All in all, he looked like a typical Neanderthal, except for a small chin beneath his thin beard—his only physical manifestation of human ancestry.

Though Tull had the powerful, clumsy hands of a Pwi, he struggled to hold his fork in a human grip, between his thumb and forefinger. Ah, but there’s more to Tull than to most Tcho-Pwi, Scandal reminded himself. You can see it in his eyes.

It wasn’t polite to talk business till after dinner, so Scandal watched the men for a moment.

Tull looked up. “Don’t buzzard over me,” he said in English, with a deep nasal accent. “I can’t eat when you’re buzzarding over me.”

Scandal laughed. He decided that since Tull was only half Pwi, he needed only wait until Tull was half finished with dinner before broaching the topic of business. “By the Starfarer’s hairless blue apricots, let’s get to the point! I want you men to come with me to Seven Ogre River!”

Scandal pounded his fist on the table like a sailor ordering dinner. The squirrels jumped from Theron’s lap at the noise and sped into the kitchen, shouting their warning cry.

Scandal kept a large “bird” from Hotland in a cage. The bird had wicked-looking teeth and hung upside-down, grasping the bars of its cage with clawed fingers. It twisted its head, and hissed at the men.

Tull shook his head violently, his mouth too full to speak.

Scandal knitted his brows. “Valis, more food!” he called. “Throw a hog in the barbecue pit if you must!” He turned back to Tull and Ayuvah. “Look—I need you! You’ve probably heard that we’ve been down to the hatching grounds and there isn’t a serpent left in these waters. The hatch has been down for three years, but I happen to know that the fall run up at Seven Ogre River was good last year, and I believe that we can go up there and catch some! Why, in Craal, the Slave Lords consider the baby sea serpents to be a delicacy, and they cart them live for hundreds of miles to serve at banquets. So, the idea came to me: Why not sneak in and catch us a hundred serpents, then bring them back and dump them into the sea, re-stock our waters? We’ll handle it just the way Rebamon Strong does his ponds, the way he stocks them with pike every few years!”

Tull and Ayuvah both stared at Scandal as if he were some madman. “Come now,” Scandal said, “It’s not a bad idea. Why, after the past couple of years, with the bad fish harvests and men leaving town, it only shows the way we’re heading if we don’t do something. I know the plan isn’t pretty, but several merchants hereabouts think it’s worth trying, and they’re financing the expedition. I’m even donating my three-thousand-gallon beer barrel as a container to hold the hatchlings while we transport them, and the masons are donating their wagon and a few mastodons to haul the thing. So, how about it? Want to come?”

“To Craal?” Ayuvah asked. “You are crazy! No!”

Scandal smiled and raised a hand to ward off Ayuvah’s refusal as if it were a blow. In his best bartering voice he said, “Dragging a damned wagon nine hundred miles through mountains infested with sabertooths, dire wolves, slavers and giant Mastodon Men—all to catch a barrel of sea serpents—might not sound like your idea of fun, but think of it as an adventure! I’ve got a handful of humans coming, delightful fellows good for banter, but we're going out into the Rough, where there are only mosquitoes and danger for company. I need you Tull—you and a dozen chinless Pwi with their strong backs to build me a road,” Tull kept shaking his head and Scandal kept talking, not pausing to breathe, hoping to say the right thing.

“And you, Ayuvah, you can scout our trail. With your sharp eyes, it will be an easy job. And you, Tull, you’ll be boss of the road crew! No digging for you, just lording it over others. Neither of you need to lift a hand the whole trip! Just give the Pwi their orders. You could eat like this—my finest meals, three times a day! All you have to do is convince some Pwi to come with us—at first I’d thought forty, then thirty—but I’ll settle for a dozen, make it twelve!”

Ayuvah spat, “None of the Pwi will go with you to Craal!”

“Look!” Scandal said, “People are talking. Already they’re calling this whole affair ‘Scandal’s Wondrous Blunder.’ Why, when I told the town of my plan and asked for volunteers, men evacuated their seats so fast they left turds on their stools. We haven’t even hooked the mastodon to the wagon yet, and already things are falling apart. So I need your help. I’m begging. When I’m lying cold in my grave, eating dirt and breathing worms, I don’t want to lose my eternal sleep worrying that people are still laughing at me. If you won’t do it for me, do it for the town. Get it through your thick heads: no fish, no money—and without the serpents to drive the fish in from the sea, we can’t catch them! After last spring’s failure, the town is doomed! You don’t have to piss in the wind to see which way it blows.”

“We don’t know that the serpent hatch failed,” Ayuvah protested. “The great mothers could have gone to the nesting grounds in the south this year.”

“For two hundred years they’ve followed the currents north!” Scandal answered with a sigh. He’d voiced this same argument a dozen times in the last week, yet no one seemed to want to believe the danger. “I tell you, there are no serpents lying in the hatching grounds at the Haystack Islands. Not one! I went down last week, and I’ve seen with my own eyes—not only are the young serpents gone, but the old ones that patrol the oceans between here and Hotland are gone as well. The sea lanes are open.”

Scandal let the pronouncement hang like a smokehouse ham in the hot air.

“Ayaah, I’ve heard,” Tull said. “But you’ve gotten ahead of yourself. Even if you can bring some serpents back alive, will they do any good? You might put a hundred in the bay and let them grow to eighty feet over the winter, but we don’t know why the old ones are dying. What if yours die, too? No, before you run into the wilderness you should wait for Chaa to return from his spirit walk.”

That damned Pwi shaman again, Scandal thought. “Use a little common sense!” Scandal said. “He started his spirit walk five days ago. We’ve barely got ten weeks to make it to the Seven Ogre River in time for the hatch. We can’t wait for him. As for the serpents—I’m sure it’s only a local problem. Why, I’ve talked to a dozen captains, and all of them have seen serpents this spring down in South Port! You figure it—we’ve had four warm years in a row, and with each warm year, the dinosaurs in Hotland get a little more active, and you know as well as I that a serpent can’t always take on a saur and come out alive. Maybe there’s been an explosion in the number of sailfins over the last few years, and they’ve cut into the serpents. That would explain why the serpent hatch has been low. But I tell you, that this year, here in the East, the serpents are wiped out!”

Ayuvah said, “You have no proof. We can only hope that the serpents come back.”

Scandal smiled. “That’s just Pwi talk, not to be taken seriously by real men. We both know the world doesn’t work that way. We must do more than hope.”

At another table, a brawny trader with a high voice began swearing loudly, drunkenly. Everyone turned to watch him, and Scandal frowned at the disturbance. The young servant, Valis, brought in more dishes: meat pies and rolls, blueberries in cream. “Do you really want me to roast a hog?” he asked.

“No,” Scandal sighed. “I really want you to get in the kitchen and wash the dishes.” The servant left.

Scandal shook his head in wonder, “I have to leave that idiot in charge. He’ll burn this place down to a heap of ashes while I’m gone. Here, try these blueberries.” Scandal said with a sigh, urging bowls on Tull and Ayuvah. “I got these fresh this morning from a hermit up on Finger Mountain. He grows them special. They’re marvelously piquant, almost tart I'd say—yet still deliciously sweet.”

Tull and Ayuvah scooped some berries from the bowls with their wide fingers, and tasted them. “Aaah,” Tull said. “They taste as blueberries should only taste in a dream.”

“You’d never guess the secret of growing such flavorful berries!” Scandal said. “You’ll never guess!”

Tull scooped some more and chewed them with obvious delight.

“It’s the soil,” Scandal said. “See, the farmer grows them in goat dung. It’s what gives them that marvelous piquancy. They’re grown in almost pure goat dung!”

Tull put the berries down, “Ayaah,” he drawled. “You are what you eat.” Then he smiled and leaned back in his chair and looked at Scandal. “So you want us to take a trip with you out into the Rough, help you drag a wagon nine hundred miles over mountains, fighting off the slavers from Craal with one hand and dire wolves with the other? All in the hope that we can catch some serpent hatchlings in a beer barrel and somehow keep them alive long enough to put them in the bay?”

Scandal nodded.

Tull pulled at his beard, and the bracelet of red and blue clamshells on his wrist rattled softly. “That sounds to me like Pwi talk, not to be taken seriously by real men. We both know the world doesn’t work that way.” He added with finality, “None of the Pwi will follow you to Seven Ogre River.”

Scandal suspected that Tull was right. He nodded glumly, his gaze downcast at the table. “I know,” he said. “But, Tull, you’ve got that look in your eye. My departed wife once put it succinctly. Even when you were just a child, she said you had ‘Revolution in your eyes—twin fires of rage and idealism.’ Now, if you could just put that idealism to some good use.” He stared away. “But I don’t blame you. It sounds like a fool’s plan. It’s all I could come up with. I’m no Spirit Walker … I can’t see into the future with any degree of certainty, but if we don’t do something, well then, we’re in trouble. Even if there are still some serpents out there, we can’t survive another year without the fish harvest. Men will keep leaving town. And if enough men keep leaving, you don’t have to worry about the slavers living in Craal. They’ll come here.”

Tull reached out and grabbed Scandal’s arm, startling him. “The men won’t leave town, and the slavers won’t come.”

Scandal eyed him a moment. Realization dawned. The word slave frightened Tull, put him on the defensive. “Oh, they’ll leave town when their families get hungry enough, if only to hunt up in the mountains. Just go out and let your eyes drift—they’re already leaving. And as for the slavers, they’re already here among us. Every shipping season someone disappears from the region—one or two people—not enough to rouse the city.”

Tull said, “You’ve got fog between your ears! Some merchants who sail these waters have tentacles, and they may snag one or two a year—but you accuse friends of that?”

Ayuvah touched Tull’s wrist. “Scandal didn’t mean to offend,” Ayuvah warned Tull. He turned to Scandal. “We were attacked by slavers on the trip. Denni and Tchar are dead.”

Scandal sat back in his chair, grunting as if he’d been slugged. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I had no idea. And here I have been talking about them as if it were a joke. Five kegs of honey for two good men. It’s a bitter trade.” Scandal sat a moment, looking off at nothing. He said gently, “Have a seat here a moment boys, I’ll get your pay for the trip.”

He went to his office, got the money, came back out and surveyed the guests quickly, making sure that the customers had plenty of food and drink on their tables. He stopped at a table, told a bawdy tale to a sailor and winked at one of the whores, signing for her to sit on the fellow’s lap. When he got to Tull and Ayuvah, he held out a bag of coins to Tull, jingled them in his hands.

“Three steel eagles a day, as promised,” Scandal said. “I put in a little extra for Denni and Tchar’s families, all right?”

“Ayaah,” Tull nodded.

“I made up your receipts,” Scandal said. “Put your marks down here.” Tull looked at the receipt and frowned, took the quill and signed his name. Ayuvah saw his concern, grabbed his arm, but Tull did not offer to read the human words on the receipt for him.

“I don’t mean to push,” Scandal said. “But a final word: You can look for work tomorrow and the next day, and with the harvest coming in, I’m sure you’ll have work a-plenty. But if you come with me, you won’t have to look for work. You'll get three steel eagles a day. If you can convince more Pwi to come, just remember it won’t be a trip for boys, but there will be a bonus in it for each person you recruit.”

Ayuvah spoke up in Pwi. “I have a final word for you: My grandfather sadly knew a Pwi—Ayanavi the Wise.”

Theron sensed a tale coming, and he scrunched his brow in concentration. Pwi tales often had a moral, but the morals were not always easy to understand.

“When Ayanavi was young and happy, the slavers took him to Craal. He tried to escape, so they put him to work in the mines and chained him to the wall. For three years, only the sweet memory of his wife and children kept him alive, and one day he finally chopped off his hand with a sharp stone and escaped his shackles. After hardships that gave him misery in the brain forever after, he found his way home.”

The room quieted as patrons began to listen in.

“But when he got home, his dismay overpowered him, for he found that his wife and children had been captured only five days before, and taken as slaves into Craal. Remember Scandal: that though to you this tale may seem an unfortunate irony, such are the tales of all men who escape Craal. The land is ruled by Adjonai, the God of Terror, and those who enter will find every detail of their lives controlled by him forever after.”

Theron didn’t believe in evil gods made of shadows, and perhaps his easy stance alerted the young Pwi. So Ayuvah leaned forward and said and whispered, “You speak lightly of making this journey because you do not believe in Adjonai, but he is real. If you go to Craal, he will control you forever after. Even speaking his name, I can feel his hand stretching out from the West. I tell you as a friend—give up this foolish idea for a journey.”

Scandal studied Ayuvah. The Neanderthal’s face was pale with fear, a strange expression on such a powerful young man. Yet Scandal knew that for the Neanderthals, Craal was a place of tremendously evil kwea, filled with legendary terrors. Scandal looked into Ayuvah’s face, and saw that he could not tempt the Pwi into Craal with three steel eagles a day. The only way he’d get them there would be to drag them in chains. Tull and Ayuvah were no cowards, but they wouldn’t go to Craal.

A powerful cold whirlwind whipped through the room, making Scandal’s hair stand on end. It was such a startling change from the sweltering summer heat that Scandal sat back in his chair, thinking that the wind might knock the plates from the table. But when he looked, even the feathers on Ayuvah’s necklace hadn’t stirred.

Scandal felt a pillar of cold off to his right. He reached out and touched it. It stood a few inches in front of him, and Scandal felt it as plainly as if it were the bole of a tree. A green nimbus, roughly shaped like a man, formed in the air beside Tull.

Scandal jutted his chin, pointing beside Tull. “Spirit Walker,” he said, in equal parts surprise and wonder.

Tull turned to his left, looked at the green figure.

Scandal spoke to the Spirit Walker, “Chaa, get back to your body! You’ve been gone for days. For God’s sake, the Pwi are getting scared!”

The green nimbus stretched out, touched Tull. The young man grabbed his stomach, and his eyes opened wide. For a second Tull seemed frozen, an expression of shock on his face.

“I can feel him, inside me,” Tull said, holding his belly.

Scandal watched Tull. “In another five minutes he’ll know more about you than you do,” Scandal said. “He’ll know the moment you’re destined to die … how it will come … whether you’ll ever marry.”

Scandal could not hide the awe in his voice. The Pwi Spirit Walkers never walked the paths of tomorrow for humans. Scandal had never even heard of a Spirit Walker who’d walked the future for a halfbreed like Tull.

The Pwi had a word for halfbreeds: Tcho-Pwi, the un-family, the no-people. It was not a word used maliciously as an epithet; it was merely descriptive. Halfbreed Neanderthals did not belong—not with humans, not with Pwi. The biological differences between the descendants of the human Starfarers and the Neanderthals were too great to be bridged in a generation, and children born to such a marriage seldom survived through infancy.

Tull held his stomach, and Ayuvah said, “This is bad! This is bad! If my father has resorted to walking the future for no-people, he must not have seen a good future for the Pwi.”

Scandal considered a moment. Ill never get them to come with me to Craal, he thought. But I have one chance—Chaa could send them. For the Spirit Walker, they’d ride a scimitar cat into hell.

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