IT WAS THE MORNING AFTER THE SENSUOUS SECOND FULL MOON of Telengarra, which heralds the coming of the spring rains, when little Colai came running into the village to cry that there were dead people washing up on the beach. And not just dead people, but people of unnatural aspect attired in strange clothes, whose pale faces were unmarked by ritual scars yet sometimes overgrown with hair.
Most of the village was not yet awake when the frantic boy came running and shrieking past the houses. At first his mother thought it was a trick. She caught him and shook him, angry that he should disturb everyone’s morning for the sake of a joke. Then she saw something that, like a piece of grit, had become caught at the bottom of his eyes, and stopped shaking him. Together they hurried to the house of the chief.
Asab was just emerging as they arrived. He fumbled to adjust his fine musa-skin cloak with the impressive dark blue stripes and the phophilant headdress with its sweeping crest of intense red and yellow feathers. He was clearly upset at having been rousted from his sleep before normal cockcrow. Hastily donned, his headdress kept threatening to slip from his head.
“I saw them, I saw them!” In addition to Asab, a crowd had begun to gather around Colai and his mother as the boy declaimed breathlessly.
“Now, child,” the chief intoned solemnly, “what is it you think you have seen?” Other men and a few of the women clustered close, rubbing sleep from their eyes while fighting back the sour morning taste of recent dreams.
“Dead people, Chief Asab! Many of them, very different from us.” The boy barely paused for air as he turned and pointed. “On the beach. Above where the mussels and the tyrex shells grow!”
Sleepy faces glistening with a reluctance to believe turned to the tall, lanky head of the village. Asab briefly considered the child’s harangue before finally frowning down at the anxious, panting youth.
“We will go and see. And for your sake, boy, there had better be something on the sand besides shells and dried sea noodles!”
While barren of all vegetation save a little grass and a few hardy weeds, the beach was not devoid of wood. Gigantic logs cast ashore by the cold Samoria Current littered the sand and protruded from rocky outcroppings where they had been hurled by violent storms. Interspersed among the unbranched, well-traveled forest giants were the whitening bones of demised sea creatures large and small: whales and serpents, birds and batwings, fish and stoneaters. From such bountiful detritus did the villagers recycle useful materials for their homes and barns.
“There!” Colai pointed, but the gesture was unnecessary. Everyone saw the hungry dragonets circling over the spot.
There were a dozen or more of the little black scavengers. Wings folded, another four or five sat on the sand picking at irregular lumps that on closer inspection resolved themselves into perhaps a dozen human figures. Ululating and waving their spears as they approached, the villagers frightened the carrion-eaters away. Hissing their displeasure, the raven dragonets rose into the transparent air on noisome, membranous wings, content for now to circle slowly overhead. They would wait.
Truth to tell, if anything Colai had understated the matter. The bodies were more than passing strange. Just as he had claimed, several showed faces matted with hair, mostly black or brown but some as yellow as the gold that Morixis the Trader brought from the far southern mountains. The figures were clad in an excessive amount of clothing, all of it dyed overbright and some fashioned of cloth so fine it was soft as a little girl’s tears.
On top of this barbaric display of color most also wore armor of heavy cured leather of a type unknown to Asab or any of the other village warriors. Scenes that showed men fighting with one another and strange animals and buildings were deeply embossed on breastplates and leggings. With so much weight to carry it was a wonder that any of them had been washed ashore.
Asab and two of his best warriors knelt beside one man. With one exception, all the bodies on the beach were shorter and stockier than the average villager. They were also exclusively male.
“See.” Tucarak ran a finger along the dead man’s exposed cheek. It was cold with the damp of the sea and infused with death. “How smooth the skin is. How untouched.” With his other hand he traced the curving scar, a sign of manhood, that decorated his own cheek.
“And how pale,” added a disapproving Houlamu as he rose. “Who are these men, and where do they come from?” Raising his gaze, he squinted out to sea. Nothing was to be seen save the dark, chill water, not even a lingering cloud. There were only the endlessly rolling waves and the amazingly homogeneous deep blue of the morning sky.
“Well, they are dead, and I am sure they would not want their dying to be wasted.” With that Asab ceremoniously began the salvaging of the deceaseds’ belongings, beginning with their curious apparel and assiduously examining every bulge and pocket for anything, however foreign and exotic, that might prove useful to the village.
“Can we safely eat them, do you suppose?” Tucarak held a blood-and-salt-water-soaked shirt up to the sun. “They look like men. So they should taste like men.”
“Ho-yah,” agreed Asab. “We will let old Fhastal try a bit of leg. She will eat anything.” The chief chuckled softly. “If it does not kill her, we will know it is safe for the rest of us.”
Houlamu contemplated the proposed dismemberment with distaste. “You can eat them if you wish. I only eat what I know. Or who I know.” He nudged another of the limp bodies roughly with the butt of his spear.
“These are plumper folk than the Koipi or the Nalamhat.” As he spoke, Tucarak was tugging hard on the corpse’s unusual footgear. It was much too awkward and heavy to be worn on Naumkib feet, of course, but cut into pieces it might provide the makings for a couple of pairs of serviceable sandals. “If anything, I would think they would taste better than our neighbors.”
While the chief and his warriors debated the deceased visitants’ suitability for the cooking pot, other members of the tribe wandered up and down the waterline in search of other bodies. Among the searchers was a particularly tall warrior, tall even for a Naumkib, whose somber aspect was the subject of much good-natured gibing among his peers. In response to the frequent jokes made at his expense, Etjole would always smile tolerantly and nod. He was not one to spoil the fun of his hunting companions even when he was the butt of their entertainment.
“Help … me….”
The words were barely audible, and for a moment Etjole Ehomba thought they were only subtle distortions of the surf-music, sprinkled upon his innocent ears like wind-blown foam. Having paused momentarily, he started to resume his walk, convinced he had heard nothing.
“Please … by whatever god you pray to … help me….”
Not foam, not wind, but the dying utterances of a man very like himself. Halting, Ehomba looked northward along the shore with a tracker’s experienced eyes, sweeping the rocks and sand for signs of life. Eventually, he found it—or what was left of it.
The man was younger than himself, sturdily built, and clad in the most elaborate garments anyone had yet seen on the bodies on the beach. His fine leather armor extended down to cover his upper arms and legs, but it had not been enough to preserve him. There was a great hole in his right side, through which glistening red flesh and pale white bone were clearly visible. Ehomba wondered how he had survived even this long with so deep a wound. It was ragged around the edges, clear evidence of a bite. Whatever had done it had bitten clean through the thick, tough armor. A big shark might have made such a wound, he knew. There were many sharks in the waters offshore from the village. Yes, it might have been a shark—or something else.
The man’s hair was straight, shoulder length, and golden. Very different from the thick braids that were bound up in a tight bunch at the back of Ehomba’s neck. He marveled at the wispy strands. Leaning forward, he wiped sea slime and sand from the pallid face. At his kindly touch, the other’s eyes opened. They were a delicate, diluted blue, but not yet entirely dimmed, and they focused immediately on him.
“You … who are … ?”
“I am Etjole Ehomba, of the tribe of Naumkib. You and many others have been cast ashore on the beach below our village. Your companions are all dead.” His gaze flicked briefly over the cavity in the younger man’s torso. “You are dying too. I know a little medicine, but not enough to help you. Not even the old wise women of the village could help what I see. It is too late.”