Hands held high over his head, he waddled up to the herdsman and wrapped long arms around the human’s waist. The powerful, slim arms gave a sharp, quick hug. “Good-bye, Etjole Ehomba. I will always think of you as a hero, because to believe you a fool would cause me too much pain.”
Reaching down, Ehomba gave the troop leader’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. “Believe me, it does my digestion no good to think of it either.”
Raising his spear over his head with the shaft held parallel to the ground, he made sure his pack and weapons were secure against his back. Then, to the surprise and delight of the troop, especially the young ones, he plunged into the Aurisbub, showing Gomo that it was not necessary for him to find a way across.
Behind him, the female monkeys set up a lilting ululation that followed him as far as the middle of the river, where the coppery tonal palette of their combined voices became lost amid the swirling babble of running water. Here where the river was broad, the current was very weak. He was a strong swimmer, and the far shore was already looming near.
He grew gradually aware that he had company.
The frog was the biggest he had ever seen. Between its extended legs and its body it was at least as long as his arm. Dark green with black spots, it swam parallel to him on the surface, kicking once for every three strokes of his while tracking his progress with great bulging eyes. These were covered by some kind of transparent mask or goggles to which was attached an upward curving tube manufactured from some exotic, bright blue material. In addition, strange webbed footwear of the same matching blue substance covered the frog’s feet, and it was clad in a false skin of some shiny turquoise-hued fabric.
“You swim well,” the frog commented as it kicked along.
“What are you wearing?” Ehomba’s arms pulled him through the water even as his legs pushed him forward.
“Mask, snorkel, fins, wet suit. I’m a great believer in redundancy, man. When others of my kind must turn away and flee, these let me get by in those places where the water turns to liquid methane.” Behind the mask, one bulging eye winked knowingly. “There’s good hunting in liquid methane, if you know where to look and don’t let the cold get to you.”
Ehomba rolled onto his back and continued kicking. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“There are many extraordinary places in the world where most folks fear to go, man. But not me.” It grinned at him, but then it was always grinning. Like most frogs, this one couldn’t help it. “A friend of mine is an eagle with no taste for amphibians. You ought to see his jet backpack.”
“What manner of magic might that be?” Ehomba inquired. But there was no reply, for the outlandishly equipped batrachian had already arched its limber spine and dived, to be seen no more. The herdsman did not dwell on the strangeness of what he had seen or what the frog had said. There was indeed much that was odd in life, and a man who allowed it to trouble his mind would find his time on Earth forever dominated by nagging second thoughts about the stability of his cosmos.
His right foot struck something hard and unyielding, and for a moment he tensed. But it was only the bottom of the river, coming up to greet him. Emerging from the shallows, he looked back the way he had come. Though he could see clearly to the far bank, there was no sign of the troop. Having made their farewells, they had, as Gomo indicated they would, started on the way back to their southern forest.
Water dripped from him, drying as it fell, while he checked his gear to make sure nothing had been lost in the crossing. Assured that all was intact, he turned to the east and resumed walking. In the warm, humid atmosphere that clung to the river, the breeze created by his fast pace swept across his sodden clothes and helped to cool him.
He made a solitary camp that night by the river’s edge. In the absence of the chattering, hyperactive monkeys, the silence that engulfed him was stupendous. The stars seemed to edge closer, as if interested in inspecting the lone man crouched next to the small fire, eating by himself in the darkness.
He thought he felt something brush against him. A chill like a thin stream of ice water ran down his back and he whirled, but if there was anything prowling the night, it was no more palpable than darkness itself. He saw nothing. Taking a deep breath, he lay down and wrapped himself in his blanket. If something wanted to take him while he slept, there was nothing he could do about it. A man must sleep. He would rely, as always, on his tracker’s intuition and alertness to awaken him if anything approached too near. Even an eromakadi, though he was not too worried about that.
After all, there was clinging to him no exceptional brightness, no radiant happiness, and therefore nothing to make him particularly attractive to those malevolent ephemera that haunted the margins of what most men falsely believed to be an immutable reality.
MORNING BROUGHT RENEWED DETERMINATION TO PRESS ON. Just as Gomo had promised, the cultivated fields that marked the outskirts of the city by encircling Kora Keri like a verdant necklace soon came into view.
To say that the town was a colossal disappointment might have been too strong a conclusion, but at first glance it certainly was not what Ehomba had either expected or hoped for. In fairness to Gomo, the troop leader had never ventured an actual description of the municipality. He had only said that Ehomba might find useful directions or assistance there. It was good, the herdsman reflected as he walked toward the gate in the defensive mud wall that encircled the community proper, that he had hoped for nothing more.
From what he could see, Kora Keri had little to boast of but size. There were no towering temples, no marble palaces, no architectural marvels rendered in stone and brick. Though clearly a much poorer place than he had expected, the town was also far more populous. Plenty of activity was visible beyond the gate, through which a line of horse- and camel-drawn wagons, buffalo carts, giant cargo-carrying sloths, and pedestrians was slowly filing. A brace of husky guards checked bundles and packages, though for what manner of contraband Ehomba did not know. Fetching up against the back of the line, he patiently awaited his turn to enter.
“Well, a stranger stranger than usual.” The guard rubbed at an itch beneath the brim of his tightly wound, bright blue turban and gawked at the tall herdsman standing before him.
“From the south, I would think.” Approaching Ehomba, one of the other guards sniffed ostentatiously at the visitor. “This one stinks of sheep and cattle—and something else.” He inhaled again and made a show of analyzing the aroma, like some degenerate oenophile pondering a particularly pungent vintage. “I’ve got it. Monkey! He stinks of monkey.”
All five of the sentries on duty laughed while offering their own crude comments. One stepped up to poke the herdsman ungently in the ribs. “Tell me, herdsman: What are the hidden meanings of this distinctive perfume? Does it mean that when you are not consorting with sheep, you like to screw in the treetops?”
“You’d better watch your step in Kora Keri,” another advised gleefully. “The whores here prefer hard coin, not bananas.” Once more the mirth was general.
In response to this widespread jollity Ehomba offered no comment; he simply stood and waited patiently for a remark worth responding to. Wiping at his eyes as the laughter finally began to fade, the officer in charge confronted the traveler with something resembling formality. Behind him, the line waiting to enter the inner city was growing longer, and murmurs of impatience could be heard rising from drivers and tradesfolk.
“So then, monkey lover, what is your business here?”
“I am only passing through.” Ehomba maintained a straight-ahead gaze and did not look at the guard.
“Passing through, eh?” The officer winked at his men, who were thoroughly enjoying themselves at the stranger’s expense. “Passing through to where?”
“To the north,” Ehomba explained candidly.
“Really? You’d best not go too far north. It is said there is big trouble brewing there.” He took a step back and fingered the hilt of the sword scabbarded at his waist. “One gold piece entrance fee.”
Ehomba frowned slightly. “I did not see anyone else paying an entrance fee.”
The officer’s expression darkened. “You need to look closer, then. Maybe there’s something wrong with your eyes.” His voice darkened. “If not, a little partial blindness can be arranged.” Reaching down, he drew the sword partway from its scabbard.