Despite the drizzle, men and women were out working their fields, broad-brimmed hats and capes providing some protection from the weather. Kora Keri was a modest town, surviving both on trade and on the production of all manner of growing things. Though the soil was barely adequate, the river supplied a constant, reliable source of water. It was very different from home, where potable water was as precious as gold and the herds had to be moved periodically from water hole to water hole, pasture to meager pasture.
Watching the farmers at work in their fields as he strode past, he decided that he was glad he had not grown up in such a well-watered land. Too much ease made a man soft, and lazy. He was neither, nor were any of his friends back in the village. If necessary, they could survive in the harshest desert imaginable armed with only a digging stick and clad only in a loincloth. He allowed himself a slight smile, wondering if Rael had factored that knowledge into her predictions. The Naumkib had survived many disasters. Surely he could survive one.
Who knew? Perhaps this Hymneth the Possessed would prove amenable to reason, or even better, would have lost interest in his abducted lady by the time Ehomba reached the land where he held sway. Even beautiful women were known to bore powerful men eventually, and vice versa. The real trial Ehomba faced might consist solely of reaching the sorcerer’s country—if indeed he was a sorcerer. For all her skill, Rael had seemed uncertain as to his true vocation, if not his nature.
Well, Ehomba would find out. He hoped he would not have to fight the fellow. Fighting was a waste of time when a man could be looking after his herds and raising his family. Perhaps this Hymneth was not possessed by evil, but only by unhappiness, or a choleric disposition. Ehomba was good at making friends. Most people liked him instinctively. With luck, so would this Hymneth the Possessed.
Water, mud, and saturated vegetable matter sloshed through his toes. Boots would have kept his feet dry, but he could not imagine wearing footgear that completely enclosed his feet. A man’s soles had to breathe. Besides, the air was warm, and whatever liquid ran into the front of his sandals quickly ran out the back.
Gradually he left the cultivated fields and struggling orchards behind. The modest road he had been following shrank to a rutted track, then to a trail, until it finally disappeared in undisturbed grass that rose to his knees. Startled by his approach, birds and small flying reptiles exploded from cover to flee, squawking or hissing, in many directions. When he was hungry enough, he killed something to eat.
* * * *
Several days out from Kora Keri, he reached a broad but very shallow river whose name he did not know. Wide sandbars protruded from water that ran clear over gravelly shallows. Unlike his crossing of the Aurisbub, here he confronted a watercourse that he would not have to swim.
Making sure his pack was secure, he hefted it a little higher on his back and was preparing to make his way down the gently curving bank when a voice hissed, softly but distinctly, “Man, I am going to kill you.”
At first he could not find the source of the declaration. Only when he lowered his gaze markedly did he see the snake lying coiled in the grass where it gave way to the mud of the bank. It was ten or eleven feet long and a light lavender color, its scales shining brightly in the sun. No spots or stripes decorated its body, which helped to explain why he had not seen it. It was within easy striking distance of the place where he had put his foot. He knew that a poisonous snake that large would carry a lot of venom, and even though he did not recognize the type, he doubted its words no less than its intent.
Pushing his lips close together, he responded in the language of the legless. The snake’s head drew back at his reply. Plainly it was not used to being addressed by a human in its own tongue.
“You sspeak the wordss that sslither. What kind of human are you that you do sso?”
“Just a herdssman, long brother.” To show that he meant no harm, and that he was not afraid, Ehomba sat down on the side of the bank, letting his feet dangle over the edge. “There are ssome herdssmen who believe that a ssnake sshould be killed on ssight, to protect their animalss. Mysself, I do not believe in killing anything unless it iss for a much more sspecific reasson.”
The snake’s head lowered and it eyed the seated man with great curiosity. In his seated, relaxed position, Ehomba was quite helpless before the serpent, and the snake knew it. Realizing that it could kill the biped anytime it wished, the inquisitive reptile slithered closer.
“Enlightened, as well as articulate. What if I were to kill one of your animalss? How then would you ssee me?”
Ehomba shrugged, gazing out across the river as if he had not a care in the world, including the impressively venomous reptile that had approached to within an arm’s length of his exposed leg.
“All creaturess have to eat. Mysself, I am very fond of meat. So I undersstand.”
“Is that sso? I have heard that ssome humanss conssume only fruitss and vegetabless.”
The herdsman smiled down at the serpent. “Long brother, we each of uss eatss what ssuits our belliess. As for mysself, I cannot imagine ssurviving on a diet of nutss and grass.”
The snake hissed appreciatively. “I, too, long for ssomething warm and bloody to sslide down my throat. It iss the most deliciouss feeling. But you are human: You burn your food before you eat it.”
“Not alwayss. It sso happenss that I mysself also enjoy the occassional tasste of raw flessh.”
Uninvited, the snake slid the upper portion of its body onto Ehomba’s lap. It was heavy, and like the rest of its kind, as solid as a flexible steel cable. He could not escape now if he wanted to—but he did not want to. He was enjoying the conversation. Not all snakes were so voluble.
“What a remarkable human you are. I think maybe I will not kill you.”
“I appreciate that. It would sspoil what hass otherwisse been a good day.” Reaching down with one hand, he allowed the snake to slither onto it. Lifting it up, he found himself eye-to-eye with the business end of cold, smooth flesh. Personified by penetrating, slitted, unblinking oculi, Death loomed only inches away. For its part, Death regarded him cordially.
“Bessides,” he added, “I am too large for you to sswallow anyway.”
The serpent’s tongue flicked out, delicately exploring Ehomba’s lips. “You tasste good. Warm and wet. But you are right.”
Gently, mischievously, the herdsman moved his hand from side to side, carrying the snake’s head with it. The reptile did not object to the play. “Then why did you want to kill me?”
“You sstartled me. I don’t like to be sstartled, esspecially when I am hunting. Alsso, I have not killed anything in many dayss.”
“As far as that goess, long brother, I am hungry too.” Lowering his hand, he let the snake’s head slip back into his lap. “Would you sshare a meal with me? I will find ssomething of the right ssize to ssuit both our gulletss.”
Raising its upper body three feet off the ground, the disbelieving reptile contemplated its unexpected new friend. “You would do thiss for me? After I promissed your death?”
Rising, the herdsman brushed dirt and mud from the seat of his kilt. “Why not? When I meet ssomeone else on the road I am alwayss willing to sshare a meal with them. That iss the right way of traveling.”
“If thiss iss a trick, my brotherss will find you.” The snake weaved back and forth as it spoke.
Ehomba smiled. “No matter. Your ssmall brotherss the wormss will have me one day regardless. Now come with me, and let uss ssee what we can find to kill. I am a good tracker.”
“You have the advantage of height,” the snake declared, “while I musst rely on ssmell, and on heat.”
After several hours of searching, Ehomba found the spoor of a capybara and tracked it to an inlet of the river where a small herd of the giant rodents lazed in the warm shallows. Two juveniles provided more than enough food for both hunters. In deference to the sensibilities of his companion, the herdsman ate his rodent raw. The serpent was appreciative.
“The ssmell of cooked meat makess me nauseouss.” Though coiled tightly next to the herdsman’s campfire, the snake could not hide the bulge that now dominated its middle. Swallowing the young capy had been a slow process, and Ehomba had stood guard until the serpent had finished. “I thank you for your courtessy.”