“You’re welcome.” Ehomba chewed slowly on a strip of haunch. It was greasy, as was all rodent meat, but not unflavorful.
“I want to give you ssomething, human. As thankss for your help in hunting, and as a reminder of our friendsship. Ssomething very sspecial. I ssee that you carry water with you.”
The herdsman rested a hand on the leather water bag that was fastened to his pack. “I need it more than your kind.”
“Bring it closse to me. I would go to it, but I am full.”
Obediently, Ehomba removed the sloshing sack and placed it close to the snake.
“Open it.” Puzzled, the herdsman complied.
Moving forward, the serpent promptly bit down on the metal rim of the bag. Ehomba could just make out the twin rivulets of poison that ran down the grooved fangs to filter into the leather. When it had finished, the snake drew back.
“I have meassured the dose carefully, man. Drink it sslowly, a little at a time. By the time you have finisshed the last drop, you will be immune. Not only to my poison, but to many other kindss.” The scaly head bowed, pointing groundward. “It iss my gift to you.”
Gingerly, Ehomba used a patch from the repair kit that he carried to reseal the two tiny punctures. Though dubious of the snake’s claim, he was willing to give it a try. He was not worried about swallowing the diluted toxin. If the snake wanted to kill him, it could do so easily, at any moment.
“Thank you for your gift, long brother.” Leaning back on the pillow of his pack, he let his gaze drift upward, toward the stars. “And now I think we should ssleep.”
“Yess.” The serpent placed its head on its coils and closed its eyes. “Try not to wake me in the morning, man. I will ssleep for sseveral dayss.”
“I will be quiet as a mousse,” Ehomba assured it.
The sibilant hiss was already diffuse as the snake drifted off into sleep. “I am quite, quite full. Sso pleasse: Do not sspeak to me of food.”
TRUE TO HIS WORD, EHOMBA MADE NO NOISE AT ALL WHEN HE awoke the following day. Ephemeral as a baby’s breath on a cold morning, mist was rising from the shallow surface of the river. In the green-heavy trees on the opposite bank, a querulous parakeel screeched in solitary joy at having been granted another day of existence.
Gathering his gear about him, Ehomba parted from the serpent, reaching out to give it one final, friendly caress. Its skin was cool and dry to the touch. He had always marveled at town women who recoiled in horror from any snake, no matter how small or harmless, but who would without a qualm gladly dress themselves in snakeskin sandals or belt. The self-contradictions of his fellow man never failed to bemuse him. As for the serpent, it did not even stir, embalmed as it was in the arduous slumber of slow digestion.
Wading the gurgling, slowly running river, which at its deepest never climbed over his knees, Ehomba splashed as little as possible so as not to wake the snake—or any dozy, lurking river denizens. Slivers of silver shot past him as small schools of fingerlings twinkled like elongated stars around and past his legs. Their biology was not uppermost in his mind as he studied them thoughtfully. Unlike the great reptile he had left drowsing on the bank behind, Ehomba could still think about food.
He took an experimental sip from the water bag. The taste was slightly bitter, but not intolerable. At once, his heart began to race and a dull pounding thumped at the front of his forehead. But both faded quickly, leaving him much relieved. The snake had been true to its word.
He reached the far bank without incident. Soon the character of the landscape began to change radically. Instead of desert, or flat fertile plains, or river bottom, unchecked vegetation overwhelmed the land. He had entered true jungle, a riot of crackling greenery and noisy creatures. Such places had been only a rumor to him, as they were to anyone who had been raised in the dry, barren country to the south.
As he strode along beneath the towering boles he marveled at the variety and shapes of the growths that closed in around him. Who would have thought that the world contained so many different kinds of trees, so many varieties of vine, so many strangely shaped leaves? The plethora of insects that flew, crawled, and hopped within the forest was equally astonishing.
He had no trouble walking. The tallest trees spread their uppermost branches wide, blocking much of the sky and keeping the light from reaching the ground. There, the competition for life-giving sunlight was intense among seedlings and saplings. Gomo and his troop would love the place, he mused.
There was no trail. No traders came this way, no farmers tilled fields this far north of Kora Keri. He had to make his own way. That was a prospect that did not trouble him. It was something he had been doing all his life.
Brilliantly tinted birds whistled and sang in the branches, dragoneels cawed, and small, uncivilized primates rustled the treetops. While watching them, he kept a sharp eye out for snakes and insects on the forest floor, where downed logs and accumulating litter made it hard to see the actual ground. Stepping over a rotting log, he was careful to avoid the bristly fungi that had sprouted along its degenerating length. Some mushrooms and toadstools were toxic to the touch, he knew, while others provided shade to tiny intelligences whose whimsical approach to existence he did not want to have to deal with right now.
A second, larger log lay ahead and he had prepared to clamber over it as well—when he saw that it was not a log. Slowing his approach, he reached out to touch the mysterious barrier. To his left it extended as far into the forest as he could see, while in the other direction it eventually made a sweeping curve northward. A splotchy grayish white, it was gouged and battered along much of its inexplicable length.
At first he thought it was made of some kind of stone, but up close he could not find a place where individual sections had been mortared, cemented, or otherwise fitted together. The surface was rough but not pebbly. About five feet high and flat on top, it was slightly wider at the base, giving it a triangular shape.
Who had built such a redoubtable structure in the middle of the jungle, and why? Looking around, he saw no evidence of other construction; no crumbling temples, no imploded homes, no collapsed warehouses. The ground offered up soil, leaves, fungi, insects, dung, and other organic material, but except for the wall, there was not a hint of artificiality. Not a shard of rock, shattered lumber, or disintegrating brick. There was only the winding, smooth-sided, unaccountable barrier.
Despite the damage that had been done to it, it was largely intact, giving evidence of considerable engineering skill on the part of its makers. Turning to his right, he followed its length until he came to a place where a foot-high section had been gouged from the top. The exposed interior revealed fine gravel in addition to the compositing material itself.
The break offered a slightly easier place to cross. Looking down the length of the wall, he considered following the rightward curve until it no longer blocked his way north. Or, he thought, he could cross the wall here and save a little time. Placing a hand on either side of the break, he boosted himself up, put his feet down in the modest gap, and stepped through.
The air changed. The forest, abruptly, was gone. And the shrieking organisms that ignored him even as they surrounded him were like nothing he had ever seen before.
A lesser man would have panicked, would perhaps have gone running out into the howling herds to be instantly trampled to death. More poised than most of his kind, Ehomba froze while he tried to take stock of his surroundings. Facing the utterly unexpected, he knew, was not unlike confronting a rampaging mammoth. Best to stand motionless, appraise the situation from every possible angle, and hope the wind was against you.
Given the chaos into which he had stepped, it was not an easy course to follow.
The very air itself stank of unnameable poisons. Reflecting its composition, it was as brown as the backside of a brick kiln. Barely visible through the haze, buildings taller than Ehomba had ever seen or heard tell of towered into a blistering sky through which the feeble disk of the sun struggled to shine. Then he saw that the raging herds of wailing creatures that surrounded him on all sides were not animals, but vehicles.