Simply choosing a suitable site presented unique problems of its own. Standing in six inches of water with not a suggestion of dry land visible in any direction, the prospect of a fire was out of the question, much less any thoughts of lying down and keeping dry. Big as he was, Ahlitah would have no trouble keeping his head above water during the night, but it was not inconceivable that Ehomba or Simna could roll over in their sleep and drown. Furthermore, soaking themselves to the skin for an entire night was not the best way of ensuring continued good health.
“Gembota, but this is awkward.” Muttering to himself, Simna sloshed through the tepid shallows in search of someplace to drop his pack, and found none. “What are we going to do until morning?” He eyed the great cat’s broad back speculatively. Correctly interpreting the swordsman’s appraising stare, Ahlitah lifted a massive paw and shook his head.
“Put it out of your mind, little man. No one sleeps on me. Up against me, perhaps, for mutual warmth, but only if I am in a sociable mood. But on my back, never. It would be demeaning.”
“We have to do something.” A peevish Simna kicked at the omnipresent water. “We can’t lie down and safely go to sleep in this. Never mind that we’d wake up sodden through and at risk of catching a fever. Isn’t that right, Etjole? Etjole?”
Ehomba’s attention was concentrated elsewhere. Instead of looking at their feet for a campsite, he was looking up. Specifically, at a small irregularly shaped hovering pond, the center of which boasted a small sandy island from which grew a trio of juvenile casuarina pines.
“Up there?” Simna sloshed over to stand alongside his tall friend. “But the island is floating. Put the three of us on it and our weight will make it sink to the bottom of this watery mass.”
“I do not think so.” Ehomba continued to study the drifting aerial pond. “If weight was going to do that, I would think the heaviness of the soil itself would be enough to sink it. And there are the trees it supports—not giants, it is true, but not saplings, either. I think we should give it a try.
“Besides, what is the worst thing that could happen? The island will sink beneath us and we will fall into the pond.”
“And drown,” Simna added. “That’s a little too much of a ‘worst thing’ for me.”
“We would not drown,” Ehomba assured him. “Even if we sank to the bottom, all you would have to do is rip a hole in the pond’s underside and all the water would come spilling out, along with the fish, and frogs, and plants, and us.”
Simna was still dubious. “It doesn’t make any sense. If I can poke a hole in the wall of one of these deluded bodies of water, why don’t fish and salamanders and snails and tree roots do it all the time?”
“An adaptation to where they are living, I imagine.” The herdsman pursed his lips as he regarded his friend. “We hike through a land where the lakes and ponds and puddles all float about away up in the air, where you can walk around and beneath them, and you wonder about such matters?”
Though still reluctant, Simna was willing to be convinced. Besides, the only alternative promised a night of little sleep and unrelenting wet. He glanced over at the patient Ahlitah.
“How about it, bruther cat? What do you think?”
Their feline companion shrugged, his ebony mane twitching as he did so. “Why put it to me? I am only a nomadic quadrupedal carnivore of commingled ancestry. Aren’t humans the ones who are supposed to have the big brains? That’s what you’re always saying, anyway. Or are you experiencing some second thoughts about your own cerebral propaganda?”
A bemused Simna turned back to Ehomba. “Ask a simple question, get a biting discourse. All right, I guess it can’t hurt to try. One way or the other, it looks like we’re gonna get soaked. The question is, for how long?” He glanced upward. “It’s getting dark, and I don’t fancy trying to find a better spot in the middle of the night. Not in this muck.”
“That is good.” Turning, the herdsman positioned himself next to the transparent wall of the hovering pond. “Because you get to go in first.”
“Me? Why me?” Simna hedged.
Looking back over his shoulder, Ehomba eyed his stocky friend considerately. “If you want me to go, you get to boost me up.”
“No.” The reluctant swordsman scrutinized the watery wall. “I’ll go.”
Scrambling up Ehomba’s legs and back as the herdsman braced himself against the transparent wall of water, Simna was soon balancing on the herdsman’s shoulders. Gripping the upper rim of the pond, he pushed down and up. The rubbery wall gave a little, sending small fish scurrying in the opposite direction and letting water spill through the depression created between Simna’s downward pressing hands. Then the swordsman was up and over the rim, swimming for the central island while doing his best to keep his kit as dry as possible.
Together, man and litah watched as Simna hauled himself out on the island and stood up, shaking water from his limbs like a slow dog. Experimentally, he jumped up and down a couple of times.
“Well?” Ahlitah growled impatiently.
“The ground gives a little, like a wet mattress, but I don’t think it’s going to sink under us. Come on over.” Turning, he carried his pack inland and set it down beneath one of the shady pine trees.
Ehomba turned to eye his remaining companion questioningly. Grumbling but complaisant, the cat advanced and placed itself next to the bottom of the watery mass.
“Tread easily, Etjole Ehomba. No man who was not a meal has ever done this before.”
“I will step lightly,” the herdsman assured him. So saying, he placed a foot on the litah’s right thigh and stepped up onto his back. From there he was able to pull himself up and over the rim of the pond into the water.
It was a short, easy swim to the island, where Simna was trying to dry himself with some large leaves he had scavenged. Wading out of the water, Ehomba settled down nearby and began to fumble inside his own pack. A violent splash made him look up. Ahlitah had negotiated the intervening height in a single effortless leap and was paddling toward them, his magnificent head held as high above the water as he could manage.
“One thing’s for sure.” Removing his leather armor and undershirt, Simna hung them over a casuarina branch to dry. “If we can get a fire started here, we can let it burn high all night without having to worry about it spreading. Hoy—have a care, there!”
He threw up his hands to shield himself and Ehomba turned away as Ahlitah shook vigorously, sending water flying from his fur. A marinated cat was a comical sight, Ehomba knew, even as he was careful to keep his expression perfectly neutral. He was not certain that Ahlitah’s pithy sense of humor extended to amusement at his own loss of dignity.
As it turned out, they were able to start a fire, but only a small one. Still, the additional warmth was welcome more for its aid in drying out their clothes than for their bodies.
“Not that this is very useful.” Simna was lightly toasting his underwear over the cheery blaze. Nearby, Ehomba was filleting the fish Ahlitah had scooped out of the pond with a couple of leisurely swipes of his huge paws. “We’re only going to have to drench ourselves again tomorrow when it’s time to leave and move on.”
“Perhaps not.” Ehomba, as he so often did, was looking not at the swordsman but past him. And as he so often did, Simna followed the direction of the tall herdsman’s gaze and saw nothing.
“Why? Why not?” His expression brightened. “I know! You’re finally going to do some real magic and float us out of here! Or call up a boat—no, that wouldn’t work in water as shallow as that which covers the real ground below.”
“I have told you,” an exasperated Ehomba replied, “I cannot do magic.”
“Yeah, right, sure.” The swordsman winked at Ahlitah who, head resting on crossed forefeet, did not respond. “Then if not by magic, how are you going to keep us from having to get good and wet again?” He gestured at their surroundings. “Going to drain the pond with us in the middle of it? I’m not sure that’d be such a good idea. The wondrous envelope that holds this water aloft might collapse in upon us, wrapping us up like a holiday present and suffocating us in the bargain.”
“I am not sure exactly what I am going to do. I was thinking of assaying some engaging conversation.”