“Will you have a look at that.” Simna was grinning and shaking his head even as he began removing his own accoutrements. “I suppose any chance to get clean is a welcome one.”
“Not at all.” Lying down on his side, the litah promptly dropped his head onto the soft earth and closed his eyes. Simna eyed the big cat disapprovingly.
“Going to sleep again?”
One piercing yellow eye popped open to fix him in its glare. “When not hunting or screwing I usually spend eighty percent of my time sleeping. It’s what we big cats do. And we do it well.” The eye closed and Ahlitah rolled over so that his back was facing the human. “Go soak yourself, if you must. It’s a human thing.”
Simna started to turn away, then paused. An entirely impish smile spread across his face. Searching until he found what he needed, he walked to the water’s edge, knelt, and then retraced his steps, tiptoeing up to the back of the cat.
The litah’s roar as the swordsman dumped the contents of the hollow gourd onto the big cat’s slumbering face shook the transparent epidermis of the pond and caused cones to fall from the shading casuarinas. With a whoop of delight, Simna had spun around and raced for the water. He had just enough of a lead to beat his pursuer to the pond.
His face twisted into a black rictus of pure ferocity, Ahlitah paced rapidly back and forth along the shore. “You’ve got to come out sometime, little man. When you do, I’ll twist you up so tight you’ll have to drink your own piss!”
“Just as I’ve always suspected.” Treading water, Simna made faces at the outraged feline. “The bigger the cat, the smaller its sense of humor.”
His eyes bugged and his expression was radically altered when, with a warning roar, the litah suddenly crouched and sprang directly toward him. Ducking, the swordsman kicked frantically for the bottom of the pond.
Massive paws dug at the water, but not for long. Soon Ahlitah was bucking and jerking as first one dolphin then another prodded him from below with their snouts, or blew bubbles beneath his belly. A smiling Ehomba joined in, and the big carnivore’s initial outrage was soon forgotten as humans, dolphins, and cat churned the surface of the pond to joyful froth.
It was midafternoon before the absent trio of water dwellers returned from their scavenging. Held in their mouths and wrapped around their upper bodies were long lengths of strong vine, some green, the rest brown. Ragged ends showed where sharp teeth usually employed in the catching of fish had torn the tough lengths of plant matter free.
While Merlescu and Ehomba conversed softly, man face-to-face with dolphin in the water, Simna and Ahlitah hauled themselves out onto the edge of the island to dry their bodies in the sun.
“All right,” Simna puffed, “you win.”
“Win what?” Alongside him, the great cat was even more fatigued than his human companion.
Simna looked to his left, gazing across sand, gravel, and grass. “I retract my earlier allegation. You do have a sense of humor.”
The litah was sitting up and cleaning itself with one paw, attempting to aid the sun in removing as much water as possible from its ebony coat. “Of course I do. But fair warning, man: Have a care when you trifle with a cat’s dignity.”
“Hoy, I allowed as how you might have a sense of humor. Nothing was said about dignity.”
They verbally lunged and riposted in that vein until Ehomba rejoined them, pond water coursing in long rivulets down his lean, muscular form. “Our friends will make ready. I have to help them.” Tilting back his head, he studied the sky. “We will have to spend another night here and leave in the morning.” His gaze dropped to his companions. “They will help us.”
“How?” Simna let out a querulous snort. “By tying vines around us and dragging us from one floating pond to another?”
“You will see.” Turning, he loped back into the water.
Simna wanted to find out what the herdsman and the dolphins were up to, but he was too tired from all the water play. Maybe Ehomba’s occupation was the key, he mused. Perhaps the vines were to be used as whips, to urge and guide the dolphins as the school towed the three travelers from lake to lake. With a mental shrug, he closed his eyes.
Despite his ever-present skepticism, he had come to have a certain confidence in Ehomba, even when he did not always have a clue as to the herdsman’s intentions.
He was awakened by a delphinic din of ear-splitting proportions. It sounded as if every member of the school was squealing and squawking at the top of its capacious lungs. Rising from beneath his blanket, he saw that Ahlitah was standing at the water’s edge watching as Ehomba and the dolphins organized themselves for departure.
Dressing quickly, he hurried to join them. It took only a moment to see what was intended and finally to ascertain the purpose of the scavenged vines.
Secured around each dolphin’s head in a crude bit and bridle arrangement, each set of vines terminated in a pair of reins that ranged from four to six feet in length. Belting his skirt of leather armor, Simna moved to stand next to the watchful Ehomba.
“What are we supposed to do with those? Grab hold and hang on while they drag us from lake to lake? I didn’t know their jaws were that strong. It’s going to make for awkward traveling.”
“Yes,” agreed Ehomba readily, “but not in the sense that you think.” He nodded at the nearest brace of eager dolphins. “The reins are not for hanging on to, but for balance.”
“Balance?” Simna’s brows drew together, as confused as the rest of him.
“Like this.” Stepping out into shallow water, Ehomba proceeded to demonstrate.
Watching him balance himself with one foot on the back of each dolphin, using their dorsal fins to brace his feet while holding a rein in each hand, both swordsman and cat were astonished at the speed and grace the dolphins displayed as they raced around the circumference of the island and the confines of the pond with the human on their backs. After several such high-spirited circumnavigations, they sped into shore and deposited their passenger next to his friends. So skilled, so controlled, had been the dolphins’ run that the herdsman was barely damp.
He handed the ends of the reins to the suspicious swordsman. “Here, Simna. You try it.”
The shorter man held up both hands. “Oh no. Not me.”
“Hmph!” Wearing his inherent haughtiness like a crown, Ahlitah promptly padded forward. Two more dolphins arrived and positioned themselves. Holding the reins firmly in his jaws, the big cat stepped forward and allowed the two dolphins to convey him effortlessly around the island, riding their backs as easily and magnificently as any carved figurehead ever rode the prow of a ship.
Simna eventually did as well. Despite his initial skepticism about the unique means of travel, he was too experienced a horseman to incur a spill from the striking double mount. Thus familiarized with the behavior of their slick-skinned chargers, the travelers gathered up their gear and took up their riding positions.
“Ready then?” Merlescu queried in her high-pitched yet elegant voice. Satisfied by an expectant vocal melange of squeaks, snarls, and shouts, she threw herself forward into the water and kicked violently with her tail. “Then—let’s go!”
There were none to witness the departure but fish and salamanders, frogs and birds, but even they must have been impressed by the sight of an entire school of dolphins soaring as if a single entity from one floating pond to the next—especially with two humans and one great black cat riding upon their arching backs. The splash as they all hit the surface of the next airborne body of water more or less simultaneously was impressive. Water would cascade over the sides of the transparent enclosure thus struck, spilling into smaller pondlets of water and the vast, shallow, freshwater sea that covered the actual ground below.
In this manner the travelers progressed, their fingers wrapped tightly around green reins, their feet planted firmly behind rubbery fins, their legs and joints braced for the relief of each takeoff and the shock of each watery landing. From pond to lake, lake to pond they advanced, never in a perfectly straight line, but always crisscrossing and hip-hopping and hopscotching more or less northward.
With the assistance of the acrobatic, leaping dolphins they covered miles instead of yards, resting and camping on those lakes and ponds that boasted dry land, helping their finned friends to round up and catch enough fish to satisfy all. The humans supplemented their diet with everything from berries to watercress, while Ahlitah proved he was not above eating even snails and crawfish—though filling his belly, they did not offer much of a challenge in the way of a hunt.