Had he been traveling inland, the dense fog in which he now found himself enveloped would have created many problems. As long as he followed the coast, however, he could not lose his way, not even in the thickest mist. Not with the echo of the surf to guide him. If he kept it always on his left, for some distance yet it would guide him due north.
Using scraps and splinters of driftwood still dry from having been buried in the sand, he struck sparks off a convenient rock with his sky-metal sword and made a fire. Blanketed by the fog, the morning was chill. Tea and jerky were his breakfast, the tea warming him, the jerky providing his mouth with exercise in the absence of conversation. He sat huddled beneath his blanket, an island of life and warmth in the gray mist, sipping his drink and slowly chewing on the stubborn strip of dried meat. The smoke from his fire and the steam from his cup fought for space with the fog. In the mist-engulfed silence, all that could be heard beyond the dying crackle of the fire was the sound of unseen waves coming ashore on the shrouded beach.
Done with the frugal but adequate meal, he rolled his blanket tight and resecured it to the top of his pack. There was no need to scatter the ashes from the fire or douse them with water—there was little here to burn. No danger of a grass fire in the absence of grass, or of a forest fire in the absence of a forest. Orienting himself by the sound of the surf, he resumed his trek northward.
He did not know how far the impenetrable sea fog extended. No one did. For as long as the Naumkib could remember, theirs had been the northernmost settlement of the southern peoples. The perpetual fogs kept them from expanding northward, and probably kept people living to the north from moving south. He knew that he had to keep the sound of the ocean always close. Lose it, and he might wander around in the fog forever—or at least until his food ran out.
His expression set, he lengthened his stride. The fog clung damply to him as if trying to hold him back, but he pushed relentlessly forward, scattering it with sheer determination. North was where he had to go, and nothing was going to keep him from getting there.
THE LAND DID NOT GROW STEADILY GREENER AS HE WALKED, but it became clear that the Earth was trying harder. Pockets of brush began to appear, and then clumps of smaller, more diverse vegetation that huddled close together beneath the protection of overhanging trees. Some he recognized, like the ivory-nut palms and salt-tolerant casuarina pines, while others were new to him. There was one tree in particular, with long spreading arms, that was ripe with both nuts curved like a courtesan’s eyebrows and large purple fruit. Winged caterpillars gnawed on the round leaves, while flightless butterflies crawled along the branches in search of flowers or rotting fruit to suck.
In one grove where he stopped to drink from a small, comparatively clean pool, a troop of monkeys appeared overhead. They marched along the branch in single file, perfectly in step, following their leader. He wore a headdress made from the empty husk of a gourd. Necklaces of nuts and shells flopped against his hirsute brown chest. As was the nature of monkeys, all were armed. Several carried small bows and arrows, while the rest were equipped with tiny spears that had been whittled from hardwood sticks. There were no females or infants in the troop. Those, Ehomba knew, would be waiting back at a carefully chosen treetop bivouac for the males to return.
“Halt!” he heard the leader suddenly exclaim. Instantly, the rest of the troop assumed a fighting stance. As Ehomba stepped back from the edge of the pool, shaking water from his hands, he was careful not to reach for any of his own weapons. A dozen miniature bows were already trained on him.
Using his long arms and prehensile tail, the troop leader descended from the tree in a rush of anarchic branches, until he stood confronting the herdsman. Ehomba politely took a seat, a move that reduced his great height and left him eye-to-eye with the three-foot-tall monkey. Necklaces jangling, sharpened stick in hand, the troop leader approached warily to extend a limp hand, in the manner of edified monkeys.
“I am Gomo.”
The herdsman gently enveloped the strong, limber fingers in his own. “Etjole Ehomba, of the Naumkib.”
“I do not know that tribe of men.” Overhead, the other members of the troop began to relax. Keeping their weapons close at hand, they spread out among the branches. Several began snacking on the moist, tasty leaves of the tree while others set about gathering the purple fruit, placing the dark orbs in crude sacks they carried slung over their narrow shoulders. The rest relaxed by grooming themselves or their neighbor.
Ehomba gestured loosely to the south. “I have come from down the coast, to fulfill an obligation to a man who died in my arms.”
Gomo scratched vigorously at his tailbone. “Ah! Your path is chosen for you, then.”
The herdsman nodded. “And what brings my small cousins to this place? The bounty of this tree?”
The monkey leader shook his head. “Bounty of a different kind, I hope. We are looking for help.” Straining to see behind the human, he noted the strangely tipped spear and other unusual weapons lying on the ground. “You are a warrior?”
“A herdsman. But all the men of my village are also warriors. One never knows when raiders may come out of the interior, hoping for easy plunder.” He smiled thinly. “They do not find it among the Naumkib.”
“I understand what you say about human raiders,” Gomo replied sagely. “That is a problem the People of the Trees do not have. We hold among us little that humans find of value.”
“Difficult to maintain a herd in the treetops,” Ehomba agreed. “Even a small steer or sheep would have a tough time grazing in the branches.”
“Oh-ho!” Gomo doubled over and slapped his belly. Reflecting the laughter below them, the other members of the troop joined in, their raucous chattering momentarily drowning out every other sound in the grove.
When his chest and stomach finally stilled, Gomo turned serious once more. “Half a warrior would be more help to us than none.” He scrutinized the human from head to toe with great deliberation. “And you are almost tall enough to make not a half, but two. You could help us.”
Ehomba looked past him, gazing significantly northward. “I have told you where I am bound and why. My family waits for me to return. I have no time for side trips or excursions.”
The monkey edged closer, bringing his pungent smell with him like a loose coat. “You are following the coast? North of here the trees thin once more and the country turns desolate. But inland it rapidly becomes greener, especially along the banks of the Aurisbub. That in turn flows into the great river Kohoboth. Upstream from their confluence lies the human town of Kora Keri, where one such as yourself would find rest, food, shelter, and information on the lands farther north that are a closed mystery to me and my people.” He sat back, one hand on his spear-stick, his long tail flicking back and forth behind him. “Of course, if you already know all this, then I am wasting my time telling you about it.”
“I did not.” It was always wise, Ehomba knew, to be honest with a monkey. Unlike their human cousins, they could be sly, but only rarely were they intentionally deceptive.
“Our forest home lines this side of the Aurisbub. If you would help us,” Gomo went on, “I myself would guide you to Kora Keri. Of course, you could continue on your way up the coast, but you would make much better time via the inland route, in the company of unlimited fresh water you would not have to carry on your back, all manner of available food, and a town for your immediate destination.”
“You are right—I would.”
“We would not ask you to stay among us more than a night or so.”
“You mean a day or so.”
“No.” Gomo brooded on troubles unseen. “Our travails strike us at night, when we are at our weakest.”
The herdsman sighed. “What is your trouble, Gomo, that you need the services of a warrior?”
Learned, limpid eyes looked up at him. “We are plagued, man, by a flock of slelves.”
Ehomba nodded knowingly. “I have seen them, but they do not bother our flocks.”
“No. They would not. Man and his weapons and warlike ways they shun, but of the People of the Trees they have no fear.” Bitterness sharpened his words. “They come among us at night and steal our food. Several times now they have tried to take some of our children. The females are frantic, and we are all weary from lack of sleep. Sooner or later the slelves will wear us down, and then there will be tragedy instead of inconvenience.” Too proud to beg, he lowered his voice.