“It is very difficult, both for men and for monkeys. The next time you are severely depressed, or extremely unhappy, you can almost be certain that an eromakadi is close by, gnawing at your disposition.”
Even though the night was warm and the heat from the burning tree prickly against his fur, Gomo shivered slightly. For all his disarming simplicity, it seemed that the tall human was in possession of knowledge that was denied to the People of the Trees.
The dead tree torch burned for another hour, and the embers that were its legacy glowed all through the remainder of the night, but as Ehomba had surmised, the surrounding jungle was too green and too damp to do more than smolder at the edges of the fire. The few nearby boles that did catch alight soon burned themselves out, the incipient blazes smothered by humidity, sap, and lingering dew.
Later, Gomo sought him out again, this time to offer congratulations. “Except for the eromakadi creature, which only you saw, it went much as you said it would, Ehomba.”
“No,” he replied reflectively, “not as I said it would. I thought they would be blinded. I did not expect them to be enraptured.”
“Well, you expected them to be dead, and that is what they are.” A spidery hand reached up to clap him on the side. “The People of the Trees are in your debt ’til the end of time!”
The herdsman smiled politely down at the troop leader. “Until I reach Kora Keri will be sufficient.”
“It was something we would not have thought of. When we chose to remain in the trees while humans and apes went down to the ground, we forswore the use of fire.” Gomo shook his head and stuck out his lower lip. “Fire and trees make a poor mix. Fire in trees is much worse.” Using the tip of his spear, he tapped his friend on the shoulder. “That is the trade you humans made when you came down out of the trees. Freedom for fire.”
“I suppose. I was not there at the time the decision was made so I was not given the choice.”
“Oh-ho! A mastery of drollery as well as strategy. I will miss you, friend Ehomba.”
“Perhaps, but your troop will not.” He indicated the trees where males who had been prepared to die had joyfully reunited with their mates and offspring. The shapes and sizes and gruntings and chatterings of the reunion differed from what he would have encountered back in the village, but the tender domestic scene still left him feeling homesick. “They will be glad to see me gone.”
Gomo turned to follow the herdsman’s gaze and sniffed. “Yes, it’s true. Humans make them uncomfortable. Especially tall, fighting humans like yourself.” He looked back up at his newfound friend. “Where are you bound?”
“Finally? Truth to tell, I’m not sure of the exact location. For now, to the north. Hopefully to find someone to carry me across the Semordria to a land I have never heard of before—a place called Ehl-Larimar.”
The troop leader frowned. “I’ve never heard of the place, either.”
“A dying foreigner charged me with trying to save a beautiful woman from the embrace of a man she does not love or want.”
Gomo considered the man’s words, rubbing his chin with an index finger longer than that which could be found on any human. “Let me see if I understand: You have left behind your country and your family to go to a place you do not know, for a man you never knew, to fight an enemy you have never seen, on behalf of a woman you have never met.”
“That is a very good summation, Gomo.”
The monkey leader grunted. “And humans say we monkeys are stupid.” He shook his head slowly. “Why are you doing this? If the fellow is dead, he no longer can trouble you.”
“I am doing it because I have to. Because it is the kind of person I am,” Ehomba explained frankly.
“You could turn around right now.” Like hovering dragonflies, Gomo’s fingers fluttered toward the south. “Say to anyone who asks why you are returning that you tried but could not get through. The dry lands stopped you, a river stopped you, an angry crocodile stopped you. No one need know otherwise.”
“Twaddle. An answer worthy of a hero. Or a fool.” Hairy brows tried to mate as the troop leader leaned close and peered up into his friend’s face. “I wonder. Which are you, Etjole Ehomba?”
“I don’t know. Maybe both. Of one thing I am certain, though. It is in my nature to ask many questions. Before I am finished with this, that is one whose answer I will have.”
Gomo nodded. “I hope you are not a fool. Fools die quickly and easily, with none to mourn them, and after what you have done for us this night it would grieve me to see you dead.” Drawing back slightly, he straightened and smiled. “But in the end we are all dead. Tonight we live.” He pointed to where other members of the troop were piling fruits, nuts, edible shoots and bugs in a delectable heap. “There will be a celebration. See? Preparations have already begun. If you think you humans know how to have a good time, then you have never partied with the People of the Trees! Come, Etjole Ehomba. Come and relax and forget your burden for one night! Tomorrow we will start upriver toward Kora Keri. Tonight, maybe we can help you forget who you are.”
Ehomba rose from where he had been sitting and staring out at the river and the piles of incinerated slelves. What had the delicate flying creatures left on the other side of the river when they had flocked to attack the People of the Trees? Females and infants, now huddled in futile wait for their fighters to return? He strained, but could hear no sounds of wailing, no distant echoes of lamentation. It was as well. Too much death could cling to a man, like a bad odor no amount of soap could wash away. Turning to follow Gomo, he glanced down at a blackened corpse from which the wings had been singed and found himself wondering idly if it would be good to eat.
Gomo had not been bragging. The celebration began much as expected. What he had failed to mention was the monkeys’ talent for seeking out fermented honey and fruit juices and combining them in ways no human had ever considered.
* * * *
Ehomba awoke the following morning with a head that throbbed as if he had spent the night in the midst of a cattle stampede with the occasional steer using his skull for a football. His sorry condition engendered much good-natured jesting among the members of the troop. These chittering jibes and sallies he bore with his usual good humor.
The entire troop escorted him north. When Gomo had mentioned the location of Kora Keri, Ehomba had imagined he could find it himself simply by following the river north. But as he soon saw, it was not so easy as that. Numerous islands thick with jungle split the river into dozens of channels, not all of which flowed north. A wrong choice would send a traveler meandering in the wrong direction or, even worse, back the way he had come.
But the troop knew exactly where they were going. Following a road through the treetops that was invisible to him but wide and obvious to his companions, they pushed on past deceptive forks and mendacious tributaries, forging as straight a line as possible given the preponderance of dense vegetation and the occasional swamp. Without his active, agile guides Ehomba knew he might well have become hopelessly lost.
Of course, he could have continued as he had originally planned, turning west until he struck the coast again and then following it north. That would have kept him going in the right direction. But he would have missed Kora Keri and its amenities entirely.
River serpents broke the surface in the deeper channels. They posed no danger to the arboreal troop. Of more concern were the dragondines that skimmed low over the river. Whenever one of these swooped too near, the monkeys retreated into the trees where the leathery-winged fliers could not go and waited there until it had glided past. Yellow eyes glared balefully at the unreachable prey that taunted from the cover of entwined branches.
Before very many days had passed they reached a place where the river became a broad, slow, single channel. Descending from the branches, Gomo strode proudly to the grassy riverbank and dipped a finger in the murky liquid. Straightening, he turned proudly to Ehomba and pointed westward.
“We have reached the confluence of the Aurisbub and the Kohoboth. From here, the water flows west into the Semordria.” Pivoting, he gestured in the opposite direction. “On the far bank a day’s journey from here lies Kora Keri. You will have to find a way to cross the river. This is where we must leave you now to begin our journey back home. To a home that is safe now, where even children may feel free to play in the treetops and scamper along the water’s edge.”