I had meant to post this excerpt from book 2 as my 280th post. I like commemorating milestones, and while this chapter is not all that significant in its own right, I am pleased with how it turned out as it incorporates all that research I wrote about in iVokh and the Poacher’s Knot.
Sadly Pippi, and fate, had other plans so it has become my 281st post. I hope you enjoy it anyway. I should warn you though, it’s a long one so you might want to grab a cup of tea or coffee before reading.
The third day of Kohoh dawned warm and clear, without even a hint of rain.
Up on the flight ledge leading to the Settlement, the older hunters waggled their heads in dismay as they prepared to fly down to the plains. The rains had been starting later and later the last five years, and they knew that did not bode well for the coming Pah H’akh. The Bad Times were always bad, but some were worse than others, Takh help them all.
Two leagues to the south, the dirty, travel-worn iVokh hiding near the Trader’s entrance to the Settlement silently blessed the lack of rain. Every day of clear skies gave it one more day in which to find shelter. Yet even as it gave thanks, its sense of urgency grew. It knew this period of grace could not last for much longer. It had to get inside an eyrie soon, or it would die and its long, gruelling trek would have been for nothing.
Hitching its stained travel pouch a little higher, Kaati turned its back on the Traders’ Quarter and slipped away with a sigh. It had watched the entrance for two days and two nights, hoping to sneak inside without being seen, but in that whole time, the Tellers on guard had not left their posts for even a moment. There would be no way into the Quarter from here, and that left the Healers’ side of the Settlement as its last hope.
The entrance to the Settlement would be guarded as well, however those guards would not know its face. To them, it would be just another hunter making the most of the fine weather to bring in some extra food.
The real danger would come from the other hunters who would surely know it did not belong. The trick then, would be to get past the guards before the real hunters returned.
The irony of that thought made Kaati shake its head in wry amusement. The word ‘Kaati’ meant little hunter, and signified the kind of Teller it had hoped to become – capable, and deadly if attacked, but more spy than assassin. But then the old Quartermaster had intervened, tearing it away from its old life to become a na-Quartermaster.
Perhaps that was why it had refused to find a more appropriate name for itself. Yet here it was, about to become a hunter of animals so it could fight for a position it had never wanted in the first place.
Once Kaati was far enough from the flight ledge it stopped, and began to inflate its wings. All Traders knew how to hunt, so it was confident it could trap a few rock lizards, however getting inside the Settlement before the day’s work was done would require something more than just a few lizards. It would need a good excuse as well.
Lifting its arms, the young Trader inspected the many bruises and scratches that covered its body. Most were old, but some were fresh, a legacy of the two days it had spent spying on the Traders’ entrance.
Would it look battered enough to convince the guards it had had a bad fall?
Kaati’s cilia twitched in distaste at the ripe smell wafting from its armpits.
…not if smelling like this…
It had scrubbed itself with dry sand every day to reduce the scent trail it left for predators, but nothing short of a proper bath would make it smell like one of the eyrie-bound.
Turning away from the direction of the Settlement, the young Trader squinted at the bright flashes of light coming from the Blood River.
This late in the season, the river was reduced to a string of brackish waterholes, but it was no less dangerous than when it was in full flood. Starving pakti would lurk in the deeper water, while the reeds choking the banks would be full of sidewinders, all of them lying in wait for any creature desperate enough to sneak down for a drink. Or a wash.
Nonetheless when the young Trader took flight it headed away from the Settlement, towards the river.
Landing a safe distance from the water’s edge, Kaati dropped its pouch to the ground, and pulled out the sling it had bought at the Claw Valley gather. Slings were useless for hunting food animals as they killed far too easily, however they were very good at making even large predators think twice about attacking.
With the sling in one hand, and three sharp pebbles in the other, the young Trader approached the waterhole from the downriver end, every sense on the alert.
Down the middle of the channel, where the flowing water would have been deepest, an open path still led towards open water. It looked safe enough, but the multitude of small footprints baked into the mud showed that many smaller animals used this approach as well. And where food animals gathered, predators were never far away.
Kaati was still some distance from the edge of the water when it saw the first pile of bones. The length of the thigh bone suggested the creature had been a young akaht. The great herds relied on numbers to keep them safe, but the predators always picked off the stragglers. A lone iVokh would be easy prey.
A few steps later, a soft plop made the young Trader look towards the centre of the waterhole. It saw lazy ripples fanning out from two, large beady eyes. Those eyes seemed to dare the iVokh to come closer.
Locking eyes with the pakti, the young Trader fitted one of the pebbles to the sling and began whirling it round and round.
The sling hummed a song of death as it spun, and when it stopped the pakti was missing an eye.
Kaati kept its eyes on the thrashing pakti as it fit another pebble to the sling. It knew predators were at their most dangerous when they were wounded.
That was something the three smaller pakti discovered to their cost when they attacked their larger companion.
Maddened with pain, the injured pakti tore into its attackers, injuring one, and killing the other before the third managed to dart in on its blind side to deliver a killing blow.
The victorious pakti killed its injured rival before settling down to feed.
The young Trader allowed the new ruler of the waterhole to eat its fill before chasing it away with a few well aimed rocks.
The pakti’s tail lashed angrily as it swam out of reach, but it was too sated to dispute the iVokh’s right to enter the water.
Despite its apparent victory, Kaati knew it would be in danger every moment it spent in the water, and its eyes did not stop scanning from side to side as it waded into the waterhole. It only went knee deep, and scrubbed with desperate speed before wading out again. Near the water’s edge, it stopped just long enough to tear out two handfuls of wilted reeds.
Safe on land once more, the young Trader quickly stowed the sling and the reeds before retreating to the meagre shade of a pipa tree, high on the riverbank.
Once the rains began, and water swelled the river once more, the deep roots of the pipa would siphon life-giving water up to the withered branches. For now though, its branches were as dry and lifeless as everything else on the plain.
Climbing up into a fork of the tree, Kaati pulled out a reed and began tearing it into long strands.
A weaver would have soaked the strands, and pounded them to soften the fibres, but the young Trader had no time for such niceties. Once it had enough strands, it began to form them into lengths of rough string.
The hard fibres grazed Kaati’s hand as it rolled the strands against its thigh, but it persisted until it had enough string for three snares.
Looping one end of the string around the stub of a branch, it tied the loop off with a double knot before folding it in half to make two smaller loops. Once it had threaded the free end of the string through both loops it had a strong slip knot for its noose.
When all three snares were finished, it left the safety of the tree, and carefully arranged the snares on the ground, near where the smaller animals would come to drink. It sprinkled sand and dry leaves over each snare before tying the free ends to low lying branches or rocks.
Both suns were high in the sky before all the traps were set, and Kaati could climb back up into the tree to wait. And wait. Thanks to the scent of blood in the water, it had to wait until almost first-dark before a lizard finally emerged from the rocks, and crept down to the waterhole.
The wary creature skirted the first snare, and would have avoided the second as well, but some small noise made it jump in fright. Unfortunately it jumped the wrong way. As it landed, one of its hind feet skidded on the loose sand, and became tangled in the loop of the snare. As it tried to pull away, the slip knot tightened around its ankle.
The more the terrified lizard struggled, the tighter the noose became, and by the time the young Trader jumped from the tree and hurried around to the other side of the waterhole, the lizard was too exhausted to put up much of a fight. It could only hiss in impotent fury as it was hoisted into the air.
Kaati had hoped to catch more than just the one lizard, but with first-dark approaching it knew it could not delay any longer. It had to get to the Settlement, and talk its way inside before the rest of the hunters finished for the day, and recognized it for a stranger.
Tucking the hapless lizard inside its pouch, the young Trader used the heat rising from the ground to boost itself up into the air. In moments it was flying hard for the Settlement, and the dubious safety it would find there.