(This story is part of the "Learning the Humans' Language" storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
Clear water lapped at the stones that stretched out along shore of the Bounty River. Knife Peak, cradle of a human settlement, was just visible to the southwest, beyond Razor Ridge. Here, where the river took a sharp curve, all manner of items that had been swept up by the ever-moving water were likely to be deposited. The riverbend had become a favorite of human treasure-seekers, especially young ones who sought easy catches.
It was a perfect place to lay the trap.
Kestrel hovered over the river, picking out her targets. She reached into a pouch and poured a small collection of stones into her left hand. With her right, she plucked one loose, and sent it floating away on a cloud of rose-pink energy. The light wrapping around, and shining through, the yellow-orange gem enflamed tiny imperfections into bright slivers of radiant gold.
Kestrel put that one, and the next, where they surely would be seen. Safely above the waterline; two innocent baubles that happened to wash up on a calm autumn day. The rest she scattered above and below the tide’s reach. One by one, she burrowed these stragglers into the stony shoreline, with gentle pushes of the same energy that brought them there. ‘That will give the Amber Hunters something to poke around for,’ she told herself with a grin. ‘And the chase will give them reason to stay awhile and chat.’
Keeping above the ground, Kestrel retreated to cover. **The bait is set,** she sent to the others.
After a moment, Evervale replied. **Thank you, elder! We couldn’t have done this without you! One-Leg and I aren’t far off from you now. And the humans are closing in, too. I can already hear one of them singing!** A pause, and then, **But Moss and Rainpace are on their side of the river. So all the words caught today will be theirs.**
**You will have your chance soon, I’m sure. Think of it like any other hunt; it doesn’t matter who makes the kill as long as the meat ends up in everyone’s bellies. Today, we each still have a part to play in this.**
The sound of singing grew closer.
Rainpace was well-hidden in a shadowed twist of branches and roots prepared nights ahead of time by Evervale for just this purpose. And he knew each of his tribemates on this journey had his back. Kestrel was lying in wait somewhere above, ready to pluck him out of the bolthole if needed. One-Leg and his hunt-partner Evervale were on the side of the river closest the Holt, ready to provide a distraction if he found himself cornered. Rainpace’s own hunt-partner, Moss, was out of sight keeping lookout, and would remain so if all went well.
But still he felt the same unquiet that nibbled on any hunter as the end closed in on any other hunt. A bit of advice from Kestrel, the closest thing the tribe had to an expert on evading humans, echoed in his mind; “Do not ever assume we know where all of them are.” It was advice he knew could well keep him alive.
Like any true hunter, he privately acknowledged the fear existed, and with a calming breath he bade it leave him be so he could focus on the task at hand. He could see one of the fragments of amber, reflecting the sun’s light. It was almost straight ahead of him, not eight wolf-lengths off. He could almost make out individual words of the coming song, not that he knew nearly enough to follow it along. Rainpace set himself into the stillness of an archer about to cast his shot. Not a movement, not a sound.
Moss, who if all was going as planned, would be quietly trailing the humans until they were in position, gave a quick mental update. **They are just about there.** There would be no alarm howls on these hunts, only sends, unless One-Leg’s distraction was needed. There was too much risk that the pranks played upon Wolfkiller had soured the Painted Face scouts to the sound of wolves.
**I know,** Rainpace replied. **The big one’s louder than One-Leg. And I can even hear his friends now.** He followed with a wordless request for silence; **don’t interrupt again unless I call for it**.
Not long after that, the trapper heard the sound of sandals-on-stone cutting through the music. Moments later, he saw the first human come though. He had gotten a look at them all further down the river, but this male was the one that stood out. Broader of chest than many of the Amber Hunters that had been seen thus far, he wore a loose tunic of many cool colors, and baggy trousers. Rainpace knew the moment Big Voice saw one of the stones; his head veered sharply in that direction before his legs did.
He held up the first stone triumphantly, and chuckled in a rich baritone. “Amma! Skahittum mahrūm sa muslālum!”
“Kalbāta lammasum!” called another, who was just out of Rainpace’s sight. All four of the Amber Hunters looked to be but a hand of turns older than Otter. Though much, much, taller.
“Kīma elmēshum iskd'us, kāsū mādūtum iml'as,” Big Voice replied gently, his eyes already to the ground, spying for more.
But the other obvious gem was already hidden. “Duqqika, bēl deʾiqti! Umum dummuqum issi asāish lū ī’shū, aqbamas! Kakabiqnūm kaiāmanu itakkālū!” An Amber Hunter wearing a bright blue sash and a large smile had already moved in. Hands on hips, he was standing right on top of it, acting as though he hadn’t noticed. Gold Shirt and Orange Shirt waved him off irreverently as they moved in to stake claims. Blue Sash spared a look at the Painted Face scout. “Ūzāko … illutuni… nagbu… madaku… nad’u… annaka?”
The scout paused a moment—repeating the other’s words to himself?-- and shook his head. He pointed his bow east. Not far away in that direction, there was a clearing ahead of where the river curved east. As part of disclosing her actions as a human-pranker, Beetle had revealed that the Painted Faces liked to camp there. With that, the scout stood aside, keeping watch while his charges had their fun sweeping long brown fingers through the grey stones of the shore.
When no one was looking, Blue Sash reached down and pocketed his stone while acting through a longer search, as though he’d yet to find anything at all. The others, though, hooted when they dug one up, making sure Blue Sash knew when they found something of worth. And as they searched, they talked. They talked over each other, they interrupted, their alien syllables melded in ways that made it hard to tell when one comment ended and another began. Big Voice started singing to himself more than once.
It was hard to keep up, and if he was trying to hear it all, Rainpace would have failed. He was listening for one word. This whole trap had been created to snare one word. As One-Leg had said at the start of this day’s adventure, ”Sometimes to net the big fish, you have to let the smaller ones pass.” By the time the five-fingers were satisfied with their catch, started up their song again, and made off for the next leg of their sojourn along the river, Rainpace believed he had what he and his tribemates had come looking for.
**El-mee-suhm!** One-Leg sent to Kestrel with a smile that could make a raincloud laugh. **That’s what they call the stuff. El-mee-suhm.** He grabbed a small leather pouch off his belt, tossed it up, and delighted in the weight of its red-gold treasure slapping into his palm. El-mee-suhm.
**We’ll be wanting a song from Moss, I suspect,** the glider replied. **So none of us forget.**
**Shards, I can manage that all by my lonesome. The fun part’ll be figuring out what to rhyme it with. But I’ll let the drum-beater know you were thinking of him. Thanks, and good travels.**
**And to you as well.** Kestrel’s work was done here, and she had other regions to look in on before the day was through.
One-Leg mounted Longtooth, and together they moved past trees and underbrush to rejoin Evervale and Halfmoon at their scouting post. He considered the stones again as he put them away. He had started collecting them soon after the night Windburn chased him away from his notions of a singular human-scout. Poking around for them along this very river when he had nothing better to do, combing the Holt for forgotten stashes, wagering them off his tribemates. A good bit of his hoard was now lining human pockets.
Pretty and rare as they were, they weren’t half as valuable as the three remarkable syllables Amber Hunters called them by.
El-mee-suhm was a word every brownskin among the humans longed to hear. It was a word that could shake them out of whatever moonmad reaction they might have at the sight of four-fingered, point-eared, big-eyed whatchamacalits. A word that could make a sour first meeting turn good. Or at least a word that would provide a fine distraction while elves and wolves ran the other way.
“Get yourself some of this, lass.” One-Leg smirked when he saw his hunt-partner. “A good-sized chunk of tree-piss could come in handy some day.”
A good bit of One-Leg’s el-mee-suhm was lost forever, but he knew shards-well that this was a wager the whole tribe had won!