(This story is part of the "Learning the Humans' Language" storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
Newt watched as Beetle stirred, hoping this mixture would work. A mixture of mud, fats, oils, some herbs, and a fine, ground powder was this night’s effort at creating an ointment that would both protect against the sun and act as camouflage. Beetle and their father had worked on various mixes for over a turn since Newt’s unwrapping. What they had come up with was good for short periods, but did not seem to last as long as Newt would need if he were to really join the Word-Hunters one day.
Whenever his sister went on a journey observing the humans, he would wait anxiously, practicing the words she and the others had already taught him, and wanting to learn more. A few moons earlier, he had shyly confided to Beetle, once, that he wanted to go with her one day. She had voiced what they both already knew... that she didn’t think that Windburn would let him. Still, for him, and to be ready in the event that their chief ever did allow him, she was doing what she could to help him get prepared.
“Do you think this one will work?” he asked quietly.
Beetle shrugged. “I don’t know, Newt. But if it doesn’t, Willow can heal the sunburn, and I’ll keep trying.”
“I know you will,” he whispered, grateful for his sister, and for Willow, who healed Newt when the experiments failed. The healer always seemed willing to relieve the pain of the blisters, though sometimes she let Newt stay a little pink, just to teach a lesson.
“Does... Willow get mad at you for this?” he asked.
She shook her head. He wasn’t sure he was buying it. He knew how hot-tempered the Healer could be, and he could imagine the tongue lashings his sister might get because of the risks she took with Newt and his skin. Beetle explained, “She’s not overjoyed about it. But she’s not mad at me either. Willow knows what we’re trying to do, and why. And I think she would rather us find something for you, so that you can be out under the sun, sometimes, if you had to be. It’s safer for us to try it this way, than for you to get caught out there on your own. Yes?”
Newt nodded slowly. He agreed - they had to find something that would work - he wanted to become a scout one day! And he would need something to protect him. If they found it, then maybe he could scout with Beetle for human words.
Sometimes, Newt could use his pale skin color to his advantage.
**I could see you from a long ways off,** sent Kestrel as she approached, the hazy glow around her floating form slowly coming into focus as she did. **From atop that tree you shine like a falling star.**
**That was kind of the idea,** he replied with a grin. He gave her a welcoming wave and a sent feeling of please follow, retreating further into the canopy – and surer footing -- as he did so. When Kestrel was close enough to see very clearly, he continued. “Beetle told me which route you’d be taking on this hunt, and when you expected to be back. Thought I’d meet up with you all when you came home.”
The tree he’d taken position in was very near the edge of territory he could traverse alone, and the young elf knew his elder knew it too. She raised an eyebrow curiously. “So now you’re hunting the word-hunters?”
Newt blushed brightly. “Hmm, I guess so. Third time I’ve tried this, first time it worked. First time you glided home, maybe. And the sooner I learn the new words you found, the sooner I can help teach others! I’ve been working up more rhymes to help get them down. I could share them-” Newt’s excitement was getting away with him, and his tongue alongside it. He felt himself getting close to babbling.
“You are a stubborn one, at that,” Kestrel smiled. She floated backwards, toward the group of word-hunters she’d left behind. “All right then, summon your wolf-friend and we’ll meet you here. On your way down, you can help up puzzle out what Se kukianga means.”
Newt tickled the wriggling ball of cub, snug in her sleeping furs. “Know why I like cubsitting you, Glow? Your father lets me practice human-speech with you. I don’t know what all the words mean, no one does. But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep them alive in our memories. We have to keep them fresh for when the hunters hear them used again, or a different way. That’s how we work out what we think they mean. I made up this song from a bunch of phrases we've heard - don't know the meanings, but at least we won't forget them. Beetle says that the humans seem to say the last phrase a lot. Anyway, here goes.” The lad sang softly and slowly.
“Kolo kingi nukondanga,
Bite-uh-ashih surrish ittalak,
Wenda aviti kwuku,
Kai baydih akay-al uh uhtoo-al,
Dudula e mamuna maza,
kit-turum aye-nuh-aynuhm attih,
Vutula! Vwa o nkinji,
Kai baydih akay-al uh uhtoo-al,
Bakidi e kimpene,
Nayp-chum inaw-waru, ta-uhlt-suhsay,
Tuzolete Kwenda yanda,
Kai baydih akay-al uh uhtoo-al,
Yeto kwande se tukwenda,
annű abnum alish inaw-wayroo,
Undatina diau eki,
Kai baydih akay-al uh uhtoo-al.”
Glow’s eyes slowly fluttered closed as the lullaby came to an end.
**I’ll take it from here,** Rainpace sent. Newt looked over to the doorway to see Glow’s father grinning at them both. **Thanks.**
Newt sat as quietly as he could, listening to Moss play. The beat of his drum was… different, somehow, from his usual playing. And when Moss started to sing, the words were human! Newt was excited – he had been making up his own tunes for the human words they had learned, but from what he was hearing, Moss had learned a whole song in the human tongue. Why hadn’t Moss shared it with him?
Newt missed a few of the words as they were sung, and he knew he’d have to get closer to hear some of them. He didn’t want to distract the elder, but he really wanted to hear the song. ‘Oh, well,’ he thought, ‘I’ll just have to let him know that I’m here!’
Newt shimmied down the tree he had been hiding in and walked toward Moss. The drummer looked at him and winked. He stopped playing for a moment, then said, “It’s about time you came down from that tree so you could learn this new song.”
Newt flushed. Moss had known he was there all along. He was glad he hadn’t tried to sneak up on the drummer. “I… wasn’t certain you wanted an audience.”
Moss grinned at him. “Not before… but now that I have the song, I want others to hear it! And since I know you have been working so hard, I thought you’d want to hear the whole song first. Maybe… if you learned it from me, we could teach it to the others together.”
Newt smiled at that. He might not be able to go out with the team of hunters in their search for words, but he could still learn. And teach.
O mwana a eyembe,
Kameneno nsala ko,
E lumbu kemenwa e nsala,
Ku esulu kekwenda,
O eyembe papa e papa!
Newt found One-Leg at work beside the largest of the craft trees. “Think fast!” said the boy. “What does shach-nayt mean?” The throaty, gunk-in-your-throat sound in the middle betrayed that this was one of the Amber Hunters’ words.
One-Leg was hard at work cutting a batch of fish for storage. But he had welcomed, encouraged, this sort of challenge over the many moons of the word hunt. The steady rhythm of stone blade rending fish-flesh kept up as he answered. “Warm, I think.”
“And vixa?“ It was one of the Painted-Face words. Mixing things up could possibly throw the old elf off.
Skrik! Skrick! “Round.” Skrik! Skrick!
“Lelema?” Painted Face again.
Skrik! Skrick! “Soft.” Skrik! Skrick! “You can do better, lad,” Skrik! Skrick! “Give me a tough one.”
“…Ash-thuhm?” Amber Hunter.
”Hard…” The cutting came to a sudden stop. One-Leg looked over at the lad, and with a wrinkled brow grunted, “Shards in my stones, I’m going to regret asking this, but…”
Newt grinned. “I saw you and Starskimmer by the little waterfall a few nights ago. Might want to sing about it at the next Howl. Wanted to make sure I had the words right, that’s all.”
One-Leg shook his head. “Blackbird’s blazing buzzberry!” the elder huffed, turning his eyes back to the work at hand.
Newt’s face went very, very red. “I left after you two stopped talking!”
Newt crept along the treeline, nose targeted in on the scent he was tracking. He followed it to a large and all-too-quiet boulder. He picked up a small stone, and ran at the big one. When he was within a few paces, he chucked his stone at the ground to one side, and ran to the other. As Evervale came round, his taal stick caught her on the thigh.
«Got you!» he laughed in the Painted Face’s words.
“That you did,” she answered, handing him a token from her bag. She stepped away, stick down, to clear the distance between them before their next potential encounter.
Newt whistled after her. «One more?» he asked, one hand held out. It was his own idea—no one playing this night’s match was to speak any elf-words, or risk early elimination— and everyone had agreed to it. He wanted to push himself, to be pushed, to keep the human words at the top of his head even when many things were going on around him. He couldn’t hide being pleased at getting the best of one of the word-hunters!
Evervale shook her head, blushing. She conceded, and she tossed him another token. Then she was gone behind a pair of bushes.
“I wish I could go,” Newt said quietly. He slid down the side of the wall and sat slumped on the floor
Beetle paused in her packing and looked at him. **I know you do,** his sister sent with sympathy. Both knew it wasn’t Newt’s fault he couldn’t be part of the word hunt. His sensitivity to daylight - even with the ointment she had spent turns developing - made it next to impossible for him to be out shadowing the humans. His poor eyesight was also a liability.
Newt watched as Beetle turned to finish packing and set her small, stone knife at the top of her sack. Cinching the sack shut, she pushed herself up and then sat on the side of her bedbowl, looking at Newt with a sad smile. They both knew that word-hunting would never be an option for him. But he had shown her that he was a fast learner. Over the turns, he had come to her between hunts, and she had shared with him some of the words she had learned.
«Brother, come,» she instructed in human tongue.
Newt grinned at the start of the game they played, and quickly moved to sit next to her as she had instructed.
“Oomu an-niu oomu ana zai-naat ih-wap-pai,” Newt said, knowing that neither he nor Beetle knew the meaning to all the words he had spoken. They had learned so much over six turns, but there was still so much they had yet to discover.
Beetle nodded, “Rain.” It was the one word in the phrase he had spoken that they understood. There had been rumbles of thunder throughout the night, and the rain had only just passed. He hoped, for her sake, that it would not be another wet hunt.
Beetle asked the next question, and Newt recognized it as another phrase that she did not fully know; “Mihm-ma shum-shuhaat ih-pa’rooni-ayeti.” All that was known from observation was that it probably meant something along the lines of “What are we all looking for?” but which words were which hadn’t been picked apart yet.
Newt grinned. He knew the expected reply, which unlike the phrase that prompted it was in Painted Face, “«We are hunting» words.”
Beetle put her arm around him and squeezed. The next lines she spoke were ones that his sister seemed to use whenever she wanted to encourage him. She said something which he guessed meant, “You are a good friend - the best.” Then she added, “E zame moyo ovukidi.”
Newt laughed. He knew what she said was some form of praise, but neither hide nor hair had been made of the meaning. He responded with thanks, “Oyeno ntondele kwame.”
A howl from One-Leg alerted Beetle that it was time to leave. She looked at Newt with fondness.
“I know,” he said, “It’s time for you to go.”
Beetle nodded. “I will see you soon, Newt.”
Newt gave her a hug, then reached to lift her bag to her. She took it in hand, then left her den through the outside entryway and climbed down the stairs.