(This story is part of the "Learning the Humans' Language" storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
“Good job,” Tallow said to the youth beside her, her simple words heartfelt.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Moss replied with a shrug.
Their wolves lay sprawled around the meadow that overlooked the riverside, meat-drunk from gorging, while the gatherers finished taking what they could from the young marshbeast.
"Hate to leave this much to waste," Blackberry sighed, eyeing the carcasses sadly.
Nettle laughed as she crouched in the river, scrubbing blood from her hands and bare arms. "We came to harvest nettle leaves, not marshbeast! The more meat we carry home, the less we get of my nettles!"
"And a great big basket of wrapstuffed leaves is so much lighter a load to haul all the way home!" Moss added with a grin.
From where he crouched on the riverbank, finishing washing his hands and arms, Blackberry winced at Moss's comment. He could not help but think that if things less than an hour ago had gone any differently, the heavy load his kinfolk would have been carrying would have been his own lifeless body. The glance Tallow shot his way showed she, too, had thought that ugly thought.
"It was a good job," Tallow said to Moss again. "That was well done."
"Like I said, I was just in the right place at the right time," Moss replied with a shrug. "Now, if I had any of my father's finesse, I'd still have my favorite spear!"
The four elves had come here hunting for nettle, not marshbull. It had been a three-night ride to the particular grove of alders which Nettle swore nurtured the finest crop of her favorite all-purpose plant. Every hand of years or so, she made this journey in the late spring to the alder grove along the Rushwater River west of Razor Ridge in order to gather nettle leaves. And then, for the nettle roots, she repeated the same pilgrimage in the autumn after the first killing frost.
It was never a comfortable job. Today, under the autumn sun, they were sweating in their winter coats and wearing thick leather gloves to protect themselves from the plants' stinging venom. Nettle insisted they dig up only the choicest, bright yellow roots — passing over the ones weak with youth or too ropey from age — and she insisted that the plants be handled with care and not just simply ripped out of the soil. To be so indelicate would bruise the precious harvest, damaging the plants' medicinal potency and, she swore, their taste as well. Blackberry had never been certain of the latter, and he knew there were ample thatches of nettle between here and the Holt — but Nettle was adamant in her opinions, and he was happy to lend a hand when she called, knowing how earnestly Nettle would return the favor during the years in-between visits to this particular grove.
This year, a young marshbeast had been grazing in the wide grove when they had first arrived. It had eyed their wolves warily at first, but the marshbeast was a big two-year-old bull-calf, in full health and confident that its own strength was a match for four wolves; its horns were tiny by comparison with a mature bull’s, but the tines were still formidable spikes, and an elf could take a comfortable nap in the span of that juvenile rack. There had been a buoyant strut to its step, hinting that maybe it was feeling its first taste of the autumn rut. It hadn't been wise enough to recognize that the elves themselves were an additional threat, but neither had it challenged them outright, and after an initial, wary eyeballing between the marshbeast and the gathering party, the marshbeast had drifted slowly away down the river bank. The wolves had seen that, and weren't fools themselves to pursue the beast. There was easier prey to be found, especially in the vole-rich meadow just across the Rushwater.
The elves had set to work, knowing an afternoon's work would fill their baskets with as much as they could carry. The wolves had eventually left them to hunt sweet, grain-fat meadow voles. As the afternoon deepened, the goldening grove grew drowsy, warm under the sunny skies and lulled by the lullaby of the river rolling by. Gathering nettle root wasn't quite as perilous a job as gathering nettle leaves, but leather gloves or no, it still was a task which called for close attention. So Blackberry had not been the only one of their small gathering party who failed to notice the marshbeast's return.
The only warning had been a thunderous snort behind him. Hearing the crash of brush, Blackberry had begun to turn. A mountainous shape was hurtling toward him, and he heard Tallow shriek in warning. Blackberry had dropped his gathering basket and tried to scramble aside, out of the way of the marshbeast’s thundering rush. However, the bright blue of his tunic was easy even for a marshbeast’s weak eyes to follow. The beast had pivoted to follow him, nimble despite its huge bulk. Blackberry had thrown the only thing he had at hand at the beast. The gathering fork had bounced off of the marshbeast’s ponderous nose, proving only annoyance, not distraction. Blackberry bolted for the closest alder tree, knowing in the cold, analytical part of his mind that he couldn’t get to it fast enough to put enough distance between himself and the marshbeast’s rack of horns, and that if the young beast were rut-mad, it might well just take down the entire tree —
Something had sailed past him then, and Blackberry had heard a meaty sound of impact even as he leaped for the alder tree. There was a wet bellow behind him as Blackberry climbed the striped trunk so fast he felt as if he were still running. Moss’s spear had taken the marshbeast bull in the chest, giving Blackberry an extra heartbeat or two to climb. The pale bark of the narrow trunk had passed beneath his hands as he climbed, waiting for the shock of the bull’s collision.
Then the bull hit the tree. The impact had been enough to make the alder sway dangerously. Blackberry had clung to it as tightly as a baby treewee to its mother’s back. There was a explosive, shuddering exhalation from the bull, and then its weight hit the tree a second time. The alder trunk had cracked and begun to list, and Blackberry had leaped for the next tree in the crowded grove, thinking that yes, he might survive this after all, if he could remain just one alder ahead of the rut-mad beast.
Blackberry had made that leap and springboarded on to a third before he had realized that the young bull was not chasing him. When Blackberry had looked back, he saw the young beast on its knees, with the broken haft of Moss’s spear in its chest. Blood was pumping from the wound, and had splattered from the beast’s bulbous nose with each laboring exhalation. Moss’s throw had caught the beast just right of center, and it had further rammed the weapon into its heart in its collision with the tree. By the time the wolves had reached them from the vole-meadow, the bull’s eyes had gone glassy. Its own rage had killed it, as much as Moss’s skillful throw.
“Pity about the spear,” Moss murmured now. He had carved the broken shaft out of the bull’s chest, hoping to recover the spearhead. Moss washed it clean in the river, his fingers gentle over the fractured blade. “I traded several good pieces of dyed elk hide to Ringtail for that. Sunlight or Brightwood can always shape you a good shaft, but a worked piece of flint that nice? That’s hard to come by.” He sighed and wrapped it in a bit of hide; the broken blade would no longer serve as a spearhead, but it could be knapped down for another use.
Blackberry rose to his feet. He hurried toward where they had left their travel packs. His own pack was conspicuously heavier than it should be — it was always overcrowded with the raw elements of his current grand project, or the odds and ends to inspire the next. “I’ll make you a new one,” he said, producing the lump of flint he had been carrying for more than a moon now, having won it off Agate in a game of bones.
“You can have my walking stick for a shaft, until we can get back to the Holt and get you better one,” Tallow added.
“Yes! Keep a spear in our boy’s hands,” Nettle laughed, tousling Moss’s cap of short, pale dreadlocks playfully. “That was a throw worth a Howl once we get home again!”
The youth flushed, pleased with the praise. He went back to work along with Nettle and Tallow, picking up their gathering baskets and digging forks. Blackberry watched them for a moment, his flint in his hands. Then he turned back to the river and sat down on the log, making use of the long, golden rays of the late afternoon sun to begin knap the replacement blade for Moss's spear.
Sage hefted the strangely-shaped stone in her hand. How had it come to be here by the river, so far from the mountains? "One might as well ask how it is that I happened to be here in the right place at the right time to find it," she mused aloud.
None of the Baha youths heard her, as they waded in the river and chattered to each other in their language. Another oddity of timing, how their tribe had come here. Everything had an explanation, though, if you looked at it from enough angles, as she was now doing with this rock. It must have come down the river, likely in a spring flood; judging by the fracture patterns, it must have been dashed against other rocks with great force. Many times, too, for not just any impact would fracture out gouges like these, the angle and force had to be just right. In fact, could the river even have done that at all?
"What do you here?" a voice piped up, startling Sage so that she nearly dropped the rock. ‘Part of getting old, this woolgathering,’ she thought to herself as she looked up. A Baha youth stood there, looking curiously at her.
"The right way to say it in our language is, 'what are you doing’,” Sage corrected automatically. Too late, she remembered that some of the Baha were touchy about that; it was a point of pride for the tribesmen that they could learn the Ebean language, while most Ebeans trying to speak Bahato ended up hopelessly floundering.
The Baha boy, however, didn't seem offended; his brow furrowed for a moment, then he said, "What are you do-ing?"
"I am studying the river, and the soil and rocks around it."
"Studying?" The boy repeated the unfamiliar word slowly, as if tasting it. Then his eyes brightened. "Ah! You learn river-lore."
"Yes. This is a new land for us, too. We want to know as much as we can about the river; it will tell us where we should put crops and houses to be safe from floods, and when the best fish come, and many other things that help both our peoples."
"I want to learn — to studying river-lore too," the boy said, looking proud of his new word. "What has the stone in your hand to do with the river?"
"I think the river carried it down here from the mountains."
"That is good kafa-matadi," the boy added.
"I don't know that word," Sage admitted. "What does it mean?"
The boy looked thoughtful for a moment, and said, "It is tool rock. The rock that you hit and break to make arrow points and knives."
"Ah, 'flint' is what we call it. Or 'chert', depending on the... er, never mind that now. Where does your tribe find it?"
The boy stood silently, but just as Sage was opening her mouth to explain, the boy spoke. "Up in the big-tall hills," he said at last. "The... flint... comes from places where Bo dug when he was in the shape of a giant mbumbulu. I went once with my mother to gather it."
Sage ignored the superstition; probably the boy just meant cracked cliffsides or something along those lines.
Interrupting her thought, the boy said, "That flint is worked."
"What?" Sage asked. She looked at the stone again. "Ah, I see. If your people worked it, that explains how it came to be this shape." She sighed, disappointed that the explanation was so mundane after all.
"We did not work that stone."
Sage looked at the boy in astonishment. The keen intelligence in the youngster's face suddenly reminded her of some of her favorite students from back home, and without thinking she found herself answering in the manner of a teacher again, trying to lead this boy into understanding why his notion was wrong rather than simply correcting him. "Why do you say it was not your people?"
"Because the sadika-kolomona and the ntoloki are not in the same shape as the stones we use."
"How can you be so certain?" Sage asked, making a mental note to ask later about the words she did not recognize. Even if Bahato was nearly impossible to speak, it could be understood.
"I have seen many stones after our tool makers have broken off the useful parts. They always have bigger vompoka and the mbele vela-vela are more curved." The boy sounded perfectly sure of himself.
Sage tried another angle. "But if it was not worked by your people, who could have done it?"
The boy shrugged. "It was not us," was all he said.
"There are no other people living here but we Ebeans, who do not work flint, and your people. Therefore it must have been your people. Perhaps one of your craft-women was experimenting with a new design?"
"I do not understand some of your words, but I think you are trying to deny what is plain to see. Why?"
Sage was taken aback. "We cannot always believe our eyes. We must always be certain that we are not coming to a wrong belief just because something appears to be a certain way."
"I have heard you Sea People have a strange language called 'logic' that lets you make all of your clever things, but that also makes you sometimes not see what is right in front of you. Is this what you are doing now?"
Taken aback, Sage blinked, then chuckled. "Maybe you are right, my young friend. Maybe there is another explanation. Would you like to help me find it?"
The boy's big smile was answer enough.
“What are they talking about?” Beetle’s question was a breath of a whisper against Moss’s ear as the two hid behind the narrow width of an alder tree. The pair had crept as close as they dared, risking nettle welts as well as discovery by the humans.
The older, female Amber Hunter was clapping one of the wiry paleskin youths on the arm, and they were both smiling. **Something to do with that bit of rock the older one fished out of the river,** Moss replied.
**That’s odd,** Beetle sent back. Her mind-touch was rich with frustration, and it was a frustration which Moss shared. The humans’ joint fascination with a bit of river rock seemed odd. Moss wished that they could dare creep closer, close enough to overhear what was being said. Maybe they could identify what type of stone, and what the humans’ word for that type of stone was. But the babble of the river was enough to mask most of the flow of the human words from the elves’ eager ears, and they couldn’t risk getting any closer, not without being spotted.
**Maybe they found a pretty agate or something?** Beetle speculated. **The word ‘mbele’ seems to have been repeated. Maybe ‘mbele’ might mean agate?**
**Wait and watch. When they drop it and leave, we can pick it up and see what it is.** No sooner than Moss sent those words, however, the older human slipped her bit of river rock into a pocket-fold of her tunic. The female clapped her young companion on the shoulder again, and the two began to stroll away, out of earshot of the two hidden Word Hunters.
**Shards,** Beetle groaned, her anticipation for a discovery dashed.
**Next time,** Moss replied, encouraging her with his own confidence. **We'll get it next time. It'll just be a matter of being in the right place at the right time.**