Following Nightwind’s instructions, Vapor soon reached the tribe. They were camped on a hillock overlooking a shallow lake where the children were playing with boats of bundled reeds and floating on inflated trihorn stomachs. The smoke from the central fire rose in a cloud, driving back the tiny insects that plague a man, and the scent of several dozen personal amulets made the air slightly acrid.
The barges were drawn up to dry and the elders were gathered in their customary place of comfort near the fire. Vapor could smell the cooking humpox and herby. He was greeted with shouts and teasing as he trotted into camp and Mist-on-water handed her brother a large chunk of steaming meat which he then carried to the fire.
His mother greeted him with a kiss, then let him have several bites in peace before she began her interrogation. She was a strong woman and one of the most outspoken of the elders. Vapor was very proud of her, and no less proud of his dark, taciturn father.
“Tell us of this stranger. Is he a colonist?”
“Yes, Mother, but a strange one. He is self-sufficient. He lives in the world, not hiding in a burrow, and he came across the lake to this place.”
“Searching for what?”
“I do not know, but he has adapted well and looks likely to survive.”
She fed the fire as she considered. “I wonder what is his purpose here?”
“There is one way to know.”
“Ask him?” She seemed amused.
“And if we do not like his answer?”
“Kill him; but I think that his answer will suit.” Vapor paused dramatically, “He is a cripple, you know.”
She looked at him suddenly and he realized that she read some message there that he had not meant to convey. “How is he crippled?”
“His left leg is stiff from some old wound and gives him pain.”
“How does he bear it?”
“What color is his hair?”
Now Vapor knew something was up. “Pale yellow, like Mud-runner’s.”
“Ah!” She seemed both surprised and pleased. “I told him to take the child, but he would not listen. I told him that the boy was a true son of his father.”
“The Old Man, you fool, the Old Man. Do you think his hair was always white?”
Jean stared at the lance, completely bewildered. His first thought was that some colonist was here; his second thought was that he had unknowingly returned to the vicinity of the colony. Then he realized that it belonged to one of the others.
Who were the others? The elders would not discuss them and Jean only knew that from time to time, always during the hunts, children or young women would turn up missing and their disappearances were always attributed to the amorphous others. Were they the winged people, or yet another intelligent species? Or were the disappearances engineered by the presence he had known on the island?
Jean pulled the lance free and examined it. It was of some wood he did not recognize, certainly not lal, siskal, or greenhorn. Something from the mountains, then. It was adorned with leer feathers and paint in bands of many colors and headed by a fine blade of iron. That the blade had been fashioned with care was obvious.
Why was it here? Someone/thing had left it, of course, but for what purpose? more tomorrow