Sunbathing at noon in the middle of a Zamphian summer was considered ill-advised by most, on account of the risk of sunburn or sunstroke, but for a Pygmy born and raised in the tropical Archipelago, on the scorching island of Zebamwe Lal, the heat was but a warm hand caressing the brow – unlike the hammer to the head that a human might feel.
Roughly four feet in height with a tall, thin head mostly hidden by a tall, patchy-coloured hat, Jeri was the epitome of a Pygmy in all ways but one; he did not live on Zebamwe Lal. He wore calico clothing as was Pygmies’ wont, had big, round ears like those of a mouse, a small twitchy nose like that of a bunny, almond eyes, perky oft-smiling lips and well-tanned skin. The only divergence between him and his fellows was their desire to stay where they were safe. The Pygmies were pacifists, hunted almost to extinction for their magical knowledge by evil Sorcerers throughout the centuries, and so most had come to see the sense of staying in one place, in a clump, where they could protect one another and be safe. Jeri had had other ideas. It was not unheard of for a Pygmy to contract wanderlust, but it was scarce; Jeri was one of the few.
Bored by the repetitiveness of life in one place, he had taken to the skies on Wyvern-back and gone exploring. Life on the wing had been idyllic; he had come to adore the thrill of flying through the sky, as high as a cloud, with the wind in his curly blue-black hair. He and his Wyvern, Tamlik, had explored all over Maradoum, gliding from country to country, continent to continent. Together, they had enjoyed the exotic fruits of the Babese Sultanate and the simple roasted meats preferred by the Kutzians. They had indulged in the heady brews concocted on Swash Isle and drunk the weaker, more tepid wines of Justiqua. They had smoked baui with the Chilpaeans and eaten the drug, Wampcha, with the Tzunese. They had seen all of Fjelburg, Highlands and Lowlands both. They had visited the savages of Paeu and the supposedly civilised in Hybor. They had meditated with shamans all over the world, in Ogbun Nagali, Spardica and Ishambria.
Finally, they had come to Zamphia, and Jeri’s Wyvern, Tamlik, had died in mid-air, plummeting like a rock. He had hit the ground hard and never moved again. Jeri suspected the Wyvern had died of dotage, for the creature had been ancient; over a hundred years old. The thought that his friend had lived a long and full life comforted him, but still the tears fell like a monsoon at his passing. He had buried his friend in the Zamphian desert.
Stuck in Zamphia, Jeri had never yet had a reason to leave. He had come to love the scorching hot country, with its black, cracked plains, rolling dunes, wide brown rivers and sparse patches of vegetation. He had come to love its people and its animals like family. He missed his fellow Pygmies and Tamlik, but now, sunbathing and floating down one of the wide brown rivers in Zamphia on hippo-back, he was able to find contentment. Slow and winding and silty, the river was peaceful in its upper stretches close to his home, dappled by light thanks to the overhanging foliage of the surrounding forest on the slopes of the small mountain. Downriver, it eventually transformed into rabid rapids frothing at the mouth and suicidal waterfalls, casting itself off cliff edges. Jeri did not intend to float that far.
Through slit eyes, he gazed lackadaisically at the flora on either bank; thin palm trees drooped over the river, casting hand-shaped shadows. Patches of brown reeds sprouted here and there, looking desiccated even in the river. Intertwined mangrove roots sucked greedily at the waterline, growing so thick they looked like a bed of brown snakes, while the rest of the plant thrived, leaves shining glossy and green in the sun. The mangroves stretched for leagues on one bank as if all were one great plant; on the other only patches grew, for the ground was rockier. Beyond the mangroves stretched uneven wastes of black rock, cracked and pitted by drought.
Jeri looked up abruptly as his hippopotamus steed lurched to one side, almost throwing him off its back. “No, wait!” he cried out, but it was too late. “I don’t want to go to the mud pit! Damn it, Sal!”
The gurgling river bifurcated in one area, its dregs leached away from the main vein to turn to slush the already wet mud in a caldera. Jeri called the caldera the mud pit, and the hippos adored it. He was not surprised they had detoured into the pit nor annoyed in truth, for he knew it helped them stay cool; he was merely impatient to reach Squabi village.
“Oh, go on then!” he said affectionately as the huge, grey-skinned beasts waded happily into the mud, little tails flicking side to side.
Snorting and harrumphing, the pod sank into the slime with obvious joy and Jeri chuckled. Around a score of them lived together in this particular herd, and Jeri had come to know each and every one of them as well as he had known his fellow Pygmies in Zebamwe Lal. He squirmed around until he lay on his front, his calico breeches and bronzed bare back gleaming in the sunshine. Clinging to the hippo he rode, Sal, he rolled with the rhythm of her gait to keep his balance until she, too, had half-submerged in the muck. Her small ears flicked to dislodge the plethora of flies and mosquitos buzzing around them.
They lay there for a while, frolicking from time to time, splashing one another with the cooling mud, but mostly just wallowing. Spattered by the slime, Jeri dozed on the Hippo’s back until the pod began to move again sometime later, once the blistering sun was past its zenith. Almost falling off of Sal and waking just in time to scramble back to his position on her broad back, Jeri whooped.
“That’s it, guys!” he yelled, his reedy tones loud in the quiet. “Back to the river! On to Squabi!”
Splashes, snorts and the susurration of the river were the only sounds as the hippos returned to the river proper, allowing the gentle current to carry them downstream. A bird piped piercingly as they left the forested stretches of the river behind and meandered on towards the more barren lowlands. Shrubs and reeds struggled to grow on the river’s banks now, half-submerging themselves in the dirty water just to stay alive in the hammering heat. Jeri whistled cheerfully, relatively unaffected.
In response to his whistle, a bizarre bird the size of a peacock flapped down to perch on Jeri’s shoulder, tweeting in long lilting tones. Vaguely similar to a peacock with a wide splayed, beautifully-feathered tail fan, the Smurg was far better at flight than any regular peafowl. In Zamphish legend, the species was said to be magical, always flying and never touching the ground; the Zamphish considered it a symbol of luck and beneficence. It snapped its beak, the edges of which were serrated like teeth and still dripping with blood.
“Got something to eat, did you, Huma?” Jeri asked in Traveller’s, stroking the raptor’s head.
It fluttered its cerulean wings and ocean-toned tail fan in appreciation of his touch. The numerous golden blotches on the tail fan winked at Jeri as the plumage shifted. Its talons were sharp, but it was careful not to prick Jeri’s skin.
The Smurg eyed him with wholly gold orbs. “I always do,” the bird sang mellifluously, mangling Traveller’s Tongue but just barely comprehensible. It punctuated its words now and then with a seemingly involuntary eek sound. “The earthly eek creatures of this realm cannot hope to stand against such forces as I can bring to bear.”
Jeri chortled and cooed, “There, there, who’s a clever birdie? Who’s a clever birdie?”
“Don’t mock me, Pygmy!” Huma shrilled indignantly, flapping his wings like he
might take off.
“Hehe, sorry, I’m just excited to get to the village.”
“Ah, I know why you’re excited to eek get there. You know, I have put up with your company because I thought you more interesting than these dim-witted humans, and yet you behave more and more like them every day, seeking them out and passing more and more time with them!”
Jeri shrugged. “I like them.”
“One in particular I think eek!”
Jeri smiled coyly. “Perhaps.”
The bird bobbed its head knowingly. “Hundreds of years have I lived. I was a fool eek to think to find a companion who wasn’t a eek slush-brained romantic!”
“How does such long life turn you into a cynic?” Jeri asked. “You would think you’d be pleased for the opportunity to see all the world, witness all of life’s varied wonders.”
“Nah,” squawked the bird. “You see too much, then you don’t want to see anymore. That’s life. Death will be a sweet release when it comes.”
“Wow. You’re bringing down the mood, Huma. Cheer up! The sun is shining, and the birds – the other birds – are singing gaily!”
“Eek fools,” scorned Huma. “They haven’t lived long enough to learn of life’s futility yet.”
Jeri shook his head. “You’re hopeless. Life is wondrous; life is exciting and sad and scary and fun! Life is everything! You should be thankful.”
“Eek you should eat my poo.”
“Well, if you’re going to be like that, then go on – shoo! Shoo!”
He brushed the bird off, and it circled through the sky for a moment before returning to its perch on his shoulder.
It sighed. “I have no one else to talk to,” it squawked. “The humans would kill me on sight eek or cage me. Sad as it is and meagre though you are, I require your company, Pygmy.”
Jeri smiled. “I’m happy to have you along, Huma. Just … try to cheer up, okay?”
Jeri wasn’t sure if birds could pout, but he thought the Smurg was giving it a go.
“Fine,” Huma uttered. “I will try eek to see the bright side of this festering cesspool we call life.”
“Thank you,” said Jeri. “That’s all I ask.”
A couple of hours later, around mid-afternoon, the river carried them on its wending way to Squabi village. As soon as the small cluster of wattle and daub huts on the river’s edge came into sight, Jeri leaped up to stand on Sal’s back and wave at the few villagers. The villagers waved back, and Huma, dislodged by Jeri’s sudden movement, shrilled irritably, circled in the sky, and returned to Jeri’s shoulder. Jeri wasn’t sure if the legends about the Smurg never touching the ground were true or not, but he did know that the bird seemed fond of resting on his shoulder.
Though hippos could be dangerous beasts at times, the villagers had long since come to terms with most of the animals with which they shared their land. They did not baulk at the sight of the great beasts, but smiled and beckoned, the little ones squealing in delight at the sight of such large creatures. The hippos slowly swam to the riverbank by the village, knowing that the villagers would sometimes smear them with mud; Jeri had taught them to do so, forging a connection between the village and the pod.
“Hallo hallo!” Jeri called merrily in Traveller’s as Sal took him to shore. “May the Gods’ blessings be with you all!”
The eight or nine men and women nodded to him, a few smiling, and the children, four or five of them, shrieked with delight and giggled at the sight of the Pygmy riding the hippopotamus. All the people had dark ebony skin thanks to the sweltering Zamphish sun, and hair as black as onyx. Their threadbare gauzy kaftans billowed occasionally when a hot gust snuck by. Like the landscape, they were withered and gnarly, pitted and cracked like old leather. All were skeletal due to lack of food; they could grow little to nourish them in these barren plains, even by the river’s edge. Unlike Jeri, they did not dare venture higher into the jungled slopes of the small mountain where the river began, for fear of the myriad deadly beasts that dwelled there.
Jeri jumped down into the river with a splash and waded up onto dry land.
Since none of the folk present seemed particularly inclined to talk to him, he decided to cut to the chase. “Where is Banu, pray tell?”
One woman, whose bones protruded through her thin skin, responded sullenly in Traveller’s Tongue, “She’s in her hut. Weaving.”
Jeri thanked her, but hurriedly averted his gaze from her skull-like visage. Playing with the children for a short while, dancing and chasing them and playing at swordfights with sticks, he then headed towards Banu’s hut.
He knocked gently on the wattle door and then let himself in. Inside he found Banu sitting on a wicker chair weaving wicker with an odd ferocity, and he knew at once that something was wrong. Normally fastidious about cleanliness, today she wore a dirty green kaftan. She was as beautiful as ever; emaciated like the others in Squabi, she yet had a regal bearing and a pretty birdlike bone structure. Her eyes were a deep, dark soulful brown, and she knew how to make Jeri smile, how to make him laugh, how to make him think and how to help him grow. Today, however, her aura was off, distorted like the sight of the riverbed through murky water.
“What’s wrong, Banu?” asked Jeri, squatting beside her.
She flicked her gaze to him, flaring her nostrils, and he knew that, whatever it was, it was bad.
“It’s nothing,” she snapped, returning to her weaving.
Jeri sighed; he may have been smitten with this woman, but he hated women’s games. Nevertheless, he wanted to know what she so clearly had on her mind, and so he pressed her about it. Eventually, after claiming nothing was wrong several more times, she gave in, throwing aside her wicker in a tantrum and standing with an unnecessary stomp. Then, she ranted at him as though he was the worst person alive. He struggled to hold onto his love then, could feel Huma’s cynicism slipping in.
‘Wouldn’t have to listen to this if you were dead,’ he could imagine the bird saying.
“It’s bandits, alright?” Banu shouted at him. “Bandits are terrorising the village by night and extorting us. They come from inland riding on horses, all with swords and axes. They’ve been coming now and then for a while, but more frequently lately. They always demand we hand over half of everything we grow … and we haven’t the warriors to stand up to them. Nor the weapons. They say they’re watching us, that they’ll kill anyone who goes for help. There’s no one around here to help anyway. They came last night, and we … we gave them what they wanted. But they said they’ll be back for more.”
“Don’t worry, Banu. I won’t let this happen again,” Jeri promised, trying to take her hand.
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